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Post-war memories of Plumstead and Woolwich

In 1946 I took what we then called the 'School Scholarship', later called the 11-Plus. There were three papers we took then - Arithmetic, English Language and, I think, General Knowledge. I did fairly well in English and General Knowledge, but my Arithmetic let me down, so I semi passed the Scholarship. In those days, in London, there were three types of secondary schools: Grammar School, Secondary Central and Secondary Modern. In Plumstead the grammar school for girls was Kings Warren, or The Brown School, because their uniform was brown. I went to the Woolwich Secondary Central School for Girls. In 1946 this was based in Bloomfield Road, and adjoined Woolwich Secondary Central School for Boys. We were kept strictly apart and no fraternizing! I got the 696 trolley bus from Wickham Lane to Burrage Road. Then a long walk up hill to school. Going home was all down hill and in summer we'd stop at a sweet shop where we bought sarsaparilla, orange squash and soft drinks by the glass. The school curriculum was a real eye-opener. We were taught subjects hardly touched on in Primary School. The school also taught commercial subjects such as shorthand, typewriting and bookkeeping. Having different teachers and different classrooms for each subject was a real novelty. In 1948 the girls' school moved to another school, in Ancona Road. It became Waverly Secondary School for Girls. Some girls from the original Ancona Road School joined us. I believe the boys from that school moved to our old school in Bloomfield Road. I think this was the start of 'Comprehensive Education'. Most teachers came with us and were joined by staff from the old Ancona Road School. We soon settled in to the new school.
. Depending on the weather, I went to school by bus, along Plumstead High Street, to Lakedale Road, and walked up the hill, or went by 53 bus from Plumstead Bus Garage, up King's Highway over Plumstead Common. When I got my first bicycle I'd cycle there occasionally, or I'd walk, cutting through the Ravine. This brought you out near the pre-fab houses on the Common. They seemed quite luxurious to us then, as they had fitted kitchens and fridges! This was a pleasant walk, once passed Mackintosh's Soft Drink Bottling plant; quite countrified.

Saturday morning pictures. My friends and I never missed a week. More often than not we would go to the Odeon in Welling, sometimes the Odeon or the Granada in Woolwich. We never went to The Kinema in Plumstead (later called the Century). For 6d (5 cents) you really got your money's worth. The programme usually started with a Disney cartoon, followed by an interest film, then a feature film (usually a Western), finishing with a serial. Each episode ended in a cliff-hanger, so you had to go again the following week to see how the hero got out of his predicament. In the 1940s, the cinema was a great place for entertainment. Most cinemas, especially the smaller ones, changed their programmes mid-week. There were always continuous performances, so you could go into the cinema in the middle of the film, see the end, and then wait for it to come round again to see the beginning and then up to where you came in. So you knew how it ended as soon as it restarted! My grandmother was a great cinema fan. She often took me with her. We must have seen all the MGM musicals and Betty Grable films. We loved all the singing and dancing. Plumstead had another cinema, called the Plaza, just along from Lakedale Road. This had once been a Methodist Hall - my mother and father were married there in 1933 but due to a change in its fortunes was turned into a cinema. I seem to recall that the floor of the cinema was level, not sloping like other cinemas, so if you were sitting near the back it was difficult to see the screen. I remember my father taking me there to see Laurence Olivier in "Henry V."

When I was about 14 my father acquired a bicycle for me. It wasn't new, but I treasured it. Later on I'd cycle into the Kent countryside with friends. In those days, around Dartford and Bexley we used to think we were in the heart of the country. When I first got my bike I rode round the block. Every street had a 'pig bin', where people put scrap food in, to feed local pigs. This particular day I decided to shut my eyes and ride round and, you've guessed it, I went straight into the pig bin, knocking it over, falling off my bike, and landing in the contents of the bin! I didn't do anything so silly again!

The winter of 1946/47 was one of the worst of the 20th century. The first lot of snow fell just before Christmas, before we broke up from school. I can remember walking home across the Common with friends in a terrible blizzard. We decided to cut the corner of the Slade off by going through the Ravine. The snow was so heavy that we got completely disoriented. It was what we now call a "white-out". We couldn't see any landmarks at all. Eventually we did manage to get back to the road, all looking like snowmen, and absolutely frozen! This bout of snow thawed, but more heavy falls in the New Year had snow piled on the ground until the middle of March. This dreadful weather was all the worse because of food rationing (I would say we had more shortages then than we had during the war). Bread was rationed, and I believe potatoes were too. Everybody relied on coal to heat their homes in those days, but the stockpiles of coal were frozen in the coal yards and couldn't be moved. So there was a shortage of coal too. The power stations also relied on coal, so there was a shortage of electricity, with many power cuts. It was awful; I hope I never have to go through anything like that again My father bought an oil heater and we kept that going. This was heated by paraffin, so, being the eldest, I had to walk down Wickham Lane carrying the oilcan to buy paraffin to an ironmonger's shop at the bottom of the Lane.
Because of all the power cuts and coal shortages schools couldn't be heated, so had to close during the worst of the weather. We children didn't mind this at all! It left us free to go to "Fanny-on-the-Hill" and go tobogganing. My friend Glenys had a large sledge made out of curved pieces of old air raid bunker iron. You could get three passengers on this and we had wonderful times dragging it up the hill and hurtling down on it, more often than not landing up in a ditch and getting scratched by brambles! We would be there until it got dark, only going home when we were hungry.
This was a dreadful winter and when the thaw came, in the middle of March, it was so rapid that it caused very bad floods in many parts of the country. This was followed by a wonderful summer, surely to compensate us for the hard bitter winter. I went on holiday with my friend Glenys and her parents to Bournemouth and the weather was very hot and sunny. We had a wonderful time.

At Waverley School we had to work hard. We had lots of homework every night and especially at weekends. This homework had to be in on time; if it wasn't, woe betide you. I loved English, French, History and Biology, but Mathematics I found difficult. After our second year we dropped Algebra and Geometry, which I hated and couldn't get to grips with. I mastered basic maths in the end, doing quite well when taking the RSA School Certificate. The shorthand and typing stood me in good stead all my life. I stayed on at school until I was 16. There were only 11 of us in the class of 1951 when I left school.
A strange thing occurred when I was about 15 at Ancona Road. Our classroom had been a Science lab. with large desks with Bunsen burners set in them. At the back was a small anteroom where Miss Stevenson, our form mistress, kept a projector. There were large glass-fronted cupboards down one side of the room. One lunchtime, a friend, Jose, and I, went back to the class to get something. As we looked through the glass door I saw someone standing at the back of the room. As we opened the door she looked up and smiled. When we got into the room there was no sign of anyone! I said to Jose, "That's funny, I could have sworn someone was in the room." She said, "So could I". We hunted everywhere: under the tables, behind the cupboards, in the anteroom; but the room was empty. This wasn't a reflection that we both saw. The figure was solid. I'm not a fanciful person, but I can't explain this mystery.

When I think of the things schoolchildren get away with now at school, it is like another world. The school rules at Waverley had to be obeyed. We had to wear school uniform at all times; no jewellery (only watches). Part of the uniform was a navy beret, which we had to wear summer and winter on our way to and fro school. One girl was spotted by a teacher throwing her beret in the air whilst on a bus. She was hauled over the coals for doing that when she got to school the next day. If you did anything wrong, you got a "D" for Detention. If you excelled at anything you got an A plus. If you got either of these your name would be read out to the whole school during Morning Assembly. I lived in fear of getting a "D", but luckily I never did.

My father was a great one for taking us on local walks. We lived near to Bostall Woods. We often went there. He taught us a lot about trees and wildlife, especially birds. We often went to Rockcliffe Gardens. It was said these gardens were built on the site of old chalk workings, so no houses could be built there. These chalk workings covered a large area and several houses in Alliance Road were unoccupied for years, as the story was that a hole had appeared in the garden of one of them and had swallowed up a baby in a pram. Whether this was true or not I don't know, but I do know that these chalk mines extended as far as Grasdene Road. At the time of my marriage, there was a hole fenced off in the road and the chalk workings were being filled in to make the whole area safe.
Now and again we would go on the Woolwich Free Ferry and go over the river. Older people always talked of "going over the water" when they went to North Woolwich. Often, my father and I would go on a bus to London visiting the museums. We both shared a love of history.

My younger sisters followed me to Waverley School: Gillian in 1949, and Frances in 1956, so all three of us were there at any one time. My father had also attended the school, when it was still called Ancona Road, in the years after the First World War. I believe the old school was knocked down some years ago and a new one built on the site.
When I left school in 1951 I first worked in London Wall. I travelled to Cannon Street every day. Later I worked at Unilever House, Blackfriars, where I stayed for eight years. I was working there when I married at St. Nicholas' Church in 1957. The wedding reception was held at the Co-op Hall, Lakedale Road. After I married I moved away from the area.

There is no reason now to go back to Plumstead; my parents are both dead and most of my friends have moved away - apart from Glenys who still lives in the same house in Grasdene Road (2006). I am sure there are lots of changes, and sometimes it is best to hold on to memories and not cover old ground which may have changed out of all recognition.

Jennifer Mellor (nee Batcock), November 2006.

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