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A Friend in my Retreat
Family Life in Bromley St. Leonard Between the Wars
Originally published in the "East London Record", no.1 (1978)

I AM WRITING these notes sitting on a log on the edge of the Forest and within view of a corrugated-iron shed being demolished - probably the last of the several Retreats which once existed within the purviews of Epping Forest during the inter-war years. Since I first rediscovered this 'tin-hut', known as Rigg's Retreat, it has always acted as a catalyst for memories of my schoolboy days way back in the Twenties. We would arrive in the area of Epping Forest by a bus hired for the day, although sometimes we travelled by train, and then we would be let loose in the forest. Fun and games would pass away the time until we were assembled to enter one of these Retreats for refreshments. Therein we would gorge ourselves with lashings of bread and marge and jam, washed down with mugs of tea, and, whether we felt blown out or not, we grabbed our just share of buns and apples to scoff on our joumey home.

Just prior to leaving the forest we would all go absolutely mad in order to collect a bunch of wild flowers as quickly as possible to take home to the mums who would be waiting on our return back in Bromley-by-Bow. The bunch of flowers for mum was the done thing although by the time she had received them they had undergone a great change from their pristine condition when picked! During the whole of the return journey the bunch of flowers would be gripped tightly in one hand - the other being free for fighting or pinching someone's apple or sweets. If we had a real rough house the flowers would go scattering all around the upper deck of the bus where they would remain until we had all exhausted our energy and settled down to collect them and redistribute them among the gang just in time to clamber down from the upper deck of the bus to present them to mum accompanied by kisses all round and choirboy innocence regained. 'Sorry they're in a bit of a state mum'...'That's alright sonny-boy, it's the thought that counts'.

Mum was the patriarchal figure in those days. She was responsible for the children in every respect. Father would only emphasise and support her discipline when necessary. His task was to work and support the family and make decisions upon family matters whenever he felt it necessary, otherwise he would like nothing better than to be left in peace after a hard day at the workshop to enjoy a glass of tipple and settle down in his easy chair. The children were primarily mum's responsibility from birth until they handed over their first wage packet. It was not the custom for married women to work in those days unless they were widows and obviously had to take on a job to support their children; and for many an unfortunate widow it was indeed a struggle to maintain their families upon the somewhat meagre weekly pittance received from the Relieving Officer.

Fifty years later with affluence visible everywhere, despite inflation, it is difficult for people to understand, or, might I add, want to understand, the problems of family maintenance overcome by the mums of the Twenties and Thirties. When you realise that in the 'well-off working-class families dad brought home a weekly wage of but 2/10/- to 3/-/- and that the labourer, many of whom were employed on a temporary basis, would be lucky to receive 1/10/- for his week's graft, most families were barely existing and for many life was hard going. Of course you will comment that everything was cheaper in those days - a suite of furniture but a few pounds, rents varying from 7/6 to 12/- per week, etc. That may be so but don't run away with the idea that life was a 'bed of roses'. Every single family had to watch expenditure very carefully whether the family earner was a labourer, artisan, ganger or foreman. The ekeing out of the family income was mum's responsibility and she struggled through her weekly task often to her own detriment, in many cases by starving her self to feed the youngsters.

How did she cope with her job of family provisioner? How did she learn the 'know-how' remembering that the majority had only acquired a sparse education as young girls from a Board School for which they paid 1d a week, often attending infrequently. As they grew older and married they acquired knowledge of learning to live simply by gossiping to others, especially their elders, and learning from their experience and ideas, for example upon such a practical matter as making money 'go as far as possible' especially with regard to food which I shall mention in more detail later on. But first let me emphasise the real need for additional income to enlarge the family budget. The day when young Alice, Edie, or Bill would be leaving school at fourteen to start out at work and contribute to the family unit was eagerly awaited. This great financial need by all families I can now more fully appreciate than when but 12 years old. I can now understand why many of my young contemporaries who were intellectually brilliant for their age were deprived of attendance at grammar school or technical school beyond the age of 14 years, because of the dire need for family incomes to be supplemented.

High Street, Bromley St. Leonard, (nos. 2 to 12). By William WhiffinI was extremely fortunate with my family circle. I was born 25 April 1915 into a family of an elder brother and two sisters ... but fifteen years later. We resided in Priory Street, situated within the parish of Bromley St. Leonard. My mother used to quip that I was an afterthought. Whatever she intended to mean by such a remark I have never quite worked out. However, when the opportunity arose for me to attend the School of Engineering and Navigation, situated in Poplar High Street, my mum was most enthusiastic but my father was dubious as to whether he should agree to my being at school for a few years longer than the norm.

A chance remark by dad to his works manager about the proposal tipped the scales in my favour and a new phase in my life began. My sisters and brother, all being married by now, our family became a one-child family and, with three mouths to feed, mum's problem of maintenance was made much easier, but the money still had to be stretched even though supplemented by a small L.C.C. [i.e. London County Council] education grant. My dad, bless him, a dour Liverpudlian, was still concemed about the expenditure on school uniform, drawing instruments and books I needed. 'Is all this really necessary?' he asked. Once again a word with his works manager changed his attitude towards my obtaining the necessary equipment I required.

I've digressed slightly to comment upon my family unit in order to stress that while we were better off than many, remembering that my dad was in permanent employment whereas many wage eamers were constantly in and out of work, there were still occasions when it became a struggle to make ends meet; I became very conscious of that fact that I should be contributing to the family income and mentioned the fact to my mother. Her reply was most emphatic - I was to keep going and not even consider the idea of doing an odd job on Saturdays. She obviously mentioned her feelings to dad and stressed them very strongly as when he and I next went to watch West Ham play at Upton Park he mentioned the need for me to stick at school as he would manage somehow.

Now to mum's ability as a housekeeper. Her system was not unique. Her technique of shopping and making the food go down the week was similar in most families. I would accompany her shopping on Saturday evenings along the Roman Road market - we would walk the distance to the market and think nothing of it. In those days the shops and the stalls were operating until nigh on midnight. The brightly lit shops and the well-lit stalls with their sizzling paraffin or carbide lamps coupled with the back-chat salesmanship of the stall-owners and the crowds of shoppers milling every where - the whole scene was characteristic of a carnival atmosphere.

To the young mind it was an adventure to worm one's way in and out of the crowded scene. As soon as we arrived at Roman Road I would go into the pudding and pie shop and buy a slice of plum pudding to munch whilst mum would say that she would not be a minute as she had to see someone. This used to puzzle me at first until my inquisitiveness got the better of me on one occasion and I followed her to discover that she popped into a near by pub for a glass and was sitting talking to other shoppers likewise engaged. When after a few minutes she came out and discovered that I was waiting outside instead of outside the plum-duff shop she nearly had a fit. 'Don't you dare mention this to dad, if you do I'll kill you' she said, and thereupon bought me another slice of plum-duff - no doubt to seal my lips. I kept my word but often laughed to myself about the incident that evening.

We would then progress to her favourite butcher's shop. She would buy a joint of meat of a size suitable to last us down the week. Of course, we had the additions according to season: cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, peas, beans and potatoes. Nevertheless meat was the staple diet and the joint was the item of greatest expenditure.

Mother would rise early on a Sunday morning to prepare the food for dinner - which in East London was the main meal of the day, served during the week at about 12.30 to 1 p.m. and on Sundays anytime between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. sometimes a little earlier depending on family arrangements. Dad would rise a little later on Sunday, wash, then attire himself in his Sunday- best (a navy blue serge suit and bowler hat). Watch and chain displayed across waistcoat, he would sally forth to meet his workmates either at a pub in the Roman Road or in Mile End near the fairground (behind the present Mile End Station). They must have drunk little and talked a lot as never once did he come home drunk. At Xmas he would bring home small presents from the various licensees, such as a tobacco tin or pouch or an ash tray, all suitably engraved. This was a custom in those days. Such was dad's weekly habit. He would never go out throughout the whole week except for this jaunt on a Sunday morning. He would always have an half-pint with his midday meal throughout the working week - mum used to pop round the corner to the Priory Tavern with the jug - during the winter months she would warm it by placing a red-hot poker in it. Dad would never drink in the evening but reserved that period to enjoy smoking a cigar which he would buy every other day and cut in half. He detested cigarettes - called them paper-pipes. His liking for cigars seemingly stemmed from the fact that my grandmother in Liverpool used to hand-roll them for sale. When a member of the family arrived back from America and brought him a present of a box of cigars he was most moved and made them last for ages.

With the preparation of Sunday dinner complete we would be obliged to await the return of dad before it was served - never a moment before. He was always on time .. 2 p.m. How regular were the habits of families in those days! Dinner served - we would settle down to stuff ourselves with meat, potatoes, carrots and greens; to be followed by what was then called 'afters' which would be either rhubarb/apple and custard or the occasional treacle or syrup pudding. Absolutely blown out we would rest awhile and then dad would retire to have a laydown, not before checking that I would be going off to Sunday-school. My absence during the afternoon would give mum an opportunity for a quiet rest - leaving the washing up until I returned to help, although if I was ever late she would do it herself not forgetting to emphatically remind me of the fact when I did arrive home.

Sunday afternoon was the customary time for the 'shrimp and winkle' man to call around the streets, either with a pony and cart, or hand-barrow, or in some cases carrying a large wicker basket, to display his shell-fish. Our Sunday tea more often than not comprised shrimps or winkles, sometimes cockles if mum felt like spending time thoroughly washing the grit away. Such shell fish was quite fresh and would have come from the suppliers at Leigh-on-Sea. After tea and the washing up complete I would go off to evening service at Kingsley Hall, sometimes accompanied by mum; dad would settle down in his favourite chair and oscillate between dozing and looking at the News of the World. Sometimes he would go out for a walk and a drink but never to church. As a child he had attended church in Liverpool but drifted away as he grew older. Like many of his own age group he was confused by the church's blessing of guns in the First World War and whilst not in any way holding pacifist convictions he could not relate the church's glorification of war to the gospel message he had been taught. Within our little community in Bromley, church attendance was greater within the non-conformist churches; even so men were in a minority within such congregations.

My mother used to attend the Bruce Road Congregational Church and it was there that she met Muriel and Doris Lester who occasionally visited the mid-week Women's Meeting to present a musical programme, Doris singing and Muriel accompanying on the piano. Ultimately they arranged and led the weekly meeting. This was one of the contacts with Bow and Bromley made by the Lesters which eventually led to the establishment of the Kingsley Hall Social Settlement, in memory of their brother Kingsley who died at the early age of 26 years during 1914. The sisters and their brother moved to live in No.60 Bruce Road during 1912 and subsequently, in 1914 the adjoining property No.58 was acquired and adult social activities arranged. Later, in 1915, they acquired an old Baptists 'Zion' Chapel situated in Botolph Road which was adapted as the first Kingsley Hall and opened in February. Ultimately further sites were acquired for the building of the Children's House in Eagling Road (1923) and the new Kingsley Hall in Powis Road (1928).

My mother was one of a small bunch of local people who participated in the early days - in fact I was the first baby born to the membership after the first Kingsley Hall was opened and my christian name was taken from Kingsley Lester whom my mother knew and admired very much and not from the 'Hall' which many locals thought. Kingsley Hall was to continue for fifty years clothed in 'bricks and mortar', but continued thereafter, not only in the hearts and minds of its members, but put into practice by their actions and service to their fellows in many varying ways. The story of Kingsley Hall would take a book or two to record and is not for this account but it has to be mentioned because it played such a large part in my mother's life and in my own upbringing virtually from the cradle and therefore continuously in one way or another.

The 'Lesters' breathed fresh air into the somewhat drab surroundings of my neighbourhood and their advanced social ideas at the time surprised the local churches and occasionally the local authorities too. Kingsley Lester was to become a Baptist minister had not the illness which led to his early death, prevented such aspirations. Muriel and Doris resolved to set up the settlement to implement and improve upon some of his ideas for community service as a practical form of memorial. It was initially financed by their father, H.E. Lester, a shipwright whose business operated within the Royal Albert Docks. He had started work at the early age of 12 years, being apprenticed to George Russell at the Shipyard in Millwall. He worked as a young draughtsman on the plans of Brunel's 'Great Eastern' which was laid down at this yard. I can see him now, in my mind's eye ... a pleasant and kindly patriarchal figure with his long flowing white beard. I spent many a happy time at his Loughton home 'The Grange'. He died at the age of 91 years in 1927.

Of course, life is such, that at the age of 12 years I was not to know that almost five decades later I was to become an enthusiastic industrial archaeologist. He would have told me much. Alas, few written records remain of his business activities except that I have gleaned from an early copy of the Stratford Express that he designed one of the earliest electrically driven yachts. According to Muriel, he was much associated with the design and/or the construction of the cylinder which encased 'Cleopatra's Needie' when it was towed from Egypt to the Embankment in London; but, so far, I have not discovered any written record relating to his connection with this matter.

At Kingsley Hall I received an informal 'cultural education' second to none. My somewhat natural interest in both music and art was really activated and extended by the patient attention given me by various members of staff who were professional in these fields and gave a year or two to assisting the Settlement in various 'arts and craft' subjects. Apart from the arts my mind was stretched to think in a disciplined manner from an early age by the graded Sunday-school programmes initiated by Doris Lester who was a pioneer in this field, and I, with my mates, took part in many a demonstration school held on Saturdays at the Children's House in the presence of a large crowd of visiting teachers.

In later years came the very popular Workers Educational Association classes. There was also the small group led by the Marquis of Tavistock relating to his interpretation of the New Testament. 'Tavvy' as we used to call him would arrive via Bow Road station and walk to Kingsley Hall - tweed suit and cap - for his class and serious discussion. Another of Kingsley Hall's dearest friends was Sybil Thorndike, a close friend of the Lesters and a prominent supporter throughout the years. Her recitations from St. Joan and poems also I can vividly recall ... she held us all spellbound! Praise God for the Lesters' service to the neighbourhood - a cry that will find an echo in the hearts of many generations of members and friends now scattered throughout the world.

I appear to be straying from my brief. Not really. A typical week in the life of the family cannot help but lead me into sidelight comments relating to associated places and people.

Monday was, as now, a dull day - back to school for me and the return to work for dad. Mum's task was to face the week until Friday pay-day and make the cash spin out. First she would get down to the task of picking up the 'coconut-mats' in the passage and bash the dust out of them - carpets would be hung over the clothes-line in the yard and similarly bashed. The area around the front door would be scrubbed and the step whitened with hearth-stone. The big iron-basin set in a brick-surround in the scullery (known as the 'copper') would be filled with water and heated by lighting the fire set underneath. By the time she had completed cleaning the mats and the doorstep the water in the copper would be boiling hot and ready to receive the family wash. There was no soap powder in those days - slabs of washing soap were used on the old scrubbing-board once the clothes had been given a good soak in hot water. Plenty of elbow-grease was used up in the process which induced much perspiration on the brow of the washer, what with the physical effort involved and the steam rising from the hot water in the copper. Many a mother although poorly in health, still carried out this weekly washing routine because she felt that it was incumbent on her to maintain clean underclothes for the family. It is not surprising that the health of many a mother suffered as a consequence, especially those who took in washing to earn just a few extra pennies a week - rheumatism and arthritis took its toll and expressed itself later in life in swollen fingers and knuckle-joints.

Our main meal on Mondays was slices of cold meat from the Sunday joint together with bubble-and-squeak and pickles. The remaining meat was minced and put into a pie for Tuesday's meal. The resultant bone with a little meat attached was put into the stock-pot, sometimes with the addition of scrag, with vegetables such as carrots, turnips, etc. thrown in. This would be kept simmering until Wednesday and became with the addition of 'Bisto' and potatoes, our main meal. To manage four days from the one joint necessitated the ability to get the size right in the first place. Another provision from this weekly joint would be a substantial amount of 'dripping' [1] which went down well on toasted bread and a dash of salt - I could work my way through a loaf in no time. You do not seem to be able to obtain such good dripping in these days, otherwise I would suggest you try it with a slice of toast and salt. In the time I am referring to we had to slice the bread from a cottage loaf and toast the slices on a toasting-fork, made of heavy-gauged wire with three prongs; and even though the fork was nearly two feet long the back of your hand holding it to the fire got really hot and you were glad of the break to eat the slice. On Thursdays the main meal would be liver and bacon, or boiled pig's-trotter, or tripe boiled in milk. Fridays we had fish. Saturday was a snack-day in our family circle. Dad would be working up to 1 p.m. and would either come with me to the Hammers [2] when they had a home game or go shop-window gazing either at Stratford or to Chrisp Street market - thinking little of walldng to these places.

It is strange for me to recall now that the only break my father had from work was Saturday afternoon and Sunday - sometimes not that if overtime working was necessary. Even a summer break of one week's unpaid holiday had not reached his firm let alone a paid week's holiday. Yet he appeared content with his lot - probably because it was a routine he grew into and had adapted himself to it.

Yet social reforms embodied in proposals were developing and spreading throughout the neighbourhood by public meetings organised by the local Labour Party where, more often than not, the main speaker would be George Lansbury, and the one-time Liberal stronghold of Bow and Bromley was capitulating to the newcomer's ideas of social reform. It was unusual for dad to give up his evening armchair period but he certainly did in order to attend these meetings and listen to the speakers, especially George Lansbury.

I remember most vividly the serious and responsible manner in which he approached the recording of his vote at elections. After arriving home from his day's work he would have his tea, then have another wash and change into his Sunday-best, then walk from home to the Old Palace School Polling Station, a short distance of but 100 yards, record his vote, come straight home again, and as he would never sit around the house in his best suit, change back into other clothes and settle back in his easy chair. It always seemed quite a performance just to record an X in a matter of minutes. He was not alone in the desire to appear clean and tidy within public buildings. An old saying in the East End related to soap and water costing little and even if poor and shoddily clothed it was still possible to make an effort to present an appearance of cleanliness and tidiness.

My dad and his contemporaries had grasped a vision of a new life ahead, probably not for them, but certainly for their children and they put their combined weight in support of the then new party. The results of those early beginnings were never fully realised in his lifetime but certainly I and others of my generation have lived to see social improvements undreamed of when I was a child. Paid holidays of at least a fortnight enabling trips to Spain for the whole family contrasts greatly to my dad's firm's annual outing day when they travelled by horse-brake, and later by charabanc, to such far away places as Theydon Bois or Epping. In later years they ventured further to Southend or Margate!! Just one day's break in a year. It makes me shudder!!

Back again to mum. Among her duties to the family she acted as 'doctor' for slight ailments, unless your condition deteriorated then the local doctor was called in. You have to remember that a visit to the doctor cost money and became a further drain on the weekly expenditure. Indications of a slight cold would mean bed for me - juice of lemon in hot water and a day or two remaining there consuming soups or bread and milk. Usually after a couple of days you were able to get up and about again. If, however, you remained hot and clammy after a night's sleep she would call in the doctor to have a look at you in order to be on the safe side. The regular functioning of the bowels would be assisted by various concoctions obtainable from the chemist. For my part I especially remember senna pods and Scotts emulsion. The latter I could smell when the spoon was a yard away and my poor old stomach would roll over and over. Cod-liver oil was another favourite of the mums, not forgetting sticks of liquorice. In their gossipings they would swap the success or failure of such administrations to their offspring. Another 'cure' administered by them was to take a child recovering from whooping-cough on a bus ride to the Green Man; the fresh air treatment seated on the open upper deck was considered to be beneficial. An alternative to this was to take the child to the local gasworks to get a whiff of the tarpots. A great spring-tonic was a mixture of brimstone and treacle! A few more for you to reflect upon ... the wearing of camphor-blocks to prevent colds and a concoction of saffron to bring out a rash!!

For far too many families the problem of money was a major one. Many were helped through the period from Monday until payday on Friday by the technique of intelligent use of the services offered by the tally-man and the pawnbroker. The services of the tally-man, now referred to as a credit draper, enabled people to purchase various domestic items and clothes on the 'never-never' (hire purchase). Repayment plus interest were payable weekly to the collector when he called. Such items would be obtainable from the tally-man on a Saturday with the benefit of Friday's weekly wage. The clothes obtained for the children would be worn on the Sunday and much admired by friends and relations.

Then on Monday morning all the various items which had been obtained on tick would be transported along to the pawnbroker's to be 'popped' in and a sub obtained on, them. Such a small amount, usually, would help them down the week until payday, when the money would help them to meet the weekly commitment to the tally-man and on the Saturday to retum the loan plus interest to the pawnbroker, so as to receive the goods back in time for the children to be dressed once again in their Sunday best! Of course, these poor souls were never out of debt. By the time the clothes were suffering from wear they did not fetch as much from the pawnbroker - but if by that time they had maintained regular weekly payments to the tally-man they were eligible to obtain further goods from him. Such a circle was constantly revolving, and many a mother was 'up to her eyes in debt' .. a common saying at that time ... but, somehow, come what may, such mothers managed to survive.

It is of interest perhaps to comment that recently I wished to illustrate a pawnbroker's shopfront in Tower Hamlets and could, with the assistance of friends, discover only one left displaying the sign of the three 'golden-balls'. This shop is situated in the Bethnal Green Road.[3] Yet in 1926 the number of pawnbrokers recorded as operating within the area of what is now Tower Hamlets was 12 in Bethnal Green, 25 in Poplar and 21 in Stepney; a grand total of 58. Such figures speak out loud and clear as to the progress made with regard to the living and working conditions of East Londeners.

So far in this article the mums of the twenties have been depicted in many roles; even so, many additional home activities they performed come to mind. I have just enough space to mention one - that of rug making. This activity was carried out by many mums and, once again they solved any problem encountered by gossiping. Any old item of discarded clothes, jackets, skirts, etc., rather than be given to the 'old rag-man' in exchange for a few pence or a cup and saucer, would be cut up into strips, approx. 5 ins, by 1 in. The base of the rug would be secondhand sacks, washed clean, then opened out and stitched together according to the required size of the rug. Then patiently and systematically the pieces of cloth would be pushed in and out of the sacking by the use of a wooden awl. When this part of the process was completed, the protruding pieces of cloth were cut by scissors to a common level and another layer of sacking was sewn to the base as additional covering. Such rugs lasted for ages. My mother used to delight in making them for us and friends. She would hunt the market-stalls for various coloured cloths to match the cloth already collected and cut. These expeditions usually were a sign that a complicated pattern was in the 'pipe-line', perhaps circles surrounded by stars!!

All the mums of the inter-war years, not only in Bromley St. Leonard but throughout the whole of East London, deserve the highest praise for the manner in which, despite many handicaps, they managed to maintain and raise families of which they would be justly proud. They understood only too well, through personal suffering, that 'if you cry, you cry alone; if you laugh, the world laughs with you'.

God bless them, everyone!

by Kingsley Royden


[1] 'Dripping' was the fat that dripped from the joint of meat which was allowed to set. The idea of it spread on toast sounds terrible nowadays but, unhealthy though it might be, it contained all the flavour of the meat and was actually delicious!
[2] The nickname for West Ham United football club.
[3] Attenborough's. It's still there in 1999.

Note: Shortly after completing this article, Kingsley Royden died suddenly. He had been a member of the East London History Society since its foundation, had frequently lectured on local history, led walks around Bromley St. Leonard and Bow, and had been preparing a history of Bromley St. Leonard, but the above is his only published piece of work. He will be remembered in particular for his efforts to establish and preserve conservation areas within Tower Hamlets and save buildings of historic and architectural interest.

Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.