by Alan Piper Secretary of The Brixton Society
Although I have come across many reminiscences of Brixton life, they tend to concentrate on the landmarks - the buildings, the markets and so on - most of which are still familiar today, in spite of many changes. It is refreshing then to find an account like this which also takes us into daily life in Brixton before 1940, because it is the ways in which people lived and worked which have changed far more than their surroundings.
In these pages we see Brixton just starting to change after half a century of relative stability. Blocks of flats were beginning to replace the older houses. Young people were becoming more footloose and ready to travel further to work.
Recent years have seen a much greater turnover of population; as families disperse new people move in and then move on again within a few years. At least this means that many more people are now familiar with our comer of South London, and I hope that, like Dora, they have some happy memories of it. I know that members of the Brixton Society include former residents who like to keep in touch with their old haunts, as well as recent arrivals who want to get involved and understand their adopted area.
Dora herself has been instrumental in bringing together many of the former "Kids of Ferndale Court" who grew up in the City Police flats between 1929 and 1967, but who are now scattered around the country, or beyond. I hope those contacts will continue and that this book will encourage others to record something of their own life in Brixton.
Front cover photograph:
Edwardian Brixton Series (BX5) Published 1992 by The Brixton Society.
The vehicles and clothing were different but the roads and layout of the buildings were much the same in 1920/30. The gardens near the Tate Library can be clearly seen, surrounded by railings.
Extracts from My Brixton Childhood
" As I grew older I was allowed to take children outside the Court. Sometimes I tied string round jam jar tops and we set off, with fishing nets, to walk to Clapham Common to catch "tiddlers". The boys removed their shoes and socks and the girls tucked their dresses into their knicker legs and, also barefoot, waded into the pond with the nets. I stayed on the bank with the jars, minding the clothes. When we had caught enough fish, we had a picnic on the grass - lemonade and biscuits provided by one of the Mums; then we started the long trek home. We shared out the tiddlers on one of the window-sills so everyone had a share, whether they had caught any or not - that was fair.
Most cars were black. I did not know anyone whose father owned a car. One day, on the way home from Brockwell Park, in a scrap yard down Effra Road, I saw a toffee-coloured Austin Seven car - priced at 125 Os.0d. Oh, if only I could save that amount of money I would buy it for my Dad so he'd be dry instead of wet on his old motor bike. But of course I never could.
• From the window of the semi-basement living-room we could see passers-by - as far up as their waists! A strange view of the pedestrians. One Christmas, just as Mum was serving the turkey dinner, we were aware of shadows above our window. Two small girls, minus knickers, were peering down at our wonderful spread. It was Christmas Day and they had no coats.
Mum said, "We just can't sit down and eat while those little mites watch us". Dad said, "You can't give them dinner. Their parents would object to that".
Mum selected two little iced cakes and two thick glasses which she filled with milk, and took them upstairs and outside. She called the little girls and asked them if they would like to have a little Christmas Party on their own - and be sure to put the empty glasses on the step when they had finished. They sat down on the kerb and munched and sipped, then returned the glasses, came and grinned down at us through the window, then skipped away. And we did enjoy our Christmas Dinner.
One day Mr. Marney told me to erect a pyramid of eggs. Never again! I started off on a square cardboard egg divider, one egg in each little cup. Then an egg was placed between each egg on the first layer and so on to the top. When I reached the final two tiers I was sweating and my hands were "all of a tremble". What if it all fell down as I put the last egg in place? But it did not fall and I was never asked to erect a pyramid again. Perhaps it was a test?
My husband died in 1978. The following year, as I was tending the Tack family graves in the churchyard at Papworth St. Agnes, memories of the life we had lived together in this village came flooding back to me. I thought how sad it was if all record of the inhabitants and life as it was lived here in the 1940s when I met my husband and set up home became extinct and unremembered. Now new houses were being built, new people moving in; old cottages had disappeared and old families had died out.
I went into the redundant and dilapidated church and as I looked round the dusty ruins my eye lighted on an old red hassock. Immediately I felt a strong desire to take it home as a reminder of days gone by - but I decided I couldn't and shouldn't. As the sun streamed through the roof thes of the nave, I had an idea. Instead of boring my grandchildren and friends with oft-repeated stories of days gone by, I would write the story down. I put the old, dusty hassock on the rubble-strewn floor and did not see it again. I drove home and started to write straight away.
This is my story
From Chapter 7
The lavatory seat was made of a large oblong piece of wood with a smooth hole, adult bottom size, and on a lower level a smaller piece of wood with a child-size hole, so parent and child could sit side-by-side doing their daily duty in their respective buckets. The large zinc lavatory bucket was shaped like the old brass coal scuttles I had seen in second-hand furniture shops in London, oval in shape, sloping upwards at both ends of the oval, with a handle across the top to make it easier to grasp for tipping out the contents when it was full and heavy.
On another occasion I had need to occupy the lavatory for a "big job". I was seated on the wooden seat, just reaching for some lavatory paper, when I felt a mighty draught up my bottom and a hand appeared and removed the bucket. There I was, with a soiled piece of paper in my hand and nowhere to put it! I folded it into a clean piece of paper, took it indoors and placed it in my handbag for disposal later on. When Frank came home he roared with laughter at the incident. Apparently it was Ken's task every Saturday to dig a hole, remove the bucket, empty its contents into the hole, thoroughly clean the bucket and return it. The operation took about ten minutes and he always did the task at the same time, so all the family knew they must keep out of the "lav" then. I told Ken about my escapade. He was highly amused and remarked that he grew the best potatoes in Papworth St. Agnes - and put it down to the quality of the bucket contents. Ken was quite a lad! You may be sure that I did not let it happen again_
Dora Tack was born in Peckham and lived in Brixton until 1940 when she hurriedly escaped from the bombing to rural Huntingdonshire. This book describes the difficulties of a London office girl in adjusting to the rural way of life, how she fell in love and married a farm worker and the difficulties of life in a tiny village. Papworth St. Agnes had no gas, electricity, running water or sewers; a visit from a doctor to a sick child cost nearly a day's pay. Rural communities were friendly and supportive, but even that caused problems until she overcame her London reserve. For a while she worked as a telephonist at Papworth Hospital, then left to have a family.
In some ways her life was removed from the war. But there were local airfields and the Home Guard and she offered hospitality to a stream of delighted evacuees from London. She describes routine activities (and in those days most of life was taken up with routine activities), with humour, and shows herself through experience growing to accept a less comfortable way of life which was still minimally changed by 20th century conveniences.
Throughout her life, Dora Tack has corresponded with friends, so, although this is her first book, she has a practised and fluent manner of writing. She is also an entertaining speaker. She is happy to visit groups and schools to talk about her life and display some of the tools and utensils mentioned in the book.
A Maze of Memories: Hilton - Huntingdonshire 1948-1958From the Introduction by Richard Garnett:
Imagine a place where almost everybody labours for small pay and long hours on the land, even women work in the fields. Few people have cars, they go to work on bicycles, or take a bus into the nearby town to shop when they can afford it. Some have piped water but many still fetch their water from the pump or the rainwater tank and have to use a bucket at the bottom of the garden for a lavatory. And when a women needs to take a bed to a neighbouring village she thinks nothing of loading it on to a pram and pushing it all the way with the two children in tow.
No, we are not in poverty-stricken India or war-torn Bosnia, but in Hilton - an ordinary English village less than half a century ago and the story Dora Tack has to tell - apart from serious alarms about their own and her children's health - is a perfectly ordinary everyday story of country-folk. What makes it so fascinating is that in its material details it is so unlike our lives today. With all our present anxieties and our concerns for the future we all too easily forget how immeasurably better off we are now than we were only forty-five years ago.
'File author of this book is peculiarly well fitted to tell the tale. She was an outsider, the daughter of a London policeman, who knew nothing of the country until forced to leave the city because of the Blitz. It all seemed as strange to her then as it does to us now and so she sees with special clarity the strangeness of many things that country people took for granted. She also has the peculiar knack of making quite mundane activities - using Reckitt's Blue for the washing or Zebo on the grate - seem important to us. We have here a moving personal record which will be read with great interest not only by those who enjoyed the previous book, From Bombs to Buckets, and everyone in Hilton who wants to know what life in the village used to be like, but also by anyone who needs to be reminded how different things are now from what they were less than two generations ago and how fortunate we are to be living at this moment
Time passed and we settled down to our life in the cottage facing The Green at Hilton. Water gushing from the tap over the ,sink in the scullery was still much appreciated, but it was no longer the novelty it had been when we arrived from Papworth St. Agnes in 1948. A light bulb had been fitted in each room had I enjoyed the luxury of smut free ironing now I had the electric iron. We also had a grey Jackson electric cooker 'on the payments' from the Electric Shop in Huntingdon. The kettle was still oil the hob of the black-leaded grate and a large saucepan of '.soft' rainwater still simmered nearby for washing hair and body at the end of the day...
From the front windows of Grange Farm Cottage there was a good view of the Village Green, including the 'pavvy' opposite. Frank suggested that I might sit at one of the bedroom windows to watch when Hilton played home matches during the cricket .season. The subject of .sport had not cropped up before so I had to tell him that as yet I had no knowledge of, or interest in, cricket or football. I did not understand the fierce competition to win shown by the players and supporters at Hilton. Neither did I like the raucous, rude remarks hurled at the opposing teams by supporters who were sitting around the edge of the field on the grass. It seemed unnecessary to me, but Frank said it was all part of the fun of the game. l felt I would never understand...