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Scenes by the River 1940: Childhood Memories of East Londonicon for Recommended story

by Thanet_Libraries

Contributed by 
Thanet_Libraries
People in story: 
Arthur Napier
Location of story: 
The Marshes, Edmonton N18, Walthamstow E17
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A2777907
Contributed on: 
24 June 2004

SCENES BY THE RIVER 1940 Mr. A. H. Napier

“It’s a Spitfire after an Me 110”, Arthur enthused.

It was August 1940, and we were on summer holidays. Not that we’d spent much time at school in the year since war had been declared. We’d come back from being evacuated to find most schools closed. Now the bombing had started and we were treated to dog-fights in the skies above us. Everyone was obsessed with these air battles, and this had given rise to Arthur’s latest craze. The rest of us dutifully looked up with appropriate oohs and aahs, and then sidled off, leaving fifteen people craning their necks and searching the skies for a figment of Arthur’s imagination.

The four of us were still enjoying our deception as we passed the gasworks en route to a day spent on the nearby marshes. We crossed the river on our way. Just a collection of planks lay across a temporary structure. Beside it was the girder frame of a much superior bridge.

The war had come in time to prevent its completion. Now it stood in half-built splendour as a monument to peacetime.

“I’m going to swing over.” Henry Nicholson handed me his packed lunch — a brown bag wrapped with string.

“So am I”, Arthur loaded his bag on to Peter Wood, a tall, thin boy with glasses.

Pete and I watched as they took one of the ropes hanging from the skeletal frame of the bridge.

They backed up the bank still holding ropes, then reaching as high up the rope as possible. Each of them swung themselves forward to be carried across the river bare inches below.

“Very good.”

Henry had fared better than Arthur, who grinned ruefully. “I’ve got a bootful.”

He walked with us across the field making small squelching noises with his wet boot.

The next river was manmade — superior to its natural rival. It flowed through locks to join the Thames.

We deposited our shoes and socks beside our lunch boxes. We had with us two hessian potato sacks which had been cut open to make large sheets. These were our dragnets. Two boys operated a drag, each holding two corners of the sacking. They waded into the water until it came knee high then they stood as far apart as possible, putting one edge of the sacking along the river bottom. The top edge was held out of the water. The holders of the drag would move towards the bank, keeping the drag in position, finally bringing the bottom up when reaching the bank. This way we caught sticklebacks, stoney roach and sundry unpleasant looking water insects. Peter had brought with him a tin begged from the butcher’s. It had once contained 14lbs of offal, but now it served as a receptacle in which we could watch our captives swim in a world of small roundness.

The day was warm, the dragging passably interesting. Above us a real aerial battle developed. We watched two planes shot down before the battle moved eastwards, towards Southend-on-Sea.

“Tugger Wilson is coming.”

Peter Wood pointed towards the skeleton bridge. Three cyclists could be seen coming across the park from one bridge to the next.

“He’s got All-off and Ray with him.”

“The three Stooges.” Henry, like the other three of us, would have been at the local grammar school, if it had been open. Tugger Wilson and his friends went to the ordinary elementary school. Despite our intellectual superiority — we made no issue of it — they were older and bigger than us. Tug Wilson was 14 and old enough to leave school, the other two were 13. Tugger came up; his big face grinned at us.

“Hello swots; one of the pilots came down in the High Street.”

“English or German?”

Tugger looked surprised. “German of course. He’s got a broken arm.”

“Very dangerous, jumping from a plane.”

All-off Scot sneered, “That’s all you know, four eyes. He was OK until the butcher hit him with a pole for pulling down his blind.

Peter Wood debated insulting All-off in return but thought better of it. All-off was easy to insult. He was often close to being bald. His mother was of an economic turn of mind. When All-off needed a haircut, she would say, “Get a tuppenny all-off.” The barber merely went over All-off’s head with clippers, leaving him like a shorn sheep, causing him to be known as All-off.

“We’re leaving our bikes here, going over to the factories. I think one is making ammo.”

Henry nodded. He was the unofficial leader of our group. “OK, don’t get caught.”

“We won’t.”

The three climbed the fence that gave some privacy to the group of factories on the Essex side of the river.

The four of us finished our sandwiches and spent some time trying to drop a half penny through the water onto the fish in the tin.

“I think I’ll try Tugger’s bike.”

“I wouldn’t do that Arthur.” Peter Wood sounded a trifle worried.

“He won’t know.” Arthur picked the bike up and began to ride. His singing was less than melodic. “Tugger’s got a bicycle all done up with string, a pair of wonky handle bars and a bell that doesn’t ring.”

Arthur drove the bike along the top of the bank. He went over the edge onto the down slope to the river. “The brake doesn’t work!” His cry was pure agony. Whatever else he intended to say was lost as bike and rider went into the river. The three watched in disbelief. The bike went several yards into the water before Arthur fell off, to rise soaking wet. Arthur began to wade to the bank.

“Don’t forget Tugger’s bike. He might notice if it’s missing.”

Arthur turned to grab angrily at the almost submerged bike. His progress to the bank was slow, infinitely slower than the speed with which he had gone into the water. The bike and Arthur ran water as they stood together on the bank.

“Looks like a new kind of submarine.”

“Shut up, it’s not funny.”

“You thought everything was funny a few minutes ago.”

“What shall I do? My mother will kill me for going in the water, and Tugger will kill me for getting his bike wet.

“It only hurts the first time.” Henry kept a straight face. “We had better dry both of you. Lay your clothes over the railings.”

“I’m wet through.”

“We don’t care, you can cover yourself with my towel if you like.”

“Thanks Henry.” Arthur draped his meagre body in the towel — provided by Henry’s mother for drying feet. Arthur began to wring out the clothes. “I hope they dry.”

“We’ve got three hours before we need to go home for tea.”

Barely half an hour had passed before they were joined by Tugger and his friends.

“We’ve got 36 bullets and 3 magazines.”

“Where did you get them?”

Ray Lockyer held up a magazine. “This holds ten bullets for a 303 Lee Enfield.”

“Any fool knows that,” sneered Henry. He was quite right; we were all experts on the planes, guns and ships that were dealing death around the world. “Show us the bullets.”

“No.”

“I bet they are only cartridge cases; no one would leave live bullets lying about,” Henry pursued his logic.

“You calling me a liar?” Tugger rose to his full height of 5’8”. Everyone else — several inches shorter — avoided the question. Tugger looked around for a challenger, his eyes fell on Arthur. “What’s the matter with you Skinny, you been swimming?”

“I fell in.”

The thought restored Tugger’s good humour. “Lucky you weren’t swallowed by a stickleback.”

All-off and Ray laughed in appreciation of Tugger’s great wit. We others gave small sickly smiles. His authority unquestioned, Tugger stood up. “We’re going down to Solly’s junkyard to read the old comics.

Solly’s place was well known by most people in the neighbourhood. He had a decrepit cart with an equally decrepit horse. Solly was to be seen and heard most days (though he had now stopped using his hand bell) shouting out “lumber, any old lumber.” We boys often collected old newspapers and periodicals from our neighbours. A bundle might earn us a penny, or if large enough, two pence. Solly kept the comics separate, offering a reading section in exchange for some free labour moving stuff about in his yard.

“Look at my bike!”

All-off and Ray obliged. They watched the liquid trickling through a hole left by an absent nut.

“That’s not oil,” Tugger snarled at his henchmen.

All-off touched it, then touched his lips. Spitting dramatically he made a pronouncement: “Water.”

Tugger’s small mind gave up the struggle of thinking. He sat on his bike. “See you later,” he waved to the four of us, waiting for him to leave. The look of bonhomie faded; he got off the bike, his hands touching the large, wet patch on the back of his trousers. “My seat’s wet.”

Ray, the brightest of the three, laughed; “I bet Arthur could tell you why.”

Arthur left, his skinny body pounding across the grass, the small towel clutched in one hand.

Understanding dawned on Tugger. “He was on my bike.”

“It was an accident.” Henry offered a very limited apology on behalf of Arthur.

“Who told him he could ride my bike?” Fury began to mount in Tugger.

“No one.”

Tugger could see Arthur’s clothes drying on the grass. He picked them up and threw them in the river.

“I said, it was an accident; Arthur will get in trouble if he loses his clothes.”

“He’ll be in trouble when I catch him; how would you like his punch in the mouth?”

Henry kept discreetly silent, watching as we began to retrieve Arthur’s clothes, now having a second dip in the river.

“Give us your cap All-off.”

“Why?”

“Just give it!” Tugger snatched it from All-off’s head to cover the seat. He looked at us one by one. “I’ll be back after Solly’s. I expect you to raise some money to repay me for the damage to my new bike.”

The murmurs failed to make it clear whether the demand for money, or the opinion that Tugger’s bike was new, were the cause of them.

“I wished Arthur hadn’t taken the bike.”

“It’s done now.” Peter Wood shrugged. “I’ve got 5 pence.”

Between us, including three wet coins in Arthur’s pocket, we could raise one shilling.

“He’s coming back; his sister is with him.”

Jemima was 14, a head taller than 12 year old brother Arthur. She was built like a weightlifter. May be that’s what Tugger liked about her, though the affection was rather one sided. Her friends were Mary Bennet and Norma Scott. Mary was a thirteen year old. Most of us were in love with her. She had blonde hair, blue eyes and looked like Ginger Rogers.

The youngest was Norma Scott, sister to All-off. She was in our class at school, seemingly having acquired 100% of the brains available for the numerous Scott children.

“What happened? Why is Arthur snivelling?”

Henry explained and pointed to the pile of wet clothes.

“Mother will send him to bed with no tea. Mind you, he deserves it.” Jemima glared at Arthur; now clad respectably in the towel. “We’d better dry those clothes.”

“How?” asked Mary.

We all nodded, anything she said was fine by us.

Norma sighed, “We wring them out and put them on a line. It’s warm and there’s a wind to dry them. Why don’t we all look for something to make a line.” Everyone moved to look; the four of us following Mary. “Split up!” We obeyed Norma.

Some ten minutes later we produced two lengths of wood for posts and, failing to find rope or string, we made do with some thick rubber tubing to hang the clothes across.

The afternoon passed slowly as we talked and played games. There was another sky fight, though too high for us to see details. We went over to swing on the skeleton bridge. I got a boot full of water for not keeping my legs high enough as I swung across the dirty water. Norma had watched us as each tried to prove he was better than Tarzan.

“How much do you have to give Tugger?”

“I don’t know, he just wants money; we’ve only got one and three pence between us.”

“Have you? We girls have got two and three pence between us.”

“You don’t have to give that to Tugger.”

We weren’t thinking of giving it to him, were we Jemima?”

Jemima grinned hugely, “Not exactly.”

Peter Wood wiped his glasses. “It’s our argument.”

It’s my brother Arthur’s fault. Will you trust us girls to organise the meeting with Tugger?”

“Of course; here’s our money.”

Henry handed our money to Jemima, pleased not to be the subject of Tugger’s wrath because they had so little.

Jemima took the money. “You’ll do as we say, promise?”

“We promise.”

It was nearly 5 pm before Tugger, with All-off and Ray, rode up. We had moved our position from the canal to the old river with its skeleton bridge.

“Thought we wouldn’t find you.”

“No, we’ve just been playing at swinging across.”

Tugger caught sight of Arthur; his face darkened.

Jemina stepped forward. “Don’t you hit him,” she smiled at Tugger. “He’ll get a real good hiding when I tell me mum.”

Tugger was her slave, he nodded, his eyes on her face.

“Smashing.”

“They’ve given me three and six. That’s all the money they had. I said you wouldn’t steal their money but you were the sort who would bet them.

Tugger looked bewildered, half turning towards his friends. Ray grinned. “What’s the bet; is Tugger to fight Arthur?”

“Tugger is much too good for Arthur, he’s the strongest boy at Goodman Road School.”

Tugger nodded, “You’re right Jemima.”

“I thought we might make it — the river crossing.”

“Swing across. Furthest from the bank wins!”

“Something like that. Three of them against three of you.”

“Sounds reasonable.” Tugger and All-off were fourteen with Ray Lockyer a big thirteen.

“They are bigger than us.” Peter tried to make himself look small. “We are only twelve and Arthur is positively undersized.”

“Hard luck.” Tugger smiled in admiration of Jemima’s scheme. No one would be able to accuse him of extorting money; a bet was a bet.

“Where’s your three and sixpence?”

Tugger’s smile switched off. “We don’t need it: we’re going to win.”

“You probably will but if I’m going to be the organiser I want both sides’ money. They’ve given theirs, see!” She indicated the open hands of Norma, which held the numerous pennies, ha’pennies and sixpences. “If you haven’t got the money the bet’s off.” Norma’s voice was flat and uncompromising.

Tugger fumble in his pockets. Now and again Solly went down the pub leaving Tugger in charge. Such times allowed Tugger to take a little from the box Solly thought he kept hidden. “I’ve only got two and ten. How much have you got Ray?” He didn’t bother to ask All-off who never had any money.

“I’ve got a shilling.”

“Lend it to me.”

“You only need eight pence to make up to three and six.”

“OK, just eight pence then.” Tugger took the money and passed the three and six over to Jemima.

“Thanks; these seven shillings go to the team that can land the furthest on the bank. I’m the judge, Norma and Mary are my seconds, agreed?”

“Arthur doesn’t jump, “ Henry indicated. “Peter and myself, we three will jump.”

Tugger nodded, “OK, suckers.”

The stage was set, with three ropes hanging from the skeleton bridge. A good run and a strong swing with knees up were necessary to cover the twenty foot wide river.

“You go first.” Jemima indicated Henry’s team.

We each took a rope to walk up the bank facing down on the filthy water; it was hardly flowing; full of factory waste.

“Go.”

We ran down the bank, climbing up the ropes as we swung in an arc across the river. Peter got a wet foot from not keeping his legs high enough. We barely made the bank, the best amongst us being Henry with a mere 2 foot clearance.

“It’s going to be a pushover,” All-off grinned.

“Mary’s been bit by a snake!” Norma’s agonised voice came from beyond a small copse of trees.

Ray caught my eye; he was in love with Mary as I was. We all began to run towards the noise. Panting, we confronted Norma, holding up a staggering Mary.

“What happened?”

“She thinks she was bitten.”

Ray looked anxious. “Where?”

“Over there.”

“No, I mean where on your body?”

“Haven’t you got any brains, Ray Lockyer?” Norma’s voice was caustic. All-off tittered; he had six sisters. “She’s been bitten on the bum.”

Tugger Wilson grinned. “Does it hurt?”

Mary stared at him. “Only when I laugh.” Her large, blue eyes were totally innocent.

“Really?” Tugger’s voice was full of disbelief.

Jemima looked across to Arthur standing on the bank. “I think we can go back and finish the bet off.”

“Right, you ready boys?”

“Will you help me?”

Ray and All-off took an arm each to lead Mary towards the skeleton bridge.

“I’ll help her if you like.”

All-off regarded Henry sourly, “Buzz off.”

Tugger, All-off and Ray took their ropes, waiting for the signal from across the river. “Go!” The boys ran to the bank and swung, knees held high. Henry watched in disbelief as all three, still holding their respective ropes, disappeared under the water. His mind seemed to have missed something.

“What happened?” Peter looked at Norma standing next to him.

Arthur changed the ordinary ropes for lengths of that thick rubber tube while we were all thinking of Mary’s bum.” Norma grinned broadly. “It would seem that rubber stretches; perhaps you boys should go home before Tugger gets out of that water.”

We ran steadily for about 200 yards until we were back on the road with passers-by. We hugged each other, laughing wildly. “Did you see Tugger’s face as the water came up to his chin?”

“All-off had his mouth open, screaming as he went under.”

“Ray went straight through that great blob of oil.”

A woman stopped. “Are you boys alright?”

“Yes, thank you, Mrs. Clements, it’s a wonderful day.”

Arthur came round to see Peter Wood that evening. “Jemima says this is your five pence.”

“What about my winnings?”

“Be thankful we got our money back. Without Jemima’s help we would have lost it and possibly have been punched about.”

“It is all your fault.”

Arthur grinned. “Jemima gave me sixpence for swopping the ropes.”

Peter could not withhold his grin. “What happened after we left?”

“It seemed the water wasn’t too deep; they all got out after a while, unbelievably filthy and smelly. Ray was covered with oil.”

Peter thought of him holding Mary’s arm. “Good!”

“Jemima, Mary and Norma all said that we had held the ropes much higher, we were pronounced the winners. The rubber looked like rope, they didn’t want to recross the river to examine it.”

“Even so, Tugger will be out to get us.”

“No, the girls said they would threaten us to keep us from telling.”

“Consider me threatened. Let’s go tell the others.”

It was three days later that someone told Peter Wood the alternative version of the event.

“Do you know that big kid, Tugger Wilson?”

“Yes,” very cautiously.

“He and his two mates had a lucky escape.”

“They did?” Still cautiously.

“It seems they were over the Marshes when a German plane machine gunned them.”

“No?”

“Yes, I just said so. They had to dive in that old river full of muck. I call that brave.”

“I call it something.”

“They picked up all the bullets.”

“36 I suppose.”

“Someone told you! They’ve been selling them for a shilling each.”

“Just a wild guess on my part.” Peter smiled grimly.

Peter told me of the conversation that afternoon as we walked home.

“There’s Ray over there coming out of the model shop.”

“What have you bought Ray?”

“Hello,” he eyed us furtively. “Just a model. It’s a Stuka Bomber.”

“Really! Pity they didn’t drop a few bombs by the river. You could have sold those as well.”

“It wasn’t our idea.”

“Norma’s I suppose.”

“Well yes. She said she didn’t want All-off getting a bashing from one of his stepfathers.”

“You invented the attack and sold the bullets from the factory for thirty six bob.”

“We didn’t get all the money and don’t forget you won money from us. I lost eight pence.”

“How much did you win?”

“Four bob. The girls had the idea of the plane and selling the bullets , so they took half. Of the eighteen bob left, Tugger got ten bob because he’d lost money. All-off and me got four bob each.”

“All’s well that ends well then.”

“Yeah. We’re taking the girls to the flicks tonight.”

“Lucky stiffs. Who’s paying?”

“We are, buying them chocolates as well.”

Peter and I left him, feeling we boys had all been manipulated from the word go.

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