THE LAND OF DICKENS AND GRANDFATHER’S MISSION
Grandfather’s Mission 1880 – Close to Tower Bridge
My grandfather Walter Ryall died before I was born, yet he was still fondly remembered by the dockworkers and others who lived close to the riverside in Bermondsey. He had undoubtedly been a man of great compassion, with a heart of gold. His sole purpose in life had been to help the down-trodden, a vocation for which he was sure the Lord had chosen him. Yet, on the other hand, he seems to have been a very poor businessman, with absolutely no sense of the value of money, and with no desire to store up worldly possessions for himself. When a small boy, grandfather had been left an orphan on the death of his parents. Reaching the age of seventeen, he left London, and made his way to the seacoast town of Great Yarmouth, where he joined one of the North Sea fishing fleets as an apprentice. It was a career marked with many hardships, and thrilling adventures; twice washed overboard, he was fortunately rescued on both occasions. After five years with the fleet1 he returned to London and Bermondsey and there got himself a job at the Davis’ Wharf, which in those days was located on the riverbank at the exact spot where Tower Bridge now spans the river. Not very far away was St. John’s Horselydown, where he met a young lady named Emma Corderoy, daughter of the sexton of the church, whom he married in 1863, and who became the mother of his three lively daughters, including my own talented mother.2
William Bustin indicates five years as apprentice and a further eleven years at sea; Bustin, W., Life Story of Madame Annie Ryall (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1913) 2 2 While still a sailor he married Selina Ryal (sic), possibly a cousin, in 1854. She died and he married Emma Corderoy.
Of all the pictures of London today, in newspapers, on television, or on picture postcards, no London landmark is seen more frequently than the Tower Bridge and along the bank, in almost all pictures, one can see the huge wharves lining the riverside and, as far as the eye can see, numerous spider-web looking loading cranes pointing skyward. My story is about the area behind those wharves. It was there I was born and although it is now sixty years ago that I lived there as a boy, I still like to call it my two square miles of London. Crossing the Tower Bridge from the City side to the south bank of the Thames, one finds oneself in Bermondsey, one of the many London boroughs, and standing on its main commercial thoroughfare, Tooley Street. On the north-east corner is a pub, one of the hundred or more such pubs in Bermondsey, and beside it is the Tower Bridge Police Station. Running from Tooley Street to the riverside is a street called Horselydown,3 so named because in the long distant past, before the area became as congested as it is today, it had been a Down where horses were kept and roamed at will. Running from Horselydown, and parallel to the river to a place called Dockhead is Gainsford Street, and it was there my grandparents lived, and mother was born. Like so many streets of the area it was narrow; lined with solid rows of brick houses all joined together in never-ending monotony. Towering above them were the wharves completely shutting out the sun when on occasions it broke through the clouds over London. At about the time of his marriage grandfather became a dedicated Christian, and so depressed did he become by the shocking poverty and distress he saw all round him he decided to devote his entire life to Christian service. Restricted at first by lack of funds, he opened his first mission in a small room in one of London’s tragic slums, a cul-de-sac of the riverside by Dockhead not very far from the Tower Bridge. On one of his frequent walks through London’s east-end streets Charles Dickens came upon this place and expressed horror at the conditions he found existing there. In his story of Oliver Twist he immortalised the area as Jacob’s Island, the place where, after the murder of Nancy, Bill Sykes was finally cornered and, according to the story, committed suicide by jumping from an upper window of the house where he had been hiding. On their way to and from the centre of the City to such places as Deptford, Greenwich and places beyond; by bus, train, tram, and on foot, people by the thousands every day passed this poverty-stricken area of narrow congested streets, lined with their tumbledown houses just off the beaten path. Yet the place and the people who lived there could not have been more ignored than had they never existed at all. Charles Dickens gives a vivid description of the place: Near to that part of the Thames on which the church of Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are the dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built, low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, and the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London ... The cheapest and less delicate of provisions are heaped in the shops and the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel hang at the salesman’s door … Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest working class; ballast heavers, coat whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, one makes his way along with difficulty, assailed by offensive sights and smells.... Even in my own boyhood days in Bermondsey, although some thirty or more years had passed since Dickens visited and described the area, not much had changed. There were still the hovels called home with their many smoking chimney pots, the ragged barefoot children running the streets, shops loaded with cheap provisions, and yes, still as mentioned by Dickens, brazen women hanging round the many pubs. Dreadful as it was in the daytime, it was even more forbidding at night when the few flickering gas street lamps did their best to penetrate the mist and fog rolling in from the river. The almost deathly silence was occasionally shattered by the blast of some ship’s siren as the vessel made its 3
Now Horselydown Lane
way up or down the river. After nightfall, except for the light shining from the window of grandfather’s mission, the only other illumination came from the windows of the two pubs in the area. These were the Ship Aground and the Swan & Sugar Loaf where, shining through their frosted windows, the light cast a warm glow on the damp pavements outside. For most of those living in the area the pubs were far more comfortable than the hovels they called home, which is why every night of the week the pubs were crowded to the doors with men and women, either standing around on the sawdust-covered floors or sitting at tables drinking beer or, in most cases, just nursing an empty beer glass hoping someone would refill it. There were just half-a-dozen streets in the area; Jacob’s Street, London Street, Mill Street, George Row, and two streets that were no wider than fifteen feet from the hovels on one side to the identical row on the other, Farthing Alley and Halfpenny Alley. The pavements were so narrow two people could not pass without one stepping into the muddy roadway. Sanitation was negligible. There was little in the way of plumbing as we know it today; sewage and other refuse was dumped into the Folly Ditch which flowed slowly through the area to the Thames, in those days frequently referred to as ‘The Big Stink’. Because of the lack of hygiene and proper medical attention, fifty percent of all the babies born in the area died at birth or shortly afterwards. If one was fortunate enough to survive infancy, he or she had only a fifty-fifty chance of living beyond the age of thirtyseven, the area’s average life-span. Although mother was born on Gainsford Street, about a year after her birth grandfather moved into two rooms directly above the mission on the corner of London Street and Farthing Alley, and it was there mother spent the first twenty years of her life assisting him with the mission work. Grandfather had moved so that he could be in closer contact with the people and be available night and day to help those in distress. One of his self-imposed tasks was the daily feeding of many of them -men, women and children, who every noontime lined up at the door of the mission waiting for hot soup reinforced with some vegetables. Most of the vegetables were donated by the local wholesale produce warehouses, of which there were many in the area: vegetables partly rotten and unsaleable or left over after the day’s trading. More often than not there was just one type of vegetable, such as potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions and the like, so one day it would be bean soup, another tomato soup, or cabbage soup. For some this would be their only meal in twenty-four hours. How unbelievable! What terrible days they must have been! What brutal days! The poor unemployed had only two choices those days; to starve to death or be committed to the workhouse and lose their freedom. Many were the stories mother told us of her twenty years on Farthing Alley, working long into the night helping grandma and her sisters prepare huge vats of soup for the following day’s meals. But they were not all sad stories by any means. She related some very humorous ones too, such as the day she told off one of the male roughnecks attending the mission who picked her up bodily, carried her outside to the middle of the road and dropped her in a mud-puddle. Because most of the men of Dockhead depended solely for their livelihood on loading and unloading ships tied up at the docks – a sporadic occupation at best – it made it necessary for them to live from day to day on what little they earned. A common sight in Bermondsey then was crowds of men around the dock gates hoping to catch the eye of the ‘caller-on’, the labour boss who picked men from the crowd to go to work. If ever the expression ‘the survival of the fittest’ had meaning, it certainly did at the London docks. The strongest-looking men were without exception chosen first – they would put in the best day’s work; the underfed, skinny blokes were left to roam the streets or hang around the corner pubs. In his diary grandfather recorded that in 1884 London experienced its severest winter in memory. The Thames was frozen solid and all shipping came to a standstill. The dockworkers as a result were on the verge of starvation, yet in spite of their plight, the government of the day failed to take any action to relieve their suffering, but one of London’s largest newspapers came to their rescue promoting a fundraising drive. Since grandfather was already operating his soup kitchen at the mission, he was one of the first 13
they called upon to help distribute the food purchased with the fund. Every day the food arrived at the mission and grandma and her three daughters worked without let-up all day long and well into the midnight hours preparing the following daysâ€™ meals. She told us that in one two-week period alone they served over ten thousand meals. Next door to the mission was a place called the Magic Mangle. Why it was so called is a little unclear, unless perhaps in place of hand rollers for washing it had big rubber rollers operated by steam. Most of the women of Dockhead could not, of course, have afforded the luxury of having their laundry done at the Magic Mangle. So the only conclusion one can draw is that its business came from more affluent sections of London, possibly hotels and institutions, and was located at Free Soup Dockhead because of the cheap labour available there. It is indeed strange that grandpa mentions in his diary that the owner of the Magic Mangle had a very mischievous daughter, and we are left to surmise that she must have been quite a girl. One day grandpa received quite a jolt when he was notified by the owner of the mission premises and the Magic Mangle that he intended to tear them down and erect one new and larger building in their place. There being no other building in the area suitable for a mission, grandfather asked the landlord if, on completion of the new building, he might rent part of it to carry on the mission work. The landlord agreed, but when grandpa was told the rent of the new accommodation he was shocked. Nevertheless he agreed to pay the rent asked, not having the slightest notion where the money would come from to pay it. One of motherâ€™s hair-raising stories was about the day she, grandma and her two sisters were about to be evicted from the mission and their living-quarters above. Grandfather had got so far behind with the rent that bailiffs were threatening to put all of them and their belongings outside on the pavement and padlock the premises. Unruffled, grandfather welcomed the bailiffs with his accustomed courtesy, asked them to please be seated, and told grandma to serve the gentlemen tea.
Then, grabbing his hat and overcoat, he slipped out the back door and made a beeline for a biscuit factory which recently had started business a short distance from the mission on Mill Street – the now world-famous Peek Frean’s. Mr. Peek, the owner of the factory, already being aware of the work grandfather was doing in that dockland area, had previously made donations toward it. After a considerable wait, he was ushered into Mr. Peek’s private office and, after listening to grandfather’s hard-luck story, Mr. Peek again opened up his heart, and his pocket-book, and gave him enough to pay the back rent. Hurrying back to the mission as fast as his legs would carry him, grandfather was not a moment too soon. The bailiffs, having finished their tea, were still sitting there, but had just about lost patience and were about to carry out their threat, putting grandma and her three daughters out on the pavement and padlocking the mission door. Rushing in 15
breathlessly, throwing off his hat and coat, he found grandma and his daughters on the brink of tears. “There you are gentlemen”, he said, handing the money to the two surprised bailiffs who, apologising profusely, went on their way. The mission had survived another crisis. Since he was so careless with money, giving it away to the poor almost as fast as he got it, it was fortunate for him and the mission that an organisation called The Ragged School Union (if one can imagine an organisation of that name) came to his rescue. They undertook to provide financial assistance in the future. Later on it was named after its new president, Lord Shaftesbury, The Shaftesbury Society. It is doubtful if the mission could have carried on much longer without the help of the society. Enough money could never have been raised in Bermondsey alone. For grandfather and his brave little family, sowing the seed must have been a distressing and at times a seemingly hopeless task, yet although grandfather did not live to see it, there was a magnificent harvest and a rewarding one. Through grandfather’s help and encouragement many young men and women of that dockland slum were able to get a new start in life – how many is hard to estimate. The mission records are full of references to underprivileged boys who later became prominent in business and the professions. Particular mention is made of the young men who entered the ministry, many of whom later became well-known as pastors of chapels and churches in England and abroad. Notable examples were the Rev. R. S. Latimer, who engaged in evangelistic campaigns in Russia before the revolution of 1917 and was the author of several books, including With Christ in Russia and Under Three Czars. Two others who entered the ministry were Dr. J. C. Carlile, for many years pastor of the Folkestone Baptist Church, also the author of several books, and the Rev. George Wise of Liverpool. Long after grandfather’s death R. S. Latimer wrote a letter to mother: I thought you would like to have a few accurate particulars of my life subsequently to my never-to-be-forgotten association with your late sainted father. He first encouraged me to preach and gave me my earliest opportunities. I revere his memory and have a portrait as a cherished possession… I was delighted to hear your lovely singing voice at the Keswick Convention… After grandfather had passed on to his reward in heaven and mother and father had carried on the work he had started, the mission was moved from the depressing area of Jacob’s Island and Dockhead. First it moved to Tooley Street close by, where it was conducted in a temporary iron building situated directly opposite the Holy Trinity Catholic Church. Still later it was again moved to the location of Jamaica Road4 and Abbey Street, and there it stands to this day.5 Mother and father themselves with their first-born son, my brother Wilbert who was born in Farthing Alley, had moved to a more attractive and less depressing area of Bermondsey. Nevertheless, it was around the present mission that the lives of the whole family, from the eldest to the youngest, revolved. Should one of us not be found at home, he or she would most certainly have been found at the mission. Its doors were never closed – there was always something going on morning, afternoon and evening. Besides the regular Sunday services there were weekday prayer meetings, mothers’ meetings, the Christian Endeavour, and the Band of Hope, to mention a few. And whether we children liked it or not, we were expected to attend all meetings unless we had a very good reason for not so doing, such as being in bed with the mumps.
Now Old Jamaica Road Demolished and rebuilt as a mission office and centre by the London City Mission in 2002
CHAPTER TWO MOTHER AND FATHER – BEFORE MARRIAGE
At a very early age mother’s beautiful singing voice was beginning to attract attention and by the time she was 20 years old she was appearing on concert platforms all over south London. Nowhere was she more popular than at the Saturday night concerts held at the Bermondsey Town Hall on Spa Road. When her name appeared on a concert programme it was always thus: Miss Annie Ryall – “The Girl with the Golden Voice”. Her repertoire included such popular songs of the day as “Robin Adair”, “The Merry, Merry Zingara”, “Looking Right Over the Sea”, and many others.
It was at one of these concerts that she first met father, he having been engaged to accompany her at the piano. Unlike mother, who had been involved with grandfather’s mission almost since the day of her birth, father came from a theatrical family and was born not far from that street made famous in story and song – the Old Kent Road. The ambition of his parents was that someday he would make a name for himself in the theatre or on the concert stage, and at the age of eighteen he was already an accomplished pianist. This was not to be however, because when he met mother it was a case of love at first sight. From that night on, wherever or whenever Miss Annie Ryall, the girl with the golden voice, was to appear at a concert, right there ready and willing to accompany her at the piano was Willie Bustin. Still later, plucking up his courage, he asked permission to escort her home. At first mother refused, but after persistent attempts by my father, she finally acquiesced. Encouraged by his success so far, he was able later to convince her of the need for frequent rehearsals at home. Grandfather was not too enraptured with Willie at first – the match did not have his complete approval – but later, when Willie began to show interest in the work of the mission, grandfather’s opposition relaxed and Willie became a welcome visitor. 17
Although most of the people living in the area of Dockhead seldom went outside its boundaries, or if they did, never travelled very far, mother, who was by now seeing more and more of the outside world by appearing at concerts in the wealthier sections of London, was an exception. The people she met wore finer clothes than those povertystricken people of Jacob’s Island. This made it necessary for her to dress suitably for such engagements, thus attracting the attention not only of the neighbours, but also of grandfather, who was less than enthusiastic about his daughter dressing up and looking so worldly-wise. One can imagine the scene as Miss Annie Ryall, the daughter of the missioner, walked from Farthing Alley out to Dockhead and Tooley Street heading for a bus or London Bridge station. Window curtains were pulled aside as housewives gawped, others in their aprons were lolling in their doorways and there were the crude remarks of the loafers lounging in front of the Swan and Sugar Loaf when she passed by.
At first grandfather had not objected too strenuously because, as far as he knew, his daughter was appearing only at sacred concerts, but as she became older and he learned she was also singing at secular concerts he became quite concerned. When preaching his sermon at the mission one Sunday evening he said, “When one gets more of Christ, one needs less of the concert.” His daughter Annie, who was sitting in the congregation, realised that his message was intended for her ears and her's alone. The message stuck in the back of her mind and haunted her, yet she continued to accept the concert engagements that were so financially rewarding. It was shortly after that Sunday evening that mother and father were married at the Maze Pond Chapel on the Old Kent Road.6 Three years later, after having given thirty years of dedicated Christian service to the people of Bermondsey, grandfather was called to his reward in heaven at the age of fifty-nine. In his story of mother’s life father wrote: On the death of Mr. Walter Ryall, Mr. Percy Brown of Davis’ Wharf, Horselydown, where he had been employed, walked along Tooley Street beside the hearse from the mission to Tower Bridge. An example of the esteem with which the ex-fisherman missionary was held was evidenced by the hundreds of people who passed through the mission to take a last look at the man who had befriended so many of them, and by the crowd lining the street with respect and grief”. 6
1st August 1887, the Revd B Brigg of Drummond Road Baptist Church and later of Margate Baptist Chapel, officiating.
Grandfather’s passing posed a great problem for the young married couple who had been left with the responsibility of carrying on the work he had started. Over the thirty years since he had founded the mission he had gathered around him a small but faithful band of workers, who now without his leadership were helpless. Also over the years he had made many influential friends, such men as the Chairman of the Board of Peek Frean’s. There were many others such as Colonel Samuel Bevington, Bermondsey’s most prominent leather tanner, Mr. Percy Brown, the owner of Davis’ Wharf where he worked, without whose financial help the mission could never have carried on the work. It was necessary that the mission workers have leadership and that the interest and support of the businessmen be maintained, and no-one was more able to fill the gap than mother. Realising this, and in spite of the many difficulties, the young couple accepted the challenge. Father, who was working as a compositor on one of London’s daily newspapers with offices on Fleet Street, was working at nights, and this prevented him from being at the mission in the evenings. It was even more difficult for mother, who had not yet given up her concert engagements and in addition was getting many requests as guest soloist in many churches which afforded her little time to devote to the mission. Father realised it was impossible to carry on the mission work and fill his job in the City at the same time. So he quit his job and took another with the Bermondsey and Southwark Recorder, a newspaper with offices on the corner of Tooley Street and Arnold’s Place, just a stone’s throw from the mission, permitting him to keep in closer touch with the work. Still confused with her dual role of church soloist and concert artist, yet refusing to forgo the concert engagements because of the lucrative and much needed financial reward they brought, one day Dad said to her: “Darling, I don’t know how you can go on accepting concert engagements just to please the public”, to which mother petulantly replied, “Well dear, we seem to know what to do with the money.” Yet, said Dad in his book on mother’s life, he was certain that this was not the true reflex of her heart’s desire. In spite of her frequent concert engagements and the necessity of rehearsing in the afternoons for them, she still devoted much time to the mission. Among those activities she had organised a youth choir which, sitting at the organ, she rehearsed as frequently as possible. One evening she was teaching her choir a new and lovely hymn written by Francis Ridley Havergal, Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee. They came to the line: Take my voice and let me sing, ever, only for my King and although she continued to play and the young people sang on, she herself could not sing the words. Little did those young people know of the great conflict that at that moment was taking place in mother’s mind. Returning to the living-quarters above the mission after the rehearsal, she knelt down and prayed, and ended her prayer with Take my voice and let me sing, ever, only for my King. Getting up from her knees she picked up a photograph of herself in which she was dressed for one of the concert engagements and wrote boldly across the front of it Jesus Only. On hearing the news one of her friends wrote: Sing on dear friend, and may the Spirit’s pow’r Fill all thy song through each succeeding hour. There were many who doubted her sincerity at first and she had to resist much persuasion, argument, and well-meaning advice, yet she stuck to her decision and, except for those concert engagements already booked in advance, she had sung at her last secular concert. There were some who even ridiculed her, such as one young brash press correspondent who wrote: “When shall we hear that Annie Ryall in the Merry Zingara again?” Another well-known columnist of one of London’s daily newspapers, wrote: We are given to understand that Madame Annie Ryall is about to retire from concerts of a general nature to confine her efforts strictly to what is termed gospel singing. Even those sacred concerts where her voice played such a welcome part will know her no more. It is not often we find a gifted soloist with a promising 19
future before her, resisting the golden charms and remunerative and popular plaudits, and turn her attention to one branch of vocalisation, and that branch the least financially rewarding. Such self-denial ranks high in moral computation, and demands the deepest admiration. (The Woodcutter.) Mother must have been one in a million; few women would have had the courage to make such a decision giving up the concert stage, which was so financially rewarding. Any doubts she may have had of the wisdom of her decision were soon dispelled, however, as requests for her services began to pour in from churches and chapels all over the country from Land’s End to John O’Groats. At first she accepted only engagements in London and the surrounding area. Most of them were for one evening service only, which permitted her to continue the work so close to her heart at the mission on Farthing Alley, and she persistently refused engagements in far-off places that might interfere with her mission work. Such an arrangement did not last long however, because the requests became more and more persistent, not only for one night services but whole weeks of evangelistic campaigns. Father, having quit his job in the City, was able to devote more of his time to the work of the mission. So mother felt that she could no longer refuse to do what the Lord wished, which was to use her beautiful singing voice in a much wider field of Christian service. Financially rewarding as her concert career would undoubtedly have been, she nevertheless lived a life that brought her far more happiness and satisfaction, one which to her was of far greater value than money alone. At the peak of her singing career she travelled ceaselessly, and in one year alone sang in two hundred different churches and chapels at over three hundred services, and, in all, travelled over 6,000 miles by train. One of mother’s favourite quotes was “God works in a mysterious way his wonders to perform”, yet little did she realise that through these singing engagements, and the many people she met, great financial reward would accrue to that little mission on Farthing Alley. Hearing about the mission in the slums started by her father, and the work being done among the poor and the terrible poverty surrounding it, many came up to her after the services and thrust notes into her hand for the work. Some of the most generous stand out in my memory. There was a Miss Harrington, who was the proprietor of a firm that made sweets, including those ever-popular Liquorice Allsorts and Mr. Donald Deeprose, who was an importer of tropical fruits. There were also loyal supporters; Arthur Carr, chairman of the Peek Frean Biscuit Company and Percy Brown, the owner of Davis’ Wharf. There were many others who donated generously to the mission year after year and many left legacies for it. Without this help the mission could never have carried on so successfully. Such funds could never have been raised in Bermondsey alone.
CHAPTER THREE UNDERNEATH THE ARCHES
The Borough of Bermondsey, now part of the Borough of Southwark, stretches for threeand-a-half miles along the south bank of the River Thames. On its western boundary is London Bridge and Borough High Street, and in the east the Surrey Commercial Docks and the Borough of Deptford. Its south boundary is that world-famous thoroughfare, the Old Kent Road, the subject of many stories and songs, including perhaps the best known: Knock’d ‘em in the Old Kent Road. A railway running over eight hundred brick arches cuts a path right through the centre of Bermondsey, dividing it into two sections. We lived in that section three miles long and just a half-mile wide, sandwiched between the river and the arches, and the only way out of it was by crossing London Bridge or Tower Bridge on the one side, or by going under one of the arches on the other. In the year 1908 the Rotherhithe Tunnel was built under the river from the top of Union Road (now part of Jamaica Road) to the Borough of Stepney on the north bank. On the day the tunnel was opened, I was one of the first kids in London to dash through it. The railway was the first steam passenger railway to run in London, commencing operation in 1836, the year before Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. Those eight hundred arches causes one to wonder at the tremendous undertaking the building of them must have been in those days, and the great number of labourers who must have been employed building them. It was first known as the Greenwich Railway and was just four miles long, starting at Spa Road station in Bermondsey and running through the Borough of Deptford to Greenwich. Before my time, however, it had been extended to London Bridge in the one direction, and all the way to the East Coast in the other. The arches were put to many uses; some were used as warehouses, others for repair shops, some for the overnight parking of lorries, and some were kept open with streets running through them which connected the two halves of Bermondsey. There being many railway tracks above, some of the arches near London Bridge station were quite long. Because the streets running under them were cobbled, the lorries made an eerie sound when they went through. One of the favourite pastimes of all Bermondsey boys was yodelling underneath one of the arches, then waiting for the returning echo. After dark, a trip through one of those gloomy-lit arches was scary, to say the least; women seldom, if ever, ventured through them at night-time because they were the hangout for many unsavoury characters – a perfect setting for a murder. Spa Road station was right behind our house and was reached by climbing one hundred steps, from where mother left on many occasions for one of her singing engagements. Just before her train pulled out she would lean over the parapet and throw kisses to her brood looking up at her from the garden. During the years we lived on Priter Road, London Bridge station was one of the busiest in London, and there was a continual rumble of trains over our heads as they travelled on their way to and from the East Coast, and parts in between, to London Bridge station. When we were lying in bed at night we would first hear the distant rumble of an approaching train which would get louder and louder until, with a tremendous roar, it passed directly over our heads; then the noise got fainter and fainter as the train sped on its way. Like people in all big cities who live near railway lines, we became accustomed to the noise, completely ignoring the trains and sleeping like tops. Underneath the arches, at the end of our back garden, there were many small shops - a grocery, an ironmonger, a sweet shop, a barber shop and the one that interested me the most, a pet shop. Every so often Mrs. Brooks, the proprietor, got a new shipment of pets rabbits, puppies, kittens, turtles, and white mice. Except for stray cats and the kittens they produced, pets were hard to come by in our family, and I would stand there for long periods with my nose pressed against the shop window longing for one of those pets, any pet. The day finally came when I had saved up enough pennies, a farthing at a time, to buy 21
a pet of my very own and off I went to the pet shop and bought myself a white mouse. There was only one problem, I had to get it into the house without anyone seeing it. Tucking my mouse carefully into my pocket, I crept into the house by the back door, but to no avail. I must have had a guilty look on my face when I entered because the first thing my big sister, Ethel, asked me was: “What have you got there?” “Oh, just a mouse,” I said, taking it gingerly out of my pocket. “A mouse?” screamed my sister, Ethel, making for the nearest chair. “Mother, mother,” she called, “Percy has a mouse!” “Call the cat, call the cat”, cried mother, much to my horror, and I quickly ran from the house. After some persuasion I was able to keep my pet and my brother Bert made me a cage to keep it in. Inside the cage he had made a wire wheel drum which revolved on an axle. Occasionally my mouse climbed inside it and ran like blazes. The faster he ran, the faster the drum revolved and it was great fun watching him. I hope the mouse had as much fun as I did. Alas, however, after only a few weeks had passed, the life of my mouse came to a sad end. Coming downstairs one morning I was shocked to find the cage door open, my mouse gone, and a very contented-looking cat lying on the hearth!
Boyhood Neighbourhood, Bermondsey, London S.E.
The shopkeepers of Bermondsey were a generous lot, often giving gifts to their young customers. The price of a boy’s haircut those days was only tuppence, yet the barbers were no exception. Among their collection of gifts were colouring books, pocket compasses and a miniature pin-ball game (a round cardboard case with glass top containing two steel balls which we had to wobble into the eye sockets of a clown’s face). They also gave away kaleidoscopes, cardboard tubes with a peephole at one end and small pieces of coloured glass at the other which, when we revolved the tube, formed into all kinds of pretty patterns. But the gift I remember and appreciated most of all was the monkey-up-astick, a wooden monkey who, when I pushed a small ring up the stick, did summersaults: Click, click, I’m a monkey on a stick, And anyone can play, And my antics he’ll enjoy ‘Till he finds a newer toy, Then he’ll bid me a polite good-day. For centuries London Bridge and its predecessors have been the only connecting link between the City of London and the south bank. The first London Bridge recorded was built in the year AD 994 by none other than the monks of Bermondsey. The bridge was a wooden one and by all accounts a most risky one to cross. Rather than risk it, most of the people of that day preferred to be rowed across the river by the lightermen in their barges. 22
In the 12th century a more permanent bridge was built, but it partially collapsed in 1437 and children began singing that well-known ditty: London Bridge is falling down, falling down, my fair lady. Nevertheless, this bridge stood the test for four hundred years. In 1824 a start was made on a stone bridge taking almost ten years to build and was finally officially opened in 1831 by King William IV. Now, after one hundred and forty years, this dear old bridge I knew so well has been replaced with a new one, and those crafty Londoners have sold the old bridge to some Americans who have erected it in a far-off western plain in the United States. On the south bank of the approach to the bridge is London Bridge Station and what fond memories I do have! The fruit stall, flower shop, station restaurant, the chestnut man, and leading through the station wall to Duke Street Hill, those stone steps down which I galloped a thousand times, three steps at a time. They were used almost exclusively by Bermondseyites and the men who worked at the docks and provision warehouses nearby, because they were the only ones who knew they were there. At the bottom of the steps was a coster and his barrow loaded with winkles, whelks, shrimps and mussels. The station was the terminus for all the trains coming from the suburban areas in the east and south-east and disgorged thousands of City workers every weekday morning: office clerks, shop assistants, bank clerks and the like. In one solid mass of humanity, they poured across the bridge to their various destinations, returning every evening for their homeward journey. Should one be riding on the top of a bus crossing the bridge, one saw a sea of bowler hats all flowing in the one direction. Although today few men wear bowlers, in those days they wore them almost without exception, and most of them crossing the bridge had a newspaper stuck under one arm, an umbrella hanging on the other, and carried a briefcase. Some briefcases no doubt carried important papers, but the majority, we think, just carried the noonday lunch. On a rainy day the scene changed from bowlers to a sea of opened umbrellas. The majority of the bowlers one saw had probably been made at Christie’s, the famous London hatters whose place of business was in Bermondsey. Greater London covers an area of over 700 square miles, although the City itself is only one square mile in area and its boundaries have not been changed for centuries. The centre of the City’s square mile is known to all Londoners as ‘The Bank’, and within the City confines are such famous buildings as St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Guildhall, The Mansion House, the Law Courts, and the Bank of England, fondly known as ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’. It is said that over 100,000 people on foot used to cross the bridge every day. Just imagine! If that bridge was human how lonely the dear old bridge must now feel away out there in a western plain, a desert no less, and no busy Thames running beneath it. I was just six years old when father received a letter from the railway informing him they had to tear down several houses on our street, including ours, to improve the entrance to Spa Road station. Our family then numbered ten, mother, father and six children: Bert, Ethel, Florrie, Percy, Lelia and Leslie, plus one aunt and grandmother. So father, unbeknown to the railway company, had already been searching for a larger house, and within a few days of receiving the notice had been successful in finding one. The company had promised father, and all the other people whose homes were needed, that if they moved within sixty days each would be given a cheque for five pounds. Within a couple of weeks we had moved to our new home and a cheque for five pounds duly arrived. But much to father’s chagrin, however, he later found out that although most of the others had stuck it out for the full sixty days, each had received a cheque for ten pounds. The railway company should have known better than to short-change father; he gave them no rest until they sent along the other fiver. The new house father had found for us was on Jamaica Road, actually a continuation of that more famous street of Bermondsey, Tooley Street, which in those days was the main artery of Bermondsey running all the way from London Bridge to the Surrey Commercial Docks. Although Tooley Street, following the riverside from London Bridge to Dockhead, was fairly straight, Jamaica Road itself looked as though it had been laid out by a drunken sailor because it curved this way and that. But a more plausible explanation 23
for its crookedness is that at the time it was built the area was still marshland. It was therefore more economical to avoid the soft spots and route it on dry, solid ground more suitable for a roadway. Narrow streets branched off from it at crazy angles, those on the one side running through the arches and those on the other to the riverside and the docks that lined it. All the streets were practically identical, long rows of little brick houses with iron railings around their ten feet by ten feet front gardens. Such streets were common, not only in Bermondsey, but in all the working-class districts of East London. The monotony of such streets was sometimes relieved by the housewives who attempted gardening with window-sill boxes filled with marigolds, one of the few flowers tough enough to withstand the smoky atmosphere of Bermondsey. It was 1900 when we moved to Jamaica Road, and I can remember it so well, because it was shortly before Queen Victoria died after her long reign of sixty years. Britain was at the peak of her wealth and power, the British navy ruled the waves. It was the firm belief of all British school boys, both those in East London board schools and those in Public Schools like Eton, Rugby, and Harrow, that we Britishers were the salt of the earth. We actually felt sorry for anyone not lucky enough to have been born an Englishman, or Britisher. As far as my memory serves me, neither Queen Victoria nor King Edward VII ever visited Bermondsey. On rare occasions they would send a Princess who, with much dignity, would be shown through a carefully chosen working man’s home, which in anticipation of the visit was decorated by courtesy of the local authorities. Such occasions gave much pleasure to the lucky housewife, who had the honour of curtsying to the princess and showing her through the house. How well I remember one such occasion! The small home chosen for the visit was on a typical Bermondsey street, and was one of sixty or more all joined together in one long solid block. The street had been freshly washed down by the corporation and all the housewives, like all good Bermondsey housewives, had whitened their front doorsteps, a ritual practised almost every day. A clean doorstep meant a clean house inside and a dirty one the opposite. From the upper windows the neighbours on the street had strung lines of Union Jacks, paper ones, because that was all they could afford, and one patriotic neighbour had outdone all the rest with a huge paper banner which said, “Welcome to the Princess”. Long before she arrived, the upper windows of the houses were filled with women and children, and both ends of the street were jam-packed with housewives in clean aprons, babies in their arms, and small children clutching their skirts. There were also many unemployed dockworkers with their customary peaked caps and chokers round their necks and knotted in front, more kids, cats, and dogs galore. Alderman Dumphries, the Mayor, with his mutton-chop whiskers, arrives on the scene wearing his robes of office, three-cornered hat, and chain of office hung round his neck. He was accompanied by the local councillors and other distinguished Bermondseyites all decked out in morning coats, striped trousers, and silk top hats (no doubt rented especially for the occasion). The housewife, whose home the Princess was to visit, all spick and span, and looking less like a Bermondsey housewife one could imagine, stood outside her house awaiting the arrival of the Princess. The policemen too looked much smarter than usual with their uniforms newly pressed, boots highly polished, and in charge was a police sergeant with a handsome beard who was a familiar sight in Bermondsey those days. Suddenly there was a stirring in the crowd at one end of the street as the Princess’s carriage came into sight and the crowd broke out with cheers. Why these people, living under the conditions they did, cheered, I’ll never know, because thinking back today, they, of all people, had little cheer about. The carriage drawn by a team of spanking, chestnutcoloured horses; a coachman and footman dressed in Royal regalia sitting stiffly up front, came down the street at a brisk trot, with the scampering of cats and a mongrel dog chasing the carriage and snapping at the horses’ hooves. When the carriage stopped in front of the house, the footman jumped smartly down, opened the carriage door, at the same time taking a hefty kick at the dog and missed. Out stepped the princess wearing a hat the like of which had never before been seen in Bermondsey. Mayor Dumphries and all the 24
distinguished gentlemen, including my dad, doffed their hats and gave a bow, and after the Mayor had shaken hands with the princess, the housewife gave her wobbly curtsy. Smiling sweetly, the princess followed the housewife into the little home, with many of the gentlemen jockeying to be as close to the princess as possible squeezing in with her. For me, looking back on those days, England was an enigma. Here were the poorest of the poor, yet as patriotic as any people could possibly be. The class system was much more in evidence then than today. Englishmen were divided into three classes – first, second, and third. The middle, or second, class were people fairly well-to-do who lived comfortably in the suburban outskirts of the city. At the two extremes there were the rich and the poor, and the poor outnumbered the rich a thousand to one. The rich, or upper class, although only a small minority of the total population, controlled ninety percent of the country’s wealth, and lived in luxury far beyond the dreams of we ordinary mortals. Their castles and mansions were staffed with numerous servants including butlers, valets, cooks, and housemaids by the dozen, and why not? Servants were plentiful and accepted the fact they were born to be servants as long as they lived, and their wealthy employers never let them forget it. The wages paid them, if anything above bed and board, was a mere pittance compared with today’s wages. Huge sections of London (many of them including the worst slums) and large country estates encompassing whole villages, were owned outright by these wealthy families, the property having been handed down from generation to generation for centuries. But things have changed since my boyhood days in London, heavy taxes and death duties have made it next to impossible for those wealthy owners to hang on to and maintain those large estates, or to pass them on to the next generation of the family. Many have already been taken over by the National Trust and many others will be taken over as the present generation passes on. Some of these magnificent mansions and castles with the beautiful countryside surrounding them, once privately owned, are now open to the general public. One can now see the splendour in which those people lived, and enjoy strolling through some of the most beautiful countryside in England, a privilege that has been denied to ordinary Englishmen for centuries past. We Bermondsey boys knew little about the wide gap separating the rich from the poor, or paid little attention to it. On some rare trips into the country one passed these large estates which were completely surrounded for miles around with walls eight to ten feet high, and topped with broken glass imbedded in cement to discourage marauders, or second class citizens, like myself, from climbing over the wall. From the top of a doubledecker bus one could see the wide expanse of beautiful lawns and pathways leading to the big mansion in the distance. We wondered! Occasionally also, we would see those young gentlemen from the exclusive schools like Eton, Harrow, and Rugby, faultlessly dressed in black coats, wide white collars, striped trousers, and silk top hats, and what a sight they were to behold! We would stare at them with amazement and amusement, and rather shamefully I am afraid, we Bermondsey boys taunted them with some very rude remarks such as, “Does yer muv’ver know yer out?” or “Where did yer git that ‘at?” and the young toffs would look at us with disdain, or more than likely ignore us completely. Little boys of wealthy families were registered at some posh school chosen by their parents shortly after they were born, although it would be ten years or more before they would actually be enrolled as students of the school. Being born to the right family, and of course with money, were the prime requisites. It mattered little how brilliant a boy attending an east-end board school was, the chance of obtaining a higher education was slim indeed. Few boys made the schools like Eton, Rugby or Harrow on scholarships alone. They were the days when those wealthy aristocrats were positive that they had been born to their high station in life by none other than God, and the class system was most flagrant. These wealthy aristocrats knew little of the poverty and suffering of those less fortunate in London’s East End. In Britain laws had been passed years earlier making it illegal to employ child labour and to regulate the hours that older children could work. Yet children were still 25
being forced to work in factories and other jobs from ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. Charles Dickens himself, when a boy, once worked in a shoe-blacking factory. There were no trade schools as there are today. If parents decided their son could learn a trade, the boy was assigned to a carpenter, a plumber, or one of the many other trades where he had to serve a long apprenticeship with very little pay. Unfortunately, few Bermondsey parents could afford to give their growing sons even this opportunity to learn a trade, which would enable them to make a success of their future lives. As soon as a boy quit school at the age of fourteen, he was looked upon as an additional source of income toward the upkeep of the family. He was forced to accept such a menial job as a van-boy, shoe-shine boy, errand-boy, street-sweeper, or even a chimney-sweep, or perhaps working long hours in one of the many Bermondsey factories. Bert, my elder brother, was the first in our family to start working. Quitting school at fourteen, mother took him to a well-known London haberdashers, Hope Brothers on Ludgate Hill, and according to Bert she said to the engager, “We shall not expect anything in the way of a salary at first - my only wish is that he be given a start”. “Madam,” said the engager, “we always pay our employees, and we shall give your boy eight shillings a week to start” – a rather handsome salary in those days. From his weekly salary of eight shillings Bert was allowed to keep two shillings. Out of this he paid a penny every morning and evening to ride to and from the end of the tram line on Tooley Street, just short of London Bridge, and from there he walked the rest of the way to Ludgate Hill. This left him with a shilling from which each noonday he paid a penny for tea to go along with the sandwich mother had given him. This left him with a whole sixpence for pocket money. Bert, at least, did not end up, as so many Bermondsey boys did, by becoming a dockworker like their fathers before them, and rushing from dockgate to dockgate searching for work.
CHAPTER FOUR 126 JAMAICA ROAD It takes a heap o’living in a house t’ make it home, A heap o’ sun and shadder, ‘an ye sometimes have t’ roam Afore ye really ‘preciates the things ye lef’ behind, An’ hunger for ‘em somehow, with ‘em allus on yer mind. Edgar Guest
126 Jamaica Road
Although I had spent many of my happy childhood days at Number 13 Priter Road, life really began for me when we moved to our new home at 126 Jamaica Road. Dear old Aunt Emma had died, but grandma and Aunt Lou were still with us and, since the number of children had increased to seven, another helper had been added whom we called Aunt Lil, although as far as I know there was no relationship. I suppose, at the time I knew her, grandma was probably in her 70s, but with my young imagination I was sure she was at least one hundred. Mother and father were nondenominational, but grandma, as was her 27
father (the sexton of St. John’s Church), had remained a staunch Anglican. St. James’s Church on the corner of Jamaica Road and Thurland Road, being much closer to 126 than the mission, she regularly attended the Sunday morning services there. Every Sunday morning at ten-thirty sharp, she would start out along Jamaica Road dressed in her voluminous black satin skirt sweeping the ground, a bonnet on her head, and carrying a clumsily furled umbrella, heading for St. James’. In fact, Sunday was the only day of the week she left her rocking-chair in the corner of our large combined dining and recreation room. From there, from morning till night, she kept a constant watch on everything we did, which was quite disconcerting, because her eagle eye never missed our slightest movement. One of her frequent habits was dumping the entire contents of her handbag onto the dining-room table to make an inventory: Buttons, hairpins, a lump of sugar, a piece of cheese, a thimble, bits of paper, and a few odd coins were a few of the things she carried. Yet she would protest loudly if one of us boys brought beetles, caterpillars, or other crawling things in from the garden and put them on the table. “Get those insects out of here,” she would say in no uncertain terms, banging her walking cane on the floor for emphasis. One of her biggest troubles was keeping her stockings from constantly slipping down, and being unable to stoop herself, she would call one of us boys to pull them up: “Bert, Percy, Leslie, come and pull up my stocking immediately.” It was a mystery to me why it had to be one of us boys and not the girls, Ethel, Florrie, or Lelia. Dear old 126 – what memories I have of the ten years I spent there! In all, there were fifteen people in the house and, as one can well imagine, life was never dull. We kids were all over the place jumping up and down the stairs and sliding down the banisters, often bumping into some complete stranger in the front hall who had called to see father. Besides us there were many cats, yowling as they got their paws stepped on. Through it all mother practised in the front parlour singing up and down the scale in preparation for that evening’s engagement. Outside on Jamaica Road the noise was even worse than it had been at Priter Road with the trains rushing over our heads. There was a continuous stream of buses, trams, and heavily-laden lorries on the way to and from the Surrey Commercial Docks, Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, Billingsgate fish market, and Smithfield’s meat market. From our front parlour windows we could watch a continuous pantomime - street hawkers selling fish from barrows shouting as they went along, “Alive O, fresh fish, fresh fish, alive O!”, and the muffin man ringing a little brass hand bell as he went along balancing a tray of muffins and crumpets, partly covered with a white cloth, on the top of his head, the milkman pushing his little handcart with a big urn of milk in the centre and individual pewter cans hanging all round the sides of the cart, the rag and bone man sitting hunched on the front seat of his cart loaded with parts of old bedsteads, mattresses and what not, and driving a horse that looked like a walking skeleton, the bobbies, the postmen, and of course the many lorries laden with huge sides of meat, sacks of grain and lumber, and trams and buses. Most exciting of all were the fire engines with bells going clang, clang, clang, passing on their way to the frequent fires at the docks and warehouses on the riverside. Some of the engines were drawn by two galloping horses, while the heavy pumpers were drawn by three galloping horses abreast. How heroic those firemen looked hanging on to the fire-engine for dear life, with their highly polished brass helmets and axes slung at their side! We had a special affection for the firemen, because one of their number had been killed when fighting a dock fire. Father, being a councillor, was well known to the firemen so we were always sure of a friendly wave as they passed the house. As darkness set in the noise and bustle subsided as the lorries disappeared and the street became deserted except for the occasional bus or tramcar, and along came the lamplighter with his long pole lighting each street gas lamp as he went on his way.
Leading up to the front door of 126 there was a flight of eight stone steps, and no flight of steps were ever used more frequently as we children bounced up and down them and numerous visitors came and left. Compared to most of the front doors in our part of Bermondsey, ours was quite an elaborate one. It had a knocker in the shape of a lion’s head with a ring hanging from its mouth, which when banged would wake the dead. But we never used the knocker, because father had fixed a piece of string on the inside of the door, and by putting our small hands through the letterbox we could pull the string and release the latch. Had it not been for this rather ingenious invention of Dad’s, someone would have been running to the front door every minute of the day. After our tiny backyard at Priter Road, the large garden at 126 was quite a treat and was especially appreciated by the younger members of the family, each of whom was given his own garden plot to grow flowers and vegetables. As for my own plot, I specialised in radishes and sunflowers, and the sunflowers were the world’s largest, growing over six feet in height and with flowers a foot in diameter. We always had good crops because, in addition to the plentiful rain, all the vehicles using Jamaica Road, including the trams and buses, were drawn by horses. With a pail and shovel we would go out to the street and, keeping a sharp lookout not to get run over, swept up the dung, put it in the pail, carried it back to the garden, and put it on our garden plot. One thing that grew in the garden and flourished without any special attention on our part was horseradish. It grew like a weed all over the place, keeping us well supplied, and was so plentiful we could have gone into the horseradish business. All round the garden was a high brick wall, and over it climbed a grapevine of unknown age, but because the sun rarely shone, being choked out by the smoke and fog, the grapes never ripened. Mother was constantly reminding us not to eat the grapes, but we sometimes disregarded her warning, much to our terrible discomfort an hour or two later. We either suffered in silence or were condemned to a dose of that awful remedy, castor oil. “Just put a little orange juice in it,” mother would say. Ugh!
In the back garden wall there was a gate which opened into a narrow lane. This was very convenient because we kids thought nothing of inviting another dozen or so other kids of the neighbourhood into the garden, where we put on all kinds of shows and exhibitions, and charged them a farthing, or perhaps just a few buttons to get in. To Bermondsey boys, buttons were a form of currency because of a game we frequently played and which I shall explain later. When working on my garden plot one day I had a most exciting experience. Hearing a strange noise coming from the sky, I looked up and there was the first aeroplane I had ever seen. It was flying so low I could see the face of the man in the cockpit and he was waving as he passed over. Astonished as I was, I waved back. Later I learned it was Louis Bleriot, the Frenchman, who was the first to fly across Bleriot the English Channel, and the following day flew over London; 25 July 1909. How little did we realise then that within sixty years men would be flying to the moon! Our front garden at 126 was elevated about six feet above street level, and was completely enclosed with a spiked iron railing about four feet high. It was a perfect spot from where we could watch the goings-on in the street, and in those days there were many events to see on Jamaica Road. One of the most exciting I remember was in the year 1902, shortly after we had moved there, and I was just eight years old. My brother Bert came rushing into the house with the news that the soldiers returning from the Boer War in South Africa were disembarking from ships at the Surrey Commercial Docks and would soon be marching along Jamaica Road on their way to the barracks in the city. There was a scramble as each of us, clutching a penny, rushed up to Mr. Smith’s, our favourite toyshop, to buy Union Jacks. In the meantime the news had spread rapidly and Jamaica Road was fast becoming crowded with people lining both sides of the street, tightly packing both pavements and I had difficulty worming my way back to the vantage point in our front garden. “ ’Ere, where d’yer fink yer going,” barked an old washerwoman angrily when I accidentally gave her a shove. “The nerve o’some tykes!” Then a policeman grabbed me by the collar and said, “Git back inter line there, Lord Roberts”. “But please,” I pleaded, “I must get back to 126 because I live there”. “A likely story,” said the cop. However, I did finally make it and joined the other members of the family who, having used more sense, had gone through the back garden gate and ran through the house to the front. The excitement was at fever pitch and it was not long before we heard the band approaching in the distance playing a lively tune, then past the house it went, followed by the marching troops wearing pith helmets and all looking very tanned. What a sight! The crowd went wild, cheering and waving flags, and some of the girls broke loose from the crowd to plant a kiss on the cheek of one of the soldiers. We Bustins were just as excited as the rest of the crowd, and did our full share of cheering and flag waving. Our home at 126 had obviously been a posh residence in the past and had been occupied by a wealthy family. After our very cramped and overcrowded quarters at Priter Road, it seemed like a mansion. A huge fancy chandelier of brass with crystal glass 30
ornaments hung in the centre of the front parlour, but since electric light had not yet reached Bermondsey, it had a dozen naked gas jets. On each side of the large fireplace there were bell levers, elaborately decorated with fancy china, which had been used by the former occupants to summon the servants from downstairs. A wire from each lever ran through the parlour floor and was attached to a bell in the kitchen, which was similar to a hand bell but had a steel coil attached to it making it ring vigorously and loudly. The Bustins, of course, had no servants, unless one could call our dear old aunts servants – Aunt Lou, Aunt Emma, and Aunt Lil. We kids had a lot of fun with the bell levers when we first moved in. One would ring and another waiting below for the ring came up to the parlour imitating a butler or maid, and ask, “Did you ring sir?” “Yes James,” we replied, “bring me a pot of tea”, and often the other would do just that. Father put up with our nonsense for a while, but his patience finally gave out and he reluctantly decided to remove the levers. One of those levers I still have today as a keepsake and reminder of those happy childhood days. Except for the chandelier and the bell levers, which came with the house, the rest of the furniture was ours. Our front parlour, like many English parlours, was much too crowded. Directly underneath the chandelier in the parlour was a round settee resembling three upholstered chairs placed back to back and, as one can well imagine, was an awkward piece of furniture to sit on when holding a tête-à-tête or three-way conversation. There was another sofa backed on to one of the walls, but since it was made of some sort of horsehair material – and in those day little boys wore short trousers – we boys avoided sitting on it. If it was one of mother’s ways of keeping us out of the front parlour it worked well, because that horsehair was pretty prickly stuff, not that we were the type of boys who would spend much time sitting in a parlour. Backed to another wall was an old piano with its ivory keys turned yellow with age, but Dad played it beautifully and in fact made a little additional income on the side giving piano lessons to kids of the neighbourhood. At one time he offered to give me piano lessons free, but I could never get beyond F.A.C.E. and whatever that other group of letters were, much as I regret it today. On each side of the music rack of the piano were brass candle holders complete with candles, and on top of the piano stood an array of photographs all in their imitation frames. There were also several large photographs of relatives and ancestors hung on the walls, and a reproduction Our Ancestor of The Gleaners. One of the photographs was of an old gentleman with a bushy beard whom we hated because he always seemed to be watching us. Mother had a terrible shock one day when she entered the parlour and found the old gent had a long-stemmed clay pipe sticking out of his mouth. This permanently ruined our ancestor and, incidentally, it did not do my younger brother Reginald any good either. Other things in the front parlour were a corner whatnot, several upholstered chairs, and mother’s aspidistra. This plant must 31
have been the one Gracie Fields used to sing about, The Greatest Aspidistra in the World. Mother kept it in the front window and every so often wiped the leaves with a milk-soaked cloth. She had an explanation for doing this, but I have forgotten what it was. Because, as I said, electricity was still unknown in Bermondsey, the only illumination homes had came from gas jets, lamps with kerosene oil, or candles, but one day our parlour chandelier underwent a sudden change. When I entered the parlour one night I was surprised to find it much brighter than usual. Looking up at the chandelier I saw a new device, called a mantle, had been fitted over each gas jet, and now instead of the naked flames there were these balls of brilliant white light. When first bought at the ironmongers the mantles, which were about the size of golf balls, were firm and resembled waxed canvas, but once they came into contact with the flame they turned very flimsy and brittle. The new lighting was a great improvement. However, the trouble was that someone was constantly bumping his or her head against the chandelier, shattering the mantles making it necessary to buy new mantles, every day at first. Constantly replacing the mantles became a costly household expense, but the improvement over the old gas jets with their naked flames was too good to go without. So father warned that whoever the person was who bumped his or her head on the chandelier would have to fork up the price of a new mantle, and who was the first? Me – thruppence! Besides being superintendent of the mission, Dad was also a member of the Bermondsey Borough Council, a Justice of the Peace, and mother’s booking agent. Just off the front parlour was a room which, in the past, had no doubt been the dining room, but was now father’s study and office. The furniture consisted of a few chairs, a bookcase, and one of those old-fashioned roll-topped desks which had many pigeonholes with papers sticking out of them, council minutes and agendas, letters, legal documents and what not. How he ever found what he was looking for was beyond me. The basement floor of the house had previously been the servants’ quarters, but now we used it as a combined dining and recreation room. In the centre was a long table necessary to accommodate our big family and frequent visitors. Mother thought nothing of inviting strangers to share a meal with us, although we always referred to them as interlopers. One of her worst weaknesses was to take our last loaf of bread and give it to someone begging at the front door for food to feed their hungry family. When we protested, as we often did quite vigorously, Mother would say: “The Lord will provide” and fortunately for us He did. The combined dining and recreation room had a huge fireplace with a high mantelpiece on which Mother kept some of her most prized possessions far out of reach of her brood. The centre ornament was a piece of white coral in the shape of a bush and covered with a glass dome. Under this, long even before my time, she had placed various mementoes including old coins, rings, a piece of her wedding cake with the icing still on it and a miniature crown of thorns. Mother was quite positive this had come from the identical bush from which came Christ’s crown of thorns. In wintertime, because there was always a roaring fire in the grate, it was necessary to have the chimney cleaned often, although this was sometimes neglected and, much to our excitement, the chimney caught fire. On these occasions Dad was usually able to put out the fire by throwing handfuls of salt up the chimney. It was always a great day for us when the chimney sweep called, and we were always there to greet him and watch him operate. As black as the ace of spades, he carried a bundle of short poles under his arm and a circular wire brush. We would all crowd round him as one by one he attached the poles to each other as he pushed the brush further and further up the chimney. When we crowded too close he would say, “Now ‘op orf yer tykes or you’ll git me blooming brush in yer fice”. When he was just about to add his last pole, we would run outside to watch the brush pop out of the chimney at the top of the house. When he pulled his brush down the chimney again, detaching the poles as he did so, a huge quantity of soot would come down with it. But he had prepared for this by hanging a sheet in front of the fireplace and he always left things as clean and tidy as when he came. 32
Chimney sweeps had lots of work to do in the wintertime, but little in the summer when fireplaces were not in use. So to earn a shilling or two to tide them over the winter months they resorted to all kinds of stunts, or picked up any job they could find. One of the favourite stunts of the Bermondsey sweeps for raising money was a performance every May Day, or first day of May, and it was quite a show. Walking along Jamaica Road I saw what looked like a big bush hopping from one side of the street to the other and bobbing up and down, and alongside were three sweeps dancing. This being the first time I had seen a jack-in-the-green, it scared the life out of me. Inside the toupee-like dome made with a frame of light canes completely covered with green leaves, was one of the chimney sweeps who held the frame over him with two handles on the inside. He had peepholes through which he could see, but his whole body was hidden except for his feet. As they went dancing along, the sweeps held out their caps collecting pennies, halfpennies and farthings. One would think they would have done much better financially had they put on their show in some wealthier neighbourhood, but such shenanigans would never have been permitted on any street in the West End. Our dining room at 126 had a big casement window facing into the back garden. But the front garden being six feet above street level, our front window faced into a cement gully sunk into the garden, and all we saw occasionally go by was a bowler hat on the head of some six-footer, or a policemanâ€™s helmet. Sometimes some nosy urchin would climb up on the garden wall and peer down at us when we were all seated around the table eating our dinner. Just off the dining room was a scullery with a flagstone floor and a huge copper boiler built in one corner of it. The real purpose of the boiler was for boiling the clothes on washday, but at Christmastime it served a double purpose when my aunts used it to boil several Christmas puddings, all individually wrapped in cloth bags. There was also a clothes closet of particular interest to we children, because every once in a while we would go there and find a batch of new-born kittens. My sisters, Ethel, Flo and Lelia, were just crazy about kittens. Every time a new batch was discovered in the clothes cupboard they took the prettiest kitten and hid it in some other part of the house, fondling and feeding it milk until it was big enough to take care of itself. Then, as likely as not, it would join the rest of the family unnoticed. The reason they hid the kitten was because our handyman, Hal Spencer, in addition to his other duties, had the job of drowning each batch of kittens as they arrived. Hal did this by putting them into a cloth bag, tying it at the neck, weighting it with a stone, and dropping it into a pail of water. Much as we loved Hal, we all hated him on these occasions. Halâ€™s fame for doing away with unwanted animals spread far and wide and he was often called upon by neighbours to perform this gruesome deed for them. One lady asked him if he would end the life of her collie dog which had the mange, and since the lady offered Hal the handsome reward of two shillings he could hardly refuse her request and promptly undertook to do the job. Getting wind of what was about to take place, I quickly rounded up my brothers and sisters, and all the neighbourhood kids I could find. By the time Hal showed up in the garden with the dog, he had quite a large audience, although I donâ€™t think he was too happy to see us. He had decided to drown the collie in a big barrel he had borrowed from a nearby factory and which he filled to the brim with water. When Hal came into the garden with the dog we all stood back at a respectful distance as he struggled to get the pooch into the barrel, but the pooch had other ideas and put up a terrific struggle. Finally, with one big heave, Hal got the dog in the barrel, quickly putting a lid on top and climbing on top of it. Much to his surprise, and to our excitement, the dog, with terrific strength, pushed up the cover and sent Hal flying. The boys cheered and the girls cried as Hal scrambled up off the ground and made off after the dog. He never did catch the pooch and that was the last we ever saw of it in the neighbourhood. Where our handyman Hal originally came from I have no idea, unless perhaps he was one of those many homeless boys who had at one time been befriended by grandfather and later helped by our parents. I am quite sure he was not paid very much. He was allowed to use a corner of the back garden where he chopped wood into little sticks about a 33
foot long and one inch thick, which he tied in neat bundles and sold to the people of the neighbourhood for kindling. Mother objected to his one bad habit - chewing tobacco. He was nevertheless a loveable friend to all us children, and a more faithful servant would have been hard to find. If there was anything we wanted fixed, Hal would fix it. If one of us was missing, Hal was the one who would find us. If we needed an extra chap for a cricket game, Hal was right there and if there was anything of excitement, like a parade in the city, Hal would take us to see it. He took me to the funeral of Queen Victoria and hoisted me up on his shoulders so that I could get a better view. What a sight that was for a little boy of seven – the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers in scarlet uniforms, shining helmets, and many on horseback.
I watched Queen Victoria’s Funeral
The Bustin clan was well known to the shopkeepers of Jamaica Road because we were continually popping in and out on errands. There was Sargeant’s, the bakers, on the corner of Major Road, where almost every day one of us was sent to buy a dozen stale buns; stale ones because they were cheaper. The bake shop always interested me, because instead of the long sticky fly papers commonly seen in most Bermondsey food shops, Sargeant’s had an ingenious contraption - a fine wire cage inverted over a pan of sugarsweetened water to attract the flies. The flies took a drink then, instead of flying away again, and for some reason known only the flies, they flew up into the cage and were trapped. Every time I went into the shop, the cage was crowded with flies, from small ones to the great big bluebottles. Bermondsey, of course, had no such thing as home refrigeration. We didn’t even have an ice-box, which made it necessary to make frequent 34
trips to Rickward’s Dairy on the opposite corner of Major Road, and since milk did not keep long, especially in the summertime, we just bought a gill or quarter-pint at a time. The baker called each day and left six or seven loaves of bread for the family, plus the loaves that mother gave away. We used pounds and pounds of butter, which we bought at the corner grocery shop on Stork’s Road where Mr. Jones, using two wooden paddles dipped in water, scooped the butter out of a large wooden keg and patted it into near onepound blocks. I did not mind running most shopping errands though there was one I did not relish, which was when I was sent to buy vinegar. The old vinegar man did business underneath one of the arches at the end of Sun Passage, a narrow alley running off Jamaica Road to the railway. It was so dark under the arch I had difficulty seeing his shadowy figure sitting there beside his vinegar barrel. It was a scary place! Handing him my jug, and for fear he would grab me, I would back away as near to the exit as possible. Then when he handed me back the jug I dropped the tuppence in his hand and ran for dear life back out to Jamaica Road spilling vinegar on the way. There were two favourite shops of mine – a restaurant popular with lorry drivers who often stopped there to eat, and where they sold hot slices of the best plum-duff this side of heaven for just a penny. The other was Mr. Smith’s toy shop where Mr. Smith sold just about everything a boy’s heart could desire; sporting goods, toys, games, and a magazine called The Magnet, a popular boys’ magazine of the day. The Magnet carried a serial story about Greyfriars, an English boys’ boarding school with a hero named Frank Nugent and a fat boy by the name of Billy Bunter who, whenever he was not eating, was always getting into trouble. As with most serial stories, the story was always cut at a most thrilling paragraph, which kept all The Magnet’s faithful readers on a hot griddle until the next week’s issue came out. Every Tuesday without fail, and long before the magazine arrived at the shop, I was waiting outside with a penny in my hand. For some strange reason, for the life of me I could never figure out why, father did not approve of my reading The Magnet. Perhaps without taking the time to find out, he suspected it was another of those “penny dreadfuls” or “blood and thunder” magazines so very popular those days. I was sitting curled up in the corner of a bus crossing the Tower Bridge one day when I thought I heard familiar voices as the passengers got on at one of the stops, and sure enough there were Mother and Father. I quickly stuck The Magnet I was reading up my vest but not before mother had seen it although, getting on last, father had not. Since even on the roughest of days London boys never rode inside a bus but always on top, Dad asked curiously, “Why are you riding inside?” and for the want of a better answer I replied, “Not feeling too well”. Mother and father were strict about many things, some made sense while others made no sense at all. Their strict taboo on drinking and smoking made sense, and since they were Superintendents of the Mission, the restriction on games and sports on Sundays. But their strict rule never to use a bus, tram, or any other form of transportation on Sundays, because it caused men to work on the sabbath, sounds rather extreme today. As for going to the theatre or cinema on a Sunday, or any other day for that matter, I suppose this was considered downright sinful to their way of thinking. Had they known, their little boy was a sinner too. Whenever father had to attend a council meeting at the Town Hall on Spa Road, I followed him and when he got to the Town Hall I continued on my way until I came to the New Kent Road where a new cinema, The Trocadero, had just recently opened. Not only did I enjoy the movies, but also felt like a perfect sinner sitting there in a luxuriously upholstered seat which was so much more comfortable than sitting on one of those hard benches at the Mission. I was quite dismayed one night though, when on my way home from the cinema a little later than usual I saw a familiar figure walking ahead of me with the quick, long strides so distinctly the trait of one man in Bermondsey – father. It was very important that I reached home before him, because none of his boys were allowed out that late at night. So ducking down a side street I ran as fast as my legs would carry me, jumped into bed half-dressed, and a few minutes later heard father coming in the front 35
door. Would my aunts give me away, I wondered? Fortunately they did not – I was quite sure that Aunt Lou often sneaked off to the cinema herself. As each of the children reached the age of about ten years we were assigned to weekly Saturday household duties. Bert polished the knives, forks and spoons, Ethel washed down the stairs, Florrie swept the carpets, Lelia did the dusting, and poor me had to wash windows, which would have not been so bad had they not been casement windows with those tiny panes of glass about three inches square. There was a reward; thrupence for the older ones, a penny for the younger. It would be remiss of me should I close this chapter without again mentioning and paying tribute to our dear older sister Ethel. One of her weekly regular duties was washing down the stairs, and how patient she was when we, dashing up or down the stairs, almost trod on her fingers! Like the sisters of large families the world over she, being the eldest, was like a second mother to all of us. Particularly was this so in our family with mother away most of the time. Usually gentle by nature, she could, when trouble arose between ourselves and other children of the neighbourhood, lay the law down effectively. One of my fondest recollections of my sister Ethel is of the day she took four of us – Lelia 9, Leslie 7, Cyril 5, and me to see the animals in the zoo at Regent’s Park. At the time I was at the mischievous age of eleven and was teasing a monkey in one of the cages when he suddenly put his arms through the bars and grabbed me by the wrist, and with all his strength tried to draw me closer to his cage. I yelled blue murder. Hearing my cries, Ethel rushed over with her furled umbrella and with it cracked the monkey across the arms, scolding him until he let go. Never in my life have I teased a monkey since. Elder sisters the world over have my profound understanding, admiration, and sympathy.
CHAPTER FIVE OUR TWO FAMILY DOCTORS With mother and father’s combined incomes we were by no means poor by Bermondsey’s standards. This was fortunate because, in addition to feeding and clothing such a large family, there were frequent medical bills to be met as one or another of us required the service of one of our two doctors. It is not quite clear to me why we had two doctors, unless it was because each specialised in different branches of the medical profession. One was Dr. Sterling and the other Dr. Salter, and in mannerisms and personal appearance they were poles apart. It was Dr. Sterling who brought all we Bustin children into the world and for such important occasions mother would have no other. He was a perfect example of the doctors of the Victorian era. Stout and with a big paunch, he reminded me of the pictures I saw of John Bull in Punch. He was always immaculately dressed in frock-coat, striped trousers, silk topper, chamois gloves, spats, and carried a walking cane. On most occasions when he was making his house calls he travelled on foot drawing the attention of all passers-by wherever he went, but on occasions, should there be an emergency, he would arrive at the house in a horse-drawn carriage. Dr. Sterling would have looked absolutely ridiculous riding a bicycle as Dr. Salter invariably did and, unlike the very busy Dr. Salter who never made a house call unless it was absolutely necessary, Dr. Sterling made frequent calls at our house. Every time he called mother took full advantage of the visit, lining up her brood to take turns before that awe-inspiring gentleman. Since I myself was bothered with eye and ear troubles, I was always one of the first of her brood to be pushed reluctantly by mother in front of Dr. Sterling as soon as he was comfortably seated. Taking a wooden spatula out of his little black bag, he would stick it into my mouth almost choking me to death, and intone: “Say ah”, then, after a short pause, he would say to mother: “Got to have his tonsils out”, but he never did get around to taking them out, and sixty years later I still have my tonsils. Living in that atmosphere of polluted air, combined with the dampness, many children and adults suffered with tuberculosis and other lung diseases, and since medical science had not yet discovered today’s method of treating tuberculosis, and antibiotics were unheard of, the death rate was appalling. Besides myself, others had frequent illnesses, though usually less serious ones - a cough, earache, or sprain perhaps, and those who had no illness at all would make one up when they got to the doctor’s knee. Fortunately Dr. Sterling was a very patient and understanding gentleman and he was lucky if he got out of the house within the hour. As I have said, I was the victim of many childhood illnesses, but the one which gave me the most trouble was a continuous inflammation of eyelids, making it necessary for me to make trips to the Royal Eye Hospital at St. George’s Circus. For the benefit of my readers who are not Londoners, I should perhaps explain that St. George’s Circus is not a circus of the entertainment kind, but a busy traffic intersection in south-east London. It can best be described as the hub of a wheel with many spokes where the traffic, converging from six different directions, goes round and round the hub until it come to the spoke at which it wishes to turn off and continue on its journey. On my frequent trips to the Royal Eye Hospital I would always depend on my boyhood method of transportation, hopping on the back of any bus or lorry travelling in the general direction of the circus. When the vehicle on which I was riding passed the hospital I would hop off, duck through the maze of traffic and dash into the hospital. Arriving there at nine in the morning, I would sit on a hard bench for what seemed hours waiting my turn to see a doctor. There were some occasions when I would sit there until noon and beyond, and I am inclined to believe that those doctors went out for lunch forgetting me completely. What a dreadful place that Royal Eye Hospital was in my young mind. How relieved I was when finally, clutching my bottle of boracic acid solution, I made my way out of the hospital grounds through a big revolving iron gate imbedded in an equally high 37
and ugly brick wall completely surrounding the grounds. No prisoner, I feel certain, could ever have felt more relieved when leaving a prison than I did when leaving that hospital. I hopped on the back of the first lorry I saw heading in the general direction of 126 Jamaica Road. Coming back to our two family doctors, anyone who lived in Bermondsey in the early part of the century, when I myself lived there, will remember seeing a tall, thin-as-arake gentleman peddling a bike with very high handlebars over the cobbled streets and will, of course, immediately recall to mind Doctor Alfred Salter. Dr. Salter was the most dedicated, sympathetic and most community-minded doctor who ever lived in Bermondsey, or for that matter anywhere else. His home was on Stork’s Road, just round the corner from our home at 126. Every day, several times a day, I would see him peddling his bike past the house on his way to a call or to his surgery at the corner of Jamaica Road and Cherry Garden Street. It always puzzled me when I saw him sitting ramrod-straight, with pince-nez spectacles balanced precariously on his hawk-like nose, how he kept his balance and yet looked so distinguished. Always in a hurry, he rode swiftly along nodding to the left and right as he passed people he recognised, and many of those people worshipped him for very good reason. Dr. Salter was not a native-born Bermondseyite, having been born at Greenwich to parents who were devout Plymouth Brethren. During the days of his hospital internship he lived with them. Nevertheless he knew Bermondsey well since he travelled daily by train on top of the arches on his way to and from Greenwich to Guy’s Hospital. What he saw of Bermondsey on these travels, as we shall see, had a great influence on his future life. What he saw was a conglomeration of tiny brick houses packed closely together with their smoking chimney-pots and tiny backyards, narrow streets crowded with playing children, corner pubs, always with their quota of unemployed loafers outside, and in the distance the wharves and tall cranes lining the riverside. Dr. Salter was first induced to come to Bermondsey by Dr. Scott Lidgett, a Wesleyan minister. He was one of the most respected men of Bermondsey, and warden of the Bermondsey Settlement, which he himself had founded in 1891, where young men of little means were given the opportunity to achieve high learning. As soon as Salter graduated from Guy’s Hospital, where he had served his internship, Scott Lidgett invited him to come to Bermondsey and make his home at the Settlement on Farncombe Street and set up a medical practice. Dr. Salter had not been in Bermondsey long before he and father became close friends. He, like father, was a Liberal, or as they were known locally, a Progressive, and both were strong supporters of David Lloyd George, later to become Prime Minister. He was also a fighter for temperance, which further sealed their bond of friendship. That both cursed the liquor business was understandable because father, with his work at the Mission, and the doctor in his medical practice, came into daily contact with unbelievable living conditions. Babies were born in wretched, filthy rooms almost devoid of furniture except for a bed, or just a mattress, with no toilet facilities and not even a penny to put in the gas meter or fuel to put in the open grate for heat. In many of the instances both knew only too well that these same conditions, in very many cases, were the direct result of liquor and the over-indulgence on the part of the father of the family. Is it any wonder that they both looked upon all those who manufactured or sold liquor as angels of the devil himself! There is no doubt that Dr. Salter could have set up a medical practice in far more pretentious surroundings in some other part of London, and could have reaped the financial reward that would undoubtedly have been his. Yet he made the decision to devote his life to serving the poor of Bermondsey. Because of his religious training, and the shocking conditions he found, his life became an inner turmoil. He also suffered a shattering blow when his only daughter, Joyce, eight years old, and who attended the Keeton’s Road school with we Bustin kids, fell victim to scarlet fever, which was raging throughout Bermondsey at the time, and died. One can imagine the horrible thought that likely went through his mind; that he himself had been the carrier of the dreaded disease that caused her death. So depressed did he become that for a while he lost faith and became an agnostic, although in 38
later years he again returned to the faith of his parents. All through his trying period father and he remained close friends. Unlike Dr. Sterling, Dr. Salter seldom made house calls and he did so only when it was a matter of life and death. Mother frequently took one or the other of her brood to his surgery at the corner of Cherry Garden Street, and would always arrive to find the waiting room crowded with patients waiting their turn. When it came to our turn mother would explain our trouble and then, lying back in his swivel chair, the doctor would close his eyes for a few seconds, then write out a prescription and hustle us out as another patient entered. The doctor, at one time a member of the Liberal party, had turned Socialist not only in name. He practised it in his profession. He saw hundreds of patients every day. For those who could afford it, his fee was one shilling; for others with little means, he dropped his fee to sixpence, and for those poor unfortunates who had nothing at all, he made no charge. Having been raised in the home of Plymouth Brethren, he was a man of strong convictions and had no qualms about sticking up for his convictions. When the government of the day brought in a bill to subsidise Anglican and Roman Catholic private schools from the general tax rates, he rebelled, refused to pay the rates, and rather than submerge his conscience, went to prison. Bermondsey without Dr. Salter was unthinkable, and because of extreme public pressure he was released after having served only three days. The doctor was also opposed to violence in any form, whether between individuals or nations, and he remained a pacifist throughout his life. When he quit the Liberals to join the Labour Party, the doctor became a strong supporter of Ramsey McDonald who, when the Labour Party disapproved of Britain’s entry into the First World War, resigned the leadership. After the war was over McDonald became Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister in 1924, and Dr. Salter was chosen to try for Parliament as the Labour representative for Bermondsey. Whatever one might think of his political connections, one cannot but admire the doctor’s courage in sticking to his convictions at any cost, and particularly his dedication to the welfare of the poor of Bermondsey. If ever a public servant deserved to be honoured and remembered by the people of Bermondsey, to have a statue erected to his memory, or a building or street named after him, that man without question is Doctor Alfred Salter. Dr. Salter’s wife, Ada was a tall, very thin lady somewhat like the doctor himself and was just as keenly interested in the affairs of Bermondsey and the welfare of its people. It was she who, in 1922, followed my father as the first lady mayor, and the first Socialist or Labour mayor. Ada Salter was at least honoured by having a garden in Southwark Park named after her.
CHAPTER SIX PROLOGUE In April 1865, Corderoy, the Sexton of St. John’s Church, Horsleydown,7 stood at the churchyard gate, bidding goodnight to his daughter. He stood for a moment as he watched her figure vanish in the twilight, then he locked the gate and turned toward home. Looking cautiously to right and left, he fingered the weapon in his hip-pocket and felt safer for it, for this was the era of Burke and Hard, and body-snatching. She was on her way to the celebration of the second anniversary of the London Street Mission. He thought of his young daughter who had just left him, knowing that although her way led through hideous slums around the muddy inlets of the Thames and the area of Jacob’s Island, she would be kept safe for she had firm faith in Jesus as her saviour and protector. Great-grandfather’s daughter, Emma Corderoy, our grandmother, had been drawn some years earlier to an open-air service on a corner of Jamaica Road, and more particularly to the handsome raven-haired young Hercules who was delivering the message and with whom she later fell in love and married in 1863, grandfather Walter Ryall. As she walked to the mission anniversary, she carried in her arms their first-born child Hannah, then just six months old, and for her she had only one desire and it was that someday she too would participate actively in future anniversaries of the mission. Little did she then know that the fame of the babe she carried in her arms would reach far beyond the London Street Mission, and far beyond Bermondsey, as a gospel soloist singing in hundreds of churches throughout the land.8 MOTHER MADAME ANNIE RYALL Since Mother’s fame as a concert artist had spread far and wide, and her name appeared on all programmes as Annie Ryall - The girl with the Golden Voice, when she and Father were married she decided to keep the name and adopted the professional name Madame Annie Ryall. Father raised no objection. It nevertheless annoyed him when occasionally some person unable to recall his own name introduced him to others as Madame Annie Ryall’s husband. Shortly after her marriage mother donated her services at a benefit concert held for the relief of distress among the poor of London’s East End where she had the good fortune to attract the attention of a Miss Marion Williams, an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music. Impressed by Mother’s voice, yet realising voice training was needed, Miss Williams offered to give her lessons at a very nominal fee. Still later she introduced her to Signor Feri of the Guildhall School of Music who gave her further voice training. What a very proud Cockney young lady she must have been on the very first day she entered the Guildhall School, and no doubt a nervous one! Every afternoon she practised strenuously in the front parlour singing up and down the scale – do, ra, me, fa, so, la, te, do – for hours and hours on end and we children, galloping all over the house, imitated her. Not only did her singing voice change, but her speaking voice changed also. As far as we children were concerned, she spoke an entirely different language. Few would ever have suspected that mother was a born and bred Cockney. She never slurred her words as we were wont to do, nor did she drop her “aitches” as all Cockneys invariably do, and she would never, never dream of using those slang words which were so commonly used by native Bermondseyites.
St. John’s Church stood at the lower-end of Horsleydown. It was beside and below the southern approach to the Tower Bridge. The author notes that it was a ruin with only three walls standing when he last saw it in 1947. The headquarters of the London City Mission now stands on the site. 8 This is all pure imagination since James Corderoy died in 1847.
On reflection one is reminded of Eliza, the Cockney flower girl in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady in which Eliza is taught to drop her Cockney accent and talk like a Grand Dame of the West End. One cannot, of course, imagine mother, even in her younger days, being as brash as Eliza. Her strict upbringing and her contact with people outside of Bermondsey could easily have led one to believe that she was from one of the more affluent sections of the great metropolis. One afternoon when we were all sitting round the dining-room table having tea, a little urchin of about eight years old appeared suddenly on top of the back garden wall calling for one or the other of us to come out and play. “Who d’yer wont?” yelled one of my brothers. “Shush” said mother, “you must be more polite”. Putting her head out the window she asked, “For whom are you calling?” The kid either fell off, or slid off the wall, and disappeared. After a few moments silence we all broke out with gales of laughter. "Whom!!!" It was a word that had never been part of our vocabulary, but from that day on we worked it to death. Whenever one of us mentioned a name, one of the others would pipe up with “Who-o-om?” Our grammar constantly shocked mother and she did her best to correct it, but we fear without much success. I was about eight years old when one of the most tragic experiences of mother’s life happened. It was the year 1902 when the East End was struck with a smallpox epidemic and hundreds of people died, including mother’s sister, our Aunt Selina. Her death greatly affected mother. “Why,” she asked herself in disbelief, “why has the Lord taken my own sister?” The tragedy also affected the whole family, because never in memory had we known mother to be anything but a happy, cheerful person. Her faith, however, was shaken only temporarily, because one verse of a solo she had sung so often to other people flashed through her mind: Not now, but in the coming years, it may be in that better land, We’ll know the meaning of our tears, and there, someday, we’ll understand. On the day of Aunt Selina’s funeral, it being the custom in those days, mother had left instructions with my older sister that the venetian blinds were to be lowered and tightly closed when the funeral cortege passed the house on its way along Jamaica Road to the cemetery. Nevertheless, as it passed we children could not resist peeking through the slats of the blinds to see the glass hearse; the horses with black high feather plumes fastened on top of their heads, and the drivers with top hats from which hung yards of black crepe. Funerals in those days were very mournful occasions. When a person died the body was kept laid out in the coffin in the front parlour for seven days before the funeral. When a friendly old gentleman who lived next door to us died, he too was laid out in our front parlour and every day, un-noticed, we kids would sneak into that front parlour to take a peek at the corpse. After about the fourth day one of my younger brothers wanted to know when our old friend was going to wake up. Once Aunt Selina's funeral was over mother was soon her old self again, saying that the Lord had just taken her a little sooner than the rest of us. For all her singing engagements mother wore what resembled a deaconess’s uniform with white cuffs about five inches wide. Although mother herself was the least to be aware of it, her uniform was as good as a pass everywhere she went. Whenever she appeared at a railway station or any place where there was a crowd, as if by magic a path would open up for her as the people stood aside to let her pass. Many of course, especially in London, knew her by sight, while others no doubt mistook her for the superintendent of nurses at one of the big London hospitals. 42
It has always been the custom in England that instead of telling the conductor one wanted to get off at such and such a street – a street the conductor would unlikely know anyway – the passenger says, “Give me a ticket to The Red Lion, The Bricklayer’s Arms, The Cock and Feathers, The King’s Head, or The Black Horse”. This the conductor would understand if any one of the pubs happened to be on his particular route. It is a custom reminiscent of the old coaching days when the coaches always stopped at inns or taverns to change or water the horses or, if the journey was a long one, to put up his passengers for the night. In London, for those who patronised pubs, what could be more convenient than being dropped off outside one’s own ‘Local’ for a pint of ‘arf and ‘arf before proceeding on home for supper! I was with mother on one occasion when I was about twelve years old. We emerged from London Bridge Station down the steps that led to Duke Street Hill. Walking to the bottom of the hill mother stopped suddenly and said, “I think we’ll catch a bus here.” “Catch a bus here?” I said with some surprise knowing my buses and it being at the bottom of a hill. “The driver will never stop at such a place, mother", but this did not daunt her. The regular bus stop was only a short distance But Mother! He’ll never stop. away outside a pub, but mother would never have been found dead or alive anywhere near a pub if she could help it. It was not long before a bus came pell-mell down the hill with the horses at full gallop, and mother stuck out her arm. “There,” I said, “he’ll never stop”, but to my great surprise I saw the driver stamp his foot on the brake pulling the horses’ reins with all his might. Those poor horses, I was thinking. “Whoa, whoa,” the driver called to the horses as the poor beasts did their best to hold back the heavily-laden bus, and they finally came to a stop. “Good morning nurse,” the driver called down from his perch high above the horses, “’opes I ain’t kept yer waiting long”. There was hardly a soul in Bermondsey who did not know mother, which was one of the reasons I never enjoyed being with her on the streets. Every few minutes she would be stopped by a passer-by, from the poorest and lowliest to the most distinguished of its residents. While mother talked and talked, I stood impatiently first on one foot, then the other, waiting for the conversation to come to an end. On one day when we were walking 43
past the Town Hall on Spa Road, a woman came rushing up to her excitedly with the news that a little girl had been knocked down and injured by a lorry while playing on the street. Without a moment’s hesitation mother went to the house where the girl lived only to learn that the child had not just been injured, but had already died. A large crowd had gathered outside the house and I joined them while mother went inside to console the parents of the child. Coming out of the house at last, she announced the sad news to the assembled crowd, many with tears in their eyes. Then she did what came so naturally to her – she stood on the front step of the little house and sang, “Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe on his gentle breast”. With tears in their eyes the crowd dispersed; mother re-entered the home to further console the little girl’s mother and I made my way home alone. Few women, even if they possessed the desire to do so, could have emulated mother who, beside being at the mission almost every day, visited the sick and consoled the bereaved, took part in charity efforts, and at the same time raised a family of nine. Often she would stay at the mission until the very last moment before dashing home to change into her deaconess’s uniform. then going off to fulfil an evening’s singing engagement. One of the first engagements mother accepted was to sing at one of London’s largest and most popular churches of the day, Spurgeon’s Tabernacle located on Newington Causeway near the Elephant & Castle, the invitation coming from the widelyknown nonconformist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Shortly after this engagement mother was baptised by Spurgeon, who whispered in her ear, “Stand firm and grow”, and it was an experience that further sealed her determination to sing nothing but the gospel. Subsequently she became closely associated with Charles Spurgeon until his death, and later with his son Thomas who filled the pulpit of the Tabernacle after the death of his beloved father. One might say that next to that little mission on Farthing Alley in Bermondsey, the Metropolitan Tabernacle was her first love. The Tabernacle, built for Charles Spurgeon by his many faithful followers in the year 1861, with its lofty Corinthian columns, was a familiar landmark. Unfortunately, like so many other beautiful and famous churches in London it was gutted by the German bombers during the blitz of London during the Second World War. The Tabernacle was a huge building eighty feet in width and one hundred and seventy feet in length, and could seat over five thousand. At every New Year Watch-night Service it was packed to the doors. When I was about fifteen, I was allowed to go to one of those Watchnight services with mother and carry her bag containing two heavy song-books, one for herself and one for the accompanist. Why mother herself needed a hymn-book is beyond comprehension, because singing those same hymns year in and year out, night after night, she must have known every hymn by heart. But like Billy Graham with his Bible, mother would have felt lost without a hymn-book in her hand. From our house on Jamaica Road to the Tabernacle was just a twenty minute tram ride, but as usual I might just as well have been alone, because mother, immediately recognised by the passengers, was drawn into a conversation with one of them. Getting off the tram at the Elephant & Castle, we saw crowds already streaming up the wide steps between the tall columns through the main entrance of the Tabernacle. Mother, dressed as usual in her deaconess’s uniform, was quickly spotted by an usher, who led her away to the vestry, leaving me alone to find a seat in the vast auditorium. Not only did I feel lost but very lonely among all those strange people. It was so different to our little mission, which seated less than two hundred. However, my loneliness was soon dispelled when, with Mr. Thomas Spurgeon, mother appeared on the platform. Watching her sitting there calm and confident before that great crowd gave me a feeling of pride and my uncomfortable feeling disappeared. The service had been in progress for about three-quarters of an hour when looking up at the clock in the auditorium I saw that the big hand was at five minutes to twelve. Mr. Spurgeon had just finished delivering his annual New Year’s message and mother, with hymn book in hand, stepped up beside the pulpit. The lights of the auditorium slowly 44
dimmed and mother stood under a soft spotlight seeming to be the only person in the huge church. It had come time for her to sing one of her lovely hymns and I still remember the one she chose: Where will you spend eternity? With perfect timing, just as the big hand of the clock reached twelve, she sang her last note. One could have heard a pin drop as with bowed heads the congregation silently prayed and we entered into the New Year. During one’s lifetime there are moments that occur and live in the memory forever, and for me this was one of those occasions. Mother would have gladly forgone another annual engagement; to sing at the Epsom Race Course on Derby Day. Yet she always went, believing it to be God’s will and that she had a duty to go. Derby Day drew huge crowds, the King and Queen and other members of the Royal family and many pearl-grey-hatted aristocrats with their ladies. It also drew all the touts, beggars and riff-raff for miles around and confidence men came even from the Continent to take advantage of the gullible suckers in the crowd. There were the Buskers too, a four man band often seen on the streets in the centre of London playing popular songs of the day, but they never missed Derby Day at Epsom, the collection being more lucrative. They had their professional beggar, a man with a wooden peg-leg and weather-beaten face who hobbled up to people holding out his bucket for contributions. Whenever one dropped a coin in his bucket he would reward them with a wide and toothy smile. It was a great day for the Pearlies who also came from all parts of London’s East End dressed in their fancy pearl-buttoned costumes and never without their donkey and barrow, a Pearly leading the donkey and the Pearly Queen riding in the barrow. There were tipsters dressed in all types of costumes taking bets on the next race. Stalls selling everything from beer to fish and chips were all over the place and were interspersed occasionally with small caravans where, for sixpence, one could have his or her fortune told by an olive-skinned Gipsy girl with rings of gold two inches in diameter hanging from her earlobes. Bobbing up and down over the heads of the crowd could be seen a placard on a long pole, and carried by some religious crusade warning, “The end of the world is at hand”. As one might well imagine, a group of evangelists among such a crowd and at such an event was in itself enough to draw a curious audience. What courage mother must have had to stand in the midst of that rough, rowdy crowd, and singing the gospel! Yet year after year, no matter what the weather, off she would go to Epsom every Derby Day. Here again mother had to use good timing and sang her hymn when the bettors were quietly absorbed in their Racing Forms picking a horse for the next race. Her strong voice floated across the track and, who knows, maybe reached the ears of the King and Queen themselves! Although mother enjoyed singing at Spurgeon’s Tabernacle and other large churches, she nevertheless loved to sing at some smaller ones also, including Rye Lane Chapel at Peckham and the Rotherhithe Great Hall on Lower Road not far from home. She had a great fondness for Rev. Tommy Richardson, the popular pastor of the latter. Never a Christmas passed without a turkey arriving at the front door of 126 from Rev. Tommy, and it was he who baptised all of mother’s brood. On occasions mother accepted engagements to sing at churches and chapels which could afford to pay little for her services, if anything at all. But for her regular engagements she was paid 10/6d and often 20/-, and some occasions I remember her being paid the sum of five pounds for a single service, a lot of money in those days and more than father made in a week. This was fortunate for their large family of growing children. When I was ten years old, and my brother Frank was born, mother caught a chill and her condition became so alarming that her regular doctor, Dr. Sterling, advised father to call in a specialist who, when he called, diagnosed her illness as pleurisy. Her temperature rose alarmingly and yet another specialist, a Dr. Fagg of Guy’s Hospital, was called who, extracting forty-eight ounces of fluid from mother’s lungs, brought her much relief, but shortly thereafter her temperature dropped rapidly below normal and mother was at death’s door. The news quickly spread throughout Bermondsey that mother had died; flowers were delivered at the front door and enquiries began to pour in, including one from Rev. Thomas Spurgeon: 45
Dear Mr. Bustin, I have so many conflicting reports about your dear wife that I would be grateful to have authoritative tidings of her. In his life-story of mother, father wrote: The Lord had recalled the dark angel when at the point of striking. She fortunately survived this low point in her illness and eventually recovered. Then came a long period of convalescence and through the generosity of many of her influential and wealthy friends mother was moved from the smoke and dampness of Bermondsey to the seaside resort of Bournemouth where, after an extended stay, she fully recovered. How fortunate it was for father and all the rest of us! Whilst mother’s usual fee for singing at a service was 10/6d, people in some of the congregations came up to her at the end of the services and pressed ten shilling and one pound notes into her hand. Others would send sizeable cheques to her by post after having heard her sing. I can remember mother, when bills from the grocer or butcher, or when the rent came due, get down on her knees and pray, and lo and behold the very next morning a cheque would arrive by post. Many who heard her sing sent other gifts. A friend in Ireland sent pounds and pounds of butter, the best butter in the world and another friend every summer sent a big round basket similar to the ones used by the porters at Covent Garden, filled with strawberries. They are the biggest strawberries I have ever seen in my life, almost as big as hen’s eggs. When those strawberries arrived at London Bridge station mother had no difficulty in getting volunteers to go to the station and pick them up, but we were warned not to pilfer on the way home. But how could two small boys resist such a temptation? With a pocket knife one of us would slit a hole through the canvas cover and help ourselves to a sample or two. One of our most pleasant surprises was the day mother returned from a singing engagement at Manchester and had been loaded down with toys for her brood, including a big rocking-horse, making it necessary for her to hire a four-wheeler to bring her home from London Bridge station. Lelia, my youngest sister, who happened to be looking out the front window, was the first to spot the four-wheeler coming down Priter Road with the toys, including a rocking horse, piled on top. Squealing loudly she called the rest of us and excitedly we all made a rush to the front door to see the toys which, as quickly as the driver handed down, we grabbed and carried into the house. The smaller children carried in the lighter toys and my brother Bert and I carried in the rocking horse, which was complete with harness and a saddle. It was quite evident the horse had seen better days, yet for us it was the most popular of all the toys, especially with the boys of the family. I was the first to mount him, but had taken only a half-dozen rocks when the rest of them came in promptly demanding it was their turn, yelling, “That’s enough, that’s enough, my turn, my turn”, yanking me unceremoniously off the horse. Eventually mother had to intervene insisting that we all line up and take turns, ten rocks apiece, and anyone who took more was yanked off by the others. Mother loved us all even though there seemed to be no limit to the trouble she had with her mischievous offspring. On one occasion she had received a five pound note by post and put it in her purse for safety. Next day her purse could not be found anywhere and it was not until a week later that someone happened to look out of one of the upper bedroom windows and saw mother’s purse resting on the canopy over the front doorway. One of us had dropped it out of the window, but the one wasn’t telling! On another occasion there was the mystery of the missing tooth. Mother had lovely teeth and they were all her own except for one front one which she could take out and in at will. One day she was all ready to leave on one of her singing engagements and when looking for her tooth was unable to find it anywhere. Finally our baby brother, with a red face, piped up and said he had buried the tooth in the back garden under the tree. 46
“Buried it in the garden! Under the tree!” exclaimed mother with frustration, at the same time grabbing Frankie by the coat collar and leading him into the garden. “Now,” she said sternly, “just where under the tree?” “I dunno,” cried Frankie in tears, “all round”. In her desperation mother called the rest of us into the garden to help her dig and sift the earth. We dug and dug and sifted and sifted for half-an-hour before at last, there was her missing tooth. By this time poor mother was over half-an-hour late leaving for her engagement. Occupied as she was with her singing engagements and work at the mission, mother had very little time to go on shopping sprees, leaving the family shopping to my aunts and elder sisters. She did, however, have a warm spot in her heart for a place called Peckham, a borough on the other side of the Old Kent Road from Bermondsey. She was often the guest soloist at the Rye Lane Chapel there and loved to shop at Rye Lane on occasions. Not only were the shops there bigger than those in Bermondsey, but they also carried a wider assortment of merchandise. She was partial to a department store name Jones & Higgins where the whole staff, from the manager down to the lowliest clerk, knew her by sight. She often went on her shopping sprees alone, although on one occasion she took me along with her to Rye Lane and Jones & Higgins to help carry home the things she bought. It always amused me when entering the shop to see a gentleman, wearing a frock coat, striped trousers and with a carnation in his button-hole, give my mother a low bow just as though she were the Queen herself. Shopping with her was not just a matter of rushing into the shop, buying something and rushing out again, but was more like a visit lasting an hour or more. As she went from one department to another she never passed one clerk without stopping to hold a conversation and seemed to do more talking than shopping. The girls would tell her their troubles and in return mother gave them encouragement and advice. Often I would tug at her skirt and tell her others were waiting to be served, but it had little effect. Even the manager did not seem to mind, perhaps because her conversations were good for morale. I think it appropriate to end this chapter about mother with a poem sent her by one of her admirers: O gift of song! The gift which God hath giv’n To tell of love divine, to point the way To realms of everlasting day; To cry to sinners or to speak to saints To cheer the sorrowful, the soul that faints; To call to service or to claim the pow’r Of victory in Satan’s darkest hour. To lead to Christ, revealed in his word, Wherein by faith, His voice may still be heard; To do God’s will, this is the work divine Which God hath giv’n to this great gift of thine. Sing on dear friend, and may the Spirit’s pow’r Fill all thy song, through each succeeding hour. Grace Hall
At Jones and Higgins
CHAPTER SEVEN FATHER - HIS WORSHIP THE MAYOR OF BERMONDSEY Grandma called him William, His sister called him Will; Mother called him Willie, And others just plain Bill.
When I was a boy in England one could not quit school before reaching the age of fourteen, but there was no such law when father was a boy â€“ he quit when he was twelve. Nevertheless, through self-education, assisted by our Aunt Emma, a former schoolteacher, he overcame this handicap and, as we shall see, lived a very successful and useful life. The first job he got was with the Morning Post, which was later combined with the Daily Chronicle. In those days, long before the present telecommunication system, which makes the gathering of news so easy and rapid, the newspapers had to rely on much slower ways. His first assignment was rushing copy from the Houses of Parliament to the newspaper office on Fleet Street. When on these assignments he had to depend on his own two legs to get from place to place, but when there was hot news he was given a shilling to hire the nearest carriage and bring the copy post-haste. To father, on his meagre salary those days, a shilling was a shilling. So instead of hiring a carriage, he did what most London boys did, he hopped on the back of any fast-moving vehicle that happened to be passing and going in the direction of the newspaper office and kept the shilling for himself. This mode of travel was not without its risks. He was twice run over and on one occasion ended up with a broken leg. Although he started working on the newspaper as a messenger boy, it was not long before the education given him by our great-aunt Emma paid off, and he finally became a compositor like his father before him, quite an achievement for one who had quit school so young. Here again he was fortunate because even in his day newspaper compositors were already highly unionised and one had to be the son of a union member to become a compositor on a newspaper. When it came to spotting mis-spelt words or typographical errors, Dad was as good as the best of them, as I learned when he corrected my letters to him. Unlike mother, he was not one to talk much about his younger days, although I do know that he was born on East Street in Walworth. One story he did like to tell was of his older brother, who fancied himself to be quite a Shakespearean actor. For tuppence a night he made Dad listen as he recited Shakespeare for hours on end until father finally fell asleep, to be rudely awakened with a slap on the ear. Father was a stern disciplinarian in the Victorian tradition and managed his children with severity compared with todayâ€™s easy-going standards. The explanation may have been that we lived in a rather tough neighbourhood and he was concerned about where we went and with whom we associated. In spite of his stern nature we all looked up to him and greatly admired him. His one great failing, as far as I was concerned, was that he spent far too much time looking after the welfare of others and too little time with his own children. Except for Christmastime and our holidays at the seaside in summer, we saw little of mother or father. There was one exciting occasion I do remember and that was when Dad took all his boys for a night out to see the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and what a thrill it was! As we entered the Olympia arena, there, close to us, were real live "redskins" all decked out in feather head-dress, with deep-tanned faces, high cheek bones and hawk-like noses and wearing moccasins instead of boots. Because, when watching these early movies at the Trocadero, I had been led to believe that the redskins sometimes scalped people alive, I could hardly believe my eyes when father walked up and spoke to them. Since nothing happened to father and the redskins seemed friendly, my brothers and I edged a little closer to take a better look, but when Dad suggested we shake hands with them we quickly shied away. It was difficult for us to understand that the pictures we saw 49
at the movies were all make-believe. Much less did I know that in later years one of my warmest friends in Toronto would be of Native American descent and a well-respected member of the community. The Olympia was a very huge place, but we finally found our seats and got settled down to watch the show. There, right before our eyes, was the breath-taking scenery of distant hills looking just like the real thing, and all during the show we could see the headfeathers of the redskins bobbing up and down behind the hills as they stalked the American cowboys. The excitement was terrific and we boys held on tightly to our seats. Finally, Buffalo Bill, wearing a big Stetson hat and riding a magnificent chestnut-coloured horse, appeared from nowhere. Galloping around the arena he gave an exhibition of sharpshooting from various positions in the saddle, even standing on his head on the horse’s back. What a night that was! But alas, such nights with father were far too rare except, of course, those many meetings at the Mission. For a boy of ten or twelve such events were far from entertaining and some in fact were monotonous to say the least. Dad had been involved in municipal affairs for as long as I can remember and although he was also absorbed in the work at the Mission he was a practical Christian. He realised that by combining the work of the two, he was able to accomplish much more for the poor people of Bermondsey than he could possibly have done through the Mission alone. His popularity was unquestioned because year after year he was re-elected to the Bermondsey Borough Council at the head of the poll in his ward. Dockhead, the ward he represented, was the location of the Most Holy Catholic Church and the majority of the residents of the area were of the Roman Catholic faith, while Dad, as everyone well knew, was a staunch Protestant. The only possible explanation for his popularity was that he never allowed his religious beliefs to interfere with his conduct of municipal affairs. Father’s job at the newspaper office on Fleet Street often kept him late in the City, making it necessary for him on council meeting nights to go directly from work to the Town Hall. On these occasions it was one of my duties to meet him in a narrow street known as Arnold’s Place where, hopping off a tram, he took a short cut through to Spa Road and the Town Hall. Aunt Lou gave me a pair of huge celluloid cuffs to take to Arnold’s Place and await Dad’s arrival. Handing the cuffs to him, he somehow attached them over the cuffs of his everyday working shirt, then on to the council he would go at a brisk trot and I would return home. These cuffs were actually the most important item of father’s attire, because every time he rose to address the council he had a habit of waving his arms in the air when addressing council and the cuffs showed up to great advantage. On one occasion when I had grown older and met him as usual with the celluloid cuffs, he allowed me to accompany him to the Town Hall meeting and sit in the spectators’ gallery, which was crowded with local ratepayers. Father was a Liberal, and a militant one, who was far ahead of his days in matters of social reform. He was constantly battling for better housing, better schools, health and sanitary services, and the abolishment of want and suffering, but unfortunately he did not live to see the day when the reforms he fought for became a reality.9 On the Bermondsey Borough Council in those days the Conservatives, or as they were then known, the Moderates, far outnumbered the Liberals, and because of this, father, along with the other two or three Liberals, had to sit on the opposite side of the council chamber with the Labourites. Compared to those Moderates with their bald heads, mutton-chop whiskers, moustaches or both, father looked quite young. The Labourites too, were on the whole young men and were strong supporters of father in his battle for the underdog. Naturally, I was quite proud to see father sitting there looking just as important as the rest of them and I noticed that, unlike many of the Moderates, he never fell asleep or even closed his eyes. When it came his turn to speak he shot to his feet and immediately everyone in the chamber seemed to wake up and pay attention. Being accustomed to speaking at open-air meetings, where it was necessary to make his voice heard above the roar of the traffic passing along Jamaica Road, he spoke much louder than most members. As he progressed it was plain even to me that the Moderates did not like what he was saying one little bit. 9
This is arguable, since he lived until 1957.
“Give ‘em ‘ell, Bill”, yelled a tough-looking bloke in the spectators’ gallery and was immediately thrown out. “Sit down, sit down”, the Moderates yelled across the floor at Dad. The mayor, sitting in his high chair wearing his robe of office and three-cornered hat on the table before him, was banging his gavel furiously, but father refused to sit down until he had finished what he had to say. I had visions of father being torn to bits by those red-face, fuming Moderates who were waving their fists back at him and he, with his celluloid cuffs plainly visible, kept waving back at them. I was scared stiff. Father was never one to back water for anyone; not only did those Tories know it, but everyone in Bermondsey knew it also. Although in those days he seemed to be fighting almost alone, today most of the welfare measures he so ardently fought for are now taken for granted. The slums he fought so earnestly to wipe out are now almost gone. No longer does one see ragged, barefoot children wandering the streets of Bermondsey, the elderly are being much better cared for and no longer are there people starving to death for the want of food. As for those Bermondsey slums, it took the German Luftwaffe to finally wipe them off the face of the earth, tragic though it was, for in doing so many innocent souls lost their lives. Of all the people on earth those poor but kindly people I once knew were the last who should have suffered so. Every municipal election was an exciting event, especially for us boys of the family. Three weeks before the election father set up his election headquarters in one of the local houses and every member of the family, from the oldest to the youngest, including me, was pressed into service in some form or other. The four walls of the election headquarters were covered with small white cards each bearing the name and address of a voter in the ward. On election day, by some method unknown to me, Dad immediately knew when such and such a person had voted and in many cases for whom he had voted. As the day wore on, down would come the cards one by one until towards evening very few cards remained, but those voters whose cards were still on the wall were called on by one of his numerous workers right up to the time the polls closed. For my brothers, and for me especially, the highlight of the long day came after the polls had been closed and the final results were known. Dad always hired a charabanc, which we decorated with the Liberal dark-blue colours and we all rode home along Jamaica Road to the house with the colours flying in the breeze. The people on the street would stop and wave; the butcher, ironmonger, draper, greengrocer and all the rest would rush out of their shops and wave also. The Moderates had dominated the borough council before and during the First World War, but father always ran under the Liberal banner. Immediately after the war the men returned home from the front to find that nothing had changed, so the Moderates were kicked out and the Labour Party won the majority of the council seats. After serving on the council for many years, father himself was also defeated, although only by one vote. But if he had any notion that his services were at an end, he was much mistaken because there came the greatest honour ever bestowed upon him, and the one of which I am sure he was most proud. The Labour Party, being inexperienced in the administration of municipal government themselves, and not wishing to be deprived of father’s valuable experience, appointed him to the mayor’s chair of the first Labour council (1919). Since father preferred the Labourites to the Tories, he accepted the post. Never before had a majority party in office chosen a man to be mayor except from among their own members. It was a most wonderful demonstration of their confidence in him and recognition of his past services fighting for justice for the working-class. For centuries past, and as they still do, the mayors of English municipalities have worn the traditional robe of office, and Bermondsey was no exception. Nevertheless, being the practical man that he was, Dad flatly refused to wear the robe or three-cornered hat that had been handed down from mayor to mayor, year in and year out, since the first mayor of Bermondsey, Col. Samuel Bevington wore them in 1900. Prince Philip, in conversation with the mayor of a town he was visiting recently, eyeing the robe, asked: 51
“What is it? It looks like a dressing-gown”. The mayor, whose robe had been worn by previous mayors since the time of Queen Victoria, replied, “Yes sir, it is not too good, but the council are going to see about getting me a new one”. “Not a bad idea”, replied the Prince. Although all previous Bermondsey mayors had served for only one year, father was appointed for three consecutive years and they were, without doubt, the most difficult years in the history of Bermondsey. So difficult in fact that had a less experienced and less beloved man been in the mayor’s chair at that time, there would have been complete chaos. None knew this to be more true than the Labour members of council themselves. For years the people of Bermondsey had accepted their station in life uncomplainingly: poverty, lack of employment, and often starvation. But when the men returned from the war to find conditions unchanged, or even worse than before they went to war, and they found no jobs awaiting them, their anger knew no bounds. The unemployed veterans of Bermondsey, along with the veterans of the other East End London boroughs, planned mass protest marches to converge on No. 10 Downing Street, the home of David Lloyd George, the then Prime Minister. Father, already being acquainted with Lloyd George, joined the mayors of the other boroughs in an attempt to ward off the threatened marches. He contacted the Prime Minister and requested that he allow them all to call on him, but this did not appease the veterans who still insisted and refused to drop the idea of marching to Downing Street en masse. Taking the only course left open to them, the mayors gave in, yet they insisted on marching at the head of the ranks of the veterans from their respective boroughs. When mother heard that father had an appointment to see Lloyd George, she thought he should at least press his suit and wear a silk top hat, but Dad was appalled at her idea. Press his suit? Yes. Wear a silk topper? Never! Although silk toppers were a common sight on the streets of the City those days, they were never, never seen in Bermondsey and Dad was the last man on earth who would break with that tradition – he wore a bowler hat. Off Dad went to the spot where the Bermondsey marchers were assembling expecting to see hundreds, but much to his surprise they were there by the thousands; every able-bodied man in Bermondsey seemed to be there. Taking up his position at the head of the ranks, they started off in strict regimental order, flanked on both sides with lines of London Bobbies. It took them the best part of an hour to reach Downing Street or, as it turned out, a little short of their destination. Arriving at Whitehall, that street lined with government offices from which Downing Street runs, they were met by cordons of police both mounted and on foot whose superiors had laid down the law; this far and no further. This so enraged the hotheads in the parade that father had to mount a nearby flight of steps and plead with the men to keep calm, giving them the assurance that immediately after the interview with the Prime Minister he would return to the same spot and report to them. Dad was permitted to pass through the police line and proceeded along Whitehall to the entrance of Downing Street where the mayors of the other boroughs were assembling, including perhaps the best remembered of all, George Lansbury, the Mayor of Poplar. Then with newsmen and cameramen crowding around them, they made their
way down Downing Street to No. 10. Their meeting with Lloyd George had been in session for only about half-anhour when the police brought news that the marchers were getting out of hand and in some areas had actually broken through the police lines. The meeting with the Prime Minister ended abruptly and quickly, and grabbing their hats and coats, all the mayors dispersed making their way to Whitehall in an attempt to round up the men of their respective boroughs and assist the police in restoring order. By this time, however, it was much too late as all the individual groups had integrated into one seething mass of humanity completely out of control. It was a terrifying situation. There was fighting and bloodshed, and many of the marchers were being arrested by the police. Perhaps, in their desperate Father at 10 Downing Street frame of mind, with no prospect of a job and starving families at home, there may have been justification for the mêlée, but father felt that he had been betrayed by the men from Bermondsey and was sick at heart. David Lloyd George had not only a brilliant mind, but also an uncanny knack of remembering faces and recalling names, although he met people by the thousands. Dad, being a Liberal like Lloyd George, was one of his greatest admirers and attended many Liberal functions after that fateful day, where he occasionally met Lloyd George who was quick to recognise him and never failed to address him by name, much to father's pleasure. Although father could not count those Moderates of the Bermondsey borough council among his friends, he did nevertheless have many, including the borough’s most influential citizens and some wealthy ones too. Among those was Hubert Carr-Gomm, Member of Parliament for Rotherhithe. He was the son and heir of Field Marshall Sir William Maynard Gomm, at one time the Governor of the Tower of London, from whom he inherited the title Lord of the Manor of Rotherhithe and extensive land holdings in the parish. Not being a resident of the parish, he was completely out of touch with the people, so at every parliamentary election, knowing of father’s great influence, he sought his help during election campaigns. Father never did anything by halves. One of his favourite stunts and one, by the way, of which mother strongly disapproved, was wiring election posters to the railings all round the front of the house where, being at eye level, they could be easily seen and read by the people walking along Jamaica Road. The posters were of the billboard type seen outside smoking shops and news vendors where newspapers were sold. They were approximately two by three feet in size. “How much nicer it would be” mother used to say, “if they were Bible pictures and texts instead of those awful cartoons and election slogans”. Though quite young at the time I can still remember them and, as mother said, they were awful. The pictures were mostly caricatures of the political figures of that day and 53
some were very uncomplimentary to the gentlemen they portrayed. Many, if not most Bermondsey people, were illiterate those days so Dad believed strongly in that old adage that one picture is worth a thousand words. Quite often the captions under the cartoons were much too mild to suit father and he often replaced them with captions out of his own head. Then along would come some artistic Bermondseyite and change them overnight to the advantage of the Tory candidate. On one occasion one of the pictures on a poster was of a donkey, but instead of a donkey’s head it had the head of the Tory candidate. Then one morning, when Dad was checking the posters, he found not the Tory’s head on the donkey but his own. There were times when his brilliant efforts greatly alarmed mother. She had visions of him being arrested, and implored with him to reconsider, change them, or take them down altogether. Quite frequently, although reluctantly, father would relent and remove the offending posters. In those days women were considered to be much too unintelligent to vote, the franchise was denied them, and father told mother she should not be reading the posters anyway. A few years later, a lady by the name of Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, along with her militant suffragettes, changed all this. Along with her supporters, who were all women, Mrs. Pankhurst chained herself to the high railings surrounding the Houses of Parliament demanding votes for women. They were imprisoned, went on a hunger strike, were forcibly fed by the prison authorities, and in other ways degraded, but their strong determination finally won the day and women were granted the franchise, the right to vote. Although he was the Member of Parliament for the Parish of Rotherhithe, a section of Bermondsey, Hubert Carr-Gomm was no more a Bermondseyite than the King of England. It is true he was an extensive landowner in the parish, but he never lived anywhere near the place, but lived in the West End. A man less representative of the labourers, dockworkers, fishmongers, and leather workers of Bermondsey would be difficult to imagine. He was tall and slim with his hair neatly trimmed and parted, shoes highly polished, and impeccably dressed in the finest clothes. When he called at the house to see father during the election campaigns, I would stand there looking at him spellbound, yet at no time did he ever show me the slightest attention. It is still a mystery to me how wealthy men like Carr-Gomm, who never did a stroke of work in their lives, and never knew what it was like to go hungry, were able to get elected in the labouring class districts of London’s East End. Yet, without exception, at the turn of the century all of those poor boroughs were represented in parliament by wealthy men. Another of father’s wealthy and influential friends was Colonel Samuel Bevington, Bermondsey’s most important tanner of leather and who, in 1900, was the first Mayor of Bermondsey. A statue in bronze of Bevington still stands on Tooley Street close to St. Olave’s Grammar School and the Tower Bridge Road. Colonel Bevington was a fat jolly man who was quite unassuming, and it was always a delight when, on special occasions such as an anniversary, he came to the Mission. He was a great philanthropist and gave generously not only to the Mission, but to many other worthy causes. During the First World War he raised his own regiment, the Queen’s Royal West Surrey regiment, and equipped it at his own expense. Another good friend and generous giver to the Mission was Mr. Arthur Carr, the gentleman who succeeded Mr. Peek as the head of the Peek Frean Biscuit Company. It was mainly through his generosity that mother and father were at last relieved of the worry of meeting the monthly rent bill for the Mission and were able to put up a permanent building. This was the corner of Jamaica Road and Abbey Street, a building which was there to spread the gospel and serve Bermondsey. My brother Cyril and his wife became the superintendents and then worked for the London City Mission when the Bermondsey Gospel Mission came under its patronage.10 All of father’s friends were not wealthy, far from it. Some contributed much more in time and talents on behalf of the people of Bermondsey than money alone could ever 10
Cyril Bustin was superintendent of the Bermondsey Gospel Mission from the time that William Bustin moved from London during the war years until 1962. It was given to the London City Mission in 1968 and the work ceased.
have done, and they were friends he was proud to know. One of these was Dr. Alfred Salter, whom I have mentioned previously in my story who, although he leaned a little more to the left in his political beliefs than father did, was nonetheless greatly admired by him. Another friend was Dr. Scott Lidgett, a man of the cloth, a scholarly gentleman whose whole life was devoted to the Bermondsey Settlement, which he founded in 1891 and of which he was the Warden. Like Dr. Salter, Scott Lidgett was a familiar figure on Jamaica Road dressed in his clerical garb. He was an upright and distinguished-looking man who had a string of degrees after his name: C.H., M.A., D.D., and others. He was at one time Chancellor of London University (1930), joint editor of the Contemporary Review, and first president of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. The Bermondsey Settlement was located on Farncombe Street, running off Jamaica Road close to our home at 126. Its purpose was to give lectures and evening tuition to young men of Bermondsey who were unable to afford a university education. There were classes in English grammar, French, mathematics, theology, vocal and instrumental music, and other subjects, all at a nominal charge. Says an old copy of the Official Bermondsey Guide: The waterside district is, and always has been, one of the poorest in Bermondsey, and the Bermondsey Settlement workers do much to brighten the lives and to alleviate the suffering of its denizens. “What was Dr. Scott Lidgett doing in Bermondsey?” one might well ask. The answer is simple – he was a man of God and a Christian in the true sense of the word. Like Dr. Salter who practised the creed in which he believed in his medical practice, Scott Lidgett practised practical Christianity. He could, of course, have served in a much more pretentious neighbourhood than in Bermondsey, yet he chose to serve that riverside community working amongst the poor. His magnificent contribution to the life of Bermondsey and its value would be most difficult to estimate, but there must be thousands of former Bermondsey boys who have become successful as businessmen and who owe their success to that great man. We cannot, of course, overlook another good friend of grandfather’s, Mr. Percy Brown. He was a co-owner of the wharf where grandfather had been employed and who, from the very first day the Mission was opened, not only gave generously in money, but took a personal interest in the work long after grandfather’s death. Although undoubtedly a wealthy man, he was nevertheless a good and true friend of the whole family. During father’s three year term as the Mayor of Bermondsey, many necessary and long overdue improvements in the borough were inaugurated. Especially was this true in the field of hygiene and health services; sanitation generally was modernised, open sewers were no longer allowed, and a start was made on clearing the slum districts, albeit at first only the worst areas. Making his valedictory address at the end of his three year term, he said: I express admiration for the great and good work with which I have come into contact while in office, much of which I was previously ignorant but which is being carried out so successfully by men and women of every rank and creed. I thank God for all the pure and beautiful things being done in our borough and thank those who carry out these responsibilities. It has been a great privilege and pleasure to serve and I thank all those who made it easier than it otherwise might have been, and in these I include my Chaplain, Reverend F. Gillingham. On the occasion of their Golden Wedding anniversary, mother and father received many tributes, including one from Scott Lidgett: For over forty-five years I have known of the great work which you have given through your Mission in Bermondsey. I cannot begin adequately to express my appreciation for your unselfish devotion and unceasing services to the poor, and to public causes in Bermondsey, and pray that the work will continue to receive all possible blessings from God. 55
And a message from Hubert Carr-Gomm M.P: It has always been a wonder to me how my friend William Bustin has been able to accomplish so much. In addition to your great life work at the Mission, you have given outstanding service on the borough council. In all our parliamentary elections in Rotherhithe you played a leading part, and throughout inspired us all with your idealism, love of your fellow man, and unselfish devotion to duty.
CHAPTER EIGHT OUR AUNT LOU
Aunt Lou and the Cat
Aunt Lou was fatherâ€™s sister and in many ways they resembled each other, yet in other ways they were poles apart. Never in my life, for instance, can I ever remember father quoting a line of Shakespeare, or humming a tune from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta he was much too absorbed with his work at the mission. Being a Justice of the Peace and with his work on the municipal council, he never seemed to have time for the lighter side of life. On the other hand, Aunt Lou would quote a line from Shakespeare at the drop-of-ahat, and we children loved her. It was not only for her lively disposition we loved her, but I must admit we also loved her because she was the head cook at our house, and a good one, which alone made her our favourite aunt. Especially was this true when, as she often did, pulled a trayful of her hot muffins, tarts, or jam turnovers from the oven and would let us help ourselves right there and then. Quite often when working over a hot stove cooking dinner, she would enlighten us with one of her Shakespearean quotes: 57
“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”, or when we got in her way she would say, “Hence thing! Or I shall shake thy bones out of thy garments”. To me, Aunt Lou looked like most Bermondsey aunts – a roly-poly bundle of clothes, and oftimes a forgetful one. For instance, one day we all smelled a dreadful odour coming from the kitchen and on investigating found that while her back was turned, one of the cats had crawled into the open oven. Aunt Lou, unaware the cat was in the oven closed the door. That was the end of the pussy cat and, for the next twenty-four hours at least, we were not too sure she was still our favourite aunt. Auntie Louie had one habit of which mother disapproved but about which she could do nothing. She liked to have a daily pint of mild and bitter in her room at the end of the day. There is no doubt mother disapproved of her bringing beer into the house, but she never said so in our presence. Every evening at about seven o’clock she would slip out the front door with a jug hidden under her shawl. She would make her way up to the Cherry
The beer jug crashed to the steps
Garden pub and, returning stealthily, open the front door, peep in to see if the way was clear, then slip up to her room. On one such an occasion there was a terrible accident. Just as she was about to enter the front door with her jug of beer I dashed out, hitting her broadside. Down went the jug of beer crashing on the stone steps and it flowed in a frothy trickle down the steps to the pavement. Mother and father would have been shocked had they seen it, but as quickly as I could I ran to the scullery, got a broom and pail of water and washed down the steps. Poor old Aunt Lou had to get another jug, and another tuppence, and retrace her steps up to the Cherry Garden. 58
Aunt Lou was no chicken, but I never did take the trouble to find out if she was a widow or spinster, although there was a very nice gentleman who called to see her regularly. We called him Uncle Bush, an appropriate name we thought because he had a very bushy beard. Passing her door on our way up to bed each night we would stop to say goodnight to her and Uncle Bush, and got a strong whiff of ale. Besides being the head cook in the Bustin household, Aunt Lou also had a permanent job as assistant superintendent of the Bermondsey Public Baths and Washhouses. She was quite capable of the job and ruled those Bermondsey washer-women with an iron hand. Bathrooms were entirely foreign to most Bermondsey homes those days and ours too had no bathroom. When we needed a bath we used the customary method of placing a big tin bathtub in the scullery and put a sign on the door that said, “Keep Out”. As I grew older I found this method of taking a bath very embarrassing, particularly because members of the family thought nothing of ignoring the sign and going through the scullery to the garden when I was taking my bath. With Aunt Lou's co-operation, and without Dad’s knowledge, I was able to get a real bath at least once a week, even though it was in the women’s section of the bath-house. Aunt Lou and I had worked out a set of signals. Hiding behind a nearby corner I waited until she gave me the signal that the coast was clear. Then, making a dash for the door, I slipped into one of the cubicles where she already had the water drawn in the bath at perfect temperature and a clean bath towel hanging on the rack, and would have my bath in perfect peace. Difficult as it was to slip in, it was often twice as difficult to sneak out, such as when on one occasion we got our signals crossed and dashing from the bath cubicle I ran slam-bang into a half-dressed woman who screamed blue murder! Those old baths and wash-houses are gone now, having been replaced with a new building at the corner of Spa Road and Grange Road. In 1927, long after I had left London, this surprising headline appeared in the Daily Mirror: Bermondsey builds a hundred and fifty thousand pound palace of baths. Part of the article reads: Even in the nineteen-twenties, ninety-nine out of every hundred people living in Bermondsey have no bath. The old Bermondsey vestry had built public baths and wash-houses in Spa Road, but the council recognised that because the home conditions were so poor, people should have the most attractive and adequate facilities for practising cleanliness for good health. The baths are the most up-todate in London and probably in England – a credit to any borough in the country. I had many whims and one of these was not to squander money, or in other words I was a tightwad. In addition to the free bath – though Aunt Lou likely paid for it – I also stole a free ride to and from the bath-house. The trams were still being drawn by horses and although those running along Jamaica Road were double-deckers and drawn by two horses, there was also another tram fondly known to Bermondseyites as the ‘a’penny bumper and which was drawn by only one horse. Starting at St. James’s church at Jamaica Road it passed the wash-houses on its way to the Bricklayers’ Arms, an intersection with a pub of that name and from which the intersection got its name. The bumper was a very small tram without a top deck and carried about sixteen passengers. On the first part of its journey, as far as the wash-house, it was used almost exclusively by washerwomen carrying huge bundles of washing, making their way to the wash-houses, and never was there a jollier bunch of women than they were. Since I hated walking and seldom had a halfpenny for the fare or, if I did have a halfpenny in the pocket, begrudged spending it for the ride. I always rode to the bath-house on the back bumper of the tram. There was no conductor to watch out for because the driver himself was both driver and conductor and he was busy up front once the tram started off on the journey. The tram frequently ran off the track and went bumping along the cobbled street, hence its name the ‘a’penny bumper. Quite often it would jump the track unaided. At other times – depending on how mischievous we boys were feeling – we climbed on the back of the tram, rocked it up and down and off the track it would go, which must have been very annoying to the driver. 59
The washerwomen, however, took it all in good fun, would pile out of the tram to make it lighter and help the poor driver and his horse get the tram back on the track, and when doing so they presented quite a sight. To avoid getting their skirts wet at the wash-house, they wore their skirts quite short displaying fat legs encased in the wildest-looking stockings woven in circles of red, blue, pink and yellow. Having got the tram back on the track they would all get aboard again and go on to the wash-house. Before returning home after doing their washing, many of them would go across the street to the King’s Arms pub for a pint of ’arf and ‘arf and to spread the latest gossip. Although by 1908 most of London’s horse trams had disappeared to be replaced with electric ones, the ‘a’penny bumper continued on its merry way for a year or two longer and must have been one of the last, if not the last, horse tram in London. Then it too became only a memory like the cobbled streets, the gas lamps, the four-wheeler and the hansom cabs.
Aunt Lou, as I have mentioned, had a great love for Gilbert and Sullivan’s music. So it was no wonder that her attention was drawn to an advertisement in one of London’s daily newspapers announcing that massed choirs and the grand organ were to give a Gilbert and Sullivan concert at the Crystal Palace with Sir Arthur Sullivan himself conducting. There was nothing else for it – Aunt Lou just had to go to that concert, and needing company she persuaded father to let me go with her, although I could not have been more than six or possibly seven years old at the time. Off we went, she wearing her best Sunday bonnet, feather boa, and voluminous skirts, and skinny me wearing kneelength britches, walking beside her. What a night it was! The Crystal Palace, built entirely of glass, was six hundred feet long and had tall towers at each end two hundred and fifty feet high. How many it seated I have no idea, but it was in the thousands – there were six hundred in the choirs alone. When Sir Arthur Sullivan stepped on the podium and raised his baton, the place was filled with that music Aunt Lou loved so much. 60
CHAPTER NINE BERMONDSEY OF THE PAST
The history of Bermondsey goes back for centuries and is an interesting one, although at times it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. Its history has been recorded in many books including the Domesday Book, a general survey of England (1085-86) ordered by William the Conqueror and now in the British Museum. The former Abbey and the names of the monks who resided there is mentioned. One fact is certain and it is that in the early days Bermondsey for the most part was an area of marshland and uninhabitable except for a few islands surrounded by watercourses. Bermondsey is said to have been so named after a Saxon Baron, Beormund, who owned and lived on one of these islands or ‘eyes’ as they were then known. From Beormund’s Eye the area became known as Bermondseys, and still later, Bermondsey. As old as some sections are, the section where we lived, between Dockhead and the Mill Pond Road, had no past history to speak of. Referring to the area, an old Bermondsey Official Guide says: Its innumerable ditches drained into Duffield’s Sluice, which to this day flows under one of the streets to the Thames, and the well-being of the whole area depended entirely on the condition of the sluice which was in bad state of repair. In 1519 a complaint was made to the authorities that a ‘certyne’ sluice named Duffield was in need of repairs but the owners of the sluice refused to pay the cost of repairing same. There followed years of litigation; cattle were distrained, and the restraint was forceably resisted. This went on for over two hundred years until in 1822 the local authorities took over responsibility for the sluice. Prior to the beginning of the 19th century the population of Greater London was less than one million souls, but by 1860 it had increased to almost four million, and by the year 1900, five million. It was during this period of rapid growth that the marshland area where we lived was reclaimed for habitation and eventually became the terribly over-congested area it was in my day. The original Village of Bermondsey was located where Bermondsey Square now is at the junction of Tower Bridge Road and Grange Road, and where once stood the famous Bermondsey Abbey. This area is now a thriving business and manufacturing centre. Over the course of the years Bermondsey was divided into four parishes – St. Olave’s, St. Thomas, St. John Horsleydown, and Rotherhithe. The three former parishes merged into one homogenous whole, although the Parish of Rotherhithe seemed always to remain separate and apart and the inhabitants did not, along with the rest of us, refer to themselves as Bermondseyites. In the early days of the sailing ships Rotherhithe was known as Redriff and was inhabited mostly by seafaring men – ship’s owners, captains, and those engaged in ship building. Most of them lived on Rotherhithe Street which runs alongside the Thames. For over four hundred years Bermondsey has been the centre of Britain’s leathertanning industry. Many were employed in the tanning of leather, and others in the manufacturing of leather articles such as harness for horses. It was an industry started by the French Huguenots who, following the massacre of Bartholomew in 1592, crossed over the channel to England. On their way to London they crossed Bermondsey and saw the many water courses and oak trees growing there, both requisites for the tanning of leather. Many of these people were skilled in the art of tanning leather, so they decided to travel no further and established themselves there, men with such names as Vanderput, Viriken, and Jan de Giest. Except for those whose names can be seen on the tombstones in the Huguenot cemetery at Dulwich, any trace of their descendants is lacking, and today in Bermondsey, where the Smiths and Joneses predominate, such names would sound strange. 61
The wide open spaces and its proximity to the river also attracted rope makers whose best customers were the ship owners. Rope works sprung up all over the place, particularly in the area of Bevington Street, Farncombe Street, and New Church Street. In those days they were not streets of houses but (as is shown in early maps) were known as rope walks where men, walking up and down the full length of the streets, twisted the rope by hand as they went along. It was at about the time of the Huguenots and the rope makers that an embankment was built along the south bank of the Thames which extended all the way from Dockhead to Rotherhithe, now known as Bermondsey Wall. Some of the earliest houses built in our section of Bermondsey in the early part of the 17th century were in Bermondsey Wall at the end of George Row. They were pretentious houses and were owned by well-to-do City magnates who had a magnificent view of the shipping on the river. One of these houses built for an East Indian merchant in 1700 still stands. When I was a boy, the oldest and worst slum street in our immediate area was Marigold Street, where the death rate was greater than in any other section of London. It was such a dreadful place that five times as many children living there died with measles, three times as many people died there with chest and lung diseases, and eventually many of them were wiped out when those dread diseases, smallpox and diphtheria, struck the area in 1905. I have every reason to be proud of my father, because in large measure it was due to his efforts when he was Mayor that this street was demolished and replaced with an attractive garden community. At the same time as Marigold Street was built, there was also built a workhouse to accommodate fifty people “with convenience to dry oakum”, and it was ordered that, every poor person whatsoever belonging to this parish as apply for relief, shall be taken to said workhouse, and none shall be relieved of it. The inmates were compelled to wear, constantly on the outer side of their upper garment, a badge of yellow with ‘P’ (pauper) thereon in blue, open to the public view to the end that they may be better known if they misbehave. There was a big fuss when it was discovered that each pauper was costing the parish two shillings a week, so it was decided that from then on their dinner would consist of eight ounces of suet pudding and a half-pint of beer (one of Bermondsey’s foremost products). History tells us that Victoria was a good Queen and a good ruler. On the morning she was awakened at Kensington Palace to be told of the death of her uncle, the King, and that she was now the Queen of England, she wrote in her diary: Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station I shall do my utmost to fulfil my duty towards my country; I am young, and perhaps in many things, though not in all, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have …” On that same morning thousands of women, young and old, and many children of Bermondsey were also awakened to start another day working in the factories. Small boys from eight to ten years of age were also awakened to start another day cleaning sooty chimneys, which they did by using their heels and elbows to climb inside them, sweeping down the soot as they went. Dockworkers rushed from dock gate to dock gate with the desperate hope of obtaining a few hours employment unloading the ships. Families were being sent to the workhouses because the head of the family was missing or perhaps too ill to work. Many babies would die for the lack of proper medical attention. Yes, all this was happening on the day Queen Victoria ascended the throne of England in 1837. It was men like Lord Shaftesbury, Disraeli, and others, who were to bring about the reforms so 62
desperately needed during her reign. Children were at last protected by Acts of Parliament - the Factory Act, known as the Children’s Charter, which raised the age at which children could be employed in the factories, and the Mine’s Act of 1842 prohibiting the employment of women and children in the mines. Even those poor little chimney-climbing boys were eventually rescued from their frightful job, although the Act was at first shockingly ignored. It was not until 1873 that a much sterner Act was passed and no longer did these unfortunate urchins have to face almost certain death with lung diseases. Difficult as it is to believe, there was strong opposition to all those measures in Parliament. It was mainly through the efforts of Lord Shaftesbury that the Education Acts of 1870 and 1876 were passed making it compulsory to provide day schools for all children. Prior to then it was only the children of the wealthy who enjoyed educational privileges, while those in poorer sections, like Bermondsey, had to depend on such voluntary efforts of dedicated men and women who operated such institutions as grandfather’s mission. Fortunately in my day most of those conditions were a thing of the past. Yet I can remember the barefoot children roaming the street, and the dockworkers crowding around the gates of the docks hoping to catch the eye of the ‘caller-on’, and who, when they failed, rushed off to another dock gate in their desperation to find a job. Their wives, finding little comfort in the hovels they called home, spent many hours sitting in one of the pubs nursing an empty beer glass – the Swan and Sugar Loaf, the Ship Aground, and others. Outside the pubs one would often see their ragged little tots sitting on the pavement waiting for their mothers to come out. Long before Charles Dickens visited Bermondsey and expressed horror at what he saw there, Bermondsey seems to have been a rather pleasant place, particularly the area where we lived on Jamaica Road which, in days long past, had been the location of many fruit orchards. It was from one of these orchards that Cherry Garden Street got its name, and Stork’s Road was so named because, as the story goes, storks used to meet in an apple orchard there. In his diary Samuel Pepys mentions one occasion when he crossed over the river to visit a tavern, the Jamaica House, which was in the vicinity of Cherry Garden Street and Jamaica Road but is no longer there. Says Pepys: Sunday, April 14th, 1664. Over the river to the Jamaica House where I never was before, and where the girls did run for wagers over the bowling green, and there with much pleasure, spent little, and so home. A cherry garden! A bowling green! At Cherry Garden Street and Jamaica Road! Nothing could have sounded more ludicrous in my day. Had Pepys stepped ashore at Cherry Garden Pier he would have found himself in a deep, narrow chasm of towering wharves and warehouses, crowded with lorries laden with sacks of grain, rice, spices and the numerous other foodstuffs just unloaded from the ships tied up at the docks. As for Cherry Garden Street itself, it was just another one of those shockingly overcrowded streets leading from Jamaica Road down to the river, populated by the poorest of the poor and the most ribald of all the people living in Bermondsey. There have always been pubs on Cherry Garden Street and the Cherry Garden pub stands on the corner of Jamaica Road today. The Jamaica House, or tavern, referred to by Pepys, was on the south side of Jamaica Road at the intersection of Cherry Garden Street. Like Jamaica Road itself, it was so named after Jamaica, which became a British possession in 1655. It is said that Oliver Cromwell once stayed at the Jamaica House, but this might be fact or just fiction. Cherry Garden was not the only pleasure resort in the Bermondsey of the past. In the year 1770 one Thomas Keyse opened a similar resort at the corner of Spa Road and Grange Road, and there being a chalybeate spring on the property, it was advertised as a Health Spa. In the summer months the patrons were entertained with music and there were frequent fireworks displays. Like Cherry Garden, Keyse Health Spa also had its own pub, The Waterman’s Arms. By my time Keyse Health Spa had disappeared and Dr. Sterling’s office stood on the corner, but The Waterman’s Arms was still there close by. The junction 63
of Spa Road and Grange Road then was just another one of those shockingly overpopulated areas with narrow streets lined with tiny houses in long monotonous rows. A Health Spa! Nonsense! Like so many other sections of Bermondsey, it too was completely gutted by German bombers during the blitz of the Second World War, and the then Mayor of Bermondsey, who was standing on the front steps of the Town Hall nearby, was himself killed.
First Horseless Bus - 1909
CHAPTER TEN BERMONDSEY IN MY DAY
If you have never ridden up top of a London bus with a tarpaulin pulled up tightly under your chin for protection, and the rain pelting down smacking you in the face, you haven’t lived. Of all my experiences as a former Londoner, this I remember more vividly than anything else, but don’t ask me why! When I was young all the buses were drawn by horses and the upper deck was wide open to the weather. The buses that ran along Jamaica Road and other streets in Bermondsey were owned by one Thomas Tilling, a name inscribed on my memory because on the side of every bus in gold lettering was the name Thomas Tilling.
The horse-drawn buses were much smaller than today’s motor buses, carrying only twenty-six passengers, twelve inside and fourteen up top. Those who rode inside sat on two long seats facing each other, each supposed to accommodate six passengers, though frequently some unfortunate little girl, or boy like myself, would be almost squeezed to death sitting on the seat occupied by only four overly-stout women. Up top the passengers sat on seats for two and each seat was provided with a tarpaulin, which on rough and rainy days could be used for protection. The bus driver himself also sat up top far above the 65
horses and was always well bundled up against the weather. Except for the more adventurous ones, women rarely rode up top. Not only because of inclement weather, but because when a lady ascended the stairs, the passengers riding inside the bus were treated to what in those days was considered a shocking view – a well-turned ankle, which oftimes brought gasps from said passengers. Advertising on the sides of the buses implored people to buy Oakey’s Famous Knife Polish, Pears’ Soap, Mullen’s Baby Food, and Johnnie Walker’s Whisky. On the back of the curving steps of the bus was an advert for Heinz 57 Varieties and over the years Heinz has never added one more variety because, when visiting London years later, the same advertisement was still on London’s motor buses. Like the buses, the trams running along Jamaica Road were also pulled by horses and ran on a single track, except at occasional spots where there were short stretches of double track enabling trams coming from opposite directions to pass. The tram driver stood on a platform just at the rear of the horses, a rather unpleasant place to stand all day I thought. When he came to the stops he had to brake the tram by winding a big handle in front of him to prevent the tram running into the backs of the horses. When he started up again he would release the brake and step back quickly to avoid being hit by the handle, which flew around furiously. Should a brake handle have ever struck a driver in the stomach, it would have been too bad for him and he would likely have landed in hospital. When a tram arrived at a double section of track, it would stay there waiting for the tram from the opposite direction to show up. But quite often the other tram failed to arrive on time and a driver, losing patience, started off hoping to reach the next section of double track before the tram from the other direction had left there. Sometimes they made it, and sometimes not, and the trams would meet head-on and there would be a hot and lively argument between the two drivers who passed such uncomplimentary remarks as: “Where the ruddy ‘ell ‘ave yer bin, having a pint?” to which the other would reply: “Dry up, wot’s yer bleeding ‘urry!” Finally, as was inevitable, one of the drivers would give in, unhitch his team of horses, and drive back to the double track. Actually, the horses did not have to be unhitched because the harness was attached to a heavy crossbar fastened to the tram with a big iron belt. So the driver just pulled up the belt, drove his team to the other end of the tram, at the same time carrying the heavy crossbar which he bolted on the other end of the tram. All the time this was going on, the passengers, with unbelievable patience, would be sitting in the trams. Jamaica Road, being cobbled and often wet and slippery, the tram horses frequently fell down and getting them up on their feet again always provided a great show for Bermondsey boys. Fortunately for the tram drivers, there always seemed to be plenty of happy-go-lucky blokes on Jamaica Road who, likely being unemployed, had lots of time on their hands and the drivers had lots of help on these occasions. One man would sit on the horse’s head while another removed the harness. When the harness was removed, the man sitting on its head got up and the horse struggled to its feet, although it very often fell down the second time. Motor cabs and taxi-cabs had not yet appeared in London’s streets, but those people who could afford the price hired a four-wheeler or growler as they were commonly called. Ladies and gentlemen of affluence preferred to ride in hansom cabs, as did young swains wishing to impress their girl friends when taking them to the theatre, though some could little afford the two bob. Hansom cabs were two-seater affairs and having only two wheels were not the safest vehicles to ride in. If the horse fell down, as it sometimes did, the passengers were thrown violently against the glass doors and ran the risk of being cut by flying glass. Once the passengers had entered, the cabbie, sitting
The Hansom Cab
high on his perch at the rear, closed the doors in front of them by pulling a lever at his side. The only way of speaking to the cabbie after the doors were closed was through a small trap door in the roof of the cab. The passenger, using his walking stick or umbrella, pushed it up to tell the cabbie he wished to go to Piccadilly, Oxford Circus, the Ritz, Palladium, Drury Lane, or wherever. Hackney cabs, or four-wheelers, were seldom seen on the streets of Bermondsey, or should one show up it would draw curious stares from the inhabitants. Most Bermondseyites would walk miles rather than spend tuppence for a bus or tram fare, much less a half crown or even a bob to ride in a cab. 67
Fertiliser for the Garden
Another familiar sight on the streets of central London in the days of the horsedrawn vehicles, were uniformed lads wearing peaked caps and a metal license plate strapped on one arm. Their job was to scamper up and down the roadway scooping up the horse dung with a brush and small shovel, and dumping it into bins standing on the street corners. It was a job they did at considerable risk, having to be constantly alert not to get run over by a passing bus or lorry. The last time I was in London I noted that one of these receptacles was still standing on one of the street corners not far from St. Paul’s and it made me wonder if it was kept there for purely sentimental reasons. It must have been, because no-one in his right mind would attempt to drive a horse-drawn vehicle through London’s heavy traffic today. Besides the manufacturing of leather goods, its foremost industry, Bermondsey was also famous for beer and biscuits. It is, for instance, the location of one of the country’s oldest and largest breweries. With the possible exception of Munich and Belfast, nowhere on earth would one possibly find more pubs per acre than in Bermondsey, pubs with such fascinating names such as: The Lilliput, The Blue Anchor, The Bricklayer’s Arms, The Red Lion, The Queen Charlotte and of course The Swan and Sugar Loaf and The Ship Aground. In my day there was one pub for every thousand adults living in Bermondsey and they were open morning, noon and evening, always it seemed crowded with customers. Quite often one would see a workman, with his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, carrying a long pole from which dangled twenty or more beer cans, who would be on his way to the nearest pub to get beer for his pals working at some nearby factory. Today, in spite of the decreased population in Bermondsey, there are still the same number of pubs, or one for 68
every four hundred adults living there, but instead of being crowded as in my day, they now seem to be deserted. Biscuits were important to Bermondsey because it was there the Peek Frean Biscuit Company started making biscuits over one hundred years ago and it is still today the headquarters of this world-wide company employing thousands of Bermondseyites. The main gate of Peek Frean’s factory was at the end of Keeton’s Road, quite close to the school we Bustin kids attended. It was always an intriguing sight when, returning to school after lunch, I watched the thousands of Peek Frean’s employees, men and women of all ages, returning to the factory after their own lunch hour. As the hand of the clock in the tower got closer and closer to one o’clock, the crowd rushing for the gates got thinner and thinner, until at last it became a trickle. Even as the clock struck one, there were always one or two tardy individuals rushing for the gates only to have them slammed shut in their faces. I could not help being concerned and wondered if those poor gals and blokes would lose their jobs. Peek Frean’s gaily-painted, horsedrawn delivery wagons were a familiar sight on Jamaica Road making their way to and from the factory to make deliveries all over London and the suburbs beyond. It was a very exciting day for we Bermondsey kids when the wagons left the factory, each with a huge Teddy Bear perched up on top of them. It was the first time we had ever seen this new toy and here they were life-size. It was Peek’s way of advertising a new biscuit they were making called Pat-aCake. Although the church of St. Mary le Bow and its famous bells was on Cheapside across the river from Bermondsey, and although it is said that only Londoners born within the sound of Bow Bells are genuine Cockneys, there were nevertheless no truer Cockneys than Bermondseyites. To hear the Cockney accent at its best, or worst, depending on one’s taste, one had to cross London Bridge to the Billingsgate Fish Market near the monument. There, listening to the costers, many of whom were from Bermondsey, one could hear the real Cockney twang, salty, sometimes profane. Billingsgate calls to mind the Pearly Kings and Queens, those colourful characters connected with the fish and vegetable markets, who were a familiar sight on the streets of Bermondsey. Their suits and dresses covered with pearl buttons sewn on them in intricate designs. The pearly Queens, far outdoing their better halves, wore wide-brimmed hats adorned with huge ostrich plumes and they were a sight to behold. One seldom, if ever, saw them without their donkey and barrow and even the donkey wore a straw hat with its long ears sticking through the brim. Other East End districts had their Pearlies too, Camberwell, Poplar, and Deptford, but none could outdo the 69
Pearlies of Bermondsey. They were respectable, kindly people and not poor by Bermondsey standards since they owned their own fish and vegetable businesses. Although it was customary for anyone who put on a street show to beg for pennies, Pearlies never begged, but dressed in their fanciful costumes for pure pleasure.
The cinema was in its infancy at the turn of the century; wireless or radio was still unheard of and television was far off. The favourite pastime was visiting the music halls. Popular vaudeville stars of those days were Marie Lloyd, George Robey, Harry Tate and Little Titch, and the more crude the jokes they told the better the audience liked them. In all, there were over five hundred music halls in London, and every evening three hundred and twenty thousand Londoners visited them. Bermondsey had its own music hall, the Star on Abbey Street, and it was much too close to our mission for father’s liking. The front of the theatre was plastered with pictures of dancing girls and when they got too risquè, as they often did in Father’s estimation, he took it upon himself to haul Mr. Hart the theatre proprietor, before the local magistrate at the Tower Bridge station. Mr. Hart, redfaced and looking furious, would show up dressed in his loud but expensive clothes and a big watch chain across his checkered vest. The magistrate would give him a stern lecture, levy a fine, or more often than not let him off with a warning. For a while the girls on the posters were less provocative, but within a month or two they would again offend Dad’s standard of propriety and again he would lay a charge. This running battle between father and Mr. Hart went on for as long as I can remember, and although the Star was a popular show, we kids would have been skinned alive had we ever been caught there. Fortunately, there was always plenty of free entertainment on the streets for boys of my age. There was the ever popular barrel-organ or hurdy-gurdy, usually located outside one of the pubs, playing the only two songs it seemed able to play: Sweet Rosie O’Grady and When your hair has turned to silver I will love you just the same. Then there was the Italian with a smaller organ hung by a strap around his neck and with a little monkey on his 70
shoulder. When a likely prospect showed up in the crowd, a gentleman or a drunk, the monkey was given a gentle hint by the Italian and would hop off his shoulder, snatch off his little red fez hat and beg for a penny. One of our greatest delights was the one-man band, a chap who came to Bermondsey occasionally. Strapped to his back was a big bass drum and, to his elbows, drum sticks. Wires were attached to the heels of his boots, which worked the cymbals on top of the drum, a banjo in his hands, and a mouth organ wired in front of his mouth. How that bloke could give out with the music! Besides the street musicians and other noisemakers, there were many other interesting characters â€“ the fly-by-night salesman carrying a cheap suitcase with a collapsible stand to put it on who, within a few seconds, could set it up on a street corner and be in business. The stuff he sold was nothing but junk â€“ cheap jewellery, strings of beads, fountain pens and household gadgets that never worked, yet there were always suckers passing by who would buy the stuff. It being against the law to peddle merchandise on the streets, he was the bane of the cops who kept chasing him from one place to another. On occasions I acted as lookout for those artful dodgers, warning them of the approach of a bobby, and very often got ticked off for doing so. The dodger always laid out his escape route well in advance and just as quickly as he had opened up for business, he would at the first sign of a cop slam his case shut, pick up his stand, and disappear underneath one of the nearby arches. Usually the bobby on the beat could not care less, just as long as the dodger was off his beat. But when some persistent character showed up in the neighbourhood too often, it was a different story as the cops were not as dumb as the artful dodger took them to be. As usual, when he saw the cop approaching, he would pick up his gear and make for the nearest corner, but this time would run slam-bang into the arms of another cop waiting around the corner. The bobbies would then march him off along with the evidence to the nearest police station, either on Paradise Street or at Tower Bridge. Even to this day those artful dodgers are still operating on the streets of London and dodging the cops. 71
Walking along the street one day my attention was drawn to a crowd gathered underneath one of the arches. It could have been any one of a number of things happening â€“ a drunk, a fight, someone who had dropped dead, some bloke sounding off on any one of a variety of subjects; politics, religion, or the state of the world in general. Or it could have been one of those shifty individuals of foreign origin selling smuggled merchandise right off the ship. Worming my way into the front of the crowd, I backed away quickly because it was none of these but a man with two wire cages, a big river rat in one and a ferret in the other. Taking the rat out of the cage first, he put it under his shirt just above the belt line and right next to his skin. Then he took out the ferret and, putting it under his shirt placed it facing in the opposite direction, and when the rat and ferret met at his back there was a terrific battle. Then putting his hand under his shirt, he pulled out the ferret, which had the rat by the throat. The bloke just had enough time to collect a few pennies from the crowd when a bobby hove in sight and he quickly disappeared. On Saturday nights Jamaica Road was a Bedlam and the shenanigans continued long after we children were in bed. At twelve oâ€™clock when the pubs closed, their beersoaked patrons roamed along the street singing vulgar songs at the tops of their voices. Street fights were frequent and policemen blowing their whistles for reinforcements added to the racket. Occasionally the bobbies met up with some tough character soused to the gills and in a fighting mood, but for such types the cops were always prepared and kept a stretcher mounted on two bike wheels just around a nearby corner, and when it became necessary they used it. The drunk was laid flat on his back on the stretcher and strapped securely at the shoulders, middle, and feet, and was wheeled off to the nearest police
Off to Paradise Street Station
station. We children became accustomed to the Saturday night hullabaloo, completely ignoring it. Quite frequently such scenes happened in the daytime and when the cops, with their stretcher and the drunk strapped to it, were on their way to the police station, it would be surrounded with kids listening to the most terrible language imaginable. True as it is that very few outsiders ever visited Bermondsey, there were nevertheless thousands who got a birds-eye view of it every day as they travelled by train 72
from London to the east coast over those eight hundred brick arches. They were people from all over the world, with many on their way to catch a channel steamer to take them to the continent. This was seeing Bermondsey at its worst angle – if indeed it had a worse angle – the sight they saw as they travelled swiftly along was not altogether an attractive one, though interesting. There below were the endless rows of little brick houses, each with their three or more chimney pots smoking away. Postage-stamp back yards with washlines of clothes, including baby’s nappies, women’s unmentionables, the old man’s red flannel long underwear, and hanging on the back wall of almost every house, the indispensable zinc bath-tub. One could not help wondering, with the dirty smoke of the passing trains, if the clothes were not dirtier when taken in than before they were washed. As the trains sped along, one caught occasional glimpses of the numerous pubs with their gaudy-painted signs of red, yellow and gold, advertising Bass Ale, Courage’s Ale, Guinness’s stout or Courage’s beer. Also, just a stone’s throw away as the train glided by, you could see two of Bermondsey’s most famous landmarks, the clock tower of Peek Frean’s factory and the spire of St. James’s Church. In the distance, and forming a perfect backdrop for the whole scene, were the tall cranes pointing skyward, lining the bank of the riverside. From about 1947 on there appeared another landmark best seen at night – a bright neon sign above the mission proclaiming God is Love. At night time, even if a passenger was totally blind, he still knew he was travelling through Bermondsey because of the nauseating stench coming from the open tanpits with which Bermondsey abounded. When the original tanners, the Huguenots, had come to Bermondsey in the 16th century, the area abounded with streams and oak trees, which were two of the main requisites for tanning leather in those days. But in my day both the streams and oak trees had disappeared and along with them the Huguenots. Then, instead of oak bark, they used the excreta of dogs to make that awful smelling solution in which they tanned the hides in pits about forty feet square. There were men who made a living collecting the excreta and selling it to the tanners. Bermondseyites were born with the smell, lived with it all their lives and were accustomed to it, but for a stranger the stench was overpowering. One of my own favourite pastimes was sitting on top of the high brick wall surrounding Bevington’s tanyard, just a short distance away from the mission, watching the men with long poles fishing the hides out of the pits. Those chaps themselves must have had leather stomachs.
Published on Feb 21, 2012
A personal account of a childhood growing up on the tough streets of Bermondsey, south London at the begining of the 20th Century