Saturday, 28 July 2018

Homes For The Worthy Poor

My mother was born in 1908 and could well remember the flurry of building projects that followed the Great War and known as the Homes for Heroes. Ten years later at local Council meetings these developments were referred to as Homes for the Worthy Poor, but never in the presence of those they were intended to house of course.

When I was very small it did not occur to me that there was anything undesirable about our house at 28 York Road, nestled as it was in the lower third of the South side of the street. It was simply home and to me when I was two, three and four years of age, invariably welcoming. Similar homes had been built since the eighteenth century, tight rows of neatly constructed two-up-two-down cottages beginning their stretch almost from the central point of tidy English towns, extending to their outskirts and very nearly encroaching into what was by the middle of the twentieth century, to be called The Suburbs. Unlike other European countries, England’s towns largely lacked centrally built tall blocks of flats that unwillingly gave way to terraces and ultimately more widely spaced homes. The latter, whether Council or privately constructed had to await their advent for some considerable time. Strangely, this did not appear to be the case in Scotland, however, where lofty blocks rose menacingly from the very centre of both Edinburgh and Glasgow and very possibly other places also. Stubbornly, however, English cities, even those as swarming and jam packed as Liverpool and Manchester opted for back-to-back structures and crowded courts rather than buildings that were too alarmingly vertical. So the English remained blissfully unaware of congested centrally placed apartments such as those gracing the back streets of Berlin, Paris and Prague until they had enough disposable cash with which to travel which was, of course, going to be quite a long time into the future.

By the time I was six years old though, I was beginning to compare our house in Northfleet unfavourably with that of my Aunt Mag in Iron Mill Lane, Crayford. Close to the Three Jolly Farmers pub and the 480 bus stop to and from Gravesend, it was part of an estate built in the early years of the twentieth century to hastily house local factory workers. This was at a time when Industrial Crayford erupted from its previous state as a rather sleepy village. The change came with extraordinary rapidity, so much so that decades later unmistakable signs of a previously more rustic life pervaded the very air of the place. These were facts that did not concern me in the slightest at the time. My immense admiration for the house in Iron Mill Lane was simply because it was semi-detached, rather than part of a terrace, it had its own little entrance hall, rather than forcing entry directly into the Front Room, and wonder of wonders, it had a bathroom complete with indoor lavatory! It also had an almond tree in the little front garden which in the Spring burst into creamy blossom and made passers-by pause and comment upon its magnificence.

The house was not only conveniently placed for the frequent visits to the Jolly Farmers that my grandmother and aunts seemed attached to, it was also handy for my Uncle Harold’s job at Vickers where the work itself was of such importance to the War that he was exempted from service and where he was progressing rapidly towards becoming a Foreman. As Aunt Mag was fond of pointing out, Vickers would be hard pressed to do without him. My oldest cousin, Young Harold explained to me that this was something to do with Vickers making munitions which you needed if you were going to fight a war. My own father had been Called Up because his job was only at Bevan’s Cement Works and the war could do without cement very well. I didn’t really understand what munitions were or all that much about cement but I listened politely. My mother said more than once and usually only to me, that Big Harold was nothing more than a coward and when he thought he might be Called Up he had cried all night and very next morning ran whining to his foreman at Vickers and begged to be transferred to Essential Work. As she repeated this dubious claim about a number of those not required to enlist, there was no way of knowing if it was true but I came to suspect that it wasn’t. Nellie Hendy had a relentlessly unforgiving attitude towards those males who to all intents and purposes were healthy, yet failed to go to War. Why couldn’t Essential work be carried out by women she would like to know or if that was impossible then by the maimed that had emerged from the previous war? However, although she posed these questions to me on bus rides to and from Crayford she never broached them as conversation topics to the adults in the family.

By the time my brother was born and I reached my seventh birthday the war had become simply a memory to me and even my father, who had loved his years of service, had reluctantly returned to take his place once more within the ranks of Bevans’ workers. I listened with interest to Sunday afternoon conversations between my parents concerning Housing Lists and how to move up them, and perhaps moving to Erith or Crayford or Dartford where smart new houses were being built. To aid this proposed move the Council officials in each area had listed us together with the fact that we were living in grossly overcrowded circumstances with, variously, Aunts Mag or Maud or Martha. Council Officers visited the homes of these aunts and inspected the sofas upon which my parents were supposedly sleeping and the topping and tailing my cousins and I were purportedly doing. Each one decided that our need was indeed worthy. A new home was not going to appear overnight, however.

My father was keen to stay reasonably close to Northfleet in order to cycle to his shifts at Bevans. My mother, however, seemed quite drawn to the innovative Tin Houses, with corrugated iron roofs that were planned for Erith because she did not want to have to live in the pockets of That Crayford Lot if she could avoid it. It would be true to say that she had an oddly symbiotic relationship with her sisters. I simply wanted a house with a bathroom and if I had actually been in a position to make a choice, I would have chosen a prefab identical to those in Orchard Road close by the Northfleet cemetery and the Old Rec where the first tenants had been happily living since March 1946. Sadly my mother did not fancy a prefab at all because not only did they look cold and uninviting, more importantly they had been built with the help of German prisoners of war and you never knew what that might entail in the long run because you couldn’t be too careful.

Two girls from my class at school lived in the Orchard Road prefabs, Jean Taylor and Wendy Selves. They were such good friends that they went everywhere together and even finished each other’s sentences which was fascinating. They did not look alike because Jean was tall and fair whilst Wendy was small and dark but they tried to be as similar as possible by copying each other. Each had hair I greatly envied, twisted in rags at night so as to form long ringlets in the morning. I had actually seen inside Wendy’s prefab on the heady occasion when she invited me to her seventh birthday party at which her mother had served fish paste sandwiches and Lyons fruit pies cut into quarters. I had looked inside the bathroom and taken note of the pale green tiles and reassured myself of the indoor toilet. I told Wendy that I greatly admired their prefab and ventured to enquire if the fact that it had been partly built by prisoners of war concerned her mother at all. Wendy said she didn’t know what I was talking about and no prisoners of any kind had been anywhere near their prefab at any time whatsoever and I was mad if I thought so. This seemed just a tiny bit odd as this was a year in which POWs featured rather more than previously in the life of the local population. As a community we were being gently encouraged to see the Germans as human beings rather than as hideous monsters. A service for them had been recently held at Chalk Church during which hymns were sung in both German and English. The sermon was preached in German and the local Vicar obligingly translated it into English. In return, to show goodwill POWs did their best to fight a fire in a local fifteenth century cottage and managed to save a great many antiques and ensure that the damage was restricted to the upper storey only. All this did nothing to improve my mother’s attitude toward them and when an unexploded bomb was found in Albion Terrace, Gravesend and had to be defused she promptly laid the blame solely upon the attendees at the Chalk Church service, even suggesting they had absconded from their camp in the small hours and deliberately placed it. This sounded unlikely even to me but I didn’t say so.

Eventually, to my mother’s delight, we were offered a house with a corrugated roof, close to the bus route, at Erith and in great excitement we went by motor bike and side-car to visit the site one afternoon at the end of my father’s Six-to-Two shift. Erith lies on the banks of the Thames, like Gravesend and Northfleet except closer to London and the history of the town is similarly tied to the river. There was once a royal dockyard there and there was still an impressively long pier in early 1948 where we sat that afternoon eating sandwiches and drinking cold tea from lemonade bottles. My father, who at the time seemed particularly driven to giving mini-lectures of an improving and educational nature, told me that the name Erith was Saxon in origin and that Henry VIII founded a naval dockyard there and that furthermore one of his most famous warships was built there and he only wished he could recall the name of it but for the life of him he couldn’t. What he could remember though was that the famous local Callenders Cable Factory provided a great deal of employment in the town and of course everybody knew that it was Callenders who had laid an underwater pipeline in the Channel and it was this very pipeline that had supplied the fuel used by Allied vehicles during the D Day Landings in June 1944. I nodded in what I hoped was an enthusiastic manner but thought this was an excruciatingly boring bit of information.

My mother bringing a lighter note to the exchange observed that Great Aunt Martha, now living in Northfleet, remembered Erith well when it was something of a Resort and had gone there on day trips as a very small child either on a pleasure steamer or a train. Her father had on one such occasion won her a wax doll with long curly hair at a kiosk which, tragically, she had lost on the way home but had never forgotten. This was much more interesting and my heart bled for the child that Great Aunt Martha, known to me as Little Nanny, had once been.

Like comparable riverside towns, despite its romantic heritage, Erith was ultimately destined to become an industrial centre mainly due to the conveniently placed docks and its proximity to both central London and the English Channel. It was during the late Victorian period that two entrepreneurs in particular, Charles Beadle and William Anderson ensured that the place abandoned all aspirations to remain a Resort and became instead the foremost industrial area of the South East, engineering emerging as its most prominent industry.

The houses we had come to see turned out to be something of a disappointment to my parents. On the outskirts of the town, the rows of imposingly large homes, each with a red-brown undulating roof looked acceptable enough to me although startlingly different from York Road. I asked if every house had a bathroom and a hallway and when I was ignored I asked again. I had to ask three times before my mother looked distractedly in my direction briefly and simply nodded saying that they were bound to have and no mistake. My father said they were further from Bevans than he had hoped but he had heard there were good jobs going at Vickers. My mother said when it rained the din on those roofs would be awful and she wondered if her nerves would be able to stand it. She would ask the Doctor for his advice next time she went and then hesitantly added that she couldn’t help noticing that the rows of little houses closer to the town centre looked a much better bet. I was surprised by this revelation because the terraces that looked so very similar to York Road did not seem big enough to house a bathroom and a hallway which was disconcerting. I also wondered why the Doctor had to be asked and decided that maybe he had to write us a letter before we would be able to procure the tenancy of one of these new houses with the wavy roofs.

A week or so later I heard her in conversation with one of my aunts and it appeared that the Doctor had strongly advised that we should go nowhere near the Tin Houses at Erith. The reasons were various. For one thing the din on the roofs when it rained was bound to be something awful and for another they were built far too close to the river and it stood to reason that the damp rising off the water on a winter morning played Merry Hell with the chest. What was more, Little Jean was known as delicate to the Doctor and the wind around the Tin Houses in winter was bound to cause pneumonia. Quite apart from all that they were a long way from Bevans and everybody knew that Bevans paid better than either Vickers or Callenders. Besides, there were bound to be lovely new estates going up any time now much closer to Northfleet. You only had to look at Kings Farm to see that because that entire estate went up in no time at all.

So we did not end up living at Erith in a Tin House and although I mourned the loss of the entrance hall and the bathroom I was glad not to have to change schools and leave the groups of children I knew, even those who were greatly hated and definitely my enemies. During the years that followed there was frequent animated discussion concerning housing and parental conversation was littered with talk of moving to Painters Ash, Istead Rise or Valley Drive but we never did. Long after I had permanently left the area my mother even cautiously considered applying for a tenancy in one of the new high rise flats that were a mere stone’s throw from her garden gate and were climbing rapidly skyward. She thought she might like to live on the very top floor and awake to an astonishing vista each morning but within a very short space of time, predictably perhaps, she changed her mind.

The much vaunted move from number twenty-eight did not in fact become a reality until the latter part of the nineteen-sixties when residents were advised that the South side of our street was to be demolished to make way for a complex of modern units to house young families. Within a very short space of time my mother moved with her cat, Simon, to Wallis Park, situated on the site of Huggens College in Northfleet. She realised almost immediately that she was going to hate living there and nothing could convince her otherwise despite the smart entrance hall and brand new bathroom . She even complained about the dreadful din on the roof whenever it rained. A further move to Painters Ash, where the entrance hall and bathroom were decidedly smaller and more cramped, proved much more successful. She was even sure that the rainfall was infinitely less invasive there. And when I visited one afternoon I could not help but notice that in the patch of garden immediately adjacent to her front door was an almond tree that when in blossom apparently caused passers-by to pause and make admiring comment.

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