I would truly be surprised if anyone remembers me, but I do remember Laindon. That quiet little town has remained with me for over 60 years. Strange, because I can only claim to have lived there for about 12 months, way back in 1950. My family are sometimes at a loss as to why I can remember every detail so clearly from over all those years when remembering last month’s events can now sometimes be a bit of a challenge.
Perhaps it was the wild and isolated Plotlands with all those pathways seemingly going everywhere and yet sometimes, nowhere – or maybe it was that Church perched way up on the hill like some kind of medieval watch tower keeping a friendly eye on all of us. On the other hand perhaps it was just the little bunch of 11 year old ‘high flyers’ at Markham’s Chase School that I came to know so well
Originally I came from Enfield in Middlesex and after the war, like many of their generation, my parents decided that it was time for a move to the country and maybe even set up a small holding.
Why they chose Essex I can only guess. My mother’s brother and his family lived on a large Country Estate up in Langdon Hills where he was Head Gardner. Perhaps then it was no real surprise when after looking around Benfleet, Billericay, Canvey Island and Southend, my parents settled for Laindon.
‘Cotswold’ Buller Road
We moved into ‘Cotswold’ in August 1950, just one plot down from Devonshire Road. ‘Cotswold’ was a chalet bungalow built I would guess in the 1930’s. The construction was timber framed with asbestos cladding, papered on the inside and covered in shingle dash on the outside. A knock on the wall confirmed the cavity construction. The front had a porch adjacent to a large bay window and at the rear there was a ‘lean-to’. A brick built chimney stack and a slate roof completed a well-designed and attractive property.
Recognition of the risks associated with using asbestos materials in buildings was several years ahead. The only real downside to our new home was the outside Loo that in other circumstances I’m certain would have been a ‘show stopper’ for my mother, but it didn’t seem to matter. After war weary suburban Enfield, this charming little property with its large, well established garden front and back convinced Mum and Dad that the future for us was right here in Buller Road. There was also a brick built chicken coop at the bottom of the garden holding over 50 birds. A good start to a small holding business you might think.
Living in Laindon
My father had been a Tram and Trolley Bus driver in London for about 20 years until ill health forced him to retire and he became a window cleaner. Leaving his round behind would not be a problem; he would easily get a new job in or around Laindon! That should have been easy enough, but it wasn’t and my father finished up commuting daily back to Enfield. That meant taking the early morning Eastern National single decker from outside Laindon Police Station to the A12 and then catching the City Coach to Wood Green and finally a Trolley Bus back to Enfield. Once there he would collect his ladders and barrow from my aunt’s house – and carry on window cleaning. To this day I don’t know how he did it.
The properties in Buller Road were fairly spread out. Opposite there lay well back from the road a substantial shed like property with its wooden laths coated in a black preservative. In the summer it was covered in flowering creepers making a picture much admired by my parents. Personally we never saw anyone in or around the property, let alone speak to them. The bungalow on the right going down Buller Road was occupied by an elderly couple with whom we were on ‘nodding terms’.
However, we became very friendly with the young couple who lived in the last property in Buller Road on the Devonshire Road end. Sadly, I can’t remember their names but I would say that they were both in their late twenties. The husband had spent the war in the Far East and was not long out of the army. They had no children but they did have a large white cat that regarded ‘Cotswold’ as a second home!
The husband kept a shiny metal shaving mirror tied around the trunk of a tree in his back garden. Such mirrors were I believe, issued to all servicemen in those days. Learning that I liked the outdoor life he one day gave me the mirror requesting that I look after it as he had done throughout his service. That mirror became part of my personal camping kit up until the time I was about 16 and yes- I lost it. For several years after that there would be occasions on cold early mornings when I with 2 or 3 mates would struggle to shave in the side mirrors of a lorry and my mind would slip back to the act of kindness by my Laindon neighbour. How I wished that I had been more careful with his mirror.
My parents were not what we might now call ‘social animals’ and indeed it now seems strange to me that during that year we were invited out to tea by hitherto complete strangers on at least two occasions. The first was to a couple who lived in an isolated but charming bungalow surrounded by a large garden. The property was situated somewhere the other side of Devonshire road. The hospitality was first class but what I remember most about the visit was the couple’s two white dogs. I can’t remember what breed they were but they were huge! The other thing that stands out in my mind was that on the walk to our host’s bungalow there were a few properties that lay back from the path – one of which was a bus! Laindon of the 1950s appeared to me as a land of contrast.
Our second invitation was to a very large and substantial grey brick house situated the other side of Laindon station and set high up on a hill. We were again treated to an excellent tea and afterwards I played in the back garden with the children of the house who were I think a little younger than me. The cause for wonderment this time was the garden sloping back from the house at an almost 45 degree angle. When you looked back the house appeared so high up that one day it must surely topple into the garden!
I have no idea how my parents secured these invitations. I can only think that perhaps it was through chance meetings in shops or at bus stops or maybe doctors’ surgery waiting rooms where polite and friendly conversations would ensue. Such was the world for ordinary folk in those days.
Introduction to Markham’s Chase
I must have joined Markham’s Chase School in September 1950. My mother took me along to enrol but the next day I was on my own. The Headmistress was Ms Janet Duke and Mr Wiggins was I think her deputy as well as my new class teacher. They had obviously given me the benefit of any doubt on my academic abilities and I found myself in the top class of that year – I was hopelessly out of my depth.
The school building was a revelation to me. I understand now that it was built in 1934 so it was in my time still a comparatively new building. The classrooms were all light and airy and the parquet flooring shone everywhere you walked. The Hall with its big windows at the front seemed to give the establishment a very stately appearance. Stand in the playground, and everywhere you looked you could see trees and green fields. It was all a far cry from Southbury Road Juniors back in Enfield.
If I loved Markham’s Chase for its idyllic situation I regret that the resumption of my education would prove to be a very unhappy time for me. Those first few weeks were difficult. I was never going to catch up with my new classmates and as always in this sort of situation the ‘new kid’ was not exactly made to feel welcome. After a week I pleaded with my mother to take me away and put me in another school. Anywhere would do – not a hope!
So, every morning found me all on my own like ‘Billy No Mates’, standing outside Laindon Police Station waiting for the school bus. My only hope of salvation and dodging school was if the bus broke down or perhaps had a puncture, anything, just anything that would prevent me facing another day at MCS. I prayed daily for something to happen, but God in his wisdom was on my mother’s side and nothing ever did. That darned bus was as regular as clockwork
But all this unhappiness passed when people began talking to me and I lost my ‘new kid’ status. Well after all I had now known everyone for at least three weeks.
In the end like all children in that situation I accepted the inevitable. Markhams Chase and I were stuck with one another for the foreseeable future and I settled into my new surroundings determined to make the best of it – well no, not exactly, it just suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t really got much choice!
A library was open in the school hall at lunchtime. The two young librarians, both girls as I remember, would balance a couple of boxes of index cards on two vaulting stools and there they conducted business through the lunch hour. There was a good selection of books and I joined the Library.
I could now put names to faces. Fred Gurnet, Jean Furlong, Marion Devine, Jean Reeve, Brian Wakelam, Allan Fossett, Peter Clayton, Robert Davies, and Reggie Daniels. The last three named became firm friends. Peter Clayton lived in a fairly isolated bungalow called ‘Highfield’s’ in Inverness Road that ran almost parallel to and on the Markhams Chase side of the High Street. Robert Davies lived quite near me in ‘Oak Villa’ Railway Approach and Reggie Daniels lived at the rear a shop where his father ran a boot and a shoe repair business. The shop was in a small parade that stood on the corner of where Victoria Road met the High Street.
Next to the Daniels shop was a Dairy but I don’t remember the name. I spent many happy hours in and around the yard at the back of those shops. Mr and Mrs Daniels were kind folk and I had tea in their home more than once. The yard at the back was shared with the Dairy and an old milk float that stood over against the fence was a great attraction. There was also I remember a large and empty hut of the sort that served as Troops accommodation during WW2. I can’t recall exactly where it stood but I do remember a large sign over the door that read ‘Daniels Friendly Society’. A social club perhaps?
I remember questioning Reggie but never got any real answer and I was too short to look through the window so I never did get a look inside.
Mr Daniels kept a Pony and Trap. The Pony was called Bob I seem to recall and on the odd occasion in the summer, we would swap the school bus for a more leisurely ride to school in the pony and Trap.
A bad winter
Now came family set back number two when just after Christmas my mother was rushed into Billericay General Hospital with acute Appendicitis. In those days it meant a stay in Hospital of two or maybe three weeks. It was the school Christmas holidays and as I had nowhere to stay within Laindon, I joined the daily commute back to Enfield with my father.
While he was busy cleaning windows I stayed with my aunt and looked up old mates. The school term times in Enfield must have been different and one day I ventured back to my former school at Southbury Road. It was lunch time and my old school chums dragged me into the hall, sat me down and then proceeded to cajole an unfortunate dinner lady into giving me a free school dinner. In spite of this genuine display of welcome, I felt very awkward – keeping an eye out for any of my former teachers who might suddenly appear and throw me off the premises. After lunch I left the school with a feeling that I had burnt my bridges or more likely they had been burnt for me.
In the evenings we would return to Billericay and visit mother in hospital. In 1951 Matrons ruled the wards with a rod of iron and no matter who you were it was strictly two visitors to a bed. If like me you were an 11 year old lad desperate to see his mum, then the best that could be offered was a wave through the porthole type windows in the doors at the entrance to the ward.
I remember on one occasion stepping back to allow a pretty young nurse to exit the ward. She was singing ‘Sleigh Ride’. Even today whenever I hear that song at Christmas I’m right back outside that ward in Billericay General.
For me, my mother in hospital was the worst memory of that period in my life. A close second was the awful travel sickness that I suffered on those Brown and Cream liveried City Coaches travelling daily up and down to London.
The Bad winter that year coupled with our daily absence from ‘Cotswold’ meant that what remained of the chickens had to be sold off. Buller Road was now a quagmire of mud and puddles impassable to vehicular traffic. Not that we had a car but deliveries and refuse collection were severely affected. That idyllic country environment that we had moved into not six months before had slipped away in a wet wintery blast. However, looking on the bright side I now had the unexpected bonus of a new ‘Den’ at the bottom of the garden when the chickens moved out and I moved in – but sadly for my parents it was the end of the smallholding dream.
Although I had always been a bit of a ‘joiner’ I didn’t join anything in Laindon. Seeing as in Enfield I had been a very keen Wolf Cub and was looking forward to going up into the Scouts, I never made any attempt to find the local Troop. What I did do in the lighter evenings was to spend time with mates over on the recreation ground off Victoria Road. The ‘Rec’ as we called it was a sizable expanse of grassland surrounded by bungalows and several ‘Prefabs’. At weekends I would explore the surrounding ‘Plotlands’ sometimes with friends and sometimes on my own. The start and return point for these adventures was always the unmade end of Devonshire Road. The landscape seemed to stretch away for miles with the odd smart and the not so smart bungalow or shack lying back from a grassy unmade road and those narrow concrete pathways that ran everywhere.
Apart from Victoria Road and a new estate behind Buller Road, street lighting was non-existent and to be caught out after dark without a torch was indeed a risky business.
The Radion Cinema always seemed to show a good selection of films and I remember once watching an excellent talent show, but apart from that evenings were usually spent listening to the wireless or reading the school library book. It’s strange but I can’t remember ever having any homework.
Jack the Lad
With the Christmas holidays over it was back to MCS. I still wasn’t getting very good marks and surprise, surprise the eleven plus just seemed to pass me by (much to my relief!). I have to say that the school staff were very supportive to us all and I had a great respect for those I came into contact with. I particularly remember Miss Williams who was our Music teacher. I can see her now standing behind a big upright piano with its back to the class, playing with one hand and conducting with the other. I don’t know what sort of magic that young lady spread amongst us kids but I for one can still remember the words and music to ‘Come music makers’ and ‘The Harp that once through Tara’s Walls’ – they just won’t go away.
I guess that lack of academic ability didn’t seem to matter so much to me any more for I had now a good circle of friends and I was happy. Struggling but happy and I couldn’t really ask for more than that.
Certain events in the class lesson plan stick out in my mind. On one occasion we were all tasked to write up a journal on any subject of our choice. I saw this as a real chance to shine for I was blessed with a vivid imagination if nothing else. I chose horses as my specialist subject. After all, I had brushed down Mr Daniels pony ‘Bob’ at least twice and with a book from the school library I guess that made me a bit of an expert. I wrote pages and pages on riding and caring for one’s horse with the text accompanied by pictures of horses and riders that I had cut out from magazines. I was confident that this time my efforts would be recognised as among the best in the class!
Before we handed our journals over for marking we each had to stand up and say a few words about our chosen subject providing examples to illustrate our interest. – Hang on a minute, nobody said anything about that!
The subjects chosen by each individual varied from needlework to stamp collecting and after the first two presentations it became clear to me that I had slipped from the number one place if indeed I was ever in the running.
My worst fears were confirmed when Reggie Daniels stood up and with a confidence that belied his age, revealed that his chosen subject was his father’s trade of boot and shoe repair (Oh No!) and to compliment his excellent journal he held up a colourful A4 trade card that had affixed to it all the leathers used in the boot and shoe trade, all shiny and superbly presented (well they would be wouldn’t they). Now my turn. I stood up – It was crunch time.
It was at this point I realised that if I was to impress anyone at all I had to find me a horse in the next 5 minutes – no chance!
About six weeks later we were again in class and there must have been a problem with the timetable as there was obviously no prepared lesson and to fill the time we all had to stand up in turn and talk for two minutes about any subject. I had now abandoned horses forever and when my turn came I stood up and talked about camping. I had camped with the Cubs and Scouting in general with all its outdoor pursuits was beginning to appeal and so I confidently waffled on for about 10 minutes.
When I eventually finished I remained at the front of the class whilst Mr Wiggins walked slowly over from where he had been leaning on a radiator at the back. Looking me straight in the eye he pointed out that I had just spoken for 10 minutes without notes on a subject that I obviously knew something about, but only a few weeks before I had submitted a journal on horses that I obviously knew absolutely nothing about. I accepted all that he had to say without question but as I sat down at my desk I had a feeling that this time I hadn’t done too badly.
Of course Mr Wiggins was absolutely right and at least I was smart enough to take his words as a bit of a backhanded compliment. It was a lesson in leadership that I remembered in later life. – Praise, even if hard to recognise at the time, will always inspire one to do better.
Education aside the school took us on several trips that year. We went by coach up to London where huge hoardings were advertising the latest Hollywood blockbuster ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower RN’ starring Gregory Peck. We took a trip down the Thames where we saw the ‘Skylon’ being erected at the Festival of Britain, rising against a backdrop of an uninterrupted skyline that is difficult to imagine these days.
There was also a visit to the Ballet organised by Miss Williams and Miss Davies. The ballet was ‘Coppelia’ and was performed on the stage of a Southend cinema. I turned out to be the only boy in the party and two days before the trip Mr Wiggins asked me if I still wanted to go with all the girls?
Silly question really, course I did.
We caught a late morning train from Laindon Station to Southend and actually I quite enjoyed the Ballet. However, on the way back I met with a painful accident. It was entirely my fault and in front of all those girls! The embarrassment was total. Jack the lad was reduced to Del the idiot – Oh well.
There was a parents’ evening when the class put on a play with an historical theme. One scene involved the murder of Sir Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and I along with two mates auditioned and got the parts as the three knights who would do the dirty deed.
Come the dress rehearsal, I and my fellow assassins appeared in grey pullovers and knee high socks to represent chain mail and our mothers had made us each a Crusaders smock complete with Red Cross on front and back. The whole Ensemble was completed with 12” bayonets that someone had acquired and they were hung from our ‘Snake’ belts.
My mates and I strutted about the school hall like extras from ‘Camelot’.
We had discussed between ourselves exactly how we would put Becket down. Came the rehearsal, right on cue, we marched onto the stage with swords drawn and with much grunting and thrusting we set about our now terrified classmate who was unfortunate enough to be playing Becket.
It was all too much for Mr Wiggins and Miss Williams who fearing that our bloodthirsty assault would alarm the parents, re-arranged the scene. The three knights would now walk forward to the victim closely followed by the stage curtain that eventually overtook us and was closed before we got to a visibly relieved Thomas Becket.
I can’t remember the names of my two accomplices but there was much muttering and talk of mutiny for our starring role was now literally a walk on part.
I can’t help thinking that in this day and age the drawn swords alone would have the Essex Police SWAT team surrounding the school!
Time to Go
July 26th 1951 and the last day at MCS for all of us. By then my Mother and Father had decided that they would have to move back to Enfield and I knew that within a few weeks I would be gone.
The leavers were all grouped in the hall and it was as I remember a highly charged atmosphere with much discussion on new schools, new uniforms and lots of collecting of autographs. I still have my autograph book with a page signed by all the staff, Mr JR Wiggins, Miss M Burge, Miss J Balls, Miss MV Williams, Mr FE Finnegan, Mr M Stanley Mr RJ Wallace, Miss LW Whitley, Miss BM Hutchins, Mr R Devine, Miss ILM Cock, Mrs S Squire, J Purchase, Miss DR Mayhew, Mrs DR Last and finally Miss E Davies with the message ‘Happy memories of Southend’ – Could I ever forget!
That was about every signature that I and no doubt all my friends could gather on that last day. All except that is for Janet Duke the Head Teacher who in that year I saw only on the odd occasion. I can’t recall seeing her on that day although I’m sure that she must have been there.
Spread about the other pages of my now tattered autograph book are the signatures of the classmates already mentioned, with some adding the occasional childlike and therefore all the more touching words of farewell.
After a while we were all called to attention for a general pep talk and formal goodbye. Mr Wiggins then asked all those who were going to Laindon High Road school to please exit the hall on the left and the remainder; exit the hall on the right. What about me? I wasn’t really sure where I was going, but I knew it wouldn’t be Laindon High Road, so naturally I followed to the right wondering all the time if this was my last ‘wrong answer’ at MSC. The firm hand placed on my shoulder confirmed that the fact was I had got it wrong on account that I wasn’t going to a Grammar school either!
So believe it or not, there I was in the middle of that big hall, all alone, the last man standing or if you prefer, ‘Billy no mates’ again.
Although I wasn’t desperately sad to be leaving MCS and Laindon, if the truth is told my academic ability had improved thanks to a caring staff and in particular the firm but fair Mr Wiggins who I have always thought understood my predicament as the ‘New kid’. I had received nothing but encouragement.
As for my classmates I liked them all and perhaps thought that I might see them again at some time but in fact the only one that I ever came across was Peter Clayton when quite by chance we met at Gilwell Park Scout Camp in 1954.
I have been back to Laindon on several occasions. The first time was in the early 1970s when I could just about navigate to Markham’s Chase and Buller Road, now a suburban avenue with a smart brick built bungalow in the spot where ‘Cotswold’ used to be. I was disappointed and just a little sad. It was almost as if I had expected to find things the way they were.
My last visit was about a year ago with an old friend of mine when embarrassingly I recognised even less. I did find the old Police Station married quarters and I eventually found Markham’s Chase School, now 64 years older and surrounded by suburbia with more buildings and less greenery, in fact looking more like the Southbury Road Junior School I left behind all those years ago in 1950.
There is however a strange post script to my story. Last year whilst I was browsing through the Laindon Archive site I came across a 2011 contribution from a Mr Dave Peck who had posted an interesting article on the story of the St Johns Ambulance in Laindon. John’s parents had obviously brought ‘Cotswold’ from my parents. His photograph of the Bungalow is almost identical to the one taken by my mother in August 1951 and the photograph of him and his younger brother in the back garden is almost in the same spot as the one taken of me with next door’s cat again in August 1951 – Small world.
Over the years I have made countless trips along the A127 for either business or pleasure and occasionally still do. It’s funny but when I’m nearing the site of old ‘Fortune of War’ public House, I never fail to look across at St Nicholas Church standing as it does high up on the hill. That wonderful old building always seems to be beckoning me to walk up Church Hill and take a look on the other side as if to welcome me back to some Essex ‘Brigadoon’.
But alas, the Laindon that I knew, and my schoolmates of yesteryear are but reflections of part of my boyhood that remains locked in my memory, and in truth, that pleases me.