The Bellingham Council Estate
In more recent times the designation ‘council estate’ acquired too many negative associations with dysfunctional families and old sofas and other debris in the front garden but the Bellingham Council estate of my childhood and of my parents was quite other: It was a large sprawling village of cottagey houses of varying styles and sizes arranged along tree lined avenues and crescents and pleasant greens. The houses had back gardens tended with great devotion, and in the islands of land behind some of the rows of back-gardens from adjoining streets were allotments where those living in the estate’s maisonettes grew vegetables, fruit, and flowers for the house. The small front gardens were hedged ubiquitously with dark green privet and the identical half glazed front doors were painted in a limited range of standard colours. This uniformity, far from turning the estate into a flat repetitive landscape, worked to bind together the delightful variety and orientation of the houses built of red and yellow brick into an attractive village. What could have been an exercise in providing decent, but mundane homes, was instead inspired architecture and town planning by the LCC Architects Department: A great social and socialist achievement of which Londoners should be proud.
In the 1920s the Bellingham Council Estate was a community of young working class families, “the deserving poor” perhaps, made up of families where the men were skilled and semi-skilled workers in regular employment who could commute to the great factories of Inner London: The deserving poor, or perhaps the ‘more’ deserving poor. My Mother always maintained that there was a difference between those housed on the Bellingham estate compared to the Downham Estate just down the road, which was much bigger and less ‘villagey’ with fewer green spaces and trees.
The consequence of the imposed demographic of rehousing young working class families was that a whole generation of children, including my parents grew up together – only to reach adulthood just as the Second World War began in 1939. My father was 20 having just finished a five year apprenticeship as a printing engineer with Hoes who manufactured printing presses for the newspaper and magazine industry. In 1939 he had just started working for the Amalgamated Press on Bankside in Southwark where his Father was also a printing engineer, and who later became Chief Engineer, making the transition from greasy blue overalls to a suit with a white shirt, tie,and stiff starched collars – laundered weekly by The Glennifer Laundry.
Years later in 1958, my own father made the same transition at the age of 39, eventually becoming Chief Engineer of what, by then, had become Fleetway Publications. Many years later I too was to make a further aspirational transition becoming the first member of my family to go to university.
My father, Ronald, was the eldest of three brothers, Uncle Len was two years younger, and Uncle Alec must have been six or seven years younger. They moved from The Old Kent Road to 35 King Alfred Avenue when my father was five or six. The Sargeant brothers living as they did in the centre of the estate were it seems well known, fun loving lads and popular among their peers. Like most of their generation they smoked quite heavily and were all to die unpleasant deaths in old age as a consequence. Uncle Len was the first to die in a ‘Home for the Incurables’ in Roehampton. Then my Father died a miserable demented death of cancer which had spread to his liver giving much pain. In the last few months he became confused and paranoid as the blood reaching his brain became increasingly full of toxins. The last to go was Uncle Alec.
But all that lay in the future.
Growing up on the estate in the 1920s and 30s must have seemed utopian for those rehoused from the inner London slums of Bermondsey and Camberwell to the very edge of the city when there were still open Kentish fields to the south of the new ‘village’. My father and his brothers would have left school at 14 years old. The two older brothers took up apprenticeships as printing engineers, working during the day and attending classes in mathematics for engineers in the evenings. My father had also joined the Territorial Army when he was 18 and so was among the first to be called-up on the outbreak of war.
The older brothers went off to war leaving behind Alec who was too young to join up in 1939. My father’s first posting was to West Africa, ‘The White-man’s Graveyard’, and so it almost proved. Years later I was to hear the story for the first time after his terminal cancer had been diagnosed. My father caught malaria and was thought to be so close to death that he was put in the mortuary tent, but he recovered enough to be invalided back to England. Suffering all his life from sea-sickness, a weakness I inherited, he slept on deck, which as the troopship was torpedoed and sunk in the Irish Sea on its way to Liverpool allowed him to evacuate the sinking ship instead of being trapped below decks. Picked up by another ship in the convoy he again remained on deck and once again survived when that ship was also torpedoed by an enemy submarine. My father told me this story for the first time a few months before his death, saying that everything since then had been a bonus. My father came home to convalesce in Weston-Super-Mare and not long after married my mother in February 1941.
The Bellingham Council Estate was partly ‘thematic’ – many of the streets, the two schools and the Church of England Parish had names taken from Saxon History. Hence King Alfred Avenue which was perhaps the grandest and widest street lined with mature London Plane trees when I knew it, running from the top of the hill on which the estate was built down past my grandparents’ house and Elfrida School, which my father and later my brother and I attended, to the large circular green at the heart of the estate. On one side of ‘The Green’ sat the parish church of St Dunstan’s a large hulk of red brick in a vaguely byzantine style, and opposite it, Bellingham Congregational Church: A plainer squat building, as befits the denomination, flanked by a church hall and a manse. Dr Walker’s General Practioner’s surgery, distinctively different in style to the estate houses lay between them. King Alfred Avenue continued on the other side of The Green, coming to a stop at Athelney Street with the second of the estate schools, Altheney Street School, which my mother attended, facing back up the Avenue. Both Elfrida and Athelney Street were Elementary Schools providing education from five years until 14 years and the end of compulsory education, unless children were bright enough, and lucky enough to be able to take up a scholarship to one of the local Grammar schools at age eleven. My mother was, and wasn’t, respectively. More of that a little later.
[Elfrida was the wife of the King Edgar, and mother of Ethelred the Unready
St Dunstan, sometime Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, was a 10th Century Saxon saint.
The Isle of Altheney in Wessex was the hiding place of Alfred the Great before he went on to defeat the Danes in the 9th Century.]
The schools broke from the style of the earlier three storey London Board Schools, infants school on the ground floor, girls on the middle floor and boys on the top floor. With separate playgrounds and staircases for “Girls and Infants” and “Boys”. What does Conan-Doyle have Holmes say to Watson?
‘…… Holmes was sunk in profound thought, and hardly opened his mouth until we had passed Clapham Junction.
“It’s a very cheering thing to come into London by any of these lines which run high and allow you to look down upon the houses like this.”
I thought he was joking, for the view was sordid enough, but he soon explained himself.
“Look at those big isolated clumps of buildings rising above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea.”
“The Board Schools”.
Lighthouses my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules, with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future …..”
Instead the later LCC Elementary Schools reflected the mood of the early twentieth century where healthy bodies were nourished with fresh air and light. They had separate mixed sex infants’ schools to one side and then the main schools were airy single storey buildings with pitched roofs and high ceilings radiating out from either side of two school halls, completely separating and duplicating the classrooms for boys on one side and girls on the other. The separate entrances were at the far end of each ‘arm’ leading into the playgrounds which had a high wooden fence where the playgrounds abutted behind the two separate school halls.
The estate radiated out from the central Green with its churches, although the two public houses just off the edge of the estate probably provided an equally important social meeting place. The King Alfred Inn lay beyond the top of King Alfred Avenue on the other side of Southend Lane, the modern dual carriageway which bounded the southern side of the estate. It was a large white concrete Road House of a pub with a paved beer garden around the side and at the back where children were let loose with a glass of lemonade and a bag of smith’s crisps with little twists of blue waxed paper holding salt while their parents drank inside. No children were allowed inside Public Houses in those days of course. Sitting as it did on the top of the hill with Southend Lane dropping away towards the Gas Works there was clear view across to the heights of Sydenham Hill. It was from this vantage point that in 1936 my Mother watched as The Crystal Palace, which had been removed from it 1851 site in Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill in 1854 , burnt to the ground in an enormous fire.
The Northern side of the estate was constrained by the London to Sevenoaks Railway line and just beyond that the A21, Bromley Road, with its small clutter of shops around the traffic lights. Randlesdown Road radiating out from Bellingham Green went up a ramp to a bridge to cross the railway line. The station booking office was at the top of the bridge with stairs down to the ground level platforms. The estate side of the road up to the station was lined on one side with shops and on the other by Playing Fields Association Grounds which the schools used for games. On the other side between the bridge and the main road was the open air swimming pool where years later I was to work as a lifeguard during a few mis-spent summers of my youth.
Immediately on the estate side of the station was The Fellowship Inn: built in Mock Tudor style with entrances to the saloon and public bars on the bridge itself. Descending the flight of steps by the side, with their built-in Ladies’ and Gentelmens’ lavatories, led to the Off-Licence and a large hall for functions. It was here that my parents wedding reception was held in 1941, and which was made even more famous years later as a training venue for ‘Our Enery’ – Henry Cooper the great British heavyweight boxer of the 1960s – whose family lived at Farmstead Road on the Bellingham Estate.
Two roads behind The Fellowship Hall was the east end of Broadmead and the house where my Mother grew up and where her parents were killed on the last night of the London Blitz, on the 25th May 1941.
My Mother, Gladys Amelia Hill, was born in 1921 and her sister, my aunt Doris, two years later. The family had been living in Peckham before moving to the Bellingham Estate in 1923. My maternal grandfather was a bus conductor working for The General Omnibus Company, later to become part of London Transport. My Mother attended Athelney Street Elementary School and at the age of eleven passed the entrance exam for Prendergast Girls’ Grammar School: A great achievement. Unfortunately in order to take up the place her father was required to sign an undertaking that she would stay at school until she was sixteen years old and not leave at the age of fourteen when compulsory schooling ended. Her Father refused to sign because he wanted my mother to start earning money and contribute to the family income as soon as possible: A great tragedy. She became Head Girl at Athelney Street but according to plan (her father’s plan that is!), she duly left school in 1935 to become a clerk at the offices of William Hartley and Co Ltd, close to London Bridge Station.
When single young women were conscripted for war work in 1940 she was sent to live in lodgings and work at a factory in Bury, north of Manchester, which she hated and was desperately unhappy which was not an uncommon experience. She managed to get back to Bellingham to work as a booking clerk at Beckenham Hill Station where I think she remained until marrying. My Parents married in February 1941. Their own parish church was St Dunstan’s but my mother had ‘taken against’ the vicar for some reason and so she used a friend’s address in Allerford Road, which was just off the estate, as her place of residence, thereby making herself eligible to be married in the Parish Church of St John’s on the Bromley Road. The large reception was held in the function hall of The Fellowship Inn.
Three months later on May 25th 1941, the last night of the London Blitz my mother was staying with her new in-laws when a high explosive bomb landed on her parent’s house in Broadmead. Her father, mother and younger sister Doris were sheltering in the Anderson Shelter at the bottom of the garden. These shelters were named after Sir John Anderson, Lord Privy Seal, who had responsibility for air-raid precautions. They were the government’s response to the lack of community air-raid shelters. They were built around curved corrugated iron sections bolted together, half buried in the ground and then covered with earth. Inside bunk beds provided sleeping accommodation for up to six people. The components were delivered free to poorer households. After the war many were dug up and converted to garden sheds. One such was at the end of the garden of our house in Worsley Bridge Road until we moved in 1955. It housed gardening tools but also the heavy cast Iron Mangle with wooden rollers that my mother used on wash-days to squeeze excess water out of the washing, which had been done with the aid of a copper boiler and corrugated glass wash-board. No washing machines or spin driers in the 1940s-50s, at least not in our sort of home. The washing was then hung out on the line which ran the length of the garden and had a forked wooden prop inserted in the middle to lift the whole line into the air . Some careful timing was needed because we lived only a few hundred yards from Sydenham Gas Works where town gas was produced by heating coal in furnaces. During part of the process soot would routinely escape into the atmosphere and would blow with the prevailing wind onto the surrounding houses, gardens and washing lines.
Because the Anderson shelters flexed and did not have heavy concrete slabs which might collapse onto the occupants they did provide some protection from blast and shock damage: But not if the bomb was too large and too close to the shelter as it was on the 25th May. The high explosive bomb landed on the house totally demolishing it and the blast hit the Anderson shelter. My Grandparents were killed and my Aunt Doris badly injured. My grandparents were buried together in Hither Green Cemetery in a grave marked with a wooden cross. As children we sometimes went to the cemetery with Mum to tend the grave. Later my other grandparents were also to be buried in Hither Green Cemetery but not for another forty or more years.