Chapter 2 (1928-1931)

Childhood, Empire and London Trams

Thornton Heath was a suburb of Croydon, which itself was then a Borough in the county of Surrey though it is now part of Greater London. The status of Borough entitled Croydon to manage most of its own affairs, including Education, independently of the Surrey County Council. By 1928 Croydon had become virtually joined to London by continuous building development, but the boundary between Norbury, in Croydon, and Streatham, in London, was still marked and the Borough boasted an identity not unlike that of a County Town, with a proper civic pride.

I never discovered where the Heath was, or had been, since the area was almost solid housing, apart from a recreation ground and a small but pleasant wooded area called Grange Park, situated on a hill. It is true that when we moved there, the remains of a small farm adjoined our road; but this was very shortly built over. Thornton Heath Pond was then still a real pond, a landmark and bus and tram stop; and some road names carried impressions of times long past, such as Bensham Manor Road and Colliers Water Lane, the latter (so our teachers told us) referring to an opencast coal mine which once existed there.

Our New Home
Our house was No 7, Berne Road, which formed one side of a square of roads with similarly attractive Swiss names - Geneva, Zermatt and Lucerne. Zermatt and Lucerne houses were pre-1914 but Berne and Geneva were modern in the sense that they were smaller, cheaper and less well built. However, after Stronza Road it was all quite heavenly, especially the small garden. Ours was in a terrace of five, rented of course, since purchase was neither possible nor thought particularly desirable in those days. The landlords, who had bought the house as an investment, were a childless couple called George and Clare Phillips, who owned a sweet shop in Bermondsey and were destined to play a small but significant part in our lives.

'Ralvira', 7 Berne Road, Acton, with Ralph Smith and Gyp in about 1930

My parents named the house "Ralvira" for obvious reasons and we even had a glazed sign proclaiming this fact. We also shortly acquired a black puppy of dubious parentage called Gyp and among the archives is a picture of myself aged about 8 with Gyp, standing beneath this sign. 
(Right. Click to enlarge)
Vera and I actually had bedrooms to ourselves, a luxury not enjoyed by many young people. Mine was the smallest, while Vera had the back bedroom overlooking the garden and the blank wall of the first house in Geneva Road, until she got married and left home, after which my father moved or was banished into it on grounds of his truly horrendous snoring.

Like all houses until well after the Second World War, it had fireplaces in both of the downstairs living rooms and the two larger bedrooms. Coal was the sole form of space heating and only rarely were fires lit upstairs. However, I do remember being ill on one occasion and enjoying the luxury of a real coal fire in my parents' bedroom, to which I was moved. There was a rudimentary back boiler in one fireplace downstairs for heating water but it was both inefficient and noisy, so the common method was to heat small quantities of water in a kettle or saucepan and larger amounts in a gas-copper holding 12-15 gallons, which had to be conveyed upstairs somehow for bathing purposes. With recollections of larger Edwardian houses in mind, my mother used to call the large back room the "kitchen" and the small cooking/washing-up room the "scullery". The other living room was simply the "front room" to us, but called the "parlour" by our more pretentious neighbours. "Lounge" was unheard of. Although all rooms were quite small, people often kept the parlour unused except for the most important family occasions, a practice which happily my parents scorned and we used every inch of the house to the full.

The back garden was quite small but to a child who had never known such a thing it was a second home to me and I spent a great deal of time in it. There was also a covered area attached to the back of the house, with a rudimentary work-bench where I made or dismantled articles in the endless quest for knowledge displayed by most boys. Its great advantage to my mother was that the resulting mess was kept out of the house.

Ecclesbourne Road Infants  School

Early Schooldays
I now j
oined the Infants at Ecclesbourne Road School, some quarter of a mile away. I walked there of course, as we all did. There was little traffic on side roads in those days, though crossing them was not entirely without danger and there was the odd casualty. Life in the Infants was clearly placid because I remember hardly anything about it except my teacher's name, Miss Wakelyn, and also being caught playing truant one day. However, one notable event was establishing a friendship with a boy 12 months my senior who lived in Zermatt Road. It was then 1927; I was five years old and he six. His name was Derek Robinson and he is a friend today, 65 years later at the time of writing.

Ecclesbourne Junior School

I graduated at the age of 7 to the "Big Boys" (nowadays called a Primary or Junior School), where there were eight classes of fifty or more children. Boys occupied the ground floor and girls the upper floor, each having separate entrances and playgrounds. So well segregated were we that the Girls' School made no impact on our lives or my recollection. The plan appeared to be to put brighter boys in the even-numbered classes and others in the odd numbers. I was in the former. In reality the division was between those who had good, stable homes and parents who took an interest in education, and those who did not. Some children came from frightful homes where poverty, overcrowding and ignorance made staying alive and unhurt the essential aims in life. As a child I was vaguely aware of my advantages; but like all children (and most adults) I accepted this as being due to some superiority on my part.

A small but vital income
In point of fact, the catchment area was such that the range of both money and ability was quite wide. Some boys' families were distinctly better off than mine, though most were not. We did, however, have a slight but crucial advantage over most of our neighbours in that my mother possessed a small income of her own. 

Traffic on Tower Bridge in 1896

This derived from her father, one William Morton, who had been a successful hay salesman in Vauxhall, London, until his untimely death in 1896 after falling under a wagon on Tower Bridge. His three younger children - my aunt, Nell, my mother, May, and my uncle, Leonard - were left in a parlous situation but a good friend of their father, named Atkins, collected all the bad debts and disposed of the business profitably. The proceeds were used to purchase some small labourers' cottages in Clapham, the rents from which educated the children and gave them a small income for life. Wisely, Mr Atkins placed the estate in trust for the two girls, without which it would inevitably have been frittered away on some business venture of their respective husbands. Unwisely, he made a relation called Mr Sangs the trustee. This gentleman milked the proceeds disgracefully and my earliest recollections are of my mother's efforts to get her quarterly allowance out of "Old Mouldy Mug", as he was disrespectfully but deservedly known, and she frequently took me with her by bus to his house at Clapham Common to belabour him in person.

Nevertheless, the money did make the difference between rubbing along and real poverty when my father was out of work, and we never went short of food. It is hard to believe that people starved to death in the richest country in the world, with an Empire which held sovereignty over one quarter of the population of the planet. But they did. Later, in Grammar School, a much respected and philanthropic history master named King (though we called him Smiler for reasons which were totally obscure) urged us when we grew up to ask why coal cost fifteen shillings a ton to buy but miners got only fourpence a ton for digging it out; and why over two hundred people had died of starvation that year according to official records.

Games and Pastimes
In those early days, children's major pastime was playing in the street with one's friends or, if it was wet, in each others' houses. I had two particular friends who lived close by, one called Wilfred Lyons and the other Martin Matthews, later to die in a burning Lancaster bomber. The Lyons family were quiet, easy-going working class people and always made me welcome along with other companions of their four children. I spent many happy hours playing billiards on the full-sized table which almost completely filled their living room; sadly, I allowed the skill to lapse. They also often listened to Radio Luxemburg, a commercial station beaming programmes and advertisements in English from that small European state and the only one of its kind competing with the BBC until well after the Second World War. Ovaltine, Horlicks and popular medicines were the most common advertisements - Ovaltine with its "We are the Ovalteenies, happy girls and boys", and Horlicks with its advice to avoid "night starvation" were repeated so often that they were imprinted permanently on our brains. 

Ball games figured prominently out of doors, mostly concerned with throwing, catching or hitting someone with it. Conventional team games such as soccer and cricket were not much favoured and I have to confess that I have never acquired much interest in either of them. On the other hand, I developed and retain a quick eye for relative movement and even today can still catch a ball instinctively. To say that we were street urchins is going too far, though we certainly made a dreadful noise running about shouting and bawling. However, parents and neighbours (most of whom also had children, of course) must have been more tolerant in those days, or perhaps it was simply the case that anything was better than having us under their feet indoors. A popular game was bouncing a ball as high as possible up the windowless wall of an end house, until the demented occupants came and screamed dire imprecations at us. 

British police officers

A common threat was to tell our parents, not an empty one in days when people were concerned about their image in the community and did not take complaints about their children as a personal insult, as many do today. The ultimate, and invariably effective, deterrent was to say they would call a policeman. The "bobby on the beat" was much more in evidence then and exercised a powerful restraining influence on public behaviour.

Street Life
Winter darkness inhibited our activities somewhat but we enjoyed its soft concealment and would go out in the street as often and for as long as our parents allowed. We had no fear of molestation by adults, though larger boys were best avoided. In summer a girl or two would sometimes join us but rarely after dark until we were all somewhat older. I still recall the street lamp-lighter who would go round on his bicycle with a long pole, magically touching each gas lamp which would spring into golden life; but soon these were replaced by electric lamps and the lamplighter passed into history along with the "link man" of earlier times. The night watchman guarding road works in winter was also a wonderful sight, huddled against his coke brazier which he stoked to white-heat. He would be pleased to have someone to talk to until we were eventually summoned to bed, leaving him to the dark, silent streets.

As we grew older, we developed a new and rather anti-social activity. We discovered, or were taught, how to fashion a catapult out of a bicycle spoke. With elastic bands and a small leather pouch, these deadly implements could be concealed in the palm of one's hand. They fired round airgun pellets with astonishing accuracy and effect, and a popular competition involved several of us taking five rounds rapid fire at one of the metal cowls which adorned many local chimneys and whose purpose was to swivel away from the wind direction and thus prevent smoke from gusting back into the living room. The unearthly and incomprehensible din would bring the occupants out to gaze at their roofs while we either stood with cherubic countenances pretending ignorance or, if rumbled, beat a hasty retreat.

These catapults were precision instruments and we became skilled at making them. Occasionally we turned them on each other's bare legs but this was highly painful and each "ping" left a small blue bruise, so the practice was generally frowned upon. Others outside the circle were not so lucky but one had to be careful not to be caught as the wrath of the pinged one was terrible to behold.

A Secret Weapon
One day I made a "Big Bertha" (so named after a giant gun with which the Germans bombarded Paris in World War I) out of thick fencing wire, powered by two Hoover cleaner rubber drive belts. This fired pebbles an inch or more across. It was quite impossible to hold the device and pull the elastic at the same time so I had to wedge the handle in a fence while pulling with both hands. Like the real Big Bertha, its scope was limited. During a temporary feud with Wilf I endeavoured to show my displeasure at his leering insults over the four widths of garden from my house to his by loosing a round in his direction. He, quick as a cat, had ample time to take evasive action. Not so the house behind him, and I watched with horror as the missile sped high over where Wilf's obnoxious head had been to crash on the slates of his neighbour's roof.

The reader will gather that when I complain about children's behaviour today I am being grossly unfair. On the other hand, I do not recall anyone who had a vicious or destructive nature enjoying evil for its own sake, and our escapades were mostly sheer mischievousness. Indeed, we had a strong, if sometimes misguided, sense of justice and fair play.

The cane, used for discipline in schools

At school things were different. A rigid discipline was maintained at all times, reinforced by cuffs about the head and liberal use of the cane. This was not then regarded as in any way harsh, undignified, inhuman, or damaging to our tender sensibilities and likely to cause us to grow into sadistic brutes. Nor did it. On the contrary, the saying "spare the rod and spoil the child" was held to be an ancient truth and canes for thwacking children would be displayed in shops to encourage parents to do their duty. The parents of some of my friends had, and used, such a deterrent; my own, I'm glad to say, did not subscribe to the practice. The reader must judge whether a valuable formative element to my character was thereby omitted.

A single cane served the whole school (apart from the Headmaster, who had a private stock of them) and a delinquent was sharply told to "get the stick and black book", whereupon he must go from classroom to classroom knocking on the door, waiting to be admitted and stuttering out his request, hoping desperately that it was not there. Of course, in the end it was there and he was forced to clutch it to him and creep back to his classroom where his comrades would sit back with brazen satisfaction, not to say pleasure, at the prospect of pain being administered to a fellow human being. This ritual punishment was applied with vigour regardless of age, leaving angry blue weals on the victim's hands. There was a myth, of the kind which young children accept as gospel truth, that rubbing one's hands with orange peel would cause the cane instantly to break; and inevitably there were those who swore that they had seen it happen. But it never did.

School was not meant to be a particularly comfortable or homely place but if you were reasonably well favoured it was bearable. Even so, I remember how often I would go home seething at the unfairness and lack of feeling of one teacher, aptly named Miss Birch; my mother's utter indifference to the whole subject merely increased my indignation. No doubt Miss Birch had plenty to exasperate her. I remember her screaming at the boy sitting beside me who, instead of listening to her, was blissfully drawing a face in ink with a steel-nibbed pen upon the tip of his private part. And I can still see her taking such exception to a crayon drawing by Wilf that she seized the paper and rubbed it violently all over his face. He emerged looking like a Red Indian. 

Map showing the lands of the British Empire in red

History and Empire at School
We learned a lot about British (mostly English) heroes like Drake, Nelson and Wellington, and were regaled with stories and poems of heroic feats of arms in our Island history, such as the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, and the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War; it would have been unheard of even to question any of them, still less to debunk them in the fashion of today. We were, in short, British, self-evidently superior to all other nations, and our Empire was a totally desirable and praiseworthy institution, blessed and approved by the Almighty, to which its millions of subject peoples were eternally grateful to belong. And so they should be. Indeed any of them who sought to oppose us by force were rightly caught and, if necessary, disposed of, and no-one seemed to think this the slightest bit unfair.

Victorian map showing the British Empire under the title "The Queen's Dominions"

A map of the world, showing the British Empire coloured in red
at the end of the nineteenth century. Date: late 19th century

A map of the Empire adorned every wall, together with a series of paintings showing how the Royal Mail was carried to its farthermost reaches, illustrating the benefits of a peaceful, orderly and civilised way of life which the British had brought to so much of mankind. And I remember with what pride the whole school was paraded in the playground to see the British Airship R101 floating gracefully overhead, large as an ocean liner, just weeks before it crashed in France on the 5th October 1930 with the loss of almost everyone on board.

Playground Games
At a certain time each year, no-one knew why, the school playground was given over to games with cigarette cards - fag cards to us - of which every child collected large quantities unless his parents belonged the small and distinctly peculiar minority of non-smokers.

Front and back of a cigarette card of the type included in most packets of cigarettes during the first half of the twentieth century. Similar cards were also found in boxes of tea bags until late in the century.

The buttresses of the school wall afforded recesses in each of which enterprising boys would set up stalls and invite others to undertake skilled tasks with a well-skated cigarette card. A typical game required one to knock down a 1-inch wood screw standing on end or to cover a halfpenny with the skated card, and odds of up to 10 cards to 1 would be offered. Then suddenly the craze would die and something else would take its place. Spinning-tops were a popular and regular event. They were of two kinds, whip tops and peg tops. The former were raised to prodigious speeds by whipping them with a string tied to a stick, and they could be persuaded to perform remarkable aerial feats in skilled hands. The latter, beautifully made of box-wood, were carefully bound with a piece of twine and then deftly hurled to the ground where they would spin for ages, the twine remaining in one's hand.

The game of conkers - a conker waiting to be struck by the opponent's conker.

Other games were dictated by the season, notably conkers and sliding on ice. Conkers is, I believe, still as popular today as it was then, though possibly meeting with less adult approval. Children would desecrate local horse-chestnut trees to obtain prize specimens of the beautiful waxy brown globes, and gaze in awe at a famed "twelver" or more (which had probably been baked surreptitiously in an oven to make it hard as iron).

We must have had some very cold winters because playground slides were a regular feature and were formed by skilled little feet into lethal Cresta Runs twenty or thirty yards long. Groups of boys would run as fast as they could, then leap onto the slide and sail gracefully to its end. Teachers rarely put a stop to this, possibly on the basis that we were learning social and physical skills of a high order but more probably because it kept us occupied; and if some of us suffered grievous cuts and bruises, that too could be regarded as a useful introduction to the perils of life.

Transport and the Trams
Citizens old and young were accustomed to walking or cycling appreciable distances to get to work, school or shops; but public transport was also readily available in the shape of frequent buses or trams serving the main roads, while the Southern Electric Railway provided a wide network of lines covering South London with a similarly reliable service. Our usual journey was to the shopping centre of Croydon, for which purpose we used Route 42 of Croydon Tramways, a fleet of lumbering top-heavy vehicles run by the Council and plying between Thornton Heath High Street and the Greyhound Hotel, a distance of about five miles along just two roads. The service they provided was reasonably good considering that they laboured under certain difficulties. One of these was the need to reverse direction at the end of each journey, requiring the electricity pick-up pole to be moved from one overhead line to the other, an operation calling for skill and patience. Another was a regrettable tendency to come off the rails, blocking the track and leaving a trail of immobile trams and incensed would-be travellers. This was a particular hazard at Thornton Heath Pond where they had to perform a sharp right-angle turn from Brigstock Road into London Road and in the process join or leave the tracks of the No 16 and 18 tram services, which ran from the Thames Embankment in London right down to Purley, on the Brighton Road.

No 42 tram open

Drivers of No 42 trams had very little protection at all from the elements. They stood with gloves, caps, greatcoats and goggles facing the oncoming rain or sleet and I can still see them now, stamping their feet and clapping their arms round their bodies against the bitter cold. 

Drivers of the trams from London, on the other hand, had a roof over their heads and glass screens around them, enabling them to stand in relative luxury. 

London tram on route 42, showing the screened driving platform of later years.

These were later fitted to the No 42 trams as well. None sat down throughout the journey, because there was nothing to sit on. The ultimate and, some said, unnecessary luxury of a seat for the driver appeared only in a sleek new vehicle which was introduced shortly before the war. 

Lower-deck passengers had a modicum of upholstery but those upstairs had only hard wooden seats. Prominently displayed were notices saying "Do Not Spit. Penalty 40 shillings" - an interesting reflection of the habits of our forebears but happily rare by my time. The size of the penalty, being best part of a week's wages for many people, showed the determination of the authorities to stamp out a practice which had been recently recognised as contributing to the spread of tuberculosis.

The road from London was very straight for long stretches and the great trams were capable of quite extraordinary speeds along them. Because tram rails were embedded in the ground, they were welded together and the wheels could glide smoothly over them without the "diddly-da" of expansion gaps which railway lines then required. No words can describe the thrill for a small boy of standing on the conductor's platform as the swaying monster hurtled effortlessly along, with the wheel on its pick-up pole screaming defiance to the world, until some fool wanted to get off and rang the bell. Its loud clang would be followed by the scraping of iron brakes on iron wheels and a mournful protesting wail from below as the gears changed from driving to driven mode, until the massive contraption came to a grinding, shuddering halt, and the spell was broken.

As traffic increased, trams became a source of frustration to other road users since their tracks lay in the centre of the carriageway and passengers had to stream across the road to get aboard. All other traffic was required by law to stop and give way. The practice of forming a queue, now a distinguishing feature of the British throughout the world, was practically unknown before World War 2 and to have to wait while a milling crowd of blockheads fought to climb onto their clumsy vehicle in rain or snow was more than the average motorist could endure. London's tramways with their fixed tracks were eventually seen to be causing more congestion than they relieved, and were done away with in 1952; but with them went a way of life and a tradition of service which was never quite replaced. They still remain in many parts of the world, providing cheap, pollution-free transport for the masses.

Next page: Chapter 3

Previous page: Chapter 1

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