Suburban Hearth and Home/A Homely Welcome

Chapter III: A Homely Welcome

Even today, most new house occupiers are nervous about their commitment. It is after all a very stressful experience especially when you have a new baby to look after and another on the way. This new tenant is no exception. He wanted his wife to be happy and the children to enjoy what it offered – a position close to the school, shops and cinema. He had read about a house being for rent, for the brochure had been specific. As the railway station was only less than ten-minutes down the road it was extremely convenient - for his job, as cartage manager - at a London main-line railway station. The poster’s blurb, displayed on the platform’s hordings, extolled the virtues of the new ‘Garden Town’ in colourful terms, in the then art deco style.

All the roads in the town were named after counties and county towns, and had not long been finished. Number thirty-one was fortuitously vacant – unoccupied since first built... providing just the sort of living space he was looking for. The owner had bought the property as an investment and was letting it out at five-shillings a week... The prospective tenant agreed to the rent and an agreement was duly signed. There was no stigma felt regarding renting for his Victorian and Edwardian upbringing saw this as the every day normal method of providing accommodation, which applied to ‘all’ classes… it was not considered uneconomic, or unsocial, but as convenient and sensible. Renting was after all something that allows for flexibility of movement, and that over a period of time maintenance and depreciation might make ownership uneconomic. He never gave thought to what would happen when he retired – that ownership might provide security in old age. Perhaps he did not want the responsibility after experiencing all the useless slaughter during the First World War; his perspectives had been shaped by the transience of war… that renting allowed him to have money in his pocket!

Number thirty-one was built in 1933 with two reception rooms, three bedrooms – two of a reasonable size the third a box-room; a kitchen, and an upstairs bathroom. The exterior walls pebble dashed and the bay roof and gable end hipped. The side entrance - behind a close-boarded wooden gate… led to the back garden. At the front of the house, facing the road, and acting as a boundary with the neighbours, the obligatory privet hedge - standing four feet high… The hedge almost smothered a low cinder-brick wall, built around wooden posts supporting a barbed, broad-linked chain…, which also served as a boundary marker to the house next door. The house built on a slight right-hand bend halfway down the road - the even numbers ranged opposite. Following the building line... almost directly facing the house, four lock-up garages, with glazed wooden doors. All were unoccupied and remained so until 1940.

The family Doctor, an important consideration - his wife being pregnant, had his surgery just past the small line of shops on the main road – up from the crossroads. He was a large framed, loose-limbed Irishman, who hardly ever moved from his swivel chair. His waiting room, to the left of the front door, was entered off the small hall… A small sign directed the patient to enter. As soon as the door opened, a number of piercing eyes greeted you… some appeared over newspapers, others myopically through glasses… the women present, looked up from their knitting. They were not all hostile, but most certainly wary… after all, you might introduce some dreadful disease. Thankfully there was a vacant chair, next to the gas fire turned down low… its single element glowing faintly. There was no means of knowing who entered last... To know your place in the queue you had to recognise all who were there when you entered, and then by elimination, deduced the order… This uncertainty created its own tension - contributed to a degree of nervous anxiety, which overlaid your already weakened state …; it also partly explains the anxious piercing glances when you first arrived. There was always a rather fat boy with glasses who sniffed repeatedly, judging each sniff to a nicety – to prevent total embarrassment! To offer a handkerchief would have been rude. It was the only source of real entertainment, and either caused the onlooker to feel even more sick, or drove them out of the room…

By the time the war had started the windows were hidden behind full-length blackout curtains which covered the bay. The window glass, criss-crossed with brown paper tape - to prevent splinters, allowed very little light to enter, even when the curtains drawn. Pealing posters and scuffed linoleum did nothing to entice the visitor to linger. The kitchen chairs, ranged round the sides of the bleak room, allowed the group of coughing and sneezing patients, to examine each other carefully over their magazines… each scrutinized carefully for signs of infectious disease or distressing habit. In the centre of the room, a green-blaze tablecloth covered the circular table, which held a pile of ancient magazines. These gave only limited distraction to the desperate company of men, wanting a chit to enable them to take time off work, women, who needed someone to take an interest in their nervous condition, and children, to obtain a school absentee note…

Posters advertised the horrors of measles, mumps, and TB. The government’s latest warning, showing an owl silhouetted against a yellow moon - declared, ‘talk costs lives’. The low wattage bulb, its illuminate quality severely restricted by a fringed coolie-hat shade, attempted to offer some much-needed light. The wartime patients, as they waited to act on the summons of the piercing bell, held themselves in readiness. The shrill call caused a response: some to almost fall off their seats, others to stand, only to sit down again, as someone else beat them to the door, a third who nervously twitched and shook in response to the bell’s clammer. The rattling striker, of the distressed bell, emitted a throttled b…ring. The assembled company came to life… their hearts pounding… The next patient, checking his position in the order of entry, lurched to his feet. Placing his magazine carefully on the table, attempted to leave the room unseen and unheard… his trailing scarf dragged on the floor. Knocking briefly on the consulting room door a muffled, ‘come in’, allowed the next in line to enter. The scene was one of chaos for every surface of his consulting room was filled to overflowing with strewn papers, sample dishes, stethoscope, microscope, torch, ruler, and bottles of pills, packets of powders and bottles of pink coloured jollop. The Doctor, started to write out a prescription… “What can I do for you my son?” His Irishness was pronounced…

The greeting on the other, side of the road - to the dentist – was an antithesis to the doctor, for he was short, erect and slim, quick of action and slow to rile. He operated a belt driven drill with the dexterity of a diamond cutter. It’s rotating belt spun round as the coarse drill ground in. I had good reason to admire his expertise and technical qualities. All fillings had to be endured without an injection and extractions performed with chloroform.

The neighbours kept their distance. As all town citizens they wished privacy and no interference. A brief nod of aquiantance, a raised cap and a cheery ‘goodmorning, was sufficient familiarization. This was not a world of nosy parkers or gossipers, everyone kept their business to themselves. There was never ‘a drop in for a cup of tea’ but suburban nicety writ large. What visitors there were entered through a bow-topped, slatted, wooden gate - painted drab green. It was the only means of entry to the house and garden – not having a back garden gate. This reluctant guardian of the home snapped shut with the force of a rattrap - achieved by an over tightened coiled, return-spring, or, more often than not, was propped open by a brick – the spring awaiting repairs. The opened gate allowed you to enter up the quarry-tiled front path, flanked by black serrated edgings tiles. Flowerbeds on either side of the path were stocked with rather poor roses on the right and Michaelmas daisies on the left, both needing some ‘tender loving care…’ the edging held London pride and grape hyacinth. The clay soil was light dun coloured forever-needing lots of humus to grow anything really well. ‘ The lilies, under the sitting-room bay windows, lent over to reach the sun… were a contrast to the panelled, and glazed, front door, with noticeable pealing paint, shaded under a bracketed canopy.

The glazed front door held stained glass which matched the hall and landing windows. The small fanlights of the sitting room windows held a similar design... all set in lead. These extravagances were in keeping with the architectural style. Only the hall, stairs and landing held a dado line, and picture rail. All the woodwork including: the doors, architraves, doorframes, skirtings, stairs, mantle-piece and fire surrounds were stained brown to resemble dark oak; the embossed lyncrusta wallpaper, below the dado line, was painted brown to simulate wood panelling. The external doors and windows were painted cream picked out in either brown or green.Both the interior and exterior design themes copied more expensive Arts and Crafts styles, using cost cutting methods and materials - to achieve a similar effect. The sitting room had a picture rail below a plaster cornice matching the hall and dining room. The under stairs cupboard was filled-in using tongue and grooved boarding, contined the sewing machine and Goblin cylinder vacuum cleaner.

At the end of the hall, facing the front door hung a picture of the royal coat of arms flanked by two dress swords. Decorating the wall next to the front door - on the right, were crossed imitation Roman swords, hung either side of a silvered mirror. On the wall opposite stood the hallstand completely filled with coats, hats, scarves, umbrellas and walking sticks. Built into the centre of the hallstand a glove box, under a mirror. Coat hooks screwed into the dado rail next to the hallstand lined the wall - up to the stairs… the hooks strained with the weight of umpteen coats, scarves and hats… Shoes, peeped out from beneath the coats, a favourite hiding place for boys playing hide and seek…

The larder had a marble slab and numerous shelves. A bread bin, cage for cold meats, cheese and butter dishes, plus jug of milk, all resided on the slab. On the floor, a vegetable basket with separate containers held the usual fare. Either side, on wall brackets, were shelves filled with condiments and bottled sauces. The larder, ventilated by a wire-mesh grill - covering a small window - this too was patched over with cardboard in the winter. Very few houses boasted a refrigerator and washing machines not manufactured until after the war. Health officials go on today about the necessity for cleanliness in the home and work place and caution against leaving food out of the refrigerator. We had no such warning strictures. The meat was eaten even though there was not a refrigerator or meat safe and if the milk went off then you drank it as it was or went without. In hot weather, the milk was boiled and the larder’s marble slab was cold in all weathers. It must have been kept clean for no one had an upset stomach. The cats kept the rats and mice away and no one complained about the lack of hygiene.

Not owning the house tenants felt it not incumbent upon them to maintain it. Therefore, a very infrequent redecoration was all that the rooms ever received - the ceilings white washed using a lime powder with the addition of a blue bag to give a whiter effect, and the walls distempered using the same powder with the addition of a coloured dye. The walls downstairs were papered. The roll was not trimmed one side had to be cut with scissors to overlap the previous sheet.It was very much the case of 'When father pasted the parlour', as the kitchen table was used to paste on, and the paste was made out of flour and water.

The result of almost zero maintenance over ten years - the property underwent a slow deterioration… The final nail in the coffin was the doodlebug, V1 bomb, which finished off the job… After that number, thirty-one had an extensive refit. The furniture and furnishing remained the same; items of furniture positioned to cover up bad decoration, damp patches, and worn carpets. Mother made all the curtains, cushions and chair covers using her Singer sewing machine.

The ‘best room’ – lounge, or front room, was used as the formal dining room, for the few visitors that dropped in, and for very special occasions. In the early days when the children were small it was always kept locked. It was undoubtedly, the coldest, dampest, most universally uninviting room in the house. It held a large table, that could be extended using a winder - to turn the ratchet, the two outer leafs were pulled apart, a third, slotted in. Four dining chairs, two kitchen chairs, and two carvers could be accommodated around its sides. This complicated operation only occurred at Christmas time - needing every resource available to keep my father calm… As every other gadget in the house, it was temperamental.

A sideboard took up the entire rear wall - immediately in front of the open door; two locked bookcases, with glazed side cupboards, stood either side of the chimneybreast – one cupboard holding a half-filled decanter and the other a service revolver. Placed on top, a framed box - containing medals, taken out and worn once every year at the cenotaph Remembrance Day parade. Opposite the fire, the table… and taking up the only other wall the bay window, looking out onto the street. It was a room that one never felt at ease in... only coming to life when a cheerful fire was lit in the grate that cast a warm glow on the hearth and the cut glass chandelier sparkled. The green tiled fire surround with mirrored over-mantle held the central position. On its wooden mantelshelf chimed a French clock - brought back from France. No fireplace was complete without a fender and coal boxes, their cushioned tops idea places to sit and roast upon. A fireplace companion set: of poker, brush and shovel, graced a polished brass holder, all decorated the hearth.

Perched on a high round table was a rather unhealthy looking aspidistra in a round, green glazed pot. This offending plant scattered innumerable small black seeds everywhere and led a charmed life - never watered. Two upholstered armchairs, with tassels on the arms, either side of the fireplace tried to lift the room - give it a feeling of comfort and warmth. They failed miserably.

Two heavy curtains on runners framed either side of the bay windows. These were permanently covered by net suspended on stretched wire. The lace filtered out much of the light giving the room a Victorian formality, it also prevented scrutiny of what was going on from the outside. Nobody ventured to disturb the net curtains - father considered any movement linked to nosiness and impolite in the extreme. It was the general rule for all houses of that period to have lace curtains covering the windows.

A silver framed oval mirror on chains separated two prints of Scottish river scenes..., all were hung from the picture rail, centred over the sideboard... where, spaced out, a wooden nut bowl, biscuit barrel, and cut glass fruit bowl, lined up on a runner. The tasselled bordered, patterned carpet-square, fitted into a surround of linoleum was tacked into place - the tacks prevented the draught that was coming up through the floorboards moving the lino. A standard lamp stood next to the round table holding the fern - which when lit, cast a shadow of its tracery over the floor. The windows were never ever disturbed throughout the whole house, for if they were opened - could never be closed until the following summer. It was undoubtedly a cold, damp room!

When visitors came to tea, a special effort was made to do everything perfectly. The cucumber, beetroot, and mustard and cress sandwiches were made of white bread with the crusts cut off. There would always be at least two cakes available displayed on stands with paper doilies peeping out from beneath. The tea: cups, pot, basin arranged with precision on the best silver tray… all graced the table on top of a pristine tablecloth with razor sharp creases. The napkins rolled in their rings of silver set on the left complimenting the silver tea pot.

The back room, now sitting-room, was originally built as the dining room; French doors lead out onto the back yard, and garden beyond. It was always used as the sitting room, it offered privacy - which was lacking in the front, and what was convenient, was built on the warmest side of the house. A brass, rod and ball fender, boxed in its maroon tiled, fire surround, and hearth. This room was only sat in at weekends when the fire was lit. The over mantle held a large mirror and various knicknacks perched on the suspended shelves. A pipe rack, spill container, box of Swan Vesta matches and two porcelain figures of nubile dancers, graced the mantle shelf.

Some floorboards in the room were rotting, plywood lay over these to prevent falling through - to the void beneath. Newspapers, placed under the carpet, to give an added underlay, tended to smell, giving the room a slight musty odour. Although coal and coke was available, much of the time wood was burnt, which cause much crackling and spitting and the occasional shower of sparks, which fell onto the fireside rug. As the fire burned down coal was heaped on to get a good blaze, a metal plate, which covered the whole fire front, was placed in front of the fire… called ‘The roarer’ and its purpose was to draw in draft from below the fire basket. This metal plate sometimes became red hot and a rush made to take it outside into the garden to cool off. The soot at the back of the fireplace - on the fire-back, glowed and became the soldiers, which climb up the chimney, snuffed out when the draught cooled them down. Many times the family gathered around the fire to watch the sparks climb up the chimney. The chimney to the sitting room had to be swept every year. It was one of the family jobs to distribute the soot around the garden.

On cold stormy nights, with the wind whistling round the house and blowing through the upturned branches of the poplar trees... in next-door’s garden… it was particularly comforting to be inside, in the warm. The rain beating on the windows invited the chairs to be ‘drawn-up close’ to form a semicircle round the fire. Once the rolled up piece of carpet was thrust tight up against the bottom of the door to stop the draughts, the radio set tuned for the light programme: Henry Hall’s Guest Night, Band Wagon with Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch, the BBC Doctor Charles Hill, Friday Night is Music Night, Down Your Way, with Franklin Engelmann, In Town Tonight, Old Time Dancing, with Sydney Thompson. Valentine Dyall, as ‘The Man in Black’ and Edgar Lustgarten in murder intended. Lift-up-your-hearts, Life with the Lyons with Ben and Bebe Daniels. Forces Favourites from The British Force’s Broadcasting Network in Germany with announcers Cliff Michelmore and Jean Metcalf linking those at home to the forces aboard..., then the entertainment would begin. Mother would take up her knitting, usually from wool unplucked from an old jumper, and the cat would jockey for position before the fire. It took a brave person to disturb the well-lit pipe, the warmed slippered feet and the sense of peaceful tranquillity.

Heavy curtains on poles drawn tightly together to keep out any draughts covered the French-doors. Two upholstered armchairs and a settee, a pair of small cupboards either side of the fireplace and the upright piano, with a stack of music on top, and its accompanying stool, which twiddled around, completed the furnishing. Light provided by a low wattage, centre electric light bulb with a coolie-hat fringed shade. A reproduction oil painting in a gilt frame of the battle of waterloo provided the wall decoration. On most weekend evenings, the piano played – the sheet music turned, the lyrics sang - the whole family joining in. They worked their way through The Daily Express Community Song Book. No request was ever turned down, any piece however difficult and the old piano would vibrate with the action. The sound of the piano was increased by removing the front panel, so that the ‘action’ was exposed; this part of the piano held the hammers, which together with all the other wood and felt parts became damp in the winter. The piano was not ‘over strung’ but made of all wood with the strings strung on a metal frame. The candleholders on either side of the music stand had long since been removed. The action was lifted out before the piano was played and placed before the fire, straddling the brass fender, to dry out. Eventually the squeaks from the stiffened action were reduced - the action eased; the weekly recital started when the washing of the tea things had been dried and put away, the coal and logs had been fetched in, and the first pipeful of tobacco smoked and the Evening News read. It was a Saturday night routine acted out throughout the war.

His music library reflected his age and experience. It was the sort of music being played at the turn of the 1900s: included the latest from Tin Pan Alley, musicals from the Alhambra, Gilbert and Sullivan at the Savoy and the music hall. It would be rare not to hear this music being played at every street corner and every living room. He learned a full repertoire playing for his local picture palace - to accompany non-talking black and white films, and to entertain his men during the war - in the trenches of France. Maintaining his expertise by playing for Masonic ceremonies, which lasted the rest of his playing days? The musical evenings were in keeping with family traditions - entertainment at the time since learning to play, when he too had to display his party-piece in front of guests. Everybody was expected to contribute whether reading aloud or playing an instrument.

The family car was an Austin 14 – a large square shaped saloon with leather seats, bulbous mudguards, the battery and spare wheel bolted onto the running board. It had been loaned to the head of the household by the government… for as the 17th London Division Commander he needed to be in touch with his outposts and men. To start, the engine needed to be turned over with the starting handle… with the choke pulled out; this setting slipped - started to work its way back into the open position. To ensure the engine fired the driver had to pull out the choke, [valve closed, letting in pure petrol] leap from seat to handle, turn the engine over until it fired… then leap back into the car, to catch the engine firing, whilst keeping the choke control out, until the engine had warmed up. This daily exercise guaranteed the driver was fully awake before chancing his life on the road.