I’m very fortunate to have both my Nans still alive today. I love talking to them about their early years, and I’m constantly curious to hear about the lives that seem very different to the one I’ve known. One particular story I am always happy to hear my paternal nan retell, is about her moving to a new home.
Jennie Louisa Perkins (my paternal grandmother) spent the first few years of her life in ‘rooms’ in Bethnal Green. She, her parents and baby sister lived on the top floor of a three-storey house. They had two rooms – the main living room (which served as a kitchen/lounge/dining room) and a bedroom. The bedroom had two beds, one for the parents, and one for the two sisters to share. There was no bathroom. A galvanized iron bath hung on a nail in the main room, and was used to wash the laundry……..and the family. The ‘privy’ was outside in the yard, and was shared by all the residents in the property. There was no running water; Nan remembers her mother (my great grandmother) carrying a large white enamel jug downstairs to the outside tap, heaving it up and down the stairs to refill several times a day.
In January 1934, when Nan was around 5 years old, the family moved from Bethnal Green to Becontree. She remembers vividly, walking into her new home for the first time. It was like a palace! She’d never seen anything like it, it was utterly breathtaking. There were electric lights, and Nan remembers being able to turn them on and off ‘like magic’ via a switch on the wall. Taps in the kitchen had not just cold, but also HOT running water! It was so posh! The enamel bath in the kitchen, had a copper at one end (used for boiling water). Her father covered the bath with a wooden board, so it could function as a worktop when not in use. They even had a garden! In Bethnal Green, they’d shared a small, paved yard. In Becontree, my great grandfather grew vegetables and kept rabbits (to eat of course). Nan recalls how everything was brand new, even the local school. Reminiscing, she laughs at a thought she’d had at the time, ‘had they suddenly become royalty?’.
I asked Nan if it was lonely being in a new town, and whether she had missed her friends from Bethnal Green, but she replied no. Many family members and old neighbours had also moved out to Essex; her mother’s friend ‘Aunt’ Lou and her two daughters (Lou-Lou and Rosie), had moved to Becontree too. It was like a home from home. She describes the houses as being in a ‘banjo’ layout; they had their own sort of micro-community where everyone looked out for each other. My great grandmother ran a kind of savings club. She would collect money from each household every week, then a name would be pulled out of a hat. The lady whose name had been picked, received the money-pot for that week. The lady’s name would then be discarded so she wasn’t picked again, ensuring everybody had their turn in ‘winning’. Nan says that this money was often used to buy new clothes/shoes for the children.
Nan’s ‘palace’ in Becontree seems basic compared to my childhood home – with a fridge-freezer, vacuum cleaner and television; but it’s all relative isn’t it? My great great grandmother Eliza would have thought Nan’s simple rooms in Bethnal Green were luxurious! After Eliza’s parents died of TB, she and her siblings were sent to an orphanage. Privacy was unheard of, so the idea of a bedroom for just four, or a dip in a galvanized bath in her own personal kitchen, would have been a dream. I wonder what she would think of my life today, with the world at the touch of my fingertips?
Science and technology has progressed exponentially in the last hundred years, creating another world that would be unimagineable to our forebears. But like many of you, I owe much credit for all the things I have today to my ancestors. Each generation in my family worked hard, fought and strived to make a better life for the next, for which I will be eternally grateful.
Huge thanks go to Colin Pickett for use of the photo of the Becontree Bus (circa 1934).