Chapter 1 (1922-1927)

Early Years

What sort of world did my eyes open upon at 82 Tantallon Road, Balham, in South London in the early hours of the 18th December 1922? Like all of us, it was many years before I began to understand the reality of that world or the situation of my parents into whose lives I had come. In fact, not until well into middle age, with the stimulus of television and publication of popular history books did I find either the time or the inclination to ponder seriously upon it.

Ralph Smith as a baby in 1923

1921 to 1924 were boom years for babies, not only in Britain but in Europe as a whole, a fact which had implications for the rest of my life. There were always numerous people of this vintage about - friends sharing common background experiences but also competitors for education, jobs and promotion. The First World War had ended four years previously but it took a long time to disband the huge British Army, added to which the victorious Allies kept an Army of Occupation in Germany for a time. By 1922, however, Europe was beginning to recover from the sheer exhaustion of four years of bitter struggle and the dreadful influenza epidemic which followed it, killing, so it was said, more than the millions who died in the fighting. But equally, the return to civilian life of millions of men coupled with the sudden stoppage of war production began to cast the first shadows of economic depression across the country.

Glittering world vanished
Britain's position was probably less severe than that of other warring countries, though it presented massive problems which the Government was ill-prepared to handle. The First World War destroyed a whole way of life for Europeans in general and in some ways was even more cataclysmic than the Second World War. The great Austro-Hungarian Empire - the glittering world of Mozart, Liszt and the Hapsburg Emperors through whose complex politics the war had begun with the assassination of Archduke Otto at Sarajevo in 1914 - had vanished as if it had never been. So had the remnants of the Ottoman Empire of Turkey which had dominated much of the Mediterranean for 800 years, even reaching into Spain, and against which the Crusades had been fought. Austria and Turkey, who were allied to Germany and lost, became and remained minor figures on the world stage, apart from the former being the birthplace of one Adolf Hitler, of whom more anon. On the Allied side, the Russian Empire dissolved into revolution, born out of the defeat of the Russian Army by Germany in 1917. The Bolshevik faction emerged as victors, transforming a vast area of Eastern Europe and Asia into a communist "Empire of the People" which would before long compete with the major religions and governments of the world.

Map of Europe in 1914

Treaty of Versailles
Along with Britain, France, Belgium, Holland and Portugal, Germany had acquired a substantial pre-war overseas empire, mostly in Africa, including the large area in the South West now called Namibia. The war ended with the signing of an Armistice which left the German homeland hardly damaged, unlike those of France and Belgium on whose territory four years of battles had taken place with enormous devastation. This was bitterly resented by the victors who, under the vengeful Treaty of Versailles, stripped Germany of all her overseas territories along with large areas of her homeland such as the heavily industrialised Saar, the Sudetanland and parts of Silesia. The Saar was placed under French control and other areas actually incorporated, with their populations, into Czechoslovakia, Poland and Russia.

Times placard 'Germany will sign Versailles Treaty'

The German economy was shattered by the war and her subsequent loss of industrial strength, so that what was left of the country fell into a morass of unemployment, riots and staggering inflation, where a cup of coffee could double in price in the time taken to drink it. In August 1923 ten million Marks were worth just one dollar. I can remember playing with wads of German banknotes which my father had brought home, many with face values of millions of Marks each but whose real worth was just scrap paper. Thus were sown the seeds of World War II.

million mark postage stamp

While both countries faced huge difficulties, Britain and France were shielded from the worst effects of economic stagnation through the world-wide trading networks of their respective empires. But Germany and the impoverished Germans were regarded with disdain and I vividly remember the cheap metal toys and musical instruments with which they desperately tried to earn foreign currency, but which we contemptuously dismissed as "only German". Far from being the terrifying, unstoppable Power portrayed in histories of the Second World War, Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s was considered to be of no account. As children, like those of the 1950s and '60s, we scorned things German; we played at wars which the Germans always lost; we read stories in which the brave British always won. And like the children of that later generation, it came as an awful shock to discover that a beaten and dismembered Germany could recover and dominate Europe, in our case militarily, in theirs so far only economically.

A new dawn
Although to later eyes it was still class-ridden and heavily labour-dependent, British society had in fact changed enormously by 1918. People emerged from the struggle not only possessing new skills but also with new expectations; and the pattern of wealth and privilege had altered more than was at first realised. The upper classes of hereditary land-owning families had been badly affected by the loss of so many of their best and brightest sons on the field of battle, while many industrialists and suppliers of war materials had earned enormous profits and political honours through which they in turn became the "gentry" of the following decades. Significantly, technological advance had been colossal under the challenge of war and although its impact on peacetime life was slower in appearing, the glow of a new dawn of freedom from manual labour was beginning to be perceived by the civilised world, especially in the USA.

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By 1922, when joy and relief at the ending of slaughter had subsided, ordinary men and women faced a harsh awakening. For many women there was now the certain prospect of life without a husband or children and, as unemployment began to be felt, the bitter realisation that it would be life without much of a job either. The enthusiasm with which women had been welcomed into war production and administration was now replaced by pre-war prejudices: women's place was in the home, and those who were forced by economic circumstances to work were for the most part expected to do menial tasks at wages lower than men could command. Around one million British men had died and those who returned would have first call on any jobs going, but for them, too, there were harsh realities which the Government of the day had not prepared for. Old skills had often been outmoded or were unwanted because of changed patterns of life and social structure, while the processes of supply, demand and mass-production which today's consumer society takes for granted were still undeveloped. Also, unlike bomb-shattered post-1945 Britain, there was no vast reconstruction programme to cushion the labour market against the sudden ending of arms production.

Percy and May Smith, the author's  parents

Earliest Memories
My father, Harry Percy Smith, was a chauffeur before the war, having been apprenticed to a motor manufacturer in Coventry by a far-sighted parent.

A chauffeur in the early days of motoring was a very superior member of the household, often having a house and servant of his own on the estate of his employer. As well as knowing how to drive a motor-car, itself a rare talent, he must possess considerable mechanical skills to keep the new monster going. He also needed to have tact, polish and intelligence in order to take it and his employers on journeys and over distances which had required enormous effort and fortitude in former coaching days. 

Percy Smith with May Smith, and in the rear, Albert and Nell Kempton

Occasionally my father was able to use the vehicle for his own pleasure and would sally forth in dashing attire with my mother and friends or relations. But during the war thousands of people, including many women, were taught to drive vehicles of all kinds, and even to repair them. Many of them set out to become chauffeurs after the war, only to find that much of the mystique had gone and they were often treated simply as ordinary servants.

My father had served in the Army of Occupation and my mother and sister Vera lived for a time in Rouen, in France, before I was born. On his return to England he was fortunate enough to get a fairly prestigious job as chauffeur to one of the Wills family of tobacco fame (Wills Woodbines were probably then as well known throughout the world as Coca Cola is today), and my young life nearly came to a damp end when I was found tottering into the lake of their stately home, Kearsney Abbey, in Essex. But the long, unsocial hours and frequent absences of a chauffeur's life had lost their appeal. My parents were not young when I was born, he being 44 and she 37. My sister Vera, born in 1908, was 14 years older than myself and I suspect that they thought a more settled life for this new addition to the family was desirable, both for their sakes and mine. Like many others, my father had met huge challenges and responsibilities during the fighting (he was commissioned in the field and Mentioned in Despatches for bravery), and the prospect of life as a servant, even a superior one, did not attract him.

The family at Brighton or Hove in about 1926

So for better or worse he gave up the job. For me it was undoubtedly better in that it gave me a settled and safe home all through my childhood, for which I can never be sufficiently grateful. For my parents it was probably for worse. During all my childhood my father had no decent or permanent job of any kind, a fact which led to much unhappiness and bickering. Perhaps recalling past glories of a noble profession, my own birth certificate proudly records my father's occupation as "Motor Cab Owner and Driver", though what sort of vehicle he owned I shall never know. My first recollections of life are of a tiny first floor flat in Stronza Road, Acton, in West London, to which my parents' reduced circumstances had driven them. By an odd coincidence, in about 1970 I was directed by the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals of the Poor to a house in the same road in order to collect an unwanted kitten. It turned out to be immediately opposite our old house, and the street itself still as dismal as my parents found it all those years ago. (The kitten, promptly christened Bonzo by our son Brian, lived happily with us till 1988).

First School
Immediately adjoining the house was the school, called a Council school in those days, which I entered at the age of four and of which I remember little except that the tables were turned upside down for a short period each afternoon for us little ones to have a sleep. In an age still harsh in many ways, this was quite a benevolent practice. I still have a faded photograph of small creatures in the induction class, showing me wearing a fancy shirt, among cropped heads and jerseys. Behind the house was a steam laundry which was noisy at the best of times, but imprinted firmly in my memory is my mother's constant complaint at the unbearable din when they built a new boiler in situ, a process which seemed to take weeks. Next door lived a family of five who occupied a single room. I remember visiting them and wondering how on earth they managed. Such is the peculiarity of memory that I even recall their name - Appleby. My father at this time was employed at a sweet factory, doing what I have no idea except that he often brought samples home. He also brought me a small toy each day when he could afford it and the expectation and pleasure which this gave me remain quite sharply in my mind to this day.

Home appliances
Life for a mother was pretty hard. There were few aids to cooking meals or washing clothes. Water was heated by gas and carried to wherever it was needed. Rubbing and scrubbing by hand in hot soapy water were the sole means of getting clothes clean and after a lifetime of it my mother's hands, like those of all her contemporaries, were red and raw, especially after the traditional Monday wash. Ironing was by a solid flat-iron heated on the fire or gas ring.

A washing mangle, used for wringing the water out of wet clothes.

One mechanical marvel for those able to afford one was a mangle, which saved the agony of wringing out heavy clothes and bedding by hand. The expression "being put through a mangle" remains in the language as a symbol of physical stress or exhaustion, but I wonder how many of today's children have ever seen one? They were generally massive affairs on a cast-iron frame, with a large iron handle turning iron cog wheels and great wooden rollers (made of a species of Willow, I learned years later). Needless to say, I managed to get my thumb caught in the teeth of the cogs and caused my hysterical mother instantly to gain many more grey hairs. Fortunately for me, I recovered with no long-term effects.

knife cleaner

We also had a machine for cleaning steel knives, stainless steel being almost unknown to us and silver plate being out of the question. This was a round wooden box about eighteen inches across, inside which leather discs covered with knife powder burnished the blade like a mirror. I could safely turn the handle when no knife was present and would spend hours at this. 

Crystal radio advertisement

One modern miracle was the invention of Wireless Telegraphy and we possessed a Crystal Set with which to receive transmissions from the first public broadcasting station, called 2LO, located at Savoy Hill in the Strand. The crystal was about the size of a peanut and by judiciously probing its surface with a movable wire called the "cat's whisker" one could tune in to speech or music coming apparently from nowhere through a pair of cumbersome headphones. Of course, I was not allowed to touch this precious device.

I have a distant but strong memory of being taken to the great Empire Exhibition at Wembley when I must have been about two years old. The British of those days, in spite of the immense ravages of war, proudly believed they belonged to the most advanced and civilised nation in the world and it seemed natural for them to proclaim this as often as they could. They also saw themselves still as the richest nation, though the USA with its vast resources and the unbounded energy of its people had probably by then overtaken them. Thus British men and women expected to take part in, and win, international competitions of all kinds from the Olympics to across-the- world air races. Of course, the number of nations able to compete effectively was rather fewer than it is today, if only because so many of them were then part of the British Empire, while others had not yet achieved the political or technical development which advances in science and communication have since allowed them.

Empire Exhibition Souvenir

The Empire Exhibition consisted of a number of splendid pavilions representing the major countries of the Empire and the fields of scientific and artistic endeavour in which Britain excelled. It was indeed an impressive display by all accounts. Some of these once fine pavilions remain today, mostly used as storehouses for Government materials. One, I believe, contains many hundreds of surplus paintings from the collection of the Royal Academy. During the 1970s I had occasion to visit one of them on an organisational assignment; it was sad to see how decrepit these monuments to imperial splendour had become.

Wembley at that time was virtually in the countryside and it was not until the Metropolitan Line was electrified that it was promoted as a desirable residential area, resulting in its becoming effectively a London suburb during the 1930s. A little-known fact is that towards the turn of the Century an enterprising gentleman formed a Company to build a tower, taller than the Eiffel Tower, to which he hoped the citizens of the capital would flock, both to see the work in progress and later pay handsomely to ascend it. In the event, they didn't show much interest; money ran out and the tower was never completed. It was demolished, but curiously its site is now rather more famous - it is the green expanse of Wembley Stadium where the Cup Final is held.

My last recollection of Stronza Road was of being taken ill suddenly. Not that I remember feeling ill, but I recall clearly being carried down the stairs to an ambulance. My father followed but then said he must go back for his hat; he did not return and I still feel the sense of despair at being torn away from my home, alone in the power of strange new people. In fact, I had caught diphtheria, a common disease arising from poor drainage but one which was often fatal, and indeed remained so until well into the 1930s. 

Diphtheria antitoxin information poster

Most fortunately for me, a new serum had just appeared and I remember the sharp pain of the needle as I was injected immediately on arrival at the hospital. It was a most contagious disease requiring strict isolation and my parents were allowed to visit me only occasionally, wearing long white gowns and resembling members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

I recovered after an unknown period and suffered no ill effects apart from a persistent nervous twitch and cough, which my mother attributed to the disease and which she frequently endeavoured to rectify by taking me to various specialists, to no avail. Whether this was for my benefit or because I drove the rest of the family mad I never discovered, but I suspect it was the latter. I still display both symptoms on occasions of stress or excitement.

Curiously, I have few firm recollections of my sister Vera at Stronza Road. She would have been 16-18 years old and was working somewhere, no doubt beset by the problems of a teenager in a deprived neighbourhood, and living in a small flat containing a demanding and obnoxious child. Nevertheless, she was always most kind and affectionate towards me. When my parents announced that we were moving to somewhere with the enchanting name of Thornton Heath I was aware that she was overjoyed at the prospect of living in the countryside. Unfortunately, Thornton Heath was no longer in the country.

Next page: Chapter 2

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