Doris Halsall, Civil Servant & Despatch Rider
Doris Halsall, Despatch Rider, 1944
One Saturday afternoon recently, I took the train over to Chigwell to visit Doris Halsall – still vital and independent in her ninety-sixth year – who recounted for me the story of her circuitous journey through the twentieth century and away from the East End. Blessed with keen intelligence and an adventurous nature, Doris embraced the possibilities for advancement that came her way – especially riding a motor bicycle – with enthusiasm and fearless determination, boldly constructing a life for herself that transcended her modest beginnings.
“I was born in 3 Venner Rd in Bow in 1920. My mother, Rosina & father, Alfred White lived in the downstairs with my sister, Rose and I. But later, when my mother’s sister died leaving a little boy of ten days old, Jack, my father said ‘Let us adopt him,’ even though my mother had eight or nine sisters.
Mrs Blewdon, who owned the house, lived upstairs and she came down every morning with her bucket and jug to empty them in the outside toilet and fill them again in the scullery. She stayed the whole day in her room and, each evening, she left us a note on the stairs, ‘I’m in for the night, Mrs White, Good Night.’ I always laughed because I used to love that little note on the stairs.
My father was in the army in the 1914-18 War and I’ve got a certificate to say that in 1916 he was unfit for service. There was no reason given but my mother always insisted that he was gassed and he was ill because of it, although his death certificate said ‘tuberculosis.’ When he came out of the army he did all sorts of jobs. I remember one day he was hoping it would snow, so he could go and do some snow shovelling. Eventually he joined the GPO and he would always bring newspapers to show me the events of the day. He died when I was ten years old in 1930. We were all there at the very last when he was dying. We didn’t think it was terrible, we just accepted it. In the family, there were others that died of tuberculosis.
My mother worked at home and we all helped her. I could cover you an umbrella now! She used to go up to the City and came back with the cloth and the umbrella frames, and we would fit the covers, the three of us – my mother, my sister & I – preventing, tying-in and tipping. Then next day, my mother would take the bundle back on the tram. It was hard for her schlepping up to the City everyday. I still have one of her tram tickets which I use as a bookmark. Later on, she used to knit angora berets and I sewed them up. She was always afraid we’d go into the workhouse, Bromley by Bow Workhouse was nearby.
After my father died, we were no more or less poor than we were when he was alive. My mother had a ten shillings a week pension, five shillings for my sister and three shillings for me – nothing for my cousin. We never saw ourselves as poor. We just accepted life. I was quite a happy child but my sister wasn’t, she was always unhappy and I don’t know why – I think it’s the way you are born. So I was never unhappy, but our circumstances were dreadfully poor. The coalman came round to our road but we couldn’t afford to have a sack of coal, it was half a crown for a hundredweight.
In Burdett Rd nearby, there was a little row of shops including a sweet shop with these different kinds of sweets in sections. All I ever wanted was to buy a quarter of pear drops for tuppence and I thought, ‘When I grow up, I’ll buy them.’ There were fruit stalls with oranges that came in fine crates made of wood which the stallholders would just throw down and the council would come and collect them, but we could go along and pick up the wood and take it home and put it on the fire. So why did you need to buy a hundredweight of coal for half a crown?
My sister & I played all the time in the street with my brother-come-cousin sat in the pushchair outside the house. We had all our friends on the street, our neighbour Mrs Franklin had nine children, and there was always entertainment on the street. The barrel organ would come along with these men dressed as women. We didn’t know anything abut transvestites, but they sang and danced and someone turned the barrel organ. The milk cart came along with a big churn and we would take a jug out. We’d buy jam at the little corner shop. We took a cup along and they’d weigh the cup and then they’d fill it with two penny worth of jam from a big jar.
When I was about twelve, I remember walking up to a shop in the City next to the Aldgate Pump to buy a postcard of Leonardo Da Vinci that I had learnt about from a very good art teacher at my school. The question was, ‘How to get tuppence?’ so there was no question of taking the tram or bus, I walked there. I can’t remember if I ever went to the West End but my mother used to take us to Southend for the day by train. I remember looking over the bridge from Bromley by Bow station at the workhouse. All the women used to sit along the wall in their blue and white dresses and, on the other side, sat all the men in their blue and white shirts, separated.
I remember Mosley’s blackshirts when they came down as far as Canal Bridge and I remember going down to see them. I was sixteen and I didn’t think too much about it. They were marching and they’d strayed over as far as Canal Rd. They’d been pushed back and after the Battle of Cable St and they were milling about trying to find a way home.
Opposite Stepney Green station, there was a Methodist Mission and there was this couple, Mr & Mrs Mackie and they took a group of girls under their wing. They took us on holiday for a week and we paid them ten shillings. They were very good to us. They ran a competition for ‘Recitation’ but I called it ‘Elocution.’ I went to a school where they always impressed on us that, if you come from the East End, it doesn’t mean you have to speak like someone from the East End. My cousins made fun of me because I spoke differently, mimicking me, but I didn’t care. I won the District and then the All-London Competition and I got invited stay to tea. That was a real treat. I still have my medal. My recitation began ‘No strong drink for this champion..’ and I had to sign the Temperance pledge. Conveniently, my memory is clouded about when I broke that.
I went to a very good school and I won a Junior County Scholarship with a grant of twelve pounds a year and, when I was fourteen, another grant of twenty-one pounds a year. It was very sad really. Most of the parents wanted their children to leave school and go to work. You were brought up to go and work when you were fourteen. My sister had left at fourteen and was already working and my mother wanted me to leave, but when I did she had to give me money for fares to London and for lunches so she wasn’t much better off.
I wanted to go into the Civil Service which most of my friends were doing but you couldn’t take the exam until you were eighteen. I worked in an office and went to night school, after I left school at sixteen, and finished my education that way. This lady in the office, who seemed ever so much older than me, said ‘Don’t stay here.’ Fortunately, I passed the Civil Service exam and went to work at the Ministry of Agriculture office in Leonard St in Shoreditch and it was all very nice until the War came along.
I was evacuated up to Lytham St Anne’s. We were put into seaside boarding houses and every morning we could smell our rations going past our doors! It was all girls, eight or nine of us, and Mrs Brooks did us well. We had a great time. We borrowed each other’s clothes and went out to the Tower Ballrooms. It was lovely. I was promoted in the Ministry of Agriculture and sent to Bournemouth. We were importing agricultural machinery from America and my job was to look after the shipments as they came in.
My mother stayed in the East End of London all through the war, even though she had a bomb drop next door and had to move out for a while, but she went to work in munitions and became quite well off. She had the Anderson shelter in the garden and she wasn’t a worrier. Yet all the bomb debris in the East End was horrible and cousin of mine was killed in her house with her two little children.
During the war, I wanted to go into the forces but I was considered too useful so I wasn’t allowed to be released from my job. I tried to get into the airforce, in the Meteorological section. I was attracted to the challenge but I wasn’t allowed to do this. Then an offer came along to be a Despatch Rider for the Home Office. My friend Claire & I signed up for that right away, and we went to Hendon Police for week and learnt to ride a motorbike. It was great.
At that time, we were quite sure there was going to be an invasion. In preparation for this, we had to drive around to Police Stations and hand in ‘despatches’ but we never knew what they were – probably a blank sheet. It was just practice and quite soon we knew exactly how to get to the various police stations.
Claire & I often got caught up in the American convoys with all the GIs sitting out on the tailboards while we were on our bikes. They would shout ‘Gee, they’re dames!’ and they wouldn’t let us overtake them – so we had a high time, until they turned left. I had various boyfriends. All the girls in the office had boyfriends or fiances and ever so many of them were killed. I had some boyfriends that weren’t English who went off and I never knew what happened to them.
When the invasion was expected, I was brought back from Bournemouth to London and I went back to live with my mother and she made a great fuss of me. My mother had married again, to Jim Mason, a crane driver in Ilford and they had moved out to Seven Kings. He was a nice man and I liked him ever so much. My mother was glad to leave the East End.
I was married in 1947. I met my husband, Harold Halsall at holiday camp on the East Coast. I had a travelling job then for the Ministry of Agriculture and I visited regional offices examining the accounts. Leaving London by train, I remember once I realised I had left some papers at the office, so I left my case on the platform and went back to the office and, when I returned, it was still there.
After we married we bought a house and lived in Ilford and had two little girls, Pauline & Julia. Rationing continued after the war but there were ways and means of getting hold of what you needed. When I was travelling I visited all the farming towns, so I had eggs and bacon and cheese and milk – and I stayed in hotels, there was no rationing in hotels. It was lovely. I was very fortunate. I have had such a great time. I don’t miss the East End because I wanted to have something better. It was hard, a tough existence and this was a much nicer life.”
Doris in the forties
Doris & her friend Claire, Despatch Riders in 1944
Doris’ mother Rosina and father Alfred, and his sister Emily, photographed at Southend in 1919
Doris with her mother, Rosina, in the twenties
Doris’ family in 1940 – Doris, her sister Rose and their mother Rosina in front.
Doris at the Ministry of Agriculture, Baker St Office, 21st May 1940
Youth Hostelling – Doris’ sister Rose, Doris, Doris’ friend Claire
Acrobatics by ‘Daredevil Doris,’ Corton, 1948
Doris in her new beach-robe, Howstrakes, June 1947
Doris with Harold Halsall on Oulton Broad, July 1947 – the year of their marriage
The first house which Doris and Harold bought on Kirkland Avenue in Ilford – note Doris’ motorbike
Doris Halsall, Chigwell 2016
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