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Ch 2. 13 New Street, London Fields, Hackney

I began this story with the events of my apprenticeship years. An earlier event had a much greater impact on the chance progress of my flutter through life. It took place round about the beginning of August in 1920 and involved the very issuance of my lottery ticket. One can only speculate where it took place–times were very difficult for young married couples then. Urban dwellers were huddled together in mean rented housing, and wedded couples, dictated by the economics of the time, had no option but to live with one set or other of their parents until the young husband earned enough to afford a modest rent of his own.

By which time there was nearly always an offspring in the making–there was no magic pill or patch in those days to hinder the process. My parents began their married life in my paternal grandfather’s house which was thirteenth in a short row called New Street in the Borough of Hackney. Hackney is one of the eastern boroughs of London within hearing distance of Bow Church. Its location is of note, because, if one was born within the sound of Bow Bells, one was born a true Cockney rather than a common Londoner. “New” Street must have been more than a hundred years old at the time and its condition showed every minute of it. Number thirteen was overrun by people and bed-bugs. The extended human family living in it included my grandparents, my parents, an uncle, a young man called Johnnie, whose antecedents were never explained to me, and eight assorted aunts, some with their beaux visiting.

Given the public circumstances of number thirteen, it would, I imagine, have needed a great deal of ingenuity to find the necessary privacy. But, while one is most reluctant to admit that one’s own parents could even indulge in such things, I should mention that New Street dead-ended onto London Fields, which was a public park supporting a copse or two, some shrubbery and other likely cover. Maybe it took place on their honeymoon but I have no knowledge of where that was celebrated or, if they had one.

Be that as it may. Proof of the event was demonstrably apparent when, on the fifth day of May, in the year of 1921, Emily Rebecca Thompson (nee Hobbs) was delivered of a boy; one Benjamin William Thompson! Whether bouncing or not, is not recorded on the birth certificate.

As far as I can tell, little fanfare accompanied the event. No wise men were in attendance (unless one includes my uncle Nart—and he was only there because of the free booze). Nart was to become my favourite uncle and our lives touched along the edges a few times over the following sixty years–But more of uncle Nart later. Naturally, the impressions of the place where this momentous happening occurred were gathered during numerous return visits over the early years of my youth. My parents had moved out of the house to a flat just round the corner by the time I was one or two years of age and to the suburbs by the time I was three or so. But, extended-family bonds were strong in those days and my parents returned to their nests often. I will have been fifteen or sixteen years old when the last of these return visits was made.

Following the fire of London, it was ordained that housing could no longer be constructed of wood, but of fire-resisting brick or stone. For the poorer housing, yellow brick of the cheapest quality sufficed. New Street was built of such material although one would have been hard pressed to have noticed it. Londoners burned soft coal by the hundredweight in their grates, in order to keep their domain marginally above the outside temperatures of the English winter as well as to cook their roast beef and Yorkshire pudding throughout the year. The coal burning in multitudes of grates produced a thick sulphurous fog, so dense at times, it was impossible to see more than a yard or two ahead if one dared walk in the streets. The particulate fallout from the fog was enough to bury St. Paul’s cathedral annually. I saw this theoretical scenario depicted often in the newspapers of the day and, in my youth, I wondered, naively, whose job it was to uncover the church and shovel all that soot away! And where did they put it? I should have realized that they brought it all round to Hackney and neighbouring boroughs and plastered it thickly over the yellow brick so that, never again, could it express its lowly origin.

Here I am (bottom left) next to Minnie Tonka and Benny. The new bride is my aunt Rose and the bridesmaids include my aunts Maggie and Julie. I would be about four years old at this time.

But a coal economy was not without joy for us children. Black-faced coalmen, who were supposed to bring luck to anyone who touched them, roamed the streets selling their wares. Every so often they would shout “Coaaal! Coaaal!” and this would sometimes bring one of the housewives to her door to signal ‘one’ or ’two’ with her fingers. Whereupon, the coalman would bring his horse to a stop to deliver her order. The coal for sale was contained in one hundredweight (112 lbs) sacks, open at the top and stacked in rows along each side of the horse-drawn dray. The coalman would then don his cowl which was fashioned from an empty coal sack folded in upon itself to form a hood for his head while allowing the rest of the sack to hang down his back. With his back to the dray, he would lift his arms above his head; grab the ears of a sack of coal, then bend forward to take the weight on his angled spine. He carried it like this into his customer’s house where he would lean further forward to allow the coal to tumble out of the sack, over his head, into the coal cellar. We were fascinated by all this. The coalman’s clothes were awesomely stiff and shiny with coal tar like a suit of armour and sometimes, where a coal-hole was provided in front of the house, we got to kick any lumps remaining on the sidewalk into the hole. And, as we became a little older, another benefit accrued: we stood around the horse hoping that the urge to defecate would come upon it while it was in our street, its droppings were much prized by my grandfather who used them to fertilize the rhubarb growing in his allotment, and he would pay us by the bucketful. And, if the horse only peed we were not entirely disappointed.

So, in this sooty-black wall of acid-eaten brick there was placed, at regular intervals, a sandstone step surmounted by a painted door with a customary black-lead polished door-knocker about two-thirds the way up from the bottom. Next to the door there was a sandstone sill supporting a double-sash window looking out directly on to the sidewalk (‘pavement’ in Britain). Each house was indistinguishable from the next except for the number on the door; each sill and step was religiously whitened every day by the lady of the house or one of her daughters, using a lump of limestone purchased for the job; each window pane was maintained at high transparency. Some doubted whether this latter ritual was carried out with the object of allowing a clear view out from the inside or an unspoiled view of the aspidistra from the outside—but certainly, the neighbours’ impressions were a most important consideration. (‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ is not a modern conception).

First-hand evidence of the ritual’s hold on East-end society was available to the observer each Monday when a row of animated female behinds overlapped the white sills while their associated upper parts attacked the glass before them with rags, polish and gusto. When they were satisfied with the results, they would lift the lower sashes off their laps and pop back in to their respective parlours. There were windows higher up—the houses boasted two full floors and an attic–but I do not remember ever looking above the one on the ground floor.

The houses were designed (it that isn’t too ambitious a verb) in the style called railroad apartments in America. That is, they were built on narrow lots with a front door opening on to a long passageway stretching to the rear. One side of the passage held doorways opening into the ground-floor rooms and the other side formed the wall separating one house from the next. This passage narrowed about half way along its length to accommodate a flight of stairs leading up to the first floor.

The first door along from the entrance admitted important visitors such as the insurance man or, perhaps, the vicar, into the ‘parlour’. The parlour was a curious adoption of the working class. I suppose it mimicked the drawing room of stately homes and represented a bit of Cockney nose-thumbing. For those overcrowded families, however, it was a costly gesture. Inexplicably, the parlour became a sanctum and the space was practically unused—entry was forbidden to children except by invitation of one of the family founders.

Daylight dimly filtered into the parlour from the window—the one overlooking the sidewalk. The glass was clear enough, but the light coming through it was filtered through a substantial white, patterned-lace curtain which, itself, was flanked by drapes and matching pelmet. The drapes and pelmet were made from a heavy maroon velour and had ecru tassels sewn all along their edges. These drapes were partially held back with similarly tasseled ties. Light was further reduced by the prized aspidistra plant in its pot standing on a pedestal immediately in front of the lace curtain. It was strategically placed so that its magnificence could be viewed from the outside and yet not get too much sunlight on its susceptible foliage which, I am told, was lovingly washed at intervals by the man of the house who sacrificed some of his favourite beer for the purpose—it was another symbol of Cockney one-upmanship.

The total effect was eerily monastic. I was sure that people lowered their voices as they entered the parlor. There was a piano in the room but I never heard anyone play. We grandchildren dare not even peek inside the keyboard cover. The room also contained some dead birds chirping their hearts out on dead branches under a glass-domed display case; Victorian furniture, and, on the walls and low table, heavily-framed sepia photographs of uniformed family members lost in the Great War. The black-leaded fireplace was always laid with fresh newspaper, kindling wood and coal but I never saw it lit. On the chimney breast, above the mahogany mantelpiece, were two gas sconces which provided the nighttime light. Most intriguing for me, though, were the cupboards on each side of the chimney breast. They contained, totally unexpectedly, my grandfather’s collection of National Geographic magazines. On my very best behaviour, I was allowed to sit, deep in one of the Victorian armchairs my legs dangling in the air, absorbed in the graphic stories of real adventure. Only one sticks in my mind now, and that was a harrowing account of an adventurer in Africa who was stung to death by a swarm of killer bees!

The next door along the passage was always wedged open and through it one entered the most exciting room of the house—the kitchen. The kitchen was the largest room and was where everyone lived! The furnishings were simple; a great pine table almost the length of the room, butted up to the back window which overlooked the yard; a bent-wood armchair for my grandfather, next to the fire; assorted dining chairs around the table and the great black, cast-iron stove, in its alcove, stretching half the length of one wall. The atmosphere in the kitchen was always warm and lively. There was always a kettle boiling on the hob and the luscious aromas of baking and cooking and there were frenetic comings and goings every minute of the day—the table to be set for meals or cleared away, dresses to sew, stockings to mend, wool to be wound, hair to be combed and set and dried, beaux to be greeted or rejected and stand-up rows to be resolved. I often sat, insignificant, in a corner pretending to be absorbed in a comic book, enthralled by the unguarded tongues of my numerous aunts. I didn’t understand a great deal of what they were saying but I knew that I should not have been listening to it. I remember a great affection for that kitchen. My hair was often tousled by my congenial grandfather.

From the kitchen door, the passage continued past the stair cupboard until it encountered the ‘washus’ where it took a sharp right and exited into the back yard. The door to the washus was lightly built and had a pane of opaque glass for most of its upper half. It served more as a screen than as a door because the room behind it contained an enormous free-standing bathtub. This bathtub was covered with a custom made wooden lid most of the time and doubled as an ironing-board but, on bath nights (usually Fridays), the cover came off and it was filled to the brim with steaming water ladled from the ‘copper’. A copper was an insulated cast-iron cauldron, heated from below by a coal-fire with a flue into a chimney built onto the outside wall of the house. Its main purpose was to boil the dirty linen for the weekly wash but on bath nights it provided the hot water for the family’s ablutions. I remember once, being bathed in the tub by my aunts. I was too young, obviously, to do the job myself but not too young not to be embarrassed by the procedure. Looking up at the sea of faces arrayed in semi-circle, leering down at me, I was fearful that their intention was to drown me in that fathomless hot water!

With all the aquatic activity going on in the washus, it should have occurred to me earlier. But a number of mystified years passed before I came to understand that ‘washus’ was Cockney-speak for ‘wash-house’. At floor level, our wash-house had a fist-sized hole driven through the brick wall. Its purpose was to drain, into the yard, the soapy water splashed everywhere during bathing and laundry operations. A shallow gully carried the suds in a slow and never-ending stream down to the end of the yard. I don’t remember where it went after that but, I do remember that every time I observed that trickling runnel with its gray-green slime trailing in the downstream flow, I was reminded of my own runny nose—I was plagued with continuous head colds in my early years. Soggy handkerchiefs were a constant concern. I was secretly ashamed of mine and often thought what a disgusting chore it had to be for the women who laundered them. But women took such things in their stride; they were used to nappies and things. My hankies always came back, without comment, perfectly starched and ironed.

Once outside, the passage broadened to the width of the kitchen and became the yard. A brick wall about six feet high separated our yard from the one next door. And, at the end of the yard, this wall joined a similar one at right-angles’ separating the backyards of New Street from the backyards of the street running parallel to it. To add some relief to the dreary soot-blackened prospect, my grandfather, like his neighbours, whitewashed the walls periodically, up to the height of about five feet.

Proceeding down the yard past the wash-house, a step led up to an open doorway into a dank cavern with a wash basin attached to one wall. The purpose of the room was another mystery I never solved. A little further on, though, another step led up to the most important room on the property—the ‘lav’. ‘Lav’ is short for lavatory and was the contemporary euphemism for water closet. Our lav had a dark green, tongue-and-groove, wooden door which was hung so that a three-inch space remained below the bottom edge. When it was opened, it revealed a wooden plank set across its width. Upon mounting the step, however, one could see that a bottom-sized hole had been cut into the middle of this plank and that this hole coincided with a modern toilet bowl beneath. Above the sitter’s head, was a cast iron tank from which hung a chain terminating in a wooden handle. The walls of the lav were clad in the same material as the door and this not only added a little comfort to the room but also facilitated the driving-in of the nails upon which to hang the newspaper, torn into six inch squares by the aunts and sewn through with a loop of string at one corner; as well as some current magazines for leisurely reading. The wisdom of allowing the three-inch space below the door was amply demonstrated when, upon reaching the step, one’s view encountered a pair of feet. One instantly knew not to step up and press the latch—especially if the feet happened to be female! I should record that during daylight hours only wet weather impeded the enjoyment of the facilities. But the yard and the lav were completely unlit so that a visit there in one’s night-dress on a cold winter’s night must have been a prospect daunting in the very extreme. The ones in authority had chamber pots under their beds—so they didn’t have to worry.

The only other feature of note in my memories of the yard was the roosting sheds and chicken-wire enclosures which my grandfather had installed at the back of it. It was in these he kept his Rhode Island Reds and his White Leghorns. I remember being called upon, occasionally, to muck-out the dank and smelly runs (for a small fee) while my parents were visiting with their parents. Apparently, they were all under the impression that this was what little boys loved to do. But I held the work in small regard—I often recalled that one of the beasts had, unprovoked, bitten my finger at an earlier age. I do remember one awesome sight, though, when I was in that yard. I have no idea what age I was at the time, but, prompted by a droning sound; I looked up, open-mouthed, into the sky and saw the huge bulk of the R13 floating just above our chimney tops! I had never seen an airship before and, in all my years since, I have caught a glimpse of only one other—the R101.

Back inside the house and looking up the staircase, I can recall little of the upstairs rooms. I do not know, even, how many there were—only one impressed me at all. This was the front room immediately over the parlour where my mother led me, fearfully, by the hand, into its darkened interior. The blinds were drawn and the only light was provided by two large candles burning one each side of a mahogany coffin which rested, incongruously, I thought at the time, upon a bare trestle table. Under the table was a dish containing an onion peeled and quartered.

In the coffin, was my grandfather and he appeared to be dead. I was not knowledgeable about such things at the time, but my mother said he was and that we should pay our last respects. I said something respectful like “Hello! Granddad” and tugged fiercely at my mother’s hand to get me out of there! I have few recollections of my grandfather I regret to say. I recall him as a kindly old man–he would cut off illicit slices of the raw, smoked herring, which was a favourite snack of his, and feed them to me while I wa sitting on his lap in the glow of the kitchen stove on a winter’s evening. He used the same penknife to cut his tobacco. But I was wrong about his age—he was only 53 when he died.

Johnnie (if that was really his name) lived in the attic, and the enclosed stairway leading up to his room was dark and mysterious, just wide enough for an adult to navigate. I vaguely remember Johnnie as a young man and therefore he would have been in his teens. I also remember that he was very high-tech. It was he who taught me how to make radio sets from crystals and “cats’ whiskers”—the reception was never very good—mostly wails and ghostly voices conjured from nowhere—but impressive enough in those days. I don’t think he was a member of the immediate family, but an orphan, perhaps, of the wider Thompson clan. He was, none-the-less, treated like family. His stairway and his room were lined with the ubiquitous tongue-and-groove boards, painted cream. It was also Johnnie who taught me how to squash the bugs as they crawled up the wall beside his bed. I was important not waste one’s time on the flat ones for they were almost impossible to squash and, even if one did, the effect was minimal. The best results came from the fully bloated ones—they provided a very satisfying squash and quickly produced a red polka-dotted effect on the cream paintwork. I remember that the tips of my fingers retained a very odd odour afterwards.

With one exception, I do not have individual memories of the Thompson aunts. I remember them as I perceived them when a child—a bunch of frenetically active, mischievous females, flitting around like Matisse’s dancers. Oddly, I have seen much more of their children and grandchildren in the last few years than I ever remember seeing of them. We must have had innumerable contacts on visits, and at parties and the like throughout the years, but my mind recalls few details to speak of. I do remember attending some of their weddings and I remember winning much approbation at one or other of them by my judicious placement of a “whoopee” cushion and for secreting a rubber spider in the ladies’ beer. The approbation came mostly from the guests at large, and not, I must say, from the victims, who showed no appreciation whatsoever.

The exception was Ada, the youngest. Ada was tall and slim and extraordinarily beautiful. It was she who awakened my early chemistry and I fell head-over-heels in love with her when I was about twelve or thirteen. Her rendering of “Just my Bill” from the musical “Showboat” tore at my heartstrings. Over the following few years I learned that she and her heart-throb husband had divorced and that she was remarried to a tailor called Harry and had emigrated to America. I met Ada and Harry for the first and last time some seventy years later in Las Vegas where they were then living. They have both since died.

Strangely, I never associated my paternal grandmother with 13 New Street. I remember her as the doyen of the bungalow in Wickford, Essex which she owned (probably jointly with her husband), and where she spent most weekends entertaining family visitors. Owning real estate was an extraordinarily rare occurrence in working-class families in those days. She must have been something of an entrepreneur, but remember that her husband as well as her two sons were National newspaper printers and therefore among the top paid workers. Carl Marx’s traitors!

I remember her organizing the early morning sorties into the fields near her bungalow to gather the day’s crop of mushrooms before it was all snatched up by the locals. We kids: I, Les, Benny and Minnie loved these outings. We would vie with each other to find the largest and fattest specimens and we became quite expert at recognizing where they would most likely be. The provenance of the mushrooms was a worrisome mystery to us–having picked the field clean one morning, there they all were again on the next? Benny, who was a few months older than I, and, since he lived full-time in Hackney, was a lot more street-smart, told us with the authority of his father (Nart) that the cattle which spent their lives in the fields did their breeding thing in the evenings and it was the overflow which gave rise to the mushrooms! This explanation did nothing to stop us enjoying our succulent beefsteak fungi with our breakfast bacon and eggs!

I also remember Nana Thompson as a fearsome soul—justifiably, as I now understand it. She owned one of the first phonographs. Not one which played discs but one which used Bakelite cylinders as the recording media. One slipped on a cylinder, placed the steel needle on the start groove, wound up the spring and moved the “play” lever to one side to hear the recording.

The recordings were mainly voices of contemporary movers and shakers of nationalistic bent commenting on the current situation. The voices included those of politicians, Admirals, Generals and sometimes literary personages. Grandmother owned an impressive collection of cylinders, of which, her utmost favourite was that of Nurse Cavell encouraging her wounded soldiers on the battlefield s of WW1. Les and I had listened to it many times under her supervision and also felt terribly moved by it. One evening, Les and I were left in the bungalow to fend for ourselves while Nana and our parents repaired to ‘The Quart Pot’ (the local pub). for a little relaxation and, while they were gone (from experience we knew it would be for a considerable time), we hit upon the brilliant idea of passing the time by playing the old phonograph.

One of the mechanical shortcomings of the old technology was that the wound spring rarely provided sufficient energy to complete the play of a cylinder. If one only half wound it up, the cylinder would slow down and the voice would slur and deepen into a caricature of itself. We lads found this very amusing and well worth imitating when the voice was Ramsey McDonald’s for example. But not for Nurse Cavell! For her, we made sure the machine was fully wound. Both Les and I tugged on the handle to make absolutely sure. We carefully slipped the cylinder onto the sleeve as we had been shown, placed the needle exactly in its appointed place and moved over the start lever. Horror of horrors! The over-wound cylinder revolved at the speed of light, struck the steel needle and shattered into a thousand bits!

Quick as lightening, Les and I were out the front door and hiding in the fields. It was dark outside but we must have waited until the adults had returned and surveyed the havoc. The conclusion of this episode has faded from memory—probably because it was too painful?

Around the corner from number 13 was a pub called ‘The Padget Arms’. Why it was so-named I never really knew but I remember being puzzled at the time by an image of Mr. or Mrs. Padget having mislaid their upper limbs. It was there my father, uncle Nart and possibly my grandfather and some of my aunts’ intendeds did their social drinking. I became aware of the establishment during my parents’ subsequent visits to the family home. The pub, for me, was a porch bounded by two pseudo Doric columns, an overhead gas jet and a painted sign swinging in front of it. This was all I ever saw of it because we children were strictly forbidden entry as provided by the Church-sponsored ‘Alcoholic Beverages Act’—Parents (mostly fathers) could drink themselves silly inside but their offspring were not allowed to observe it happening–only the end result when patrons were turned out at closing time. Today’s generations, with their embedded images of cowering, brutalized, women of yesteryear, will be surprised to learn that my Cockney aunts needed none of their liberation—they had already taken every liberty there was to be had–one of them was about to become a Labour Party official even. They knew instinctively, how to manipulate their men-folk. One of their liberties was to send their men off to the pub after supper while they did their thing. (Men never discovered what their thing was). But the men were to take the walking kids with them—no leaving them behind to get under the women’s feet. As time went by, I was joined on these pub nights by my cousin Benny, and, later on, his sister Minnie Tonker and my brother Leslie and we played tag games together. The first two being uncle Nart’s children. Every so often, one of the men would poke his head around the door and distribute a glass of lemonade and a large round Arrowroot biscuit to each of us. As the evening progressed, the distributions became less frequent until it reached the stage where we thought we may have been forgotten altogether, at which point we would open the door a crack and make a row of hungry faces though it, hoping to attract someone’s attention. And so was generated one of the most enduring memories of my childhood—of being bored to death for hour after hour in the Padget Arms porch—confined within that cone of yellow light carved through the enveloping fog by the gas lamp overhead!

Several years after world war two, I made a nostalgic pilgrimage to New Street. It was gone! The whole area, like much of the East End had been bombed out of existence and the area now sported brash new public housing in an entirely foreign configuration.

4 Responses

  1. Hey Ben,
    Is that the same Minnie we saw in Canada? I love hearing these stories again. They remind me of our fishing trips.
    Love you,

    • Kiowa. The very same. I have written about our meeting her in Sudbury in my next chapter which is almost ready for publishing. Love, Ben

  2. Ben,
    The memoirs are coming along wonderfully. Thank you for writing them as they will be treasured by your family.

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