Saturday, 9 May 2009

Earning a Few Bob : Surrey Street Market

The war is ended. Adolf is dead. There are street parties for the kids and families are re-united. It is a memorable time, but hopefully we shall never have such celebrations again.

I'm now aged 11 and failed the infamous 11-plus school exams at Elmwood. Never mind, I didn't care. Lanfranc Boys School, the local secondary-modern for all exam failures was OK by me. It was a tough school and I had to walk the two or three miles there each morning and back home again in the evening, come rain or come shine. Nobody that I knew were driven to school by their mum or dad; cars were for the rich. In Hathaway Road there was only one car, a black Vauxhall. I remember it well; it had those sort of long rounded grooves along the bonnet, one each side running from the nose grill up to the windscreen area of the bonnet. The owner was a business owner of some sort and presumably needed the car for work.

I hated school, especially sport and PE. Pocket money as a kid was non-existent. If you wanted money you had to earn it. I tried most things, such as going around the streets with a bucket and small shovel collecting horse droppings. Hawked it around a few houses to sell a bucket-full for whatever I could get. Bluebell picking was another little earner during the season, selling a few bunches to the lady of the house ... any house! Chopping up firewood kindling, using wood found on bomb sites, bundling it up and flogging it house to house. But ... my main earner was working for coster-mongers/stall-holders in Croydon's Surrey Street Market! Wonderful stuff.

Every Saturday and throughout the school holidays I would work in the sorting sheds where the traders had their fruit and veg stored for sorting. Tomatoes, plums, pears, cauliflowers and anything else that was being flogged by the stall-holder. I would work for anybody who needed a lad to do this sorting and transporting the "good" stuff from the shed to the stall. Mr. Toohig, Mr. Hart and a couple of others were my main employers. Wages were roughly 5 shillings a day, or 25p in this new-fangled money! Five bob, a fortune to an 11-year old kid. I didn't mind sorting the rotten tomatoes from the good ones, often getting through dozens of boxes a day; a day which could be as long as 12 hours in busy times.

When I had enough "good" tomatoes or whatever ready for the stall I had to load them onto a long barrow, a barrow with large cartwheels and two long handles, and then push this load up the slippery cobbled alleway leading from the shed to the main street where the stalls were. It was a heavy load to get up the slope from the shed and then there was the shopping crowd to get through. Hollering: "Mind yer back please, mind yer backs..." I would somehow get the barrow-full of stuff to the stall-holder, probably getting told off for not being quick enough! Still, the promise of 5/- at the end of the day was worth it all.

I used to forfeit some of my expected wages in a little café, situated in the middle of Surrey Street, to have a mid-day lunch (or dinner, as we serfs called it in the 1940s). Sometimes I would spend up to a quarter of my wages in this "kaff" but I loved it in there. The lady who owned it made lovely grub, especially her College Pudding! She trusted me to pay up as soon as work was done; lovely person.

Apart from Surrey Street Market I used to earn some cash from our landlord, a Mr. Richman, who had a large and beautiful detached house in Lodge Road, not far from our house. He was a small Jewish man who owned a vast number of properties, mainly houses but also a block of flats in St. Jame's Road. His name was very fitting: he must have been a VERY rich man. He and his wife lived alone in their detached house and I sometimes did a little weeding and stuff in the beautiful back garden. But property maintenance was what he employed me for in the main. If one of his tenants reported a missing or slipped slate he would drive a van to the house and erect a ladder to the roof. He showed me how to nail a bit of strip lead to a roof batten, slide a slate into place and hook the lead strip over the bottom to keep it in place. He would hold the ladder while I scampered up to roof and fix the slate! Health and safety would have a fit nowadays, but at a shilling a time I didn't mind. He also had some painting jobs for me now and again which I did not like too much - mainly because he would always find something wrong with the finished job and refuse to pay the full amount promised. He would not get away with that now, but in those days you just took whatever you could.

1 comment:

Star said...

I read this post with interest. It is fascinating to hear about life in times gone by. I remember the markets in Luton and their mainly Jewish stallholders. These days we have such a mixture of culture and all sorts of stalls ranging from Jamaican clothes and bling to Asian saris and headscarves right back to English people selling curtains and aprons etc.
I also remember those kaffs as you call them. You could get a proper meal with a decent pudding and custard for a reasonable price and they were always full of hungry people.
Thanks for the descriptions. It made for a good read.