Chapter 3 (1932-1933)

Family Life

Aunt Nell, my mother's sister

My mother’s sister Nell and her husband Albert Kempton lived in a large three-storied house at 46 Clarendon Road (now Clarendon Drive), Putney. They had lived there all their married lives, since the house was built when, incredibly today, fields and farmland adjoined it. My parents' wedding reception was held there. Over the years it had been a haven for them and we used to visit it often. 

A regular routine was to go there on a Sunday evening for the four of them to play cards while I played with my cousin Denis, three years older than I. Denis was a marvellous companion and we shared many happy hours throughout our childhood until he suddenly became a teenager, more interested in new clothes and girls than spotty younger cousins.

This apparently simple expedition to Putney was in fact quite lengthy and illustrates the energy and determination of my parents' generation. The journey to Putney began with a 15-minute walk to Thornton Heath Station, from where we took a train to Clapham Junction.

Here we caught a 37 bus to Putney and then had another fifteen minutes' walk to the house. Fairly late at night the journey was reversed and we arrived home about 11pm or later (far too late for a child still at school, I fear). There was never any question whether transport would run: weather, strikes, staffing or mechanical problems were not allowed to interfere with the timetable. Only in the thickest fog did we experience doubt or delay. 

London smog

A London fog in those days had to be experienced to be appreciated (if that is the right word): it was not only possible but quite commonplace to become utterly lost while crossing a familiar road or walking a few houses to visit a friend. Ordinary street lamps would be visible through the gloom only when one was immediately beneath them and the popular description a "peasouper" was entirely apt.

Naphtha flare used in London smog

But even then, a naphtha flare would be placed at strategic main road junctions and the bus would somehow make it, with the conductor walking slowly ahead guided by kerb or tramlines. Trains similarly would crawl from one signal to the next. Such a journey merely for an evening's cards would be unthinkable today but mobility seemed to be an essential part of life then.

The Kempton Family
Denis and I were of a later generation than our brothers and sisters, who had all left school by the time of my earliest recollections. He had three brothers - Maurice, Tim and Roy - and one sister, Violet.

Uncle Len

Uncle Leonard also lived in their commodious house, an unmarried, unremarkable man with a long, thin face, woolly greased hair parted in the middle of his head and a small moustache with waxed, spiky ends which he would twist between his fingers. He lived solely on the proceeds of Granpa Morton's inheritance and Nell's charity, and his interests were horseracing and the pub. He was a standing joke, but a good humoured, likeable man and part of the fabric of our lives.

Albert Kempton had a strong Cockney accent and worked as a fitter's mate at the Ham Gravel Company. He seemed totally out of place against Aunt Nell's almost regal manner and the public school polish of his children. Yet the Kempton family was quite well-to-do. At one time they owned a glass works in South London (where Charlie Chaplin once worked for a short time before emigrating to America, as his memoirs show), and Arundel Kempton owned probably the most famous greyhound of all time - Mick the Miller. I believe that Albert and my father once ran a taxi service together and through this met two sisters - my mother and Aunt Nell - who were apprentices at Whiteleys of Bayswater, a large and internationally famous department store, now vanished. Tim and Maurice went into Insurance, the former rising to be General Manager of the Pearl and the latter to Fire Manager of the Guardian. Roy was more restless and had a spell as a ship's steward on the great Atlantic liners, then as a young Woolworth's manager and finally general manager of a national laundry chain. Violet remained unmarried until just before the war. To my childish ears, the exaggerated stories of their exploits as young adults setting out in life were exciting and incredible.

Christmas at Putney was a very special occasion. Every year there was a huge turkey and the large dining room table groaned with food. As the older children grew up they acquired boy or girl friends and later husbands and wives, so that anything up to twenty people filled the house for two days or more. The standard attraction was a whist drive in the capacious drawing room on Boxing Day while Denis and I played around everyone's feet until expelled. Then we would play with our Christmas presents and explore the bedrooms or even the large coal cellar where, we were often told, the family had taken shelter during the Zeppelin airship raids on London in World War I. The next morning we would repair swiftly to the stale-smoke-ridden drawing room to seek, and find, coins which the players had dropped.

Smoking - a lost pleasure
Almost everybody seemed to smoke in those days. Cigarettes were the predominant medium and there were many brands, competing by means of constant advertising and the lure of gifts.

Wills Woodbine cigarette packet Players Navy Cut  cigarette packetCraven "A" cigarette packet

Men tended to favour Wills' Woodbines, Players Navy Cut (whose packet was adorned with a bearded sailor) or even more fiercely strong tobaccos, while women chose Craven 'A', Kensitas or other gentler-sounding brands, usually with cork tips.  Tobacco was grown in many parts of the world but American Virginia was by far the most popular in Britain; Turkish cigarettes were oval in shape and had a distinctive scented aroma which limited their appeal. Pipes were exclusively for men, with an even wider choice of both tobaccos and devices to burn it in, while cigars were generally confined to the more affluent strata of society except at Christmastime.

Smoking led to bad breath, respiratory diseases, costly and fatal fires, litter and grime. But all seemed to be regarded as acceptable if not inevitable consequences of the wholly natural and hallowed use of the weed. 

The cigarette in particular, now penally taxed and the subject of such obloquy that it and its despised addicts seem likely soon to disappear into history along with swords and duelling, had become a profound social and often civilising influence. It was the custom for one person to offer a cigarette to another, even a complete stranger, as an aid or prelude to conversation, a gesture of comfort and consolation in private or shared misfortune, or to calm ruffled feelings; and for the compliment to be returned in due course by the other. It was cheap, easy, inoffensive, non-committal and universally accepted. No similar social instrument of communion between human beings has yet replaced it. 

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Most food was still purchased from bulk quantities - today's handy packs were rare until the late 1930s. The grocer would carve butter from a large cask and deftly mould it into the required shape and quantity by kneading it between two wooden bats. I can recall the days when the milkman had a large oval pail and would ladle the milk into one's own jug, which had to be taken to his barrow or cart. All milkmen had a traditional cry of "Milko" expressed in a penetrating yodel, handed down through centuries, which alerted the housewife to their appearance; but it began to disappear when bottles arrived on the scene and were delivered to one's door. Sweets would be transferred via the grimy hands of the shopkeeper from a large jar to a paper bag, or sometimes direct into the even grimier hands of a child.

Beef was the familiar meat, closely followed by lamb or mutton; chicken, so common today, was a luxury for most people until well after the Second World War. Fish was not unnaturally a staple diet of a seafaring island people and was both varied and cheap. Humble herrings appeared in various forms at most meals, often as smoked kippers, lightly cured and salted bloaters, or soused in vinegar. Cod and haddock were also plentiful. The Fishermen of England were praised in song and fable, endowed with a heroic image like the Yeomen of old. Today, the traditional British fishing grounds are largely swept by foreign boats and the huge fishing fleet almost gone: fishing is a hard and lonely life which does not appeal to most young people or to the intellectual opinion-formers of our time. 

Our Motor Cars
During those early years at Thornton Heath my father somehow acquired a car from time to time. He could not bear to be without one. They were unbelievably awful by today's standards, though I suppose not unusual then. Not that they were unsafe, insofar as the technology of the age concerned itself with safety; his mechanical skill saw to that. But they were not in their first youth and were subject to breakdowns of every conceivable kind. One such car was an open Humber tourer, one front tyre of which was twice the width of the other, having been purloined from some sort of commercial vehicle. Punctures and mending them were as natural to him as cleaning his teeth.

Dickie seat

Another car was a Standard coupe, with what was known as a "dickey" seat for two at the back. The seat was in fact simply a wooden board which folded back and even with a cushion was most uncomfortable. If it rained, the fortunates in the front seat simply put up the hood, leaving the dickey seat passengers alone in cold, wet misery. When we had a car, we would go to the coast most weekends. Brighton and Worthing were our nearest destinations, travelling along the London-Brighton Road through Crawley, where a railway crossing bisected the road and caused enormous hold-ups no less solid than the traffic jams regarded with such horror today. The Standard had oil lamps and I recall returning from Brighton one evening accompanied in the dickey seat by Vera's boy-friend, Reg Prior, whose duty was to keep an eye on the single miserable rear lamp and lean down to relight it with a match at frequent intervals. This same car later burst a tyre and before it could be brought to a halt had wound both outer and inner tubes round its front axle in a tight, immovable knot of solid rubber.

Relatives at Brighton
Brighton, which included the more up-market Hove to its West and the newly-developing Black Rock and Rottingdean to the East, was popular with my parents, not only because it was our nearest resort but because they had friends and relations there.

The pier, nearby aquarium, Volks' mini electric railway, fish and chip shops and the seaside itself provided a variety of entertainment, while cheap rail tickets from London ensured that the place was always busy. 

The beach was actually rather unattractive, being covered in pebbles except at low tide and its unwashed upper reaches quite grimy (it is much the same today, for that matter). But for most South-Londoners in the 1930s it was all they had, and on a sunny August Bank Holiday it was difficult to find anywhere on the beach to sit. 

Ralph (far left) and family at Brighton

My mother had a wartime friend, also called Vera, who with her husband ran a tiny bar in a tiny street just off the seafront at Hove; it always reminded me of the Inn in Treasure Island where the sinister Long John Silver called. My father's sister, universally called Auntie Sis though her real name was Annie, also lived at Hove with her husband Billy Moore at 1, Goldstone Villas. We had few holidays with my father, presumably because they did not go with the sort of jobs he had, and my mother and I would usually spend a week with Auntie Sis in the summer. Also living in Brighton was my paternal grandfather, Sidney Smith, with his second wife, whose name I cannot recall. We visited him very rarely; in fact I recall only two occasions, one to a pet shop which he ran at Hove and the other to a house at Worthing shortly before he died. I found him an amiable but remote old man. He was apparently a keen naturalist and my deep interest in living creatures was often attributed to his genetic influence. I never questioned this apparent neglect of the old man on my father's part, though my mother hinted that he had been a rather difficult and unyielding character, harsh with wife and children alike, in which respect he was probably no different from most Victorian fathers. My own father had the kindest and most gentle nature which may explain the lack of communication, but a more likely cause was the limited time available to him for filial duty when his wife and family were pressing for more interesting activities.

Occasionally we holidayed with Aunt Nell and some of her five children. On one celebrated occasion, at the age of around 4, I was mooning along the promenade behind the rest of the family when they observed that I had vanished. An urgent search revealed that I had fallen some four feet onto the beach below. Fortunately for me, my fall was broken by someone sitting there. Unfortunately for her, she had been brought there by her husband because she had a headache, which was not greatly improved thereby.

Leisure Activities
At home, I acquired a small bicycle, succeeded by a larger one with, I think, 18-inch wheels, on which I used to dash round the streets and, when Wilf also obtained one, to more distant parts. 

Children with a home made Guy Fawkes in a pram, collecting "penny for the guy".

Firework night, the 5th of November, was then as now of great excitement to all children. Prior to the night we would hawk a preposterous figure round the streets accosting passers-by with the request "Penny for the Guy?", a practice which was most strictly forbidden to my own children whose mother (rightly of course) regarded it as begging. But it was fun. In those days there were no restrictions on children purchasing fireworks and we used to buy bangers and explode them under tins with dramatic effect. Children do the same today of course, but just have more difficulty in obtaining the lethal objects.

Rainbow comic

I also read comics avidly, at first the mainly pictorial Tiny Tots, then The Rainbow with its exploits of Tiger Tim, graduating through Film Fun to the mainly textual Wizard and Hotspur with their stories of Sport and War heroes. Much has been written about the value of comics in Education, most of it by people who know little about the subject or have forgotten their own childhood. I too was suspicious of the unfamiliar publications which my children bought in the 1960s and the even weirder Supermen of the 1980s who evolved from them. But they encouraged us to read, which is more than some of our teachers seemed to be able to do.

Hotspur comic

About 1933, our landlords, George and Clare Phillips, conceived the idea (or were put up to it by my father) of purchasing a motor car which my father would look after and drive and which would be used for taking us all out on Sundays and Bank Holidays. A splendid Morris Oxford saloon was obtained and garaged near our house. We covered most of Surrey and Sussex in a style and comfort previously unknown. At the end of the day we would drop my mother off at home while I (and often Gyp too) accompanied my father to take the Phillips home to their flat over the sweet shop in Bermondsey - no mean journey then or now. As a result of endless driving beside my father from my earliest days I acquired a road sense and instinct for anticipating others' actions which has stood me in good stead.

A Dreadful Accident
One Sunday morning we had a dreadful shock. As I mentioned, the source of hot water for baths was the aged gas copper in the scullery. Instead of carrying it up in sensible quantities, my father would use a large two-handled galvanised tub. On this occasion, he slipped while negotiating the bend in the stairs and fell to the bottom under gallons of boiling water. He lay in bed for what must have been some weeks afterwards and it was noticeable that his normal robust constitution was never the same again.

My Sister’s Marriage
Vera duly married Reg at St Saviours Church in Thornton Heath, and, conveniently for everyone, it coincided with a Church Sunday-School trip to the seaside at Hastings and St Leonards, on which I was thankfully despatched. We were not a religious family and in fact I am ashamed to say I do not remember any of them ever going to church except for weddings and christenings; but in my early years I was sent to Sunday school. For no reason at all the memory of sitting in the vicar's garden clutching an orange is still with me, though that is the sum total of my Churchgoing experience as a child. However, at school we were taught the Anglican religion and sang all the well-known hymns, while the enduring influence of the Church of England for centuries of our history still strongly pervaded society and implanted a deep Christian ethos in all our minds. Not that there was much turning of the other cheek on anyone's part, as I recall. Hanging was mandatory for murder; prison would often be with hard-labour, which meant breaking granite rocks on the wild hills of Dartmoor; and flogging with a cat-o'-nine-tails for men or birching for juveniles were also administered for grievous offences.

Reg and Vera moved to a nice new house on a new estate at Mill Hill, as far North West of London as we were South of it. It was, and is, a very attractive area except that Vera's house has since been demolished and its site lies under the M1 Motorway. At the end of the garden ran the main London Midland and Scottish Railway line which provided endless fascination for me. Along its four tracks sped mighty steam expresses and lumbering articulated locomotives drawing a hundred or more trucks each. It was a simple matter to climb over the fence and onto the track, which needless to say I often did; boys cannot resist such temptation. After a while, I was deemed to be old enough to make the journey to Mill Hill on my own to stay with Vera, there being a convenient Green Line bus which ran directly from Thornton Heath Pond to Apex Corner at Mill Hill, and I spent many happy days there.

RAF Hendon
The annual RAF Air Display at Hendon could be seen from their garden and was a great attraction, enabling us to marvel at the tremendous skill of pilots flying Hawker Fury biplanes and slow Fairey Battle and Hampden bombers which were then thought sufficient for the protection of Britain and the Empire.

Hawker Biplanes at the Hendon Air Show in the 1930s.

Those that later met the Luftwaffe did not survive long but fortunately for us and the world the Hawker Siddeley and Supermarine Aircraft Companies (so it is said) had decided to ignore the Air Ministry and go ahead with developing the Hurricane and Spitfire on their own account, just in time for the Battle of Britain. But only just. Fifty years later, while examining RAF records at the Public Record Office at Kew, I was surprised to discover just how extensive was RAF power throughout the British Empire in the 1920s and 30s; and how keeping peace across its vast boundaries required a constant flow of intelligence on the activities of friends, enemies and dissident groups, with endless political manoeuvring and frequent punitive strikes on trouble-makers. (Ironically, these included the same Kurdish tribesmen whom over half a century later the Royal Air Force would be called upon to protect against the current ruler of Iraq). The RAF was in fact well suited for the job of controlling the unsophisticated warring subjects and neighbours of the Empire; but it failed to recognise soon enough the threat posed by a war with technologically advanced nations such as Germany and Japan. And so, to be fair, did almost everyone else in Britain.

Next page: Chapter 4

Previous page: Chapter 2

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