Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Tenants of Tooley Street

The families who lived in Tooley Street where there were a mere 28 houses were definitely considered rather detached from us in York Road. However, a corner of the street could be seen from our back yard by hanging over the back gate, and scanning across the Old Green where houses had once stood that would certainly have blocked this minimal view in times past. My mother insisted that The Old Green had been there long before the war. It was there when she moved into 28 in August 1939 and Old Mrs Bassent had told her that there had definitely been houses on it during the previous war. In the late 1940s, however the demolished houses had met their fate, The Old Green made a splendid playground for local children even though we were constantly told to be wary of Dene Holes. Apparently falling into a Dene Hole was tantamount to falling to your death and had certainly claimed lives in the past. Not comprehending the dangers involved we largely ignored the warnings. Much of the bricks and mortar that had formed the original buildings still remained and were used and reused by at least two generations of children to become forts, mansions and department stores or simply to delineate play houses that emulated those we already lived in. Buckingham Road was in my direct line of vision but to the left was Tooley Street where the first and most important building was No 17 where George and Elsie Bull ran their corner shop. We didn’t see much of George who spent most of his time in the back reading the racing papers and left the running of the business to Aunt Elsie, a small plump and bespectacled woman who sold newspapers, tobacco, ice cream and sweets, the latter from tall glass jars. Lemon Drops, Bulls Eyes, Aniseed Balls, Liquorice All Sorts, Toffees and much more, all of which could be purchased in one ounce lots by local children with restricted financial resources. Molly Freeman and I having saved sixpence between us would always make an assorted purchase of six differing items, each patiently weighed by a sighing Aunt Elsie and deposited into small white paper bags. She was an ever uncomplaining woman only remonstrating with us from time to time for playing Two Balls & Three Balls against her outside wall. Because, she maintained, it upset Uncle George so much. Uncle George could never seem to move himself from his chair to broach the subject himself. My mother sniffed a bit when she spoke of him and said he suffered from Lazyitis and although he was rumoured to have a bad back she didn’t believe a word of it. Cis Layton had lived next door to the Bulls years ago in Tooley Street when she was married to her first poor Bill and she said bad back be-buggered and she should know. Years later Aunt Elsie was to die of a stroke and Uncle George made an effort to keep the shop open for a while but had problems with the usual definition of opening hours. Within weeks the business was closed and Aunt Elsie’s demise was mourned for a very long time. Further up the street at 21 lived the Davis Family with the Davis grandmother, Edith. Alma and John had four attractive and always smartly turned out children, Ann, John, Hedley & Ellison. John Davis Senior had not served during the war because he was engaged in War Work and this fact, when applied to men of serving age, always brought out to worst in my mother. Mistrustful by nature she became most especially doubtful about the reasons surrounding the supposed essential nature of the work involved. They lacked backbone, she decided and maintained she had been told that John Davis had gone crying to his foreman and begging him to make sure he was exempted. Surprising though it may seem this foreman in the particular industry in which John Davis worked had been possessed of enough influence to make sure the tearful request was granted. Well that was the story anyhow. Later on John Davis Senior was not so fortunate when he dropped dead to the consternation of both customers and staff in the Dover Road pharmacy waiting for a prescription to be filled. He had just come from the local doctor who had told him the pains in his chest were nothing to worry about. The eventual outcome seemed to suggest a sudden heart attack. But long before this could happen the two youngest Davis boys were born and each named after the junior doctor who had delivered him – Hedley and Ellison. This love affair Mrs Davis had with the medical profession not surprisingly ceased after the death of her husband. Ann, the oldest Davis child was the talk of Tooley Street and beyond when in her final school year she fell in love with a merchant seaman, causing her mother a great deal of concern. So much so that she banned the relationship completely and would not allow the young man’s letters to be delivered to the house. Ann merely organised for them to be sent instead to the Buckingham Road address of an elderly neighbour who said she knew how it felt to be young and in love. It was said that the object of her own affections had been gassed during the First World War. It was a solution to the problem that mesmerised those of us similar in age to Ann herself and scandalised the older generation. Whether Mrs Davis ever found out about the arrangement is lost in the midst of time but Ann could be seen on Monday mornings in her school uniform on her bike, stopping outside the Buckingham Road house to enquire if any mail had arrived. Needless to say Molly and I were both enormously impressed by Ann’s bold audacity and felt she was a model to us all. Ann went on to marry very early and become a teenage mother, again to the admiration and envy of many of her former classmates and neighbours and the tight lipped disapproval of our parents. I remember Mrs Maxted and her daughter Wendy living at No 19 but have no recollection if a Mr Maxted existed or indeed if Wendy had any siblings. She was a well behaved girl who didn’t play much with the rest of us. Her hair was always in neat plaits and even at primary school she wore a gymslip and white blouse which I thought set her apart from the rest of us. Molly said she had inherited it from an older cousin, a Colyer Road Secondary Modern student who had been the victim of a sudden growth spurt. The Hammonds at No 27 were largely a mystery to me as the only son was quite grown up as far as I was concerned. I was content merely to designate them suitable targets for the ever popular game of Knocking On Doors & Running Away which was played with great enthusiasm whenever boredom set in. Mrs Hammond was known to use colourful language from time to time and Mr Hammond even chased me the length of Tooley Street one day which was terrifying and a little bit exhilarating. The Ribbens family lived at No 12 and were quite the most colourful family in the street. Vi, a tall, slim and eye catching woman, and her husband Sid were proud of their untidy brood of six good looking children who according to my mother were both wilful and disorderly and would get into Trouble some day. However, even the unmanageable Ribbens boys managed to evade the attention of the local Police Force whilst my own brother, whose activities were far more controlled, did not. Mr Ribbens wore a cap and worked diligently in some industry that ensured he returned home each evening looking as if he had been pulled through a coal mine backwards. Mrs Ribbens stood at her front door a great deal, greeting passers by and when she wasn’t doing so made batches of toffee apples and hand sewed dresses for her oldest daughters, Angela and Sandra whose long hair was put into curling rags each night. The Ribbens boys were called Siddy and Roger and the youngest two in the family were Jeremy and Sonja-Kim. Jeremy had been born with a disfigurement of one foot and ankle that was supposed to have regular treatment from the hospital. However, Vi opted out of the routine saying the poor little bugger’s screaming broke her heart. My mother was somewhat predictably, affronted by this and told all and sundry, though not Mrs. Ribbens herself, that it Just Wasn’t Right and that the Poor Mite Deserved Better! I liked Mrs Ribbens and when she presented baby Sonja-Kim to the street told her that I thought she gave her children lovely names. She looked at me as if seeing me for the first time and murmured that she had little enough to give the poor little blighters and so she liked to start them off with a really good name. On one dramatic occasion young Roger Ribbens found himself on the front page of the local newspaper having carelessly fallen from top to bottom of one of the local chalk pits, a distance of one hundred metres, and escaping without injury. His mother was quoted as saying that the angels must have been watching over her little Roger, causing my ever critical mother to make loud comment that Violet Ribbens wouldn’t know what an angel was if she was to bump into one in the dark. It is probably fair to say that she disapproved of the poor woman perhaps for being too attractive or too indulgent with her children. Or maybe it was simply because she demonstrated a degree of affection for her family and disregard of what the neighbours thought that Nellie Hendy simply wasn’t capable of herself.

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