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Us's & Co. Moving Back to Bethnal Green

Moving Back to Bethnal Green

 
 
All us evacuees were given the choice to go back home, once we had reached the age of fourteen.  Fourteen was the age for leaving school and starting work.  My birthday being in March, meant that it wouldn't be long before I would be saying good-bye to my life in the country.  It would have been about two and a half years since I had left home by then.  Although I knew that I would be sorry to leave Queenie and Ted, I was never-the-less looking forward to getting home and seeing mum and dad.  During the remaining weeks arrangements were being made back home in an effort to get me in at Toddlers, no less. Dad was keen for me to start work, money was still tight at home.  Mrs Clarke had also advised me to try to save something up over the next few weeks, in order to buy some presents to take home.  Once I had saved enough, Mrs Clarke took me for a day out to Norwich.  It was only the second time that I had been to Norwich, both times they were with Mrs Clarke.  I knew what I was going to buy, an ornament for mum, a pipe and tobacco pouch for dad and a paisley tie for both Fred and Joe. Paisley ties were all the fashion at the time and I didn't have the problem of sizes, in any case, ties were more in my price bracket.  During the day we went into a tea shop.  While we were there, Mrs Clarke said "I don't suppose that Ted and I will be seeing you once you have left Marsham, so before we leave Norwich I am taking you to have your photograph taken, you can take a copy with you when you go."
 
On occasions, my mind would go back to that day, also the last day in Marsham when she said good-bye to me at the bus stop.  Both these times I felt closer to Mrs Clarke than at any other During the whole two and a half years that I stayed with her and Ted.  It seemed sad that she had never had any children.  Who knows?  Possibly, unknowingly I had filled a gap.  The few days before I left, seemed to drag, Ted who always referred to London as the old smoke, on account of all the smoking chimneys visible in London at that time, said, "Well you'll soon be going back to the old smoke Stanley, I don't suppose that we'll be seeing much of you from now on, let us know when you've made a fortune?”  Good old Ted.
 
I arrived at Liverpool Street Station early in the afternoon.  The suitcase was heavy, and my gas-mask kept falling off my shoulder, but this time, no label tied to my button hole. I got off the train, then it all came back to me. The shriek of porters whistles, carriage doors banging, and the smell of coal, just as I remembered it when I last left Liverpool Street Station.  As I struggled along with that heavy case I was feeling excited, I must have got on at the back of the train, as I had to walk the full length of the platform. I had previously arranged to meet dad at the barrier, suddenly I was feeling quite grown up. As I had to walk the full length of the platform, the suitcase felt like it weighed a ton. What with that, and my gas-mask always slipping off my shoulder, I was glad to see the ticket collector.  "Give us the bag boy.”  I heard someone say, when I looked up it was dad.  He hadn't changed a bit, just as always, with his bowler hat and moustache.  He had a smile on his face mixed with a look of pride, he said you look as though you were getting yourself in a state son.  He took the case off me and we made our way out into Bishopsgate.  It couldn't have been very late in the afternoon because the pubs were still open.  Almost opposite to the station entrance was Petticoat Lane, and almost on the corner was Dirty Dicks, a very well known pub, it was a pub where an overseas serviceman could leave a message pinned to the wall, there would be paper money from all over the world pinned up, you could leave messages there for a friend to pick up. It was that kind of pub.  It was a very busy place.  Dozens of people going to and fro, it was especially busy as there were people from the offices taking their lunch break. There was always a queue of people at the bus stops.  There was also a trolley bus terminus there, where the 649 and 557 trolley buses emptied and refilled. When dad said "I'm just going across the road.  for one and sit on the suitcase" I knew the reason why.  It wouldn't be unusual to lose anything at a place like that.  He also said, "Don't talk to anybody," and "if anybody wants to know I'm across the road.”  It wasn't more than ten minutes and he was back out.  We got on a number eight bus outside the station.  Dad placed my case in the luggage rack at the rear of the bus.  As dad liked to smoke his pipe, we had to go upstairs, but the bus conductor said that we would keep an eye on the case.  Our journey took us along Bishopsgate, right into Bethnal Green Road, then on for about three quarters of a mile, until it reached the Salmon and Ball pub. We got off there, a five minute walk along the Cambridge Heath Road, then we were home, our place was in the Cambridge Heath Road almost on the corner of Old Bethnal Green Road.  Directly, on the opposite side of the Cambridge Heath Road was a building called The Allison Bread Company.  It is a distinctive brown coloured building, which went to an apex, with a large clock on it, facing towards the main road.  We used to tell the time from that clock, as time went on, as it was very seldom wrong.  Looking around the house, I could see that we were living, above, and to the rear of a Chemist Shop.  The Chemist Shop occupied most of the frontage.  To get into our place, we would have to use a front door, which was situated next to the door of the Chemist.  While dad was making a cup of tea I asked him what time does Joe and Fred get home?  He said that they would be coming through the door about twenty past six, depending on whether they walked or got a bus.  Then I asked what time does mum get home?  Dad said, "She's not coming home, she's left home and doesn't live here anymore.”  Well any excitement that I felt turned into misery.  I wanted to ask questions about mum, but I was told, she's left home and that's that, what else do you want me to say?
 
About six twenty, true enough Joe came in, I couldn't believe it was him.  He was at least six foot tall, when I last saw him, he was about my height, what with me being short, it made Joe look like a giant by comparison.  Shortly afterwards Freddie came in.  He had grown only a little and was still very slim.  Fred told me that he knew a General Forman at Toddlers named Bert Overland.  Fred had just turned seventeen, so he must have been at Toddlers about three years.  In all that time, he had always got on well with this Bert.  It transpired that the same General Forman had heard of Joe, although Joe worked on the floor above.  Between the two of them I was practically home and dried.  Dad asked Freddie to take me up there the following day and have a word with this Bert Overland about starting me as he knew him so well.  Needless to say, with the help of Joe and Fred, I got the job.
 
To describe our house as homely, would be an overstatement. Each and every window, apart from one in the front, had iron bars up at them.  Goodness knows why, because the barred balk windows all faced a back yard; and even that was surrounded by two high walls, one about thirteen feet high which separated us from the corner premised next door, and the other about thirty feet high which shielded us from the main London North Eastern Railway lines known as the LNER, co-incidentally the line I just arrived on from Norwich.  There was no other way in.  Our kitchen door, opened out into that same yard.  In the yard there were about ten steps going down into a cellar.  This cellar had two large wooden doors, and there was a door in the passage leading down into it.  There was also a door in the hall, leading to the chemist.  In the kitchen, there was a big fire range that took up almost one complete wall, this was very seldom used.  We were also pestered with mice, if you stood perfectly still at anytime the mice would come out from practically everywhere.  I was still in short trousers at the time I had reached the magic age of fourteen.  Fourteen was the age when you left school started work, wore your first pair of long trousers.  It was an age when a boy was beginning to feel quite grown-up.  I wasn't looking forward to Saturday, as dad had already told me that he was taking me to Green Street to see Mr Waxman.  Freddie had already warned me what to expect.  I hadn't forgotten the time that dad sent me those second-hand shoes, which incidentally turned out to be girls shoes according to all my mates.  On Friday Charlie came home on embarkation leave, which obviously meant that he was going abroad.  I couldn't get over how tall he was, even taller than when he came to Marsham to see me.  He seemed to have got very good looking as I remember.  I was feeling very proud.  The usual length of embarkation leave was two weeks, but I only remember seeing Charlie a couple of times.  Mind you our hovel was no main attraction.  He no doubt saw my mother and sister Lily before he went back.  He may have even gone back a little earlier than he should have done, as I believe that he had met a girl in a village near where he was stationed in Surrey.  When Charlie left England he was a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps.  He went to South Africa, soon after that he went to North Africa.  He couldn't have been there long before we received an air mail letter from India.  So it looked as though Charlie got around quite a bit in his tea half hour.
 
Well the dreaded day had arrived I was going to old man Waxman's with dad.  We got a trolley bus to the Salmon and Ball, from there we got a number eight petrol bus to Waxman's.  It might be worth mentioning, that the trolley bus was something like the old tram car, in as much as it was operated by being connected to an overhead cable by way of two trolley bars that were attached to the roof of the trolley bus.  They were naturally electrically operated but unlike the old tram car, its wheels ran on the road just like an ordinary bus not on rail lines.  The first trolley bus that I saw was the 653 which went past our front door, in Cambridge Heath Road.  That was just before the beginning of the war, that's when they were introduced.  That was one of the few things that I do remember of Bethnal Green prior to the outbreak of war.
 
Waxman's was a house used as a shop, adjacent to a cinema named the Empire nicknamed the Flea Pit by us kids as time went on.  There was a blacked out window in the shop which was at the rear it was half-dark in there although it was daylight.  It was one of those episodes never to be forgotten.  There was this little old chap with a cloth cap worn to one side of his head.  He must have been aged about seventy he was standing behind the counter with a gas mantle hanging just above his head.  Then there was dad, standing there with his bowler hat and his silver watch and chain, his hands at his sides (as he would on such occasions) trying to look business like.  He was telling Mr Waxman that he wanted to do a bit of business with him.  He said "Can you rig my boy up with a pair of shoes and long trousers, as he's starting work on Monday and going to start bringing in money.”  The old boy shuffled from behind the counter and started to weigh me up for size.  As he got near, I could see that he was only a little taller than me, about five foot.  I noticed he had a large red nose, like a pin cushion, with tiny pin holes.  There were shelves all around the room.  I couldn't make out what were on them but he no doubt knew.  He climbed up a step-ladder and fetched down a couple of bundles of trousers.  As expected every pair were too long, the nearest that he could get to my size were a pair of check trousers.  Because of the colour, I was hoping that there might be something a little more sober looking, but apparently these were the nearest to my size.  Then he spoke to me in his thick accent (I later found out that he was a Polish Jew), and said, "The trouble with you my boy is you are really too short for long trousers.”  I thought afterwards, how the bloody hell did he get a pair to fit him?  He was only slightly taller than me.  I complained to dad about the trousers looking a bit gaudy, but he said, "I wouldn't worry about them being too light, you'll soon get ‘em dirty when you get to work.”  Next, it came to the shoes these were all kept on a top shelf which the old bloke had to hook off with a shutter hook, as the stepladder wasn't long enough.  It was so dark up there that he must have known from memory where everything was.  As expected, every pair was second-hand this time I was determined not to get caught with a pair of girls shoes.  I will never forget these shoes that dad sent me when I was in Marsham which turned out to be girls shoes in the end.
 
After rejecting every pair that the old Jew tried to talk me into, like saying, always remember, that if they are too loose, you have still got time to grow into them.  Then on the other hand, dad who was saying, make sure they are comfortable remember that if your feet are in trouble, then you are in trouble.  All this kind of thing was being said, well I didn't like any of them.  I knew that dad would not want me to wear shoes they were not comfortable, so I played on this, and said that none of them felt comfortable.  The old Jew seemed disappointed with this.  He then told dad that he did have a pair that would fit me alright, that he had just got back from the repairers, but that they would be a little dearer.  He fetched them from under the counter.  Although they were obviously second-hand, they looked a good shoe.  They were a strong looking brown brogue.  I tried them on, and they were perfect although they had a crack across the inside instep, I could suffer that.  Dad said, walk up and down to make sure that they are comfortable.  He said, "I'm not going to lay out extra money, if you’re not going to wear them.  I want you at work on Monday not crippled up with sore feet.”  Dad said that we would settle for them, but the old Jew insisted on an extra deposit.  Dad popped across the road for a pint, while I waited for the old chap to shorten the trousers on his old sewing machine.
 
I had been working at Toddlers about six weeks.  Joe worked on the first floor, Freddie and myself worked on the ground.  By now dad was sixty six years old, and had been working as a night-watchman for the past twelve months.  The firm, which was called Piggott Brothers, was a very large departmental store, four stories high situated almost on the corner of Petticoat Lane.  Proprietors of most large businesses at that particular time would expect members of their staff to do fire watching in other words, looking after the building through the night in the event of an air raid which was quite frequent.  It was not easy to get staff to volunteer for the task, especially if they lived quite away from their place of employment.  Well dad realising this, thought it would be a good idea to put Joe and Fred's names forward.  Firstly it would bring in a few extra bob, also it would give him a bit of company at nights.  That how come all three of them worked together at nights.  During their nights at fire watching Joe and Fred would occupy themselves on an old typewriter in one of the offices.  There was quite a lot of fierce bombing at the time.  Liverpool Street Station which was opposite to where they were fire watching received heavy bomb damage, there was also a lot of damage all around Saint Paul's.  The Battle of Britain had its impact on Joe, so much so, that Joe made up a couple of poems about the events, which he typed out on the old typewriter those poems I know Joe always kept with him he took them in to the army with him when he went at a later date, as he valued them so much.  Once after picking up his kit, after recovering from one of his wounds, he noticed that his poems were missing, in spite of the fact that he used to keep them at the bottom of his kit-bag for safe keeping.  Joe was very disappointed about that.  Fred whose favourite type of reading was Western novels or cowboy books composed a cowboy song.  He used the old typewriter for the lyrics, even to this day I still remember the song.  He called it, Song of Home.
 
Coming out of work one evening I received a very pleasant surprise.  Standing on the corner was my mother.  She stood there looking in my direction and didn't recognise me at first.  As I got nearer to her, she looked at me and started to smile.  She gave me a cuddle, which was a bit embarrassing, as I knew that some of my work mates would probable by looking.  I can't express how happy I was, and the feeling of belonging at that time.  I noticed how nice looking my mother was she also seemed to have put on a little weight.  We went into an Italian Cafe in Mare Street.  I asked mum if there was any chance of her coming back home.  She said that she had thought hard before leaving in the first place.  She had been very unhappy at home, but didn't want to leave as Fred and I were still at school.  In spite of this, she had written to dad a couple of times, but she said, I am sorry Stan, but there is no chance of me coming back home.  She said it just wouldn't work if I were absolutely truthful, I could never imagined it working out either.  I couldn't see her living in a dump like ours, what with the barred windows and the rest.  Then there were the mice that we were pestered with day and night and then dad, as obstinate as ever.  No it would never have worked out, but I couldn't see that then.
 
Now that I was becoming more accustomed to Bethnal Green, I began to realise what an interesting spot we lived in.  Our place was between Hackney Road and Bethnal Green Road junctions.  On the corner of Hackney Road and Cambridge Heath Road, was the Cambridge Heath main line railway station.  This station serviced the London North Eastern Railway (known then as the LNER).  On the opposite side of Cambridge Heath Road, was the Bethnal Green Hospital.  A little further along was Bethnal Green Town Hall.  Adjacent to that was the Museum Cinema, where incidentally I saw the first version of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn.  A little further along still was the Bethnal Green Museum.  Then another hundred yards or so was the Bethnal Green underground station, which was still incomplete, due to the outbreak of war.  Apart from the two stations and the Museum of Childhood the others now cease to exist.
 
So Stan returns home and is saddened that his mum and dad have separated.  However now being fourteen, he looks forward to joining his brothers in the adult workplace.  Next, we see how his stoicism leaves him undaunted by the world shaking events that are now taking place and his brothers get their call-up in chapter 5:  http://bit.ly/2ihKGxV
 
NB.  It occurs to me that Stan referring to the shopkeeper as the ‘old Jew’ may seem a little off-key to some modern ears.  Stan is simply using the idiom of the day and always had the highest respect for anybody who, like him, needed to earn their pay.
Growing up in London during the 1950s I well remember my Uncle Stan for his hilarious stories of the East-End and the characters he lived and worked with. Following his death in 1998, Aunt Jean gave me a copy of ‘Us’s & Co’ his account of growing up during the 1930s and his talent, for telling a story, had transferred to the written word. Along with his daughters, Donna and Cheryl, we agree that his memories will be of interest beyond our family.

Eric Baker

One among his nephews and nieces.

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