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Barbara Sullivan (nee Chappell) Remembers

I was born in Kentmere Road Plumstead in 1940. I was one of nine, seven girls and two boys. I went to Conway Road School when I was five. We would have a sleep in the afternoon on little canvas beds, in the playground in the summer, and the hall in the winter. As well as a bottle of milk we had a spoonful of cod-liver oil and malt. When I was in the big class Mr Hedges was my teacher. There was a teacher who used to boot the boys in the backside, but I can not remember his name. Mum used to work in the Arsenal during the war, it would be nice if anyone remembers her; her name is Grace Chappell. My sister, Veronica, was evacuated during all of the war. When she came home she had a lovely green velvet suit on and her blonde hair was in ringlets. She would not go to bed without her 'rags' in her hair. Mum went round all the neighbours until she found someone who knew how to  put the rags in.

We had so much fun on the Woolwich Ferry in the school holidays, going back and forth many times until you got chucked off. It was all outside then, and you could sit on deck and sun yourself or you could go down to the engine room that was all highly polished brass. The engineers were very proud of it! However, sadly due to ‘Health & Safety’ they have all been closed in now, so all you can do is sit and look at each other, even though I never heard of anyone ever falling accidentally overboard.

The ferry would take us to Victoria Gardens, North Woolwich, and it was like going abroad when the sun shone. It had lots more to do than our local park and was about three times bigger, with a large paddling pool and sand pit. Then we would go home, going through the foot tunnel running and shouting to hear the echo, but then we would have a mile to walk home, so this event only happened on special occasions.

We had some good neighbours in Plumstead. They all kept an eye on each other’s children and helped out when necessary. We would have to run errands for them. There was no ‘I’m doing something’ or ‘later’: when they wanted an errand they got an errand straight away.

We had two big families at the bottom of the road, the Bethals and the Turners. They lived in the road running along the bottom of Kentmere Road, in Hartville Road.

Mrs Bethal was pregnant the same time as mum many times, so we would pair up to play. Veronica and Glynnis mostly, who remained friends until sadly, Glynne’s death in recent years. They had aunts and grans in the road as well as us, so we were always looked out for.

Aunt Lily and Uncle Sid, who were very stern, (I did not like them) and our cousins Iris, Bill and Pat lived next door. Iris was always in our house as she was a good friend of mum’s. She was tall and would often break the gas mantle when she forgot to duck! We hated it when she brought her scissors in, as we knew it was time for haircuts, known as the basin cut, especially if ‘Nitty Nora’ had been at the school and had given one of us a ‘nit’ card. Off would come the hair (a shorter cut) and out came the dreaded steel nit comb; with your head over the newspaper, that steel comb was dragged through your head, and it hurt!

My dear old Nan. (She had 14 children, the youngest at the age of 52. No IVF was needed for her. She was a big cuddly lady with a big heart. The older generation had such a hard time going through two wars and a depression!)
She lived in a little three up, three down, terraced house in Plumstead, at 19 Kentmere Road. In the little kitchen was a stone copper in the corner that you lit a fire under for all the hot water and the boiling of clothes on washdays, making the whole house fill with steam. Her fridge was a wooden box with a chicken wire door, covered by a tea towel held in place by two flat irons. There was also a large table, two forms and a rocking chair. The front room, which was known as the parlour, was only used on special occasions. Eventually it became my brother Ron’s bedroom when he was home on leave in later years, but meanwhile it housed the aspidistra plant!

My granddad with all his children taken in Tewson Road about 1928. He was my dads dad.' Photo credit; Barbara Sullivan.

Granddad was still alive for the first nine years of my life! The latter part of his life was confined to a wheelchair. We spent a great deal of time sitting by the fire looking at how many things we could make in the flames and shadows on the wall. I would sit with him and make spills to light his pipe. He was a very tall and thin man, with a bushy moustache and stiff white collar. When he went out he wore a black hat. I remember he used to give me a saucer of his tea; I wish I had known him better!
Mum and the children moved in when the war started in September 1939 as dad worked away. It was only supposed to be a temporary arrangement but we stayed 19 years, until she moved out. (Later, when I was married, I took mum's rooms over, and bought the house and lived with Nan till she died; then I had all of the house).
Nan had a parlour, one bedroom and a large kitchen downstairs, whilst mum and family had two bedrooms and a kitchen/living-room upstairs, there was an outside ‘loo’ for everyone in the house and a large tin bath. I was born in the next July (1940); Ron and Veronica were evacuated. Veronica was fortunate that were she was placed she was with people who cared for her, so much so, that they kept her for a year after the war and really wanted to keep her permanently. But of course Mum and Dad wouldn’t hear of it. Ron wasn’t so lucky. Having been sent to Wales, he was ill treated, and after six months Mum went and fetched him home! As the schools were shut, only opening for one day a week, Ron was quite happy to play on the bombsites, collecting shrapnel, and watch the planes which were frequently flying overhead at that time.
We were scared to go to the ‘loo’ which was outside, in the night-time. Mum would not allow us to have candles, so we had to get used to feeling our way about the house, but to go out into the garden was another thing! The outside loo had a foot sized gap at the top and bottom of the door. You didn’t stay in there long in the winter, with the snow and the wind and rain coming in.In the summer it wasn’t to good either as you had the geese from next door pecking at your ankles!

Living near The Royal Arsenal was handy for Mum as she worked in the munitions factory there, which was an important part of the war effort. The downside was that it was a constant target for the German bombing raids that blighted London. We were very lucky to have survived these attacks, especially mum.

We never had a holiday, but enjoyed long hot summers at the park, which had a large paddling pool, football pitch and an area of lawn. We would take a bag of jam sandwiches, a bottle of sherbet water and stay all day. We rarely went out of our area as we didn’t really think about doing so, but on Bank holidays, we would go over the ferry to Victoria Park. There would be music from the bandstand; this was always a special day. In the evenings, we would play in the street with marbles, jacks, halfpenny and up the wall, fag (cigarette) cards etc. Some of the other children had trek bikes, but they had no brakes. Fortunately there were no hills to speak of in the area, so it wasn’t too hard to cycle around as I would be sitting on the cross bar.

We made a go-cart from a wooden soapbox, fitted with a set of pram wheels, a plank of wood attached to a crosspiece and a piece of string as reins to steer.
Although we did not have holidays, the highlight of the year was the 'Maybloom Outing' which was the local social club. There was also the Conservative club and nearly every family in the area belonged to one or the other. Once a year they had an outing to the seaside. The Maybloom went to Margate by coach and the Conservatives went to Southend by train.
It was in July that we got a new pair of plimsolls and were all smartened up and ready to go on our trip. We would meet at the club at 8am. There would be about 30 coaches to take us. Not many of the Mums and Dads could go, so we were trusted to behave ourselves, which we did, because if we didn't, there were plenty of adults to report on us and we didn't get to go next year as Mum wouldn't have forgotten if we had misbehaved.
The highlight of the day was when we were issued with our lunch boxes and a half-crown; wow!! When we got to Margate, we went to 'Dreamland' first, a big fun fair. You paid so much, and could then go on as many rides and as many times that you wanted. We went on everything until we were exhausted. We then went to the beach, ate our lunch, then tucked our dresses into our knickers, went paddling and of course, we got soaking wet. On the way back to the coach we would buy Mum a little present then spend the last of our money in the penny slot machines. All to soon, it was time to go home, but even on the way home in the coach we would have a sing song and games before arriving back at the club about 8pm where we would have lemonade and all decide that it was the best outing ever, until next year! Then a short walk home and into bed, no messing about, head down and sleep!!

Christmas was really something! Dad usually painted the kitchen on Christmas Eve after being nagged by Mum for months beforehand. But he always left it to the last moment. Dad was a builder but Mum always had trouble getting him to do anything about the house, so on Christmas Eve the place was in an uproar. However, on Christmas day when we woke up, it was all done, walls were distempered and coloured rings made on the walls with the dabbing of a sponge!
Christmas Eve was a busy one for us all, Mum doing last minute shopping and us kids plucking the chicken, chasing the little ones with the feet of the chicken and pulling the ligaments of the feet to open and shut the claws, licking and sticking the paper chains and making lanterns ready to hang up on Christmas morning. We also decorated Nan's room. Everyone was happy; we could hardly sleep when we went to bed. It was so exciting, we would chat and make wishes and try to guess what we would get. But when I look back, things never changed much over those years; we hung up one of Mum's laddered stockings she had been saving, and to get an apple, orange, a handful of nuts and half a dozen Roses chocolates, was very exciting to us all. Most of the stocking leg was taken up with a rolled up painting book, a little tin of paints and one of us would get the game Snakes and Ladders or Ludo. We were frightened to put our stockings down in case one of the others said it was theirs, so we looked like the seven dwarfs walking around with our stockings over our shoulders all day!
After dinner, we all stood up for the King’s speech on the radio. Then we would play charades; all relatives that had popped in and out during the day were now gone, our stockings were now empty and eventually we would go to bed exhausted but looking forward to Boxing Day.

Another big day was ‘Co-Op’ day! The High Street would be buzzing. All the tin and brass cheques were counted before in readiness for the day. The thin tin cheques were the equivalent to a pound, the brass ones were over that amount; you got them when you spent so much money in the Co-Op and saved them and then on ‘the day’ you were able to exchange them for cash; we kids loved counting them. We then went with Nan to the Co-Op hall near the corner of Lakedale and Conway Roads and queued for what seemed like forever, but it was fun; everyone was saying, “I wonder how much the dividend would be this year” No-one minded waiting, all were chatting and laughing, knowing we would get something at the end of it.

Another ‘good’ day was when the meter was emptied. The gasman would arrive and empty the meter, count the money out, and we all watched him, but he was so fast we could hardly see his fingers move. He would stack the pennies high in a row, putting the round pieces of lino that were used when we did not have a penny for the gas to one side, then, he would put his quota of the money into his bag, leaving Nan with the residue.

Every Friday Mum would visit the Plumstead public baths to do the washing! There were boilers alongside two sinks, a partition, shoulder high in between in a long row. All the women would stand in a line chatting while they scrubbed away on their wash boards, using a large bar of ‘Sunlight’ soap. The big dryers were from floor to ceiling; to use them you had to pull them out of the wall; fortunately, they were on wheels which made it easier to pull as they were about twenty feet long. They had many dryers with rows of bars which you hung your washing on, then you pushed the dryer back into the wall to dry the clothes. The best bit was the ironing room. After all the washing and drying, it was more relaxing, and we only had flat irons at home, whereas at the baths they had electric ones. Mum would be at the baths for about five hours, having first put the wash into the tin bath, and two of us had to take turns to take it and fetch it from the baths; we hated this in case any of our friends saw us.

Sunday night was bath night! Two of us got the bath from the garden and carried it upstairs; pots of hot water from the stove were poured in, then the youngest got in, one at each end. By the time it was the eldest one’s turn, you can imagine that the water was not nice to get into: cold, dirty water. The side of the bath that was nearest to the fire was hot and the side away from the fire was cold: there was no happy medium. When all was done, the bath had to be carried back down the stairs to be emptied; the unlucky pair who had to do this task usually got soaked. To this day, I don’t know why the bath wasn’t emptied upstairs: it would have saved many a soaking.

As we got older, we would go to the Plumstead Public Baths with a rolled up towel and a bar of sunlight soap under our arm (there were no nice bubble baths or shampoo in those days). The baths were partitioned off all in a row. The walls were about seven foot high, which was handy to throw the soap over to the next person. The attendant operated the flow of the water from outside the room with a mobile handle. She would stand at the door while the water ran into the bath to a level of about 14 inches, then she would say to us, “Try it”, meaning, ‘How hot is it’, so you tried it with your hand, but it’s your bum that you should have tried it with because when you got in and found that it was too hot and rang the bell for some cold water to be put in, she got very angry! “Are you messing me about, do not ring again or you’re out,” was her reply.

Overall Kentmere was a nice homely road to live in and very handy for the hospital and Fire Station at the top of the High Street. The phone box, and the undertaker’s shop was on the corner of our road; next door to them was a shop where we would take a pudding basin for faggots and pease pudding with lovely gravy. Next to them was, the hairdressers, who Mum went to for sixty years. Next to the hairdressers, was the dress shop! This, along with two other shops, was owned by Jean and Brian; they became friends when later Sue and Brenda worked for them on Saturdays whilst still at school, then full time when they had left school.

Some of the shops in the High Street were family run businesses. Bradshaws, Heads and two others for fruit and vegetables, Morgan’s had three shops for dairy etc; Williams for broken biscuits, David Gregs for cold meats. We had two fish and chip shops plus the Co-Op where you could buy a ¼ of butter or two Oxo’s, five Woodbines and two rashers of bacon or one egg, because with no fridge or freezers to keep things fresh, you only bought as and when you needed it.

We did not throw anything away, such as potato peelings: they went into a ‘pig bin’ that had to be chained to a lamppost half way down the street because the horses or kids would knock it over. The dustbin was mostly used for ashes, which the dustmen would collect on a Monday, having had to walk through the house to collect it. They would have to wear several sacks on their backs as sometimes the ashes were still hot in the bins.

Mum was not a homely person, but she was good fun! Just a plain cook of lovely roasts, steak and kidney puddings and stews; on rare occasions, we had sweet (desert), usually suet pudding or boiled rice that had to be solid as we turned our dinner plates over and had it on the other side. (So if you hadn’t eaten all the main meal, you didn’t get a sweet.) We had bread and jam or dripping for tea, the Health & Safety officer would be after her today with the way she cut the bread, holding it to her breast and slicing it towards her heart, then dealing it like a pack of cards!!

Sunday was special! The shrimp man came round to sell us cockles and winkles; we would take the pin out of our knickers and use it to get the winkles out; we only had six each and I put one in each corner of my bread and two in the middle to make a lovely sandwich. We always had jelly and custard. The jelly would be put on the window sill to set; I have known Mum to make as many as three jellies in one day, as on many occasion the one on the sill would be knocked, or blown off (many times by Mum when she was calling us from the window to come in); sometimes in the summer it wouldn’t set, but I never knew why she was bothered when it didn’t set, as she poured hot custard on it anyway!! The dried eggs helped, it was lovely. Mum would sell the sweet rations to Aunt Doll. She only had the one son, David, lucky him to get the sweets. She did really well juggling the rations, which lasted all of my childhood.

When I was ten, Roy, a friend of my brother Ron’s, was playing in our hallway with a catapult. I was sitting at the top of the stairs when a stone was fired up the stairs and hit me in the eye. I was rushed to St. Nicholas Hospital and later transferred to Moorefield Eye Hospital in the City of London. I was there for a very long time and not allowed visitors. I thought nobody wanted me because I could not see. Then one day, I heard someone coughing, and I knew it was my Nan; I went to the fire escape and there she was, bless her! She had walked up the five flights of stairs and told me no one was allowed to visit me as it would probably upset me; I felt better then, knowing I had not been forgotten.

When I eventually came home, it was winter. I had to start my new secondary school at Church Manorway wearing dark glasses; didn’t I just have the Mickey taken out of me. I was standing in the dinner queue when a girl asked me why I was wearing sunglasses in the winter. I was just telling her about it all when a teacher called me out of the queue, told me off for talking and then made me stand on the stage until everyone had finished their lunch. I knew then that I wasn’t going to like this school, and I did play truant on many occasions.

Ron passed his eleven plus exam and went onto St Olives Grammar School (London Bridge) one of the very few in the area. Colleges and University were hard to get into then, especially if you were poor. Mum was fit to burst with pride, even with the extra pressures, expense and worry of trying to keep up with the uniforms of a fast growing lad: these had to be bought from a ‘posh’ extravagant shop. It was grey, silver and purple; if he was seen without his cap on, he was put on detention and had to go to school on Saturdays; of course he was fair game for the taunting from the local boys. The loan club and Provident (another type of loan club) was a great help to keep up with the added expenses, as was the Pawnshop. Mum was used to ducking and diving, paying Peter to pay Paul. She never had any money but always seemed to manage to make ends meet and still enjoy life.

She worked in the Woolwich Arsenal during the war and had various jobs afterwards, some of which are the ‘Jam’ and also the ‘Biscuit’ factory, which provided nice things for our tea, and the rope factory, but what was good was when she worked as an usherette in the cinema. She would run down the isle with her gold cape flowing behind her and the kids would shout out, “da da da bat-woman oo oo”!! We were so proud of her. We always knew when dad was in the cinema; he would sit in the back row asleep, snoring very loudly. He could be in there for hours, as the film would run continually all night without a break. These were some of her jobs.

Nan sometimes took me to the Empire Cinema! We would sit up in the ‘gods’; it was like climbing a mountain. In the interval a light would shine round and stop on someone. It stopped on Nan one-night and she won a glass biscuit barrel, and another time, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ was on, and when Jack sold the cow I cried so much that Nan had to take me home

I had two ‘best’ friends at school, Sylvia and June: they made going to school bearable. In the lunchtime, we would visit the local park during the summer months to torment the park keeper. You were supposed to be accompanied by an adult as half the park was fenced off and it had lovely flowerbeds, crab apple trees and a large fish-pond. We would not have destroyed anything but he would always chase us out. It was different in the winter; he would be in his warm hut and wasn’t inclined to come out just to chase us toe rags, so we were able to skate on the pond in peace!

Sometimes, we went over the railway lines and onto the marshes, which we were often chased out of by the Gypsies. If they caught us they would cover us in mud and warn us not to trespass on their terrain! We would then make our way back to school.
Opposite Church Manorway School was St Nicholas’ Church and cemetery. The church has a history dating back to the Norman times. In the winter, when it was dark, on our way home from school, we would dare one another to run through the churchyard. To get into the cemetery I would climb the wall which had no railings as they had been removed during the war. It contained a disused graveyard, which after dark was very spooky to us children. It had many old and broken gravestones, but you couldn’t let your mates see that you were scared, so you moved as fast as possible through the thick undergrowth. The large trees would block out any fading light that was left, and therefore you couldn’t always see the entrances to the vaults, so if you weren’t careful you could fall into them. Shapes and sounds loomed out of the darkness and it seemed to take forever to get to the other side. We were very brave! However, I was always thinking about a man in a funny hat when I ran through there. He used to come around the houses selling things such as silk ties. He was a black man and wore a turban. Nan would always call us when he was coming up the road. “Quick, here comes the black man with the funny hat”, she would say, and we would all look at him but stand back out of the way.

The churchyard has now been landscaped, and is quite picturesque. Lush grass has now replaced the old graveyard which has been transformed into a lovely place with neat paths which wind their way between the few trees that are remaining. The headstones are now arranged around and lean against the boundary wall. The church also has been cleaned and looks lovely.

At home, we didn’t have electricity, so there was no TV, gramophone, phones etc. to pay out for. We did have a wireless that had to have a battery and an accumulator to make it work. The accumulator had to be charged up at least once a week.

Two of us would take it to the shop to exchange it for one that had been charged. One would carry it and the other to guard it, as we had been told that if we dropped it, it would ‘Blow Up’. Of course, I was the first to drop it!! We ran to the nearest wall and stayed there for nearly two hours, waiting for the bang that never came. We were still scared of the sulphuric acid inside.

When it was due to be charged, we would leave it to the last possible minute and had to sit on the dresser to hear how Dick Barton (a favourite programme of the time) ended before taking it to be exchanged. The large HT battery that was also in the wireless lasted a long time, and when it was really on its last legs, we put it in the oven, (not to be recommended now) which seemed to give it a bit of a boost for a short while, we then got another battery on tick!

'My wedding in St Margaret's Church, Plumstead Common, on the 26/10/1957.'
Photo: Barbara Sullivan.

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