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Sid Blanche's Story

Sid aged about 2 on trike, Parkdale Road, Plumstead. 1929.
Sid aged about 2 on trike, Parkdale Road, Plumstead. 1929.

I was born into poverty on 4th November 1926 in Parkdale Rd, where I lived with my father, who was often an unemployed labourer, my mother and six children, plus one lodger, all in three rooms. The fourth room was the front room, from which my mother took out the window and the room was used by her to sell chips from, at a penny a bag, to support us, because we couldn't get any help or money from the Relief.

At 3 ½ years old all the poor kids were admitted to Conway Road play school pre infants. I hated it and hated school till I left.

Yes, indeed, we were poor but it was not so apparent at the time. I suppose that we lived in a neighbourhood where everyone was in the same boat. Many were, of course, much poorer.

Sid aged 3 or 4 in his peddle car and his sister Eve, aged 5 or 6.
Sid aged 3 or 4
Sid aged 3 or 4 in his peddle car and his sister Eve, aged 5 or 6.
Sid aged 3 or 4 in his peddle car and his sister Eve, aged 5 or 6.

One example was a neighbour who was in the Merchant navy. He died from consumption, leaving a wife and five small schoolchildren who were poor even by the general standards of the day. The boys were school friends of mine and even as a small child it brought tears to my eyes when I used to go to their house in Barth Road and see the terrible, dire poverty in which they all had to live. Their mother, a young handsome woman, struggling so hard, but successfully, to keep her family together.

The alternative would have been the workhouse for the mother and council homes for the children, who may well have been fostered out. (We had a neighbour who fostered children from the council and her ex regular soldier husband used to beat them nightly!)

Sid aged 11 with Len and Molly at the beach, Jesson, Kent, on Sid's first and only family one week holiday.
Dad, Sid, and sister Eve at Ramesgate, 1931.
Dad, Sid, and sister Eve at Ramesgate, 1931.
Sid and Eve at Ramesgate, 1931.

In spite of all their sad poverty, these boys would come out with us when we went out on Saturday nights having fun,when we would visit every shop, asking for their empty wooden boxes. We would then turn them into firewood to sell. The one great challenge was to open the door of the local undertakers, Messents, and call out, " Got any empty boxes, mate?", and then run as fast as we could!

Occasionally we could get the odd copper by selling these boxes direct to the better-off housewives. There were such people. The occasional childless couple, where the husband was, say, a policeman, or perhaps a postman, or maybe a tram driver. A job with regular wages and, as my dad would say, "even wearing out the bosses' clothes, instead of having to buy them".

When we did earn the odd copper, particularly on a Saturday night, we would visit Spittlehouse's. This was a stall erected around a device for cooking fish and chips. The owner used to save all the crackling from frying and we would be able to buy this at a farthing a bagful, after midnight when he ceased frying.


Sid aged 11 with Len and Molly at the beach, Jesson, Kent, on Sid's first and only family one week holiday.
Sid aged 11 with Len and Molly at the beach, Jesson, Kent, on Sid's first and only family one week holiday.

My mother was the 21st (twenty first!!!) child of a very strict Roman Catholic family, so, despite our poverty, she gave us a halfpenny each for the church collection; we used to raid her large button box, pocket the halfpenny, which bought 6-8 oz of mucky sweets, and put the shirt buttons into the collection! We had no conscience about the matter; our dad was, like most First World War soldiers, an atheist, so we grew up in a muddle and finished with no religious connection at all.

There was a Kinema, a proper old bug rush cinema at the bottom of Lakedale Road, next to the Red Lion pub. If we went to the men's lavatory, at the corner of the pub, we could wait until it was quiet; then climb the wall and drop into the lavatory in the cinema; wait until we could follow a customer out; and then take a free seat.

Another 1930's Kinema memory I have is the organ recital during the interval, between films. The mighty Wurlitzer would rise in front of the stage at Granada's, played by a man in a white suit; they were, it seemed, all named Reginald: Reginald Porter, Reginald Brown, Reginald Dixon and Reginald Foort. One of the players used to turn up at Granada's in his white suit on a motor-cycle combination, which we thought was a great laugh.

Sid aged about 15 in garden, Parkdale Road, Plumstead.
Sid aged about 15 in garden, Parkdale Road, Plumstead.

The largest sum of money I ever earned as a schoolboy was in my brief period of one year plus at senior school-we were asked at woodwork classes what we would like to make. After asking the family and my brother-in-law, married to my sister in 1936, he asked me, could I make a bathroom cabinet come box seat. I approached the woodwork teacher, who said he would guide me and seemed very pleased at what was such a constructive idea. The box seat, with a hinged lid, contained a large number of stopped mortise and tenon joints of which I was inordinately proud. My brother-in-law, of course, paid for the materials and when I delivered it to their house he gave me five shillings (25p) for the work-the largest sum I had ever seen-a visit to the cinema then cost 4d, so this represented fifteen visits! And I loved the cinema. I have now grown accustomed to the idea, but when my sister was married in 1936 and the whole family went along to tea, to inspect the house (she had clearly married a wealthy man), I was somewhat surprised to find that there was a bathroom and in it a lavatory! That didn't seem at all the thing; lavatories were for outside; it seemed rather unhygienic to me.

I have, however, in visiting my sister's bathroom in 1990, discovered that the bathroom stool is still in service, after 54 years. All a far cry from the gas lamps in the streets when I made the cabinet-the lamplighter making his evening rounds to light the lamps. Policeman all on foot, carrying their capes with very conspicuous truncheons and uniform buttoned up to the throat. Postmen wearing hard hats; groups of unemployed men marching the streets with bands; the poor being sent to the workhouse; husbands and wives were then separated, the wives to do indoor domestic work and the men sent out in the grey uniform suits to labour. When we used to have children's cinema matinee for 2d, if you could raise that amount. (When my sister died in 2001 I got the cabinet back.)

Our local shop was Dickins'. The Dickins' father was a very correct gentleman, always immaculately dressed; he used to shut the shop at 1 pm and at 1.01 walk down the road to the Brewery Tap pub where he would use the saloon bar (never mixing with the hoi polloi in the public bar). He would then return from lunch and reopen the shop at exactly 2 pm.

Another shop, further up the hill in Sladedale Rd, which was on the corner of Goldsmid Street, (which was later owned by Mr and Mrs Dickins, his mum and dad), was also where the Co-op Insurance agent lived. Mr. Welch owned the other shop, on the corner of Parkdale and Sladedale Roads. George Welch was the man I knew best. It seemed odd to me that a member of a settled-down Gypsy family became a Salvation Army member. He was learning the cornet; I asked him why he joined them. He said that the Salvation Army had the best looking girls! When the Welch family gave up their shop Mr. Dickins's son Lennie Dickins took it over and ran it.

Incidentally, I remember a family friend of ours who owned a car. In those days, in the mid 1930's, it was illegal to leave a vehicle parked on the road. So he had to garage it, in a group of garages on the corner of Sladedale Rd. My friend said when you add up the road fund and repairs it comes to a pound a week! Considering that the weekly wage then was around three pounds a week it was a lot of money to pay.

When my parents were first living in Parkdale Rd. the rent was 3/9d per week. The house was insured for 125 pounds. The agent called at the house for the next 50 years, still collecting the 2/6d for the insurance. When the parents died the house was sold for 85,000 pounds, yet still insured for 125 pounds! Originally the owner wanted to dispose of the house and they bought it because then the mortgage was 3/3d per week. (Sixpence = 6d = two-and-a-half p) bought the weekend joint then!)

Sid aged 16 with his racing bike at back door Parkdale Road, Plumstead
Sid aged 16 with his racing bike at back door Parkdale Road, Plums

My mates in Sladedale Rd were the Dear family; in particular, Jack Dear, who was my age; and his sisters, who were slightly older, but I can't recall their names. They used to earn a few bob by going round the Working Men's clubs doing a tap dancing act.
Also, higher up in Sladedale Rd, was a family named Easter. The father was known as Captain Easter; whether he was ever a captain of a ship or in the army I can't recall. Every Sunday evening in the summer Capt. Easter used to lead his family down Sladedale Rd, through Parkdale Rd, and along to the Brewery Tap pub. The other friend of mine in Sladedale Rd, who was motorbike crazy, was Doug Turner; he had a sister Iris.

All of us who lived in that area went to Conway Road School. I started at Conway School in 1930. It was certainly advanced for its time. We even started on Algebra among other subjects that were normally reserved for senior schools.
The head teacher in my time was a Mr Allen, known as Daddy Allen. He was a very proud man. He was a Fellow of the Linnean Society, a society concerned with certain species of plants. He used to get letters from a branch in Holland, addressed'To Dr. Allen', which he would read out proudly at school assembly. School assembly took place every morning and evening and we had to stand to attention and salute as the names of boys of the school were read out who had died in the war (WWI).

I remember one day when two kids were scrapping and arguing over some horse manure that they were collecting. One of the mothers spotted them and sternly called out loud to them, "Half each!"

I remember the lovely great, green areas of Plumstead Common and Winn's Common. There were also the areas of woods around Shooters Hill, Oxleas Wood, Jack Wood and others and the great horse rides, maintained in my time by the Royal Artillery Saddle Club. We played at Cowboys and Indians in the woods. Also, if we wandered a little further on, there was a hollow over the fields where we used to drink water from the stream. That stream disappeared after WWII as the whole valley was used to dump the vast amount of war damage from the houses. The stream was piped underneath, but I wouldn't recommend drinking the water nowadays! This valley led off of Swingate Lane, then off up another little old lane; this led out onto a valley, a lovely countrified rural scene. Up on the peak or brow of the valley was an old, run-down, derelict-looking pub called 'Fanny-On-The-Hill'. There were a few stories around as to how it got its name. One story says that the infamous highwayman robber Dick Turpin used it as place to hide out. In later years it was demolished.

We were five very clever little buggers at Conway Road: a geologist, an expert in naval gunnery optics, a university lecturer, a barrister and myself (a Chartered Certified Accountant & Chartered Tax Adviser). We were always vying with each other for first place; little horrors!

Some names I recall are: my mate next door to me in Parkdale Rd, Stan Bestwick; also, a family by the name of Bryan who lived up the hill. There were the brothers Charlie and Ralph who had a large house in Parkdale Road; and they very generously allowed all of us boys to use one of their rooms as a playroom.  We had a dartboard there and an old record player. They had records of old singers and they would accompany them on the banjo and the mandolin. Frank Crummit was the singer on the records. Each Christmas the very generous Charlie Thomas used to take us to see the Crazy Gang in the West End theatre.

We lived opposite the Public Relief Office, where parents had to go when they were really broke. When my father was out of work my parents applied for help. The inspector came to the house and said, " Sell your sewing machine and then come back!" My mum pointed out that she used the machine to mend all our clothes......"No help, then!" was the result. This is when my mother decided to take the front room window out and sold the bags of chips at a penny a bag to help support the family.

The poor old chaps from the workhouse, in Hull Place, Plumstead, used to be sent up to do the garden on the side of the Relief Office. The old couples were split up in the workhouse; terrible times. At one end of the Relief Office there was a flat that was let out to a sergeant of the Welsh Guards who rented it for most of my later youth. He had been sent home to die of TB and I can't remember him getting any help or treatment for it.

Both Peg my wife, and I, came from the poorest of families. We grew up to run a very successful professional practice, thus paying the highest rates of tax all our working lives.
Yet, when I was a small boy we all had iron hoops, and skids with which to control them.
We would chase madly all around town bowling our hoops. These hoops would split open sometimes and when this happened we took them to Joliffe's smithy where he would weld the hoop back together again for a penny.

So, many years later on, when I had my accountancy practice, James Joliffe and Charles Newton became clients of mine, and I often wondered what they would have thought if they knew that I was one of those little street Arabs who used to take my hoop in to them to be fixed. In those days, though, nothing would have been mentioned, as they were proper gentlemen.

Their smithy was in Tewson Rd, up an alley, at the back of Heads the green- grocers. They used to shoe the horses for the Beasley Brewery dray horses. I believe they also did the shoes for both the Co-op and the UD Dairy, plus those of the many other traders that had horse-drawn wagons and vehicles in those far-off times.

There was the large Co-op building with the hall that was on the corner of Lakedale and Conway roads. The hall was situated over the top of the menswear department. It was used for many different functions. My dad was a strong Co-op and union man. I was enrolled at this hall as a member of the Socialist Sunday School when I was six months old. I was also a member of the Woodcraft Folk Club at the Co-op hall.

The Co-op shop in Lakedale Road was a large department of shops that included groceries and provisions, men's tailoring, chemist, hairdressers and butchers. Sadly all long demolished; clock tower too!

I was also a very enthusiastic member of the Cage Lane Mission Hall and I was a Sunbeam on Tuesday evenings. The Minister there at Cage Lane was not an ordained man. He was a mad Scot who had one arm! He used to thump the pulpit with his metal arm. He was really quite nutty! The 11o'clock service would go on to 1.30 and he would say, "I can see ye wicked sinners thinking of your food but you are going to stay and hear me oot!"

He ordered us never to use the tram on Sunday, nor to eat hot food, as in each case it was keeping the tram driver from Chapel and the man at the Gasometer the same. I also attended all three services on Sundays. I used to pump the bellows of the manual organ. I got paid tuppence for this each time and sixpence on a Sunday, when I was aged 11. On one occasion I pumped the organ for a wedding and the Groom gave me 2/6d......Wow!

I would run all the way into Woolwich with my money and put it into my savings card, at Bridges the tool shop in New Road. At Christmas time I would buy myself carpentry tools. For twenty-six shillings you could buy a lot of tools them days!
This shop, Bridger, became clients of my accountancy practice. This time I did tell the then Bill Bridger about my boyhood trips to his parents' shop.

The Cage Lane Mission used to organise a poor children's outing each year to Epping Forest. During our outing to Epping Forest we kids wore a card hanging from our coats that had written on it, 'The Woolwich Poor Children's outing'. The local clubs, the Plumstead Radical Club and the Conservative Club also had outings, Sheerness by train and Margate by coach respectively.

As members of the Plumstead Radical Club we got to go on these trips to Sheerness, as our dad got tickets for us and also for our friend whose dad was a member of the Conservative Club. Our friend would then get us tickets for the Margate trip, as her dad belonged to the Conservative Club. So we all did quite well, because family holidays were a rarity in those days.

Some of the local shops I recall. We used to go to Flory Terra's shop with our Saturday halfpenny. Her shop was up from Heads the greengrocers and practically opposite the Cage Lane Mission Hall. At this shop you could buy some fairly disgusting sweets, a whole 4 ozs worth, for a halfpenny! She also sold small tin cars, that were made in Japan, for one penny each.
I was born not far from this shop, at the bottom end of Parkdale Road. I recall the lovely smell of hops from the brewery that I had to pass four times a day, to and from school at Conway Road. I remember the trucks that used to bring the sacks of hops to the brewery. I also acquired this taste from when I went hop picking in the Hop season. At first, though, the smell from picking hops was quite enough to put one off drink for a life, but we got used to it. No wonder that I acquired a taste for real ale from an early age and have never ever lost it.

I remember when the manager would visit each pub and approve the supplies in an account book. The rents of the pubs were around 50 pounds per annum. Up from Heads was the house where the ground floor was let to two doctors, Andrew Mair and Grey Holmes. They were the same doctors who attended the poor at the Public Relief Office in Parkdale Rd, and also the workhouse in Hull Place.

When they retired their practice was taken over by a friend of mine, Charlie Clark. He used to go once a week to have law lessons from another friend of mine from Conway school, who was a successful Barrister. When the post came up, Charlie applied and got the job of Coroner for South West Essex.

Another group of local GPs had the premises at the junction of Parkdale and Brewery Roads, which was originally Philpott's Newsagents & Tobacconist, confectionery shop before he retired. He used to have advertisement boards outside his shop for the Kinema in Plumstead High St and for The Empire (formerly Barnards), the variety theatre in Hereford St. As a result he got free tickets for each performance and these were given to me and my sister, next up from my age. What a time we had with them!
One of the doctors in the group was a pal of mine, George Menezes.
Opposite Philpott's paper shop lived a little old lady in a wee house. She used to sit at the front door knitting and, weather permitting, she was always there sitting and knitting every single day, for many years. She sat knitting scarves, jumpers, socks and all manner of knitwear to sell to support herself.

Robinson's shoe repair cobbler's shop was at the foot of Parkdale Rd.
He started selling mucky sweets and a few fags. He had some machines outside the shop. One was for cigarettes called Crayol; two matches and three fags for tuppence!
The kids used to steal like mad from his shop whilst another kid was asking about shoe repairs!

Some of the street vendor cries in the district in those days were: every Sunday morning, "Fresh cockles and winkles" from a man pushing his barrow; during the week, "Sweep!"- a cry from a sooty man wheeling his barrow full of canes and brushes.

The Lakedale Road and area before WWII, was very much like a small village. It kept up with the times. I recall the firm of Bradshaw's Coaches, known as Bradshaw's Super Coaches and super they certainly were!

Albert Bradshaw went along with things OK but it was Annie Bradshaw, nee Annie Smith, his wife, who was the real driving force. Annie was ahead of the times. She not only developed the coach business; she upgraded and bought the very latest models. She also developed it into a successful general booking agency, for theatre bookings and what have you. She also developed the greengrocery business. She had three brothers Smith who were all local fishmongers, in the days when they had smoke holes on the shop premises. Their two shops were situated next to the fire station on Lakedale Rdand around the corner from it.

I won a place at Shooters Hill Grammar School when I passed my 11 plus, but I was told by my parents that I couldn't go there as they couldn't afford to send me there. I left Plumstead Central School at age 12 years (owing to a street accident) and on my 14th birthday commenced work as boy messenger and later a factory labourer.
Aged 15 I obtained a job as office boy in a local firm of accountants where I worked and studied at evening classes until I was conscripted into the Royal Artillery.

I continued studying by postal courses. I returned to same job after the army. I eventually qualified in 1956 as associate of the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants and became a partner in the firm in 1959. In 1961 I became associate of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and an Associate of the Chartered Institute of taxation.

In May 1981 I became Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Arbitrators and advanced to Liveryman in 1987.
I was admitted to the Freedom of the City of London in 1980.

By Sid Blanche.

From the letters and cuttings and phone calls to Sid, who sent them to me via our appeal in the 'Shopper' paper.

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