‘I get my leg over every day,’ Stan confided with a wicked twinkle in his eye. As introductions go, there are not many as memorable. ‘Blimey. Do you?’ I reply, nearly spitting out my tea. ‘Oh yes,’ he assured me, ‘I’m 91 and I still go out on my bike most days. I keep active see, that’s the way to stay young.’
Stan’s approach to life clearly works, he has the joie de vie and sparkle of a man half his age, but then, not many have experienced as much as Stan in his long and remarkable life. This fiercely proud cockney has seen and experienced most of what the 20th century cared to throw at him. From a child of the Blitz, to toiling down the wartime coalmines, to dodging Doodlebugs and working as a docker, his life is a series of funny and moving chapters, with a heart-breaking twist. Stan’s is a working class war and his life a master class in survival. Are you sitting comfortably…?
‘I was born in a small corner house in Wilberforce Street in Canning Town in 1927. We were all crowded in to one room. My aunt Doll lived there with just as many kids as my mum Eva had. Mum had eight kids, poor darling, she had to scrape because dad’s work wasn’t regular. Me dad got gassed in the First World War, he couldn’t work, so he was a ‘hawker’, buying and selling second-hand goods and scrap metal from a donkey and cart and shouting “any old iron, any old iron.”
‘Mum had to char for wealthy men; do their ironing, cleaning and cooking, but she was crafty, when she went round to cook their dinners, she used to cook extras for us kids too. But that’s how it was back then. I did my bit by going down Rathbone market and hunting out specks, mouldy apples to bring home, but it wasn’t easy for my mum.
‘I remember when my dad got really bad, he was so ill we were forced to call the doctor out, his lungs were giving up from being gassed. “Is he dying doctor?” asked aunt Doll. ‘The consensus was yes, so they decided to take him for a last drink. Mum raided his secret guinea stash, which he kept for emergencies; I’d imagine Dad’s final drink warranted it.
‘Mum and aunt Doll practically carried him. They took him round the Pitts Head and plied him with whisky and rum. Before long he was singing and seemed to perk up a lot. “Who paid for the beer?” he asked at the end of the night. “You did,” says Mum. ‘He went mad, throwing chairs out the window and all sorts and was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. ‘Mum and Doll had to use the rest of the guinea just to bail him out. He lasted several more years after that.’ Stan shakes his head. ‘I’ll never forget that.’
Stan aged 13 (left), Stan’s mum Eva (right) and Stan’s baby brother Bob aged 5 (centre) walking down Barking Road Canning Town on a shopping trip to Rathbone Street Market and the Imperial Cinema after (if they had been good).
Until war broke out, Stan’s childhood was poor but immensely happy and fulfilled. Playmates were never in short supply. ‘Oh we had good times playing out on the street,’ grins Stan, ‘it was all we had and we exhausted our imaginations. Knock down Ginger, water fights in the summer, High Jimmy Knacker, all the street games.
This was a common sight in London’s East End during Stan’s childhood, where the fire brigade used to hose the streets in hot summer weather to stop the metal tram lines from warping in the heat, and all of the kids would run outside for a free shower.
Peter Street Canning Town circa 1938. Ice cream sellers used to cycle the streets shouting ‘stop me and buy one’. Here, Stan (aged 11) is in the foreground with his ice cream, while his younger brother Reg (aged 7) has a good look at his rear tyre.
‘Mum was always out on the doorstep chatting with her neighbours and keeping an eye on me. She’d send me down to the off-licence to get a jug of beer for her to drink while she peeled the veg. I used to spend a lot of time with my dad too chatting on the doorstep. I remember showing him a comic, which showed a man landing on the moon “That’ll never happen,” he said.
‘His life, born in the turn of the century, was a world away from the one we were hurtling into. He used to take me in a donkey and trap down to Hainault. We stopped and dad had a pint at the Hawbush and I had an arrowroot biscuit. “This is the place where civilisation finishes son,” he said pointing out to the Essex farmlands.
But life was about to change. Dark fascist forces were brewing that were set to throw the gentle rhythm of Stan’s family into chaos. By the time war broke out Stan’s father had died and so it was left to Eva to keep her children safe.
‘When war was announced on Sunday morning, Mum put her head in her hands,’ Stan recalls. “I know how this is going to finish up” she muttered. My two older brothers were called straight up. One with Monty’s army in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He went all through the African campaign and up to Italy. Mum was devastated when she got a telegram saying he was missing in action, but he later turned up in hospital after being badly wounded in Monte Cassino but survived and came home.
‘We didn’t have an Anderson shelter; it was only a little back yard. We had to go to the church hall instead. I remember it was reinforced for a public shelter. It was the only thing the authorities done,’ he says darkly. If there was no room in the church hall and it was full up, Stan and his mum and siblings hid under the table. It was sheer luck that Stan and his family didn’t get caught up in one of the most notorious wartime tragedies to have rocked the East End. Like the disaster at Bethnal Green Tube where 173 souls lost their lives on the steps to the underground, relatively little is known of the bomb in Canning Town.
On the third night of the Blitz, up to 600 men, women and children were crammed into South Hallsville School in Agate Street, which had been set up as an official rest centre, waiting for transport out of the East End. The refugees were exhausted after the first night of bombing; many were in a state of shock after losing their homes, with no possessions, save for the filthy nightclothes in which they sat. Their faces blackened, they clung to one another, soothing crying children, desperation growing by the hour as bombs crashed down around them.
Babies as young as five days old, the elderly and infirm… some of society’s most vulnerable were pressed into a seething mass of bodies. It’s hard to picture a worse kind of hell. Whitehall authorities were warned many times that these refugees were sitting ducks. By the third night, the rescue coaches were still nowhere to be seen and mothers pleaded with officials to get their children to safety. It’s rumoured that the coaches were sent to Camden Town, instead of Canning Town. The only people to really know what happened, the council officials, have taken it with them to their graves. All that is certain is that as day turned to night, the Luftwaffe returned, dropping a bomb that split the reinforced concrete roof in two. Hundreds of tons of masonry crashed down on the occupants. Whole families were wiped out. Romford Road swimming baths was drained and used as a temporary mortuary, where workers were given the gruesome task of piecing together the jigsaw of body parts.
The bombed school.
Back at the school, rescue workers tried their hardest to dig out the bodies and survivors, but after 12 days, they were ordered to concrete over the crater, with bodies still entombed inside. The council’s official death figure was 73, but Stan believes that figure to be higher.
‘I went there the day after the bomb,’ he says shakily. ‘Saw all the bodies being pulled out. It was cornered off, quite a lot of men there. Arms and legs were being pulled out and put in bags. That school was chocablock, packed with women, children and babies. There were well over 100 people got killed. I saw with my own eyes.’
Fifteen families from one street alone, Martindale Street, were killed. A dark veil fell over the people of Canning Town that night, their suffering on the home front plunged to new depths.
‘Cannon fodder, that’s all the working classes were back then,’ says Stan.
But as ever in wartime, the spectre of loss and horror was around every turn. By the time Stan turned 14, his house had been destroyed by a landmine and one of Stan’s cousins, an ARP warden, was killed, as he was first on the scene. ‘My mum got a letter from the government and £60 or £70 bomb damage compensation and we were evacuated to South Wales.
‘Mum said you are 14 now, you can go and get a job but I couldn’t get a job. I was told I had to get a leavers certificate because I looked so young. I had to go to a local school, I gave him my particulars. He said, “Your life is just starting, what do you want to do?” “I want to help my two brothers in the army,” I replied. “Only thing we have is a coal mine,” he said. “I reckon you’ll have to go down there.”
And so down the mines it was! Later on in the war – by 1943 – the boys undertaking this dangerous and backbreaking work were known as the Bevin Boys, a group of 48,000 young men who, like Stan, performed a vital but largely unrecognised service in coal mines, fuelling the war effort.
‘I finished up in The Lady Windsor Colliery. Someone had given me a tin for my sandwiches and water. I went and followed the miners down the coalmine. Biggest excitement was getting in the lift. I was so little; the collier said, “Hold onto my belt.”
But Stan’s time down the mine was short-lived, when after nine months of working there he suffered a serious sexual assault in the showers. Like so many other men and women who have shared their harrowing wartime stories with me, sadly Stan’s experience is not an isolated incident and tells the other side of the evacuation story. Many young people suffered serious abuse and mistreatment at the hands of so called respectable adults, making you realise how vulnerable young people like Stan were. His pain and trauma at this event is heartbreakingly palpable. It might have happened yesterday, not nearly 80 years ago. Stan gave his permission for this deeply personal memory to be included as he feels people should know what went on behind closed doors in wartime.
‘I went down the coal office and said I wanted my cards back. They told me I couldn’t leave as I was in an essential job. Mum had worked out what had happened and stormed down there and well, lets put it this way, the next day we were on the train back to London.’
On his return to Canning Town in 1941 they found a community decimated by the Blitz, few families remained unscathed. Stan joined the Civil Defence Association as a messenger boy relaying messages about bombings between the ARP and other emergency services by bicycle and putting out any fires he came across himself with a stirrup pump he had been issued with.
By 1944, with the bombing less frequent, he got a job at a glass blowers, oblivious to the new reign of warfare, which was about to begin. One week after the Normandy landings, Hitler unleashed his revenge weapon, the pilotless rocket. ‘I was walking down Beckton Road one day when I heard wood being splintered. “Who’s cutting wood?” I thought. I looked round and this Doodlebug was cutting all the tops of the trees off. The engine had cut out. I looked up and I saw it. It was coming towards me. I hit the pavement, I wet myself. I thought it was my lot. It must have banked as it went to the right. I dropped down the gutter and put my hand over my head. There was a terrific explosion. Felt bricks and stuff coming on me. Opened my eyes and looked. There were a man’s intestines right close to me. I got up and I went home straight to bed.’
Stan’s wartime experiences seem to be one of random and unexpected savagery. The one constant in his life was his mum. ‘She was so calm that we were all calm,’ he smiles. ‘She used to sing us little songs. She experienced the Zeppelins coming over and dropping bombs during the First World War. She was tough enough to get through it, she wasn’t showing no remorse. Food was always scarce. We would have all the speck apples and potatoes all put it in the stew, or a bit of bread with condensed milk and sugar. Dripping was my favourite.’
One incident stands out a small but powerful moment of triumph for Stan’s neighbourhood. ‘I woke up in the middle of the night down the shelter, it was deathly quiet, no air raid sirens, nothing. I could hear voices, so I got out of the shelter. Opposite where we lived was the railways. It was dense with fog, a real pea souper. I went across the railway track to the station box. There was a train that had stopped. Usually in the fog, if the train was coming you would hear the noise of the explosions going off. They would put charges on the track to signal the driver, but not that night. Voices were getting louder and louder. I could see activity the other side of the train. I crawled underneath. Some men were getting lamb carcasses out. They were looting. They were pulling these carcasses out, passing them over the wall. One big conspiracy. They were all in it, including the driver. When it was all done, someone went up to the driver and said here’s your two. I took one. I pulled it under the train, it was in a cloth. I went round our garden, chucked it over the wall, left it hidden. In the morning, I went into my mum. “Look what I found on the railway.” She went into the kitchen, cut it all up and before you could say Jack Robinson it had all gone. She shared it with her neighbours and we had a lovely stew.’
The end of war might have signalled peace for some, but not Stan, who in 1946 got his call up papers and joined the Army, where he served in the Royal Artillery in Palestine and Egypt before becoming a Stevedore down the Royal docks in his mid-thirties.
Stan in Egypt July 1947 during his time serving in the Army with the Royal Artillery.
‘It was a lovely life working down the docks,’ he recalls. ‘But hard work, I was lugging two hundred-weight bags of flour, frozen meat, cement, sugar – everything from all over the world – all day. The money was good though, £17 in one day once and the camaraderie was really good and it used to keep me fit too.’
Stan is something of a legend. As well as sharing his story in schools, he plays spoons and the ukulele at events and Underground stations to raise money for the Black Taxi Charity For War Veterans. ‘I get more money for playing the spoons,’ he grins. ‘People love it; I play my dad’s ‘Any old Iron’.
Stan is irrepressible and a force of nature. ‘I love West Ham football and I love cockneys. Salt of the earth they are.’ Stan’s lovely mum was 80 when she died, but Stan is determined to stay around for a good few more years to see his six grandchildren and one great-grand daughter grow up, and to follow the fortunes of a business he helped his son to set up 20 years ago.
‘I’m celebrating my 92nd birthday with a beano down to Brighton,’ he confides with a grin. I leave my interview with Stan feeling humbled but uplifted. The last century should have left him battered and embittered at all he has seen and experienced, but it hasn’t. He is funny, curious and determined to get out and meet new people. Like many of his generation, born before the advent of the welfare state, he believes we have a duty of care to help those less fortunate. With Stan and his remarkable generation, it is never a case of I, but we. And we have all reaped the benefits of their wartime sacrifices.
Today Stan is 92 and an active member of the Armed forces veterans club RNA Dagenham branch, where he helps with charity fundraising events in London.
Stan will be sharing his story at Canning Town Library with me and other East End Wartime survivors on Thursday July 25th, Canning Town Library. 6.30pm. Join us if you can, he’s promised to play his spoons.