My War Years Memories - Chapter 1 (3 of 4)

School Days

There was one cost, however, of which she did manage to unburden herself. That was the cost of my travel to school. Although the ‘bus fare was only pence a day in the times of which I write, relatively small costs in a household of limited means all added up, and when a family’s sole bread winner was conscripted to the forces as some were, including my father, there was a drain on the very limited allowance granted to the enlisted man’s family. Lillian Bathurst, my mother, started her own campaign by writing to the Essex Education Committee at Chelmsford and her sustained efforts resulted in all of us receiving passes to travel on the bus service. My pass, I know, was free, although I think all, or at least some, of the others were subjected to means testing and were asked to pay a fee accordingly. It was, however, a peculiar historical time; a lot of what might now be called “welfare” events seemed to be on offer one way and another because it was wartime and I cannot be certain exactly what it was that travel to school was introduced “free” of charge after all this lapse of time. Certainly it was around this period that free school meals were introduced and became standard practice.

The “us” who were regular travellers by ‘bus to and from Grays included, apart from me, the other Laindon based pupils like George and Albert French whose father farmed Watchouse Farm in Wash Road, (both of whom were to follow in their dad’s footsteps); Eric Rand who became the head teacher at Gyhllgrove Primary School, Basildon and John Pavey whose father ran his necktie manufacturing business at the Old Fortune of War and who was remembered as the organiser of the Langdon Hills based “Chrusty Minstrels”. There were others whose names are now forgotten.

On the very first day that it was our turn to receive only a half days schooling the Laindon contingent discovered how ill-thought out the whole idea was. Morning school ended at 12:30pm and forms two, three and four were released to go home. The Laindon contingent gathered at the ‘bus –stop at the end of Palmers Avenue for the ENO coach anticipated just after 1.00pm.’ No bus came and somebody thought to consult the timetable which nobody had thought to do so before. Shock! In a service supposedly operated on an hourly basis, the one hour that was not catered for was the one hour in the day that we required and this was the regular pattern of service that applied throughout the week! Clearly, the school authorities were not aware of this or, if they did, they did not consider sufficiently important to worry about. They obviously failed to reckon on what we might do! To expect a gang of young males, just released from a morning’s schooling, to hang about for over an hour, seriously delayed in their approach to their long anticipated mid-day meal and to behave in an orderly and dignified manner is a pretty tall order. As our immediate predicament was recognised by us all, there was a sort of universal agreement reached among us that we should all move to more interesting pastures than those available to us in the veritable desert of Palmers Avenue. The more interesting terrain of Grays High Street, some three quarters of a mile distant, beckoned us and in no time we all set off running in the direction which we, all new to the district, anticipated it to be. In practically no time at all we were there quickly swarming all around the area on an exploration basis, intent on finding out what might be on offer to entertain us during our unanticipated waiting time. Needless to say, it did not take long to discover the delights of the Grays branch of F W Woolworth.

To people who had experienced Woolworth’s as a High Street shop only in the last years of its existence before it stopped trading in 2008/9 it is very difficult to reveal just how important that business had been in the first half of the 20th century. In that period and especially after WW1, no High Street shopping centre was complete without two particular chains stores in business; FW Woolworths and Marks and Spencers. Laindon High Road had neither which meant it was considered to be only half a shopping centre as a result and, for many who shopped there, a “good days out shopping” was possible only after a journey to places like Romford or Southend-on-Sea where both “Woolys” and “Marks” were in business. Marks and Spencers specialised in providing well-made, long-lasting clothes for all the family at well afforded prices. Woolworths, on the hand was what was often spoken of a “bazaar” and the range of goods they offered for sale was enormous, from stationery to kitchen utensils, from household cleaning products to boot and shoe repair kits, from haberdashery items to paint brushes for the homes woodwork and so on. The company, set up by Frank Woolworth in 1909 on a principle established in the USA, prided itself on selling most things for either 3d, 6d or a shilling. The wares were set out on a series of large rectangular mahogany counters in compartments divided by moveable class partitions. The shop assistants, usually young females, each looking after an individual counter, passed from end to end along an internal aisle, usually only just able to reach the outer limits of their counter. Most of the staff members were employed at the lowest wage possible and for many a girl, just left school, shop assistant at Woolworths was their first job.

In the early days before “in-house” entertainment, one of the most popular counters was that from which 6inch vinyl records of popular songs and music, to be played on wind-up gramophones at 78 RPM, could be bought mostly for a shilling. The same counter often sold the sheet music to accompany the content of many of the records for those who wanted to display their prowess on the piano. Many branches also ran refreshment bars, often providing large cups of tea and a bun for a penny each. At its height, in the 1960s, Woolworths had 1,141 individual shops in the UK and even during WW2 the company managed to keep over 800 shops open even though there were often severe material restrictions on what wares were offered for sale. Despite this, the shops were invariably busy despite difficulties and on 26th November 1944 a V2 rocket struck the large Woolworth store at New Cross in SE London causing the deaths of 168 persons, including 15 children.

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