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Woolwich Childhood

Wynne Handley (nee Winnie English)

Overall mine was a largely uneventful but a happy childhood. An only child, I was born in Lewisham Hospital in 1951 and lived in Armstrong Place from birth until the house was compulsorily purchased as part of the area regeneration process in 1960.

Wynne at 19 months old Wynne at 19 months in her pushchair

Ours was a terrace house purchased by my father when he left the Royal Artillery in the late 1940’s. Upstairs there were three bedrooms, all with open fireplaces. Fires were only ever lit as a very special treat when the occupant of the bedroom was ill and confined to bed. Another treat when ill as a child was a bowl full of white bread pieces, sprinkled with sugar and soaked in warm milk. But mostly the bedrooms remained unheated and the windows on cold winter mornings would be covered in marvellous opaque patterns formed by the frosty ice crystals. The floors throughout the house were covered in linoleum.

Downstairs was a parlour which was kept as the best room and very rarely used. I only recall sitting in there at Christmas. In the parlour was an upright piano, which no one I recall, not family or friends could play, so why we had it I’ll never know. There was also a heavily padded sofa and two armchairs which had been purchased from Hanley’s the second hand furniture shop nearby. The sofa was so big it couldn’t fit through the front door and had to be carried in through the window. Unlike most of our neighbours we did have electric lights; the other houses were gas lit. Mostly we lived in the sitting room at the back of the house and the kitchen cum scullery. The toilet was outside and we used squares of old newspaper as toilet paper. In the scullery was a coal fired copper boiler which had to be filled with buckets of cold water from the tap in the kitchen sink in order to heat water. Our bath was a ‘Bungalow bath’, which was a large tin bath in the kitchen covered by a lift up working surface when not in use. Water from the copper had to be ladled by my father into and out of the bath, an event which took place each Sunday with all three of us using the same water and washing our hair with Lifebuoy soap.

The washing of clothes was done by hand with the aid of a washboard and a mangle in the yard used to wring out the water. Sheets and pillowcases were sent to a laundry and returned tied into a bundle with string. Strips of flypaper hung under the light bulbs captured flies on the sticky surface and jars with small amounts of jam and water attracted and captured troublesome wasps. We bought Robinson’s jams so I could collect the golliwog stickers to claim enamelled golliwog badges.

My father worked as a cable machinist at Harvey’s. They threw wonderful Christmas parties for the children of the workers. Father supplemented his pay and helped to keep us well fed by breeding rabbits in stacks of hutches in the back garden. These we ate and sold to neighbours for making rabbit stew. He also kept chickens, which again were used for their meat and eggs for eating and for sale.

The rats this livestock attracted were kept down by a mongrel dog we called Spiv. She was a little mongrel stray who my father had found scavenging around Beresford Market. Her name came from the name Spiv (a police term for ‘suspected person involved in vice’) a name which was given to men typically involved in things during the war known as the black market.  Spiv was a character type immortalised in the television programme Dad’s Army as portrayed by Private Walker played by James Beck.  Anyway Spiv our dog of uncertain origins and uncertain age changed from living on what she could to becoming a lovable family pet.  She had several litters of pups and died of old age in the early 1960s.  Spiv however had another side to her nature and was a gallant and brave rat chaser and catcher.  When we lived in Woolwich she and my father were frequently requested by neighbours to catch rats especially those who set up home in the outside lavatories!

I did not belong to any clubs like the Brownies; I felt no need to do so. My days were filled, when not at school, playing in the street with all the other children. We played hockey with upturned walking sticks, knock down ginger (knocking doors and running away to hide and roar with laughter when the occupier came to answer the door and look all around for the culprit). ‘He’, a game of tag where when you wanted to call a truce you crossed your fingers and called out “Fainights”. Hop scotch, with squares chalked on the pavement and a piece of slate, cricket with the wicket chalked on a convenient wall, a game of 'statues' or just kicking a ball about.

There was a corner shop where I would buy loose sweets, poured or picked out from jars, weighed out in 2oz bags of sweets. My favourites were shaped like peas, potatoes and sausages, which I played with my dolls using my tea set. The shop also sold comics. At first I read Chicks Own, later progressing to Harold Hare and later to Bunty and Judy. Bunty and Judy had cut out paper dolls and clothes and I spent ours playing with these and making more clothes for the dolls. I was also an avid reader of Enid Blyton books.

Earl Rise School photo. Year??

Saturdays we went to Saturday morning pictures, picking up a bag of broken biscuits from Woolworth's on the way to eat during the show. One day outside the pictures there was a splendidly dressed cowboy on a horse. We all believed he was Roy Rogers and Trigger; it was magical. We did not have a television but we did have a wind up gramophone and played 78's on it. We also had a wireless and tuned in to the BBC Light and the Home programmes. My favourite programmes were Educating Archie (this incredibly was a ventriloquist dummy called Archie Andrews), the Clitheroe Kid and Billy Cotton’s Band Show.

Each morning I had to have a desert spoon of malt and cod liver oil, ‘to build me up’ and on school days I would walk round to Maxey Road to meet my three cousins and we would walk together to Earl Rise School. Doing this in thick fog (The London Smogs) was wonderfully exciting.


My uncle Jim, a former boxer, ran a taxi business from the house in Maxey Road and was the only person I knew who owned a car; they also had a television which was a large box with about an 8 inch screen with a large magnifying screen in front.

Wynne Handley (nee Winifred English) with 2 cousins and uncle Jim's taxi car Maxey Road late 1950's
Wynne with 2 cousins and uncle Jim's taxi car Maxey Road late 1950's

According to the two school reports I still have I was in class 1A in 1959 and class 4 in 1960 and the head teacher was Mr Taylor. At some point in my education we were taken to the local swimming baths where I was pushed in the deep end by one of the boys in the class. I nearly drowned in the incident and to this day I cannot swim as I have panic attacks if water is splashed in my face.

Earl Rise School report 1959
Earl Rise School report 1959

When my mother took me shopping we would pass a fish shop with a tray of live eels in the window and I would watch them slithering up the glass; the butcher’s shop had sawdust on the floor and a monkey in a cage, which of course made it the butcher of choice for children, though my mother always maintained that it was the most expensive butcher. Vegetables and fresh fish were bought from Beresford Market. The big department store was called Cuffs and when you made a purchase the shop assistant would put the bill and your money into a capsule and then into a tube which shot the capsule up and along the ceiling to the cashier office, which would then put the receipt and change in the capsule, and back down the tube it would come to the shop assistant. When the shopping was done very occasionally we would go to Lyons Coffee Shop and I would have a delicious crème caramel pudding. If we needed to go further afield then we took the trolley bus.

Once home, any meat purchased was put in the meat safe, which hung on a hook on the wall in the back yard. (There were no fridges). Daily the milkman delivered bottles of milk and sterilised milk; also bottles of orange drink, which stained the inside of the glass bottles, so goodness knows what it did to our insides.

A later photo of me at Earl Rise school

The coal man and the rag and bone men used horse drawn carriages for their deliveries and on Sundays a man would come round selling pints of winkles, which we ate, by picking the winkles out of their shells with a pin, along with bread and echo margarine for our tea. Any horse droppings left behind were quickly scooped up by my father and used as fertiliser in the garden. In our street lived the local chimney sweep who came round to the house with brushes on long poles and we had to cover the furniture to stop it being covered in soot dust.

Near our house was the Armstrong Gun public house, which I only recall my parents going to at Christmas. My mother smoked Woodbine cigarettes which she bought in packets of five and my father smoked Senior Service.

Two items of clothing which I wore and that have now disappeared are the liberty bodice and black arm bands. A liberty bodice was worn over a vest, and was a thick short-sleeved garment with a row of rubber buttons up the front and designed to keep the cold out. The rubber buttons were notoriously fiddly and difficult for us children to undo and do up. Black armbands were worn by bereaved families. We were soon destined to wear these.

In the summer of 1960 our house at 27 Armstrong Place was compulsorily purchased and we moved to a new council house in Bromholm Road, Abbey Wood. I then transferred to class 3D at Alexander McLeod School.

In the late summer of 1961 my mother was taken ill and died at the end of October in St Nicholas' Hospital. She is buried at Woolwich Cemetery in Plumstead. When I returned to school a few days after the funeral nothing was said to me by any of the staff; no counselling offered, no recognition of what had happened to me, I was simply expected to get on, which I did.

My father, wearing the black armbands of mourning, was left to cope with his grief and also to bring me up unaided. He worked nights to be there for me during the day, seeing me off to school in the morning, and was there to put me to bed before going to work on the night shift. A neighbour reported this to the authorities and one day soon after two suited men came to take me into care. My father pleaded with them not to take me away right there and then, and so, desperate to keep me, father moved us out of the area into a new life where we were never to talk again of the wife and mother we had lost or of our lives together in Woolwich. My happy childhood ended right then.

Twenty-five years later in 1986 I buried my father with my mother... together again.

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