Camden Is: Peter Parker

For Camden Is, local residents recall what is was like to grow up in Camden. 4: Peter Parker. Born 1929,  Willes Road, Kentish Town. 


The first place I can remember living was Allcroft Road in Kentish Town. My father was an engine driver at Kentish Town Loco, and my mum worked in a café at times, as far as I know. I can’t remember much about what my mum did - she was busy looking after the family, I suppose. I had a sister Joan who was six years older than me, and a brother Terence who was four–and-a-half years older than me. I was the third child. In those days you were only allowed two children in the rented house, and I remember when I was two years old I had to get under the table and hide when the rent man came.  I was sent to Carlton Road Primary School, but I wasn’t there long because we moved again when I was about five to Islip Street and I started at the Church of England school there. I remember it well because we went into the hall in the morning and said our prayers.

The Islip Street house was a big three-storey place with steps going up to the front door. It had an outside toilet outside and it backed onto some shops – that’s where my mum hung out her clothes to dry, on top of the shops. Two other people lived there, a man, Mr. Head, and his son Eddie. And there were two tenants in the front room in the basement - an elderly man and his son - and I did their cleaning for them. I used to go round with a duster and they left a farthing on the mantle piece for me to take. Sometimes I got two farthings. You could do a lot with a farthing, buy a farthing Black Jack in the shop up the road.

The local kids used to play cricket – we’d draw a wicket on the wall. The side of our house was all bricks and we used to throw the ball up against the wall and play kiss chase if there were any girls about. We did all sorts of things like putting a string on a knocker and hiding and then pulling the string, so they’d come to the door and no one was there.

I had an old fairy cycle with two wheels and handlebars it was only a small thing. Then when I was about six or seven we started building our down scooters. We got a plank of wood and cut a ‘v’ in it. We had ball bearing wheels left over where we could find them in the shops or factories and we built the scooters, with a piece of wood to put the wheels on. We used to put two circular ring bolts to screw them in, another plank with the ‘v’ in it, and then wood for the handle bars. All the kids were doing that. There weren’t many cars about, just horses and carts and we used to ride up and down the pavement if a car or lorry came along. We also had skates. We were lucky, we got them for Christmas, and we used to hang on to the back of lorries being pulled along. Also on carts, but nine times out of ten the horses would be walking, unless they wanted to get somewhere and then the driver would get the whip out. I got into trouble a few times for that. But there was no worry about where you were allowed to play. When I was six or seven sometimes mum would give me a penny and we’d get the tram up to Parliament Hill. There were really old buses but it was mostly trams you rode on, right up to Highgate and Barnet and down the Embankment and then you changed and got one on the other side of the river.

Camden Lock Market wasn’t there then. That was all railway land, big warehouses, and you know all the horses were there in the stables all along Chalk Farm Road. All round the back were great big railway goods buildings. Everything was done by horse and cart, and then until they mobilised a bit. When I went to school there was only one car in the road and that was one of the top teachers at Islip Street who had a little Morris Minor . I’ve got a picture of that at home. Someone had taken a picture of Islip Street, and there was just one car outside the boys’ entrance of the school.

I used to have a wheelbarrow and collect all the manure from the stables; shovel it up and take it to my dad and granddad, because we had an allotment up Junction Road. We used to go up there and grow our own veg. I liked the rhubarb and the loganberries. We used to go up and nick a few loganberries, as there were about four or five allotments in a row and one  bloke had a really lovely loganberry bush. We had one too, but not as good as his. People can’t grow them now. All the allotments where they used to be grown have been built on now.

We used to buy our food on Kentish Town Road at the Co-Op on the corner, and you used to have a number - ours was 92476 - and you got dividends because  you mostly shopped at the Co-Op. It was nothing like Asda or Tesco. With the dividends you got either money or tickets to buy food. With milk bottles, you took them back to the shop and got a penny or halfpenny on them and my mum used to let me have the money. We used to take jam jars back too, you got money back on them. And there were 240 pennies to a pound back then.

I was once caught, when I was about nine years old, getting five Players Weights out of the cigarette machine. They cost about tuppence, and I’d saved up because I wanted to see what smoking was like, and as I was getting them out I got a big cuff round the ear hole and my dad was standing behind me. So I lost my tuppence because he nicked the cigarettes and gave them to my mum.

We were out and about a lot, because at school you went in at 9am and came  out at noon until 2pm for dinner, because you didn’t have school dinners in those days . You went home and then came back just before 2pm because you had to line up in your teams or classes everyone in the playground and the whistle would be blowing and then you’d have your lessons. I think I learnt more in junior school than I ever learned in the rest of my life because once war broke out there was no proper school.

I was at that Church of England school until I was 10 in 1939 when war broke out and we were told we would be evacuated from the school. I remember marching, being given a gas masks, and then being loaded up on a train, I think at Kentish Town Station. I ended up in a little village, more like a hamlet, in Rutland County. The school there was very tiny and there wasn’t enough room for all of us, so the elder ones like me, aged 10 or 11 had to go to school in another village three miles away called Canton. I remember walking there and walking home again, but I can’t remember doing much in lessons.

We were billeted with a farmer – I think his name was Freddy Palmer - and his wife and they had six children of their own and we had to muck in with all of them. Anyway we weren’t there long, about three months from September to just before Christmas, and then my mother and father brought us home because they wasn’t very happy with the way we were living. As kids were quite happy, didn't care a lot and I quite enjoyed the country life. You didn’t worry - it was like a holiday but was still glad to get back when mum and dad fetched me. My parents didn’t like it: we had nits in our hair and we weren’t kept clean enough, so we were taken home.

We’d moved from Islip St to Camelot House while I was away, I got a feeling that a bomb hit the old house, because two houses on each corner got the blast of it, and my parents were given a new flat in Camelot House. I had a room with my brother, and my sister had her own room, and my parents had their own bedroom. We had a front room with a balcony. We’d never had anything like that before. When I came back I was sent to school again at Brecknock when it was open and sometimes I went to Hungerford School and sometimes to Hilldrop Crescent school. So I went to three different schools, since it was a time when there was a bit of bombing and there was a shortage of teachers, and you went from one class to another  - not that I ever learnt much…

And then I was evacuated again. I was the end of 1941, the beginning of 1942. The bombing started to get bad and my parents had friends with a son called Ronnie Ashley, about 2 years younger than me, and they asked if I ‘d go away with him -  evacuated with a group going from Haverstock Hill School and I said, “I don’t mind.”  I was easy to please in those days. Still am I suppose, and we were sent to a village in Leicestershire called Leire . I quite enjoyed it there: they were an elderly couple, and he worked on a poultry farm and also had a smallholding of his own. They had three grown up children in their twenties and thirties - one was away fighting in the army, and the younger brother who wanted to go in the army wasn’t fit enough (or he had flat feet or something). Anyway he joined the Home Guard. He was quite a nice chap to have around anyway and I learnt quite a lot. We travelled from Leire to  Lutterworth School but the evacuees had to wait till there was a classroom available because country kids had first preference. We did manage to learn a little bit, sums and a bit of writing, but I’ve never have been much good at spelling.

I came back to London at the end of 1942 or beginning of 1943 and I went back to school until I was 14. I had a younger brother by then too – eight years younger than me. He came along just before the war. I used to run up and down with the pram and he used to laugh his head off in the pram as we turned the corner on two wheels. I remember him once being knocked down in Cliff Road and breaking his leg. I had to carry him down to the Royal Free Hospital in Grays Inn Road. It wasn’t in Hampstead - that was just the fever hospital then. They made him comfortable then I had to go home and tell my mum and dad because they were at work. They put him in splints and it was only fracture so they let him out with a plaster on his leg. My sister was a secretary then. I don’t know what my older brother did. He joined the Navy at 18 and then he died in 1942. I lost him. He was in the Fleet Air Arm. I don’t like talking about that part.

When I was 14 myself I had to leave school and get a job. I went to work for The Daily Sketch as a messenger boy down in Grays Inn Road. It was a great, big building as they produced other papers apart from the Sketch, but I couldn’t get an apprenticeship there. As a messenger boy I used to get taxis to take messages and they used to give me sixpence to tip the drivers. Then I was sent to the photograph processing department at that time when the fighting in North Africa was on the retreat towards Egypt, and I remember seeing all the maps and everything that was printed. I saw the start of the fightback from El Alamein to Morocco, and how the British and the Canadian and Australian troops beat Rommel at his own game. It was quite an exciting time, seeing the front lines altering and it was wonderful to see us fighting back again after all the defeats.  As a young lad, it was nice to see the British and the Western Allies beginning to knock the Germans about a bit.

At The Daily Sketch, we had to do shift work from 8am to 4pm, or 4pm to 2am or 3am. I used to have to wash all the photographic plates and clean all the film off so they were ready for the next lot. There was lighting everywhere for the films to be taken, there was an etching department where they etched out all the plates ready for them to do down to the print . There were three boys like me working for the men there.

We worked six days a week, 48 hours, with no days off and shift work too. Really and truly, under sixteen you weren’t allowed to do night work but they somehow fiddled it. At night time once all the news was done and the paper was edited that was it: there was nothing going on so you used to get your head down.

I went in to see the Guv’nor after a few months to see if i could get an apprenticeship to stay on and he said: “I’m afraid that’s out of the question, so I thought to myself that there wasn’t any point carrying on working. I got home and told my mum I wouldn’t get an apprenticeship or learn anything about the trade I wanted to do – because I was quite interested in doing the etching, Anyway, I decided I’d leave and seeing as my dad was an engine driver, I tried to become a fireman on the railway. I asked my dad if I could get a job on the railway and they said I could start there on Monday. I started at KT loco at end of 1942 . I was about 15 or 16 and that’s where I stayed for 49 years except for two years break when I was called up to go in the Navy. To start with at KT Loco you were in a shunting yard learning how to fire an engine, then learning all about wagons and engines and learning and how they were powered. I was cleaning the engines and you could go out on the engines into the shunting yards in  Somers Town and St Pancras Yard. You had to be over 16 to go on the main lines so they put you on shunting.

On holidays we used to go to Southend a lot for a week on the beach. We went to Thorpe Bay mostly, just up from South End and Shoeburyness. We used to go on the boats: ‘Any more for the joy ride!’ – about threepence for to go up the Thames Estuary. On Saturday nights we used to go a club off Brecknock Road. We played snooker, billiards,  music , table tennis or we went dancing at the Tottenham Royal or Ally Pally or the Palais de Danse at Tufnell Park.

I can remember coming home one evening during 1944 - they were still bombing us. We’d gone to the pictures down Oxford Street and when we came out the fog was so thick you couldn’t see across the road. We got the underground to Camden Town. I remember all round this area being bombed. A doodlebug dropped where the football pitch is now in front of Castlehaven Community Centre. It was that packed. I mean they talk about it being packed now. There were bomb-shelters in the flats but we didn’t use them very often - we stayed indoors and took our chance. I was lying in my bed one night and a bomb went off in York Way. It hit a furniture factory and the blast of it blew my eiderdown up in the air and shattered my windows, and I thought: “Oh, this is it!” I thought the roof was falling in but it was my eiderdown. That sticks out as a memory. Luckily my dad was at work and I was at the side where the blast came in, and my mum was at the other side of the flat.

After the war we all celebrated VE Day and everybody went mad. We went down to Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. Everyone was singing, dancing, and  jumping in the water. I didn’t do that. I didn’t want to get all my clothes wet to walk home in. It was just like when we won the World Cup in 1966. I’d gone to see Johnny Mathis singing in Leicester Square and I went with my brother and his girlfriend and my wife. We listened to the music and the singing and when we came out all the cars were blowing their horns and we realised England had won the World Cup. We walked all the way from home from Leicester Square.

After the war when I got to be 18, they called me up for National Service and I went into the Navy. First in Chippingham and HMS Royal Arthur, then Manchester and HMS Gosling. Then we were sent down to Portsmouth to the marine barracks there in 1947. It was a beautiful summer and we were right on the sea edge. We sat on the sand after we’d done our training, and then we went to another place, HMS Vernon, to learn about torpedoes and went out to a battleship in the Solent. And then, eventually, I came back to London and ended up where I am now, in Ryland Road, where we’d moved in 1963." 

This story was originally printed as part of a heritage booklet for the 30th anniversary of Castlehaven in 2016. Download the full book hereWritten by Fiona Clague and Kate Muir.

About Castlehaven Community Association:

The Castlehaven Community Association was established in 1985 as a result of a group of local residents concerned about the lack of local facilities for children and older people. Since its inception the charity and company limited by guarantee has always been managed by a voluntary board of local residents. Castlehaven is a small but high profile, vibrant community association that continues to develop and respond to the needs of local residents.