Bob has now been retired from full time work for 22 years. He lives in Lincolnshire, UK, close to his two daughters and five grandchildren.
Confessions of an East End Urchin
1940s, World War 2, Hitler bombing London in the Blitz, food shortages, rationing, poverty — a hard life for kids playing in the streets and on bomb sites.
This is me aged about 7 or 8 standing in the back garden of my house in East Ham, London. I'm standing on the spot where our Anderson Shelter used to be, so this was a few months after the end of World War 2. You can see the freshly replaced earth at my feet where the 3 or 4-foot deep pit had just been filled in, judging by the shovel and rake behind me.
My dad would have done that. Like most adults at that time, he was anxious to forget the war and move on, besides which I had three younger siblings aged 4 and 2 (twins) who needed a place to play, and the old corrugated iron shelter would have been very dangerous for toddlers.
The clothes I was wearing were probably just about all I had. I would have worn them to school, for playing out in the street, and probably Sunday best. The jacket was fashionable at the time, and ideal with its big pockets (as you can see, filled with all the junk boys collect). I was a bit of a "Just William", and a street urchin getting up to all the tricks kids of today are denied.
Updated 19th September 2014
East End Street Kids 1940s
I've no idea who the kids in this picture are, but they look just like the ones I went to school with, lived next door to, and "played in the street" with.
Playing in the street in those days did not just mean on the drive or the pavement outside the house as it might today. It meant literally anywhere within about a mile of home. My friends and I played and wandered wherever the fancy took us, from morning to dusk and sometimes after dark. We only came back if we were hungry or thirsty or had gotten hurt, and not always then!
What a fantastic playground the East End of London was in those days. There were bomb sites to investigate and climb over. We would search for "treasure", build camps and chuck stones and half-bricks at each other. There was the rubber dump which seemed to stretch forever, where old tyres from cars, lorries, tractors and even aircraft were piled up ready to be climbed over and crawled inside. There was the "dump", a vast area containing industrial slag heaps and discarded rubbish, where you could slide down the side of an enormous hill of black dust on a makeshift sled, or climb inside the rusting carcass of an abandoned vehicle.
There were rudimentary parks with small lakes and rivers where you could paddle, or catch "sticklebacks", or just chuck things in. There were trees, lamp-posts, walls that could be climbed. There were slow-moving horse-drawn delivery vehicles that you could run after and hang off the back of until the driver shouted and shook his whip at you. And finally, there was the railway at the top of my road where you could stand on the bridge and get covered in soot as a steam train passed underneath. When you got fed up with that, you could climb over the wall and play on the heaps of coal stored at the side of the tracks.
No wonder we were always filthy!!
Blitz Bomb Sites Everywhere: Kids' Paradise!
There were bomb sites all around us in East Ham in the 1940s. Unsafe buildings had been demolished and cleared of 90% of the rubble, but there was still enough left to keep us kids occupied day in day out.
Some sites, where several houses had been hit, were as big as half a football pitch, where gardens were included. Some had exposed cellars. They were great fun. I don't think we ever thought that these had once been people's homes or that the occupants had been killed. To us, they were just a glorious playground.
Grass and weeds had begun to take over and added to the jungle effect. We played "Cowboys and Indians" and galloped around re-enacting the latest films we had seen. We pointed two fingers at each other to simulate our six-guns and made "Peeoung!" noises supposed to be bullets ricocheting off rocks. When we shouted, "You're dead!", the other boy had to fall to the ground clutching his heart just like the "baddies" in the pictures.
Football in the Street
If there were enough kids out in the street, you could play football. There were no parked cars. Nobody in our street had one. Occasionally a delivery vehicle would come through but that only happened once or twice a day. So we would mark out goals in the middle of the road with our coats.
We all wanted to be Stanley Matthews, the great Stoke and Blackpool football hero, and arguments would break out. "I want to be him!" "You were him last time! It's my turn!" Someone else would chip in, "No it ain't! You said I could be 'im next time!"...
Arguments over, we were ALL Stanley Matthews. We'd start kicking a tatty old football about and doing lots of shouting. That's if somebody had a real football. More often than not, we made do with anything that was kickable, including tin cans or even somebody's school cap!
If a delivery van or cart came along, they would stop while we gathered up the "goals" before passing through. The drivers didn't seem to mind. Once they'd gone we carried on with our game.
Games We Played in the Gutter
The gutter on each side of all urban roads was defined by the kerb, a line of long, heavy granite stones about six inches high. The kerb signified the edge of the pavement. The gutter served to collect water when it rained and channel it along to the drains where it dispersed into the sewer pipes under the road. The gutter also made an ideal seat for 8-10 year olds to sit by the side of the road and play. The gutter, when dry, was also the perfect place to play marbles, as long as you kept well clear of the drain hole grills. The game of marbles was simple enough. One boy would roll one of his glass marbles a few feet along the gutter. The next boy would roll one of his to try to hit the first one. If he managed to hit it, the first marble became his. Then he would roll out a marble. This simple game could go on until one boy either lost all his marbles or got called in for his dinner. Marbles were eminently collectable, like priceless jewels. No two seemed to look alike. There were two basic sizes; ordinary and "kinger", which were about twice the diameter, rarer and obviously more valuable.
When we got fed up with marbles, or had lost them all, there was another distraction; rolling up tar balls.
Every so often, the road would be resurfaced. The road-menders would spray hot tar all over the road and spread grey stone chippings to cover the tar. When the tar cooled with the chippings firmly embedded in it, it became a good hard surface. After this, on a really hot day, any exposed tar at the edge would begin to melt again and run like candle wax into the gutter. We could sit with our feet in the gutter picking up tar and rolling it into shapes like Plasticine. It also had the consistency of chewing gum so I'm sure we tried licking it to see what it tasted like. 'Orrible! I imagine!!
There were very few cars about in those days just after the War. Certainly nobody living in our street owned one and probably never thought they ever would. If a car ever appeared parked up the road somewhere, it was a cause to run indoors and report the fact to Mum. She would wipe her hands on her apron and come to the door to look, to see whose house it was, and to speculate who the car belonged to. "Probably the doctor", she'd say, and go back inside to carry on with her baking or washing. Us kids would probably go up the street and hang about near the car, being nosey and wanting to see who came out of the house.
Because cars were a comparitive rarity, we sometimes sat in the gutter at the top of our street, "collecting car numbers", that is, writing down in an exercise book the registration number of every vehicle that passed . It was the most pointless activity ever, but some numbers seemed to have some special significance, for instance if the letters made an actual word. I expect we were constantly hoping to record something like "BUM 999" to be the envy of our friends!
Another favourite game was "Five Stones" sometimes known as "Jacks". You could buy a set of five hardened clay blocks about 1.5cm square with some corrugated sides. Or, if you had some extra cash, you could get a posh set of metal 3-dimensional star shapes which were easier to catch and pick up. If you had no money at all, you could find 5 pebbles in your garden or someone else's and make do.
I forget all the rules, but the game consisted of throwing the five stones up and catching them on the back of your hand. Depending on how many you caught, you then proceeded to throw one jack in the air and pick up one of the others before catching the first. That was "Onesies". On the next throw, you had to pick up two of the others, "Twosies", and so on.
A game that improved our dexterity and kept us occupied sitting in the gutter for hours.
Hanging on the Back of the Coalman's Cart
Every house was heated by coal fires where I lived in the 1940s. Coal was delivered in hundredweight sacks round the streets by coalmen driving horse drawn carts.
Whenever one of these rumbled by, a few of us kids would creep up behind it, hang on at the back, and try to see how far we could get before the coalman spotted us and chased us away. We were always too quick for him and ran off to a safe distance laughing and boasting about who held on longest.
When the coalman called at our house, Mum would pay him a few shillings for one or two bags, or whatever she could afford, and then he would get the bags off the cart and tip the contents down our coal-hole into our cellar.
Every house in our street had a cellar. The coal-hole was a round hole in the tiled path near each front door. It was about 12 inches across and had a simple lift-up cast iron cover. Underneath was a short chute down to the pile of coal. When we needed coal for the fire, Dad would go down the cellar steps from under the stairs inside the house with a bucket and shovel to get it from the pile. As you could imagine, the cellar was filthy with coal dust. That didn't stop me sometimes opening the coal-hole from outside to squeeze through and drop down the chute into the cellar if I needed to sneak into the house!
1940s Kids Hobbies
Collecting Old Fag Packets - mostly found in the gutter.
Every kid I knew collected cigarette packets. It was easy and cost nothing. In those days there were no litter bins on the streets. However, Londoners then were strangely more particular about litter than now, and never simply threw it on the pavement. Sweet bags, chip bags, and other assorted wrapping papers were screwed up tightly and dropped carefully in the gutter at the side of the road along with cigarette ends and used matches. This was considered good manners and also helped the army of road sweepers who kept the gutters clean.
Empty fag packets and match boxes were usually discarded without crushing and provided a treasure trove for schoolboy collectors.
All boys of my age just after the war used to "collect things". The list was endless. You name it - we collected it!
One of my favourites was my collection of fag packets. Most of the adults in my family smoked as the practice was widely considered not only fashionable but positively beneficial! Each adult had their own favoured brand so my collection was easy to start, first at home and then on visits to grandparents and aunts and uncles.
Once a collection got going and was safely stored in an old shoebox, we began to scour the gutters everywhere we went for more specimens. Some brands of cigarette were more common, some were less usual and a few were extremely rare. To discover, for instance, an empty packet of "Passing Clouds" was a triumph. If two or more boys spotted it at the same time, a fight ensued. To the winner the spoils!!
Make Do and Mend - 1940s Fags
I often walked through the streets with an aunt who was a heavy smoker. She was always on the lookout for "dog-ends", discarded cigarette ends, which she could use to make roll-ups.
My aunt wasn't poor, just frugal. She would suddenly stop and say, "Look, Robert, there's a big one!" I would pick it up out of the detritus in the gutter at the edge of the road and she would pop it into a tin for later.
We Made our Own Toys!
... sometimes with a bit of help from grownups.
We were always making bows and arrows, particularly after seeing a Cowboys and Indians film at Saturday morning pictures. For a few coppers (old pennies) out of our meagre pocket money, we could go to the "oil shop" on the corner of our road and buy a bamboo bean pole and a few pea-sticks. Somehow we would beg, borrow or scrounge a length of string and then we had everything we needed. You had to tie the string to one end of the beanpole, bend the pole a bit and tie on the other end. This sometimes required Dad's help to get the string taut enough. Then we were off, with parents' cries of, "Be careful with that thing! Don't come crying to me if you shoot some kid's eye out!" ringing in our ears.
Anything was a legitimate target. Trees, cats, dogs, other kids ...
We roamed the streets with these lethal weapons, re-enacting Custer's Last Stand or Geronimo raiding the US Cavalry's Fort. Despite our parents' warnings nobody ever seemed to get hurt, though we were told off a lot and often got chased out of someone's front garden when we were trying to hide from whoever was firing back at us.
Sometimes we shot arrows up into the air to see how high they would go. Sometimes they got lodged in trees or landed over a high fence in someone's back garden. Eventually we lost them all and that was the game over. We couldn't afford more pea-sticks!
We made lots of other toys, of course. We would hunt around for a small tree with cleft branches, from which to make a catapult. We would whittle a "Y" shape with our penknives. Every boy carried a penknife! Then it was back to the "oil shop" for a yard of rubber (they sold some strange things!) and a hunt for an old piece of leather for the sling. The whole thing was assembled by attaching the rubber to the cleft stick by binding it with thin twine, then we went off again on the rampage.
Ammunition was plentiful. Loose chippings left in the gutter by road menders, bits of rubble on bomb sites, stones from anybody's garden. We filled our pockets. The best fun was to put an old milk bottle or jam jar on a wall and try to smash it!
Guy Fawkes Night
Time for a bonfire and fireworks!
For a good month before November 5th, Guy Fawkes night, all the kids were excitedly preparing. Fireworks had to be bought. We had to get some money from somewhere. Pocket money was meagre, Mum and Dad were always hard up, so we had to do our bit. Lots of kids made a "Guy".
A "Guy" was an effigy of Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Quality varied from a reasonable likeness made from old clothes stuffed with straw, with arms, legs, and a head with a shop-bought mask, to a miserable attempt consisting of a single old torn sack filled with crumpled newspaper with a pencil-drawn face on a sheet of paper pinned at the top. My guy was always a good one because I got enthusiastic help from my Aunt Daisy who always managed to come up with some old clothes.
The purpose of the guy was twofold; primarily to burn on top of the bonfire on fireworks night, but also to show to passers-by to beg money for fireworks! For some weeks before the big day, kids would cart their guy up to the high road, prop it up near the station or a bus stop and blatantly ask people for money. "Penny for the guy, Mister?", "Penny for the guy, Missus?" People were actually quite generous, despite the hard times everybody was going through.
Of course, having collected some money, we then couldn't wait to buy fireworks ...
A very different culture
Just after World War 2, fireworks once more appeared in shops and the Guy Fawkes bonfire tradition was revived. Fireworks in the late 1940s were nothing like they are today. They were smaller, less powerful, and designed for home use. There were hardly any public displays.
Shops put fireworks out on the counter for sale in boxed sets or loose. There were no safety precautions and anyone could touch them to sort out a selection. Any small child tall enough to reach could pick out and buy fireworks even if they came into the shop unaccompanied.
From the age of about seven my chums and I would take some of the money we earned from our "guys" and go to the corner shop to buy fireworks. For a few pence, we could each get a handful of penny bangers and a box of matches from the smiling shopkeeper who saw no wrong in obliging us. Then we would ride round the streets "no hands", lighting bangers and chucking them at each other for fun. The occasional burnt hand didn't seem to put us off. Sooner or later some bright spark would suggest putting a lighted banger into a milk bottle or jam jar to see what would happen. Fortunately we all had the sense to retire to a safe distance for the resulting explosion!
When Guy Fawkes night eventually came, Dad would build a small bonfire in our tiny back garden, fix the guy on top, and set it alight. As poor old Guy went up in smoke, he would produce a small box of assorted fireworks and proceed to light them one by one. There were Roman Candles, Rockets fired out of a milk bottle, Catherine Wheels that had to be nailed to the fence, Chinese Crackers that jumped all over the floor, and various kinds that could be held in the hand. Looking back now, they were all a bit naff but my brothers and sister and I watched with joy and cries of "Ooooh! ... Aaaah!"
In the darkness, we could see similar little displays going on in back gardens all around us. In fact, this was happening all over the city. The London Smog was always particularly bad in the week around Guy Fawkes Night!
Singing Christmas Carols
Another chance to earn a few pennies
As Christmas approaches in 2011, I am reminded of another activity we kids loved to do in the 1940s: carol singing. I would wander the streets far and wide with a couple of friends, all under 10 years old, out after dark, dressed as warmly as possible, bearing in mind we only wore short trousers, singing Christmas carols on people's doorsteps.
We must have looked pathetic! Bare knees turning blue, socks pulled up as far as they would go, tightly wound scarves with jacket collars up, woolen gloves full of holes and covered in snot, all topped off with knitted balaclavas under our school caps. What a sight! But we didn't care. We knew we would pocket a few pence extra pocket money.
Mind you, unlike today's kids, we did a proper job. We knew all the best carols by heart, at least a few verses, and sang them with gusto. We would pick a doorstep where we could see a light on inside the house, meaning someone was in. One of us would count us in and we would sing at least three carols right through. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", "Silent Night, Holy Night", "Oh Come All Ye Faithful", etc, from our list of favourites. Then we would knock at the door. Very often the family inside would have been sitting listening to us and when we finally knocked they would open the door, smile and thank us, and offer us a penny or two. Sometimes they would ask us to sing one of their own favourites and stand in the doorway while we obliged. Then they might clap and wave us off to our next "gig".
So much Christmas spirit in those days. We were all poor but lived in friendly communities and made the best of what we had.
By way of contrast, last Christmas, I answered a knock at my door to find three gangly teenagers looking grimly at me. They waited until I appeared then in a bored monotone mumbled, "Wish you Mer Chrisma, wish you Mer Chrisma, wish you Mer Chrisma 'n' Hap New Year!". They then thrust their open palms at me expectantly.
"What was that?" I asked.
"Carol singing", grunted one.
"Do you actually know any carols?" I inquired.
"Ugh?" They stared vacantly at me.
I suggested they go away and learn some real traditional carols and come back and sing them for me, in which case I might give them something. Naturally I never saw them again! Bah! Humbug!!
Kids' Street Games
I came across this old picture on Wikipedia. It's a picture of some kids playing leapfrog in a street in Harlem probably in the 1930s. It reminded me of some of the games we played in the street and the school playground in the UK just after WW2. I remember leapfrog but I'd forgotten playing it in a line where each kid leaped over all the others and then bent over at the front for the next kid's turn. This way the line would move steadily along the road. Sometimes we did this on the way to school.
Another playground game was "Bung the Barrel". I think this involved a line of 4 or 5 boys bent double in a line coming out from a wall. Each boy had to hold firmly on to the boy in front. The other boys would run up in turn and leapfrog as far as they could up the line and then shuffle their way to the front. More boys would pile on until the weight got too much and we all collapsed in a heap laughing our heads off.
Slightly more sedate games were: "It" (possibly called Tag now) where one child was chosen to be "it" and had to chase all the others round the playground until they caught and touched someone else, then that kid became "it" and so it went on. Another was Hopscotch, where a lump of chalk, probably from the ground on a bomb site, was used to mark out numbered squares on the surface of the playground or pavement. There were various ways you could hop and jump up and down this matrix while singing out "rhymes". It was mostly girls who played Hopscotch, as it was with skipping with a rope. Boys' only use for a rope was playing high-jump, tying to a lamppost for a swing, or tying some kid you didn't like to a tree and leaving him there to be rescued by an angry teacher or parent.
Conkers - Annual Kid's Street Tournament
In the Autumn, between the summer holidays and Bonfire night, came the Conker Season. The horse chestnut trees began to shed their seed pods, and as they hit the ground the green spiky husks would split open revealing the large shiny brown nuts called "conkers". As soon as the conkers began to fall we started to collect them, filling our pockets with the biggest ones we could find. This sometimes involved an element of trespass if a good tree was found on private land. Occasionally we would hurl objects up into the tree to dislodge a particularly fine example which was not quite ready to fall of its own accord.
With pockets bulging, we would gleefully head for home to prepare our conkers for battle. This would involve "borrowing" Mum's best meat skewer to make a hole through the nut to thread it onto a piece of string or old boot lace securing it with a large knot on the other side. This had to be done carefully. I knew boys, including my own brother, who without thinking, skewered their own hands. We usually ignored the stories about making conkers extra hard by soaking them in vinegar or baking them in the oven. We were too impatient to get out into the street to play the game.
The game of Conkers simply involved two players taking it in turns to try to hit the other's conker and smash it to smithereens! One boy would dangle his conker on its string at about chest height. The other would line up his own conker with the string taut and would get one attempt to hit and damage the other. Sometimes the attacker would miss altogether and accuse the holder of moving. Arguments and fights often broke out. If a conker managed to smash another off its string, it became a "one-er" then a "two-er" and eventually a "king-er". Much bragging and boasting and psyching out went on! Plus there were plenty of bruises when flying conkers missed their target and made contact with one of the players!!
Rhubarb and Roses
Sorry if you are just having your breakfast!
There was lots of this stuff around in the 1940s. Horse manure! After the war, there were still many horse-drawn delivery vehicles on the streets of London. Bread, milk, coal, and various other commodities were brought to our doors by horse and cart. And, of course, all the horses occasionally made their own personal delivery!
You might think all the roads were awash with horse droppings, but this was not actually the case. Manure was a valuable fertilizer and, being free to pick up from the road, was much sought after by gardeners. That is, everybody with a couple of square feet of dirt in their backyard where they could grow rhubarb, spuds, cabbage, or even roses. We had some lovely rhubarb. Wonderful stuff for "afters" (dessert) with runny custard, and so easy to grow. It just came up every year and grew thick and juicy as long as you gave it a generous helping of "horse's doofers" every so often.
If someone came into the house, they might say, "Quick! A horse has just done a load at the top of the street. Go and pick it up!" That was my brother, Pete's job. Only about six years old, he would grab a bucket and the coal shovel by the fire, and run up the street and collect the hot steaming pile before anyone else got it. He would bring it back, grinning from ear to ear, and proudly show us all his "treasure!"
We didn't have much, but we made the best of it.
Our 1940s Holiday consisted of:
Christmas Eve - Go to bed with an empty pillowcase at the foot ready for all the hoped for presents which Santa was going to bring.
Christmas Morning - Wake up at "silly o'clock" and rummage around in the dark to find "Santa" had been! Finally persuade Mum and Dad to get up so you could open your presents. Conceal disappointment at finding the Train Set had not come again this year. "Maybe next year", Mum would say as you tried on your new pullover, scarf, gloves etc. Read Beano and Dandy albums while Mum cooked dinner.
Christmas Dinner - (Eaten at lunchtime) Usually Dad had managed to find a chicken. I was almost a man before I ever tasted turkey. Chicken was a great treat anyway. Christmas was the only time we ever had it. Throughout the year, we ate spam, corned beef, luncheon meat, powdered egg, and occasionally a bit of roast beef if we went to my aunt's for Sunday dinner.
My aunt and uncle usually joined us for Christmas dinner. There was no wine for the grown-ups. People like us didn't drink wine. Dad would produce a few small cans of Pale or Brown Ale for the men. The women would have a tiny glass of cheap Sherry. Us kids would have lemonade. We all tucked in, smiling and licking our lips. Everyone cleared their plates; we were always hungry. This is a war-time habit I have followed all my life.
After dinner, Dad would say to my uncle in his Scottish brogue, "D'you fancy a wee dram, Pat?" He would open a quarter bottle of Scotch Whiskey and pour them each a glass the size of a small thimble. They would sit back grinning at each other knowingly, savouring the taste of the precious liquid and making it last about half an hour.
Later we would all have tea and cake and play card games like "Beat Your Neighbour Out Of Doors" for match sticks. My aunt always brought a homemade fishing game where we took it in turns to fish an extra little present, wrapped in newspaper, out of a box using a stick with string and a hook on the end.
We would end up with a sing-song. We knew all the words to all the old war-time music hall songs like "Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". Then it was bedtime. We'd had a great time, but we knew that was it all over for another year. Boxing day was just another day.
History is best kept alive by passing down stories of what things were like for ordinary people 50, 60, 70, 80 or more years ago.
Questions & Answers
Question: What did you eat as a seven-year-old in the '40s?
Answer: I was seven years old in 1945, the year WW2 ended. During the war, food was always scarce because of the general disruption at home and abroad and particularly to shipping. Everyone felt hungry a lot of the time, and we ate what we could get. The meat was short and like many other staple foods, was put on ration by the Government. We ate a lot of processed meat like spam, offal, and cheese and eggs when you get them. Most people grew some vegetables and fruit in their garden, if they had one, and some public parks were dug up to provide allotments. Meals were simple and frugal, and kids learned to eat what was put in front of them, because there was nothing else. Sometimes the only food in the house was bread and dripping, which was the congealed greasy set gravy, which was saved in a bowl after roasting a small piece of meat as a special treat maybe on Sunday. We rarely saw butter, or even margarine, which in those days was pretty horrid. Sometimes there was jam to spread on toast, which was made by holding a slice of bread on a big homemade wire fork in front of the open fire. Fresh fruit was rarely seen and certainly no bananas, we sometimes had an apple, which we "scrumped" off a neighbor's tree. By and large, Mums were very good at conjuring up meals out of almost nothing, often having to queue just to get our meager rations, and then probably going without themselves just to keep us kids fed.