Our home in 'the brave new council house world'.
Thanks so much for the interest and all the comments on last two posts.
Having caught your attention with the last little story of my hormone driven early teenage escapades I'd like to return now to fill in a bit of the background to what was a wonderfully happy and secure childhood in Ashtead.
Following my sister's birth in 1947, my parents were allocated a new council house on the still-being-built Bramley Way estate in Ashtead. The following extract from my memoir Stepping Out from Ashtead are some memories of the house and my life there during those optimistic post-war years until I left home on my marriage aged twenty-three in 1967.
Mum's little family prayer was "Us four and no more for ever more. Amen"
Like many of the immediately post-war estates Bramley Way was well laid out and unlike many modern low-cost or social housing developments, the properties were spacious and well-built. With quite large gardens front and back, they were set well back from the road behind wide grass verges.
There were no garages as very few tenants had cars. Garage blocks and parking areas were created after a while just a short walk from the house. In later years however it was possible to get council permission to drop the kerbs and enable the construction of a ‘run-in’ to provide off street parking.
Inside our brand new ‘no-nonsense’ red brick semi we had large sitting and dining rooms with a square open arch between the two, which in the early years had a heavy curtain that we could draw across to keep the heat in the sitting room.
From the dining room at the back a French door opened out into the garden and a small concrete terrace for sitting out. We later graduated to a set of Marley doors between the two rooms. They were all the rage at the time and I see you can still get them today. I find that amazing but I guess it goes to show what a good design they were. Not fancy but functional.
A small kitchen provided just enough space for basic functions and little else. In front of the window that looked out to the back garden there was a deep china sink with a wooden draining board to the right that over time and with much scrubbing became bleached white and bristly much like the rollers in Nana’s old mangle. On the other side Dad constructed an L shaped Formica working surface that turned the corner to meet the gas cooker.
There was a built-in unit that provided storage for anything from sweeping brooms to kitchen utensils, food storage and crockery. It included a set of drawers with our cutlery in the top, dusters and polish in the second, shoe cleaning stuff in the third and a miscellany of ‘possibly useful’ stuff in the bottom.( funny how clear my memory is of those drawers)
Through the centre of the unit was a serving hatch to the dining room where we always ate. Firstly, because family meals were the norm in those days and anyway there was no space for us all to eat in the kitchen and secondly, because the era of TV meals on trays in the lounge had not yet arrived. I remember how Mum would deposit a handful of cutlery on the hatch with a shout to no one in particular, “Could someone lay the table.” If there were no response the follow-up to me or my sister would be a more strident “Would you get yourself in here and give me a hand.”
Wash days, usually Mondays as I recall, were something of an event and took up quite a lot of time in the early days. Mum used to stand at the kitchen sink hand washing small or delicate items but when it came to large things like sheets and towels reinforcements were called for in the shape of the ‘copper’. This was a large galvanised boiler that usually lived tucked away under the work top beside the sink.
Cylindrical in shape and two feet or more in diameter it stood about four feet high on short legs and underneath was a circular gas burner. Known as the ‘copper’ because earlier ones would indeed have been made of that metal; the thing had first to be filled with water, initially by transferring buckets of water filled at the kitchen sink and then later via a length of hose on the tap. Once filled it was connected via a flexible rubber tube to a gas tap beside the cooker. The burner was then ignited by inserting a light through a hole in the casing
It was impossible to just use a match as the burner was too far inside for the match to reach and as tapers weren’t within our vocabulary let alone possession Mum usually resorted to a rolled up piece of newspaper lit from one of the gas rings on the cooker and then thrust into the hole.
This was fine if the paper didn’t go out en-route as it sometimes did and then the temptation was to go back to the cooker to relight it without turning off the gas to the boiler. You know the expression “more haste – less speed”. All the while you were trying to light the ‘torch’ and then shield it while moving back to the boiler the air around the burner was filling with gas so that when the flame was eventually introduced it would go off with a dramatic whoof and a sheet of flame all around. It really was a miracle she didn’t blow us all up.
Once lit it then had to get up to temperature which was more or less boiling I guess and then soap and the laundry items were dumped in and stirred around with the ‘copper stick’ as it was known. This was just a length of broom handle but like the mangle rollers and the draining board with the passage of time and the effect of hot water, this too had become bleached white and distinctly hairy. Only in jest it’s true but Mum used to threaten us with the ‘copper stick’ and chase us around the house with it if we misbehaved.
I’ll never forget the joy with which the old boiler was kicked out and the excitement and fascination that greeted the arrival of the new Hoover washing machine. Pretty primitive by today’s standards; this at least had its own integral electric heater and an impellor in the side that rotated to agitate the wash.
You had to be careful though because if you accidentally knocked the ON switch before the impellor was fully submerged you were guaranteed to shower the whole room with water. By the time we got ours, the wringer was also electric so the misery of hand-wringing things like sheets came to an end along with generations of back yard mangles.
The only other appliance in the kitchen in the early days was the little Ideal solid fuel boiler in the corner for heating the water. A fridge came later but not for some years so bottles of milk had to sit in a bucket of water to stay reasonably cool and they still went off in a couple of days. What on earth do they do to milk now so it keeps for ten days? Makes you wonder.
Upstairs there was a bathroom, separate toilet and two good-sized double bedrooms as well as the small single room over the hall that was always mine. There was a sloping bit in the floor of my room where the stair case came up but once again clever old Dad built-in a really neat little desk and cupboard that I could use by sitting on the end of my bed. It served me well for homework, chemistry sets, jigsaw puzzles and stamp collecting through all my years until I finally left home at age twenty three.
A back door from the kitchen led to a side path and a brick outbuilding that housed two coal sheds and an outside toilet. It also contained Dad’s little workshop where all our bikes also lived and which we had to climb over in order to reach anything.
There was sort of concrete slab roof that bridged across from the house to the ‘sheds’ as we called them and provided a certain amount of weather protection for the trip to the coal shed or loo. Later on Dad extended it into a form of ‘conservatory’ by putting in end walls and doors and a glass roof.
It worked very well and provided an early form of utility room or what Nan would have called ‘the scullery’ and was especially useful for the washing machine when it arrived as it wouldn’t fit into the kitchen. Mum also got into house plants that flourished on a series of shelves Dad put up, turning it into a council house version of the ‘hanging gardens’.
From a very young age I remember being fascinated by Dad’s workshop and would stand for hours watching him as he mended our shoes or simply made up the odd item that might be needed indoors. He was very clever that way. And naturally as I watched I absorbed it all like a sponge in the way that kids do and as a consequence have always enjoyed and been fairly good at DIY.
I loved to sort through and ‘tidy up’ his boxes of nuts and bolts, screws and nails and so on and the highlight was the day I discovered a couple of live bullets.
He shouldn’t have had them of course but they were just a couple of 9mm rounds that he had somehow managed to bring home when he was demobbed.
“Did you catch a German in the war? I’d ask and he’d say, “I expect so son – can’t remember exactly but they’re certainly Jerry’s,”
I thought the bullets were just so exciting and whenever I could I used to sneak out to the shed to look at them. It was a fascination that lasted for ages then one day he found me out there playing with them and decided to hand them in to the police before I worked out a way to set them off. I think he just said he’d found them.
The garden at Bramley Way was quite large. Immediately behind the house there was a concrete paved area that served as a small terrace for sitting out and then an area of lawn with a short slope that we used to roll down as small kids. A path led to the far end of the garden where Dad had built a garden shed and a chicken house with an outside run.
We usually kept up to six or eight hens for eggs but woe betide any one of them that got lazy and went ‘off-lay’. That was a passport to a quick trip behind the shed with Dad to emerge dangling by its feet and flapping around in its death throes. I must have been a funny kid because I really loved to watch him pluck and draw their innards and even have a go myself.
When he cut the feet off a bird Dad used to make us squeal by pulling the tendons to make the claws move and then he’d chase us around the garden with it, a trick I quickly picked-up on and played on my sister and her friends.
When we were very small there was a large sand pit at the far end of the garden where we’d play for hours on end.
Later when we grew out of that Dad built what we called the ‘monkey bars’. This was a climbing frame of vertical and horizontal steel tubes at different levels that he’d constructed for us and it used to provide hours of healthy fun and exercise climbing and swinging about on them.
Dad was a good gardener and as I recall he created quite a productive vegetable plot including a small greenhouse where he produced tomatoes and bedding plants. He also planted a couple of apple trees and a Victoria plum that over time did very well. There was also a thornless hybrid variety of blackberry that climbed along the fence and produced fruit in abundance so blackberry and apple pie was never in short supply.
I don’t remember seeing Mum in the garden so much apart from when she was hanging out washing on the line that ran the length of the garden path. However if Dad was in the garden we’d often hear her call out, “Cup of tea Frank?”, and then Mum would appear with a couple of cups of tea and they’d sit on a bench seat he’d fitted along the side of the greenhouse and chat while they shared the moment. Come to think of it; in the summer she was also quite inclined to take a rest in one of those old-fashioned striped canvas deck chairs.
(It’s a very strange experience forcing one’s self back to recall those times not often remembered and even stranger coming to the realisation that your relationship with parents was different to what you had always believed. I say this now because I am aware how often I am talking about Dad and how much of an influence he was on me at the time. This is curious because if I had been asked which of my parents I was closer too I would have said my Mother and that was true. It was always Mum who’d be there for a cuddle even when I was much older and I guess that’s because I stuck with the faith for most of my younger life there was a religious affinity that I didn’t share with Dad.
However with the benefit of hindsight and a more mature outlook it is clear that Dad was a far greater influence than I ever realised. Both as a role model for moral characteristics such as duty, responsibility and the work ethic as well as a teacher of things practical without which I’d have had serious difficulty over the years.)
There was a row of tall elm trees at the end of the garden that we kids used to climb quite fearlessly, all dead now sadly from the awful Dutch Elm infection. We had constructed a crude platform across a couple of branches that we used to clamber up onto and defend our ‘tree house’ against all invaders.
In the early years the land behind our houses was just fields and some allotments where we used to play safely for hours on end. As with most youngsters of the period, making ‘camps’ in which to hide and play was quite a big thing and the allotment provided a perfect spot.
A wide ditch, dry for much of the time, provided the space and by damming it in two places we created end walls. We then roofed it over with branches on which we laid an old tarpaulin followed by sods of turf so that we created a waterproof (more or less) hideout large enough for three or four of us at a pinch. In order to guard against being flooded out we laid several scavenged drain pipes through the centre under a beaten mud floor. I remember one year we even managed to create a little fireplace and chimney and our ‘secret’ home away from home was complete.
This little hideaway was where we first got into playing ‘doctors and nurses’. However, that interesting little role play didn’t last long after one of the girls went home with a scratch or graze around her ‘privates’ and she blurted out to her mother how we’d all been examining each other in a hole in the ground. Why is it ‘grown-ups’ always want to put a stop to the best games?
There was also another area of unbuilt land between our houses and the main A24 road where we used to build camps and hideouts for our various games and where every year we used to build the Guy Fawkes bonfire which was a tremendous community event.
Talking of fires brings me back to the domestic heating arrangements at Bramley Way. Early on there was an open fire in the front room but in later years this was replaced with a closed solid fuel Otto stove in a sort of mustard coloured enamel finish.
Normal practice, when either lighting it from scratch or resurrecting almost dead embers in the morning, was to leave the door just open an inch or so to increase the draft. Similarly if the fire was a bit sluggish Dad would say “I’ll just roar it up a bit.” and in a couple of minutes the stove would be literally roaring.
I don’t remember Dad ever forgetting it but if Mum or either of us kids tried the same technique we’d occasionally be diverted by something and forget about the fire.
We lost count of the number of times this happened and the panic that ensued when someone discovered that the stove was now almost unapproachably hot or the chimney was on fire or both.
However, after a few similar episodes we learnt not to panic and that control could be regained by simply shutting the door down, easier said than done as it felt a bit like approaching an open blast furnace. This would change the frightening roar to a somewhat eerie moan that lasted for several minutes and eventually died away.
I’ll never forget that smell of hot soot that could persist for days as a reminder to be more attentive in future and the gradual discolouration of the enamel from mustard to a russet brown that was a permanent testimony to the number of times we’d let our attention wander.
The boiler in the kitchen could also be a bit contrary and presented similar challenges in the fire safety department. However there was less risk of this being overlooked, as Mum was more likely to be on hand to keep an eye on it. On the occasions when it did get forgotten we were reminded in a different but equally sonorous manner by the sound of the water boiling in the pipes and hot tank immediately over our heads.
Life on the estate for us kids was wonderful, especially in the early years when houses were still being built. There was none of the morbid fear that seems to haunt society today of murderers and paedophiles around every corner. We were simply allowed “out to play” and that meant more or less anywhere.
There was a distinct sense of community although at that age I wasn’t aware of it as such. There were always builders about, in fact for us little ones a favourite pastime was playing in a heap of building sand until we were the bright orange colour of little gingerbread men.
Of course the builders kept an eye on us, “rubbing better” the odd graze, sorting out squabbles and taking the inconsolable home to their respective Mums. I can remember sitting on a bench in a wooden hut with a bunch of bricklayers and drinking sweet tea from a large chipped blue tin mug.
There was however the occasional downside to allowing a bunch of builders to baby-sit the kids as illustrated by one legendary event that has become part of our family history.
This was the day when I apparently appeared indoors earlier than usual and Mum said
“You’re in early. Where are your friends?”
“Oh, they’ve all gone home.” I said
“Why’s that?” said Mum
To which I replied, aged about four, “No fucking bricks”
No one remembers what my mother said next.
I don't intend to publish on here the entire contents of the memoir but if your interest has been aroused then do please follow this link to the Amazon site where you can read further extract and maybe even buy a copy in either paperback or Kindle version. Failing that, keep an eye on the blog for the next extract. Thanks so much for reading this far.