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What East end kids got up to

back then in the 50’s

Childhood experiences from the 1950’s.

Hard times but happy times... We never had computer games or battery operated and electronic toys. We did have imagination though, and the advantage of being able to play real games with real kids in the open air instead of at a computer or games console. If you were lucky enough to have a telly to watch, Children’s Hour meant just that, a single hour of children’s programs a day. The rest was adult rubbish that didn't concern us. A policeman could slap you round the back of the head when he caught you up to no good, and if you told your mum about it, you would get another one off the back of her hand for being naughty in the first place. But they were good times for kids and their gangs playing in the streets.

I hope the next few pages will give you a chuckle and maybe bring back some memories if you are old enough. Don’t forget, if you have any of your own memories to share, you can go to my East End Forum and tell us about them. I’ll start below with one of the most memorable occasions of my generation, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The other most memorable occasion was winning the World Cup in 1966 with three of West Ham's players in the team!

The Coronation

Queen’s coronation 1953

One thing that cockneys were famous for was that they knew how to organise a good party in those days, and boy, were there some thrown that time! I can remember our piano coming out of the front room into the street, the barrels of beer on the back of the milkman’s horse and cart, dancing and singing in the streets. Of course, they laid something on for the kids as well. The photo opposite is one of the parties that I went to. It was held in my old primary school, St. Johns in Peel Grove, Bethnal Green. I can name almost everyone in that photo but have lost touch with all except one, he was best man at my wedding, and is the only one left from those days who I still see now and again. Sad really.

Blimey, what a day! As young as I was I can still remember it... My dad took me to see the procession. I had a rough idea about what was going on and I remember the crowds and the Union Flags being waved everywhere. I was on my dad's shoulders and I can still remember the coach with the Queen waving as she went past. I can't remember my mother being there for some reason. I don’t even remember where I was at the time and unfortunately the old man’s not alive to tell me but the memory of the cheering people and the vision of the coach are still in my mind. I also remember the coronation party for the local kids held in my school hall, St. John’s Primary School.

Bomb sites and debris were our adventure playgrounds

Although the second world war had come to an end in 1945 (which my pals and I did not know too much about at this time) there were still bomb sites and derelict houses everywhere in Bethnal Green. These we made our playgrounds, hideouts, gang headquarters, and meeting points. They all had an order of preference depending on what we had chosen to do or what we wanted to be at the time. Cowboys, spacemen, Tarzan, or whatever the current mood was. Where I lived we had such a choice of places to go on our adventures that we never ever got bored.

In one way I suppose it's just as well that today's children don't face the playtime dangers that we did, because when I look back at some of the things we got up to I wonder how any of us survived!

First there was the debris on the corner of our street. That was just your run of the mill place to go and recruit a gang, or jump in the puddles, chuck a few stones, or dig a hole. We couldn’t get up to a lot of mischief here because some of our windows overlooked it, and someone’s mum might see us getting up to no good!

Then, there were the serious places, the debris behind fences and walls, the bombed out houses waiting for demolition, and the scaffolding of the new sites!...

Walking on broken glass

Leave the key on a string

Bethnal Green Hospital had two fenced off debris. The "small" and the “big debris” as we called them. They were so overgrown they were like jungles! Imagine it. In the heart of London Town, acres of land that had not been touched for years. Every single weed and bush dwarfed us. Nobody went over the fence alone. One of the things I remember most about those days was the abundance of wildlife which, because of the disappearance of waste ground over the years, today’s children never get to see unless they travel to the country.

There were beetles that would actually attack you! Believe me, I saw it several times. If you went near them they would rush at you. God only knows what they were but it's the truth. There were so many different types of caterpillar. Hairy ones, striped ones, green shiny ones, too many to list, and of course, because of the caterpillars there were many different Butterflies. Not just the odd Cabbage White that you may see about today. Grasshoppers! Every footstep saw them leaping away. I think because of the disappearance of the debris and it’s wild plants, the insects have had to move on. It had its down side too, there were also as many species of spiders lurking in our jungles. Bodies as big as your fist, some of them! (they seemed that big to me anyway). Many times while hiding from the enemy under a sheet of old tarpaulin , I would reveal my hiding place by rushing out in a panic after one of the beasts had run up the leg of my khaki shorts.

York Hall Baths >>


1950’s Photo gallery >>

They were good old days, as the old cliché goes, despite the fact that we had little of material value We didn’t need it. Our parents probably did, but things like that do not enter the head of a six or seven year old, off to do battle against the raiders from Mars over on the hospital debris.

The thing was, there was trust, and it was a trust that could and would not be broken by anyone. Not without the risk of being ostracized by the rest of the community anyway. Street doors were left open while the house was occupied, the next door neighbour did nothing more than give a gentle tap on the door and shout “It’s only me”, before walking in to the kitchen (the living room, or front room as it was called, was only used for funerals, weddings, and Christmas) and not bat an eyelid if one of the family happened to be using the tin bath at the time.

When we were playing out and mum (it was always mum unless you were due for a serious word, when it was dad) was off to the market the key would be left hanging on a piece of string which you could reach by putting your hand through the letterbox. We’d lose them if we had them in our pockets! No one else would touch it you could be sure. Streets were also communities  then. Communities that looked out for each other.

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