Interview with Doreen Walpole and Maisie Lambert
Although the regional newspaper reports were detailed in this era, they certainly didn’t reflect the horror that was felt in the local area.
There was a rumour that preferential places were going to be given to recently released criminals, while the de facto leader of the Conservative Party, Hilbery Chaplin, stood up in the Council chamber and accused the LCC of ‘importing Reds into Romford’.
Much though was based on ignorance. It was widely viewed in middle-class lore at the time that, should the working classes be given their own bathrooms, they would only use them for storing coal; while, in the economic depression of the 1930s, the great mass of East End unemployed was disparagingly referred to as ‘the great unwashed’.
This ignorance was the result of a sharp separation of classes. A migration of the wealthier elements from the pollution and sheer unpleasantness of urban life had commenced in the 19th century and reached its zenith in the suburban expansion of the 1930s.
By the end of the Second World War, class was still as rigid as before the conflict. For all the talk of a ‘people’s war’ and a dissolution of class barriers, it mattered little when hostilities were over. It was, after all, those living in London – in particular, the East End and South London dock area (Luftwaffe Target Area A) – who had suffered the worst casualties and damage. There were only occasional accidental bombing forays into the suburbs. In the eyes of local residents, the cost of war did not count in the post-war replanning of London.
In effect, the original inhabitants of Harold Hill – described as both ‘settlers’ and ‘pioneers’ – were refugees from a war zone. They were a sickly population with a high incidence of tuberculosis, who had fought on the frontline both abroad and in London, who undoubtedly suffered great hardship in the 1930s, and who were escaping the wretched housing situation in the capital. They were not wanted in Romford – although those in the surrounding areas who found themselves working in Harold Hill, through, for example, the churches or politics, would be pleasantly surprised at the character of those whom they found living on the estate.
This mixture of disgust and snobbishness is still a feature of contemporary society.
For all who came to Harold Hill, migration was a profound experience – as is evident in the testimony of residents. Most had left hardship alien to today’s residents. It is worth reading the memories of, firstly, my own mother, Doreen Walpole, as well as those of Maisie Lambert.
"I was the middle child of a family who lived in the East End of London. War was declared in September 1939 and it was decided that my older brother, younger sister and myself should be evacuated; and as our ages were only five, four and eight months then our mother would have to accompany us.
"If we hadn’t been evacuated, I doubt we would have survived the war, as the school my brother attended was the victim of a daylight raid. The siren sounded a warning and, as the teachers were ushering the kids to safety, a bomb struck and many of the pupils and teachers died.
"At another time, the house that was once our home received a direct hit and was flattened – number eight, Eleanor Road, London Fields.
"For us kids, when the war was over, we were at the start of a very different life.
"Coming back to Hackney was an experience that I’ve never recovered from.
"We moved into Blackstone Road – which was later demolished, although I’m told there’s now a Blackstone estate – and lived on the top floor of a terraced house. There were no front gardens, no pavements: the fronts of the houses were directly upon the road. When the rain came, I prayed that it would wash away the dirt in the street, but it was always the same the next day.
"We had the top three rooms, and myself, my sister and my older brother slept in the one room with myself and my sister on one bed and my brother on the floor.
"Underneath was a filthy-dirty elderly couple who had this old Jack Russell dog that was almost bald because its fur had dropped out, and it was running alive with fleas. In order to use the outdoor toilet, we had to walk past this couple’s flat and it stank because they used a bucket to go to the toilet in. And we were terrified of going to this outdoor toilet because we would trip over this old, blind dog. Just going to the toilet was a horrendous experience.
"The flat itself was filthy – we had an empty orange box container for a dinner table, and there was this black, speckled pattern on the walls that I thought was the wallpaper pattern, but only later did I realise were fly droppings. My mum just gave up trying to keep the place clean because it was impossible. Nobody could clean the flat in that state. I desperately tried, and my sister – who was several years younger – still remembers today me trying to clean the place. I presume this is why we were never moved to better accommodation: because, when the inspectors visited, they must have thought, “Why bother giving them a new flat if they’re going to keep it in a state like this?”
"We were malnourished. I remember standing in the school playground feeling faint. I was always ill. I was always at the hospital having these boils lanced that sprang up all over my body.
"The housing office must have been around the corner from where we lived because my mum was always going around there. At the age of 12 – and I was once a very confident little girl before I became a nervous, shivering wreck – I marched into the office and begged them to rehouse us. I can still see the woman’s face behind the counter – I was really crying.
"At one stage – I can’t remember where my father or brother were at the time, but my sister was asleep – the mattress had to be moved from upstairs and brought down. There was a reason for it, but it slipped by me. But it was just my mum and myself carrying it and then, suddenly, she just collapsed onto a seat in a fit of hysteria. I didn’t realise it at the time, but she was having a breakdown. She was hysterical: wailing and crying, kind of like laughing too at the same time. I didn’t know what was happening – I just stood there crying. All I could think of doing was to knock for assistance next door, so I ran out and asked Mrs Perkins whether she would come and help. Thankfully, she came back with me and straight away she slapped my mum hard around the face – something that, at that age, I would never have thought of doing. She had just collapsed under the sheer misery of it all.
"My Aunt Edith moved to Harold Hill in the late 40s or early 50s – she was my mum’s eldest sister. And at 16 or 17, just as I started courting your dad, we would come down for a visit. She lived by the Pompadours and then there was a duck pond still there. I thought it was paradise. And, after that, I remember looking out of the window of our house in Blackstone Road, Hackney, and praying that I would one day live in a house in Harold Hill.
"Eventually, after marrying in 1956, we were offered an option of either a new flat in Hackney or a maisonette in Harold Hill. There was no choice between them because I had always prayed and dreamed of being able to live in Harold Hill."
Maisie Lambert was born in 1923. Living in Greenwich, she left school at the age of 14 in 1937 and then was employed in a succession of factory jobs until, at the age of 18, she enlisted into the Auxiliary Territorial Service. This took her out of the South London docks and into the Welsh and Cornish countryside. Like many in Maisie’s social position, this was the first time that good food and bathing became part of her daily life. After marrying her husband in 1944, she returned to London and bomb-damaged Greenwich. Whilst living in poor accommodation, she was offered the choice of a house in either Charlton or Harold Hill, from which, of course, she chose Harold Hill. Moving to the new estate in 1953, she was the first occupant on her street, Woodbridge Lane. Despite bringing up five children who have all gone on to lead successful lives, Maisie still feels resentment about having to leave her family in Greenwich.
"I had six other brothers and sisters and, at one point, there were seven of us all sleeping in the one bed. The walls were alive with bugs. There was no kitchen, just a stove that my mum tried to cook upon. There was no hot or cold running water, and for a bath we used to have to go to the local bathhouse once a week. We weren’t brought up to wash: we would only just use a flannel to wash our face, hands and private parts. That’s not to say we weren’t brought up to be proud and to stand tall. There was no garden to put the washing in, so my mother placed a line across the room downstairs, and every evening there would be wet and dripping washing in the house to make sure that we had clean clothes for school the next day. If one of my shoes had a hole in the sole, then my dad would still spend time polishing the rest of the shoe despite there being a hole in the bottom.
"My father had terrible problems finding work during the Depression, and so myself, as well as my other brothers and sisters, were put into a children’s home for about a year. In fact, one of my elder brothers stayed in a home until he was fourteen. It was an awful time – really awful.
"I had a lot of problems at school as well, because I had bad eyesight and there was no possibility then of getting glasses, so I left school unable to read or write. Since then, I’ve taught myself to read, but my spelling is still really bad.
"What we were taught at school was household duties, such as how to iron, how to cook, that sort of thing. Because they expected us to be wives and mothers – that was the only option in their eyes. But, after leaving school at 14, I worked in factories pressing labels onto sacks, making tins – really horrid work. All we were was factory fodder.
"They were real hard times, and I always said to myself that my children wouldn’t be brought up poor.
"When we moved to Harold Hill, there was no transport, no schools, no shops, nothing to do socially. And I often asked myself, “Why didn’t I ask about these when I signed up for the house?” But I was so impressed with the house – the garden, the bathroom, the kitchen – that I never even thought about anything else.
"My husband was working in Deptford as a cabinetmaker, and so he would leave the house at six in the morning and not come in until after eight. The kids only saw him on the weekends, and by the time he had a bath, had something to eat, read the paper, then it was time to go to bed. It was a very lonely life, but then women were expected to bring up the kids, do all the housework, and have a dinner on the table when your husband walked through the door. We had to do everything.
"I had my name on all the transfer boards trying to get back to Greenwich where my family lived, but we couldn’t go back because there was nothing to go back to – there was no accommodation. Even to this day, I regret coming here.
"There were terrible problems with the local residents at Noak Hill. There was one little bus that used to run from there to Romford Station, and they really didn’t want us on that bus, saying that it was for them only. It was one of the reasons why I wanted to move back. I thought, “Whhy do I want to live where I’m not wanted?” I can understand their point of view better now that I’m getting old – not wanting upheaval and change – but I certainly couldn’t then."