Estimated reading time:18 minutes, 43 seconds
Everyone has a story. Perhaps it is because Ivy Allan Freeman has been living in the US for nearly 50 years that her memories of growing up near King’s Cross – with the sound of horses’ hooves on the cobbles and later the terrifying air raids – are so astonishingly vivid. Here she writes from America about life in Islington from 1933 until the 1950s. As an aspirational young Londoner Ivy knew she had to leave Islington if she wanted to better herself, but she’s still really fond of her old home. Thank you Ivy for this fascinating insight… Edited by Nicola Baird
“When Nicola invited me to be interviewed for her blog Islington Faces I was surprised but pleased by the timing. I am currently writing about growing up in Islington so have many memories fresh in my mind.
However, if you had told me back then that I would be writing about my life it would have been like telling me that one day a man would walk on the moon, Ludicrous! How could I ever amount to anything I was “lower class.” Though if you had told me that I would one day live in America, as I have, since 1967, that would have intrigued me. I loved going to the pictures. The America I saw on film seemed very glamorous and there was always left over food in their big refrigerators.
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At the time I was born, home births were routine, and I drew my first independent breath in one of the two rooms that were already home to my parents and two older sisters. The date was May 24, 1933. This tenement house on Albion Street, later re-named Balfe Street, bears little resemblance to the astonishingly expensive homes I now see advertised online. Outside they are the same sturdy brick structures but inside they look very different. Today, each house has been renovated into two separate flats each with a bathroom, a fitted kitchen and a patio garden.
In May of 1933, these houses have two rooms on each of the three floors and also in the basement. The only fittings are a gas mantel for light and a coin machine to keep the gas going. It is common that two or three families share the house. There is a shared lavatory outside in the back yard and a cold water tap on the stairs landing.
Tenants, in the house we lived in, took turns weekly cleaning the public areas with mop and broom. There was the Bag Wash for Laundry. Take a bag of laundry, leave it overnight, collect it next day – wet – it would be very heavy. Most women took the baby’s pram to carry it home to hang out to dry. Before this my Mum had used a washboard and wringer.
My sister Joan is born three years after me. Soon after her birth we move around the corner to number 5 Wharfdale Road, same kind of house, but we now have four rooms, two on the ground floor and two in the basement. The front basement room faces the coal cellars. The back room has doors that open outward to the back yard which seem to us to be very grand, despite the yard being just a concrete square of space.
Wharfdale is a busy, noisy, street stretching between the back end of Kings Cross station on York Way, and ending at Caledonian Road. Many merchants, use horse and carts for deliveries.
The milkman leaves the milk on the doorstep, the coal man tips the bags of coal down through the manhole into our coal cellar, the rag and bone man comes around shouting “any old iron”, gypsies go door to door selling clothes pegs, and we can get kitchen knives sharpened every few months.
I attend Winton Primary School, on Killick Street. On school mornings, amid the clamor of horse hooves on the cobblestones, I walk to the corner where a friendly policeman stops traffic to escort us across the “Cally” as we call it. There is a men’s public urinal on one corner, a necessary convenience for men who work long days making deliveries, in front of it is a large trough filled with water for their horses.
Later, during the war, I will step over shattered glass and other debris resulting from the previous night’s air raid. Many of our teachers are older, having been called back from retirement, replacing those now serving in the military or working in munitions factories. The cane is still in use. We have to go to the headmaster’s office to pick it up and bring it back to the classroom for the caning.
The school day begins with Assembly, after which we form a line in front of Mrs Argent, each of us holding a large spoon. Taking our spoon she dips into a thick treacle-like substance and returns it directly into our mouth. We have to stand in front of her until she is certain we have swallowed it (to prevent the boys from spitting it out behind the radiators.) The “treacle” is a vitamin mixture of Cod Liver Oil and Malt Extract supplied by the government to offset the food shortage. It tastes horrible.
After school, with my friends along the street, I play outside.
There is soot and smoke in the air and horse manure underfoot. There is no electricity, television, CDs, DVDs, computers, mobile phones, or any kind of phone. Our toys are white chalk to draw the hop scotch pattern on the pavement and rope for skipping or for tying around the lamppost to make a swing. Boys run after lorries to hang on the back for a ride.
Trying to supplement our rationed sweets we chase after American soldiers chanting “Got any gum chum?”. They give us either gum or money.
Before the war, and the introduction of the blackout, a lamplighter would come around at dusk with his long pole. We are told not to play on the bomb sites because of unexploded bombs but we do anyway. The Pearly Kings and Queens, and the barrel organ man provide free entertainment as they hang out around the Picton pub.
All Saints Parish Church, then situated on the corner of All Saints Street and Caledonian Road, sponsor our local Girl Guides and Boy Scouts groups. This, and other activities at the church, open up new experiences for us such as trips to Parliament Hill Fields and Epping Forest.
This is a time prior to the advent of The National Health Service. The one book my family owns is a compendium of home remedies for all ills. When the book fails to produce a cure we take the long walk to the Clinic on Amwell Street. This is also a time before immunisations for childhood diseases so, when I get whooping cough from a school contact, it is inevitable that Joan, now two-years-old, will catch it. Pneumonia develops, there are no antibiotics, she is hospitalised and dies within a week. The wound to our family is deep. In time there are two more additions to the family, both boys.
Like many of the local women, Mum is a charlady.
She gets up at 5am each weekday morning to go to work scrubbing floors. On Saturday mornings we go to Chapel Market, stopping at Granny’s house on Wynford Road for a cup of tea. The market is busy and noisy, there are no supermarkets, Mum makes her way around the variety of stalls, for fish, vegetables, fruit. Looking at the fake bunch of bananas hanging up at the fruit stall I always ask what bananas taste like and mum always replies it’s hard to explain. I like walking through the market till we reach the Angel where I can look in the shop windows.
Despite extreme rationing and food shortages Mum manages to keep us fed. After finishing her morning cleaning job during the week she goes to the local butcher’s shop, waiting for it to open in hopes some kind of meat will have come in. With no refrigerators, daily shopping for some items is necessary.
I don’t recollect being hungry but there is very little variety, and whatever is on your plate is all there is, no extras, or left overs. I do remember a lot of boiled potatoes and cabbage with fried pigs’ liver!
My Dad works Saturday nights, bundling newspapers and loading them on to lorries for distribution around London.
Family members who are at home Saturday evening listen to the battery powered wireless and the BBC’s Saturday Night Theatre. Sitting as close as we can to our coal fire for warmth we snack on a popular treat of bread with dripping, oblivious to the toxins inhaled with the coal and the drippings clogging our arteries.
Later, lying in bed, I listen to the singing as the pubs turn out and people sing their way home to songs such as Roll Out The Barrel, It’s a long way to Tipperary, Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner and others with more bawdy lyrics! Occasionally I hear some shouting and scuffling as a little fight occurs but it usually doesn’t amount to much.
The first air raid is unexpected.
When the Siren begins it’s urgent wailing over the city we don’t know what to do. In previous months the bombs have fallen outside of Central London. Now the siren is followed by a high shrill whistling sound then by explosions that shake the house. The London Blitz has begun, consecutive nights of merciless battering. It is more terrifying than I can find words to describe. There are not enough air raid shelters and none in our neighborhood.
We sleep in our daytime clothes, huddle under the stairs, crawl under the beds, take our blankets down to King’s Cross underground station, attempting to sleep on the platform alongside hundreds of others while the trains continue to run. Large street shelters are built but there is not enough sanitation to accommodate the crowds seeking shelter.
Difficult as it is for us to endure the impact of explosions, gunfire, windows smashing, ceilings cracking, we have it easy. In that first raid the German Air Force is focused on the London Docks and the surrounding civilian population. When the All Clear sounds our relief is huge but is short-lived, two hours later the skies are again filled with hundreds and hundreds of German planes that bomb relentlessly, this will be the nightly pattern. It is easier now for them to find their targets, London is ablaze the sky lit by the fires raging around the docks.
A couple of raids stand out from the rest, one is the land mine that obliterated Rising Hill Street. This kind of mine comes down quietly by parachute. When it lands my older sister and I are in bed, the family having given up on air raid shelters. The force is such that I think our house has been hit and I am afraid to come out from under the bedclothes. Both sides of Rising Hill street are completely demolished.
I remember the VE Day party, but not very well. Long tables lined up down the street, sandwiches, little flags on the tables.
My parents place no value on education, not unlike other parents of the time. For them it is bad enough that the school leaving age has increased to 15. They are not uncaring but are shaped by their own experience, they want security for their children. They want their boys to go into a trade and their girls to marry someone with a steady job.
I want to marry and have a house with grass in the backyard and an inside toilet, but there are a lot of things I want to know more about.
I attend Ritchie Street Comprehensive until I am 15. I’m disappointed that I can’t go on to more learning, but at All Saints we have been given hope, taught that things can be different, there is a plan for our lives. I hold on tightly to this hope. There is one thing I am determined about, I will not go to work in a factory or shop. I want an office job. I attend evening classes for typing and shorthand.
My first job after I leave school is in a legal office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I proofread legal documents. There are no computers, everything is typed, two people “proof” – one reads aloud (my job) the other listens. Lincoln’s Inn is very different to Wharfdale and I love watching the barristers hurrying around wearing their wigs. This is the first of many office-type jobs I will have.
Location, location, location
Those of us who live close to the station will say we live in King’s Cross. As I begin to move around in the greater London area I discover that King’s Cross has a bad reputation, and is referred to in a disparaging way. I don’t have a lot of self-confidence and don’t want to be looked down on so I begin to say I live in Islington, which I do. This works well, because there are two Islingtons, the part where I live, and the area up and around the Islington Public Library, much nicer and where “artsy” people live.
Q: Were you ever afraid?
I wasn’t afraid to go anywhere in Islington The buses and trains didn’t run very late so I would walk home after an evening out with friends, often alone if they lived elsewhere. I was never accosted or expected to be. The Kings Cross area had a bad reputation I think mostly because there were prostitutes, or as we called them “tarts”. Many of them would hang around the Star and Garter Pub on Caledonian Road. There were a lot of servicemen around from all countries who seemed to know the location of the pub!
Also the area was perceived as “slummy” and people often assume that poverty equals dishonesty and crime. I do think that there was a certain amount of petty crime that happened, though I never experienced it. There was what today we would call domestic violence, and also angry exchanges at times between people living in the same house, sometimes some shoving would happen, I never saw any weapons, or injuries. It was frightening when it happened, but not a regular occurrence, mostly it was fueled by alcohol and overcrowded living conditions. None of the inside rooms in these tenement houses had locks on them, so anyone could walk in. We never experienced any problem with this.
There was just one street I was afraid to walk down, having been told “don’t go down there they are a rough lot”. I think it was Affleck Street. A short street that ran between Collier and Pentonville. I was completely afraid and never stepped foot along there although I never did learn why I shouldn’t!
Q: What was it like being a post war teenager?
As children we were viewed as just little adults. The word teenager had not yet been invented. Because of the overcrowding there was little privacy, so we overheard all conversations. We all learned early that there was nothing to be gained by running home if we were picked on by other kids. My Mum, like the others, told us we must “stick up” for ourselves or we’d never survive in the world.
As teenagers we went to the pictures, dancing, went up the West End and walked around, rode our bikes up to Regent’s Park and at a certain age (don’t remember what it was) could go into the pub but not drink alcohol. However, as girls, we sometimes had to say “can’t go out tonight, washing my hair”. This, as with all personal hygiene, was a monumental task. Cold water had to be collected from the tap on the stairs, warmed up on the gas stove and passed into a bowl. Then came the problem of drying the hair, this usually done in front of the coal fire.
Q: How mixed was Islington then?
We were a white community. English with a smattering of Scots and Irish. A larger group were Italians, They attended the Roman Catholic School and Church, so we didn’t really get to know them.
Q: How easy was it to find somewhere to live in Islington?
I got married in 1957. It was 12 years after the war’s end but the housing shortage was still acute. There were lists we could put our names on for a council flat, or a house in one of the new towns being built, but the wait time was years. I would knock on doors if I saw a window with no curtains, asking if there was a vacancy. There never was.
Many couples just moved in with one set or other of parents. Bob and I were remarkably fortunate in that some friends moved to West London and, in the process, found a place for us.
Q: Was leaving school at 15 a problem?
Later as an adult I did go to University in the States. I earned a four year undergraduate degree, and a two year Master’s Level. I then had a long career as a psychotherapist. In my practice my main focus was working with women who, as children, had experienced trauma of one kind or another.
Q: How do you feel about Islington now you’ve been away for 45+ years?
I always wanted to get away from Islington. I did leave, but Islington never left me.
I carried with me the resilience, work ethic, and sense of humour! Even after the most difficult night of bombing, people would find something to laugh about. This ability to laugh has carried me through some difficult times. I continue to feel London English and still hope I can make that one last trip back…
- If you were born in Islington in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s you might like to join this Facebook group here
Over to you
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.