Life in London between the wars

Irene Bulloch

I was born in London in 1911. My first memories are of World War 1, when zeppelins came over and there was the noise of explosions and guns. Sometimes my brothers and I were taken to a local church to shelter in the crypt but at night my Mother made us sleep under the bed, presumably as a measure of protection and I can remember it felt stifling.

When I was five I started school, fearful and tearful, but my sweet lady teacher soon allayed my fears and when Empire Day approached she chose me to be "Britannia" in a tableau. Other boys and girls were to represent the Commonwealth counties and form around me.

School was totally free. All books, pens, pencils, papers, paints, brushes, chalk, crayons and any other essential articles were supplied. We did not have to wear uniforms. Our schools were called London County Council (LCC) Schools, which were the equivalent of Australian State Schools.

We had a good basic education. Schools were divided into three sections, Infants, Junior Mixed (boys and girls) and separate Boys and Girls Schools. I cannot remember any girl that could not read, spell adequately write or do the necessary sums when she left school.

We also did exercises called eurhythmics, sang and acted in plays. In plays I became Sleeping Beauty, The Knave of Hearts, Puck and Fairy Mustard in "A Midsummer Night's Dream". We also had a violin class which I joined, giving me the incentive many years later to join an orchestra in Melbourne.

The only means of transport in those early days were horses, black horses for funerals and white or light grey horses for weddings. Ladies and gentlemen rode horses in Rotten Row, an area surrounding Hyde Park, London. They also rode there in carriages. Work horses pulled drays, carts and trams. The poor people pushed barrows to market and along the streets, selling their wares and calling out as they went. There was the man calling "shrimps and winkles" and the bottle man who gave children a balloon in exchange for a bottle or jar. The Muffin man carried a tray on his head filled with muffins, rang a bell and called out "muffins". The Cat's Meat Lady carried a large basket on her arm which contained wooden skewers of sliced cooked meat, and called out "cat's meat". I learned the popular songs of the day from listening to the Organ Grinder who came around the streets, playing the organ by turning a handle. He often had a monkey sitting on the top of the organ, dressed in a little suit and hat.

Right up to World War 2 there was strong class distinction. Our family would probably have come between lower class and middle class as, although we had little money, we were always well fed and dressed and always clean, as was our home.

During the war my Father became a soldier and went to France. My Mother worked to "keep the home fires burning". When he came home on leave he brought me a small packet of chocolate. It was so lovely. I can almost taste it to this day!

Mothers then had their babies at home, attended by a midwife assisted by a family member or neighbour. I had my two daughters at my Mother's home, a doctor attending and my Mother assisting. A nurse called daily for two weeks to attend to me and bath the baby.

When someone died blinds and curtains were drawn which signified there had been a death in that house. All the family wore black for a period and a widow wore widow's weeds, these were a black veil hanging from her hat and shading her face. Grandmothers and old ladies wore dark coloured clothing and bonnets with a feather. Shawls were often worn by the poor.

Heating was by coal, which was delivered by the coal man and lighting was by gas. Washing was done by boiling clothes in a copper. Coloureds were washed by hand using a wash-board. A blue-bag was squeezed into the rinsing water to make whites whiter. Ironing was done by an iron actually made of iron which was heated on an iron range which my Mother kept shiny by brushing black-lead on it and then polishing it. Outdoor steps were kept white by wetting them and then rubbing them with a white powdery stone.

We had a chimney sweep come once a year. Furniture was covered and the sweep held a thick sack over the opening of the fireplace to collect the soot and prevent too much flying around the room. We had no bathroom, but bathed in front of the fire in a tin bath while other family members went out of the room. Women scrubbed floors on their hands and knees. Carpets had damp tea leaves sprinkled on them to keep down the dust then were beaten with a hand brush.

Children played in the streets quite safely, as there were no cars. They played skipping, high jump, ball games and hoops and we could hire a bicycle or a tennis racquet quite cheaply for an hour or half-hour. Adult entertainment was usually the pictures, theatre, music halls, dancing, walking or a train ride to the country or seaside.

These are just some of my early memories before coming to Australia during World War 2. How and why that eventuated is another story!