Camden Town in the 1920s

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915 Ordinance Survey Map.

This map shows Camden Town during the First World War.
It was a place of trams, and industry, full of noise and poverty.

The picture one gets when talking to those who remember this time is of a busy area, alive, but with people living a hard life. Families lived in a few rooms separated out of old houses and shopped locally every day as they had no fridges or insect-free larders. Gas stoves were perched on landings and W.C.s were shared with other families in the house. Very few houses had baths. Instead, most people went to Rowton House, in Arlington Street, or to the public baths in the Prince of Wales Road. One man remembers:-

“Park Street, which we now call Parkway, was full of shops instead of architects’ offices and estate agents as it is now. By eight in the morning the shop boy was busy cleaning the windows and polishing the outside brasses, sweeping and burnishing inside ready to open at nine and close twelve hours later for seven shillings and sixpence a week. Shops were graded. Fenn’s, the grocers at the corner of Delancey Street and Park Street, was a cut above the others, wrapping all purchases in brown paper, while most used newspaper.”

“As a young boy of six, and I am now an elderly man, I roamed from Mornington Crescent to the Roundhouse, a wide sweep, congested and alive”.

“When Dad was in and out of work, I used to go to the baker at the corner of Arlington Street and Park Street every morning to get two pennyworth of stale bread. If you went there a bit late you didn't get your bread and that used to upset Mum. Dad was out of work a lot. He was a painter and decorator, so there wasn't any work in the winter. Very seasonal was painting and decorating.”

“Lidstone’s the butcher was there. Mr. Lidstone used to buy his cattle at the old cattle market in Brecknock Road and drive them down the Camden Road to his shop. All home killed. He used to slaughter there, of course. We took it all for granted.”

“There was a fish shop in Wellington Street, always well patronized. Palmer’s Pet Shop, which is still there in Parkway, had a special attraction. Mr. Palmer’s daughter used to sit outside the shop with a large snake coiled around her. She was only about eight or nine years old and everyone else was frightened to touch the snake. We couldn't understand how she could dare to do it and her such a little girl. It was quite an attraction and Mr. Palmer did a good business in little mice and rabbits. Everybody had a few chickens in the back yard, so people used to buy day-old chicks from Palmer’s for a penny each.”

“The dairy shop gave me a job doing a morning milk round, serving all the best districts - Park Village East and West and down Park Street and Arlington Street in a moving float. A horse in front and a low back step almost touching the ground. You could step off with your galvanized jug and you poured it into the customer’s container, closed the lid and put it back on the doorstep. But not to the ordinary people of course. Ordinary folk in Camden Town didn't have milk. We had condensed milk. Goat brand I think it was called - thick and sweet. It wasn't like ordinary milk. You could keep it open for days. I suppose the sugar kept it from going sour. Too sweet really. I got the after-taste from a biscuit a few weeks ago. Sweet, clinging. I suppose tastes change.”

“I remember The Jersey Cow Company started a refinery in Park Street Camden Town in the 1920s and they used to sell off their skimmed milk. You had to be there between six and seven in the morning and you could buy a pennyworth. That was quite a treat and my Mum used to ask me to go for it. That and the stale bread, so I had two calls to make, one for milk and the other for bread. I had quite a hectic time of it before school and I was only about seven I suppose.”

Even those who did buy milk bought it in very small quantities.  Outside a dairy in Malden Road was an ‘iron cow’.  Customers leaned forward carefully, held their own jug under the tap, put a penny in the slot, pulled a lever, and a measured quantity of milk fell into the jug. The customer covered the top against dust with a clean cloth and walked home without spilling it, a difficult job for a child.  Leaning forward before using the machine was part of the ritual because every ‘iron cow’ in the district had its cat waiting below expectantly, ready to lick up the drips from the pavement.

“There was no pocket money in those days. Youngsters had to think for themselves Use their initiative. Today pocket money is in pounds, but my first pocket money, especially when my Dad was out of work, would be selling a bucket of manure for a ha’penny. That was my sweet money. When Mum bought a pair of rabbits, which was a matter of ten pence or eleven pence, they were never skinned. When she had skinned them, my sister and I were of an age to use this pocket money and we used to fight for the skins. We got a ha’penny a skin.”

“At the bottom of Albert Street and Delancey Street there was an old coal and wood yard. The man there bought everything.  He took rags, he sold wood and he gave us a ha’penny for those rabbit skins. If you had two it was a penny and for a penny you could have a bike ride, once round the block. That would be Delancey Street and into Albert Street. He used to sit on a stool outside and for a penny you could have two or three rides.”

“He made it very exciting. He drew his watch out of his pocket like a real time-keeper. Your life was really on the line when he looked at you under his eyebrows. He frowned down on his big turnip watch and barked out ”Start”. Away you went round the course as fast as the bike would go and it never occurred to us that if you went slower you would have a longer time on the bike. Never occurred to us because he made it into a game. He was a sly one and those old boneshakers earned him a lot of rabbit skins.”

“The streets were full of children in those days. Little gangs - so many kids, they were everywhere. It was quite common to see fifty or sixty children playing in the street. The streets were cobbled, polished by the hooves of horses and in icy weather many horses slipped. It was pitiful to see them. Great, proud shire horses with horseshoes the size of dinner plates and long fringes of hair above their ankles. A lot of them broke their legs when they fell and had to be destroyed. They used to shoot them there in the street. They never put screens around, or tried to hide it, with a great crowd of children watching in dead silence.”

“Then came the great day when they went in for tar blocks. Workmen took up the cobbles and put down tar wood. They had the squat iron vehicle with the hot tar, to put on the blocks to make the joints secure. It had a chimney with a fire under it, boiling the stuff. Great clouds of fumes from the tar. Our mothers used to get all the children round and we all had to stand round this vehicle and breathe heavily. “Breathe in deep,” they said. This was not a cure but it was supposed to do your colds and coughs good. And another thing: we used to chew pieces of tar for our teeth.

“Our Mums were really walking chemists. The number of pills people take today is appalling. And if they were only to get themselves a little book on homeopathic medicines and read some of the old books of our Mums - the way they sorted out all these troubles - they would find that they were a lot better off. They had the answer to everything. There was senna pods if you were constipated; there was olive oil if you had an earache. You name it - they had it. I know from experience because I started in the chemists as an errand boy and from there I worked up to being an assistant. The mothers used to come in with little bottles and jars for a penn’oth of this and a penn’oth of that. My mother was one of them and she knew all the answers.

”Of course it was hard to live. Most people shopped off the stalls, or in the market. The stalls were still in Camden High Street then, but the costers were not allowed to stand still, so they slowly nudged their barrows along the road as they continued to sell. A man could start at Mornington Crescent and finish up in Kilburn before night fell. There was a little market off Chalk Farm Road, called Inverness Street now. There used to be a butcher’s shop on the corner called Page’s specializing in pork meat and sausages. Outside the window of Page’s there was a big woman, stout woman, sitting in a little hut. She controlled the money in the greengrocery and fruit stalls there. They called out how much for her to take. None of the staff ever got at the money.”

“And in those days they daren't give anyone specked apples, or pears, or anything like that. They used to throw the specks under the grass cover of the stalls and on a Saturday night we used to go down there with a bag. The stallholders knew what we were standing about for and at last they would say, “All right lads. Help yourselves.” We’d all dive under there and pick up the specked apples and oranges and what have you, put them in a bag and take them home. Dear old Mum would cut out the damage and that was our week-end treat. That was how we lived in them days. You were poor but you got through somehow.”

“The pawnshops were open at eight o’clock on a Monday morning and there was always a queue with their bits and pieces, blankets, or the flat iron, and the old man’s suit. Anything to pawn. Put them in Monday and take them out on Saturday. You never got paid on a Thursday or Friday in those days. Always late Saturday. You worked till you dropped and they paid you as you hit the ground. My first job was from eight o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock in the evening, six days a week. He never paid me until the Saturday night when the last customers were out of the shop, usually about ten at night. I never got any overtime. I was thirteen and a half. I should have stayed at school until I was fourteen but I didn't. My mother had a bad patch with money and I thought I could be earning a bit, so I took this job on.”

“I had to be in the shop at eight to take down the shutters and store them inside. Then wash the windows on a short pair of steps; Brasso the door fittings and sweep out the shop and pavement right down to the kerb. Go over the centre strip of carpet with a Bissell sweeper and polish the glass display cabinets, ready for the doors opening at nine. He wanted a smart shop and he made sure he got it. He had been in the First World War and stood up stiff like Kitchener. He could always find something for you to do, or something that was not quite right. You were hard up in the collar all day.”

“People slogged hard in those days but they were a lot closer together. People help-ed each other. There were a lot of bailiffs coming in and distraining and putting people out because they could not pay the rent. The neighbours would all join in and take the kids in for the night and they would find a tarpaulin tent for them in the street and someone would make them a cup of cocoa and perhaps some broth and all that sort of thing.”

“Firms were ruthless in those days. The posh landlords and those times have come back today, but that’s another story too. In those days you had furnishing companies and I can recall some of them. No names. One was a big company and they came with their vans on a Monday morning. If you hadn't paid the installment by the Saturday they took all the furniture back. I think it was a man called Geddes, somewhere about 1933, who got an Act passed in the House that stopped all that. It became law that no company could distrain on all the goods. They could only take back furniture to the value of the outstanding amount. But in those days they could take back the lot and got very rich on it. They were the kind of things that happened in those days and they've come back, with loan sharks battening on people trying to put on a show for Christmas and people who thought they owned their houses losing them.”

“There used to be trams along the Hampstead Road. They ran in the middle of the road up to the Adam and Eve. That was their stopping place. They used to go from Aldgate to Camden Town. In those days you could get a sixpenny evening ticket, or a shilling all day. Of course that was a lot of money in those days. You could go all over London, from one tram to the next. Sometimes as a lad I used to get sixpence by my own efforts and I used to get myself a sixpenny evening ticket. Go down to the High Street and pick up a tram and change to other trams. One of my favourite rides was under the old Holborn Viaduct. It went under Kingsway, out on the Embankment and over Westminster Bridge. Backwards and forwards I would go and, if they were playing late cricket at the Oval, you could go round the Oval on the tram and watch the cricket. Get off at the Oval Station and double back over the other side to get the tram back to Vauxhall. Back and forth on the top of the tram all the summer evening, until they drew the stumps - all on the same ticket. We used to plot how we could stop the tram outside the ground and watch the game. Have the driver arrested and nobody qualified to drive the tram. Cut off the electricity and make the conductor walk all the way back to the terminus to put another coin in the meter. Any daft idea, and of course we never managed it. We didn't see much of the cricket, but at least you could say you had been to a test match without having to pay.”

Smugglers

Slowly, as gin began to be used in cocktails, it became a more respectable drink. Then, with Prohibition in America, came a strange expansion of Camden Town's industry. Mrs Moore, who worked at Gilbey's, remembers sitting in a room full of women, sewing wooden cases containing 6 bottles of gin or whiskey into sacks. Each sack had to have two long ears. Anonymous men had arrived at the Pantheon offices with pockets full of dollar notes. They wanted sets of six bottles in canvas sacks, for some unexplained reason. The sacks were to be shipped to Amsterdam, or some other port, where they would disappear. A few weeks later the sacks would be handed down from a large boat by one 'ear' and taken by the other 'ear' into a smaller boat. Rowed into shore at St Pierre, or anywhere along the United States coastline, the bottles were deposited in shallow water ready for spiriting away when the tide went out. Sewing these 'smugglers' was well paid, so that on Friday night Mrs Moore was able to dress up and go to a Camden Town cinema, to see perhaps a gangster film about New York speakeasies.

When the gangsters and the police had moved in and Prohibition had become a racket, other methods were used. Huge distilleries and warehouses were established on Canadian soil. Contraband was run daily in powerful motorboats, with double the horsepower that the police could afford for their boats. All tricks were used, including a hosepipe which was run along the bottom of the lake from Canada to USA and the spirit pumped through. Even so, the gunny sack with two ears was the basic technology, trusted and tried.

So profitable was the Prohibition to the gangsters that there were soon illicit stills in every state. Bathtub gin was bottled in counterfeit bottles, with forged Gilbey labels. To protect their reputation the firm had to set up a special department at the Pantheon to verify labels sent in by dis-satisfied drinkers. Eventually, as a protection against fraud, they invented the characteristic square, green gin bottle, which can still be seen in Gilbey advertisements, sand-blasted on three sides and with the label printed on either side so that it can be read through the bottle. Before this too could be copied, Prohibition was ended and Gilbey's were able to export legally to the USA.

Scientific Instrument Making

Mornington Crescent