A. S. Jasper’s Hoxton Childhood
Today I present these extracts to give you a flavour of AS Jasper’s memoir of growing up in the East End at the beginning of the twentieth century, A Hoxton Childhood, which was acclaimed as a classic when it was described by the Observer as ‘Zola without the trimmings.’
Next week, Spitalfields Life Books is publishing a handsome new edition of A Hoxton Childhood accompanied by the first publication of AS Jasper’s sequel The Years After in a single volume.
Join me at the launch party for A.S. Jasper’s A Hoxton Childhood & The Years After on Tuesday 25th April 7pm at the Labour and Wait Workroom, 29-32 The Oval, Off Hackney Rd, Bethnal Green, E2 9DT. There will be live music, readings and refreshments. Tickets are £5, including £5 discount off the cover price. Click here to book
My father had a distinct Roman nose, a full moustache, slightly bandy legs and drooping shoulders. His main object in life was to be continually drunk and he had every opportunity to keep that way. His job was delivering overmantels and small furniture to various places in East London. He used to go out at five in the morning. First call was the local pub for rum and milk, this he could keep up all day. He always had money. Of every three articles he delivered, one was nicked, and the proceeds shared among the men who loaded him up. But at home he was tight with his money. I don’t ever remember my mother having a week’s wages off him – six or seven shillings was the most she ever received.
The reason he never gave her regular wages was he knew my mother could always earn a few shillings with her machine. To me, my mother was the most wonderful woman on earth. I find it hard to describe the love that she gave us. She had come to this country at the age of eighteen. Her family were musicians and had played at the royal Dutch Court. I never discovered why they emigrated – probably thought they could do better here.
When I was old enough to understand, I asked her what made her marry a man like my father. She told me that he had taken her out many times, but she always had to be home early for my grandmother was very strict. Eventually one night he brought her home past midnight and Grandmother refused to open the door. Consequently, he took her to his own place, made her pregnant and they had to get married. He deceived her from the start, she never got over the fact that he gave her a brass wedding ring.
In 1915, several commodities were in short supply. Among them were screws and glue. If any could be obtained, a good price could be had from the small cabinet-makers in the district.
Evidently, during their drinking bouts, the old man told Gerry what a wonderful market there was for screws and glue and how he wished he could get hold of some. Gerry was working in Bethnal Green Road, making munition boxes. Plenty of screws and glue were used in their construction. Gerry reckoned he could get plenty but some arrangement would have to be made to collect them. He could get them out during his afternoon tea break, but not dinner-time or night-time. I was approached and asked to go each day to meet Gerry during his afternoon tea break.
Mum went mad when she knew what they were up to, but between the two of them they managed to convince her there was no risk. I had to take a shopping bag to school with me and then proceed to Bethnal Green Road at four o’clock. I can’t remember the name of the pub where I had to meet Gerry. At the side of the pub there was a gents’ toilet that was always open.
When Gerry came along I would dive in and he would follow. He would quickly undo his apron and take out packets of screws and packets of dried glue from inside his trousers. He also had his pockets stuffed. They were quickly dropped in the bag and I would walk home. This I had to do every day of the week and Saturday mornings also. The old man would take them on his round and flog them to various small cabinet-makers. On Saturday afternoons they would share out the proceeds. I don’t remember ever getting anything out of this, but I suppose I must have done. Mum wouldn’t have let me do it for nothing. It’s a marvel I didn’t grow up a criminal the things I had to do for them.
Mum decided to start selling clothes again. One Friday she said to me, ‘Stan, I want you to go down Hoxton in the morning and see if you can find a site where we can pitch a stall.’ The market was usually chock-a-block with stalls but this didn’t deter her from sending me to have a look round. I started from the ‘narrow way’ of Hoxton and walked along towards Old Street, but couldn’t see many vacant places. Coming back, I saw somewhere that took my eye. In the centre of the road between Nuttall Street and Wilmer Gardens were two public lavatories, flanked all round by a wide pavement. There were two or three stalls there but plenty of room for more. Home I went and told Mum. This pleased her and she thought she could do all right there, but I had lost my cart.
Some time ago, I had to go to Whiston Street Gasworks for three penn’orth of coke. To get the coke I went in the gate, paid my threepence in the office and got a ticket. I then went to where the men were filling the sacks, got loaded and went back to where I had left my cart. When I got there someone had pinched it. I should have known better. The lads round there could take your laces out of your boots and you wouldn’t know they were gone. I had to carry the coke home and swore I would somehow get my cart back. Mum worked hard all that week and bought and mended any old clothes she could find and got them ready for the stall on the coming Saturday.
Opposite the house where we lived was a coal shop and they had a couple of barrows which they let out on hire. I booked one for Saturday, when at eight sharp I got it loaded up with two sacks of clothes, old boots and anything Mum thought she could sell. I pushed the barrow and Mum walked alongside of me. I was just hoping the pitch was vacant. It was and I was overjoyed.
I propped up the barrow with the front legs I had brought along with me so that Mum could sit on it. We had some boards and these we laid out on the barrow. Mum unpacked the clothes and we were away. By nine-thirty people were beginning to flock into the market and we soon had some customers. The frocks and pinafores went like wildfire. ‘Fifteen pence the frocks,’ Mum would say, and ‘ninepence the pinafores.’
About midday we were half sold out. I asked Mum if she would like some tea. ‘Ere y’are, son,’ she said, and took the money out of the takings. I got a jug of tea and some sandwiches and we ate them ravenously. We’d had no breakfast owing to our having to start out early. Three o’clock came and we had sold out. Mum told me to stay with the barrow while she went shopping, and came back loaded. She treated me to the pictures and gave me money to buy sweets. I had never known such times.
POSTSCRIPT BY A.S. JASPER
I find that few realise how bad conditions were such a comparatively short time ago. (‘Your story reads more like something out of Dickens,’ is a typical comment.) It was easy, it seems, for the better-off to be unaware of the appalling poverty and near starvation that existed. But those of us (and there are plenty) who remember lining-up in the snow at the local Mission for a jug of soup or second-hand boots, begging for relief at the Poor Law Institution, being told to take our caps off and address officials as ‘sir’, realise it all too well. Yet amid those terrible times, we found time to laugh. We did not expect many pleasures out of life, but those we could get we took to the full. Perhaps it was this that enabled us to survive and perhaps this is why some of my older readers said they looked back with nostalgia and even affection to some aspects of those old days.
To my younger readers, may I say, ‘Be thankful that you were born now and not then. Go forward, but try to be tolerant of your parents on the way.’
Illustrations copyright © Estate of James Boswell
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The Gentle Author is delighted to collaborate with Labour and Wait to present a SPITALFIELDS LIFE BOOKSHOP for ten days at the WORKROOM, 29-32 The Oval, Off Hackney Rd, Bethnal Green, E2 9DT, in the shadow of the magnificent gasometers. This will be a rare chance to take a look at all Spitalfields Life Books titles in one place and have a peek behind the scenes at Labour and Wait too.
(Wednesday 26th April – Saturday, May 6th, 11am-6pm. Closed Sunday 30th April)