By Richard Beckett.......
I was born in a Nursing home on 25 May 1935 in Beckenham Kent, and my childhood years were spent mostly in a house about a mile from the place where I was born. The house where we lived was in the middle of a terrace of six, and as there was a house on both sides we were partly protected from the cold and weather. At the bottom of the garden a railway line ran along on an embankment which meant that the passengers could look down into the back gardens and houses.
The three ground floor rooms in the houses were known by different names to thosewhich are used these days. The room nearest the front door was called “the Front Room” and contained a Settee and two armchairs together with the piano. Nowadays that room would be called the Lounge. We hardly ever used that room except at Christmas time.
The next room beyond the Front Room was “The Kitchen”. However the name belied its use, for it was the room where we mainly lived and ate and today would probably be called the Living Room. The name kitchen was probably a left-over from the days when the cooking range would have been in that room, although the Range had long since been replaced with an open coal fire.
Beyond what we knew as the Kitchen was the room were situated the Gas Cooker, the large square white china sink & “The Copper” in which the clothes were boiled & washed. This room was known as “The Scullery”. It had a red quarry-tiled floor and it was in this room where all the cooking & washing were done. Also as there was no bathroom it was where we washed and as there was no water heater, all water for washing had to be boiled in a kettle on the gas cooker. The washtub, although called “The Copper” was actually a large cast iron container set over a coal fire in a brickwork surround. Every Monday rain or shine, this washtub was filled with water, a fire lit underneath and when the water was hot, soap flakes would be sprinkled in to dissolve and the clothes were put in to boil and the wooden lid put on to help keep the steam in. Stirred occasionally with the big “Copper Stick” when they looked clean, they would be transferred across the kitchen in a tin bath and rinsed in the sink. It always seemed that the white sheets and pillow cases were washed first and after they had been rinsed in cold clean water, they would be rinsed through in a second lot of cold water in which the “Reckitts Blue” had been swirled about. This was a small muslin bag containing the “Blue Rinse”. Rinsing in this slightly blue water tended to delay the yellowing which occurs as white cotton sheets & pillow cases get older.
My first memory must be very early because I can remember jumping up and down in a cot in my parent's bedroom. My next memory is of the evening that the Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill caught alight in 1936 and was burning. I was about eighteen months old and although I do not actually remember seeing the flames I do recall that we were in the room which we knew as the kitchen (nowadays it would be called the dining room). On the table my father was repairing the clock which normally hung on the wall. (In those days we called the room where the cooking and washing was done, the scullery). My father was mending the clock and I was just tall enough to stand up and hold the edge of the table to see what he was doing. I remember from later years that the clock was about eighteen inches tall and had a carved wooden case. Suddenly he went off on his bike when apparently lots of fire engines were going past and he saw the flames where the Crystal Palace was burning and went off to see what was going on. My mother took my sister and I upstairs to the back bedroom where apparently it was possible to see the glow from the flames, but I do not remember any of that.
Talking of my fathers bike reminds me that even as long ago as 1936, he had rigged up indicator lights on the back. To do this he got an old tobacco tin and cut two arrows in the lid one pointing left, the other right. He then painted the lid white and having attached it to the back of the bike, by an ingenious bit of wiring and switches he could switch the left or right hand light on to indicate which way he intended to turn. Sometime around the age of two, whilst my mother was doing the ironing on the kitchen table (she did not have an ironing board), I managed to get hold of the flex and pull the electric iron off the table. The sharp edge of the iron hit me over the right eye causing a cut where I have a scar to this day.
A couple of years later I fell over when getting ready for a bath and hit the side of my face on the edge of the tin bath. This cut my skin alongside my left eye, and although it was not stitched up, it gave me yet another scar on my face.
During the years before the war I can vaguely recollect spending Christmas at my Grandparents house and my two cousins were there and all four children slept together in the big bed with an enormous feather mattress.
At home we did not have a bathroom and the toilet was a small brick building on the end of the house out in the back yard. The toilet had a wooden door that did not reach to the ground or up to the top, and it was extremely cold in there at times which not conducive to remaining longer than necessary. In those days it was common to have a POE for use during the night. In our house they were referred to as the “gazunder” because they “goes under the bed”. My mother and father had a china “gazunder” in their bedroom, but we three children had to make do with a galvanised bucket which sat out on the landing, and it had no privacy whatsoever either visually or aurally. That is to say you could hear everything and if you went out onto the landing you could see what anyone was doing, however it was the accepted thing then and nobody thought anything of it.
Fridays was bath night, and for this we used a galvanised tin bath which normally hung on the fence in the back garden. This bath used to be carried into the living room and put in front of the fire. The hot and cold water would then be brought in by means of buckets from the scullery where the water had been heated in the copper. Goodness knows when my parents had a bath for I do not recall ever seeing either of them sitting in the bath in front of the fire. My mother did the washing on Mondays and it seemed that she always left the dirty soapy water in the copper, for when my younger sister was about a year old she used to have screaming fits and would scream so much that she could not get her breath. My mother found that by dunking my sister in the cold water in the copper, she could make my sister gasp and get her breath back.
My next memories are when I was about three years old and we were staying on holiday in a bungalow near Pevensey. The bungalow was constructed of corrugated iron on a wooden frame and was situated at the top of the beach close to one of the Martello Towers. During that holiday, apart from my parents and my elder sister, there was also my paternal grandparents together with an Uncle and Aunt and their two children. Alongside the Martello tower was the cannon which had originally been placed on the top of the tower. I can recall that we children slept together in a big bed in one of the bedrooms and alongside the bungalow were two galvanised iron tanks which stored the rainwater from the roof.
Those tanks stand out in my mind because one night when we were in bed I remember a lot of shouting and when we got up in the morning, lying along the top of, and hanging down over the ends of the tanks was a large conger eel. Later in life I asked my father if he remembered and he said that my grandfather was fishing off the beach and the shouting was because the conger eel (for that is what it was) was so large and strong that it was pulling my grandfather into the sea and that my father and uncle had to rush and help him. Judging by my memories of the eel hanging over the ends of those water tanks, it must have been at least seven feet long, and it is not surprising that he was being pulled into the sea. I have a vague recollection of the birth of my younger sister in the November of 1939 because our next door neighbours were rather scruffy and uncouth and we were not allowed to play with the children. One day one of the children threw a knife over the fence at my elder sister and I which my mother apparently saw happen out of the kitchen window, and although apparently I was unaware that my Mother was pregnant, the knife throwing incident had frightened my mother so much that it brought about the birth of my sister. The next thing I knew was that there was a baby in the house, and my mother always insisted afterwards that the knife-throwing incident started the birth of my sister.
A regular event every Thursday was the visit to our grandparents and as my father worked different turns each week, one week it would be in the morning and the following week it would be afternoon or evening.
My next recollection is of starting school in the infant's school, which was about a quarter mile up the road that we lived in. It must have been about this time I have a recollection of my younger sister sitting in a high chair to eat when one day she rocked the high chair back and forwards so much that she finally tipped it over and she fell backwards into the fireplace. Luckily for her there was no fire in the grate at the time.
In those days many people had allotments to grow vegetables especially those on relatively low wages. Being employed by the railway Company, my Father was allowed to use part of the railway bank as an allotment garden where he grew vegetables and fruit bushes. He had two allotments, which were just up the road from our house and to gain access to them, he used to climb over the fence at the bottom of our garden onto the railway bank and walk along the side of the track to get to them. One allotment was on the same side of the railway as our house, and the other one was on the opposite side of the railway. He quite often took me with him, and if he was working on the other side, he would lift me on his shoulders and carry me across the railway. On one occasion when I was about seven or eight years old, I took hold of one of the long wooden bean poles which were lying on the allotment, and not realising what I was doing I began to touch the electric conductor rail on the railway tack. They say that good things always come in threes, and on that day it was the case for me. (1) The ground was dry, (2) the wooden pole was dry and (3) my father saw what I was doing and rushed along to stop me before I had been electrocuted, otherwise I would not be here to write this tale now.
In order to make the allotment more fruitful it was common practice to collect the horse manure left by traders who used horse and carts to deliver the milk, bread and vegetables etc. It was usually a race between all the men and boys in the road as to who would manage to be near the horse and cart with a bucket and shovel at the appropriate moments. When either my father or I did manage to secure a bucket full, it was put into large drums of water kept on the allotment to make very good liquid manure.
There were times of the year (sort of seasons I suppose) which seemed to be reserved for when we children played certain types of games. For instance in the spring we played marbles, during the summer months we would play rounders in the park, Autumn time would be for conkers and winter time would be Hop scotch, Hi Jimmy Knacker or Tin Can Tommy. Marbles was always played in the gutter of the road rather than on the flat road because it was there that the stone cobbles made throwing a straight marble virtually impossible, which made the game all the more exciting.
At home, we often did water colour painting in our painting books, and for this a row of empty fish paste jars was kept for the water, on the top shelf of the Welsh Dresser in the kitchen. One evening in late 1943, I said I wanted to do some painting, but as it was almost time to go to bed my mother told me I couldn’t. I kept saying I wanted to and finally in complete pigheadedness, I went into the scullery and using the clothes horse as a ladder, I climbed up onto the Welsh dresser to get a fish-paste jar for water for my painting. Next thing I knew I had slipped and cracked my chin on the shelf. I had split my chin open underneath at the front and the blood was pouring everywhere so next thing, we were off to the hospital to have it sewn up. In those days the sewing was done using horsehair, and I distinctly remember the feel of the hair being pulled through my skin.