Living in Bowers Road in the 1950s & 1960s

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Bowers Road and surrounding area

During 1938 the prospect of a 2nd World War was looking increasingly likely. My granny decided she didn’t want to stay in Dalston and risk the dangers of air-raids, so moved the family to a rented bungalow in Bowers Road. Consequently, my mother lived there for the next 77 years until she died in 2015.

Our home was one of 4 semi-detached bungalows at the junction with Gifford Road. Initially they simply had names; ours was “Doric” which eventually was given the number 30. These bungalows were originally owned by Mr. Joplin, a local builder.

Adolf Hitler introduced my mum to my dad and they married in 1942, just before dad was posted to North Africa in support of Operation Torch.

After the war, mum & dad purchased the bungalow for £500, which would have been a huge amount of money at the time. By this time, grandad had died, and mum’s brothers had moved out to start families of their own. So by 1952 there were just 5 of us; mum, dad, granny, my elder brother and me, the last to arrive.

At this time Bowers, Gifford and Kents Hill roads were unmade. So when I arrived in February 1952, an ambulance carried me and mum back from Rochford hospital and dropped us by the side of the London Road (A13), leaving mum to carry me up the part cinder/part muddy path of Gifford Road and across the muddy track that was Bowers Road. It was a dark, cold, damp winter’s night.

We didn’t have a proper kitchen all the time we lived in this bungalow. We only had a scullery, which was the smallest possible space that you could fit a cooker, a “copper boiler” and a sink into.

In the 1950s, our home was heated by 2 open fires; one in the front room (which was granny’s bed sitting room) and one in the back room (which was our living room). When you were in front of the fire in the winter, the side facing the fire was too hot, while the other side was too cold. It was also freezing cold in any other rooms because they were unheated, including the bedrooms, the hall and the toilet/bathroom. I can clearly remember putting on 2 sets of pyjamas and 3 pairs of socks, and then running across the hall into bed with a stone hot water bottle. Stone hot water bottles were much better than modern rubber ones, except if they rolled out of bed and dropped on the floor in the middle of the night!

Our ill-fitting single glazed bedroom window would be running with condensation most mornings throughout the winter, except when the outside temperature was below zero. Then the condensation stopped running and simply froze to the inside of the windows.

We had a tin bath which my brother & me used in front of the fire in the winter (don’t know what mum & dad did). Eventually dad installed a second-hand gas instant water heater above the bath, that seemed to explode when you turned on the hot tap, but at least it meant that we could finally run hot water straight into the bath.

Mum washed clothes in a gas powered “copper” boiler. This was an upright tank that you put water into via a bucket or hose, then lit the gas to heat it up. Mum had a “copper stick” which was just a wooden stick that she used to poke and stir the clothes to help wash them clean. She used to threaten us boys with this “copper stick” if we were naughty. But as we got bigger, the stick got smaller as (I suppose) the end slowly rotted away due to the effect of the hot soapy water. So it soon became a huge joke. She had never hit us with this stick, and now that we were bigger and the stick seemed to be not much bigger than a large lolly stick, we all shared the joke.

Our hot daily meal was served in the evenings Monday to Friday, and mid-day at the weekends. It was often cooked in a pressure cooker, with separate sections for vegetables. As a small child I used to sit on the scullery floor, under my mums feet, and play with wooden spoons and pots & pans, putting small toys into the pots and tipping them out.

In the living room (I guess like most houses in the 50s) we had lino over floor boards, I think with maybe a short gap between the edge of the lino and the wall. And then a large rug or piece of carpet leaving much of the lino exposed. I used to like playing with my Dinky Toy cars, following the lined pattern on the lino. Of course by the mid 60s we had a fitted carpet (all hail Cyril Lord!). But looking back, the lino+carpet combo was probably healthier than the fitted carpet option.

I remember there was an old detached house opposite us which was owned by Mr. Headland (not sure about spelling). It had a long garden that ran along Gifford Road down to a group of 1920/30s bungalows which are still there. At the end of the garden (next to the first bungalow) I’m sure there was an old stable with a horseshoe nailed above the door. To the east of this house in Bowers Road there were either 2 or 3 old houses. All were knocked down and new properties, mostly with tiny gardens, built probably in the late 1950s (certainly before the photo of me on the Norton was taken in 1961, as this shows the view down Gifford Road).

Diagonally opposite us (the westerly Gifford/Bowers Road corner) were fields which contained a few horses. And at the west end of Bowers, on the opposite side of St. Clements Road, were fields but with a lot of bushes. I remember that my elder brother and his mates made a secret camp there by crawling into a cluster of very dense bushes and digging a shallow pit. They would sit around in a circle with their legs dangling in the pit, invisible to passers by.

Walking south through this area I seem to remember crossing a track (which would have been the end of Albion Way) and going through an opening into (what seemed like) a large green grass field.

Along the easterly end of Bowers Road (the other side of Kents Hill Road) there were more fields on the south side of the road with bushes and trees (no schools). Following Bowers up the hill and then turning left led to a field next to Bread & Cheese Hill with a ‘bomb’ crater’. Was this really made by a German Bomb? This was a great place to take a home made sledge when the field was covered in snow.

Then across the A13 we could access Combe Woods (http://friendsofcoombewood.org.uk/Maps/Maps.php). At a certain age my brother and his gang carved out a circular cycle race track at the highest point in the woods (apparently now called “The Kop”). I wonder whether any of these ‘earth works’ are still visible or has it been completely reclaimed by nature?

I remember the “Rag ‘n Bone man” who used to come around the streets with his horse & cart, ringing a hand bell and calling “ ‘e rag bone?“.

Two doors down lived Albert (“Alby”) Bell. He seemed like a larger than life character. He owned his own tipper lorry (a Ford Thames Trader) and took me to work once or twice when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old. By “Work” I mean he drove to the sandpits where sand/aggregate was dropped into his lorry via some kind of hopper, and then he drove off around the local area delivering it. Naturally around this time I wanted to be a truck driver when I grew up.

Despite the state of the unmade roads, it was nice and quiet due to the lack of traffic, and there was plenty of wildlife. I used to sit on the back doorstep and watch the lizards running around the yard. But by the mid-1960s these had completely disappeared; a combination of more houses, more cats and less open space.

By the late 1950s both Gifford and Bowers roads had been made up. Dad had a Norton C500 motorbike with a modified sidecar to take mum & me, so the 4 of us could journey down to Dorset together in the summer to visit dad’s family.

I remember we had an Anderson Shelter which housed a few garden tools, and for one winter only, my hibernating tortoise. It never woke up.

During the 1950s we had many animals including chickens, rabbits, a cat with a politically incorrect name, a budgie called Willy, and (briefly) two tortoises (one escaped the very first afternoon) and two racing pigeons (one swooped down too low over the garden and was grabbed by the cat).

The plan for the chickens was to select a victim for the pot every so often. I think this may have started out ok, but although dad was a country boy, he to became too fond of them, so they became tame and lived to a ripe old age. We could walk into their chicken run and they would squat down and let us pick them up and stroke them. But at least the eggs were a useful supplement to our diet.

Dad also dug out and built a pond. He used galvanized iron sheet to ‘shutter’ the sides before tipping in tons of concrete, built submerged brick planters at the sides & middle for irises and installed an old Butler sink to create a deep area for a water lily.

I loved our pond and spent hours fishing out newts. I remember dad came back from work one day with a small terrapin. We slipped it into the water, it swam to the bottom, and was never seen again. “Well that was a bloody waste of 5 shillings” was my dad’s only comment.

Dad was always mixing cement for some project or other, and in the early 1960s he built a splendid garage on the site previously occupied by the Anderson Shelter. Car ownership really took off in the 1960s, and in 1962 dad bought his first car, a Renault Dauphine.

I think it was Boxing Day 1962 when we had our first dump of snow, courtesy of a ‘low’ depression moving in from Siberia. Then 2 or 3 days later, another ‘low’ moved down from Iceland, and that was it. We had deep snow, frozen rivers, prolonged sub-zero temperatures, and a pile of snow in our front northerly facing garden which stuck around until April, by which time the ice was almost completely black. For young people who think us oldies exaggerate, check this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-21189863

Our standard of living really improved during the 1960s as dad had found a better job, working for the Gas Board as a Sales Engineer during the conversion from “town gas” (coal gas) to North Sea Gas. Dad built a small lean-to conservatory (mostly out of salvaged windows, doors and odd pieces of wood) which all but stopped the cutting cold draught entering the scullery. And with help from me & Phil, dad installed central heating and loft insulation to our little home, and we were never cold again.

The Bowers Road of 2020 is full of houses and used as a rat run by motor vehicles. So its quite difficult to image just how different it was, back in the early 1950s.

From the late 1950s to the mid 1960s, dad would occasionally bring home second-hand wirelesses (radios) and TVs whenever our existing ones stopped working. Around 1967, dad brought home a Bush wireless which was manufactured in 1955. He probably bought it from one of his drinking pals who had replaced it with a new fangled transistor radio. By this time, my DIY electronics skills were good enough for me to be able to tune it up, and it was in regular use for almost 40 years.

I few years ago I fully refurbished it, and it now takes pride of place in our lounge. Unfortunately, there are very few stations left on MW, so I also had to make a small transmitter that streams Radio Caroline from the internet and broadcasts it on 199m Medium Wave. The same frequency they used way back in 1964.

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  • My gran was Catherine Harvey (nee Platt).

    By steve davis (09/01/2021)
  • Hi Steve, Was your Grandma’s name Kate?
    Pauline.

    By P. Yorke (08/01/2021)

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