A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to have the opportunity to talk with Harry about what he remembers of being a child. Harry is 91. It’s not often that we get opportunities like this and I urge everyone to take these up when they arise.
This interview discussion (posted here with Harry’s permission) was originally intended to focus soley on play back in, what I term, the ‘black and white days’! However, for various reasons, which will hopefully become apparent, the final transcription is more of a wider view of life in the 1920s. I usually interview people for this series with just the opening question. In Harry’s case, it’s a fine line between asking leading questions and offering further prompts to jog the memory. I hope I’m just the right side of the line.
Harry is in his own home. For most of the discussion he’s sat in his armchair with one leg slung over its arm! Also present are his daughter and three nieces, all in their sixties and seventies themselves (who help out by asking Harry questions too, and who are shown below as ‘others’)
This is a fairly long interview and blog entry, but I post it in full (including exactly the way that words were said – offering insight in itself) because I hope and trust that those who stay the course will get something out of it, as I did.
Me: Harry, how did you play?
[Others]: What happened at Christmas?
Father Christmas came, so they tell me.
[Others]: What did he bring you?
That’s the question . . . you had your pillow case, hanging up. Din’t have . . . well you should put a sock up but we used be a bit greedy – put a sack up, might get a bit more. You had the orange, the apples, all the fruits, wassname, and sweets and tin a sharp toffees . . . oh, gawd blimey, oh Christ, you’re creating a whatname now for me . . .
[Others]: Come on, get your brain in gear!
That’s what I’m trying to do . . . [garbled laughing] . . . that far back . . .
[Others]: Didn’t you have little cars?
Little cars? No, what I think . . . what . . . [long pause] . . . I used to . . . kites, I used to go for kites, we used to fly kites a lot in them days. We all had different shapes and sizes . . . you know? And, um . . .
Me: So how old were you then?
Five. Four or five . . . cos I was really from Portsmouth. I was born in Portsmouth.
[Others]: There was something else you used to do. Mudlarking?
Oh, mudlarking. Yeh.
[Others]: Where they throw pennies off the ferries, wasn’t it? And you jump in the mud . . .
They used to throw pennies in. They used to jump in, down at the harbour [mumbled reminiscence that isn’t clear]. Portsmouth Harbour [long pause] Going back a few years now. Going back a few years. I’m afraid so, yeh. Yeh. Mmm. Mmm. I used to potter around with . . . with the . . . we always used to be car mad, we all had . . . even though we couldn’t drive, we still had cars round here and we used to potter around in, and repair, or make out we were repairing, you know? And time came when . . . er . . in the end I joined the . . . wassname . . . I joined the army, joined the Territorial Army. And that’s where I started getting about a bit. You know? Seeing things and doing things, you know? And in the end finished up abroad.
[Others]: So what did you used to do after school?
After school? [Mumbles] Oh, blimey. To be frank, I haven’t a . . .
[Others]: Not when you left school . . . at four o’clock.
At four o’clock? You stayed at Battersea Park, up in the park. On the swings. And, er, on the lake, on the boating lake. Well, you know, the general everyday things, nothing spectacular . . .
Me: Not looking for the spectacular . . . it’s all the normal play I’m looking at. All the things that you forget that you do. That’s the really important thing. It’s the little things that you do when you were a child.
[Others conversation about fishing].
No, din’t go fishing. Used to go to Battersea Park a lot . . . no, no, I can’t think of anything really, anything outstanding, you know . . .
[Others]: It’s nothing outstanding, just things that you’d do. Just how did you spend your time? Was there a gang of you, or just a couple? Cricket, did you . . .?
Oh, well, well, them games . . . football and anything you like and that sort of thing . . . in Battersea Park, swings there and . . . and . . . oh, gawd . . .
Me: What year is this roughly . . . ? What year were you born?
In the war?
[Others]: No, what year were you born?
Year I was born? 1920. [Goes on to tell the exact date].
Me: So these memories of Battersea Park, they’re in the Twenties, yeh?
Yeh, but I lived in Portsmouth for a long while.
Me: When did you move away from Portsmouth?
Erm, I think we were . . . I came up to London, when [pause, goes through a couple of addresses, longer pause]. No, I can’t say . . .
Me: Roughly how old were you when you moved to London?
When I came from Portsmouth . . . came up to London [pause] . . . five. Four, five.
Yeh. About five. I went to . . . that’s right . . . left school at fourteen.
Me: So, did you have cars? That’s such a naïve question here, but I know nothing about the Twenties. Did you have cars then?
Twenties? [long pause] It’s funny . . . it’s nothing there that’s . . . that stays with me.
Me: Whereabouts did you play? Was it in a street, or in a field, or . . .?
No, Battersea Park. It was . . .
Me: Down the river? Battersea’s not far from the river is it?
Oh, on the . . . well, the Thames. Yeh, edge of the . . . side of the Thames, Battersea Bridge, Battersea Bridge Road.
Me: Did you ever play on the bridge? Or, in boats on the river or anything like that?
Oh, no, no, no, no. No.
Me: I’m just guessing now!
Don’t forget there wasn’t cars, or . . .
Me: That’s what I mean.
[Others]: He was a goody-goody!
No, I weren’t a goody-goody. I was blooming . . . pulled up several times.
[Others]: Well, what did you do to get pulled up?
[Others]: What did you do?
Well that’s a secret for me [smiles].
[Others]: There was women in that Battersea Park, weren’t there?
Oh, no. Wasn’t anything to do with them! I din’t get sent down or anything like, just got a severe reprimand. You know?
Me: Now it’s getting juicy! What did you do? I need to know.
We used to do crazy bloody things . . .
Me: Did you used to do what she [pointing at Harry’s niece] used to do and run down knock the copper’s hat off?
[Others]: Didn’t you do anything like that? Knock the copper’s hat off?
Oh, no, no.
[Others]: You were a goody-goody.
No, no. Well, din’t have coppers in them days. They were very few and far between. Not like they are now. I use to see if I could remember . . . coming out of school to see me across the road . . .
[Others]: Lollipop man, they are now.
Well, lollipop man they are now, but they used to be the old copper in them days . . . but no, copper-wise, very few. Unless something happened, and then they seemed to come from somewhere. You know? [Long pause]
[Others]: Did you have a bike when you were little?
Bike? Yeh. Oh, yeh. Three-wheeler for starters, then the . . . two-wheeler, then the bigger one, then the motorbike, then the car . . . then I drove the Guinness lorry, didn’t I? For forty years, forty-odd years, Guinness tanker. Where is she? There’s a model of her somewhere. Where the bloody hell is she? On the shelf, yeh . . .
[Goes on to tell a long account of work life on the Guinness tanker . . .]
Only had one serious accident . . . nobody was hurt. I just turned the tank over . . .
[Others]: Oh, well that’s all?! Just turned it over!
Well, we went down the ditch actually, and it just toppled over . . . got out alright . . . and the beer, no beer in it . . .
Me: No beer was harmed!
Din’t take a lot to pull it out . . . to be frank . . . even in the army it was, er, everyday sort of thing, you know, nothing spectacular . . .
Me: It’s just the everyday stuff in your childhood that I’m interested in.
Well, child, as I say, child . . .
[Others]: Did you have a special time when you had to be home by when you were a child?
I think my dad . . . cos he was a bit of a strict one, Dad . . . yeh . . . I think we were . . . we did have a wassname, but I can’t give you a clue as to . . . he was a bit of a strict one, you know, with the strap and all that. He got his belt . . .
[Others]: Was you ever late?
Oh, yeh. Two times. Oh, yeh, yeh. Yeh. But I was Mum’s favourite though. Mum used to take me up and I was alright. Yeh . . . yeh. But overall, I think going back over me life, I’ve got nothing to complain about . . . we’ve had our bits and pieces like everybody does in life, but they’ve just gone out the way, and I’m quite happy with what I’ve had. I’m happy . . . more than, more than happy. Yeh. Yeh. [Pause].
Me: What sort of things did you play with?
[Others]: Yeh. What sort of toys, or . . .?
Well, as I say, kite in the early days. Was a kite. And . . . dunno. To play with?
Me: Did you play with things that you found? Or things that were bought for you? Things that were made for you? Things that you made yourself?
Grand-dad used to make us scooters. With the ball bearings. Ball bearings, they was ball bearings. What they used. Car blocks, that connected the two together . . . and, as I say, tricycles . . . the three-wheeler . . . box at the back, that’s right . . . must confess, haven’t got nothing really exciting to . . .
[Others recount some of their own play stories to jog the memory]
. . . playing Cowboys and Indians . . . Oh, yeh.
Me: Back in the Nineteen-Twenties, linking to what you said about your father, what was, generally, the adults’ attitudes towards the children?
Very strict. Well, my dad was.
Me: What about all the other adults that you knew of? Were they all strict as well?
Mum . . . you ever got any trouble with Dad . . . smoothed it over.
Me: What about neighbours? Did neighbours look after you, or did they not care . . . ? What were their feelings towards you?
Er . . . [long pause] . . . I think in them days, that was family life, you know? . . . if you’d done . . . if the father thought you done something that he thought was . . . warranted a smack, you got it. But it was, as I say, then you always had Mum behind there, ready to smooth it all over. Then more and likely Dad would take you out and buy you something, a toy. He used to smooth that over and say, come on, take you down, and we used to go and buy . . . go in the shops and buy something for you.
Me: What sort of things did he buy? What sort of toys did he buy you?
Little cars. Little clockwork ones.
[Others recount some more of their own play stories]
[Others]: Knock down Ginger? Weren’t you naughty like I was . . .? You were a goody-goody!
No, I had a particular thing to do. Nothing like that. You know. Some of the things I did do, if I got caught I would have got sent down, I’ll tell you that much.
[Others]: That’s what we want to know! We want to know the stuff you did . . .
Oh, no, no . . . no. I’ve never spoke . . . talked about . . . no. That’s past memories. That’s . . . all that talking about it, it’s brought it back. You know . . . it’s gone, long while ago . . .
Me: That’s what happens when I talk with people about their childhoods: these things come back again.
But now, put it in its right perspective, it’s a bit of a problem now. You know. [Long pause].
Me: I need another question from someone.
[Others]: Did you have blonde hair?
Yeh, I was blonde, yeh. Fair, fair. Wasn’t called blonde.
[Others]: Funny how, when you see photos of children of that era, they’re all blonde with curly locks. And little smocks, and knickerbockers!
That’s right, yeh . . . oh, blimey . . . [laughs] . . . I was going to . . . drag me photos out and show you!
[Discussion on photos]
[Harry gets up to look for photos. Interview break.]
No. Nothing up there . . . might be under the drawers up there, laying loose . . .
[Further discussions on photos, and Harry promises to get more stories to his daughter when he’s had time to think on it all]
I got to be frank, but I’m losing it. You know. I sit here and . . . mind going round in a twirl.
Me: How do I say this? You’re more than twice the age of me and still with it!!
[Discussion on Harry trying to remember where he used to live in Portsmouth]
Now you brought it up, the wassname, it’s . . . I shall be up . . . it’ll be tormenting me now . . . I shall be . . . quietly be sitting in there, I shall go through all my papers and try and find . . . go back a bit, you know? See how far I can go back.
[Others]: If you find anything, write it down.
Yeh, I will do. Yeh.
Me: What is your earliest memory, without looking at your papers? What’s the furthest back you think?
Me: The youngest that you remember.
Well, er, down in Portsmouth, as you . . . then we moved up to London cos Dad got a job up there. He came out of the army from the First World War then. He come up and started working for, as I say, on steam wagons. You remember the . . . you remember them?
The Sentinels. There was the Trojans, the Trojans with the chimney up the front . . . and we met with the driver and the fire-man, and as a youngster I used to go on the coal rocks. I used to sit on the coal, and . . . and we used to go steaming [?] . . . taking with Dad round the brewery, around the pubs, if you like, in them days . . . dropping off the hog’s heads and things like that.
Me: That’s how you got into driving the trucks then?
[Others]: Do you know what, that’s something else you did when you were young . . .
[Others] Going on the back of, sitting on the coal box . . .
Me: How old were you there? Five, six seven?
Oh. Dear. [Pause]. Yeh . . . in them days, well about five, six, I suppose. Course, they din’t do long distance journeys then. It was only more local work, but it was still . . . it was the transport of them days. The steam wagon. Plus the pony and trap, and the horse and cart, and things like that. And the odd . . . small lorry that started to come in, but that’s the, er . . .
[Others]: There wasn’t any really cars on the street, was there?
Yeh. But then, as I say, steam wagons went out and more modern transport came in . . .
[Discussion on working for Guinness]
Me: So, when you were out on the coal . . . because there were no cars on the streets, were there children playing in the streets as well?
Yeh. Oh, yeh. Oh, yeh.
Me: Was there a lot of horse dung on the streets?
Played cricket. I mean even, wassname, used to play out on the street . . . and used to . . . you know. At Battersea, where we lived, there was a cul-de-sac, which was a, you know, dead end, sort of thing and, er . . .
[Harry goes off on a short tangent about people who lived there]
[Others]: But talking about horse dung, did you used to collect the horse dung . . .?
Oh, and flog it. Yeh.
Me: You used to collect it and make money out of horse dung?
Yeh. Yeh. Used to put it round the roses. It was smelly but . . . it paid.
Me: How much did you get for that then?
Only about thruppence. Three pee. Normally in them days, pennies and tuppences and you were well off. You had a couple of coppers in your pocket.
Me: How much . . . you got a bag for thruppence, or did you have to like, really . . .?
No, you might make . . . you might make, erm, a tanner [two and a half new pence]. You were a millionaire then, you were.
Me: So you used to collect the dung off the streets, stick it in a bag, go off and sell it to the gardeners?
Yeh. Used to, er . . . yeh. Well, we made a few coppers, you know? And, in them days, I mean, compared with now, if you made a sixpence in a day, you were a millionaire.
Me: What was the weekly wage?
If I remember . . . about four pound a week.
Me: So, if four pound a week is, like, average wage . . .
[Others]:No, that’s what his [Harry’s father’s] wage was.
Me: Well, yeh, I’m just trying to get an equivalent of . . . if you make . . . thruppence on a bag of horse dung, the equivalent to what that is to the weekly wage. How many pence in an old pound?
Pence? Pennies? Two hundred and forty pence.
Me: Two hundred and forty pence in an old pound, four pounds a week. That’s nine hundred and sixty pence, and you made thruppence on a bag of dung. That’s quite good pay actually when you think about it . . .
I mean, you were millionaires in them . . . when you got that amount of money . . . way back in them, I mean, compared with living . . . looking around now, I mean the houses were . . . how can I say? Just buildings, with four windows in, and a front door. And that was your house. Full stop. No gardens . . . lavvy, yeh [outside toilet] . . . when you went out to toilet, you took your candle and your stick, go out there in the dark. And the potty. Three of you using the potty at night, you can imagine in the morning . . . especially if someone missed their mark! They used to say to you, ‘Who done that?’; ‘I don’t know’; ‘Well, one of you done it’. You know . . .? ‘He did, he did.’
Me: Those are the sort of things I need to know about the Nineteen-Twenties, because that’s just, like, completely out of my sphere of understanding. I was born in the late Sixties, I know nothing about forty years before that.
Well, to be honest, it’s only very vague things that I can remember. Actually, it’s a time that I want to forget really because living was . . . it was existing really . . . weren’t living . . . I mean, Dad was working all hours for a poxy wage . . . I used to, er, I think we just, er . . . Sunday was the dinner day. We knew we was going to get a good dinner. Sunday. The rest of the week you just took a chance with what you come up with, you know? But Mum and Dad used to get their . . . make sure you had a good roast dinner . . . on Sunday . . . with pudding. Bit of rice pudding . . . milk pudding, rice was a favourite . . . if you had a rice pudding, you had a gay day [?]. Mum used to do a rice pudding. What was that you used to put in them . . .? Cinnamon. Nutmeg, weren’t it? Yeh. Nutmeg on it. Put nutmeg on it. Flavour it. Really lovely, yeh.
[Long discussion by others on various childhood drinks and feelings associated with these]
Me: I have another Nineteen-Twenties question, if you can remember this: school. Did you go to school? I don’t know.
Oh, I went to school alright, yeh.
Me: What was school like? Was it a good experience, bad experience . . .?
I was alright at school . . .
Me: What were the teachers like? Were the teachers strict or were they not, or good or bad or what?
Well, as far as I recall, I used to like school.
Me: What did you like about it?
Well, I think . . . when I was meeting the other boys and girls, of my age group. You know. But, as regards learning, no I don’t think I . . . well, I remember I used to get good reports . . .
[Others discuss their own school reports, and holidays]
We used to get the summer, used to get six, ten . . . no, about now [the same as now] . . .
[Others]: You never had these half terms . . .
Oh, no, no. Nothing like that. No.
[Others discuss the seasons, and playing with snow in the street]
Well, as I say, no traffic in them days, was there?
[Others discuss their own play stories, and Harry listens on . . .]
When it’s time to go, Harry stands and shakes my hand. It’s a warm handshake and I read a lot into it.