When "Youth Service" came to Laindon
A look-back at the influences on the youth of our Community
The opening chapter of her autobiography (“High Spirits” pub. 2000, Partridge, London) written by one of Laindon’s home grown celebrities, the late Joan Sims (1930-2002) is an important contribution to the district’s history in the 1930s and 40s. There are, however, points that are made in that chapter (entitled “The railway child”) that require some clarification.
On page 4, Joan made reference to another of Laindon’s “celebs”, if that is the right word, namely the “old boy” whom she called “Peg Leg” . As Joan understood it, he had lost his legs in wartime but the truth was, unfortunately, somewhat more prosaic; “notorious” might be better description for Harry Stopher of Durham Road, Laindon. He had in fact lost his legs trying to escape the attentions of the Railway Police while on a pilfering expedition in the yards at Stratford. Never having gone beyond the stage of being supplied with pylons on which to learn to walk again (it was pre-NHS days and artificial limbs had to be paid for) Harry was quite happy not to disabuse anybody who considered him a war hero. He travelled regularly to London to “busk” in the West End and was frequently to be seen in Oxford Street emitting a somewhat tuneless whistle that could scarcely be called “musical”.
In the early 1950s, Harry’s photograph appeared in “Picture Post” in one of his typical sympathy seeking poses, trouser legs rolled up enough to reveal his disability. The picture was published in association with others purporting to illustrate just how difficult life was proving to be in the UK at that time, adjusting as it was to a post-war world. Despite this, Harry was eventually to derive benefits under the NHS since he was provided free with an early-motorised invalid’s carriage, an AC Invacar made at Thundersley. This somewhat unstable blue vehicle was frequently seen around the district being driven by Harry.
Unfortunately, the sort of description that Joan gives in her account of Harry’s lifestyle, his frequent resorting to alcohol, did not go down well with, firstly the Laindon police force and ultimately the local magistrates. Initially, warned about carrying in a vehicle designed for just one person only, one or more of his children, he was eventually banned from driving altogether for being found drunk and unconscious in charge of a motor vehicle on a public highway.
Another of Joan’s accounts of the Laindon scene is worthy of a further expansion of its background. Describing on page 19 of her autobiography her teenage involvement with the “Langdon Players” and the local operatic company, Joan goes on to describe the part she played with what she called the Youth Drama Group. There was in the establishment of this group an interesting social background that had far wider implications than the role it was to play in Joan’s personal history.
Following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in June 1940, it became necessary for the British Army to be considerably reinforced by an urgent influx of conscripts. Considerable concern was expressed in military circles on the poor standards of physical fitness as well as the educational standards of many of those being conscripted, concerns that were to lead to important decisions at government level, and that, in turn were, to lead to interesting developments and changes in social behaviour in Laindon and elsewhere.
The first effects of this new governmental concern revealed itself in a news report contained in an article in the “Laindon Recorder” of 1st January 1941 giving details of a meeting of the Billericay Urban District Council giving “mature consideration” to the opening of two communal feeding centres, one at Pitsea the other at Laindon, where it was considered that the need was most vital. The object of these “centres” was the provision of substantial, well cooked, meals to be made available at low cost to supplement what had already become a rather restricted diet constrained by the necessary introduction of rationing since the start of the war. The major problem the council had to solve was where such facilities should be located, a problem that continued to present difficulties for sometime but which was finally resolved by the end of the year. In the “Recorder” of the 3rd December 1941 the following official notice was published by the Clerk to the BUDC from his office at 106 High Street, Billericay: “Opening of British Restaurants” (elsewhere the equivalent facilities were often called “Civic Restaurants”) Laindon Memorial Hall, High Road on Monday 8th December at 11.30am. Pitsea, Vange on Monday 15th December at HALL of Vange Working’s Men’s Club, High Road. Meals will be served daily at the Restaurants from 12 noon to 2pm at the following prices. Soup 2d, Meat and Vegetables 7d, Sweet 2d, Cup of Tea 1d. Children (under 7 years of age) including sweet 4d. Cash and carry service. This service will be in operation at both restaurants at the same times and prices. Customers must bring their own receptacles.”
As well as seeking to improve upon the feeding habits of the nation in wartime (all newspapers, local and national, at a time of seriously restricted use of newsprint were constantly carrying advertisements issued by the Ministry of Food in particular, and the Ministry of Information on how this might best be done) serious consideration was being given to the better organisation of other facilities. What, in Laindon, was often an ongoing problem for many volunteer bodies in the area, that is finding a suitable venue for the pursuit of their activities. In April 1941, to such bodies was added yet another but this time one which had official backing; the RAF. Serious consideration had been given at high level to the problem of the chronic under-employment of the nation’s youth. Without actually saying so there was an obvious admiration for the way in which the Germans had got their act together and had set up an umbrella organisation referred to as the “Hitler Youth”. Obviously not wanting to be seen to be emulating their enemy’s efforts, in the UK the suggestion was that all the services (Navy, Army and RAF) should establish youth groups covering that part of the population from the school leaving age (14 years) until the time that youngsters had reached the age at which they could be conscripted (18 and a half). Furthermore, every effort was to be made to encourage possible qualifying persons to join such organisations even to the extent that at age of 16 (adjudged the age at which the successful 11 plus pupils would also be leaving school) all girls and boys were required to produce evidence to the authorities that they were engaged in such “worthwhile” activities.
In order, however, not to be thought to be too oppressive in what was being sought, it was agreed that certain already existing voluntary organisations should be “acceptable” and to be considered of equal standing alongside those “officially” appointed organisations even to the extent that some volunteer bodies could be supported, if necessary, by financial support from public funds such as the rates. Thus, longstanding youth organisations like the Boy Scouts, the Girl Guides, the Boys Brigade, St John Ambulance Cadets etc were considered to be acceptable. In Laindon, where these nationally established groups were reasonably well represented, there were other groups or clubs, founded by local enthusiasts, which were not backed by any national affiliations. One such was the Laindon Athletic Club whose relatively small sized and localised membership meant it had always struggled to find a suitable venue for its activities and was, thus, somewhat thwarted in its ambitions.
In order to meet the lofty ambitions of what was known then as the Board of Education, responsibility had been devolved to county level and the Essex Education Committee had set up local committees to oversee the realisation of the government’s ambitions. Thus we find, in May 1941 a report in the “Laindon Recorder” of these ambitions being brought to fruition. Firstly, an official letter has already had wide distribution setting out the aims of the “Brentwood and Billericay District Local Youth Committee” in accordance with the Board of Education’s “Service of Youth” followed by, secondly, the calling of a public meeting at the Laindon High Road Senior School to discuss the ways and means of establishing what was to be known as a “Youth Centre”. In order to display its willingness to assist, the Laindon Athletic Club had, the report reveals, already been granted the right to hold its weekly meetings at the school, the first of which was to take place in the same week as the edition of the local paper was published.
Thus was born, at what must have appeared to many as being the most inopportune moment for such a nativity, with the United Kingdom under an ongoing threat of a Nazi invasion and a constant and vivacious air attack by the forces of the Luftwaffe, a totally new welfare system. But, as was stated in the reports that followed in later 1941 editions of the “Recorder”, what might appear to be very lofty ambitions for the times, a realisation had been reached at the highest level that the unrealised promises that had been made at the conclusion of the first world war in 1918 had left many who were then young “flat” and thwarted in their ambitions. It was thus very clear that the intent in the current war was that the task of reconstruction should be started while hostilities were still on going and not to wait for the war to end before attempting the task. In the meantime, youth was being given the opportunity of becoming a united movement with youth actually being given responsibility and the proposed Youth Centre was to be an organisation that was run by youth in the service of youth.
These somewhat high ideals born out of both the need and natural enthusiasms of the day never quite bore the full mature fruits of those who most desired them, never the less many towards whom the initial propaganda was directed responded. By the close of 1941 not only was Laindon Athletics Club enjoying the facilities of “new” headquarters at the High Road School but it was also expanding by embarking upon a more ambitious programme of activities. There was a small irony in this; the President of the Laindon Athletics Club was George Radford who was also the headmaster of Laindon High Road Senior School. This meant he was well placed to protect the interests of his school when its premises were in use for such “extra mural” activities as those of “his” club. Unfortunately, such were the conditions of the time with virtually a total ban on the use of raw materials for anything not directly related to the pursuit of the war, the chance of providing alternative special accommodation for anything else were ruled out and Mr. Radford’s school found itself pressed into service more and more as a major centre of local activity as time went by. Since the space at the High Road School was not unlimited there often arose conflicts in its use over which Mr Radford thought he should have absolute control. Unfortunately others thought differently and later, particularly after the end of the war, these differences of opinion led to conflict particularly when it was the supposed “needs of youth” that were concerned.
One of the most successful organisations that made the High Road School its local headquarters before the end of 1941, as reports in the “Laindon Recorder” for that year reveal was the Air Training Corps. This organisation under aegis of the Royal Air Force, it appeared, turned out to be the most favoured of all the three services’ youth affiliations in Laindon. The initial hopes of the organisation that potential members might be prepared to travel to either Hornchurch aerodrome or to Chelmsford for activities had fallen flat due to the expense of travel, so it had been decided that it was best for Mohamed to travel to the Mountain, initially in the shape of setting up a squadron at Billericay but ultimately at Laindon where, with the assistance of the Clerk to Billericay Council and those of Councillor Toomey using his office facility of “Service House” in Laindon High Road, potential members could be recruited. The result, by August 1941 was that Squadron 1474 ATC (Billericay and District) was in full flight with at least 133 members and, as the report stated “the enthusiasm of cadets and instructors showed no sign of abating”.
The same year (1941) saw other increases of pressure on school premises. Although not directly related to the development of a “Youth Service” it was that the community saw the birth of the Schools Meal Service with the introduction of the first stages of what was to become a sizeable and fairly complex organisation which, with time, took the system beyond the mere realms of social welfare.This, as has recently been revealed, remains as socially controversial a matter as ever it was. Coincident with the early growth of the meals system the “free” school milk service went hand in hand. Previously much dependant on the local attitudes adopted towards its provision in infant and junior schools, it was generally regarded as only available to “necessitous children” although Essex had tended to take a a somewhat wider view as to what was understood to be meant by “necessitous”. The view in 1941 emanating from the government in the shape of R A Butler, President of the Board Of Education, in a circular was that “since the aim (was) to maintain a high standard of nutrition and to prevent malnutrition rather than to remedy it after the symptoms have appeared, authorities may in future make their provision of free milk and free or part payment meals available on the evidence of financial need”. In 1946 the free milk service was extended to become available to children at secondary schools of all categories, a situation that remained until 1971 and the days of “Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher”.
Unlike the inability of the expanding Youth Service to obtain any official assistance in obtaining suitable premises to conduct its activities, the developing Schools Meals Service was assured from its very start that as long as schools were making every effort to make the best use of accommodation like halls and classrooms, better provision would be made by the use of pre-fabricated huts or demountable buildings as soon as possible after the obvious need to create kitchens and “sculleries” first.
In the July 16th issue of the Laindon Recorder the Essex Education Committee, whose Chief Education Officer was B E Lawrence, is advertising to fill a vacancy for a Warden to take charge of the Youth Centre that it proposes to establish at the “High Road Council School”. The Centre, the advertisement states, is for the “benefit of approved clubs or organisations” and it is intended that all kinds of social, occupational and recreational activities shall be provided. The post of Warden, we learn, is to be part-time and attract a salary of just £50 per annum.
The Youth Centre, which was fully up and running by the following year, was the centre to which Joan Sims along with so many others of the teenagers of Laindon and Langdon Hills gravitated in 1946, (the first full year after end of the war) as is revealed on page 20 of her book “High Spirits”. By that time, changes meant the Warden was now employed on a full time basis. His or her main purpose was to foster the interests of the Centre’s members, making suggestions on how these might be expanded and devising ways in which the resources that were on offer might be best utilised. By 1946 the position was being filled by James Hill. He had been recruited from Maske on Sea, (then in the North Riding of Yorkshire now in Cleveland) where he had been running the Redcar Boys Club. Originally from Bradford, where he had been employed by the Bradford Corporation Tramway Service as a conductor, he had, by self-training, progressed into the educational field as an Instructor in Shorthand and Typing and, as a further consequence, taken up the challenge of becoming a full-time Youth Leader; a comparatively new concept as a profession.
“Jim”, as everybody called him, had readily accepted the Laindon position when it became full time, particularly as his appointment to the job was accompanied by the provision of one of the very first houses built on the King Edward Estate, Billericay Council’s post-war development. Into this he had moved himself, his wife and their two children.
Although it is suggested above that Joan Sims may have gravitated to the Youth Centre at Laindon High Road School, there was, in fact, a certain amount of lobbying involved by Jim Hill, (not that Joan was particularly reluctant to join as she explains). The Warden naturally wanted to expand the Centre’s activities, particularly to be able to respond to a call from the Education Committee for some more intellectual activities his centre could pursue. One of the activities that was introduced was Choral Singing, a feature that attracted a following that, in retrospect, placed a considerable strain on the understanding of what was meant by the term “youth”. The other particularly “intellectual” activity was “drama” which involved being more stringent in the application of the age rules, as it was Jim’s ambition to have a team to enter the drama competition that was being set up as an inducement county-wide in Essex. Not unusually, there was a certain reluctance on the part of the existing membership of the Centre to participate in something in which the average teenager felt he or she was in danger of making an idiot of themselves.
As must be clear to anybody who has read her autobiography, Joan Sims was not exactly backward in making as many people as possible aware of her talents in mimicry. Firstly there were her impromptu performances in and around Laindon Station the details of which she relates for herself, although, in her writings, she does not really give the full credit that is due to her father, John Sims.
John (or “Harry” as he was universally known in railway circles), was as every bit a good performer as was his own daughter. In those days most station masters were expected to be good actors and among the SMs of the LT&S Railway Harry was one of the best. Probably totally unaware how closely she was following in her father’s footsteps, Joan’s acts, in which her own dad was often the butt of her mimicry, her performances were already legendary in the district. Because, in an age when entertainment was restricted to a thrice weekly changing cinema performance, the radio or what could be devised for one’s self, any production arranged in the district and making good use of the talents of the locals was always guaranteed an audience. From Variety Shows, Musical Performances through to Drama in its many forms, all manner of “stages” around the district had been pressed into use at some time or other in order to answer an apparent insatiable thirst for entertainment. Joan had appeared at some time or other on most of those stages.
|Joan Sims as Sarah Orerod||John Bathurst as Rev. Frank Allegre||______? as Emma Brierley|
Now recruited to the novice Youth Centre Drama Team, the immediate need was to make good use of Joan’s talents. In the days before television became ubiquitous, the one-act play was a particular art form that is now generally only recognisable in what is usually called a comedy sketch, the sort of production that may involve the players involved, not unusually comedians who have made their name doing “stand-up”, dressing often elaborately, to in effect tell a joke which otherwise might have depended on their audiences’ use of its imagination. Not confined to comedy, the one-act play was on a par with the short stories written by the novelist who aimed to tell a yarn either humorous or serious in as fewer paragraphs as possible. These were often grouped together in book form and published as a collection.
In the same way, the one act play, very popular with amateur groups, would often be the production of well-known playwrights and it was not unknown for professional repertory companies to offer a group of, say, three of these as a complete stage production for one or more performances. Responding to this as a popular line of entertainment with particular educational benefits, the Essex Education Committee had devised a competition that would be played out first at local level, thence regionally and finally countywide. The winner at the county level would then go on to compete for Essex County in a similar nationally devised contest
|Joan Sims as Sarah Ormerod||_______? as Sam Horrocks|
As is clear from her own words, Joan Sims, eager for dramatic experience, enlisted her talents willingly whereas finding other enthusiastic players was far more difficult. Picking a suitable one-act play with a limited cast size, in the event just four players, two females and two males proved to be the solution to this dilemma. The play ultimately chosen was, as Joan describes, “Lonesome Like” a play supposedly set in a Lancashire cotton spinning town of the 1890s which had been written in 1911 by Harold Brighouse (1892-1958). Joan was to play the part of Sarah Ormerod, a young unmarried mill worker “saved” from a lifetime of spinsterhood by the timely arrival of a suitable swain in the shape of a young Sam Horrocks. The other two characters were Emma Brierley, an aged cotton spinner, still unmarried upon retiring from t’mill and the Rev Frank Alleyne whose role was to do little more than to offer unhelpful and placatory words of comfort. With the longest speaking part, Joan, as Sarah, was able to make full use of her powers of mimicry especially with the need to adopt an dialect that was recognisably “Lancastrian”.
The major problem the Drama Group faced was the facilities that were to be provided for the competition in all its stages. For a start, there was to be no scenery on stage and all productions would be performed against a backdrop consisting only of curtains. The objective here was that the players should convey the sense of location and of the intended atmosphere of the play in the way in which they performed; the players were expected to be convincing enough for the audience to use their imaginations. Secondly, as far as props were concerned, these were to be minimal and easily transportable and would only expect to be reflective of the atmosphere the players were seeking to portray. In other words, it was the acting and improvisation that was considered to be the main objective of the competition throughout.
The first stage of the competition was held at Raleigh Secondary School, which had more accommodation, a larger stage for a start, than was available at Laindon High Road. The result was that two Youth Drama Teams, one from Rayleigh Youth Centre, the other from Laindon were sent forward to compete in the second stage of the competition, the Regional contest. This was to be held at the South East Essex Technical College in Longbridge Road at Barking. Here again, Laindon’s performance carried the day and the small team were again sent forward to take part in the Essex County final. National fame looked to be staring the team in the face!
Unfortunately, this was not to be. The basic problem was this; as was stated above the rules of the competition were such that scenery was not considered particularly important, although some teams that were encountered in the competition had managed to bend the rules a little by presenting their productions against an obviously painted background designed to assist them in creating the “right” atmosphere. The particular atmosphere that “Lonesome Like” was meant to convey was that of the intimacy of a mill worker’s small kitchen (that of the retired female mill worker Emma Horrocks) in which Joan, playing Sarah, could only anticipate a miserable future. Given the increasing size of the platforms upon which this atmosphere was expected to be created, the task became ever more difficult at each stage it went through. The final step of the Essex competition was to be held at the South West Essex Technical College in Forest Road, Walthamstow.
Accordingly on the day of the final, the morning was spent, as at each previous event, with the actors familiarising themselves with the stage itself. The one at the SW Essex Tech was the most extensive yet. The Laindon team were being expected to convey the sense of the atmosphere of a tiny mill-workers kitchen on a stage on which a cast of thirty could stand and not look overcrowded with a cast of just four actors! It was decided, therefore, at the morning rehearsal, that it would assist if the curtains to the stage were not opened to their fullest extent and for the action to be restricted as much as possible to the front of stage and thus to avoid using the full depth of the space available. To assist in atmosphere creation it was also decided that lighting could best be concentrated on the actors by, firstly, not making use of the overhead lights and by just sticking to two “floods” on tripods which were to be situated just behind the not quite fully opened “tabs” or front curtains, thus concentrated on the actual players themselves and the size of the stage, most of which was not being used, would, it was hoped, not be so obvious to the audience.
At the final performance the audience included the Adjudicator who was, in this case, as Joan’s autobiography explains on page 20, the late LAG Strong. Leonard Strong (1890-1958) was a successful author and poet as well as a critic. He had some 30 published novels to his name many based on a supernatural theme. He was also a director of the Methuen Publishing House. Laindon’s Youth Group’s production had hardly got underway when one of the County’s organisers appeared in the wings out of sight of the audience. She went immediately to the handle that manually controlled the movement of the front curtain to the stage which had been left partially un-pulled in accordance with the group’s morning decision. Turning the handle, she explained that the audience sitting at the side of the auditorium would not be able to see what was happening on stage unless the tabs were fully opened. Protests were directed at her that the reason the curtains had been deliberately left in this manner was to conceal the two flood light that were the principle lighting for Laindon’s production, but it was too late, she had, by her unconsidered interference, revealed to the audience the mechanics upon which the players were relying so much for the creation of the “right” atmosphere.
At the conclusion of all four teams’ performances, the adjudicator, Leonard Strong, appeared on stage to present his verdict on the evening’s efforts. He started by saying that it had been a pleasure for him to perform the task, which had been particularly difficult because the standards achieved throughout had been so high. As an illustration of just how difficult it had been, he explained to the audience and to the players that in judging each separate performance he had devised a series of points which he allocated according to how he adjudged each presentation in terms of interpretation of the authors’ intent, the players’ success in creating the right atmosphere for the play in which they were performing, for the diction of those taking part, and for their aptitude as actors. In addition he had also awarded marks for what he called “general stage craft”.
In connection with this latter award, he pointed out that, since acting was essentially the creation in the minds of an audience the illusion that what was taking place on stage was “real”, then it was imperative that nothing was done on stage that would shatter that illusion. In connection with this last, he admitted to being disappointed at the start of one performance, to see equipment that an audience did never ever expect to see being shown to the audience after the action had started. This had broken the spell and shattered the illusion. Nevertheless, since the stage was, in effect, free of scenery and with virtually no props, the main task of creating the best atmosphere for each play performed had fallen on the actions of the players themselves and that while all taking part had, in his judgement, obviously performed to the very best of their ability, he had to point out that one performance, in particular, was really noticeable for being head and shoulders way above all the rest. In conclusion, and before declaring who was to be considered to be the winner at the festival and who were the runners up, he pointed out that this decision was based upon his having, at the end of all the performances, totted up the total of all the separate points he had awarded as each play progressed . It was a measure of just how good all the efforts had been, because he said that, in his final analysis, between the winner and the first runner up he found there was just one point and that between the first runner up and the team he had placed third there was, again, just one point!
As Joan Sims’ book (page 20) points out, Laindon’s team were not in for the win it had hoped for but was placed third on the strength of its “dodgy” stagecraft, the result of an unwitting interference. Despite this, there was a warm appreciation that the team’s star member, Joan herself, had been picked out for special mention for her outstanding performance or, as she described it, the “Palm of the Day for Best Individual Performance at the Festival”.
As Joan’s account of these events goes on to explain, the 1946 Drama Festival led to a lot of support being given her for her later efforts to join the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art with Warden Jim Hill of the Laindon Youth Centre lobbying hard at County level for the necessary financial support. She was also backed by Joan’s elocution teacher Miss Wilson. Writing so much later as she did, Joan omits to mention from her account of events in “High Spirits” the help she also received from the late Hilda Neave who was responsible for Drama at the Essex Education committee and who had the task of spotting and fostering new talent. (She may also have been the curtain-changing culprit at Walthamstow!)
After 1946, Joan became too engrossed in her RADA seeking efforts to continue with the Youth Centre Drama Group and although another attempt at the festival was made in 1947 with yet another period play of the late 1890s with a larger cast (seven in number) without Joan Sims it got nowhere, despite efforts being made to create the “right” atmosphere by playing a specially obtained “street” barrel organ sound on a vinyl gramophone record rotating at 78 revs per minute!
The last time this article’s author saw Joan in the flesh, was when he was crossing High Holborn in London opposite the Prudential building to reach the Grays Inn Road. He had to pass behind a taxi bound for the City that had been brought to a temporary halt by other traffic. In the back of the taxi, instantly recognisable, were Terry Thomas, Sid James and Joan Sims. It was obvious from the way that Joan reacted that at least she had recognised him even if she could not immediately recall the name. Just as she was about to push the window down and speak, the taxi was able to move off with the other traffic.
A FOOTNOTE: The demolition of the Laindon High Road Senior School has led to a great deal of nostalgic outpourings, particularly from those for whom it was their Alma Mater. Over the years, it is difficult to explain just how important this building had been to the Laindon Community and to just how many other uses it had been put other than its true purpose as a school. Time was when the Essex Library Service operated free out of two locked cupboards in the school hall for just a few hours twice a week. (The alternatives were a couple of penny-a-week subscription libraries run by tobacconists who could seldom afford to change their stock).
The High Road School often staged events that, in inclement weather, had to be accommodated in the limited space of its hall. It was also, of course, a polling station as were most schools. The small stage of the same School Hall was, also, often pressed into use for some quite surprising and ambitious productions which were invariably beyond its limited capacity and overcrowding was certainly the case when, as described in Peter Lucas’s book, “Basildon Behind the Headlines” (Pub;Basildon Printing Co., Wickford 1985) on October 7th 1948, the government of the day sent in its big guns in the shape of Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning to argue the case with the reluctant “plotlanders” of Laindon that giving up their homes and land was a “good” thing for the wider community. With over 1,500 citizens present the hall was packed as never before and classrooms had to be pressed into use as overflow accommodation. The most memorable thing that was heard at that meeting was Silkin’s threat to return to see the people of West Ham, East Ham and Walthamstow (the area from which so many “plotlanders” had originally emanated) in order to tell the Londoners that Laindon people didn’t want them!