Joan Robson was the granddaughter of my nan’s older sister, Ellen Clements and was therefore my second cousin. Joan was an only child, who lived with her parents in South Hackney and was 15 months older than me. I was taken to stay with her for a weekend in 1953, when I was 7 years old. The old three-storey Georgian house was in Southborough Road, the lower part being below street level (down the airey) where another family lived. Joan and her parents occupied the middle and upper floors. I hated the area because the only place for children to play was in the street outside. Joan’s friends who were a year or two older than me were streetwise and East End confident. I found them quite intimidating. On the Friday when I first arrived, they soon sussed me out as a timid little country girl from Laindon – a ‘Hicks from the Sticks’. At one point, I found myself alone with one girl who looked me up and down for a few seconds and then announced quite coldly “I broke a girl’s arm once” and then watched for my reaction. I froze on the spot and was relieved when Joan came to join us. I didn’t let her out of my sight after that. Joan was also confident and well able to deal with her companions. I knew she would look after me.
On Saturday we went to Victoria Park where I was pleased to see that London did actually have some grass. We visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, I particularly liked the vintage toys section. On Sunday we went to London Zoo for the day. Those were the days of elephant and camel rides and we went on both. Once again, I felt a tide of fear flow through me, when two tall women walked towards me dressed from head to foot in black. Only their eyes were visible, as their faces were covered with black leather masks. I had never seen anything so frightening before. I later learned that they were from Saudi Arabia and this was their traditional dress. I was happy to return home to Laindon where the most frightening thing I was likely to encounter was a spider in the loo or an adder amongst the blackberry brambles and I was well used to seeing those!
Joan and her family liked to visit us in Laindon as often as possible. They loved the fresh air and countryside feel of Laindon. At Christmas time they would move into my nan’s bungalow ‘Pendennis’ for a few days and sleep on the put-u-up settee. I remember playing cards, I spy, hunt the thimble and of course the excitement of not being able to get to sleep for ages on Christmas Eve. Waking up on Christmas morning and shivering while opening our presents as the adults emptied the ashes, cleaned the grate and started a new fire. The lovely feeling of warmth as the fire got going and began to give out some heat.
In 1954 when I was 8 years old, I accompanied Joan and her parents on a two week holiday to Great Yarmouth. We stayed in a boarding house and spent half of each day on the beach while the tide was out. I didn’t own a bathing suit in those days so one was borrowed for the holiday. It was blue and elasticated, giving the appearance of bubbles. We saw Tommy Trinder’s very lively show on the pier and followed him out of the theatre with a group of other children, along the promenade as he and his musicians played and sang McNamara’s Band. We pretended we were playing trombones and did the ’slide’ action with our hands.
We spent hours in the adventure playground where one attraction was three large rolling barrels that you had to run through. Joan and I managed it quite easily, but when her mum tried, she fell and when her dad tried to help her, he fell too. I remember the sight of them both tumbling around for a few seconds until the attendants quickly stopped the machine and they were able to get up, brush themselves down and walk out to join us. Thankfully neither were hurt.
I enjoyed the holiday but again, had felt very homesick for Laindon. I missed my brother and sister, our dog, the baby goats and the fields. I was pleased to return home. Joan stayed for a further week and we climbed trees, played with the baby goats, made daisy chains by the yard, searched for grasshoppers and butterflies in Cooper’s field, and attempted to make ‘scent’. We collected dozens of rose petals from my mum’s rose bushes, packed them into little bottles and filled them with water hoping to create a beautiful perfume. Needless to say, it just turned into an odourless mush but we enjoyed the experiment. I can’t recall watching television at all in the summer. If the weather wasn’t too good, we played ‘house’ or ‘schools’, did zig-saws, made bracelets and necklaces from poppit beads, practised our knitting skills, read books and comics but dashed outside again as soon as the rain stopped.
Each year during the school summer holidays, Joan spent a couple of weeks at our bungalow. She always arrived pale, thin and delicate looking. She was a fussy eater, picked at her food and refused some things completely. After a couple of weeks with us, playing out in the sunshine, running across the fields with my sister, brother, myself and our dog ‘Curly’, she would develop a healthy appetite and tuck into meals along with the rest of us. We played for hours in our large sand pit until our hands and knees were stained orange. We built a sand ‘rocket ship’ with stones for control buttons. When we pushed them we’d say ‘burrup-bing’ and pretend we were flying off somewhere. We made gardens in the sand by planting buttercups, daisies and dandelions that we had picked. When it was time for tea my mum would sit us both on the draining board with our feet in the butler sink where we attempting to wash the sand stains off with a bar of green fairy soap. By the time her parents arrived to collect her, despite having been bitten by gnats, scratched by thistles and stung by stinging nettles, she’d developed a healthy glow and would go home with rosy cheeks.
Unfortunately, one summer Joan had a rash of a different kind. We noticed on arrival that she had some pink blotches. Her mother explained they were heat spots, due to having been out in the sun a lot. She then left Joan with us and returned to Hackney. However, the spots developed rapidly across her entire body and became severe. My mother took her to Dr Chowdhary who kindly agreed to see her even though she wasn’t his patient. “Well Miss Bobson” he exclaimed, “you have impetigo and your aunt is going to have to paint you purple”. He handed us a prescription for Gentian Violet which we collected from Wilson the Chemist.
Out in our garden, we watched in amused astonishment as my mother painted our cousin purple from head to foot. Naked apart from her panties, she had to stay like that all day. I can’t remember if she slept like it and whether it got on the sheets but the treatment worked and eventually the horrible skin condition cleared up and thankfully Joan became pink again.
When our early teen years arrived, Joan would occasionally bring a school friend to visit us for the day. I remember her saying to one of them “See, I told you they lived in the middle of a field”. ‘Friend’ was suitably impressed which made me feel very privileged to live in Laindon, especially as I waved Joan and her friend off to catch the train back to Hackney.
Joan married into a Spanish family in 1963 when she was 18 and last visited Laindon with her husband around 1964 when she was expecting their first child. We took a walk around the fields so she could show her husband where we had once played as children. In the following years we got on with our lives without much contact until 2002, when I visited her and her husband in their Hackney flat. Their home was surrounded by a high fence which was kept locked due to vandalism and break-ins. I had to speak into an intercom to announce our arrival, so that Joan could unlock the gate to let us in. Her husband told us that he had long since given up owning a car due to the high number of thefts in the area and now only used public transport to get around.
We talked of our childhood holidays in Laindon and Joan told me how much she had loved it and longed to have lived there herself. She’d had the chance in the early eighties, when her Local Council offered her a ‘now or never’ opportunity to move to an area outside London. She was tempted, but as her daughter was then settled at secretarial college and her son in the sixth form, she decided not to disrupt or uproot them, so she and her family remained in Hackney. She shook her head, regretfully adding, “The timing was all wrong”.
Joan said she would love to visit us in Laindon again and would choose a lovely sunny day in the summer. Unfortunately, that day wasn’t to be, as although we kept in touch, she became ill and couldn’t make the journey. She died on 1st March 2012 aged 66, without visiting Laindon for one last time. I was of course very sad and disappointed, yet relieved that she had been spared from seeing the many great changes that have taken place since 1964 i.e. the loss of our High Road shops and the new developments that cover the fields where we had once played.
Her memories were of Laindon when it was at its best, natural and unspoiled, in an era of sixties optimism expressed in the words of the Beatles’ song “It’s getting better all the time”. That’s how I like to think of it, before the changes came and would like to say a big “Thank you” to Laindon for making the childhood holidays of a little East End girl from Hackney so enjoyable.