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Boyhood Memories of 26 Brookhill Road, Woolwich

Don Wilkinson

c.1921 outside 26 Brookhill Road, Woolwich

Don's Christening 18 February 1940

For several decades 26 Brookhill Road was home to three generations of my family. This was where my grandparents raised their three daughters. It was also my home for over twenty years.

My mother Lilian (named after her mother and both known as Lily) was born in 1913. She would have seen very little of her father during her infancy as the Great War was being fought in Europe.

My grandfather, Percy Tomes, returned home at the end of the war (WW1) but my grandmother’s brother, Robert Edwards, did not. Robert was the thirteenth child and only son born to my great grandmother. Sgt. R.H. Edwards MM of 11 Bn. Sherwood Foresters died in October 1918, four weeks before Armistice was signed.

I remember my grandfather as a stern solemn man, always smartly dressed with a button hole. He was a Mason and Hon. Secretary of the Woolwich Branch of the Old Contemptibles. Until the day he died, he represented the ‘Old Contemptibles’ on remembrance day at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. He was also a Pearl Insurance Agent and had a brass plaque on the wall by the front door for all to see. This was cleaned everyday by my grandmother who also whitened the half dozen steps to the house daily. My grandfather faithfully attended commemorative services at the Garrison Church, proudly wearing his medals. He frequently returned home for lunch with a complete stranger he had met at Church. My grandmother would quietly set another place at the table.

My father came from Yorkshire, married my mother at Woolwich in 1936 and worked as a lorry driver in Leytonstone, East London, before war broke out. I was born in December 1939 when another World War was escalating. My father had leave for my christening early the following year. My father’s uncle and aunt from Yorkshire were my godparents.

In the Back Garden

On my trike, believed to be evacuated at Culworth.

In 1944 I was evacuated with my mother, her sister Edna and my cousin Rita to Culworth, Banbury, to escape the bombing but I recall a Spitfire base was nearby! I briefly attended D’Anvers School for a few months before returning to Woolwich and starting Foxhill School. I enjoyed my school days at Foxhill and was pleased to captain the football team. I still have a book “England for Everyman” by HA Piehler containing 32 coloured maps. This was a John Brown Memorial Prize awarded to me in 1951 for some achievement now forgotten.

Foxhill School Photo, Woolwich, 1950

Old photo of Foxhill school with Don as captain of the football team

26 Brookhill Road was divided into two flats, each with its own kitchen but in the early days no bathroom or inside toilet. My parents had the ground floor and my grandparents had rooms upstairs. There was a piano in the front room which my mother and her sisters had been taught to play. My father was an accomplished pianist often playing without a music sheet. Most Sunday evenings were musical with my grandparents singing accompanied by the piano.

During the war my father drove a breakdown recovery vehicle in Egypt until a high rank officer seconded him as his batman and personal driver. Whenever he could, my father sent telegrams for my birthday and Christmas. My mother kept these for me in a Baby Book.

Returning home safely after the war, my father turned his back on driving. He never owned a car and chose to walk everyday to work in North Woolwich, using the foot tunnel. He worked as a foreman for British Rail in the King Edward and Victoria docks dispatching by rail the goods brought in by the many ships from all over the World.

My Yorkshire grandfather, William Wilkinson, died before my father was born. My father was raised by his uncle Isaac and aunt. They had no children of their own. I remember my great uncle visiting our home and accompanying us on a holiday to Blackpool. Isaac Wilkinson was a prosperous Hebden Bridge Coal Merchant. My parents were amongst 40 beneficiaries to his estate.

My sister Patricia (Pat) was born in 1947 and I moved upstairs with my grandparents. I was given a small bedroom at the back but from my grandparents front window I could see over the wall across the road where soldiers were visible going about their military duties.

My grandmother worked for many years in a dressmakers shop close to Woolwich Arsenal Station. I cannot recall the name of the establishment other than it was a ladies haute couture. The shop was fully carpeted and had a wonderful display of flowers on a tall jardinière. The ladies who ran the shop employed my grandmother to carry out a multitude of tasks including cleaning and cooking. Early in the morning my grandmother would light the fire and cook breakfast. She would press the tailor made garments and often brought sewing home. She also went to John Lewis in London several times a week to collect bolts of material for the dress making shop.

In school holidays I ran errands for my grandmother, a regular one of which was breaking up small lightweight wooden crates which I collected from the fruit stalls at the market. The broken pieces made good firewood which I took to the shop and in return was given pocket money. I would also take wood home to sell to the neighbours. I enjoyed visiting the shop and remember another very different nearby – Menzies Eel and Pie Shop. The wriggling eels always fascinated me.

During school holidays I spent many a day riding back and forth on the Woolwich Free Ferries. The old coal fired engines of the paddle steamers fascinated me with their gleaming steel and highly polished brass. Sometimes I was spotted by one of the crew after making several journeys on one boat and told to get off. This I did only to rejoin the next one. I should explain that during the daylight hours two boats operated and in busy times, there was three boats, two loading on either side of the river and one waiting to berth or crossing the river Thames.

Sometimes I would take sandwiches to my father who was a railway foreman working in the George V and Victoria docks. He oversaw goods from all over the World after being unloaded from very large passenger and merchant cargo ships. These goods were then loaded onto the endless goods trains to be taken all round the country.

Quite often when I was out running errands or playing, I was given envelopes for my father. These contained bets and money as my father was a known bookies runner and had a betting account. I was always pleased to get these envelopes as I usually got sixpence from the gambler and another sixpence from my father. Due to my father’s additional earning from betting, we were one of the first houses in the road to have a telephone installed.

Near the bottom of Brookhill Road, where it met Sandyhill Road, was the “Corner Shop” owned by Mr Tucker. He sold a multitude of goods (which probably would not be allowed by trading standards today). Bacons, eggs, cheese, coal paraffin, candles, loose sugar and rice in sacks, soap, firewood, boot polish, various tins of food – all over the one counter. Mr Tucker never used paper bags, he always used blue paper which was rolled into a cone, filled with sugar or rice etc, and then folded. The unusual but not unpleasant concoction of different aromas met one’s nose immediately upon entering the shop and was never to be forgotten..

Further up Brookhill Road were blocks of army flats screened on one side by a row of Horse Chestnut Trees. The flats and married quarters encircled a large green area. This green was a favourite haunt. Here over the years I spent many happy hours with the army kids playing football, tinkering with bikes and flying model airplanes built from kits. This is where I met my oldest long standing friend, Bert, when I knocked on his door to retrieve a football that had smashed through his window. My playmates had all scattered. Bert, stern at first, accepted my apologies and gave me back the ball. Bert was a bandsman in the Royal Artillery. He played the French horn and on parade looked very grand leading the band and twirling the mace. Over fifty years later we are still good friends. After Bert left the army he became an Agent for Abbey Life and after finally retiring he spent time at Rochester Airport with a number of enthusiasts renovating second World War fighter planes, i.e. Spitfires and Hurricanes.

Bert receiving an Honour - Late 1950's on the Woolwich parade ground.

It was on the green with a friend, George Rudge, I flew and lost the biggest kite we ever built. It was 6ft tall and after tying many balls of string together it soared to an impressive height above the quarters then broke free and disappeared over Bloomfield/Burrage Road area. I often wondered what became of it? Where did it land and who found it?

When I was fifteen my father thought it was time I earned my own keep. I left Bloomfield School and began work in the city with the Post Office as a messenger, delivering telegrams.

Another memory was when Malcolm (better known as “Pip”) Goodman from the army quarters knocked on my door and asked if I would like to accompany him on a drive to visit his married sister in Romford. I looked out at the road expecting to see his latest bike and was surprised to see an old Morris with a tatty soft top. His sister had offered some canvas for the repair. We picked up John Burton and set off. Pip asked us what we thought of his driving. We thought it was good and asked how long had he been driving. ‘About twenty minutes’ was the startling reply. On reaching his sister’s home, we set about removing the old top and spent several hours hand stitching the new canvas to the frame. An arduous task. On completing the job we were very disappointed to realize not enough material had been allowed around the framework. The hood would not fold down. The return journey was subdued with the top up.

Following my eighteenth birthday I transferred back to Woolwich as a postman. I delivered mail around several different routes, one of which was past the AJS and Matchless Factory. I had often in earlier years stood outside the premises eyeing the lined up bikes and watching with envy as the testers emerged from the factory wearing goggles, back-to-front ‘cheesecutters’ and waxed Barbour suits. It had been my ambition to test drive the bikes. My sister in later years dated a chap who did exactly that.

A few months after my 20th birthday I married and left Brookhill Road. My mother remained there until her mid sixties. I had a successful and varied career with the Post Office, taking promotion whenever the opportunity arose. I opted for early retirement in 1992

My sisters wedding at Woolwich Town Hall in 1970.

My parents wedding 1936. St. Mary's Church in Church Street, Woolwich.
Sitting to the right of the bride is my great grandmother and beside her is Mrs Snowdon - family friend and lodger. Immediately behind my mother are her cousins Gladys and Doris and my great aunt Ada (their mother). The bridesmaid on the right is my mother's sister Edna. The bridesmaid on the left is my mother's older sister Maggie. Only the bald top of my grandfather's head is visible. In front of him is my grandmother.

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