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In the beginning... PLUMSTEAD


Grandparents - Mr & Mrs Yeatman

I was around 1 1/2 when this photo was taken with my Nan. C.1948

Norman at six with twins, June & jackie less than a year old.

Myself with the 'Mumps' c.1952

Mum (Hilda) and Dad's (Bill) wedding at St. margaret's Church in 1935.

Myself between my two sisters c.1948.

Dad (Bill) in uniform 1941.

Norman, 17. June & Jackie, 11 and Myself, 5. c.1952

Myself! c.1960

I was born in Plumstead in 1947. My birth was at home at 97 Hudson Road (Hudson Road is now no more). I went to St Margaret's Primary School which was opposite St Margaret's Church (also now gone). For my secondary School I went to Eltham Green Comprehensive.

I can’t say that my Plumstead was either a sleepy haven or a down-and-out backwater. It was just Plumstead, the town I was born in and where I grew up till I was around eighteen.

In my formative years the part of Plumstead I lived in seemed to me to be a green and flowery suburb. The streets lined with terraced houses, most built from reddish brown brick. It was always sunny (a view which I guess most children have no matter where they live) and not as grey as the Woolwich end of town.

Our house was a decent three- storey domicile built in the late 1800's with a smallish garden that was just big enough for me to drive my red coupé pedal car around – circumnavigating the area where the air raid shelter use to sit. We needed the four bedrooms that the house provided as not only my brother, Norman (twelve years older than I) and my twin sisters, June and Jackie (six years older) but also my mother’s parents lived with us.

I was quite young when my grandparents left this world. My grandfather died first and my memories of him are few. He did keep rabbits in a wooden cage outside the back door. The strongest memory, however, was the ‘Muffin the Mule’ puppet he made for me. Hand carved, hand painted with strings, the TV show being a favourite of mine. After his passing my gran would have lived on for three or four years and was, among other things, interested in Greek mythology and butterflies and moths.

Dad (Bill) worked with his brother Reg as an auto electrician. The business being owned by Reg, with the garage located at the bottom of Burrage Road, one shop up from Plumstead Road. I think Dad learned his trade in the Ambulance Corp. during the war. The Garage was an exciting place for me to visit and to this day I can still smell the ‘Swarfega” a cleanser they used for getting the grease off their hands.

I attended an Anglican church primary school that was, then, around a hundred years old (as was the accompanying church, St Margaret’s). It was only a short walk to school. Some days were more special than others. Funny how the mind works when you’re young. I remember quite clearly (in my head anyway) that I had written a song while walking to school one rainy morningl. The song turned out to be Heartbreak Hotel. I don’t think Elvis ever found out that I had written one of his biggest hits! I was nine or ten at the time.

Every so often my Mum gave me a penny to spend at the little shop opposite the church, at the top of Vicarage Road. Black Jacks and Fruit Salads (four for a penny), Spaceships, Sherbet Dabs and Fruit Tingles and so on. It was a ritual to regularly pick a few leaves off the manicured privet hedge that bordered the house next to the school as I walked past each day. Across the road from the school was Plumstead Common, with its undulating grassy hills and trees; also the bandstand, which stood on a small hillock and had gravel pathways for kids on trikes or mothers with the enormous prams of the day.

The Common was also where St Margaret’s Junior School once held a sports carnival. I came third in a running race.

The church, to my young eyes, was a place of grandeur. Beautifully coloured stained glass windows held a fascination for me, with all the different characters. Some I recognised but others were just people wearing odd apparel. It was almost compulsory to attend church on Sundays. My parents were married at St Margarets. My brother was a choir and alter boy and for many years a close friend of the vicar, Canon Morecombe. My sisters also attended church but probably more for social than religious reasons. Come Sunday morning I was dressed to the nines with slicked down hair and polished shoes. I would walk up Hudson Road to the church, meet the locals waiting at the gates prior to the service, then, as we entered the church, greeted with a nod and a smile by the vicar.

I was confirmed at St. Margaret’s when I was thirteen, but for different reasons became disenchanted with religion. However, my religious upbringing served me well, putting me top of Religious Studies class at secondary school.

The area around our home was dotted with bombsites where once houses stood. These bombsites were formed by the misplaced bombs of World War II, meant for the Woolwich Arsenal, resulting in the loss of many homes and hundreds of lives. But I was a kid and I was amazed at what could be found on these sites; and this was fifteen years after the war. They had become places on which to offload any junk items the locals had. When I was a teenager I found a bicycle frame on a nearby bombsite. After a clean up and paint it became a much used bike for many years.

Birds Nest Hollow, on Plumstead Common Road, bordered the Common to the south. This hub of shops boasted a post office, a supermarket, a baker, a cobbler, a wet fish shop and even a greasy spoon cafe. At the top of the hill, just before you got to The Links was a toyshop and a wool shop. I remember the wool shop mainly because this store also sold ladies’ stockings, items I was forced to purchase for my sisters when at a young and embarrassment-filled age.
I also saw my first movie (Carry on Sergeant) at the Globe Cinema that used to be a few doors up from the Post Office. I believe it was for my eleventh birthday. There also used to be a cinema on Plumstead Road, the name of which I can’t remember, but I do remember going on my own to see Bambi. I must have been about twelve. I found myself sitting behind my cousin, whom I saw was smoking! He was a year older than me and when I tapped him on the shoulder, did he turn pale, as he thought I might tell his Dad. I didn’t, of course.

The other side of the Hollow saw Plumstead rising towards Shooters Hill. The main road up was Plum Lane, a hill that seemed like a mountainside. Guess which road was part of my paper run! Especially on wet and windy Sundays, toting papers that weighed more than I did! Great view from the top, though. At Plum Lane’s peak, to the left, was Shrewsbury Park, which seemed like a forest to me. Oxleas Wood on the other side of Shooters Hill was even bigger. Another early morning newspaper excursion was Barnfield Gardens, high-rise flats. I’m not sure when the flats were built, but by the time I became acquainted with them they showed definite signs of aging, with several abandoned cars languishing around the perimeter.

To the east of the Hollow were Winn's Common and the Links, home to the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society emporium for the more sophisticated consumer. Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s bespoke tailoring, haberdashery and a classy bakery for your wedding cakes and such. I purchased my first suit in the Gentlemen’s dept. The Links was a departmental store, a forerunner to today’s mega stores. When purchasing, your money and bill were loaded into a cylinder, which, in turn, was loaded into a tube and whisked away by compressed air to an invisible place only to return minutes later with your receipt and change. A much more relaxed time back then.

In the fifties mum took me to the paddling pool on Winn's Common. I was only allowed to stay down one end because the bigger kids up the other end didn’t tend to notice us small ones and were likely to use you as a stepping-stone in their games of chase. Later, so I was told, it was linked with the spread of polio, which was rife in the late fifties and early sixties, and became out of bounds.

A special place for me was the Matchless/AJS motorcycle factory. It lay between Maxey Road and Burrage Road, on the northern side of the main rail line. I could stand at the wire link fence and stare across the rail line to the gleaming motorbikes waiting to be loaded on to the trains and lorries for delivery. It was a hive of industry, with bikes being wheeled out of the factory and pushed up and down various ramps. Men dressed in grey overalls would straddle a bike, give the crank a kick and ride the bike away down the other end to some distant shed. Intermittently, big black steam trains huffed and puffed between the bikes and myself. The smell of smoke would permeate my nostrils and chest, leaving a decidedly coal-like taste in the mouth.

During the summer school holidays I was ‘urged’ to go to summer school, at Fox Hill Primary School, down Nightingale Place, a delightfully steep hill which often had the older cars stumped. I remember sitting on the school steps and watching an old Morris, which had stalled whilst trying to climb up. It was being pushed from behind by the drivers of the buses, the cars and lorries that were forced to stop behind it, the street being a single lane only. The kafuffle lasted quite a while as the heavily laden lorries found it difficult to restart on the steep gradient after the Morris went on his merry way.

Plumstead has faded in my mind and I am sorry that it is so, but that’s old age for you. Every now and again I come across photos on the web that stir up the sludge that is my brain and I revisit dear old Plumstead, my Homestead.

Roger Jaques

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