River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Memories from the 1930's

May 2014

The first nine years of my life were in the 1930s, needless to say my memories of the early thirties are rather sketchy.  Nevertheless I do have a few memories from an early age and a surprisingly clear memory of the late thirties.  We were relatively poor, not grindingly poor as were some in those times, but poor.  We lived on the top floor of a four storey Victorian house in Brixton, where my parents had two medium size rooms and a third small room.  We had no kitchen, just a cooker on the landing where the natural light was poor.  There was no running water or drain, water had to be carried from a shared bathroom on the floor  below, where there was a loo and a bath, but no wash basin, and dirty  water returned there.  Until 1936 there was no electricity, lighting was  by gas, heating was by open fire, coal was carried from the ground floor  and ashes returned there.

There I lived with my parents, my sister and brother. Unfortunately I cannot, like some other contributors, write about memories that relate to local matters, memories that most readers could share, I am an alien in your midst, but not the only one I guess.   Nevertheless, we might have one or two common memories.

By the standards of today life was hard, especially for my poor mum, who  was young and slight, but, by the standards of that time, it was  probably not so hard.  There were people living in fairly grim slums and there were plenty of people living in rural areas that had to carry their water from a village pump which could be 200 yards or more away, they had no electricity or gas, but perhaps they had a little more space  than we did and most likely lived on the ground floor.

Early memories include going with my mother to see the ‘Lord Mayor’s Show’ in the City, I was small enough to be lifted on to the shoulders of a  man in the crowd in order to get a view of proceedings, it was all pomp  and quite a spectacle.  We were fortunate in that we had a number of modern cinemas within fairly easy reach and, although we couldn’t afford to go very often, they were important and my earliest memories include going to the pictures.  I can remember being swung across the tramlines by my arms between two adults on the way to the Astoria in Stockwell Road, an incredibly grand place to my eyes, with a huge organ that rose up out of the floor below the screen and was played before the programme started.  For years afterwards the sounds on the radio of Sandy McPherson playing the organ always revived memories of the cinema organ.   Tarzan was very impressive to a child unused to visual pictures and Paul Robeson’s voice in ‘Sanders of the River’ has stayed with me.   The cinema was a wondrous thing, especially to young eyes, and I remember being overawed by ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

The cinema was important because there was no TV, of course, and we had no radio until about 1938.  Occasionally we used to go and listen to our  grandparent’s radio, ‘Monday Night at Eight o-clock’ was a particular favourite.  Their ‘wireless’, as it was called then, was powered by an ‘accumulator’, this was a lead-acid battery encased in a glass box so that the plates and the acid were clearly visible.  This was recharged  by the local ‘oil shop’, and it was sometimes my job to take it and  collect it.  The wireless consumed quite a lot of power compared with today’s portables because of using thermionic valves, I used to look in  the back and watch them heat up.

Just behind Brixton Road there was ‘The Empress Theatre’, the only time  I went there was for a pantomime.  I never did get pantomime, even at that age I thought it was a bit silly and the innuendo that was there for the adults must have gone over my head.  During the year the Empress staged variety shows, changing the programme very frequently, and I used  to look at the posters outside.  They had stars that I knew from radio  and newspapers, Tommy Trinder, Flanagan and Alan, Max Miller, Gert n Daisy, and big bands like Geraldo.  I was particularly intrigued by a picture of a beautiful lady with two huge feathers, her name was Phyllis Dixie.

A few hundred yards away on the same side of the road as our house we had a number of local shops and I was often sent on errands.  I mentioned the ‘oil shop’ and there, apart from ironmongery and the facility to charge accumulators, it was possible buy a variety of liquids from paraffin to turpentine, provided you had your own bottle or  can.  Mustard pickle, pickled onions etc were available if you had your own basin.  They had loose cereal and pet foods, served out of a sack.

I have a clear memory of the way in which the floorboards were soaked in oil and the place smelled of mice.  The butcher’s was rather more hygienic, but it left a lot to be desired by today’s standard.   The floor was covered in sawdust that was swept up and replaced at the end of each day, I assume it was there to soak up any spilt blood.  They had no refrigeration plant but they had a cold store that was kept cool with  ice, the ice was delivered on an open lorry.  It was in the form of solid blocks that must have weighed at least 200lb, they were loosely covered with sacking to cut down the rate of melting.  The delivery man had a hood of sacking with an attached piece to cover his back, he had a large pair of tongs to pull the ice to the edge of the truck where he could get it on to his back (I never saw how he managed to put it down).

I often ran errands; on one occasion when I got home I found that I had lost a sixpence.  I received a severe scolding, after all sixpence was sixpence {enough to buy a dinky toy car from Halfords).  Feeling very miserable I was sent back along the road to find that small coin, fat chance.  (A sixpence was the same size as a 5p piece).

Sweets were something of a luxury, but occasionally I might have had a penny to spend and there were sweets priced at one farthing (1/4d), these included gobstoppers, liquorice sticks and there was also Sharps toffees that were in the form of wrapped short sticks and could be bought individually.  In summer time the ‘Stop me and buy one’ Walls Ice Cream man was often outside the school with his tricycle.  He sold ice lollies for 1d; they were in triangular form wrapped in a cardboard sleeve.  They were ok but, being open at both ends they were inclined to drip as the ice melted, the trick was to try and close one end by  squeezing the cardboard sleeve and pushing the lolly out at the other  end.

In 1939 the reality of an approaching war was driven home when we had to go to LambethTown Hall to collect our identity cards (I can still remember my number) and later to collect our gas masks.  The gas masks were fitted by the staff, just adjustment of straps.   The air was drawn through the filter and exhausted past the rubber that was in contact with the face.  We children soon discovered that by placing a finger on the rubber and breathing out forcibly one could generate some really powerful rude noises.  The ‘windows’, made of celluloid or plastic, could mist up on the inside under certain conditions.  I imagined that could be a problem in a real gas attack.

Mainly because of illness, my attendance at school during the thirties was extremely bad, by the end of 1939 I had not totalled two years. Fortunately my mother had an unmarried sister that visited regularly and, with the help of my overworked mother, she taught me to read  (something my father was still struggling to do) and do simple arithmetic.  I became an avid reader, we had little or no opportunity to play outside (the garden was not ours and the road outside was busy with three bus routes).  I joined the local library and worked my way through most of Richmel Crompton’s William books.  I was very envious of the freedom enjoyed by William and his pals living in the country.  We were also given an old set of a Junior Encyclopaedia.  I read any newspapers that I could lay my hands on, I probably did not understand much of what I read but I could not fail to detect the concern over the threat of war.  I did like the cartoon strips, Useless Eustace was quite a favourite and Captain Reilly Ffoul .  I was also intrigued by Ripley’s   ‘facts’ in his ‘Believe It Or Not’ spot.  Did he just make it up?   Certainly I discovered some of his facts were true - but all of them?   That was taxing credibility.

Our house was opposite a Ford main dealer and this little boy could spend hours at the window watching the cars and trucks coming and going,  I was fascinated by cars and remained so for all my life.  Some of the cars and trucks going there looked antiquated and I realized later that they were Model Ts, but mostly they were Model As and Ford 8 Model Ys, my favourite was the ‘Barrel’ Ford 10 Model C with its sloping back (this had the 1172cc engine that went on to power the Popular and later post war models).  I became quite excited (for me) when I first spotted the new Anglia in 1939, the car that went on to become the ubiquitous Ford Popular of the post war years.  For those fortunate enough to own a  car motoring was very different to what it is today, perhaps the most  striking difference, apart from the cars themselves, was the way in  which it was possible to park wherever you liked.   Lorries were rather slow and most were not suitable for loads over 5tons, some with solid tyres could still be seen in the thirties, I also remember steam lorries, but they were rather rare.  Because lorries tended to be slow, especially on secondary roads, children would hang on for a free ride  and cyclists would grab hold of the odd protrusions, these proved to be  dangerous practices as the speeds increased.

South London had a fairly comprehensive tram network.  Apart from a few later models, the trams were mostly dating from the early part of the century; they were very noisy, especially on sharp curves.  They only had four wheels with considerable overhang at either end and as a consequence they tended to pitch in a fore and aft motion.  They were fitted with a ‘man catcher’ constructed with wooden slats that the driver could drop down to pick up a fallen pedestrian and prevent them   from going under the wheels.  (A little later in life I was reassured by that knowledge when lying in the road.)  The driver had to stand to drive and was exposed to the elements on one side.   We did have a few more modern trams going through Brixton; these were longer with the driver enclosed.

I had a cousin four years older and we used to go on the trams in the  school holidays, we could get a 6d all day ticket and we would explore  the network.   The same cousin left school at fourteen to become a telegraph boy.  I envied him beyond measure with his red bicycle in his smart blue uniform with pill box hat.  Soon he would have been  responsible for delivering those dreaded telegrams that were always sent  to advise parents/wives that their serviceman was reported missing or  killed, but we didn’t know that then.   (Through further study and training he went on to become an engineer with the BBC and, as one often did in those days, he joined them in his late teens and stayed with the same firm until he retired at 65.)

Ron Watts

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