I was a child carer for “mum” Munroe, as she was by now an insulin dependent diabetic and I had to give her the insulin injections her life depended on. She needed me to run errands for her and accompany her to church or other places she wanted to go. I didn’t mind doing any of this because I loved mum as if she were my own mother. She had always been very kind to me and to everyone else, so I didn’t like seeing other people take advantage of her. It was a big responsibility but I never thought anything of it. It was just what you had to do: help the people around you. That was how I was brought up and how the Munroes all were.
While we were living in Oakburn road, Daphne had gone to work as a teacher in Birmingham. Duke had married so he and his new wife, Helen, were now living with us. After a time, there seemed to have been some friction between mother and daughter-in-law, so Duke had to find alternative accommodation for his mother and me. He eventually found a place in Streatham, many miles away. It was owned by a retired army colonel, who was living and working in Africa. It was a very big, beautiful place in a quiet respectable area. It had a lovely garden with fruit trees and a library of hundreds of books. Unfortunately moving there created a problem for me to get to school, but I was happy to walk all the way from Streatham to Tooting Bec Common so as to finish my education.
Moving came as something of a relief to me, since up to now, in Tooting, it seemed that everyone migrating to England from the West Indies came to live with us at Oakburn Road, or Duke’s House in Redcliffe Gardens. The Munroe’s were kind and generous people and had seen it as their duty to help newly migrated compatriots to settle in by giving them a roof over their head, helping them to find a job, and introducing them to the way of life in England. This had caused me a lot of problems because I couldn’t relate to most of these people. They were adults but I didn’t like their behaviour. I saw them, heavily smoking, lying on beds with shoes on, not cleaning baths after using them, not wiping their shoes on the doormat. All of this made work for me because I had to clear up after them. The Munroes didn’t behave that way and nor did I. I felt that they didn’t appreciate the help and guidance they got. Many of them abused the Munroe’s goodwill and took advantage of them. I couldn’t wait to get away from all this and to some extent I could do so once we were living in Streatham. I wanted to get out into the world of work like my school friends and had been giving serious thought to it.
That summer while I was with “Mum” in Streatham, Duke had been offered an overseas work contract and was going to Africa with Helen, so “Mum” was invited to go to Birmingham to live with her daughter, Daphne. I had still to complete my schooling, so it was decided that I should go and live with “Brother Jim” and his family at 37 Collingham Place in Earl’s Court. By then, I had made up my mind to go and find a job through the careers officer at the Labour Exchange and set about doing this straight away. I wanted a job where I would be able to continue my education by means of a college day release, but at the same time, earn enough money to be able to pay the rent because I wouldn’t be able to live in Earl’s Court for free. I had only been rent free when I lived with mum because she was living rent free with her son, Duke. For the short while when we were at Streatham, Duke paid her rent. I had been there to do her errands and look after her, giving her insulin injections, doing her shopping and other chores, but now she was with Daphne, I was not needed for that and would have to pay my own way.
The careers officer at the Labour Exchange advised me to go and take the exam to become a messenger at one of the London Post Offices. I had to go to King Edward’s Building at Mount Pleasant for this. Since my result was very good, I was allocated to South Kensington as a telegram messenger boy on a bicycle. It was one of the top places, and took in the Knightsbridge and Westminster Area. They thought I had the potential to become a postman higher grade, running an office, organising other telegram boys and told me that after three years of delivering telegrams, I would be able to take the promotion exam for this rank.
I enjoyed being a messenger as I soon learned my way round all the streets on the map of South Kensington and had to deliver telegrams to all the celebrities who lived in Chelsea and the environs. Ava Gardiner, Katie Boyle, Patrick Barr, Shirley Abacair, Alma Cogan, MacDonald Hobley, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Thomas Beacham and Jack Hawkins were among those who gave me generous tips. I was even asked to cycle as an “extra” in films, for which I got paid.
My employers allowed me to attend Hammersmith Day College twice a week to further my education. There I studied maths, English, geography, world affairs, drama, Italian and sport. I also played plenty of sport for the Post Office cricket and football teams and boxed for them as a flyweight. I became Post Office Boxing Champion and through sport and work, made many friends at the Post Office. One of these was Mike Bicknell, whose parents Reg and Millie took a liking to me and treated me like another son.
Mr Bicknell was a very interesting man. He was like a walking encyclopaedia. He worked at The Natural History Museum in Exhibition Road as a taxidermist. On my free days at the Post Office, he let me accompany him to work where I watched him and his colleagues preparing dead animal specimens for display in the museum. The specimens came in at the back entrance where large crates were unloaded and stored in the museum basement. I was not allowed in the room where they were preserved and stuffed, but Mr Bicknell’s department had the job of finishing off the specimens. One man was a “stitcher” and another had to brush the coats or feathers. Mr Bicknell had to put in the eyes and prepare feet or hooves and the mounts and labels. I was allowed to help clean up and sweep. Sometimes I had to deliver his lunch for him from home. I felt very important passing through all the strict security to get to him. The staff soon got to know me and museums became another source of enjoyment for me.
As I often passed by The Royal Albert Hall, I noticed big shows which I wanted to see. The staff knew me from delivering telegrams to them, so I would offer to sweep up or clean the toilets, brush down or beat the carpets, put out programmes or leaflets on seats and check that the exit lights were working. They gave me a staff ID pass. This got me free entry into the shows. I saw all the great names and shows of the day that I would not have been able to afford otherwise.
Getting this job at the Post Office changed my life. I became very independent and was able to earn decent wages, pay my own bills and buy my own clothes. This was a great relief to me as in my first days at Hammersmith Day College the girls had sniggered at the sight of me, aged fifteen, still wearing short trousers. I quickly bought myself my first pair of long trousers so I would be treated like a young man instead of a little boy. I was now also able to save some money for myself in my Post Office Savings Bank Account. I loved this new found freedom and determined to build on my achievements so far. Moving to 37 Collingham Place at the age of fifteen marked my metamorphosis into manhood.
I didn’t forget my family back home, because every week from now on, I sent a five shilling postal order to my mother back in British Guiana. Ever since arriving in England, I had written regularly to my mother, father, Marma, my siblings and schoolteachers in Hopetown and Georgetown, but never once got a reply from any of them except my mother. It was a bitter disappointment to me not to receive replies from others, so I eventually I stopped writing to all of them except my mother. It was from her letters that I kept up with news from my home village, particularly Marma, who could not read or write. In this way, I discovered as the years went by, that I had three new brothers that I had never seen. Now that I was sending remittances, I found out that I was helping home improvements to happen, and was not only enabling the education of my siblings but also paying my mother’s doctor’s bills.
While I was very grateful to “Brother Jim” for giving me accommodation in his big house in Earl’s Court, I wanted to move away from it because I had to share a room with four strange men from the West Indies who were also lodging with Jim. I disliked the way they mocked Jim behind his back even though he had helped them. However, I realised that it was a dilemma I would have to put up with, because it would have been impossible to find alternative accommodation near to my work at Earl’s Court for the thirty shillings a week that I was paying Jim. Thankfully for me, “Brother Leslie” Munroe and his new wife Carmen moved into Collingham Place shortly after I did, so I was able to escape the room with the strangers and live in their apartment with them. It was good being in close contact with Leslie as he was an excellent cricketer who took me under his wing. Not only did he take me to Paddington Cricket ground for practice, but also got me to play for the B.O.A.C. men’s team, for which he was the star player. Unlike the rest of the family, he positively encouraged me to play cricket on Sundays. He always praised my ability in the game and coached me a lot, especially in bowling.
I enjoyed the thrill of being a boy in a man’s team in one of the top leagues in London. I was always confident when playing, whether with my own age or with men. It was all the same to me. I always took a lot of wickets and made a lot of runs. The men said I should go to one of the county teams. The captain and committee members invited me to join the junior team for Middlesex Cricket Club and so I went to Osterley for trials. I was picked for their under 17 team and did well, so I did further training with them. Carmen, Leslie’s wife, used to come and watch us both play. It consequently came as a big shock when Leslie left Carmen and moved out to go to West Kensington, leaving me to live alone with Carmen in Earl’s Court. As their marriage had now broken up, Carmen who was working with Redifussion T.V. and doing bit parts as an actress, moved away to Shepherd’s Bush. She was now able to fully pursue a career in show business and soon started to get big roles in the latest T.V. soap operas. I was left at Earl’s Court and forced to move back into the room share with the four men.
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Joe Bloggs: “An Unlikely Hussar” is the early life story of Edwin (Joe) Joseph, Formerly Band Sergeant Major in the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars and subsequently recreation manager at Bletchley Leisure Centre. This story is based on a series of interviews with him over the years.