My first home in London was in Tooting SW17. It was one of the houses that the elder Munroe brothers had invested their Pools winnings in. 69 Oakburn Road was a neat, clean little house with a small front garden almost completely filled by a great box hedge. Entering the front door into the hallway, there was a front room to the left, a separate dining room and a long galley kitchen leading off that to the rear. A large walk-in pantry was at the end of the kitchen. The back door opened onto a small concrete yard with a vegetable patch the length of the right hand side. That was the only access to the outside toilet which was at the back of the pantry. The kitchen window looked out over the small garden which was dominated by an old air-raid shelter.
The front hallway took you up a flight of stairs to the landing. One of the bedroom doors was immediately opposite the top stair and next to that, a bathroom with toilet, washbasin and a gas fired geyser for hot water. Left, along a narrow passageway, was a second bedroom on the right and another straight ahead. The airing cupboard was on the left. It was a very small house compared to the enormous Manse we had been living in back in British Guiana. I now had to share a room with mum Munroe because I had to look after her.
Within a week, the family had all settled in. The adults were looking for work and joining evening classes. I had to wait till the end of the Easter holidays before I could enrol in my first school in England: Franciscan Junior School in Tooting. It was across the road from our house, so I would later be able to jump over the fence to get into school every day instead of walking up the road to the proper entrance gate.
On my errands to get shopping and papers or take the laundry to the launderette, I met up with young boys and girls my age. They were all white. They were all very friendly and asked me which school I was going to go to. “Franciscan Junior School,” I said. This was their own school so they were really pleased. They told me that there were separate schools for boys and girls on the same site and that the boys’ entrance was on our street while the girls’ entrance was on Franciscan Road.
During the holidays before enrolment, I was invited to Church where I joined the Sunday school and the Lifeboys. Many of the children I met at these places invited me home to have tea or to their birthday parties. They would take me with them for picnics on Tooting Bec Common or to the Funfair at Tooting Bec and Mitcham Fair. They helped me to join the library. At other times we would visit the running track and sports fields at Tooting Bec. I was never short of company or friends in any way and was welcomed with open arms by all the young children in the area. We were the first black family to settle in that part of London and from my perspective the welcome we got was second to none. I couldn’t wait for school to start.
World War Two was a recent event and all of my teachers had lived through its horrors. They took us to visit construction sites and to see the reconstruction of old bombsites in our lessons with Mr Brewer, the Technical Drawing, metal work and woodwork teacher. All of us had to help with clearing the bombsites and all work was unpaid. No one complained about this. It was our duty to help rebuild the capital. In those days there were no worries about health and safety or child labour issues in such activities. We all enjoyed our day out of school and mixing with elderly people and war survivors as they told us about their experiences of the war. Their main focus was on the food, the fun and the community spirit but they rarely mentioned the deaths and injuries they must have witnessed. Local bakers donated bread and jam and doughnuts for us to eat as a reward after our work finished.
My primary school friend Ernie Kidd once invited me home with him. I was shocked to see how he lived. There were blankets pinned to the windows for curtains. Instead of wardrobes, string was stretched between nails on the walls with clothes hanging from it. The floors were bare and the only furniture was an old table top propped up by bricks for legs. There was a tin tub for a bath and for laundry and wet clothes were hanging up to dry inside the house. They used to collect orange boxes and cardboard boxes from the market to make into storage for the few possessions they had. He told me that his dad and granddad had both been killed in the war and while the women and children had been evacuated, their street and house had been bombed. When they returned after the war, they had nowhere to live but because they owned the land, they had to rebuild their own house from the rubble. This took them years on the wages paid in those days. Meanwhile they struggled to live in these terrible conditions. At school, most of my class lived in similar conditions. I felt so sorry for him and also very glad that I did not have to live like that.
If you are interested to read more posts like this, to find out how I coped with life as a migrant child in Tooting and how I came to Join the British Army, click on the “Follow” pop-up link at the bottom right hand corner of this page and sign up to follow me. If you do, you will receive an automated email alerting you each time I add to this blog so you will not miss the next installment