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Recollections Of Plumstead & Woolwich , Early 1930's -1950's.

I was born at the Woolwich Home For Mother's and Babies in June, 1930.

Between 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.

Another 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.

I 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 stage.

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 a living.

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.

Later 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!

When 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 to accomplish.
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.

At 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 queue.
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 surrounding suburbs.

Gordon Coton



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