Authors: Norman Jacobs
irst and foremost, I should like to thank my parents not just for giving me a very secure and happy childhood but also because before they died both of them wrote down their own memories to pass on. I have found these to be of enormous help in triggering my own memory especially of my very early days.
I would also like to thank various people both at Graham Maw Christie and John Blake Publishing for their encouragement, support, advice and suggestions especially Jane Graham Maw, Alice Smales, Anna Marx and Jane Donovan.
ummy, my leg!'
When Mum opened the door to my seven-year-old brother, it looked as though his leg was hanging on just by the skin at the back of his knee. He'd been crossing a bomb site, not unusual then in the East End, when he fell down a hole. That morning he'd gone to school in a pair of white plimsolls, but now had one white one and one red one.
Although I was due to be born that day, my hugely pregnant mum picked him up, her only thought being to get him to hospital as fast as possible; but Hackney Hospital was about a mile away. Home phones were still a rarity. She sat him in the armchair and ran out into the street, grabbed a passer-by and asked if he could phone for an ambulance from the phone box just down the street. Five minutes later, waiting with John and
panicking that the man hadn't done as she asked, she dashed out into the street again just as a lorry was coming along, waving her arms frantically to stop it. The driver had to brake hard to miss her, screeching to a juddering halt. He jumped out.
âWhat on earthâ¦' He was ready to give her a piece of his mind but stopped when he saw the heavily pregnant, tearful woman waving her arms about like a windmill.
âMy little boy,' she sobbed, âhis legâ¦ Can you take him to hospital?'
As soon as he saw the state John was in, he didn't hesitate: he carried him into the lorry and drove him and Mum (and me, I suppose!) straight to the hospital. Then he carried him into casualty and laid him on a bed. It was only then that John started to cry; he hadn't cried or spoken up till then. In spite of all the blood, he was found to be suffering from no more than a very deep cut to his knee, which required eleven stitches.
I suppose, with all this going on, Mum forgot about giving birth to me on the due date.
I eventually arrived four days later at 8am on Monday, 19 May 1947, weighing 9lb 3oz and with a full shock of thick black hair. John was still in the children's ward, and a nurse informed him he had a new baby brother. He wasn't impressed.
While the three of us were in hospital, Dad was back at home having to fend for himself, and not making a very good job of it. In those days, it was normal for wives to cook and clean and take on all the household burdens, so he hadn't had much practice. Luckily, our neighbours took pity on him and provided him with meals between his visits to the hospital and
going to work. I don't think he did much else for the better part of a week until we all finally came home to Millfield Terrace.
Our prefab was one of just seven in a row, known as Millfield Terrace, set back a few yards from Millfields Road, the long street linking Clapton Pond and Hackney Marshes. The prefabs â short for âprefabricated buildings' â were situated on Millfields, a 20-acre area of open parkland, which lay between Chatsworth Road and Clapton Greyhound Stadium and stretched right back to the River Lea and the boundary with Leyton. Each of the seven prefabs had its own path leading up from the road, while along the pavement a small iron railing separated the road from the field. By the time my parents arrived, the only prefab left was the one at the end, so our address became 7 Millfield Terrace.
John told me later the main thing he remembered about moving in was Mum and Dad's fear that the other residents of Millfields Road might think they were squatters, not real tenants. But they were real tenants all right, with a rent card to prove it. The rent was 16s 8d (83p) per week including rates, water and electricity charges.
At that time, just after the Second World War, thousands of couples and families had no homes of their own and had to live in rented rooms with shared facilities, or with parents and in-laws. Overcrowding and lack of privacy were real problems, so for many families prefabs offered, for the first time, a proper modern home, better than any they could have dared hope for or aspire to before. The 1944 Temporary Housing Act had brought them in as a quick solution to the housing crisis caused by both bomb damage and a general need to clear away the nineteenth-century slums of the East End. All the parts of
these temporary houses were pre-built in a factory and then put together in kit style on site, making them quick and easy to erect.
There were a number of different styles; ours was the Arcon Mark V. Designed by the Ministry of Works, it was built as a tubular steel frame with corrugated asbestos cement cladding and a curved roof apex. The dangers of asbestos were unknown at that time and it was felt to be a useful building material as it was fire resistant and provided good insulation.
Inside, the prefab was built round a central core consisting of a large kitchen, bathroom and separate WC. There was a large living room and two bedrooms. The fitted kitchen came with a built-in fridge (something that most families still did not possess), a cooker, a sink with running hot and cold water, a roomy larder and a pull-down table. We never used the pull-down table as we had our own table, which we placed in front of the window, and we ate all meals as a family around it. There was also the copper, a wash boiler with wringer attached, where Mum boiled up her whites with the aid of some Reckitt's Blue, a product widely used in pre-washing-machine days as a whitener.
The front door opened into a small passageway, which led directly to the toilet, the bathroom and the two bedrooms, but we preferred to use the side door leading straight into the kitchen and living room, which we called the âbig room'. And it was a big room too. As well as our three-piece suite centred round the open fire, a console television and a large wooden table, we also managed to fit in a six-foot-long mahogany sideboard and a secretaire consisting of a drop-down desk and
three bookcases. Both were made to order and intricately carved by my father. We also had a radiogram, a substantial piece of wooden furniture in its own right. Made by EKCO, a Southend wireless and television manufacturing firm, it measured about three feet in height and two feet six inches in width. There was a lid on top, which opened to reveal a turntable on one side and a wireless tuner on the other. The rest of the space was taken up with the speakers.
Outside was a large garden, both front and back, with a brick shed in the back garden housing a galvanised coal bin.
My family were the ideal candidates for one of these new homes. When my father went into the army shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, my mother and brother left the East End of London to escape the bombing and stayed with relatives in Middlesex and Hertfordshire. Dad was called up at the start of the War and served in the Royal Artillery as a bombardier in charge of a small anti-aircraft unit. He saw very little action and spent most of the War in places like Taunton and Clacton-on-Sea practising firing his big Bofors gun into the sky at imaginary German Dornier and Heinkel bombers. After D-Day came in 1944, he was sent to the Netherlands to help Dutch families readjust to normal life after the occupation.
Although not once throughout the War did he manage to shoot down any enemy planes â I can't, in all honesty, claim that my dad âwon the War' â I am sure the part he played was just as valuable as anyone else's. When it finished, they settled back in the East End, living with my father's parents and several grown-up children in a small, cramped flat in Cookham Buildings in Shoreditch. In 1946, the London County Council
(L.C.C.) allocated them one of the new prefabs in Hackney and they eagerly grabbed the opportunity.
At first, Dad worked as a woodcarver for a furniture company, but very soon he set up in business on his own in Columbia Road, Bethnal Green. His main stock-in-trade was carving tables and chair legs, creating his own designs, and in the late forties and fifties, he picked up a lot of work from local cabinet makers. Bethnal Green and Shoreditch were then the centre of the wood trade and there were many small, independent businesses providing the large shops with furniture. People needed new furniture after the War, because they had either moved house or been bombed out; this meant that the woodcarving trade was a good business to be in, and we lived in reasonable comfort for a working-class family.
Although the design part of Dad's job was very artistic, the actual carving was hard manual labour, which built up his arm muscles so he was very strong. He was a handsome man with thick black hair, standing just under six feet tall; Mum often remarked that he bore a strong resemblance to the film star Robert Taylor. At five feet seven, Mum was fairly tall. She was very good-looking, blonde with blue eyes, although part of her right eye was brown. During the war years, she had learnt to be very independent, having to cope with John on her own while Dad was away in the army. Although Dad took command in most situations and gave the orders, she didn't really take too much notice of him and carried on in her own way, letting him think he was in control, but really it was Mum who was in charge.
My earliest memory is of Dad bathing me in the kitchen sink. Although I felt very safe and secure in his arms, I did think
it was a bit strange to be in the sink because that's where Mum washed the dishes and I normally went in the bath. Mum must have gone out and left him to do it. Goodness knows why he chose the kitchen sink, but I must have been very young to fit in there. Another vivid early memory is of sitting on Dad's lap in front of the fire when my uncle Bill came to visit. As they talked, one of my white socks became loose and started to hang off my foot and I stroked it up and down against the fireplace, watching it get blacker and blacker from the soot.
I was always put to bed for a midday nap, and when I woke up it would be time for
Listen With Mother
on the wireless.
âThe time is a quarter to two. This is the BBC Home Service for mothers and children at home. Are you ready for the music? When it stops, Catherine Edwards will be here to speak to you. Ding-de-dong. Ding-de-dong, Ding, ding! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin!'
So began a fifteen-minute programme of stories, songs and nursery rhymes for children under five. I used to love every minute of it, listening quietly with Mum. Another of the storytellers was Daphne Oxenford; what a lovely-sounding name it was to my young ears.
We bought our first television on 19 September 1949. Not many people had television in those days; many parts of the country were unable to receive signals as there were only two transmitters, one at Alexandra Palace for the London area and another at Sutton Coldfield for the Midlands. The television we had was a 10” Murphy console costing Â£71 10s 8d. As I was only two, I can't remember a time when we didn't have a television.
Watch with Mother
started in 1950 when I was three. There was Andy Pandy, a puppet who lived in a basket with his friends, Teddy and Looby Loo, and later on, Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men. Another favourite of mine from that period was Prudence Kitten, little cat puppets in dresses, presented by Annette Mills.
The television was bought from a shop called J. H. Dunkley and Son Ltd in Lower Clapton Road. Those still being somewhat pioneering days of television, the set frequently went wrong and we'd have to call the shop to send someone round to repair it. The engineer normally chosen for this task was a man called Lassman. He would remove the back, look inside, tap this, tighten that, trace one wire here, another there but usually all to no avail. The workings of the television and why it had gone wrong seemed as big a mystery to him as it did to us. After a few more plucky attempts to get it going â he was nothing if not persistent â he would confess to being a wireless man and say that he didn't know much about televisions. Inevitably, the set would have to go back to the shop to be repaired there. Whenever a TV engineer was called on and Lassman arrived, we knew we'd be without a television for at least a couple of days.
The other major regular event in our lives occurred every Thursday and Saturday evening: dog racing nights at Clapton Greyhound Stadium.
Clapton Stadium was built in 1900 to house Clapton Orient Football Club. When the new craze for greyhound racing arrived in this country in the late 1920s, the Millfields Road ground was converted to a greyhound stadium at a cost of over
Â£80,000, a big sum of money in those days. It held its first race night on 7 April 1928 and, because of the amount of money now invested in greyhounds, the football team was soon asked to find a new home and moved away, eventually becoming Leyton Orient.
Our prefab was right next door to Clapton Stadium so we certainly knew all about it on Thursday and Saturday evenings.
âThe dark-and-late motors are coming,' I used to say to my brother, peering outside.
âThey're taxis, stupid,' was his normal reply.
Hundreds of them deposited their customers near the bottom of our path, while hundreds more people converged on the stadium on foot. Millfields Road and all the other roads nearby would be lined with cars belonging to the more affluent dog racing supporters.
Once a race was underway, we could hear the roar of the crowd from inside our house, rising in crescendo as the race neared its conclusion. Then there'd be silence for half an hour or so until the next race. I wanted nothing more than to be there myself, and imagined the huge stadium with the men in their flat caps and the spotlights as a kind of heaven for grown-ups.
Every race night, I would be sent off by Dad to the disabled vendor seated in an invalid carriage outside the stadium entrance to buy two packets of Larkins peanuts. Breaking open the shells and eating these delicacies was one of the highlights of Dad's week. Living right next door to the stadium had its advantages.
On special occasions, we were allowed into the stadium. The big race of the year was the Scurry Cup, one that in its
heyday rivalled even the Derby in terms of prestige. Staged over 400 yards, it attracted the fastest greyhounds in the land, and the list of winners through the years reads like a who's who of sprinting. Scurry Cup evening always finished with a big fireworks display to which everyone was admitted free of charge and, naturally, we would be first in the queue. One year, they let us in before the last race. I must have been about nine or ten and I picked a greyhound to win because it had a nice red coat. It duly won, but John wasn't impressed as I danced around, sticking my tongue out at him and chanting, âI'm the winner! I'm the winner!'