High tea at grandma’ s – 1939

As a child of eight I well remember that day in the summer of 1939. On one Sunday a month we used to visit Grandma, who lived in Blackheath.

It was a grand family occasion, for she had a large family – five daughters and two sons. All her daughters were married, so they came with their husbands and their children, three at that time including myself, making our gathering for high tea a grand total of 15.

We travelled to Blackheath from the north-east of London near Epping Eorest, a complicated journey involving several changes. First we went by trolleybus, a pleasant form of transport which has not been seen in London for many years now. It was silent, smooth and pollution-free, a great pity the system was abandoned. There was one drawback, though -frequently the pole drawing power from the overhead wires become detached and I used to watch with great interest the efforts of the conductor and driver to attach it again.

I was less impressed by the part of the journey for which we travelled by tram. It was far less comfortable, particularly when going round bends, and tended to give me travel sickness. Trams also often had yellow glass to peer through which didn’t help. Some had open tops where I preferred to go for the fresh air, even if it did rain.

This feeling of nausea usually started off when we progressed through Stratford. At that time there was a huge soap factory in Stratford which could be smelled for miles around. The last part of the journey, which took us through the Blackwall tunnel, was completed by bus. It was a two-way tunnel then, and there wasn’t much room for the buses to pass each other. I well remember the constant squeals as vehicles squeezed past, greatly magnified by the tiled walls. It was exciting, but a relief to emerge in the light and airy space at the other end, as we approached Blackheath.

This particular Sunday in 1939 had no special significance for me. There was Gran as usual, peeping cautiously through her immaculate white lace curtains, the brass letter box and door knocker shining. We were ushered into her front drawing room where a Victorian upright piano, complete with candles, stood. Most families seemed to have a piano player in those pre-television days.

On the top of the piano, covered with the obligatory lace cloth, stood dozens of Victorian china ornaments, bought for
Gran over the years by her children -souvenirs from Blackpool, Swanage, Bournemouth and the like. They stood there in carefully-arranged little groups, ladies playing musical instruments in one, little sheep following a shepherdess in another. One in particular which I liked was a clown carefully painted with a bright red nose.

At tea time we all assembled in the dining room for the highlight of the day. Still lit by two gas mantles on the wall which produced a comforting hiss, the scene had a more subdued yet cosier light then today’s electric light. As usual Gran had her vast tablecloth laid, starched and white, and we all stood round while she ceremoniously supervised the seating arrangements.

Woe betide anyone who sat in a place not designated. She carefully seated us children slightly out of reach of her three tiered cake stand, overflowing with coloured cakes, marzipan cakes, chocolate cakes and fruit cakes in layer after layer.

At the table the conversation had wandered on to mostly family news.

Who was expecting? Who had been on holiday? A little slander from elderly aunts, until we were all hushed for news from the radio.
Suddenly the atmosphere was changed. Interested mainly in our progress towards consumption of the contents of the cake stand, I caught only a few of these, to me, meaningless words: “Ultimatum”, “Mobilisation”, “Preparations for war”. But I had no difficulty in recognising the seriousness in the faces round the table, emphasised by the silence that fell on the conversation.

High tea came swiftly to an end that day. It was suddenly time to go home.

We never did get round to the cake stand, although on our way out Gran pressed a bag of the best cakes into the children’s hands. It was a subdued and tearful exit. It was also our last Sunday visit to Blackheath, for very soon the adults in the family had dispersed to different parts of the world. One uncle went to Burma in the Army, another into the RAF, aunts went into munitions factories, another uncle in the Navy survived his ship being sunk on an Arctic convoy to Russia.

Miraculously all the family survived the war though some were battered and bruised by London’s bombs, but things were never quite the same again. It was our last high Tea in Blackheath.

Ron Woollard