Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Growing up in Mill Hill in the 1950's - A Guest blog by Richard Wilkinson

Mill Hill East 1950 (Pic http://www.disused-stations.org.uk )
A couple of weeks ago, I took my grandchildren to see The Flying Scotsman hurtle through Mill Hill at around half past eight on a Saturday morning. It was a sight to behold. I am pretty sure it was the first time I went to Mill Hill to watch trains since the late 1950's. I mentioned this to my grandchildren, who were fascinated to hear that all of the trains were steam engines back then. I explained that there was no M1 Motorway and that there was another railway line that used to pass under the Thameslink line.This line carried goods to Mill Hill East, a depot in Flower Lane and a depot in Edgware, based where the Broadwalk Centre has been built. There is an excellent write up about this service by Eric Stuart, with some nice pictures of the Northern Line freight services. In the 1950's, Mill Hill East gasworks was still producing Town Gas, and the area always had a rather unpleasant aroma!

The tweet below has a link to an excellent video of the event

Watching the Flying Scotsman gave me a great feeling of nostalgia. At the end of the 1950's I was around 14 years old, my childhood was drawing to a close. By the end of the next decade, not only had I changed beyond recognition, so had Mill Hill. The M1 had been built, the Mill Hill East to Edgware railway line had disappeared, along with the coal depots and builders yards associated with it. The station at Mill Hill had been knocked down and rebuilt. Double decker buses could pass under the railway bridge, reshaping all of the local bus routes. Many other changes had taken place. The famous London smogs of my youth had disappeared as people stopped using coal to heat their homes. Ordinary working people had televisions and telephones. But what was it like growing up in Mill Hill in the 1950's?

There were a few notable moments that stick in my mind. When I was around seven, rationing ended. I was born with rationing and so it was just normal life. One day, out of the blue, we were told that rationing had ended. We were excited to learn that banana's and sweets could be bought, as many as you liked, so long as you had the money. In practice, this was usually when you'd had a birthday or just seen your granny!

Mill Hill had a cinema and our family would often visit. As well as the features of the day, the programme would feature Pathe News. This was our link with the world. As a boy, I loved the features on the latest RAF jets, the UK's rocket program in Australia and anything featuring developments in cars and trains. I loved the war films, which were jingoistic and highly entertaining. Britain seemed a very important country in the 1950's. We were ahead of the game. Frank Whittle had invented the jet engine, Fleming had invented penicillin and we had our own nuclear weapons and rocket program. News of these developments made us proud to be British. My scariest cinema moment was watching a Pathe News film about the effects of Polio. Polio was always a fear in the early 1950's and the shot of an iron lung was perhaps the scariest thing I could imagine, as we had seen classmates affected by the disease.

Cinemas in the 1950's were  a very different experience. It seemed everyone smoked and people would seemingly enter and leave at random times, as no one had a clue when the programme actually started. People would talk about catching fleas at the cinema and people generally had no idea if the films were any good before going. Often you'd hear people walking out half way through saying "what a load of rubbish', having turned up on spec and gotten bored after a few minutes, realising the film was of a genre not to their taste. Local cinema's were cheap, cheerful and generally good fun.

Cinema was  popular as most people did not have televisions, our family certainly didn't and none of our friends had one either. Radio was the most popular mass media method of communication, We loved the radio drama's such as Journey into Space. You would learn about such gems in the playground through word of mouth. As I recall, their was only one channel and the broadcasts were of a most eclectic nature. You would listen to things you had no interest in, as there was no choice. As such often you learned all manner of information that normally you'd have no exposure to at all. This was especially true in winter when there was literally nothing else to do.

In the milder months, we found other ways to have fun. Groups of boys would congregate in the park to play football. We'd go to Angel and Sheepwash ponds armed with fishing nets and jam jars to collect tadpoles. We'd make our way to Mill Hill Broadway to watch trains. We used to love standing on the footbridge that passed over the railway lines, as steam engines passed, to be completely enveloped in steam as the engines passed. Children would play football in the road. Go karts would be built from discarded prams. These would be used in frantic races up and down the pavements. Everyone seemed to have nicknames and small gangs of children would form, not to deal drugs, but to organise trips to collect conkers and collect tadpoles. Occasionally we'd take a trip to a local Fair in Burnt Oak or the Finchley Carnival to partake in the fun. Any fair with Dodgems was something that would be well worth the trip.

Our homes were freezing cold in winter, as they were heated by coal. As a boy, my job was to go to the coal bunker for a refill in the night, as the snow fell, the wind whistled and the frost bit. I useed to feel like Scott of the Antarctic. On winter evenings night we didn't have milkshakes, we preferred Bovril, as it warmed you up. The lack of central heating and TV meant that the four seasons loomed large. Winters were cold and bleak. Home was cold, your classroom was cold and the walk home was miserable. The one saving grace was the football season. As Mill Hill had no team, we'd make our way to Edgware to watch Edgware Town FC. There's an excellent article about the old ground by Peter Miles.

The Old White Lion ground

1956 Edgware Town programme
Groups of boys would make their way, drink Bovril and enjoy real, grass roots, old school footie. The big game of the seasons was the FA Cup, but the 50's was a very dry time for 'The Town'. The team invariably went out in the first qualifying round. In my memory, it was always raining and freezing cold, but there was also an amazing atmosphere. There was no violence and little bad language on the terrace. Each season had smells we associated with the season. The overriding smell of winter was the coal fires that kept us warm. Coal gave a very warm, pleasant, reassuring smell off and returning from a cold walk back from school, this was perhaps the finest smell of all. The smell of my fathers cigarettes was also an abiding memory, for reasons I can't quite fathom, tobacco smoke smelled far better in the 1950's, especially from Grandpa's pipe. There was also the smell of turkey at Christmas. The tradition was to cook these overnight. You would awake at 4am on Christmas morning, to a glorious smell. Although they say it is not the best way to cook turkey, the smell was glorious and worth the effort. The Christmas turkey was the only time of the year we had more meat than we could eat. Perhaps thats why we found it so special

Spring was a time of fun. Catching tadpoles in Sheepwash and Angel pond, slow worms in Arrendene, and enjoying the experience as the days got longer and warmer. Easter was more about hot cross buns than Easter eggs and church attendance was compulsory. Grand Victorian hymns were sung to the blaring background of a zealously played organ, with only a few bum notes. The air always smelled fresher in the spring. Lawns were mown, hedges were trimmed, each had their own special smell. The smell of hot cross buns at easter was another favourite. Another smell at this time of the year was when the farms did their muckspreading. This involved dumping tons of slurry from the cow and pig sheds on the fields, to fertilise the grass. The whole of Mill Hill ponged for a week!

Summers were glorious, the day that school broke up was a liberation, We'd spend our days in the park, the smell of freshly mowed lawns is perhaps my favourite smell. The parks in Mill Hill were spotless, ferociously guarded by the park keepers of the Hendon Borough Council. They kept a beady eye on the kids. They had a great sense of civic pride. They would always refer to "my park" and "my flowerbed", We loved the swings, made with steel and large chains. We loved the large slide. Most of all we loved the roundabout, the game was to spin it as fast as possible and try and hang on. Failure meant a grazed leg if you were lucky and a trip to Edgware general if you were unlucky. Cricket in the park was a must. I developed an interest in Cricket via the Mill Hill Village Cricket club, It had a clubhouse and is set in the idyllic Totteridge Valley. Perhaps the best of all was the glorious Mill Hill Swimming Pool. This was the social centre of Mill Hill youth in the summer. On a sunny day in the holidays, there was not a square inch of space. The pool had fountains and diving boards (a slide was added in the late 1960's). All of your friends would be there as well, we would buy ice creams from the ice cream van outside on the way home, which announced its arrival with happy chimes and Perhaps my happiest memories from the time were at the pool. Mind you, we all hated the place when we went there for swimming lessons when it was freezing cold in April. The smells of summer were mown lawns, the smell of Mill Hill swimming pool and the woods, where we whiled away the long days.

Autumn was perhaps the most interesting time. Much as we all hated the return to school, it was the season of scrumping apples, picking blackberries and the football started again,  it always seemed that the season started in glorious sunshine. Playing for the school team was a joy. As the autumn drew in and the coal fires were lit, the smogs began. Conkers were collected around the time we entered the season for proper London smogs. The smogs seemed to me like the end of the world,  you  couldn't see your hand in front of your face. Adults would stay in and insist you did the same. Doors and windows kept firmly closed. Stories of lost buses would be told on the radio. How could we have beaten the Germans when we couldn't even get a bus from Edgware to Golders Green? The smells of autumn were bonfires and fireworks. November the 5th was a big event. We made guys and collected money to buy fireworks. There were no restrictions on children buying them, so we'd have great fun with bangers, many of which would horrify modern parents. Garden rubbish was burned and it seemed every weekend was filled with the acrid smell. You also noticed the smell of coal, which had been largely absent for the summer, as fires were lit as the chill set in.

As for food, eating out was an alien concept, although once in a while, Dad would take us to Sids Cafe in the Broadway for a bacon Sandwich. Dad didn't cook, so when Mum wasn't around, this was a rare treat. Mum used to grow vegetables and rhubarb in the garden of our small council house, mostly tomatoes, potatoes and rhubarb. She also planted an apple and pear tree. These would bulge with fruit in the autumn and we'd have a season of apple pies and pear tarts. Before she passed away, I asked mum why we grew so much rhubarb. She explained that it meant we could have pudding on a Sunday nearly all year around. In terms of volume, it was the most economical of the possible fruits to grow. Cash was tight, so a small plot meant a big difference in household budgets.

In 1959, I got a job working assisting a local milkman. I loved this, at Christmas there were generous tips and there was always the opportunity to earn a few bob extra. This was where I first learned about the British love of an innuendo. The new milk boy was always the victim of bawdy banter between the milkman and the various ladies on the round. At first, this was a complete shock to me, but I soon embraced it. As I started to take notice of their daughters, having a few bob in my pocket was a wonderful thing. I'd see many of them at the swimming pool in the summer and it was great fun, at that age all very innocent. I still hadn't decided that holding hands with girls was more fun than collecting conkers with my mates!

In the summer, old ladies needed lawns mowed and fences painting. It gave me a real work ethic.  In hindsight, the milk round was an a very green concept. Everything was geared up to minimise waste. The milk was delivered to the depot by train, the milk floats were electric and the bottles were recycled. Best of all though, the round gave me money, which I used to save up for a bicycle. Bicycles meant liberation. Cash was scarce, but with a bicycle, you could go fishing in Totteridge, the Welsh Harp and Stanmore Common pond. Having a bicycle gave me a practical outlet for my interest in engineering. Like many 1950's boys, I had a mecano set and built crystal sets. The bike had a far more practical purpose and being able to fix it myself saved cash and kept me mobile.

There were various youth groups in Mill Hill. I was involved in the ssea cadet and the boys brigade. I recall one  trip, to Scotland. This was planned with military precision. All of the equipment was loaded onto a rail wagon at Mill Hill  and the wagon was attached to the train.  When we eventually arrived in Scotland our equipment was with us. The wagon sat in a siding for a week and was re-attached for the journey back. I also loved the Boys Brigade, with its band parades through Mill Hill. A huge amount of work went into the preparations for the parade. Our expectation was that this would be a good grounding for National Service in the armed forces, but this was abolished in 1960. I had been fascinated by the army and the air force. Although now there is a touch of derision about 'square bashing' and National Service, we thought the idea exciting as 14 year olds. We dreamed of glamorous postings. Fortunately, I never got to learn the truth!

By the mid 1950's, the world was changing and the safe, old ways seemed to be being eroded. When "Rock Around The Clock" was screened at Hendon Odeon in 1956, it made the front page of the Daily Mirror as Teddy boys rioted. My Dad was disgusted and told me I'd be kicked out if I ever behaved in such manner. As a ten year old, I didn't understand why anyone would smash up a cinema.

By the age of 14, a group of us had furtively cycled down to the Ace Cafe, an infamous Rockers haunt on the North Circular. The purpose? purely to see the Juekbox. We were fascinated. The place seemed scary and the Rockers on their BSA's and Triumph bikes seemed impossibly cool. The jukebox was a wonder to behold. As I recall, I plucked up the courage to put on a Lonnie Donegan track. One of the Rockers asked if I liked Skiffle. I lied and said 'Yes'. He suggested that I check out "Only sixteen" by Craig Douglas. It was number one, I put my penny in the machine and the track started. As a fourteen year old, sixteen sounded very grown up and the idea of falling in love seemed a very strange concept, We were all rather naive.  The friendly rocker told me that if I wanted to get the girls I should do three things, get a bike, get a guitar and join a band. As a fourteen year old from a working class background, none seemed very feasible, however a subsequent trip down to Edgware to Rex Judds and Edgware Music on the  bicycle convinced me that if I saved up my milk round money, I would be able to afford one or the other in about a year's time. As my father would not approve of either, this would be a rather difficult decision. I figured if it was my own money, he would have less grounds to complain. I then read an article explaining how musicians could make good money playing at dances. It seemed to me that this was a way around the problem and swung me towards saving for a guitar. This was a very big difference between the 1950's and today. If we wanted things, we had to save up. Parents would not help, especially if they disapproved.

Family news came via letters. we didn't have telephones. That was a luxury and as your friends didn't have one, why would you spend all of that money. Letters would turn up from far flung relatives announcing that an auntie had died or someone was getting married. Letters from aunties required lengthy, perfectly written responses, in excellent handwriting. To not bother would lead to family rifts, especially if the letter contained a sixpence (2.5p) for your birthday.  The coinage was different then. In 1960, to our horror, the farthing was abolished. Although worth almost nothing, to children they were a great coin,  you could collect a few and buy sweets. Adults would often give you one or two, especially for your November 5th guy. Pocket money was a thruppeny bit if you were lucky. This would buy a decent bag of sweets.

Communications was different and by todays standards seemed very tricky. Often a letter about family business would have the telephone number of a phone box with an invitation to ring at a set time. Queues would form at the phone box and people would be viewed as anti social if they chatted too long. As a child, phone boxes seemed strange and glamorous, I couldn't imagine wanting to phone anyone. As for photography, Pictures were taken at school, at weddings and at the seaside. Very few working people had cameras and those that did were enthusiasts, needing light meters and all manner of other gadgets to get a picture from a camera the size of a box of strawberries. The idea that we'd be buying mobile phones with camera's built in for our children at age 3 would be totally beyond belief. There was no concept of junk mail.

The world seemed to move a lot more slowly. As the 1960's approached, we were excited by the new decade. In 1957, Harold MacMillan had said "You've never had it so good". In ten years we'd gone from rationing to Rock and Roll. The USSR had launched a Sputnik in 1957 and the USA had responded in 1958 with Explorer. In Mill Hill, we could cycle down the road  to Hendon Aerodrome and watch the annual Hendon Air Show at the RAF base. It seemed as if we were on the dawn of a very exciting era, however Mill Hill was in many ways one of the sleepiest parts of London. Built by the Quakers, there was a bye law forbidding a pub within a mile of the town centre. Wednesday was early closing day, when the Broadway closed after lunch. You would see nuns in strange habits from the convent on the Ridgeway and priests with red sashes from St Josephs College. The roads were quiet after rush hour and the Broadway deserted after 5pm, save from commuters catching buses. There were no convenience stores, ATM's or late night takeaways. If you wanted a pound of sugar, you bought it when the shops were open. If you forgot, you'd knock on a neighbours door.

The world changes all of the time. Mill Hill has probably changed far less than many places in London, but the it is a different world. By and large, the smells are gone, the innocence has gone. Children don't play in the street, take themselves off to Edgware, The Ace Cafe or anywhere else in gangs on bicycles. 13 year olds do not work on Milk rounds. Steam trains do not chug through, spewing out smoke that causes smogs, except for very special trips with celebrity engines such as The Flying Scotsman. The Broadway has a small pub called the Bridge and you can get a pint of milk from 6am til the early hours. The Hendon Aerodrome is now the Grahame Park Estate, the railway from Mill Hill East to Edgware is long gone and all of the freight is moved by road. But we have just about hung onto the Green Belt, we still have Cricket at Mill Hill Village and we still have Angel and Sheepwash pond. Luckily, the best parts of where we live are still recognisably Mill Hill.

On my Mill Hill website, I have put some links to some amazing libraries of historical pictures. If you are interested in such things, check these out, they are fascinating. I've lived in Mill Hill for a very long time and loved every minute of it and it is a pleasure to share this with you.
Richard Wilkinson is a local resident. He's put together a helpful website for visitors and local residents who want to know more about the area - https://millhillbroadway.org/

Guest blogs are always welcome at The Barnet Ey


Witchypoo65 said...

What a fantastic blog, i was there with you.... and yes i actually do remember loads of what you have written about .... wonderful times to grow up in

Ann Williams said...

I have just found your blog what a wonderful read. My family moved to Mill Hill from Hendon in 1954,a new house inside toilet and a plumbed in bathroom loved the freedom of growing up there..

Doug said...

Although I now live in the USA, I grew up in Mill Hill so this was lovely for me to find & brought back so many happy memories.Wonderful!