East End Memories

THE EMPRESS, MARE STREET, HACKNEY

PART TWO – MAY I HAVE A PENNY, PLEASE?

I had a moneybox as a child that was in the form of a till or cash register. It had a few levers, which when pressed down, rang up an amount of money and at the same time caused a drawer to open. Mercifully, it also had a No Sale lever that allowed the opening of the drawer without an intention of making a deposit. It would therefore seem easy for me to get the necessary money to buy a ticket on the following Monday to see How to Marry a Millionaire were it not for the fact that the cupboard, or rather the drawer, was bare. Obviously I had spent what money I had. I was now faced with having to get nine pence by Monday, a mere three days away! If I wanted to get to the cinema by bus, then another three pence would be needed for the ride there and back on the number 653 trolleybus. The total amount required was therefore one shilling. By today’s standards, this amount is nothing – five new pence – ten cents – a dime! However in 1953, this amount actually bought something and was, to a child, no small amount. Still, never say die! I had the weekend to find the money.

The reader might be wondering why I did not ask my parents for the money. I did not want to chance this at this time, as I knew full well that my mother would not allow me to go to Hackney alone and since neither she nor my father would be able to accompany me as they would be working, I could not go. The reader should remember that her reticence regarding Hackney was not as a result of the Borough being especially dangerous, but was rather a matter of my age. She undoubtedly would have felt that I was far too young to go alone, thereby ending any chance I had of going. No, I had to come up with the money myself and then sneak away, see the film and return home with my parents being none the wiser. Of course, I reasoned, if I failed to come up with the necessary money, I planned to throw caution to the wind since I had nothing to lose and ask them for the money.

Meanwhile, I had to think and come up with a way to get the necessary shilling. I knew on that Friday afternoon that it wasn’t going to be an easy task, but I was driven. I had to see the film and so set about thinking of a way to come up with the money. After a while, an idea came into my mind that most certainly would have given me to the necessary money. I would have pursued this idea to the end were it not for the fact that immediately it came into my mind, it caused me to shudder and to feel instant shame. The reader may agree that a conscience puts paid to many a good plan!

My mother was a great believer in insurance. Every other Monday morning, the insurance agent called to pick-up the premiums. This was common-place in those days and these men would walk from shop to shop and house to house collecting a small amount of money from each. I don’t ever recall hearing of any that were robbed, but I suspect some were. My mother would put the required amount into a money bag that she had received from the bank whenever she collected change for the shop from them. She kept the bag in the lower left-hand drawer of the sideboard in the parlour so as to have easy access to it once the insurance man came to call.

I was brought up to be honest. This was drummed into me as a child by my mother. She said that stealing was a crime and that once a person committed a crime, they lost their good name. And once lost, this was something that could never be got back. To her and to most people of her generation, having a good name was vital to their existence. On that Friday afternoon, I had thought about her little stores of money about the house and of the insurance money in the lower left-hand drawer of the sideboard and wishing that I could help myself to some. Despite a strong wish to lift some since I really wanted to go to the pictures, the thought of losing my good name was too awful to bear. It caused me to shudder and to feel a sense of shame. I was left with the knowledge that if I were to go to the pictures on the following Monday, then I would have to come up with it another way. As I said, a conscience and a sense of doing right can often seem to take the joy out of life.

On the Saturday, I remember trying to be, what I thought, was especially helpful. I offered to do things about the house in the hope that it might bring me some pennies, but what I was offering to do turned out to be the jobs that I was supposed to do! In desperation I offered to make some tea for my father in the afternoon. I thought that this might soften him up and that it might cause him to give me a reward. Tragically, my tea never came up to my father’s expectation and he was furious that his son was such a failure when it came to this art! Following my dismissal from the kitchen, I went up the Waste, the market on Whitechapel Road, in front of the London Hospital. Surely someone would have dropped a penny or two and I might then be lucky enough to pick it up. I remember that I had once found a sixpence as I was crossing Brady Street and hoped to be as lucky again. Alas, there was no treasure trove on the streets of Whitechapel on that afternoon. I went to Paul’s stall where he gave me some money to buy him a cup of tea and a drink for me. I remember asking the cafe owner if he would give me the cost of the drink rather than the drink itself. Either he did not hear or he chose not to hear me and I left with a cup of tea for Paul in one hand and an orange drink for me in the other. Where were the streets paved with gold that filled story books, I wondered?


The Waste

Tomorrow was Sunday and I would then be desperate. However, what is it that they say? Something about it is always darkest before the light?

My father had the habit of disappearing periodically when I was a child. Quite suddenly, for what would seem for no apparent reason, he would take off and be gone for a week or so. Not only did he go, but would do so without telling my mother where or why he was going. During his absence, we sat and worried, not knowing where he was. All we knew that he had left, taking all of the available money with him and was obviously enjoying spending it on drink for himself and others.

My father would return as suddenly as he left. Despite my mother’s demands, he never said where he had been. He returned home without any of the money that he had taken from my mother’s store that she kept in a cash box for food and sundry expenses. Should this amount prove too little for his needs, he would pawn one of his suits. Whenever he ran off, my mother always checked behind a large mirror in the parlour, and invariably found a pawn ticket. Once such a ticket was found, we knew that my father would not be seen for a week or so.


EastEnd Pawn Shops
The Dundee Arms was once a Pawn Shop

My father’s refusal to tell my mother where he had been while away both frustrated and annoyed her. My mother was hurt and never understood why my father needed to run off, giving no thought to us. Whenever she would ask where he had gone or if he was aware that he had left us with money for food, he would sit in his chair and remain silent. He never offered us any explanation to account for this behaviour.

When I was a little older, my parents gave up the pie and mash business and my father went to work for British Railways. Unfortunately, a change in profession did not cause him to change his way and he still continued to ran off periodically. While my parents had the pie and mash shop, my mother maintained the business in my father’s absence and opened as usual. Following our move, she was no longer chained to the business and I recall that on one of my father’s excursions, she decided to see if he had gone to visit some of his relatives who were living in South London. Although my mother liked very much my father’s father and stepmother, she did not like his stepmother’s children from her first marriage.

My father had a half-sister, named Florence, known as Florrie, who had led a life dedicated to fun and frivolity and was renowned for her poor taste in men. She and her husband of the time, a man known as Wagie, suffered from the constant need to move home since neither worked with any frequency and had problems paying the rent. As soon as they scraped together any money, they would spend it on drink and betting. My mother never warmed to Florrie and we only saw her on rare occasions – very rare occasions.

I cannot remember the reasoning, but once when my father had taken off, my mother seemed convinced that he was billeted with these family members. I am unsure how, but my mother had obtained Florrie’s current address and she was determined to find out if her hunch was true. And so my mother and I crossed the river and went to Camberwell, which was where Florrie and Wagie lived.


Camberwell Green

I remember getting off the bus at Camberwell Green and walking along an endless number of little streets before finally arriving at the house. My mother knocked at the door. Florrie opened it and appeared somewhat frightened. Immediately, she began making excuses in a very nervous voice to account for my father’s presence in her home. My mother, with me in tow, entered the house and found my father sitting at the kitchen table alone. Apparently Wagie was somewhere else. We did not miss not seeing him. My mother was furious both with my father and with Florrie. Both sat at the table with their eyes down and said nothing. I remember my mother asking Florrie if she was not aware that the drinks that my father had bought for her had been purchased with money that should have bought food for me! Florrie had sense enough not to answer, but continued to stare at her hands folded in her lap.

Click to enlarge!Although this situation may sound Victorian and melodramatic, it was nonetheless true, I am sorry to say. Once my mother had finished expressing her opinion of both Florrie and my father, she announced that she and I were going home. My father, still looking sheepish, got up and spoke for the first time. He said, not daring to look at either of us, that he would accompany us home. Prior to sweeping out the door with my silent father and I, my mother turned and advised in quite strong terms the pathetic Florrie to discourage any such future visits from my father. I don’t recall ever seeing my half-aunt ever again.

Although my father was caught at his half-sister’s home, a place I am sure that he had gone to numerous times before, he did not change his ways. He continued to disappear for many years to come.

With time and the ability to earn sufficient money to take care of our immediate needs, my mother eventually gave up worrying about him. Once she reached this position, whenever he went away, she would shrug her shoulders and say let him get on with it. However, while I was still very young, my mother was shaken whenever such a disappearance occurred. His behaviour hurt her very much and she could never understand why he went. Despite this, and being a practically minded woman, my mother knew that she had to take charge and see that we were fed and clothed and had a roof over our heads since she could not rely on my father to help provide for us at all times. Fortunately, early in my mother’s married life, she realised that she had married a man who might be gone at any minute. As a result she sensibly took control, and thanks to the good habits learned as a girl, she was able to take care of us while my father was away.

When my mother was a child, she lived in one of the poorest areas of the East End of London. At that time, people earned very little money and learned to live on very little, or, as they used to say, lived from hand to mouth. Many families in Bethnal Green had to rely on the goodwill of the various Missions and Societies that existed, such as the Salvation Army, to feed them when they were unable to make ends meet. At that time, very few people were ever able to save any money and no one had a bank account. Once things began to improve, whenever working people were able to scrape together some meagre savings, they began to deposit it in an account at the Post Office. Here their money was safe and it earned interest, albeit little by today’s standards.

When I was a child, the Post Office was still the primary place where savings were kept. I remember my mother taking me to the Post Office in Aldgate at a very young age to open a savings account. I was always very happy when it came time for me to empty my moneybox of the pennies, threepenny pieces and any other coins that I had been lucky enough to save. I would count the coins and put them into various piles and note how much I had to take to the Post Office for deposit. It was with great pride that after standing in line at the Post Office for what always seemed to be an eternity, I put my coins on the counter along with my book and waited for the man to check the amount. Once this was done, he wrote the amount in my book and then calculated the new total. He then returned the book to me and, after thanking him, I would walk with pride out of the Post Office.

At that time, very few, if any, had cheque books. Most things were bought on a cash basis or on hire purchase, which was just beginning to grip the nation. Credit cards had yet to be used by working people.

Fortunately for us, my mother had developed the habit of saving. Although she was unable to save very much on a regular basis, what she did save added up and proved to be a life saver when needed. My mother wisely did not share the knowledge of this hidden account with my father and kept it safe for use only in the case of a rainy day. When my father disappeared with our available cash, we did not starve since she would draw on her emergency funds. Having had a difficult childhood herself with too little to eat and with too little money, she knew how to stretch a shilling to its utmost, thank goodness.

In addition to having an emergency fund, my mother also had small stores of money about the house. She had learned to do this from Bubba and Zayde when she was a child. They, as I have said came from Russia, and had undoubtedly been victims of discrimination. As a result of this, they, and many other Jews, knew that they might have to run at any minute in order to save themselves. This meant leaving their home and their possessions behind and taking only the clothes that they wore. Knowing this, they were certain to keep a coin or two in the pockets of their coat, trousers and handbag. My mother has noticed this and asked Bubba why she did this. My mother took heed of her explanation and adopted the custom for the remainder of her life. I have to admit that whenever my father flew into a drunken rage when I was a child and we fled the house in fear of our lives, neither of us left the house penniless! The reader might be amused to learn that the odd coin is found in every coat that I own as well as in all other garments that have a pocket. One never knows when one might have to run!

Anyway, despite my being brought up to save money and having a Post Office account, I found myself with what is now called a cash flow problem. I had no liquid cash, as my empty moneybox proved and I had no obvious means of making the necessary money. So how was I going to get hold of a shilling?

The reader may be asking wasn’t it now the time to throw myself on the mercy of my parents and ask them for the money? It was still on Sunday. I had the whole of the day yet. Perhaps some miracle would happen. Perhaps some way might be found yet.

What was I saying earlier about it is always darkest before the light? When I was a child, the public houses of Britain opened for the licensed drinking of alcoholic beverages at noon on Sundays. And a short time after the doors were opened to the welcomed public, my father would cross Cambridge Heath Road and enter The White Hart public house and imbibe a few bevies. Often he would drink just enough to cause him to feel happy and return home in a jolly mood. Other times he would return having drunk too many drinks and would be in a fighting mood and we would be ready to run. On this Sunday, and I thank God for this still, he returned home in a particularly jolly mood. My father never gave me any pocket money. After all, he needed his money to buy drinks for himself and total strangers, didn’t he? My pocket money came from my mother and she had strict ideas about how and when it should be spent. Although she had my best interests at heart, I found her demands to be somewhat excessive at times. There was one good thing about my father when he was drunk and in a jolly mood and this was that he would become generous, both with words of affection and with the giving of money!

My father was never able to eat his Sunday lunch since he was generally full from drinking. He would start to eat, but soon push his plate away barely touched. By now he was on the verge of falling asleep and was at his most vulnerable. This was my window of opportunity and I seized it with both hands and asked him for …… a penny. His eyes opened and I remember that he immediately put his hand into his pocket. This action disturbed his equilibrium and he began to fall sideways. As he did I jumped up and ran to save my dear Daddy! To steady himself, he placed a hand on my shoulder and with his other hand, he dragged out the coins from his pocket and dropped them on the table. This action seemed to exhaust him and he remained still for a minute or two. Suddenly, he turned and looked at me and examined my face in depth. This was now my great chance. I looked back at him and tried to appear as charming and as sweet as I possibly could and gave him a loving smile. I must have succeeded, as immediately tears to filled his eyes and, what I can only assume was guilt, seized hold of him. At such a time as this, I suspect that all of his past crimes returned to him. As the tears began to slip down his cheeks, he grabbed me and brought me close to him. He kissed me a number of times on the cheeks and between sobs told me how much he loved me. While I was being grabbed, held and kissed, I caught a glimpse of my mother as she raised her eyes to heaven, as if to say so why don’t you show it when you’re sober? My father was now in a fully-fledged sentimental state and, after releasing me a little so that I could once again breathe, he began to tell my mother and I again and again, between his tears, how much he loved us and that we could have anything he owned. The last part of his remark was redundant since the poor man owned practically nothing. This was because whenever he did have something he quickly drank away it away in the company of his cronies. Despite this, I took him up on his offer and once again asked him for a penny. Slowly and purposefully, he reached out took up some of the coins on the table and next pressed them into mine. He repeated this gesture several times. By the time this display of love was over, I had every coin that was in his pocket – coppers (pennies), ha'pennies (half-pennies), two bob bits (florin, two shilling pieces), tanners (sixpences), thrupenny bits (three pence coins) and a couple of half-a-dollar pieces (half-crown).  This was quite a windfall.  Needless to say, I was overjoyed to receive such wealth and I was most grateful to my Daddy for his generosity.

While my mother helped my father up the stairs to bed, I counted my money and quickly hid sufficient monies for my needs. I now had the necessary capital to finance the purchase of a cinema ticket as well as for the bus fare, there and back, and for an ice cream to be enjoyed during the interval prior to the start of the big picture. Upon my mother’s return to the table, she asked me how much the old sod had given me. I told her truthfully the amount that now stood in proud piles before me on the table. She said that I should save the major part and put it in my money box since you never know when you might need it! She said that I could keep a small amount and spend it as I chose. I thanked my mother for her sound advice and part of me admired her for her concern for that rainy day, which would one day turn up. I knew then that she was right to suggest that I save my great windfall, since one never knew if, or when, it might occur again. Knowing my mother’s ways had caused me to sequester away the necessary funds to support my excursion without her knowledge. This was vital since the desire to go to the pictures the next day had been so strong and could not be resisted. I am still not proud of my deceit, but desperate situations require desperate measures, don’t they?

FOOTNOTE


The City of Vienna

As I said, my father did not offer any heart-felt apologises for his actions to either my mother or me while I was young. Upon his return, he was always penniless and extremely quiet. He offered no explanation, no excuse and no apology. On occasion, when he was drunk, he might weep and beg forgiveness for his past actions. Such weeping and begging did not take place when he was sober. Regardless of these drunken displays of regret, he continued to disappear at periodic intervals.

It wasn’t until years later, once I had finished college and was living abroad, that my father finally admitted to his poor behaviour. This came in the form of a letter that he had written to me while I was Vienna. I was still young at this time and at the beginning my career. I had gone to Vienna to give a presentation at a scientific meeting. Regrettably, the conference planners had arranged for me to stay at a large and fancy hotel in the centre of the city. They obviously had mistaken me for a wealthy professor with unlimited funds and a wish to see and be seen. Although my fare and conference fees were paid for by my university, I was expected to pay the costs of the hotel myself. Unfortunately, my position was such that my monthly salary was small. After looking at this glorious hotel, it did not take me long to realise that I could not afford to stay there. What I needed was a simple pension, a small hotel without superfluous opulence. I promptly cancelled my reservation and soon found a charming little hotel with kindly staff where I had an enjoyable stay.


The Sacher Hotel

Unfortunately, my father believing me to be staying at that grand and glorious hotel in Vienna, addressed his letter to me, care of the hotel. It took about three months for the letter to be returned to him and then forwarded to me. I felt very sorry for him once I finally read the letter since he must have been under the impression that I had ignored its contents. My father wrote me a charming letter that contained his regrets for his past behaviour. He said that he felt shame when he thought about the times that he had returned home drunk. He apologised for the times when he disappeared and for the times that he missed during my childhood.

My father had written many letters to me while I was away at college and when I lived abroad. He mostly took dictation from my mother, but he did add little bits himself. According to my father, he left school without being able to read or write. He said that he was unable to concentrate on any lesson other than woodwork and preferred to play truant. It wasn’t until he left school when he was fourteen years of age that he taught himself to read and write. He said that he did this by copying words and sentences from the newspaper. Although his sentence construction and spelling were not perfect, his letters were understandable and a delight to read. I was always appreciative of them and understood the effort that they took to write.

As a result, I was greatly appreciative of the letter that he wrote to me while I was in Vienna. It must have not only taken him a great deal of time to write, but also a great deal of pain and regret. I still have his letter. I keep it along with a number of other treasures in what was once his cufflink and stud box. His letter went a long way to helping me forgive my father for his past actions. Every now and again, sometimes when I notice his box, I open it and take out his letter and reread it and experience the bitter-sweetness of its contents once more.

Click here!
Click on the picture for a video clip


I would like to thank Mr. Brian Hall and Mr. Kevin Wheelan for their kindness in allowing many of their pictures to be reproduced here.

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins