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During my happy childhood in Plumstead, ‘Lower Plumstead’ as it is now called, I spent a great deal of time with my great-grandmother, Harriet Pearce, who lived just a few doors away from us in Hartville Road.

Harriet had come to London from Bawtrey, in Yorkshire, as a position had been obtained for her working as a housemaid in St Margaret’s Grove. She was twelve years old! How she actually got to Plumstead and why Plumstead we do not know. For many years her little straw suitcase, in which she carried her few belongings for her journey to Plumstead, was stowed in a cupboard; I remember it very clearly.

It was around the time of the building of the ‘Plumstead Estate’, which stretched from the Common to the boundary of the Dockyard. The houses closest to the Common were very grand: these accommodated the managerial staff; the houses were slightly smaller further down the hill, towards Lakedale Road, built for mid-management; and then, closer to the Royal Arsenal, hundreds of small terraced dwellings, built for the families of the huge workforce. We lived in this section, but Harriet, having become familiar with the ‘middle class’ way of life as a servant, endeavoured to emulate that lifestyle, on a smaller scale. She was dignified and proud and modelled herself on Queen Mary.

Once a year, just before Christmas, she always took me to Heddle’s, a large draper’s shop in Thomas Street. We always took the bus, which terminated just outside. In we marched ceremoniously. Harriet would sit herself down on one of the high chairs provided and, after the normal salutations, would ask to see ‘your finest men’s handkerchiefs’. Out came the glass fronted boxes, stacked from floor to ceiling. Much fingering for quality and discussion about durability. Finally a decision and the selected handkerchiefs would be solemnly wrapped, with brown paper and string. Transaction completed, and with more salutations, the door solemnly opened for us by the manager and home we went. Christmas shopping for the men done and dusted!

Harriet had a hat! It was quite large, just like Queen Mary wore, in a stiff black felt with a large brim. Just before Easter, every year, the hat had to be refurbished. So off we went to Woolwich, on the tram on these occasions, to visit Woolworth's in Hare Street. Straight to the ‘trimmings’ counter, where there were flowers, veils, ribbons, buttons and bows. Much deliberation took place as to what colour they should be, how large or small, not too showy and, of course, sewing thread to match, exactly – the hat had to attend many and varied occasions. A short walk down Hare Street to the tram terminus at the Ferry and we were on our way back home to Plumstead, Grandma Harriet clutching her precious purchases which would restore her hat gloriously for the coming year.

Sheila Lee (nee Jordan)

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