Harry Sutton and his sister Rhoda in 1902
Harry Lyle Sutton was one of the earliest residents of the newly-built Corbett Estate in Hither Green. In 1973 he wrote a memoir for his children, which includes some fascinating details about life for a young boy growing up in Edwardian Lewisham. Here’s an extract.
“Just before the turn of the century my father bought 81 Arngask Road on the new Corbett estate in Hither Green. This was an area of Lewisham of solid London clay, and current opinion prophesied that the houses would all collapse after a few years. In fact they survived two World Wars, and are still defiantly resisting the march of time.
No. 81 was a four-bedroomed house, with dining and drawing rooms, kitchen and, of course, the inevitable Victorian scullery to house the shallow earthenware sink, the monstrous cast-iron gas cooker and the very essential coal heated copper for the boiling of clothes on washing day and of puddings at Christmas. The house was L-shaped, and my sister had the roomy bedroom at the rear over the kitchen and scullery. The bathroom and toilet were just off the head of the stairs, where one then mounted two further steps to the other bedrooms.
My parents had the front bedroom over the dining room, and I had the small single room alongside over the hallway. ‘Uncle’ Tarry had the rear bedroom over the drawing room, because it was then that he became a member of the Sutton household. He and his brother Arthur were orphans. Arthur Tarryer developed TB symptoms, very common in those days, and went off to the dry climate of Johannesburg, South Africa. ‘Uncle’ Tarry was, as already explained, well known to my parents and the Lyle family – the Tarry name for him derived from my infant inability to cope with the more formal Mr Tarryer – so my parents offered him a home at Arngask Road, and he remained with us until his death in 1932. Tarry was a complex character, gay and playful with my sister and me in our early years, reading comic verse to us, entering into our games, and later on introducing me to Meredith, Trollope, Dante and many others from his bookshelves. You saw this interest in children and some of his antics during your Dallinger Road childhood – the room door opening suddenly, and a walking stick surmounted by his hat preceding his entry into the room.
But he was also deeply religious in a bigoted way. He was Church of England, deeply attached to the beauties of the Book of Common Prayer. Since he was also well-read, this literary slant on his beliefs is understandable, if only because the Prayer Book is one off the gems of English literature. But I now comprehend that he was sin-ridden to a degree more associated with the ultra-puritanical sects of Nonconformity than with the social-duty Anglicans of the day. My Sunday memories of him are always the silk-hatted, frock-coated, shoe-spatted, prayer-book gloved figure setting off morning and evening to St Mildred’s Church, Burnt Ash, and later on to St Michael’s in Blackheath Park. My Saturday evening memories of him are much gayer, all of us in Arngask drawing room round my sister at the piano, singing with immense gusto song after song from the Scottish Students Song Book, but never ‘Clementine’. To Uncle Tarry, ‘Clementine’ was a slightly immoral song because its closing verse stated ‘But I kissed her little sister, and forgot my Clementine’. A strangely contradictory person, so kind and devoted to us in innumerable ways, yet prone to occasional unbending harshness.
While my father was in Hong Kong, Uncle Tarry took over ‘in loco parentis’, and when helping him one day to water the Arngask garden with the hose, I turned it momentarily on him. The damning feature in his eyes of this boyish accident was that my instant reaction was to laugh instead of to apologise, and he ‘sent me to Coventry’. My resentful obstinacy matched his buttoned silence for several weeks, until my mother’s obvious distress at the morgue-like atmosphere in the house broke my resistance. I apologised to him in a formal drawing-room confrontation and, the breach thus healed, harmony was completely restored and never again disrupted. Perhaps he learned something from this incident too because during your Dallinger Road childhood, when he was suffering from a mental breakdown, he sought me out for comfort and advice, and that was a little astonishing when you consider the age gap between us. He should, of course, have married. He did actually wish to marry Rhoda when she was 21, but she wisely refused. Her affection for him was of the kind which would have made such a union appear almost incestuous. Poor Uncle Tarry was torn between religion and biology, not the first man or woman to feel mentally smeared with guilt after dreams of sinful indulgence.
My sister, and then later myself, were warned by my father early in our school years that extended education at grammar school and subsequent levels depended upon our obtaining scholarships with their attendant grants. These scholarships, in somewhat limited numbers, relieved parents with slender means of school fees at some grammar and public schools, and also provided important ancillary benefits such as free text books and a money grant towards school uniforms. At that time, State education ceased at the age of 11, except for children whose parents wished them to have further free education up to the age of 14. Such children in London were drafted into what were termed LCC ‘Central’ schools. At grammar and public schools further scholarships up to the age of 18 were available, also in limited numbers, and there were so-called ‘Exhibitions’ to Oxford or Cambridge carrying monetary grants for degree aspirants. Rhoda obtained her scholarship entry into Lewisham Grammar School for Girls (later Lewisham Prendergast). From there she went on by further scholarship to obtain her Inter-Arts and finally the full BA at Kings College for Women, London University. She took a post as English and Classics Mistress at Colchester Grammar School for Girls, after discovering that she could not hope to obtain the similar job at any London school without an Honours degree. If you contrast this fact with what qualifications can secure posts in London schools today you will understand my lack of confidence in the prevailing standards at the moment. After her first year at Colchester, my parents agreed that she ought to return home to work for her Honours degree at Kings College. This she did, majoring in Anglo-Saxon and Latin, and thus became BA(Lond) Eng Hons. This higher qualification enabled her to obtain the post of English and Classics Mistress at St Olave’s School for Girls in the New Kent Road. Her application for a similar vacancy at the Mary Datchelar School was turned down because she was by religious persuasion Nonconformist instead of the more acceptable Anglican. It is strange now to recall the religious hierarchy of those Victorian and Edwardian eras. At its top, naturally, was the Church of England whose adherents were part of, or doffed their hats to, The Establishment. There was no social stigma in being a declared Atheist, because that usually meant that you were one of those rather odd intellectuals with very long beards who were such a novelty at parties. Roman Catholics were all right too, even though they had rather stupidly stuck to their guns in spite of Henry VIII, because they were obviously Establishment-minded, what with the Pope and all those gorgeous Cardinals. And the Jews had to be all right as well, because they had lots of Rothschilds who hobnobbed with royalty and were prominent at Ascot. And there was no getting away from the fact that Jesus, a little unfortunately, had been a Jew. But Nonconformity was entirely different! If you had to be that kind of Protestant, you might possibly get by if you went to Church in your own carriage, and kept at least three servants and a cook. There was no denying that John Wesley had been a somewhat misguided backslider from Anglicanism, whose hymns were in the Ancient & Modern and whose followers still used the Prayer Book. All other sects were, however, clearly lower middle-class; the Baptists with their terribly ostentatious adult immersion; the Congregationalists with their jolly-get-together Christianity not at all the done thing; and the other unmentionable assorted creeds who had the temerity to enquire earnestly whether you were ‘saved’ when it should have been perfectly obvious that you did not require it. All in all, unless you were Anglican, you were unquestionably not top drawer, and did not even qualify to launder its contents.
The St Olave’s girl school, like the boys’ St Olave’s in Bermondsey, had a high academic standard, and Rhoda enjoyed her work there. What could well have been a most promising career was terminated tragically by her sudden death in 1923 from influenza at the age of 34, an event from which my father never really recovered in spirit. On that fateful evening I was due to deliver a lecture at the Wesleyan Hall, and on leaving our flat at 22 The Avenue I called into number 20 to see her. She was sitting up in bed and chatted away quite cheerfully. One and a half hours later, as I was concluding my lecture, your Mother burst into the Hall with the news that Rhoda had just collapsed and died. Scholastically my sister was far ahead of me, in more than one sense. Being six years older, our educational years had never run parallel, but she had the better brain and the better will to use it to advantage. When she was back home on her English Honours stint I used to go up to her study on the top floor of number 20 to talk and perhaps to chew over with her some abstruse passage in Tacitus or Juvenal, both of us being keen Latinists. It was then that I understood to the full that I had a rather special sister. She lived just long enough to see Pen’s first two years. What a patiently wise and wonderful aunt she would have been to all of you! As a much younger brother I must have been a great plague to her. She and Cousin Winnie were close pals in those years, and as schoolgirls addicted to using cut-out fashion plates for toy doll dramas. They used to set them out on the flat top of a large trunk under the window of Rhoda’s bedroom when Winnie was staying with us. Seizing my evil moment of masculine scorn for such girlish pastimes, I would burst in upon them, and blow their set piece to the four walls of their hideaway. Winnie still remembers what a hateful little horror I was at the age of five or six.
Soon after we took up residence at 81 Arngask Road I started school at the LCC Kindergarten in Hazelbank Road. It was a corrugated iron erection built on the allotment plot between the end of Wellmeadow Road and Hafton Road. This was no ‘mornings only’ play group, like today, but full-time instruction in the three Rs and much else from9 to 12 and 2 to 4. I used to walk to school, unaccompanied like all the other juveniles, and sometimes varied the route along Torridon Road by turning down Sandhurst Road and then along Ardgowan, Broadfield or Wellmeadow roads. I was always very conscious of the grandeur of the triple-fronted Wellmeadow houses, each with their uniformed maid in the annexe section. I must often have passed number 159 on these daily treks, pondering the domestic mysteries of this wealthier way of life, and comparing the relative merits of the varied stone heads which were a feature of most of the Corbett front-door arches. I disapproved of the houses with a mere bunch of stone flowers, and only mildly tolerated the goddesses and an occasional beardless god. My favourites were the fully whiskered gods like our own at number 81, and when 159 Wellmeadow became our eventual home, I was secretly pleased that the household god was once again correctly benevolent.
Harry’s house at No 159 Wellmeadow Road
In the door of my little bedroom at number 81 my father cut two little doors in the upper panels as an aid to night ventilation. They were hinged, with little catches, so that I could open or close them myself. When I had been tucked into bed by my mother during those early years, my father would come up and sit beside me in the gas-lit room to tell me stories. These ranged from his own inventions featuring a very adventurous caterpillar with a surprising flow of oratory to the later stories of Haroun-al-raschid from the Arabian Nights. These in turn were succeeded by Kipling stories from the Jungle Books, thus instilling in me some of his admiration for Kipling. All these stories were related from memory, and when subsequently I devoured the Jungle Books for myself, I was surprised to find in what detail he had first introduced me to Mowgli, Kaa, Baloo and Rikki-tikki-tavi. Perhaps it was appropriate that in 1939 you should have stayed briefly so close to Kipling’s ‘Pook Hill’.
In these kindergarten days I was a reluctant eater, noticeably skinny and prone to every childish ailment. But I was also a bookworm, so my mother wisely permitted me to outrage all Victorian table manners
In 1900 scarlet fever was regarded medically as very serious and was a notifiable complaint. Its victims were rushed off to the isolation hospitals and the house was then fumigated throughout. I was transported to Brook Hospital in Shooters Hill Road, the nearer fever hospital in Hither Green (now Park Hospital) being full up. I was in the Brook for six weeks, and no visitors were permitted to fever patients. My recollections of this experience are very tenuous, so I presume I was very ill. My mother used to say that when I was brought home I was skin and bone, and totally without animation. It must certainly have been alarming to have found me bereft of speech. I do remember that the hospital meals always seemed to consist of a sloppy, greasy mince, and that at Christmas I only received, out of all the presents sent in for me, the scabbard section of a toy sword. Some years later, a scandal blew up about this hospital, and an investigation disclosed that the staff had been systematically purloining goods sent for their children by parents, and had been grossly neglectful in nursing care. It must have been all those milk puddings which saved me.
From my kindergarten school I went on to Plassey Road School, one of those huge Victorian buildings erected by the School Board for London, and subsequently taken over by the London County Council. I now went downhill from number 81 into St Fillans Road, then via Shorndean Street into Sangley Road to the school behind Rushey Green. By the age of ten I had reached what was termed the Ex-7th, the top class, whose master, Mr Regan, used to allow me to take the class in reading and spelling while he got on with correcting exercise books. It was a good school, and Mr Regan was typical of the efficiency of the staff. There were 60 boys in each of its classes, but I don’t think a single boy ever left Plassey Road School unable to read or write or do simple arithmetic. Of course the hours were longer then, from 9 to 12.15 in the morning and 2 to 4.15 in the afternoon, but for a not too robust child like me they proved no strain. After my scarlet fever experience, I suffered periodic bouts of earache. This is a pain more severe in my opinion than toothache, of which I also had plenty of experience. But my mother would not permit absence from school for mere aches, and I was equipped with a cap with two earflaps to tie under the chin, and so disguised I went to school with my ears also plugged with olive-oiled cotton wool. You can imagine what I endured from other boys in this outlandish headgear. For my toothache I attended the dentist, Mr Collett, in Hither Green Lane, a jolly bearded man whose modus operandi belied his jovial exterior. He had a fearsome drilling-machine, and operated it by a foot pedal as exuberantly as a one-legged cyclist tackling the ascent of Snowdon. To him I took my aching molars all by myself, because my mother also did not believe in indulging childish apprehensions by accompanying me. I sat in the torture chair uplifted by a cushion for better access, and watched the buoyant Mr Collett insert a sinister needle into the flexible drive of his machine. He would then grip my opened jaw firmly in his left hand, assure me encouragingly ‘This may hurt a bit’, pedal madly with his right foot, and plunge the whirring needle into my offending nerve. The top of my head then flew off, my guts dropped out, and the nerve died instantaneously. Mr Collett would then grin happily, and extract the moribund nerve from its cavity with a lighthearted but expert twist of a barbed probe. After these relatively trivial preliminaries, he would exchange the needle on his pedal exerciser for a grinding wheel, and then get down to the real nitty-gritty of sinking the necessary borehole in my tooth for its eventual stopping. At that period electricity and local anaesthetics had not arrived to complicate the dentist’s procedures, and his job merely required the physical strength and manual dexterity of the public executioner. For several years until we moved to Blackheath Mr Collett stopped or extracted my teeth with unfailing geniality. No wonder that in the early 1920s, being taken with violent toothache in a sleazy North London neighbourhood, and finding only a cheap dental parlour with unhygienic-looking hypodermics, I elected to have the tooth extracted without anaesthetic and never batted an eyelid. It cost me only 1/6d and by foregoing an injection I saved 1/- and probably blood poisoning into the bargain.
In reaching the Ex-7th at Plassey Road the time had arrived for me to sit for my scholarship exam, which would ensure if passed with high enough marks the entry to Colfe’s Grammar School, then considered academically superior to many other available schools, but less distinguished in sport. Colfe’s in 1906 had no playing fields of its own, and was dependent upon the doubtful facilities of Blackheath for games practice and matches. The appointed day for the examination arrived during a cold wet spell of weather which had given me a running nose and thick head. But my mother wrapped me up, kissed me, told me to do my best, and sent me off. How sensible she was, and how well she gauged the capacity of children! I cannot remember any detail of that examination, but I secured the required scholarship, and duly entered Form 4C at Colfe’s, halfway up its scholastic ladder at the outset.
Harry at Colfes School in 1907 (front row on the right)
So far I have reviewed the broad spectrum of family relationships and events of my earlier boyhood, so I ought now to sketch in greater detail the life around me as I saw it from Arngask Road and the from 20 The Avenue, Blackheath. If I can do so sufficiently well, you will realise more vividly what an entirely different world it was even from your own, let alone your children’s.
The Hither Green estate built by Mr Corbett was laid out mainly in long straight lines except where landscape irregularities dictated divergences from this pattern. The roadways were wide, bordered by asphalt paths with granite kerbs, and the garden fronts of the houses planted with lime trees. All the houses were terraced, usually in blocks of six, so that the end house of every block had a sideway entrance. Number 83 Arngask was one such end house, occupied by Cornish Mr and Mrs Roach and their eventual family of boys. Each road differed from another only in the size of its houses, the extent and nature of its appointments, and therefore in the social standing of its residents. The upper stretches of Brownhill and Wellmeadow Roads, with their triple-fronted, bay-windowed, servant-serviced, six bedroomed houses stood highest in the social order. But in these privileged roads there were less distinguished residences, such as the double-fronted five bedroom houses opposite 159 Wellmeadow. In Arngask Road houses were also categorised. Number 81 had two reception and four bedrooms, plus a kitchen and scullery. But the houses opposite were slightly smaller, with one less bedroom and only a kitchenette. Parallel roads diminished in status as house sizes became smaller and gardens shorter, while bay windows slipped down to ground floor level only or disappeared altogether as in Sangley Road. But they were all well built houses, each with its bathroom. Another status distinction employed by Mr Corbett appeared in the glazing of his front doors. At 81 Arngask we had elaborate leaded stained-glass upper panels, with exotic birds and flower motifs of cathedral magnificence. As you descended the order of precedence you reached in Killearn and Sangley roads front doors with two plain muranese panels, black metal knockers and letter boxes in place of our brass counterparts. But really the most desirable houses in Brownhill and Wellmeadow roads had their main entrance doors recessed in a wide porch, the door itself being glazed with one large bevelled pane with an austere diamond motif, and on each side of the door flanking glazed panels. All the Corbett front gardens terminated at the pavement in a low brick wall topped with stone slabs into which were set square section cast-iron railings with trefoil mountings and fleur-de-lys finials. The front gates were of matching cast-iron construction, but during the Second World War all this ironwork was impounded for scrap iron. 81 Arngask stood on a plot 22ft by 100ft, with an open fence garden at the rear, and cost my father when built £285 on a 999 year lease. The Wellmeadow house plot measured 50ft by 200ft and when built cost £475 on a similar lease. Both were terraced properties, but 159 had a garage exit at the bottom of its walled garden onto Downhill Road. House and street lighting was gas, at first the fan-shaped Bray burner flame. The dining and drawing rooms at number 81 had sophisticated adjustable chandeliers with three arms, capable of being raised or lowered on counterweights. The only hazard was that if one neglected to keep the hollow centre-pillar of the movable portion, into which the fixed feeder pipe from the ceiling descended, regularly filled with water, lethal quantities of gas were discharged unchecked into the room. The three Bray burners of this Victorian masterpiece of lighting ingenuity were enveloped by coloured glass globes of rosy tint, and produced a blushing illumination of dazzling proportion by 1900 standards. On each side of the chimney breast in these two rooms were single gas brackets for more modest lighting if desired. At dusk each day the lamplighter walked diagonally up or down every road to turn on and light up a similar Bray gas jet enclosed in the glazed lantern topping each lamp-post. He carried a long pole, and the lighting-up process was a highly dexterous performance, especially in windy weather. It involved inserting a ‘strike-anywhere’ match in the tip of his pole, turning on the gas tap underneath the base of the lantern, quickly igniting the match by a deft flick against the iron post, and slipping the burning match through a small hole in the lantern base. By then the lantern was usually half full of gas and there was a satisfying miniature explosion from every lamp-post as he criss-crossed down the road. I was never awake to see his return at dawn to turn off the gas taps. The road surfaces were a mixture of gravel and granite chunks, rolled hard and smooth by ‘Invicta’ steam-rollers. In dry windy weather they produced clouds of dust unless well-watered by the horse drawn water carts, and summer cycling along them was often an eye-watering puncture-producing exercise. About 7.30am every morning the hot-roll boy would herald his presence in the road with the mournful cry of ‘Hot ROLLS – any hot ROLLS?’, and then, after a deep breath ‘ALL hot!’ And in winter about 5pm the muffin man’s bell would be heard, and I would rush out sometimes with 2d as a special treat from my mother to buy some muffins or crumpets for tea, which the man would produce from the green-baize covered tray carried on his head. During the day all the tradespeople called, the milkman first in his chariot style vehicle with its large shining brass churn. From this he filled the oval pewter container inside which hung a half-pint pewter measure with which to ladle the required amounts into the household jugs. He repeated his call in the afternoon, and whatever the retailing of milk may have lacked in hygiene it certainly made up for in frequency. Mr Gosling, the grocer, and Mr Erridge, the butcher, arrived soon after breakfast for the day’s order, which would be made up and delivered later, by the grocer’s boy with a box tricycle, but by the butcher’s assistant on a fast trotting cabriolet-style vehicle much hated by elderly ladies for its dangerous speed. Cracknell the greengrocer called three times a week, carrying to the door a display basket set out with their seasonal produce. Cracknell had a large two-horse van, hung about at the tailboard with dangling baskets of potatoes and other earthy produce, leaving the van interior for the more delicate wares. Atfield the oilman called once a week, and if my mother faltered in her requirements, he would jog her memory with ‘Soap, soda, starch or matches?’ You could smell his van from far off because of the large drum of paraffin alongside an equally large container of vinegar, a characteristic mingling of odours I can still conjure up. The baker was also a morning caller each day, and once a week Carwardine the flour merchant arrived with baking materials. A host of itinerant vendors patrolled the streets; the coalman crying ‘Any coal today?’ the black-faced sweep with a long drawn-out ‘Sw-e-e-ep!’, the rag-and-bone man calling ‘Any old iron?’, and the watercress sellers announcing ‘Fresh cress!’ A variety of haberdashery, flower and knickknack purveyors knocked on the door, together with the inevitable clothespeg gypsies and beggars of all kinds. A houseowner who was known to be a ‘soft touch’ had a secret mark placed on the front-garden wall advertising the fact to the knowledgeable beggar, and I saw all these over the years. My mother could never resist a well-told tearjerker, and if reproved for her over-credulous attitude would retort ‘I would sooner be taken in by a fraud than turn away the needy!’ Postal deliveries were five every day except Sunday, at 7.30, 10.30, 2.30, 5.30 and 9pm. Postbox collections were similarly frequent, from 7.30am to the final 12 midnight. No housewife needed to visit the shops for daily necessities, and shopkeepers were her humble and obedient servants. Shopping expeditions were, therefore, special occasions, because they signified a visit to the linendraper’s, the tailor’s and outfitter’s, the ironmonger’s or the general furnisher’s. They were not to be undertaken lightly from number 81 in any case, because it involved a one and a half mile walk to Rushey Green, and even a horse-tram ride from there to some more distant emporium. In 1900 the customer received very deferential service, from 9am to 8 or 9pm. Shop assistants earned every penny of their small wage, but did not complain, because unemployment could mean total dependence upon charity. I recall very vividly the shuffling dejected columns of unemployed parading the dusty streets singing to a tune which I can still repeat ‘What will become of England, if things go on this way, and the British working man is starving day by day?’ If I was at home, I was sent out to drop some coins into the rattling collection boxes. The organgrinder was another regular feature of the daily scene, and while the Boer War was still in progress the current favourite ‘Goodbye, Dolly, I must leave you, though it breaks my heart to go!’ filled my boyish heart with melancholy. The more astute organgrinders had a special hymn tune repertoire for Sunday afternoons which invariably elicited a contribution from my mother. She, like her parents, was an adherent of the narrower versions of Nonconformity, but my father was a Wesleyan Methodist, like his grandfather Christien. I went with him to the Wesleyan Church in Hither Green Lane, while Rhoda had been caught up by the Baptists. I had tried out her chapel in Brownhill Road, and had been put off by their zealous enquiries into my salvation, about which I had no definite conclusions as a small boy, and refused to stand up and be counted. My mother and, of course, Uncle Tarry, were strict observers of the Sabbath, and it was a curiously diversified spiritual household, with my father and myself thoroughly Wesleyan, my mother and sister very Baptist, and Uncle Tarry inflexibly Church of England. Rather strangely my mother and Uncle Tarry shared a mutual distrust of the theatre and music-hall as hotbeds of possible moral contamination. But this did not prevent my father from taking Rhoda and myself to the Broadway Theatre at Deptford for our first pantomime, a momentous delight for me because to be so late out of bed was in any case an outstanding event. We went by horse-tram to New Cross, and then on foot to the theatre, where we took our seats in the stalls facing the enormous painted dropcloth depicting Peter the Great of Russia working in Deptford shipyard in John Evelyn’s day. At last the magical rise of the curtain and the unfolding of Jack and the Beanstalk. In my first blush of childhood innocence, I thought Jack a noble piece of manhood, and was slightly abashed during the first interval by Rhoda’s disclosure of his real sex. But there were the bags of ‘Dolly Mixture’ to alleviate my brief discomfiture, and the boisterous Harlequinade which always terminated the Pantomime to send me happily out into the dark streets for the journey home. The thrilling finale at Catford tram terminus was my father’s halt at the midnight coffee stall under its naphtha flares. Here we consumed mugs of steaming coffee to wash down slabs of indigestible currant cake to fortify us against the long tramp up Brownhill Road back to number 81. On that first occasion I finished the last half mile perched on my father’s shoulder, but deliriously content. There were several visits to the theatre in succeeding years with my father until he went off to Hong Kong. Then Uncle Tarry took over the enlargement of our horizons by taking us with my mother to the Promenade Concerts begun by Henry Wood at the Queen’s Hall in Portland Place. Uncle Tarry worked in the A&CG Dept of the GPO’s large offices near the Old Bailey, and would travel from there to pick us up at Charing Cross Station. We would then have tea somewhere as a prelude to the evening’s entertainment, a preliminary delight in itself, and one of the many unsophisticated pleasures for children which today would mean so little. There were then two competing chains of teashops, Lyons and the ABC. I preferred the Aerated Bread Company because I liked their fluffy rolls better than the Lyons variety. So at some convenient ABC we would be served by the uniformed waitress with the aerated rolls, very light in texture and very tasty with strawberry jam. Such teas always concluded for me with cornet-shaped cream pastries which, if tackled inexpertly with the fork, spat an initial gob of cream into one’s lap. Then away cheerfully to the Queen’s Hall by horse bus, where over the years I sampled the Wagner Monday night, the Mozart and Tchaikovsky Tuesdays, the Bach Wednesday, the light classics Thursdays, the strictly Beethoven Friday, and the something-of-everything popular Saturday evenings. It is amazing to remember that this young Henry Wood started so long ago a musical event that became a world-famous annual, and survived the destruction by Hitler of its birthplace. Another enjoyable outing provided for us by Uncle Tarry was an occasional visit to Maskelyne and Devant’s ‘Egyptian Hall’ of mystery and conjuring in Piccadilly.
A flyer for the Egyptian Hall entertainment venue in Piccadilly
On one such occasion the star feature in the programme was Mr Maskelyne’s successful challenge to a current spiritualistic vogue for producing ‘spirit’ manifestations in darkened rooms. He conjured from his side, in the full glare of stage lighting, the ghostly form of a woman which stood beside him, and then slowly disappeared before our rapt gaze. To my mother and Tarry such entertainments, including lesser band concerts and lantern slide lectures were quite acceptable and non-corrupting diversions, but they did relax their disapproval of the theatre in the case of Shakespeare for the odd visit to His Majesty’s. What they would have thought of teeny-bopper hysteria and pop festivals I cannot imagine. Juvenile behaviour of this nature would not have been tolerated by parents at any social level in the 1900s, and vandalism was a totally unknown phenomenon. Unbecoming conduct in school uniform even between school and home was, if reported, visited with prompt penalties from both teachers and parents. I never encountered any mentally ‘disturbed’ boys or girls resulting from this sensible inculcation of disciplined respect for other people’s comfort and for school authority, and one consequence of this Edwardian attitude was the absence of any teenage delinquency. Who were right, my parents and school mentors, or their present day counterparts? Sensitive children certainly received hurts sometimes, and I had my share of them, but I discount the theories of widespread mental scarring allegedly stemming from childhood disciplines. There were no ‘teenagers’ or ‘weeny-boppers’ in my youth because parents just had boys and girls who grew up to be young men and women. These detestable words have been coined by an adult generation in this latter part of this century that completely fails to understand the extraordinary resilience and capacity of children if sensibly employed.
While at Plassey Road School, I had a companion to and fro in Stanley Moore, only child of Mr & Mrs Moore at 75 Arngask. His mother was dumpy and rather prim, his father moustachioed, important in bearing, and a little contemptuous, I grew to suspect, of his wife and son. Mr Moore worked for a London publishing house, and caught the 8.25 train every morning from Hither Green, returning home at night about 6.30. He had a heavy gold albert watch-chain, and was addicted to white waistcoats in the summertime, with a rose in his jacket buttonhole. He was an ardent rose-grower, and poor Stanley’s recreative facilities in the back garden were limited to patrolling the paths round rose beds. Mr Moore kept his rosebud fresh throughout the day by means of a tubular water container clipped behind the lapel of his jacket at the buttonhole. Stanley was a little slower in progress at school than I was, with the result that I soon outstripped him. Mrs Moore pleaded with my mother for a little coaching by me of her beloved Stanley in reading, spelling and arithmetic. She and her husband would sit and listen attentively while I wrestled with Stanley’s shortcomings in the three Rs. I was very willing to undertake this task because Mr Moore had in his drawing room a firmly locked bookcase, full of beautifully bound volumes, and in particular, along the whole of the bottom shelf, the bluey-green Strand Magazine Annuals covering the exciting years of Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories. I coveted access to this treasury, having exhausted the storehouses of my father’s and Tarry’s bookcases, and my co-operation paid off. To Mrs Moore’s and Stanley’s amazement Mr Moore one evening offered me permission to take away one at a time whatever book I wanted. Since his bookcase had reputedly been as inviolable as the Bank of England vaults, my delight was unbounded. I worked my way steadily through its contents, and Mrs Moore, as a quite unversed librarian, would take back, and re-issue books to me in a state of suspended awe and disbelief.
Number 81 was two-thirds of the way up the hill, along the ridge of which ran Torridon Road. From our backgarden there was a clear view of the Crystal Palace with its twin towers on Sydenham Hill, and on fireworks nights we could watch the major items of the displays. I could call across the intervening gardens of numbers 79 and 77 to Stanley in his garden, but my mother disapproved of these, on my part, stentorian exchanges as calculated to merit the charge of ‘public nuisance’. Accordingly I conceived the idea of tunnelling beneath the gardens of 79 and 77 simultaneously from our respective ends, to meet up in the centre in true Brunel tradition. I had excavated at my end an exploratory shaft of my own height one evening, and then gone to bed, when Rhoda went out into the dusk to take the air and fell in. The project was nipped in the bud as rapidly as the first attempt at a Channel Tunnel, and Stanley and I had to revert to vocal communication at a muted level if the strictly rationed personal visiting had been exhausted. Playing in the streets was very much frowned upon, but a certain amount of top spinning along the pavements, or marbles along the gutters was possible between home and school. My father did buy me a hoop one year, which at first was taller than I was. A boy’s hoop was made of stout metal rodding, and I learned to propel and steer it with the aid of a ‘skid’, a metal hook with a wooden handle.
The Manners family living down the road at number 15 were a jolly crowd, and I loved going there occasionally to tea. Mr Manners had a gammy leg and a cheerful limp. His wife was boisterous and friendly, and their eldest child, Lily, was a tomboy, a little my elder, and great fun. There were two other girls and a boy, but Lily was my favourite, and together we must have proved, I think, a harum-scarum combination. My father liked the Manners too, and when the children came to us for a Saturday teatime return visit, we would gather round him for a story afterwards in an attentive circle. He was one of those personalities to whom children gravitated naturally, and the secret of his hold upon them was a total absence of condescension and age barrier, coupled with genuine delight in their company. I haven’t inherited this quality, and in my experience it is unfortunately a rather rare gift.
Opposite the Manners were the Slates at number 14, with an only child Elsie, a pretty but insipid girl. It was through black-haired Mrs Slate – Mr Slate’s hair also conformed in colour to his name – that Mrs Smithson first entered the lives of our family. She was recommended by Mrs Slate as a very reliable ‘Daily’, and my mother tried her out. From that time onwards she became increasingly involved with us for almost half a century, and became one of the most familiar features of our background. Pen could not encompass with her infant tongue the title of ‘Mrs Smithson’, and from 1922 this family retainer became ‘Misser-Misson’. A great deal more of this faithful and devoted character later.
In St Fillan’s Road at the bottom of Arngask lived Mr Wilmot, an old gentleman who was generously white-whiskered and benevolently overpowering. He knew Grandpa Lyle, and upon meeting they would salute each other with the enthusiastic greeting ‘Hallelujah, brother!’ When this occurred in the open street during one of my walks with Grandpa Lyle, I would studiously study my footwear to hide my embarrassment. Old Mr Wilmot had a grandson John who eventually married Elsie Slate, and went on to high office in the Labour movement, eventually becoming one of the early life peers as Lord Wilmot. Mrs Slate used to worry sombrely over the way young John Wilmot whisked her daughter around the stormy political scene. Perhaps the accolade of the final outcome consoled her, in fact she survived to witness Elsie’s elevation to Lady Wilmot.
The Roaches at number 83 next door to us were Penzance born, and soon after they had taken up residence as neighbours their first son, Clarence, was born. Mr Roach was a traveller for Cook’s of St Pauls Churchyard, dealers in textiles, and each morning the firm’s coachman-driven brougham used to draw up outside number 83 to take Mr Roach on his daily round. This impressive vehicle containing the firm’s samples looked like a small but very genteel Black Maria, because it had only slot ventilators in the side, and Mr Roach went aboard by a door at the rear end with an opaque window in it. This disappearing act on his part aroused great curiosity in me as to what Mr Roach got up to between customer calls, so totally immured within his immaculate mobile morgue. Clarence grew up into a handsome blond infant whose curls were always carefully tended by his mother, and he always referred to himself as ‘Clahn’. He conceived a strong liking for me, and as soon as I appeared in the garden he would run to the fence and announce ‘Clahn wants you!’ He dogged my footsteps whenever possible in his pre-school years, and spent more time on our premises than in his own, especially during my holidays or at weekends. Many years later he was presented with a brother Stanley, but Clarence had assigned to me the role of elder brother, and showed no interest in the new baby. After we moved away from Hither Green, Clarence still kept in touch right up to his sudden accidental death in 1920.
I must say more about the Arngask days in terms of the family. I used often to spend Plassey Road school holidays with my Lyle grandparents at Plumstead. This was a more considerable journey in those days, especially for a small boy. There was the walk to the horse tram at Catford, and by it to Greenwich Station. The tram was open-topped, and drawn by two horses on its slow progression via Ladywell to Lewisham Obelisk, with halts at the periodical loops in the single track to permit a passing tram heading in the opposite direction. At the junction of Lewisham Road and Lewisham Hill a spare horse stood waiting to be coupled for the coming ascent. Then followed the three-horsed thrilling dash up the hill, all too brief for me with its chariot-like reminder of the illustration in my copy of ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’. At Greenwich I entrained to Woolwich Arsenal Station, at which Grandpa would be awaiting my arrival and then walk with me to Maxey Road. At first I slept in my grandparents’ bedroom on a feather bed, but later on was provided with a made-up bed in the front sitting room, always lighted to bed by an oil lamp with a transparent oilchamber made out of horn instead of glass. There was no gas in the house, only oil lamps and candles for lighting. One of the bedrooms, together with a rear downstairs room converted into a kitchen, were let to a Mr & Mrs Sneezum; unbelievable names tended to crop up in my childhood. He was a very stout man over six feet in height, but he moved with fairy tread. His wife was abrupt and uncertain in temper, with a perpetual aura of grievance like an invisible halo hovering round her tightly screwed hair. I was wary and circumspect if I encountered her, but Mr Sneezum used to give me a friendly pat on the head on meeting. Grandma’s kitchen was cosy and precious to me, with its coal fire range producing home-made bread and cakes for my especial delight. There was also in the cool of the scullery a brown earthenware gallon jar of real brewed ginger-beer from Mackintosh’s of Plumstead for my consumption. I never saw Grandma Lyle around the house up to her very last years without her lace cap skewered to her silvery hair. When she removed it for her outdoor bonnet she did so in the privacy of her bedroom. She dressed always in black, relieved by a lacy frill at the neck, or a lacy jabot, and in winter she would occasionally appear in a black satin, or a white cashmere, shawl round her shoulders. The Maxey Road kitchen had a Welsh dresser by the passage door, and under the window onto the garden a black horsehair sofa with a sausage bolster. The bristly edges of this sofa were rather chafing to juvenile legs, but under its long cushion seat there was always a store of paper picture books for my entertainment. Grandpa Lyle loved taking me out, and every breakfast-time he would enquire of me, ‘What shall we do today? Is it to be Woolwich Ferry, or Bostall Woods, or Plumstead Common?’ The Ferry was my prime favourite, the crossings alternated between one journey on deck to watch the river traffic, and the other below deck at the windows of the engine room. There I could feast my eyes on the massive pistons operating the twin paddles, with the uniformed engineers controlling these giants by the clanging telegraph dial from the captain on the bridge. How patient Grandpa Lyle was with my boyish demands! No doubt he remembered that, when I was too young even for any recall of the incident, he had accidentally crushed the top of my finger as I held a peg for him to strike with his mallet. The spatulate middle finger of my right hand that I carry as a memento of him must often have caused him a pang of acute blame, but it certainly created in me no childish aversion to him. The expeditions to Bostall Woods by tram were also a joy. They were country woods then, reached by a field path, in which my favourite game with Grandpa was a fencing match with two walking sticks taken along for this very purpose. Wednesday evening was fish and chip supper night, brought in by Grandpa from the local fish shop wrapped in the customary newspaper. Friday evening was very special because Aunt Kitty would call for me on her way down to Woolwich Square to visit the naphtha-lit market stalls, and then along Powis and Hare Streets thronged with shoppers. I proudly helped to carry her purchases, and always returned with a bag of sweets for myself. Dear Aunt Kitty! She never forgot my passion for ‘Happy Families’ at Christmas, and unfailingly produced her pack of the cards. During the week at Maxey Road I would on a specified day tramp off to spend it with her at 47 Bramblebury Road which ran up a steep hill to Plumstead Common. Under the cushion of her wicker armchair I would find a store of ‘Home Chats’ accumulated for me to catch up on the ‘Jungle Jinks’ feature for children. When I paid a Sunday morning visit to Bramblebury Road, Uncle Robert would take me after lunch for the country walk across the fields beyond Plumstead Common to the village of Wickham at which he was the Superintendent of the Sunday School in its chapel. Here I would listen to him expound the Gospel along with the other children, and then he and I would take tea with one of his Wickham friends, afterwards returning to the Chapel for the evening service which Uncle Robert sometimes took. I preferred his version of religious observance to that of my grandparents’ conventicle in Pattison Road where salvation at any cost was the order of the day, and embarrassing enquiries from perfect strangers as to whether I had ‘found Jesus’ perplexed my child mind, because I could not understand how He could possibly have been mislaid by such devoted adherents. I put it down, among so many other things, to strictly adult but interesting aberrations, and the peculiar insistence by grown-ups upon purely minor matters. But all these occasions were simple pleasures that I sometimes feel are denied to children today, because this basic element of simplicity is missing from most of their entertainment.
Christmas was the prime event of the calendar because – and this was the important factor – the whole family assembled at 81 Arngask. Grandpa and Grandma Lyle would arrive a day or two in advance, but on Christmas morning Uncle Robert, Aunt Kitty and Winnie would arrive rapturously, to be followed a little later by Uncle Ed and Aunt Emily and cousins Dorothy and Sidney after their much longer journey from Leytonstone. Christmas presents were exchanged and admired, with the visitors distributed between dining and drawing rooms, and then the women eventually retreating to the kitchen and scullery on culinary pursuits. About 1.30 the Christmas dinner would be served. There was always the large turkey and a ham, with my mother anxiously and needlessly speculating as to whether these succulencies were ‘Done’ until the carving dispelled all doubt. I was suitable important as the dispenser of drinks, totally non-alcoholic naturally, and after this generously liberal first course, of which I was usually too excited to eat as much as the others, there would follow the two Xmas puddings and the outsize dish of mince pies, to be taken with or without custard or cream. The adults always seemed to prefer these delicacies neat, but the younger members always opted for custard coverings. I now find that I have joined the adult preference in this respect. We children were accommodated at side tables, because the ten adults filled the dining table capacity. The meal always concluded with the large dish of assorted nuts and raisins circulating round the room, accompanied by two pairs of nutcrackers. About 2.30 the ladies would clear the tables and retire to the kitchen and scullery to wash up, and then to congregate in the drawing room for feminine gossip. We males grouped round the dining room fire, with our cups of tea or coffee, and Uncle Tarry and Uncle Edwin, the only smokers, with their cigars. Then battle would commence, usually provoked by Uncle Robert. I now know how appropriately I am named after him, and this regular after-dinner debate remains my most vivid memory of early Christmases. I sat silent and enthralled as wordy argument raged back and forth, Uncle Robert articulate, challenging and dominant, Uncle Ed contributing deftly humourous comments, my father intervening gently when Uncle Tarry exploded in prim outrage, and Grandpa Lyle more often than not reducing them all to silence at the end with an analysis of man’s capacity for illogicality, but belief in his ultimate ability to be saved from his own follies. Uncle Robert could however always be stopped dead in his tracks by a quick deflationary interjection, and would burst into appreciative laughter at any such salutary brake upon overbearing characters such as himself and later, myself. We have lost so much today by sitting around and letting others do the talking on radio and TV instead of employing our own minds in conversation that rises above the chit-chat level. The ladies would return to find us still grouped in the firelight, and light the gas to re-set the tables for tea, another extensive meal with copious draughts of tea, especially by my father and Uncle Ed, to assist the consumption of bread and butter with homemade jams, stewed fruits and custard, blancmange and jellies, pastries and fancy biscuits, and finally, a large slice from the white and almond iced fruit cake, now properly matured as the Christmas puddings had been after their November preparation. Once again the debris would be removed by the ladies, and upon their return from their kitchen work, the evening’s fun would begin with everyone assembled in a deliciously packed huddle after the centre leaf of the dining table had been removed so that it could be pushed into the bay window. The boxes of crackers, then called bon-bons, appeared and were pulled with squeals from the women-folk, the mottos read, the knick-knacks criticised or admired and the caps donned. This was always followed by the vigorous game of ‘Trencher’ to shake down the two enormous meals in which we had indulged. This game involved grouping in a circle, numbering the company from 1 upwards, and spinning a plate in the carpeted centre whilst calling out one of the numbers. The person so called had to dart forward and retrieve the plate before it stopped spinning, or pay a forfeit for failing. When my number was first called, my victim was always Grandpa Lyle because, as I now realise was intentional, he would always fail miserably to catch the plate in action, and so, to my delight, be compelled to carry out his forfeit. This exhausting preliminary gambit of the evening would then be succeeded by my clamorous insistence on ‘Happy Families’, and Aunt Kitty’s production of the pack of cards. Then followed a game of ‘Snap’, also with her cards, and in later years the newly invented card-game ‘Pit’, which proved to be a forerunner of similar games with business acumen overtones, culminating in the famous ‘Monopoly’. But as these preoccupations tended to exclude some of the company, there would ensue a re-grouping of the whole family in the drawing room, for the total involvement of everyone in ‘The Parson’s Cat’. During the alphabetical progress from A to Z of this versatile feline, I would be roasting chestnuts on a shovel over the open fire to maintain the stamina of the company. Our piano was in the drawing room, with its open-work fretted front of walnut backed by yellow silk, and its top lined with family portraits in true Victorian style. The curlicue sconces of chased brass, hideously difficult to clean, contained fluted yellow candles which were now lit so that Rhoda could take up her role as accompanist at the keyboard. Aunt Kitty always led off with ‘The Kerry Dances’, which she sang in a strong and not very musical voice, but to me she was Dame Clara Butt and Madame Melba rolled into one. I myself would pipe out ‘Riding down to Bangor’ (I don’t know how that licentious ballad escaped Uncle Tarry’s ban), my father contributed ‘Polly-Wolly-Doodle’ for general chorus purposes, and Uncle Tarry in his tenor voice gave literary tone to the musical offerings with ‘Drink to me only’. But, of course, we always concluded with a generous number of carols, every voice raised in tribute to the Day. I do not recall actually going to bed on Christmas and Boxing Day nights, from which I conclude that my mother usually tucked me up blissfully unconscious after so ecstatic jollifications. All this would be derided today by many as boring and rustic to a Thomas Hardy degree, yet it was enormously rewarding in reality because it was participatory and self-engendered, not laid on ready-made by television or radio. Looking back upon my family and its periodical gatherings, I see that we were articulate and wide-ranging in conversation, yet none of us apart from Rhoda had advanced educational backgrounds. But all my elders had read extensively, had talked endlessly, and had looked critically at the world around them. My father and Uncle Tarry were omnivorous readers, albeit with widely differing preferences and judgements. Uncle Ed and Uncle Robert also loved books, Uncle Ed in the additional sense of binding his favourites very skilfully for an amateur, with gold leaf tooling on their calf leather spines. Grandpa Lyle knew the Bible by heart, and could expound upon it fluently when appropriate, but I never once heard him intrude his beliefs upon anyone. He took people as they were, for better or worse, treating them all with gentleness and understanding, and living out his Christianity in his personality. Lest you should suppose this to be a mere grandson bias for a beloved grandparent, let me jump ahead briefly to 1907 when I was in Form 4B at my grammar school. One of our Housemasters was also the Modern Languages master, Mr Rappoport MA (Camb). He was a frighteningly explosive and irritably strict disciplinarian, but he was also a very good teacher, and I made good progress in French as my preference against German. I was a malapert scholar and a little venturesome sometimes with Mr Rappoport by reason of my cocky proficiency, tempting a wrath that normally invited instant departure to the Headmaster’s study for six of the best. Early on in one of our French periods of 45 minutes, I let fall some facetious interjection of brassy audibility, and a deathly hush supervened. To the whole form, frozen into statues that awaited the anticipated thunderbolt and my extermination, the silence seemed unending. Rappo fixed me with his ice-blue eyes, and then said slowly, ‘Your grandfather would be ashamed of you, Sutton, if he had heard that!’ I stared back at him, completely dumbfounded. Rappo then proceeded to tell me and my form mates how he had listened to Grandfather Lyle address a meeting the previous week; how he had stayed behind afterwards to talk to him; that he had discovered by chance his relationship to me; what a remarkable old gentleman he was, and how much he had enjoyed his encounter with a personality so understanding. The whole form sat holding its breath as the story unfolded, praying fervently that this extraordinary intrusion of my grandfather into our French lesson would continue long enough to postpone discovery of horrid gaps in their acquaintance with ‘Le Roi des Montagnes’.
They were indeed saved by the bell from Great Hall, but as we filed out to History with Mr Bennett in his form room, Rappo stopped me at his desk. ‘I suggest, Sutton, that you try to be a credit to your grandfather.’ he said in an unbelievably gentle tone, and in those blue eyes that were so feared by his pupils I saw a kindly gleam. I hope that I had the grace to apologise, but I was so abashed at the time that I don’t remember what I said apart from ‘Yes, sir.’
One of the drawbacks to terraced 81 Arngask was the long trek from the front door down the passage to the kitchen and through that to the scullery door for access to the garden, because this was the necessary route for dustmen and coalmen. They were not then dignified as ‘Refuse Disposal Operatives’ and ‘Fuel Distributors’. The dustmen wore a leather skullcap from which depended at the rear a wide flap like a badger’s tail. Some coalmen also sported this protective headgear: all were equally grimy. The horse-drawn dustcart was an open-top tumbrel style vehicle, and the dustman mounted its side by a short ladder to empty the heavy bins. They earned about fifteen shillings a week, and my mother always gave them a Christmas box, because they never complained. It would have been unthinkable in those days to expect a householder to carry his rubbish bin out to the pavement, or for collections to be fewer than once a week. The coalman who delivered our sacks of Newcastle nuts at No 81 did not complain either about the long walk with his heavy burdens from his cart to our coalbunker outside the scullery window. Such service was regarded as every customer’s right, and as part of the price he was paying either in rates or for goods. At Wellmeadow Road there was no such problem, because the coal went down the shute outside the front door, and the route to the dustbin was via the tradesman’s door in the servant annexe. (These niceties of distinction may not have obvious later at 159 as the former servant’s kitchen had become our breakfast room, and her scullery our kitchen).
In the longish narrow back-garden at No 81 I played sometimes with Stanley Moore at somewhat abortive cricket on the lawn, an inconclusive pastime because he never succeeded in striking the ball, and when I occasionally contrived to contact one of his less wildly misdirected underarms, the ball usually landed anywhere but in our own garden, and his favourite game was astride my back, guiding me on my hands and knees by reins held in my teeth. In retrospect, I see that my early boyhood could have been lonely years with so much older a sister, but in fact it never proved to be so. My parents ensured that I was never bored, and therefore not lonely. Loneliness derives from the lack or breakdown of communication, and/or the absence of inner resources. In the early 1900s boredom was almost exclusively a disease of wealth. The ordinary family was much too busy to become bored. Our present affluent society seems unable to comprehend that more money for much less work does not automatically bring contentment, simply because money plus leisure minus the know-how to employ them equals boredom or even worse. Even to state so elementary an equation is a platitude, yet 200 years after the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of William Blake people cannot get the answer right.
Going to school in Plassey road meant four daily walks each of one and a quarter miles, because I always came home for the mid-day meal. It was much farther when I went to Colfe’s, involving four trips of three miles each, and the lunch break from 12.30 to 2pm meant covering the mid-day six miles at high speed to leave time for eating. This problem disappeared when I acquired a cycle in 1907. I have mentioned the large Christmas meals, but eating in general was a more frequent and regular exercise in those 1900 days, not because appetites were gross in the Pickwickian sense, but rather by habit and tradition. Out of all my family I can only remember two with large waistlines, Great-aunt Maggie and Cousin Mabel. The rest of them were all slim and neat of figure in spite of four large meals every day. My early breakfasts always saw Quaker Oats in winter to begin with, and Shredded Wheat or Force in summer, both of which then came from Canada. After these cereals followed bacon and egg, and then bread and butter with my mother’s marmalade, in the making of which I always assisted by slicing the peel. Tea was my beverage, and my father’s, but Uncle Tarry always had ‘Camp’ coffee, made from a revolting essence of coffee and chicory out of a bottle with a label on which a Highland soldier sported a Boer War uniform. My mid-day meal always featured some form of meat dish, followed by a fruit or mincemeat pie, or fresh fruit in summer. Tea and supper were for me the most enjoyable meals. Teatime meant bread and butter with homemade jam, especially my beloved marrow variety which I had also assisted in manufacturing, and occasionally there would be muffins and crumpets oozing with butter. For Uncle Tarry there was always without fail some form of green stuff, watercress, lettuce, mustard and cress or celery. He believed firmly in an alleged ‘iron’ content in these vegetables, a theory which rather baffled me in the context of my little iron bedstead. Teatime concluded with my mother’s cakes, scones and pastries of various kinds. Seed cake was my father’s favourite, and he would artfully dip his slice into his tea for the express purpose of evoking my mother’s protest against such vulgarian behaviour in front of the children. And so the supper! Ah! Those wonderful suppers, when Uncle Tarry would perhaps bring home a crab or a lobster, or a few dozen oysters, all very cheap then. I still had up to a few years ago my mother’s oyster knife for prising open these molluscs. Sea-food apart, it was cheese and onions, spring or pickled, and supper always ended with milk-pudding, rice or tapioca, macaroni, sago or semolina. All these were made from fresh milk, plus the staple ingredient, and macaroni was my favourite because of its long farinaceous drainpipes. It was only available then in the raw state in those long lengths, very useful to small boys as blowpipes, but even when cooked, capable during unsupervised moments of very satisfying sucking and blowing experiments. With the supper meal we all had cocoa, except Uncle Tarry, and this beverage was made from ship’s cocoa, shredded from the thick hard block in the side of which could be seen the creamy white specks of cocoa butter that are present in the true cocoa product. The drink resulting from the emasculated version now sold as cocoa bears no resemblance to the rich highly nutritional drink that I had as a boy. Uncle Tarry at this one meal defected from temperance for mysterious health reasons, and consumed a glass of Fremlin’s ale. In so doing he often made genteelly hushed reference to his ‘bowels’, the burden of which appeared to my child mind to claim that they were not ‘regular’. This always drew an irritated glance from my father, but merely mystified me. I had been reared in those early years on a strictly arithmetical code as to the calls of nature, and nothing could be simpler than No 1 and No 2, with perhaps an occasional uncodified dose of castor oil duly accepted under the maternal mandate that it was ‘good’ for me. But I was well aware on the unimpeachable authority of the Old Testament that biblical bowels had a quite ‘regular’ habit of yearning over someone, and that there was no scriptural basis for Mr Fremlin or his ale for participating in this compassionate gesture.
My schoolboy pocket money was strictly rationed, and rarely exceeded threepence a week, but one farthing purchased an assorted variety of sweets, such as an ounce of american gums and the suitably named farthing-stick, both gummy confections that were long-lasting and popular. A penny bought a two-ounce bar of top quality chocolate, but it also obtained forty aniseed balls or masses of liquorice braid and stick which if sucked slowly dyed one’s mouth and teeth completely black and proved a certain giveaway if acquired illicitly. Mr Kerlogue at the school tuck-shop in Sangley Road stocked two items never seen now, tiger-nuts and locusts. The latter was a dried tropical bean with large granite-hard seeds and dung-like odour – but the dark greeny-yellow flesh had a sweet unusual flavour, and I would have quite cheerfully faced a diet of locusts and wild honey with John the Baptist if this was his wilderness fare.
These were my knickerbockers years with straps below the knees over black ribbed woollen stockings terminating inside boots. All males wore boots, laced or buttoned, on most everyday occasions. Shoes, if worn, needed to be tricked out with spats. The seaside and sporting scene demanded the rubber plimsoll, and for the river there were white canvas shoes to go with the flannels and blazer. I was usually fitted out with clothes by my mother at Mr Seddon’s shop at Lewisham Obelisk, and she would then seize the opportunity to visit Mr Chiesman’s large shop by the Clock Tower. This latter enterprising retailer had two sons who were contemporaries of mine at Colfe’s and went on to enlarge the business as a departmental store. The younger of the two brothers had a daughter who married Colin Cowdrey, the England cricketer. It was said of the founding Mr Chiesman that he only paid his women assistants seventeen shillings a week, and at that time they worked a ten hour day. He was certainly very successful with selling techniques and advertising ideas, and early on in his shop’s history had a ‘Chiesman’s Cave’ at Christmas with a Santa Claus dispensing presents. My first visit to this ‘Cave’ at the age of nine would have been a disaster but for my mother’s intervention. Misled by my lack of inches the wretched Santa presented me with a parcel for my 3d which, when opened outside, disclosed to my affronted gaze, a box of bricks. My mother led me firmly back into the ‘Cave’, explained to the white-whiskered genie the full enormity of his error, and my box of bricks was exchanged for a book of adventure stories entitled ‘On Field and Flood’, with a picture on the cover of a Boer war battlefield, with one of our brave British Tommys in his khaki helmet and bandolier cartridge belt. The ingenious Frank Chiesman thought up another advertising opportunity for Boat-Race Day. This University contest was a much more notable event than it is today. Every schoolboy and many schoolgirls were fiercely partisan, and sported one or other of the rival colours. I was in no doubt as to my choice by then, because my reading had led me to regard Oxford as the ultimate Olympian height of learning, to which I might perhaps aspire, but as it proved, never alas achieved. Mr Chiesman, who was on the Lewisham Council, obtained permission to erect across the façade of the Town Hall at Catford a long canvas representation of the boat-race course, with two slots in it along which light and dark blue model boats could be moved. An enormous crowd used to gather at Catford on the Saturday to watch a simulacrum of the rival crews’ progress towards the winning post. Mr Chiesman had staff posted along the riverside at various points to telephone the situation as last seen by them to the Town Hall. The operators of the two dummy boats were then able as succeeding messages came through to correct their intervening extravagances by which the crowd’s excitement was maintained, when first one and then the other crew would achieve superhuman feats of acceleration. We were sometimes enlivened by the hilarious spectacle of Oxford or Cambridge rowing backwards in a chivalrous effort to avoid winning, but it all came right in the end, with a large board held up on the Town Hall balcony showing the number of lengths by which the victorious crew had won.
Another topic upon which I held very definite views was politics. There were only two parties, Conservative and Liberal. It is amusing to recall that the traditional Conservative colour was then red and the Liberal blue. My father was a Liberal, and strange to say, so was Uncle Tarry, despite his Anglican upbringing. He always brought home in the evening the ‘Westminster Gazette’, a Liberal evening paper of great journalistic standing whose cartoonist was the then famous F C Gould. I used to study its articles with much interest, and when in 1906 the Liberal Government went to the country on the issue of the controversial Budget of its Chancellor, Lloyd George, I made a poster in large blue capitals ‘Vote for the Budget’ for display in the front window. Asquith and the Chancellor won the election, and some years later Lloyd George brought in the first Old Age Pensions of five shillings a week.
Among the occasional visitors to No 81 in those years were Uncle Tarry’s Aunt Sarah Oates, his friend Alfred Hogwood, and my father’s friend Mr Thorpe, with his wife and their son Henry. Miss Sarah Oates was red-faced, blunt and highly reminiscent. She was the workrooms manageress of a Peckham clothing factory, and kept me absorbed by her stories of the workgirls whom she superintended and their infinite variety of misdeeds. Alfred Hogwood was a delicate wraith of a man with a quietly humourous temperament. His brother, Haley, had carried on the family chemist business in Deptford, but Alfred was an architect, and I once visited his office which overlooked the Thames with Uncle Tarry. It was so Dickensian with its dusty litter of bygones that he himself, I felt, could have been a re-creation of the self-effacing Tom Pinch in Mr Pecksniff’s architect’s office. I only once saw another room so atmospherically Dickens in period, and that was a city solicitor’s office, lined with grimy deed boxes bearing almost illegible names of clients, and in the corner the metal press in which the clerk still made copies of his employer’s handwritten letters, from an original I could easily believe the solicitor in his stiffly starched white collar and morning coat had written with a quill pen.
Mr Thorpe had met my father at a language class for Spanish, and their acquaintanceship ripened into a family friendship, and the interchange of visits between their home in Eastdown Park in Lewisham and our own. My father had already learned to speak and read Welsh before I was born, and had taken up Spanish because of his interest in Esperanto and their interconnection. When I was very small I remember him singing Welsh and Spanish songs to me, and when I was older I sometimes accompanied him to the Welsh chapel at Loampit Hill which he patronised at intervals to keep himself in practice. He and Mr Thorpe used to natter away to each other in Spanish, Mr Thorpe always very grave and Abraham-Lincolnish in appearance. He worked for a paint firm on the Isle of Dogs, and he hardly ever smiled, so perhaps the firm only made black paint. Mrs Thorpe never seemed to smile either, and I fancy that they were convinced that Judgement Day was just around the corner and so there was no call for levity.
These first years of the 20th century were not troubled by the motor car. It was still very much the rich man’s toy until the latter half of the first decade when the early motor buses made their appearance to supplement the electric trams which were also displacing horse-drawn transport in many areas. Even the telephone and typewriter were comparative newfangled innovations, and the cheap efficient postal service met all needs with letters and telegrams. Travel was therefore by horse-drawn conveyance or train, aside from the puncture-prone pedal cycle on flinty roads. You might think that going on holiday was for this reason more of a complication then, yet in fact it was in some respects less burdensome, particularly as to luggage. My first introduction to the delights of Eastbourne in 1902 illustrates this point. Our large round-topped wicker frame trunk covered with American cloth and bound with leather along its edges and corners was packed with all our clothing three days before our departure. If there was still an overflow from this trunk, and the volume of women’s clothing, with their numerous undergarments, was large, then a second trunk was pressed into service. A large square box was the ladies’ hatbox inside which six of the large period hats could be skewered by their hatpins to wire-mesh beehives on the six internal panels. All this luggage was then labelled ‘Luggage in Advance’ and our holiday address, and a printed card bearing the large magic initials C P was placed in the front window. Carter Paterson’s van halted outside in its daily round of the streets on seeing this card, and for the sum of 1/6d the driver took away this advance luggage. When we reached our holiday address three days later, our luggage was always there before us. On our actual day of departure a four-wheel ‘growler’ would take all of us with our hand luggage and picnic basket, together with the essential assortment of parasols, umbrellas and walking sticks, to Hither Green Station for another 1/6d. There the porter would collect all our impedimenta except the food basket, and see it into the luggage van for 3d. The same procedure followed at each interchange point, with no trouble and for modest tips, until the final ‘growler’ deposited us outside Mrs Erridge’s house just off Seaside Road. Rail transport could take anyone to most unlikely and remote spots on the network of country lines, and was very cheap. A day’s excursion ticket to Brighton or Eastbourne from London cost only 2/6d return, and long distance journeys by steam to the West or North were faster than today, always on time, and extremely cheap because the various lines were separately owned and highly competitive. For your holidays at that time you ‘took Apartments’ if you could not afford hotel prices or preferred privacy. There were two versions of this form of accommodation. You could be lodged, always with your own sitting room, and also boarded for an inclusive sum. But you could be lodged on the same basis and purchase your own provisions, to be cooked where necessary by the landlady as directed by you. This was slightly more expensive, but my mother always chose this alternative to ensure that we ate what we wanted and liked. Those first Eastbourne holidays in the Erridge apartments, some three in number, remain vivid memories. The post-breakfast visit with my mother to the shops to order our food requirements, to be delivered by them later. Then to the seafront round the moated Redoubt, one of the Napoleonic war coastal defences like the Wish Tower farther along the Parade, and the first morning sniff of sea-air as we strolled towards the East Bandstand, since removed from the beach and re-sited beside the Redoubt. Along the beach at this point were the ranks of bathing-machines, firstly the red and white striped ones owned by the Erridge family, and beyond them the blue and white rivals which we naturally did not patronise. All the bathing-machine proprietors reserved one row between breakwaters to cater for ladies whose susceptibilities would be offended by close proximity to male bathers. Costumes could if necessary be hired, in shoulder to knee stripes for males and in similarly extended coverage for females reinforced by a mini-skirt. Armed with towels and costume we mounted the foldaway steps of our machine, and fastened the door. The machine attendant on his horse then hitched up to the seaward end of the cumbrous four-wheeled vehicle, yelled ‘Hold tight’ and hauled it down the beach until it was axle-deep in the sea, quite a long trip if the tide was fully out. As he then unhitched his horse, he would pull out the steps by which, when encased in our cotton stripes, we could cautiously explore the temperature of the water. There were two bench seats and rows of hooks in each machine to accommodate our clothing, but woe betide if we forgot the number of our machine after leaving it, because all machines were identical in other respects. After our bathe we could listen to the bandstand program, or patronise the nigger-minstrels on another part of the shingle beach, where I first heard ‘All the Nice Girls love a Sailor’ and debated mentally upon future careers in the light of the entrancing girl singing this predilection. One of the burnt-cork male minstrels would tour the audience with upturned straw hat midway through their performance in order to trap as many contributions as possible. After the morning outing came the return to the sitting room of our apartments to be served with the lunch which Mrs Erridge had prepared at my mother’s direction earlier. The afternoon was given over to a long walk on many days, covering the whole length of the red-brick parade to Holywell at the foot of Beachy Head, and then onto the Downs. But there were the alternative delights on lazy days of the Pier, with its shooting-range and Pierrots, later displaced by a large concert hall. At the pier’s end was the theatre and the landing stage for steamer trips to Hastings or Brighton. The theatre was tiny, Victorian in décor, and quite enchanting to me. Devonshire Park, with its larger theatre, was another attraction, particularly on wet days, and strangely enough these seaside theatres were not taboo to my mother like their London counterparts, so we often visited them. Was it perhaps because Eastbourne was so undeniably a well-ordered and highly respectable town where vulgarity was never allowed to raise its ugly head? After our Erridge era we did eventually try out a boarding-house which had been started up at 26 Lushington Road, off Devonshire Place, by a Mrs Reader from Hither Green. It was very comfortable and well run, and we spent a 1912 hot August in these new surroundings. Most of the other visitors were Hither Green residents and among them was 20 year old Connie Ashworth, whom I knew by sight, having seen her around Hither Green in the company of her tall fiancé. She was a very pretty blue-eyed blonde, extremely well turned out, and her mother’s idol. I was only 17, but my cigar-smoking self assurance deceived her mother, because after I carried Connie off one evening to ‘The Quaker Girl’ at Devonshire Park, she sought out my mother to protest against this possible alienation of her daughter’s affections from the absent and prospective son-in-law. My mother’s revelation of my schoolboy status reassured Mrs Ashworth, and our holiday flirtation had no dire consequences because Connie duly married her tall young man later. She was one of the prettiest girls of all my early female acquaintances, petite and vivacious, but vain and empty headed. I kissed her on the way back from ‘The Quaker Girl’, and subsequent occasions of opportune privacy, because she obviously expected this tribute to her charms, and I was certainly not disinclined to oblige. My contacts were with girls older than myself and to some extent this applied to acquaintances of my own sex. This may well happen with a boy who grows up with a much older sister, and is, moreover, treated in an adult way by his parents, and although it must at first give rise to an element of precocity, in the long term it may prove gainful. My sister’s school friends of her own age were frequent visitors to the house. Daisy Dyne was her favourite, and mine, too. I went with Rhoda once or twice to the Dynes’ rather grand home in Cranston Road, Forest Hill. Daisy talked to me as an equal and so ensured my devotion. Another of Rhoda’s grammar school contemporaries was Ruby Duck who once came to No 81 to tea, and when I entered the room, swept me boisterously into her arms, kissed me violently and exclaimed ‘Isn’t he a little darling!’, a statement instantly discounted by a scowling exit on my part.
My bicycle, of which I had become the proud owner in 1907, led to an invitation from Henry Thorpe to accompany him on a cycling holiday that summer. He was the same age as Rhoda, and was working for his BSc at the time. We explored the New Forest, then crossed from Lymington to the Isle of Wight, and toured all round it, ending up at Ryde for two final nights at the YMCA hostel before finally returning home by the Portsmouth ferry. Henry was scientifically precise, entirely humourless and rigidly Nonconformist. Each day’s route was carefully planned by him from a contoured road map to cut out the steeper gradients, which also eliminated all the finest views, every item of expenditure down to the halfpenny daily newspaper neatly recorded in his notebook, and all available opportunity for religious observance firmly grasped. I sneaked out from the YMCA’s frequent prayer sessions to smoke a sinfully delicious Egyptian cigarette, an experiment which I had not before attempted at home and was therefore all the sweeter after a fortnight’s over-exposure to devotions and mathematics. I have over the years noticed that, when science and religion walk hand in hand, it is a curiously joyless relationship, and it makes me wonder whether the scientific mind tends to exclude the ‘humanities’ as an unverifiable quantity. Before Henry and I boarded the ferry on our final morning, he stopped outside a greengrocer’s shop and announced that he must take home a present for his mother. After deep deliberation he purchased two bananas, an outburst of generosity that confirmed an estimate which I had already formed that Henry was tightfisted as well as a rather dull dog. I do not think he had the least notion of what a highly critical snake he had nursed in his bosom on that holiday. He was a rather tall and quite handsome young man, and a few years later made diffident matrimonial noises at Rhoda. But she must have viewed him as Malvolio did Pythagoras; ‘I think nobly of the soul, and no way approve his opinion.’ She certainly declined his overtures very firmly.
Uncle Tarry was an inveterate walker, and with Rhoda and myself often walked to the end of Hazelbank Road, and then between the hedgerows to the corner where Whitefoot Lane turned away to the Bromley Road. Here was a farmhouse with a smelly cowshed, and beside it a stile onto the first of the then called ‘Seven Fields’. The whole of this area was destined to be engulfed by the huge Downham Estate many years later, but in those days one had from the top of the third field a panoramic view stretching across the Bromley heights and along the Crystal Palace section to the dip into the river basin with St Paul’s and Tower Bridge in the foreground against a backdrop of the Hampstead and Highgate eminences. By crossing the remaining stiles and fields we reached Burnt Ash Lane, and could continue through Sundridge Park to Chislehurst, or turn back via Grove Park to No 81. This was all open country for us, undevoured by the gluttony of ‘Greater’ London, an adjectival solecism to my generation, as they have survived to contemplate it.
Now to Mrs Smithson, that devoted retainer whose loyalty to our family never faltered over the 52 years from 1900. My first memory of her is of bringing with her sometimes on the days when she worked for my mother her two daughters, Ruth and Edna, no doubt during school holidays. Ruth was my age, and Edna two years younger, both always very clean and neat. Misser-Misson was paid at that time the current rate for charwomen of 2/6d per day plus a midday meal. She earned therefore at the outset 12/6d a week, with an extra 6d or two for Saturday morning step-cleaning. With this she had brought up her two girls in sturdy independence, because there was no Mr Smithson. It was not until 1947 when she came to me one day for advice upon her claim for Old Age Pension that I learned that she was really Miss Smithson, and that her two daughters were illegitimate. My mother had always known, but never revealed the fact, and her knowledge of Misser-Misson’s unmarried status had never influenced her regard for her. Since illegitimacy was in Victorian eyes an indelible social and also legal stigma to both parent and offspring, it says much for my family and Misser-Misson’s characters that they ignored this judgement. She became more and more prized and cherished by my parents and Uncle Tarry for her cheerful hardworking service, spending more time at No 81 than with other employers, until before long her week was only shared between us and a Mrs Barnes. My mother must have been very generous and kind to her, because Misser-Misson could never do enough for her. When we moved to Blackheath, and could afford our live-in maid, Misser-Misson still came along to help out with housework. Later still, when 20 The Avenue was exchanged for 95 College Road Bromley and we were living in Dallinger Road, she still journeyed to Bromley to help them. Then after Uncle Tarry’s death in 1932, and our joint home was set up in Wellmeadow Road, Misser-Misson carried on with us. She died in 1952, having been part of my life since I was five years old, and during that time grieved with us over the successive deaths of Uncle Tarry, my father and my sister, and finally my mother. I found it very difficult to hold back the tears at her funeral for the loss of so long-standing and true friend to all of us. Ruth and Edna both married men with good jobs and gave Misser-Misson several grandchildren.
When my father returned home from Hong Kong towards the end of 1909 he brought with him many Chinese objects, the carved teak table which was then light brown in colour, the vases with the gold dragon decoration applied by some Chinese process involving silk, the hand-painted ricepaper pictures as well as larger oil paintings of junks, the small Cloisonné vases, the Satsuma bowl, and a wide range of knick-knack articles of pottery, silver, wood and silk. A great many of these have survived and some of them acquired by now a curiosity status as products of Imperial China. He also returned with a very yellow skin, which gradually washed away under English rain, and a number of Chinese phrases which my mother detested. One of these was ‘Maskee’ meaning ‘Never mind!’. Uncle Tarry cured him of that by countering with occasional ‘Shampoo!’, and the oriental flavour in our conversation gradually disappeared. A loss which I have regretted, however, is the collection of photographs which he brought back of this Hong Kong episode of his life. I think my mother must have destroyed them after his death, because she always felt a certain resentment against this total suspension of normal family life to which Hong Kong had subjected her”.
Harry in 1939 as an air raid warden
Harry in the 1950’s