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Life in the 1920's, 30's and 40's

By Iris Gildon (nee Hannaford)

I was born in 1921 and my brother 1923 in Brookhill Road Woolwich.

I am left-handed and when I started school in 1926 it was considered wrong and they tried all sorts of ways to get me to write right-handed, like having my left hand behind my back. When I began to stutter they decided to leave me alone and that was the end of that.

When I was six my maternal Grandmother died and we moved to live with my Granddad in Marmadon Road where the railway ran at the bottom of the garden. There were two bedrooms, one for my Mum and Dad and the other for my Granddad and us children. We had a small front room, which we came into from the front door. A kitchen with a coal fired range for cooking and this led into a scullery with a built in copper with a fire underneath for heating water and doing washing. There was an outside lavatory with newspaper cut into squares and hung on a piece of string. There was also a tin bath out there and this came in once a week for a bath in front of the fire. I remember one of the walls in the kitchen was made of wood with a door at the bottom and behind this was a staircase leading to the two bed rooms upstairs.

Then I went to Conway Road school and my Mum took me up to the High Street and across the road and then I walked up Galloson Road to the school. When my brother was old enough, he too went to the same school. There are memories of "cats whiskers" for tuning into the crystal set to listen to the wireless with headphones. My Granddad would give us one earphone each so that my brother and I could listen at the same time.

There are memories of Lakedale Road with the Fire Station on the corner with the High Street. There was Bradshaw's the greengrocers who also ran charabancs. Morgan's the grocers and the Co-op on the corner of Conway Road and Lakedale Road with all the departments and the check office with the tin checks collected and counted for dividend. Then there was Beasley's Brewery and the smell of beer brewing and the big dray horses pulling the drays loaded with barrels of beer. The pavements were black with mulberry juice where the trees hung over the Brewery wall round the corner into Conway Road.

When we were at Conway Road School on Empire Day, which was 24th May, each class marched into the playground and lined up with little Union Jacks to wave and sang "Land of Hope and Glory" and "Jerusalem" before marching back to lessons again.

When I was eleven we moved to a house in Conway Road on the corner of Ingledew Road. On the opposite corner was Dr. Henry's surgery. The house still had gas lamps with mantles and it was some years before electricity was connected. My brother and I shared a room for some years and Mum and Dad and Granddad had a bedroom each. We now had a "front room" a dining room, kitchen and another room downstairs with a glass door leading out to the garden at the back. We still had to wash in the kitchen and still had an outside lavatory, but we now had a gas copper for hot water and still bathed in the tin bath in front of the fire in the dining room. Eventually the downstairs room became a bedroom for my Granddad and my brother and I had a bedroom each at last. There were shops in Conway Road from Liffler Road to Griffin Road on the left hand side of the road. On the other side of the road there was Basil's hardware shop and Post Office on the corner of Ancona Road and on the corner of Griffin Road was a Catholic church. At the bottom corner of Griffin Road and the High Street was Chapman's the bakers with the lovely smell of bread baking. When you bought the hot cottage loaves it was very tempting to eat some of it before you got it home.

After we had taken the "11 plus", which school you went to depended on how well you had done in the exam. Some of us went to the Kings Warren School (known as the Brown School because of its uniform), some to the Central School and others to a Secondary School. There was a Catholic School up on Bostall Heath which was St. Josephs Convent. I went to the Central School which had an entrance on the High Street and another one in Ancona Road. This was fortunate for me living in Conway Road.

We played Netball and Stool Ball in the school playground and we were marched along to the Plumstead Baths for swimming lessons. On Sports Day we went to Cooks Farm, which was on the junction of Bostall Hill and the road down to Abbey Wood. There we used their fields for various races and so on. This was a great day away from the playground and like being out in the country. We envied the Grammar School girls who played tennis!

We used to go up on to Plumstead Common and play cricket with my brother and his friends, paddle in the lake and sail boats and so on. Sometimes we used to go down to Plumstead Station cross the road and climb up on to the grassy sewer bank and walk along the top to Abbey Wood, Belvedere, Erith and on and on to the Cross Ness Power Station.

Hilda, Cissie and I would occasionally cycle to All Hallows-on-Sea for a day out together, using the road which became the Rochester Bypass and later the A2. We all went to Sunday school at the Central Hall along the High Street from the Fire Station. This was a Methodist church. We were joined here by another friend called Joyce and we went to many concerts here and acted in many plays about missionaries, and my black doll was frequently used in them (I still have it). Sunday School treats were always to Sheerness. My brother and I used to go to the Kinema in the High Street on Saturday morning to see a film and a family visit to the Empire, the variety theatre in Woolwich was a real treat at times.

Another treat was going on the tram to Woolwich and catching the ferry; standing and watching all the engines working in the engine room. Then catching the train at North Woolwich to go to Tottenham to see my mother's aunt and all her cousins. They came to see us sometimes and I can still remember going up to Bostall Woods and walking with them in the snow one winter.

I remember on New Year's Eve all the noise made at midnight when all the boats on the Thames and in the docks, plus all the trains, hooted and sounded their sirens.

On Saturday we always went to see my paternal grandparents in Crescent Road, Woolwich. We would walk to the High Street and catch the tram to Beresford Square where there were all the market stalls and pie and eel shops with jellied eels and so on. My Dad bought watch parts to mend watches, his hobby, and various tools from other stalls. I remember the imposing gates of the Woolwich Arsenal but we never knew what went on behind those walls, which seemed to stretch for miles along towards Plumstead. We knew they tested guns because of the noisy explosions at times. There, we would be joined by my Uncle, Aunt and cousin from Well Hall. The men would go to the pub, which was next door, and come back when it was time for supper and going home. I can remember the occasion when another aunt known as 'happy' and married to a farmer in Kent turned up. She arrived wearing trousers and was told by my Grandma, sitting there in her black bombazine dress, "If that is how you are going to come dressed, you will not be welcome". She never came again — how times have changed!

After the Sunday roast dinner we always went for a family walk dressed in our "Sunday Best" to one of the following; up to Bostall Woods and Bostall Heath, up Wickham Lane along by the brickfields, to Plumstead Cemetery to visit Grandma's grave. Sometimes up to Fanny on the Hill and over the fields, or up on to Plumstead Common to Swingate Lane and over the strawberry fields to Welling and Danson Park. The latter brings back memories of one year when the lake there was frozen over and people were people skating on it. How I wished I could skate!

Christmas of course was a memorable time when all the shops in Lakedale Road were decorated and in Woolwich the big department stores Cuffs and Garretts were a sight to behold with their decorations. Nativity plays at school and Christmas carols. Making paper chains with strips of coloured paper pasted into rings and strung together and hung up at home and school. Then of course there had been the stirring of the Christmas pudding; putting small silver sixpences into the mixture and wondering if you would be the lucky one to get the slice with it in on Christmas Day and, of course, being allowed to lick the wooden spoon. Letters to Father Christmas and hoping to get what you wanted on Christmas morning. The excitement of Christmas morning and opening presents. There was always a tangerine and apple plus a few nuts. Then came the real presents — a story book with thin card doll clothes to be detached and fixed over the doll on the appropriate page of the story. For my brother a tin car or train and a book. Sometimes it was something to wear. Then came Christmas dinner of chicken, roast vegetables and usually sprouts. Then the Christmas pudding and perhaps a silver sixpence followed by mince pies and custard. In the afternoon the aunts, uncles and cousins would arrive. We children then played with our toys, and we all played games. ate dates and figs, cracked nuts to eat and so on during the afternoon. The adults maybe had a little doze. Then later came teatime with another sit-down meal of perhaps salmon and cucumber for instance, followed by fruit and jelly. Of course Christmas cake as well as other cakes; all homemade of course (there had been more spoon licking). I remember one cake which was always bought each year and called a Tunis Cake. It was a Madeira cake topped with a layer of thick chocolate on top and marzipan fruits topping it.

The Central School was a mixed school, but only for morning assembly, when Mr Langley would sit at the piano and thump out the "te Deum" whilst we marched in. We did some lessons with the boy's teachers when we had Mr Conn to teach us algebra and geometry. We shared the same French teacher too. The boys joined us for bookkeeping with Mrs. Whelan. The boys had the option of doing metalwork and woodwork or commercial subjects. The girls had housewifery and cooking lessons. We all did art with Mr Langley, including leatherwork. The girls were taught shorthand during the school time but we had to come back again after afternoon school finished. Cissie always came home with me as I lived nearest to the school and she lived in Parkdale Road. We were always greeted with the lovely smell of baking when we got home. Then it was back to the school hall, where by this time all the typewriters had been set up with wooden covers over the typewriter keys—this was to teach us to touch type to music.
The other thing we shared was dancing. The Headmaster was a great believer in teaching us ballroom dancing ready for when we went to work. So every other year we did this and in between we did Country Dancing. Mr McKeon organized dances from time to time and we were taught the correct protocol and so on.
A forward-thinking man in more ways than one, as in our final year we all had to take turns of being his secretary to prepare us for our next step towards work. So in 1936 we were sent to Snow Hill in London to see if there were any secretarial vacancies, as we had already by this time sat for our RSA exams. I was offered a job with a shipping company in Fenchurch Street in the City and I could start almost immediately. Then it was back home to tell my parents the news. Hilda also got a job in London too.

In 1936 my friend Hilda's parents purchased one of the first Television sets and Cissie and I used to go to their house in Howarth Road, Abbey Wood, to watch some of the programmes on a very small screen housed in a large wooden cabinet. Sometimes her aunt and uncle with their two sons, Jim and Frank, used to come over from Bexley for the evening too. Hilda and I used to go over to their house sometimes for the evening and play card games and so on. Here I met their Grandma who lived with them—another old lady in a big black bombazine dress!

The day war was declared I was down at Hilda's house and we were waiting to hear whether there was to be a war or not. The announcement finally came that, "We are now at war" and the air raid sirens sounded immediately taking us all by surprise. We had to go down into the air raid shelter which they had already built in their garden. Eventually when the "All Clear" was sounded I went home as quickly as possible thinking what might happen going to work the next day. The Air Raid Shelters were all right for a short while but not for a long air raid. As history tells us not a lot happened for a long time. All the shops and homes were prepared and had "blackout" curtains; there were no street lights at night. Various foods disappeared as time went by and Plumstead seemed very different, despite very little happening locally. I still travelled up to London daily to work in the City. I enjoyed working for Mr Scott as his secretary and there was another secretary to Mr Jackson who was a director too. There were two male clerks known as Fisher and Dollery. Fisher lived at Abbey Wood, which was the station before Plumstead, and we met on the train sometimes. The other secretary was Miss Drury—it was all very formal in those days. One thing that I still remember vividly was the advertisement board at Maze Hill Station en route saying "They come as a boon and a blessing to men, the Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley Pen."

Then came 1939 when we were travelling with gas masks, anticipating that WAR would start in earnest soon. We had only had a few air raid sirens sounding, which did not last long. We got stuck in the railway tunnels sometimes in the pitch dark when this happened. It was always lovely to get back to Plumstead and home. My Dad worked in the power station by the ferry and we all felt safe and sound when we were all at home together.

We still continued to go out and go to dances at the Woolwich Polytechnic, hoping nothing would happen. We walked there via Maxey Road, where there was the Matchless Motor Cycle Works still operating.

Then came 1940 and the Battle of Britain with air raids day and night. Travelling to work became a nightmare and eventually it was decided that we could no longer work from Fenchurch Street. We then had to go to Mr Jackson's house in Surrey to work, but only every other day, taking it in turns, so that we had a day off to get some sleep.

Jim used to come over to my parents' house and play cards with my Dad, Granddad and Uncle, while Hilda, mum and I would sit and talk and listen to the radio or to records like Nelson Eddy and so on. Then, having had supper, they would go home.

We went up to shows in London sometimes and I remember going to see "Me and my Girl" with Jim. Things got a little more serious between Jim and I, and I went over to Bexley to his parents house, having got to know them and his brother through seeing them at Hilda's.

During the war when you got to the age of 21 you had to go into one of the Forces, the Land Army or a factory. I joined the W.A.A.F. and Hilda the A.T.S. at the end of 1941, thus making our own choice. Cissie had already gone into the Land Army, as her father had died when she was fourteen and her mother had remarried and gone to live in Gloucester. Cissie had to leave school and go to work, as her mother needed the money. So we all went our different ways, but then still came back to Plumstead on leave and met up again, and if possible went dancing together.

Jim was in what they called "a reserved occupation", which meant that you were of more use to the country working where you were. He worked for Vickers Armstrong and he was sent up to their works in Newcastle. I was posted to Gloucester and then to St. Athans in Wales, which meant we were all split up even more. While I was in Gloucester I was able to meet up with Cissie again, not having seen her since she left school. When we were on leave, if it was possible, we all met up again in Plumstead of course.

In 1943 Jim and I decided to get married. So in July we all made our way back to Plumstead once again, and with Hilda and Joyce as my bridesmaids, and Frank as Jim's best man we got married. We went to Torquay for our honeymoon. Then we all went off to different places to get on with life during the war.

I got posted to various places and then to No.46 Group Headquarters at Harrow. Here everyone was billeted with local residents. Nowhere could be found for me when I arrived, so I was billeted with my parents in Plumstead and I had to travel to Hatch End every day. This I did until VJ Day in 1945 when I was discharged on "compassionate grounds", as I was pregnant. I then went up north to join Jim. We came home to my Mum's when Brenda was born at the end of the year. Once again we walked over the fields with the pram, this time to Bexley to see the other grandparents, doing what we had done before the war.

We came back to Plumstead in 1947 when Jim was sent back to Crayford where he had worked before. We lived with my parents for two years whilst trying to find somewhere to live and finally moved to Gravesend to live in a new house and start a new life. So it was the end of an era, but we could never forget Plumstead and our life there, not even now.

A few more memories come to mind. (12th October 2006)

When we lived in Marmadon Road I remember the Muffin Man coming round ringing his bell with his muffins for sale.

Also another man that used to come round selling his wares, was the Shrimp and Winkle Man.

On Good Friday the baker came round with fresh hot cross buns for sale. The smell was lovely, and we couldn't wait to eat them—they usually followed the traditional dinner of fish which we always had on Good Friday.

Then of course there was the rag-and-bone man with his horse and cart and his call of "Any old iron" and "Rag and Bone". Also the Walls Ice Cream man and his tricycle with the big square box in front with his cries of "Ice Cream" and if you were lucky you got one or a triangular iced "lolly".

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