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Memories of Plumstead Common & King's Warren School

by Sheila Andrews

I cannot claim to be a true Plumstead Commoner, as we only moved to Ebenezer Terrace about thirty five years ago, but my forebears have lived in the Woolwich and Plumstead area since at least 1800, maybe more. I was born in Plumstead Road, not far from the Middle Gate. We frequently trudged up Maxey Road, up the steps, along Hudson Road, past St Margaret's and along Blendon Terrace to go to the Globe Cinema.

We used to show a bill for their programmes which was viewed by people on the passing trams, for which we received a complimentary pass for two people per week. By 1935 there were 'picture palaces' being built in Woolwich, the Odeon and Granada, which were truly magnificent. The Globe was an early 'Palace,' probably 1920ish, and by the 1940s was showing its age. The brass work outside was still gleaming, but I did not know it in its heyday. There used to be a corner shop by the bridge in Maxey Road kept by Ernie Rodgers and his sister. They also showed the bill, and had a pass, but Ernie was disabled and they very rarely used their pass. There were four of us. My father died in 1928 but my mother and two brothers were film devotees so Ernie would lend us his pass sometimes. My big brother, on these occasions, would wear a cap to age him sufficiently to pass as Mr Rodgers.

During the war my brothers were in the Navy and friends who lived in Plum Lane invited Mum and I to share their cellar shelter when the raids began, as they thought we were not in a good position, right opposite the Arsenal wall. Their invitation was so pressing that we agreed. The raid had already started when we set off. To protect the Arsenal and the Docks, there was always a very heavy barrage set up to discourage the bombers a bit. When the shells exploded there was shrapnel galore. Air Raid Wardens had tin hats but we were not so equipped and I well remember the shrapnel pinging down and bouncing up off the road in Blendon Terrace. We kept to the trees on the Common side, which wouldn't have protected us much anyway, but luckily we were not shredded and got to Plum Lane unharmed. We found the cellar full of friends, and every sort of seating that could be found for so many, from deck chairs to stools. The comfiest seating was allocated according to age, and at thirteen years my priority was low. The next morning we emerged aching in every limb ("death where is thy sting, where grave thy victory"), so we spent the journey back home concocting an acceptable excuse, in order not to hurt the feelings of our friends, which we duly delivered the next night. Shortly afterwards their firm was moved to Illminster in Somerset, so all was well.

Ebenezer Terrace was built in 1848 and is the oldest terrace on the Common. There used to be stucco fancy work over our house, with the name and date, but it was leaning forward three inches, according to the cracks in the party walls in the roof space, and we could not risk it all descending on us on the front steps, so very reluctantly had to have it removed. These buildings are listed by the Council, but they were so short of cash they could not help, asking to keep the pictures my husband had taken, in case money should ever be available to restore it, but I doubt this happy time will ever come.

The terrace used to have quite high railings in the front but they were all taken for scrap during the war. The houses on the far end by Vernham Road were damaged by bombing, when the stucco on that end disappeared. The only example still remaining is over No. 100. Before 1848 there were potteries on the site, and in Vernham Road. When gardening we unearthed a lot of large glazed blocks and lumps, which had been buried. I was in hopes we had discovered a kiln in situ, but no such luck. I thought perhaps it might be the inside of a salt glazing kiln. I imagine that throwing in a handful of salt to volatise would glaze the interior as well as the items being fired, but I do not know enough about the process to say. On the other side of Vernham corner, there is a house which used to be called "Lugano." Cottingham's College was on the site now occupied by the old peoples' home. Cottingham's son spent his honeymoon in Lugano and the house, in Swiss style, was his surprise wedding present - I am not sure of the date. The patch of Common opposite here makes a good helicopter landing place when medics are required in a hurry for road accidents.

In 1936 I won a Junior County Scholarship, which was before the eleven plus and comprehensives etc. I started at King's Warren School in January 1937. The headmistress was then Miss Lillian Summers, whose super high class tones, when addressing the assembled school I found quite unbelievable. I was three months behind the rest of my year, who had started in September (I had been in hospital) and they had had time to get used to it. Had the term "you cannot be serious" been coined at that time, I should have used it, but just had to think it.

School uniform was very strict. Dark brown gym slip with beige blouse in winter, with dark brown woollen stockings with double sections at the knees for hard wear. Summer was beige dresses, blazers if you could afford it - so I didn't get mine until 1938 - and beige lisle stockings which my brother referred to as my "Old Mother Riley's" (O.M.Rs for short). Nowadays it would be Norah Batty's. The school had been the County Secondary School Plumstead, thus the school motto (CSSP) was Courage, Service, Sympathy and Patriotism. They celebrated the twenty fifth anniversary of the move to the Old Mill Road site while I was there. We paraded to St Mark's Church behind the school banner (embroidered by the botany mistress, Miss Spratt, I believe). Even cream gloves were mandatory with the uniform on this occasion. Afterwards we had cakes and ICE CREAM with tinned pineapple in the gym. As only shops had refrigerators in those days, this rumour caused a sensation in the ranks, bordering on disbelief until it actually materialised. Heaven only knows what the present pupils of Plumstead Manor would make of all this. 1938 was quite a different world. It is strange that even as little as a decade requires explanation to those who have not lived through it.

We used to have prayers every morning and the school keeper would attend in his uniform looking very smart. He was of mature years, and one morning he was accompanied by a tall, dark and handsome young man who was his new assistant. I was down the front in 1b at the time. During proceedings my friend Audrey grabbed my arm and said "Oh Sheila, I do feel weird" and promptly collapsed on me. I was hanging on to her with chairs shooting about in all directions, when the young man stepped forward, gathered Audrey up and carried her to the sick room in a positively Douglas Fairbanks fashion. When she recovered and came back to class rather grey looking, she asked me what had happened. I reported on proceedings and Audrey was aghast. "Whatever happened to my skirt?" said she, with a vision of the dreaded brown bloomers, suspenders and brown stockings on full view. But I was able to assure her that he had done the job properly and secured her skirt with his arm. "Did he?" said Audrey, brightening up immediately.

The next morning there were no less than three young ladies, higher up the school who succumbed to an attack of the vapours, and the young man had his work cut out to deal with the situation. Miss Summers took immediate action and by the very next morning he had been transferred to the Roan Boys, and the health of her pupils took an upturn, and life was no longer exciting. Spoil sport.

My brothers were on their yearly training (Royal Volunteer Reserve) in August 1939 with H.M.S. Coventry. It was supposed to be for two weeks, but we didn't see them for years. They were in Alexandria when war was declared. When they left my instructions were to look after Mum, so I did not evacuate with the school, but stayed at home. There was no school for a whole year. Then a
teacher started up in Bloomfield Woodwork Centre in Sandy Hill, setting homework and marking it for us. As numbers grew they opened up Bloomfield main school for boys and girls from all of the Plumstead schools. We were all settling in there nicely, when it was announced that the South East London Emergency Secondary School for girls was opening at the Roan Girls in Greenwich, and the boys at Colfe's in Lewisham. Naturally we did not want all this hassle, but it was that or lose our grants, so from 1940-1943 I attended there.

King's Warren became an Ambulance Station and a Fire Station, but a bomb destroyed half of it, though it was rebuilt after the war, and "you can't see the join." In 1940 the party walls of the houses in Warwick Terrace remained standing and it looked like a toast rack, with just rubble where the toast should have been.

In the 1930s we always walked to Plumstead cemetery most Sundays to tend my father's grave. Everybody seemed to do it in those days, as we frequently met mysterious relatives that I did not know, also tending their graves. From Plumstead Road near the Middle Gate that is quite a hike. My mother had great difficulty in keeping afloat, as she didn't even qualify for the 10/- (50p) widow's pension, and jobs were unobtainable. But in those days everybody was in the same boat - or at least everybody that I knew?. Nobody entertained the vast expectations of this day and age. We used to walk up Maxey Road, Richmond Hill and round to Durham Rise, where we often met friends who were "Peculiar People," which was a very strict religious sect. The Plumstead Peculiars are given an entry in the 1911 Britannica, but I think they have all died out now, as our friends were leading lights in the movement. They would not have doctors or any medical treatment. There was an outbreak of typhoid and Lily nearly died. The authorities took a hand and she was taken to hospital willy nilly. There were several little chapels in Durham Rise: Baptists, Strict Baptists and Particular Strict Baptists. They seemed to get stricter as you went up the hill!

We then proceeded along Waverley Terrace, Old Mill Road, down and up the steps at the ravine to Winn's Common - which was not the lush prospect it is now, but stony and dusty, with just a few little chamomile daisies here and there - down King's Highway, where there used to be gypsy caravans on the right hand ravine. Then it was all along Wickham Lane, which was all brick fields on the right, and the left was allotments. When the Ayling Houses were built along there, there were tales of rhubarb coming up through the floorboards.

When we had weeded and watered the grave, Mum gave us the option of a tram ride home or an ice cream. As I was only six or seven, I would have opted for the tram but the boys, thirteen and fifteen, chose the ice cream usually, and gave me a piggy back home.

My grandmother, Louisa Dodsworth, 1860-1916, as a child lived in Garland Road and my mother told me that she went to school in the Ascension Church Halls, behind the Ascension vicarage on Winn's Common (as confirmed by Ivy Runacres) all now demolished. Louisa later trained as a nurse at the Woolwich Union Infirmary, which later became St Nicholas Hospital, all now closed. Even as late as about 1933 there was a workhouse there as well. The men wore a uniform of grey tweed suits (reminiscent of the demob. suit my husband was issued with circa 1948). The ladies wore pink dresses with grey shawls and bonnets - I dimly remember seeing them when I was very small.

Louisa was on duty in the Infirmary the night the survivors from the Princess Alice disaster were brought in, when, if they were not in time with the stomach pumps to get the river water out of them, they died of poisoning. Five hundred and fifty died, and it is still the greatest loss of life in a land-based disaster. There have been more at sea, but that is not the same problem, as this one necessitated identification and inquests that went on for months, depending on which county foreshore the bodies were washed up. Most of the inquests were held in the old Town Hall in what is now Calderwood Street, next to Woolwich Library. In 1878 this all proved a terrible problem. Their memorial is in Woolwich Cemetery in King's Highway.

The Common seems to have had its fair share of disasters. According to W.T. Vincent, when the school (now St Margaret's) opened, a poor little chap died walking home alone during a blizzard. It was some time before the snow melted and he was found underneath a hedge in Swingate Lane. About twenty years ago a father bringing his children to school was shot in full view of all the parents and children. Mercifully, though, the Common is usually a peaceful and pleasant place to be, and long may it remain so.

Sheila Andrews, 2000.

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