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Ch 5. 57 Kimberly Avenue

Ben and Emily Thompson (my parents) were pioneers. They and their generation were the first to put a crack in the mould of the cloth-cap-touching working-class. My father did not entirely escape his roots but my mother certainly did. In fact she had upper-class aspirations. They graduated from the family home in New Street and moved into a rented apartment of their own a few blocks away. It was there that I archived my first memory—I was traumatized by the event.

From economic necessity, theirs was not the most desirable of residences; it was, in fact, a so-called ‘aerie’ flat. That is, half of it was below grade; the front door was approached through a gate in the cast-iron railings guarding the sidewalk, down five or six stone steps to a narrow paved area. I can only think that name ’aerie’ was a bit of cynical Cockney humour.

The front door led immediately into the bedroom and, maybe, the only room they rented. (There were no bathrooms in those houses). The bed-head was butted up against the window, the middle of which was level with the roadway just across the narrow ‘aerie’. As a toddler I would be tucked into the bed during the day while my parents went about their business. From that position, I could look up towards the ceiling and, at the same time, see the top half of the window behind me and the shelf, high on the wall in front of me. On the shelf was a row of “Palm” toffee tins, printed with the coconut palm logo and hinged along the top. I don’t remember having seen the like since, but, in those days the famous toffee-maker produced his wares in the form of rectangular slabs about four inches wide by six inches long and three-quarters of an inch thick! Only adults could afford a whole slab let alone a whole tinful! Slabs were broken up for children by the sweet-shop keepers and sold in ha’pennyworths or pennyworths. Each tin must have held eight or more of these slabs! In later years, I wondered who it was that had such a sweet tooth—I concluded it was my father’s young bride, my new mother, who had the addiction and he was indulging it. At the time, of course, I didn’t care—I could only dribble with delight over the awareness that I would be included in the treat when the time came. I seem to remember that the evening darkness heralded the opening of the toffee tin.

Lifting my eyes, I could see that the top half of the window was partially open. Suddenly, the room darkened and the window was filled with a terrifying apparition; piercing black eyes bulging larger than saucers; great flaring nostrils wider than a baby’s head and dripping slime; gigantic curved horns stretching beyond the width of the glass! I still hear myself letting out a maniacal scream–left defenseless in an empty room with this baby-eating monster! Then, blank–nothing more. Such is the stuff nightmares are made of.

The explanation was simple. Milk was delivered in those days, fresh each morning. It came in tall silvery churns which were carried round the streets on a chariot-like dray drawn by a powerful bullock. Around the rim of the churns hung ladles of different capacities. Housewives, my mother among them, took out their milk jugs and bought the amount they would need for the day. Over-ordering would risk curdled waste on warm days—there were no refrigerators, only larders. While the milkman was serving his customers, the bullock would offtimes assuage his boredom by swiveling on to the sidewalk in order to peer over the railings. A bovine voyeur, perhaps?

I do have another memory of similar traumatic impact but the details are less defined. It was inflicted by my young father. We, (my parents and Les and I) were visiting a festival fair-ground in London. I have forgotten what the occasion celebrated but I believe it was a national anniversary of some sort. It was nighttime and I have an impression of being caught up in noisy, holiday-making crowds, dancing coloured lights and the deafening roars of the fair-ground rides. One of these rides was entered through the enormous maw of an artificial elephant complete with an ominously raised animated trunk and frightful trumpetings. Why adults are convinced that only a perverse nature causes their child to refuse to be delighted by whatever thrills them, escaped me–until I became a parent myself. My father was determined to force me into the mouth and I protested, screaming and kicking. Les, I remember, remained tranquil in my mother’s arms. Dad dragged me as far as the pay booth before the embarrassing stares of the passing crowd became too much for him and we all beat a hasty retreat. Once again, I have no recollection of a sequel but I bet my father was not all that proud of his senior offspring at the time.

What is of interest to me, perhaps more than the incident itself, is the reinforcement it gives to the monopoly of my earliest memories by my father rather than my mother. The thought occurred to me while writing these notes. It is contrary to what one would expect, surely? Perhaps the reason was that, as a newspaperman, he always worked at night and so saw more of his family during the daylight hours than most fathers did? I can, in fact, remember Dad’s young face as well as his old one but I remember only mother’s old one.

Incidentally, readers may wonder what renters did to maintain a respectable state of bodily cleanliness in those bathroom-less digs (rentals)? The Local Authorities provided bathhouses for such citizens. I remember being sent to the Baths in Haggerston once or twice while I was staying with my grandmother, Nana Hobbs. I would have been about twelve at the time when I was first sent and found the experience quite frightening. At that age, I had become used to the human-size bath in our suburban bathroom, so when I had paid my small fee and swaggered in with my grandmother’s towel under my arm, I was surprised to be confronted with a row of booths each fitted with an enormous bathtub twice the size of the monster my aunts had tried to drown me in when I was a baby!

Infinitely worse, there were no taps on the baths with which one could keep control of the flow and temperature of the water! When the latch on the door of the booth was closed, a great gush of steaming hot water began filling the tub at an alarming rate, controlled by an anonymous dictator in the hidden depths. How did one stop the flood in time before it reached drowning depth? And how did one control its steaming temperature? I learned very quickly. Each booth was numbered and the number of the one occupied was clearly marked on the entrance ticket. So, it was a matter of shouting over the top of the door: “More cold–number 6, please!” or “hot” according to one’s requirements. A “Number 6 full, thank you” sufficed to stop the flow. Respectable people bathed and changed their underwear once a week in those days. But they still smelled a lot.

My next embedded memory is of brother Leslie and I romping through the chest-high grass of a suburban garden. Two or three years must have passed since the bullock incident. The grass was an over-grown lawn of fine fescues and I recall the delicate bunches of seeds on the tops of the stalks making a fascinating swishing sound as we brushed our joyful way through them. And if you grabbed the stalks fairly tightly in your fist and pulled sharply upwards, the seeds would all come off in a friction-held bunch and you could throw them up into the air as you ran. The joy was being transmitted through our parents’ excitement. They were, I think, probably viewing the house they were about to purchase—a great adventure for all of us.

Purchase it, they did, and that is how we came to acquire the address of: 57 Kimberly Avenue, Seven Kings, Ilford, in the county of Essex. The multiple kings included in the address intrigued my infant curiosity. Britain did, I knew, have just the one. He was King George V and was in charge of everything. I had seen him in his gold carriage drawn by lots of horses. My father was a great patriot. He used to take us up to the city in the dark early hours of the morning in order to reserve a good space on the sidewalk when the king had a special occasion. This was to ensure that we would be able to see the king passing by and he would be able to see us waving our Union Jacks. For me, the long, long wait tired me to distraction and I was always secretly glad when all the bobbing busbies and flashing swords had rounded the corner so that we could all go home. But I did like the anticipation–of being set down on folded newspapers, half asleep, on the sidewalk, and of being warmed with hot cocoa from the Thermos flask. Even at that age I felt the intense fellowship of the Brits during those hours of discomfort, borne with stoicism and good humour. It was the same human fellowship which transcended all classes during the war years, and I felt it again among New Yorkers after 9/11. But, Britain had only one king whereas Ilford had seven! This seemed, to my youthful understanding, to be excessive.

The Kimberly part of the address did not interest me until I had spent a year or two at school and was told of the Boer War. History taught in elementary schools was mostly about the battles fought by the Brits since King Harold lost an eye at Hastings. My ears perked up, though, when I learned that one of the battles had taken place in my very own street and that the street running parallel to ours, Mafeking, had got into serious trouble during the conflict as well! I remember a sense of deflation when it was explained that our street was named only after the Boer War and that this applied to all the other streets in our development. Subsequently, the only use I found in the information was that it dated our house.

What would there be of interest in the date of a terrace house? In England, nearly all such houses were built on land still owned by the great landlords of the earlier centuries—The Church Commissioners being among the largest. Thus they were ’Leasehold’. That is, the owners of the houses paid a nominal annual rent to the landlord for the use of the land it stood on. The leases ran for a period of years, usually ninety-nine. And here was the rub. At the end of the lease, the land and everything on it reverted to the landlord. So, on the downhill half of the lease period, house-owners would begin to see their equity diminish each year. Who would want to buy a house which the law required to be relinquished to the landlord within a foreseeable number of years—except at a give-away price? Although my father died well before the lease would have been up, it worried him a great deal towards the end of the1940’s. I found it disturbing that this patently un-British anomaly had been allowed to endure. One of the most far-reaching social changes made by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government redressed this unfairness. It passed a law requiring all landlords to offer the ‘Freehold’ of their land to every house owner at a price mandated to be within the pocket of wage-earners, so Dad’s worries were over and house-ownership began its inflation-fed frenzy period.

57 was an immediate upgrade in our lifestyle—it had electric light! The conversion had been made just before we moved in, for the blocked ends of the gas pipes were still protruding through the wall paper in every room. Direct current was supplied at first, but we knew very little about the mechanics except that we could now go into a room, press up a little switch and, lo! There would be light! Even in the outdoor john! Not too much of it mind! 15 watt lamps gave off a yellowish glow. But, no more would we have to stand on a stool and, ultra-gently, remove a mantle from its cardboard container and place it on the gas fitting without it suffering the slightest knock or shake—either of which would have caused it to disintegrate and to evoke choice language from an adult or a clip round the ear even. Some years after we were living in the house, the supply of electric current was changed, nationwide, to alternating current and we became better lit and owned an electric vacuum cleaner.

Kimberly Avenue was formed by two facing rows of terraced houses separated by pavements and a road wide enough to accommodate passing horse carts. Each house was identical except that they were constructed left and right. This enabled the savvy builder to provide only one chimney for each pair . The four end houses in the Avenue had a slight advantage in that a privacy wall of brick, about six feet high, stretched along the length of their back gardens and continued along the back garden of the house behind it. The gardens of the end houses were, consequently, a little wider and had additional access through doorways let into privacy wall. Each house had a small front garden enclosed in a low brick wall topped by a black-painted cast-iron fence. Most householders cultivated a privet hedge up to the height of the fence in order to give a little privacy to the front-room window and also to give a home to the wonderful chrysalises and caterpillars which fed on its leaves. We boys really appreciated our father’s foresight!

There were double windows on each storey, built out from the front of the house by about eighteen inches. Narrow sash windows on each side of the front windows filled the resulting space. This configuration gave both the ‘Front’ room on the ground floor and the master bedroom on the upper floor, a small recess from which one could see up and down the street. To the left of the double windows and above the arched doorway, was a single window which provided daylight for the ‘Box’ room.

The front door was approached via a wrought iron gate in the low wall and a terrazzo pathway. The cover of the coalhole was visible in the pathway near the doorway and to one side. The door itself was set back a foot or so to provide callers shelter

The “maid” and me, about five years old, outside number 57

from the rain while they were transacting their business, or, just waiting to be let in. The attention of the householder was attracted by pressing a bell-push which activated a bell hanging inside just above the door. The bell was of a type one can still see around today on top of wind-up alarm clocks. The bell was electrically operated and the power was supplied by two enormous, round, dry-cell batteries (about 40 A’s I should guess) which were stored in an open box fastened to the wall next to the bell.When the door was opened, one was faced with a staircase on the left leading to the upper floor and a narrow passageway about fourteen feet long. This passageway was called the ‘hall’ in our household. Ten feet along the hall on the right, a white-painted paneled door opened into the ‘Front’ room. Suburbanites didn’t have ‘parlours’ or aspidistras but they did have wind-up record-players in polished hardwood consuls with storage space for vinyl records beneath! And these were placed in the ‘aspidistra’ position, at the centre of the bay windows, visible to passers-by. The ‘Front’ room contained the inevitable upright piano (against the wall opposite the windows), tiled fire place with brass ‘tongs’ set and surround, and a mahogany mantelpiece surmounted by a large mirror. An overstuffed lounge set—couch and two armchairs–filled most of the remaining space. The stained wooden floor was enlightened by numerous rugs. One was placed in front of the fireplace and was continuously at risk from the sparks given off by the fire in winter.

At the end of the hall there were two doors at right angles. The one facing the front door led into the kitchen, and the other into the dining room. The dining room was miniscule, perhaps not more than ten feet by six feet, and most of this space was occupied by the dining set (table and four chairs), the fireplace and the Cocktail Cabinet. To conserve space, the table was placed against the wall opposite the fireplace but, even so, the backs of the two chairs on the long side of the table were too close to the fire to be used in the winter if all four of us ate there at the same time. We two boys would be awkwardly placed at the corners of the table next to each parent.

But it was rare that our father ate his meals with us except on weekends, he travelled to his newspaper office, The Daily Mail, in the evening and returned to sleep at breakfast time. When, later,

AC current was installed, he resolved the fire problem by fitting an artificial fire in the grate. It gave off no heat but it did add a little cheer to an otherwise drear and wintery-cold grate. It brought with it a problem of its own, though—Smokers, and they were legion in those days, were often deceived by the “flames” and discarded their cigarette butts into it. And, in the rheumy winters, elderly relatives were known to spit in it!

The ‘Cocktail Cabinet” was a suburban status symbol—it came with the shiny dining set. I am sure that it was my mother’s idea to buy it–it suited her upwardly-mobile ambitions. I am equally sure that she had no idea what a cocktail was. She drank little, if any, alcoholic beverage and my father was content with his working-class pint except at weddings, births, deaths, and Christmastimes, when he would take a tot or so from the one bottle of scotch which the cabinet guarded. The cabinet did have its uses, however; the side cupboards were ideal for storing the large number of beer mugs needed at party times and my mother kept our cutlery in the green felt-lined drawers in its front. And, If one lifted the top up on its hinges, two shelves dropped down to reveal a space fitted with all manner of chrome devices which, if one only knew how, would help produce the exotic tipples for which the cabinet was named. Not knowing how, my mother kept the bread in there!

At the far end of the dining room, a glass-paneled door opened into the ‘conservatory’. This was a sloping-glass-roofed and glass-fronted structure the width of the dining room, protruding about six feet beyond the back wall of the house. The brick side walls of the ‘conservatory’ served as the back wall of the larder and our outdoor loo on the left-hand side and the neighbour’s conservatory on the right. Another glass-paneled door opened onto the back garden. Mimicking the stately homes of the rich and powerful, the ‘conservatory’ was, I suppose, meant to be a sunny haven with potted palms and lounge chairs, but it was far too small, even for the illusion. My father did his best with window boxes in which he propagated his geranium cuttings, but, over the years, the space was used for whatever the needs of a growing family were at any time, until it finally deteriorated into an haphazard storage place.

The back garden was my father’s domain. He loved it. It was his haven from the madding strife of family turmoil. As a night-worker he did his sleeping in the mornings and was was able to spend more daylight hours pottering in it than could most working husbands. He laid out two, full-length, paved paths at either side of the garden leading to his rock garden along the back fence. On the outside of the paths, he planted herbaceous border plants in marvelous profusion and on the inside he cut diamond shaped rose beds with trimmed-grass walkways between them. He soon acquired some expertise and used it to impress me when I was old enough to be taken into confidence and help him with the plantings. He would point to some blossom or shrub and say “That is my hybrid – – – – – – “rattling off some exotic Latin name that he had just learned from the seed catalogue. One of these was: Cupressus Macrocarpa which did impress me, so much that I have never forgotten it. As for the rest, I was sure that he made-up most of them! However that may be, I think it must have been his enthusiasm which sparked in me the thirst for knowledge of the plant life and animals living beyond the concrete and cobblestones of London town and for that I thank my lucky stars. Incidentally, Dad’s expertise was less than fully developed since he cultivated, at the end of the garden, a Laburnum tree. In summer, this tree produced a mass of beautiful hanging blossoms. As the season progressed, the golden yellow blooms gave place to bean pods which, in turn, opened and showered little brown beans to the ground. Fascinating to small boys. I am convinced now, that he didn’t know they were deadly poisonous!

The garden extended 30 feet or so from the concrete slab of the house. It was separated from the neighbours’ property by picket fences on either side. It was the envy of all, neighbours and visitors alike, but the garden’s fortune followed the family’s and was destined to become a hostage to the threatening WWII.

The kitchen (accessed through the door at the far end of the hall) was the same length as the dining room but twice as wide. On the left-hand side there was an alcove which had previously housed the coal-fired oven range. The range had been replaced (probably by the previous owners) by a coal fired water heater and an electric oven and range top, which included a grilling element at the top of its back plate. The front door of the water heater could be let down when required, to expose a nice comforting glow and to warm the kitchen. It also toasted the morning crumpets very nicely. Next to the oven was the “copper”, so named, I imagine, because the originals had been made of the metal. Our cauldron was made of cast iron, round, with a domed bottom. It hung by its rim in a brick and concrete structure in such a fashion that a fire lit underneath it would surround it and most efficiently heat the water poured into it. It had a small concrete hearth in front of an igloo-shaped entrance at floor level which gave access to the fire grate. A flue led out of the top into the alcove.

Next to the copper was the kitchen sink. Its porcelain was crazed and chipped in places but it was still serviceable. Hot and cold water was available at the sink. The unaccustomed boon of running hot water depended on the capacity of the storage tank situated in the bathroom cupboard upstairs. The hot water in it was replenished constantly by the water heater when its fire was lit. But a bath or two, or a heavy washday would overwhelm the storage tank so that its content had to be used with discretion.

The water supply for the house came from the gravity tank in the attic. Every house had one. These tanks were open at the top and were fitted with a ball valve just like the toilet tanks had then (and now!). The ball valve controlled the intake of water from the water mains of the Local Authority. Some householders, my father among them, covered the open tanks with a wooden lid in order to prevent insects and birds from contaminating the supply. He also covered an area of the rafters around the tank with tongue and groove boards. This was to provide a platform, safe from the danger of slipping a foot between the rafters, through the flimsy lathe-and-plaster ceiling, into the room below! The attic was accessed, by our father, from the upstairs landing by means of a step-ladder normally kept in the garden shed. Access for we two boys was attained, when our parents were out, by means of two chairs placed, with care, one upon the other. Our father would have died if he had seen us trip lightly from one rafter to another in our quests for dead birds, old nests and intriguing insects.

Above the sink, a casement window allowed in the daylight and could be opened to let out the steam on wash days. In the summer, it was often left open on its latch during daylight hours in order to allow the outside air to cool the kitchen. A door, wooden paneled and painted white, with a pane of opaque glass let into its top half, gave access to the garden and the outside lavatory (the “lav”). To the right of the kitchen door was the, now door-less, opening to the pantry. The door had been removed since it obviously took valuable space out of the kitchen’s small reserve and really served no purpose. The pantry space was part of the brick addition to the house which also housed the ‘lav’ and provided the left-hand wall of the ‘conservatory’. A small fanlight let into its left-hand wall provided a meagre light. It was fitted out with the customary concrete and marble shelf at waist level and white-painted wooden shelves above. The marble kept the perishables, like milk and meat, cool in the summer and the other shelves were for storing the groceries. We boys soon learned my mother’s strategy. The higher the shelf, the more delectable the prize—she kept her chocolate biscuits, treacle and condensed milk on the very highest shelf. Oddly, she also stored there, the family’s supply of ‘Cod Liver Oil of Malt’. She was right to do so—How could she have learned that we had come to love the treacly medicine? The potato bin and other vegetables were stored underneath the concrete shelf.

On the upstairs landing, the first door on the left opened into the bathroom. Behind the door to the left was a floor–to-ceiling airing cupboard. It was immediately above the water heater in the kitchen below and contained the hot-water storage tank. Lead pipes from the storage tank led down through the kitchen ceiling to the heater. It was only partially insulated with plaster and canvass because some residual heat was needed to ‘air off’ the sheets and clothes after they had been dried on

the clothes’ line in the garden. Especially on damp days, which, in Britain before global warming, were the majority.

Butted up to the airing cupboard was the rounded back-end of our cast-iron enameled bath tub, standing on its four animal-claw feet. The once white tub was now displaying an elderly cream tinge and the areas below the taps were circled with rust and lime. The water in our district was very, very hard. The floor was covered in a green-patterned linoleum showing evidence of cigarette burns here and there. Especially around the toilet area to the right of the bath. Between the bath and the toilet, a large sash window gave a wide view of our garden and (through the fruit trees) the back of the houses opposite. If you pushed up the bottom sash and poked head and shoulders out, you could see all the way to the intersecting streets at the ends of Kimberley Avenue.

In spring, the heady scent of lilacs was overwhelming—one grew profusely below our bathroom window. And, in the balmy days of summer, the roses and the annuals took over the perfume and insect-attracting duties. Butterflies, mostly of the ‘cabbage’ variety flittered from garden to garden; dragon-flies hovered; bees buzzed, and all the sparrows were a-twitter. Summer brought wasps too, though. In the damp autumn, the sad smell of burning leaves bade a nostalgic farewell to the freedoms of summer—But! Guy Fawkes Day and Christmas were coming! In winter, the window was rarely opened, except, perhaps, when a guest or family member had encountered a bowel problem.

One could also see the clothes-line post which my father had installed at the far end of the left-hand garden path and the rope which stretched from its top to a pulley attached to the brick wall just outside the bathroom window. His thinking was masterful—the path was narrow and he didn’t want wet sheets and combs (long johns) flapping about among his delicate plants. So, he installed the pulley high up so that the wet clothes could be hoisted up, well away from his precious flowers. The pulley had to be accessible, though, in case some stupid kid let go of the clothes-line, precipitating all the clean clothes to fall to the earth, while our mother was in the process of un-pegging them! The rope would have to be re-threaded through the pulley when fray was over and this needed two people; one to throw the rope, lasso-style, to another leaning out of the bathroom window.

The bathroom included one more fitting. It was a small pedestal hand basin against the wall opposite the bathtub, bolted to the floor planks. My father had had it installed. Above it was a small mirror and a narrow glass shelf for shaving things.

The back and front bedrooms each had their fireplaces, which, I am fairly certain, were never lit. They were equipped, however, with metal flaps like all others. These flaps were kept lowered, covering the chimney opening when the fire was out of use, to prevent soot, generated by other fires in the house, from blowing into the room. Les and I did, from time to time, retrieve some interesting dead birds from behind them. Otherwise the bedrooms were unremarkable, except that ours (the back bedroom with a window overlooking the conservatory and the garden) contained the triple-fronted mahogany wardrobe made by our maternal grandfather. I came to appreciate the wonderful workmanship of its inlays in later years. This leaves the ‘Box’ room. I have no idea why it was so named. I thought, maybe, it used to be a place where a family would store seasonal things, like overcoats or eiderdowns in appropriate boxes. Or, perhaps, my parents had so named it because it was not much bigger that a box? In any, event, a single bed could be squeezed into it, under the window overlooking the street, and the maid slept in it.

A creosoted clapboard fence about six feet high and eight feet long separated our house from the Fennell’s on the left. It provided privacy for the patrons of the outdoor lavs on both sides. It joined up with the low picket fence where proper neighbourly converse could be pursued without fear of embarrassment. A similar, but shorter, fence extended from the two conservatories on the right-hand side. Against this one, my mother kept her monstrous clothes-wringer. Better known as: ’The Mangle’.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, in that old house lead piping was used in the plumbing, Including the large diameter waste pipes which led from the copper and the sink through the outer wall into a drainage-well built below the kitchen window. And thereby hangs a dire tale which I shall relate in its context later on.

2 Responses

  1. Enjoyed your story. I remember some of the same living conditions when I was a child.
    Will the storm come near your place or have you already evacuated? Stay safe.

    • Peggy. Thank you for your concern We are battened down as I write. All sort of dire warnings abound. But we are not in an evacuation area fortunately.

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