Thursday, 8 December 2011

Family history

I do not remember any of my grandparents, although I dimly recollect a “minyan” (a quorum of ten men for religious prayers, on death) being held at our house, which I think was when my paternal grandfather died. His name was Philip Kirschenbaum and he was a tailor living in the east end of London at 18 Hutchinson Avenue, St Botolph, City of London. His wife was Sarah (nee Moses). My mother’s parents were Edward Jacob Morris – he too was a tailor – his wife was Catherine Morris, nee Nathan. They also lived in east London, at 16 George Street and then at 46 Sidney Street, E1. No photographs exist since the bombing but I remember one showing him to be a rather good looking man with white wavy hair, a rather droopy moustache and light eyes, probably blue or grey. My mother was always proud of the fact that they were English so I assume they were born in the UK.

My own father was Samuel Kirschenbaum, known as Phillips, born in Hutchinson Avenue on 19th June 1879 and died in 1968 aged 88. My mother was Dinah (always called Ada) Phillips nee Morris, born 12 Jan. 1877 and died
in 1945 aged 68. They were married on 1st June 1904 and had a son Edward Lionel born in 1910 who died of meningitis aged eighteen months. Then came Kathleen (Kay) born 1913 and died 1982, and myself, Sybil Sarah, born 1917 – date of death to be added later!

Aunts, Uncles and particularly cousins played a small but significant part in my childhood life. My mother was one of a family of twelve, and we kept in touch with about half of these on a regular if infrequent basis. I only remember seeing the eldest, Hannah, once – for a Christmas party, complete with a tree plus fairy on top. Never before or after had that happened to me. Hannah with husband Moss had a very superior house, with several servants. Aunties Abby, Minnie, Hettie, Rose, Jewel (Julia) one other aunt whose name escapes me, Uncles Eddie, Lionel and Henry, plus my mother Ada (Dinah) and their respective spouses and children made up the Morris family. My father’s siblings consisted of brother Moss (probably Moses), a brother (but it may have been a cousin) who went to America, a sister who died of TB at eighteen while studying the violin in Germany, and a sister Esther, and I think a sister Miriam, who probably died young. 

To return to my mother’s siblings, we saw Eddie and wife Polly, plus their nine children at infrequent intervals – they lived in Bow, a very poor, shabbily clad family – Eddie barely provided by owning a fried fish shop. A good-looking crowd and very overwhelming for Kay and myself. Great gamblers, too, even within the family, and my mother warned my father off playing cards when we visited, but he invariably did anyway and always lost. They all made sure they either “married money” or worked in some very lucrative job, as legal as possible! We occasionally visited Minnie, Lionel, Abby and Henry – Hettie lived too far away. We saw more of Rose and Jewel, who were single and consequently had more time to socialise – although Rose married late in life and she and her husband owned a hairdressers in Rainham. Jewel visited us every Saturday, coming late afternoon to tea but occasionally to early dinner also. Both she and Rose worked much of their lives in the “sweat-shop” tailors owned by their father in the yard of 46 Sidney Street, Stepney, which was the Morris family home – as did Henry and Lionel. We saw Auntie Annie frequently I became very friendly with my cousin Kathleen, two years my senior. We are still regularly in touch, although I see nothing of Kath’s brother Eddie who lives in Southend – a family dispute means Kath seldom sees him.

My Uncle Henry was an enthusiastic socialist and on the few occasions I met him he was always in a discussion (argument?) on behalf of “left labour”. He was a smallish, dapper man, with a stiff waxed moustache that hurt you when he kissed you. In a surprising way, although he was only a very occasional figure in my life, he affected the rest of it by his influence, but more of this later. 

Monday, 21 November 2011

Pregnancies and Burglaries

Part 6

I remember several of our maids very well, but one in particular (Gladys Medbury, later to become Gladys Brunton) who helped care for us when  was small and remained for some years a very important person in my life. I can never remember my mother putting me to bed, although I am sure she must have done sometimes, but as a young child it was always Gladys. She was a warm, humorous person, never lost her temper, and very inventive regarding games. She was expert ironer and I loved to watch her go about it – the shirts folded just so, the frills around the table-centres goffered neatly, as was her little afternoon cap. Her young man, Fred, was out of work for a long time but one day appeared in army uniform, which upset Gladys very much but I thought it was very exciting. She disappeared one day unexpectedly, but came back again and stayed for some time after that. Years afterwards I discovered she had expected Fred’s baby, but had a miscarriage and had to go into hospital for a while, but it was all hushed up – in the 1920s such events were kept hidden. I believe my mother looked after her well at this time and certainly she remained at our home thereafter for some time, before marrying and moving away.

I remember a maid called Mary Quilter, who also cared for us well, as well as doing the work. She went off to Australia to join a brother who had already emigrated. There was another Mary who was far more interested in flirting with the boys than in anything else and I am sure my mother never knew that when Mary took us walking over Wanstead Flats we were left to our own devices while she gadded around with the fellows. There was a Doris, who I remember as a good-looking, fair-haired girl, much given to singing all the up-to-date ditties of the time, and the young man lodger next door at 32 Sebert Road would join in, hanging out of his back upstairs window that looked into our garden. Two songs I remember particularly – “What’ll I do when you are far away, What’ll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to? When I’m alone with only dreams of you, That won’t come true, what’ll I do?”

Sweetheart, if you should stray
A million miles away
I’ll always be in love with you.
And though you find more bliss
In someone else’s kiss
I’ll always be in love with you.
The heartaches, the sadness
‘Cause I know tomorrow again we shall meet
I wish you happiness
But for me, sweetheart, I guess
I’ll always be in love with you.

When we moved to Claremont Road, we had a young girl named Dorothy Flux, who came from Wivenhoe and who was quite a country girl. She was mad on stage stars, particularly music hall artistes, and started me on my craze for autograph collecting. I acquired a pretty good collection, not exclusively stage personalities, but during my later teens lost interest in the hobby and like a fool, gave the book away to a  young friend working with me on the office staff at Lacrinoid Products. I had collected all Jack Hilton’s orchestra, Jack Payne, Louis Armstrong, Max Miller, the Houston Sisters, Leslie Hutchinson (“Hutch”) one of the boxing champions Jack “Kid” Berg and many, many more.

One childhood escapade lived with me for years but luckily no adult ever knew of it. I returned home from school one day to find nobody at home – very unusual, but it seems Mary had a rendezvous somewhere! I forced open the downstairs window to get in, but couldn’t push it up high enough to make an entry. Soon afterwards, Mary came back and seeing the open window, assumed someone had tried to get in. I kept quiet, knowing I should not have opened the window. Mary was scared and made me go in first, even upstairs to make sure nobody was around, until in the end I was even scared myself! My mother then came home and insisted on calling the police to make sure all was well. By this time there was of course no question of me telling the truth about the matter, and ever afterwards I had to listen to my mother relating the story of the attempted burglary and how they must have been interrupted while attempting it.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Schoolroom Drama

Part Five

There was an acknowledgement amongst the Jewish community that, while knowing we were superior to any non-Jewish groups, we did as little as possibly to exacerbate people’s hostility. This unspoken assumption of our superiority must of course have stirred up anti-Semitic feelings, but there was no question of our demanding equal consideration – one quietly knew we were better, but must not invite anyone’s attention our Jewishness.

The fact that our family did not adhere at all strictly to the mores of the religion did not lessen this feeling. Perhaps this is not so surprising and could well be common to most religions: most people regarding themselves as Christians probably practice little orthodox Christianity but still feel part of their group, but do not feel themselves to be God’s chosen people. Not that I ever heard such a thing expressed in this way – there was no need to put words to it – we knew we were superior without that!

As a child, I felt a certain difference, but as my mother encouraged friendships as far as possible exclusively with Jewish children, it did not make things difficult, except that I was not encouraged to make too much of a bosom friend of the lodger’s daughter, Joan Bull.

My last few months at Godwin Road School (I was nearly eleven years old) were rather nightmare ones. Jewish children were very much in  the minority but only occasionally encountered hostility. One teacher, Miss Read, sister of the Headmistress, was particularly anti-Semitic – in later years I recognised her as a Fascist in the making. She was good at making the few Jewish children scapegoats and one day I was jigging about in my class seat (I often could not hear the lesson, being partially deaf, but nobody, least of all myself, knew this) she called me out in front of the class and said, “If you want to bump up and down, I’ll bump you,” and proceeded to shake me vigorously by the shoulders. I said nothing of this at home, but when I undressed ready for bed my mother saw bruises on my arm and the story came out. The next day my mother accompanied me to school and proceeded (much to the delight of the children) to pummel Miss Read across the room, loudly proclaiming she would not have her child mistreated just because she was Jewish. Miss Read called wildly for her sister and pandemonium ensued. At the end of that term I was given a note saying I was not to return and would be transferred elsewhere.

My mother was not accepting that and fought it, with the help of a local Councillor, a Miss Wordley. The school had to take me back but I was ostracised and given little tuition: no pencils, pens, paper, needles, etc. I said nothing at home, wanting no more schoolroom fights, but at the end of that term my mother withdrew me, at her request and not giving the school the satisfaction of expelling me. Miss Wordley was a teacher at Upton Lane School and I became a pupil there. Unfortunately all this was at the time when I should have been taking the 11 plus exam to try to get into the West Ham Secondary School, which I just might have passed, but the chance was lost.

However, West Ham has a “second-chance” scheme at twelve years old for what were called Central Schools: this I took and passed, and left Upton Lane after a year or so for “The Grove” in nearby Stratford. Education at the Central Schools tended to be geared to clerical / technical teaching, and was for three years only and led to no leaving qualifications such as matriculation, so everyone left at fiteen which I duly did, and got my first job as an office junior with Lacrinoid Products Ltd., Rainford Road, Forest Gate. Kay stayed at Godwin Road School until she left at fourteen as did most children, except the tiny minority who passed the 11 plus.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Custard Cream Confessions

Part 4

Eventually, two rooms in the house were let to a widow and her daughter who was my age, named Joan Bull, and then the games were often shared, but never my dream world. The Bull family occupied one room on the first floor as living room/kitchen, and the largest attic room as their bedroom. The small attic room as spasmodically occupied by a maid-of-all-work referred to by my mother as the “the shiksa” which simply means, in Yiddish, a non-Jewish girl, but which my mother, being religiously bigoted, always managed to make sound derogatory. In the years from approximately 1925 until the years of the forties when cheap labour became hard to get, we had domestic help. It was the normal pattern amongst the small – and not so small – business people to employ such a person, often resident. In my recollection these were mostly Jewish families, of which there were many in Forest Gate. Undoubtedly, as I realised in later years, it was exploited labour, but probably not so bad monetarily as it could have been, at least not in our case, as I remember my mother negotiating the wage as ten shillings a week plus food and accommodation. (This was precisely the princely sum I was to receive many years later when I started work in 1932.)

At that time (the late twenties) nothing worked by pushing a button – gramophones had to be wound, cars cranked with a handle, washing hand-washed, cakes hand-beaten. No refrigeration meant butter, milk, etc. had to be kept in the cellar to be cold, covered with a wet cloth and of course shopping was almost daily.

What general impressions do I have of that period? Many tradesmen called regularly, most of our meat was delivered by the traditional whistling boy on a bicycle, the milkman doled out milk into one’s own jug, dipping the dispenser into a large churn – highly unhygienic one would imagine. Bread was delivered by a baker with a horse-drawn cart, handling both horse and bread indiscriminately. Coal cart drivers called their wares “C-O-A-A-AL” around the streets; the men wore sacks roughly made into hats which hung down their backs, enabling them to carry the sacks of coal more comfortably. The coal was shot straight into the coal-hole to the cellar, with my sister or me standing by counting how many were delivered to ensure we were not overcharged. Supermarkets did not, of course, exist, but shops selling several different kinds of goods were just coming into existence – in Woodgrange Road there was a Penny Bazaar (the origin of Marks and Spencer’s) with all the goods laid out on stalls around the shop. Sainsbury’s sold groceries and dairy products only, with an egg stall laid out in front of the shop – cracked ones were sold cheaply and placed in your own basin (about a halfpenny each). Fresh fish shops, now almost non-existent, were as common as butchers – there were three within walking distance.

Most of the shopping was my responsibility, probably because I rushed about and was so quick, weaving my magic tales to myself all the while. One job I hated was taking my father’s tea round to the shop. This consisted of liquid tea in a covered enamel jug, plus a cake in a bag, but I often managed to spill it and I can feel the hot tea now, dripping through the little wicker basket and running down my leg. The fact that it was such an inexorable daily task made me resent it but it continued for some years. Another shopping exploit concerned biscuits, which were sold loose. I loved custard creams passionately and on my way home from buying some, ate one – and then another – and then another. My mother soon spotted short weight and I was sent back to demand the full half-a-pound – I cannot remember how it ended, but certainly I would have been quite unable to own up to eating some.

The nearest street market was about two miles away, reached by bus on tram, and my mother enjoyed visiting it occasionally, sometimes dragging along a reluctant girlie (me) with her. I remember she had a thing about gloves and I spent many boring minutes by a stall surrounded by gloves of all shapes and sizes – certainly kid gloves must be “soft as butter”, I recollect! Kathleen always seemed to manage to avoid these trips (although she would certainly have enjoyed them more than I did) probably because she was so much older (4 ½ years). She and I seldom played together as we really had no common interests, but I can remember no quarrels. In any outgoing activity, I usually led the way, especially if it was escapade which might not win approval – and she silently applauded. We slept together in a double bed, and often at night I composed a story while she listened; sometimes I illustrated this with shadow figures on the wall, as our bedroom was lit at night with a small paraffin lamp.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

A Watchmaker's Daughter

Part 3 of the memoirs: Childhood in 1920s London

The watches in their disintegrated state lived under wine glasses mostly (usually broken ones with the base missing) to keep the watches dust-free. It was a tiny shop, with room for only one or two behind the counter and possibly three customers, and my father spent many solitary hours there – he employed no-one. Shop hours were 9am till 8pm and 9pm Saturdays. Around the walls hung clocks of various shapes, sizes and sounds, which created a cacophony of uncoordinated chiming throughout the day.

Evidently the shop generated enough income to keep the family in relative comfort, although with little surplus. Christmas was relied upon to raise at least a quarter of the year’s income: the shop was well-known for its crystal necklaces and hundreds were sold during the run-up to the festive season. Also, Japanese-style coffee sets were fashionable and saleable and both my sister and I helped in the selling at Christmas time, when we were old enough, although I was never keen on either jewellery or the selling of it. I can remember an unexpected source of income one year, when Britain came off the Gold Standard – whatever that means – and consequently people were rushing to sell gold at a good price. My father brought the gold home at night to weigh up and get it ready for re-sale and melt-down. He much preferred to buy old jewellery rather than sovereigns and half-sovereigns, as everyone knew the value of these (37/6d, old money) and consequently he did not make much profit on sovereigns.

Most Sundays he spent in the East End (Stepney) buying new stock, getting fine engraving done (he did the everyday stuff himself) and perhaps attending a boxing match at Blackfriars Ring. This was his only recreation, except for a very occasional trip to watch West Ham football when I accompanied him and Kay minded the shop. He had no holidays as he only closed on Bank holidays, but I never heard him complain and I believe he enjoyed his quiet working day. Once or twice he tried taking a young lad (usually from the Jewish orphanage where he had spent some years of his own childhood) with a view to teaching him the trade, but it did not work out and I think he resented his solitude being invaded – and of course the shop was hardly big enough to house two people permanently.

My period of childhood spent on Sebert Road was in the main a happy time, except for the last few months, of which more later. The terraced houses were larger than they appeared to be from the outside, as they were two-storied; three bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor and two attic rooms above. Opposite the house was a small biscuit factory run by an Italian family, producing ice-cream wafers and cones. Their children seldom played with anyone outside of their own “clan” – we regarded them with curiosity but no animosity.

I spent many, many hours in the garden. It was a fairly long, narrow one, with a very small lawn on which grew a cherry tree. There was a greenhouse containing no plants except a vine producing nice black grapes. Neglected flower beds, loganberries, gooseberries and weeds comprised the rest of the garden. The railway ran along the bottom of it and I liked to sit on the fence there, watching the trains go by and waving to the drivers, until one day I fell off and part of the way down the embankment of the railway line, to be rescued by my sister – luckily no adult ever heard of this escapade. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Tar and Touring Violinists

Grandma Sybil's Memoirs, Part 2: Forest Lane and the First World War

The small shop with flat above where I was born (165 Forest Lane) has been demolished and the space where it stood incorporated into a Girls’ High School, but the rest of the row of little shops are still there at the time of writing. Amazingly, the shop next-door to my birthplace is still a café. Across the road, my father’s tiny lock-up jewellery and watch-repair shop remained a jeweller’s until quite recently but the 90s recession put paid to it – how sad. That shop held many memories for me, mainly but not wholly pleasant ones. More about the shop later.

Recall of features of my place of birth are somewhat dim, but I recollect a little shop selling cheap jewellery and knick knacks, and I particularly remember being allowed to serve someone with a penny whistle. The shop parlour was dark and pokey, with the stairs leading from it to two bedrooms above. Lighting and cooking were by gas (although electricity was quite common by then) and one lit oneself to bed by candlelight, there being no gas above ground floor level. I lived there until the age of three (1920). The most vivid memories are of the back yard, with the WC at the bottom of it. After dark, the twenty paces it took to reach this were a nightmare to me, especially as we occasionally had to run the gauntlet of a neighbour’s vicious cat springing out at one’s legs and hanging on. This may well have happened only once or twice and been multiplied in my imagination because of the fear.

The neighbouring café was owned by a very frightening lady – a Mrs Ridgewell. She was a large, buxom woman, fully capable of dealing with a Railway Café full of boisterous, noisy and sometimes “rough” railwaymen and other tough customers. She was certainly able to cower me, and I was not easily sat upon. Her backyard contained a covered chicken run, which I was forbidden to approach, but it held a fascination for me and it took more than her shouting to discourage my squeezing through the fence to get a closer look, until one day I returned to my own yard plentifully bespattered with tar from the newly tarred run. My mother had the job of trying to remove it from flesh and frock and was very cross. This certainly stopped all further such excursions, as I was always somewhat frightened of my mother, although nothing like as overawed as was my sister Kathleen (later called Kay), who was four years my senior. I should add here that neither of us ever received corporal punishment – my mother’s face as she made big, frightening eyes, plus her tone of voice and general demeanour were enough to check us.

The shop, with living rooms over, was a way of adding a shilling or two to the meagre allowance my mother received from the Royal Flying Corps, for which my father volunteered early in 1917, when family men were beginning to be called up for military service. He thought it better to go into the armed forces as an instrument maker than chance being put into the “poor bloody infantry” or something equally dangerous! In the event, he spent most of the war well behind the front line, as a violinist with the Zigzag Concert Party touring round France entertaining the troops, my mother having sent over his violin and mandolin at his request. 

After the war, we left the Forest Lane shop and flat and moved to Sebert Road around 1920. After demobilisation my father re-opened the lock-up watch-repair and jewellery shop situated at 5 The Bridge, Woodgrange Road, which remained a jeweller’s shop until recently. This was on the railway bridge (a hill in Woodgrange Road) so he had to contend with the trains thundering underneath him all through the day, but I cannot recall any particular disturbance and the noise was not noticed, he was so used to it. An express train caused the shop to shake, but my father carried on imperturbably repairing the watches, with a steady hand, a magnifying glass almost permanently glued to his eye. 

Friday, 23 September 2011

Hello World

My Grandma Sybil was a Communist. I'm not - I'm mostly just mildly baffled in a left-of-centre way - but anyway, in 1993 she wrote down her memories from childhood to her husband's death in 1961. Since I was two in 1993, I didn't realise they existed until I found them in a box of Grandma's things in my Dad's study a few months after he died, and decided to type them up. Grandma was involved in politics from the age of sixteen, lived through wartime London, and knew how to tell a story, so they make quite interesting reading; this blog is mostly for the purposes of posting them, though other aspects of my life might creep in from time to time. 

The name of the blog comes from the memoirs themselves, which she gave occasional subtitles to. (I like "How Socialist Sybil Began" because it sounds sort of like a left-wing Just-So Story.) This is what they look like:

and there are about 18,000 words in total. I might not always post in order, but let's begin at the beginning:

Funerals Were Ignored

We did not even notice the number of hearses that passed our door, there were far too many. And this was because at the bottom of Sebert Road, Forest Gate, E7 (I lived at No. 30) was the largest cemetery in possibly all London, certainly in East London. Most – probably 90% – were horse-drawn hearses. Cars for everyday use were commonplace, albeit only a small minority of the population owned a private one. The magnificent black funeral horses were a breed apart: head-tossing, foam-flecked, very superior animals. Just occasionally, there was a funeral which captured our attention, belonging to a local big-wig (the term VIP was not yet current) or to one of the “monied” classes, and this meant four horses instead of two, large black plumes on their heads and black velvet horse blankets on their backs, with a surplus of top-hatted “ushers” in a attendance. Once, just once, came a military cortege, with a band playing a funeral march and a mounted gun pulled by horses. Without exception, all the men who happened to be walking along the road or were nearby when the funeral passed, took off or doffed their hats in respect, even the tradesmen.

I lived in the Sebert Road house for about eight years, from the age of three until twelve (1920 to 1928) and when we moved to Claremont Road to a posher establishment it was still in Forest Gate, where I had lived all my life. I was born in Forest Lane – a road opposite the railway station – and continued to live somewhere in Forest Gate until Hitler put paid to our settled existence by dropping a landmine on us in 1941.