It was a bitterly cold winter. The one-bar electric fire ate up my hard-earned coins as it struggled to heat up my massive room in Earls Court with its high ceilings. I became ill with the cold. It affected my lungs so I couldn’t go to work and was too ill to prepare any food for myself. Having no one else to prepare it for me, I languished and deteriorated in bed. Work colleagues from the Post Office called round the house to see why I hadn’t been to work, football or boxing for over a week. When they saw the state I was in, they told me I shouldn’t stay in the room without help. They all offered me accommodation in their homes until I recovered from the illness. I took up one of them, to go and stay with Mick Bicknell and his parents at their post-war prefab home in Finborough road Chelsea. It was only two minutes’ walk from Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club and in the same road as my youth club. I knew the area well. From then on, I became part of the Bicknell family and they treated me like their fourth son (The two eldest were by now living away from home). Mrs Bicknell made an appointment for me to see her local family doctor, Dr Pinney, who immediately referred me to the hospital where I was admitted and spent five days receiving treatment and recovering from pleurisy.
The doctors advised me to find a job that didn’t need me to be cycling long distances to work in winter, nor to do another outdoor job such as telegram delivery since that was causing me to get the pleurisy and I would keep getting ill in this way. After being discharged, I returned to the Bicknell’s home to recuperate. I resigned from the Post Office but immediately found another two jobs which I had to choose from. One was at Green’s Wood yard on Chelsea embankment, making furniture and parquet flooring and the other was at the Victoria Wine Company with two days indoors and the rest of the week outdoors. I chose the wood yard because the money was good, it was indoors most of the time and I enjoyed the work as a trainee spindler. Although living with the Bicknells, I still found time to visit Leslie, Carmen and Jim now and again. They were the only Munroe family members still living in that part of London, near enough for me to reach.
All the workers at the wood yard were Chelsea supporters, so we all went together to see Chelsea play when they were at home. We were the original “Shed Boys” in the mid Fifties. It was only 200 yards to walk to Stamford Bridge. And when the team played away games, we went to watch Fulham play at Craven Cottage. A colleague at the wood yard, Frank, asked me if I wanted to earn some extra money working for a friend of his in Fulham Broadway, who was a wholesaler for Larkins’ Peanuts. The deal was to sell trays of 36 packets of nuts in the football ground on match days, for which you would get a florin (two shillings) per tray at the end of the day. This was great, as the Chelsea home crowd was sometimes nearly fifty thousand, so there was plenty of scope to earn money if you worked hard, had a loud voice and weren’t afraid of approaching strangers. I got allocated a block at Stamford Bridge and I never left at the end of the day with less than £7 in my pocket (at least 70 trays sold!). In one day I could earn the equivalent of a week’s pay at the wood yard. Perhaps I was a novelty, being a black cockney calling out “Larkins’ peanuts! A tanner a bag! Touched by Frank Blunsten/ Roy Bently/Rabbit Parsons!” or other famous Chelsea players of the day. My cheeky banter won me sales. At the end of the day, I never handed back any nuts unsold. I gained a reputation and another “family” of friends.
One Chelsea match I will never forget, was one Wednesday afternoon at Stamford Bridge when a crowd of over 100,000 attended to watch Honved, the Hungarian team, play. They were the best in the world at the time, having just beaten England 7-2 in Hungary and again 6-3 at Wembley. The atmosphere was electric as I watched the great Nandor Hidegkutu, their centre forward, play. It was an inspirational experience. Sport was really important to me at this time. I had been told by my teachers, the people at BOAC, senior members of the Post Office who ran all the sporting teams, members of the youth club, Church groups in Chelsea and previously in Tooting, and instructors and leaders in the Boys’ Brigade, where I had won many trophies for athletics, that I would do very well in sport and could even earn a living from it one day. I personally did not understand all these accolades or the idea of professional sport. I just saw sport as fun, something to enjoy in your spare time.
They all praised me for being “a natural”, always running everywhere, being punctual, putting in extra hours at it, always contributing to the team and making friends with team members, listening to their advice and working together with them, spending time on my own, practising drills and skills, and improving on them as a result. I loved all this. I wanted to spend every minute of the day playing some sport or other. Most of all I loved winning and wanted to do more of it. I was always looking for ways of improving what I did so I could do better next time and keep winning. Whether cricket, boxing, athletics, rugby, cross country or football, I excelled. Looking back, it must have been because of the variety of sports I was playing all the time, combined with the heavy physical work I had always done as a child and still did now, and the massive distances I had covered on foot, walking or running and cycling, that I had above average strength and stamina, coordination and suppleness and all-round ability. My body was constantly being exercised in different ways so that improvement in one sport had a knock on effect in all my other sports.
I wasn’t happy with the way my life was going at this point. I missed my Hammersmith day college courses which had stopped once I resigned from the Post Office. I was getting five pounds and ten shillings a week at the wood yard, plus overtime which was double what the post Office had paid, but it was hard, physical work and although I was strong and not lazy, I could see that my life would be limited if I stayed there. I discussed my future with Mr Bicknell, but he advised me to find an alternative job before resigning. He impressed on me the need to remain in employment as there was no safety net for me. I went out looking and found a place as a buyer/manager at a small greengrocer’s in Brompton Road. It was owned by an elderly spinster in her late eighties, who lived nearby in Ifield Road, Chelsea. At first, I thought I was just going to be a delivery boy. She shocked me by placing the responsibility of entirely running the busy, thriving shop and her staff of two mature ladies, on me. She normally ordered her produce in by phone.
“Do you think you can do it?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “I don’t think you’re getting the most out of the shop the way it is being run at the moment. I can see ways of improving it”.
“I like you young man, you’ve got an honest face,” she said. “I think I’ll give you the job even though I’ve had several more mature applicants.” I visited the shop and asked the two assistants if I could have a look around.
“No,” one of them said curtly, “Who are you? What do you want?”
“Mrs Gratton has given me the manager’s job,” I told them. They giggled in disbelief.
“Don’t talk rubbish, you’re just a little boy,” said the other girl ( I was still only fifteen). I had no choice but to return to Mrs Gratton and ask her to telephone the shop and get her employees to close up and come to meet us at her house so that she could introduce me to them as their new boss. This was duly done.
At the house, the four of us discussed the plan for the shop. By the end of the meeting, the two ladies made it clear that they wouldn’t take orders from a youngster like me with no experience of running a greengrocer’s business. They delivered the ultimatum that if she employed me they wanted their “cards”. She said they could have their cards and so they left the work and I had to make a fresh start. I tried to do a stock take but found no records or inventory in the shop. I set about making the first one of all the display trays and other unused furniture, fixtures and fittings. I cleaned and repaired the shop, sold off all the furniture and fixtures that were surplus to requirements and took on two new staff from my church congregation nearby. I loved the responsibility of running things, travelling to Covent Garden and other sources of produce to sell in the shop. Over the next few months, I reorganised the business so successfully that Mrs Gratton wanted to leave it all to me in her will. However, on Mr Bicknell’s advice, (I had to make my own decision), knowing that I did not want to spend my life as a greengrocer, I declined her kind offer.
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