Excerpt for Sunday's Child: Times Past in Postcode DA11 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Times Past in Postcode DA11

Jean Hendy-Harris

Copyright 2019

Jean Hendy-Harris

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Other books by this author

Chalk Pits and Cherry Stones

Eight Ten to Charing Cross

In Disgrace with Fortune


Memoirs, wartime, childhood in Kent, 1950s England


  1. The Demise of Kentish

  2. Northfleet Village Green

  3. The Difficult Business of Making Friends

  4. A Case of The Dropsy On May Day

  5. The Tenants of Tooley Street

  6. Shepherd St Shenanigans

  7. Buckingham Road & Blasts From The Past

  8. Speaking of Springhead Road

  9. Aunt Elsie

  10. Troke’s Shop

  11. The Cobbler of Shepherd Street

  12. A Career In The Movies

  13. Huggens’ College

  14. A Decent Friendship at Wombwell Hall

  15. The Two Miss Smiths

  16. Old Gravesend Hospital in Bath Street

  17. Wash Day

  18. Brian Philpott

  19. The Passing of Greta Thilthorpe

  20. Local Pubs & Links with History

  21. Of Cleaning & Cats

  22. A Box at the Empire

  23. The School Blazer

  24. Homes For The Worthy Poor

  25. Words & Music

  26. A Remarkable Lack of Resilience

  27. The Shipping Forecast

  28. Broadcasting Carried On

  29. In Sickness & In Health

  30. The Coming of the Postcodes

Northfleet in the centre of the map

The Demise of Kentish

Growing up in the outer reaches of Thameside Gravesend in the 1940s involved speaking a great deal of Old Kentish without actually realising it. None of us travelled very much back then and even a trip to Maidstone market was an Event with a capital E and so the expressions heard daily in the shops, pubs and streets of Swanscombe, Greenhithe, Northfleet and Gravesend formed the language that all of us accepted as standard. If someone had tried to explain what was dialect and what was accent we would have been not only immediately confused but disbelieving because as far as we were concerned it was only outsiders who had accents and therefore were treated with suspicion; the visiting aunt from far-off Leicester and the priest from Southern Ireland, and in any event did it really matter that words were pronounced differently in different areas when we were certain that our way was the right way? Time had to pass and we had to take excursions out of our immediate area on a regular basis in order to understand that some words immediately recognised by those around us might be completely incomprehensible to others living further afield and that this was nothing to do with accent and everything to do with dialect which in itself was fast disappearing. This fact would have been most unlikely, however, to disturb us in any way whatsoever.

In time our part of North Kent became disputed ground linguistically, a crossover area where local accent and dialect expressions became entangled and finally completely ensnared within the speech patterns of East and South London. Even as far back as when local master storyteller Charles Dickens was feverishly recording events of his imagination, the letter H was almost always silent and words beginning with W and V were variously interchangeable within this etymological no-man’s land. Dickens himself would have doubtless been aware that at some stage the Kentish dialect had firmly divided itself into areas such as that primarily familiar to the East of the county and that more understood in the West. This was inevitable following the initiation of compulsory schooling in 1880 when the ideal for every child was to receive an education based on standard English and those venturing into teaching aspired to Speak Well and thus provide sound and sensible communication examples.

My maternal Grandmother Margaret Riorden, or Rearden depending on who was doing the spelling, was born around the time of The Act in Bethnal Green but somehow or other managed never to become involved with compulsory schooling. She always moved within a narrow circle of family, neighbours and itinerant agricultural workers and remained totally illiterate throughout her life, a fact that she considered had never held her back. She was certainly never in danger of having her vocal idioms contaminated by the example of enthusiastic schoolteachers or by the reading of either novels or newspapers. Until her death in 1965 her speech patterns remained firmly adhered to their origins first in Bethnal Green and later in North Kent where the family migrated when she was a small child. Along with the rest of her numerous grandchildren I came under her sphere of linguistic influence during my earliest years as we moved around daily from farm to farm for the harvesting of peas, beans, potatoes, stone fruit and hops depending upon the season.

Despite her lack of formal education or perhaps because of it, Old Nan developed an alarmingly strong personality and liked her presence to be felt. She could never have been described as a shrinking violet and let one and all know her opinions whether they made her popular or not. She was also a woman who was able to make quick decisions and influence those closest to her. Little wonder that her large family became heirs to her tongue and communication.

If she wanted to show approval for something she described herself as being partial to it, if we were unwell she said we were peaky and should we be cheeky to her, which we rarely were, we were giving old lip. She was glad to see the back of those she disliked and often described them as giving her the pip. Our heads were our noddles and the word old did not in itself necessarily refer to age but was an intensive expression when one of us started a tidy old argument or made a tidy old sum digging for potatoes in the space of a day. She would not of course lightly accept being put upon and a right old paddy might be the result. Places or people she took a dislike to became one-eyed and something out of alignment was out of kilter. If she rose late it was because she overlaid and there were times when her hip gave her gip.

These expressions passed effortlessly into the next generation so that each of my aunts would momentarily hesitate before wearing a red hat because they all were aware of red hat, no drawers and every one of my cousins knew what feignights meant in chasing games. It was my older cousin Margaret who taught us rhyme games such as the complicated finger rhyme, Here’s the church and here’s the steeple, Open the doors and there’s the people and warned that you should carefully count the magpies noticed in a ploughed field before launching into, One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy. It was also Margaret who familiarised me on every trip on the 480 bus from Crayford to Northfleet with Dirty Dartford, dirty people, bury their dead above the steeple as we lumbered through that town.

We did not unduly concern ourselves with the weather as children but our mothers certainly understood what a bitter-cold day and a black-dark night were and that a brief shower was merely a piddle. In the early 1940s as we picked our way through the difficulties of the Second World War, we pre-schoolers absorbed it all and used it all along with the slightly nasal sing-song intonation that sat alongside it and was embodied in the very marshland and riverside environs in which we lived. Years later it was often this distinctive vocal timbre that would suddenly alert me to the presence of someone who hailed from North Kent being unmistakably the sound of my childhood.

Much of this Kentish language, though it was all around us, was fast becoming in danger of being abandoned with the advent of both radio and the Second World War. The war prompted us all to listen to radio broadcasts with greater attention than we might otherwise have done. My mother paid particular attention and I was persuaded to be as quiet as a mouse whilst she did so. Consequently I developed a fascination with the sounds made by those who read the news long before I was old enough for the speech patterns I had inherited from my antecedents to be diluted by the influence of school. I even determined that BBC English should be My English and did my best to emulate it which startled those around me until I learned that possibly it was not the best linguistic version for everyday use.

The end of the war brought street parties and less food rationing and heralded the next destructive push towards the demise of Kentish. The comparative ease of travel coincided with the television sets that slowly but determinedly crept into each working class home combining to enthusiastically destroy the paradigms of a local language that had until then changed little over two centuries. Our grandparents and great grandparents rarely ventured far from the immediate area into which they were born and although the delights of Hollywood were certainly available to my mother’s generation, the language used by the American film industry was sufficiently removed from that spoken locally for it to barely cause a ripple among the firmly rooted expressions in use for generations. And even I, for all my upwardly mobile intent, was sensible enough to discard the speech idioms of Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds in favour of the disembodied vocal patterns of those who worked for the BBC.

So inevitably a large part of Kentish dialect is now out of reach to us in the twenty first century vanishing in the space of thirty or forty years. The passing has been so rapid that it would now be astonishing to hear on the streets of Gravesend or Northfleet an awkward person being described as cack-handed or a housewife forced into dabbing out on a wet Monday. The unwell are unlikely to feel dicky and the smartly dressed are no longer all dogged up. It would be a very elderly gentleman these days whose leg was gammy. If you feel doubtful or curious you are no longer leery and if you are tempted to steal fruit from orchards you probably wouldn’t necessarily recognise that you were scrumping. We lose a language without noticing it and that which was an essential tool for human expression a few decades ago is suddenly gone.

Northfleet Village Green

Long before I was old enough to attend St Botolph’s school in 1945, I was more than familiar with The Hill even if I didn’t quite realise that it was regarded as the historical centre of old Northfleet. Once I did start school we were told that there had been a Church on The Hill as far back as Saxon times although nobody told us when exactly Saxon times were though I decided they had more than likely been even before my own grandmother was born. I had to get a great deal older before I realised that originally the area around the Church would have fallen gently towards the Thames on one side and the Ebbsfleet on the other and that strangely enough it had therefore not always been stranded on a narrow summit of land as it still is now. Nobody sees fit to explain how industry shapes landscape to children and so I grew up for the most part thinking that The Hill I knew had always been cut off precariously with cavernous drops on every side because of the excavation of chalk. Even when my grandmother spoke from time to time of the green fields present in her own grandmother’s time I chose to doubt her because I preferred things to have always been the way I now knew them to be.

Old Minnie who lived in one of the now long gone cottages on The Hill and whose full name we never knew was once heard in conversation with Mr Will Clarke who had come to the school to teach us in about 1947, telling him the history of the place. He had been a Japanese POW and therefore was the kind of man who would be interested. She maintained that until the 1830s there was a pound and stocks where the Catholic Church then stood and still does although it was hard to imagine there had been a time when the Church was not in evidence. The pound was a small building made of the new-fangled bricks with a tiled roof and the stocks were somewhat closer to The Leather Bottel pub which was where the Parish Beadle had doled out suitable punishments to those who deserved them. Old Minnie said that foul-mouthed women were often put in the stocks and passers-by threw unmentionable objects at them. My friend Molly was certain that although people were said to throw eggs at those they disapproved of, that definitely wouldn’t be true because eggs were too expensive. We decided it was probably stones although Siddy Ribbens suggested dog turds. Well he actually said dog shit but I was never allowed to use words like that even though my grandmother was prone to do so. I wondered if she would have been considered foul-mouthed enough to qualify for the stocks but didn’t like to ask anybody’s opinion. We learned that you also headed for the stocks if you misbehaved in Church although none of us could imagine what that might entail. Giving trouble in the Workhouse also might see you end up there if you weren’t careful and although all of us were familiar with the term Workhouse because most of us had relatives who had at one time been inmates we knew it was nothing to be proud of and therefore should not be discussed. None of us in Mr Clarke’s class were sure if the Workhouse was still in existence because when it was spoken of it was generally in terms that indicated a thankfulness that things had improved for society. It was David Reynolds whose father had something important to do with Northfleet Station who finally asked the question and Mr Clarke told us that the Workhouse in nearby Gravesend had been closed for almost fifty years and was now St James’s Hospital. However, at one time Northfleet had boasted its very own Workhouse nearby at Granby Place, and probably built in about 1700. Originally the building had been a boarding school but by1820 it had become the Northfleet Workhouse which it remained for about twenty years. The place had disappeared completely by the late 1880s and the grounds had then become part of the churchyard.

Mr Clarke was the kind of teacher you don’t easily forget if you are interested in odd bits and pieces of social history which I was. He told us that in 1860 a tollgate was erected adjacent to the Leather Bottel and this had come about because of the railway. David Reynolds nodded and we felt that his family was more important than ever and somehow part of it all. A group of people called The Turnpike Commissioners, after a great deal of debate and argument, decided that this extra tollgate was urgently needed because so much money was being lost due to the advent of the railway. Apparently the decision was not popular with local shopkeepers as they were forced to pay a toll each time they ventured onto Dover, London or Springhead Roads. Nevertheless it lasted for ten years until the office of the Turnpike Commissioners was itself disbanded in 1871. Fashion-conscious local women heaved sighs of relief because even those who could easily afford the toll were more than annoyed by the fact that the gate was too narrow to easily accommodate their crinoline skirts.

These days the Roman Catholic Church stands out as a prominent if rather stark feature on the local landscape and has done so since it was erected in 1914. Apparently a local benefactor, Mr Alfred Tolhurst, provided the funds needed – the sizeable sum of eight thousand pounds and of course had his own pew inside. Once my father returned from the war I was to visit regularly for Sunday mass but I always saw it as a grim and gloomy place and much preferred the welcoming warmth of Anglican St. Botolph’s. Sometimes my friend Molly and I went into the gloomy interior of the place simply to dare each other to touch the cold and dark statues without exhibiting fear. Once, accompanied by Kathleen McCarthy, we were astonished to see her do so without a qualm and decided that being possessed of red hair was an advantage where courage was concerned. It had certainly advantaged Queen Boadicia of whom we had learned relatively recently and been told that as Kentish women we should be proud of her and call her Boudicca. All of this information had come from Mr Clarke of course.

To the right of this forbidding religious structure was Penny, Son and Parker’s grocery, a place frequented by us all on a regular basis. This was where we queued patiently at least twice weekly to buy sugar to be weighed out into cones and broken biscuits and bacon. On one momentous occasion Molly and I, dancing together along Springhead Road, she as Doris Day and me as Ginger Rogers, found that the one pound note that had been at the bottom of the shopping basket when we set out had now disappeared. In total panic we searched each side of Springhead Road twice before returning to 31 York Road in terror to report the loss to her mother. And her long suffering mother with a shake of her head and a tear in her eye searched her purse and along the mantelpiece for replacement coins and crossed several items from the list but Molly was not beaten as I might have been. My own mother was clearly of a more punitive bent as far as her children were concerned. We returned to Penny, Son and Parker’s in a more sober fashion, Molly clutching the coins in her right hand. It was shortly after this episode that the shop that had been serving the public for five decades, closed its doors for ever and we wondered if we had somehow brought bad luck to the place.

Once there had been old weatherboard cottages at 5 and 6 The Hill but they were said to have been demolished in the middle of the nineteenth century and replaced by two purpose-built brick shops, one of which was a newsagents. My mother said that she remembered it being a Fancy Bazaar years before but I had no idea what a Fancy Bazaar might be. In the late 1940s as well as newspapers and comics you could buy sherbert dabs and liquorice wood and acid drops in this particular establishment and Cut-Out Paper Doll Books which were expensive at one and sixpence each but which I longed to own. Mrs Bassant, our neighbour, told me that years ago you didn’t need to buy your daily newspaper if you took The Times because you could borrow it for a penny and take it back when you’d finished reading it. When I asked her how long you could have the loan of it for she didn’t know but I thought it a very odd arrangement and wondered what would happen if you accidentally tore a page or didn’t return it for a week.

On the south east corner of the area that was once the Village Green and is now a car park, was a butcher’s shop that had been there for more than a hundred years and boasted its own slaughter house. The first owner did a great deal of upgrading and made improvements in 1790 and replaced the old-fashioned weather boarding with smart new bricks. Old Minnie told a terrifying story that involved the slaughter house harbouring a number of murdered bodies but added comfortingly that in the end the story turned out not to have been true. Nevertheless Molly and I still shivered theatrically whenever we passed the place, especially as the old hooks and rails for hanging carcasses were still in evidence. These days it is a pharmacy and the last time I was there I could not help but notice that the legendary hooks still remain.

There were a number of cottages facing The Green on the south side and Mr Clarke said that one Billy Skews, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, had lived at No 10. He had lost an arm in the battle and for many years had a stall in Gravesend Market selling confectionery which he and his wife made themselves. He also sold his wares at the Easter Fair held on The Hill each year. When I was a child, however, No 10 was an undertaker’s and apparently still is. There had been more than one annual fair in the old days and originally they were so busy they had been held in nearby fields big enough to accommodate the many amusements and sideshows. The busiest fair was usually that held on St Botolph’s day in mid-June and attracted visitors from far and wide. By the time Billy Skews was selling his confectionery the fairs were already losing their appeal. This was something else to be blamed on the Railway, transporting people as it did so effortlessly to the delights of places further afield like Southend and Margate. And there of course in the fullness of time were the more technically advanced attractions of Dodgem Cars and Ferris Wheels courtesy of Dreamworld and The Kursaal. You could quite understand why the families of Kent were no longer as enthralled with the idea of home- made confectionery and bearded ladies. Personally, however, I was not particularly fond of the more up to the minute seaside funfairs and nursed a deep fear and suspicion of the technology involved in lifting paying customers far from the ground and flinging them around in garishly decorated pseudo-vehicles. I would have infinitely preferred a decorous saunter through a field of Two Headed Babies and Three Armed Men. This preference was not something I shared with my peers as I had no desire to be jeered at or bullied by neighbourhood children and classmates. Anyone currently between the ages of five and fourteen will tell you how preferable it is to hold the same likes, dislikes and desires as those around you.

On the opposite side of The Green there was once an Inn called The Dove, apparently one of the most ancient in Northfleet but it had burned down in 1906. Behind the Inn was a huddle of old cottages in Dove Yard that were still standing in the 1940s. Just to the right, The Coach and Horses, dating from 1572 still stands and I have a memory or two of under-age drinking involving gin and tonic there as a teenager. Adjoining it were a number of 17th century cottages that were apparently demolished in the late 1950s. I should remember this because I would undoubtedly have viewed it as vandalism, but sadly I don’t. In one of them lived a woman most of us had decided was a witch when we were still young enough to readily believe in witches. Recently I learned she was actually the mother of Ron Hull, local poet who wrote so eloquently of the area and whose slim volumes of poetry are now so difficult to find. Directly behind the pub was the site of Northfleet’s very first purpose-built fire station. Originally it was a Volunteer Service but at the beginning of the second world war had become fully incorporated into the National Fire Service.

On the final side of the triangle that formed The Green, The Queen’s Head pub stood and was run when I was a child by the McCarthys, parents of the red haired Kathleen and said to be well off. Kathleen’s mother bought her black ballet style shoes and let her have her hair permed and her ears pierced so of course we envied her and she knew it and was prone to showing off. The pub had previously been called The Crown and at that time had extensive grounds to the rear of the building including a bowling green. After a disastrous fire in 1830 the building had to be renovated completely and the bowling green somehow or other disappeared along with the ever more urgent quest for chalk. The Post Office stood adjacent to the pub and there was still a sub post office there when I was a teenager. I remember that the woman who worked there sat behind a grille and had a fascinating hole in her neck which blinked repetitively. My mother told me she had to breathe through the hole because of an operation on her throat and that it was rude to stare. I couldn’t help staring, however, and the unfortunate woman fascinated me so much I was both fearful and delighted to be sent in to buy postage stamps. Maureen Barlow who was in our class when we were ten and wanted to be a nurse said that the device in the woman’s throat was called a Stoma and when you had one you could no longer speak properly. I had not even noticed that the woman behind the grille no longer spoke properly.

Next door to the Post Office there had once been a grocery store where you could buy real coffee beans but when I was growing up and familiar only with Camp Coffee Essence, it had become a second-hand book shop, run largely I believe as a hobby as it only seemed to open sporadically. There all kinds of fascinating volumes could be bought for mere pence and it was due to its existence that I began to build up my own albeit small library in 1950 starting with an unlikely story called The Girl Crusoes concerning three schoolgirls marooned on a Pacific Island and forced to live on all manner of exotic fruits and vegetables including Breadfruit and Yams. I remember little else about the story.

At the turn of the 20th century The Green was at last paved over for some reason and in time a First World War Memorial was erected from Portland Stone to commemorate those local servicemen who lost their lives during the conflict. Today the monument has become hemmed in on every side by vehicles that nudge each other for space and the area has changed completely. St Botolph’s School disappeared some years ago and on my last visit a temporary garden centre had situated itself in what had been the Infants’ Playground . The Church lych gate still stands defiantly, harbouring the memory of those mothers of the 1940s who sheltered there on rainy afternoons whilst waiting to collect their five and six year-olds from the clutches of Miss Honour who was young and pretty with long blonde hair and Mrs Johnson who was short and dumpy and rather fierce and always wore a flowered smock to protect her twin set.

I am reliably informed that there is now a new St Botolph’s School nearby but as yet I have not investigated it, so wedded am I to the idea that there can really only be one – the one I attended for six years, on The Hill, or as Ron Hull more accurately describes it - Northfleet Village Green.

The Difficult Business of Making Friends

By the time I started school in September 1945 the war was firmly over, even the conflict in the Pacific that we in Northfleet knew little of and so were not much concerned with. We had long had our street parties in every corner of the county and were even bored with the idea of wearing our red, white and blue hair ribbons. Fathers had begun to return home in June, sporting smart new demob suits and shiny shoes and within a short space of time stopped spoiling their offspring with days out to Southend-on-Sea and games of football and started making demands on them to sit up straight when they were eating and make better efforts to be helpful to their mothers. My own father, because of an illness he had contracted in the North African desert, did not make an appearance in person until October and so to me remained a photograph on the wall that had to be blown kisses on my way to bed. I started school therefore with the full attention of my mother who was confident that now a whole new range of possibilities was open to me and I would quickly make friends and become a popular and successful student in next to no time! It was abundantly clear that having experienced a somewhat chequered school career herself, she wanted better for me. Her own problems with school had mirrored those of her sisters – they simply did not attend often enough for it to be of much benefit to them. This was because they were so frequently needed to take part in seasonal field work and also to care for younger siblings.

Some people seem to find themselves in the happy position of going through life making friends extremely easily and rising to the top in the popularity stakes of each group they become involved with. I’m definitely not one of them and I have always envied those who were. I have had few really close friends over the years and fewer still when I was a child. Molly from No 31 York Road was something of an exception in that she remained my friend over a number of years and did not particularly criticise me or demand very much of me; perhaps she simply did not like me as much as I liked her but possibly a further clue lies in the fact that I never selected her as a suitable victim for my most manipulative schemes. My mother, clearly disappointed in me, always maintained that my unpopularity lay in the fact that I was a very Quarrelsome Child. She spoke with a fair degree of accuracy although Quarrelsome was not a word I would have immediately chosen. However my general behaviour dictated that it was not completely unsurprising that I found it difficult to make and maintain close childhood relationships. Even at the time I knew there was a problem and half realised why but seemed unable to make the necessary changes for the better. I told myself that it didn’t matter because I didn’t really care – but of course I did.

It began whilst I was still a pre-schooler when Evelyn the granddaughter of The Bassants Next Door would have become my friend very willingly had I only treated her a little better. But treating her well seemed unmanageable and whilst on the surface I appeared to be her friend, behind the scenes and out of the way of adult eyes I made her life as miserable as any four year old possibly could. I plagued her with taunts regarding her weight, jeered at the stories she told me about her mother swallowing open safety pins on a regular basis (that miraculously closed when they encountered mysteriously placed bones whilst navigating her digestive tract) and perhaps more spitefully, sent her on treasure hunts that forced her to purloin other people’s possessions. Even this thinly disguised theft might not have been so bad had Evelyn been allowed to keep at least some of the plunder for herself but generally I required her to hand it over. One day she found a full sized cricket bat that had clearly been mistakenly left on The Old Green and she rushed with great excitement to tell me about it. We should play cricket together she told me, still glowing with the exhilaration of the find. Not wanting to admit that I had not a clue as to how cricket was played, however, I decided to spoil things for her by claiming loudly to her grandparents that in fact the bat had been found by me and Evelyn had stolen it from me and I wanted it back. The grandparents looked doubtful but within minutes I was sobbing convincingly great victim sobs and so it was handed over. I’ve often wondered why I felt the need to do that as had no inclination to play sport and the bat was shoved under my bed and destined never to be used again.

I saved my most socially hostile schemes for my years at St Botolph’s School so that other, more amiable classmates, once they got the measure of me generally did their best not to get too close and in any activity where we had to Choose a Partner, I was invariably left un-partnered and for ever destined to work alongside whoever happened to be the other class misfit at the time. In Miss Biggs’ class at the age of eight I found myself sitting next to another York Road resident, Peter Jackson, a fairly inoffensive boy as boys go who made it clear he would have much rather been placed beside another boy – any boy. For several weeks I made his life miserable by regularly writing the rudest words I knew in his exercise books in capital letters. By today’s standards the words were reasonably mundane and I remember SHIT, BUM, TITS and BUGGER but nothing more indecent than that. However Peter was outraged and when he importantly strode to the front of the room, exercise book in hand, to advise Miss Biggs of this ignominy I practised looking as guileless as possible and with a confused little shrug told her that I didn’t know why Peter said such things about me and I only wished he would stop writing rude words. I even contemplated asking her what TITS actually meant before deciding against the idea. She always believed me and invariably Peter would be told he had to stay in at playtime as a punishment – or given a hundred lines to remind himself that writing rude words was totally unacceptable. I finally stopped torturing him in this manner when he was one day sent to Mr Cook the new headmaster who caned him. Even I thought that was excessive and I found myself so strangely moved by his tears that I began to cry myself. Miss Biggs advised both of us to stop crying at once and reminded me that Peter had been a very naughty boy indeed – that I was the real victim and I should on no account feel sorry for him!

Back in the late 1940s Britain was just beginning to recover from the effects of the war, fathers mostly had regular jobs and even working class children like the majority of St Botolph’s pupils were given regular small amounts of pocket money. Although saving was encouraged by most adults the recipients of the money were infinitely keener on spending it on such delicacies as liquorice wood, sherbet dabs and locust beans from the newsagent and sweet shop next to Penney Son & Parkers on The Hill. To say I was envious of the beneficiaries of these weekly sums is an understatement and I discussed it at some length with Molly who was another non-receiver. Finally I hit upon the idea of collecting from what I saw as the more affluent homes in Springhead Road for a non-existent charity which I called the NSSSC (National Society for the Salvation of School Children). Molly wisely declined to join me in this venture but eventually I persuaded a nicely behaved girl called Betty Haddon from Hartfield Place who said she was keen but only if the eventual collection really and truly benefited school children. I told her we were going to buy sherbet dabs and I would personally post them to children in Africa who needed saving.

Although Betty had been reasonably easily convinced, the scheme was not as successful as I had hoped and we were asked rather a lot of penetrating questions about how long we had been Registered but eventually we collected two shillings and nine pence which bought quite a number of sherbet dabs I seem to remember. I generously tried to give Betty one to take home with her but she said she didn’t want it because her Mum would ask her questions about it. I was bemused by this attitude and because I had never been totally wedded to the idea of posting such delightful goodies to Africa in the first place, I consumed the remainder myself over the next day or two. Sadly, when I approached Betty for a second round of after school collecting she firmly refused and at playtime went back to playing skipping with Barbara Scutts and Rita Jenkins. When I tried to join them Barbara, who was bossy as well as popular, said they had enough for their game and I was not allowed to play. Feeling wounded I told Barbara she had stinky knickers whereupon she said that my mother dressed me funny. Because that might possibly be true given my mother’s poor dressmaking skills I ran away at that point and seethed in the girls’ toilets planning suitable payback. Walking home from school Molly said she had never thought Collecting for the NSSSC was a very good idea in the first place.

A year or so later I briefly became friendly with Helen Gunner the local vicar’s daughter. I was in fact quite gratified to have been able to coerce her into friendship because she had an attractively verging on Posh voice and at that stage I was still trying to perfect my BBC accent and it was clear she was in a position to help being very nearly Posh herself. It was also clear that though they tried to push the rather un-Christian impression aside, her parents considered me to be a totally unsuitable friend for their daughter. Their gut feeling hardened when I encouraged her to play Noughts & Crosses for money and she ended up owing me nearly seven shillings. We had started off with very minor farthing stakes but after a while, to increase the excitement of the game I suggested we progress to Double or Nothing and by that time I think I had also somehow or other rigged the outcome. The Reverend Gunner took us into his rather impressively book-lined study and gave us a gentle lecture on the evils of gambling during which I began to cry and told him that part of me knew it wasn’t right but I was saving up to buy my mother a brooch for her birthday. Helen began to cry as well at that stage and pointed out in a more than slightly moralistic and uptight manner that I had, after all, won the money fairly and squarely and it wasn’t really my fault that gambling was so unacceptable. She even ventured with some hesitation that it was possible no-one had ever explained that properly to me before. Her father began to falter and I saw him wavering, wanting to support his daughter’s sense of what was Fair, Moral, Just – more than a little bit proud of her. In fact exactly like a father in a story book! I thought it must be reassuring to have parents like him although I could see the downside also – just imagine being constantly reminded about the rights and wrongs of your behaviour. At least bottom of the heap families like mine rarely went in for lectures on moral behaviour and most reprimands and punishment simply revolved around drawing attention to yourself by annoying an adult when it wasn’t strictly necessary to do so. Whilst I was meditating upon these differences between families, to my amazement Reverend Gunner handed over the seven shillings and said there would be no further debate on the matter. I did notice, however, that the following Monday at school Helen avoided me and had soon found a new Best Friend – Elizabeth. Feeling more than a little irked I asked her why and she justified the shift by telling me that Elizabeth went to the same tap dancing class as she did. How I envied those fortunate few who were allowed to attend dance classes and set off importantly each Wednesday after school clutching shoe bags made by loving mothers containing tap shoes.

By the time I was ten I had become more pragmatic about the difficult business of attracting friends. It was just possible I was a Late Developer as far as friends were concerned like my cousin Desmond who had caused a great deal of family gossip because he didn’t say a single word until he was three. Even Old Nan agreed that he was finally as Right as Rain and some children simply developed late. Friendship might be something I would eventually grow into.

A Case of The Dropsy on May Day

During my first years of school the headmaster at St Botolph’s was Mr Tilley and I have no memory of him whatsoever. Once I recovered from the initial trauma of those very first few school days, the feeling of being abandoned, the loss of my mother’s full time attention, I quite enjoyed school, finding the teachers, the buildings, playgrounds, the church and most especially the tranquil nearby churchyard a welcome change from the confines of York Road where the downside of my mother’s devotion was that her word was Law. School offered a range of other adults who had power and influence that I soon realised in many ways superseded my mother’s. She had a love-hate relationship with both School and Church, had been treated badly by the zealous Crayford Sisters of Mercy because of constant absenteeism and it was undoubtedly these memories that led to me being enrolled in an Anglican school. This was an act that was to greatly perturb my decidedly more devout father once he reappeared into our lives around the middle of that first school term.

I recall the school staff with a certain amount of affection – Miss Honour, Mrs Johnson, Mrs Allen and Miss Biggs, all of whom were sound teachers and basically kind. All were eclipsed, however, by Mr Clarke whose teaching was at times inspirational and whose pupils without exception loved him dearly. The boys were particularly intrigued that he had been a fighter pilot during the war and was shot down and became a POW. This information did not emotionally move the girls nearly as much of course but Will Clarke was able to enthuse and motivate each one of us in a way that eludes many teachers.

It was during my second year with Mr Clarke that I first became aware of the headmaster who had replaced Mr Tilley, the tyrannical Mr Cook who, towards the end of that year and quite out of the blue began to teach us Arithmetic on Friday afternoons. Academically I was in no way outstanding, although this was a fact my ever hopeful father found difficult to process, and Arithmetic was definitely my weakest subject. For me it had been bad enough trying to master fractions and long division under the kindly guidance of Mr Clarke but became all but impossible beneath the direction of the terrifying Mr Cook. Friday afternoons had formerly been a serene and peaceful time devoted to ideas and to books. Mr Clarke discussed with us all manner of interesting ideas such as the rights and wrongs of cannibalism and what human flesh might taste like. John Dyke wanted to know if he meant when it was raw or when it was cooked and Mr Clarke paused momentarily before assuring him that he meant when it was cooked. Wendy Maxted who rarely said much raised her head at once and wanted to know exactly how it would have been cooked. A few of the other girls began to titter nervously but Mr Clarke treated that question seriously also and explained that he thought it might have been simmered in a cauldron with roots and vegetables and perhaps a few herbs. This cooking method and the resulting taste was then hotly debated until Mr Clarke told us that he had heard that human flesh when cooked with care tasted a little bit like lamb. With that we were silenced although I found myself contemplating this interesting morsel of information on every future occasion when the Sunday roast featured lamb.

Mr Clarke led us into a discussion as to whether or not children would ever be allowed to vote and if so what political path we might each pursue, listening to the reasons why our families were Labour or Conservative without passing comment. A substantial number of us surprisingly perhaps supported the Conservatives and one boy admitted to having a father who was Communist and fervently supported Collective Farming. The rest of us did not understand how that particular form of agriculture worked and Mr Clarke enthusiastically explained. Those of us who lost interest and became bored by these Friday afternoon debates were allowed to doodle or fall asleep without comment. It was also a time when we were introduced to poetry – The Lady of Shalott, Daffodils, The Destruction of Sennacherib and were urged to expand our reading to The Snow Goose and the Myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. For these reasons I have never been able to forget Mr Clarke. Six decades later Molly Freeman, now determinedly beginning to master the use of email, sent me an excited message because she had by an odd accident of fate involving an article about football in a local paper, rediscovered Will Clarke, then in his nineties and living in The Midlands. We were ecstatic to make contact once again with the man who had deftly turned what might have been completely ordinary primary school years into a time during which learning became distinctive and exceptional. And Mr Clarke, more than at ease with the intricacies of electronic messaging, communicated with each of us vigorously and deliberated all aspects of those St Botolph’s days. We learned that his time at the school had not always been as uncomplicated as our own and that the loss of his teenage son in a road accident had all but paralysed him emotionally. We also began to understand that the demands placed upon him and the rest of the school staff by the most unpopular headmaster, Mr Cook, had made life anything but enjoyable and had caused him to examine the reasons why he stayed more than once. You could say that Mr Cook wreaked just as much misery upon the staff as he did upon the students.

I have never forgotten this man’s alarming lessons although fortunately for we girls it was the boys who were the main focus of his sadism. Most of the time we were left to be horrified observers as he pulled students from behind desks by their ears, closed desk lids onto fingers with his feet, shook them until their teeth rattled, all the time screaming at the front row unfortunates, his face turning puce and the veins in his neck bulging. Largely these brutal episodes were instigated simply by an unlucky ten-year-old failing to understand some aspect of multiplication. Simply witnessing these Friday afternoon rages firmed up my dislike of Mathematics in all its forms and turned it into a fully-fledged phobia. My York Road neighbour, Pearl Banfield, was so terrified that on two occasions she fainted at the beginning of the class and was able to rest on a bench in the cloakroom for the duration. Henceforth her mother invariably collected her on Friday lunchtimes and she simply disappeared for the afternoon. I thought this was a splendid idea but my own mother was not as kindly and understanding and simply advised I should just keep my head down.

Mr Cook had clearly arrived at St Botolph’s intending to Make a Difference. This turned out not to be merely limited to mathematical outcomes which in retrospect I realised had something to do with the eleven plus examination we were to take the following year, but spread into other areas also. One of his initial ideas was to reintroduce the peculiar festival of the Boy Bishop whose fate was somehow associated with the Feast of Fools. His explanations of this custom did little to help us understand it. We were warned, however, that it was our duty to remember what he was telling us so that we would be able to deliver every detail to our parents and impress upon them how important the festival was. It seemed to revolve around selecting a boy from the choir early in December to play the part of the Bishop on St Nicholas’ Day somehow parodying the real Bishop, the game proceeding until the Christmas pageant. However, to our enormous relief the whole idea was abandoned after one trial because of a marked lack of interest from anyone in the community. The greatest relief was expressed by the Boy Bishop himself who was horrified to find that he was expected to write his own weekly sermons for the duration.

He then launched Saturday Evening Socials for Families. Parents and grandparents were expected to attend and possibly even well behaved, older children. Younger children were most definitely not welcome but my mother had found this ruling hard to internalise. The Socials took place on a monthly basis and the entire staff was present, Mr Clarke having the job of amusing those children who were forced to accompany their parents. As I was one of them on several occasions along with my little brother, I saw this as a splendid idea although I remember feeling distinctly nervous about the possible behaviour of my pre-school sibling. The huge and rumbling partition in the Infants’ Department was rolled back for these occasions and parents were served cups of tea and sponge cake that Mrs. Johnson and Mrs Allen had been ordered to make for the event. Despite the best efforts of all the adults the gatherings were glacial affairs where those families gutsy enough to attend showed deference to Mr Cook and complimented him on the Huge Difference he was making to the children’s learning. He in his turn, wearing a smart tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, smiled big smiles that did not quite reach his eyes and drummed the fingers of his left hand on the top of tables laden with cups and saucers and cake.

I found the unfamiliar intimacy between home and school both exciting and chilling and more than conducive to taking wild chances. I used the final occasion on which my parents attended to steal a poetry book from our classroom bookshelf, stuffing it down my knickers and spending the rest of the evening and the walk home in great discomfort. I then worried for weeks that it might have been missed but was at the same time ecstatic to have become the owner of A Child’s Garden of Verses.

Of course there were miscreant parents who failed to make an appearance at any one of these awkward and uneasy events but those foolhardy enough to attend once were expected to continue to do so and future failure meant that their offspring were cross examined at Monday morning assemblies as to the reasons why. When I finally found myself being interrogated I was sick with fear and gave various explanations ranging from my father being on the night shift, which might have been true to my mother falling down stairs and breaking both her knees, which definitely was not.

Another one of Mr Cook’s brilliant ideas was the celebration of May Day with traditional Maypole dancing and the making of May Dolls. We were informed of this at the conclusion of one of the disturbing Maths classes whilst Billy Elliot, having drawn attention to himself by not knowing immediately what the required answer to One Fifth Of One Hundred was, nursed his injured fingers beneath his armpit and tried hard to stifle his tears. Mothers of the girls, we were told as the darkly snake-like eyes of the Headmaster examined each of our respectfully bent female heads, were to each make a May Doll by the end of the month. These dolls, it was further explained, were to be placed in shoe boxes and decorated with flowers which we might make ourselves out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners. Then, all being well with the arrangement of both dolls and flowers, we girls would be escorted in a group to visit local cottages and even houses of the gentry such as the Thames River Pilot and the Doctor who both lived not a stone’s throw away in London Road, to show off our combined handiwork. We might even be rewarded with pennies which we would be allowed to keep.

Jacqueline Haskell, whose mother was a shorthand typist and occasionally helped out in the school office ventured to enquire in a very small voice indeed what a May Doll was actually for and wouldn’t it be more time efficient if we simply utilised a normal doll such as we might already have at home in order to save our mothers a lot of unnecessary work. At least although she didn’t put it quite that way, that was the gist of her query. The rest of us exchanged glances, astonished at her daring. Mr Cook’s neck pulse throbbed several times before a short explanation was given but I was so absorbed in watching the throb of the pulse that the details escaped me. Impressed with Jacqueline’s nerve I toyed with the idea of asking what we should do if we were a family without a spare shoe box. The only shoe boxes in our house were used for the storage of important documents such as old ration books and birth certificates and various family snapshots taken by my father with his Brownie camera. I did not quite have the necessary courage, however.

Instead I asked Pearl as I walked home with her. She was crying quietly and saying that her mother would not have time to make a May Doll by the end of the month let alone find a shoe box in which to put it. I comforted her with the fact that it was more likely than not that my mother would find herself in the same position. During that Spring of 1948 we each found ourselves giving our mothers what must have been tedious daily reminders presumably along with all the other girls. The May celebrations loomed over us like a huge sword of Damocles and I found myself having anxiety dreams about shoe boxes. Now, each afternoon, we were taken to the park by the station, to practice Maypole dancing under the direction of Mr Clarke with help from Mrs Haskell and Billy Elliot’s mother who was either keen to become involved or intent upon protecting her son from further assault should Mr Cook himself decide to drop by to assess progress. We were told that for the event itself we would wear brightly coloured sashes which was a relief because when the idea was first mooted there had been a suggestion that white dresses for the girls might be involved which the mothers would also have to make by the end of the month.

By the end of April, despite a great deal of negative advice from my grandmother that made me sick with terror because it included suggestions for Going Round That Bleeding School and Cleaning That Silly Bugger Headmaster Rotten, I had a May Doll made from an old sock with button eyes and yellow woollen plaited hair suitably surrounded by pink crepe paper flowers made by my cousin Margaret and nestling inside a shoe box that had previously contained her father’s Christmas Day carpet slippers. Pearl’s doll was beautiful, dressed in a skirt of parachute silk with a matching bonnet and so lovely it was carried to and from school on the back of her brother’s bike. Only poor little Maureen Dunstan who had seven siblings and wore clothes that my mother said were Shameful, was without a doll and she cried in a corner whilst the rest of us looked disapprovingly in her direction. Jaqueline even asked whether she should be allowed to dance at the Maypole at all in her doll-less state.

We were reminded more than once that all mothers and grandparents were expected to attend the Maypole Dancing and what was more, that a photographer from The Gravesend Reporter would be coming to take a photograph that was to appear in the paper. The idea of having our photographs in the local paper was of course thrilling but for me also perturbing as my greatest area of shame was being possessed of the kind of grandmother who did not behave as grandmothers are supposed to behave. Old Nan had never been known to bake a birthday cake or in fact show the slightest bit of love and affection towards her grandchildren and, to add insult to injury, she was inclined to the most unacceptable and vulgar turn of phrase. I imagined a photograph of a possible stand-off between Old Nan and Mr Cook and the visions that flashed before me were alarming.

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