Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Guest Blog - The Musings of Richard Wilkinson part 1 Mill Hill as it was

Old and new collide on High St, Mill Hill
When you have spent your whole life in the same part of London, you see a lot of changes. When I was growing up in Mill Hill in the 1940's and 50's, it was a very different place. The trains were pulled by steam engines. If you wanted to be warm in winter, you bought coal. When you went to school you walked, and met your friends on the way. Once you were six your mum would no longer walk you to school, you would make your own way, walking with friends.  When you joined the school, you started in the baby class. In the morning, you got a carton of milk to drink. This was compulsory. In warm summer months it tasted of cheese.  Maybe it is the sands of time, but no one was lactose intolerant or vegan in our class. What we now call breaks were thencalled playtime. For us boys, this was invariably a game of football on a rough tarmac playground, that would take the top of your knee and give you a hole in your trousers. We wore caps, we wore shorts. School meals were called school dinners. Mum would give you your dinner money and woe betide you if you lost it.

We all had our favourites in the school dinner reportoire. Fish and chips and beef pie was always my favourite along with apple pie and custard. At the other end of the scale was boiled fish and cabbage, with tapioca pudding. Whatever happened to Tapioca? You were expected to eat all of your dinner, even when it was completely unpalatable. The end of rationing meant that for the first time,sweets and fruit were readily available. Parents had become used to being frugal, and viewed such things with suspicion.At home there were no ready meals. The times when Dad was doing well would see Lamb or beef on Sunday. Mum would make Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes. When cash was tighter, it might be an omelette with chips.

The detritus of war was everywhere. There were pill boxes by the railway line from Mill Hill East to Edgware, gardens still had Anderson shelters and there were bomb sites, some fenced off, some not. However these weren't the biggest danger for us kids. We were scared of getting locked in fridges, we were scared of polio, we were scared of strangers with sweeties. Whereas these days we have deadly viruses, then we had something far worse, we had germs! At school, we'd be inspected by burly nurses for nits and then have the dreaded request to cough.

These days we worry about air quality. Then we had smogs. Dad would get lost returning from the pub. Talking of the pub, ladies would never be seen in the pub back in the 1950's, apart from the snug, where they would drink sherry and be charged a few pennies more for the privilege, children were never allowed in. Occasionally in the summer, Dad would relent and buy us a lemonade in the garden of the Mill or the Railway at lunchtime. This was a rare treat.

Mill Hill had a cinema. As no one had TV's this was the centre of the community. You would buy tickets and it didn't matter if the film had started, you'd watch it until the end, then stay for the next showing to see the bit you missed. For boys, action films were the order of the day. The childrens films were not like the fantasy we have today. They were gritty and seemed to push theme of resilience.  The Davy Crockett films, 20,000 Leagues under the sea and Robin Hood were all films that made a strong impression. We'd watch these, then fight each other in the playground the next day for the right to be Robin Hood or Davy Crockett in the playtime games. Mum's would give the kids a 'few bob' and we'd troop en masse down to the Broadway. It was truly blissful drinking a carton of lukewarm orange squash whilst watching a dodgy film in Black and White.

The other thing we loved was street games. Wherever you went in Mill Hill, there were groups of boys playing football in the street, on the greens, in the park. Then there were the go-karts. These would be made using wooden boxes and disused pram wheels. Races would take place and often these would end with a visit to Edgware General and a plaster cast on your arm or leg.

We would be fascinated by road works. The smell of hot tar was something we all loved. The red and white canvass tents that GPO workers would put over the inspection points were mysterious. I recall seeing a couple of engineers drinking tea in one during a thunderstorm on the way home from school. I thought that was the perfect job, being paid to sit in a tent and drink tea.

Being brought up as a Roman Catholic with a church going mum (Dad always had an excuse not to go), Church was a strange place. Masses were conducted by Irishmen in Latin. The smell of incense added a touch of drama. None of us really had a clue what was going on, we'd be itching to get out and play. Sea cadets and cadets provided some outlet and gave me a love of the outdoors that I retain to this day. Our Scout leader would organise camps in the woods. We even went to Scotland on a train! As we had no mobile phones, we'd walk out of the door with our bags, and that would be the last our parents saw or heard from us until we came back. On return mum would say "Did you have a nice time", I'd reply "It was great" full of excitement. She'd say "That's nice, you must want your supper" and that was that.
Sex education was non existent. Every so often, you'd hear that someones elder sister was 'in the club'. For most families, this was a matter of shame. For some, the sister would simply disappear for a few months then return. Dodgy excuses were made, but gossip would start. It was quite brutal. The fear was that these girls were somehow sullied and would not be able to find themselves a husband. Some of the more snobby families would not even let their children play with the offspring of such families, as if it would be contagious.
Mill Hill East was a white working class area at this time. The most exotic family was the offspring of a German Luftwaffe man, who settled in Mill Hill. As he had rather lovely daughters and was a nice chap, the family were generally well liked. Everyone knew everyone and everyone knew everyones business. Curtains would twitch. Old Ladies would gossip. The milkman would deliver the milk in bottles, often his cart would be the only vehicle on the road. Before the mini hit the streets, cars seemed to be lavish, with walnut interiors. When well off relatives visited, boys would gather round for a peek inside. Often they would beg to be taken for a little drive. Cars would have impressive metal badges, depicting whether the owner belonged to the RAC or AA. Cars at the time really were a luxury item, beyond the budgets of most. Boys dreamed of driving trains and owning cars.

It was rare for families to move away from the area. Council housing was cheap and good quality. The estates had gardens and the areas had a real sense of community. Burglaries and muggings were almost unheard of. There were jobs a plenty locally. Mill Hill had all manner of industries, many small, some big such as Laings and The UK Optical Company. There were a few local villains, that everyone knew were wrong 'uns, but they kept their activities well away from their own doorsteps. They would sometimes appear flush with money, buying all and sundry drinks, then disappear for a while. Some were well liked as they were colourful characters, full of stories. Some were people you'd seek to avoid.
It is easy to remember these times through rose tinted spectacles. There were many aspects that I don't miss. Homes would often be freezing in the morning. Medicine was far more primitive. People would die of TB (usually called consumption), polio and all manner of half forgotten diseases such as scarlet fever. On Sundays, there was nothing to do, everywhere seemed to be shut. Park keepers would tend the parks, but not let you on the grass. I had no expectation that I'd ever go on an airplane. I though the trip to Scotland would be the extent of my foreign travels, unless there was a war or I got a posting during National Service (which thankfully was abolished before I was at an age to do it). The food was bland and stodgy, although in truth we didn't mind because this was what we were used to. Things like being bought a comic were a rare treat. In the winter, we'd often have a trip to the library. I used to enjoy the children s section at Mill Hill Library, but disliked having to be still and quiet. I only realised after that mum would take us when it was cold and she was short of cash, so didn't want to waste coal.

These days, few of the friends I grew up with still live in Mill Hill. There seemed to be  waves when they disappeared. The first in the 1960's when some moved to Australia on the assisted passage scheme. When they came back, many years later, for nostalgic holidays, they would not have a good word to say about the area. Then there were a few who got jobs after school in other parts of London or other parts of the country. They would turn up from time to time to see family and would always have a little nostalgia for the old times. The really big change happened when Margaret Thatcher brought in the right to buy. The old estates gave the working class a chance to cash in and move out. Many bought their homes at a discount and then cashed in, moving to places such as Borehamwood and Essex. This changed the whole complexion of the the area. It only seemed to be the older generation who stayed, and when they passed away, the last links were severed. Many of the landmark businesses, such as Featherstone Garage on Bunns Lane were sold and turned into flats. The gasworks went, the Barracks went, more recently, the medical research went. St Josephs college was turned into luxury flats. The Mill Pub was redeveloped. Recently we lost our greengrocer on Holders Hill Roundabout, who sadly passed away. Many locals mourn the loss of the bike shop, but things change and at least you can get your hair and nails done (as my lady wife keeps telling me when I get too morose). Whereas the cafe's would make their cash on bacon butties and builders tea, served to men in overalls checking their watches, now it is cappuccinos and humus wraps for fragrant yummie mummies with time on their hands. I do wonder what the mummies did when we were little. I guess they talked over the garden fence as they hung out the washing?
An old friend visited recently, he asked if I still saw anyone I knew in Mill Hill. I joked "Dozens of people, especially when I visit the cemetery!". But that isn't really true. There are still plenty of the old faces around. The Mill Hill Services club carries on, a bastion of old Mill Hill. The brother of Roger, who writes the Barnet Eye, Laurie still has his welding business in Bunns Lane if you want to experience a real old school workshop. I often visit him to mend my old petrol lawn mower. Mill Hill School is unchanged by the passage of time and we have the Donkey Fields (which you may know as Arrendene), for a walk in the summer. Mill Hill is still a lovely place to live.
I met Roger on my daily walk on Saturday and he asked me to write a piece about how I've been coping with lockdown and what I am looking forward to. As you've probably guessed, I've been doing a lot of thinking about times gone by, people who've moved away, people who passed away. I hope you forgive me the nostalgia. As to what I am looking forward to, I am looking forward to a walk along the Ridgeway on Saturday for a pint in the Hammers and the Adam and Eve. I just wish that I could finish with a pint at The Royal Engineer (or the Railway Engineer as the younger generation may recall it). Nothing stays the same for ever, but I just hope that Mill Hill manages to retain its character as we pass through this period of change. People have said that this lockdown period is unlike any other. I'm not entirely sure that this is true for us old timers. There was more going on in the Broadway at the height of lockdown than there was on a Sunday night in Mill Hill for the whole of the 1940's, 50's and 60's. But then again, all of us old timers who remember that are a dying breed!

Richard Wilkinson is a long time Mill Hill resident. Guest blogs are always welcome.


Unknown said...

That was a great read Richard--I still live in mill hill but I only came to the area in 1974, and sad to say dont know much about it. so it was very interesting to read your observations. By the way, did you mean Roy in the grocers has died? Oh no:((((

Unknown said...

I was born in Mill Hill East in 1942 and lived there until I married in 1962. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. Nowadays I doubt even one person would remember me