Daniel Shannon-Hughes retells childhood stories from an era of poverty and play
Jumping ditches, lemonade and sandwiches, smashed windows, sheep in the street, malnutrition and hard labour: Childhood between the world wars (1918-1939) was the best of times and the worst of times.
The Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop’s archive has recordings of residents remembering what it was like to grow up in the borough almost a century ago. There are happy memories of playing outdoors with the freedom to roam, but also of hardship and an early end to childhood.
In 1908 the Children Act enshrined in law the concept of ‘childhood’ up to the age of 14, and in 1918 compulsory education was increased to the same age. Children had to be in school until the age of 14 and, unlike their Victorian counterparts, could not go out to work.
This gave working class children time to play. May Farrow, born 1908, lived in Forest Road: “We used to go in crowds up to Hollow Ponds. Walk, because there was nothing else for it, armed with a bottle of water, lemonade crystals and sandwiches.”
The area that became Waltham Forest was being built up as London expanded but, as well as Epping Forest and the Lea Marshes, there was still plenty of green space to enjoy.
Jack Milford, born 1913 in Leyton, took a route home from school worthy of Indiana Jones: “First of all I used to jump the ditch if I was lucky, there was no bridge, and then I used to tear through Fairhead’s Orchard, hoping there was no-one chasing me, and climb a whacking great big nine-foot gate and fence.”
In the 1930s, Margaret Churcher was a youngster who moved to Lea Bridge Road. “We thought we were living in the country,” she said. Sheep crossed the road, halting the little traffic there was. With few cars and a speed limit of 12 miles-per-hour children played safely in the road.
Muriel Jones remembers growing up in Bloxhall Road in the 1920s: “You’d get boys from Lea Bridge Road coming round. Our road was the road they all played in, much to mum’s annoyance when you lost your window.
“Poor old Colin, he did our windows ever so many times.”
Though there are many happy childhood memories, others recall the sufferings of poverty. May went to school in Mission Grove: “All round there were very poor people living. At school some of the children came without shoes on their feet. Very sad really.”
Children also had to contend with infectious diseases like diphtheria. Many interviewees spent time in fever isolation hospitals in Leyton and Chingford. Some of their recollections have been published as a pamphlet, Touch Yer Collar, Never Swaller, available free on the oral history workshop’s website.
Poverty caused ill health as well. Not only did Margaret have diphtheria twice, she was also diagnosed with malnutrition because “there was no food in the house”. In the 1930s nearly half of all children in Britain suffered from malnutrition.
The state paid for Margaret to have “a spoonful of malt and cod liver oil, because I was underweight”. However, she remembers it came with conditions: “It was what they called ‘public assistance’. And my God, if you had a knife and fork more than what you needed you had to go and sell that.”
Their families struggling financially, children were expected to contribute to the household income as soon as legally possible. It was common on turning 14 to finish school on Friday and start work the following Monday.
Thomas Thompson left school at this age in 1921: “I went out and went from shop to shop in Leytonstone High Road until I came to a shop called Evan and Rogers Shoe Repairers. They said they wanted a boy, so that was where I started my working life.
“We didn’t have any choice in those days, you just went out and if you were lucky you got a job. My mother had seven children and I was the eldest, so of course I was the one who was the next wage earner.”
Unemployment was high through the 1920s and 1930s. Some children will have had parents out of work and all would have been aware the job market was tough.
An interviewee known only as Mr T Sims started in 1934 at the age of 14 as a butcher boy’s assistant in Hoe Street: “Work was very hard to get and we were only too glad to get whatever we could.”
Mr Sims remembers his job as “a great life”. Others had different experiences. Mrs Mace, forename unknown, started off making airplane wings at the Mica Factory in Blackhorse Lane. She recalls: “It was very hard work for little kids of 14.”
Working days were long and it was usually a six-day week. Mr Sims worked 48 hours a week at the butchers, including 7am-9pm shifts on Fridays and Saturdays.
Generally however there is no regret expressed at having to leave school so early. A few children, such as May Farrow, stayed until their late teens, but for most, until after the Second World War, going out to work at 14 was a fact of life.
Clearly those born a century ago had very different childhoods to today. There was freedom to roam and play outdoors but childhood ended much earlier. They also grew up in periods of high unemployment and widespread poverty, in the shadow of one world war and on the eve of the next.
As adults they experienced the post-war period of hope and prosperity and their own children grew up with the benefits of the welfare state. In 1972 the school leaving age was increased to 16-years-old. Today education is compulsory up to 18.
Rising living standards and the introduction of the family allowance (child benefit) also reduced the pressure for children to contribute to the family income. At 14 children no longer had to be wage earners. Instead they became the first teenagers.
Research for this article was supported by Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop is a volunteer group who have been recording oral histories with local residents for the past 30 years. For information on the workshop’s archive, joining the group, or being interviewed: