Suburban Hearth and Home/Following the Railway

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Chapter I: Following the Railway

Poverty brings with it the necessity for ridged economies. That is as true today, when we are in another period of depression, as in the previous, in the late twenties. Such historical events have a prolonged effect on the unemployed. In the main this occures in an industrial societies where the production line is to be found and services industries are gathered. Queues for food and the dole served people mainly in the north. In the south, particularly satilite towns around chief cities, unemployment was less of a problem. House building, building materials, internal decorations, furniture, kitchen equipment and gadgetry kept local workers busy. These suburban hearths and homes were warmed and kept dry for such workers, and their families. This is a tale about a town, house, and family life, on the outskirts of London, close to the Metropolitan railway line. It begins during the mid thirties when the national government was engaged in expansion, after a period of stagnation... there was now a general feeling of optimism. It is late summer...

As you drive about Britain, you come across public buildings and houses that all have similar architecture. The majority of houses were built by a local builder in the then fashionable style of the arts and crafts movement. That they were for workers rather than owners of businesses that kept elaborate brick and plasterwork to a minimum. But they still boasted stained glass, dado lines and panelled doors. The nineteen-thirties building style was recognisable by the use of brick and tile, gabled roofs, roughcast walls, tile hung bays, suspended floors and symmetrical metal windows. The front gardens were small, bordered by a privet hedge and divided by a narrow side entrance - leading to a back garden. There are similar houses all around England built to a particular standard of design and quality, all about the same time.

There was nothing wrong with it… for once the trees and gardens planted the formality was rather charming… There was almost a set style of garden which was prevalent at that time: well trimmed privet hedge, mixed flower borders, and a standard rose, ringed by grass. There were no cars, so there was no need for a garage, and certainly not, a concreted drive. Telegraph poles were just about to be raised; lines strung, and ordered telephones installed. This was no depressed environment but a well designed, new, and ordered, living space…

This dormitory town, for that is what it was - having no factories or large offices, relied on the railways and buses to ferry the working population to the nearest main town and beyond… London being only twenty minutes away. The town’s wide pavements – fronting the shops, provided a feeling of light and space, whilst the classically styled, imitation marble-walled Embassy cinema, one of the Associated British Cinema [ABC] chain… reserved for itself the role of premier landmark. The banks on each corner of the cross-roads gave citizens a feeling of stability, permanence, and trust.

In Britain, the years between 1935 and 1939 were considered ‘the calm before the storm’. Travellers, holidaymakers and businessmen, who went to Europe, came back with tales - describing Germany as being prepared for expansion both militarily and industrially, with a population indoctrinated to consider others, not Germanic, as inferior. The British government did not discuss or predict their feelings, of ‘troubles to come’… nor was it forcefully spoken of, or written about - by the media… at least, not sufficient to raise the alarm or disturb the peace.

The political and social atmosphere was one of dignified calm – of people trying to get on with life. No new building work was going on - for the land had already been totally developed, except the local farmland still there today - that provided local dairy produce. Neither the leading citizens nor local government agencies gave any indication what was imminent… peace reigned in a vacuum… Cricket was being played at Lords, where Middlesex harboured great expectations. No aircraft could be heard overhead and London’s airport never mentioned. Northolt still had biplanes taking off and landing and Brooklands still held motor racing. Fathers’ walked with furled umbrella, or walking stick, wearing a jacket and tie. Mothers’ pushed coach built prams with sunshades, children wore school uniform, including caps, policeman patrolled on foot, and errand boys delivered goods - on bikes. Children skipped and collected cigarette cards…, and football became the national sport - relegating cricket to second place. Lord Reith, the Managing Director of British Radio, demanded absolute decorum; parks, recreation grounds, bowling greens, and council gardens competed with each other to see who could cultivate the neatest lawns and plant the most colourful flowerbeds.

This sleeper town was no different from many other Boroughs throughout Britain. Office workers, tradesmen, skilled workers and hospital staff were expected to work to a high standard and most were proud of the quality of their work. Every trade skill was taught through an apprenticeship system, which had not long been reduced from seven years to five. Journeymen were justifiably proud when finishing their training and stoutly defended any erosion of their place in their trade or wider society. Girls were not apprenticed, taught industrial skills, worked on building sites, or drove cars. Mothers did not work full or part-time, but stayed at home; at least until the youngest child went to junior school, then they worked in shops, went back into nursing and teaching, or took a cleaning job.

The town’s citizens, although living in up-to-date houses, observed turn of the century attitudes. Boy Scouts and Cubs, Girl Guides and Brownies were the centrepiece of many children’s lives. Some older boys joined one of the cadet corps. Shops were shut on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons, attendance at church was normal for about fifty per-cent of the population, attending at least one service during Sunday. Most young children went to Sunday school. Shops opened at eight and closed at five - during the weekdays… on Thursdays and Saturdays stayed open an hour later. There was no poverty; all the children were well dressed, keeping aside special clothes for Sundays. I do not remember any rowdiness or drunken brawls. Teashops were popular and cakes and sandwiches formed the basis of afternoon teas. There was no Hire Purchase and personal saving the only way to pay the bills. Jumble Sales a regular feature and Tea Dances a popular afternoon event.

Much was made of The British Empire. The newsreel camera showed the Royal Family maintaining a ridged schedule of familiar appointments. The National Anthem was played at every performance at the cinema, theatre and concert, and at most public meetings – everyone stood, and those in uniform saluted. The National Flag was hoisted at every big occasion. Each of the Armed Services was seen as saviours and protectors of every country of the Empire. Explorers, Generals, Colonists and Missionaries were written about and applauded. Newspapers, books, and magazines promoted The Empire’s people, produce, and position. Churches collected for The Empire’s poor, and prayed for the continuance of the Monarchy, The Colonial system, and the government. The country’s laws, institutions, businesses, and educational system were organized to continue its growth and wealth… The Empire was a very important part of the country’s way of life… you were always made aware of it by all forms of indoctrination. This was not by official propaganda but part of a proud culture.

The Metropolitan railway, laid down the previous century, had new houses built surrounding the line starting where the old Edwardian style had left off - at Edgware Road and Willesden. New housing sprung up in the twenties and thirties. Previously it had been farmland… now transformed into The Greater London sprawl. It linked up all the little villages and hamlets along the line… it just needed more schools and other institutions, to convert each area into new town status. By the time the plan completed, between 1928 and 1933, the European situation directed the government to reallocate the country’s resources towards rearmament and shipbuilding. Serious house building had to wait twenty-five years until it started again in Chesham. By 1960, there was another enormous shortage of first time buyer’s homes.

Germanic military expansion was threatening, sufficient to galvanise the government into building-up the depleted armed forces, and place orders for military equipment. Even after this awakening, Britain was still poorly defended – it’s Military woefully inadequate and badly trained… tactics and procedure based on lessons learned during the first part of the First World War. The Indian Army and Overseas Detachments were in being to show force – military strength - to help the civilian authorities hold the peace. The military establishment was rigidly structured based on the class system not on merit.

Unemployment in, 1935-50, and for the following twenty years, was not an issue. ‘The German Attitude’… created a series of incidences which lead to Chamberlain’s 11.15 a.m. radio announcement - on Sunday the 3rd September 1939 -, which took the country into war. Chamberlain voice, a rather high, brittle voice, with clipped intonation…, created a rather theatrical performance – as though, expecting a cheer!France announced they were to be at war with Germany that afternoon, as did the Australian and New Zealand governments. South Africa announced their intentions three days later and Canada followed within the week. As all this was going on, the inhabitants, continued their lives as if nothing untoward was happening.

On the continent, British troops advanced through France to Lille - near the Belgium frontier. They dug defences, then advanced - leaving their prepared positions… then fell back…, never to fully recover. The army was unfit for war, inadequately equipped, carrying outdated weapons, and adopting inept tactics, in a doomed campaign. By the end of the following May the British Army was in full retreat… to the coast, and Dunkirk - to re-embark and be shipped back home… It was thought by the populace, an act of providence – like the river Jordan parting. In fact, it demonstrated an almost total ineptitude brought on by thoughtlessness and ignorance, exhibited by most of the political and military elite. It took almost four years to recover… then the outcome was inevitable… however, by that time, Britain was in debt to America, never to regain its premier position.

That autumn, the town was a place with pride…, that grew out of the thirties hardships, linking the old towns with the new. Its design showed off town planning at its very best with accommodation for all pockets and services to match. Many of the roads had pavements fringed by a grass verge… A crab apple or almond tree was planted outside each house, gave a pink haze - to the tree’s canopy, in spring. The whole described poetically by John Betjeman as Metroland, a term applauding suburban planning. Householders competed with each other to see who could produce the best verge and neatest front garden.

The scene - presented to the interested onlooker, was one of orderliness, neatness, and tranquillity… essential requirements for lower middle-class life. Because newly built, the pavements, roads and buildings were clean and undamaged - in pristine order – no cracked paving slabs, discarded litter, or graffiti. The town was exactly as designed with no extensions, garages, conservatories, replaced windows, or doors. Its citizens assumed the conventions of studied politeness – hats were raised to friends and neighbours and audiences stood for the National Anthem.

There was no frenzied traffic passing, no pollution, or noise. Many bikes were ridden, the horse and cart a means of delivery… prams abounded, and children held hands. Compared to today’s picture those times were quite charming… the likes, never to be seen again. It was quiet, with few people about – those that are are hurrying home. It was the lack of road traffic, the emptiness of the pavements and the quietness that dictates the difference from today’s… it was almost a rural atmosphere.

The railway bridge, of riveted steel, spans the main road , casting a shadow on the local hotel. The railway station had two entrances each with a bank of telephone kiosks. The ticket office displayed the tickets in racked, serried ranks, drawn upon the counter ready to be punched. Access to the platforms was made through the barrier, up the stairs, out onto the raised platform - next to the waiting rooms. Bright advertising posters, hand drawn and printed by the lithographic process, heralded Brighton and Seaton as being everyone’s dream location for a holiday. The London underground map flanked by the ‘up and down line’ timetables framed on the platform and waiting room walls.

The town’s banks - railings and porticoes, faced in Portland stone, stationed impressively on the crossroads. Their solid respectability made a good impression on visitors and townspeople alike. Many of the shops had countrywide names: Express Dairy, United Dairies, Dewhurst’s, Home & Colonial, Maynard’s, Cullen’s, Mac Fisheries, Boots, W. H. Smith, Woolworths, Cooper’s, and the Watford Co-op. The local dance studio operated from the large room over the Co-operative Department Store. The dance teacher taught ballroom, Latin American, and old time dancing. Previously this large room had been a snooker hall and in common with many became obsolete - giving way to more profitable pastimes.

The car showroom, laid out under the distinctive clock tower. The large plate glass, sliding doors, separated off the public from the lucky few who could buy the latest models. Cars, what few there were, serviced at the rear - next to the petrol pumps, their fuel pipes attached to swinging arms that carried the contents to the roadside. In 1939, there were nearly two million cars on the road, one for every twenty-five members of the population. The cheapest car could be bought for just over a hundred pounds.

The nearest local National School was built in 1841 at the bottom of the High Street – on the corner behind the signpost opposite the photographers. This was a development of The Church of England’s interest in promoting education for religious purposes. This took the form of The National Society for Promoting the Education of the poor in the Principles of the Established Church in 1811 to grant sufficient money to open up the Pinner Sunday School five years later. In 1833 the government enquiry into education for the poor lead to a series of grants to regularize religious involvement. This was the first nationally organized involvement, which lead to The National School being granted land by the lord of the manor, maintained by the school fee of a penny and voluntary contribution. Ten years later, at the time of The Great Exhibition, the school catered for 190 pupils. A much larger school was built in 1867 with five rooms in School Lane, becoming a National School. [In 1950, this school building became the overspill for the local Secondary School. The Education Act of 1880 made school attendance compulsory. In October 1891 lessons at the infant school was free, though the upper schoolchildren were charged 1d per pupil. The National School continued servicing the local children’s education for a further forty years when the influx of children from the new estates demanded more accommodation.

The local Primary and Junior School, housed in one building, was built a the same time as the surrounding houses in typical thirties style, of brick, with a flat roof, concrete cills, and metal framed windows. It educated about a hundred and fifty primary children and about the same for juniors; staffed by ten teachers, a headmistress, secretary, and caretaker. The playground asphalted and marked out for netball, relieved by a shrubbery on two sides. The headmistress banned the sports field for breaks - except for the annual sports day, because children became far too dirty - even in summer…, a chain-link fence circled the school’s boundary separating the school from its surroundings. Children seldom played truant, although there was always the odd boy who did - and got away with it. The School Board’s Inspector peddled round the roads on his bike to catch out those unwary children - trying to evade being caught.

As in most towns there was provision for the aspiring parent and rich citizen for private education. These facilities distanced their children from the rest of society – the parents in effect chose social exclusion… The school fees: bought better academic and sports facilities, discipline, compulsory homework engendered higher social expectations. The parents believed that it was worth the financial sacrifice to buy privilege, reinforcing the schools curriculum by ensuring that their child mixed with children of similar minded folk.

During the day, the shops and pavements were the preserve of women – mothers - pushing prams, shopping and meeting neighbours. It came to life when children came out of school, and again, later, when the trains delivered men from work. There were no nearby factories, and the frequent question, ‘where are all the men’ received the time honoured reply, “Gone up to town - it was mainly a white collar community commuting to London.

To buy school clothes and up-market wear the citizens had to travel to the nearest large town or visit London. This applied to all household linen; items arranged in countless drawers behind glass-topped counters with recessed brass measures screwed to the working surface. The cashier sat in an enclosed glazed box taking the money then sending the bill and money to the back of the shop using a brass tally chain or pneumatic tube. Change and a receipt came back the same way. Shoes were the only item bought locally - being needed at frequent intervals. When new, the soles were covered in steel studs or blakies, which made a crunching noise – like a soldier marching – that sent, sparks flying, when sliding on the pavement… Shops stayed open late on Saturdays and Thursdays, with half days open on Wednesdays. The town was built as a dwelling place for commuters using public transport.