Sunday, 30 April 2017

Me with my Mum and Little Brother Martin
in the garden in Wickham Lane in around 1955.
I'm the one with the garden shears and the intense expression.
I'm currently in the process of writing an article about my childhood home in Wickham Lane, Abbey Wood. It was inspired by a picture posted on Facebook a while back of an elderly couple standing in their back garden a couple of doors along from my Grandparents address.

Researching a particular incident in my childhood has taken me to the Heritage Centre in Woolwich and a long trawl through copies of the Kentish Independent dated around the early 1960s.

Reading the stories published in these early issues, I was reminded just how little some things have changed over the intervening years, and also, just how much.

Many of the stories have a depressing familiarity to them: Loutish behaviour by juveniles, dodgy estate agents, drunks crashing cars, complaints to the council about new roads/houses, worries about what the Russians are getting up to. There is even an ongoing debate about an EU referendum (this was about whether we should join rather than leave). Anyone going to sleep in 1961 and waking up today might wonder if any time had passed at all.

Then again, there are some aspects to the stories, when you look at the pages in more depth, that make you realise just what a strange place the past is.

Attacks on Police Officers are regularly reported; I don't know if that is because such stories were deemed to be more newsworthy then as now but there was hardly a week went by when another case was being reported.

The aforementioned juvenile delinquents were more likely to be sent to Borstal rather than the current policy of getting a social worker to tell them off. The massive influx of immigrants had only just gotten going so crimes committed by one would get special attention although the miscreant would be described as "coloured" not "black", which was considered rude.

A couple of the stories that featured regularly brought back some interesting memories. 

The Autostacker

The Woolwich Autostacker.
Photographer unknown
Anyone living withing 10 miles of Woolwich and over 60 years of age should remember the Autostacker.

This £102,000 nine storey, fully automated parking facility, designed by J.A. Sterling of the WW2 Rhine Bailey Bridge fame and built in Beresford Street on the site of an old cinema, was intended to hold up to 256 cars.

It was opened to much fanfare by Princess Margaret on 11th May 1961 where the demonstration vehicle got stuck. Later that day when no lesser person than TV personality Fyfe Robertson arrived to cover it's opening for the BBC Tonight programme it still wasn't working.

It never moved again.

There is surprisingly little information about this temple to 1960s technology, you could have a look here, which is about as much as I can find. But to sum it up in just a few words, let's just say, 'think Titanic without the icebergs' and that should give you a good idea of what was going on.  The Kentish Independent of course had a ringside seat to the entire sorry saga and covered in in many issues.

There is a rather upbeat and subsequently over-optimistic report from the BBC about the Autostacker, made before it actually opened. The item reports that it was demolished a year after it was constructed and several other sources make a similar claim but in fact there were still reports of attempts to repair it in 1963 editions of the Kentish Independent and demolition didn't actually start until 1965. Click here for some pictures of the demolition, taken in 1966.

The Smallpox Epidemic.

Another story covered extensively by the Kentish Independent was about the Smallpox Epidemic. In 1962, Smallpox arrived in the UK for the first time in decades. It had been so long since the last outbreak that at first, it wasn't identified until those carrying the virus had infected many other people. The result was devastating and eventually dozens of people would die before the outbreak was brought under control. I remember queueing up with my Mum outside the medical centre in Plumstead to get my vaccination. Fortunately the anti-vaccine lunatic movement was going through a bit of a lull at the time so everyone got their jab. I dread to think what would happen if something like that happened today. You would have thousands of people refusing to be vaccinated, claiming that they would be protected by eating healthy food, rubbing homoeopathic ointment on their affected parts or praying to the Lord Jesus.

James Gilray cartoon depicting the effects
of the Smallpox vaccine.
Incidentally, anyone thinking that the anti-vaccine hoax movement is something new, think again. When Edward Jenner first started vaccinating people against Smallpox, the live Cow Pox virus used was believed by some to cause terrible side effects to people receiving it. There was a lot of opposition from the news media at the time with lurid cartoons depicting what would happen to you if you were vaccinated. One claim was that it would cause you to develop cow like characteristics (autism hadn't been discovered back then). The main opponents though were religionist extremists who believed that preventing someone from getting Smallpox was defying God's will. Not a lot different form the conspiracy theory nutters you get today.

The Classified Ads.

The classified ads were something of an eye opener too. There were a surprising number of jobs on offer, mostly in local industry, all divided into "jobs for men" and "jobs for women and girls" as was proper. Most unions at that time were opposed to equal pay for women and tried to keep some occupations exclusively male.

I had forgotten just how industrialised south east London was up the the mid 60s.

In the early 60s, the government decided to rectify the north/south divide in employment by offering financial incentives to companies who wanted to set up businesses in the north of England. What actually happened was that many of the firms operating in the south, and London in particular simply closed down their operation and moved it north. One by one, all the factories which ran alongside the lower road from Plumstead to Charlton closed down and left thousands without work.

Changes in shopping habits.

In 1961, most retail outlets were either department stores, which Woolwich had an abundant supply of, or small shops specialising in particular areas. In those days, you bought your groceries from the grocer, your milk from the dairy, your bread from the baker and your greens from the greengrocer. Woe betide any shopkeeper trying to sell anything outside their given remit. Then as 1962 turns into 1963, you begin to start seeing adverts for those new-fangled supermarkets.

With their huge customer base and economic clout, they were able to sweep away many of the restrictive retail practices that had limited choice and kept prices high for customers.

It was in this era that we saw pretty much the end of Retail Price Maintenence. This was a rather unsavoury practice, supported in law, where the manufacturer could set the retail price of their goods so there could be no competition between retailers. When the new supermarkets started ignoring the regulation and discounting anyway, there was a short, sharp battle between them and manufacturers which the manufacturers were never going to win. Futile attempts to refuse to supply offending retailers were simply laughed off. There was no way that any manufacturer could afford to lose that much trade.

Anyone remember Victor Value? I wonder what happened to them: pink stamps as well?

Looking at the prices on that Victor Value advert reminded me of something else that has changed a lot since 1961 and that's the price of consumer goods, especially electronic goods. Comparing the price of supermarket shopping is difficult as there isn't much indication of the size of the product.

Today, many goods manufacturers sell their products in unusual weights and sizes so it's easy to impose a (sometimes substantial) price increase by simply reducing the pack size. You see this a lot in things like washing powder - Surf, for instance, increased the price of their product by 25%, not by increasing the price but by reducing the pack size. Cans of beans currently weigh in at 410 grams. There isn't any valid reason for doing this, it's just so they can reduce the size again the next time they want to charge more without telling us.

I went on about it a bit in a recent blog.

Electronic goods though, that's a different story. In the Kentish Independent edition dated 27 October 1961, a electrical goods retailer was selling the top of the range 19" Philips Alpine television for just 67 Guineas. Before decimalisation, retailers would often price their goods in guineas. A Guinea was worth 21 shillings, or £1.05 in today's money. It ceased being legal tender in 1816 but it was the pre-decimal version of adding 99p to the end of every price to make it look like they were not charging as much as they were.

Anyway, back to the new telly. 67 Guineas would be worth £1429.90 today according to the Bank of England inflation calculator. You could buy a pretty impressive 4k ready, state of the art piece of kit for that sort of money if you went to your local retailer tomorrow.

In the summer of 1962, you could buy a Roberts transistor radio for 17 Guineas or £332 today. Remember, this was all pretty basic stuff by today's standard.

And then I was shocked by all the cigarette commercials: it's amazing how quickly you forget.

Image courtesy of Hugh Neal
Arthur Pewty's Maggot Sandwich
Co-incidentally, as I was composing this piece, last weeks episode of Arthur Pewty's Maggot Sandwich featured an item about the Silica Shop and shows where relative prices have changed beyond recognition.

Situated in Hatherley Road, Sidcup, this was the "place to go" for all your computing requirements during the 1980s. At that time, I was working as a freelance photographer and used to get all my films processed and printed by Patrick Haggerty's photographic studio a couple of doors down.

While waiting for my work to be done, I would browse in the window of the Silica Shop dreaming of the day I might be able to afford to buy anything they had for sale. Their 1980s advert that Arthur Pewty displayed shows a good reason why I couldn't.

The top of the range Atari Mega ST computer with a 14" colour monitor came in at an eye-watering £1498; that would be over £4000 today. Remember, all you got for your money was a keyboard, mouse and monitor. No hard drive (you had to load any program you wanted to use from a floppy disk every time), no speakers and a paltry 4MB of memory. I doubt you could spend £4000 on a home computer today, even if you added on every peripheral you could think of.


The lovely Monika, pictured here,
charges £1000 a night
Someone seems to be trying to tell me something. My Gmail account keeps spamming me with adverts for dating sites; not the main official ones, so to speak, but rather the ones that are just a cover for prostitutes advertising their services. No matter how many times I keep telling them that these ads are "inappropriate" (you do get a choice of reasons for deleting them), they keep on coming.

Now I have Facebook trying to "suggest" that I might like to visit Dior Escorts, a website advertising the services of young ladies who, for the right price, will escort you all night long. "High class call girls and sexy English escorts" they claim but all the profiles I looked at, the girls were east European.

It took me ages to realise what they were selling, I had to study the page for hours. You can study the page as well if you want but don't click on the link unless you are very broad minded.

I don't know how these people got to me but at least I can draw some comfort in knowing that they haven't managed to get my bank details yet. If they had, they would know there was no way I could afford the prices these girls are charging. I might just manage to be able to pay for a five minute knee-trembler with one of the skanks on Plumstead Corner if it was the best day I ever had; but even then, only maybe.


  1. Good stuff again Mein Herr ! TV's were rented a great deal in the early years in the darkest corners of East Anglia--an example supplier being 2DER" (domestic electrical Rentals ? )

  2. I appreciate you penning this article plus the rest of the website is really good.