Kenneth Wright recalls life in New Cross from the 1920s
This article contains selected, edited extracts from Kenneth Wright's recollections of a lifetime living in New Cross and Downham. The full article can be read and downloaded at his son Roger's family history site:
I was born on 27th June 1921, the baby of a family of 3 girls and 6 boys to George and Alice Wright at No 2 Lift Bridge Cottages, New Cross. In the photograph (left) I was aged approximately five years. My father was a Signalman at New Cross Station and we resided within the railway complex alongside the Surrey Canal. The wharfing line came down past the house towards the canal, over the Lift Bridge and on to the Thousand Arches.
Main line trains came across the top of the house on their way to London. If they had been any closer they would have been in bed with us. It was a "two-up, two-down, outside toilet plus outbuildings". The toilet was the usual of that period. Doulton was printed on the pan just below the hole that let the flush in. I know, for at my size I would stand there and try and read the inscription, gradually rotating my head to try and read the London address. Hanging on the back of the door, by a piece of string, was the toilet paper consisting of cut up newspapers, cut to a regulation size i.e. approximately 5" by 7". A hole was pierced into the top right-hand corner with a large sacking bodkin, a string passed through, and hung up.
The house had a side door which we used like a front door and which opened straight into the Living Room. There was barely enough room to get in. On the right was the door up to the bedrooms and the stairs curved sharply with the bottom step facing into the room and protruding under the door.
Then came the kitchen range, coal fired. We usually got the coal by taking the mickey and shouting abuse at the train drivers as they went past. They, in turn, would throw lumps of coal at us. Sometimes we could muster 3 girls and 6 boys stationed along the side of the railway tracks shouting insults at train drivers and getting pelted with quite a lot of coal.To the left of the door was just enough room for a table behind which, up against the outside walls, were the forms for us kids to sit on. At meal times the table would be pulled out, kids would file round and sit at their allotted spots. After a lot of pushing, shoving and pinching we would be seated and then the table would be pushed back, trapping us all in, making room for Mum and Dad to sit at the table.Even today I can't quite remember where everyone slept. All I can remember is that as the smallest I had to sleep in the middle of Ernie and Reg. I should think the boys slept Top and Tail; three at the Top and three at the Tail. If you can imagine, It didn't matter which end of the bed you slept you always ended you with three sets of feet in line with your face. The arguments, the pushing and pulling, kicking and punching that went on in that bed. We boys had never heard of pyjamas let alone seen them. We just slept in our shirts with scarcely any bedclothes. In the winter it was freezing. There was no carpet - I don't even think there was any lino. We would strip off down to our shirts and then start to put our clothes back on in a bizarre fashion. The old jersey would go back on, only this time we would pull it up over our legs and the body up over our waists. Back would go our socks on dirty feet a spare pair, if we could find some, on our hands for mittens. On our heads would be anything to try and keep in the warmth, even a paper bag. Round our necks would be wound the home-made scarf, yards of it. These scarves were made by everyone in the winter, boys included. I think the wool in those days was made of elastic for, as time wore on they would get longer and longer but at the same time they would get narrower and narrower until they resembled thirty-foot ropes. The bedding would be topped with as many topcoats as we could find. Last one ready blew out the candle and got into bed, that's if the others would let him.Bug Hunt
Bugs, that was another thing. I don't know whether they came out of the rotting plaster to bite us, or to play. Big things they were like rusty tin plates, flat, red with legs. Teeth like Dracula. In the mornings they were so fat with blood that they couldn't get back into their holes. In those days everyone had bugs, they didn't mind whom they lodged with. Only the better class people called them Creepy Crawlies. The next day we would look like badly made tapioca puddings or one of my Mum's special Hasty puddings, all white lumps and bumps. At Monsoon Road School we would gather in the playground comparing the sizes of our bumps with the other kids until some snotty-nosed kid would start to chant "You've got bugs, you've got bugs". This would make us feel determined to get rid of these loathsome creatures.
That night, as we kids went upstairs a step at a time, the eldest with the candle in one hand, the other hand shielding the flame from any sudden draught, one of us would say "Shall we hunt bugs?" and a chorus of shouts of "Let's", would go up. A Bug Hunt would consist of turning back the bedding, mattress etc., hunting along all the piping and the creases along the mattress and running the candle flame along the mesh of the spring. Then, if they were seen, up the walls or on the wooden door frames or picture rail. We would chase them with the naked flame of the candle. In the morning we could measure the success of the raid by the amount of smoke smudges where the candle flame had marked the wall, and gain a little satisfaction in recalling how they crackled and popped the night.