Sydenham in the Twenties - Part One

The History of Sydenham from Cippenham to present day. Links to photos especially welcome!

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Sydenham in the Twenties - Part One

Post by regoneil »

Sydenham in the Twenties.
Sydenham in the twenties.
To have some idea of what life was like in Sydenham in the twenties, it must be remembered that World War 1 had only just recently come to its conclusion, leaving its scars over the whole country. Compared with WW2, there was little evidence of material damage to the town apart from, what was claimed to be, the last enemy bomb to be dropped on London, this being on the corner of Fairlawn Park and Sydenham road, demolishing shops on the corners. By sheer coincidence, the first to fall on the town in WW2 fell on the same site, demolishing “Collingwoods” the butchers, (Later, the same site was the target for a V weapon).

The biggest scar left on the town however, was the toll on the men killed in action, which was so evident each following year on November 11th as their names would be read out from the war memorial in the crowded local church of St. Michaels, at the bottom of Burghill Road. It was also very noticeable to me, by the number of children in the school who were fatherless, in my class (I was born in January 1920) the majority were in this category and, for some unknown reason; this fact was accepted as the norm and was seldom discussed.

My recollection of that period is the overpowering reluctance by our elders to discuss the war years in the presence of children. Even the public library had a ruling that all books on the subject of the war were out of bounds and we were never allowed to venture into the shelves containing a full set of bound volumes of the “London Illustrated News” or any other books on the subject. All mention of the war was taboo and was seldom discussed by us kids. It seemed an unwritten rule that we avoided bringing the subject of fathers when in the company of our mothers, so to avoid unnecessary pain. I should explain that according to my mother, my father served in the army during the war, was wounded at Arras in France, and then sent out to Mesopotamia where he contracted malaria, was discharged in 1919 and died from the malaria two months after I was born. The thought often comes to me that had this “censorship” not been taken and the gruesome details of WW1 been highlighted to the public, as WW2 has been to the present generations, perhaps WW2 may never had happened

My memories of the early years are scarce, I vaguely remember being taken on a bus to Lewisham Hospital on the pretext that I was going to see the “ pictures ” (I was dismayed as I only saw bare walls) but I had my tonsils out and celebrated my third birthday in there. I also vaguely remember being taken to a window in the ward to see crowds gathered around a war memorial in Rushey Green which was being dedicated,

I believe. I started school St. Michael’s infant school at the age of three; a member of the family was a teacher there. I do recall the celebrations at the ending of the general strike in 1926 when the union flag was flown from an upstairs window and errand boys were whistling the popular songs of the day as they delivered their goods, the song at that time was “ Bye Bye Blackbird ” (which I never liked!). I remember being concerned as to why the road name plate at the end of the road had not been changed from “ SE26 ” to “” 27 ” at the year ’ s end (1926 ’ 7) The following years are very clear in my memory and I shall try to describe what Sydenham was like in those days.

Transport: The town was served by four bus routes, 112, Lower Sydenham to East Acton, by way of Forest Hill, Dulwich and Westminster. (General Omnibus Co.) 2a Lewisham, (George Lane) to Finsbury Park via Sydenham, Crystal Palace etc (G,O.B.C.), 75, Woolwich Free Ferry to Croydon (Swan & Sugarloaf) via Sydenham and Penge, (Tilling Stevens). 12a Croydon (Red Deer) Park Royal, by way of Penge, Upper Sydenham, Westminster. Etc., these later became changed during the advent of the London Transport Board.

Railways. (I do hate the way they insist on calling a railway station, a “Train Station”! trains stop at railway stations in my vocabulary. There were four stations having reference to the town, Sydenham, Lower Sydenham, (in Beckenham), Upper Sydenham and Sydenham Hill (in Dulwich) As a matter of interest, the trains running through on the London Bridge to Croydon route (following the route of the Croydon canal) were, in the early days, electric D.C overhead cabling as an experiment but soon resorted back to steam.

Other transport There were very few cars or motorcycles to been seen outside homes in those days. In Burghill Road one would have seen a “ Trojan ” open top car that was owned by the vicar and housed at the vicarage at the bottom of the road, a gentleman who lived nearly opposite our home also owned a similar vehicle which he kept in a shed beside his house and Doctor Wheel O ’ Brian who resided in Mayow road housed his in a stable at the top of Burghill Road., Mr. Griffiths kept a Ford “ Tin Lizzy ” outside number 42 where we lived, which he housed it in “ Hollands & Watkins ” garage, opposite the end of Trewsbury Road.. Most other transport was horse driven, baker, milkman, coal and almost all transport was hauled by horses. Every weekday, one could set a watch just after midday as a “Carter Patterson” carrier wagon, pulled by a pair of horses would gallop up Champion Crescent into Burghill Road on the lookout for a “CP” card displayed in front windows indicating that there was a parcel to collect. There were no taxis in those days but one could hire a cab from “Jimmy Welsh’s” cab rank outside the “Greyhound”. Quite a number of goods vehicles carrying heavy loads would have been steam driven. A common sight in those days was the provision of horse troughs for the refreshment of those hard working creatures. I remember that there was one situated in the middle of the junction of Kent House Road and Sydenham Road, opposite the Wesley Hall. These were granite structures with a small drinking fountain at one end to refresh the driver whilst his horse would have a fill up. There was another situated on the side of the road close to “Chalk & Cox” the butchers opposite “Cobbs Corner”. Another was to be seen near the “Woodman” at the top of the High Street. With so little traffic on the roads, they became playgrounds for the children who could be left to play in complete safety within view of their homes.

Housing. The “South Suburban Gas Works” were the largest employers in the district and most of the workers lived within walking distance in the surrounding roads and streets. Most were terraces of “two up and two down” cottages with outside toilet facilities. Following the chaos of “ WW.1 ” , many of these houses became double homes with separate families on each floor, (Two knocks for upstairs and one for downstairs) There were no bathrooms, but a large tin bath could be seen hanging on the wall at the back of most houses. “ Slipper Baths” were situated in the bath house at Bell Green between the Bell public house and the Church Hall of St.Michael’s. The building was in two sections, one for women and the other for men. I believe the cost was 2p for half an hour,”Bring your own soap and towel”

As one can imagine, money was short during the period following the hostilities, during which the country was trying to get back to normal but was followed shortly by the great depression of the thirties. Most workers were “hourly paid” and would draw their wages on a Friday. It was a common sight to see a queue of folk gathered along Kirkley road on a Friday evening, waiting to redeem the goods that they had pawned on the preceding Monday at “Tommy Harpers” emporium in the Sydenham Road. His establishment consisted of three shops with a pawn shop in the side street. The corner shop was a jeweller, with a gents outfitters next door and the third was for the sale of furniture. He was a very charitable gentleman with a family of ten children, well respected by the local population for his generosity. If he heard of a poor soul, down on his luck and in need, he would arrange with other shop keepers to deliver food or coal or what ever was needed, anonymously.

In those days there was a great sense of trust amongst the residents of Sydenham, it was common practice to leave front doors either unlocked or with a key hanging on a string behind the letterbox for easy access. The residents in a street were as one large family, each household caring for its neighbours and sharing in the everyday trials and tribulations of the day. This neighbourly sense of well being certainly proved itself in the forthcoming WW2 .when everyone was “in the same boat” as the saying goes.

As one moves away from the proximity of the Gas Works so the quality of housing improved, front gardens appeared and back yards grew into longer gardens until Upper Sydenham was reached into the area of mansions and millionaires, Quite a number of houses were designed as two flats with access to the upper floor by means of an iron staircase at the back, as in Fairlawn Park, others were designed as twin houses with one front door at the entrance and separate access doors side by side at the end of the front hall, as in Adamsrill Road. It wasn’t until the thirty’s before designer flats were introduced in the area. There was definitely a class divide between Lower Sydenham and Upper Sydenham In most parts of the town, one could safely say that where ever you lived, there would be a shop within five minutes walk, be it in the main road or on a corner of a side street, or even in a front room of a house. This was not so as one moved up into Upper Sydenham...

Shops: There were so many shops, one could buy anything within reason without leaving the town and every shop had a huge variety of goods to choose from. Most food stores called themselves “Family”, such as Family grocer or Family butcher and in most cases, a family would. hold an account with them and the account would be settled on the Saturday. My mother, on finding she had run out of tea or sugar, or what have you, would call me in and say “ Run down to Clark ’ s and get a quarter of tea “ . Which I would do and the shopkeeper would supply me, knowing the type of tea etc; and probably give me a biscuit and off I would go. The transaction would be entered in the order book and settled on Saturday when she did her main weekly shop. As stated above, there was a strong atmosphere of trust in those days; one could go out shopping, leaving windows open and seldom locking a front door. A retired London policeman once told me that the most secure home was when the front door was left open! An obviously secure house was an invitation for a break in.

Returning to shops and what they had to offer, I feel that I should explain that “our” local grocer was C.W. Clark, family grocer located on the corner of Elderton Road, opposite the public library. As you entered the shop, the bacon counter was on the right where there was selection of cold meats etc and a bacon slicer that cut rashers to your choice of thickness, cut and weight. At the back of the shop was the section where butter and fats were patted and shaped into blocks and wrapped as required. Also where the scales were located to weigh sugar and dried fruits etc and then packed in blue bags to one’s order. Down the other side was a counter where all the dry goods were transacted and bills booked or settled. In front of this counter were stacks of square biscuit tins, the top ones having glass lids to display the contents of a multitude of varieties and makers of biscuits. Of course, the floor would have a covering of sawdust as most stores.

The Grocers differed from other food suppliers as having a glass shop window to display their wares. Others, such as the greengrocers, fishmongers and sometimes even the odd butcher would have their wares on display on open slabs wide open to the elements. There was no Health & Safety in those days and we survived. It must be remembered that this was in the days before refrigerators and all stock had to be sold by Saturday night. Hence the custom of Butchers and Fishmongers not opening for business on Mondays. In Sydenham, right up to 1960, there were so many of these shops in existence giving such a vast variety of choice to their customers, all this, I am afraid has been lost since the advent of supermarkets. One other significant point is that most of these shops employed an errand boy with a shop bicycle for delivering your purchases and these lads would be heard every day whistling the popular songs of the day as they went about their task with their feet on the first rung of a ladder to a future shop management position. For the school leavers in those days, they had little choice of work apart from the Gasworks or errand boys unless they acquired a scholarship to higher education.

There were of course, many street traders pushing hand carts and shouting a call or other sound device, the Walls ice cream man would trundle his three wheeler box vehicle ringing a cycle bell to attract attention, there was the “Muffin Man” with a tray of his wares balanced on his head as he strode along ringing a hand bell. A fishmonger “Mr. Mullins” would call with a display of fish on his cart with a faithful following of cats waiting for the remnants of filleting to be thrown to them. In the very early morning, before seven o’ clock, Mr Bliss, the local chimney sweep would be seen driving his motorcycle and sidecar containing his brushes and a sack of soot as he was on his way to clean someone’s chimney, It always puzzled me as to how he always had a black face in the mornings, however early, but later he would be seen out and about in the town looking spick and span and having such a clean and rosy complexion to his face.
There were, of course, the regular traders, the baker who would call every morning at 8.40 to deliver our daily cottage loaf, he would dally for a short while to drink a cup of tea which he would pour into the saucer and fan with his cap to cool it a bit. I was always curious about the strange looking woollen gloves he wore, without fingers! He would always give me a smile and tell me to hurry else I shall be late for school. His name was “Mr. Beardsmore” and delivered bread for “Hills, the bakers located in Bell Green, near the bus stop at the end of Holmshore Road... The milkman called twice a day, in the early morning and again mid morning, measuring out the milk from a big churn situated on the back of a chariot shaped, two wheeled float with a step at the rear, there would be a selection of metal 1 pint cans clipped to the side of the cart for use if the housewife didn’t collect the milk in a jug. Later, towards the 1930’s, four wheeled milk floats were introduced together with bottled milk, and, sometimes I would help the milkman on a Saturday in return for a half pint and the privilege of riding on the step at the back of the float. Would you believe that the horse needed no instructions as to when to stop or start! It knew these by heart. Milk was delivered in half pint, pint and quart bottles at three half pence a pint. The postman would be a regular caller delivering three times a day, an early delivery around eight and a mid morning around eleven and again in the afternoon. There would also be a parcel delivery mid morning. (Postcards, magazines and unsealed envelopes were charged one halfpenny and sealed envelopes, one penny. (No first or second class in those days)

Other traders would be the regular “Rag-a-bone” man, who would shout his trade for all to hear and, during the strawberry season, a “Costermonger” would come round shouting “Strawberries, ripe strawberries”. I well remember a man with a horse and cart who regularly came around offering paper and wood windmills in exchange for jam jars...

. There were beggars who would sing to attract the attention of householders, and even a man who would wheel a harmonium around to accompany his wife, as she sang aria. She had a beautiful voice. A regular flautist would do a weekly round of the streets of Sydenham playing “Ol solo mi ole” (I can’t remember him playing anything else) at the same time every Saturday evening for which he had regular donators of two pence.

Sydenham road was full of shops of every description, mostly small businesses with a few larger chain stores such as Sainsbury’s, Home & Colonial Stores, United Kingdom and Boots the chemist and one or two others. There were a number of Banks, several fish & chip shops, the most popular being “ Wilson & Ashcroft ” the “ Lard shop ” as it was known, opposite the “ Golden Lion ”

Post Offices: The Sorting office was situated in Silverdale, just behind “Farances” the fishmonger. The main post office occupied shop three doors down from “Farances”. There was another in the back of the off licence at the bottom of Berrymans Lane and another situated in a chemist shop cum Dentist in Lower Sydenham.

To be continued.

P.S. On a topical note: At the time of writing, the country is snowbound. In the twenties it was unheard of for school to be closed due to snow. We all walked to school whatever the weather and we went home for midday meals...
Last edited by regoneil on 11 Feb 2009 20:47, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by Eagle »

Many thanks for this lovely post. I remember the 50's although not the 20's but to be honest the Sydenham of the 50's seems much closer to your desription than todays .

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Post by MrWright »

Wonderful post. Can't wait for the next installment.

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Sydenham in the twenties

Post by bregeorge »

Thank you for telling me about this site, I really enjoyed reading your post, you have an amazing memory.

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Location: Sydenham

Post by hilsbee »

Thank you so much for sharing this with us and I will look forward to reading more. I am particularly interested as you live just round the corner from me - I'm in Niederwald Road.

Thanks again


The second part of this has been posted here:

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Post by Gaz »

Just wanted to say thank you for such a brilliantly emotive and descriptive post. :)

I love reading things like this, as being born in the late 70s, I do not have any experience of a lot of these descriptions. In fact, the only bit I can readily relate to was the 'key on a string through the letterbox' that we (in Portsmouth) did until the late-80s...

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