I debated and deliberated for a long time whether to share Grandad’s story with a wider audience, it was written over 20 years ago and sadly there is nobody around who would know who he was writing it for. I had a slight pang of guilt sharing his own words in a public forum, but having spoken to a number of Genealogy friends, including professional Genealogist’s, the overwhelming opinion was to share his story rather than keep it hidden. My good friend Jude gave me the best piece of advice, “it will keep his memory alive”
The story is sadly far too short, Grandad passed away far too soon, after he started writing this, but at least I have a tiny snapshot of his early life and experiences, written in his own words, which is worth so much.
I will give a brief introduction myself, to give you some family context first and will follow on exactly as it was written.
Edward Tom Wootton was born on 13th August 1911 and Grandad was the second youngest of nine children born to William Tom Wootton and Emily Butterworth. Emily was William’s second wife; he was previously married to Elizabeth Ellen Compton and he also had seven further children with his first wife. At the time of his Birth Edward was living at Bentley Terrace in Poplar, London, right in the heart of the East End of London.
In Grandad’s own words……..
“My earliest recollection was in 1914, I was three years old, my Sister Phyllis was taking me to School for the first time. As we left home my Mother was coming round the corner carrying four loaves of bread, she took one look at us and said to my Sister “where are you two going?” My Sister replied “I’m taking him to School”, Mother said “bring him back so that I can wash him”, Phyllis replied, “I have washed him” and off we went.
Of course, we used to get Air Raid Warnings and off we would all go to the shelter in the basement of a large factory that made Dog Biscuits and later Hardtack biscuits for the Armed Forces.
My father was an Air Raid volunteer and used to blow a bugle for warnings and the all clear.
I remember very clearly seeing “Dog Fights” between British and German planes, they seemed very high in the sky, like small flies, on one occasion, I was sitting on the kerb watching, when a neighbour grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and screamed “come inside quick before you get hurt”. In all my innocence, I had not realised the danger from falling bombs.
The most dramatic occurrence of the War was when Upper North Street School, in Poplar, received a direct hit by a German plane. The bomb went through the roof and two floors and exploded in the ground floor Infants Class. Many young children between the ages of 4 to 6 years were killed and injured.
I was about 5 years old at the time, but I well remember finding my way to the school where there was a long queue, who walked down the alley leading to one of the houses, the owner was allowing people to walk through his garden path to look up at the school roof, to see the hole left by the bomb when it went through. I still remember people saying “what a small hole to cause such a disaster.”
I also remember the Funeral of the children, every family had a Horse Drawn Hearse and following carriages for mourners. The procession was very long and took about an hour to pass by. The memorial to those killed was erected in the Poplar Recreation Ground, it is still there as far as I know.
(*The Poplar Recreation Ground Memorial is a memorial to 18 children killed at Upper North Street School in Poplar on 13 June 1917, by the first daylight bombing attack on London by fixed-wing aircraft.*)
One night we had a bad shock, we were all in the factory I mentioned before, when there was a loud explosion, I must have been knocked unconscious, my Mother, My Sisters of whom there were seven and my Brother, were all around me when I recovered. The bomb had hit a house used as a store by the factory that we used as a shelter. This store contained among other things, picture cards that they put in their packets of bird seed.
When the all clear was sounded, we all trooped out to go home, on passing the house that had been bombed, we realised how close we had been to it. Strewn everywhere around, were thousands of the picture cards, which as a young boy, I at once started to collect, imagine my horror when my Mother stopped me collecting them. I asked why I couldn’t have them, she said they might have been dropped by the Germans and could cause me to be ill. I cried, but still had to throw them away. Nevertheless, I found out later that all my friends had them and they were alright.
Sometime later, although the bombed building had been boarded up and barbed wire put round it, I and a couple of friends (all 6 years old) got through the wire and fence and had a good hunt round, removing bricks and rubble, suddenly we found a ‘Gold Mine’. There were packets of these pictures, we were unable to carry them all. Of course, being children, we didn’t keep our find to ourselves, very soon the place was invaded by all the other children, until the Police were called to put a stop to it.
It was 1919 by now, the War was over and the Soldiers were coming home. I woke up one morning to see a big Gun (Rifle) standing in a corner, my stepbrother had come home. (My Father had lost his first Wife and Married my Mother). My own brother, Donald who was six years older than me, had also seen the Gun (Rifle) and asked Will, my stepbrother, to let him hold it. I supposed Will had put the Bayonet on the Rifle, while Donald was holding it, he must have turned it round, being very heavy, he let it go and the Bayonet went into his foot. What a fuss that caused, Don having to be taken to Poplar Hospital to have it attended to.
Of course, he got barracked by his friends, such remarks like “you’re supposed to use it on the Germans, not yourself”.
Things were very hard those days, my Father used to drive a horse drawn van for a local firm, starting at 7-30am and finishing at 5-30pm, then he had to bed his horses down and water and feed them, so he got home late. His wage was about £ 1-7-6d which is today about £1-37 1/2p.
With there being eleven of us in the family, that didn’t go far. Just around the corner from where we lived, were five shops, the first two were a fruit shop and a fish and chip shop. During my school holidays I used to go to the Markets with Charlie, (whose Father owned both shops), Spitalfields for Fruit and Veg and Billingsgate for the Fish, we went to each Market on alternate days.
It was usually about 6-30am when we set out in the horse and cart, this was lovely in the summer, but really nasty in the winter, then we both had sacks round our legs and another over our heads like Monks head gear.
You might wonder why a nine year old would want to suffer the cold and rain in the winter, well after we got to the Market, Charlie would put in his order, then he would take me to a Coffee Shop for a large mug of tea and two thick chunks of bread and dripping (this cost two old pence each) and we had a lovely warm up. It must be remembered boys only wore short pants in those days. Only males over 14 years wore long trousers.
When I was about 12 years old used to spend my school holidays with the other boys going to Victoria Park, they were happy days really, I suppose, Mum would pack me a lunch, about 4 slices of bread and jam. There were plenty of water fountains to get a drink from.
About this time, I met my best friend Joe Dodd. At the time of writing this story (*1986), I am now in my 73rd year and I have seen Joe quite a lot and we still keep in touch. What wonderful times I had at Joe’s house; his wonderful Mother used to always welcome me. Joe’s dad died when he was young, so I never met him, but his Grandad lived next door and he had a loom in a long shed in his back garden and also a pony and cart. I used to spend many hours watching ‘Boof’ as Joe called him, making doors matts and coconut matting.
He used to wait until he had a good store made, then out would come the pony and cart, he would load it up and off he would go to sell them. Joe’s Grandad bought him a bicycle and we both used to travel miles on that bike, with me on the crossbar.
I was a very fast runner and always did well in all sports at school, I once won a Silver medal with a Gold centrepiece, it nearly broke my heart when I lost it the very next day.
I had now got myself a job in a large store in Chrisp Street, Poplar, named Copper Bros. they sold all kinds of meat, bacon, butter, and eggs. My first job was to put tickets on customers purchases, these were made of greaseproof paper, about 2 inches square and had the price all meat and bacon, per pound, printed in blue. I used to feel very sorry for some poor people who came to the shop, times were very hard, there was no Social Security in those days, there was only the Board of Guardians. Going before them for help was like appearing before a Judge and Jury on a criminal charge. Before we got any help, an Inspector came to your house, if you had anything, like a gramophone, (which we never had), or anything that was worth two or three shillings, you would have to sell that before you got any help. Of course, the help was usually a couple of loaves of bread 1/2 lb of margarine and a tin of black syrup, which I remember my Father collecting in a pillowcase.
As I explained above, I was very sorry for the poor old ladies who came to the shop, I’m afraid I was very naughty, because if their meat or bacon was sixpence or more a pound, I used to put a cheaper price ticket on it. I was only corrected once about the price, that was by my Dear old Mother. She would not have anything that wasn’t above board. When I got home that night I explained about the very poor people, she still made me promise never to do it again.
The hours I worked were from 4-30pm to 8-30pm Friday and 8am to 10pm Saturday. My wages were four shillings and sixpence (22 1/2p today), plus all my meals, oh boy were they meals, tea and cooked supper on Friday, Saturday’s meals were breakfast at 8-30am, followed by Tea and Toast at 11am and a beautiful dinner, with afters at 1pm. Tea, cake and bread and jam at 4pm and after the shop closed, another hot meal. I had never had so much food.
I don’t know why I left that job, but I suppose I did not like working on Saturday’s, because I was unable to go to West Ham football matches at Upton Park. I went with my Brother Donald and brother in law, Aubrey (Win’s Husband). We used to pay 6d (2 1/2p) for Don and Aubrey and 3d (1 1/2p) for me, then get a transfer to the ‘Chicken Run’ for another 3d (1 1/2p) for Don and Aubrey. I was passed over the turnstile because I was so small.
I was by now attending Alton Street School which is still in use today. I never really loved school, except for the sports side, Football, Cricket, Running. My deepest regret is that I never learned to swim, we did not have the facilities of today.
(Alton Street School in centre of map)
I was now 12 years old and I found another job delivering evening papers, as this was for only about one hour each evening, my ‘wages’ were 1/- (5p) per week. That shilling bought many things in those days. I doubt if you could buy as much for £1-00 today.
In those days we made our own enjoyment, we would spend many days at Long Wall, near a flour mill in Bow, a place I was able to be reminded of 20 years later. This I will relate to when I reach that age. At Long wall we used to take a jam jar and a fishing net to catch Tiddlers (Sticklebacks). If we couldn’t buy a net we used to use a bit of old curtain, which two of us would hold and use it as a dragnet.
Summers were very hot, sunny and long and our eight weeks holiday were very welcome. Where we lived, at the bottom of Chrisp Street in Poplar, everyone knew everybody around them. Chrisp Street was a market, all shops and stalls.
(Chrisp Street Market)
After the market closed, the Council cleaners would come and clean it all up. First an Army of sweepers would clean up all the rubbish left behind and load it onto horse drawn dust carts, these were all open carts, these were loaded and sent away to the dumping ground, there were as many as 20 carts, going to and fro. After they had finished along came two water carts. These were carts with tanks holding about 200 gallons of water, the driver used to fill up at points along the street, they were hollow pipes like lamposts that had a swinging arm at the top, which swung over an opening on top of the tanks and the driver had a key and bar which fitted on the turncock under an iron lid in the pavement. They would then go up and down the street watering it. The water came out at the rear of the cart through dozens of holes, the amount of water coming through was controlled by the driver with two pedals. In the summertime we used to take off our shoes and socks (if we had any) and run behind the cart and get our legs nice and wet and cool.
By 1925 I was 14 years old and left school. I had about three jobs in the next two years, each one paying at most 10 /- (50p) per week. When I was nearly 16 years old, I took over the job of the man I used to help as a young boy, when I delivered papers for him, as I have said earlier. This was a permanent job for The London Evening News at £ 1-2-6 (£1-12 1/2p) per week.
About this time, one month before my 16th Birthday, I met Anne, who was to become my Wife five years later. (We celebrated our Golden Wedding on December 10th 1982). We had many wonderful times together and still do. When I first took her to Southend, it was the first time she had ever seen a Seaside place. Southend, I know well, going back to about 1921 when my Father and his friend, Bill Smith used to spend the holiday season on a pitch near the pier with a Punch and Judy Show.
I well remember the 1926 General Strike, with food lorries carrying two armed soldiers up front with the driver. I was working at a shop in East India Dock Road in Poplar, at the time. I worked 6 days a week with half a day off on Thursday’s and working from 8am to 8pm with one hour for dinner for 10/- a week (50p). I lost that job because I refused to go up to the City on a pair of skates to collect goods for the shop. There were no buses or Trams because of the Strike.
Somewhere around 1927, I bought my first car. it was an open tourer that had a canvas hood that folded back. It was a Morris Cowley with a Hotchkis Engine and cost me £5-00, but petrol was only 10d (4p) a gallon. I soon had to sell it because I could not afford to run it. I had to buy a bike when I worked for The Evening News, they didn’t supply one, but paid you 2/6d (12 1/2p) weekly to maintain it.
On Sundays and holidays Joe, myself and about 5 other lads used to go out into the country for the day, sometimes we would go on a Saturday evening and camp out in a field in Kent, taking food, tea, milk and sugar. We had some wonderful times.
I still used to see Anne and we used to go to the pictures, once or twice a week, but it was getting serious after about a year, so we spent all our time together. By that time my eldest Sister Doris had moved to Thorpe Bay and we used to spend our holidays with her. we had full board for £1-5-0 (£1-25) a week. After Anne and I got Married, in 1932, we were unable to afford any holidays. In 1934 our first daughter Joan was born on 18th March. Things were very tight with money, I was earning £2-5-0 (£2-25) a week, with 10/- (50p) going for rent.
Our second Daughter Ann was born in July 1938 and at that time I had joined the Auxiliary Fire Brigade (London). It appears that I was in the first 100 to join, my number being B99. On September 1st 1939, I left The Evening News and was full time in The Fire Brigade at £3-0-0 per week, less stamps.
(Grandad far right)
I had passed all my driving tests and a special one to be allowed to drive a RED Fire Engine, after that I did a special course for Driver Operator of the Turntable Ladder. Included in the courses were one for Breathing Apparatus, so in the end, along with many friends I made in the Fire Brigade, we were made Temporary Firemen L.F.B. This meant a rise in pay. Things were very quiet, we were called lazy so and so’s, for not having much to do. We had to visit other stations who were in schools and had large playgrounds to play Football.
(Grandad extreme left standing, second row)
I well remember one day we had a call to a fire alarm, being a RED machine we were first to go. Away we went and had to pass the Main Station to attend the call. Arriving at the fire alarm we could not see anyone about, I would like to add, that in those days the Fire Brigade were called by Fire Alarms, these being red posts with a round head, this had a glass front about 6 inches in diameter and you would break the glass, pull the handle and wait for the Fire Brigade to arrive. I don’t think any of these are standing today, because of the Radio Systems. Inside the head there was also a sort of telephone, with a button to call the Watchroom. I called in and reported that the glass had not been broken, would they please test it. I was informed that I was in the wrong place, the call was to Newbury Place not Bruce Grove, where we were. Luckily it was a false alarm, but I still got hauled before the Station Officer to explain it. I told him we had been given orders to go to Bruce Grove, having four witnesses, there wasn’t much he could except “ball me out”, by saying ‘I don’t mind you going the wrong way at 60 miles per hour, but did you have to go in your bloody Football Boots!” I looked down and realised I hadn’t even stopped to change them. I apologised and said my first priority was to answer the call………….
Sadly, that was Grandad’s last ever written entry, before he sadly passed away.
I will try to add some of my own stories and memories from growing up as a child and from what I have also researched.
At some point after the end of the War, Grandad moved from Poplar in East London, to Grays in Essex. This can be supported by his Fire Brigade Service record, which shows that he transferred from the London Fire Brigade, to the Essex Fire Brigade around this time. His service record shows:
Edward Tom Wootton joined the London Fire Brigade, Brunswick Road Station, on 14th April 1938 and served in London before later transferring to the Essex Fire Brigade, before leaving the service on 16th December 1954.
Also, around this time, Grandad became both a local Thurrock Labour Councillor, as well as an Essex County Councillor. Mum always told me that Michael Foot of the Labour Party, was good friends with Grandad and that was true, he was often seen at their house in Dell Road in Grays, Essex. Mum also told me that she loved Election times as she enjoyed being out on the Campaign trail and delivering leaflets. At this time Grandad was amongst other things, a Taxi Driver.
Grandad never really touched on the Musical side of the family in his story, his own Father and his Sister Phyllis were both very musically talented. His Father could play up to 12 different Musical Instruments and I certainly remember Grandad could definitely play the Organ, Piano and Banjo very well. He could not read a note of Music, but played everything by ‘ear’. I always remember them having a large Organ in the house that Grandad played at all family gatherings.
One of my own memories and a story I always tell to my own Children, is that I am completely tone deaf and can’t play any instruments and my singing voice is awful. Well when Grandad used to play all his songs on the Organ, I would sit next to him on the Piano Chair and he would say to me “Don’t sing Boy, you’re putting me off key!’
Another thing that I remember extremely well, Grandad was the Secretary of the Rook Hall Labour Club, for over 25 years and this Club was where “we all grew up”. Our family had connections with the Club for generations until it finally closed.
Grandad also purchased a static Caravan in the 1960’s which we used to visit for Holidays every year, this was in a small village called Monkton in Kent, halfway between Margate and Ramsgate and Nan and Grandad spent lots of time there, over the years.
See my earlier blog on Travel Here
They eventually saved enough money to buy a Chalet, on the same site, which they used as a retirement home and would spend most of their time there. Grandad was also a home movie buff and had one of the first Cine Cameras and I remember as a child, watching films that he had taken of the Red Arrows. The caravan site was really close to an airfield and they lots of displays in the summer.
Another lasting memory of Grandad was that he was always ‘Safety Conscious”, I can still hear him saying to me “never run with scissors boy”, but ironically in their lounge they only had two electric sockets which would have multiple triple plugs going into each other a bit like a Christmas Tree, you could almost see the sockets glowing!
Sadly, Grandad never got to finish his own story, he must have had so many tales left untold, I have tried to add some of my own memories, but I just wish I had the chance to ask him more about his life before it was too late……….