Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Aunt Elsie's Shop In Tooley Street

Aunt Elsie ran the sweet shop on the corner of Tooley Street and The Old Green throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. She wasn’t really anyone’s aunt as far as I know but we all referred to her as such. Her full name was Elsie Bull and she lived with Her George at number 17, the front parlour of which had been turned into a shop at some stage and the window fitted with a smart wooden Venetian Blind that grew decidedly less smart as the years went by. One of our York Road neighbours maintained that there had not been a shop at all on that corner back in the 1920s and that the business had emerged with the coming of the Bulls to the neighbourood, from Margate or Ramsgate and why they had chosen to uproot and settle in Northfleet she had no idea. The Bulls did not appear to have a family but for a number of years a lodger called Joe lived with them and was said to be George’s nephew though he looked too old to be entirely comfortable as a nephew. At times, particularly on Bank Holiday weekends visitors crammed themselves into the back kitchen and the two upstairs bedrooms and on summer evenings drank beer in the back yard, sitting on planks supported by wooden fruit boxes. On these occasions there was a certain amount of jollity emanating from number 17 but other than that it was a quiet household with Aunt Elsie doing all the work because Her George only rarely appeared in the shop and my grandmother noted that he must have been a Lazy Bugger.

It’s possible that Aunt Elsie sold tobacco products as well as sweets because she would have needed a varied stock to Get By On during the many years of sugar rationing but I only recall the tall glass jars of Sherbet Lemons, Aniseed Balls, Bulls Eyes, Butterscotch and Hard Gums and I have no recollection of male customers requesting Hearts of Oak and Rizla Papers. By 1952, excitingly for her child clientele, the jars shared the shelf space with coils of Liquorice, Sherbet Dabs and Barratts Sweet Cigarettes and a little later with the newfangled packets of Spangles and Polo Mints. She was our most preferred source of all those products that were going to rot our teeth and generally we made our glass jar purchases two ounces at any one time and after a great deal of indecision. The sweets would be weighed with precision on the little brass scales and tipped into small white paper bags.

Aunt Elsie herself was a small dumpy woman of indeterminate age with red-brown hair, often half hidden under a hair-net. She invariably wore flowered smocks that hung loosely to her hips and fur trimmed slippers with slightly elevated heels that made her appear to topple forward as she walked. By the time we were twelve years old most of us were the same height as she was, the boys often towering over her. She always waited patiently behind the counter for us to make our important decisions, staring at us unsmilingly from behind rimless spectacles, her bosom, ample for her small frame, often heaving and her breathing laboured. My mother said she might well be harbouring the TB germ though Molly Freeman’s mother said it was probably only a touch of asthma and nothing to get too alarmed about. I have a sneaking suspicion that my own mother quite enjoyed alarm over illness but in any case I chose to believe Mrs Freeman. You could say that Aunt Elsie didn’t go out of her way to be all that friendly but overall she had been bequeathed with a certain amount of patience which she definitely needed with her youngest customers.

My eight year old brother was capable of standing lost in thought for ten minutes at any one time before he could be persuaded to hand over the hot two pence clutched tightly in his hand, in exchange for a long rope of liquorice. On one momentous occasion, however, quite uncharacteristically, he bought two Mars bars at fourpence each without much prior thought and even gave one to Hedley Davis who lived a few doors along from the shop. I knew at once that he had come by the money by foul means rather than fair and it had most likely been uplifted from my mother’s purse. Whatever lay behind the purchase it was a significant one because it wasn’t very often those under twelve or thirteen years of age could be persuaded to spend up large on chocolate items. Chocolate of any kind we usually left to the discretionary spending of the adults around us.

When Aunt Elsie was on shop duty between the hours of nine and five, with a break at lunch time, we were all at liberty to use the long expanse of her side wall that bordered the Old Green for hand stand practice and improving our dexterity for the ball games that required a hard surface. To do so once the shop closed, however, was to invite the wrath of Her George who would appear promptly, red in the face and shouting at us to Clear Off, which we usually did.
By the time I was fourteen Aunt Elsie had died quite suddenly of a stroke and after a while the shop closed because Her George was disinclined to carry on the tradition of service to the public that she had initiated. It turned out that if she had not presented the warmest side of her personality to local children, he positively disliked every single one of us. We were strangely dejected when the slatted wooden blind came down for the final time and we wondered what might have become of the many jars of sweets. Molly said that it was always possible Her George had a reasonably sweet tooth himself.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Northfleet Pubs & Little Links to Social History

Apparently The Black Eagle in Galley Hill Road first opened in 1866 but had definitely closed by the end of 1968 when I decided to visit one evening with my brother and his first wife Janice. A little disheartened, because there is nothing more disheartening than a pub that is definitely closed, ultimately we ended up in the nearby Ingress Tavern which luckily had stood the test of time. I vaguely knew both places from my childhood when on summer evenings my parents once or twice visited on my father’s motorbike, me and Bernard in the side-car. I certainly hadn’t given either much thought in the intervening years though which is perhaps not surprising as each was somewhat devoid of character. Many pubs of that vintage are apt to be so no matter how much we eulogise them later. The nearby Plough in Stonebridge Road and of a similar vintage where a boy in my brother’s class at St Joseph’s had celebrated his twenty first birthday earlier that year in fact underwent several rapid changes to celebrate the new century that unnerved those who knew it well. It became The Cosmopolitan in 2010 and was The Golden Grill by 2012. Perhaps predictably, despite our complaints of drinking venues being dull and dreary none of us are ever terribly enthusiastic about those we remember from our youth changing too much. My friend Margaret had a grandmother who lived in Stonebridge road and said she clearly recalled The Plough at the beginning of the First War, as a place where a group of local lads met up for pints to send them on their way to The Front. They all looked so handsome and so brave, she told us – and yet despite their courage not all of them had survived – the likes of young Freddie Holt and Arthur Deadman for instance and she could she said, name at least a dozen more if she had all her wits about her but at her age memory was fading. She’d only been a slip of a girl herself back then and helped out in the bar at weekends when called upon to do so

Another nearby Northfleet hostelry much favoured by some of our aunts was The Railway Tavern at 69 The High Street that had opened in 1858 and met its demise in 1967 along with a number of similar establishments. Little Nanny from Hamerton Road always found it an acceptable place to visit for half a pint of Milk Stout. She said it had in general been a more genteel place than most. She could never be persuaded to enter The Edinburgh Castle also in The High Street or The Rose in Wood Street, both of which were still thriving a few years ago. Old Nan, our grandmother once was reputed to have descended upon The Edinburgh Castle dressed in her best intent upon just one drink before proceeding onward for an afternoon at Rosherville Gardens, then famous for a variety of entertainments. Unfortunately on this occasion she made the fatal decision to have a second then a third drink and even missed the last train back to Crayford. This, she always felt was a pity, since she had been Dolled Up To The Nines and even sported a brand new hat with an ostrich feather.

I don’t remember much about The Huggens Arms at 10 The Creek which opened in 1860 and apparently changed its name in the 1960s. I recall visiting the place only once in 1955 as a teenager and feeling very nervous. I had dared my boyfriend Barrie to take us there and order us both gin and tonics. Although he was barely sixteen we were served without incident despite looking strangely out of place among the half dozen or so elderly men leaning over the bar who only seemed mildly unsettled by our bursts of giggling. Later I learned that it was said to be one of my father’s favourite places to pop inside from time to time with his latest Bit On The Side on his arm.

The New Blue Anchor at 5 The Creek that closed as long ago as 1908 was definitely spoken of by my grandmother who claimed to have pulled her Edgar out of the place more than once and furthermore said that it was a dead and alive hole which meant little to me. Its only family significance was that apparently it closed in the year my mother was born in the hop gardens at Mereworth. Locally it was known that Old Lil who delivered babies and laid out the dead lived nearby and was in the place twice a week as Regular as Clockwork should anyone wish to converse with her.

Pubs more familiar to us as we grew up in York Road, Northfleet were those that were not in fact Destinations but rather places we dropped into from time to time as we passed, almost becoming an extension of home. Neither of my parents were habitual drinkers and my mother put this down to the fact that both her parents had been alcoholics, a situation that invariably creates ambivalent feelings where alcohol is concerned; nevertheless they were certainly occasional imbibers. In those days when the Wireless was the only form of home entertainment, casual pub visiting was possibly more customary than it is today and with one on every corner, more accessible a pastime than Going to the Pictures. A place that was spoken fondly of by one very elderly neighbour was The Dove which had been on The Hill adjacent to the lychgate of St Botolph’s Church, and sadly burnt down in the early years of the twentieth century, presumably making way for the Infants’ Playground of St Botolph’s School. As a small child old Mrs Beresford had lingered in the doorway frequently, observing her parents consuming quantities of gin. If she complained she was given a drop of gin and water and sometimes fell asleep outside. At other times a complaint might simply result in a clip around the ear. On one momentous occasion she had been completely forgotten about and woke up to find everything still and quiet and had to run home and let herself in the scullery window. She was fearful that it might turn out to be her fault and result in a beating but luckily it didn’t.

A year or two ago, I was cheered to find that The Coach & Horses at 25 The Hill, was still open and serving a hearty Sunday lunch. It was also a remarkably atmospheric place with many of the original features still intact. The proprietor told us that although it was said to date back to the mid-1700s, it had been around since 1686 when it had a different name – The Three Horseshoes. It was the fact that it had been rebuilt in 1764 that caused the confusion. This had been one of my brother’s favourite Inns back in the early 1960s when he proudly introduced me to his first girlfriend Christine, the girl he was going to love for ever. They were both sixteen and lost within an intensely passionate relationship. To Bernard The Coach & Horses was simply the smartest place he knew locally and therefore fit to entertain his Beloved and his sister and so we sat beneath its ancient beams sipping slowly on our vodka, nibbling Smith’s Crisps and trying desperately hard to look sophisticated. When I revisited the place more recently I was impressed both with the way it had stood the test of time with little visible deterioration in its antiquity, and also with the Sunday lunch which was substantial and delicious.

Happily I also discovered that The Leather Bottel at 1 Dover Road and dating from 1706, was also still open for business. However, the inside of the building has been so modernised and upgraded as to be all but destroyed from a historical perspective and completely belies the enticing promise of the exterior. This was my mother’s favourite Local if one of her sisters should suggest a Milk Stout or Half of Mild and a Sunday afternoon gossip. It appears to have been a coaching inn at one stage and apparently it provided excellent stabling. As the adjacent road into Gravesend was said to have been dangerous at the time, presumably eroded by the incessant digging for chalk, it is possible that The Leather Bottel was a convenient place in which to take pause and consider the best progress forward. Back in the early days of the 20th century Little Nanny had been friendly with Martha Johnson, apparently the mother of the then proprieter and told us that coming from Dublin she had found Northfleet a difficult place to settle into. My mother always maintained she wouldn’t have relished being in the building alone because it was haunted by not just one, but two different lost souls and that was why she needed company to visit the upstairs Ladies convenience. A former maid was only seen on the upper floor but downstairs a tall dark man was seen frequently and was said to have committed suicide. At one time The Leather Bottel was the venue for holding inquests into the deaths of those born in the parish and if I had known all this when I was patiently waiting for my mother and aunts outside the place in 1948, devoid of entertainment I might not have squabbled quite so much with my cousin Pat, who was a more patient waiter than me!

Those public houses closest to us we always treated with disdain and in fact my mother who said that you wouldn’t catch her walking into them even if she was dying of thirst. I suspect Little Nanny might have felt the same as they were determinedly lively places with nothing genteel about them. The Prince Albert at 62 Shepherd Street was almost on the corner of York Road and had opened in 1855. This was the place where my friend Pearl whose York Road address was conveniently close by, sent her boyfriend when he was visiting and happened to want to use the Gentlemen’s convenience. She did not want him to know that there were no indoor facilities at her place and thought she would keep him in the dark with this clever ruse. I can only imagine that it confused him further. This pub closed a few years ago and has now been converted to a Pre-school but before this happened I was able to visit one summer afternoon and sit drinking shandy in the recently established tiny courtyard (where the Gents, much visited by Pearl’s boyfriend was situated in the 1950s). A little later I took photos of both the front and rear of the place and the bar staff then took photographs of me simply because they thought it decidedly odd that a stranger should be so taken with a backstreet bar.

The British Volunteer was in Buckingham Road and quite the rowdiest and most popular place in the neighbourhood on Friday and Saturday nights. It opened in 1889 and was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the building of flats. But in 1948 it was very much still open for business and my mother’s best friend, Grace Bennett, whose husband frequented the Public Bar regularly told us that it was there her Frank happened to hear that the local council in their stupidity were about to create rose beds and flower gardens in the New House Farm housing estate and what a waste of money it would be. Frank also heard that The Battle of Britain at Shears Green was shortly to open as a Charrington House and suggested he and Grace might pay a visit at the earliest opportunity. Despite the interesting gossip, some of which was more salacious and could not be repeated, my mother could still not be persuaded to patronise The Volly. Even without her patronage, however, it went from strength to strength and at times was so crowded that the patrons spilled out onto the pavement and into the very road itself. The British Volunteer not only went in for Darts matches and illegal betting but also regular sing-songs to keep their decidedly working class clientele happy and the local children for miles around, awake. In its heyday it was quite the most popular public house in the area.

In the late nineteen forties one of our Sunday afternoon destinations was The Fleet Tavern in Waterdales. It was a thoroughly modern and up to date place, having opened in 1938 and it had a Children’s Room for the use of those with baby-sitting problems or the kind of offspring it would not be safe to leave home alone. We went there to meet up with my Uncle Walter, who was my father’s older brother and lived in Waterdales. Sometimes he would bring his wife and two or three of his many children. If that happened, my father would disappear into the Public Bar with him and the rest of us would remain in the Children’s Room. It was all a bit boring once we got over the initial excitement of being given lemonade, sometimes with ice, and a packet of crisps. I solved this by initiating fights with my cousin Georgie who was only there because he was one of those children it was not safe to leave at home. This always worried my cousin Connie who was a year older than me and a very responsible child, possibly she knew that in the end it would definitely be her fault for not coping with the situation properly. Uncle Walter was a very hard taskmaster and I was definitely frightened of him but he had an impressive intellect coupled with very old fashioned ideas. It was he who informed my father during the late 1940s that Wombwell Hall had just been purchased by the Kent Education Committee and would shortly be turned into the kind of girls’ school where those like me and his Connie might be taught a number of housewifely skills that would prove invaluable in years to come.

The Battle of Britain pub increasingly became a weekend destination for families like ours in those years that followed World War Two and the stories concerning how many brave young pilots had made the place their own abounded and the undoubted truth became intermingled with the undoubted fiction about the place. Gravesend air base had become a satellite airfield for Biggin Hill in the early stages of the war under the control of No 11 Group Fighter Command. During the Battle of Britain it was the Hurricanes from No 501 Squadron that were primarily using Gravesend. As an eight year old I found it exciting to go there though I was uncomprehending of the history of the place. More interesting to me were the piles of comics and Rupert Bear Annuals on hand for the amusement of young visitors. There was also play equipment in the garden in the form of swings and a slide. This forward thinking of the owners ensured that the place was constantly busy.

I had a poignant reminder of the place a few years back when listening to late night radio in New Zealand. I was enormously cheered when the Midnight To Dawn host, a well-known Maori broadcaster who had just come back from his first visit to England, began to talk about his trip. He said the highlight had been going to a place called Gravesend in North Kent, twenty miles or so from London. He went there he said, not because he had any connections whatsoever with the district, but because he wanted to visit the place where the only battle that was ever fought and won in the air, took place. Over time he had developed a yearning to stand in the nearby fields and look up into the very sky in which it had all happened and cogitate upon those events of WW2. And then he was thrilled to be able to go into the local pub, aptly called The Battle of Britain, a place those young pilots would have undoubtedly been familiar with. He drank a pint of beer and was glad that the pub existed and had been preserved for the memory of that critical point in history!

And I was glad too – glad that an important link to those historical events remained at least as a place where someone from across the globe and completely disconnected, but with a yen to uncover a splinter of modern history could sit and muse and sample English beer. It is therefore difficult to make any sensible comment on the fact that The Battle of Britain has since been demolished.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Sad Demise of Huggens College

Auntie Queenie, my hermaphrodite Aunt who wasn’t really an Aunt at all but a first cousin on my grandfather’s side of the family had very much wanted to be accepted as a resident of Huggens College, or at least that is what she said. Not unexpectedly in the final analysis her application was turned down. My mother said it was because of her unresolved gender, though she didn’t express it quite like that. Great Aunt Martha who lived in Hamerton Road maintained that the place was for more middle class and educated persons who were regular church goers and the indecision about whether she was male or female would not have come into it. My Grandmother said that far be it from her to spread rumour and gossip but if she had been inclined to do so she could tell a story or two about Queenie that would have prevented her ever entering the local fish and chip shop, let alone Huggens College. I wondered what on earth could be so very special about the place, sitting as it did behind what seemed impenetrably high walls. The only people we ever saw coming and going, apart from delivery vans, were elderly ladies carrying shopping baskets or bunches of flowers and walking slowly though purposefully along the High Street.

Until I became friends with Brenda, the oldest daughter of my father’s foreman at the Cement Works, I had never been inside the place but I was increasingly curious as to what might lie behind the rather intimidating exterior. From what I could glimpse of the Gatekeeper’s Lodge, I began to rather fancy living there myself. Once the friendship with Brenda was established I did not have long to wait because her family had a relative in residence who was definitely keen on visitors. It was remarkably easy to become Brenda’s friend because she was not particularly likeable and of a highly nervous disposition which made her mother very anxious about her welfare whilst very much desiring she should make friends with other girls.

Before long we found ourselves visiting her Great Aunt Lavinia together with a basket of vegetables from Brenda’s garden and I was pleased to find that once inside, the place was pleasingly reminiscent of Days Gone By and I felt that we should really be wearing the kind of clothes worn by Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s `The Secret Garden’. I mentioned this to Brenda but she said she’d never read it and asked me why I was whispering. In fact it was a place where whispering came easily, feeling as it did just a little like entering cathedral cloisters. I suggested perhaps playing a game where we pretended to be book characters from long ago but it turned out that Brenda was not really much of a reader and was even dismissive of Enid Blyton which was surprising in 1952 and rather shocked me.

The forty or fifty tidily identical little houses seemed to be built to form a square and they were surrounded by very well kept lawns and gardens. From memory, a further wing faced the river down to which the whole complex gently sloped. There were rows of horse chestnut trees against the walls which I noted would come in very handy should the residents have an urge to play Conkers later on in the year. Though of course this game, mostly favoured by boys was not one that generally involved adults of any age.

Aunt Lavinia looked as if she was expecting us and immediately poured glasses of her home made lemonade which was completely different from any version I had previously experienced and to be honest not entirely to my taste. She was a small plump woman wearing a long muslin dress and a little white lace cap making her very similar in appearance to Great Aunt Martha of Hamerton Road. Her little house, sitting as it did alongside the hustle and bustle of Northfleet High Street, yet clearly quite apart from it, was to my mind rather like a fairy tale cottage. It had an enticing porch entrance into the living room and a kitchen that I believe must have been equipped with a bath because I don’t recall a bath anywhere else. A narrow staircase led up to the bedrooms, the smaller of which our hostess told us was originally intended for maids or companions as so many of the earliest residents preferred not to live alone.

I decided to ask how she came to be living in such a lovely place and if it was totally necessary to be well educated in order to do so. She explained that the cottages were in fact an estate of almshouses, a term that was new to me, and had been built to accommodate genteel ladies of the High Anglican Faith who found themselves in Reduced Circumstances. I didn’t like to ask what she meant by that because it sounded like something I ought to know about so I just listened. She said that one of her mother’s cousins had in fact been a Founder Resident as long ago as 1848 when the College first opened to receive those who had passed the entrance qualifications. Back then each resident was allocated a monthly allowance along with a ton of coal each year. John Huggens the instigator of the idea was a wealthy corn merchant and philanthropist from Sittingbourne and originally the College was going to be built there but try as he might he simply couldn’t get the required permission for the venture no matter how great his financial resources were. It was that misfortune and difficulty that became Northfleet’s gain! He was said by some to be an abrasive man but ultimately became extremely well thought of because he had not only provided homes for the elderly Anglicans but also a chapel with a cottage for the vicar and a croquet lawn for those who enjoyed the game. At the mention of croquet I pricked up my ears because although I had never played the game in my short life and the only thing I knew about the rules was what I had gleaned from Lewis Carroll, it sounded like a splendid opportunity for an extended fantasy that might last for days. It seemed a pity that Brenda was a playmate so lacking in imagination.

Aunt Lavinia went on to say that originally there had been a statue of John Huggens over the entrance gates but that had to be taken down during the war for fear of it falling on someone during the bombing. Later on the gateway itself had been struck by lightning and had to be restored so these days the main gates were only used occasionally and residents and visitors alike were required to enter via one of the smaller entryways in College Road.

She showed us a photograph of John Huggens sitting in an armchair with eight stern looking women around him which she said had been taken when the first cottages were pronounced ready for occupation. Then she showed us another photo of his funeral procession which had apparently been one of the most impressive ever seen in Northfleet or possibly even Gravesend as well with a hearse drawn by six plumed black horses and a young man in front holding a canopy of ostrich feathers. She told us he was buried in St Botolph’s Churchyard and there had been coach after coach of mourners all dressed in black and that after a month or two a Board of Trustees was appointed to run the College. It was said that the Board were not nearly as efficient as Huggens himself had been and the monthly allowance and allocation of coal soon stopped. By the time we were acquainted with all this information about the rather saintly benefactor it had become totally clear to me that my poor Auntie Queenie would never have been an entirely suitable resident and I felt a twinge of regret because it was clear she would have very much enjoyed living in one of the little houses. My brother and I would have definitely appreciated visiting her and perhaps even learning to play croquet whilst she made tea and chatted with our mother.

More than a decade later when attending the first wedding of my young brother I learned from one of the guests that the pretty little almshouses had been rather unwisely built from Kentish Ragstone which was said not to have weathered well but the speaker obviously found that hard to believe saying that it had been used locally for over a thousand years and in fact was the hardest rock in the county. After all neither local churches nor Leeds Castle were in danger of disintegrating were they? It was his belief, the guest said, that there was Much More To It than simple wear and tear of Ragstone. And of course he may well have been right. Nevertheless by 1966 Huggens original College had been largely torn down and a new, smaller complex built in its place with the promise of a brand new chapel but no sign whatsoever of a croquet lawn.

Apparently ten acres of the formerly pristine grounds had been sold to the local council who built flats for pensioners there and named the venture The Wallis Park Estate. In 1969 my mother moved into one of them and with memories of the Huggens College Almshouse still fresh in memory, was excited to do so, leaving 28 York Road behind her without a backward glance. Sadly the move was not a happy one with the delinquent behaviour and vandalism of bored local teenagers almost impossible to put up with. She was more than happy to move on to Pickwick House on the Painters Ash Estate.

At the time I could quite understand the ease with which she left Northfleet. When I had visited her at Wallis Park I found the rapid local changes made it almost impossible to recognize the area as the environs of the old High Street that I had known so well as a child. College Road, Samaritan Grove and Hive Lane all seem to have evaporated along with the myriad of familiar shops and businesses. The last vestige of bygone days was a block of flats called Rayners Court which presumably had been named in honour of the local family of Rayners who had run the hardware store with such fortitude and determination for so many years. It always seemed a great pity to me that the Kentish Ragstone so favoured by John Huggens had weathered quite as badly as it did.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Old Gravesend Hospital In Bath Street

There had been a hospital of one kind or another in Bath Street, Gravesend for more than a hundred years when I first became familiar with it. My first memory of the place was when I was four years old and had broken my arm in the park at Crayford when the park keeper chased me out at closing time along with my older cousin Margaret. He was waving a broom at the time and terrified me although Margaret claimed he was only joking. Nevertheless at the time she ran faster than I did and she was eleven and to my mind almost grown up so must have known a thing or two.
At first nobody believed that I couldn’t move my right arm because I was inclined to hysteria and making things up just for the fun of it. However when Aunt Mag tried to tempt me with her home-made toffee - but only if I could take it with my right hand, even she began to grudgingly believe me. My mother blamed Margaret for not taking better care of me and Aunt Mag for persuading her that it was safe to let me go off for an hour in the park in the care of her oldest daughter. After all what could possibly happen to me with Margaret in charge? She was eleven when all was said and done!
On the bus ride home there was a lot of muttering about Mag not knowing her arse from her elbow where her Margaret was concerned and it was obvious there had been a sad mishap with my right arm although far be it from her to claim that Margaret was completely to blame. The arm had not improved the next day and that was how I found myself in Gravesend Hospital having a fracture of the shaft of the humerus reduced with the aid of a terrifying chloroform mask. I was sent home with my right arm in a sling where it remained for six long weeks thus ensuring that I learned to do a lot with my teeth. I was relieved that my older cousin always remained mostly responsible for the injury because secretly I wondered if there might be repercussions for not vacating the park at the first request of the broom waving park keeper. I had failed to admit that it was me who shouted that he was a Stinky Bum because Margaret had simply said I’d been rude which my mother had chosen not to believe because after all she knew me and I was never rude to strangers apparently.
Great-great Aunt Martha from Hamerton Road, who we always called Little Nanny, came to visit and to inspect the injured arm and she said that we were very fortunate to have the Bath Road hospital and that when she was a girl it was known as The Infirmary. Lord Darnley had given a hundred guineas to get it up and running for the Destitute Poor. Countess Darnley had opened the new children’s ward in the 1880s and Little Nanny knew of many a child perishing there of Smallpox years ago. By the turn of the century there had been two new wards added, circular in design, where a nurse sat at a desk in the middle and was able to keep an eye on everything that was going on around her. They were called the Russell Wards because they had been paid for by Russells, the Brewers of Gravesend. I had never heard of Russells the Brewers although I was vaguely familiar with Lord Darnley whose woods we plundered with my grandmother, Old Nan, picking his bluebells and primroses to brighten our kitchens and collecting his chestnuts for roasting and his blackberries to add to our stewed apples.
I had no further dealings with the Hospital until my brother had his tonsils removed there when he was two and we had to queue up to wait for the front doors to open at seven am. By that time it had improved by leaps and bounds. A whole new wing had been added at enormous cost and later I read somewhere that the Hospital had at one stage become affiliated with the Chatham Military Hospital and during the First World War had fifty beds reserved for wounded servicemen. By 1930 when my mother and aunts had clear memories of the place, an Out Patients Department had been opened together with designated Women’s Wards. By 1944 it boasted more than 120 beds. Bernard, at only two, neither knew nor cared about any of this rather predictable history but emerged from his stay wholly appreciative of the place because he had totally approved of the ice cream he had been given after his operation. It was now 1949 and our Hospital had joined the NHS under the control of the Medway and Gravesend Management Committee. There was even talk of an old Sanatorium in Whitehill Lane being converted to a maternity home. This was at a time when the majority of women had their babies at home unless they were what my mother described as Toffee Nosed with More Money Than Sense.
In mid-December 1951 when my father died in the building there were 150 beds of which he occupied one for just a day or two. The average weekly cost of an in-patient had soared and the average length of stay was three weeks. Everyone agreed that the advent of the NHS meant that we didn’t know how lucky we were as far as accessing medical assistance was concerned. This had not been the case for him of course.
My last direct contact with the Hospital was in the early winter of 1952 when I had been left in charge of my young brother whilst my mother worked extra hours for The Lovells, helping them prepare for Christmas because they were about to entertain relatives from Brighton. Bernard was now growing taller, wanting to be treated like a Real Boy instead of a baby being now five and a half years old. He had no intention of staying inside the house with me playing the kind of games I insisted on which involved him dressing up as a girl called Wendy. He preferred to retreat outside to The Old Green with Hedley Davis who was also being allowed to be a Proper Grown Up Boy. I agreed, just as long as he was back by the time our mother returned just after five, and buried myself in my latest Monica Edwards library book. He returned only an hour or so later with a horrifying looking leg injury which involved a large segment of skin rolled back and flapping against his shin. There was also rather more blood than I was comfortable with.
I reluctantly reached the conclusion that this situation could only be improved by enlisting the services of the hospital as the local doctor’s surgery was not due to open until early evening. The whole venture was complicated by the fact that a thick fog was now descending upon Northfleet but at twelve years of age I paid little heed to this because my main motivation was ensuring that the injury should look a great deal tidier by the time my mother returned. Pulling a long school sock and a handkerchief over the offending flap of wayward skin I pulled him by the hand along Springhead Road where a man was in the throes of abandoning the cleaning of his small, shiny, black car. As we had no bus fare I decided to beg a lift to the hospital telling myself that the worst that could happen was that he said No. To my surprise after a minute of doubt and a whispered conversation with his wife in which I could tell she was very negative, he did not say No – he said Yes. We hopped into the back of the little black car and the Good Samaritan drove slowly and carefully through the deepening gloom and let us out in Bath Street, wishing us luck.
There was a long wait before my brother’s leg was stitched and bandaged and an interrogation as to why we were unsupervised during which I told a lot of lies which involved my mother having to meet a fictitious relative from an airport. It did not in my innocence regarding air travel, occur to me that all planes might be grounded along with the local buses all of which appeared to be coming to a grinding halt. It took a very long time to reach home again because the pea-souper that had descended was of astonishing proportions and we had to grope our way along the London Road very cautiously indeed.
Later it was called The Great Smog of 1952 and was caused by air pollution combined with an anticyclone and totally windless conditions. Over several days it was so persistent that it penetrated the very houses and thousands of people died as a direct result of it. Our mother was also detained by the conditions and so fortunately we arrived back in York Road before she did and we were only reprimanded for allowing the fire to go out during such dreadful weather. I don’t think she really knew what to say about the hospital visit and seemed grudgingly approving of me hijacking a lift from one of the Springhead Road neighbours because we all knew they were full of their own importance, particularly the few car owners among them.
When Old Nan came visiting a day or two later she reported that the fog had played Merry Hell with her bronchitis and her coughing had had to be heard to be believed. She also said it put her in mind of Bethnal Green in the old days when she was a girl and Jack The Ripper had roamed the streets. It was well known, she said, that nothing pleased him more than a good pea-souper.
I had nothing further to do with Gravesend Hospital whatsoever although I was told in the early 1970s that a new wing had opened with fifty beds and a Special Care Baby Unit. A few years ago I was astonished to find that I barely recognized the environs in which it now stands.