A while ago Running Past delved into the first volume of the autobiography of Phyllis Willmott who grew up in Lampmead Road in Lee, looking at the Sunday Constitutional that she and her siblings went on with the adult male members of her extended family. We return to ‘Growing Up in a London Village,’ to explore her recollections of play around 90 years ago.
Memoirs like this from the period are rare, as Willmott herself noted ‘(Working class) families seldom write letters; they do no keep diaries or publish books;’ traditions were oral (1).
The house at 49 Lampmead Road was overcrowded by modern standards, although as noted in the posts on Ardmere Road, for working class families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the area, this was not uncommon. It was rented by Phyllis grandparents who had the large front bedroom as well two uncles and a cousin who shared the rear living room. Phyllis mother and father, Harriet and Alec, shared the smaller second floor bedroom – with Phyllis and her brother and sister top to tail in a single bed (2). Unsurprisingly, unless weather prevented it, play was usually outside (or at least that’s what her memories were…)
Skipping games with old clothes lines were common and could often become the entire focus of play for weeks on end to the exclusion of almost everything else, but would then be quickly abandoned (3). Hopscotch would be marked out on the pavement, which was the venue for marbles too. There would be paper chases up and down Lampmead Road and into the road itself with cars a rarity (4).
Seasonal ‘standards’ included conkers in the autumn and a season later, winter warmer. The latter involved keeping lit rags smouldering in a pierced cocoa can (5) – it isn’t clear whether the children were able to purloin any methylated spirit or other accelerant to aid the burning.
In summer holidays the children of Lampmead, Brightfield and neighbouring streets would have a ‘fair’ against the wall of the end house which faced Brightfield Road (below); the house was occupied by the irritable Mrs French. They sold sweets made by mothers, posies of flowers from gardens, swapped possessions they no longer wanted – dolls clothes, toy soldiers and the like. It lasted about a week (6).
The wall was used for other games too – one involved cigarette cards being were propped up against it, others would attempt knock the cards down by flicking their own cards at them. Any card(s) knocked down were the spoils of victory for the flicker, but all cards standing would mean the loss of the the flicked card. Spirits rose and fell with the winning and loss of cards. (7)
Ball games were played against that long flank wall to the terrace too, it had enough length to support up to 4 games at once. The reverberations no doubt drove Mrs French to despair – often shooing the children away (8).
There were a couple of dozen children of a primary school age that played out in the street (9) so perhaps Mrs French’s interventions were not surprising. Street play was safe though, unlike now, cars were a rarity in the neighbourhood apart from those on Lee High Road. Much of the rest of traffic on the streets was horse drawn or the hand pulled barrow of the type that her father used for building work. The streets ‘belonged’ to the children and other pedestrians (10).
While the back garden was very much her grandfather’s domain, the children were allowed to play there too – a favourite was racing snails found in the lilac along the wooden benches he had made. The only condition was that he made Phyllis and her siblings clear up the trails from the seats. (11)
The children seemed to have a lot of freedom to wander from an early age and a frequent destination was Manor House Gardens, which had only been open for 25 years when Phyllis made her first forays there. There was then a shop in the park, the Old Road end of the cafe which sold sweets, tea and cakes. Next to it was a covered shelter (now part of the cafe, behind what is now the outside seating) – often where they ended up when weather was poor (12). The playground at Mountsfield Park was preferred to that in Manor House Gardens (it isn’t clear what existed in Manor House Gardens at that stage – large scale maps only note the tennis courts in front of the Manor House & where the football ‘cage’ currently is.) However, there were gangs from neighbouring areas at Mountsfield Park so it was less popular (13).
As the children got older they were allowed to venture further afield, literally to a field – next to the Little Quaggy in Mottingham – ‘camping’ by the still clear stream – fishing and paddling there and on spring trips out there, jam jars would be filled with frogspawn (14). The Sidcup by-pass had just been built, and then it was home to Express Dairy cattle, now it is riding school land with lorries thundering past.
And finally… when her Dad was in work, trips to the Imperial Picture Palace were made on Saturday mornings, it was opposite where her grandmother had grown up near Lee Green (15).
- Phyllis Willmott (1979) Growing Up in a London Village p6
- ibid p12
- ibid p35
- ibid p36
- ibid p36
- ibid p37
- ibid p37
- ibid p37
- ibid p31
- ibid p177
- ibid p60
- ibid p106
- ibid p109
- ibid p110
- ibid p118