Ed Cowley's Story
My first two years of evacuation to Windsor were not too happy.
But, I have to wonder what did the people of Windsor think when
they saw us. I have to go back to our living conditions in
Poplar prior to the beginning of the war.
As far as material possessions were concerned, we had very little.
We lived in the slums. To be honest, as far as my mother was
concerned Godliness was not next to cleanliness. She had a number of
proverbs that she used continually. What the eye doesn't see....,
you will eat a peck of dirt before...., you know what I mean. Before
going to school she would look at us and if we had not had a wash,
and if we had sleep in our eyes she would spit on her apron and give
us a cat's lick, then we ready for school. We knew the inside of
the pawnshops, usually on a Monday morning. We lived next door to a
pub. The Ivy House on the corner of Prestage Street, my father was a
good customer. I think that my parents did the best for us according
to their own standards and their own experience. Nevertheless, we
were dirty, raggedy-arsed guttersnipes, personal hygiene was
nonexistent, honesty meant don't get caught. When we went to Windsor
although we were billetted with working class people there was quite
a culture shock. We were evacuated with the school, and we stayed
together. The only times we mixed with the local boys was when we were
Number 1, Prestage St. survived the war but it
did not survive Canary Wharf. The house would be
described as a two up and two down with a walkout
basement. The lavatory and washhouse were in the yard. The
front door opened onto the pavement. In front of the
house was a coal hole (chute) linked to the cellar.
Some houses had coal boxes in the cellar, the coal slid
down to the box and there was a minimum of dust. Our
house had no box; the coal slid to a heap on the
floor. The gas stove was in the cellar, along with all
kinds of junk. One of my mother's sayings was "You'll
eat a peck of dirt before you die." She wasn't kidding.
I was in five different places during the war,
three in Windsor two in Ross-on-Wye.
The first place in Windsor, not ill -treatment
but neglect. We were not wanted; there was not
enough room in the house. If you remember the
winter of 1939. It was bitterly cold, we never had
proper winter clothing. We were only going to school
for half days, yet we were sent out every day
immediately after breakfast. We walked all over
Windsor, the riverside, the railway stations, Peascod
Street, if we went into Woolworth's we were kicked
out, even the porters in the stations chased us away.
I can understand why we were not wanted. We were
dirty, cheeky, our sense of honesty was "don't get
caught." We were actually bombed out of that place by
what I think was the only bomb dropped on Windsor
during the war.
My second place was better, in retrospect quite
a funny situation. The lady was married to
a private in the Grenadier Guards, who was a
waiter in the officer's mess. He would bring home
liquor in small lemonade bottles. When the husband
was on duty, the lady would have gentlemen friends
call. We would come in and find her in bed with these
guys, there was uncle Jock, uncle Peter et al. We
developed a taste for liquor, but nobody said anything
I was staying there with Teddy Fox a pal
from London and another boy whose name now eludes me.
I have been back to Windsor but not to see anyone
there. Then I was put into a home for children with
problems. Ross was a different story, that can wait
for another day.
Were we poor? Yes we were.
My father's occupation on my birth certificate
is listed as stock room cutter. Before the war he
worked as a labourer for George Cohen's, sometimes he
worked away from home. I enjoyed the times when he
wasn't there. He was a drinker, we lived next door to
a pub, The Ivy House. My mother worked as a general
skivvy. The day we were evacuated she couldn't come
to see us off, her boss wouldn't let her have the time
off. At school we had free milk, malt, cod liver oil,
sometimes we ate at a free food kitchen. Poplar
Borough used to give away free disinfectant at one of
the Borough work yards. On Saturday mornings some of
the more enterprising lads would take their homemade
barrows loaded with their neighbour's empty bottles
and go to the work's yard and get the free
disinfectant. Our homes were damp, vermin infested,
we would peel back the wallpaper and see the red bugs
scurry away from the light. We knew the insides of
the pawnshops; we mostly went to one on Poplar High
Street. There would be a queue, mostly housewives,
waiting for the place to open on a Monday morning. We
often equate poverty with a lack of money and material
things, but poverty isn't really a lack of cash is it?
It is as much to do with a lack of spirit, a way of
life. Throwing money at poor people does not enrich
them unless they can change their way of living. Do I
sound like Scrooge? My wife is one of eight children
born in a small mining town in Scotland, just as poor,
in a monetary sense, as we were, however, their life
was much richer than ours, due to a different way of
life. Comparing the two families shows that money
isn't everything in determining poverty.
My sister-in-law's father worked as
an inspector for the Water Board. They lived in
Shoreditch, and the City of London was in his area of
supervision. During the blitz, the police would come
and get him to shut off and open water mains for the
firemen to operate their pumps and hoses. His wife
would physically try to stop him leaving the house
crying that he would get killed. He always went, and
he never received a scratch. He had a lot of courage
to go out and do what he did, yet to look at him you
would never have believed it.
While I was evacuated to Windsor, the school was not
integrated into the local schools but retained its own
identity. We fought with the local boys at all levels
as individuals and as gangs. The word would go round the
school, and we would meet the locals at a prearranged
place and do battle, sticks, stones and, fists. At
other times there would be fights between individuals.
Being a life-long coward I didn't get into any
individual fights but I was dragooned into fighting
with the rest of the boys in the gang fights.
However, I don't think that the fights were simply as a
result of being evacuees. Before the war we were
always fighting with the boys from a nearby Catholic
school. School playground and street fights were
common. My mother's advice was "if you can't hit' em,
I do not recall any fights between the boys in the
school and the local boys in Ross-on-Wye. Perhaps it
was because we had very little to do with the locals
Regarding making friends, being a loner has
always been a problem for me but those problems
existed before the war. Being evacuated may have
worsened the problems, perhaps not.
What's a slipper bath? I have never heard of that. Mara
A lack of knowledge of slipper baths is evidence a
sheltered and privileged upbringing. The great
unwashed of the East End knew about public slipper baths.
I am sending a copy of a poem that was published in
the Evening Standard of October 24th, 1934.
A BALLAD OF POPLAR BATHS
I've had a bath at Haggerston
And one at Tooting, too;
I like to sleep in steamy baths,
As alligators do.
I've splashed about for hours and hours
In bathrooms great and small,
But the vapour baths at Poplar
Are the choicest baths of all.
The Wandsworth baths are empty;
At Marylebone they're dead.
United, from the Bath club
The Colonel Blimps have fled,
Towards the east, like pilgrims,
They walk and march and crawl
To the vapour baths at Poplar,
The smartest baths of all.
A soak in liquid incense,
And exquisite you feel!
While the towels down at Poplar
Will be sprayed with eau de nil,
Come dowagers of Kensington!
Come, Ealing! hear the call!
And bathe with us at Poplar,
For it's friction time at Poplar
And the slipper bathes at Poplar
Are the grandest baths of all.
I am not the author nor was I the editor of the
Standard, I am just the messenger. I never had a
slipper bath in the Poplar baths although I have been
to a number of municipal baths in London for the
purposes of bathing, swimming, and dancing. I did go
once to a municipal bath house in Toronto, but that is