Woolwich & Districts
Of Plumstead & Woolwich , Early 1930's -1950's.
I was born at the Woolwich Home For
Mother's and Babies in June, 1930.
the years of 1930 to 1937 we lived in Burwash Road, Plumstead.
I was a very sickly baby and I had
badly twisted legs, probably owing to rickets. Mum told me that
grandma wouldn't allow her to take me in the pram into their
house in case I died there!
I was about six or seven when mum was
having a birthday party for one of us three kids; I can't recollect
who it was for, but she reckoned that every kid in the neighbourhood
turned up. They turned up with old book covers torn comics and
all sorts of things as presents, it was all they had to give;
some came from poor families. Mum would have filled them up
with plenty of food and drink though, as they were spilling
out into the front and back gardens.
I went to Foxhill
Primary School from the age of seven. This waswhen we moved
from Plumstead to Woolwich. Foxhill School was situated in Nightingale
Vale in those days. Cyril Bull was the headmaster. Woe betide
any boy who was caught in the street not wearing his school
cap by Mr Bull. I enjoyed wearing my cap as it proudly displayed
our school badge, depicting a white fox on a black background.
Us boys used to go to a sweet shop at the bottom of Foxhill
and we could buy half-penny bags of sweets in which you might
find a piece of cardboard, if you was lucky, as it entitled
you to your money back. Another type of 'lucky dip' was a board
that had lots of small holes drilled in it. You'd choose a hole
and with a nail or matchstick push a piece of rolled up paper
out of the hole and unroll it to see if you'd won a pennyworth,
or more, of extra sweets. Our own corner shop was situated on
the corner of Fox Hill and Elndean Roads. It sold just about
everything you needed; a kind of general store.
thing I remember was, on our way to school and back, we used
to pass a house that had a high fence around it with a hole
in it that we kids used to look through. My two elder sisters
had a look first, as I used to have to give them a bunk up to
the hole. When it was my turn to look
through a dog on the other side jumped up and bit my eyelid.
There was lots of blood and it looked terrible; my mum said
that she could hear me screaming from the top of the road right
down to our place!
Another time, an older friend was giving
me a ride on the carrier of his bike when my legs got caught
in his back wheel spokes and that made quite a mess of my legs!
So, as I mentioned, in 1937 we moved
from Burwash Road to the other side of Plumstead Common, to
Willenhall Road. This was more towards Woolwich Common, but
Plumstead Common remained our favourite play ground. It was
from Foxhill School that we were evacuated to Hawkhurst in Kent
when the war broke out in 1939.
When the air raid siren warning sounded
I remember all us children were led down to the lowest rooms
at Fox Hill School. They were situated below the school playground
level. When the big guns up on the Woolwich Common opened up
the noise was tremendous, to such a degree that the windows
of the room we were sheltering in all blew open with the force!
I remember going to the Globe Cinema
to see Judy Garland in 'The Wizard of Oz'; that was around 1939.
Behind the Globe and in the park there were concrete seats built
up on rocks. Beside them was the Band Rotunda and near that
was a war memorial, to the fallen of the Great War 'WWI'. This
memorial was a large stone cross and on the back there was an
embossed swastika. To us kids we thought it very strange indeed,
remembering that this was at the very time when Hitler's Nazi
Germany and its swastika were much hated symbols. But this was
in fact the old good luck symbol, which represented life. The
Nazi swastika which represented death, was a reversal of this
good luck symbol.
Two pubs I remember on Plumstead Common
were the Ship Inn and the Old Mill. Our family would wander
over to the Ship on fine weekends; it was our families watering-hole
for many years.
Up until 1939 things were going along
quietly, until the outbreak of the war. Things changed then,
as the coming hostilities threatened London and its suburbs
. This was when us kids were evacuated.
remember the train stations on the way up to Charing Cross were
crowded with hundreds of parents and kids, all milling around;
all in their best clothes. There we got on another train that
took us down into Kent. Charing Cross was absolutely packed
with mums and dads and kids, all yelling and hollering. We all
had our wee cases and gas masks and a large identity label tied
around our necks. As I said, we all went down into Kent; I went
to a place called Hawkhurst, my two sisters went to Sandhurst,
which was just a few miles further on. I was very lucky 'cos
I went to a baker's and confectionery shop that made all kinds
of cakes etc. Remember that this was in 1939 and before rationing
came in. I had a marvelous time there; in the bake house they
had huge troughs that they put the kneaded dough into overnight
for it to rise. When the bakers went home at night I used to
take off my shoes and socks and climb into a trough with the
dough and play and build all sorts of things with this wonderful
soft and malleable stuff. In Later years I often used to think
about the folk who unsuspectingly ate the bread made from this
dough that I had so happily played with.
By now the war was gathering momentum.
The German planes would follow the Thames up into London to
do their business. As they returned to go back home they would
drop any remaining bombs onto the villages in Kent as they pased
over them, in order to lighten the aircraft, plus they would
often strafe the villages. I personally only heard this happen
a couple of times, as most bombs fell wide and into the fields,
killing some animals. When our mum heard about this practice
she came and got us, telling us "that if we are going to
go, (get killed) then we'll all go together" and took us
back home. I had been away from home for about a year at that
We actually went back when the Blitz
was raging, especially over parts of East and South London.
So we would spend all our nights sleeping in the shelter. Our
shelter was an Anderson
shelter, built in our back garden. It was a four-man shelter.
When they were delivered, out the front of the house, a six
and a four-man shelter were left there. Our next door neighbour
took the six-man, yet there were only the two of them. We were
left with the four-man shelter yet we had our nana and granddad
plus our family of five, but we managed. Granddad was out doing
his ARP (Air Raid Precautions) work during most of the war.
Dad built a blast wall in front of its entrance. Folk often
grew plants and things on the roofs of the shelters as they
were half buried in the ground.
For me though, as a kid, these were
very exciting times. Raids were, to me, big firework displays!
As kids we would scour the streets during and after an air raid
and pick up the pieces of shrapnel. We had tin hats around the
house that we put on. This shrapnel, that had rained down during
a raid, was great to find and to swap. The shrapnel came in
all shapes and sizes. If you found a piece with writing on,
either in English or German, it was considered a whole lot more
valuable than a piece with nothing on it. Shell caps and base
plates were worth a fair bit more too. Another thing we looked
for were incendiary bombs! When the Germans dropped them they
were in a large canister. We called them Molotov Breadbaskets.
The breadbaskets would split open in the sky, as the incendiaries
dropped it was like a brilliant sheet of light. They were dropped
in great numbers and there were always a number of them that
failed to ignite. We would find these duds and they were very
collectable. As a matter of fact, when I decided to emigrate
to New Zealand in 1954, I didn't think that the New Zealand
Customs would have particularly liked one of these incendiary
bombs coming through customs, so I buried my last souvenir,
that I still had all those years later, in dads vegetable patch,
at our old house. I often wonder if it was ever dug up or if
it is still buried in the garden?
During raids I used to feel almost sorry
for the German pilots when they were caught in a cone of searchlights;
these were set up to spotlight enemy planes. The planes were
like a moth caught in a torch beam. They'd dive and jiggle around
until they got out of it or they were shot down; if they dived
and disappeared we hoped that they had been shot down. On Woolwich
Common there were lots of anti-aircraft gun batteries; on Plumstead
Common I can recall the Barrage Balloons. The Artillery used
to put quick-firing Bofors guns on the back of three toner army
lorries. These drove around the streets of Plumstead and Woolwich,
firing off at planes every now and again. When they fired the
guns near your house they were incredibly loud and the vibration
from them would often damage and crack the ceilings and plaster
in the houses and would often break windows. Then they'd drive
off and open up again somewhere else.
One particular day, mum and us kids
went down to Beresford Square shopping. When the air raid siren
went we took cover in the basement of the Equitable Buildings
and were there for most of the day. This was when the London
Blitz was going on and Jerry was bombing the docks, factories
and warehouses and setting everything on fire. Huge fires burned
lighting up the sky. The Arsenal was also very heavily bombed
and many fires were raging in there too. They then returned
at night guided to their targets by the fires. So, as I said,
we were there most of the day taking shelter. The costermongers,
who had their stalls in the market, would run back and forth
to them, when ever they saw any thing coming down, whilst all
this mayhem was going on, as they still had to try and make
Later on, around mid-1943, things quieted
down for a while, as our fighter planes started to take command
of the skies. Later still, though, there was a resurgence in
the bombing and we were evacuated once again. This time we were
sent up to the Midlands, but it was only for about six months.
As things started to quiet down once again, we all came home.
on, when the Doodle bugs, 'the V1 flying bombs', started coming
over, was when I started work, as a boy of 14, in 1944, at the
Royal Artillery Institute, which was an Artillery Officer's
Academy, on Woolwich Common, as an apprentice printer. So we
didn't get evacuated again. Fortunately, for me, there was tons
of work about at that time because the men were away fighting,
or they were needed for skilled work in factories and other
important jobs. What brassed me off, though, was that most of
my mates went into the building trade and were earning about
seven pounds ten a week, compared to my meager seventeen and
six a week! They would be doing heaps of overtime, as they would
be repairing buildings. Jerry would then come along and bomb
and blast them again. Mum got ten bob a week and I had seven
and six left to spend. My mates, on the other hand, had about
two quid a week to spend. Now two quid a week was a lot of money
in those days.
As I said, I started work when the
doodlebugs were starting to come over; that for me was the most
frightening thing about the whole war. The reason was that when
you could hear them coming they were going like the clappers
and they carried on and you were then safe. But, often, the
motor would cut out and then they would glide over. If they
were in the clouds you wouldn't see them until they came out
of the clouds and could appear to be heading straight for you.
One day, I remember, it was a very nice day over Woolwich and
Plumstead; my family, all five of us, were in the garden and
we saw this doodlebug, only about 200 feet above us, but it
was still going very fast. We could plainly see the flames coming
out of its exhaust. It roared over the top of us and it carried
on and eventually crashed, we found out later, into the docks.
I reckon that if I'd had a catapult I could have hit the bugger!
When the doodlebugs died down we then
got the Rockets, 'the V2's'. The thing with the Rockets was
that we had a philosophy, that said, "If you heard a Rocket
explode you were OK, but if you didn't hear it you were dead
anyway!" The thing was that you heard them explode and
then you heard them coming. This was because they travelled
at supersonic speed, travelling faster than the speed of sound.
So when they hit the ground and exploded the sound of the rocket
engine would then 'woosh' in. I reckon that the doodlebugs did
more damage than the V2 rockets. This is because the V2's plunged
into the ground on impact and then blew up, but the V1's blew
up on the surface, thus causing more blast damage. A friend
of our family was lying in bed with the curtains open, when
she saw a 'red pencil line in the sky'. It was a rocket, it
missed her house and landed on the house next door, killing
a family of five. The blast caused a lot of peripheral damage.
During the war there was a lot of rationing.
I remember mum used to get dehydrated cabbage; I called it 'green
coloured brown paper'. I've never enjoyed cabbage since that
stuff, nor, for that matter, carrots either, 'cos they also
told us they fed carrots to the night fighter pilots and the
bomber crews as the carrots improved their night vision. This
resulted in just about every spare patch of ground growing carrots
and we sure got our fair share of them!
VE Day (Victory in Europe) arrived we had some big street parties,
which were held out in the street on tables set out in rows,
during the Victory in Europe celebrations.
Dad worked in the Arsenal for the duration
of the war and he, thankfully, didn't have very far to go to
work on his bike.
I remember the huge crane situated in
the Arsenal. It was used to lift the massive gun barrels onto
the barges moored on the Thames. They were then transported
away and fitted onto the big battle cruisers and some were also
installed on the coast to shell across the English Channel.
These huge barrels were drilled out on lathes, which took months
One of these coastal guns can be seen on Woolwich Common and
next to it is one of the 16" shells that it fired, standing
four to five foot tall and weighing about a ton and a half!
One day, in 1946, a group of us youngsters
went along the sewer pipe, that runs alongside the Plumstead
Marshes, to see what we could find for souvenirs. One of the
group had borrowed his brother's bike, without letting him know.
His brother reported it stolen. We were inside the Arsenal's
fence picking up all sorts of shells and cartridges, as this
was where they used to test the projectiles. If some of them
didn't explode they were just left there. We had collected quite
an assortment of stuff and had it piled just outside the fence
to take home, when the local copper came to see us about the
bike that was parked by the fence. He called out to us. But
then, when he saw what we were collecting, he told us off and
told us to put the stuff back. We did this by tossing it back
over the fence! He never said a thing, whether it was because
he was paralysed with fright I don't know. But this, in hindsight,
was a very stupid and very dangerous thing to have done, because,
if one of those things had exploded it could have killed the
lot of us!
In the Arsenal there were the Danger
Buildings. They were big buildings, well separated from each
other. The roofs were specially constructed, built with loose
slabs of concrete, so designed that if a building blew up by
accident, or was bombed, these huge loose concrete slabs would
blow off enabling the blast to go up and away from the neighbouring
buildings, thus preventing a possible chain reaction of explosions.
People who worked in the Danger Buildings could be identified
by the colour of their hair and faces which were a yellow colour.
This was a reaction from the chemicals used in the filling and
fusing of the projectiles on which they worked.
The barrage-balloons dotted around the
Plumstead and Woolwich areas sometimes broke their cables and
you'd see them float up into the sky, higher and higher until
they were a tiny speck and then disappear. They would eventually
burst under the pressure of the altitude.
If they were shot at by the German planes they usually burst
into flames. However, if they were damaged by falling shrapnel,
or they developed a leak, they would deflate slowly and then
they could be a menace, as their cables dragged across roofs
bringing down chimneys and slates alike. When this was likely
they would bring out the Home Guard and get them to shoot at
the balloons, so as to deflate them and bring them down much
faster. This also gave the Home Guard some firing practice.
home we had a scullery where mum had to light a fire under the
copper in order to heat the water for washing the clothes. We
had a tin bath which hung on the back garden fence and once
a week we had a bath, whether it were needed it or not! However
it was in front of the living room fire. My two older sisters
bathed first and then me, being the youngest, in the same water,
topped up occasionally with hot water.
On Sundays the cockle and winkle man
was out and about selling his wares. He rode a three-wheeler
bike with a large square container at the front, chilled with
ice,. He would call out, "Winkles, cockles, shrimps..."
There were also the greengrocer with his horse and cart and
the ice-cream man, on his three-wheeler bike too.
One time I gave the greengrocer a hand.
I worked for him all day and he only gave me sixpence when we
finished, so I never worked for him again after that.
Occasionally there came the knife grinder
and sometimes the tinker, who mended your pots and pans for
a few pennies. I also remember the gas lamp lighter man who
used to come round every evening on his bike carrying his hooked
pole with which he would turn the street lamps on. In the morning
he'd be back to turn them off. Then there were the Frenchmen
who came across the channel to sell their onions. They would
come to your door with strings of onions around their neck and
also around their bikes. Gypsies also came round selling their
handmade wooden clothes-pegs, small bouquets of lucky heather
and also wild hedgerow flowers. They lived off the King's Highway
by Plumstead Common. The tallyman was also used by most mums
to buy the kids clothes. It was very common in those days for
him to be seen going around with his big suit case full of stuff.
During the war when we went shopping,
if mum spotted a queue she'd put one of us kids in that queue;
if she saw another queue she'd put another kid in it until we
had four queues covered. When she saw what folk were queuing
for and it was something we needed she'd take our place in the
At that time there was a lot of shortages of things and so you
had to try to get what you could when you could. We were lucky
in as far as we had an uncle who had a butcher's shop in Powis
Street. I remember mum once saying that we had eaten horsemeat
one day and whale another! But I often wondered in later years;
where did she manage to get whale meat in London in the middle
of the war!
On Saturday mornings we'd go to the
pictures near the ferry terminal. After the pictures dozens
of kids would roar across on the ferry to North Woolwich and
run back again through the tunnel and then back on the ferry
and do it all over again! By this time the crew on the ferryboats
were ready to climb the flipping rigging! I think it was tuppence
or threepence to get into the pictures. One of the picture theatres
had an annual birthday cake that they had cut up and give a
piece to each child. There would be hundreds of kids at this
special do, however, when we got our bit of cake it was only
as big as a kid's little finger!
I believe three of the ferryboats were
sent to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation of our trapped troops.
The ferries all got back safely, although they were shot up
and were full of holes!
Us kids would get up to the usual mischief,
like putting 'apenny bangers into milk bottles blowing them
up! Knock Down Ginger was also popular with us kids. (But, I
suspect, not with the unfortunate folk we played it on.)
We occasionally played in Bostall Woods
and I remember the prefabs on Winn's Common, built to house
some of the bombed-out folk from the Plumstead and Woolwich
areas. These 'temporary' homes were there for many years after
the war, as Britain struggled to build itself up again after
the devastating and massively expensive war.
Mum, who was born in 1900, remembered
the horse drawn trams that were driven along Plumstead High
Street and into Woolwich. I myself remember the double-decker
trams that used to cut through Beresford Square and into the