The vanished glories of a gentler era in Brompton

Gillingham is a comparatively new settlement that was founded to house Chatham Dockyard workers. It evolved from Brompton; indeed it was originally called New Brompton.

The old part of Brompton has effectively ceased to exist, as Frances E Rudge, then living in Southend, related:

When, in 1984, my sisters and I returned to Old Brompton for a visit, we could not believe our eyes, for with the exception of the four public houses, the hardware store, the Conway Hall and part of the Holy Trinity School, the whole of Brompton as we knew it between 1920 and 1934 had vanished.

The reservoir and the Holy Trinity church were gone. Westcourt and Middle Streets together with Wood Street and its high-railed walls were all turned into a neat estate with not a soul in sight, not even a dog!

A housing estate had made inroads on the Brompton side of the Greet Lines where we played as children.

My father was in the Navy when I was born at the naval nursing home in Gillingham in 1920 after which my mother returned with me to 50 Wood Street, Old. Brompton, a Georgian house covered in Virginia creeper. I well remember the porcelain bell pull on a wall of the large front room we occupied. I was followed in swift succession by two sisters.

At five years I attended Holy Trinity infants’ school. This was reached at the end of a narrow railed lane; I enjoyed every day at this school, at the end of which we children would linger at the forge which stood at the beginning of the lane and watch with fascination as the blacksmith shoed a horse, holding a handkerchief to our noses for we hated the smell of the horn as it sizzled and sent out smoke when the hot shoe was applied to the horse’s hoof. The smithy disappeared in the early 1930s.

As a child I thought the Holy Trinity Church a lovely church and remember clearly the lantern slides at Easter and Christmas; on Good Friday each child received a hot cross bun. Sunday school classes were held in the Conway Hall; having a stage, the hall was also the venue for school plays and Christmas tea parties (given jointly by the vicar and teachers), Brownie meetings and presentation of prizes. I was delighted to find it was still there in 1984.

Moving from the High Street, we finally settled in a cottage at the foot of Westcourt Street overlooking a disused team yard.

As we had no garden we children played in the street, but in summer it was always the Great Lines we rushed to — a vast expanse covered with grass and fragrant clover where sheep also grazed.

On the cool clover, the sounds of summer

The Lines reached to Gillingham on one side and Chatham Hill the other. The large war memorial stood at the top of the hill down which we would roly-poly all the way to the gates of a cemetery. Sheep grazed on the Lines, and we experienced several exciting moments when a Tiger Moth plane touched down and the pilot clambered out complete with leather helmet and goggles.

Fairs were held there and school sports. Two sounds when heard today take me instantly back to the Lines — a lark singing as it rises higher and higher toward the sky and the bugle boys of the Marines and Army endlessly rehearsing Last Post and Reveille. We children would roll in the lovely cool clover and listen to these summer sounds.

My sisters and I attended the Holy Trinity School for Girls. There were three other schools in Old Brompton at the time: the Wesleyan, the Roman Catholic and the Garrison School in the Army barracks.

Every weekday morning at 6 o’clock the dockyard bells would ring, summoning workers to the docks. The summers saw crowds visiting the docks during Chatham Navy Week and of course all the locals, especially we children, crowded the pavements when the Royal Marines left for two-and-a-half years’ service abroad, their columns preceded by a smart band in all its glory with gleaming musical instruments and bandsmen complete with white helmets. We never failed to be thrilled by this parade as we followed to the gates; in the parade would be a column of artificers commonly called “Tiffy Boys”. Many were the bands naval and military during our childhood in Brompton. There was always something of interest; the word “bored” was never in our vocabulary.

Old Brompton High Street had a number of shops to cater for our needs. I remember well two grocers — Friends and Summers, opponents in the local elections. We all patronised these, and there were also the Army and Navy Stores, but they were exclusively for officers and their wives, many of whom lived in officers’ quarters in Mansion Row.

There was Simmons the baker where we could buy a pennyworth of broken biscuits – and what a lot we got as we munched them happily on our way to the Lines. Thorntons was our tobacconist and near the Wood Street end stood Coppers the fishmonger, whom we would watch unloading enormous blocks of ice and with a hasty dash to be the first to pick up chips of ice that had fallen from the blocks, soon to melt in our hands. I can almost smell today the delicious aroma of Mrs Finch’s pease pudding and faggots.

Opposite the greengrocer in Middle Street stood the only butcher in Brompton — with an abattoir at the back, reached by an alley that ran from Wood Street through Middle Street to Westcourt Street.

Once a week, cattle would be driven along the High Street made to turn right into Middle Street, the cows, with heads held high and nostrils quivering, could smell the slaughterhouse, and naturally, would try to run away. We children experienced a vicarious thrill when we saw the cows, and would rush into Twyford’s the drapers the moment we heard their hooves pounding the road and sometimes the pavement in their attempt to escape. We then watched with bated breath until the last of the terrified animals was coaxed into the abattoir from where they could be heard moaning piteously.

Bully biscuits and lemonade crystals

Opposite Holy Trinity School were officers’ tennis courts; we earned many a sixpence retrieving balls that had been lobbed too high.

Sixpence was worth earning in those days and was very often surrendered to our parents, for employment wages were then very low. It is incredible to believe now that sixpence bought steak (3d), two pounds of best King Edward potatoes (three-halfpence) with the other three-halfpence going on a savoy cabbage…

At the top of this road, past the vicarage, was my favourite haunt in late spring – a small meadow. My friend and I called it “our” buttercup and daisy field; military horses grazed here — no doubt accounting for the lovely long stems the flowers had – we couldn’t wait to crawl through a hole in the fence, feeling the long cool grass on our bare legs as we waded through to pick the huge buttercups and long-stemmed daisies as fast as we could and hurriedly make our escape, for we were trespassers and often saw Red Caps patrolling the area.

There was much to attract children in and around Brompton, many walks that children today wouldn’t dare take. On hot summer days, my sisters and I would walk all the way to the Strand, or Causeway as it was called, taking sandwiches and lemonade made with powder bought for a penny a bag.

Knowing we would be hungry after a long walk and a spell in the swimming pool, we would walk through the Army barracks and cheekily ask the guard on duty for some “bully” biscuits.

Never once were we refused. These biscuits were about three inches square, the colour of a dog biscuit and extremely hard. Not for nothing were they called iron rations! They had to be sucked first to soften them, so they lasted, all the way home. Needless to say they were very good for our teeth.

Home-made blanco and dockyard bells

Seasons were seasons in those days, and in the cooler weather out would come the whips and tops, a great favourite with boys and girls. Little traffic passed through Middle Street, so we could play with safety in the street, for we had no gardens.

Whips and tops had to be played on a hard surface. While girls usually had a “carrot” or a squat “slowcoach” top, the boys favoured the dreaded “window breaker” — a very fast-moving top that seemed to leap in the air when the boys gave it a mighty “thwack” with a thin leather strip. It earned its name: if played too near a house it would occasionally smash a pane.

Winter was not a dreaded season for children, for on Saturday afternoons we were allowed to go to the “tuppenny crush” at the Invicta cinema in Gillingham. However, we had to earn our tuppence. This meant running errands for elderly neighbours and, in the case of girls, wheeling babies in their prams with strict instructions not to allow them to lie on their tummies or sit them up.

There was no orderly queue outside the cinema in those days, just a mass of boys and girls. The crush came when the side doors were opened and boys at the back heaved and pushed forward often crushing us girls against the wall. One unfortunate girl fell, causing quite a panic; once inside, boys would throw peanut shells at the girls. Fresh roasted peanuts could be bought for a ha’penny outside the cinema and were delicious.

Programmes were varied. In the early days there was always a cowboy serial with Tom Mix or Ken Maynard; for the girls it was the glamour of the Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler musicals that set our hearts racing. We would walk home singing some of the songs from those wonderful films, and — where there was space — we would form a line kicking our legs up high and imagine we were a chorus line.

Most of the girls in summer wore white canvas plimsolls or sandals that needed constant cleaning with a white blanco block. This expense was spared however, as we were asked, when playing on the Great Lines, to bring home large pieces of chalk. Once washed this was every bit as effective as blanco for whitening canvas shoes. For some reason, this was a chore we enjoyed.

The pavements in and around Old Brompton bore evidence of the chalk hills of Kent, with the hopscotch numbers children that drew heavily on the paving stones.

From our bedroom window could be seen the River Medway and the beautiful red sails of the sailing ships and barges etched against the evening sky with Rochester Castle in the background. On foggy days we would hear the foghorns on the river. This was one of the first sounds, together with the dockyard bells, that I missed when I left Old Brompton in 1934.

Thank you, Mrs Rudge. Your last paragraph in particular will bring many nods of approval from readers.

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