When no one locked their doors on my street

This is a history of my street, from 1931-2011. It’s a firsthand account. So it’s not written by me. Guess that makes it a guest post.

One of my neighbours, Pam, wrote it to share with the rest of us on the street. I typed it up and printed off copies to hand out at our recent royal wedding street party (here, here and here).

I’ve slightly edited it for this blog. And I’ll give you a little context too.

The street is on the edge of a village in the south of England. Population less than five thousand people. Used to be mainly farm workers. Now a lot of people commute to the nearest city.

Pam was born on the street and has lived here most of her life.  She has some good tales. One of them features an odd woman in a beret. (Apologies. In the previous post I promised you a flat cap. Turns out it’s a beret.)

So here’s Pam’s story.

I was born at no.22, lived there for a year, then moved to no.18 for a year, then to no.17 for the next thirty years, until my husband and I bought an allotment and orchard from the owners at no.19 and built our own bungalow no.21.

Many of the houses were built in the late 1920s and 1930s by two local builders. They were mostly rented. It was only after World War II that people began to buy homes outright. Most houses have altered almost out of recognition with rooms added up and out.

I do not know if our home came with gas at first, but I do remember the excitement of just touching a switch and the light coming on when electricity was installed. Before then, one had a bracket with two gas mantles which had a chain to operate the gas flow. One then lit the mantles carefully with a match. That was only downstairs. Electricity came to the street around 1937 I think. Before then we went to bed by candlelight.

Everyone had a flower garden, a vegetable patch and a few greenhouses – fruit trees and bushes and strawberries. Everyone in those days grew most of their vegetables and shared them with neighbours.

A few chickens at the bottom of the garden and rabbits in hutches provided extra meat – especially during the war years and eggs were precious. During the war we had a retriever who when told to “catch a rabbit” over the fields, did just that and made the meat ration go further. The large oak tree (now listed) at the rear of no.17 was home to a family of red squirrels until the grey squirrels moved in.

1. It's not a woman in a beret. 2. It's the wrong type of rabbit. 3. It's a pipe not a cigarette. 4. Who cares.

Also to the rear of no.17 in the corner of the field was a reclusive lady who lived in a wooden hut. She bred and reared angora rabbits. The fur combings were sold for wool. She was known as Old Jane, but when she first lived there must only have been in her 30s. She was well spoken and very intelligent. People recognised her as clean but untidy, with hair tucked into a beret and always with a cigarette in her mouth. I was fascinated by the rabbits and spent hours before school helping or more likely hindering her.

The lane to the rear of the street was known as Gypsy Lane, because Gypsies used to camp in the spinney, which was mostly hazel. They obtained wood from coppiced stumps to make clothes pegs to be sold in the village. These were the original Gypsies who were honest and respectful of people and their surroundings. They would stay a week, two or three times a year.

In the evenings, nightingales sang and glow worms lit the banks. All these went during or soon after the war. Pesticides and tractors taking over the ploughing from shire horses did not help these little creatures.

At this time the road was unmade, and although roughly formed footpaths ran on either side, they were muddy in wet weather. The road was the better option even though it was little more than squashed hardcore with large puddles. Before electric light, one needed a map of the potholes in one’s head.

At the age of five, children went to the village school. Each road had a “big girl” or sometimes a “big boy”, who would collect young pupils from their road and take them to school. These older pupils, aged eight to 14, the school leaving age, also used to sooth tears and wash cut knees. So pupils learnt responsibility and caring for others early on.

Evacuee children carry their belongings as they prepare for a new life away from World War Two London during the blitz. One girl looks back for the last time.

When war broke out, evacuees almost doubled the number of children in the street. One teacher who came with the Londoners was billetted here. Miss Frances seemed old and spinsterish to me then, but I suppose she was late 30s, early 40s. She was very strict and always took the evacuees’ side. At first it was “them and us”, but as the war progressed the barriers came down and new friendships were made. Miss Frances proved to be a true teacher who stood no nonsense and made sure every child understood their lessons.

During the war, before I took the scholarship exam for the local High School (about nine miles away), we lived in the nearby town where my parents ran a hotel for a while. I went to the High School till I was 16. Our house in the street was rented out. When we returned it was as if time had stood still, except that infants in prams were now themselves going to school. Having got my School Certificate and Pitmans exams, I went to work in London.

Everything was moving on. The road surface was made up and there were fewer potholes than there are these days, though there was less traffic back then. My mother became ill with cancer and went into hospital about 15 miles away. My father was running a hotel in Twickenham and unable to return home for months.

We had a dog. He could not be left indoors all day, so when I went to work I propped the back door open. It might be ten at night before I got home, having travelled a long way on buses. Back then, no one locked doors or windows. Often I came home to find a meal between two plates, left by a neighbour.

The coal man kept the coal cellar full and the milkman left milk. Pay when you can, was all they asked. One night I saw a huge rat dash behind the water pipes in the kitchen. Word got to the local rat catcher who let himself in while I was at work and sorted things out.

This to me is the biggest change, not only in this street, but everywhere. How did it happen that almost overnight we could no longer leave doors and windows unlocked? Since I was burgled last year, when family treasures handed down to me were stolen, just a week after my partner was buried, I have been forced to fit so many locks I feel I am a prisoner in my own home.

Things have improved – the welfare state, health facilities, availability of food and carers for the elderly. But we have lost personal freedom. Children no longer climb trees, walk alone in woods, push home-made go-carts down the hill. I would love to hear your views of life, now and then.

So that’s Pam’s bittersweet version of how life has changed on my street over the years. She’s one of my neighbours who I hadn’t met before – hadn’t even seen. I’ve now had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know her a little through working together to plan our royal wedding street party. And that makes me happy. And that’s all for now.

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7 Comments

Filed under Guest Posts, In the village

7 responses to “When no one locked their doors on my street

  1. Barbara Rodgers

    I loved reading Pam’s story! I wish every elderly person would write up a biographical sketch like this one, letting their memories wander around the days of their lives, describing the surroundings where they lived. As a family historian, this is the kind of gem I love finding! One never knows how much a written record will mean to a descendant one day in the near or distant future. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful true story.

  2. This story could easily turn into a book; love the part where the retriever helped to feed the family.

  3. I agree with Maxi — this story could easily turn into a book!

  4. We have lost personal freedom in many parts of Miami. It wasn’t not taken by government. It has been taken by thugs that rule the nights.

  5. That was fabulous. I loved how it started out with all the numbers: first i was at 18, then, etc. Wonderful, insightful, vivid. Loved the cartoon of the smoking rabbit, but more than that, i loved that neighbors helped one another so. We need to do this now.
    great story, give my best to your esteemed friend Pam!!

  6. Freedom, by the way

    You are so fortunate to have a historian/storyteller on your street. This is a fabulous story. I bet you feel differently about your home now, don’t you?

  7. Paul…what wonderful reminescences. For a reader, whose England for many years was a place that came alive through books and then movies, this memoir is so evocative. It was only in 1983 that I landed in the UK and swa my first daffodils and crocus. The green of the countryside–my brother drove us from Heathrow to Edinburgh–was incredible. It was April and we also had a rolling of Easter eggs experience. In the next few visits I have seen the green change–I don’t know if it is my imagination, but my last visit in June made me long for this feeling that I used to have that every morning a gang of elves wakes up and washes down all the buildings and homes..that was gone.

    My daughter’s place in Hitchin is still semi-urban with a lot of quirky little Olde English (sorry for the cliche) bits and pieces that are there in my memory.

    Please do convey my regards to your neighbour Pam and thank her for her wonderful memories….as a writer her story is there for you to tell! God bless.

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