Ch 1 part 2 Gran’dad and family.

Sometimes my grandfather would have meat left over, and as there was no refrigeration, this became a problem in summer when the weather was warm and flies abounded. My grandfather would soak the meat in a solution of brine placed in the tin tub where we children had our occasional baths. 

In the houses of those days there were no facilities for baths or showers. If you were an adult, you paid a visit to the public baths in another part of the borough. If you were a child, Mum gave you a sluice in a tin tub on the Wash House floor.

Sometimes the meat would remain in its brine bath over the weekend. On Monday, in spite of all efforts to keep it clean and free of pollution, maggots could be seen crawling. The meat was an investment in money that my grandfather could not afford to lose. He would scrub the maggots off, then plunge the meat again into a solution of water and potassium permanganate crystals to give it back its red colour. Somehow, with his blarney and salesmanship, he always managed to get rid of it. Nobody seemed to complain, and fortunately none of his customers ever got food poisoning. 

My grandfather had a sardonic sense of humour, and was an eternal nonconformist. I had picked up an ancient typewriter at the Kingsland Waste flea market, so my grandfather got me to type out little cards with the words: 

I never did figure out what a “meat banger” was, unless it referred to the way he used to chop and hack at his pieces of meat. However, my grandfather took great pleasure in distributing the cards with a lordly air to his rather bemused customers. 

 His insistence on calling himself Dick Hunter, instead of Arthur Hunt gave untold trouble in later years after his death, when setting the family history record straight. My grandfather’s sense of humour frequently kept us from despair. On one occasion there was a plague of black beetles in the Wash House where he used to cut up his meat and he was anxious to get rid of them in case he received a visit from a Health inspector, who might forbid him to trade. When putting down powder, plugging holes and fumigations had all failed to kill the pests, I asked him one day

“How are we going to get rid of them, Gran’dad?” 

“We’ll get rid of them all right, Jimmie”                                                               

 “But how?”                                                                                                                 

He thought for a moment.                                                                                

“Well, I’ve got an idea. I think I’ll catch one of them beetles and paint ‘im blue”. 

“Paint ‘im blue?” 

“Yes. Then I’ll let ‘im loose. All the other beetles will mistake ‘im for a policeman and run away to escape being arrested. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

 My grandfather was vastly amused, but it didn’t seem very funny to me. I thought we still had a serious problem. 

 My grandfather was basically a very kind man. We were all on the edge of insolvency in those days, and many a Friday I would go with my grandmother to the pawn shop to pawn the sheets for a few bob to tide us over until some money came in from somewhere. However my grandfather had his stock in trade – there was always some meat somewhere in the house. 

Although my father had permanent work his wages were meagre. But there was always a joint of meat or some stewing steak for my mother when she wanted it. Gran’dad would come upon her unexpectedly, one of his better portions of meat in his hand and say, “There you are, Nellie. Get that down your scrags. It’ll make the kids strong.”

 On Sundays, too, when my grandfather was carving the joint in the downstairs living room – my mother cooked her own dinner late on this day – he always set aside meat for me, which my grandmother made up with mustard into a juicy sandwich. I used to take my sandwich, sit on the polished iron fender before the open fire, and bury myself in the reminiscences of Gracie Fields, or the serialised biography of Edgar Wallace, or any other “confessions” carried that Sunday by The News of the World.

During the week I used to come to my grandfather every evening and receive the sum of one penny for The Evening News and one halfpenny for myself. Twice a week I also used to receive the sum of twopence farthing for a quarter of an ounce of ‘British Oak’ shag, which my grandfather would smoke in a foul old clay pipe.

With this money I used to trot across Well Street to Mr Williams, the newsagent, and buy the paper. On my way back I would stop at Ernie’s, the sweetshop, and lay out my halfpenny as advantageously as possible on sweets. I would dawdle as much as possible going back in order to read most of the news before my grandfather. What news it was, too! The test matches – Don Bradman was always scoring – the record breaking runs by Sir Malcolm Campbell in his “Bluebird” – The flights of Miss Amy Johnson. The international outlook didn’t bother us in those happy, far-off days. Sometimes, when I hadn’t finished the newspaper, we would have arguments about who was to have it. My grandfather thought that having paid for the paper, plus an additional delivery fee, he should have first claim. These arguments were generally settled by an amicable compromise in which my grandfather would take one half and I the other. 

My grandfather loved reading. 

He had left school at twelve, but he loved to read books. They were restricted for the most part to the works of Edgar Wallace and Nat Gould, the two most famous writers of thrillers and racy tales of the day. But I would wager that my grandfather had read almost every book that those two prolific writers had put out. Gran’dad would sit in a chair in the downstairs room, stockinged feet on the mantelpiece, the rear part of his legs presented to the fire for warmth, and he would read for hours. I have often wondered what kind of a man he might have been had he had the opportunity for a better education and had his interest in reading been channelled in a productive direction.

It never occurred to me that my grandfather was mortal until he had a serious illness in the early days of the 1939-45 war. He had contracted a carbuncle on the back of the neck, and had to spend several weeks in the Hackney Hospital. This was a place in which he was at first terrified to stay. For local tradition had it that once one went “into the infirmary”, who knew if or when one would come out. My grandfather did come out, but he had shrunken and lost weight, and his skin was an unhealthy yellow. I was also growing up rapidly, and my own increasing weight and height probably added to the impression. But my grandfather was never again the man he used to be.

In October 1941 I was called up for the army, and some months later found myself stationed a few miles outside London at the town of Staines. I got home for weekend leaves, and saw my grandparents occasionally. They had been bombed out twice, and were now living in a cramped little tumbledown house about ten minutes walk from their original home. My grandfather became weaker and more shrivelled. I think that the disruption caused by the air raids and the war must have contributed to his ill health. He, like so many others of that terrible time, were also affected by the snapping of the link which had bound him to the same house and the same street for thirty years. (The street had now disappeared and only a rubble-strewn waste of land remained).

 I missed visiting my grandparents one weekend, and when I came next to the flat in which my parents were living, (the local Council had finally allocated it to them because their former home had been destroyed), my father met me with a serious face.  

“We’ve got bad news for you, son.”                                                                        

I could feel within me before he spoke further what it was all about.      

“Gran’dad’s dead?”                                                                                                       

“Yes”. 

One night my grandmother had awoken to find my grandfather struggling to get into bed. His face seemed partially paralysed, and he could not speak. He had been to the toilet and must suddenly have collapsed. They took him to hospital, but he died shortly afterwards. They said that he had died from the debilitating effects of a carbuncle on the back of the neck and cirrhosis of the liver.

My poor, dear old Gran’dad. My grandmother told me that she had the feeling that he did not want to live any longer. The mean streets, the narrow life, the continual work, work, work for nothing had finally filled him with disgust. He wanted to rest. I hope that in his last moments he experienced peace and rest.

My grandfather was always so hard up that he could not afford to put stamps on his old age pension card. So under the English system of those days, he did not qualify for the old age pension until he reached the age of seventy. He was sixty nine years old when he died – within a few months of drawing his old age pension. He worked hard every day of his life, first to look after his family, and second to make other people rich. At least he could have boasted that he never took anything without working damned hard for it and that he never accepted a favour from anyone.

My maternal grandmother was a small, wrinkled woman with a slightly humped back and work-worn, thick-fingered hands. Her long grey hair was plaited and coiled in a bun at the back of her head, and she wore a fringe in front. The money my grandfather earned was never enough to pay all the bills, so my grandmother was invariably out charring at other people’s houses to make up the difference. A regular client of hers was an old Russian Jewish woman even more wrinkled than she, who lived a few streets away, and through the generosity of “Old Booba”, candlesticks, matzos and kosher delicacies used to find their way into our home. My grandmother worked, if anything, even harder than my grandfather. I never knew her to rest. If she wasn’t scrubbing somebody else’s floor, she was scrubbing her own; or she was washing clothes in the big, steaming copper in the Wash House; or she would be sweeping, beating carpets, cooking or seeing in some way to the comfort of others.

She only allowed herself one luxury. Every evening at about nine o’clock she would take a coloured, ornamented jug to the pub just at the end of the street and bring herself back half a pint of bitters. I think that she deserved it.

My grandmother was fond of all her grandchildren, but especially of me. When I was born I had a deformed face – some would say that that is still the case. However, my grandmother massaged my face for hours when I was young and eventually restored it to something like normal balance. Nan was always prepared to make me a strong cup of milky tea with a new crust from a cottage loaf, to which I was particularly partial. Being only a child in those days, I never thought to consider how much butter and bread and tea cost and how hard Nan worked physically to get those little extras. 

My siblings were two sisters and a brother. My elder sister, Nellie, born in 1926 was the student of the family, always sitting in a corner studying. My second sister, Dolly, born in 1928, became an archivist at the London Guildhall. My brother Harry was born in 1931. Of all the family he displays most the intelligence of my father and the humour and business orientation of my grandfather. He started work in the London Water Board, and later went into partnership with a friend in a camera business. He did not marry until he was thirty. He then found himself short of money to buy a house and hit on an infallible way to amass enough capital to start himself off. Using his knowledge of cameras and photography, he proceeded to make moving pictures – of the type that were at that time unlawful in England, and carried a heavy penalty if detected. If they had known, my father would not have approved, my mother would have been deeply shocked, and I do not know what others might have thought. However, Harry needed money to set himself up and provide for his family. Nobody was going to give it to him, so he earned it by supplying a demand. I always thought that it was an amusing, original and enterprising example of “Foxon get up and go”. Once he achieved enough capital, Harry dropped the movie business and settled into successful family life.

Ch 1 part 1 Hackney

I was born on 26th April 1922 in my parents’ bedroom in Frampton Park Road, Hackney, London. The grandiloquent name of the street hid narrow-gutted houses of small dimensions, which would today be condemned. 

The house in which we lived was one of a very long, hundred year old terrace of houses, slowly sinking into the London clay. I can remember, as a child, watching the moon through a crack in the brick wall, which seemed to get wider as the years went by. Periodically the repairman came to patch it up, but it always reappeared. We rented the house for a few shillings a week, and the landlord’s rent collector was a remote and austere man, who lived in another part of the neighbourhood. I suppose the frontage of the house would have been about fifteen feet. Entering into a narrow passage, first on the right was the parlour, used as such only at Christmas. For the rest of the year it was my grandparents’ bedroom. The next room on the right was the kitchen-cum-dining room. It had a large open hearth and a bright steel fender in front of it, kept scrupulously burnished by my grandmother. Here I sat for hours as a child reading books about cowboys and Indians. At the end of the passage was what we called “The Wash House”. This contained a copper with room for a wood fire underneath for doing the weekly washing, a large old fashioned mangle with timber rollers and a handle on a huge iron fly-wheel, a gas stove, and a cement sink with a single tap for cold water. Here we washed our clothes, washed the crockery, washed ourselves, and cooked. The Wash House also contained a large chopping block where my grandfather, who was a self-employed butcher, chopped up his meat prior to offering it to the public. Sometimes, at night, huge black beetles would invade the Wash House, attracted by the residue of small pieces of meat. We conducted continuous warfare against them, but never let on to the health authorities.

            Half way along the passage on the left hand side, was an even narrower staircase. This led to a landing and the entrance to the toilet, and a small mezzanine appendage or attic overlooking the pocket-handkerchief back garden. (There was no front garden, all the terrace houses giving directly on to the footpath). In this room lived and slept my Uncle Arthur, my mother’s brother, who was a leather cutter by trade, but who for most of his life was unemployed. (These were the days of the great depression in England). From the landing, four more stairs changed direction and led to the two top rooms of the house. One was a bedroom, the other a general living room. In the living room we children did our homework, had our meals with our parents, and generally spent the evening with them. In the bedroom three large beds were jammed around the walls. My two parents slept in one bed, my two sisters in another, and my brother and I in the third. While my mother was giving birth to her children, we were scattered about the other parts of the house. At these times I remember my father telling me in his Yorkshire dialect that “Mam was poorly”.

            In those days, with chimneys from two million households belching coal smoke into the air, London was a fog-ridden city. Sometimes, when the pea-soupers came down, you almost literally could not see a hand in front of your face, nor yet find the street where you had lived all your life. If you blew your nose, particles of grime from the fog appeared on your handkerchief. Many a foggy morning I can remember lying in bed looking up at the recently lit gas light on the wall of our communal bedroom, and listening to my father clatter downstairs, slam the front door and walk to work. He always walked to his job at Hackney Wick to save the bus fare. As his footsteps echoed down the street, I would hear him hawking and coughing. The fog upset his wheezy chest, never too good in the early morning.

            We children had the entire run of the house and the small garden at the back. However, whilst there were no restrictions as far as we were concerned, my grandparents generally kept themselves to the ground floor, while Mum and Dad kept to their two top rooms. My uncle spent hours gazing gloomily out of the window of his small bedroom, unable to get work, losing confidence in himself. Sometimes Barney, who ran the handbag factory in Well Street, just down the road, would offer him a few weeks’ work. Barney always wore a smart overcoat and a brown trilby hat, and I knew when he had been around because of the lingering smell of the cigarettes, which he chain-smoked. But the work always cut out after a few weeks or a few months, and my uncle would be unemployed again. The depression and the general poverty of the time ensured that the lumpen proletariat2 could never get off their backsides, no matter how hard they tried. The worst thing was that men of good potential were psychologically downgraded and destroyed by their continuing inability to get work.

 However those in positions of privilege, with the advantages of a better education and assured income, never ceased to turn up their noses at people whom they considered socially inferior. So the joke and the curse of English society, the class system, continued its merry way, one stratum of society looking down on another, but up to somebody else, until you arrived at the Establishment who controlled all the wealth and power, and they, of course, looked down on everybody.

            The lumpen proletariat, for their part, were resigned to their lot. Every Friday and Saturday night the pubs were full, and many men and women spent what little extra money they had on getting riotously drunk. On these two evenings, as chucking out time arrived, crowds of revellers would wend their way home singing songs such as “Nellie Dean” and “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” beloved of East End Londoners.

            My grandfather was not a singer, but when he was moody or discouraged, he was a drinker. He had once sworn off the demon drink for two years, but it was a temporary interlude. For most of his life, like most East Enders, who had no other future except poverty, he liked his beer.

            My grandfather and grandmother with whom we lived – the people who were always “Gran’dad” and “Nan” to me – were my mother’s parents. My father’s parents were coalmine workers, up in Yorkshire. Although it was only half a day’s journey by car in today’s terms, most of the time they could not afford the train fare during the depression, let alone a car. So we hardly ever saw my father’s parents. 

            My maternal grandfather was a short, pot-bellied man with a broad nose and tremendously strong arms. One of his grandmothers, according to the family story, had been a Jewish girl – the family name was believed to be Simmons. This would not be surprising as there had always been a large Jewish minority in the East End of London, and some intermarriage was to be expected. My grandfather’s left wrist, which had been broken when he was a lad, had never set properly, and was crooked and gnarled. He strengthened it by means of a greasy leather strap. His dark hair was thinning and starting to turn grey. Sometimes, when he had had a sluice in the Wash House and was feeling good, he would break into a favourite ditty. I never heard it before or since, but I always remember it with a smile.

                            “Once upon a time                                                                                          

                            When the birds shit lime                                                                                                                       

                            And the monkeys chewed tobacco ……”

This was Arthur Hunt, or Dick the Butcher as he was known in the neighbourhood. My grandfather’s father was John Hunt, by profession a coal heaver, but grandfather was brought up in an orphanage. 

One never worries much about family antecedents when one is young. Subsequently those who might have been able to supply information have themselves passed on. I do know that both my grandfather and my grandmother were born in 1872, and were twenty-two years old when they married. They had met “at the orphanage”, so my grandmother also must have been brought up there. The marriage record shows that at the time of her marriage my grandmother’s father was a carpenter, (deceased). Whatever the explanation, they must both have had a difficult childhood.

            When he was young my grandfather was apprenticed to a butcher, learnt his trade well, and as a young man came to own a horse and cart and a stall in the local market. Alas, for all his blarney and expertise at butchery, my grandfather had one fatal flaw. Every time he made a profit he went into the nearest pub and passed it over the counter to the publican. My grandmother finished up running the stall in the market, while my mother and uncle, as children, played underneath. Meanwhile Dick the Butcher lorded it in the public bar.

            My grandfather lost his stall, and since he was unable to work for a boss due to a deep rooted dislike of taking orders, finished up pushing a barrow of meat around the streets to make a living.

            The daily routine, as I remember it, went something like this: at about half past three in the morning he would get up from bed, go into the Wash House and brew a saucepanful of strong tea which, for some reason known only to himself, he would call “Australian Tea”. He would share the tea with our cat, who was known as Mary Anne, then wash and shave and take the old, grinding, double decker tram to Smithfield Market. Here he would buy enough meat to last him the day. If the price was right and the weather not too warm, he might buy enough to last him longer. He would put the meat in a sack, hump it on his shoulder and bring it back by tram to our house. In the Wash House it would be cut up on the wooden block and placed in two cane hampers, which my grandfather always kept scrupulously scrubbed and clean. He would then walk across to the house of a plump, florid, middle aged lady who made a living hiring out the many hand-barrows she owned. If I remember rightly the charge was threepence for the morning and sixpence for a whole day. The hampers with the cut meat would be placed on the barrow, and my grandfather would push them around the streets until he had sold the lot.

            At one stage (I would have been about eleven or twelve) I used to push the barrow for my grandfather every Saturday morning, when there was no school. He used to introduce me to all his customers as his grandson. I felt out of place and shy, but I was very proud to be helping my grandfather in his work. He used to give me sixpence for my morning’s chores, which was a great deal of money for a small boy in those days.

What is Jim’s Book?

Jim loved writing. At nineteen his goal in life was to be a top notch journalist. His first step on the ladder was for a hairdressing magazine in Soho, London. Despite WW2 intervening, changing his career, and moving across the world to Australia, Jim continued to write stories, poetry and his diaries.

A lifetime later, he compiled his notes and recounted his life on typewritten pages, which he then bound and presented to his daughter Trish.