The war years: a sweet time for play

A wartime childhood in Chatham could be tough. But a lot of it was pure fun.

Peter Dawson has a vivid memory of Military Road, where he lived with his parents above their shop. “Children and their interests have not changed much over the centuries, despite the many changes in technology and living conditions,” he writes. “Children like, and need, to be able to play. They also seem to have an inherent interest in highly coloured confectionery.”

Indeed they do, Mr Dawson. I recall the delights of gobstoppers, preferably pink or bright green and I had a particular favourite in sweet tobacco (dyed strands of desiccated coconut) plus the Jamboree bag (one or two rock-hard sweets plus a toy that was either incomprehensible or broken). All we bought from Miss Matthews’s shop in Mount Road, Borstal.

Mr Dawson writes: “Many sweets were quite out of our reach financially, while the little shops usually stocked a cheap range to catch the eye, and the pennies. Our favourites changed but there were staples such as:

  • Peppermint balls, at 40 a penny. Aniseed balls were dearer, but larger, at 20 for a penny. Gobstoppers were very expensive — four a penny.
  • Monster bags, which contained selected broken biscuits plus locust beans [carob pods — a chocolate alternative], tiger nuts and a metal badge denoting a football position, or sheriff/ranger/deputy etc were usually 2d.
  • Bassett’s sherbet tubes, with a liquorice tube to suck up the fizzy stuff were dearer than buying loose sherbet, but less likely to spill.
  • “False teeth” made from a sweetened wax were great for a bit of fun, while “sweet cigarettes” were sold in paper packs just like Woodbines or Passing Clouds and allowed the youngsters to ape their elders and feel very grown-up as they pretended to smoke for1d a packet.
  • Dolly mixtures were sold loose and comprised miniature versions of boiled sweets and allsorts. They were rather refined, but all right for the girls.
  • Liquorice was a prominent feature of the sweets either as: Football laces, pretend pipes or other shapes, while the real liquorice root could also be bought — and probably saved the family the use of a purge on Friday evenings! [For the uninitiated, I should point out that it was then the fashion, possibly on the advice of the BBC’s Radio Doctor, Dr Charles Hill, that children should be given a weekly laxative such as senna, ipecac, syrup of figs and the loathed castor oil — SR]
  • During the colder months aniseed candy bars were in demand, while Little Imps, Brompton Lozenges and others helped (or so we believed) the throat — aided by the liberal use of camphorated or eucalyptus oil.

“There was a small house in Church Street that sold home-made boiled sweets through a front room window, and a wide range of could be sampled to help the selection. One of my favourites was the apple-flavoured variety, but it was a difficult choice to make.

“Of course we had to pay the cost of all the sugar in the sweets, and visits to Elm House (the school dentist’s) at the corner of Manor Road and New Road were not always happy occasions, but did resolve the toothache problems.

“There were very few children who showed the current obesity problems, probably because of all the walking we took for granted — and enjoyed (as long as our shoes were not too tight, and the socks without darns!) while the generally home-cooked, unprocessed foods provided a better basic diet for the sugar indulgence. Fish and chips (cooked in dripping) were always welcome, while the riverside provided fresh fish and crab, cockles, mussels etc for sale from stalls or specialist shops.

Fruit ices for a farthing

“Ice cream deserves a special mention: Di Marco’s and Terenzy’s were the specialist ice cream parlours on the High Street, and there was also Vincent’s in Military Road where we could have a treat. Lyons, the Carlton with other restaurants provided their own ice creams; but Wall’s and Eldorado hand-pushed ice boxes were on the streets during the summer and we could stop and buy one to select from a variety of flavours their ice blues or creams.

“Wall’s developed two ranges of fruit ice in triangular cardboard tubes about 8in long for a penny each, and the salesman would even cut the bar into halfpenny pieces and, if there were a group of us even into quarters for a farthing a time. There was a depot half way up Manor Road, just opposite the stage door of the Theatre Royal, where the electric trucks could be charged and ice boxes replenished, which served as another shop when we were on our way home from St John’s School on the Viaduct.

“Such were some experiences of the children of the pre-Pentagon Chatham, and probably many more besides.”

A green place to clean out the sooty lungs

Then came the fun and games. “Chatham had the Great Lines and Victoria Gardens to provide space and fresh air to clean young lungs of the normally sooty atmosphere,” Mr Dawson writes.

“The Vic Gardens also had a bandstand that provided opportunities for a little climbing and hide-and-seek.

“The Lines had a much grander attraction in the shape of the Royal Naval Memorial dedicated to those thousands of matelots and Marines who have no known grave but the sea; and beyond the memorial towards the Sally Port were the remains of trench systems dug by the Sappers that allowed military games, created by stories from the ‘Great War to end all wars’.

“Many families had souvenirs that could be brought into play (if the grown-ups allowed) and it was quite easy to shape oddments of wood as imaginative deputies for the real weapons.

“In the back streets and many alleys between them were ideal sites for hide-and-seek or ball games: hopscotch, leapfrog, queeny, hot pies on the wall, statues, and for games of football and/or cricket according to season AND providing the gas lamps had not been broken by previous games and a local ban imposed!

“Some back yards had other items that could be brought into play — for example cardboard and wooden packing cases, which were ideal for constructing Flash Gordon’s spaceships, or Robin Hood’s hideaway, particularly when embellished with equipment made up from Meccano, Cliptico and other construction toys. Some back yards were trade stores for builders, which made excellent places in which to play. With permission, of course!”

Paddle-steamers and red-sailed barges at Sun Pier

There was little motorised road traffic, apart from buses, for few people had private cars; bicycles and public transport took the workers to and from home. “Many houses were served their household needs by horse-drawn carts and vans,” Mr Dawson adds, “although there were many shops nearby — where you could buy milk, bread and greengrocery. The cart also provided a bonus for gardeners via the manure that could be collected with a handy bucket and coal shovel.

“In those days there was little fear for the children who played in these streets and alleys — it was the way the parents had played — and the play areas, being public spaces, were not considered dangerous.

“The children usually gathered into small groups of a half-dozen or so, rarely as ‘gangs’, with mixed ages, supervised by the eldest — who might only be a few months senior. Often boys and girls played together until aged nine or 10, when voluntary segregation allowed more specialised team play, leading sometimes to competition with other street groups particularly when school contacts created a focus.

“The Medway and its riverbanks usually provided stimulating opportunities, if only for views of paddle-steamers and the numerous ships and red-sailed barges that we could then see from the Sun Pier or Rochester Ship Pier. These were the ‘acceptable’ viewing positions as they provided public access, but there were several other access points to view the river via the various wharves (if you could persuade the owners to turn a blind eye!).

“The Sun Pier had its own environment, with tearoom and shelter from the weather, plus the floating pontoon from which the motor boats to Upnor sailed. Right alongside was Hook’s Corn mill (where Staples now is) where the ships tied up at high tide to unload their grain.

“The noise of the grinding machinery, with occasional sights of the belts flying round as the corn was processed into flour, provided a background cacophony.

“Just along Medway Street was the ‘hard’ by Weddel’s wharf (now a car park) with direct access to the water and the foreshore littered with bricks and flotsam, where a half-sunk barge seemed to be a permanent feature and a challenge to the more adventurous climbers. How could you possibly become bored?”

Saturday morning with Buster at the picture house

Pocket money was always in short supply, Mr Dawson says, and there were always serious decisions to be made before it disappeared. “Families varied a great deal (as now) in the amount of free cash they could provide for the children, but a little went a long way then.

“My newspaper round required me to collect from the wholesale store on the Paddock the daily collection of magazines and comics, deliver them to the newsagent on Military Road, and on Fridays deliver the local newspaper to houses around the Brook for which I received 6d a week. From this sum, 3d could be spent on a visit to the Picture House or Invicta cinemas to see the children’s Saturday morning show, where Buck Jones, Tom Mix and other cowboy heroes chased off the redskins, or Flash Gordon battled with the Emperor Ming.

“There was usually an adventure serial with a name such as Bring Them Back Alive. We would laugh at Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Chester Conklin and many other comics. Cartoons, with Popeye, Felix, Mickey Mouse and other characters were also important.

“The same amount could provide a return trip to and from Upnor in the summer, so these outdoor or indoors events were generally seasonal.

“Such were some experiences of the children of the pre-Pentagon Chatham, and probably many more besides.”

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