Both my late parents were London Bus Conductors, Mum (Sylvia) during the Second World War based at Coppetts Wood / Muswell Hill bus garage. My Dad (Joe) worked from Wood Green garage on the 629 'Trolley' buses up until the early 1960's. I clearly remember his busman's uniform hanging up in the hallway and him whistling when he walked back and forth from work much to the annoyance of the neighbours when he was on early or late shift. He'd often give me a few of the big strong paper coin bags conductors used to put their takings in and a fistful of coppers to play with.
From my bedroom window which was at the front of the house I could just see Piccadilly Line tube trains running over the bridge that crossed the busy North Circular Road as they journeyed between Arnos Grove and Bounds Green stations. At night I would go to sleep hearing the trains compete with the ebbing traffic noise always wondering who was still traveling so late, to where and why? A lovely soothing yellowish light from the gas street lamp opposite shone through the gap in the curtains that I had focussed upon since being born in that same house. Although I couldn’t tell you the year I remember my horror when concrete electric street lamps were installed next to the old iron gas lamps.
Perhaps I was born to not like change and I took an instant dislike to the electric lamps even though they remained inactive for months and gaslight continued. Then, one night my room was much brighter than ever before. A peek out of the window saw both lamps working together. Eastern Electricity Board had finally got around to connecting them up. Mum, who was always against waste of any kind grumbled about both lights being on at once. This duplication seemed to last for months too. Her wishes were finally granted when one night the gas light shone no more and it’s lovely yellow light was replaced forever by a fierce orange one. Finally the gas lamps all disappeared with only a circle of new asphalt in the footpath to show that they ever existed. Oh how I’d love to have one or two in my garden now to remind me of ‘the good old days’....!
As nights wore on the drone of the lorries would give way to the characteristic roar of British motorcycles driven by 'Ton-up Boys' making their way to the Ace or the 59 Club along that same arterial road. No speed cameras to deter them then, nor any double glazing to drown out those warmly remembered sounds. Many Emergency Vehicles were still fitted with bells, not sirens, occasionally I’d hear one and wonder what had happened.
I was always fascinated with what was going on outside at night. I felt I was missing out on something being in bed. If I heard footsteps outside I simply had to have a peek out of the window. Two doors away lived a man who Mum nicknamed the ‘Bandsman’. He was the main ‘footstep culprit’ late at night and although I was sure it was him I’d have to get up and look. Steel tips were popular on men’s shoes in those days which of course made quite a noise on the pavement. Sure enough I’d see him carrying his trumpet case across the road. It always seemed very late so I guess he must have had a regular job in the West End and took the last train home. Everyone seemed to smoke in those days and he used to take a long last draw on his Woodbine and throw it into the gutter before opening his front gate. Thinking about it every house had a front gate then too.
‘The Bandsman’s’ wife was a singer and sometimes she’d be with him chatting and laughing as they walked past our house, usually both a little tipsy. What a handsome couple they were, in their late 50‘s, he with his suit, bow tie and brilliantined black hair, she always looked glamorous with her long blonde wavy hair, fur coat and excellent carriage on high heels. Mum didn’t like them and now I wonder if she was envious of their apparently very happy marriage and shared interests compared to her own that sadly was far from that.
Sometimes, a little earlier in the evening I’d hear giggles. It was June, a very pretty long blonde haired girl that lived next door between us and the ‘Bandsman’, she was about 10 years older than me and would be busy snogging with her boyfriend just inside the leafy back lane opposite our house. Now this is where the sad loss of the gas lamp became even more apparent. You see it was nearer to the edge of the lane and threw just enough light behind it for me to see June and whoever snogging. The electric lamp had been sited to the right of the old gas one and shone no light down the lane at all. That was the end of that, all sound and no vision from then on! Mind you, at that time I did wonder what all the fuss was about. More often than not I‘d hear June’s Mum call her indoors halting her fun. That process could go on for some time with the voice of June’s Mum getting louder every time.
On a bitterly cold winters’ night I’d often have to scrape the ice off the inside of the bedroom window to see anything, no central heating in those days, nor any nice squashy 15 tog duvets. - Just a few heavy blankets topped off with a knitted patchwork blanket that Mum made to keep me warm. I can still hear her knitting needles constantly clicking away as she was engrossed in whatever Albert Tatlock or Ena Sharples had to say whilst watching Coronation Street. Owning a TV set was unthinkable due to their price and the threat of repair bills if it broke down so it was very common to rent a set. The rental for our monochrome television was pre-paid via a coin-operated meter that was built in to the rear of the set. It took a sixpenny piece [2.5p] I can’t remember how long 6d lasted for but it was essential to keep a small supply of these ‘tanners’ to hand.
You could keep your dinner warm on the top of these old valve radio sets that took ages to warm up and show a monochrome picture from one of the two available stations, BBC or ITV. Mum’s cat was aware of this wonderful heated platform and would often leap up on top of the TV for a snooze. This could cause a problem if the portable aerial got knocked out of it’s critical position during this manoeuvre. Fiddling with the control knobs and dancing around the room with the aerial seeking a better picture when the test card was on was a national pass-time. Around midnight the stations closed down to ‘The Epilogue’ and National Anthem! Upon turning what was in effect a large piece of furniture off the picture would shrink into a white dot that would still be visible many minutes later. This white dot still responded to the brightness control, another thing to intrigue any kid now denied via modern LED sets.
Listening to the radio was far more common then. We had a smallish light coloured bakelite Marconi valve set that also could have doubled up as a toaster as it too got so hot in use so much so it smelt of plastic after a while. Before I was old enough to go to school ‘Listen with Mother’ was a popular programme and I did just that every day after lunch. ‘Workers Playtime’ came on shortly afterwards with it’s familiar theme too. The BBC had almost total domination of the airwaves and the news was seemingly always read by Alvar Lidell whose clear tones and perfect delivery are unforgettable.
Times were very hard then and believe it or not we’d watch wintertime TV in the dark to save electricity. No such thing as a ‘low-energy light bulb’ then and there was no greater saving to be had than from a ‘no energy at all switched-off bulb’. Not one light would be on except for the room we were in. Mum was saying ‘Every little helps’ long before Tecsos coined the phrase. Nothing was wasted. Our electricity supply was also pre-paid by a coin slot meter that took one shilling coins [5p]. If the TV went off at night we’d be stumbling about to firstly find out whether it was the main supply meter that required feeding or the TV meter. This meant seeing if the light worked in the room. If it did then it was the TV that required a coin. If not then stumbling continued to the main meter under the stairs once the right coin had been groped for on the mantlepiece! Naturally any such interruption would happen at a crucial moment during a programme and Mum would always grumble during the rummaging and stumbling about for coins. I always found this regular event hilarious and my laughter didn’t help the situation. If the much needed coin was dropped on the floor as sometimes happened then that would be enough for me to be in stitches as the hurried search for it ensued and Mum got more and more flustered. Mum’s frustration was further fuelled as those valve operated televisions and radios took an age to come on after being switched on once the electricity meter had been fed.
Fortunately the street light opposite gave enough light if the curtains were opened to aid the rummaging a little. This would be especially useful to negotiate the clothes-horse placed in front of the portable Belling electric fire if Mum was drying clothes that evening. The cat was always oblivious to the danger at these times and occasionally there’d be a screech and a growl if Tiddles got under someone’s foot. It’s worth mentioning that one set of heavy green curtains once belonged to Mums grandmother, I remember her saying they were over eighty years old then! Nothing was wasted or replaced purely if it wasn’t fashionable any more. If a hole appeared in a curtain, bed-sheet, sock, jumper or pillowcase it was simply repaired.
Every quarter we’d look forward to the meter being emptied by the man from Eastern Electricity. The meter always overcharged for what we’d used and there was a guaranteed rebate. That was good news as it meant a treat of one sort or another. Then, with only one or two cars in the entire street anyone driving to our house always managed to park directly outside so we’d see this very welcome van pull up. It was rare that he ever had to knock on the door! He’d pour the mass of coins onto the table piling twenty shillings into £1 columns with amazing speed. The TV meter was emptied every month and again a rebate would be forthcoming but nothing like as exciting as the man from the Electricity Board. Mum would watch this rapid counting like a hawk!
Winter usually meant guaranteed snow and frozen pipes. Loft insulation and double glazing were unheard of and if it was cold outside then you’d simply wear more layers inside the house. Again that has stayed with me and even now as I update this section it’s wintertime and chilly in the house, - I’ve just reached for a jumper instead of cranking up the heating.
The exceptionally cold and snowy winter of 1963 was heaven for kids and hell for grown-ups [unless you were a plumber]. Our plumbing was frozen for months and getting water from the stand-pipe fitted to the pavement Fire Hydrant when the freeze really got s grip was just another bit of fun for a kid.
I remember watching the plumber, a larger than life old Irishman repairing the burst lead pipe in the kitchen with his parrafin blowlamp when the thaw finally came. Any such unexpected expense resulted in ‘extra economies’ for a few weeks after Mum paid them from our tighter than tight budget. It was my job to clear the ice and snow from the pavement outside our house and often neighbours would give me about 2 shillings [10p] to clear theirs too. That would buy at least 4 bars of chocolate then so would equate to over £2 now.
During those ‘real winters’ the milk, delivered by a United Dairies horse-drawn cart, would have to be brought in from the step before it froze solid in it’s returnable pint glass bottles and or before birds pecked their way through the foil tops to get a beak full of the cream at the top which was the best bit of a pint of milk. In the summer milk was swiftly placed in a saucepan of cold water to try and keep it cool as we didn’t have a fridge. We did have an aluminium box with ‘Walls Ice Cream’ embossed into it’s sides. Mum used to keep things like butter in it and in turn this box went into the ‘safe’. The house was built in 1926 and had it’s original 1926 built-in scullery cupboard with perforated zinc doors on it to keep flies out (or in if one wasn’t too vigilant). Of course it didn’t keep things cold but perhaps having ‘Walls Ice Cream’ on the box made us think it would. For Mum it was a tragedy if anything went off and had to be discarded before being eaten and that has stayed with me all my life too. Stale bread became bread pudding, mould was scraped from cheese and we always ate everything that was on our plates. It was real food too, not unlike the healthy war-time diet, nothing from a packet!
On a few occasions when either my sister or I needed a pair of shoes or something else that was expensive enough to put Mum’s finances out of kilter we’d be ordered to keep quiet when the milkman or insurance man knocked on the door for his money. He’d have to wait a week or two until we were ‘straight’ again. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a horse trotting along the road. Not only was milk brought via ‘horse power‘, some coal wagons and ‘Rag & Bone’ men’s carts were still horse drawn. ‘Horse-muck’ was instantly scooped up from the street by one of a few old boys for their gardens. I was always sent out to pick up any dropped pieces of coal as soon as the coal cart had moved off from someone’s house in the road. Over the weeks we’d sometimes have enough for a coal fire of our own one evening. I’d get some awkward questions from other kids when we walked home from school when I dived to pick up a few bits of coal or coke whenever I saw some in the road.
All this coal being burnt had it’s effects. Walking to primary school in the occasional London ‘Pea-Souper’ fogs was quite surreal as this thick yellowish fug you’d walk through greatly reduced not only visibility but muted sound too.
As far back as I can remember you knew summer was coming by the onset of hearing people gardening. The click click click of shears as most front gardens had privet hedges that needed trimming, - all done by hand. This heralded the Spring!.Then there was the unmistakable back and forth rattle of the ubiquitous Qualcast push-pull hand lawnmower. As so few people had cars to take the cuttings to the tip it seemed that everyone burnt their garden waste as bonfires followed the trimming and mowing. Mum would curse if her washing was out when someone did this. She’d round up my sister and I to get the washing in quickly saying ‘someone’s having a ‘smother’, her word for bonfire.
Slowly but surely petrol mowers came along and brought their own new’ bom bom bom bom bom’ Sunday concertos. It didn’t take long to mow the lawns of these small gardens with a motor mower compared to the old ‘push - pull’ job. Electric mowers appeared and were more affordable, somehow we eventually got one. Next door, Junes Dad Roy, [that Mum knicknamed ‘Blokie] was a bit of a handyman and was always tinkering in his shed, mainly on his lathe. I was fascinated at his skills especially as my Dad couldn’t knock a nail in. Roy made his own electric mower using a small trolley and an electric motor that drove a sharpened car radiator fan which became the blade. It was much quieter than the ‘bought’ ones, never cut out like our one did every two minutes and never seemed to go wrong. He should have patented it. The newly emerging Black & Decker mains powered hedge trimmers consigned many manual shears to the shed forever and indeed more than a few people to their deaths when they cut through the cable before electronic ‘safety trips’ came into being!
It seemed to only take a couple of years for the sounds of neighbours attending to their Sunday gardening to completely change from the leisurely sedate and almost restful to a mechanised frenzy of action and fumes. One neighbour from several gardens along was one of the first to get a petrol mower and I’d often watch him marching up and down and back and forth mowing. His garden shed was within easy range of my catapult and we’d ‘had words’ in the past when I’d mis-judged a shot and hit him fair and square on his shiny bald head with a cherry from Roy’s overhanging tree. One Sunday it was unusually quiet. It turned out after the previous Sundays motor-mowing he was relaxing in his garden chair and was stung by a bee. His body reacted so badly the poor chap died very soon afterwards. Who’d have thought that a little kid armed with a catapult was far less dangerous than a common-all-garden bee?
Like any street the Grim Reaper made his occasional visits. Curtains had to be closed at least when the hearse passed by the neighbouring houses and often for days before depending on the level of respect nearby households wanted to show for the deceased.
Inevitably the two old ladies that lived next door on the other side to Roy and family died within months of each other. Recalling Mum’s habit of giving people nicknames an old dear that worked at the Coop Palmers Green lived next door but one. Mum named her ‘Margerine’ as she worked on the deli conter. For some reason that memory always makes me chuckle as does the memory of Mum relating to ‘Blokie’s’ wife as ‘Fanny’. The old ladies next door were simply ‘The Old Girls’ although their names were Miss Hudson and Mrs Gundry.
What was a surprise was when another close neighbour, who’s son I used to play with took his own life when he was caught ‘helping himself’ [as Mum put it] from Arnos Grove tube station where he worked in the ticket office. Poor man, he couldn’t face the ignominy of court proceedings. Nowadays no-one would give a hoot. Although closed on the day when he made his final journey the curtains were certainly twitching all along the street.
While the neighbours tended their gardens of a Sunday often we’d go to the park. We were very lucky to have a choice of two fairly close by. Arnos Park through which runs the Piccadilly line to Southgate and just a wee bit further was Broomfield Park. What a sad shadow of it’s former self we see now. Then beautifully kept gardens, 3 lakes, one where I’d take my model boats, another with mature weeping willows that gave salvation against the summer sun and a gorgeous bandstand at the waters edge. The middle lake was directly opposite Broomfield House, a 17th century country house given to the Borough by Lord Broomfield with all it’s 52 acres of beautiful grounds for all to enjoy. The first floor was used as a mother and baby medical centre. Ascending the lovely wide and creaky staircase you’d pass oil paintings and murals on the walls. The ground floor contained a delightful museum which had many stuffed small animals beautifully posed and displayed in glass cases. The highlight was a glass-sided working beehive that always fascinated adults and children alike including me. I think many kids learned what cooperation and teamwork can achieve by watching those bees at work. We might have even witnessed the actual neighbour-slaying killer bee leaving for it’s last suicide mission and not known it. There was a lovely little cafe with seating on a terrace to the rear where 4 old pennies bought you a packet of Smiths crisps with the little blue bag of salt in and a cup of tea was sixpence. There’d not be a drop of tea or crumb of crisp remaining when we left the painted metal table.
If you stood at the main entrance with your back to Broomfield House the view over the lake to an avenue of mature elm trees was a wonder to behold. Dutch Elm disease put paid to the trees although a replanting scheme has helped to put back a little glory.
Sadly Broomfield House burned down decades ago and to Enfield Borough Councils utter shame it remains a ruin. However in it’s heyday as I remember it was a mecca for families to enjoy. In those days you could get 3 pennies back on an empty bottle of R Whites lemonade if you returned it to the cafe or anywhere that sold it. Needless to say that you rarely saw a bottle discarded as an oik like me would soon turn it into 3d. Mum would turn a blind eye to me diving into the litter bins to salvage a bottle as it was another few pennies made or saved one way or another. A good days haul might be some 6 bottles which would make me 1/6d [7 1/2p]. Whatever happened to such common sense recycling? My last visit to this once wonderful public place saw plastic pop bottles thrown everywhere and the gardens a shadow of what they used to be. I was told that ‘cut-backs’ were to blame. I bet the late Lord Broomfield is spinning in his grave. Such a shame.....
I recall when my Mum first let me pay the Conductor on the 34 bus giving me 5d for ‘a 3 and a 2 please’. A friendly conductor often would let me turn the handle on the ticket machine. A 5d fare could be paid for with an amazing selection of coins then. 20 farthings if you wanted to risk the wrath of the conductor, 10 halfpennies, 5 pennies, a bronze threepenny piece and a few more copper coins. Being given a coin in change with Queen Victoria’s head on it was commonplace. I often wondered, with a child’s naivety, why, when we boarded the 629 trolleybus at Wood Green and my Dad was the conductor how he’d always forget to take our fare!
That was over 50 years ago. I can still clearly remember the sounds [and even the smells] of those buses, the Gibson ticket machine reeling off the tickets, the downstairs suspended pull string bell and the conductor stamping on the upper deck floor to signal the driver to move off when he was busy. Rides on the Underground had to be in the rear carriage where I could watch the Guard pressing the buttons. Bus rides had to be taken downstairs at the front behind the driver if the seat was available, [until I’d discovered the delights of smoking in my early teens] then I could try and work out how the driver actually drove the bus as I also watched the speedometer needle slowly creep up towards the red line at 30 mph.
We would often wait for buses outside Arnos Grove station, a wonderful [now listed] building designed by Charles Holden that opened in 1932. There was then a cafeteria only for use by London Transport staff to the left of the public entrance. I remember looking through the metal Crittal windows seeing the steam billowing out of the water boiler as the drivers and conductors sipped their tea, ate their meals and enjoyed a laugh and a joke with a cigarette before re-joining their buses and taking us on our way. Mum could remember the line’s construction and the station being built. She was 15 years old at the time and had been at work since she was 14 years old.
A few years later I was to go to school on the old R.T. and Routemaster buses with their real characters of conductors. To get there I had to use 2 buses, the 34 or 112 which was always an RT to Palmers Green and thena 269 or 275 which was always a Routemaster on to Enfield Town.
In those days we could play in the streets and wander the leafy back alleyways in the local area quite safely without fear of being abducted or worse. There still were a few old bomb sites left over from the War to explore as well. Scrumping was fun and I adapted a very long bamboo pole with a small fishing net attached to it incorporating a stiff wire ‘stalk snapper’. Using this stealth device my mate Andy & I could quietly reach the highest fruit from over the back lane fences. Many a time we had to ‘leg it’ when the rightful fruit owner didn’t see the funny side of our ‘long arm’ tactics.
Andy was a bit of a boffin and we developed the dangerous pass-time of opening up fireworks and making all sorts of lethal devices that made a bang and a cloud of smoke from the gunpowder within them. It soon became very apparent that we were the only people in the neighbourhood that derived any enjoyment from our pyrotechnic activities. A few stern words from jittery neighbours halted that avenue of fun and probably saved our lives. Just before we packed that lark in Andy had prepared a magical solution in his bedroom laboratory. It exploded all on it’s own during the night waking his parents and sisters. He told me he pretended to be asleep when his father burst into the room and denied everything. That must have been hard to believe as his room was full of smoke and shattered test tubes.
One of the maddest things we ever did was to buy a box of small soda siphon CO2 cylinders, release the gas by drilling a small hole in the top and replacing it with gunpowder from fireworks. Then we’d glue a fuse on the top and armed with a few of these make our way to the then open fields along the North Circular Road. One of us would arm his catapult with one of these and the other would light the fuse. The ‘catapulter’ would wait for a few moments as the fuse fizzed next to his left ear and then fire it high into the air where it would explode like an anti-.aircraft missile. Any miscalculation during that operation doesn’t bear thinking about. Miraculously no-one or anything was ever harmed during this experimental madness.
Another kid at school, Simon, unbeknown to us, was also busy emulating our experiments. He was missing from school for a few days and when he did return he’d blasted most of the skin off the back of his hand which was replaced by a spray-on film at the hospital. He also had a few other spot burns on his face. Not a pleasant sight at all. Another near death experience occurred in the classroom. Some of the kids were into darts and had their own sets in their desks. I was more ‘long range catapult man’ and often took it to school but I had no darts. One lunchtime a few of us were in the classroom when ‘dart wars’ broke out between a couple of kids. One turned his desk round to face his adversary across the room. Lifting the lids for protection it all went well for the first few salvos. Then one kid lowered his desk lid just as the other had thrown a dart. It went straight into his neck, and stayed there, dangling. Instant silence befell the classroom. The victim, somewhat shocked, quickly pulled the dart out of his neck. Someone had to I suppose but we were all too wide-eyed and frozen to our chairs to move. We all expected a blood gusher but by a miracle there was little more that a dot or two of blood and by the time the bell went it was business as usual. He could have lost an eye, bled to death or got badly infected. Andy and I could have easily blown ourselves up and our schoolmate Simon could have lost his hand or sight.
Ironically the only kid that did lose his life from my school was Chris who’s tragic loss occurred on an organised school holiday whilst swimming. He was a very likeable lad too. The death toll should have been a lot higher. I often wonder what happened to another strange kid Michael. I understand he deliberately set fire to the 298 bus he was traveling home on. Although we knew he and the bus survived no-one ever saw or heard of him again. Keith was yet another odd-ball who found a fascinating yet alarming way of getting out of class. He’d punch himself quite hard on the nose, this had a two-fold effect. The first was a nose bleed but he was seeking the secondary and more disruptive result which was incessant sneezing. It always worked as the teacher would invite him to leave the room and off he’d go for a ciggy in the extensive grounds. I dread to think what he does now to excuse himself from the room. Strangely enough we took all these everyday peculiar and dangerous acts in our stride.
Another gem that’s just come to mind was when another Simon [who was as quiet and small as his namesake was loud and tall] decided to start picking at an unused starting pistol cartridge he found on the playing field with his dividers during a biology lesson. Imagine the scene when it exploded in his hands! He was led away from the small cloud of smoke that engulfed him and his desk shaking like a leaf by an equally startled teacher. That happened during the first term at secondary school and perhaps was an omen of so many weird and wonderful things that were yet to come from my schooldays.
We had a teacher that really shouldn’t have been in the job at all. His subject was Technical Drawing. Our school was once a huge private house that had retained it’s original floor to ceiling massive cupboards at the back of the classrooms on either side of the fireplaces. The shelves were big and strong enough to lay down on and close the door. The lad who skinned his hand liked to see if he could get away with smoking during these lessons and blew the smoke up the chimney as the fireplace was behind his desk at the back of the room. Any other teacher would have tumbled but this guy, a seemingly completely and utterly disinterested Russian who was almost unintelligible with his heavy accent. He just went through the motions of teaching making his lessons the epitome of boredom.
Simon the ‘Smoker’ decided to enjoy a lesson from the comfort of the centre shelf of the cupboard with the doors closed. We all could smell the cigarette smoke emanating from the cupboard except the teacher, or, as usual, perhaps he just didn’t care. So up to the point in the lesson that Simon passed wind very loudly from the cupboard it was a typical mind-numbingly boring Technical Drawing class.
One would have to have been deaf not to have heard his award-winning example of noisy flatulence that was enhanced by the seemingly excellent acoustic qualities of this well made antique cupboard. Apart from the poor ‘swats’ who were actually keen to learn that kept a genuine straight face, the rest of us tried, unsuccessfully to stifle our giggles. The teacher ‘s reaction was utterly priceless. He stopped writing on the blackboard and slowly strolled up to the correct left hand cupboard, opened the doors wide and looked at the rabbit-eyed Simon for a few moments. Saying absolutely nothing he slowly closed the doors, strolled back to the blackboard and carried on with the lesson. That act in itself was pure unadulterated comedy for me and I was crying with laughter as were a few of the other kids. We were all ignored, no-one was chastised. That was the only lesson with this particular teacher that I learned something from, and that was that sometimes less is more. Simon did his best to provoke and gained a zero reaction. He didn’t bother in future and like the rest of us just sat there eagerly awaiting for the bell to call an end to the tedium. Perhaps there was more to this teacher than we first thought. I’m chuckling as I write this, perhaps you had to be there....
Jumble sales were the predecessor of Car Boot Fairs. These were always very well attended and a source of fun and a means of earning a few bob. My mate Andy and I would pay our few pennies entry fee and have a darn good rummage. Some of the old ladies were frightening as they’d barge us out of the way during the scrum to get to the front and all the bargains! There was always an old TV or two for Andy and I to buy for a few shillings and take to bits after we’d failed to repair it risking electrocution in the process. To get them home I’d try and buy a pram, often a coach-built Silver Cross, the Rolls Royce of perambulators. I’d spend a lot of time polishing up the large chromium plated wheels and attending to the paintwork on the body trying to get it back to it’s former glory. Once finished a few pennies had to be invested in an advert in the local newsagents window. Mum would write out the piece of card as her hand writing was very clear and neat. Then we’d wait for the telephone to ring, our telephone number was ENTerprise 4691 and our telephone instrument a heavy black bakelite one with a drawer underneath and of course a shiny dial that returned with a lovely whirring sound. The prams always sold and the £3 or £4 would be my reward after I’d repaid Mum for any materials she’d bought for me. Once in a while a television that we lugged home just about worked for a short time and until it inevitably went phut I had the luxury of my very own TV. I can still remember the musty smell of those old sets once they warmed up!
Even then not every home had a TV and almost anywhere there was a parade of shops one of them would be a TV rental shop. Radio Rentals was one of the big chains and there were no shortage of independents. You’d often see people, including us kids watching the many black and white screens trying to lip read through the shops’ windows. When colour television came about, at first, the odd one or two people ‘window watching’ turned into many, all watching in silent wonder at this amazing new technology.
To afford a colour TV when they first appeared in the mid 1960‘s you had to be doing rather well and those folks that had one often would make a show of it by leaving their curtains open. This was a mistake as my small group of ‘street rakes ‘ [as Mum called us] would sit on their front wall facing the house and again try to lip read until we were inevitably told to clear off via gestures various once we were spotted.
At Christmastime Andy and I would go carol singing. I couldn’t sing but wasn’t too bad on a harmonica. Imagine opening your door to see this duet of oiks burst into a musical cornucopia of carols! We did well. A month earlier leading up to Guy Fawkes night we’d make up a splendid full size Guy with a very realistic Charlie Chaplin plastic mask for a face. Ours was always the best one to be seen outside the busy Bounds Green tube station! Most of the spoils were spent on fireworks, sweets and in the joke shop. Looking back passers-by were very generous and friendly and would stop and chat for a few moments admiring our Guy.
Andy and I both had bicycles. Mine was an old red Raleigh with 3 speed hub gears. I must have ridden thousands of miles on it. Although theft wasn’t unheard of we never carried padlocks or chains and our bikes never got touched. In recent history I dread to think how many cycles I’ve lost that I’ve left chained up or even when out of sight in the garden. Andy’s bike had dynamo lighting and mine had battery lights which cost a fortune to replace all too often. As an adult, every time I’ve had a bike pinched I’ve always replaced it with one from a Boot Fair for a few pounds but I’d only buy an old style bike with dynamo lighting, - just like Andy’s!
We’d often ride to Mayes Road in Wood Green where there was an Army Surplus store. We’d come away loaded with electrical gadgets that we’d wire up to torch bulbs bells buzzers and old field telephones. From our unsuccessful TV repair sessions we discovered that the many transformers in them were packed with hundreds of yards of fine shellac coated copper wire. I had a brainwave. Why not set up our own telephone line between Andy and I? He lived in the next street about 150 - 200 yards away. I was convinced we could do this using only one thin piece of copper wire and ‘earth’. Andy thought we’d need two wires. We set about laying our ‘hotline’. It had to be high so using our suitably modified bamboo ‘scrumping pole’ we managed to wrap our thin wire around the tops of the lamp posts making our way up the road. The end of my road towards Andy’s house was a cul-de-sac. Andy’s road ran at right angles to mine and he lived on the opposite side of the road. So we had to get our wire over the top of someone’s house and from there across the road to his house. Even our long scrumping pole wouldn’t do that so my catapult was employed to fire a fishing weight trailing fishing line over the house and haul the wire over. We did it and lo and behold it worked using only the one wire!
Our phone line in effect was an enormous aerial so we also got a mixture of the BBC Home and Light Programmes in the background. Conversely our mundane conversations could be picked up on a radio that wasn’t tuned into a station! Opposite Andy’s house lived a girl, Jacquie I think her name was. Andy had his eye on her. Another wire was returned over his road to her house from Andy’s as he talked her into having ‘an extension’ to our private telephone system. When she joined in the conversation I was often cut off by Andy so I wasn’t privy to his amorous advances! I those days the General Post Office [GPO] ran the telephone service and each house had two separate wires going to it which radiated from a telegraph pole. On one occasional during a gale our thin wire broke and wrapped itself around a neighbours pair of telephone wires and put his phone out of order. I got a mild ticking off from a GPO engineer who soon tumbled what had happened, followed the wire back to my house and knocked on the door. Fortunately Mum was at work and never got to hear about it. I think he admired our attempt to compete with the GPO but rightly pointed out we’d interfered with their equipment. We’d had a few cable breaks by then anyway and the novelty was beginning to wear off so we removed what was left from the lamp posts and called it a day. Andy never did ‘get off’ with Jacquie.
At my end, the remains of our not so private telephone system consisted of a pair of ex army headphones hanging from a hook just above my bed and a black bakelite ‘press to talk’ tank radio operators microphone. I bought a few components and made a crystal radio set that was permanently on and I’d tune it to the BBc’s ‘Light Service’ .
For decades after the second world war London still had many bomb-sites and a lot of dereliction. On the site of what is now Wood Green telephone exchange stood a huge derelict building. Here Andy and I could play all sorts of games including junior demolition and we ‘unglazed’ many windows with our catapults just ahead of the bulldozers that finished the job properly. Although I say it myself I was an ace shot with a catapult!
School and what we did for fun and pocket money.
Trials, tribulations and travel.
I had a lot of bronchial problems as a child. Bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma and the odd lung collapse or two. Chronic asthma was the worst to endure and fresh cut grass seemed to set me off wheezing nicely. In fact every intake of breath took an enormous amount of energy. No handy inhalers offering instant relief then. Instead Mum would prepare a mixing bowl of hot water with Friars Balsum in it. I’d have to sit with my head over the bowl with a towel covering all and inhale the vapours. Horrible! The plus side of having asthma was that a wheeze was never far off and one or two good ones would instantly get me off any sort of games at school. If on rare occasion that ploy failed I’d make sure my play was useless. Fluffing football tackles and deliberately passing the ball to the other side relegated me to being in goal. Letting as many goals in as I could further relegated me to the reserves bench. Any brief spell as a reserve would require a performance less than hopeless so in the end it was ‘mission accomplished’. ‘Sorry Sir my asthma’s bad today’. ‘Alright Haydn, go and read a book’. When P.E. was the last lesson of the day I read that as ‘Go home’, and I did just that without delay.
Pneumonia was my only pleasant ‘illness experience’ as the family doctor, Dr Hurrell, a tall erect thin man with a very loud voice and superb Roman nose instantly diagnosed. An ‘ex wartime naval saw-bones’ as Mum affectionately described him summoned an ambulance as soon as he saw me wheezing and gurgling in bed. The big white ambulance turned up and I was wrapped very tightly in a large red blanket. I remember the panic as one of the ambulance men produced a huge safety pin to secure the blanket. I was scared of being pinned to the blanket! I was carried down the stairs and off we went to Highlands Isolation Hospital in Winchmore Hill. This [sadly now demolished] hospital was a delight to be a patient in. It was summertime, the huge sash windows were open and squirrels would jump from the nearby trees onto the window sills. The nurses were kindness themselves and thankfully no-one came near me with a hyperdermic. The food was good, with lots of ice cream too. That was two weeks bliss I have to say, even including the first one in an oxygen tent.
I still have a fear of needles. Dr Hurrell would see me shaking when it was time for a polio shot or whatever. He’d bribe me with a shilling bless him. I’d turn down a barrel load of shillings now and would prefer swine flu to a jab. There seemed to be a lot more respect for doctors, policemen, teachers and even ambulance men in those days.....
I also had a lot of trouble with my teeth as a child and had to have plenty of corrective work done at St Thomas’s Hospital, just opposite the Houses of Parliament. An operation to expose some deeply buried teeth from the roof of my mouth was required which involved a few days stay in St Thomas’s. A tourist would have paid a fortune for the Thameside view I had of Parliament from my hospital bed! I was distracted a little from the throbbing pain in my mouth by watching the tugs, river police launches and other, sometimes amazing boats cruising past the window with that truly wonderful backdrop of Parliament.
The treatment required before that operation involved removing my four front milk teeth that refused to fall out naturally. It was decided to do this extraction at the dentists in Wood Green under a full gas anaesthetic. Due to my dodgy bronchial department Dr Hurrell said he’d be in attendance too. My knees were knocking at the thought of it as the days wore on to the appointment. Dr Hurrell called Mum and said he’d take us in his Rolls Royce! What a treat! I now know his car was a mid 1950’s Silver Dawn, the smallest car Rolls ever made. I remember getting into this lovely car and arriving at the dentist, then looking up at the huge overhead lamp which started spinning as the gas put me out. I don’t remember much after than let alone the return Rolls Royce trip apart from the discomfort and instant lisp and dribble I developed without any front teeth!
The follow-up treatment went on for years at St Thomas’s Hospital.Dad died after a long and nasty illness and Mum was back at work, this time for Post Office Telephones (B.T’s predecessor) as a Telephone Operator. A widow with two kids to bring up she again worked all the hours she could and simply couldn’t afford the time off to go with me as the bills had piled up during dad’s illness.
Although I didn’t enjoy the dentistry at all I disliked school far far more so these trips gave me a very welcome day off and a lovely long return ride on the 29 which was almost always an RT. The best seat on the bus had to be upstairs right at the back where I could practice junior smoking and enjoy people-watching whilst wheezing my way through the occasional Players No6 cigarette. Not the brightest thing to do for a then chronic asthmatic but against all medical theory and advice the smoking conquered the asthma. I can still hear Dr Hurrell’s sound advice, ‘Don’t be a fool like your father, don’t ever smoke’. Sorry Dr Hurrell. I’m sure you’ll be proved right in the end although now I’m only on mocha flavoured ‘E Cigs’...
These hospital jaunts involved a walk over Westminster Bridge often to the inimitable chimes of Big Ben. If I was running early for my appointment I’d get off the bus a few stops before Westminster and walk down Whitehall after a dally in Trafalgar Square. Scotland Yard intrigued me if I walked on the left hand side and Downing Street on the right had no more than a policeman or two outside of number 10 guarding the then pipe-smoking Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
As if all that bus travel wasn’t enough, when Mum was working overtime during a weekend I’d often walk to Arnos Grove tube station and buy a Red Rover ticket and ride the 251 single deck RF northwards up to Burnt Oak, have a wander around and come back again. Although taking a trip south would have been more interesting as far as sightseeing was concerned that would have meant covering part of my school journey. I didn’t want anything to remind me of school in ‘my time’! For a change sometimes I’d take the tube up to a main line station such as Kings Cross or Victoria and people-watch for a few hours.
The result of all this treatment and travel was many-fold. A love of London buses and tubes and of London itself with it’s unequalled buildings and history, I have no fear of dentists and film star looks. [If only]!
Family shopping for me was always a trial. There were no supermarkets where everything could be bought under one roof. Nor was there a car to lug it all home again in. The nearest thing was a small Victor Value store which, along with the other 216 in the group were bought by Tescos in 1968. Mum always sought out a bargain and if we wanted a cabbage for example this would involve checking the prices at as many greengrocers within walking distance, usually around Palmers Green. The Co-op was a must, one of our neighbours worked on the counter. As usual Mum had given her a nickname, that lady was known to us privately as ‘Margerine’. I can still remember part of Mums Co-op number which was recited at every transaction, 8400927. This ensured Mum received a dividend on her purchases. The same applied to just about everything so we went in and out of what seemed like every shop in the area only buying where the best deal could be had. After that we’d stagger home loaded down sometimes walking through the park if the weather was nice which saved the bus fare. We would have a rest on a bench and it was mainly downhill home from the park too which helped. If we got home and Mum found, for example, a rotten brussel sprout it would be returned to the greengrocer for exchange on the next shopping trip!
Many shops, including Victor Value gave out ‘loyalty’ Green Shield Stamps, one stamp for every 6d [2.5P] spent in the store. Completed books could be exchanged for gifts. Sticking the stamps into the book neatly was eventually entrusted to me and Mum would always check she’d been given the right amount against her receipt when we got home from shopping. Again if she was ‘short-changed’ by a penny or just one Green Shield stamp she’d be back to the shop claiming her rights.
Clothes shopping I found the very worst. I had to try virtually everything on bar underwear. Whatever was bought had to be a size or two too big so I could grow into it and it would be replacing clothes that would be, by this time, a size or two too small. So I’d leave school on a Friday looking like a Bash Street kid and turn up on Monday looking like a deflated shop dummy. I knew why Mum had to work things this way and took the flack from other kids on the chin.
Wood Green had and still does have a much busier shopping centre than Palmers Green. I vividly remember many tramps and down-and-outs, especially if we ventured as far as Turnpike Lane. There were many First War veterans too, a lot of amputees almost all as I recall with a military moustache and a cigarette in their mouth. These old men scared me with their gaunt looks and ragged clothes. I think I remember one playing a barrel organ and many busking with a penny whistle, squeeze box or violin. I had yet to learn what unimaginable horrors these brave men had endured.
The weekly wash routine would change through the year. In good weather Mum would wash everything by hand. Owning a washing machine was unthinkable and even if we could afford one there would have been no room for it in our tiny scullery. During good weather the washing line came into play. It had more knots in it than a sailing ship and was suspended from the big drain pipe that ran down the back wall of the house to the cherry tree which was in the middle of our small garden. Mum would rightly grumble at me if I failed to tell her the instant it began to rain if I was playing in the garden. Then everything would be hauled back inside to be draped wherever we could. Essential items of clothing would be put on a little wooden clothes horse in front of the small Belling electric fire. She’d naturally be extremely annoyed when the line broke, as it often did when fully loaded with dripping wet washing. She never swore but cursed the line and her endless chores no end. I don’t know why but it was the way she cursed that always set me off giggling increasing to uncontrollable laughter if her tirade extended beyond a few minutes. Of course that didn’t help matters at all. ‘Damn kids’ was the worst thing I ever heard her say.
Winter washing was much more of a nightmare for Mum as we had to cart our washing up to the Launderette at Arnos Grove. I think it’s a chip shop now. We’d use her wicker wheelie basket, perhaps a pram if I had one ‘in stock’. The dryers hungrily ate sixpences and shillings and I could see Mum weighing up whether she could afford to have everything bone dry or partially dry and we’d try to finish them off at home in front of the little Belling electric fire.
Signs, the beginning.
My interest in signs began when a school pal who lived in Palmers Green told me about an old derelict sign factory he’d discovered near his house. In those days there were still plenty of WW2 bomb-sites to play on so dereliction wasn’t a novelty. We explored the site and scattered around the crumbling buildings were some old enamel signs. We each took a few home and I was hooked! Ironically it turned out that the factory was that of J Bruton & Sons, one of London Underground’s major sign suppliers.
I found a very large rusty enamel sign in the back lane and used it as part of a roof on a little shed I built at the bottom of the garden and became known as the ‘Hideout’. It must have been about three feet by five feet . Andy and I were always playing practical jokes on each other. I owed him one and I thought up a very cunning plan. I dug a shallow hole in the garden and placed the sign over it. Then, from a fixing hole in the centre of the sign I led some fishing line directly upwards into the tree above. I finely balanced a bucket of water on a branch and attached the fishing line to it. Being summertime there was plenty of leaf cover to hide the bucket. I cut the grass and sprinkled cuttings all over the sign to hide it. Andy was due to come round and in the summer I was often in my little shed. I placed my bike on the path so he’d have to divert under the tree and cop for a proper dowsing. Unfortunately I hadn’t factored in the possibility of Mum coming to find me. I heard the scream and peeked out to see that this particular trap had worked a treat. Mum wasn’t the least bit amused and my trepidation at her reaction for once completely wiped out all of my much expected laughter. She got over it after a few days and used the story every time we bumped into people we usually chatted to.
I grew up hearing my parents talk fondly of their time with London Transport. My Dad was very ill for a couple of years before he died in 1965 when I was still a lad so my memories of Mum’s stories are clearer. Mum lived to the ripe old age of 90 and always had a fascinating or funny story about her time as a conductress during the war.....
Mum & Dad married in 1937. In those days as soon as a woman married, it was generally expected that she would stop working and became a housewife. Mum left her work at Grose’s Cycles in Highbury, a company that supplied bicycle parts and some car spares. She told me she loved working there and would deliver parts on her bicycle all over North London.
She was always frugal and chose [for the marital home] one house out of two in the same road that she liked because the weekly rent was 10 shillings a week instead of ten shilling and sixpence. [50p versus 52.5p]!
When the Second World War came in 1939 women were again needed to replace the men called up for service. She told me my Dad wasn’t too keen on the idea and ignored his call-up papers. The result was two military policemen turning up and he was duly escorted away in a jeep to join up. He ended up as a supply lorry driver taking shells to Montgomery’s army in North Africa and then up into Italy. Mum joined London Transport as a conductress. She told me that she did every bit of overtime offered as there wasn’t much else to do with Dad away. She saved her money and revealed to her Mother that she’d accrued £300 in cash and kept it in the house. That was about one third of the value of a small house in a London suburb then. Her Mother said she’d never come and see her again until she put that then huge sum in the bank which she did!
Mum often mentioned working on ‘open staircase’ buses and ‘Scooters’, the former must have been the STL’s which stood for Short Type Lengthened which were introduced in 1932, ‘Scooters’ were single deck buses of similar age.
One afternoon an enemy 'landmine' exploded about 100 yards away from her house, scoring a direct hit on the house that she turned down as the rent was sixpence higher. Frugality paid off! She was at home at the time. The blast blew the front door in, all the windows out, most of the roof tiles off and Mum ended up in the garden, miraculously unhurt but covered in plaster-dust! She refused to abandon her badly damaged house, managed to get a tarpaulin put over the roof and slept under the stairs from that point on. 21 people were killed in her road that day. Going to sleep at night not knowing whether it would be your last day on earth is hard to grasp nowadays. Going to work not knowing if it’s been bombed or not was another fact of life at the time as transport links were always prime enemy targets. Mum must have been good at dodging bombs as Grose’s New Bridge Street branch was bombed in December 1940.
Whilst on duty during the Blitz the Air Raid warning sounded. Drivers were told to stop at the nearest shelter. Mum’s instructions as a conductress were to order all the passengers off the bus and into the shelters which she did. After the 'All Clear' sounded she and her driver emerged to find the bus badly damaged and the road on fire!
Imagine, as she and so many others had to walk to work in 'The Blackout'. She told me that she'd often bump into people in the pitch darkness along the North Circular Road. She'd walk or cycle everywhere, relatively few cars were in use [as little petrol was available even if you had one]. Her route to the bus garage would often be alongside endless convoys of lorries carrying tanks, guns and aircraft lit up by the flashes of deafening local anti-aircraft gunfire. Shrapnel would be raining down to add even more peril to the scene during air raids. After the war women were encouraged to leave work for the returning heroes to take up their jobs once more. Mum certainly would have loved to have stayed in the job but accepted the then notion that men were deemed more important in the workforce than women after the war ended. She stayed in that very same house that I was born in for nearly 70 years. No-one was as selfless, or tried harder against all the odds, or deserved more out of life than her.
Below left, picture of Mum in her uniform, taken in June 1943. Right, with her beloved cat Panda, 60 years later at home in London 2003. ( Sylvia, 6/12/1916 - 17/1/2007)
Thanks for everything Mum, rest in peace.
Right. Broomfield House before the fire. Left. Arnos Grove Station, our ‘local’. Below right, bus in crater.
Above. A replica of a wartime London Underground car poster.
Image courtesy of tfl to whom I’m grateful