My Childhood – Carefree Days In Clerkenwell
Perhaps I am mistaken, but I seem to remember many carefree days in Clerkenwell. There seemed to be many long, sultry, London summers during my childhood. On gloriously sunny days, we had no garden where we could sit outside, relax, and enjoy the warm sunshine. How poor Mamma must have missed the warm climate of Italy, the beautiful countryside, and the magnificent mountain views. She had traded all that for the soot and grime of the grey London streets.
Sometimes after school as a special treat, Mamma would tell me to go and sit at the top of the stairs by the open window. Shortly afterwards, Mamma would climb the stairs carrying a tray with a steaming pot of tea, cups and saucers, and some delicious freshly baked bread spread with margarine and jam. This always used to taste so divine, our equivalent to a real “Devonshire Tea”.
My playground was out on the street. I have very fond memories of my dear old friend the policeman who used wait at the top of Little Saffron Hill. When all the children came out of school he would see them safely across the main road. He always seemed so very tall and strong, I felt so safe when he gently held my hand with his white-knitted gloves. He seemed to have a soft spot for me, with my curly black hair, big dark eyes, and my limp which caused me to wear a special built-up shoe. He gave me the nickname of “Topsy”.
We children had nowhere else to play other than out on the streets which echoed with our voices and laughter. There was a swing garden in Middleton Street, but this was too far away and I was not allowed to go there on my own. So, basically my playground was Little Saffron Hill. On summer evenings we children would be allowed to play outside until dusk. In those days people left their doors open or unlocked. People could walk about at any time of day or night without the fear of being mugged or attacked.
At the bottom of our street we would hear the Brewer’s dray pulling, laden with beer barrels, pulling up by the Coach and Horses Pub. I can recall the distinctive clip clopping of the mighty horses’ iron-shod hooves as they clattered on the cobble stones, and the jingling of the harnesses as the mighty horses jostled one another. The Royal Mail carts could be heard thundering down Farringdon Road. Sometimes the horses would stop at the drinking trough opposite Ray Street.
Often we would climb up the iron girder supports and fire escape in Leicester Place, pretending that they were blocks of flats, and here we would play “mothers and fathers”. To the back of the houses was the courtyard of Victoria Dwellings, the entrance to which had an old squeaky gate. We would love to swing on this and annoy the neighbours, especially poor Mrs. Finella who would come out and shout at us. Sometimes we would mischievously play tricks on other neighbours by tying people’s door knockers together, and by ringing the presbytery door bell and then running off . A few of the boys would annoy ice cream sellers and end up getting hollered at and chased away. However, we rarely got into any serious trouble. At other times we would just sit quietly on our door steps reading our comics,“Tiny Tots” and “Playbox”, or we would let our imaginations run wild and tell each other magical stories.
Boys played football, often with a handmade ragball, or, if once and a while fortunate, with a proper rubber ball. They would kick the ball up and down the cobble stones of Back Hill, or under the bridge in Warner Street. A pile of jersey’s sufficed as goal posts.
We girls played ball games whilst chanting …… “One, Two, Three O’Lairy, My Ball’s down the airy, Don’t forget to give it to Mary, On a Sunday Morning.” And some of our rope skipping rhymes ..…… “Salt, Mustard, Vinegar, Pepper”, and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich man, Poor man, Beggar man, Thief”.
I would always be left to turn the rope as I couldn’t skip properly with my bad leg. When passers saw me, they would sometimes feel sorry for me and give me h’appenies and pennies. I soon learned to use this to my advantage, and I used to go down to the sweet shop to spend my earnings. We called the shop “Gella’s” (which was run by an old Italian lady, Mrs. Gasparro). I would fill myself up with sweets, and Mamma could not understand why I was never very hungry at dinner times. Sometimes I would keep a paper bag concealed under the dining table into which I would cunningly conceal any the food that I didn’t want to eat. Otherwise I would discreetly feed it to our dog Patsy. Indeed, I was one of Mrs. Gasparro’s best customers, and she used to call me “Deenah”.
In those days you could buy quite a few sweets for just a farthing. In her shop there were shelves stacked high with jars displaying many different types of sticky sweets of different shapes and sizes, some boiled and some chewy. Here are a just a few:There were long strips and laces of Spanish Liquorice in black and red; aniseed-flavoured Black Jacks that would stain your mouth black; stripey Humbugs and Everton Mints; pink and white sugary coconut Ice; bubble gum; sticks of rock; multi-coloured lollipops; chocolate drops with 100’s and 1000’s on top; chocolate bars; sweetie cigarettes; slabs of toffee that had to be smashed into pieces with a hammer; sticky toffee wrapped in newspaper; tigernuts; wafers with a card of a film star inside; nougat; peanut brittle; fudge; flying saucers filled with sherbet; marshmallows; sherbert powders; into which you dipped your finger and sucked off the fizzy powder. Gob-stoppers that would change colour as you sucked them. We children delighted in taking them out of their mouths to see what the colour had changed to.
There was a large jar which contained “lucky dip”sweets. For one penny you could have four dips. If you were successful in selecting a sweet with a ticket hidden in the wrapper, you would get an extra sweet for free. Jelly babies were a great favourites, and my specialty was to spit on them, and then stir the mixture around and around in the palm of my hand to make a deliciously sticky, gooey jelly which I would then lick off!
After a wedding we would scramble around on the steps of St. Peter’s looking for strewn sugared almonds or coins. We played with the rice and confetti pretending we’d just got married. So much for hygiene in those days! Still it seems a little bit of dirt and grime didn’t do us too much harm; however, I am sure that all this sugar was good for our teeth as it resulted in painful visits to the dentist in later life.
As I was the youngest child in our family, I was far more fortunate than my older brother and sister. When my sister Rosie (Rosina), and brother Berto (Roberto) had left school and were out working, they would sometimes treat me to little presents. Rosie worked in a toy factory which was quite fortunate for me.
As a little girl I had a true love of dolls, and had 13 in total! Some of the dolls’ faces were very delicate and made of china. I always wanted a black baby doll, and eventually Rosie bought me one. One of my dolls was double-jointed, and over the years the elastic holding its limbs began to perish and become slack. Its legs dangled in an ungainly fashion, and the head would wobble uncontrollably from side to side. Eventually, I handed this doll on to my younger cousin John, who took a liking to it when he visited our house. I can still picture little John carrying the doll away down the street with its legs comically dancing and clanking along.
I was also lucky enough to own a toy pram with high handles. It was my pride and joy. Papà put his skills to good use and made me a beautiful doll’s house. Each room was illuminated by small electric bulbs, and powered by a battery.
I inherited an old folding scooter from my brother. I was renowned as being quite fearless at this time, as despite my gammy leg, I would scoot off down the hill at high speed.
Indeed, I was a bit of a dare devil, at home I would delight in descending the stairs, not in the convention manner, but by sliding down the banister rail. I would love to scramble out of a window and escape onto the flat roof belonging to the kitchen of Ted’s Café.
Berto once made a splendid cart out of old wooden packing boxes and some old pram wheels with ball-bearings, and a piece of string which was to steer the front wheels. He was very proud of his handiwork. One day he decided to take me for a ride, seating me in the back, behind him. Off we went, careening down the bumpy, cobblestoned hill. There must have been a flaw in the design as we lost control, and crashed into the large iron bollard at the bottom of the road. I was thrown out of the vehicle and severely banged my head. Bawling my eyes out, I staggered home to Mamma. When Papà discovered what had happened, he was so furious he took a chopper, to poor Bob’s dismay and hacked the cart into pieces.
Once in a while some gypsies would frequent our area with their horse and cart which had a little roundabout on the back of it. Before they would set the roundabout turning they would wait for enough children to fill up all the rides.
One day I eagerly paid my money and sat on the roundabout waiting for it to commence turning; however there were not enough young customers forthcoming, so the gypsies started to move their horse and cart a little way up the road in search of more kids. At that moment I began to panic, and my heart was in my mouth, as I recalled reading comic stories about gypsies stealing little children away!
I always wanted a “fairy cycle”. Every Christmas I would ask Father Christmas to bring me one; however, time after time I was left disappointed. Mamma said the Father Christmas couldn’t fit it down our chimney. I puzzled over how he had successfully managed to get them down other people’s chimneys! In reality, it was probably because my family couldn’t afford to buy me one, or it may have been that my father thought that it would not be suitable for me to ride one with my disability. In my early teens, however, it seemed that my luck had changed as I won a bike as a prize in a raffle. Despite my bad leg I did manage to ride it, but somehow couldn’t quite master turning corners; so I was only allowed to ride it up and down Little Saffron Hill. One day there was a big commotion in the neighbourhood as news had got around that a girl had been knocked down in Farringdon Road. Papà immediately feared the worst thinking that it was me. He rushed out in search of me, I remember his face as white as a sheet! After this terrible fright, even though I was safe and sound, he insisted that I give away my treasured bike.
My brother Berto once bought a magic lantern. He used to take this to his friend’s house, the Sartori’s, where they had a very long, wide corridor. A large sheet was hung up for a screen. Here Berto used to set up chairs and boxes, and would put on a film show for the kids in the neighbourhood, charging an entrance fee of 1d per child. I can remember the smell of paraffin as Berto turned the handle and the magic images danced on the screen.
At the corner, at the end of Exmouth Market in Skinner Street was the domed Globe Cinema, formerly known as “The People’s Picture Playhouse”, which first opened in 1913. An advertisement that announced the grand opening read: “Come and see the latest and most perfectly projected pictures in the world, in one of London’s most comfortable and up-to-date theatres” ….. “Perfectly Heated!”, “Perfectly Ventilated!” And “Perfectly Seated!‘.”
Here, every Saturday morning there was a performance, especially for us children, called the “Saturday Morning Rush” (also known as the “Tuppenny Rush”) as it only cost a few pennies to get in. We kids, however, nicknamed it “The Flea Pit” and “Bug ‘House” or its Italian version “La Pi-Pi”. We would boisterously queue outside waiting for the doors to open at 10 o’clock, when we would surge inside to buy our tickets and a ha’penny would buy us some sweets or a bag of monkey nuts. Some of the boys would try to get in for free by sneaking through the back door. In any case, the place was always packed out and often we would have to squash in two to a seat.
Each week we watched a selection of children’s adventure films, comedies and cartoons. These were often serialised into “shorts” and inevitably finished on a cliff-hanger, keeping us waiting in suspense until the next Saturday to find out what had happened. The following week the hero or the heroine of the film always managed, by some strange stroke of luck, to have the ability to resolve his or her problem or dilemma in no time at all, only to find themselves in yet another tight spot by the end of another edition.
Other cinemas in the area included the Avenue Picture Palace on Rosebery Avenue and the Angel and The Victory in Theobald’s Road. My sister Rosie used to love going to the pictures – She would have gone every day if she had had the chance, the silver screen was a cheap refuge from the harsh realities of life. She especially loved the romantic musicals and her favourite actors were the “American Singing Sweethearts”, Nelson Eddy and Jannette MacDonald.
The cinemas put on continuous performances from 2 pm until 11 at night. During those hours you could visit the cinema, pay your money and stay as long as you wanted. Rosie would sometimes treat me by taking me with her and would buy me a big bag of sweets to suck on during the performance. I don’t know why, but I would always seemed to suffer from a headache afterwards and on arriving home Rosie would send me next door to Ted’s Café and we would share a cheese and pickle supper to round off the evening. I can remember all the glamorous film stars of that era such as Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Mae West, Claudette Colbert, Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy. Then there were the male stars such as William Powell, Clerk Gable, Garry Cooper, the dancing couple Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and of course the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. The film I remember most clearly is “Pennies from Heaven” which started Bing Crosby.
Our family couldn’t afford to go on holidays, but occasionally Rosie and our Aunties would take us on a family day out. We would set off by train to the seaside, sometimes Leigh-on-Sea, Southend, or maybe Brighton. When we arrived at the coast the grown-ups would hire some deck chairs on the beach, and I would paddle and splash about in the sea. After this I was famished and we’d all enjoy a lovely picnic lunch. I used to love to gaze at all the wonderful things in the shop windows and one time took a fancy to a lovely rocking horse I saw on display – I had always longed for one.
One year my twin cousins, Lina and Lino, and I were sent on a children’s holiday in the countryside that had been organised by the church. We were in fact sent to a convent school which was set in huge country grounds. Having always lived in the urban environment of Clerkenwell we felt like fish out of water in these alien surroundings. We were shown to the dormitories where we were to sleep, there were curtains surrounding the beds. As night fell and we lay in our beds our fears seemed to amplify as we listened to the strange and eerie noises coming from outside. We imagined there were bears and wolves in the woods and that bats would fly through the open windows and get entangled in our hair. We hardly got a wink of sleep while we were there. We were not well acquainted with cows and other farmyard animals and when we were sent to play outside we took to our heels and ran madly like the wind. We thought the bulls, cows and sheep would chase us and devour us whole, and we imagined wild lions and tigers lying in wait in the undergrowth.
We wrote letters to our parents asking them if we could come back to the safety of London. The nuns were not best pleased and foiled our early escape by confiscating our notes. However I remember one kind nun who would come up to the dormitory late at night and bring us presents of apples in an attempt to cheer us up and win us over. Needless to say, we never chose to holiday there again.
Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner. Images marked * are in the Public Domain.
All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself – © Louise Shapcott