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.