A Childhood in the East End

A treasured family album photograph of Olivia among the rooftops of the East End of London.

A treasured family album photograph of Olivia among the rooftops of the East End of London.

There’s a photograph in an old family album showing me posing at the edge of the rooftop above the flat in which I first grew up in the East End of London during the years following the end of the last war. The flat was above a fish shop and just off the Roman Road. On market days, when the weather was warm, the smell of stored fish would mingle with those of the stale vegetables and tangy fruits displayed on the stalls of the street market and waft upwards through the open windows.

There were other smells, too, for we were a short distance from the cut which linked the Grand Union Canal with the River Lea, a useful place for dumping all manner of unmentionable things. The smells of sawdust and damp stored timber from the waterside timber yard was always in competition with the gritty taste of coal dust coming from the coal yard. In those days most people heated their homes with coal when it was available, burning it in an open grate. When word got around that the local coal merchant had fresh stock to sell there would be a long queue outside his yard as folk waited to collect their weekly rationed quota by whatever means were at their disposal -prams, push-carts, barrows or makeshift trolleys on old pram wheels. It cost more if you wanted it delivered.

Thanks to Hitler’s bombing raids there
were far fewer houses needing to be kept warm than there had been before the war, and we children used to play on and around the derelict land where these houses had once stood. Our mothers used to tan our hides when they found out, for it was such a dangerous thing to do. Then we’d go wandering off to nearby Victoria Park to play on the swings and roundabouts and feed the
ducks with anything we could scrounge from the family kitchen.

If it hadn’t been for that park, which in my young eyes was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen, and the back garden tended lovingly by my Great Uncle Fred, it would have been years before I saw a green tree or smelled the scents from the different flowers he grew. Those flowers introduced me to a whole new world of insect life, beyond the constant round of swatting flies and watching house spiders. He kept a pet rabbit, too. I missed Uncle Fred a great deal after he died.

Not far from the flat was a small branch of F. W. Woolworth, and just as soon as I was tall enough to see over the tops of the counters if I stood on tiptoe, I would wander in and lose myself in this wondrous Aladdin’s cave, as soon as I had learned enough words to read properly and understand how to buy things I was in seventh heaven. For years my mother treasured a little blue plastic brooch of a dog which I alone had chosen and bought for her as a birthday present.

I liked going into other shops, too. The butcher’s smooth-based floor had sawdust sprinkled on it, a contrast from the wooden block flooring of Woolworth’s, and the baker’s shop always smelled delicious. With my blonde curls and blue eyes, the assistant was always sneaking me a currant bun. I still enjoy them!

Olivia Lee