By Len A.Hynds

Things have changed so much since I was a small child. We lived in London, a very poor part just outside the affluent city, in the parish of Clerkenwell. I was the youngest of seven children, my eldest sister being married and my eldest brother being a Trooper in the Royal Horse Artillery. Life was very hard for most families and we were no exception, although my mother Mary impressed upon us that we must never lower our standards, and that really we were gentle folk who had fallen on hard times. Even though we had very little, it was the most natural thing to help the more needy, and frequently we had people eating with is who would have gone without a meal. I remember seeing some people after the market had finished, raking over the mounds of cabbage leaves and vegetables to see if anything could be recovered.

In 1935, at the age of five, I was the follower of my two slightly older brothers, and the streets of London were marvellous with the characters who thronged the street. I would try to weave stories about them, and there were so many things to see and watch.

The horse and cart delivering ice in enormous blocks, which was covered in clean sacking, with the driver with his ice pick and huge iron tongs, breaking off the exact amount that people required, and carrying it on his shoulder to dairies, fishmongers and butchers, and also to private homes. It was placed in a stone trough in a cupboard called a pantry or larder. This was the only means of refrigeration that there was, there being no electricity. A large block would only cost a few pence. The children in the street would wait for the driver to enter premises before all having a lick of the main block, and a splintered piece would make a perfect lolly.

The coalman wearing a black cowl-like hat that went all the way down his back, opening up those circular iron drain covers, and shooting expertly from the open sack on his back a hundredweight of coal into that tiny coal hole. These coal cellars were underneath the pavement at many homes, and reached from the basement of the home, normally through an open space called an area, or to Londoners an 'Airie'. A children’s rhyme I remember the girls reciting, as they bounced their ball on the pavement was, "One, two, three a lairy, my balls gone down the airy."

There was the milkman who had a smaller cart, with two wheels, rather like a large chariot, with his churns of milk. You had to go to him with an empty jug, and he would ladle out the exact amount required. There were no bottles of milk in those days Plastic had not yet been invented and even waxed cardboard cartons were a thing of the future.

The baker walking, carrying a large wicker basket containing white, hot, fresh crusty loaves, no brown bread, or sliced or wrapped bread. The man pushing a barrow containing two cauldrons of once very hot water, one containing boiled sheep’s heads, and the other pigs trotters. He supplied the newspaper to wrap them in and the salt and vinegar. I remember feeling horrified looking at the sheep’s head, which was just a skull with some meat on it, wondering how the merchant had done it, and feeling awful as the adults treated it as a delicacy, and could not reconcile it to those nursery rhymes like 'Mary had a little Lamb' It was even worse to my child’s mind that we dressed three little pigs in human clothes, gave them human speech, let them kiss their mother goodbye as they tripped gaily off to school, only to catch them, chop their feet off and eat them.

Then there was the muffin man, who always wore a green baize apron and rang a bell as he walked along, carrying the muffins on a tray on his head. The small wooden rowing boat on the back of a horse drawn cart, selling cockles, mussels, winkles and whelks, with the driver wearing sea-boots and a sou-wester hat. The pork pie man with the chefs hat with his pies on a tray, suspended by a string around his neck. All, unwrapped of course. I used to look at him quite fearfully, with my imagination, as the story of Sweeney Todd the barber who sold bodies to the pie shop man next door was doing the rounds, and wondered if the shop next door to that pie-man could be a barbers.

The small round-about on the back of a cart, with the price of a ride, one glass jam jar, with the width so small, and pushed round so fast that children were nearly always sick.

The man sharpening knives and scissors on a stone spun so fast by operating a pedal with his foot. He could make metal edges razor sharp, and I dreamt up a story of him having to accompany soldiers to war, to keep their bayonets sharp, and the officer’s swords ready for action.

The elderly lamp-lighter with his long pole which he carried like a spear on his shoulder, turning the street gas lamps on and off at dusk and dawn. I never did see but heard the ‘Knocker-up' rapping on windows to wake people up at some unearthly hour. He also carried a long thin pole to reach upper windows. Alarm clocks had not been invented.

Those magnificent black horses pulling a funeral hearse with tall black plumes rising up from the black shiny saddlery with silver buckles. Those sombre men wearing black top hats with ribbon around the crown walking alongside with such stately steps.

The Italian ice-cream man with his barrow, with the red and white striped awning, and the highly polished golden churns of ice cream set in a bed of ice cubes. His flashing smile and funny way of talking. The chimney sweep and his boy apprentice both covered in soot, pushing their barrow with sacks of soot on it with their brushes resting on top, with just their eyes and teeth showing white.

Our very tall Doctor walking on his visits, raising his hat to all the ladies he passed. He charged sixpence a visit, but frequently gave it back. He carried a small black leather bag, and on asking a question was told that was, 'how he delivered babies.' I walked behind him on several occasions hoping to hear a cry from that bag, but realised that even as a baby it was too small for me. I asked the question again about the origin of babies, and was told this time that I had been found under a gooseberry bush. All very well, but I spent so much time in trying to find one in that part of London.

The policeman on the beat walking past every hour or so, tunic done up to the neck, thumbs in belt, looking oh so severe. I used to think that crooks must tremble with fear just by him looking at them. If we were swinging on a rope tied to the ladder bar of the gas lamp and we saw him coming, we would wrap the rope around the lamp post, hoping that he wouldn't notice it. We would then stand to one side, with fear in our hearts, just gazing into space trying to look innocent, and he must have chuckled as he approached seeing that behaviour so many times.

I remember on one occasion, after he had looked up to see if our rope had interfered with the on/off chains, smiled and said quietly, "Won't be back for an hour." I recollect seeing that same policeman stopping two men fighting outside a public house, by holding them apart with a fistful of their clothing at chest level, and as he lectured them he gave each a forceful dig in the chest and when they were looking most dejected, made them shake hands and let them go.

Then there was an old man who I never once saw smile, and he always appeared to have a permanent scowl. He drove a cart containing barrels pulled by a magnificent black shire horse with white fetlocks. He had no family so I was told, and lived alone above his horses' stable down an alleyway not too far away. I wove all sorts of unkind stories about this grim unkind man. We would never ride on the back of his cart, by hanging-on with feet dangling, whereas with other drivers they would merely flick their long whips over the top of you to make you get off, he would always deliberately try to catch you a stinging blow.

One day we saw a crowd gathered in Farringdon Street, and pushing to the front, saw that a lorry had a brake failure, and had crashed into the scowling mans cart, pushing it on its side, with that beautiful massive horse trapped within the shafts. A policeman had his arm around the old chap’s shoulder, who was pleading with another man, a vet, not to kill his horse. The other man, who was holding a wide barrelled revolver, said, "There is nothing I can do for the poor beast. It is in such agony, it is the kindest thing." The scowling man knelt down and put his arms around the horse and the horse looked at its master with those large brown eyes, and I felt that both horse and man were crying. We were shooed away by another policeman, but after the gunshot, we returned, and the old chap was leaning against the wall with his head in his arms crying uncontrollably. I had been so wrong and unfair in my judgement of him. He was capable of deep feeling and had lost the most important friend in his life.