Us's & Co. Bow and Bethnal Green
I have written this story, not in the pretence that I am a writer or even intend to be. But only to record to the best of my knowledge, certain events that have taken place. I have made a point of avoiding any form of guesswork or inventive material, which could possibly enhance the story content, as my only interest is to recall my memories and facts as I remember them. It tells about my childhood going through into manhood. It begins in the East End of London, where I was born, and of the difficult financial times that my family experienced during the early nineteen thirties. I go on to describe my mother, father, sister and three brothers. A reasonably contented family life, interrupted by the outbreak of the second world war. Of my evacuation out of London into the safety of the countryside. Those days in the countryside, away from the family for an important period of my life, only to be drawn closer by my absence. It tells of being involved with people, who otherwise I would not have the good fortune to have met. Of my return to London during the middle of the war, in order to get back to the family, also to contribute to the family income, which later would need support, also the experience of being a young son of an ageing and guiding father. The recollection of traumatic events, that come with war. Together with a life in London during the unforgettable period of air attacks. Though this being a life book it revolves mainly around my family. It is because of this, that I have taken a saying, commonly used by my father, Us's and Co. And have appropriately used this, as the title of my book.
Bow, East London
We were a family living in Bow in the East End of London. We lived in Eglinton Road, which has since been demolished and replaced by concrete maisonettes and renamed Saxon Road. The Eglinton Road we knew had a lot of character attached to it, for a start it consisted of tenement houses. We lived in number eight which was solely occupied by the whole family. There was my mother, Lilian, my father John, known as Jack, my sister Lily, who was the eldest, next brothers Charlie, Joe, and Fred, then myself, who was the youngest, my Nan, who was my father’s mother, also lived with us. I am told, that in the early days, before and during the First World War, there was also John, he was a son from dad’s previous marriage. In all, you could say that nine people lived there. You could enter the house from the pavement, by going down some stone steps into the area front door, or up about seven stone steps into the front door. The only other way in was from the garden, into the back door. Above the first floor, was one more floor. This floor us kids used to sleep in. Coming out of our front door to the left were three other houses similar to ours. Over to the other side of the road was a pub named The Earl of Eglinton. It had highly polished outside walls. There was a potman there with a long grey beard, who all us kids nicknamed Tarbrush and that was for the obvious reason. Next door to the pub was a sawdust yard that's where my eldest brother Charlie started his first job after leaving school. Sawdust was a widely used commodity in the days you would find it sprinkled on the floors of many shops. For example Butchers, Catering shops, Pubs etc. The reason was for soaking up any spillages, and at the end of the day, would by swept up, leaving a clean floor.
The sawdust yard was owned by Mr Skidmore, he never did any work himself on account of his age. Like my dad, and most elderly men at that time he wore a bowler hat, single breasted jacket, and waistcoat and chain, a proper gentleman. Old man Skidmore had an open back lorry with solid rubber tyres. He used it for carting away his sacks of sawdust. Outside the lorry, on the driver’s door was an outdoor hooter, or horn, which was like a rubber air filled ball attached to a trumpet. A couple of squeezes and it was as good as any modern car horn. Whenever I saw it parked outside the yard without a driver in it, I would go over, climb onto the running-board and give the hooter a squeeze with both hands, until I was chased away.
On the other corner was a grocers shop called Groves. It was where Eglington Road joined Stafford Road. On the opposite corner to that, there was a coach firm by the name of Eastern Bell Motor Coaches, it looked more like a private house. Motor coaches were generally known as charabancs in those days. Then there was the Dunkel family, they had twin sons, a couple of tearaways, they were harmless enough, just a bit harem scarem. One twin was named Willy, the other named Arthur. They were about five years older than me. Nobody could tell them apart, so naturally, whenever one of them got up to his old tricks, he would blame the other one. To me Arthur seemed very slightly slimmer than Willy. The way I used to remember who was who I would say to myself that Arfer was arf, of the other arf, maybe sound silly, but it worked for me, I could always tell them apart anyway.
Old man Dunkel was also a character. Every market day you would see him being helped up the steps by Mrs Dunkel or the boys, and sit him in his wheelchair. Local people used to swear that he wasn't a cripple, but if it was a ploy, it certainly served a good purpose. He would sit in his wheelchair looking grey faced and ill, he had a gaunt looking face with a stubble chin and grey wispy hair, and he always wore a pair of greasy looking slippers. Somebody, either one of the twins, or more likely Mrs Dunkel would push him up to the Roman Road Market where he would take up position, his cap would be on the ground by the side of him, He would open up his violin case very carefully, place a piece of cloth under his chin, resting on his shoulder, then start fiddling, he was always off key, but it got him a living. He would always give a rendering of Nelly Dean, he seemed to play that best. Then on the opposite corner to the Dunkel family, lived an old Jewish couple. In those days, if kids saw an old Jewish man with a beard of any description, they would generally tease him, they used to drive that poor old bugger mad. They would tie string to his door knocker, put fireworks in his letter box, and generally taunt him. Although the kids were always told off for their behaviour, it wouldn't make any difference.
There were approximately three years difference separating us four boys, a little more between Charlie and Lily. I had heard that just about the time that I was born, my sister Lily left school and started work as an apprentice French polisher. After about three years she met a bloke at work named Arthur. Soon after, she spoke to mum and dad about getting married. Dad never took to this Arthur, for what reason was best known to him, maybe he thought that if Lily did get married, there would be a wage short in the family income. The old man couldn't prevent it try as he may, so Lily got married when I was about three years old.
I was about seven years of age in the mid nineteen thirties. They were very hard times, a lot of unemployment as I understand. I was too young of course to really understand poverty, being the young one of the family I would have been shielded from all this. I did know that there was very little money about, it was always made obvious. My mother had a little job in a bakers, she would often bring in pastries etc, no doubt leftovers. Dad had a black painted board hanging up outside the front room window he had painted on it, J. J. Keyte, Upholsterer and French Polisher. Unfortunately, the only people that saw it were either local people or neighbours and they were all in the same boat as us broke. In the downstairs back room, dad used to do his furniture repairs, that's if he was lucky. He usually relied on canvassing, or recommendations. I had known dad to work for customers as far away as Highgate, which is about ten miles away, it's where the more prosperous person lived, in fact they still do. He would pick up the furniture on a barrow, push it all the way home. Then after it was repaired he would have to push the loaded barrow all the way back again. That was very hard work, I think at times, he must have deserved amedal. Mum’s money was often the only source of income. I was always aware of arguments, no doubt brought onby money shortage. There was quite a lot of friction between dad and mum’s brothers, at that time, they lived around the corner, in Old Ford Road, looking back, I can see why that probably was. To understand this, it should be known that dad had served twenty five years as a regular soldier. He served in the Boer war, served in India, and had two children that were born out there. Both his wife and young daughter died of Cholera out in India. He returned home with his young son with still sometime left to serve, to complete his twenty five year term. As the brothers might have seen it, here was their twenty one year old sister, with a good job, tall, very good looking, going to throw her life away on this, short, not too handsome, thirty six year old soldier, with a young son. Anyway, they got married. If mum had overcome that obstacle, even if it was one, there were still more hardships to come. The nineteen fourteen, nineteen eighteen war was only three years away. As dad had not yet finished his twenty five years service, he would have to serve in that lot. Through the war, mum had her stepson John and her first child Lily, to bring up. Within the space of ten years she had us four boys. If there was any friction between dad and his brothers-in-law, that would have been it, it was probably for over protection towards their sister. Remember, there was also the constant money troubles brought on by an even larger family.
There was never any love lost between them though, for example, there was a time when one of my uncles and his wife came round to see my mother. There was only dad and me home at the time. I was sent across the road to Groves, the corner shop to get them a packet of biscuits. I could have only been about seven years of age. When I got back, my uncle asked me if there was any change? I opened out my hand to show him the farthing change (the value equivalent, ten to one new pence). With that he smacked me round the face, and accused me of stealing it I couldn't believe it. Dad saw what happened, then another row broke out. After my Aunt and Uncle had left, dad knowing that I hadn't intended stealing, gave me a farthing he knew that I used to like the farthing Jack, sold in Groves across the road. The Farthing Jack was a little dark brown rock hard toffee, it would last for ages, and cost a farthing naturally. As a child, every so often, when I thought that dad was in a good mood, I would stand facing him, screw up my face, in an effort to give him a wink, then turn about, holding my hand out behind my back, if I had guessed his mood correctly, he would place a daddler (farthing) in the palm of my hand. Mum “you’ll spoil that boy Jack, the way you give in to him.”
There was an episode, of when dad was down in the basement, mending a pair of boots. One of his brother-in-laws came at himthrough the basement door. At the same time another brother came at him through the front basement window knowing there would be trouble, his mother stood between them defendingly, seeing the mood that they were in, the old man clouted one of them with a hammer, at the same time accidently catching Nan. Dad always used to preach to us kids, when you are in the wrong, always own up, "be a man” to use his words, but on the other hand, if you are right, even if they are ten feet tall always stick to your guns. “Right is right and wrong is wrong" he used to say. Well this was a classic opportunity to put his virtue into practice. The police were called in, and dad landed up in the dock. It wouldn't have been difficult to imagine him standing there, five feet four, walrus moustache, bowler hat single grey suit (always unbuttoned) single breasted waistcoat, with silver watch and chain. Actually he wasn't too unusually dressed for those days. The magistrate, in his summing up said, "I understand your plight Mr Keyte, but I order you to be bound over for seven days, have you anything to say?” Dad replied, "If you let me out your honour, next time I'll murder the bastards."
I think what it was with dad, is that he was a bit too straight for them sometimes, consequently he would often get himself disliked. It didn't used to worry him what other people outside our family thought of him. He would quite often say to us kids, sod em all, and all their bleeding neighbours. Don't worry about what other people think if you want to do something, they won't worry about you. Just worry about Us's and Co. Dad would tell the older boys about his young life. He would start by saying, "Did I ever tell you about the time when", at that point, each of the boys in their turn would say, "I've heard it" As the old man would have a habit of telling them, the same old yarns, over and over again.
When I think back, I now realise that when we used to say "I've heard it", that must have been one of the most hurtful things we could have said. Dad always keen to give us kids information, and tell us of his experiences, after all, he had been an old soldier and had lots of worldly experiences to offer. When I was born he must have been about fifty two. Dad had come from a very large family of nineteen children, he was the second eldest, several had since died, others had moved all over the place. Although he was from Irish parents, he was a Londoner, brought up, and spent his young life in the Old Nicol in Shoreditch up to, and including now, he had a very hard life, and all he was keen to do was to give us kids the benefits of his experiences, so whenever we cut him short to say "I've heard it" he would bang his fist down hard on the table out of sheer frustration and shout, "will you bloody well listen", and add, that it was an Irishman's privilege to be repeated anyway.
Ever since I can remember we all had to eat porridge for breakfast, and it had to be Quaker Oats, it was something that dad insisted on. It was cheap to buy, sustaining, and after all, he would say, "They survived well on it in the army.” He must have known a thing or two when he prescribed it to us kids, it was made with water, not milk, and it was sprinkled with sugar to taste. The only problem was that when mum wasn't around to make it all us kids would shudder. A meal that should have been easy to prepare simply, by occasionally stirring, even if it was made with water, would always be mucked up when dad made it. So when mum didn't have time, as she would have been at work trying to make ends meet, dad would do the necessary. Every spoonful would have lumps in it, and make you go boss-eyed with every swallow. Whenever any of us complained the old man would say "Get it down yer, if it’s good enough for horses, it's good enough for you.” I always used to think, yeah, but I'm not a horse.
Like any normal child, Christmas was a time to look forward to. I must admit that I can only remember one of such occasions, and that one is very clear to me. My sister Lily asked me what I would most like for Christmas, however much it cost, not that I would necessarily get it. I was only about four years of age, I knew exactly what I wanted, so I replied, a bus conductor’s outfit. On the Christmas Eve, I was sent to bed first as always. Fred and Joe, who slept in the same bed as me, came to bed sometime after but naturally being excited I was still awake. I used to sleep in the middle, so I asked Fred if I could sleep on the side where he usually slept, so as I could keep an eye on the fire place. Joe, who was the eldest of the three of us, said that all the while I was looking at the fireplace, father Christmas would never come down the chimney, so hurry up Stan and go to sleep. In the morning, which was obviously Christmas Day, the first thing I noticed were three Christmas stockings with an apple, orange and a newly minted penny, in each. This was our usual Christmas extra every Christmas. Then I was handed a parcel, with my name on it, there it was. it was a bus conductor’s hat, shoulder strap and ticket machine. All day long, I went around the family shouting "Any more fares please.” That musthave been the best Christmas present that I can ever recall.
Each year mum would make it her business as a special treat, to get the three older boys, a pair of new boots each, ready for the winter. Mum and dad would take us to a shoe shop in the Roman Road by the name of C. Kings, near the corner of Armagh Road. I of course being under school age would have shoes. The soles of the shoes were imprinted with five little circles, no doubt for harder wearing. Mum and dad would talk it over with the three older boys like; do they fit alright, make sure they are not too tight, or something of that description, would be said make sure now, the old man would say you won't get any more till next year. Probably the reason he said that was because, on one occasion, Joe's old boots were laying on the floor of the shoe shop much the worse for wear. Where the uppers had come away from the sole, Dad had hammered nails into the side of the upper to hold the sole on, and poor old Joe had to go the rest of the year like it. When Joe moaned that he couldn't walk about like that, dad said, "put a bit of blacking on it, no one will know the difference.” Anyway, he told Joe, it was all his own fault for using them like football boots. Incidentally, I still have a photo of us four boys, one behind the other in steps and stairs, revealing Joe's old boots. Directly I got home with my new shoes, and later, the boots, out would come the brush and polish. Whatever game I was playing, hide and seek, or whatever, I would break off, go down into the basement and shine my shoes. This I would do at every opportunity they would shine like glass. At times when I couldn't be found during a game with the kids, they would ask, "Where’s Stan? Gone to have a little polish up?” This routine would continue for a week or two, until the novelty wore off, or until I happened to scuff them.
When I was about three years of age Fred and Joe were given the usual task of looking after me, so I am told. They both wanted to go to the afternoon pictures at the Ritz Cinema, which was just around the corner in Saint Stephen's Road it seems that I kept crying about something, and obviously didn't quite fit into their plans. To shut me up, and get me out of the way for a few hours, they bribed me with some sweets. Next door to the Ritz was a sweet shop called Ponts. They took me in there, fixed me up with a few sweets, then told me to go home, home being about sixty yards away. Well I never knew for sure, which way I went, but it certainly wasn't home. When Joe and Fred got in from the pictures, the first question was, "where's Stan?” After the two boys got a bashing from the old man, they were told, "get out and find him and don't come back without him."
After everyone had just about given up finding me, dad asked a policeman, who was on point duty at the Saint Stephen's and Roman Road Junction. The policeman told dad that there was a little chap roaming around when he came on duty, maybe his colleague would know. Dad thought that he had better try Bow Road Police Station. Bow Road Police Station was about a mile and a half away, and was quite a walk, especially as it might be a fool’s errand. Dad went inside and asked the desk Sergeant if they had found a little boy. The Sergeant showed dad into a cell and said, "Is that him?" There I was, sitting in my little monkey suit, eating a banana. From then on, if I was ever among the missing, and the boys didn't know where I was, they would always expect a bashing from the old man and told, "get out and find him, and don't come back until you do" Charlie being the eldest and bringing in wages, would generally be exempt from this, So Freddie and Joe would always bear the brunt of it, and get all the hidings. I would say that Joe and Fred probably got most of their hidings from dad in this way. Poor Fred and Joe, no justice. When I think back, it was a bit unfair but, that's how strict families were in those days. What with a large family, and no money about, added to the fact that dad was a disciplinarian, it wasn't surprising that tempers were frayed.
On the thirteenth of March, I reached my seventh birthday. My birthday present from mum and dad was seven pence. Every birthday, I received a penny representing each year, so in fact did the other boys. In those days, coins were minted every year and dated accordingly at the bottom. So on my birthday I received seven newly minted pennies, all nice and shiny, and all dated nineteen thirty five. I asked one of my brothers, if that carried on, what would I expect to get on my twelfth birthday, being as there were twelve pence to a shilling. I remember saying, that I would ask for twelve pence, as that seemed to be much more than just one shilling coin. Later that day, I went into Grove’s corner shop and asked the shopkeeper if he would change my seven pence into farthings as again, this seemed to make my seven pence a lot more. I ran home, bursting with excitement about my two pocketfuls of farthings. My mother took them off me and put them in a tin for safe keeping. It was on the same day, that my brother Fred and I were sent on an errand up to the Roman Road Market. The roads leading to the market were always littered with rubbish like, orange papers, apple papers, cardboard boxes etc. We were following a youngster who was kicking a cardboard box, all the way up Stafford Road. As the youngster ran off into the market, I gave the box one kick, and a ten shilling note fell out. Freddie and I couldn't believe it. Freddie picked it up and took it home. Only Dad was in at the time. Freddie was only ten years of age, and in his innocence asked dad if we could find out who it belonged to and give it back. Well ten shillings, or ten bob as it was commonly known, was a lot of money in those days. What with money being very tight, it must have seemed a God-send to dad. "Give," dad said, "give, anybody can give if you've got anything to give, give it to US's and Co. anything over glad of it.”
This was the same year that King George the Fifth and Queen Mary celebrated their Silver Jubilee. All us kids were given a street party, all along Eglington Road. We were each given a drinking mug, commemorating their twenty five years on the throne.
It had been decided that we would be moving house. There obviously had to have beena good reason. I can only conclude that it would be to either get away from mum's brothers, or for cheaper rent, who really knows? We were going to move to Bethnal Green, somewhere in the Cambridge Heath Road. It was winter, nineteen thirty nine. I think about March. I don't know how the bulk of the furniture got moved, but I did know, however how the smaller house-hold items went, because I was sitting on the barrow, surrounded by pots and pans, with two rolls of lino, one either side of me. My brother Fred was holding the shafts at the front, the main object for this was to guide the barrow. Freddie wouldn't have been given the heavy task of pushing, as he was inclined to be a bit chesty. Fred wasn't asthmatic, but he had a weak chest, in as much as he was prone to coughing. In fact that might have been the main reason for Fred being given that task. The old man always advocated, that what Fred needed, was to exercise his lungs and to get plenty of fresh air. Although the journey to Bethnal Green was a direct route, straight up the Roman Road, continuing onto Green Street, then onto Cambridge Heath Road it was never-the-less, a very busy main road. For a start, it was on a bus route two buses, one the number eight, which went the full length of the road, also a number one hundred and six, which joined the Roman Road half way up at the junction of Grove Road. That junction was known as the Aberdeen, named after the pub on the corner. It was on that corner, that we made our first stop. Dad fancied a pint. I obviously don't know what was said, but it was probably something like "Watch Stan with this road Fred, I'm just going in for one.” That kind of talk would have been typical. About a pint later, dad was back out, he wasn't what you would call a boozer especially as he had us two kids with him. The canal bridge was just in front of us, so I had to get off the barrow to lighten the load. Our new house was almost next door to a pub called the Red deer.
We had only just arrived, when dad said that he was just going to pop in to introduce himself. In my small mind, I must have thought that we had moved miles away, as distances always seem farther away than they really are, when you are young. In fact it was only about a mile and a half away from our old place. Too far away from Victoria Park I must have thought. Victoria Park is where I used to love to go on Sundays, and during the school summer holidays. It was about three years earlier, mum was offered a job in Victoria Park, by a woman, who we got to know as Miss Reagan apparently, this Miss Reagan had some connection with the catering arrangements in the refreshment place, which was almost next to the children's swings and roundabouts, in the park. I can only gather, that Miss Reagan who was a spinster, took kindly to my mother, knowing that mum could do with the extra cash. Mum used to run the place, usually on her own, on a part time basis. She would work Sundays in the summer, and during the school summer holidays. It was usually quite a nice day out for us kids. As I got a little older, I used to feel quite proud that my mother was in charge of that cafe bar. There was always a call for lemonade and cakes.
When I was about seven years of age, it was during the school holidays, the place was full of noisy kids. Because it was a busy period, dad decided to call in to see if mum could do with a hand. He couldn't have timed it better. Mum had almost run out of lemonade and the food trays were empty. I remember noticing that the place was a mess you could see that mum had been busy all day. When she saw dad, she said, looking at the queue, "Serve this lot Jack while I clear this place up, and top up the lemonade urn, it’s a bit low". She said, charge em half penny a glass. Well the queue had soon cleared and the place had emptied. When mum came in from the back, she said, "Blimey that was quick Jack?” When she saw the empties, she saw that most of the glasses still had lemonade in them, mum tasted a drop, after spitting it our she said, “what did you put in the lemonade urn Jack?” After he had told her that he had topped it up with a couple of jugs full of water, she said "Didn't you put any lemonade powder in it?” Typical of dad, he replied, they’ll drink it if they're thirsty, in any case, there's a couple of lemons floating about for flavour.
We were in our new home, for what took place during the next six months or so, is not too clear to me. I know I started at a new school called St Johns, I must admit, I can't remember much about that episode either. I was told afterward, that my brother Joe who was just seventeen had packed up his little job in an umbrella factory in Bow, for something nearer to our new place.
For some reason, Joe had always wanted to get into something in the shoe trade, as I remember, Christ knows why. So it wasn't surprising that he went to work for Toddlers, Toddlers were manufacturers of children's shoes. Toddlers was situated just off Well Street in Hackney, behind the Regal Cinema, you could walk there from our place in fifteen minutes, or a penny bus ride. Joe being a reliable and a conscientious kid did alright for himself at work.
Apparently he progressed through the various stages of shoe making. E.g. setting, trimming, clicking etc., so much so, that when Freddie was ready for work a few months later dad had no trouble in getting him a job there too. The starting money for boys at their ages was two pounds ten shillings a week, which meant that both boys were taking home about four pounds five shillings a week between them.
In the meantime, Charlie who had since graduated from Skidmore’s sawdust yard, had gone on to better things. Charlie had trained to be a cabinet and chair maker, he had no doubt got the itch from the old man, as my sister Lily did previously, when she went into French polishing. Dad would always say that cabinet making, upholstering, and French polishing were the best paying trades to get into, as was probably the reason why I eventually became an upholsterer. I had no idea what Charlie would be taking home, but whatever it was, the combined contribution by the three boys to the family income, must have eased the financial strain considerably.
In this chapter we have learned a lot about Stan's early days. We know something of his mum and dad and of his sister Lily (my mum!) and his brothers Charlie, Joe and Fred. In the next chapter we learn of the evacuation and his new life in Norfolk. Follow the link to find out more: http://bit.ly/2y5LBvl