· INNOCENCE, IGNORANCE, AND INTOLERANCE; By Dan Lake.
Dedicated to my daughter Tracy, and my sons Sean and Daniel, my Mum and Dad who put up with so much, my wife Lynne for her strength and Denise for her patience. Also I’d like to include all my friends, past and present for putting up with me, whether you are named in the story or not, I wont forget you.
All children are born with natural talents and some of these talents if expanded upon in later life, will make that child wealthier, happier or simply at peace with itself. Putting these natural talents together with their own personal upbringing, and local environment, determines who and what they become. If I can believe my mother and aunties, my only natural talent was having the ability to make a lot of noise, and I kept anyone and everyone awake with my constant crying. Perhaps I still do.
In 1968, I was back in court for what seemed to be the umpteenth time fully prepared for another custodial sentence. I’d been found guilty again, and in all fairness to the magistrates, it was obvious to me that they were trying to get a handle on what was making me tick, trying to get some understanding of what they quite rightly thought of was my really irrational behaviour. They asked me if I realised the full consequences of my repetitive actions, and if I did, what on earth made me keep re-offending because once again I was facing a custodial sentence. I garbled an answer about being brought up in Darnley Rd., and having had to fight for everything. Fighting had almost become the norm for me and didn’t seem such a big deal, and to my surprise, somehow for the first time in my legally challenged life I escaped with a sentence that was far less than I expected.
I suppose if there had been the time, and I had had the confidence, this was the answer I should have given them.
I was born April 24 1944 in hospital in Royal Tunbridge Wells, the son of Elizabeth and Edward John Albert Lake.
Like a lot of women of that time who lived in bomb alley, (our particular area was Strood in the Medway Towns) my mother was evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside to give birth to a normal healthy son, and unknown to me of course, my second cousin John West had been delivered to Sally only nine days before on the same ward.
After our mothers had recovered from their ordeals, mothers and babies were all sent packing back to Strood, and the war carried on around us. My uncle Norman had been taken prisoner in North Africa, my uncle Dan had been taken prisoner by the Japanese, my uncle Jack, who was serving in the RAF was certified insane and locked up in the mad house. Six months later after my birth, my father who was in the Kings Royal Rifles, was serving beside the Royal Scots Greys (a tank regiment). He was in a mechanised infantry division that supported the tanks, and after landing on the beaches of Normandy and fought through France Belgium and Holland, was killed just south of Tilburg in Belgium on a night raid. On top of all of this, North Kent and the Medway towns in particular, as it later became known had been bombed regularly. (Strood, which was an important railway junction to the barracks at Maidstone) with Rochester airport, and of course Chatham and Gillingham were, because of the dockyard and surrounding Army and Naval barracks, prime targets. By the time I was born the worst of the bombing from aircraft was over, but the sky’s had been replaced by an even greater menace, the V1 (the doodle bug as it became known) and eventually the V2, the worlds first real rocket bomb, so a lot of time was spent in our Anderson shelters with our mothers peering into the sky wondering if there would be a tomorrow.
Not surprisingly after seeing the devastation the war had caused to their family, my Grandparents, whom most of us lived with, decided to evacuate the family back to the safety of Glenarm in County Antrim in Nothern Ireland. This was where my mothers father Daniel Joseph Black came from, and the rest of my early childhood was spent in a cocoon of fussing aunts and uncles, all under the strict control of my granny Black.
It was a small village that as far as I remember had been built on farming, fishing and slate mining, but the one thing that always stuck in my mind was the grey sand on the beach. As fine a sand that a child could ever build a sand castle with, but as I was to find out later, every bit as grey as the mud on the river Medway back in Strood.
My grandfather was born a catholic in Glenarm, and like many young men from all over Ireland joined the British armed forces, in his case the Navy. He had served in the Boer and the first world wars and eventually came to Chatham dockyard with his ship, probably for refitting, met my Grandmother Emma West who was working in the yard, and the rest as they say was history.
My Grandmother was a Methodist with strong religious beliefs and a regular churchgoer. The story goes that she loved her Daniel dearly but would not contemplate changing her religion to Catholicism to marry, so my Grandfather took the unusual step of renouncing his Catholic faith and changed to the church of England, this gives you some idea as to the psychological strength of my granny Black.
Between them, they had seven children that survived childbirth, and because my Grandfather spent most of his life in the navy, they were brought up by granny, and lived under their mother’s strict control and beliefs. As they grew into adults and met partners and married, some changed their religion in sympathy with their father, and became practicing Catholics so we eventually had a family split by religion.
After the death of my father and while the family were in Glenarm my mother met and married the man I would spend the rest of my life calling dad, James Mc Dowell, and soon after along came my brother John. Dad was an Orangeman, an order devoted to the monarchy as heads of their protestant religion, and played the flute in the local Orange band, and I remember the fear I had when the band would march down our street. My grandfather would quietly growl his disapproval at the “heathens” (even though he had converted to C of E) and I would cling to my granny’s long skirts for protection from the oncoming heathen soldiers.
James’s family were so strong in their protestant beliefs that his father, on finding out that James was about to propose marriage to my mother, and knowing that my mothers family was split by religion, forced poor old James to ask my Grandfather to submit in writing whether my mother was C of E. or Catholic, fortunately for James it was proved that she was the former and the wedding went ahead. It must have been a very strained occasion with Grandad McDowell and family having to sit down publicly with folk who kicked with, as he saw it, the wrong foot. Even though granddad Black had “deserted the papes” for granny, everyone knew where his heart was. He was just saving up his sins for one huge confessional day.
After the birth of my brother, Dad returned to the merchant navy where he had spent his war. I must say that he must have been very lucky, as he sailed on several Atlantic convoys, and also the Mermansk run, losing several good friends during those dark days.
After the war ended in 1949 we moved back to Strood in Kent, and back into my grandparent’s home at 26 Cuxton Rd., next door to my granny’s brother Albert West where my father and mother had lived together before he’d been killed. I’m not sure if uncle Albert had any children or not, but he had no family that I ever knew of apart from Danny West his brother, the black sheep of the family.
At this time this little two up and two down, with an outside toilet up the yard, cast iron range for cooking and boiling everything on, no bathroom, and a brick and copper boiler built in the scullery, (heated by coal) was housing, Nan and granddad, my mum and dad, (when he came home from sea about every six months) my brother John and myself. My mothers sister Biddy and uncle Norman, (who was now home from the war but were soon to move out) their son Norman, and my mothers brother and sister, Arthur and Francis who were about twenty and seventeen respectively. Where we all fitted in this two up two down I have no idea, but I do remember that our sleeping area was the attic, which had no window and the only lighting was candles. There were steps of a kind up into this heavenly area, and my dad James when home, or ashore as he called it, after a good bellyful of beer would negotiate these stairs with great difficulty, often falling down them amidst a roar of abuse aimed particularly in my grandfathers direction, and usually containing a blasphemous remark about the pope or the catholic religion.
High days and holidays, especially Christmas was, when accompanied by excess libation, (much to the horror of my granny Black) very strained to say the least, and my Dad James, if he was home from his travels, stirred the religious pot with fervour. He would drag my uncle Arthur off to the pub and after a “session”, the pair of them would be heard staggering along the Cuxton Rd., holding each other up with dad teaching uncle every orange song he could lay his tongue to, and he knew quite a few. One night my mum and aunt Biddy had to rescue them from obstructing the traffic. My granny hid in shame with her hands over her ears as the two of them sat in the middle of Cuxton Rd. in the headlights of a Maidstone and District double decker bus. The whole street looked on as the pair of them sat singing “the sash” to the bus driver, who in turn hooted his horn and shouted at them to get out of the bloody way before he called the police. As my mum and aunt Biddy were desperately trying to get them up and in the house my granddad, not wanting to miss a trick would point out that you just couldn’t expect any different from a man of James’s breeding, and look how he was encouraging his own son Arthur to disrespect his good home and loving mother.
The other thing that comes to mind about Christmas in those early days was the absolute necessity that adults in my family needed to go to church on Christmas Eve. Uncles Norman, Arthur and dad would come straight from the pub to no. 26 to drag the embarrassed aunt Biddy, sister Francis and my mum down into Strood church to celebrate the midnight mass. Of course, the rest of the congregation were mostly sober and probably gasped with horror as these three drunks bellowed the hymns out loudly with the three sisters almost in tears of embarrassment begging them to be quiet. One Christmas my dad and uncle Norman, (a catholic) nearly took to blows on the steps up to the church, arguing over whether a statue in the church was considered an idol or not, “after all Jesus had clearly stated something in the realms of, thou shall not worship idols!” So, James, not missing a trick because the Church of England’s doctrine was anti icons, wound Norman up by explaining that that proved all Catholics to be heathens and the Catholic faith to be tainted by the devil. Not a good way for a family to start Christmas.
When I came home from Ireland aged about five, I must have been one of the very few children that had a reasonable understanding of the arguments about the Irish situation; and our family could have had the song, “The Orange & The Green “ written for it.
At this point, I might add I have noticed that I have been doing something all my life without consciously realizing it, calling James “Dad” and Edward John Albert Lake “ my father”.
Sometimes venturing into the garden or going to the toilet at no.26 was a battle itself for young Norman and me; the geese that my grandad kept constantly attacked us. My gran would beat them off us with a yard broom and get Mick, her border collie to round them up so she could lock them in their run, but granddad would argue that we had to learn to defend ourselves against them and many a time we were locked in the outside toilet with them milling around in the yard, defying us to come out. I’m sure as our granddad sat looking out the window; he enjoyed the constant battle between the geese and us children with the geese defending the yard and us trying to defend ourselves. As fast as gran would lock them in granddad would sneak out and release them, he called them his watchmen, and swore blind they were better than any soldier on guard duty. Why he felt they had to defend our backyard was beyond my comprehension but he did.
My cousin Norman who was a few months older than me developed T.B., and somehow he damaged his kneecap at the same time which caused complications, and left him having to be interned into several T.B. hospitals for most of his young life, (one in Cliftonville Kent, and the other in Luton Bedfordshire) causing a lot of distress to my aunt Biddy, specially because he was so far away from home and having the problems of transport. He eventually, because of the complications, had to have his kneecap amputated, causing him to have to endure wearing a calliper all his young life, and spent the rest of his life with a stiff leg, (not that it ever held him back from strongly competing physically with anyone, including running or riding a bike).
My granddad Black was a small man who wore as most men did, a white shirt with no collar and a black waistcoat decorated with a watch and gold chain. He also had his service medal ribbons sewn across his left chest area, just to remind the English that he “a paddy” had fought for their king and country in the Royal Navy so earning the right to live here. I would sit and roll cigarettes for him with his little cigarette roller, carefully aligning the papers and putting in just the right amount of tobacco. He was usually a quiet man who never swore or raised his voice, but when needed with the use of timing had the ability to easily put any man in his place. In his latter years, he worked as a night watchman to supplement his meagre pension from the navy, and unfortunately, he died when I was six and so I never got old enough to know him as well as I would have liked.
After the war, there were the obvious scars of warfare everywhere, bombs, doodlebugs, V2s and aeroplanes from both sides had crashed around us. I remember my nanny Tedman, my father’s mother, (I’ll be talking about her later) taking me along past the ruins of a bomb site at what had been Station Rd. School, where she stood and openly cried for those who had been killed, I think that she might have lost family there, but I cant remember. Right across the Medway Towns, there were gaps in rows of houses, and even whole rows of houses had been blown apart, every area had its own gruesome story to tell. Whole families had been wiped out as though they had never existed, only to be remembered when neighbours would recant the horror stories of the bombing, and say how lucky they themselves had been to be spared. Lucky enough to have been blown into the street while having a bath, or the wall of your toilet being blown out while you sat on your throne reading the daily mirror, and that is lucky if you survived it.
Being that I had led such a sheltered life until that point, I had never had a proper friend in England that I can remember, until I started school aged five. School was to be at Strood St. Nicolas, on the corner where the car sales now stands opposite Stood Church. Until then, I had been under the strict guidance of my mother, grandmother and the rest of the family, and this was to prove to be no real preparation for my introduction into the outside world.
As I said up until that time I’d no friends of my own age, but when starting school I do remember trying to make friends, I would try to impress other children in any way I could. I remember trying to use the fact that my father had been killed during the war, and of course to me he had died a hero, but so what, so had so many other kids dads, uncles and aunties, and even brothers and sisters. Most of these kids were very street wise, coming from areas in Strood such as the swamp and Prentice Street and Temple Street, areas that have long been demolished, and lots of those kids had older brothers or sisters at the same school, so my trying to impress them never really worked at all. I became ridiculed and bullied, and at the same time became more and more confused. Why didn’t they like me? I got so upset about it all that my mother and aunties had to literally carry me, with me screaming for a policeman all the way to school on several occasions; just as well we never lived far away.
While all of this was happening, I was entered into the church choir. I suppose granny thought it the right thing to do, and after mentioning her lovely grandsons wonderful voice to the vicar I was in, even if I wanted in or not, but that, according to some kids meant I was a goody two shoes and was even more of a reason to send me to Coventry.
My family as I had said were all regular churchgoers, but I do wonder now quite how often they would have gone had it not been for my Grandmothers watchful eye, and the fact that some of their other brothers and sisters were attending the catholic church. All of this at this time must have been quietly satisfying to my granddad watching his family slowly develop this way and that.
He hadn’t been well for a long time, and he knew that his time on earth was running out, so he personally finally sent for the priest to re- affirm his faith in the Catholic Church and nan agreed that it was only right, he should be at peace with himself when he met his maker, and that way he would have the last rites read over him on his deathbed. ‘O’ what a tangled web we weave.
I don’t want to give the impression that I never made any friends at all at infant’s school, there were children such as June Brookes, Pat Monroe and Desmond Candler, children I completely lost touch with after leaving junior school. Also two lads who crossed the path of my life many times during my young to late teens, Freddy Smith and Bernard Ellis, but one lad whom I befriended who was older than me, and I can never remember him going to my first school, was Roland Bradley. He lived opposite us in Cuxton Rd.
Roland was a problem to one and all even in those tender years, he swore like a trooper and would steal his dad’s fags and to try and smoke them. One of my earliest recollections of him was when he sold me a wristwatch as we were sitting on the scullery step at the back of our house. I cant remember how much I paid for it, it certainly wouldn’t have been very much, but I do remember getting a good hiding from my dad because the watch was stolen from Rolands father. Shortly after this, his house was burnt down and they moved away into Darnley Rd., but we would meet again.
My days would probably have been spent playing around the back alleyway of our house and I remember playing with a girl called Brenda who lived just along the road from us. If I remember rightly, Brenda had contracted polio and wore a calliper on each leg but apart from the obvious, she was a happy normal child, and we would lark around the alleyway as children do. Another boy I seem to remember from along that row of houses was Gordon Atkinson, he may have been Brenda’s brother I cant remember, but much later I do remember going to the same school as him. He was, compared to me a quiet and retiring lad until it came to cricket. He later developed into a tremendously fast bowler and bowled for the senior school and I believe Kent youth, but that as I said was much later. Another person I remember was the towering figure of big Jim Kennedy who lived next to my great uncle Albert. I’m sure he must have almost been a pensioner then but who can tell through the eyes of a child of six where everyone over twenty is old. Mum told me that he had been a prizefighter, ending his career boxing in the fair booths around the county, but I remember him as a very gentle old man who I loved to sit and talk to. When I was around my great uncle Albert’s, Jim and his wife would pass cake and sweets through the chestnut pay ling fence to me, and if I met them in the street they would take me into the paper shop or Tailor’s the fruit and veg. shop on the corner to buy me toffee or an apple or even a toffee apple.
On my way home from school I would walk along the pyramid shaped top of a white painted wall that ran along the front of the old garage opposite the Crispin, (the garage and wall was knocked down and replaced with a new one in the seventies). As I walked the wall, I knew for certain in my mind that one slip and I would be easily cut in half by the sharply angled top of the wall, so the higher the wall got, (I’m sure it never got any higher than 3 feet) the more certain I was to hook my heels over the apex. The other thing about the garage was a pair of disused petrol pumps that sat just around the corner of the garage in the entrance to Cuxton Rd. that we as children would play at filling up cars and lorries, and I would turn the handle in trepidation of being caught doing something wrong as I set the amount of petrol that was to be put into the imaginary vehicles. Also along the front of our houses in Cuxton Rd. was a retaining wall that had a rounded top that I would also walk along, but I never had the nerve to jump across the openings of the entrance to each house, I had seen older kids such as Sean Gillam doing it but I’m afraid I just couldn’t bring myself to even try and jump the gap. On sunny evenings and weekends we as a family would go up the reck in Northcote Rd., to play football or cricket, and it wouldn’t surprise me when my mum and her sisters would tuck their skirts into their knickers to play rounders or sum such game. When the sun got too hot we would just sit in the sunshine on the bandstand in the centre of the reck, or could go for a drink of water from the drinking faucet provided in the bottom right hand corner by the gate.
Many a time my mum and me with my little brother John in his pushchair, usually accompanied by some other members of the Black family would walk across to Rochester castle. We walked past the blacksmith’s forge just down from Gunners café past Dove Phillips & Petts the lemonade makers, past the old Angel corner that had old wooden buildings overlooking the narrowest part of the high street, past Woolworth’s, in those days they had a huge weighing machine inside the front doors, and a rear exit in the back corner, and opposite across the road was the bug hutch (the Invicta cinema) and further on, on that side was Paines, the gentleman’s store. As we mounted the bridge, I would look down on the biggest factory that my mind could imagine, Wingets. My uncle Arthur said that Wingets built the Empire. They made the old traction engines, steam rollers and dump trucks that were used to build the Empire. He said that wherever you went in the world, you would find a steamroller with the emblem of Kent, a white rampant horse on the front of it, and as the people of Strood built these machines, it was common sense to think that we the people of Strood built the Empire. As we crossed the bridge I would look down at all the river traffic, tugs would be busying themselves pushing or pulling barges and lighters into place. Ships would be unloading pulp into barges to be taken further up river to the paper mills, and further down the river was the Mayo, one of a pair of Sunderland flying boats that were made at Shorts on the Esplanade. These two seaplanes flew in tandem, one on top of the other carrying mail across the Atlantic to America, and as I stood and gazed at all of this, my mum warned me not to put my head between the concrete railings in case my head got stuck between them. In fact she knew many a child that had been rescued by the fire and ambulance brigade, and the only way that children could be released was by cutting off both their ears, no way were they going to cut my ears off.
It’s a wonder that old cannon at the castle doesn’t shine like the sun with the amount of generations of kids arses that have sat on it, polishing it to high heaven. Mum told me she and my father did, I of course did and my kids and their kids did. It should be the cleanest bloody cannon in the universe. We sat up the castle listening to the music of some band or other, playing away on the bandstand while I read the signs around the footpaths warning folk to keep off the grass and to keep dogs on the lead, all this bloody perfect lawn and we couldn’t set foot on it, wonderful, just what kids wanted, more discipline.
From time to time I’d be invited to Desmond Candler’s house in Temple St., and remember Desmond pointing out the huge gap that existed in the row of houses that he lived in. His mum told me about the day when a plane, shot down in a dogfight wiped out the houses when it crashed in the street and how lucky she and Des had been because they had been out at the time, or maybe they may never have lived to tell the tale. The wreckage had been strewn everywhere, and the explosion on impact had caused terrible damage to all the surrounding houses, killing and maiming lots of people. Unfortunately, the plane that was shot down was one of ours, and the pilot had also been killed. I was gob smacked to listen to this and wished that I had been Desmond instead of hiding away in Ireland from the war. I could have run out like they do in the movies and rescued the pilot. Never mind that I was in fact in Cuxton Rd. at the time, when all of Strood except me just a baby probably wrapped in my gas cot, a version of a gas mask made for babies, stood and watched the whole terrible episode unfold. .
In 1953, during the summer holidays, we moved away from my grandparent’s house to a home of our own in Darnley Rd. This house had all mod. Cons. including much to our delight, a bathroom with a copper gas boiler beside the bath for heating the water, (you had to ladle the boiling water out of the boiler into the bath), and also a toilet directly outside the back door, no more rout marches to the bog. There was, so we never had to peer into the darkness for anything horrible anymore something that all children would have appreciated, a light on the stair landing. Like all of the lighting in the house it was a gaslight, but that was all I had ever known in Cuxton Rd; and in Ireland our lighting had been oil lamps. There was even a bedroom each for my little brother and me, after all of us sharing the same attic it was heaven. The garden was at least four times bigger than that in Cuxton Rd. and my mum and dad had great designs on growing their own vegetables.
Yes, this was truly our utopia.
My dad went back to sea quite happy I’m sure, with the thought that he had done everything possible that a husband and father could do for his family.
Darnley Rd. is almost a mile long, with a total of over three hundred houses with an offshoot at the top called Darnley close. In those far off days, it was a dead end road in more ways than one leading onto cow fields, and unfortunately, the whole place had a stigma attached to it with the top half having a reputation as a rough and tough place to live. I’m sure my mother would have been aware of that long before we moved in, but there must have been a huge amount of pressure on my mum from her parents, my dad, and her brother and sister, because of the lack of space, to move out from Cuxton Rd., and because of this she probably took the first offer of a house from the council that came along.
We arrived one sunny afternoon in a little open topped lorry carrying the barest few basic sticks of furniture possible, all probably acquired at Beanies second-hand shop, if I remember rightly, situated down by the bridge where Whites Joinery is now.
Below the pub the Jubilee, were houses with the occasional rough family, but above the pub, and certainly as you got further up the road, there were many family’s who were carrying a lot of psychological baggage. Family’s that had been moved out of the slums of Strood, Rochester and Chatham, not to mention East London, and with mothers that would think nothing of fighting each other in the street, and fathers who had huge reputations as hard men, in the pub, at their work and in their homes, and of course their children who were every bit as rough and tough as their parents. Into all of this came this naive seven-year old, well scrubbed and as smartly turned out as his mother’s money could buy with absolutely no street credibility, and absolutely no understanding of what was to come. All I brought was a crushing desire to gain friends and be able to play with lots of children my own age.
We moved into the toughest part of Darnley Rd. just above Columbine, but mum and dad seemed to be happy, so my brother and I certainly would have been; after all, at last we had a home of our own.
On my first afternoon playing on the greens outside our house, and even though my little three year old brother and I had been seconded to the relative safety of some older girls, mum explored her new home and deliberated just where she would put her old three piece suite, table and chairs and not forgetting her linen box though for the life of me I never knew what was kept in it, “I was beaten up twice”. Not just pushed around, but punched around. Of course my mother on seeing her tearful son was horrified, and ran down to the Wickers house where the girls who had been looking after us lived and probably, quite hysterically, demanded to know why I hadn’t been looked after properly, and also why had I been beaten? The girls told her in a matter of fact way, that they had warned me not to talk to the gang of kids that curiously surrounded me, and believe me the one thing that Darnley Rd. had in abundance was kids. Their mother also told mum that it wouldn’t do me any harm, and not to let it upset her because the little buggers were always fighting anyway. She was consoled with “you’ll get used to it love”. She eventually got Diddy Kemsley to keep an eye on me, but that was like letting the fox look after the chickens. It wasn’t that these kids were all bad, or I was all-good, it was just that our backgrounds were so different. I just didn’t want to fight and I didn’t readily fit in. I tried so hard to make friends in those early years, but no sooner did I think I was one of the gang, and then something would happen to make me feel that I wasn’t. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I wasn’t being treated much differently from any other kids, it was simply that they were all indifferent to each other, and so indifferent to me. My settling in period, during the first couple of years was probably the hardest, and fights in the schoolyard and on the way home from school were commonplace. As I had to walk about a mile and a half to get home from Strood hill school (St. Nicholas Jnr. School), there was plenty of time for trouble to develop. It got so bad that there was a period when, if I hadn’t arrived home by a certain time, my mum would start walking down the road to meet me, and on many occasions rescued me from a fight. A couple of times I came home with a bloody nose to meet my dad who was home on leave, who would send me back out to face my tormentors with the order, don’t come back until you get your own back and don’t come back slavering (crying).
If we were having a race, (and fortunately for me I could run) and I was to win or beat certain kids, that would mean trouble for me. The older kids would arrange a race for me against the best runners; they didn’t have to be all boys, some of the girls demanded big respect. My competitors would be able to trip me over or do anything to stop me winning, but if I retaliated in kind, that would mean a fight. If we played street cricket, football, rounders, British bulldog or any other team game, it was my fault if we lost and I could have done better if we won. I would bring all these kids into my house and share everything I had with them (which wasn’t much) but they would still use me as an item of recreation. What I couldn’t understand was that I was much too sensitive, and needed to toughen up, and they sensed that.
School was little better, as I had spent all my early years in Ireland I spoke with a Northern Irish accent, of course it faded quite quickly but at seven years of age it was still there, and this also singled me out from the rest.
As I was getting into so much trouble, it was decided that it would be best for me to join the school boxing club to learn to look after myself, yes at junior schools boys as young as seven year olds were encouraged to box in those days, and I was a quick learner. The one problem that I had was that I was a southpaw, left-handed. Mr. Phillips, who was our boxing master and form master at that year, would insist on me boxing in the orthodox style leading with my left. This resulted in me being beaten more often than I would have wanted in the ring, but it did make me realise how easy it was to fool opponents outside the ring into thinking I was right handed, and manoeuvre them onto a sucker punch. One thing I was starting to learn in those early years was, do unto others as they would do unto you, but do it first.
Strood St. Nicolas Jnrs. wasn’t a bad school in fact academically it was quite good, but looking back it was one of the last old Victorian church schools, and still had the last remnants of the old style of teaching. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Bearing in mind that we are talking about boys between seven and eleven years of age, beating with the stick was commonplace, and I was no exception. I cant honestly remember getting the stick before I was nine, but like most of us, I had been threatened on numerous occasions and we were all in fear of most of our masters. In those early days I joined in all school sports and acquitted myself reasonably well, as well as belonging to the boxing club I joined the school football team, and found that I had a huge appetite for anything competitive, even chess. How different it was to play football in those far off days. We were encouraged as the law allowed to shoulder charge and to always keep our arms down by our sides for fear of touching your opponent or the ball with your hands, and you could also shoulder charge the goalkeeper if he had the ball and try to barge him and the ball into the goal to score. My first memory of an attempted header was hard to forget, old Mr. Ashton lofted the ball skyward and called “heads” and all the keen lads rushed towards the ball in an attempt to be “Stanley Mathews” and I was he. Well the ball was so heavy it flattened me, knocking me right out. The ball had a heavy rubber inner liner with a nozzle that protruded out through the outer layer that you used to blow the ball up with a pump. On the outside, the ball was made of thick leather and after the ball was inflated, the nozzle was sealed and tucked back into the ball and the opening was laced up with a leather bootlace. If you were unfortunate enough to head this part of the ball you saw stars, and if the ball was soaked in water and mud you were a hospital job, it was like asking a seven year old to try to close an open door by head-butting it. Oh the joys of sport.
I remember all my form masters, as I have already said Mr. Pillips my first, a tall slim man, a good teacher but firm. My second was Mr. Ashton, a small man with a heavy ginger moustache who was also a gentleman, and also very fair and patient, apparently an ex fighter pilot who had acquitted himself very well during the war. I still remember the words to his class hymn; we would all sing this every evening before we went home. “ Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh, shadows of the evening, steal across the sky.”
Of course every day started with assembly, and a good strong hymn was sung, everything from “Land of hope and glory to Jerusalem”, and at Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving, we were marched down to St. Nicolas Church, in complete silence, to give thanks, whether your particular religion was C of E., Catholic, Hindu, Jew or Muslim, you gave thanks to, “Our Lord” in “Our Church”.
“Killer Jiles”. This teacher was a monster to us, a medium built Scotsman with no fuse at all. He would with no warning, throw anything at you that he had in his hand, from chalk, blackboard brushes to inkwells, empty or full. I remember to my horror my grandmother walking into my class with one of my shirts that had ink on it from an inkwell he had thrown. She quietly ordered him out into the corridor, and while we sat in stunned silence, she demanded that he take the shirt home and wash it. As I implied earlier, she was not a woman to mess with! And yes, he did take it home and washed it. What I found out later was that they had crossed paths long before, when he had taught her own sons, and he remembered her well.
That didn’t stop him throwing things, but not quite as much came my way and that incredible act by my grandmother, gave me my first taste of real credibility. A new master joined the school when I was ten years old, slightly younger than the rest. He was a large athletic man called Mr.Grey who was a true believer in not sparing the rod. He had four canes tied together and they weren’t just for show. Many times, I felt the power of his persuader, to the point that my mother, ignoring all my pleas to the contrary because all of us were treated just the same, visited our headmaster Mr. Keynes. I recall having to go to the heads office to see him after my mum left, and being told that if I didn’t upset Mr.Grey he wouldn’t punish me. Obviously, the punishments continued, but I didn’t tell my mum. He was one of those people that seemed to enjoy inflicting pain, and I mean pain.
In those days, there was an open air swimming baths down Rochester Esplanade, and once a week come rain or shine Mr. Grey would march us down to the pool two by two in complete silence, and put us all through our swimming and diving lessons. If the place was open, you would see all these shivering, blue skinny kids, with various shapes of baggy woollen swimming trunks standing around the edge of the pool, desperately waiting for the order to jump into the water. The only problem about getting into the water was, there was always some inexplicable reason why we all had to immediately clamber out again and stand around the edge to wait for the order to dive back in again. We all knew, no-matter how cold it was, it was warmer in the water than out.
The only way that a parent could stop him from taking you swimming, was to keep you home from school. As far as he was concerned, if you were fit enough to go to school you were fit enough to go swimming. He was the same when it came to P.E., whatever we had aspired to in the earlier part of the lesson, we would all end up doing several laps around Strood rec., and some having to do more laps than others. Oh’ the joys of childhood. The terror that Mr. Grey instilled in his class was that nearly all of us passed our eleven- plus because of the sheer terror of failure, but then that’s another story.
Playtime was a period when all these children who had been denied any verbal expression in the classroom let off steam. We played all the usual games including British bulldog, football and chase, and as we had horse chestnut trees around us, conkers was the game of the autumn. The schoolyard was littered with broken conkers, and the fight’s and arguments that ensued at that time trebled. We tried everything to harden our conkers, some said soaking in vinegar, some baked them, but the real kings of the schoolyard were the last yearers, the only way to smash one of those was with one of the same.
On one occasion, I for some reason was asked to mow the lawn at the front of the school above the main footpath below. I suppose I must have been eleven or so, old enough to cope with such a small job, and proud enough to be chosen to do such a grown up job. “Not so” I managed to push the ancient cast iron contraption over the edge of the retaining wall onto the public footpath below, a drop of about five feet, smashing the antique machine to pieces and luckily not hitting anyone on the path. One more dent in the old popularity stakes and another in the arse.
Lots of deliverymen still used horse and carts, especially the milkman and coalman, and some of these horses were biters. They probably got so tormented by kids that they became spiteful so the vendors would usually put a sign on the horse warning the kids not to touch. The problem was that the very kids that were being warned would take the sign off when the man wasn’t looking, hoping that other kids would get bitten. Fred Arnie would come around every Sunday morning in his little van selling fish of all sorts and Bill Perfect sold “fresh” vegetables from his van for years. Street vendors were quite common, even the ice cream “bike” would ride around selling his wares from a cold box on the front of his bike, and a man with a bike came around sharpening all sorts of knives or grass shears or scissors etc. One feller that came around with a horse and cart and later graduating to a van was the ragman. He exchanged goldfish in a little plastic bag for rags, and bugger me there were plenty of rags in Darnley Rd., most of us were wearing them. The lampposts were all run by gas, it was nothing to see kids climbing them, and by hanging on the ladder bar on the side, they could open the door and light their cigarettes on the burning wicks. The ladder bar was also very useful for putting a rope on to use as a swing while the lamp post wasn’t in use as a wicket for kids playing street cricket. Many a row was had between women over broken windows from cricket in the summer and football in the winter, and as someone spotted a car coming up the street, we would all sit on the kerb with one kid sitting on the ball in case it was a police car.
I cant honestly remember ever calling an adult by their Christian name, they were always called Mr. or Mrs. or uncle or aunt, even if they wernt your relative. What exactly distinguished an imaginary uncle or aunt from a Mr. or Mrs. I never worked out. On one side of us was “aunt Dora and uncle Ted Welfare”, and on the other side of us were Mr. and Mrs Clark but next to her across the gap was aunt Jean and uncle Wally Light. I can’t say that it was something that worried me at all because mum said that’s the way it was and so it was, but now I wonder where the logic lay.
There was a healthy respect by children for most adults, and if a man were to hit another mans child, it was generally accepted that the child must have been in the wrong and so deserved it, and anyway if you reported it to your father you would probably get another clump for misbehaving. I certainly don’t remember any fathers coming to blows or even arguing over their offspring, not like the women. We were all smacked by our mothers, who it must be said didn’t all qualify for the title “the gentler sex”. But if you got “it” from your father, you usually got bruised. My father never used a belt on me, as some men did on there children, but he would hit me with a backhand stroke, as well as the forehand from either open hand, and as my beating was being initiated, mum would be crying and trying to stop dad, and I would anger him even more by screaming that he wasn’t my real father and that I hated him. I would never cry while “it” was carried out, only maybe after my mother had separated us and I was in the quiet of my room. If as happened on several occasions I ended up being thrown out the front door, I would run a safe distance away and turn and bay defiance at my tormentor, but I was very careful not to swear at him for fear of death. Luckily, for me this never happened on a regular basis, but every now and then, I would upset him and get “it”
Up until Dad came home and settled into a shore job things in 248 were very sparse in the furniture department area. We had an old three piece suite, situated around the cast iron range that we had before the council pulled it out and built a brick fireplace, and a scrubbed pine table with four chairs fitting in behind the settee. As I said earlier the wooden chest sat on edge acting as a table in the corner with a piece of Irish linen laid over it, and the crowning glory was the radio, a rental, sitting on that. On the floor and stairs mum would lay congolium, the poor mans lino, it tore like paper and the pattern wore out as fast as you walked on it. Some people were a little more comfortable, but many more were worse off than us. I went to a lad’s house, I think he was called John Ward, in Hawthorn Rd., up the top of Elaine alley one afternoon and was gob-smacked by what I saw. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my mum. They had a mat that fitted all around the skirting board, and he had played some records on a machine called a radiogram, you could put lots of records on it at the same time and walk away, then they all played after each other. Mum explained that this mat was called a carpet, and only the very rich had such a thing, and one day we would have such a record player, she had seen them on sale in Blundels the tally shop, wasn’t I lucky to have such a rich friend.
One night as mum John and me were huddled around the fire listening to the radio, there was a loud knock at the door. I opened the door to find two big policemen, (I believe that the minimum height for getting into the police force was five feet ten inches in those days), standing on the doorstep, and asking for Mrs McDowell. I shouted to me mum that there were two coppers on the doorstep and as quick as a flash my mum was there at the front door, and almost in one action acknowledged them and ushered them into the front room, (don’t know why it was called that because we never had a back room only the scullery) she done the old quick sweep of the road to see who was looking and quickly closed the door behind them. Getting the formalities over they started to tell mum why they had called on us.
Apparently, dad had got blind drunk and had been arrested and charged with drunk and disorderly down in Rochester. This was my dad who had never been in trouble with the law in his life. Not only was he drunk, but he also put up a struggle when he was arrested, and because he had been arrested, when they put him in a cell he lost his head and smashed the toilet in the cell to pieces. They assured mum that he had calmed down, and would she nip down to the police station and bail him out. After they left, mum sent John around to “aunt Dora’s” next door, and her and yours truly turned out in the middle of the night to walk to the nick in Rochester. As we walked down the long straight road mum started to vent her anger, and by the time we got to the police station she was fired right up. She demanded to see dad and was taken through to the next room, and as I stood in the foyer chatting to the desk sergeant I heard mum swearing as badly as I had ever heard anybody swear, she called him everything she could lay her tongue to, and the crux of her ranting was that dad should remain in the police station and bail himself out when and only when he was stone cold sober. I had never seen my mum that upset before, and I’m sure that if she could have got at dad she would have caused him serious injury. Of course, by the time we had walked all the way back home she had calmed down and was feeling guilty about leaving dad in the cells for the night, and was half tempted to go all the way back again to bail him out, but of course she didn’t, and poor old dad had to spend the night in the chokey.
Mum loved all types of music and while the radio played, she would try to encourage my brother and me to sing along with her to stars such as Jo Stafford, Lita Roza, and Ruby Murray. She would grab hold of John or me and waltz her reluctant partners who were crushed in a bear hug to her chest around the room to the wonderful voices of Mario Lanza and Joseph Locke or the strings of Mantovani. We as most people did, listened to programmes such as Workers playtime, In town tonight, Desert island disks, The Goon show and Quatermass and the pit, enough to terrify any child, and if Dad was home, radio Luxembourg and Irish half hour. I can still remember the song that introduced that show. One evening as a special treat my dad let me sit up and listen to the fight of the century as our tabloids billed it. This was the heavyweight fight between the great American Rocky Marciano and a British boxer called Don Cockell. The Americans secretly didn’t give our fighter much of a chance, and as it seemed neither did anyone else, never even managing to pronounce his name properly. The commentator constantly, to my Dads annoyance pronounced his name Cuck-kell.
Marciano, one of the smallest heavyweights of all time, and as far as I can remember had never been beaten, had stopped all of his opponents by knockout even though he had fought just about every heavyweight around him. But Don, although losing, managed to go the distance. The Americans could not believe that this “limey” with an average track record, and way over weight stayed the full distance. In the last round the commentator historically said,” Marciano is hitting him with everything including the kitchen sink, I cannot believe he wont go down”, and of course he didn’t, and Marciano said afterwards that “Don Cockell was the toughest fighter he had ever fought”. What a difference to today’s lumbering giants struggling through twelve rounds instead of fifteen as it was then.
Women didn’t accept that adults could hit their children. If a woman were to hit another woman’s child, it would lead to an argument that almost always leads to a catfight. The only way that a man would get involved in any argument was if his wife had a go at a man and was insulted by him for her troubles, then it was all up in the air.
These women dressed nothing like women of today. Most women only had maybe one or two dresses to go out in, and the main uniform, if I might call it that was a turban, a jumper or blouse and skirt with a wrap around floury smock, finished off with their husbands socks, and indoor slippers or leather shoes, much the same as the women dressed in the very early versions of Coronation St.
One particular woman that seemed to get most respect at that time in our area was Rene Melain, not a particularly big woman, and not a duly unkind woman, but when she was upset she swore like a trooper and fought like a man, and I do remember her fighting with several women, one in particular who lived opposite her was Eileen Smeed. It didn’t take much to spark trouble between them, and quite often, they set too in the middle of the road. They would punch scratch bite and kick each other to a standstill, and as other women tried to separate the two gladiators they would tear great lumps of hair out of each other, but neither would give ground until they were exhausted, then with a group of women offering sympathetic whisperings they allowed themselves to be coaxed back into their respective homes, still finding enough wind to bay the odd defiant insult at their tormentor. At times like this when it seemed that every kid from a hundred mile radius suddenly appeared, my mum along with a few others would come out in the street and would drag me, and their respective offspring home, saying under her breath in case she should be heard by any other excited woman that may want to “have a go” get indoors, this is a bloody disgrace, they should be ashamed of themselves. Then as soon as her protesting offsprings were safely behind the closed front door she would rush to the curtains to see what else was going on.
A lot of the women from Darnley Rd. worked on the farms, and the road itself ended where farmland begun. This area was stock farming land with hop farms, orchards, and woodland beyond all the way to Cobham.
Lots of these women had been land army girls during the war and this was all they knew. They would work on various farms such as Crawfords and Bachelors out on the Hoo peninsular. Rene Malain was a ganger woman, and would raise gangs including my mother to work on these farms, and work they did. All cabbages, lettuces and brussel tops were cut and bagged by hand, and brussels were only picked when the frost was on them, making your hands freeze.
Another job that was carried out by hand in those days was hoeing. This job entailed the worker to shuffle along on their haunches, and hoe the weeds between every plant. Farmers weren’t using weed killer as its used today, and also farmers would not allow workers to use long handled hoes in case they should accidentally cut the tops off the young shoots coming through and this job was truly backbreaking. Another problem with hoeing was it was always poorly paid because it wasn’t financially productive, the farmer hadn’t a product he could sell until it was harvested but the women done the job because they had to, they needed the money as meagre as it was.
Protective clothing was really in its infancy in those days, and anything would be worn to keep you warm and dry. Worn around the waist, especially when potato picking, a job that was extremely hard to do day in and day out, was a heavy piece of sacking. This was to put their potatoes in as they were picked up, and also to try and keep the women’s trousers clean and as dry as possible. Potato picking was, and still could be for all I know, the hardest of work but one of the best paid unless there had been a glut, then the price per bag dropped dramatically, so they could be doing the same work for as little as half the money. Only the strongest and most resilient of women did this work as the money was usually quite good, and lots of women would start in the gangs. But very quickly, the numbers dropped as the women admitted defeat, and it would leave the same old leathered faces. Each woman was given a “cant” a measure of land on which she worked, and as the tractor spun the potatoes from the ground, continuously going in an ever decreasing circle from row to row, she picked them up and bagged them. She would “have” to clear her cant before the tractor came round again or it would bury what she left when it spun out the new row. If she was lucky or very good at her job, she may get a few minutes waiting for the tractor to come round to start her cant again. If she was slow other women would help her clear her row, but they would keep her potatoes, and they were paid per bag weight, so she would earn less and they more.
Their children, and occasionally the odd man would accompany the women on Saturday mornings and holidays, helping their mothers and wives to earn more money and the odd bit of pocket money for themselves. Workers were out in those fields in all weathers, mostly taken by an open backed lorry from the street where they were picked up to the fields and left there. If it rained, they had no cover unless they were fortunate enough to be by a barn etc., so they simply kept working until the lorry came back for them. I often saw my mother come home soaked to the skin and covered in mud and so cold she would be near to tears. By the time mum came home I would have the fire lit for her to warm herself up, and many a time she would pull the curtains and send me to the shop as she stripped off her wet clothes in front of the fire. In the summer the opposite happened, and on hot days they would run the risk of getting badly sunburnt and many got sunstroke, I suppose some still do. Toilets were never provided for them, if there were ditches available they were used, and if not, and there were men about, the women would form a dignity circle for each other. These women were hard and tough people who had to go to work, and earned every penny. Every woman had her own reason for doing the work, and most of the reasons were money. There was a very strong bond between field-workers in those days, and as they sat around a small fire eating their meagre sandwiches, the language and the crack were great. One lady in particular comes to mind and that was old nanny Batch. Nanny Batchelor was considerably older than most of the other workers, probably about thirty years older, and was the mother of a huge family of children, most even at that time had flown the coop, but her smile and gentleness towards us kids made her a big favourite of mine and many other children. She was notorious for her bad language, and sometimes every other word was a swearword. She would keep the other women in fits of laughter as she recanted some of her distant and not so distant memories, not missing out any details of her and her husband’s bedtime antics, all coloured in with her rich understanding of the Anglo Saxon language. One story that she told that I will never forget, was when one day she was cleaning the settee she found a ten-pound note tucked down the back. Well that was a mans average weekly wage in those days, and as she and two of her daughters danced around the room celebrating their find, it dawned on her that this belonged to Bill her husband, one of the local hard cases. Now she would have known that she had to be very careful for fear of violence, Bill wasn’t a man that you could take any liberties with but even though, they decided to go down the town and have a spending spree, buying the kids new shoes and other bits and pieces, and even after they had bought all they needed she still had a fiver left. Well nanny Batch reasoned that if she told Bill that she had found a fiver, he might give her a reward thinking that he had lost the other fiver somewhere else and be grateful for small mercies.
As she sat there recalling the story with more than half the women shouting that she should have spent the fuckin lot, and the other half not even being able to come to terms with the miracle of finding a tenner! Nanny continued. When that drunken old bastard came home from the pub I gave him his tea and sat wondering what was going to happen when I told him what I had found.
She continued, I sat watching him wondering when the right moment might pass, and as he finished eating his dinner and he sat peeling one of “his” oranges I said to him, “have you lost any money lately Bill”? and as quick as a flash, he answered, “Not as much as you fuckin waste, but yea why”? I told him that I had found the fiver down the back of the settee and wondered if it was his. “Course it mine he said menacingly”, give it here he answered and as I produced the remaining bluey he snatched the fiver from my outstretched hand and stuffed it into his fuckin back pocket. Aint you goin to give me anything for finding it Bill, not expecting anything but feeling hurt that my “honesty” hadn’t paid. Tell you what, came the reply, “I’ll give you a quid if you find the other fiver I’ve lost”, and in the same breath said “by the way, stop those fuckin kids from eating my oranges or I’ll take the money to pay for them from your allowance”. Well she said continuing, I recon that old bastard new I ad the other fiver! But fuck im, that’s the first time in my life I’ve ever got anything out of that fuckin old git for nothing.
Men were the masters or most were, and wife beating was accepted but not condoned; it was just a part of life some women got used to. It would be considered, that “she” whoever got beaten, had obviously done something wrong to deserve what she’d got, or her old man was a real bastard and she should leave him, either way it was her fault. Strange as it may seem not many couples did split up as hard as it was. I will always remember a woman (still alive today) being dragged around by her hair, and beaten publicly by her husband in the street. Scenes like that stay with a young boy who had never seen any adults physically fighting never mind wife beating before Darnley Rd. Thank god it never happened in our home. If anything, it was my mother hitting my father for coming home worse the wear for drink. We would lie in bed listening to my mum crashing around the house, screaming at my father, usually about the waste of money and what would the neighbours think about us, while my dad would weakly try to protest his innocence and try to succour favour, which sometimes worked but oft times failed.
He was a strange character when he was drunk, he would berate all Englishmen including me, even though his religion swore to uphold the faith, he would find many a reason to condemn England and all who sailed in her, all were English bastards except the monarchy, who for some strange reason in his drunken mind were exempt from persecution. Outside of drink, he was a gentleman and won many friends, including my mother’s brothers and sisters, but I’m sure he never cut any ice with my Nan and granddad and both for very different reasons.
Lots of adults were tarnished by the war, especially the men. They had come home from maybe years of fighting in foreign lands, with no help with traumatic stress disorder. The vast majority of people had never even heard of that, and they were expected to just pick up their lives like nothing had happened and get on with it. They also saw that many men, who hadn’t had to go to war on the front line so to speak, had done very well financially working as tradesmen in the factories at home supporting the war effort, earning extremely good money and some even buying their own homes. Quite a few of those men who came home were not easy to get on with, some of them carried a lot of physical and or mental scars that would stay with them forever. Severely disfigured and limbless men were a common sight, and I will always remember my mum telling me about the very seriously disabled who were kept in a hospital called Stoke Mandeville, I hope I’ve spelt that right. She would go on to say that most of these people would spend the rest of their lives there, so the least we should do was always buy a poppy to help and remember them . .….
Looking at kids today and trying to compare them with the kids of my youth is like trying to compare a sheep to a pig. There is no comparison, apart from the obvious.
There were kids that were called fat names like pudding and doughy because you couldn’t count their ribs, but there weren’t any kids that I knew that looked as overweight as some kids do today. There just wasn’t the food around that there is now. Even if you had plenty of money the variety of food just didn’t exist as most food was still rationed in the early fifties. It was common for my brother John and me to share an egg, or mum would cut up a rasher of bacon, you never heard an argument about who got the fatty bit because it was always streaky bacon. My mother, when shopping like the vast majority of women would openly tell the relevant vender that she didn’t like this or that, and would only accept second best if that’s all there was left, and by then it was too late, take it or leave it. They worked hard for their money and never gave it away if they could help it. A luxury was an orange or maybe a banana, and most people hadn’t even seen a banana before the war.
Sweets were an item of luxury, not an accepted part of daily indulgence, they had to be earned, grandma may give you some in secret, or ask your mother if you could have some, or give them to your mother for you later, but very rarely. Nothing was for nothing.
My mother was only paid monthly while my Dad was away, and sometimes a month was a very long time in our house, with the table settings being very thin in the last week and the tally men never getting paid no matter how much they threatened and banged the door. Spam, luncheon meat, and corned beef were everyday foodstuffs coupled with pig’s trotters and the occasional piece of brawn made by aunt Jean Light.
Nearly all men got paid on Friday, and Friday was the one-day that kids might get fish and chips, “if your dad remembered to come home from the pub in time.” many a bag of fish and chips got forgotten and left in the pub for someone else to eat leaving the kids hungry.
The day before mum got paid could be a sparse day in the pantry leading to a very meagre tea, with a tin of watered down soup with some potatoes in it and a little bread equally divided between us, but as mum worked, John and me always had school dinners so we never went without. Mice were an accepted problem they got everywhere. Mousetraps would be set, but no matter how many were killed, more queue'd up to take their place. Scraping the claw marks and droppings off the cheese and butter was the norm, when we were lucky enough to have those in the pantry, and bread and dripping with salt and pepper was wonderful. I’ve listened to the words of Dr. Hook singing the “wonderful soup stone” with understanding, and although things were never as bad as the song, I knew where it was coming from.
As we had moved out of Cuxton Rd. you would imagine that we could shop where we wanted, but our ration books were registered with browns the grocer shop, situated at the top of Charles St. at the junction of Cuxton Rd. Every week I would get the bus down to Browns to get the weekly shopping for my mum, then struggle home with the bags of shopping on the bus. I don’t want to make it sound too bad, because the amount of weekly shopping bought now cant be compared to those far off days, you could comfortably get all the basic grocery for the week into two brown carrier bags.
The problem for a youngster being sent down to Browns for the weekly shop was akin to being entrusted with the crown jewels. Nothing but nothing was allowed to get in the way of getting that shopping home safely or ensuring the safety of the money you were carrying, and I certainly realised my responsibility’s.
I n 1953 my nanny Black died, and left my uncle Arthur, his new wife Joyce who was a lovely lady, in fact they were a lovely couple who always had something nice to say, living with my aunt Francis at no. 26. So, when I went on my weekly shopping trips down to Browns on the bus, I continued to pop in to see them. My aunt Joyce had lived in Alma Place before she married my uncle, so she hadn’t moved far, about two hundred yards up the hill, and on this particular day she asked me if I had heard anything about the flooding around her family home in the swamp area? (An area around the Cricketers pub in Knight Rd.) I told her that mum had mentioned it because news of the flooding had been on the radio, but none of us had actually seen it. I suppose none of us had taken much notice of the news because Temple St. and the swamp area got flooded quite regularly. “Well”, aunt Joyce said, make sure you look down Charles St. when you go along to the shop, and as I passed later, I indeed looked down Charles St. and into Temple St. and gasped in amazement.
I shall never forget the amount of water that was down in the Temple St. area. The memory does strange things over a long period of time, but I seem to remember enough seawater at the bottom of Charles St. to float a large boat in. All of the ground floors in Temple St., Smith St. and Alma Place were flooded, and all I remember looking at was the tops of houses, sticking out of the grey murky waters, the water was up to the windowsills. Of course, unbeknown to me, whole swathes of the east coast had been seriously flooded with a huge loss of life, and I don’t know if anyone in Strood died, but looking down into Temple St. on that day I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Winter could be very hard; and there was nobody in Darnley Rd., or any other road that I knew of that had double-glazing or central heating. A bag of coal had to last the whole week, and little tricks like putting a house brick, or a large lump of chalk in the fire with the coal was commonplace. One bag a week was all most folk could afford but it was never enough no matter how economical or ingenious you were, it never lasted the whole week, if you could afford it in the first place. Lots of old folk and children, even with the help of the rest of the community, (and they did help as poor as they were) died from hypothermia, or pneumonia.
Parents always told their kids when sending them to the shops, to ask the elderly, in my case Mrs. Frost who lived across the road or Mrs Dogget or Mrs. Blundell; “was there anything they wanted from the shop while I was up there”? We never minded this because there was more often than not a small reward for our troubles from these old girls. Sometimes only a couple of biscuits, but mostly a few pence or even a threpenny piece hopefully paid in advance so we could spend it while we were at the shop.
Something that happened regularly when someone died was, the washing and laying out of the body for burial. Certain women, who also made collections on behalf of the bereaved to help with funeral costs (hardly anyone had any amount of savings or insurance) carried this out, and if I remember rightly, tough old Renee Malain was one of them.
Another common thing to see in the winter was kids scouring around Drakes or Morgan’s wood yards with an old pram or pushchair begging for off cuts or around the local coal or coke yards stealing fuel, and if they had no luck there, they simply had to go up the woods and collect chippings, the chips of wood that the tree fellers left behind when copsing, or try and cut down timber or find anything you could that would burn, “but you were never alone.” All sorts of other kids were doing the same, and if you were unlucky enough to get stopped with a pram load of wood by another gang, they simply took your precious cargo from you and if you objected you would probably end up beaten up.
One of the biggest street fights of my life as a boy was over this very thing with a kid called Baldy Barnard. He was so called because he had had ringworm, and all his hair had been cut off for treatment sometime in the past. Baldy was a year older than me, and although not the brightest kid in the street, he was a real tough boy and came from a tough all boy family. He was a little bigger than me and I like most kids had always made a point of staying on his good side, but him trying to take my pram of hard earned timber was going too far. The fight must have attracted about fifty kids. They came from everywhere, if there was a good fight the word went around like wild fire. No matter the weather, kids would run round the street shouting fight, and out the kids would pour. The very last people to know what was going on were your parents, they may have heard the same bush telegraph but they wouldn’t know if it was one of their children involved, so you very rarely got rescued in time.
We, Baldy and me were totally surrounded by kids, howling directions for either protagonist to follow, each and every one of them being an expert pugilist and corner-man. It ended after about fifteen minutes when one of the crowd in his excitement had slipped over, and I rushed at Baldy backing him over the kid and finished him off with a flurry of punches not ever letting him regain his feet. I jumping on top of him and managed to pin him to the floor and battered him until I was pulled off by the by know quietened and overly concerned crowd. His supporters calling me a dirty fighter and a cheat, and my hard earned supporters hailing me a hero, the ensuing argument almost causing a mass fight to occur although we were all “friends”, whatever that meant.
I remember getting a real roughing up one night while on my way down to the pub, it was on a particular polling day. I was running an errand for my dad, getting him his regular half once of golden Virginia and a packet of red rizzla when a gang of lads, all of whom I knew asked me if my parents had voted labour or conservative, as they stopped me. When I naively answered conservative (the old man being a loyalist and a rank Tory), I realised very quickly that that was the wrong answer, and got a slapping for my trouble and sent back the way I had come. I managed to out flank them and ran down to the pub as fast as I could, only to find the bunch of kids waiting outside for my emergence, well what’s one more arse kicking between friends, we’d be ok tomorrow.
The wooded area called the long bottoms, and the mud banks at the end of Darnley Close before the shops were built, were some of the most popular areas for gang fights. Fights that could include maybe up to a hundred kids. You would have stand offs where two gangs, kids from our street and kids from the Carnation Rd. area, would hurl everything they could at each other. There were kids simply throwing stones, to kids with homemade bows and arrows, dutch arrows and homemade catapults. This would go on until an adult stepped in and stopped it, or until some unfortunate kid got seriously injured, and there were the odd occasions that a couple of kids did get very hurt one even losing an eye. Thank god, it never happened that often.
The only respite that most of us had from the cold while in bed, were “army greatcoats” on top of our blankets and a hot house-brick wrapped in newspaper or brown paper if you were posh acting as a hot water bottle. My mother came up with the idea of putting newspapers between the bed-sheets and blankets. This worked well accompanied by your “hot water bottle”, but it was noisy and when I turned over it would always wake me up. I don’t know if any other mums used newspapers, I was too embarrassed to ask and other kids weren’t about to reveal any such information that would almost certainly lead to their ridicule so I never knew. Like all kids of the time when you woke up in the morning and it had been exceptionally cold, you had to scratch the frost from the inside of the windows to see outside, and sometimes the crittal windows would ice up, so you couldn’t open them if you wanted to. All I remember about winters was that we were cold and bloody hungry, but the plus of the winter was the snow.
No-matter how cold it was snow made all the kids feel good. As the street was a dead end road, and traffic was limited to doctors, police and street vendors, the occasional ambulance or redcaps chasing soldiers who were A.W.O.L., we had giant slides in the road. One that comes to mind was on a steep slope, and started at the very top of the road by the woods outside Dicker Durling’s house. It must have been thirty to forty yards long, and played on by kids from all over the area until late into the night. We would, just like kids today play out in the snow for ages, but unlike kids of today we didn’t have factory made sledges or skates or warm waterproof clothes. We made snowmen, and played snowballing until we just couldn’t take the cold any longer, and as this was mostly all carried out on the greens outside our front doors we would rush home freezing cold and soaking wet and, standing in front of our open fires to strip off our wet clothes (while being castigated by our mothers for getting so wet,) and hang them around the fire (including the socks we wore on our hands for gloves) then sit shivering, patiently watching our soaking shoes and coats etc. steaming dry. We would impatiently sit waiting for them to be dry enough to start arguing with mother as to whether or not we should be let out to repeat the whole process over again, begging our mothers to feel how dry our clothes were, and “honestly” we wouldn’t dare get as cold or wet again. Nothing changes where snow is concerned when it comes to children.
While we were playing in the snow one evening some of the older kids found (we were led to believe) a curved side to an Anderson shelter, which was dragged up to the top of the sandybanks to be used as a huge sled. Now the sandy banks at the back of Carnation Rd. was a rough piece of common, it was very steep and had a long steep decline down to the bottom. This old lump of air-raid shelter attracted kids like the pied piper of Hamlin, and at the top there was a countless number of kids of all ages begging the older boys and girls to let them on the “sled” and on they got, clinging on to each other for dear life, and as the “sleigh” gathered momentum kids that were clinging onto the outside started falling off, and of course some bottled out and jumped off, but with boys and girls terrifyingly clinging to it and each other, it hurtled down the hill and crashed through the chestnut paling fence at the back of a house in Carnation Rd., and with kids leaping from it and others being thrown in the air from the collision, the “sled”, ended up buried in some poor householders shed. Never did so many kids disappear so quickly, even the walking wounded vanished in no time.
Christmas, well what can I say. If my dad was home from hi travels at sea. Life seemed to surround him, uncle Norman, maybe uncle Arthur, and sometimes even tight fisted uncle George Bowyer. All drunk but pleasant enough in that frightening connection that adults have with children. Children pick up a sense of excitement and fear from the situation when their peers are out of control, if only slightly. A couple of days before Christmas eve we would sit around excitedly making our paper-chains out of little strips of coloured paper that had one edge that had been glued, pretty much the same as the glue on an envelope. We would stick these strips together looping them to each other like a chain then proudly hang them up on the ceiling. As kids we would go to bed Christmas eve not knowing caring or believing about father Christmas, I supposed we all believed a lot longer than the kids do today, but waking Christmas morning would have still been the same as today, but with one big difference. The amount of presents we got. Very few kids got more than one major prize. If you were lucky it would be something close to what your list of present included which you sent your note to father Christmas. Maybe a train set, usually a wind up one in that case, accompanied by a stocking (one of your socks) filled with an apple an orange or tangerine, and topped up with an assortment of different kinds of nuts, specially chestnuts which we roasted on the open fire. We selfishly never gave it a thought at the time, but there were family’s around us, not many, where some kids got nothing at all for Christmas.
Dinner on Christmas day would be served when my dad eventually came home from the pub five sheets to the wind, with someone he had decided needed a family’s love around them, and a good Christmas meal at the same time. My mum’s uncle Danny West was my grandma’s brother who lived the life of a working tramp, but this didn’t stop dad bringing him home. He never worked in the traditional sense, he collected scrap metal on an old barrow and cleared tables in pubs, and spent his time between having children, living in the railway arches like a tramp. Even though he was mums uncle, the sight of him at Christmas never brought out the benevolent side of my mother, quite the contrary. After much teeth-gnashing pleadings from my father in our tiny kitchen, dad would resume his position as head of the household, and invite my great uncle Dan, who had been ordered by my mum to wait by the door to our front room to join us for Christmas, prayers and all. But as soon as the main course of capon had been cleared, and Dad had wasted a small cup of brandy trying to light the Christmas pudding that my mum and us kids had made, (silver threpenny bits and all), and we had scoffed that down eagerly looking for said monies, Dan was advised by mum “that it was time to leave”. Dad may have tried to resume his position as head of the household by offering Dan a glass of brandy or rum after Dan had been invited to leave, but as drunk as he might appear to be he would see the backlash coming from mum after Dan had left, and retreated to his bed to sleep off his “tiredness”, with much reassurances to his darling Betty that he would feel much better when he got up in half hour’s time, leaving us to play with our presents for at least three hours. In the evening uncles and aunts would come to visit us, mainly because dad had bought some liqueur, and we would spend the night playing some sort of gambling game like subuteo, a horse racing game, (I think that’s how its spelt).
The only other day that grownups got off from work over Christmas was boxing day, much the same though no presents and cold capon for lunch, and a little more time spent in the pub by our fathers. After all this frivolity it was back to work hangovers and all on the 27th. If you took that day off you were very likely to lose your Christmas holiday money, also no time off for new year. Take the day off after New Years Eve and you again risked the good chance of losing your holiday money for that week. The glory of Christmas.
Another time that got all the kids exited was, bomb-fire night. The gangs of kids that went around knocking doors and begging for a “penny for the guy” were countless.
As soon as you got home from school you had to make your guy out of anything you could and get out quickly before all the other kids did to be first on the doorknockers. Almost all the guy’s would be made entirely by the kids, and then trundled around on a barrow (a wooden cart with four pram wheels on and a pinion on the wooden front axle to steer by), by a bunch of dirty-faced urchins, all trying to think of soft touches where they would certainly get a sympathetic adult to give them a few coins. Once we had a few pence, we were down to the shop to buy fireworks. Some of the older kids may buy cigarettes, (you could buy one at a time then) but most of us spent every penny we could get on squibs, Catherine wheels, roman candles, rockets and volcanoes and tupenny bangers. Of course as well as fireworks, we needed a bomb-fire. Some kids would build individual fires but most kids combined to build a massive fire, or so we thought. Again these kids would be searching and fighting over anything that burnt. We would descend onto the woods like a plague of locusts armed with anything remotely able to cut a piece of wood, from dad’s saws to penknives and kitchen utensils. The more ambitious kids would go up mob handed and cut down large saplings and tying them together haul them unashamedly down through the streets to the bomb-fire, we knew that if we were caught we were in trouble so we were always on tender-hooks until we got our booty safely home.
One particular year, my brother John and I had put all our monies together to get as many fireworks as we could, and we had quite a boxful. Because of safety of course, we weren’t allowed to keep handling them, but one evening mum after ages of pleading relinquished, and let us get them all out of the cupboard and count them before our dad got home. Well we sat in front of the fire with a box of over a hundred fireworks, (they weren’t as big as to-days monsters are) when a spark from a piece of chestnut we were burning, went straight into the box. I immediately dived in, recovered the smouldering piece of wood, and breathed a sigh of relief. My mum was just, (almost hysterically), telling us to put them away when “bang,” off went the first one in the box. I grabbed the offending firework, cascading glittering stars and threw it into the fire, only to quickly be followed by several others all going off together. I cannot quite describe the hysteria that was erupting in that front room in Darnley Rd, but suffice to say it was not erupting as fast as the box of fireworks. My mum grabbed my brother, (about eight years of age) and ran screaming into the street begging for someone to run to the phone-box at the bottom of Elaine Ave. and call the fire brigade. I was still in the house desperately trying to put the fireworks out anyway I could but it was impossible. During this time Ted Welfare from next door came in, and amid the rockets flying around the room, roman candles bellowing coloured balls of fire, and all sorts of other fireworks that were exploding around the floor and setting fire to the three piece suite as they flew under the chairs, pulled me out of the house choking from the sulphuric smoke and crying in fear from what I had caused to happen.
As the fire engine sat outside our house and firemen were damping down the remnants of our front room, my dad got off the eight o’clock bus at the Columbine Rd. bus stop, and as I saw him running up the road, I took to my heels. Burnt, (not badly) thanks to Ted Welfare, certainly terrified and probably crying I distanced myself at the top of the street near the woods knowing that if he followed I could run into the darkness for safety, I was truly convinced that he would kill me.
Everything in that room was burnt and soaking wet from the helpful endeavours of the firemen, and when I was eventually coaxed down from my safe haven by kids reassuring me that my mum said I wouldn’t be instantly murdered, I walked into what was left of our front room. What was left of the settee and armchairs was out on the green in front of the house lying soaked through with the table and other sticks of burnt furniture. The lino had caught fire and badly burnt the table and chairs, and the lathe and plaster on the ceiling was down. Dad did give me a shaking and a couple of whacks but he was broken, his heart just wasn’t in it, and I, because I was numb with fear and shame never even felt it. He just pleaded in his distinctive Irish accent for god to spare him from me, and while the neighbours stood around sympathetically talking among themselves, he slumped onto what was left of one of the burnt kitchen chairs with his head in his hands, and sat there in the stink of the fire while we all cried. My mother clutching my brother, my dad on the chair, and me huddled with my arms around my knees on the burnt wet lino in the corner.
If you asked anybody about their summers in their childhood, they would only remember long hot days. It was never cloudy and it hardly ever rained. I’m sure that it couldn’t have been like that all the time but that’s how I remember summer holidays. One of the highlights of the holidays was Wingets sports day, a local company that employed loads of people.
Gangs of kids from all over, making there own entertainment would wander up to watch the Winget’s sports festival, that was a really good day out. We were all on reasonably good behaviour on sports days because even if our parents weren’t there, there was always someone there that knew us. We would sit down and make daisy chains etc., maybe eat someone’s sandwiches and watch what was happening. Not so much the athletes, who were flogging themselves to death in front of a huge crowd, but the adults. You would never see so many nice and polite raggedy arsed urchins all looking to earn a penny from the on-looking adults all in one place at one time. Go and get a paper for them, go and get ice creams or candyfloss, but always having a lick on the way back to its owner, any errand at all for pennies. The best jobs though if you could get them was working for the stallholders, doing anything to make money, collecting cups and saucers, beer glasses or if you were really lucky simply helping on the many game stalls, a wonderful day out and a stone’s throw from home.
Most of the kids that didn’t live in Darnley Rd. if needing to go home that way would go via Carnation Rd., but us lot would go via the long bottoms, the alleyway beneath and behind Carnation. On the way, all sorts happened from fights to throwing stones and lumps of wood at each other. There was always some adults walking nearby chastising any amount of us to behave, but if we didn’t know them, we would run off in front or let them walk on away from us and immediately start again. There were great swings down that piece of woods in tree’s that sat halfway up the bank with ropes attached to the upper branches and a lump of wood tied at the bottom for the seat, so you sat astride the wood and swung down the bank out into “the blue yonder”. Of course no one was going to let you simply enjoy your swing unless you were one of the “big kids” so if you were lucky enough to get on the swing, you were unlucky enough to get what followed. You would have a barrage of things thrown at you and one of the “big kids” who could reach would grab the trailing rope under the lump of wood you were sitting on, and swing you all over the place and probably end up bouncing you into a tree where you would be knocked of, and a dozen or so other kids trampled you into the mud as they in turn fought to get onto the “seat” to get some of the same.
The one thing that got worse every summer was the traffic jams. Huge jams that stretched from one end of the Towns to the other. The traffic was caused by thousands of cars heaving with occupants mostly coming from London that were mainly heading for Margate, and certainly for the North Kent coast. Every Sunday when the weather was fine it happened, the Towns were in total gridlock. Street vendors selling newspapers, ice creams, sweets and soft drinks scoured the eastbound traffic, mostly stationary and all with sweating and swearing passengers, and those old cars didn’t take long to boil over so there were many breakdowns. The roads through the towns were archaic to say the least. The main Stood high St. was two way and so narrow that when two lorries passed each other at the bottom of North St. they had to take great care not to collide with each other or kill some poor pedestrian. I don’t remember any one-way systems in the town about 1955, and all of the traffic went over the one bridge, (the other being built in the 60s) and of course there was no motorway or bypass, so all the coast bound traffic came right through the Towns.
The same happened when the factories shut in the evenings. Thousands of men and women appeared on the streets mostly looking for some form of public transport home. The Dockyard must have accounted for thousands of cyclists, motorbikes, some with sidecars, cars, vans and lorries, not to mention the endless queues of green Maidstone & District double Decker busses all very slowly winding their way homewards. Large factories like C.A.V., Burnett and Rolfe, Blaw Knox, Wingets, The Metal Box, Holbourne Eaton, The Sisalcraft, Guards Kent Alloy’s and many more spilled their labour onto the streets between four and five thirty causing absolute chaos. It was quicker to walk from Star Hill to the top of Darnley Rd. than to catch a bus, and many did.
Farmer’s sewed clover in those days, I never did know what it was for; maybe stock food I don’t know. What I do remember is sitting in the clover fields in the area that is now Rushdean Estate, and sucking the nectar from the clover, you see we weren’t all bad all the time. Of course, the farmer wouldn’t have been to keen to have seen us all rolling around in his fields but it paints a lovely picture.
Most summer days were spent roaming around Cobham woods and the surrounding areas playing cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers or any set of characters that we had watched in total belief at the “Saturday morning pictures”. Arguments would start as to who would be the central characters and all round heroes, and who should play the baddies. Well needless to say, the gang leaders and regular tough kids, with a sprinkling of more favoured friends, and those that had recently curried favour with the hierarchy took all the major good guy positions. All the rest would be baddies and immediately treated so. The social outcasts, weak, lame and sickly kids, would have to rush off and hide, to be eventually mopped up and beaten up by the all-conquering goodies. They in turn were also impossible to kill in anyway shape or form because they had a get out clause called “fanights”. If you thought that you had “killed” one of them, they would simply shout fanights and claim that their fingers were crossed so they had another life. Oh, you could try claiming fanights but you’d probably end up getting a kick up the arse for your troubles. Even if they did feel benevolent enough to fall when shot by the imaginary two-fingered gun, they would rise almost immediately to fight on. Any remonstrations about them not playing fair would be met with derision, and while you argued your point, they would all kill you and you would get a thump for trying to spoil the game. It was totally obvious to any idiot with any sense at all, that they, the good guy’s had only been “winged anyway”.
One of our favourite haunts was the flatfish pond, and to get there we had to cross the Dover to London railway line long before the building of the M2 motorway bridge. We would cross the railway at the iron bridge, halfway to Cuxton. Some of the more adventurous would cross the railway track which had a live electric rail, I remember doing this once and was so terrified that there was no way that I would ever do it again. I didn’t have a clue as to what rail was the live so I expected to be electrocuted from every rail I crossed, and as we were told by the older kids that the electricity would jump up and get you if you didn’t jump high enough over them I jumped as high as I could. There was also the fear of being hit by the regular express that used this fast line, again I’m not sure but I believe the steam train the Golden Arrow used this route regularly.
What would follow when we arrived at the pond could only be termed in its most imaginative of descriptions as fishing? This would entail anything from four to forty kids, none with a fishing rod or proper equipment such as lines and reels and floats etc., but maybe a couple of tykes who had been clever enough to get a stick or even a long piece of bamboo, and tie a piece of string to one end and on the other end of the string tie some unfortunate worm or any other piece of moving wildlife.
Of course they would have their prized possessions taken from them by the stronger kids as soon as they arrived at the pond, and when nothing was caught in the first few minutes, the treasured equipment would be broken up, or thrown into the pond for others to try to fish out and claim. It was obvious to all, that the only way to catch fish was to bomb the pond with anything and everything that could be thrown or manhandled into the water by every single child there.
When nothing even resembling a fish had been landed onto the waters edge, older kids would start to tell stories about monsters that lived in this pond that had eaten all the fish, and would eat anything from rats to cats and dogs and even children. Those of us, who had heard these stories before and sensed that something was about to happen, would start to wander off. The rest of the waifs and strays who were daft enough to hang around cowed in nervous awe hanging on every word, and sometimes, without even realising it would in there own imaginative way, add credence to the stories by blurting out little additions. One of the remaining unfortunates would always have something horrible happen to them, of course they didn’t know it yet (maybe some did) but usually they would be thrown into the pond to feed the monster, or if they were lucky enough they would only get rolled in the mud.
The other worry about going to the flatfish pond was the haunted house that could be passed if we stuck to the main footpath. If we happened to pass it, we would be crouched Indian style, hiding below the fence and bushes that surrounded it. God only knows what the people living there thought as hordes of kids tried to “silently” sneak past their house.
I always reacted badly to anyone picking on me, I suppose it was the constant bullying I had received in the past, but the older boys new this and if they felt like a bit of real sport I would be it. Boys have a sport called play fighting, and it usually takes the form of one of the stronger lads, maybe tripping you up and jumping on you and pinning you to the ground. There would always be someone who would then want to push something like a handful of grass into your mouth (If you were lucky) while another form of ritual torture was to kneel on your arms and “playfully” slap you around the face while declaring their dominance over you or, maybe dribble on your face while you couldn’t move, or any combination of horrible tortures that could be thought of. This would usually end with the poor abused defeated child crying, and the bully rolling of and giving the reluctant participant a hefty kick, and calling him all sorts of whimpish names, much to the delight of the amused and nervous spectators.
Most of the kids allowed themselves to be bullied, knowing that if they put up no resistance the bully would soon get bored and they wouldn’t get too hurt, I couldn’t do that. I “hated” play fighting; I just couldn’t bear it I just didn’t want to fight. I hated confrontation and looking back, tried the tactic of aggression to try to frighten my tormentors. As I mentioned previously, I was slowly learning to hit first and hit hard, this sometimes gave me a chance to escape unscathed. If this didn’t work, I received an even bigger hiding for my troubles. These kids were rough, but they were still kids and kids are by nature inquisitive and fickle, and your friend was just that until you upset him.
A treat that you would die for was a trip to Saturday morning pictures at the bug hutch in Stood, (the Wardona), and an even bigger treat was to be allowed to go to the Gaumont picture house in Rochester, that was a really posh place. If you could imagine an almost full double-decker busload of kids travelling to Star hill in a state of high excitement from Darnley Rd., you could understand that the patience of the conductor, or conductress, would be stretched to breaking point. But even then they and we knew that they would probably get away with clipping us around the ear or throwing us off, and they sometimes did, but all in all we done our best not to completely tire their patience because we wanted to get to Star hill and to the pictures on time. After the show, many of us would have spent our return bus fare on sweets or ice cream, and instead of going straight home on the bus as we were “always” ordered to by our parents, we would walk home. Of course we had to cross Rochester Bridge on our way, and the attraction of water to kids was as it is today, especially if it was a nice day, was too much. We would sometimes go to Rochester castle and climb on anything we could, or down to Rochester pier to play chase on the rails down under the mooring.
One particular day we spotted what turned out to be an incendiary bomb half buried in the mud just by the pier. Only the fins of the bomb were sticking out of the mud, and like most kids of our backgrounds would do, decide to try and retrieve it for ourselves. The tide was out and the bomb was about six feet away from the pier, so we tried to lasso the fins with anything we could find, but to our regret everything we tried failed.
By this time we were smothered in mud, but we decided that whoever got the bomb could keep it, but of course this was just bravado, all talk, none of us bar one, really wanted the bomb at all. Raymond Hutton, one of the younger ones probably trying to impress his peers, tried to carefully walk across the mud to the bomb, and immediately sank up to his waist in stinking black slime. We tried everything to pull him out but couldn’t budge him, and of course, the tide was slowly coming in.
Once reality sets in and children are faced with a life or death situation, the brash exterior and lairy attitude they have for each other quickly disappears. All that is left is a very frightened child usually in tears looking for an adult to help, and we were no exception. Looking back on this best forgotten episode, we would laugh at each other later for crying and of course deny crying or panicking ourselves, calling each other all sorts of cowardly names. But, I remember all of us with tears in our eyes as we ran up towards the Crown hotel on the high street looking for a “grownup”.
Just before we got to Rochester Bridge, a copper turned the corner into the Esplanade, and outside the public toilets we blurted out our story. He ran down to the pier with us and unhitched one of the small boats that were moored on the landing stage and dragged it around to where poor Raymond was by now, up to his chest in water. As we held the boat steady by the rope, our brave policeman heaved Raymond out of the clinging mud and onto the boat, then back onto the pier. By this time the noise and commotion had attracted quite a few people, so while the policeman questioned the crying unfortunate, we made our escape leaving the muddied Raymond and policeman wondering where we had all disappeared to.
By the time we had got home using every back road and alleyway we knew, going through the alleyways of Smith St. and through the hole in the wall to the back of the Corner Pin, breaking cover up to the reck, and after crossing that all the way home through the allotments totally convinced that every policeman in the world was looking for us, and at the same time trying to concoct alibi’s on our hurried journey. Raymond wrapped in a blanket, had been brought home in a police car and got a thumping from his mum for his troubles for playing by the river. She ensured that the story had got around the street in no time, and so we were picked off one by one as we nervously arrived home by our respective parents as we vainly tried, amid blows and abuse, (we were all covered in mud) to convince them of our innocence.
The following week in the local paper, Raymond, for trying to reach the bomb, (which was recovered on a later occasion) and the bobby for saving Raymond were proclaimed heroes, and we were a group of unknown youths who had luckily raised the alarm in time.
Sadly, poor Raymond died very young, I cant remember what caused his death, but I will always remember little Raymond Hutton.
One of many other hair brained schemes we would do on the way home from pictures was, if the inspection hatches were unlocked, climb down under Rochester bridge onto the concrete platforms and pontoons below. I remember those concrete pontoons were always very slippery because of the green slime and sea weed that covered them, and if any of us had fallen into the deep tidal water we would have been swept away by the strong current with no chance of clambering out. Why we done it I cant remember, probably because we could boast that we had, that must have been the reason as there was nothing to do once we were down there. What we as adults see as behaviour beyond our comprehension, children see as a real adventure. We can all look back I’m sure, and quietly laugh at some of the crazy things we have done when we were young, but woe betide our own children doing the same.
On our return from Ireland, and probably on a Sunday I would have been washed and dressed in my best attire and prepared for a visit to see my grandma Tedman. I would have had absolutely no idea who this person might be. I suppose that my mum would have told me that this other granny was in fact my fathers mother, and that she hadn’t seen me for four years and granny Tedman was very nice, and I was to be on my best behaviour at all times. I know that is all supposition but I’ll bet that’s not far from the truth.
I don’t recall any of that visit, but I do remember going to visit my nanny Tedman on lots of later occasions on my own.
The Tedmans lived at 124 Gordon Rd. Strood, and consisted of Nan, and granddad Bill my fathers stepfather, and my father’s stepbrother’s, uncle Bill who in those early years was in the army doing national service in Hong Kong, and my uncle Ernie. He was only about six years older than me, but I can’t ever recall meeting him. I remember that he went from Temple school into the air force, and that he was supposed to be a very good hockey player, but he remains a mystery to me.
Nanny Tedman was a lovely lady, and she would fuss around me in a way that I was totally unused to. She would continually indulge me in tea and biscuits, lemonade and sandwiches, and she always had a freshly baked fruitcake with a generous slice for me.
Her living room as they called it was modestly furnished with old Victorian furniture, a large heavily carved sideboard, a rococo style pedestal table, a set of four upholstered dining chairs and a pair of heavily upholstered armchairs each side of a large, spotlessly blacked cast iron kitchen range that always seemed to have a pot and a kettle of hot water on the boil. She was a typical Victorian type of gran, much the same as granny Black, everything being just so, with God, protocol, and manners being at the top of list of priorities and behaviour, but much less strict. She was used to achieving things by persuasion rather than force. I can never recall her being aggressive, or sarcastic, even when granddad Bill would sneak me off to the pub. There he would park me on the doorstep with a lemonade and packet of crisps until either he had had enough, or more often than not, my Nan would come and get me.
Her house was split level with three stories, and when we were in what used to be my fathers bedroom, (still the same as when he last left it, even with the bed still made) I could look out the window, which had a view right across the Medway towns. Many times my Nan and I would sit in that room and she would tell me things about my father. He was just an ordinary man with ordinary aspirations, but to her he meant everything. She even arranged for the local representative from the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. my fathers regiment, to keep in touch with me. They would send me Christmas and Birthday cards and also a regular invitation to watch the trooping of the colour on the Queens birthday, but for whatever reason I never went. I suspect that it was for several reasons. My mother wanted James to see that we were now his family, and the past was buried, (she never spoke about my father unless his name came up in conversation, and then she wouldn’t be drawn on the subject) and another reason was that she probably just couldn’t afford it. I suppose when looking back, my nanny Tedman unwittingly planted a seed of division between my dad and me. She would describe this big quiet gentle man who was my father as very smart in appearance who, according to her, never drank or smoked and was also into sports of all kinds, especially football and swimming. There was me sitting listening to every word and wondering what life might have been like had he not died. She told me how he loved the army, and had it not been for him getting killed, would have done very well as he was in line for promotion at the time of his death, and also, how he loved my mother and me so much. I can see now, how this must have sounded to me, trying to compare a mothers dream, to the realities of our life in Darnley Rd.
One little story that I can recall that happened at the Tedmans on a quiet Sunday afternoon during one of my visits was “the mad cat saga”. My granddad Nan and I were sitting at their round Victorian dining table and over the highly polished tabletop was a white Irish linen tablecloth, and under that was another tablecloth, made from a very heavy velvet type of material with tassels around the edge. Gran and granddad were playing crib as they usually did on Sundays, and I was trying to do a jigsaw puzzle suitably supplied by Nan for a boy my age.
They had a cat that was almost wild and I had been warned on several occasions not to touch it. Granddad said that it was only allowed in to catch mice (although I often saw him giving it milk and also stroke it regularly when he thought no one was looking), and amidst this peaceful scene the cat was lying on the table contentedly dozing, a big black cat with a white nose and chest blaze.
Sometimes life can get very boring for an 11/12 year old, and I decided amid all this peace and quiet, without being seen by my elders, to tease the cat. I simply put my hand under all this material that was covering the table, and slowly run my finger around the edge, just where the cat would see it. Well sure enough as the cat lay contentedly on its side, I got the cats attention almost immediately, and its eyes followed my finger along under all this material. The cat stared at my finger without blinking; whereever my finger moved to, the cat’s eyes followed. Then suddenly, with no warning at all, in an instant of a second the cat struck. Its claws penetrated both the tablecloths, and struck deep into my finger. I leapt to my feet crying out in shock and pain, pulling the tablecloths and cat with me, and the crib-board and cards going up in the air at the same time. Nan and grandad, shocked from their quiet game of cards, nearly collapsed. I was screaming with pain and the cat was clinging onto my finger and tablecloth’s with no intention of letting go, and gran for once lost it and was screaming at grandad to do something. As he leapt forward to grab the cat, he knocked the table over with the momentum of his movement, causing him fall over it. Well grandad eventually wrapped the by now demented cat in all the tablecloth, and as my grandmother berated him about allowing the cat indoors in the first place, the poor man while sustaining his own injuries from the by know totally deranged cat managed to eventually free my badly torn finger from its clutches. He then took the cat outside in the garden, and released it from its cocoon. The cat from then on wasn’t allowed in quite so often when I was there, and I certainly never dared to go anywhere near it again. That was the only time I ever saw my grandmother raise her voice and lose control, but still as far as she was concerned, it wasn’t my fault, it was that damned wild cat that shouldn’t even have been in the house in the first place.
Another family of relatives I was introduced to about this time were my dad James’s sister Maggie and husband Percy, and their children Hilda, Jackie and Michael who lived in Southend in Essex. It was great having family that lived by the seaside because visiting them was as near as we got to going on holiday, and that was something we had never had. Even the trip down to Southend in those early days was like an adventure. We would have to travel down by train and cross the Thames by the river ferry at the Gravesend/Tilbury crossing. We used to stay over sometimes, and I remember all us kids in one bed, “It was asking for trouble”. My aunt Maggie’s children were all so well behaved, and so well spoken to the point that they must have wondered who and what had turned up. My brother John and myself, with all that Darnley Rd. had taught us weren’t too badly behaved, but give us an audience to enhance our street credibility to, well we must have taken a lot of controlling. Also, we knew that a backhander from our dad would happen later rather than sooner. All of this going on in a three bedroom flat above a shop that made seaside rock.
When dad came home on leave, and when he eventually took a shore job we would take the occasional day trip down to Margate or more often Southend in the summer, but that was as far as I remember going. Mind you, a lot of kids from Darnley Rd. never went anywhere, including my cousins.
We would get dressed up on some Sundays and take a walk out anywhere. Lots of times my aunt Biddy and her children Norman, (who I mentioned earlier) Carol, Barry, Pamela and usually, in the pushchair young Phillip would also come with us. We walked for what seemed miles, my dad would lead and we would all follow with the younger ones constantly wanting to stop because they were tired. We would trek up to Cobham, or out to Upnor and sit on the beach and watch the warships moored along the Medway in pairs outside the dockyard, and dad would give us the benefit of his years at sea by pointing out all the different types of merchant ships and where they came from as they weaved there way up and down the river. The other wonder that was at Upnor was the Arethusa, a large clipper type training ship for boys. I’ll always remember seeing all the boys standing in the rigging and one boy balancing on the top of the highest mast, these lads had to be the bravest of the brave.
We would always go for a swim when went there and as my dad was a very strong swimmer would swim a long way off the beach, but I would swim very close in shore. The problem was, in our ignorance we were virtually swimming in an open sewer and would play “dodge the log”.
Dad was generally a very patient man, he must have been, bearing in mind the two sisters and all these kids, I never heard him moan at all. Occasionally, if the moon was in the right heaven (my aunt Biddy used to say) my uncle Norman would come with us, but if he did there would always be trouble. As soon as we got settled somewhere and got the sandwiches out the two men would creep off and never return sober. More often than not, we would all end up walking home without them, volunteering our bus fare home in exchange for an ice cream. I was always tired out when we got home, and I was the biggest of all us kids, the little ones were usually asleep and we would end up having to carry them. Children needed very little to entertain them, and most of the time we made our own entertainment, because quite simply in our world all we had was each other. I look back on those days with very fond memories.
One of my successes in my younger years was passing my eleven-plus, and as I said lots of boys (I only went to single sex schools after infants) did in class 4A Mr. Greys class, and I passed with quite a high mark. We were all very exited at home, and would sit discussing the pros and cons of different schools. Grammar schools were not something that many kids went to from our part of the street, and there was only one other boy from my class that lived near us who had passed, Barry Mugridge. Mum decided that as Wilf Clark was already attending Chatham Technical School. It would be best for me to go to his school, and as he only lived down the road so much the better. Although he was two years older than me, when mum had a chat with him he agreed to keep an eye on me if needed. Mum filled the appropriate forms in and sent them off and after a short period of time had passed back came the acceptance letter, and I was as good as going to technical school.
After a few week’s had passed and I had settled down to the idea, mum sat me down for a serious talk, and the outcome of that talk was, after reading about all the uniform and sports and specialist equipment I needed, she had decided that it was best for all that I never went. I was devastated. I argued that if Wilf’s parents could afford to send him there then why not me? Why was I so different? Mum said that she didn’t want me to go and find that she couldn’t continually raise the money to support me, and she didn’t want me being ridiculed by other boys or teachers because I perhaps, wouldn’t have the financial backing that other boys might have. I pleaded with her, because by now I had found that lots of my classmates were also going to the tech including Barry, but all to no avail. It wasn’t until then that I realised how hard financially things really were for mum.
I started Temple Secondary School with all the other kids I had grown up with, but because mum had had trouble getting money for my school uniform together, I never went to school until the afternoon of the first day, as she bought my blazer and badge with a loan that morning.
Mum and I both thought that I looked very smart in my short grey trousers and my blazer with the school badge neatly stitched onto my top pocket and looking down, I sported my grey socks with the regulation black and red band around the tops. So with great trepidation, clutching my obligatory sick note for the morning’s absence, my hair neatly combed, and a fountain pen and pencil in my blazer pocket, I set out to go to my new (big) school.
As all adults will remember no doubt, going from a small church school to a school with over five hundred boys in is quite scary. Although I was with Diddy Kemsley who was two years older than me, like all kids I felt extremely vulnerable. I, like most of the other new kids had heard the stories about the ritual of being thrown into the prickly bushes on our first day, I’m sure that it must have happened to some kids but thankfully I was spared this painful initiation. Diddy had found out in the morning that I was in class 1B, a class taught by a Mr. Smith, “Biff” as he was rightly nicknamed. All classes were graded at that time, 1 meaning first year and a meaning top.
I found my class after lunch, and sat down next to a boy that I had been introduced to in the playground. No one spoke and Mr. Smith, a large man, looked over his glasses and began reading the register. When he came to Lake, I answered yes sir nervously, and he immediately stopped and stood up. Walking towards me, he asked me if I liked Temple school. Of course sir, I answered even more nervously, then why hadn’t I had the good grace to attend that morning? He asked. I hadn’t been well sir, I lied, fumbling in my blazer pocket for my note, and producing the by now crumpled piece of paper. “Here’s my sick note”.
The next thing I remembered was eventually picking myself up off the floor, and by this time Biff, was back and seated at his desk demanding that I stand up. He had struck me open handed around the back of my head, making me see stars. As I stood up wiping my watering eyes, not crying but not far from it, I heard the reason for the admonishment. When you speak to me boy, you will always address me as “sir”, now sit down. After a short pause, and without even looking up, he said. When you attend this class tomorrow Lake, make sure that you are wearing a school tie!
Of course after all the years I had spent at school, I should have known better than to address him without calling him sir shouldn’t I.
I don’t recall dwelling on this for too long, after all, I had been getting regular beatings from Mr. Grey, but it was a little unnerving to happen on my first day.
I have absolutely no recollection if these recent events played any part in the way I behaved or acted with regard to my future education, but looking back, I just seemed to switch off at about this time. One day as Biff was taking the class, he gave his opinion as to who would go up or down after the coming general assessment exams, (held after about a month) and tapping me on the head said that “ we all know that there are some boys who will go up as a matter of course,” isn’t that right mister Lake? Well, I must have been a bitter disappointment to Mr. Smith, because I went down to 1C and stayed in the C stream (which was average) for the rest of my time at school.
Just after joining my new class 1c, I was entered into All Saints Hospital for two weeks for observation because our doctor suspected that I had contracted polio. Fortunately, for me, I was o’k, but polio at that time wasn’t an uncommon disease, and everybody seemed to know somebody that had it, or had had it. I mention this not because it had any bearing on my life, but just to give you an understanding of what life at that time was like. Another disease that was very common was tuberculosis; as I previously said, even my cousin Norman had T.B as it was known.
Mr. Ingham, my new form master in 1C was a really nice guy, no softie, just the same as most of the other masters of the day when it came to right and wrong, but I never felt intimidated around him. He never spoke down or at you he spoke to you, He made me feel, and I’m sure most others that whatever I had to say was important enough for him to listen to. Those old former pupils, who were taught English by Mr. Ingham, will remember being taught to do joined up writing all over again. It didn’t matter how good your writing ability was, everybody learnt his way. That did seem strange to me at the time, but we all had to do it.
He was a small man with a moustache and glasses who took P.T. and almost always wore a green tracksuit and whose great passion was hockey. Several times, he tried to get me to join the school team, but I had already made my mind up what sport I wanted to play. Rugby, that was where my heart lay, from the very first time I played I knew that it was the game for me, and I am still as passionate about the sport now as I ever was. No matter what was going on in my academic life at school, rugby was to become a completely separate issue as far as I was concerned; the only connection was the name of the school and the full uniform (including cap with badge) that we had to wear at all times while on school duties. I played in every game that I could apart from illness and was never dropped and never subbed, and, played the occasional game as captain. Nobody else ever played in my position which was called right prop in those days, (tighthead), all the positions bar a few seemed to have changed names over the years. Jonny West, my second cousin played loose head, and Freddy Smith who I met and befriended at infants school played hooker. We were never a great team, but I can’t ever remember us ever being “beaten” by anybody. We lost lots of games over the years, (we never beat Rochester maths or the Kings school, who both had great traditions in rugby.) and always lost, as I remember by lots to little to both these teams, but we always gave them a good game making them work right to the final whistle.
Bob Green was the master in charge of the school football teams, and was another teacher who would keep asking both John and me to desert rugby for his sport. But where Mr. Ingham received a sympathetic hearing regarding my playing hockey, I did both enjoy playing the game and liked being around sir, Mr. Green had no chance. I didn’t like Bob Green, I never really understood why; I guess there was just an uneasy feeling that I had when he was around. In his defence this wasn’t a personal thing, I felt the same around most of my teachers. I either liked them, and that didn’t apply to many, or I couldn’t be bothered with them, and there were also several I hated. I had grown to vehemently hate bullies, getting pleasure from inflicting mental or physical pain on someone just because you could was not my idea of fun. More and more, I found John and myself fighting for the smaller weaker kids. If some kid came to me with a story about a bully giving them a hard time, I’d go and find my old cousin John who wouldn’t be far away and then go and give the bully a visit. Most of the time this worked, but if it didn’t, and I thought that we had somehow lost face, maybe because they were just too old or big or both, I would curry favour from an even bigger or older boy to stand my corner until I felt I’d saved my credibility.
I had changed! No more the skinny kid longing for friends, being pushed around by anyone who felt like doing so. I had become a very loud kid with the ability to fight my corner, and what unnerved a lot of other kids was if I was beaten in a fight I wouldn’t let on that it bothered me. I wasn’t particularly brave, I always remember being afraid before an impending fight, but looking back it seems I was more concerned about losing my cred than getting beaten up. Even the older boys started to realise that beating me up was a hollow victory because I refused to concede defeat. I refused to recognize that I had been beaten, even if it meant my having to take further punishment. What I had started to subconsciously realise was because of my attitude I was gaining more friends. Some friends would remain so all my life. I had become confident, and my confidence allowed me to develop into the kind of kid that others wanted to befriend, even maybe just for a little protection, but none of my friends were bullies. The seed was sown and the produce was growing, striving like we all do to develop according to our surrounding environment. I was starting to realise that the bureaucratic system that was set in place around me was to be totally ignored. If I didn’t like what I was supposed to be doing, or whom I was doing it with, then I simply couldn’t care less about it. I went through all the motions of showing interest in whatever line was being preached to me but I usually allowed it to go straight in one ear and out the other, I would take the consequences just like I had always done.
Education wasn’t there to be taken seriously, look at some of the teachers, some at the very least were mad as hatters, it was a consequence that had to be endured, something that just had to be done. I was constantly punished by detention, lines, (on one occasion I received five hundred lines to be handed in the next day), loss of privileges, and coupled with the slipper, stick and strap, the latter even being administered at one time by the headmaster publicly on the stage in front of the school.
The school sports were always a big day. The housemasters tried their very best with passionate speeches about being the top house in the school etc., firing the young minds and making the competition between the four houses enormous. On one particular occasion, the whole school had been warned by the head that on sports day no one was to leave the school grounds until the last event had taken place and the trophies had been presented. Now I was always in the school sports, taking part in the 220, 440 yards sometimes the 880 and relay for my house Raleigh. The sports day always ended after five pm., and because I had a paper round and had to pick my newspapers up at five o’clock on the dot, I had to leave early. I asked my house master if it would be ok for me to go as soon as I finished my events, and he said that he didn’t see a problem but I had to ask the head which I never got around to. After completing my events on sports day, (with some distinction) I slipped away unnoticed, until the prize giving ceremony!! I had won two races and come second in another.
The next morning in assembly, the head read out my name along with several others, I remember Dave Bishop, Sid and Lionel Scales, and one other. We were to go directly to the headmaster’s office as soon as assembly ended. All five of us had disobeyed the headmaster J.O. Hancock, and left school early. The other four had escaped on mass, and when I turned up at the head’s office, they were waiting outside quietly trying to concoct an alibi. They were suitably impressed that I already had one, and the mere fact that I had competed and won races for my house meant that I had little to worry about because it was obvious that I had to do my paper round. Well we were all wrong on that count, and all were publicly lined up and flogged, getting six of the best each on the stage in front of assembly the very next morning.
The strap was a standard piece of medieval equipment, two pieces of thick leather stitched together, one end being shaped as a handle, and the other evenly split into three thongs, the whole thing being about two inches wide and fifteen inches long.
On one particular visit to J.Os.office for the punishment book, (if you were strapped your name and punishment was entered in the book), he told me that there was only one other boy in the history of the school who’s name had been entered in the book more times than mine, and that was my old friend of tender years Roland Bradley.
One thing that all of us boys who had been strapped were in agreement about was, we would rather have the strap than the stick, especially as some of the teachers had sticks like my old junior teacher Mr. Grey, four cane’s tied together.
One thing that J.O. Hancock done that hurt me more than anything that had happened to me so far was his refusal to agree with the committee of sports teachers that I should be awarded my school rugby colours. On the day that the colours were awarded we all sat waiting in anticipation as our names were read out in alphabetical order. Every boy who had played rugby seemed to have his name read out, no-matter how long he had played, except my cousin Jonnie West and me. This was to be our crowning glory, our thanks from the school for years of practice in the evenings, and for years of giving up Saturday mornings to play for the school. Well even though most of the school sports masters, and all the school rugby masters had put us high on their lists for honours, J.O. would not agree. We were told at the time, and believe me we asked every master that was involved, that the head had insisted that we had not behaved well enough in school to receive our colour’s. We knew that that could not be the reason because Jonnie had been as good or bad as most other kids in school; his only crime was being my friend.
What I found out later came as no great surprise. We had played Rochester Maths in one of the last games of our time at school, and John and I had tackled J.o’s son who played for the math’s causing the lad to leave the field. This all happened in front of our illustrious headmaster, he then decided that the action was premeditated because of their relationship, and harboured a grudge against us for the rest of our school days. That was another nail in the coffin of life for me.
John left that Easter, and even though he was only nine days older than me and I had a job to go to J.o. wouldn’t let me leave. On the last day of school before Easter, I went to the heads office to beg him to let me leave. He would have none of it, he said that he would make me spend the last term in his school and the only way out for me was expulsion. Well Jo was right, and only for the careful guidance of certain teachers did I manage to legally finish school.
Anybody who knows me, would probably tell you that the one thing that I have succeed at in life is working with wood, I became a good cabinet maker and not a bad carpenter and joiner, my one skill that stands out above all others. I don’t know why but when I’m working around wood, I become a different person. I can relax, I feel that I am in control, and I know that with a little forethought and the right preparation I can, and have made beautiful things. I personally feel that I have a natural talent that in my school days was suppressed by Mr. Cox, our wonderful woodworking teacher.
Mr. Cox was another man that saw that it was easier to beat or bully and intimidate you, rather than guide you. In Mr. Cox’s defence, he wouldn’t have seen that there were children beyond the boys that were his pets, (I never worked out what you had to do to be his pet), that had a real interest in carpentry. All he saw was a classroom full (apart from the few,) of low class kids that he was wasting his time on. He always told me that I was useless, and as strange as it may seem, he taught my father-in law Bill Dutnall who told me that he felt intimidated by Cox’y as well, and even Bill once he had escaped the constraints and intimidation of Mr. Cox went on to become a very good woodsmith.
A couple of things happened then that deem a mention just before Johnny left; one was John and me joining the school photographic club, and the other was we were made school milk monitors. The school photographic club seemed to comprise of Jonnie West and me, and lunchtimes, when we were bored we went into the dark room and attempted to develop photographs that I had happily snapped with my Brownie camera, not quite what you thought, eh’. Well, I had taken a photo of our school rugby team up at Chatham Tech. after the game, and we were playing around with the enlarger when it dawned on us that the rest of the team might like a copy of said photo. We duly obliged and made everyone a copy and sold them to them all. This all seemed innocent enough, apart from the fact that the copies, that had all been done on school materials, hadn’t been fixed properly, so they started to go brown very quickly with parents complaining that the “school” had ripped off their sons. J.O. was not amused, and punished us accordingly, but only for us to rise in another position to put our entrepreneurial skills to work. As I said, John and I were made school milk monitors. We were empowered with the duty of handing out “all” the milk (one third of a pint per pupil) to all the classroom monitors. We made sure that all the monitors collected just enough milk per class, and sold the rest at a halfpenny a bottle. We never got caught at that one and earned ourselves a couple of bob every day.
I was now a typical teenage delinquent with a chip on my shoulder that was growing daily. That last term between Easter and summer was to put all the rest of my problems at school in the shade. I became such a nuisance that most teachers didn’t want to know me, I remember fighting with several student teachers, and getting lectures that culminated in me getting the stick, (always six of the best) from my form master Mr. Thomas. He was the only teacher that I would allow to punish me, simply because I respected him, so teachers would tell him if I had caused them any problems and he dealt with it. They knew that if they sent me to J.o. I wouldn’t go. I refused to even acknowledge J.o. Hancock; I ignored him completely, even if he spoke directly to me. I’ve been asked why I didn’t just walk out of school that term, but I was afraid of getting my parents into trouble, my mum had told me that if I got expelled, they could be taken to court, so I just carried on doing just enough to keep my mum and dad out of court.
At this point in the story, I find myself slightly digressing, because I am going back in time for about three years when I was only twelve.
In 1956, my dad’s father in Ireland grandad McDowell died, and of course dad was very upset, especially because he hadn’t been home to see his father since his move to England. Dad of course was going home to Antrim for the funeral, and it was decided that I should take time off from school and go with him. I remember being very nervous about going, but off we were both packed by my mother with orders for me to behave myself and not cause dad to get upset, and dad not to drink too much and, not to stay too long. We travelled by train from Strood to London, and then caught the night train to Stranraer in Scotland to get the ferry across the Irish Sea to Larne in County Antrim. By the time we had got to Stranraer, things had gone very wrong. Dad had warmed himself up with a few rums in London, had a few more on the train in the buffet, and found a soul mate to drink with on the ferry crossing from Stranraer to Larne. We left the ship with dad as drunk as I had ever seen him. Several times we fell, with me carrying our meagre possessions and also trying to keep dad upright. At one time, he was physically thrown out of a pub with me waiting terrified outside. Two policemen stopped us and spoke to dad, and as they were trying to find out where we were going, I noticed for the first time that the police were armed with pistols in holsters on their hips. Well this gave me something else to worry about, and if I told you, I was scared I’m sure you’d understand. The two policemen probably feeling sorry for me led us to an address in Larne where friends of dad lived. I couldn’t possibly remember dad’s friend’s names, but they made us very welcome and let him sleep for a few hours. After a while, and obviously after checking the bus timetable they woke dad up, and then saying our goodbye’s we moved on. Once again, almost immediately, I found myself sitting outside a pub in this strange town. I still recall sitting there with the words of an Irish folk song going round in my head. “Don’t sell daddy any-more whiskey, the police will take him away”. Lucky for me this time dad was as good as his word, and he only had nipped in for a quick one (or three). Much to my relief we eventually got a coach from Larne to dad’s village in Glenarme where, because he stank from the drink, was almost completely ostracised by his family of teetotallers, not even being allowed to stay in any family home. Me, I was made as welcome as could be by these, as far as I could remember total strangers.
I don’t think that in all my years I have ever been made a greater fuss of. While dad went down to the pub to drown his sorrows, I was paraded around Glenarm by aunties that I had long forgotten. We visited this person then that one, and I would be introduced as Bets boy Danny, coupled with statements like oh’ my, hasn’t he grown, and what a handsome young fella, I felt like I had reached celebrity status. Tea, lemonade, biscuits and cakes, not to mention soda bread with lashings of butter on were enthusiastically pushed my way, and this skinny kid from Darnley Rd needed no encouragement to eat. I had never been crushed by so many ample bosoms, “covered with layers of modesty I might add”, or had my hand shaken so often from children of about my age, to old men sitting around their fires with their walking sticks. The conversation would always get around to “James” and the terrible way he was behaving. Also the sorrow they all felt for this wee lad, and the shame the family had to bear.
One old auntie told me as we were washing and wiping the crockery after visiting her house, “don’t take too much notice of these old hens lad, we cant condone your dads actions but I know that there must be a reason Danny, and probably reasons that we shall never know! I took comfort from that old ladies thoughts, and although I couldn’t possibly understand why he was acting the way he was, she new that there was a reason, and that was good enough for me.
The very next day was the funeral, and dad wasn’t allowed to attend because he was still drunk, but I attended in his place.
In granddads family cottage I watched as the family, one by one approach granddads open coffin and kissed him goodbye until it was my turn, and I was asked if I would like to do the same. That same kindly old auntie who had offered her opinions during washing up must have sensed my hesitation, and grasping my hand came to my rescue, telling the packed cottage full of mourners something like, “this boys suffered enough, he hasn’t come all the way from England to kiss a dead old man”. I’m calling this lady auntie, but I think that she may have been my dad’s auntie, I’m not sure as I cant remember her name. We left the cottage with my uncles and friends carrying the coffin and the family walking behind. I was shuffled to the front of the mourners directly behind the coffin to represent my dad, and with my new auntie still firmly holding my hand; we set off for the church. People stood silently as we passed and ladies bowed their heads and men, if they were wearing hats respectfully removed them. I knew that this was protocol, as the same thing would be seen back in Strood, but I got the feeling that some of this show of respect was directed at me, obviously it wasn’t, because granddad was a member of the local Orange lodge and not just a few of the mourners proudly wore their sash’s, but it was a nice thought. After the service granddad was buried in the local churchyard, and afterwards everybody congregated back at my granddads cottage for refreshments.
The very next day, (I still hadn’t seen my dad) I went cycling on a borrowed bike with some newfound friends to Carnlough and Cushendall, the next villages along the coast rd. I shall never forget that wonderful day as we cycled along the road with the wind in our faces. Danny Lake from Darnley Rd. was riding a “new” racing bike, (albeit a girls) up to no mischief, and with people that couldn’t care less about pecking orders, “I was one of them”, and they accepted me as their friend with no reservations. Wasn’t this just what I’d always wanted.
The next day we were assembled at the bus stop ready to leave Glenarme (Dad was sober for the first time) with his brothers and sisters and the rest of his family and friends. They hugged and kissed us goodbye and gave us messages to take back to mum, John and the rest of my uncles and aunt’s, and wished that we should all try to visit them again one day. Even my new found friends stood awkwardly waiting to shake my hand and to wish that I would one day return, but sadly I never did.
The return trip was relatively uneventful as far as dad was concerned, and as we sat quietly facing each other on the train he told me through tearful eyes that he was sorry, and asked that I wouldn’t tell mum what had happened.
I was so moved by the love and friendship that had been showered on me that I wrote an essay when I went back to school about the trip, (missing out the bits about dad) which gained me two house points from my English master.
One afternoon back home, when dad was giving me a hard time, I blurted out to mum that he had got drunk on our trip, and she got very upset. I realised immediately even as a twelve year old that I should never have said anything, and I refused to elaborate any more to my tearful mother, and I never did. After that I always felt that I had let dad down, and it has always pricked my conscience ever since.
In the fifties as everybody knows came “rock and roll”. No matter what anybody say’s about the sixties, the fifties was the time of the real music revolution, and it happened in America. Black vocal groups like the Diamonds, the Platters and the coasters were mixing blues with harmony and coming up with great numbers like Little darlin, The great pretender, and Searching. Black solo artist’s like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were making songs like, Blueberry hill, Rip it up, and School day. These black solo artists were having lots of problems getting national recognition as good as they were. White men owned all the record companies, and black music was considered seedy and blasphemous specially as it mixed the raunchy sound of the blues with gospel sounds, lots of black Americans never came to terms with that, even to this day. All that changed with the arrival of white rockers singing a new type of music that was a mixture of folk / country, and blues/jitterbug with a big band sound. “Bill Haley” had arrived, and swiftly on his coattails came Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis among many others. As with society today, the more complaints about the lyric’s and the dance from Middle America, the more outrageous (for its time) it became. The ballad singer was almost lost in the tide of this new music, and a disc jockey called Allan Freed, without thinking, suddenly one evening on his very popular radio show inadvertently described this new sound as “Rock and Roll” and the rest really was history. The powers that be of the time, destroyed Allen because of his dedication to this new music and he died young and broke, but they could not destroy the music, and musicians like Eddy Cochran and Buddy Holly moved it to another level, and of course new contempories of their time done the same again and so on.
In amongst all this music at home here in Great Britain, as we were still called back then, there was a completely different kind of sound sweeping the land. Its roots were in traditional jazz and American folk, it and was called “skiffle”, and the greatest exponent of skiffle was Lonnie Donigan. This new sound made so many kids want to go out and buy guitars to play, that I’m sure that lots of big names from the early sixties wouldn’t have been around had it not been for this new musical rage. The wonderful thing about it was there was no electrical equipment needed, and above everything else, it was fun. Your group could have as many guitars as you wanted, drums, if you wanted, and sometimes if you were lucky, your band may have a banjo player, and a real double bass player. Most bands hadn’t a proper double bass player so they had a tea chest with a broom handle nailed on. From the top of the broom handle a single piece of string was tied and stretched down to the front of the tea chest and fixed. Putting one foot on the tea chest and pulling back the broom handle, someone with half an ear for music could play bass. Spoons and washboards were also used; and putting thimbles on your fingers, you could use the washboard as an added percussion instrument. Another instrument that occasionally used was the old boot. This was made from a broom handle with a hobnail boot attached to the bottom and hundreds of metal bottle tops nailed loosely to the handle. When the boot was thumped on the floor, all the bottle tops would rattle giving you yet another percussion instrument. More guitars were bought at that time than at any other, all you needed to learn was how to tune your guitar, play any three chords and you were off. Lots of kids even tuned their guitars to chords, usually E major and just straight barred across the frets at the appropriate place. The Christmas of 1957 was one I shall never forget, my special present like loads of kids of my age was a Spanish guitar, it wasn’t a very good one but to me it was wonderful, it was a guitar and everything I could possibly ask for. In no time at all, off came the catgut strings and on went the steel wound strings that gave off a lovely rock and roll resonance.
My cousin Danny Bowyer took up the guitar just before me, and tried teaching me a few chords but I was really struggling because I was left handed. I had several choices, I could continue learn to play right handed, I could do what Eddy Wheeler and a few other left-handers had done, play the thing upside down, but that seemed even more complicated than the one I chose. Turn all the strings upside down then reverse everything in my mind that I was being taught. Everything I saw being played by anyone else I reversed in my mind and mentally copied, then physically converted it onto the guitar. Danny then started again and taught me a few chords, and as soon as I got to grips with these I was out buying books to help me, converting all I was reading to my left handed style.
Burt Wheedon was a dance hall guitarist who like lots of other musicians jumped on the Rock and Roll bandwagon, and he was writing books to help beginners to play. Almost everyone who wanted their guitar playing to be taken seriously bought his books. Guitar boogie shuffle, by Bert, must have been one of the first solo pieces that I ever learnt. It was nothing in those days to see a bunch of kids, sitting on a doorstep, or in most cases our group, outside the Jubilee, several of them with guitars and Bernard Ellis with his banjo, struggling through some popular number of the time like “pick a bale of cotton” or “the big grand coolie dam”. This in my opinion was one of the reasons for the musical revolution of the sixties in this country. All kids wanted to be involved in music singing or playing, and with skiffle being so enjoyable to play and sing to, the 60s revolution had already begun before it ever arrived.
There were many young people of exactly my age who played that I knew and lived within a half a mile of my house, and names such as Bernard Ellis, banjo, Dave Saunders guitar, Harry Edney guitar, Keith Rossiter vocals and guitar, Bobby White vocals guitar, Bob Gibbs vocals and guitar, (killed in an accident with Charlie Chester the comedian of T.V. fame) Barry Mugridge guitar, Tony Barrows drums, Wally Baker drums and vocals and yours truly guitar. All of us were in good, to very good bands later in the sixties.
I was about fourteen when my cousin Danny Bowyer arranged an audition for me with a local guy who we thought had made it big. His band had been on the Carol Levis show on radio Luxemburg, and he had won a nationwide talent competition and played big venues like the local cinema’s where I had in fact been along to see him. Johnny Young, who was about twenty, headed a skiffle band called the Youngsters that were well known every-where, his original band had broken up, and he was looking to form a new one.
That evening I waited nervously with my cousin in the hall of the Old Gun pub in Strood. The pubs knocked down now, but stood on the end of the row of houses that I lived in when I lived in Cuxton Rd., right on the corner at the traffic lights.
John came in, and the first thing that he asked me to do after introductions was to tune his guitar to E major which I did, but it did surprise me that John barred to a major chord instead of playing chords properly, and it took some of the shine off “my hero”. Now Johnny had come to fame playing skiffle, but his heart turned out, not surprisingly to be in country music, not an area at that stage that I knew anything about. John asked me if I knew any Hank Williams or Hank Snow numbers, and when I said no he asked if I knew the intro to “ Long Gone Lonesome Blues”. A song that I had heard him sing on the radio, and I duly obliged. As we jammed through the number, he stopped and asked what chord I was in? I told him that I was playing in E maj. the same as him but with proper chords, but the problem that he had was converting the limited knowledge that he had of chords, and then to the complications of watching me play them “upside down” so to speak. Now I had tuned John’s guitar and obviously knew that he couldn’t play chords, but what seemed to surprise him was that a young kid like me could tune my guitar to concert pitch and play properly, something that all of the kids that I knocked around with done. I seem to remember that evening well, with Johnny and me really hitting it off. He had, before the evening was over got me to start teaching him chords, of which he had a basic smattering. One thing that seemed to clinch it was when he asked me if I knew any Buddy Holly numbers, well Buddy was my hero, so I immediately rattled through Rave On, Heartbeat and Raining in my Heart when he asked me “can you play That’ll be the Day” and as I confidently played it seemed that my introduction to playing on the stage (if there was one) in front of a real, sometimes paying audience was getting nearer. Johnny seemed to think I was brilliant.
Fourteen years old and, slowly girls and boys are changing. Lots of girls are changing from gawky stick insects that acted like boys into the early stages of womanhood, and some of these girls were as curious about “their” own changes as the boys were about their female friends. All of the flirting and “innocent” touching that slowly started to happen certainly aroused my interest in sex, and I hung around with as many older boys and girls as I could.
Girls behaved much differently then, and unwritten rules, although constantly broken were “publicly” adhered to, for example no public passionate kisses or embraces, holding hands was as far as “common decency” would allow was o.k. Very few girls would allow boys any sort of sexual contact on the first date, but if you had been going steady for a couple of months or more you might be lucky enough to get some skin contact, or maybe even light relief from a hand job. It was just according to how confident you felt, and how persistent you were or how desperate she was to keep you. One thing you were sure of was that if you made her pregnant you would be expected to marry. It must be added that loads of girls walked up the isle as virgins having had sex in every conceivable way without allowing full penetration. Probably not as many were virgins as I would like to think walking up the isle, but there were many more than there are today. Girls had to tread a very fine line as to how they behaved, and had to gamble their name and family honour with whomever they got involved with. In the late fifty’s parents couldn’t consider their daughters having children out of wedlock, it would bring shame on the family and gossip would be all out of proportion compared to today. It didn’t matter how long you were courting, you wouldn’t consider living “in sin”, and so the backroom abortionist’s were the only way out.
Anyone over sixteen having sex with a girl under age would be libel to prosecution, and although blind eyes were turned, and family’s kept quiet if they didn’t want the police involved situations did happen. I’m sure that it must have happened, but I cant remember one incident of what is now commonly termed a child pregnancy, and that was without all the contraceptive devices and hot air that is wasted on kids today.
All the lads were cautious about sex with a girl under age, they were “seriously” considered as jailbait. Remember, this was all before the “pill”; the pill would come along and supposedly free women from the yoke of ridicule of unwanted pregnancy and I suppose in its way it did. Looking back, it’s easy to understand why lots of girls and boys I might add, looked for partners outside the street, or even outside their home town. Because as we all new each other so well there was no “magic” to be found amongst our own crowd. It would be like going out with your own brother or sister. We were a gang, and had of course always had been. Some girls of course did allow things to happen, don’t worry girls I wont tell, but by and far as I recall not many serious sexual activities went on in our own group.
As we developed into puberty girls and boys started to travel around the towns going to dances and such. Of course, all this was very innocent, but there was also another reason apart from dancing that they were “travelling”. They were going out in the world to see who was really out there. The other reason for venturing out was, as far as the girls were concerned whatever they got up to sexually, no one in the street would find out. Of course this didn’t always work, because the boys were also spreading their wings and travelling out of the area, and sometimes would pick up snippets of gossip about “our” girls doing likewise. We were up to a point, very defensive about our girls, and if we were out on the town and saw any of the girls in trouble, (or one of our lads was jealous over one of their “boyfriends”,) there would almost certainly be trouble.
In those early years of puberty, I had befriended a girl I had known for a long time called Betty Sands. Bette was as I remember, a tall lithe girl with very lovely facial features and mannerisms that I just loved. She never swore, not to me, and always made light of any problems. She was as far as lots of other girls up our road were concerned quite ladylike, but on the other hand wouldn’t think twice about tucking her skirt into her knickers to perform some handstand or other or racing you around the block. She was to me one of the “nice girls” in the street. Her sister Barbara was the same, a little younger than Bett but ever on the go, but Barbara was the real looker in the family.
Bett and I would sit on her doorstep talking about anything and everything until late in the evening then eventually her mum would call her in (about 9 am.), and I would wander off home realising that I must do better tomorrow, but alas I never did and this must have gone on for about two years. We never held hands, kissed, or even acknowledged we were an item, and to be honest, I’m not even sure today that we were. The one time that we went to the pictures to see Pat Boone starring in “Bernadine” I never got up enough courage to put my arm around her. She was a lovely girl, full of fun and laughter, never crude or rude, and as I remember always done very well at athletics. We were obviously much to shy for each other, and slowly drifted apart to go our own ways, but I shall never forget Betty Sands, the girl I shall always remember as my first “childhood sweetheart”. I have sometimes thought, would I have changed her or could have she changed me, we shall never know.
I was desperate at about this time in my life to try and force myself onto the music scene. Johnny and our band weren’t really doing to much and I suggested to my cousin Dan that we try to get some pub work no matter where, so carrying our guitars we caught the bus from Columbine Rd down to Star Hill. We started in the Red Lion on the bottom of Star Hill and slowly worked our way through Rochester back toward Strood going in each and every pub and asking landlords, (most publicans owned their own pubs) if they wanted to employ a little band. We had ventured into every pub when we came to the Northgate. This pub had character and it has to be said, was a little daunting. All the local tough guys hung out in this pub, Aza Cole, Woggy Finch, Jimmy Haylor, Billy Boats (Bolands) Kenny Whittaker, Bill Young and a whole lot more. It was also the home of the Northgate Diamonds, a football team that took pride in the fact that they played hard and not with a little skill won much. The even more triumphal thing that the landlord of the Northgate had (Ingham) was a resident band called the Temple Trio who played there, and we were certainly not in their league. Well we strode in with our best practiced confident swagger and asked for the landlord, and when the answer came back that this big six-footer we were talking to with a sergeant majors moustache was the landlord, we kinda wilted. We asked him if he was looking for a band and was completely rebuffed to the point of derision from the nearby onlookers and said landlord. Well this was nothing completely new so we tried to salvage a little dignity from any tiny crumb of comfort, a smile even when Ingham said to me, oit son, do you really want a job, to which I readily answered yes, thinking of music, when he told me to get down his pub about ten on Saturday morning to help him to bottle up. I really cant remember whether I was happy or not, I hadn’t even had time to think about a real answer because a fight kicked off between Kenny Whitaker and Bill Young by the front door so Dan and me retreated back towards the bar. They locked horns and rolled around the front doors until they were separated and decided to go outside and finish their discussion. Ingham had been watching the fracas while he was cleaning glasses, well I suppose he’d seen all of this and more a thousand times before but it was new to Dan and me. Asking a few of the onlookers to get them outside was the maximum amount of effort he put into the whole affair as it was, and after they got them outside he looked at us and shrugging his shoulders simply said, “bloody nuisances, you cant do bugger all with them.” Then looking straight at me said,”don’t be late Saturday. The memory of all of this to a fourteen-year-old boy was unforgettable. After the two protagonists went out into the street to deliberate their bone of contention the pile of table and chairs that had been left behind in their wake started to move, and slowly a man in a suit crawled out from under all the debris and in front of me, and anyone else that cared to be watching openly cried in fear, mumbling that he had only come in for a quiet beer on his way home and it was best that he should go, to which Ingham wryly said,” are you sure you don’t want another sir”. Well I got the job as bottle boy in the Northgate, but the evening was going to get a lot better.
We slowly continued to work our way from pub to pub until we were back in Strood, asking at the Bridge Hotel, and across to the Prince OF Wales. Still landlords were rebuffing us because of our age or they just did not need any kind of noise in their pub. We were closing on the old Angel (a pub that was to be demolished to make way for the road widening and rebuilt later) and feeling seriously unwanted when we went into the Fountain, a pub next to the fish shop before the Angel. We knew that we had no chance in the Angel as it was a wall-to-wall paddy’s pub, and I suppose the Fountain was our last chance saloon. This was a pub that in those days a semi respectable man would take his wife from time to time, and was dominated by the family’s that lived in central Strood mainly from the Prentice St. area.
Well these two kids sixteen and fourteen, walked up to the bar with their guitars hanging over their backs asked the same question that had been asked many times that night, and got the answer we’d been hoping for. Give us tune boys and lets see what you are. Well we (I) belted out tunes like Bring a Little Water Sylvie and Cumberland Gap, all skiffle music and we were told to turn up on Saturday night if we wanted but he assured us he wouldn’t pay wages. We would have to pass the hat round after we’d finished and rely on the patron’s generosity, but never mind we were in. By Saturday night, we had acquired the assistance of another young friend of mine to sing lyrics, Bob Wright. All three of us took up our position in the middle of this little pub and we, with no amplifiers or microphones and with the help of all the regulars sung the night away. The cap went around at the end of the evening, and lord knows what was in it, but it was the first time any of us had been paid for our musical endeavours and were most grateful, even just for the applause. As we left the Fountain that night I raced across the road to another pub that’s long gone knowing that my mum and dad were in they’re having a late one. The pub was called the Royal Exchange opposite the Angel on the corner of the alleyway that leads through to the car park. I tapped the door window with my cousin and Bob in tow, and eventually the door opened and my mum appeared. I knew that we wouldn’t be allowed in, but I blurted out that we had actually been paid for playing and was invited back to play again next week. She was chuffed to bits and gave me a hug and kiss in front of my mates, and for once, I didn’t care, I was deliriously happy.
There was a crowd of kids that were all hanging around the Elaine Avenue area, including the Co-Op and our local pub the Jubilee, and of course got up to all sorts of mischief. One thing that comes to mind about the Co- Op was that the shop had a loading bay on the side, about three feet from the ground. The boys would always be showing off to the girls and visa versa, exactly the same as goes on today, so we were obviously a noisy crowd, and a man who’s back garden backed onto the Co-Op would come out and regularly threaten us with either a beating or the police if we didn’t keep the noise down. We would either comply or begrudgingly slouch off calling him names that got louder according to how much distance we had put between him and us.
Darnley Rd. must have been coming up market about then because this guy had bought himself a three -wheeled car, and proudly parked it behind his house near the loading bay.
I have no idea as to what happened when he got up one morning to find his treasured little car standing on the Co- Op loading bay three feet from the ground, but I bet he wasn’t very pleased. I think it was about then we stopped hanging around the Co-Op.
Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Buddy Holly, Eddy Cochran and our own Cliff Richards were some of the big names of the time, and we, just like them acted the part of the angry young man. This set the level of behaviour, and sure enough, we followed. Right down to the swept back hair, large wave at the front and D.A. at the back all neatly kept in place with lashings of Brylcreme, or if you didn’t have any brylcreme butter or margarine. All us boys tried to wear white shirts or tea-shirts with anything that resembled a pair of Levi’s, (usually a pair of trousers that had been tapered by Mrs. Aires) our local “tailoress” from across the road. Blue suede shoes were the icing on the cake, but suede wasn’t really conducive to our age group, and with all the rough wear that they got the suede didn’t last long, so they usually ended up getting polished black until we could beg, steal, borrow or buy a new pair.
Shoes were a luxury and were expensive compared to the average income, so us waifs and strays really had to make do. Most of our parents repaired all our shoes, (most family’s had a cobblers foot) called a last and when times were really hard put cardboard in the shoe across the hole in the sole until they could be repaired or our parents could afford to buy new one’s.
Opposite the Co-Op there is, or was a church hall that a dance was held in every Friday and most of us would go I cant say dancing, because most of us lads didn’t dance, but nearly every Friday you could bet your life that some bright spark would cause trouble.
There were two distinguishable types of kids; there was a lower/middle class, and us. You could easily distinguish one from the other in behaviour and dress. We were all usually as smartly turned out as the wardrobe would allow, but their clothes were of a slightly better quality, (all those boys wore underpants) with some of their mothers, even shopping at Marks and Spencer’s, and also their demeanour wasn’t as aggressive as ours.
Us boys would sit and watch the girls jiving, and nudge each other when we spotted the top of a stocking or, if the girl spun around really quickly, the flared skirts and petticoats would fly up and reveal a suspender-belt, which would be immediately accompanied by a large roar of encouragement from us lechers to reveal more, “much to the embarrassment of the poor girl”.
Confrontation between the two different groups was commonplace, usually ending in a standoff, but sometimes ending in a scuffle but very rarely someone getting anything worse than a bloody nose.
Old Jack Long ran the dances, I’m calling him old but I don’t suppose that he was much older than thirty-five at the time.
Jack was a tree feller by trade, and as broad as he was tall, thank god he wasn’t very tall, but he was a typical no nonsense product of his time. I might also add he was a very likeable type of man with a good sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye. I had got along with Jack as well as any boy did until one evening, when Nobby Keem decided to pee in a bottle and try to pass it off as lemonade to “the others”. Well I didn’t know what was in the bottle until I was told afterwards, but by then it was all too late. Jack when he was told what Nobby was doing got as upset as I had ever seen him, and was dragging the terrified Nobby vainly protesting his innocence towards the door to throw him out.
Now Nobby was a year or two older than me, (I was fifteen) and he could be a bit of a nuisance, but I didn’t like the way old Jack was handling him, and I told Jack to leave him alone. Jack in one movement threw the protesting Nobby out of the hall and turned on me, and I was shocked by the aggressive way he told me in no uncertain terms to mind my own business and if I wanted trouble I was sure as hell going to get it. Also as an afterthought, he added that the best thing for me to do was to leave with Nobby.
All the lads, and some of the girls were around us, all shouting, and some of them demanding I should be thrown out, and others telling Jack to leave me alone. At times like this, I would retract into a world of my own. All the pushing and shouting would fade into the background, as though it was coming from another place, the only people that were in my world, was my protagonist and me. “Nothing or nobody else mattered”. I heard Jack ask if I was going or did I fancied my chances, and hopefully concealing my fear I boldly replied, “anytime you want it” and Jack said right and started to take his jacket off. This would have to be my chance. I knew I couldn’t beat him in a stand up fight, so I waited for his jacket sleeve to drop down to his right elbow. Then “whack”…
The next thing I recalled was being supported against a brick pier outside the club wondering why I couldn’t understand what was being said to me. The long and the short of it was I had waited for the jacket to fall and Jack never allowed it to. He punched me square on the jaw as his jacket fell knocking me out cold. I had been out for so long, that Jack had sent a couple of boys down to the local telephone box to ring for an ambulance, and they had come back as I was coming round.
As we walked home, later that evening after Jack cancelled the ambulance, (me with my teeth loose and the inside of my mouth badly chewed up) the conversation was about nothing else with several of the kids urging me to tell my dad, but that could never happen. One, my father would have blamed me for causing the trouble so deserving all I got, and two, what had happened really was my own fault and I should have minded my own business. He would have also said that I should never have tried to front a bloke like Jack Long who probably had the patience of a saint. At this time I should like to add, I never held it against Jack for what happened, and I always liked him and readily acknowledged him afterwards. CHAPTER 11
We, the Darnley Rd. mob eventually formed our own music club, I say we, but it was some of the older boys that got permission to have a club in the room at the back of the “Old Gun”, the same room that I had met Johnny Young in. Terry Burton would bring his record player and records, and those that wanted to could bring their own records to play. There was a good crowd in the early days, and a certain couple of girls that come to mind, were “very friendly” to some of the boys. Unfortunately I wasn’t lucky enough to get “that friendly”, but I did experience my first serious kiss and groping sessions with some of the girls. Of course all the boys acted like we were all experienced “men of the world,” but nothing was further from the truth for most of us.
About this time, I met “Jimmy Hayes”, or Jimmy Crispin as he was sometimes called, because his sister and brother in-law managed the pub, the Crispin and Crispianus across the road from the Old Gun. Jimmy was again a couple of years older than me His family had moved down from north London, and why we automatically hit it off I cant remember but we did. He was quite short and slight in build, but he more than made up for his size with street cred. He seemed totally fearless, and was as sharp as a razor. It turned out that most of his family, excluding his mum and sister, but certainly including his dad, were just the same. His father, Chris or “Gabby”, was a real character, a small Irishman, who could steal your socks as you stood in them then sell them back to you. He had an excuse for everything, and everything came with a smile and a story to tell just to justify everything he got up to.
Although he was a comparative new kid on the block, Jimmy seemed to know every villain in Strood and Rochester; he also knew what they were doing, and what they had been up to, and Jimmy introduced me (for better or worse,) to a way of life that had not been opened to me up until then. He never drank too much, so as to be always “totally in touch with his environment”, and would always make friends rather than enemies. He only went to work (not like the rest of us) when it suited him, and always had money in his pocket, and when he was asked what he done for a living said, “I’m an observationist”, and meant it, he was seventeen going on thirty and a real soul mate to me.
One night Jimmy and me went to the fair, held in the fair meadow just off station rd. in Strood. There were all the usual side stalls to try and coax your money out of your pocket including things like performing fleas and naked ladies, (not really naked, always with some sort of knickers on, frilly or otherwise and tassels that could be rotated like propellers fixed somehow to their nipples). But the biggest attraction to us in those days was the boxing booth. We had meandered over to the boxing tent and listened to the banter of the drummer, a bloke that drummed up the crowd, inviting any of the local lads to try and go three rounds with any of his professional bruisers. Usually these were guys that had boxed for a living and had slipped down the ratings until all they had left in the boxing world was this, but rugged tough guys that knew all the tricks of the trade. We listened for a while and wandered off deciding that we’d have a look later on when it started. Across the other side of the fair we could see a bunch of the older Rochester and Strood boys mingling around beside the shooting gallery, so we crept over to see what, if anything was going on. These guys were real Teddy boys, with their draped jackets and tapered trousers and blue suede shoes, they were indeed “the lads”. A lot of them had had a little to much of the old fighting juice, and were getting a little boisterous, raising there voices above the fair grounds musical background and calling out and wolf whistling to the girls as they passed. Teddy Burden and Benny Bishop had decided to have a go on the shooting gallery, and these guns really were pump action two-two bullet guns. They started off firing at the targets but soon decided to shoot a few of the sideshows lightbulbs out, much to the merriment of the crowd of Ted’s who jeered them on to greater heights. The only feller working on the stall was quickly joined by a couple more, and playing the game as safely as they dare for fear of the bullet guns, allowed the two “marksmen” to empty their rifles. Then as the crowd called for more the initial man on the stall in no uncertain terms told them to leave. We noticed that a lot of the fairground men on the other stalls were looking on, waiting to see where all this would lead. With the edging on from the “boys” Benny decided that he was having another go and snatched at a gun, only to be immediately grabbed by the lapels of his jacket and told to fuck off by the by now openly pissed of stall man. As the stall man held Ben, Benny said, referring to his jacket “mind the material man, mind the fuckin material, and promptly got a face full of the the fairworkers forehead dropping Ben like a stone. Teddy decided that it might be more prudent to verbally retaliate but the stallholder wasn’t in the mood for any more shit from this lot, and as if in one movement he stepped over the prostrate Ben and floored Teddy with a haymaker. As soon as these two were out of the way, other stallholders quickly joined their “friend” to make a combined defiant front. Not inviting any more trouble, just letting the “boys” know that they weren’t just dealing with three guys, but all of them. The dispatched Ben and Teddy were scraped up off the rough ground amid a few weak protestations from a few of their mates, but the wise ones knew that they could easily be in very deep water and no matter what happened these fairground workers would stand together, more than their little army would.
After that, you would think that that was enough excitement for the evening, but things were only just beginning. Jim and myself followed the disgruntled mob over to the boxing booth, where one or two of them were deciding with encouragement from their wiser friends, to challenge some of the boxers on display, and the drummer talked this up until they could find no way out without losing their credibility. We all paid our entrance fees and filled the tent to see some very brave lads get a good beating. These boxers would be told to take a bit of a beating for the first two rounds to make a show of it then finish their opponent of in the third, which they did that night. (Not always I might add, sometimes even with a crooked referee the challenger would win). This particular night ended with a real battle. Somehow, two of the lads had persuaded the M.C. to let them have a fight between themselves. Johnny Pound (stinker) standing on tip toes at about 5ft 5ins. stepped into the ring with Freddy Wells a well-respected fighter about 5ft 9ins. tall and both stripped to the waist. I’m not sure, but I think their plan may have been to put on a little boxing display to raise a few bob from the M.C. for their trouble, but things quickly went wrong and the pair of them went toe to toe. The crowd were going wild as the two of them put on the best fight seen in that fair for a long time, and poor old Stinker, even though he had put up a tremendous exhibition of skill and courage was eventually beaten by the bigger man. The two of them, bloodied but still mates, after putting their shirts and jackets back on were cheered by the crowd as they left the ring, and taking their purse from the begrudging M.C. went straight to the pub to celebrate their battle. I just couldn’t imagine it ever happening today.
One day Jimmy suggested that we go and visit his older brother in London, and I without thinking about how we would get to London as we were skint agreed. When I reminded him of this one small thing, he said not to worry, as getting up to London would be a synch. On Jimmy’s insistence that everything would be ok, we went down to Strood station and waited outside for our train to arrive at the platform, as we waited he filled me in on his plan.
When our train did arrive, Jimmy motioned me to follow him, and as quick as a flash, climbing over the station fence and, without trying to arouse to much attention, we sauntered along the platform and casually got on the train. As we sat there, speeding our way towards Charing Cross, I remember being terrified at the thought of the ticket inspector catching us and handing us over to the police, but somehow I knew that Jimmy would have a perfectly credible excuse as to why we had no tickets. At Charing Cross he again led the way through ticket inspection, “just wait for a crowd to form and follow me through” and I did. Down onto the underground we went, and treated this barrier with the same amount of disregard, simply push through, and if we get challenged, run down onto the platform and jump the first train that comes along. On the underground, it crossed my mind to ask Jimmy where his brother lived? And when I did, he answered in his own matter of fact way. His brother was on remand for armed robbery in Brixton prison, and had been there for ten months. There was me worrying about getting caught and ending up in prison, and we were going there anyway.
Jimmy’s brother was a little bit bigger all round than him, but you could easily see that they had been cut from the same rock. I was introduced, and they exchanged pleasantries about their family, and as Jimmy passed his brother some cigarettes for later, Jimmy asked his brother if he’d heard that his wife was pregnant, and back came the answer without any hesitation, “I hope it’s a camel to carry the rest of the kids around on”. Well, we all laughed, and then the subject immediately changed, as if it meant nothing and was never spoken of between the two of them again that day. Outside the prison, I asked Jimmy if his brother didn’t want the baby. and, didn’t he say that his brother had been on remand for ten months? Jimmy just laughed at my amazement and reassured me that the thought of his old lady having someone else’s baby wouldn’t bother his brother, he wouldn’t give it a second thought.
Our return journey wasn’t quite so un-eventful, as we got stopped at Charing Cross station and were arrested for trying to get through the barrier without tickets. But Jimmy being Jimmy, convinced them that he had lost our day tickets, and as we were skint and didn’t know the proper procedure we had panicked and had tried to get on the train without paying. Well to cut a long story short, after taking our names and address’s and checking with Rochester police station by phone to verify our addresses, we were allowed to travel home unhindered with a free pass and made to pay later.
The Old Gun club ended with a fight between Terry Burton and me. We were walking home in our usual noisy manner when he accused me of trying to get off with his girlfriend Hillary that wasn’t the case. One thing led to another and Terry put his record player down that he was carrying and squared up to me. Well, without thinking, I threw a punch that broke Terry’s nose, and when all the fuss had died down and I realised that his nose was broken, I was truly sorry. I hadn’t intended to hurt him that badly, in fact I hadn’t intended to hurt him at all, but what could I do. He had to go to the hospital and have his nose straightened, so as the system worked in those days, the police were automatically involved. In all fairness to Terry, he never gave me up, but the next day his mother was on my doorstep demanding as Terry had had a week off from work, compensation of the equivalent of Terry’s weekly wage. As she threatened me with the police, I duly paid up, and that was the first time that I had paid any real financial retribution for the consequences of fighting.
One thing the Medway area had in abundance was places to work. In Strood on the 50/60s there were large factories like the Metal Box, they supplied cans for the food industry, Luxrams who made light bulbs, Holborn’s that supplied pumps among other things to the motor industry, Kent Alloy’s as the name explains a factory that made all sorts of castings. In Knight Rd there were the Sizalcraft, the massive Co-op Bakery and Guards that made clothes specialising in suits. Dove Phillips and Pets in Strood High Strood that made and bottled lemonade. In Canal Rd there was Drakes wood-yard and Mc Lynch, probably one of the largest scrap metal yards in the country. Across from Canal Rd there was the mighty Wingets, which stood on the same site as the mighty Aveling & Porter, who made the steamrollers that built the Empire. Wingets made cement mixers of all sorts including the type that go on lorries; they also made dump trucks and all manner of things for the building industry. Over the bridge into Rochester, and McLynch had another site on the riverfront. Turning right down the Esplanade on the sites of the old Shorts seaplane factories were Blaw Knox who made tarmac laying machines, Burnett & Rolf who specialised in huge stainless steel vats for all the brewery and milk industries, Ozanair’s who made ducting and air vents from galvanised tin and next was CAVs who also specialised in diesel pumps for the world. These were all large factories employing hundreds if not thousands of people. Up at Rochester Airport there was Elliot’s who specialised in electronics and with all of this there were countless hundreds of small factories that not only specialised in their own products but subcontracted for these bigger factories including, the Mighty Chatham Dockyard. The Dockyard in its hey day directly employed over 14.000 people, with smaller subcontractors dotted all over the Medway area especially in Gillingham, catering for special items the yard might need. The M2 and Medway Bridge was being built, building sites were everywhere, Knights Place Estate, Earl Estate and Rushdean Estate were all being built. Out on the Isle of Grain there was a huge oil refinery built in the 50s. The pubs like the Prince of Whales in Strood were packed with Wheel Tappers, Foundry men, Bricklayers and Carpenters. Engineers, Turners, Welders and Platers, Metal Machinists, Stevedores and Dockers and Rope makers, Boilermakers and Building labourers of all types. There were Soldiers and Sailors including Merchant, workers of every single job you could think of. So, going to work in my opinion classed me as a “real man”.
I had continued with my paper round when I left school, and as I had started my working career at Holborn’s in Strood as an apprentice machine fitter, now that was the last kind of work I would have chosen, but even though I wanted to be a carpenter my dad chose this for me as he thought that engineering was the way forward. Now I suppose it wasn’t all bad because I had always collected my newspapers from old Skipper outside Holborn’s in the evening, so I kept my paper round for a few months and picked up my papers after I finished work.
Now the finances of working for a living totally confused me. There was I, at school and with a paper round that was worth 17s&6p per week, (approximately .75 of a pound) that was a good wage for a round back then, and all of my money went into my pocket. Then after I left school and started work I earned an extra £2-2s&6p, which totalled a massive £3 per week, what would I do with all that money? Well, as soon as I had got my first weeks wages in my pocket I bought myself a beautiful blonde, (hang on, your getting ahead of yourself) Hofner guitar, which cost me £1 per week on the tally. Mum took another £1 per week for keep, so after stamps and tax were stopped, I was left with the grand total of 16s&3p, and having to do two jobs to get it. Of course, this was less than I had at school on my paper round. I found that being a “real man” was very costly indeed.
After a few months I was getting depressed with my job, as I said I never wanted to work in engineering in the first place, so my heart wasn’t in it. One day I was working on a centre lathe, probably in the great scheme of things not achieving very much but enjoying what I was doing when I was asked to move up to the pump room. Well I don’t know how it came out but I basically told the foreman to sod off and leave me alone, and there was only one course of action going to be taken back then, - the sack.
I had heard that jobs were going at Morgan’s wood-yard, so I approached the foreman there for a job and started work almost immediately; hooray I was working with wood. Unfortunately not quite the woodwork I had been attempting to do at school, and after only three months while lifting a huge lump of oak with a very strong fully-grown man, I secured a rupture that had me in severe pain. That day I couldn’t carry on working so I limped over to the bike shed to get my bike and walked all the way home, a good mile or more. When my mum came home from work I told her I had a severe stomach ache so she sent me down the doctors, another mile walk away. Dr. Ashley soon got to the root of my problem and after examining my very tender underdanglers, he told me that one ball had gone up inside me and it may never come down, how right he was. He gave me a truss to wear and told me to keep it on for a month and also to take a month off work, but unfortunately all that done was get me laid off from Morgan’s.
For months I had heard that lots of money was being earned hod carrying, but my knowledge of hod carrying was as good as most other fifteen year olds, absolutely nil, all I had been told was that it was hard work, “so what” we could all work hard if we wanted to, “couldn’t we?” so as soon as I felt better…
Off I set, up to Peaks site office, which were the main contractors that were building Earl Estate at the time and smartly knocked at the door. Come in called a voice from within, and as I opened the door to step into the smoke filled room, three large men confronted me, one in a suit, and the others in regular working clothes. “Yes son,” what can I do for you, said the man in the suit, (Jack Hanrahan), and as the three men surveyed me I said, I wondered if you wanted any hod carriers, in my best manly voice. Yes I do he said smiling, do you know any? With that, they all burst into laughter, of course at my expense. I stood with what I thought was my best cold expression on my face to suit the occasion until the laughter subsided. Do you want any or not I asked? Failing badly in my attempt to act grownup. Do you know what hod carrying is son the man in the suit asked, let me tell you its bloody hard work. Then the tall man in overall’s and a cheese-cutter butted in with, and do you think your man enough to do the job boy? (This was spangles) If you’re looking for men give me a chance I quickly replied, see if I can do the job. Smiling, the suit looked down at this spotty scrawny boy and said, “I’ll give you a job for your cheek boy”, but if you’re not up to it, I shall sack you o.k. Be here at 7-30 in the morning with your cards and don’t be late. How much are you going to pay me? I asked guardedly, which brought a smile to the suits face, how old are you. Fifteen I answered wishing I were older, Christ boy you must be mad he answered, three & six per hour he laughed, (seventeen and a half new pence), now don’t forget to bring your cards, and as I said, don’t be late.
Well I was there bright and early, and was now going to be the proud recipient of a grand total of £7 per week. The only difficult part was earning it. Luckily for me, I was started in the footings so I had no ladder to climb. Unluckily for me was the fact that the bricks were made from silica, very heavy and covered in fine grit that wore the skin off my soft hands until my fingertips and palms bled. In my first couple of weeks at the job, I seriously questioned myself as to whether I could ever be strong enough to do the job properly or not, and I knew I was being watched. The walk home in the evenings was all-downhill, and was only about a half a mile or so to my house, but every night every footstep home was one footstep to many. Hanger one of the good hod carriers would roar past me on his Triumph Tiger 110 and wave as he sped down Darnley Rd., and I would wave back wishing I had such a machine. When I got home I would collapse in the armchair and go straight to sleep, only waking to eat my tea, take a bath if mum had run me one, then off to my bed. My mum had sewn me a towel together to put around my shoulder like a bandoleer to try and protect my bony shoulders, and of course all the men laughed at me and pulled my leg about it, but I had to wear it, my left shoulder was red raw. I stubbornly stuck to it, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, and as the weeks turned into months I found I was earning everyone’s respect, including Jack Hanrahan’s who gave me a sixpence an hour rise on my sixteenth birthday. This wage rise brought my weekly wage before stoppages up to £8, to put it into perspective, almost the same wages that my father brought home each week, and as I grew stronger, the job slowly became a little easier. I hadn’t become the worlds best hod carrier overnight, far from it, and the men never missed an opportunity to pull my leg but I was now considered to be one of them, maybe not yet the complete article, more like their kid brother. After about six months at Peaks I felt I was ready to move up into the big time, and got a job hod carrying for a large company called Mathew James. Looking back this was a bad mistake because although Peaks were only paying me about three shillings and sixpence per hour, they were a family business with labour that had been with them for a long time, and because of this they helped me when I needed it. Mathew James was a different kettle of fish, they paid top money. Most of the labour was mercenary; a strange thing to say perhaps but there was no loyalty to the company. The site agent was a huge Irishman called “Mad Bull” Keenan, and believe me he earned that reputation. He hired and fired men and boys without any concern, and to hear the “Bull” roaring up the road sent men running for cover, but I managed to last about three months before he caught me and another hod carrier taking a breather. Asking us why we were standing around the older guy said he was having a smoke, and after reminding my mate that all cigarettes should be rolled before coming to work the Bull asked me why I was standing around. Feeling that the Bull was in one of his better moods I explained that as I didn’t smoke I was keeping my mate company, and just going through the motions of smoking. The big mans ruddy complexion immediately turned bright red, and although he never actually struck me my next job was an assistant to a television aerial fitter. Unfortunately, that never lasted long either as the fitter fell through a slate roof in Troy Town Rochester.
On the music scene things were going very slowly. We were practicing every Wednesday night at the Oakwood club on the Chatham-Maidstone Rd, but disruptions were almost continuous from the local lads giving it large. They were a strange bunch, and I often wondered why, with the place being a youth club were men in their mid twenties still attending. I had been a member at our local youth club at the vicarage in Strood, and accepted that some of the lads would get a little boisterous from time to time, but the crowd at the Oakwood club just seemed intent on causing as much trouble as they could. I shall always remember the snooker table up there, it was wrecked, and they even had kids fighting and throwing the balls through the windows, I could never understand wanton destruction. Needless to say I fell out with one of the so called, up and coming hard-cases Henry Arnold, ending with me having him backed over the stair-rail on the third floor threatening to push him over if his mates didn’t back off. Well, we managed to get out of there by the skin of our teeth that night with the help of the skipper, but I had been threatened by an older teddy boy type with a flick-knife outside, so Johnny Young called a council of war. The reason we practiced over in that area was because Pat, John’s girlfriend lived over there, so he killed two birds with one stone, he could practice with the band then go and see her.
The next Wednesday I turned up at band practice, and met someone that I would be a friend with for the rest of my life, John’s cousin Bill. Bill Young I suppose could be described as a “real rough diamond”. He was about twenty-three, good looking, but in a pugilistic kind of way, an outward personality to suit his sizeable stature, and an infectious way of making friends. Not someone to strike fear into the Oakwood lot you may think. But what Bill carried around with him was a reputation as a real hard case, and he was.
The next band practice saw us setting our gear up in the attic as usual, but this time as far as I was concerned with not a little trepidation. As we were setting up our various instruments, Bill who had accompanied John over there was making himself known to us all in his natural warm style, even succeeded in putting a lighter touch to a foreboding evening. We hadn’t got far into rehearsals when we heard the sound of a lot of footsteps coming up the stairs, and the door burst open revealing Henry, the lad I had had an altercation with, his big brother Billy, and several other hangers on bent on trouble. As soon as they saw Bill sitting at the drum kit trying to do his impersonation of Jean Kruper they stopped in their tracks. Bill without trying to get up simply looked at Billy, the older man and said, “hello Billy” what do you want cocker. Henry, taking the lead from his older brother, realised immediately that there was a problem and kept quiet. “I didn’t realise that you were in the band Bill,” said the deflated Billy, and Bill, still sitting at the drums with the drumsticks in his hands briefly told the bunch that Johnny and he were cousins, and he had simply come along to listen to us. He then invited the terrors of White Rd. to come in and listen if they wanted to but Billy quietly declined and they left, nodding their goodbyes and saying see you later Bill. Bill reminded them to shut the door behind them and they dutifully did. After that things changed so much for the better that some of the local lads including Henry tried their best to befriend us, but I knew that they had been stung, and they were only biding their time.
We as a band were playing at small venues around the town, including pubs and weddings etc, and the occasional gig at the Chatham branch of the YMCA that used to be at the start of Dock Rd., just up from the town hall. These gigs never really went very well as we just didn’t have the right equipment for a large venue such as that, but the crowds were always appreciative, and gave us a good ovation when we played there. We had gained the dizzy heights of newspaper acclaim by then, with a photograph of us all accompanied by a write-up that was about the return of Johnny Young to the entertainment scene, accompanied by his new band “The Jetstreamers”.
Whoever this new band were, it wasn’t us, we were still billing ourselves as the Youngsters, but obviously nobody had told the press this so they made us a name up.
One of the big calamities that befell us was at a talent show at the old Chatham Working Men’s Club which was situated then about where the fountain in the Pentagon was, obviously before the new development was built. There were lots of different acts there that evening, but they had been seeded, so the best acts went on last. We were going on next to last, and the last band to play were the Deep Bijou Jazz Band, an act that had been around for years and were very talented so we knew what we were up against and had to be at our best. In the line-up then was Johnny of course, Albert Ashdown, Jonnie Childs, myself, and a member of the old successful Youngsters, who had just recently joined us, Brian Neal. Well Jonnie and Brian had been old school-friends, but carried a lot of psychological baggage between them that was about to bubble up to the surface. Brian was also a very good singer who wanted to stamp his authority on the band, and he definitely picked his moment.
Johnny and Brian had an argument behind the wings that evening as to what number we would play, even though it had been previously decided that we would do a Buddy Holly song called “I guess things happens that way”, “and it did”. We were heartily welcomed onto the stage with a huge applause from a large and enthusiastic audience that obviously remembered the old Jonnie Young Four, which I suppose to the waiting Bijou band must have seemed like the winners had already been chosen. I struck up the short musical introduction, but Brian immediately went into the number he thought we should do, bird dog by the Everly Bros. The rest of us carried on for a few bars hoping that the isolated Brian would fall in line, but he didn’t. Johnny stopped and we all followed suit, including our lone vocalist, and immediately a huge row erupted on stage between the two “old” stagers in front of the totally bemused and dumbstruck audience. This all culminated in Brian, still clutching his guitar leaping off the stage and leaving a trail of expletive’s in his wake stomped of through the audience still shouting and waving his arms about as he left the building. As the audience broke out in an embarrassed whisper, Johnny, as cool as you like motioned to me to start again, which I did. Well, we played as well as we could in the circumstances, but with Brian’s missing harmony, and our dented ego’s and confidence all added up to a lost audience, and we came second to a very professional jazz band, who I might add, I had been going down to the old Con. Club on Friday nights to watch on many occasions beforehand.
The other thing that truly done me that evening, was the arrival of Betty Sands with her new boyfriend Mick Williams who watched all this. She very properly introduced us to each other, and we shook hands, but I knew then that Betty had truly moved on. Mick and I became lifelong friends, and it was with great sadness that I attended his funeral not long ago.
Bonker Reckett (Karl) got me a job working on an extension of Martin Earl’s cement works. The gang that I was in was basically shuttering column bases in the ground, so we were at the beginning of the job with a long run of work ahead of us, I thought. The work was hard and the workers were typical of the civil engineering travelling man, mostly rough tough hard drinkers with a savage sense of humour, until a certain day that stretched their sense of humour to the limit.
Once again it was winter time, and I was working outside in the mud slush and snow, constantly cold and with frozen hands working with steel shutters that had to be cleaned and oiled every time they were struck, (after the concrete is poured and hardened the shutter is taken off) and the bolts that also had to have the hardened concrete brushed off and oiled, and these jobs always fall to the boy’s in the gang, yours truly. One morning for whatever reason the tea boy hadn’t come to work, why tea boy I’ll never know because most of the men who held this job were past their best working years, and some were legally even retired, but tea boys they always were. Well the man wasn’t at work that day and the ganger asked me to light the old pot bellied stove in the tea shack and make the tea. He asked me if I could do that and I jumped at the chance to get out of the terrible weather. Well I could light a fire, so I gathered as much dry wood as I could and with the help of some of yesterday’s newspapers, still lying in the dirty shed lit the fire to see it almost immediately go out. This was repeated a couple of more times with the same results. It was obvious that the wood was much too wet. Bonker stuck his head in the door to ask how long it would be to breakfast and on seeing the problem suggested that I do what he had seen the old tea boy doing and pour a little diesel over the wood. I thought that Bonker was on a wind up, but he assured me that it was genuine and he’d seen the old boy doing just that. Well I once again relayed the fire and poured what I thought was a safe measure of diesel into the old potbelly and then dropped a lighted piece of paper into the top.
As we stood watching the tea shack burn down with all the men’s dry clothes shoes and sandwiches inside, not to mention some of the men had left their money in their dry clothes I felt more than a little isolated. The little cred I had managed to build on this job was heading up into the heavy overcast snow laden sky along with the thick black smoke. Yes, I did stay on that job until late spring but I was never asked to light the fire ever again. Of course, the first job the carpenters had to do was to build a new tea shed. This one had a sign on the door, “don’t use accelerants to light the fire”.
A little later I started work for a large company that were based along the Esplanade in Rochester called Burnett &Rolfe, who made huge stainless steel vessels for all types of companies from the milk industry to Brewery’s. I worked there for about a year and while there worked away on site at Flowers Keg Brewery in Stratford on Avon and the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. Contract work gave me extra money but it could be very intimidating for a seventeen-year-old boy. I had to learn to grow up very quickly, perhaps too quickly. Sleeping sometimes five to a room with grown men who might work for different companies on other jobs in the area, and with them getting drunk regularly, coupled with the occasional fight between them took a bit of getting used to.
Back at Burnett & Rolf in Rochester though, I watched from the large open factory doors the slow construction of the M2 motorway bridge reach out from either bank towards each others open arms, and dearly wanted to work up there on that massive job.
One of the local young paddies that worked on Greens got me a job as a dumper driver on the section of motorway under construction that ran from the Three Crutches down to the bridge. Now having to have experience to drive let alone have a qualification on the subject was light years away, so needless to say t I knew nothing about driving this kind of dumper, let alone driving at all. If the employer thought you might have enough gumption to do the job, and you were willing that was enough. I noticed after a few days of getting used to my big old dumper that when I applied the brakes hard the dumper slewed to the left, but after all, what did I know? I’d never driven a dumper before, perhaps it was meant to be like that. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and over a period of a few months I’d had three accidents. The first one, I braked hard on a bend behind the Three Crutches to spin the dumper round to the left, down a bank through a barbed wire fence and tipped a full load of concrete into a cow field, first bollocking. The second was very similar, driving, as I had to on the hard shoulder on the section from junction one down to the bridge with an overloaded skip of concrete kerbs I braked hard to avoid dropping down a 1ft step in the tarmac. The dumper once again spun to the left and plunged down the very steep embankment to the fields below towards what was to become Rushdean Estate. I had a huge bollocking this time. Luckily I jumped off at the top and was unharmed but my dumper had to be pulled out by a crane. After having to tell my ganger man about the problem with the brakes I was told by him not to drive as fast, but all the dumpers were flat out everywhere, and were expected to be so. My final accident saw me brake hard to avoid another dumper in the main compound and I again spun to the left, I suppose if that wasn’t bad enough I was carrying another load of kerbstones, and crashed into the managing directors brand new Jaguar. That saw me once again working at Earl Estate, but this time for Molems as a general labourer laying deep main drains.
A venue that had started to attract me was the Casino in Rochester. Firstly going to watch the wrestling on Friday nights, where we would sit on the grand piano up on the stage to get a better view, and Saturday nights when all the big rock and roll bands came to town. Teddy-boys were wall to wall, and the one song that always reminds me of those far off days is, “little darling” by the Diamonds. It always seemed to be playing when we were standing around in heightened anticipation leaning on the guardrail, (it was also a roller-skating venue) waiting for the acts. Jean Vincent and Eddy Cochran (just before he was killed) were just two of the big stars that came to town, and I also remember Terry Dean, who was booed off the stage by the older guy’s. Unfortunately for Terry, he had been turned down for National Service because of flat feet. Now every-body unless you had good reason, between eighteen and twenty-one years of age had to do two years in one of the services, and a lot of servicemen and ex servicemen were there in the Casino when Terry turned up. They obviously thought that they had to do their stint for their country, so Terry should do his, and they let him know this in no uncertain manner. (Even though a lot of those booing had escaped national service themselves for variety of concocted reasons.)
Things in Darnley Rd. were rapidly changing, probably being brought on by the prosperity after the war. After the first television ever seen, certainly in our end of the street in Alan Townsend’s house, (he suddenly had more friends than he could shake a stick at) to lads owning powerful motorbikes roaring up and down the road.
In those far off days, anyone who had passed their driving test at any age over sixteen could drive any kind or size of bike. Kids were riding about on Vincent 1000s, and Ariel square fours, bikes that they could only just keep upright at traffic lights, but the most sought after bikes were the big BSA’s, Norton’s and Triumph’s, the Triumph Bonneville’s and the Tiger 100 and 110s, they were in my opinion the best bikes of the time, sex on wheels, and apart from cars, which a few of the older lads had like Derek Mitchell in his Buick straight eight, were the ultimate pulling machine.
Very few riders wore crash helmets, or even riding boots, and the dress code was Levi’s and a white shirt, and if it was cold, a leather jacket and a white silk scarf. Unfortunately because of the lack of control over who could ride what at what level of competence and the riders cavalier attitude to safety lots of riders and passengers were seriously injured and even killed. Everybody knew someone who had been killed; there were that many serious accidents.
James Dean in Rebel without a cause, and Marlon Brando in The wild one, were two films that had a lot to answer for. Almost every boy under twenty one wanted to be a carbon cut-out of these two actors portrayed in these films, even Elvis Presley seemed to copy them.
I never owned a bike, or hardly ever rode one for real, but I did ride pillion on the back of Stan Pratt’s bike for a short while. A big jovial character was Stan, who was one day to become the world bar billiard champion and reigned as champion for years, but at that time he was famous for owning a Triumph Bonneville. He would take me over the coffee stall by Chatham station, and down to the Roebuck cafe in Harrietsham and the big time hangout for bikers Johnsons. The coffee-stall opposite the Alexandra pub was the hang out place for all the bikers around the Medway Towns. It was no more than a glorified garden shed with a wooden side flap that covered the window when shut and had very basic cooking equipment, but hundreds of bikers would arrive there late on Friday and Saturday nights, and I will always remember the rows upon rows of gleaming motorbikes parked there. As I said before, lads as young as sixteen owned big powerful bikes, and youngsters being what they are, had to prove just how fast they were prepared to go and how much bottle they had. One evening while I was there, the news of a fateful crash on Bluebell Hill filtered back to the stall, I think the guy’s name was Smith, and although all the lads new him I couldn’t personally place him, but I do remember a very sad evening, and while we sipped our Bovril and eat our scolding hot pies eagerly served up by Mr’s West behind the counter, the talk was about the accident and just how fast you could go round the last two bends on the old Bluebell Hill.
There were some mad riders that had ridden down that hill flat out at over one hundred miles per hour, Eddy Orpin being one to mention, as mad as a hatter when it came to speed, and he had had several very bad accidents, one leaving him partially crippled. The problem of riding the last bend on Blue Bell Hill at over a hundred meant riding in the gutter on the wrong side of the road, and although there wasn’t the traffic that there is today, it wasn’t a dual carriageway, and if anything was coming up the hill at the same time as you were going down, it was goodnight sweetheart.
Another thing that constantly happened at the coffee stall was fighting. Back in those days of the early sixty’s Chatham was a large garrison for the Army and Navy, and still a few airmen, and as these servicemen poured out of the pubs late at night and mixed with whatever shiploads of sailors from anywhere around the world that might be visiting the Dockyard, or if they were merchant seamen they were here while there ships were being unloaded, they could end up at the coffee stall. Regiments against regiments, and ships against ships, Army against Navy against whatever other foreigner was in port or barracks, and if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the local’s who were far from friendly were not only ready to fight all comers, but each other as well. Stirring this cauldron were the local girls, who were “all innocent”, and never wanted any lads fighting over them, but always managed to be the centre of most of the problems. Yes, trouble was always in abundance.
The police and redcaps (the military police) were constantly being called by someone or other to restore order, and those redcaps never took any prisoners. They waded into the servicemen with a vengeance with their batons, and by the time they had piled bodies into their Mariah’s, order was restored even though bones might be broken.
About this time, I had my first serious fight with a complete stranger. A group of us were in the Casa Ventana, a coffee shop in Rochester High St., (it’s now an antique shop called Kaizen owned by Jason Hunt) and like a lot of coffee shops of the time, they had a cellar bar. Well I’ve no idea why it started, (probably because the world wasn’t big enough for the both of us,) but we kicked of in one hell of a fight. All the tables and chairs went up in the air, the girls were all screaming, and our respective mates were eagerly urging us both on while we rolled around the floor beating lumps out of each other. Eventually with a combination of the manager threatening to call the police, our mates pulling us apart, and both of us battered and bruised and gasping for breath, were unceremoniously dumped outside on the pavement where we shook hands and went our merry ways, only later to become friends and laugh about what happened that day every time we met for many years to come.
I was barely sixteen and was about to find out about the full power of the law. I cant remember why I happened to be sitting on my front doorstep with a loaded .22 air rifle, but there I was chatting to Jimmy Hayes, when a lad rode past on his pushbike who had given me some light-hearted verbal abuse earlier that day. As he again shouted verbals at me, I automatically raised the gun and fired hitting him in the backside and knocking him off his bike. To this day, I don’t know why I did it, and I have always felt ashamed of that moment of stupid recklessness. It wasn’t as though he was a threat to me in any way at all, but for just one mad moment I had become the bully.
He had to go to the hospital to have the pellet removed from his backside, and so the police were again automatically involved and I ended up in the juvenile magistrate’s court.
I had to go with my mum, and standing there in front of the magistrate, I was lectured about the rights and wrongs of life, and I have to admit I was really frightened with the threat of three years imprisonment in a Borstal institution hanging over me. I was eventually let off with a ten pounds fine because I had shown serious remorse, and I promised my poor old mother that I would never get into trouble again.
Right on the heels of all of that came Jeanette. I had come home for some reason during one sunny afternoon, when I was confronted with a beautiful lightly curly haired blonde, with enough cleavage to sink the Titanic into. She was my uncle Norman’s niece whose father had been serving in the Royal Air-Force in Germany. She had come over to my aunt Biddy’s to visit only to find that aunty was at my house. Well, as my aunt Biddy and my mother tried to hold an intelligent conversation involving us two, all I could see was a pair of 38d cups doing their best to burst out of a dress that was buttoned down the front, and as the dress wasn’t buttoned at the top it was only just succeeding in containing its tormentors. Jeanette knew just what I was interested in, and before a week was out, she had stolen my cherry. She invited me into her grandmother’s house, and in front of the open fire with her grandmother asleep in the next room, (well I only hope she was), showed me just what I had been dreaming about for the last three or four years. She was eighteen going on twenty-five, and was prepared to show me everything she had learned in her young life in the services, and she had learned plenty. We had sex in every shape and place imaginable, even waiting at a bus stop, “if we were alone I might add”. It seemed that if we were to stand or sit still for longer than two minutes we were at it. She was a lovely, educated, well-spoken girl with a good sense of humour and a large physical sexual appetite. She also I might add, taught me to jive and we would dance the night away at all of the local nightspots. One of the places we would go dancing was “Vics” above the now demolished Gaumont cinema at Star hill. This was the in place for all the up and coming teenagers, and we would either dance or stand out on the balcony above the High St. truly believing that we had arrived.
One Saturday night my cousin Norman and me had arranged to meet Jeanette, Jimmy Hayes and Pauline his girl on Star hill before going up to Vics, (Victor Sylvester’s dance rooms). But before we went to the meet, Norm and me went to the Victoria pub in Strood now the Tug and shovel. We would have stood at the bottom of the steps just at the corner of the bar hoping to get a beer without getting kicked out for being under age. As we nervously stood there, at the centre of all that could be described as the “pub among pubs in Strood”, with all the local teddy boys and girls, and Fats Domino continuously singing Blueberry on the jukebox we kinda drank a little too much. In no time at all we somehow thought it a good idea to get a half bottle of whiskey as a carry out from the then landlord Charlie, and by the time we had walked through Rochester to Star hill secreting drinks from our concealed bottle we were drunk. Poor old Norm, in front of his voluptuous cousin he poured the contents of his stomach into the gutter as he clung unsteadily to the bottom railings that surrounded the road. Jimmy and Pauline, in their wisdom decided that this wasn’t their thing and left Norm, Jeanette and me to get on with it. Norm by now had slumped to the pavement and was still being sick, and I must say, with regarding myself, what with the whiskey, and the sight of poor old Norms contents constantly belching up, I wasn’t exactly feeling like I was on top of the world. Jeanette tried to hail a cab, but as soon as they saw the state of Norm they drove off, so I had to make a decision. Jeanette was living with her mum and dad at Norms nanny Killpatrick in Rochester Avenue, so I somehow swung Norm onto my shoulder and the three of us set off unsteadily up Star hill, with Norm being constantly sick down the back of my best suit to their grans. Well even though he was smaller than me, by the time I got him to Rochester Ave. he was bloody heavy, and as we stood in the doorway of their grans house, both of us propping up Norman to try and make him look a little better we wondered what was going to happen when the door opened.
Jeanette’s mother opened the door and gasped in horror at the spectacle facing her. She called out to her husband to help and amid Jeanette’s and my feeble excuses we managed to get poor old Norm down the passage into the living room. When they saw the state of my suit I was unceremoniously rushed out into the yard and wiped down while being castigated for getting Norm into such a state. As I said, I wasn’t feeling particularly chipper, and although I didn’t exactly expect a hero’s welcome I didn’t expect what was coming next. I was to go straight up to my aunt Biddy’s, who lived at 223 Darnley Rd. and get my uncle Norman to come and sort all this out. This was a walk of about four miles, and there was no chance of me getting a taxi or bus the way I stank, so walk I did. After I got there and sort of explained, my uncle Norman made me walk back again with him to help get Norm home, and the one bit of luck that I did have that night was by the time my uncle and me got back to Rochester Ave. Norm was walk-worthy. I have to say, that in view of all that happened that night I went up in Jeanette’s estimation. She, contrary to the rest of her family thought I was some kind of hero “or other” helping her dear cousin as I had, “I thought the other”.
Well after about six months, and after I had had her name tattooed on my arm, (along with one with mum and dad written in a scroll on a rose) fate took a hand, and her father got posted to Birmingham. She told her parents that she wouldn’t go, but listening to Billy Fury singing halfway to paradise, I managed to persuade her that she should. I promised her that I would visit her, which I did on a couple of occasions and we wrote to each other regularly, but slowly, over a few months we let each other go. As I said, she was a lovely girl, and hopefully eventually made someone a very happy man.
Earlier I had formed a friendship at school with a very small boy called George Taylor, everyone knew him as spud. As he was so small (about five feet tall) Jonny West and me took him under our wing and looked after him. He was a strange little character who was determined to grow, and grow he did. When he left school at fifteen he was five feet two inches tall, and by the time he was sixteen he had grown to about five six, and then by the time he was nineteen he was over six feet tall, I always said that he wished himself big. Not only had he grown tall but a lot of working out in the gym had paid off, because he had really filled out as well.
Well back to us being sixteen, spud wanted to hang around with our crowd, but was concerned that because he was small he might get picked on and beaten up, but I managed to convince him that I wouldn’t let it happen. Well spud, my cousin Norman and me, and occasionally Jonny West (he had started going out with the lovely Steph, who he eventually married with me as his best man) became a little gang within a gang if that makes any sense at all. Wherever one went you were as sure to find the rest of us as well. We went up the Old Kent rd. in London, (there’s a photograph of me and Jonny in the Old Kent Rd. opposite the Thomas a Becket) or down the seaside, usually Margate, Southend or Leysdown. None of us had a car so we’d go on the train, cadge a lift off someone or go on one of the many coach outings that were run from Darnley Rd.
We all, as all teenagers thought we were indestructible, and without getting old would live forever. Anyone over thirty was old, in fact when Gordon Pettinger, who was twenty six at the time, tried to put me right on a popular music question, was quite simply told, “ what do you know your too bloody old”. Good job he saw the funny side of that. It’s a strange world that teenagers live in, totally believing that not only do they know all the answers, but also all the questions.
One man in Temple Farm Working Men’s Club, who dared to ask us to keep the noise down when we were playing darts, was told he was a miserable old sod, and he should try to enjoy himself a little more. (I suppose the language was a little more colourful) he then remonstrated that he had gone to war for us and was abruptly told that he had done no such thing; our fathers had done that for us, not him. Well old Lew Price took up his argument, a big man of about thirty plus who wouldn’t have thought twice about giving as a clout, and amid a lot of pushing and pulling we were evicted out onto the street still baying at Lou and all his cronies like a pack of Jack Russell’s tormenting a bear. This sort of thing happened more and more, with Spud and me in particular trying to beat the establishment, as we knew it. The only people that got any respect were people who had surrounded us in our younger years. Friends and family’s including each other’s. Every-one else was at the very least suspicious, and at the most our enemies. If they were suspicious then they had to prove they were our friends, all or none of us. If they were even suspected of being enemies we kept away from them or arguments sometimes leading to fights were sure to break out. One for all and all for one, even each other’s motives and actions were questioned, and “had to be justified”. If you took up with a new friend that one of us didn’t particularly like, you would have to explain the whys, and wherefores of your new mate, and be expected to choose between, “us and him”. You could of course choose both but that was a dangerous path because you may run into your friend while out with us, which did happen at times, and at best you could be in a very embarrassing situation with your peer group being openly rude to your friend, and at worst a fight starting with you in the middle.
Looking back makes me wonder why we did become so antisocial, and to be honest I don’t really know, perhaps we were like weeds, the seeds had been sewn and we would grow no matter how many time we were cut back or trodden on as we pushed up through the tarmac. Most of us felt that we hated our fathers for one reason or another, but found, because we were so close that we actually showed respect to each others fathers, and while castigating our own dads, wouldn’t dare openly speak ill of any other fathers of the group, even though we might think that one or two of them were monsters.
One incident at home that deserves a mention was when my aunt Frany came to stay with us. She had left her husband Fred and for whatever reason or other and her children had been put into care. She was a highly-strung woman who seemed to be living on her nerves and would fly off the handle at the least little thing. I tell you this so you may get a better picture of what’s to come.
Our house had, much to our approval at that time been converted from gas lighting to electricity, but no electric light had been put on the stair landing, so the old gas mantle remained. I thought that there couldn’t be too much to putting a light on the wall so I went to see my, and every other young boys guru, Bill Whittle. Bill ran the bike shop at the bottom of Darnley Rd. but also repaired electrical equipment and any other broken mechanical machinery that was carried into his shop. While I listened with baited breath Bill explained the magic of electricity, telling me about positive’s, earth’s, and negative’s, and how they couldn’t, on fear of perhaps even death, why they should never be mixed up or even touch each other. Armed with the wealth of my newfound knowledge I took the long walk home to put my hard earned lessons into practice. Well my journey home had to take me past Spuds and my cousin Normans house where I had to stop and spend the time of day, (no-one had telephone’s then) and eventually arriving home hours after leaving Bill’s I set about the job in hand. I switched off the mains at the fuse box and opened it as Bill had told me, and began running the wiring directly from there up to the ceiling of our “front” room, hanging the cable to the already fitted new electric light in the middle of the room, across to the bottom of the stairs where I carefully fitted a light switch, and up to the landing fitting a nice new wall mounting next to the gas lamp. Putting the light bulb in I proudly stood back and took stock of my handy-work. While this was going on, and having to put up with the constant questioning from my mum as to whether I knew what I was doing or not, dinner was being prepared and served.
There they all sat around the table, mum and dad, my brother John, and my aunt Frany, all I’m sure with some trepidation as I knelt down in the cupboard to close the fuse box and switch the mains on. Are you ready I asked, no answer, only nervous grins coming from my mum and brother? As I flipped the switch a huge bang erupted from the fuse-box sending me flying accompanied by the wire hanging across the room and running up the stairs catching alight as fast as the electricity ran through it As it quickly heated up it dropped melting plastic underneath of it onto of all things my apprehensive audience, including my aunt Frany. Of course, they all jumped up to escape the flaming rain with dinner going everywhere. My dad once again cursing the day he met me, my brother not knowing weather to laugh or cry, my aunt Frany running screaming into the street with her hair alight as though someone had just boiled her children alive and was eating them in front of her, and my mum running after her desperately trying to pat the burning hair out and failing badly to console her younger sister. I rushed for the fuse-box and turned the power off, and slowly the melting plastic around what had been red-hot wire cooled and hung from the hot wire like long stalactites. Mum was still chasing aunt Frany around the street trying to catch and console her neurotic sister, and while our house once again became the focal point for the whole neighbourhood, and with my dad who was standing outside with my brother John, reigning insults upon me, I thought it was as good a time as any to re-visit my mate spud as he lived the furthermost away.
Later when the Electricity Board had come and put a light on the stairs, and my aunt Frany had left saying that she couldn’t live with us any more, my dad said “as it seemed to get rid of Frany”, it was probably the best thing I had ever done, it was nice to have a positive comment from dad, whatever the circumstances.
Kids should realise that things are going very wrong when everybody, including your parents are trying to give you the benefit of their advice, and as kind as they try to be, the advice comes out the same, something that you don’t want to hear. Unfortunately there’s none so blind as those that wont see. I thought that life was cruising, and apart from my family constantly on my back, everything was cool. Everything was far from that. I was, as I had been all my life, unconsciously preparing myself to be the person that I thought I wanted to be at that time. Unfortunately, what also happens is that the person that you really are slowly gets buried, and the figment of your imagination slowly comes to life. I was getting myself into a situation that was surly deciding my future.
I was never a thief, no more than the everyday kids of Darnley Rd that grew up around me, we were survivors. We weren’t thieves, well not all of us, we were opportunists, and took advantage of situations to suit our own ends. I thought that at that time I was above peer pressure, but as every kid that went down this road will tell you, you become so enmeshed, that right and wrong become a blur. I have become such a black and white person now, that looking back makes me cringe.
I started stealing for no other reason than just the buzz of doing it, but the crazy thing was I was terrified off getting caught. I was being encouraged by people around me to take advantage of certain situations, but I knew better, as did most of us, not to take advantage of certain people. I wasn’t a natural thief, and although I was stealing and laughing about it to my “friends”, I knew that whatever I was doing was wrong!
It all came to a head when an Irish lad (mentioning no names) and I, carried out an opportunistic burglary at Luxrams the bulb making factory in Knight Rd Strood. What on earth we thought we were going to get from a bulb factory apart from lots of bulbs I shall never know, but break in we did. We went in and out through a small window that had carelessly been left open in the ladies toilets, and stole a few bottles of spirits from the managers desk and an adding up machine, a really old mechanical thing that weighed as much as an old typewriter.
Well at that time unbeknown to me, my brother got into a scrape with the law; he’d been accused of smashing a window in the phone-box at the bottom of Elaine Ave. The same phone box that we as a family would ring my dad’s family in Ireland from.
On a particular Sunday evening I cant remember what the season was, sometime in 1961, I had taken a certain young lady to the pictures in the afternoon, the daughter of the steward at the Temple Farm Club, and on our arrival home in the evening, (everybody got taken back to our home,) there came a rood awakening to the real world. There was me thinking that I was acting like a real gentleman, taking a young lady to the pictures, (and getting a fondle for my finance as very few went Dutch in those days), when as I came through the front door I was arrested. Coming home from what seemed to be the perfect evening, doing everything that mum said gentlemen should do, (and some I’m sure she would have told me off for), the C.I.D. were waiting for me in connection with the aforesaid thieving and arrested me in front of my parents and said lady friend.
What had happened was the police had turned up at our house in connection with my brother John’s problems, and spotted the adding up machine on top of a cupboard in the front room. In those days, the old bill had very few grey cells, but obviously a lot more than me, and I must say (lots and lots more than they have got today.) They realised that a house in the top part of Darnley Rd. was no place for a commercial adding machine. My poor old mum and dad had obviously believed everything that I had lied to them about the offending piece of equipment.
The police marched me off much to the dismay of my poor suffering parents and the totally bemused girlfriend, down to Rochester police station (the old one) and set about questioning this seventeen-year-old boy, without his parents, or a solicitor, or social workers consent, (amazing how time’s have changed). Well they wanted me to give up my accomplice, which wasn’t going to happen. They done the good cop bad cop routine which didn’t work because by then I knew that all coppers were bastards, when in came sergeant Mackenzie, a notorious tough guy.
Sgnt. Mackenzie was a big old time copper that wasn’t to be messed around with. He had the reputation of giving kids the option (if he caught you up to no good) of asking if you wanted to go to the station or up an alleyway, if you agreed to the alleyway he’d give you a good hiding rather than run you in, and you would probably accept his punishment and not whine about it. It never happened to me, but I knew lads that thought it best to take his punishment rather than take the problem home to your parents and end up in court, and Mackenzie was respected big time.
There I was Jack the lad sitting at the table leaning back on my chair getting the third degree, when as he walked by and obviously listening to the questioning, without saying a word simply kicked the chair away from under me. Almost, as if in one movement, that big old bastard, just as I hit the floor, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck in one hand and the chair in the other and reuniting us planted me back in the seat and advised me to answer the questions honestly?
Honesty, now there’s thought for a boy from Darnley Rd. to ponder. The one thing that I had learned in my young life was that I had two eyes for seeing, and two ears for listening, and only one mouth for talking, I was listening intently and saying nothing. They knew that somebody else had been with me, but I think that they also knew that I wasn’t going to tell them anything other than I had actually broken in and stolen from the place. Seventeen years old and they were telling me that they could help me.
I, apart from the air rifle incident had never broken the law as I clearly had now. Burglary, as we know it had never been my scene, but I knew I was guilty of it. The one thing that I was afraid of was the police calling my parents down to the police station. I couldn’t possibly involve them in any little shady’s that I had been up to, they mustn’t know the details. As we sat there looking at each other, the C.I.D. inspector came up with a solution to the problem.
As the judge would realise that there were two people involved in the theft, he would think worse of me for not coming totally clean about what had happened. But if I helped the police clear up a few cases similar to the one I was involved in, he would feel that I was trying to really help and make amends by mentioning other thefts that I supposedly had committed, and laying myself on the mercy of the court would gain the beaks favour, what could I do? I just couldn’t get my mum and dad involved, so I couldn’t ask for advice from them, I hadn’t been advised to get myself represented by a solicitor so I went along with what was being proposed.
That evening I became a criminal that had carried out twenty-one previous burglaries and house breakings that I knew nothing about. When I returned home I told my waiting parents that it had all been a misunderstanding and that I had found the adding machine.
I went to court on my own legally unrepresented, and in hindsight, it was probably the worst thing that I could have done. The judge felt, because of all my previous T.I.Cs, (previous crimes that the police were “taking into consideration”) that I was a hardened criminal but had indeed turned the corner of retribution, and because I was helping the police, he wouldn’t impose a custodial sentence, and instead sentenced me to a forty pounds fine. This was approximately the equivalent to four weeks wages, probably in year 2003 about £1200, so much for trusting the old bill.
If I had not agreed to the T.I.Cs, I probably would have ended up with only a five to ten pound fine.
Up until now we had been dressing as close to our peers as we could in the Teddy boy style, using cast off’s and altering jackets and trousers that we had begged stole or borrowed from others. We had been doing our best to emulate the Teddy boy appearance but failing badly because we just couldn’t afford the smart clothes that they, (the older working lads) wore, but we (our age group) were now earning wages, not lots just yet, but earning enough to buy our own clothes. Jimmy always with his finger on the pulse was talking about a new fashion called the Italian style, bum freezer jackets, usually double breasted with a vent at the back and a false handkerchief in the top pocket, hipster trousers that tapered from the waist and sat neatly on winkle picker shoes, (the more pointed the better). We were still in the days of white shirts but a cut away collar was absolutely necessary with a slim jim tie, and to round it all off a good watch and a pair of cufflinks. Also the haircuts changed, gone was the old swept up wave at the front with a d.a. at the back, (ducks arse) and in was the much shorter neater style with a parting. With our new hand made suits (that needed a fitting) made at Burton Tailors, “we had arrived”.
Without realising it, I was becoming more and more hardened to the world. At seventeen, I could see just how easy it was for the police to stitch me up, and in turn, I hated the system for allowing it to happen. I was becoming more and more unforgiving. As much as I was a very good and loyal friend, I was becoming a bitter and more hardened enemy of anyone or anything including the state. I didn’t matter; I was miniscule in the eyes of the controllers, just like my father who was killed fighting for his beliefs, for king and country, but the country couldn’t give a damn. Rochester’s war memorial never even named the local men and women who had “fallen” from two great wars; “lest we forget” the system couldn’t give a shit for any of us and forgot those people as soon as they died. The only people that really “never forgot them” were their families and old comrades, the rest was just an excuse for the establishment to get dressed up and put on a parade.
The other problem that came with this case was the notoriety. Because I had received such a large fine the local newspapers made a big deal of it all, and to all and sundry I became an uncontrollable criminal overnight, accepted by all the local villains and ostracised by all those that never new me that well. Even some of those that did know me doubted my story, after all; “no smoke without fire,” and the system wouldn’t do that to a young boy of seventeen, would they? The only one’s that truly believed me were my parents (after the initial shock of reading about their thieving son in the papers) my closest friends, and any real villains that I knew. They really knew what the police were capable of. But I was learning.
I met Lydia down at the “Wednesday club” in Temple Farm working Men’s Club, and by this time I had decided that the stewards daughter wasn’t the one for me “after lots of fun in the back of Sid Scale’s car” so we amiably parted. The club had been set up by Diddy Kemsley and Stuart Munroe, it was a kind of youth / dancing club for under eighteen’s. We had to join the club as young members (I think that was the only club to have such a scheme) and if we kept our noses clean in the club we could go on to become full members when we reached eighteen. Lydia was a bit younger than me, but could easily pass for eighteen. She was a real beauty, black raven hair, (I think that some of the black came from a bottle,) a lovely figure and a smile to die for. She turned heads wherever we went. We were together for about eighteen months and were lovers in every sense of the word. Her mothers maiden name was Penfold, one of old gypsy Joe Penfold’s daughters, and her dad was Ron Coomber, they were a really nice couple, and if they thought that Lydia was much too young to be tied down in a serious relationship, (most parents do think those kind of things about their children) they never let on. They seemed to accept me totally and I formed a close relationship with the whole family, even old Joe who I worked for once or twice.
We used to baby-sit for Marge and Bill Young who by now were living in Seagull Rd. up on Earl Estate. One evening Bill decided to concrete his back garden path using the free ballast and cement lying across the road outside some unfinished houses, (the estate was sill being built). Well Jimmy Haylor Bill and myself spent half an hour or so running to and fro with dustbins full of ballast till we had enough, then came the cement. Jim shuttered the path leaving Bill and me to concrete it and when we finished I scratched Lydia’s name in it and apparently its still there today. One evening Lydia and me went up Bill’s to baby-sit, when he called me into the kitchen to tell me that if a guy came to mend the telly, don’t let him take it away because Bill hadn’t paid the rental on it. Well as they were getting ready, the doorbell went and there stood the tele man with his little box of tools. I let the guy in and noticed the strained look on Lydia’s face, her eyes were telling me that Bill and Marge were hiding, but I let the bloke carry on taking the back off to carry out his repair. As he was putting the back on he said that it couldn’t be repaired here and he would have to take it back to the shop. Well I told him we were just baby-sitting and we didn’t have any authority to allow him to take it away, raisin my voice so Bill could hear, but no response. The engineer assured me that it couldn’t be repaired here and he would have to take it away. Well the guy took the set after assuring me that it would come back as soon as repaired and bid me goodnight. Well as soon as the door shut, Bill appeared from out of the coal cupboard where he’d been hiding dressed in his best suit, and started to give me a hard time for letting it go and told me he had actually seen the plug dragging across the floor past the cupboard he was hiding in, well I said, why didn’t you get out from the cupboard and rescue the telly, and Bill replied that he would have had to pay 10 weeks back pay on the rental and anyway the telly was fuck’d. So what’s the problem then I replied, whats the problem he shouted, “I aint got a fuckinging telly ave I… “That’s another one of those illogical logical conundrums I’ve never managed to work out”
Eighteen months without getting into trouble once, eighteen months of bliss, eighteen months of holding hands while silently walking, the pain of being apart for a day, and the joy of each others hot naked bodies. Then all of a sudden it came to a crashing end.
Lydia’s mother fell seriously ill with cancer, and no matter how much we all preyed, she died in what seemed like weeks in a great deal of pain. I shall never forget the change that took place in that poor woman. She changed from a beautiful young woman in her thirties to a skeleton overnight. Her family were very close and of course were totally distraught. Poor Ron was beside himself with the pain and anguish of losing his lovely wife, and old Joe took it very hard.
Luckily, (if that word can be used here) for Lydia and Josie her sister, most of their mum’s family lived around the corner in the first houses in Fulmer Rd., so help and comfort were never far away, but I know that the family took a long time to come to terms with their loss if they ever did. I obviously didn’t feel the loss as badly as Lydia and Josie, but it also affected me more than I realised and I became moody and argumentative and never gave her the help she needed. Looking back, I was rather selfish about certain things and publicly acted almost as though nothing had happened. As sometimes can happen in these instances, soon after her mum’s death, for whatever reasons, Lydia dropped me for a guy called Dave French and that destroyed me. It seemed that for about a week I cried for every waking moment. I wrote begging letters craving forgiveness for whatever I’d done. I would have gone back to her on hands and knees in front of the Wednesday club crowd if she had asked me to, but to no avail, the only physical thing left to do was to fight Dave French.
Dave was a big guy and way over six feet tall, but I could see that I had no choice.
I waited outside Lydia’s aunts where she was staying for them to come home one evening, and challenged Dave there on the pavement. To be honest Dave didn’t want to know, and I suspect by his actions before and after he felt a little sorry for me, but I was on a suicide mission.
I threw a huge wildly telegraphed roundhouse swing at Dave, he must have seen it coming even if he hadn’t been expecting it, and he just moved to one side in time, it would have really done him some damage had it hit him. The attempted punch had just clipped him on the side of the face on the way through, enough to put him off balance and put him on the back foot, but not enough to hurt him. I stepped forward to follow up with a right but Dave had recovered his balance enough to grab me as my right came through and our combined momentum sent us both spinning and crashing to the pavement with me banging the back of my head. I suppose I must have momentarily relaxed my grip and Dave rolled on top of me using his size and weight advantage. Somehow he pinned my arms back and head-butted me in the face a few times, trying to restrain me and asking me to ease up, but with every blow from him came more and more anger from me. The whole thing ended with Lydia’s uncles and aunts pulling us apart, and the sight of Lydia and her aunties all crying and begging me to calm down eventually worked, and I knew I’d lost everything. They calmed me enough to take me indoors and clean me up so I could walk home without attracting too much attention. Her aunties bless them were almost crying for me and hugging me but it was as though I were in a trance, I was distraught, outside I was trying to put on a brave face but inside I was crying buckets.
Dave was really cool about the whole affair, and as I came out of the house, he shrugged his shoulders in sympathy as men do and held out his hand for me to shake, which after a lot of prompting from the whole family I took and shook.
I don’t think I ever saw much of Lydia from then on, and certainly haven’t seen her for almost forty years, but every time I saw Dave we would stop and pass the time of day, and that continued long after Dave and Lydia parted. I’d lost a love and gained a friend, and I sometimes think that friends are a safer bet.
A few months ago, I was invited to Mick Browns retirement party and there was Dave French, same old Mr. nice guy, same old smile. These two old men reminisced, had a couple of beers, and wished each other well. It’s not a bad old world is it?
After that episode things started to go wrong again, I was getting into fights on regular occasions. I was getting the occasional hiding and had started to dislocate my knuckles regularly until they began to look permanently misshapen. I suppose after Lydia I must have felt I’d lost my self- respect and was using fighting to try to regain it, trying to recapture any lost street cred. I was spending so much time up the hospital getting patched up with stitches and broken bones, that nurses were almost on first name terms with me.
The establishment, and any poor bastard who thought they represented it was once again my target. Remember this was 1962, and my rebellious ways then would probably seem quite tame by today’s poor standards. I was being judged by the standards of the day, which were very formal and law abiding. Even the Church had its two-pennyworth, and in those days, it was even listened to and acted on. So, this lad from Darnley Rd with previous convictions was obviously a bad lot.
After we split up, I fell back in with Spud and my old cousins john and Norm. John was still courting the lovely Steph, but I would still catch up with him from time to time and we would have a great laugh. John was probably the most stable of all my friends, and in the very near future, I was going to realise what a true friend he really was to me.
About then my cousin, Norman bought a record that was going to make it almost impossible for me to accept any drummer to be good enough for the band. As I’ve said before I listened to lots of kinds of music, and jazz was one of them. I would go off down to Chatham to the Con club on Friday nights getting off on trad jazz, something that I had to do on my own as an eighteen year old because nobody else I knew enjoyed it as much as me. My peers thought me completely mad, but this record that Norm had bought was something completely different. Buddy Rich verses Max Roach, an album made with two great swing (modern jazz) drummers sitting opposite each other in the recording studio, and as each would finish a rift the other, keeping the same tempo would try and better his adversary until by the end of the album each man had given all he had and you, Jo public were left breathless and wondering just who was the best drummer. I thought that all the drumming solos that I had heard up until then were just milk and honey, but they had been little more than just bread and water compared to these two.
Another record that I bought about then really made me sit up and not want to play country any more was Chuck Berry on stage, recorded on the old Chess label live at the (I think it was called) the Nativilly Theatre in Chicago. I have to say if anyone had wanted to form an R&B band back then I would have left Jonnie Young like a shot. I loved the drive of all the numbers, the almost jazz-like devil may care attitude of make it up today and alter it tomorrow, the feeling as though you were just jamming from day to day and playing for pure enjoyment. I loved it, and even tried to incorporate it into, with a little success country songs sung by Hank Williams and Hank Snow etc.
After Lydia, I’d had a couple of short-term girlfriends, one I met on boxing night 1962 at a party in Tommy Thorpe’s mums house, Jeanie Franklin. Jeanie was a tall beauty with a figure to die for. She must have been a 36b and a firm as a football. When I left the party that night to take Jeanie home the snow had started falling hard, and hardly stopped for almost six weeks. During our walk home to her house in Wainscot, Jeanie and me got to know each other a lot better, and we stayed together for a couple of months, but a combination of events eventually saw us drifting apart, predominantly, because I couldn’t leave other girls alone.
That winter of 62/63 was the worst in my memory. There were thousands out of work; the whole building trade came to a sudden halt. The only building site that was working was “Mad Jack Kendrall’s” who was building Rushdean estate. How he got away with working in constant temperatures below freezing nobody knew, but he did.
I don’t think the bricklayers ever stopped laying bricks on that one site. He was as nutty as a fruitcake, there are enough stories to tell about Mad Jack to write a book of his own, but that’s “another story.”
A friend of mine Clary Bowlands told me Jack was looking for hod carriers and to go and see Blue’y Waters his bricklayer foreman for a job. Clary put a word in for me to Blue’y so the next day I went over to what used to be our old clover fields where the site was going up. The snow as usual was chucking it down, and I didn’t expect anyone to be working, but they were laying bricks in the footings where I found Blue’y. I had a duffle coat on with my hands firmly stuffed in the pockets, and when I asked if there was a chance of a start, he said yes but referred me to a taller well-dressed man in a gannex coat. When I again repeated my question to the stranger he replied in a very matter of fact way. “You cant carry the hod with your hands in your pockets can you?” and simply walked away. I turned to look at Blue’y who just shrugged his shoulders, said sorry son he’s the boss and walked back to where he had been laying bricks, on turning back to the stranger I found him disappearing into the snow. After a second or two, almost as though he decided to give me a second chance he stopped and turned to look at me. “I’ll tell you what,” he shouted through the falling snow, “ if you can catch me you can have a job” and off he ran as fast as he could across the site. I stood watching this madman disappearing into the snow in amazement, “who the fuck was that Blue’y I turned and asked.” That was Mad Jack Kendrall,” they all voiced laughing, go on he’s as good as his word, if you can catch him he’ll give you a job. I stood fixed to the spot, dignity and incredulity wouldn’t allow me to move, I had met some weird people in my short life, but I doubted that I would ever meet anyone like him again, but I would.
That winter was terribly hard on building workers and anyone else that relied on the weather for work. The queues down the labour exchange were huge. The “dole” was where the Red Dragon Chinese restaurant is on the corner of Medway St., and one queue would stand shivering stretching up Medway St. and the other up Military Rd. You had to sign on twice a week or you lost your benefit in those far off days, so it was bloody hard if you were married with a family, and even worse if you lived a long way out of town like Cliffe or Upchurch. They would accept no excuses.
I had as others had, been getting the occasional job unloading the boats down at the docks and also with old Joe Penfold, helping in his waste paper yard on the corner of Alma Place. Just days here and days there, but if you found anything worth while most of us offered it to the married men. It was a real struggle for them with kiddies and all. I eventually got myself back into full time work up at Peak’s on the second phase of Earl Estate. The compound (which was where the island is where the bus turns round outside the Bounty,) was under six feet or more of snow, and those few of us who had been lucky enough to get a start spent a whole week digging it out, we had been out of full time work for over two months.
My old friend Bernie Ellis also got a start shortly after I did, but Bernie was in noticeable trouble. His mother had died a year before and somehow it had left Bernie a little vacant, whether that had any bearing on the way he had started to act I have no idea, but occasionally he was getting very strange.
He had been a lively boy, who loved music and sang and as I said earlier played the banjo and guitar, but over a period of time, all the fun disappeared from his life and he started to let himself go. One morning we were working away, cracking jokes like young men do when I noticed Bernie had mentally disappeared. On the surface he appeared normal, but as an old friend I could see that really no one was at home, he was somewhere off in the distance. Lunchtime he said that he was going home, even though he had brought sandwiches and a flask of tea and he left the site and never came back, in fact I don’t think poor old Bernie ever held down another full time job.
In April 62 when I reached the heady age of eighteen, and for my birthday present, I received something from my father’s regiment, the Kings Royal Rifles Corp that would change my life. I got a very nice card from an old lady who was the president of the woman’s guild associated with the KRRs. in the Medway area, asking me to visit her. She lived in a lovely big house in River View Rd. Strood; I had actually been there before when things had got financially difficult for mum. She might need the price of a pair of shoes or something for me I can’t remember, but when we did go to see her, it was always with cap in hand. Anyway, the day of my visit saw me dressed up as best as possible standing on the doorstep pulling the chord that rang the bell. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name but she answered the door and very politely invited me in. Formally introducing herself she sat me down in very comfortable leather bound armchair, and left the room to make tea. I looked around in amazement and found myself sitting in the middle of something straight out of upper class Victoriana, even a full grown tiger skin with a snarling head lay on the floor in front of a huge fire-place. I know that a kid with my background would have been easily impressed but this was something straight out of the movies. You see, when mum and me came begging in the past we waited in the large hallway, so I’d never seen any of this. The old lady, with her hair tied up on her head in a bun and her blouse buttoned up to a frilly neckline came back with a tea tray with teapot cups and saucers and a plate of biscuits. Placing the tray on a coffee table she poured tea and attempted to put me at my ease with small talk, “how’s your mother?” etc. Well she offered me my cup of tea and said I should help myself to the biscuits, and then after she had taken a small sip said, “I suppose your wondering why I’ve asked you to come here Daniel?” and I acknowledged agreement with a nod. She continued, was I interested in joining the army? This question left me a little perplexed, what should I answer? Was there something coming my way that by saying no I might lose, or by saying yes might I be walking into an opened door? For once, I decided lets tell the truth. I told her I had been in the army cadets, and she said she knew, and I told her about my troubles and she knew that too. She said all that had gone before was past, and didn’t I think that a life in the Army might be the thing for me, and I declined and said that if it was I wasn’t ready for it just yet. She then sat with her teacup in mid air so to speak reflecting on the situation and said maybe your right Daniel, maybe your right. Well she said after carefully putting her teacup back in it saucer it’s been awfully nice to have this little chat Daniel and putting her cup and saucer back on the tray, beckoned as if by magic that I should do likewise, which I did, and as she stood up I immediately rose with her. By way of an afterthought, she said “oh” I nearly forgot and putting her hand into a side pocket in her long black dress, she pulled out an envelope and offered it to me. This is from the regiment Daniel, we’d like to wish you a very happy birthday, and with that said passed the brown envelope to me. I thanked her and she walked to the door and opened it. As she stood at the door as if reflecting on what had been said, said, “Captain Smith your cadet C.O. told me that you would make a fine soldier and told me you had made corporal, so if you change your mind come and see me. She then, without giving me the opportunity to reply or open the envelope or giving me a clue as to what was in it, walked to the front door and opened it. She turned offered her hand to shake, which I did, asked me to look after myself and bid me good-by. I was down the steep flight of steps and onto the pavement when I turned to look up at the old woman still smiling at me slowly closing the door.
I crossed Stood hill and walked up the alley to the reck and sat down on one of the seats at the top and slowly opened the envelope. I pulled out a very formal birthday card, and as I opened the card, a piece of paper floated down to the tarmac ked footpath. I quickly picked it up before the wind blew it away and looked gobsmaked at a cheque for fifty pounds. Fifty pounds was a lot of money, probably about £800 to a £1000 today, and the first thing I thought of doing was buying myself a new guitar, but for once common sense prevailed. I went down to Allen G Smiths in Rochester and bought fifty pounds plus worth of the finest carpentry tools money could buy. Today when I look at some of the tools that I bought back then, I find it hard to believe what I had managed to get for my money. A smoothing plane, a jack plane, a rebate plane a block plane, a combination plane, a shoulder plane, a tenon saw, a rip saw, a panel saw, a keyhole saw, a fret saw, squares, levels, gauge’s, vice’s drills, chisel’s, a mallet, spoke shave’s, and the first Estwing hammer I had ever seen, every thing that became the basis of all the tools I have today, probably one of the finest decisions in my life.
When I got home my mum was delirious with excitement and danced around the room with me and the cheque telling me that the regiment always said that they looked after their own, and in tears told me that the old lady had told her years ago that the regiment would one day try to recompense her for her loss.
I always consider all those tools to have been given to me by my father, and in a way, they were.
What were you doing (if you were with us then) in October 1962; I was working up at Rushdean Estate Strood for Mad Jack as a hod carrier, with among others Jonnie Young and Clary Bolands. Why do I remember the date so vividly you ask, well it was the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Nikita Khrushchev, the president of Russia, the enemy of the then western world had, with the permission of Fidel Castro the president of Cuba, been building missile sites in Cuba. That terrified America as Cuba’s on its doorstep, and we were as close as possible to a nuclear war as the world had ever been. Khrushchev sent ships containing nuclear missiles to Cuba and while the ships were at sea John Kennedy the president of America, told Khrushchev that if they continued on their journey he would sink them. Khrushchev replied that he would consider this an act of war and would reciprocate in kind. I can remember the day very well, the radio was on all day at work as we all expected to be blown up by nuclear weapons, (Khrushchev had already called Britain “a sinkable aircraft carrier”) but thankfully the ships turned around and we lived to tell the tale.
Another world event that happened in October 1962 was the first release from the Beatles, Love me do, the real 60s revolution never really started until 63, with their release of Please Please Me in January, and in June the Searchers released Sweets for my Sweet, and in July my all time favourite rock and roll band the Rolling Stones released Come on. Other bands were releasing what was to become known as the Liverpool sounds, but in November came another heavyweight band the Hollies with their massive hit Stay. The Stones also brought out another huge hit that would last the annals of time; I wanna be your Man.
The sixties had well and truly arrived, and not only music, but fashion and attitudes changed as well. They say that if you can remember the 60s you weren’t there, well I must say it all seems a little cloudy now.
Our band was getting more and more gigs, and one in particular; the Prince of Wales in Strood became a regular Saturday night stint. It got packed in there, so much so that in the summer of 1963 the crowd would sometimes overflow out onto the pavement. Now the “Prince” was more like an institution, a social (or unsocial) club, according to where you came from in the Medway towns, some of the oldest people to use it back then were the landlord Frank and his wife Esther, most others were under thirty years of age. It was full from Friday to Sunday and dart and cards night Wednesday. Every card game known to man was played there including the occasional game of solo, a game that was regularly played in the Jubilee. All the rough’s tough’s and waif’s and stray’s used the Prince, but uncannily there was very little trouble actually in there. All these “social rejects” heaped together caused a real pecking order with me somewhere around the bottom and Frank and Esther, who kept a spotless pub considering nearly all their cliental worked in the building trade, at the top. No one ever changed their working boots before going in the Prince, so after every session, lunchtime and evening Esther would conscientiously clean up all the mud and concrete around the floor, she was wonderful. Frank would moan about the mess, and we would half-heartedly kick our boots off outside, but the floor always seemed to look like a ploughed field when we left.
Gordon Pettinger one of the Prince’s characters in more ways than one was courting Berylyne, who wasn’t just a pretty face but had a wonderful bubbly personality, and was also a very good dancer. Lots of the lads would want to dance with her but were cautious about upsetting Gordon, but it has to be said most of the time as long as he was asked he was O.K., but sometimes, according to his mood, or what he thought of “her potential dancing partner”, he may object, and that was the end of the subject. This particular evening Peter “Uno” a nickname, had danced with her a couple of times and Uno, quite the exebitionist when he’d had a drink, was really going to town. He had on his white gloves and used to like doing a move where he would bend down backwards and touch the floor with one hand as they were jiving. Well Gordon had told Peter that he couldn’t dance with his girl anymore, but Peter was having none of it, and when Gordon went to the toilet, Uno was up to Berylyne wanting another dance.
Anyone who knew Gordon also knew that he was a true force to be reckoned with, and when he came back from the toilet and saw them dancing he was fuming, but never said anything until the next dance, when Uno, who was once again in his face asking for another dance was told in no uncertain terms to fuck off.
When you play in a band you always get the ringside view of what’s about to happen, and it did. Uno tried to save face, probably reckoning that as he was a friend of Gordon’s, nothing would come of it. He obviously didn’t realise how short a stick he was clinging to and ended up lying on the pavement outside the pub with a severely dented ego, several bruises and a broken nose. The episode may have dampened down their friendship for a while but it certainly never dampened Uno’s desire to dance, “even with Berylyne”.
Bill Young had become an avid follower of the band, and always enjoyed getting on the drums for a few numbers, and although he couldn’t play very well was always encouraged by the crowd to “get up and have a go”. His favourite song was “ I guess it doesn’t matter anymore” by Buddy Holly, which we used to just about get through with Bill without many hitches. But one particular number that took Bill’s fancy when we played it was “Glad all over” by the Dave Clarke Five. Now as I have said Bill wasn’t very good on the drums but his enthusiasm carried him through. Obviously when he’d had a drink he felt he was up to a number like that and with a little bit of encouragement from the crowd Bill was up an at’em. Bill just never seemed to realise that one of the most important qualities in a drummer is timing, and anyone who is familiar with that song will remember the line, “and I’m feeling (boom boom) glad all over, yes I’m (boom boom) glad all over etc. Well, Bill’s version was “and I’m feeling, pregnant gap (boom boom) glad all over, yes I’m feeling, pregnant gap (boom boom) glad all over etc., and no matter how hard I’d try he couldn’t get it right. I’d stand and face Bill and count down the moment and nod to him when he should hit the drum with both sticks, but for some reason he would always miss-time it. It happened so often that our following crowd felt that that was Bill’s interpretation of the number, and as the moment came would miss the beats and follow Bill not us.
As I’d said earlier, Bill was a real handful, and one particular evening threw the wobblers of all wobblers. Mick Roe, without realising what he had done, had beat up Bill’s cousin Phillip in the old outside toilets in the Prince, and when news got to Bill in the bar he went ballistic. He rushed out the toilets and battered poor old Mick and his two mates, and when several lads tried to pull Bill off, he turned on everybody. He came through the pub like a tornado, and as friends, including myself tried to pin him down, we in turn came under fire. Several people, mostly women were injured in their panic to get out of the pub, with the evening ending with a whole bunch of us pinning Bill to the round metal pole in the middle of the room. Speaking for myself, I was terrified to let him go. Exhaustion finally calmed Bill enough to realize that his tormentors were indeed his friends and we cautiously, slowly, released him. If I remember rightly an ambulance had to be called for the badly battered Mick, and several people including Mick’s mates went home with cuts and bruises including most of us who had held Bill to the pole.
Well, poor old Frank and Esther, the landlord and his wife couldn’t face another night like that and we were never invited back to play there again, come to think of it, no-one played there again until after the old couple retired. We as a band carried on playing at weddings and the like until shortly after the Prince of Wales, came the “Northgate”.
While all this was going on, I met Berylyne’s younger sister Denise. Bill Whittle had decided to take advantage of the clamour for records, and had decided to sell records in his bike shop? Denise was working behind the record counter when I came into her life, and as she had the same good looks, blonde hair and outward personality as her sister she made easy company. I don’t know just what it was that actually kept us together, maybe she was just too easy going, too layback, and too easy for me too take advantage of. I will never understand why she put up with me for so long but she did.
Early in 63, I took Denise to see a particular favourite of hers, and mine for the matter, the Everly Brothers live at the Gaumont cinema on Star Hill. Also on bill was the great Bo Diddly, but the first band on were a completely unknown band to me at the time, a scruffy, long haired bunch of weirdo’s singing an old Buddy Holly number called Not Fade Away, they were called the Rolling Stones. This was the first time I had heard of them and I thought they were terrific. I couldn’t stop talking about them in the pub that night. Poor old Denise wanted to tell her friends about the Everly Brothers, but I never stopped nattering about the Stones and this new sound. Spud and Wendy were bored rigid.
As I said after the Prince of Wales came the Northgate. The “Gate” was a small pub in Rochester High St. on the corner of Northgate Rd. There had been live music played at the Northgate for a long time. Upstairs the jazz band the Crescent City Stompers had played, and downstairs had been the long-term venue for the Temple Trio. They had moved on to stardom with Frankie Baker as their manager and we, almost immediately were asked to fill the resident slot.
One night we were walking home from the Northgate, the usual crowd of about ten rowdy youngsters in their late teens strung out along the street over about twenty yards, when at the bottom of Darnley Rd. someone hailed a taxi that was going past in the opposite direction. The driver stopped, and I recognised him as Gordon Clout. He quickly got the hump because nobody really wanted a cab and got out to give us kids (he was at least five to ten years older) a piece of his mind. Well he got a torrent of abuse in return, but done something after that which I thought, as an old Darnley Rd. boy, was way out of line. He noticed that a couple of the lads up front were kicking an old paraffin road lamp around. Basically playing football with it, and he rang the police, and in no time at all the police were there in numbers.
I would think that even in the police force, there are men who become an embarrassment to their colleagues, and if there are, he got out of the police car that night. P.C. Rivers, I’m sure that he really would have booked his own mother. In one evening he booked every car in Darnley Rd. for parking facing the wrong way, parking with no parking lights, parking with no current road tax, he checked the tyres and in my brothers case booked him for using a number plate with numbers and letters written larger than the regulatory size. Every car in the road, and the road was almost a mile long, and here he was without a doubt every-ones most hated copper.
We were all charged with disturbing the peace and causing wilful damage to a road lamp, and all convicted and fined five ponds each. Spud and I who had been walking at the back of the group could honestly say that we had never even seen the road lamp but little matter, and by the way, thanks Gordon.
That night caused another good friend of mine Jonnie Waister, one of the convicted group, a lot of trouble. John wanted to join the police force, and because of his conviction was refused for years, but he persisted until he eventually managed to get in. He would have been one of the only fair coppers in the force and went on to make sergeant. He argued that by getting in the force, he might make a difference, but by his later admission, he eventually realised that he made no difference at all. They were all bastards.
Friday nights, and the Northgate pub in Rochester, and if we weren’t gigging anywhere else Saturday nights in late 1963 was packed to the gunnels, but the police wouldn’t allow anybody outside the pub on the pavement. Anybody outside who couldn’t get in was moved along, and as the police station was just around the corner, (and used to actually have police in it in the evening in those days,) we were strictly controlled.
As there was so much trouble on Friday nights at closing time there was always a strong contingent of old bill in the Northgate area, ready to move you on or take you in, the choice was always yours. We were a trio then, Johnny, Ivan Clarke (Ervin) as Ingam called him our drummer and me. As we were playing on one occasion, I noticed a guy trying to dance with Denise and Beryline. He’d asked them a couple of time for a dance and they weren’t interested when he took his cigarette out of his mouth and made as to stub it out on Denise’s face. I immediately threw my guitar off, pushed myself through the crowd, and gave him a slapping with both of us ending up on the floor. As I got up someone hit me in the back of the head knocking me back down and blacking me out for a few seconds. Trying hard to focus I looked up to see Aza Cole being held by Woggy Finch and Billy Boats, (Bolands). I jumped to my feet, not I might add wanting to fight, but afraid that Woggy and Boatsy might not be able to hold the struggling Aza. I was to find out from the more than slightly irate Aza that as I had leapt off the stage, I had bumped into the table beside the fireplace where Aza and his young lady had been sitting, spilling all the drinks on the table over them. Well, as the moron with the cigarette was thrown out, I was more than pleased to shake Aza’s hand, and replacing his and his lady’s drinks continued with the entertainment.
One Friday night after time was called, we were putting our gear away when we heard a row break out outside. This certainly wasn’t uncommon, but somebody put their head back in the door to tell me Stan Pratt and Spud was head to head. By the time I got out there, they were squaring up and having to be restrained from punching each other in front of old bill. To this day nobody seems to know why they were having a go, they were friends, and although Spud could be an awkward sod Stan was very easy going. I got between them amongst a crowd of a dozen or so exited drunken onlookers, with men trying to restrain them and police threatening arrest, all pushing and pulling, and before I knew it a hand grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back. As I turned, and at the same time being pulled off balance I instinctively threw a punch catching the copper who was pulling me backwards square on the chin and knocked him out.
I hadn’t noticed as I came out the pub, but there was an extra strong consignment of police accompanied by police dogs there that evening, and even though friends were trying to protect me, the heavens fell in. I was knocked to the ground, and in the middle of the high street, in front of anyone who cared to watch given a good hiding by the protectors of law and order. I was literally kicked punched and some say, although I wasn’t in a fit state to remember, hit with a truncheon while they handcuffed me and carried me physically up to the police station like some sort of safari trophy. Later that night I was given another reminder of what happened if you hit the old bill, and when they let me out in the morning I was black and blue and were it not for Jonny West who came down as soon as he had found out what had happened to bail me out and take me home in his swept back Standard Vanguard, I’m sure I would have got another dose of police hospitality from the new shift coming on duty the next day.
I went to court again unrepresented, and pleaded guilty with mitigating circumstances fully expecting to get a custodial sentence. (Nobody gave me a chance in hell of escaping with anything other than a lock up), but somehow the magistrate believed my story and the fact that I was sorry, fined me fifty pounds, it’s a bloody good job they believed me. And by the way, I was strongly advised not to say anything about the way I had been treated both when I was arrested, and in custody, it would sound like sour grapes and alienate the beak toward me. (Straight from barrack room lawyers).
Another saga that came hot on the heels of that was when Denise and me decided to go to a dance out at Snodland. She had packed up working at Bill Whittle’s and now worked at Snodland in the Townsend and Hook paper mill, and a few of her friends invited us to a dance out there in the local village hall. We hopped on a train down at Stood station and off we went, me in a brand new Fred Perry shirt and jumper I had just bought that day. Well unknown to me, there was a local lad Denise worked with that had a crush on her, and as the night wore on, I realised that things weren’t as they should be. I saw a group of feller’s constantly looking over at us, and when I left Denise on her own to get some drinks, I was jostled at the bar by some of them. I thought that these lads were just out for a jolly up and I was the entertainment, so I thought it best for us to drink up and go. I mentioned to Denise that maybe we should think about leaving when one of the lads ran across the room as if to hit me, and as he threw a wild punch I just sidestepped him and let his momentum take him onto a left hook that absolutely floored him. The rest of them quickly followed, and although I never really took a clean punch that was hard enough to worry me, I went down on the floor under the sheer weight of them all. As all of this was going on, Denise and her friends were screaming for these blokes to leave it and trying to pull my tormentors off me.
Two guy’s came to my rescue that night, Ronnie Holland and Derek Wadey, I never regularly moved in their company but I knew them enough to small-talk with, and I was mighty pleased that they had taken a hand and were pulling these oik’s off me. I felt the pack on top of me getting lighter until there was just one left and as he was pulled back off of me I reached up and grabbed his hair pulling him back onto a lovely head-butt.
By the time I got myself off the floor, the place was almost empty, and as I gathered myself together and made sure that Denise was o.k. and also thanking my saviours, I suggested to Denise that we had better get out of town and make a dash for the station. Derek Wadey quickly explained that my “friends” what seemed to be half of Snodland, had already dashed up the station to ambush me when I got there, so we’d better go home with Derek and Ronnie in their car. Never was there such a sweet invitation, lord knows what might have happened to me if those two weren’t out there that evening. My new clothes? They were just hanging around me by the barest shreds, absolutely unrecognisable.
Jonnie Young and me got a job with Laing’s who were building two multi storey flats and several blocks of four storey flats in Ordinance Street Chatham, (the tower blocks have been demolished now) and it wasn’t a bad little job. We survived for a few weeks, and had become favourite’s of the bricklayer foreman, with John being a very good bricklayer and me not being half bad as a hod carrier, I also could by know lay a few bricks myself, when disaster struck once again. When we started we were given hard hats to wear and a small flask for tea. The arrangement was that the labourers would take the tradesmen’s flasks at lunchtime to get their tea for them, keeping the tradesmen working up until the exact time for a break. One morning found me standing in the queue for tea with only my flask; one of the other hod carriers was getting Johnnie’s tea for him. Now my luck being what it was, found the time and motion manager with a small entourage walking up the line of queuing men asking how many flasks of tea each man was getting. Occasionally he turned a man out of the queue for only getting their own tea, obviously showing his great powers to his little group of admirers when he eventually got to me. “How many flasks have you got”? he asked me as he looked at my single possession. “You can see I’ve only got one” I answered sarcastically, “are you blind”, he stared at me for a moment then said, “do you know who I am”. “No mate” I answered quickly, and keeping the crack going followed up with, “and I don’t give a fuck”. Well the line of men burst out laughing and cheering and the manager, red faced and insulted that someone had stood up to him stammered your sacked, and turning said to no-one in particular, “take that mans name”. I shouted my name after the retiring embarrassed man and told him that I didn’t respect his position and he had no right to sack me, probably including some of Darnley Roads better explanatives. He continued to walk away shouting that I was to leave the job immediately when I, much to the merriment of the large group of onlookers shouted after him “in that case I wont be needing this fucking flask then will I”, and threw it at him hitting him full in the back of the head. Well by the time I got back to where I had been working all the men in my group knew about what had happened, and thought it hilarious. The funny thing was, my foreman went down the office about the incident and returned to tell me I hadn’t been sacked after all, apparently the time and motions man had no authority to sack me, well I must say he stayed well away from me after that…
The band was going from strength to strength now, and we were playing clubs on a regular basis when a guy that I had known for his tremendous ability to play the drums joined the band. Stuart Langridge, an ex member of the record making “Teen Beats”, they recorded the music to a very popular series on the television called Crane that went to no.1 in the charts in places like Morocco and other Arab countries. He had suffered a bad accident on his motorbike, badly breaking his arm and hand, and he had to have it rebuilt using revolutionary plastic surgery. He was told that he would never play the drums again but we have heard those stories before, and as Stuart slowly got better, he started to practice until he was as good as ever. He played with a great deal of panache and flair, adding a whole new dimension to our sound. (Bill Young never elected to get up and have a go on the drums again.) Stuart also had something else that would help the band, connections.
He introduced us to the world of showbiz. He used his connections in the Teen Beats to introduce us to Keith Prouse’s musical empire. Meeting Keith in his office in Tin Pan Alley, we hit it off and he immediately put us on his circuit of pubs and American air base’s in the Home Counties. One of the things that we had to agree to was to allow a certain young up and coming lady singer to do a couple of sets with us during our evening gigs. She not only had a very good voice, and we used her in our part of the show for harmonies, but I personally found her very obliging and couldn’t wait for the break between sets to sneak off somewhere with her. Talking about breaks that leads me to another story concerning the band.
We were playing at an American airbase in Whethersfield, and we were taking a break so I went to the bar for a tray of drinks for us all. Unfortunately I was wearing my cowboy hat, part of our outfit our manager insisted we wore, when the steward behind the bar, a black guy dressed as a river-boat barman, told me that it was a camp rule that anyone who approached the bar with a hat on must buy every one at the bar a drink, “and this being a little bit of America was a bloody big bar”. I told him that I was part of the band and these drinks were for the band and he said he knew that, but unfortunately, that was the ruling. I stuck to my guns so to speak and he went off for some clarification on the matter, and on his return said that the management would waiver the rule just this once when a big Texan type with a bootlace tie and cowboy boots etc. said to the coloured steward, “boy”, rules are rules. This man has to buy the bar a drink. The steward immediately said yes sir to the cowboy so I knew he was at least the steward’s senior officer. But he wasn’t mine! The steward shrugged at me and said that he was sorry but I would have to comply with the rules. By this time Johnny had realised that there was a problem and quickly joined me at the bar telling me to never mind about the drinks because a member of the audience had bought us all a round. The cowboy wasn’t having any of that and insisted that that it didn’t matter whether or not I bought the drinks; I still had to buy the whole bar a drink. I turned towards the cowboy, took my hay off, and threw it across the room. “I aint got a fuckin hat on now mate ave I” I said and teed him up, Johnny sensed what was about to happen and grabbed my left arm and whispered “don’t fuck it all up Dan” we’ll never play another airbase again. I immediately realised John was right so I looked at the airman and said, “cowboy you don’t know how fucking lucky you are” and walked away. As it turned out the cowboy was the camps commanding officer and he did kinda get his own way. The M.C. for the evening bought the round of drinks for all those at the bar after he returned my hat.
Later that evening the same black steward bought a round of drinks on a tray across to the stage and said they were from “the cowboy”, and when I looked across to the bar, he raised his glass at me and smiled. He was just letting me know that I was in his world.
One other thing that comes to mind about these airbases was a near disaster we had on the way home early one morning. Derrick Chidention, our bass player was driving us home along the A4 (dual carriageway) in our old Bedford Dormaville after a gig when he fell asleep at the wheel. I was sitting beside him and the others were all in the back with our equipment. We all woke up when we felt a sudden bump. The van had hit the kerb and run off the edge of the road and luckily for us went up the grass battering and back into the road. By then the vans occupants had woken up and the terrified driver managed to stop the van from turning over and came to a halt in the middle of the dual carriageway. I ran around the back and opened the doors and Johnny fell out the back onto me, and Stuart including amplifiers drums etc. fell out with him. Johnny was immediately sick in the central reservation when a lorry pulled up with his hazard lights on to protect us, and when the driver got out he was as shocked as us. He thought we had just run Johnny over, lucky boys that time. Had the batter gone down the side of the road instead of up who knows what might have happened?
Later Keith Prouse arranged for us to go along to the Decca recording studios to cut a demonstration disk, and we thought we had really arrived on the scene. We were now getting the recognition that we thought we deserved, and we loved it, but alas with me, nothing lasted long and fate took a “hand”.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take me long to get myself back into court again, and this time my luck ran out.
Brian Smith, Spud and myself with our girlfriends Angela, Wendy and Denise, had decided one Saturday night to go dancing at the well-known Central Hotel (now knocked down) on the Watling St. Gillingham. For some reason the dance hall behind the Central, where we had intended to go was closed that evening, and as we had gone there by taxi, we decided to spend the night in the Central Hotel bar. As I remember we spent a pleasant enough evening there, and had ordered a taxi at last orders for our return trip to Strood. As we waited outside for the cab Brian and Spud went to the outside toilets for a leak, and while they were away the rest of us waited for the cab behind the pub outside. As the three girls and me waited, a virtually new Vauxhall Cresta pulled up with four lads inside. The driver asked me where we were going and when I said Strood, he offered us a lift home, which we all gratefully accepted. The problem started when I explained that there were two more lads in the toilet and that we would have to wait for them, when the guy in the seat behind the driver said “we aren’t giving you a lift wanker, just the girls”. With this total show of disrespect towards me I immediately went into a turn, telling them in no uncertain terms to fuck off, when the driver closely followed by the others quickly got out the car. I suppose he didn’t like the idea of me giving them a load of verbal, and as he stepped into my space to remonstrate, found that he didn’t enjoy the head-butt that sat him on his arse either. As I’ve stepped across the bloke on the ground to wack the next guy the girls saw Spud and Brian running across the car park to join in the fight, and by the time they arrived I was dealing with customer number two, a very fitting description by the way, a big lad who threatened to kill me before he went down. They tidied up the other two, and when we thought they had had enough we stood off so they could pick themselves up and get in their car, “obviously the lift was now totally out of the question”, and as they pulled away the driver shouted out something to the tune of, “when we see you lot again we will fucking well kill you”. With that, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I smashed my right hand through the rear window of the car, severing nerves to my little finger and ring finger, the very hand I covered the strings with on the neck of my guitar as I played. I had without realising it at the time, ended any dreams of becoming a “star”, and a lot worse was to come.
I felt that I had to go to the hospital, because my hand was cut to the bone and was rightly concerned about my ability to play my guitar being impaired.
As soon as I was stitched up the police turned up, charged, and arrested me for grievous bodily harm and criminal damage. The second bloke I had hit suffered a dislocated shoulder and had also gone to the hospital, and as the policy at hospitals was to call the police straightaway if foul play was suspected they turned up.
If hanging Judge Jeffries had been sitting on the bench the day I went to court, I would have got a fairer trial. I had for once spent what seemed a small fortune on legal representation, employing what I thought was good advice from Wally Light. Wood McClellan and Williams, supposedly the best (according to Wally) solicitors in the town. The one thing that they did manage was to get the GBH reduced to actual bodily harm, and thinking about what happened it was a bloody good job. All five of my group who were there on the night of the offence were in court as witnesses, but within ten minuets of walking into the magistrates court I had been sentenced to six months detention without one of my witnesses being called. The driver of the car gave his version of events, I gave mine, “a much different version I might add”, and without wanting to hear any of my witnesses, Mrs.Grieveson the senior magistrate passed sentence. Three months for A.B.H. and three months for criminal damage to be served in a detention centre. Without further ado, I was taken down to start a sentence I would never forget.
The van that was transporting me to prison stopped at the gates to be checked by the prison guards. As the police and guards were carrying out there formalities, I read the sign, H.M. Detention Centre Aldington. The gates swung open and we drove inside pulling up at the steps leading to reception.
I only briefly mentioned it in my story so far, but I was in the Army Cadet Corp for a couple of years, reaching the giddy heights of corporal, and it was going to stand me in good stead for what was about to come.
As the doors of the van opened, a large prison officer with an even larger moustache sporting a slashed cap like a guardsman, bellowed at me to get out of the van and stand to attention. My cadet training immediately sprung into action and I leapt out of the van, (more in fear of the unknown than for any other reason) and stood, 19 years of age, in my best suit “£25 and two fittings”, rigidly to attention in front of the large P. O. desperate to please. His ruddy face, inches away from mine looked down at me with complete contempt, and as the van moved away he roared that I was now the property of Aldington D.C. and all who rule in her! I was also nothing but a little shit who was very quickly going to realise that all Her Majesty’s officers were as compared to me “god’s”, and I was of no importance to anybody, followed by “do I make myself clear”? Yes, I quickly answered feeling it might be prudent not to wipe his spit off my face at that exact moment in time. Immediately I answered I was punched in the stomach, knocking me winded to the wet tarmac, and as I lay there gasping for breath he shrieked for me to get up while two more guards ran across the square to join in the fun. Trouble Mr. Salmon sir? One of the guards asked in the same paranoiac voice as I was struggling to my feet. “No trouble at all Mr. Smith”, moustache replied. Not taking his eyes off me for a second. What is the first law of Aldington Mr. Smith? “To call every officer who serves here sir,"Sir”, was the immediate reply. Did you hear that you little shit? Salmon bellowed, again spitting in my face as he spoke. Yes sir came my frightened reply, (this had a large smattering of deejay vous) and with eyes like ice he looked at me, lowering his voice he said in the most terrifying manner anyone has ever spoken to me, “and don’t you ever forget that boy”.
Mr. Smith! “Yes sir” came the reply; take Mr. Lake away for induction. With that, I was marched away at the double, only too pleased to show off my marching skills and put as much distance between my tormentor and myself. After induction, I was sat in a chair opposite a full-length mirror and watched quite helpless as two screws took great delight in cutting off the vast majority of my golden locks leaving just a tuft at the top of my head. After they had had their fun I was stripped naked, bathed in two inches of cold water, given a tea towel to wipe myself as dry as I could, then quickly examined by a doctor and passed fit and given the most ill fitting of prison clothes and told to dress.
Back in front of the mirror, I stood to attention barely recognising myself. From the highly polished shoes to the striped shirt and blue overalls, I stood there holding my blankets, sheets and pillowcase, tin mug, with shaving equipment, soap, boot polish and brush, plimsoll’s, and spare shirt vest pants and socks. Then I was marched off at the double to the induction wing to spend my first night in hell. That evening I was quickly shown by another young prisoner, how to fold my blankets and lay my kit out for the morning’s inspection. He told me to get up as soon as I was called, and to keep my room absolutely spotless and that meant spotless, even dust along the top of the door. With that he was ordered out of my room at the double and I was left alone to spend the rest of the night in a great deal of trepidation of what was to come, I could never have imagined!
Aldington Detention Centre was one of many institutions set up in the early sixties to combat repetitive young offending. The idea was to set up a regime so tough that offenders would never want to come back. The problem was, that all the waif’s and stray’s that went through these “centres” knew that whatever happened once they got out, life in whatever future prison could never be as bad as detention.
On my first visit to see the governor the next morning, he went to great pains to tell me that he had worked in Goudhurst D.C., and as huge a reputation that Goudhurst had for discipline, it would pale into insignificance to Aldington.
The whole system was based on fear and intimidation. You only got one-sixth remission in detention as compared to one third at the time in normal prisons, and in those days, it could be taken away from you for the most trivial of things. For example, one lad who had gone in the same day as me had smuggled an apple up to our dormitory and had eaten it just before light’s out. Mr. Saul, one of the P.T.I’s was on duty and came round to do lights out. Just before he threw the switch, he stopped and asked, who’s just eaten an apple? (These dorms were so clean you could smell any foreign body). Nobody answered but we all knew what was coming. If I don’t see a hand, the whole dorm will be on a charge.
I can’t remember the lad’s name but he had a gypsy background and came from Slades Green. Not wanting to get the dorm into trouble and face the consequences of the dormitory, he put his hand up. That was two day’s before his release, and in the morning, he was summoned before the governor and lost two of his days.
The real stick that they held was, if you lost all of your remission, you were automatically brought before a visiting magistrate and sentenced from six months to three years imprisonment in borstal or ordinary prison. We were told that there was no other sentence we could receive.
The day started with a 5-30am call. The light’s would be switched on and some glib remark shouted like “hand’s off your cock’s and on with your sock’s”, and you were never called twice. If you decided to rebel, the dormitory, and in some cases the whole centre would be used against you, and although fighting was never tolerated, there was always prisoners who would be more than happy to dish out some barrack room punishment, some quite severe.
Once you were up you rushed around getting dressed in your shoes, shorts and vest. No socks were worn at this time, and stood around waiting to go out into the parade ground for morning invigoration. This consisted of a kind of grossly perverted form of exercise. No-matter what the weather was like this was carried out six days a week, with Sunday being the day of rest.
We would run around the parade ground about ten or twenty times, according to how our masters felt, or how much time they had to waste, then stopping, (all in formation) we would start our early morning workout. We would carry out all sorts of stretching and bending, with press-ups, sit –ups, star-jumps, squat-thrusts and bunny hops. If there’s one thing that will stick in my memory from that time, was lying on my back in the snow with my frozen finger’s clasped behind my head doing sit-ups, and while the snow flakes fell out of the glare of the floodlight’s in the throes of an easterly wind that was cutting across the Romney Marsh they covered the screw’s black hat’s and cape’s, but as we were hot it laid on us and soaked us to the skin.
On one particular morning, we were going through the same old exercises when we were ordered to hold our positions, and as we lay there in the rain, in the press-up position, a voice boomed out addressing Stan Franklin, one of the unfortunates. “Mr. Franklin”, I see that you don’t want to join us today; well I’m sure the rest of us wouldn’t want to continue without you. Don’t rush Mr. Franklin, get yourself ready in your own good time because we’ve got plenty of that haven’t we gentlemen? No answer, you never drew attention to yourself. Well Mr. Franklin, I see that you are ready to join us again, so just for you, we will be more than happy to start all over again.
“Wet towels and a good kicking in the washroom would be a painful experience for Stan”.
Once we were dismissed from the parade ground, we showered, shaved, and rushed back to the dorm. We then stripped our beds, folded our sheets and blankets to the regulationary requirements, and ironed the edges of the sheets and blankets square with a book. Everything had a place, and it had to be in it.
Anyone who has watched war films, and seen the mad sergeant going through the barrack room throwing everything to the wind will have some idea as to what this particular time of day was like.
If anything was out of place, a comb, shaving stick, or maybe shoes that weren’t gleaming, (never allowed to be worn in the dorm) or even your soap dish had a smear soap in it, or your soap was wet, the whole lot went up in the air, and depending on what mad man was taking inspection, punishment would be levelled at the individual or the whole dormitory.
Also, in the dorms there were self-appointed daddies. These were boys who had assumed, or fought their way up to be in charge of the dorm.
Now the legal establishment seriously frowned upon the practice of having daddies, but the screws always knew who they were and made them personally responsible for the dormitory. So if an officer wanted to he could punish the daddies, and then let the daddies meet out whatever punishment they wanted to El Effendi.
After inspection we were marched yes marched, (everyone had to complete two weeks of square-bashing before we went up to the dorm’s from induction) down to the mess room for breakfast where you sat in complete silence and eat everything that was given to you, to leave something was a punishable offence.
After breakfast, we paraded to be inspected by the governor or deputy governor, who would walk along the ranks inspecting every boy in detail. Now personally at nineteen I never grew much in the way of whiskers. In fact, I tried to grow a beard when I was about twenty-five and was accused of looking like catweasel.
One morning for whatever reason I hadn’t shaved, and as the governor inspected me, he stepped a little closer to make sure, then said, “stand a little closer to the razor in future Mr.Lake”, fatigues Mr. Salmon, and it was noted. Fatigues could be anything from cleaning a particular area with your toothbrush to digging out the cesspits. You were given waders and sent into the shit pits to dig out the dried excrement. If you were unlucky enough to get that one you stank for days. The rest of the morning would see us either on working parties, or doing circuit training in the gym.
How some of the lads survived circuit training, I’ll never know. It was designed in three levels, each one 50% harder than the last and to such a standard that everyone there that was doing six months started to deteriorate towards the end. It seemed impossible to maintain that high level of fitness over that length of time. I suppose that there would have been a few exceptions, but I never saw any.
I thought of myself as fairly fit when I started, and after my first day was absolutely ballbagged. I did manage to complete the circuit in the allocated time but only just. Those poor buggers who weren’t as fit or had some sort of physical problem were in for a rough ride because there didn’t seem to be any allowance built into the system for them. In my time there, I saw circuit training drive some lads to do some terrifying things to themselves. The punishment for self abuse, and I’m not talking about masturbation here was complete loss of all remission. Even so, while I was there one lad eat shards of a broken razorblade wrapped in cotton wool, two feigned appendicitis, and one picked up a boot block, (a large tree trunk about 500mm in circumference, put his foot on another boot block and crashed the block down on his shin badly breaking it. Circuit training was relentless, trying to do a flying angel over the wooden horse if you were not up for it, or maybe a stone overweight was terrifying, because it always ended in injury, ridicule or probably both.
One day we were doing pull ups, (upside down on the wall-bars) when a lad from Strood, I wont name him, fell off and lay in a heap crying that he couldn’t do anymore. Mr. Sutton, our P.T.I. for that particular lesson done the obvious, keeping all of us hanging upside-down, we waited for the lad to rejoin us so we could all start again. Because of the delay, others started falling off and we were constantly made to restart the lesson until he was satisfied we could do no more.
One local boy who I befriended was Kenny Austin; he joined us about two weeks after I was inducted. He was the cheekiest little bugger I had ever met, constantly picking up punishments for his light-hearted backchat to the P.T.I’s and took his punishments with a smile.
After circuit training we ran several laps of the field about half a mile or so, and as a usual punishment for the slightest misdemeanour, we would have to carry one or two medicine balls with us according to what we had been caught doing, or mainly not doing. Well one session finished with Kenny having to run with seven medicine balls wrapped in a football goal net, and not these lightweight nets that you get today. Well Kenny wasn’t very big but very wiry and athletic, and as we all set out on our run we tried to stay with Kenny to try and encourage him round. As soon as Mr. Sutton saw what was happening, he called for us to leave him and we continued our run. As we had no choice, we ran away from this boy of seventeen carrying his huge burden calling back words of encouragement. We finished our circuits of the field and panting with sweat pouring down our faces, we turned our attention to Kenny to silently urge him on. You have to understand that we weren’t even allowed to talk in lessons or work unless we were told we could do so. As Kenny bravely battled on with this huge load on his back, never faltering from a slow trot, murmurings started to get slowly louder and louder, until to a man, including Mr. Sutton were shouting encouragement at the top of our voice’s to try and help him home. Well Kenny done it, he wouldn’t give up and he never broke pace, and I think that it was a prophetic lesson for us all to learn, the only way we could gain the respect of these screws was by conquering our own personal fears.
Kenny had one of several visits we were allowed, his first, which left him coming back to our lesson in the gym red faced with tears in his eyes, justified my decision not to have a visit. I couldn’t face the thought of a visit under those draconian conditions. The establishment quickly noticed that I hadn’t applied for a visit and an order was made that I should see the governor. I had no idea as to why I had to visit our illustrious controller of all things, but it was about my decision not to have a visit by anybody. He just seemed to be confirming the fact that I knew that I could have a half hour visit per month, but did stress that it was unusual not to take advantage and asked me why. I said that it was a personal thing, and he let it go at that.
The real reason was I couldn’t stand the thought of double marking time in front of Denise and my mum in whatever clothes I would be wearing at the time of the visit. I would then be called to attention, ordered to sit, and told that a half hour visit would start from that precise time. The officer would then stand beside your chair listening to every detail of your conversation and never allowing any contact at any time. That to me wasn’t a relaxing visit, that was torture.
About six weeks into my sentence, I was ordered to the visitor’s block and made to wait for Mr. Salmon.
Mum and Denise unbeknown to me, had applied for a special visiting permit, and were waiting at the main gate with Johnny West who had been kind enough to bring them down in his old standard vanguard. It was explained to me that they couldn’t come in without my invitation, but I couldn’t trust myself to allow them in. I knew that if they got upset then I would lose my cool resulting in the unknown, I had to turn them down. As I marched back across the forecourt I could see them out of the corner of my eye, and I had to steel myself to the fact that I had done the right thing. Speaking to John when I came out he said that it had been a terrible journey home with both of them crying, and of course not understanding why I wouldn’t have a visit. I underwent a lot of soul searching that night.
Another character that comes to mind when I think about cheeky people in Aldington was a lad who was involved in an incident during a crab’s inspection.
Periodically a doctor carried out an inspection on the boys to check whether or not any of us had contracted any nasty diseases, I suppose we could bring V.D. or any of its allied problems into the centre and then pass it on to each other if we were that way inclined, so we were checked from time to time.
The picture is a doctor in his white coat seated on a chair with a screw standing either side of him, one holding a clipboard to check off our names and numbers, as we filed past. All the boys were lined up in single file a dormitory at a time, and wearing nothing but our underpants silently shuffled forward to be inspected. As we got to the front, the doctor told us to raise our arms so he could check our armpits, then to drop our pants where the doctor rifled through our pubic hair with his pen. When he had satisfied himself that that area was clean, he asked you to turn around and touch your toes, which you promptly did, usually with an embarrassed grin on your face as you were now facing your mates, so he could inspect your nether regions.
Suddenly as the queue slowly moved along, amid gasps of bewilderment from some of the lads, a small cockney boy went sprawling onto the concrete floor, and with orders being shouted by the senior P.O., he was grabbed by the arms, still with his pants hanging unceremoniously around his ankle’s by two screws who seemed to appear from nowhere and literally dragged him away to the punishment block.
What had happened was, he had got a friend to write, “you nosey bastard” on his arse with a felt tipped pen to shock the doctor and get a laugh, but as the doctor said turn around and touch your toes, which he duly did to reveal his message, the doctor had shown no sign of a response from the message at all, he sat totally impassive, but the senior P.O. had kicked the boy hard right in the target area, (causing him to walk very painfully for a week or so) sending him sprawling in pain onto the floor. He received three days bread and water, and lost two days remission but he maintained that it was worth all the inconvenience.
The very worst thing that happened while I was there was a mysterious death that happened to one of the boys, supposedly while wearing a straight jacket in the punishment block.
He had escaped apparently by running across the flat roof of the induction block and jumping the gap between the induction block onto the barbed wire on the top of the perimeter fence then after freeing himself from the tangled barbed wire climbed over the fence and absconded. He must have cut himself up pretty badly on the barbed wire but as I said earlier, some boy’s in there done some pretty disturbing things to themselves.
The next day he was found bloodied soaking wet and freezing out on the surrounding marshes where he was brought back to Aldington. He would have presumably have been washed, examined by a doctor, and was put in a straight jacket for his own protection and locked in the punishment block. After he may or may not have been visited by staff, and certainly was visited by one of the cooks that had taken him his hot evening meal ordered by the doctor, but the very next morning he was found dead when his cell was opened to give him his cell-block rations. Apparently there was a permanent guard on the punishment block who checked the prisoner every hour, but a subsequent enquiry found that the poor lad had committed “suicide” by banging his head against the wall of the cell fracturing his scull and dying from a huge blood clot on the brain. We will never know the truth! But there was at least one screw that was responsible for allowing him to escape who would have harboured a grudge.
I remember vividly during the news period, a time that was spent after tea sitting quietly listening to the B.B.C. on the radio, the announcement of the sentences carried out on the great train robbers. Thirty years each. Amid shouts from the screws for silence there were gasps of amazement from the inmates that such huge sentences could be carried out for armed robbery. We were all young and pretty naïve at the time, but we would learn that there was no crime worse than one committed against the state, and this was a post office/railway robbery, two institutions owned at that time by the government.
I shared my release date with two other guys and we were driven down to Ashford station where three of us were dumped clutching our warrant cards (a free pass on the train unless we were picked up at the gates) in a transit type van. The three of us were all being released that day and the conversation got around to “who would be back” not necessarily in Aldington but back inside. I thought that I had done very well keeping my nose reasonably clean and trying to keep low key, but the screw who was being asked picked me as the only one who would re-offend, and said that I would be back inside within two years, and he was right.
Two criteria had to be met when released, one was you had to get a job within two weeks of release, and two was if you got into trouble within six months of release, you would be brought back before the visiting magistrate at Aldington and sentenced there.
I came seriously close to not meeting with either of these conditions. The first was a problem we all faced because nobody wanted to employ an ex jailbird, and the second went with the territory. I had spent years unconsciously building an image and living up to it, so unless I never went out I was bound to get into trouble.
I was lucky with the first problem; in fact, I was luck with both, but back to the first. I had a probation officer that had to be assured. One, that I was constantly looking for work, I had to report weekly with no excuses miss a visit and I was back inside, (and believe me some came back while I was in there), and two, I had to get a job within the two week period.
At the latter end of my two-week period like a last minute reprieve, Gordon Pettinger knocked at my door with an offer of a job hod carrying, I could have kissed him. He explained that he was working for a bricklayer called Jack Bell building houses in a little estate next to the vicarage in Walderslade Rd. The gang was four bricklayers with two hod-carriers and Gordon as the scaffolder. The wages were thirty pounds a week plus, (to put that into context my dad was earning on average about fifteen pounds a week with overtime.) and we were all self employed and paid in cash. “Talk about from out of the ashes.”
The next problem seemed a little easier to deal with. I had told most of my friends what my circumstance’s were, and all agreed that they would try their best to keep me away from trouble. Spud and I had started to go out to different places for a pint so that I wouldn’t get involved in anybody else’s problems, but one night after about three months of my release, we walked into the biggest fight of my life. We had been out having a few pints in some remote pubs in Chatham when we decided to go back to the Gundolph pub on the corner of Horse wash lane in Rochester. I knew that there was a band playing in there, and it would be nice to have a few beers with some of the lads again.
As soon as we walked in I turned to Spud and said that I thought that it was going to go off in there, and from the time that it took us to push our way through the rowdy crowd and order two pints of stout and cider, it blew up.
There were a group of about twenty lads in from Stoke on a stag night and they were going for it big time. In those days, you never saw anybody drinking beer from a bottle in a pub, much the less spirits, I can only assume that they had brought their own.
One of the local girls, Daphne Roe I believe I never saw the incident, had complained about the way she had been spoken to by one of these guy’s, and when Johnny Hanger remonstrated he was hit in the face with a bottle dislodging his eye. It was only a very small pub and we were packed in like sardines, so the fight swept through the pub like something from a wild-west movie. All you could do initially was fight for your life. As bottles and glasses rained through the air, hitting all of us to a lesser or greater degree, all you could do to protect yourself was hit the nearest stranger to you before he hit you, it was chaotic. Glasses and bottles flew like rain, and as the two sides took up defensive positions at each end of the pub about twenty-five feet apart they literally just threw everything they could at each other. At one time I had three bloke’s trying to pin me down on a table while another shouted to the others to hold me still while he “cut my face off” with a broken bottle. With the weight of all of us on this small table and yours truly wriggling like an eel to get free the table collapsed, and I managed to free myself and come up fighting.
The fight by this time had spread out onto the street with running battles everywhere, and as the ambulance men were trying to get John Hanger into the ambulance; people were almost fighting for their lives.
The police started to arrive in numbers when Spud and myself decided to get out of it. A policeman had tried to arrest me for doing some damage to a blonde haired lad I was fighting that was suspected of bottling John, and when I told the copper what was suspected about blondie he let me go and arrested him instead, there was no way I was getting tagged with any of this and end up going back to prison. Well like I said we were all carrying cuts and bruises to a lesser or greater degree, and most of us went up to St. Barts. hospital to get stitched up. Unfortunately, friend and foe alike decided on this action lots with little choice, so it all kicked off again up the hospital. Fortunately we were all used to a little discipline, and had a great deal of respect for all hospital staff, and eventually the matron somehow gained and kept order that night until the police turned up in numbers and started to take names and addresses.
I went back to the Gundolph the next day looking for my jacket, and you wouldn’t believe the damage. The windows were all put out, the mirrors behind the bar were all broken, the jukebox still had a bottle of vodka lying in it and the floor was just a carpet of glass. Coupled with this every bottle that had been stacked behind the counter had been used as a missile and strewn on the floor. It was similar to the kind of scenes that we were about to witness on the television when the I.R.A. were planting bombs everywhere, maybe without the loss of life but the structural damage was almost as bad. That pub never re-opened and eventually was pulled down to make way for the new bridge and road.
While I had been in Aldington, the band had approached Dave Crane to play lead for them. I’m not sure, but I think that Dave had been playing in a very good band from Gillingham called the Strangers with a guitarist called Eddy Wheeler, but he Dave agreed to temporarily help Johnny out. When I came out Dave stepped aside for me again, but I knew I had problems with my hand. I couldn’t play as fast or as accurate as I had before I cut my hand, so I invented little ways to cheat, take short cuts that I honestly wasn’t happy with. My detention had slowed down the momentum of the band, and although everybody wanted me back, I felt that I was becoming a liability. I never mentioned it to anyone but I wasn’t the same guitarist, “and I knew it”.
There are certain places in a town that gradually become institutions and when they close, they are almost publicly mourned. The closing of Paine’s to make way for the dual carriageway that Strood has now was as bad as closing down the Wardona picture house opposite Woolworth’s. Paine’s was a large shop that stood on the corner of Station Rd. facing the bridge. The shop seemed to sell everything from clothing to fireworks, and I guess it could only be described as a general store. I remember going there with mum when I was much younger and can picture the highly French polished mahogany and glass cabinets each full of drawers that held different items of clothing etc. It was worth seeing mum buy something just to watch the gentleman behind the counter unscrew this elaborately turned little wooden cup, take the top off and put your money in then screw the top back on, and with your money inside it would disappear up tubes and travel across wires to some unknown destination, only to reappear as if by magic with your change and receipt in, those kind of things were truly magical to us kids.
The Wardona, (the bug hutch) was as I said earlier our local picture house. It was a run down old place that seated a couple of hundred people, but when your about twelve going to the flicks with your mates was great. If a few of us had gathered enough money together we would walk down into Strood and pay our few pence to the lady in the box office and get ushered to our seats like regular grown ups, apart from the warning from the usherette to be quiet and behave ourselves. If there was an A film on we would sit on the steps begging adults to take us in, and if the grown up said they would only take two of us, as soon as we had found our seats we would be off to let our mates in by the emergency exit then sit somewhere else. Up the back were kissing seats, two seats joined together like a settee, and we as kids would snigger at the thought of grown ups canoodeling up here in the dark. Mostly, we confined ourselves to the front few rows, where if there was enough of us we could put your feet on the seat in front and by pushing, rock the whole row of seats back that we sat in, much to the annoyance of the adults sitting behind. We sat mesmerised watching through the thick cigarette and pipe smoke as the Titanic slipped beneath the waves in A Night To Remember, and after Doris Day had cleaned up Deadwood in Calamity Jane we would all agree that she was the greatest cowgirl of them all.
Begging was the one thing that we were all experts in, and as the ice-cream girl came around we would all descend on her at once, and unless she was a strong willed girl the confusion of all these kids adding there monies together and dividing up the ice-creams or whatever we were trying to purchase or steal was just too much, and we would return to our seats to “divi” up the spoils. Sometimes an adult would take a hand and help her out by keeping us at bay until the manager came to chase us around in the dark till he caught someone and threw them out, if not we would plunder her tray leaving her feeling as though she had been hit by a whirlwind. If we were thrown out, and it happened regularly, we would be let in by the side entrance by a mate only to be thrown out and be let in again; then alas sorrow upon sorrow the bug hutch closed down.
I suppose that about now would be a good time to mention the many chaotic coach outings that we had, usually down to Southend or occasionally Margate.
The first that I can remember was a trip that lost one of us. The coach arrived at Southend relatively uneventfully compared to some of our later jaunts, but we had lost George Hills. We done a few of the regular checks amongst ourselves with some saying that he had got on the coach, and others not sure, so boys being boys the majority forgot George and continued on our beano doing the regular tours of the pubs before they shut as they used to in the afternoon’s. Well a couple of the more concerning among us, not me I might add, set about trying to find George, and a visit to the police station produced the goods, he was in hospital. What had happened was as the coach was travelling along on its merry way, and as it was a very hot day, the driver under orders of his occupants had opened the door to let some air in, George had taken advantage of the fresh air and sat on the steps by the door. Some say that he was being sick out of the door but the crux of it was that the coach went around one of the many roundabouts on the A13 and the roll of the bus resulted in poor old George being unceremoniously dumped out of the coach into the gutter without anybody noticing. Full mark for perseverance given to those that found him.
Another trip to Southend led to a nasty incident in the Kersal coach park. We had arrived again relatively unscathed ready for a jolly up when after a couple of hours we found Bernard Ellis badly beaten along the sea front. We picked him up and dusted him down then traipsed around Southend looking for the culprits. As we walked along the promenade Bernard recognised a bunch of lads walking towards us. There they are he said nervously, that’s the bastards that done it! We shuffled him to the back of our group and carried on walking towards the unsuspecting group, then as we drew level with them Steve Thompsett asked them if they had seen our mate Bernard who had been beaten up by a shitcart full of cowards. No, they cautiously answered not being able to hide their nervousness, well he looks like this Steve answered and whacked the guy he was talking to. We all piled in and left the sad little group lying on the pavement in front of the many arcades with honour satisfied. But that wasn’t to be the end of it. This little firm had gone back to their main party and decided on a little of their own kind of retribution, and as things spiralled out of hand, they added two and two and made five. As we were leaving the Kersal coach park later that night the coach next to ours had a group of lads get on it all tooled up, and as all the passengers were seated waiting for the coach to leave they ran among them beating indiscriminately and made a hell of a mess of them. That we are sure was aimed at us, but they got the wrong coach. The incident was serious enough to make the local newspaper, and considering the amount of trouble there was at Southend that said it all.
Coach drivers that didn’t want to take us home would constantly leave us behind. There would be so much boisterousness on the coach on the outward leg that they would simply leave us all wherever we were and come home without us. But there was some among us that on one particular visit decided that that wasn’t going to happen this time.
I had gone off to get as most of us married men did, (I was at the time) candy for the kids etc. rocks and toys and such and took it back to the coach before we got to much drinking done and forgot them. When I got back I found Kenny Dicker and George Dogget were planning their own way home. They had decided to take the coach home themselves and leave everybody, including the coach driver behind. Well I say everybody, not quite everybody because I decided to go home with them. We had a reasonably uneventful trip home with Ken doing the driving and George giving directions, and apart from the fact that we had to cross the Thames at Tower Bridge and the bridge was up, we were ok We were convinced that as we sat there in the traffic we were going to be pulled by one of the many coppers that were walking to and fro but we managed to get the bus home unscathed and there ended another little excursion. When we got back to the Prince of Wales and told the remaining lads what had happened a few of them set out in their cars to Southend to pick their mates up, and when the rest of them got back we weren’t very popular for a while, specially by those that had to stay down there all night, but never mind most of them eventually saw the funny side of it. There was a little hot water to be endured by the coach company later but as there was no damage luckily, nothing ever came of it.
One morning I was on my way to work and as usual getting a lift in Gordon’s little red mini, as we chatted away about all and nothing we pulled away from the traffic lights at the library corner in Pattens Lane to see a guy on a scooter have a terrible accident. I seemed to recall that he had run into the back of a bus parked at the library coming from our opposite direction, then bounced of that into the front of the car in front of us, but it all happened so quickly that Gordon and I were never sure as to what happened exactly. The only thing that I was sure about was getting out of the car and running across the road to the poor man who was lying very still on his back. I took my jean jacket off and folded it to make a pillow, and lifting his head to tuck it under my fingers sank into the mush that was once the back of his head. As he wasn’t wearing a crash helmet, the whole back of his skull had been crushed. I slowly pulled myself together and felt for his pulse, (I had done some simple first aid in the Army cadets) which had stopped. He was a little older than me probably about twenty-five, and as he lay there he seemed to be looking at me with a question in his eyes, and for once in my life I was speechless. I closed his eyes and stood up with the questions coming at me concerning his state of health from all around and, realising that he was dead walked across the road on my own with tears pouring down my face to Gordon’s car.
Of course, when we got to work we laughed it off with Gordon making a great capital out of the rough and tough Dan Lake crying like a baby, and as how he was going to stop on the way home to see if he could find my Levi jacket because if I didn’t want it he sure as hell did. Men and boys Gordon would say, men and boys.
I continued working for Jack Bell, earning more money than I knew what to do with and even saving on a regular basis until Denise dropped a bombshell in September telling me that she was pregnant. Like so many others before, we were clueless as to why it had happened. Never mind that we had been going at it like rabbits since my release, trying to make up for lost time.
So, on a lovely day in November 1964 like millions of others in a similar position, we were married at Chatham registry office with Spud as my best man.
It was a very small occasion with the reception being held at my aunty Biddy’s new double sized house 124 Darnley Rd. After the wedding, we lived at Denise’s mums house until after the birth of Tracy our lovely daughter, then after a lot of visits by Denise and her mum to the Council, we were given a brand new council flat in Troy Town Rochester. By the time of the birth of Tracy, I believe all three of us were married. Johnny West to Stephanie, I was best man, and Spud to Wendy, Spud chose Mick Cox Wendy’s half brother as his best man. But what had changed?
Very little really, in fact as I remember john came out with us a lot more than he ever did after he got married, and as we all eventually ended up living in the Troy Town area, we were more like the three musketeers than ever, but all of this was to be short lived….
A little earlier Spud had got his leg broken in a fight outside the Northgate by a couple of guys called “Billy Arnold” yes the same, and Baldy Bennet, and that ruined his ability to work as a hod carrier. So the company that we were working for, Mathew James, on the insistence of Johnny Young who was a bricklayer, a few others and myself gave Spud the chance to improve himself as a bricklayer. Once Spud had mastered the basics he left and got a job for a guy that helped anyone “including yours truly”, Charlie Clarke. Charlie or Nor as he was known was an older Darnley Rd. boy than me (by about 10 yrs.) who through sheer hard work and a little luck was doing very well for himself employing subcontract labour on building sites, and almost everyone and anyone who wanted a job and would work eventually got a chance with Nor. Spud started with Nor as a brickie building garden walls on Earl Estate, and they became quite close, with Spud and Wendy asking Charlie to be their first born Steven’s godfather which Charlie accepted. Now why I’m telling you this is to give you a little background on an incident that happened between Spud and me.
We were playing table football on one of our regular Saturday night bashes in the Prince of Wales when Charlie came around with a bus stop. They were a small time gambling game on a card and you had to pay a fixed bet to try and choose the right name that would later be drawn, I’m sure you know the kind of thing, when Spud turned on Charlie and publicly told him in no uncertain terms to, yes put him down for a go but to pay the cost himself out of money that Charlie owed him. Well that immediately erupted into a verbal which deteriorated into a serious push and pull with each of them trying to strike out at each other and the rest of us (which were many) trying to parry their blows. We eventually separated the pair of them, I was holding Spud, and by this time, he was a handful to hold. I was in his face appealing for him to calm down when he grabbed me with one hand in a steel like grip around the throat and tried to hit me. Well I was totally surprised, and it took all my strength to prize Spuds hand from me while I ducked under a barrage of blows coming from his right hand and get into a stance ready to have a row of my own with whom I thought to be one of my dearest friends. We faced each other off with people by now holding us apart and Spud shouted all sorts of abuse at me that left me reeling from his verbal attack. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and demanded to see him outside. I shook my tormentors from me and immediately turned my back on him and left by the side door into the alleyway. Spud emerged ready for what was to come and with several lads including my brother that had followed Spud out pleaded that we shouldn’t fight but I had gone into fight mode, after all this was all of his making, and he had hurt my cred. I literally fucked all the do gooders including my brother back into the pub on the threat of violence then turned on Spud. I told him that now was the time for a row if he wanted it and it was of his making not mine, so lets either shake hands and try to forget what had happened or get it on just him and me. I was fired right up and had him lined up for a haymaker if he wanted it, but thankfully, he apologised and we shook hands and returned into the pub to a cheer and relief from a lot of the lads. Because we had been so close for so long something between us snapped that night and things were never the same again between us.
Stag nights were becoming plentiful and on Stonch Stewart’s stag night, we had a blinder. We met in the Horse and Groom on Star Hill at about seven, in fact, I got there just after seven to find that Stonch and a few others had been there at six sharp and were glowing already. The cunning plan was to have a drink in every pub through Rochester to Chatham ending up in the Cabin Bar under the Army and Navy, next to the Town Hall. We had a few more in the Groom, and after organising a generous whip round headed of on our sortie. We left a trail of song sick and shagging, much more sick than shagging I might add as we lurched our way towards our destination. As the night drew on it had almost become a quest, nay, even a pilgrimage to get to the Cabin Bar. By the time we had reached the Long Bar our number had grown considerably, and amidst dares, dares and double dog dares we eventually reached the cabin bar all still in one piece, ready to chat up all the beautiful women that were certainly waiting for us in there. Unfortunately there weren’t that many interested in a pack of drunken wankers from Strood and Rochester, so no point trying to pose around these birds, we just carried on being a nuisance to all regardless but all in good fun. Fortunately for whatever reasons we got through the night with no trouble at all, until we went to the Wimpy bar. We all piled into the Wimpy in good humour and ordered whatever we wanted to eat when it was eventually my turn to order. I’ll just have a coffee mate please; I asked this Greek looking swarthy guy who was serving. The feller, who turned out to be the manager, said that I could only have a coffee if I ate something. Now my stomach was not in the mood for food so I repeated myself, only with a little more assertiveness. Just a coffee I don’t want anything to eat! You can’t have a coffee with no food came the same answer, and with that, he moved onto the next person in the queue.
Now I could feel the redness colouring up my face, and I interrupted the guy as he was taking the next order. “I’m talking to you mate, don’t walk away from me” I said, and continued, “What am I, invisible”. “I’m with this group and I want a coffee mate” I remonstrated. He then looked back at me with very dark uncaring eyes and told me in no uncertain terms to leave, and my answer was “fuck you, I don’t want any trouble mate just a fuckin coffee”. Someone offered to buy me a burger so I could have the coffee, but it had gone too far. The Greek said “he’s leaving”, and my immediate answer was, “only if you can put me out you c**t”, to which he picked up a plate and threw it like a Frisbee from about three feet away hitting me above the eye opening me up to the bone. The blood was instantaneous, and as my eyelid hung down over my eye it poured out of me, accompanied by great shrieks from the startled women in the café. Well I went bananas, I leapt over the counter, and in the narrow confines tried to get a good shot off at him, and as I backed him up, he suddenly turned turtle and ran. I followed and chased him up the stairs to the living quarters where he locked himself in. I kicked the door to pieces and found him hiding in a cupboard where I started to batter him. I wanted to seriously hurt him but was pulled off him by my mates who had followed me up the stairs.
Leaving the badly beaten manager lying on the floor I was coaxed downstairs with my mates begging for calm and repeating, until it sank in, that the police had been called and I should get away as fast as I could. I couldn’t get my head around any of this. All I wanted was a nice cup of coffee, was that too much to ask for. I must have looked a bit grim because there were gasps of horror as I entered the restaurant area again; I was covered in blood from head to toe and could only see out of one eye, when Hanger decided to head-butt me for spoiling the night. Once again, I had to be separated from my adversary, and only when Spud said “Dan we’ve got to get the fuck out of here”, I knew it made sense. Why the old bill hadn’t arrived earlier, I’ll never know, but when they did, I was gone. The manager never pressed charges, probably because he’d thrown the plate and injured me, I was thankful for that. One more visit to the hospital to receive more stitches from my very own angels, the nurses. There are some photo’s somewhere showing me playing at Stonch’s wedding with my eye all patched up the following night.
One night after a visit to my mums Denise and me were pushing Tracy our new daughter in her pushchair down Darnley Rd when we saw some trouble outside the Jubilee, I couldn’t see any punches being thrown, but there was a lot of noise and pushing and pulling going on, so we crossed to the other side of the road to get away from it. As we drew nearer, I could see that it was Terry Burton’s family. No sooner had I made that out, when I saw old Mr. Moon Terry’s grandad stagger away from the main group clutching his chest as he collapsed to the pavement. As no one had seemed to notice the old boy I ran back across the road to him with Denise shouting behind me that it was nothing to do with us, and to leave them alone. I shouted back to take Tracy home, and reached the old boy to see that he was in my opinion having a heart attack. I laid him out more comfortably, and lifted his neck to clear his airways and removed his false teeth. He had by now stopped breathing so I started chest massage, not knowing anything about the kiss of life in those days. Old Mrs. Moon was the first to see that there was something terribly wrong with her husband, and she started to beg me, Danny please don’t let him die. I shouted to Terry who was still arguing to go down to the callbox and ring for an ambulance, and when he realised the seriousness of the situation he eventually did. I sat there astride that old boy for what seemed an eternity, knowing in my heart of hearts that he was dead. I carried on with the massage and feeling his pulse and giving constant reassurance to the old girl and the rest of the family that he would be ok as soon as the ambulance arrived. Well when the ambulance did arrive the crew asked me to continue with what I was doing until they were ready to load him up, but the poor old chap was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. “You know” that family never spoke to me after that and some people said that they blamed me for his death. Maybe that was just gossip, but at that time I had such a chip on my shoulder I was ready to believe anything. It’s a funny old world, now I wouldn’t believe you if you told me the world was round.
Sometimes two things should never be united, and they were my brother and any vehicle with an engine. He gained a nickname, Looney. Not given lightly either. He couldn’t ride that scooter a Vespa gs anywhere other than flat out, even I thought he was as mad as a hatter. Our poor old mum was living on her nerves, one son it seemed was constantly in court and the other was doing his best to kill himself. The only time she got any real respite was when we were both with her. One Saturday afternoon we were all three sitting in my mum’s house when John for some reason had to go out somewhere. Dressed in his finest mod gear, beige suit Ben Sherman shirt and tie and as he shut the front door my mum repeated that she wished he would slow down a little getting no answer from him. I heard him kick start the machine and roar off across the path and down the road when almost immediately there was a huge crash. Mum shouted “oh my god “ and ran into the street leaving me glued to the chair afraid of what I might see if I too went out. By the time a few seconds had passed I was able to get up and followed mum, and looking down Darnley Rd I could see my brother John pulling the handlebars of what was left of the scooter up the road, and as mum reached him and assured herself that he wasn’t seriously injured started to hit him as she was crying calling him everything she could, and her having to be pulled off John by bystanders.
Apparently, he had attempted to overtake a bus travelling in his direction and hit a car head on sending him skywards only to land on the bonnet of a parked car on the other side of the road.
In the summer of 65, my brother got himself into trouble again, and the police had leant on a friend of his, Danny Daniels to make a statement as a witness for the prosecution. Well, nobody knew about this until I bumped into Danny in Rochester one afternoon and he blurted it all out. He told me that he wanted to withdraw the statement that he’d made, so I in one of my many moments of “legal wisdom”, decided that there was no time like the present, and we would go round to Rochester police-station to sort it all out.
Now Danny was on crutches and in plaster with a broken leg sustained I believe when he came off his scooter, so he was even less prepared for what was about to happen than I was.
As we were deliberating the problem with the desk sergeant in the foyer, I was convinced that Danny could retrieve his statement, (as it turned out I was wrong once again) and the desk sergeant pointed out that all Danny could do was make another statement, including why he had felt he should change it at all, and both statements would then be read out in court. Now during all of this the desk sergeant had asked us to leave on several occasions, and allow Danny time to deliberate what he should do, and to be honest I was beginning to see the sense of that argument when in came D.C. Jones with a real flea in his ear. (He had just heard on the radio that two detectives had been gunned down and killed as they approached a stationary car in east London) He asked the sergeant what was going on, and when it had been explained to him, he told us to fuck off out the station. Well things deteriorated very quickly from then on. While the desk sergeant had been restrained but firm in his argument and I could easily accept that, ginger Jones had waved the red flag to the bull. I verbally retaliated using the same sort of language in return, basically asking him who he thought he was talking to, and before we knew it the foyer had suddenly filled up with policemen and Ginger Jones charged us both with assault on a police officer. In fact he said to me, if you don’t fuck off I’ll book you for assault on a police officer. I told him that we were there on business that was fuck all to do with him and he immediately told the desk sergeant to book me and told me I was under arrest. Danny intervened by saying that I hadn’t touched anyone and Rivers said book him too, take em down. We were taken down to the cells like sheep, but not quite as innocent with me foolishly remonstrating that, as we hadn’t touched anyone the charge would never stick. But stick it did. My only regret after that was that I should have hit Jones and really hurt him but it was too late, but maybe not for the next copper.
My old mate Johnny West was eventually called to bail me out, and I sailed on into the sunset like a ship on rocky shores with no rudder.
While I was waiting to go to court for that offence my ship, would well and truly run aground.
I think that we’d been rained off from work for the day when I walked into the Prince of Wales in Strood and met up with an old friend of mine Kenny Dicker and he in turn had met his old friend Charlie Hawkes.
Now Charlie was the skipper/owner of his own commercial barge which at that precise moment in time was moored up at Tilbury Docks, and as the landlord was calling last orders at 2-30pm., Charlie invited Ken and me to go up to Tilbury on the train and sail back from there on his Barge to Rochester. What a lovely way to spend the rest of the day?
We wandered along Station Rd. with what sometimes can be described as a nice glow on our faces, and Ken and Charlie recanted old antics that they had got up to at school and in their early teens. When we got to the station, Charlie, probably in devilment and trying not to lose the mood, decided that we should try and get to Tilbury on the train without buying a ticket. I should have realised that I had been down this road long ago.
Charlie knew what time the train was due into the station so we waited outside until it was due in, then as soon as the train was due to stop we made a run for the waiting room on the London line. I suppose the plan was to arrive on the platform the same time as the train, but surprise the train was late and as we hung around in the waiting room, our troubles began.
Of course, we had been seen and of course, a porter was dispatched to check our tickets, a man I had never met before or since but I have never forgotten his name.
Leading porter Ralph. He had come along to do his job, nothing more or nothing less, but Charlie had other ideas. He walked into the waiting room to find Charlie peeing into the waist-paper bin, and that got us off to the worst kind of start. He was probably only going to ask us to produce our tickets, but seeing Charlie asked him just what he (Charlie) thought he was doing, and Charlie not stopping his pee said “pissing in this tin you c**t”, what do you think I’m doing. This obviously prompted Ralph to ask us to leave the station. The situation was still just under control, but Charlie lost it and doing up his zip verbally rounded on Ralph, asking him who the fuck he thought he was talking to and the whole thing deteriorated from there. Charlie went as though to physically attack Ralph, and knocked his hat off and Kenny, as quick as a flash wrapped Charlie up in a bear hug, and I grabbed Ralph and threw him out of the waiting room telling him to leave us alone for a minute, and while we were trying to pacify Charlie (when Ken and I spoke about this for years after, we could never see the sense in the way Charlie behaved) Ralph done the only thing that he could do and that was call the police. We were still calming Charlie down, still in the waiting room when a half a dozen British rail police appeared and asked us to accompany them to Rochester police station where we were all charged with assault on Ralph.
Ken and I could see a real problem arising where Charlie thought it was all slightly amusing. Me with form was out on bail awaiting trial for assault on a police officer, Ken had previous for G.B.H., which included prison, and things were going to get progressively worse.
During the time we were waiting for trial, Danny Daniels and yours truly had received a prison sentence at Rochester magistrates court for the fit up at the police station, Danny got three months and me getting six months and poor young Danny was still on crutches and just out of plaster! How on earth they thought Danny had done anything amazed me, but by then nothing should have surprised me.
More bad luck poured down on me, the prosecution had decided that there was enough evidence to bring an A.B.H. charge against us in the railway station case. So now I was in prison with Danny and me appealing against the sentence on the police charge, and me, with Ken and Charlie on the outside fighting the railway station charge, if that makes sense.
After about two weeks, I was whisked up to Rochester magistrate’s court to face the railway charge with Ken and Charlie, and it was decided that it would be best for us to go to trial. Charlie wanted his case heard there and then, but we had a good barrister, and he argued that we should all stand together. After all Ken was on a sticky wicket and I was in deep shit, while Charlie the instigator had no previous at all, and at worst was only going to face a fine.
While still inside for the first offence, we got our trial date, and also Danny’s and my appeal date had been confirmed at the same court and at the same time as the trial.
Twice I had been asked by our barrister to put someone’s name up for the assault on Ralph, but I didn’t see that as an option. He argued, and I could see the argument that it was going to look like at least one of us had assaulted Ralph, and if we all continued to plead not guilty then we were sure as hell to be all found guilty, and I would, as I was serving a sentence for assault on the police, get locked away for a long time.
Well the trial after another six weeks at Canterbury prison, finally got under way at Rochester quarter sessions. I travelled up on the Monday and it lasted all week By Friday we were still in deadlock. After all the legal wrangling as there usually is in these cases, the prosecution finally agreed to reduce the charges from ABH to assault, and the Judge threw out the abusive language charge that accompanied the assault charge on a technicality, and on Friday morning we had a meeting before we went into court. Our barrister stated quite frankly that I was certainly facing a stiff prison sentence if no-one pleaded guilty, and Ken was also likely to go to jail if found guilty. We all sat in silence until Charlie said, o.k. I’ll put my hands up, all I done was to knock his fucking hat off, I never hit him, these two stopped me!
Ken and I looked at each other in relief, and shook hands with Charlie and thanked him, and we all went up to face the music.
The jury, with Charlie pleading guilty quickly accepted our version of events that the small mark on Ralph’s neck that the whole case was based upon, was probably caused accidentally or by the rubbing of a stiff collar on his shirt, (the doctor who examined Ralph said that, not us) which was the truth, and found Ken and me not guilty, and for me that was one hell of a relief.
God only knows what might have happened to me if Charlie hadn’t come clean because what the judge said in his summing up really sent a chill down my back.
Our defence described a man (Charlie) that I had never known. He left school and was accepted as an apprentice into Chatham dockyard, where he left after his apprenticeship had finished and voluntarily joined the services in the Royal Marines where he had been highly decorated. After being wounded in action, he received a honourable discharge then went back to the yard as a tradesman, and later became one of the youngest captains to own his own vessel on the River Medway; he was a pillar of society.
Well the judge was obviously truly impressed with all of that, because he said in his summing up; Mr. Hawkes should have shown more restraint when it came to choosing his friends that day (looking down on Ken and me), and because it was only a poor lapse of judgement on Charlie’s part as to what happened, he fined him thirty pounds with no cost wishing him well. The bloody trial had lasted a week! God knows what might have happened to Ken and me if we had been found guilty…. Then came the appeal.
The judge dismissed the jury, and thanked them for their patience and turned to the case of Danny’s and my appeal. He pointed out to us that as he had sat on the case that had just finished, we had the opportunity here and now to ask for another appeal judge. Unfortunately, the earliest this could happen was the next quarter session in three months time. Danny and I asked for bail up to the period of the next sitting and were both refused. The choice was plain, accept him, or go back to jail and wait for the next quarter session. We immediately accepted him as our judge, and in half an hour or so Danny was set free, (not found not guilty, but the judge considered that he had served enough time for his “crime”) and I was sent back to finish my sentence by the judge after making it plain that he had seriously considered extending my sentence, but for the one fact that I had a young wife and baby he most certainly would have done.
On Danny’s and my arrival in Canterbury prison I was prepared for the worst, after all I’d been in detention and wondered what life was going to be like here my home for the next few months but I had no need to worry. Coming through reception, I could see that the two prisons were like chalk and cheese. Same sort of clothing but the screws were from a planet nearer to our own. They wanted as easy a job as possible but still tried and basically succeeded in keeping the regimentation. You had to do as you were told of course but without the iron discipline. I was put on B wing and moved into a cell sharing with a guy called Roy Sevenoaks who if I remember correctly was serving a seven year stretch for robbing a security van on blue bell hill with his mate John Saiker, not sure if the spellings right. Roy was a little pissed off when I was shoved in with him because I was the third person to be banged up with him that was doing a short sentence since he’d been in. he voiced his displeasure and I understood his argument but there was little or nothing either of us could do about it at the moment so we agreed to get on with it. He was a non- smoker as I was so that helped, and he kept a clean cell, which suited me, fine. He guided me through the early days and we slowly got to feel each other out, he explained that as far as sanitation was concerned you could use your bucket to piss in if you needed to but as far as taking a dump was concerned the unwritten law of the prison was ring the bell and make the screw let you go to the toilet. This again was no problem to me as there was plenty of time to go during the day and I certainly didn’t want to be shitting in a bucket in front of my cellmate. But then again the latrines were a long way away from home, sitting in a toilet that has been designed with only half a door with complete strangers leaning over the top asking you to hurry up and pinch it off doesn’t exactly give you much privacy either.
Roy had a lot of personal problems at home and wasn’t the easiest person to get on with but I understood and tried to be as amenable as possible, we had a few verbal’s but nothing serious. I soon learnt that losing a few days or even a week from your remission when doing seven years is not as serious as losing a week when you are by comparison only doing six months so I tip toed around him rather than visa versa. I managed without a great deal of difficulty to get on a work party, only sewing mailbags but it helped to pass the time and gave me a little pocket money. The first time I spent my meagre wages, just a few bob I bought sweets, but I soon realised the real currency back then was tobacco. For the smallest amount of “baccy”, you could open many doors and make life a little easier. For instance I wanted to get into the daily gym regime playing games like volleyball but that was mainly controlled by the long term-ers, but with a little help from Roy and a little baccy passing hands I was in. If I wanted a little extra food of some description I usually got it, or maybe a letter smuggled out, no problem. All the letters were censored back then but there were always ways and means. As I was appealing against my sentence I needed to send extra letters out bypassing the sensors, but legally we were only allowed one letter per week but a little baccy to the right red band got every letter out I wanted.
Once I got into my appeal and the case mentioned above with Ken and Charlie, I was taken up to Rochester every day and it really broke my sentence up. Even though my appeal failed it gave me something else to think about, not to mention the thought of the case concerning the station going wrong and the worry of an extended sentence.
We, Denise and I, like many other newlyweds had bought a new G plan three-piece suite and sideboard on hire purchase to go into our new flat in Queens Court Troy Town. Unfortunately I was now in prison and unable to make the payments and while I was giving the young Queen the benefit of her hospitality, Denise had just written to me to tell me that the finance company were repossessing it all because of non payment, no bloody wonder. “I was doing six months for a crime that hadn’t been committed”. When I read the letter, I completely lost it I was boiling. I asked to see the resident social worker to try and work out a way of keeping our meagre possessions but he was about as much use as a one legged man at a world arse kicking competition. He was a Welsh whiner, no not miner, who insisted on calling me, in a protracted manner, “Danieel”.
He whined on about how the social services weren’t able to get involved in these situations, and the best that he could do was “try” to get us some second hand furniture if the worst came to the worst. All I wanted him to do was write to the finance company explaining on my behalf that I would, in about six weeks or so be out and put a hold on their decision. When I got out I would do my best to catch up with the payments then no one would be the loser. But would he? No, he wouldn’t. He whined that it wasn’t in his jurisdiction to get involved in these types of cases. I blew up calling him just about every insult my tiny vocabulary could think of. And as I was being dragged away by the screws he openly cried begging me to forgive him and that it wasn’t his fault. I shouted that he didn’t have enough strength of character to clean shit off his own shoes, he would probably ask his mum to do it. That outburst got me two days bread and water, the finance company got my furniture, and poor old Denise sat on the floor until I got home. Well, I exaggerate slightly because she managed to get a couple of old country style armchairs from somewhere to sit on.
In the meantime during my appeal I had been bounced around the nick like a ping pong ball, I don’t know what its like today in “the berry” but I was settled into a five up after one visit to court and then later after a severe mauling in the dock in court in Rochester, brought back to Canterbury and put in a seven up at the top of the landing on the left. I had no intentions of staying there especially as Roy’s mad mate John Saiker had taken a serious dislike to one of its inmates. John had kicked this poor bloke from the seven up in the face as he, effendi climbed the stairs with his dinner in his hands, splashing the dinner everywhere. Later as effendi sat in his bottom bunk of “our 7 up “ Saiker came in and attempted to head-butt the guy as he sat on his lower bunk, but in his mad attempt missed and hit the steel cross member of the upper bed causing himself an injury that required quite a few stitches. I had no real interest in finding out why all this was going on, but I knew I must get out of this peter. I caused my own evection by slapping, (not seriously) el effendi thinking along the lines that he must be guilty of something. As I caused such a fuss I was taken out of the seven up and petered up with Mick Germany a Chatham boy and another mad lad from Folkestone A little firm that the screws split up as soon as they saw we were enjoying ourselves, if enjoying is the right word. Another thing that happened regularly was having your peter turned over. Every week or so the screws completely turned your cell over, a
l the bedding was hung out over the rails on the landing and the entire cell searched, I say entire, there wasn’t that much to search but they were very thorough, looking for weapons and or drugs. I know that this doesn’t happen on a regular occurrence nowadays, and with the drug problem as big as it is in prison I wonder why, maybe peace and quiet is the way forward.
Looking back as I write this it seems that I must have been walking around with a sign above my head saying “this tosser is begging for trouble”, but I know that I didn’t see it like that at the time, far from it but “oh to have the gift” etc. etc. etc.
On my release from prison, I made my way home on the train to Troy Town and our flat in Queens Court. Going up in the lift to the sixth floor and Denise opening our front door to me was a real pleasure. Tracy was standing down the hallway behind her mum and backed away as I came in not sure who this strange man was. Six month’s doesn’t seem that long to an adult but obviously to a child it’s forever, and as we spent the next few hours getting to know each other and letting my lovely little girl come to me, I started to feel the first real pangs of responsibility. I’m not sure that anyone could ever call me totally responsible, even now at fifty-nine, but that young man pales into insignificance with the comparison of me today. Some might disagree, but I know it to be true.
The first thing I found was that we were in serious financial difficulty. We had debts that I wasn’t aware of and I’m not prepared to go into details as to why, but it’s enough to say that we were. I went to see my old mate Johnny West and his new wife Steph to see if they could help me at all, and it’s times like that you find who your friends really are. They were of course young and struggling just like the rest of us, but even if they could have put five or ten pounds together it would have been great but I was in for a real surprise. They went into a conflab in the kitchen of their little flat and eventually appeared with a large whiskey bottle full of threpenny and sixpenny pieces. It was their holiday savings, and they insisted that I take it. They wouldn’t even count it because it wasn’t to be seen as a loan. How could I ever deserve friends like that? I carried the bottle home and Denise and I counted it on the floor, over thirty eight pounds, over five hundred pounds in today’s monies. I was still a considerable sum away from what we owed but I shall never forget that wonderful act of kindness.
I decided to try and borrow the rest from my old mum so off I went to see her.
M um was sympathetic, but insisted that I would have to ask Dad. The sum concerned was almost all they had, and as Dad controlled the bankbook, I would have to ask him. Would she ask him for me? The answer was an emphatic no; I would have to ask him myself. How could I ask the man that I had fought against almost all my life to lend me £50, almost all his meagre savings? It wasn’t going to be easy but I had no-where else to go.
I think I remember him being out the garden at the time. I walked out and stood awkwardly in the porch and we entered into small talk. We’d got on like a house on fire since I had left home which made it a little easier, so after a few minutes I eventually plucked up enough courage to ask him. What I remembered was the fact that he never batted an eyelid, and never considered asking what the money was for or how I would repay him. He simply looked at me as father’s do for a few seconds and nodded saying o.k. Give me a week to get the money and I’ll give it to Betty. My one regret as most son’s are I’m sure was that I never ever told him that I loved him, and during a conversation with my mum after my dads death a few years later on that very subject, she quite honestly told me that he knew I did. In fact, she told me not to be bloody daft; of course, he knew I loved him. I honestly remember thinking then that my children would never have that problem with me, so I made sure that they always knew that I loved them no matter what happened, and they reciprocated.
On coming out of Canterbury I had some serious thinking to do concerning the band, and one Saturday night I went along to see them with Dave Crane playing in my place at the Temple Farm Club, and I had to admit they were very good. Dave had changed the sound of the lead from a rounded bluesy sound that I played to a thinner Chet Atkins kinda sound and it worked. It gave the band a sharper more modern sound and made them sound tighter. I stood watching them and realised that the end had come for me with Johnny and it was now time to stand aside. Johnny quickly spotted me in the audience, and during the break came over with Stuart and Derek to chat over what was happening. Johnny said that Dave was prepared to step aside again as he had done while I was in Aldington and we could carry on as before but I cut him short. I told them what they already knew that Dave was a superb guitarist and it was time for me to go. Johnny and me had been together for over eight years but we all had to face up to my problem. I had become a liability as far as the band moving on was concerned, and I would never be able to play the way I had before I cut my hand. Stoneface would have to stay, (Dave’s nickname) and not for nothing, and with a lump in my throat I told them to go back up on the stage and play me out and they did getting me a huge applause. They went on to become one of the biggest country bands in the country and looking back I’m proud to say I once played lead with Johnny Young.
Shortly after I left the bass player Derek Chidention also left and my old school friend Bob Gibbs joined to take his place, but Bobs success with the band was going to be literally short lived. On the way home from a gig in London, in the same old Dormeville that the band had nearly turned over on the A4 when I was with them, they had a terrible accident.
Charlie Chester had stopped his Rolls Royce on the side of the A2 Medway bound for a pee when Johnny, who was driving the van crashed into the back of his car. Johnny was adamant that the car was parked on the side of the road with no lights on and with the back end poking out into the slow lane. The impact sent them spinning into the centre of the road when another car smashed into the van somersaulting it over. Johnny lay upside down, trapped in the drivers seat with battery acid pouring over him causing facial and upper body burns, but the real tragedy had been in the back, the car had struck just where Bob was sitting and killed him instantly. Stuart and Dave had also received injuries but luckily for them, they were walking wounded.
So the story goes, when the police arrived they eventually found Charlie who had left the scene. Recognizing him as a celebrity, they whisked him away from the scene of the accident, and we were led to believe by witnesses that he wasn’t even breathalysed. I wonder. One thing was for sure; Bob Gibbs left a lovely wife and family, and Charlie!
“ He was never prosecuted”
It’s difficult to put a finger on the exact time that I really met Peter Scully. He’s one of those characters that I feel I’ve known all my life, and indeed I had known him from the Prince Of Wales, but I think I seriously wandered into his space at about this time. He is something in the region of six years older than me, but back in the early sixties, he was one of the old crowd as far as I was concerned that drank and played cards in the public bar of the Prince. He had me sussed from day one whenever that was, always with his finger on the pulse and always kept his distance. He worked like a trogon, cheated at cards and would nick anything that wasn’t nailed down. He also chose his close friends carefully, and could also be counted on in times of trouble.
On the night of Wilf Clarkes stag night I met him in the Nags Head in Rochester, and agreed as he was going to the Prince of Wales where the party was himself, to walk through to Strood with him. Peter was and still is a keen crib player, and I was learning the game, so when we called into a pub, (almost everyone we passed) we had a game of crib which he duly won. I was a little miffed at constantly losing even though I knew he was a better player than me, and yes, we were playing for money so I was watching him like a hawk. Peter being Peter had a way of making you feel good even though you were losing, so I never got really bitter until we were walking across Rochester Bridge. As we crossed the bridge, he asked me if I had learned anything about cribbage that night, and I replied that I hadn’t but was confident that playing a better player would improve my own game. Wondering where we were going with this and feeling the demons in my head whispering things I didn’t want to hear I asked him. What are you trying to say? Peter went into deep thought and just before we went into the Prince he said “are you sure you never learned anything tonight,” no say’s I, getting more than a little defensive and agitated. Wondering what was coming I asked what should I have been looking out for, “cheating he said, fuckin cheating, the worlds full of cheats”…
Christmas’s were hard in the building trade, and being laid off from work a week before Christmas was the norm. You didn’t want it but you tried to prepare yourself for it. One particular Christmas when Denise and I were living at the flats in Queen Court I was brasic, I didn’t even have the price of a chicken for Christmas day when walking through Rochester high St., I heard Scully call out, “oi Lakey”. I turned to see Scully walking towards me with a kind of Irish gimp that he’d picked up while working with the paddy’s, and that infectious smile he has. We walked a while and exchanged pleasantries as you do; when he said come on, I’ve got to get me meat for tomorrow’s dinner. Well we wandered into a certain butchers that was packed with shoppers and got separated by the crowd. After a few minutes Peter appeared and asked if I had got my meat and I replied no, I fuckin told you I was skint I answered, embarrassed to say that in front of all these shoppers. What! Don’t be so daft, that old butcher wont see you go without tomorrow will he, and reaching into the shop window in front of all the gob smacked customers he helped himself to a lump of pork and a lump of beef and stuck them into a carrier bag I was carrying. He said loudly so the people around him could hear,” he wont miss that will he, take that home to that wife and baby of yours”. You can’t be without for Christmas. And that was Peter Scully. Mad as a hatter, heart of gold and the cheek of a thousand thieves.
Just after Christmas I started working for Uno on a large site in Murston Rd. Sittingbourne, with a great gang of lads. Gerald Jones, Peter Marwood, his brothers Spud and Lenny, Knuckles (Ian Canning) Ron Batchelor, Roland Bradley, Roger Gash, Mickey Jarret, Midgey Lee an old gypsy who was a pipe-layer, John Hanger, my brother John and many more, and every day was wind up day. Don’t get me wrong, we all apart from Gashy worked hard for Uno. He on that site, if I remember rightly spent most of his time making glad eyes at some young local girl, but then he was younger than us. Even Denise’s oldest brother Tony worked on that site before he went to Australia driving a JCB.
One day Tony found himself digging and came across what he thought was a really hard bit of ground, so he kept trying to dig to the depth he was required to dig to when the ground where he was digging just disappeared beneath his bucket, leaving a deep hole. When the investigation was complete, Tony found that he had been sitting on top of a huge hole, over a hundred feet deep by twenty feet in diameter. The reason the ground on top of the hole hadn’t collapsed entirely was there was a nine-inch thick convex brickwork dome over it, and that’s what Tony had been parked on patiently trying to dig through. Howard’s, the main contractors eventually filled it up with a mixture of concrete and hardcore. What the hole was for or why it had been built we had no idea, but Tony had been bloody lucky.
An old local Victorian newspaper, (just one sheet folded into quarters) was pulled from the hardcore one day, and I’ll never forget one of the stories.
A feller who lived on the Isle of Sheppy had been working in Milton across the river, and missing his ferry crossing in the evening after work he decided to take a rowing boat and row back across to Harty on the other side of the river. The next morning he rowed back and tied the boat up in the same moorings, but unfortunately, he’d been seen. He was charged and sentenced to five years penal servitude to be served in the colonies. Black slave labour may have been abolished, but white slave labour never was.
Ron Batchelor (who was later killed in a terrible accident at Littlebrook power station) was about ten years older than us, and although he was a really nice bloke that everyone liked, was personally a very serious man. This lot that were working on that site were very good workers but could never stop having the “crack”, so there was always somebody that was the butt of the joke no-matter who you were. So, you can imagine the row that broke out in the canteen one morning when Ron couldn’t find his brand new pair of working boots. He had searched everywhere thinking they had been hidden, and was a little more than totally pissed off when one of the contractors pointed out to Ron that his new boots were nailed to the ceiling joist’s with six-inch nails. If Ron could have found out who had done it for certain, (he had a good idea but wanted someone to verify it) he would have killed. After pulling his boots down, he threw them through the window, and stormed off the job never coming back for a fortnight.
Peter told me that Scully was coming down for a few shifts to help us out with a large concrete pour that was going to happen, and he did. As I said he was a really hard worker and made the job that much easier. Anyway, we finished late one evening, young Roger Gash, Scully and me. We’d stayed behind to finish something or other and didn’t get away until after seven so we walked down to the station to get the train home. Being Scully getting a ticket was out of the question, so we pocketed the money that Uno had given us for our fare and scampered onto the train, landing, lo and behold in the buffet car. There was one person in the car leaning against the bar drinking a small beer. He was suited and booted and was quite rightly interested in these three young (to him) lads in working clothes covered in concrete. Well we waited for about two minutes for the steward to come and serve us when Scully looks behind the bar and comes up with three beers. We quickly opened the bottles and drank the contents when as the steward still hadn’t come he proceeded to help himself again. What this guy standing in the corner of the bar was thinking I can only imagine, but there you are. Come on says Scully were coming into Chatham, and as we drank the dregs from our bottles, the steward appeared. I hope you don’t mind mate Peter say’s to the steward, but you weren’t about so we helped ourselves, he continued as the train was slowing down. How many bottles have you had said the concerned steward, six Peter replied, put them on my tab, and as the train came to a stop he motioned for us to get off, come on he said, lets get going, and as the steward stuttered something he lifted the lid covering the British Rail sandwiches and took a hand full, tomorrow’s breakfast he shouted back from the platform, and uncontrollably giggling we clambered down the side of the track and over the concrete fence. He really was a one off.
Uno and me after a night out in Chatham were sitting talking in his new car, a ford executive outside the Kings arms in Rochester when a couple of Indian guy’s came walking past worst the wear for drink. I don’t think that they saw us sitting in the car because one of them took his belt off and struck my door several times with the buckle before I was able to get out. As I remonstrated with him, Uno got out as two more Indians had came up the road. This particular Indian guy was swinging this heavy belt buckle at me, and as he swung I grabbed it and pulled him onto a haymaker dropping him like the proverbial. As that happened his mate and the other two who had joined us retreated down the street and started throwing milk bottles at me and Uno and his brand new car. This quickly developed into a mini riot, ending up with about ten Indians throwing anything they could find at me and Uno’s car, Uno decided that it was best to get out of the “rain” and hid behind the sidewall of the pub while I bayed defiance and threw anything back I could. By the time the police arrived, and they always did, I had sustained a few knocks, but Uno’s car had been wrecked. After they took a few statements from “the audience”, they arrested four of these Indian lads and took them away. That made a nice change. “Wrong again.”
On the day of the case, when Uno and I went to court as witnesses for the
Prosecution, we were charged with the brand new Race relation’s law on the courtroom steps. We couldn’t believe it; it was like something from a Brian Rix farce. The four poor little Indians blokes were charged with disturbing the peace and fined five pounds each with five weeks to pay. Uno’s car had been wrecked and that’s all they got. We got our turn in the dock charged with violating the race relation bill and also disturbing the peace. Uno got twenty-five pounds fine, which he wrote a cheque out in court for, and yours truly because of my previous convictions was fined fifty pounds, and when I asked to pay my fine at a pound a week, the same as the Indian lads because I had commitments such as a family to keep, I was told to pay at five pounds per week.
On the surface, I was a likeable easy going lad with a smile to boot, but underneath I had become a very embittered man with so much baggage I was hardly able to carry it. I had had to go to my father to borrow fifty pounds through no fault of my own, and these judgmental bastards!! They had just seen fit to just simply take it away purely for political reasons. I wasn’t racially prejudice, Christ; Johnny West was my second cousin and one of my very best friends and his grandad was a Francis a West Indian. I hated it when people called him “sambo” and always spoke out against it sometimes getting into trouble. John would tell me to take no notice but I couldn’t ignore it because I knew it hurt him. I had worked beside Indians and Afro’s, and it made no never mind to me what colour skin a person had, but the race relations bill was to change all of that for me, and millions of others.
I had started drinking in the Eagle public house in Military Rd. in Chatham. There was a huge crowd of us, specially on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, and it was nothing in those days to walk in there and see old Kelly the barmaid, serving and at the same time (always with a huge smile) telling someone off (usually Hanger) for swearing or some such, and us lot singing our hearts out to the tune of loving feeling by the Righteous Brothers or any other popular tune of the day. The jukebox was the cheapest in the towns, threpence a go or five for a shilling, spoiling us for putting more than that in any other machines in the town. A whole host hang out there in the back bar at that time. Brian Pound, Norman Batchelor, Steve Thomsett, Brian Page, Roland Bradly and many, many more. One Christmas Eve lunchtime word went around that there was going to be a fight outside the pub between Freddy French and some big Irishman, so we all piled outside to watch. In those days all the bus stops were in Military Rd. and the queue’s at the bus stops were enormous, I say this because the fight was about to take place right in front of all the waiting shoppers at the 140 bus stop, the one for Darnley Rd. Just when I thought I was the lad and I could handle myself I saw that I was only a novice. I don’t know what the row was over but what I saw was Freddy dressed smartly in a suit trying to calm the big fellow down, who with his jacket off and his shirt unbuttoned to the waist was ready for action. Fred was trying to reason with him about the fact that there were women and children here and it was Christmas and nobody wanted to fight, but Paddy was having none of it and took a swing a Fred. Well I always secretly thought that a lot of my armourment so to speak was in my speed, but what I saw that day made me realise that if I wanted to go down this rocky road I had a long way to go. Freddy hit the big feller with a crisp right hand sending Paddy down, but before he hit the ground Fred hit him five or six more times cutting him to ribbons. Paddy lay bleeding in front of the startled crowd, (not receiving much sympathy) with all of the fight knocked out of him. Another bloke that was with Fred gave the prostrate Irishman a half hearted boot and Freddy turned on him, pushing him away and warning him in no uncertain terms, never to do that to anybody that he (Fred) fought. Freddy then turned and pushing his way through the by now large crowd, calmly walked away. Now I thought. That was class.
One Friday evening we all piled in the Eagle straight from work, and by the time eight o’clock came around we’d had a few between us when I realised that I was playing in the Northgate that night, so ordering a cab I set off for the gig as fast as I could. When I got there still in my working clothes, it was pointed out that a newspaper reporter was there to do an article on the band and to take some photographs. Well I was tidied up and hidden behind the rest of the band and the photo’s were taken, and although Ingham the landlord wasn’t best pleased at the time everything worked out and the newspaper reporter went away a happier man after we played him a couple of his favourite tunes.
I was working for Charlie Clarke on the lines, building the new homes for the servicemen up there, when one Friday morning Charlie and Foxy Johnson went missing. They had crept off to the pub after Charlie had been paid, (it was all cash in hand in those days), and as they had gone one way down to Brompton, the most of us went the other way over to Gillingham for a pint in the Falcon. We had a few pints and went back to work when we saw Foxy lurking just outside the site perimeter fence. Wilf, Charlie’s brother went over to see what Foxy wanted and was told Charlie had got pissed and blown every-ones wages on the horses in the bookies. Well that went down like the Titanic. Uno, who as I previously said had worked for Howard’s in the past was also working for Charlie at the time and was asked to go into the main site office to have a pow- wow with Howards the main builders bosses who agreed to make sure that we would all get paid out of Charlie’s retention, a percentage of money that was taken from Charlie’s wage, held for six months for security against bad workmanship then returned to him.
One other Friday lunchtime, a few of the lads had decided to go down to the Carpenters Arms in Brompton, and I agreed to take them all down in the skip of a big dumper that was used on site. In the skip were Benny Bishop, Roland Bradly, Tom and Ebby Terry, Foxy and Wilf Clarke. Well it’s a miracle that nobody got seriously hurt that day, because I was driving flat out and tried to execute a u-turn outside the Carpenters in the road and turned the dumper over on its side spilling everybody out. O’h there were plenty of cuts and bruises but luckily nothing really serious. My biggest worry was getting caught by old Hoppy Jack Philsall the site agent and getting the sack, but we all managed to tip the dumper back onto its wheels, and leaving a puddle of diesel in the middle of the road coupled with blood and skin I drove off with a load of verbal abuse behind me from the walking wounded, I got out of there as fast as I could.
Another frightening thing that happened to me was down at the Rose and Crown in Leysdown. Quite a crowd of us had gone down there for the evening, when Unkie Palmer came back from the toilet the worse for a beating, and as fighting wasn’t Unkie’s thing everyone was quite upset. He told us that a couple of blokes had picked on him for nothing at all in the toilets outside, and after he had seen them cross the car park and was getting into a mini. As one, we rushed out into the car park which was packed, and sure enough there they were boxed in and waiting for someone to let them out. We, numbering about fifteen and baying for blood, descended onto the car, and as soon as the two in the car saw us, they started to ram their way out. I reached into the open window, grabbed the driver of the moving car, and tried to pull him out, but he was doing a very good impression of a limpet, and clung onto the steering wheel for blue murder. Suddenly I had a shotgun pushed into my face by a hysterical passenger. He was screaming for me to back off or he would kill me, and at the same time the rest of our lads were pressing me further into the car with some of them reaching over my shoulder trying to grab the gun, and the others not realising that a gun was involved kept scrimmaging in. I was convinced that he would shoot and I just wanted to disappear but it was all I could do to stop the car running over my feet. It seemed an eternity as I was pinned to the car moving backwards and forward with this baying pack on my back, but suddenly the mini lurched forward as the driver managed to shunt the car out of the way that was blocking them in, and with several of us escaping what might have been serious injuries they drove off. Oh, there were a brave few that wanted to get into our cars and take up the chase but I certainly wasn’t one of them. We eventually wandered down to the Sea Horse and on to the Nuts Farm club wondering who owned the damaged car left behind in the car park. We never did find out.
One night shortly after that, I was walking through Rochester High St. with Mole and
Doreen Kemsley (my old next door neighbour, nee Welfare) with a few other people when I attracted the wrath of the gods once more. I was leaning against a car doing my shoelace up when a voice boomed out from a flat above the street, asking me what the fucking hell I thought I was doing and to get away from the car. Once again, someone got the benefit of my colourful Darnley Rd. reposts, and before I knew it he was in the street demanding satisfaction. He was quite a big chap and no mug when it came to fisticuffs, and we danced around throwing punches at each other. We each had received a few knocks and bruises for our trouble, but it wasn’t an ugly fight, one of those that usually end up with both of the protagonists out of breath and shaking hands when they had worn each other out, but before that could happen PC plod turned up. The guy who I had been fighting never wanted to press any charges, and I certainly didn’t, and after the police took a few statements we shook hands and we all went our merry ways.
On our way home, and as it was a lovely night we decided to go swimming at the Rochester swimming pool down the Esplanade, where we would climb over the wall and skinny dip for a while, but there was already a large crowd of lads in there larking about and as we couldn’t make out any of the faces in the darkness, and having Doreen with us to worry about, we decided to quietly hop over the wall and nick their clothes instead, so over went Mole and passed as many piles of clothes over the wall as he could quickly find, and as we then had their clothes and with Mole back on the safe side we roared at them to get out and we ran off in howls of laughter. We didn’t keep their clobber but if they found it all after we scattered them up the Esplanade they were very lucky. I do hope that they never had far to go home.
I had totally forgotten all about the scuffle in the High St. until about two months later when I answered a knock at the door, I found two policemen standing there with a warrant for my arrest over the scuffle. I was charged with assault and disturbing the peace, and when I said that the other guy wasn’t pressing charges, and in fact had shaken my hand as we parted, they told me that this was a police prosecution and nothing to do with him. Here we go again, another bloody fit up.
None of this made sense to me, I might have been a handful, but the world that I lived in was full of people like me, all to a greater or lesser degree trying to make their mark on the world. I must have seemed easy meat to the police, but I felt that they were trying to crush the life out me; all they had succeeded in doing was making me worse and worse. I had got to the point where I could have quite happily, and did punch them for the slightest thing and just accept the punishment even though one of my very old friends, a lad I had battled with in Strood Hill School, became a copper. He would have understood real law and order, where taking the moral ground was more important than the courts of law.
Unfortunately, today nobody is responsible for anything. If they steal, they can blame drugs, when they fight and stab or shoot each other they can claim they were only defending themselves or they were in a drugged or drunken state. People’s “excuses” are given credibility because now we “have to listen” to them. In those far off days, if you had used the fact that you had drunk too much in front of the Magistrate Mrs. Grieveson, she would have been horrified. She would have added to your sentence for drinking more than two pints.
I honestly think that I would have ended up in less than half the trouble with the law had I been a young man of today, maybe even none at all, but then, the chap who I’d read about in that old Victorian newspaper, who got five years penal servitude for borrowing the boat would probably thought that I was getting off lightly as well.
As I waited for my case to be read that day I watched as a little old lady dressed in black with a black bonnet and veil get a heavy fine for not owning a current TV licence, and from then on I was convinced I was going to get some form of incarceration, but when I stood up in front of the beak and he asked me if I realised the full consequences of my actions, and what made me keep re-offending? I was able to give some form of reason, as weak as it was, and as my long suffering pregnant wife watched I got a six month jail sentence suspended over two years. That I thought was a real result, and it was the start, just the start of the rest of my life. All this and just twenty three years old.
Was this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?
My eldest son Sean was born later that year, and within another year, we’d moved to a lovely house in Laburnum Rd. Strood which I eventually bought from the council.
I cant say back in those early days that I wasn’t ready for marriage because I’m not sure I am even now, but Denise and yours truly eventually separated and she divorced me a few years later, basically because of my constant infidelity. She was a good wife and mother to our two lovely children, and although it was very hard for her in those early years I can say we are still friends and am still convinced I done the right thing. I honestly feel that she deserved a medal for putting up with me for as long as she did. She was a typical lovely young woman of the time, a reluctant hot pants wearer! (That’s another story,) and she probably argued against all my knockers that said, quite rightly, don’t waste your time on that bastard, but there’s nothing so blind as love. I honestly feel that separation was the best thing for both of us, certainly her.
I met Lynne, who is another real beauty after I left Denise, but she was a psychologically stronger and more controlled person who has fought hard and long to control the reigns, and after a lot of consideration agreed to marry me in 1975. Daniel my youngest son was born to Lynne in 1983, (four days before my first grandson Mark) and I swore that I would try and give him a better chance in life than I, or my first children had had. You should ask him if I succeeded, he’ll probably say no.
I cant say I’ve ever been completely settled, there’s always been a destructive element in me that would somehow be ready to appear when things were looking too good, it’s as though I’ve carried a self destruct button around all my life, occasionally giving it a press just to see what might happen.
I’ve always been told that I drink more than I should and it’s probably true, which has been an outlet for the demons within. Of course, drink would aggravate my lifelong battle with the establishment and bureaucracy, causing me to constantly lock horns with both. If you have read all this and think that I’m some sort of hard case, read again. The only persons that I’ve really been hard on are my family and me.
Financially I have been a failure with a lifetime of “only ifs,” oh I’ve had plenty of opportunities having had several companies, but that same old button kept being pressed. I eventually ended up doing what I always wanted to do, and that was to become a carpenter, in my case a cabinetmaker in my own workshop. Riches can be measured in many ways, and regarding family and friends, I have a chest full of jewels with memories of most of them leaving me with an inner contentedness.
Chris Kristofferson once described Rambling Jack Elliot as a walking contradiction partly truth and partly fiction taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home. Well I’ve known a lot of men like that, and I certainly fall into that category.
All things must pass…. The great George Harrison