Where Dad was born

It is September 1919. Grandad has been home from World War One for nine months. Granny is giving birth to their first born son – my father.

Their home was a flat on Alexandra Road in Bexhill. If you look for it, it is now called London Road.

It was a very unassuming little development. I could not believe my eyes when I found a postcard of Dad’s birthplace (and the other flats, of course) for sale on Ebay. I bought it!

image002

Had dad still been alive me might have been able to name people in that picture

For information, the road on the left is Cambridge Road

I have dad’s written memories and here is what he had to say about neighbours he knew. Please note it is part of a much longer document and was written in the 1990s when Dad was in his 70s Do, please forgive him for any errors of fact or any outlandish opinions.

 —00—

I knew all the people in Alexandra Road to some extent and nearly everybody in Cambridge Road. The exceptions were two spinster sisters in number 17 who kept aloof. I have mentioned Jim Hall, the contractor’s foreman who lived above us in number 4. The Halls had 3 boys and 3 girls all a good deal older than me. The oldest girl, Daisy, must have married when I was very young because I have no knowledge of her wedding whereas I remember the wedding of the second daughter, Dolly, which was my first contact with a wedding. Daisy’s husband was a tram driver which impressed me as a highly desirable job -not quite as impressive as engine-driving but in the same league. The oldest son ‘young Jim’ must have signed on to stay in the army at the end of the war because when I was four, word came that he was leaving the army and coming home. They said he would be bringing his kit bag which meant nothing to me and I was playfully reminded for years afterwards that when he arrived I demanded to see the kittens which I supposed the bag contained. The second son, George, was an ebullient character who told me stories that he made up as he went along about events supposedly occurring in the area. One location that regularly cropped up was ‘Sidley Treacle Mines’; many episodes took place nearby including the capture of an alarming runaway cow that got its horns stuck in a bank just beyond the Treacle Mines. All the Hall family present at the time confirmed these stories and I at least half believed in Sidley Treacle Mines for several years. George ought to have been a novelist. His stories were adapted to the understanding of his audience, took account of my known interests and anxieties (the runaway cow was just such an anxiety) and were on the edge of credibility; he never introduced magical or similar events which I should have rejected at once. In fact he was the tall and mighty smiter for Bexhill Cricket club. I met him 30 years later when Bexhill came to play Ifield; he was still the mighty smiter. Visiting Bexhill in the early 90s I ran into two of the Hall clan -Laura, the youngest daughter, older than me, and Betty the oldest granddaughter (Daisy’s child) a few years younger.

Below us in number 6 lived the Gurrs and Mrs Gurr was our bogey. She must have hailed from a rough area in London where a hostile front to the world is normal. She would start a row at the slightest provocation and liked nothing better than a good slanging match. Even when she spoke on some everyday matter with no row in prospect there was always a sense of ‘Don’t let it happen again! ‘. It was my mother’s constant concern to give her no excuse for a row. Dora and I lived in an atmosphere of ‘don’ts’ if we looked like doing anything that might annoy Mrs Gurr who was ready to rap the ceiling with a broom handle if we made a noise. I think now that it was just a manner rather than real malevolence but she was a constant unwelcome constraint on our childhood. Strangely an event over which she might reasonably have exploded passed off with little fuss. A workman on the balcony of the top flat dropped a pot of mauve distemper on her and after a brief but natural outburst she accepted this as one of life’s unintended accidents and washed the stuff off with no hard feelings. Her husband, Tom Gurr, while not exactly friendly and forthcoming, was not markedly hostile. He was a well-digger by trade. He kept ferrets in hutches in the back yard and there must have been rabbiting forays but we knew nothing of them and no rabbits ever came our way. Rabbit skins were sometimes hung out to dry for eventual sale to the rag-and-bone man but the rabbits the family ate would not have accounted for all the ferrets; presumably there was an understanding with a dealer. The youngest son, Harold, kept 2 goats in small huts in the back yard and tethered them by day on the ‘green’ on the corner between Alexandra and Cambridge Roads. There was a married older son and a middle son, Charlie, died during my childhood. As a member of the Territorial Army, his funeral was a military affair with the coffin borne away on a gun carriage. Younger than the sons were two ‘daughters’ whom we knew were not daughters. Mary Gurr, as she was always known, was about 6 years older than me; Polly Gurr was about my age. I suppose they were fostered for money. Mary was said to come from a well-to-do background and was sometimes better dressed than Mrs. Gurr’s normal taste. Polly was a different case. Her mother, Deborah, sometimes turned up for a few weeks. They said she lived at other times in the workhouse. I wonder now whether it may have been prison but I was too naive to think such things or to see that Mary and Polly would probably carry on into the ‘cycle of deprivation’.

One remark by Mrs. Gurr presented us with a puzzle which took 40 years to solve. With the sky dark and a storm impending she said, ‘It’s as black as noogers nocker’ .We all heard it and agreed that it was pronounced like that. Dora and I sometimes used it facetiously but we could not interpret it. Towards 1970 I learnt that Londoners used to say ‘As black as Newgate Knocker’ .The notorious Newgate Prison in the City of London was not demolished until 1901 so a young Mrs Gurr might have seen it and its knocker but it is more likely that she simply used a phrase she had heard with no more understanding than we had.

Our immediate neighbours to the north were Mr and Mrs Stevens in number 8. Mrs Stevens had been a lady’s companion or similar and spoke with a refined accent. Mr Stevens was a chair-caner; some customers brought work to him but he also worked for furniture shops in Bexhill and kept a light hand cart for taking chairs to and fro.

Below them, when I was young, was the Bacon-Phillips household. Rev J Bacon Phillips, formerly Rector of Crowhurst was elderly and something of a recluse but he held a world record and, for all I know, may still hold it. He had had more ‘letters to the editor’ published than anybody else. He had three rivals playing in the same league in Britain; I do not know about overseas. His total was around a hundred thousand but I do not know the exact figure. He did not promote any cause or pursue any consistent line. Most of his letters were short -less than two column-inches -and said very little being more of minor essays or commentaries than informative discourse. I occasionally glimpsed shelves of press-cutting books through the open door of his room which I never entered.

Mrs Phillips was barely older than my parents. She was the war widow of a Bexhill man named Dennett and had, I suppose, accepted a marriage of convenience to provide for her daughter Joan at the cost of caring for an elderly and difficult husband. Financially it paid off, for Joan went to a private school which none of her Dennett relations could have afforded. She was about three years older than me and came to my fifth birthday party. I remember becoming aware of her long hair which my sister did not have, learning that managing it took time and being surprised that anybody could be bothered.

When the Bacon-Phillips household moved to Burgess Hill in the late 20s the record-breaking Rector passed out of my life but my mother maintained contact with Mrs Phillips and we saw more of Joan when, after leaving school, she worked for a bank in Bexhill. Mrs

Phillips moved back to Bexhill when her husband died and contact was maintained into her and my parents’ old age.

The Alexandra Road flat they vacated was taken by the Mepham family. Mrs Mepham’s husband had had Buckholt Farm and I suppose they had to vacate the farmhouse when he died. The older members of the family retained rural interests, in particular they regularly had a captive magpie, jay or jackdaw in a large cage and sometimes song-birds in smaller cages. Nobody took exception to this at that time. We had more to do with two daughters who were close to my age and a bit more polished than Polly Gurr.

The Hook family lived at number 12. Mr Hook was an unfrocked engine-driver. Nearing Crowhurst with a light engine they had struck a pheasant and, being in no hurry, reversed back to get it, unfortunately forgetting that the slope down from Crowhurst was protected by catch-points which derailed the engine. He had a job at Bexhill West station raising steam in engines for early trains but he never drove again. Their son, Henry, about ten years older than me was a disturbing sight. He had been one of the football- playing lads until in his teens he was struck down with what was called ‘sleeping sickness’ .In my memory he was taken out in a wheel chair and looked pathetic.

A retired tea-taster, Mr Shepherd, lived at number 15, a widower in his 60s looked after by a daughter probably in her 40s. She had a job and I never had much to do with her but I enjoyed visiting Mr Shepherd who was somewhat an overgrown schoolboy. He challenged me to target practice with his air-rifle; by firing diagonally across three rooms there was sufficient distance. He had the best cuckoo clock I have ever known. A guard marched to and fro across the front taking one minute for each traverse. Quarter boys came out and struck bells on the quarters and the cuckoo called the hours. Mr Shepherd was organist at the Primitive Methodist Chapel and had a sizeable American Organ at home. He played with equal ease from standard music notation or tonic-sol-fah notation and had hymn books in both. I never met anybody else who could play from tonic-sol-fah and it has practically died out.

His wireless apparatus was a marvel, filling three tiers of a tea trolley whereas Dad’s equipment could hardly have filled a tea-tray. I understand its significance better now. At that time there was something to be said (not much in fact) for having most components – resistors, capacitors and inductors -adjustable because the best combination of values was unpredictable largely because the properties of some components, especially valves (tubes) , were unpredictable. Articles in wireless magazines sometimes suggested that one should buy two or three valves for each position and see which worked best. Shepherd could afford adjustable components and was always busy twisting some knob or other in his complex apparatus to improve reception. This was not particularly necessary for receiving the nearby transmitters of the British Broadcasting Company but it was a point of honour to log distant foreign stations. The contribution in the 30s when valves were more consistent of engineers (among whom I later worked) was to use small fixed -value components plus about a dozen adjustable sub-circuits which were optimised once-for-all in the works and sealed.

Mrs Adams came into my life in 1928 or thereabouts when Mum went to work for her. The Adams were a childless couple from a middle-class background. Smith Adams (Smith was his first name) was a public school product working as a commercial traveller for the wine and condiment firm, of Beaufoy and Grimble. He covered a good part of SE England using only public transport. His customers were mainly those superior grocers that can still be found in country towns. Some were in villages not easily reached from Bexhill by public transport but probably more easily then than now if one knew the system.

Their house, the last at the east end of Woodsgate Avenue bar the usual vacant corner plot (now filled), was too large for them and Mrs Adams received what can probably be called ‘paying guests’ except that they were all professional women in administration, known to Mrs Adams. I suspect that she had worked among them before her marriage. At any rate she engaged Mum as home help and, as usual with Mum, they soon became family friends. I recall that we were invited to join them for a visit to HMS Frobisher paying a public relations visit to Hastings, the particular interest being that Mr Adams’ nephew was on board as what would now be called the FE Instructor and he took us on a tour of the ship. My best memory is of the mixer used in the ship’s bakery for making dough; I was impressed that it would not start unless the lid was closed and locked. (Years later I used just such a mixer for experiments on reinforced plastics.) I was too young or too little instructed in engineering to appreciate other technical marvels I must have seen.

Mum, Dora and I always received birthday and Christmas presents from Mrs Adams. I still have a stud box bearing the legend, ‘A stud in hand is worth two under the bed’. Often she gave me books which were welcome because books were scarce. One was ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ -possibly the first new book I ever had other than a very early book of nursery rhymes and school prizes. I must have read it countless times and it stood re-reading in my uncritical state because there were plenty of incidents simple enough for a boy to understand. I was half aware that my teachers did not think highly of it but I did not then appreciate that the island on which the family were shipwrecked had an impossible range of habitats, flora and fauna; semi-desert, tropical rain-forest and prairie existed within a day’s march carrying lions, kangaroos, ostriches and penguins. Wyss, the Swiss author, noting the appeal of Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and with access to Buffon’s vast ‘Natural History’ had placed a fair proportion of Buffon on a fertile ‘desert’ island from which the surprisingly absent species was Man making the island more like a zoo which was, of course, where Buffon studied.

 —00—

Dad has written so much about another neighbour – Mrs Packet that I thought I could return to her on another occasion.

And here’s the 21st century view to the same flat.

image004

Advertisements

Tags: ,

3 Responses to “Where Dad was born”

  1. Janet Says:

    Fascinating reading.

  2. Go tell Aunt Mercy | Locksands Life Says:

    […] grandparents’ flat in Bexhill. I can recognise the terrace in the background as those flats – where dad was born. My grandfather would have been the photographer. I only have a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: