Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests

May Street, London, 1928-1939

THE STREET

The Street I lived in was called May Street. May is also my second name. I was never sure whether I was called May after the street, after my mother's sister, Agnes May, known as Aunt May, or whether I just took my father's name. He was oddly named John May Martin; he told me May was an old family name.

May Street was where I often played. The main games were marbles, unhealthily played in the gutter; or skipping endlessly; or a complicated ball-game, which could be played with others or alone. The ball-game consisted in a series of pitches against a wall, but there were ten variations on how the ball was thrown, which had to be executed in the correct order, otherwise one was "out". The child who first completed the sequence was the winner.

These games were usually played with other girls living in the street. At one end of the road next to the corner shops lived Jean. She was a silent child, but invited me into her front garden sometimes, where there was a beautiful Virginia creeper.

Much more talkative was Lois, three years younger than me. Unlike me, she liked dolls and had a magnificent pram. But she also liked colouring drawing-books and other such quiet occupations. Her parents were very devout members of some nonconformist church. Part of the rule was that Lois was not allowed to play with toys on Sundays. Nevertheless, I often saw her on Sunday afternoons, and she had her colouring books out in the front garden.

"Lois, you told me that you were not allowed toys on Sundays. " I told her.

She said, "Ah, but these are religious drawing books, containing pictures of Jesus and bible illustrations." I looked at them and thought, "Well they are nice colouring books, so the religion can't be so bad."

She told me that Lois was a Bible name. Her big brother, about two years older than me was called David. She said all her church members had bible names. There was another family of four, also of the same faith. The girl nearest my age was Jessie, who I included in play sometimes. Her older brother was Joseph, and younger sisters Ruth and Faith. I disputed whether all these names were from the bible, but Lois won the argument, saying that "Faith" was on every page of the Bible. I had to agree, as I had very little biblical knowledge.

An adult I met sometimes in the street was "Uncle John", who took little notice of me, but I stopped him always to ask if he had any cigarette cards for me. He would usually oblige. We did not often invite any friends into the house, but the children were allowed into the small front gardens and occasionally into the back gardens.

The reason my mother did not invite any one in was because we always had a full house. We took in lodgers, one with an upstairs room, and one downstairs.

My mother's name was Gladys. She had a friend living at the other end of the street. She was also called Gladys and ran a clothes catalogue. My mother bought clothes for herself and occasionally for me on the instalment system. This was called a clothes club and I had to take the money weekly to Gladys, when my mother did not feel like doing it herself. But I think Gladys was one of the few friends my mother invited in occasionally.

As soon as I was old enough, from age seven I think, my parents sent me on errands to the shops at each end of the street. In those days there were no supermarkets, but once a week my mother did her shopping in North End Road, on market day when this road was filled with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, much like to-day. The medium-sized grocers, Gapps Stores for tea, Sainsbury's for other groceries, the new "cut-price" shop, occasionally a small butcher selling rabbits and stewing steak were the shops my mother regularly visited.

But I got small items for her during the week. There was Wilson's, a small grocer's near St. Andrew's Church, which I passed every day on my way to school in Greyhound Road. Here I would buy sugar, butter or tea occasionally when my mother had run out. Opposite Wilson's was Cosy Corner, a sweet-shop primarily, which also sold cigarettes. Here I was given twopence for chocolate on Saturday mornings, when I would also usually purchase twenty "Weights" cigarettes for Dad. In those days it was legal for small children to buy cigarettes, but not smoke them of course.

In the week, I might have a farthing "everlasting stick" made of toffee. For a real treat, I would also have a "Wall's" water-ice wrapped in blue-check thin cardboard. These could be sawed in half, and often when I had not the money for a whole one, I would offer the ice-cream man a halfpenny and wait patiently while it was sawed in half.

Though I would never have dreamed of trying to smoke one of my father's cigarettes which I had brought from the shop, I was often afraid of doing quite reasonable things, or so it seems, as my father even complained about me rustling paper during his afternoon rest on Sundays. Fortunately, he was out much of the time at week-ends, always on Saturday afternoon, when I was told he gave "political speeches" drawing a crowd by jumping up on a soap-box. He was a powerful speaker, very persuasive, and my cousin has often said "Uncle Jack could have sold refrigerators to Eskimos!"

When I was not buying cigs for Dad, I was buying a loaf of bread for Mum. Hemmings the baker's was at the other end of the street on the same side as Cosy Corner. Here I often bought a crusty loaf, always white bread in those days. I don't think wholemeal was available in our local shops, as we had never heard of "healthy eating". Nevertheless the food my mother provided was very varied, even when money was short Hemmings issued a ticket with every purchase, recording the amount spent. When we had collected about one pounds worth, we were entitled to a free box of cakes, costing one shilling. I used to hang about outside Hemmings, as many customers dropped their receipts, and would pick these up, so that every two months, I had gathered enough to get this free box of cakes, twelve in a box, and I preferred them to my mother's home-made cake, in that strange way of children. Mum's home-made cake was usually in two parts, baked as one cake, one side contained caraway seeds, the other currants and sultanas. The caraway side was for Dad; he preferred this.

Opposite Hemming's was a public house, the only building left still standing today from the old May Street, which was demolished, around the mid-seventies to construct a block of flats in the form of an estate. The pub was called "The Clarence". Every Sunday I would call at the side entrance, an "off-licence" section, for a pint bottle of Watneys' Indian pale ale.

I set off for the off-licence one Sunday morning to buy a pint of ale to go with Sunday dinner and was proudly bearing it home, when for some reason I had to cross the road. As always, when the coast was clear, I almost run across. This habit was acquired because my father was always shouting "Hurry across the road." He meant "Be careful!" Yes, I did look each way, up to three times before crossing. In the middle of the road, I dropped the bottle of ale, which broke into many fragments. Not a drop of drink was left. Only the stopper remained whole. I sat down in the middle of the road and cried, fearing my father's ire, and for a few moments, careless of the traffic. But perhaps I did stumble to the road side to continue crying. A middle-aged man crossed over to see what was the matter with me. I had never been told not to talk to strangers, at least not in our street, so I told him, that my father would be very cross, and I was afraid to go home now. He said, "Don't worry, Have you got the stopper?". I picked it up.

He said "The Public House will replace the bottle, if you go straight back and tell them you have dropped the bottle, and show the stopper." This cheered me up, and I thanked this kind stranger, but only half believed him. But I went back to the off-licence and they did replace the bottle of beer. I thanked them profusely. The stranger had told me this was the usual policy . But I'm not sure about that. All I know is that they probably recognised me, and whether it was their usual policy or not, they replaced the bottle of Indian pale ale. When I got home, I said "Here's the beer, Dad"; that was all I said. I did not tell my father of this incident. I remembered this man for long afterwards but did not see him again. Neither did I ever drop another bottle of beer in the street. I was very, very careful.

There is not so much more to relate about the street. On Saturday mornings, my cousin Leonard would often visit to play with me. He was an only child also, with no other relations nearby. Aunt Violet, his mother had been a widow since he had been eighteen months old. One of the games he liked playing was "car spotting". Probably about 12 to 20 cars per hour passed by on Saturday mornings. There was no roadside parking. Probably no-one living in our street owned a car. The shopkeepers may have had small vans. At that time cars were owned by "the gentry".

The object of the game was to spot the make of car. The usual makes were Austin and Morris, with occasionally a Bedford van. My cousin told me this. It was his game and he was better at it than I was. At the end of an hour he had spotted about 6 Austins and possibly 3 Morris's if he was lucky. He did not usually miss a car. But I was usually only able to see the make of two cars, before they had whizzed by. We were both standing safely on the pavement, and to see the insignia on the front of the cars was quite difficult. Occasionally there passed a rarer make of car, unknown to Leonard.

Horses also used the street. There was the coalman, the rag and bone man, and sometimes someone calling out "Apple a pound pears!" or that was what it sounded like, but he passed by early on Saturday mornings, before I had got up. My father saw the horse manure in the middle of the road and coveted it for his small back garden. He would ask Leonard to scoop it up for him, but Leonard always refused. I said "I would do it!" but he refused this offer, saying it was too dirty a job for me. I don't know who cleared up the horse manure. Street cleaners would work before children came out in the mornings , so I never saw them. But I did see the lamplighter. There were gaslamps in the street, one just outside our house, and I would often watch the lamplighter lighting this lamp on winter evenings, from the upstairs front window.

Sometimes, an old man would set up a piano at the end of the street near Cosy Corner. When this happened , I think my mother would say "Keep away! These are not nice people". This man had a monkey who sat on the piano, and was accompanied by a woman who danced, wearing fancy dress. Mother liked animals. She would have considered this treatment of the monkey unsatisfactory. Aside from this, these people were asking for money, of which we had little. So usually, I just observed these people from a distance.

But the street corner bookmaker was a popular figure. The bet was "Sixpence each way!" and one horse was selected. I would be asked to go up to this man, when he was out and about on Saturday mornings, and place this bet. But I was told, "Make sure there isn't a policeman about!" I enjoyed the frisson of excitement I got from doing this. We were very honest people in the street on the whole. Back doors could be left open. But somehow, we were wary of policemen. Perhaps I had been told when very small, "If you are naughty, a policeman will take you away!"

George V celebrated his silver jubilee in 1935. This was the occasion of our first street party. A special holiday from school was given, and the children received Silver Jubilee mugs. In the morning, we took our small Union Jacks to wave, when the King and Queen passed by, in their horse-drawn carriage, and to watch the accompanying procession through the streets in Central London. I'm not sure where my family stood. It was probably in the Royal Borough of Kensington, near Kensington Gardens; this being our nearest large park, we knew it well.

I did not appreciate this event. Being seven years old, I could not see over the heads of the people in front, and got tired of waiting. But while we had been away the street had been decorated; strings passed high across the street from upstairs windows on one side to those on the other side. The men of the street must have got their ladders out while the rest of the family watched the morning procession. The decorations were mainly multi-coloured rags cut in strips, with a few prominent Union Jacks. There were very few commercial paper decorations, the street dwellers could not afford these. Sitting at trestle tables beneath the gay streamers, the children had a street party. We wore coloured hats from crackers, as if it were Christmas. As there were no parked cars, and little traffic in residential streets, these parties were easy to arrange by the street dwellers themselves. The women of the street had co-operated to make jellies and cakes; there was much excitement and jubilation, and as we drank our tea, we said "God bless the King!"

For days afterwards, my mother took me for walks round nearby streets, admiring the decorations, which were left up for a week or more. Fane Street was a narrow alley. May Street people looked down on it, but it too had marvellous decorations, and we wondered how the people there had managed it. I voted it the best display. Incidentally, Fane Street has survived to this day, and is now a gentrified street, unlike demolished May Street.

There was a similar street party in 1937 for the Coronation of George VI. In between, I had heard my mother talking about the Duke of Windsor, and got the impression that no-body wanted Mrs Simpson to be Queen because she was American. "Why not have an American Queen, I asked". "It would be fun!". I had not heard about divorce, and the rules then governing divorce in the royal family.

My aunt May was always a keen royalist. She always loved to talk about Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, and there were articles about them in the women's magazine my mother read. Mother liked to gossip about them, but not so much about the serious news, at least not when I was around.

But when Stephen King Hall attempted to give a talk on the "News for Children", my parents urged me to listen I did not take their advice; preferred reading scandal stories secretly in the "News of the World", and it was not until the war started that I began reading the Daily Express regularly, and started to listen to the news on the wireless.

I thought I was seeing the last of May Street in September 1st 1939 when I took a taxi from our house to Liverpool Street Station with my parents. This was my first taxi ride and I wondered where we going. The destination was Liverpool Street Station, there were blockages in the roads; we did not think we would reach Liverpool Street, and for once in a while my father seemed to have sufficient money; he kept giving the taxi driver something extra so that we could find a way round.

"Why go away. Perhaps the war will not start", I thought. Late that day we arrived at my grandmother's house in Manningtree, Essex. I did not see the street again until 1940, when I returned for a few months, but never again did I see it in a relaxed mood, and it never again seemed so friendly as it had been in the late 1930's.

before after

Index

What does she do
when she is not drinking tea?
Find out even more
about Joan's work

Index

Beer

Betting

Cars

Coronation

Cosy Corner

Errands

Games

Horses

Lamp Lighter

Silver Jubilee

Street Piano

War

Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.