“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from his Memoir)
Sunday, 4 June 2017
The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam, 1904-1907 – growing up amid the Edmonton hurlyburly: Dickensian colour alongside London’s crazy modern-world expansion…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The Allies regrouped after the mixed fortunes of spring, especially the failed Nivelle Offensive which threw the French Army into disarray characterised by a wave of mutinies. In part, aiming to ease German pressure on the French while their new C-in-C Général Pétain took control, Field Marshall Haig launched a well-planned attack which became the Battle Of Messines (June 7-14).
Co-ordinated explosions of massive mines under the German lines followed by infantry advance under cover of a creeping artillery barrage saw British and Anzac forces advance on a nine-mile front, breaking out of the Ypres Salient, to take high ground from Ploegsteert to Mount Sorrel on the northwest frontier of Flanders. Unprepared, the Germans did summon reinforcements from further south, around Arras and the Aisne. The only drawback to the success of the first few days was a series of friendly-fire artillery foul-ups causing heavy casualties to both Anzac and British infantry near Blauwepoortbeek.
Around the Channel, relatively low-key exchanges continued with a daylight German bomber raid on Sheerness and Naval facilities around the Medway (June 5; 13 killed, six planes brought down) and a British bombardment of occupied Ostend on the same day.
Otherwise, among the Allies it was the Italians who had the toughest week. The 10th Battle Of The Isonzo ended (May 10-June 8) ended with five days of powerful counterattack by the Austro-Hungarian Army which took back almost all the gains the Italians had made with a steady and costly advance towards Trieste (casualties: 39,000 Italian, 33,000 Austro-Hungarian). Nonetheless, the Italian Army immediately began another attack – the Battle Of Mount Ortigara, on the Asiago Plateau in southern Trentino (June 10-25) – gathering 300,000 troops on a very narrow front. On the first day they took the mountain summit. Further, in northwest Greece, they took the town of Ioannina – from the Greeks, as part of their annexation of Albania.
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran [Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016] had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield – and told him he could take a break from the fighting until he was 19. He did so, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies training/marking time – and in Sam’s case dicing with meningitis and other battle-fatigue enhanced ailments – until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches once more… But for now the blog continues with themed childhood and teens material from the Memoir under the title The Making Of FootSoldierSam – because my father didn’t write enough about his year “off” in England to cover 1917 in weekly chunks (I can hardly blame him; writing in the 1970 he wasn’t really thinking about blog requirements)]
Last week, The Making Of Foot Solider Sam, 1902-1905 Uprooted 3, chose excerpts from the Memoir which showed how one consolation for living in poverty for Sam, aged four to seven, was that 1900s London was thronged with animals – draft horses everywhere pulling trams, cabs and tradesmen’s vehicles, sheep and cattle being herded to local butchers’ slaughterhouses. Sam was entranced… and got a little basic biological education without knowing it.
Now, with similar relish, he recalls and enjoys all the hustle and energy of the big city bursting outwards into the countryside which surround his district, Edmonton, then on the northern edge of urban development, the spirit of commercial adventure untrammelled – and not always succeeding as the lad realised (NB: my father wrote the early chapters in the third person, calling himself “the boy” and then “Tommy”):
‘Despite their lack of money, the children found much to excite them in the neighbourhood, especially the terrific activity on the nearby main road out of London**. Stacks of wooden blocks and pipes and tall, iron standards appeared, laying by the roadside. Work lasting several years began. Hordes of navvies with pick and shovel dug trenches and laid tramlines in a new road surface made with wooden blocks (replacing the granite chips which had previously done the job).
Following the roadworks led the children to explore further. Much open space lay beyond the new street they lived in; fields and market gardens, a farmhouse with a large barn and pigsty. Tommy liked all the natural smells. Temporarily, they lived at the very edge of the city.
They found brickfields… They watched as workers dug up clay and mixed it with water to form a thick mud they called “pug”, which they then moulded and baked. The manufacture all took place in the open air.
Then, among the tall grass of the fields around their school, they found kerbs and manhole covers laid at intervals along what had obviously been intended as a road. They learned that, during an earlier boom period encouraged by the extension of the suburban railway line, speculators put up street after street of cheap terrace houses. But the bubble burst and they abandoned the work at whatever point it had reached when the money ran out. You could still walk around streets they had completed, though “To Let” notices stood outside many of the houses. Someone told Tommy the rents ranged from about 6/6 to 8/6*** per week, low even for those times.
… Although their row of houses where the children lived had been completed and the drains and gas pipes laid, the builder still had to suspend operations from time to time – due to lack of money it seemed – and the road itself still hadn’t been made up. No footpath, no pavement, no lampposts, no surfaced road, just the rough ground. But the builder was a very nice man, Tommy thought. He’d supervise his men working on the houses at one end of the street, while at the other he collected the rents for the occupied houses.’
**Hertford Road, which started at Bishopsgate; later the A1010.
*** For post-decimalisation readers, 6/6 = 32.5p, 8/6 = 42.5p. To offer an inflation perspective, the Bank Of England calculator says £1 in 1904 would = £111.58 in 2016.
Now I’m moving on to “Tommy”/Sam’s tour of the neighbourhood, a magnificent passage I think bringing out both the expansionist dynamism of the area and its enduring connection with the Dickensian era of the 19th century. The characters, the knees-up fun, the drunken violence (even death), the poverty and opulence, the sights, the sounds, the stinks – all human life is here, recalled and described in fine and florid detail by a man writing in his 70s, remembering from when he was aged maybe six to eight or nine:
‘One afternoon, after quickly eating his lunch at home, Tommy set off for school, taking the route he could rely on to provide something of interest every day. He walked to the end of his street – itself almost made up now – to the main road where the navvies swung their picks, shovelled great lumps of earth aside, and manhandled tram rails and wooden blocks into place. To make their way towards the town square, pedestrians had to jump over various trenches which, for Tommy, only added to the excitement of what was going on.
A little way along, a row of small cottages had been converted into shops. You could buy all your requirements in one or other of them: a laundry, a fish shop, a confectioner, a barber, a cycle maker, general stores. Then you passed a large church, very big for that area, and a row of houses obviously occupied by middle-class families – who, only a few decades earlier, would have lived on the other side of the road, in The Crescent, a terrace of houses built early in the 19th century and adorned with ornamental stonework. Each house has its basement, two floors, and attics above. The servants of earlier days did their work in the basement and slept in the attics. Now families of comparatively poor people occupied The Crescent, but a shared garden laid out as part of this estate remained in front of the bowed terrace. It still bore some appearance of dignity.
After the middle-class houses, Tommy passed a blacksmith’s forge, horses coming in and out constantly. Children spent many happy hours watching the procedures there. The horse would be led in, the blacksmith would examine its hooves, and then start removing the shoe. He heated pieces of roughly shaped, thick metal. Holding the glowing, new shoe with tongs, he would try it out on the horse, then adjust it by reheating and hammering away. Sometimes the horn of the hoof had to be pared away a little. When the blacksmith had achieved a perfect fit, he heated the shoe again and nailed it to the hoof amid a cloud of tangy smoke. Tommy’s greatest thrill came from watching the blacksmith work the bellows until the fire roared while the black coals turned red, then bright orange and even white.
Re-crossing the road, another blacksmith’s place, more bellows, and then the piercing shriek of the circular saw in the wood mill next door assailed his ears as it cut trees into planks and planks into squares. He could only stand just so much of that noise.
A little further on he came to a huge pub. He always wondered at the size of this place. Why had it been built there? Behind it were fields and then Tommy’s school. A large square building, the pub had four floors, tall windows and ornamental stonework at the front. It must have been intended as a hotel, but in a small town with little wealth on the edge of London, who would use it? Probably another product of the short-lived speculation boom which left those abandoned and overgrown roads out in the fields. It must have shocked the people who built the hotel when they realised their customers were the rough-and-ready working classes.
Tommy often looked in and saw men sitting on the benches in there, smoking clay pipes and spitting on the floor. He’d inhaled the foul smell of stale tobacco, stale beer, and smelly humanity and it didn’t attract him in any way. But the pubs never seemed to shut – at least, when there was work around – serving from 4 or 6 in the morning until midnight. It was quite common to see men staggering drunk along the street at all hours****.
Once, as Tommy walked to school, he encountered a large crowd gathered outside the pub. Tommy squeezed his way in among them and saw a policeman down on the ground; a big man knelt over him, punching at him and then clamping his teeth onto the policeman’s ear – a feature of brawls in those days. Soon some bobbies who’d heard what was going on came running up, grabbed the big man, and arrested him, while a couple of them took their colleague off to hospital. Tommy heard later that the policeman died of the wound he sustained, no doubt from an infection. His assailant served a long term of imprisonment.
When the uproar faded, Tommy turned into a road made of railway sleepers which ran along one side of the pub and something else caught his eye. A dirty, unshaven man sat on the ground with his back against the rear wall of the pub yard, filling an old, clay pipe. Tommy paused to watch and realised he was packing it with horse dung. When the man looked at him, he ran off away past the brickfield and reached the school gates in safety.
Sometimes, on his way home from school in the late afternoon, when he came to the main road and the huge pub he would turn the other way, towards the general market area. He’d smell it long before he saw it; strong odours of meat, fruit, stale beer, piss… every dark corner had its deposit of human excreta, no public lavatories at that time. If it happened to be a Thursday afternoon, you could see the sheep coming up the busy road in the care of just one man and his dog, driving them to meet their fate in the butcher’s yard. Butchers in those days killed their own animals and the meat was really fresh and good. However, this particular butcher would buy his beef “on the horn”, as it was called, at Greenwich – slaughtered there. He ferried the carcasses back to his shop on a horse-drawn wagon.
This market area was triangular: on the left side, from Tommy’s direction, a row of shops selling foodstuffs and every household requirement – fishmongers, bakers, grocers, greengrocers, a pawnbroker. Facing them, across a wide paved footpath, a group of stalls also selling food, mainly cabbages and other greens from the market gardens nearby.
At the base of the triangle ran a single-track railway with level-crossing gates. This railway bisected many living areas, an heirloom of early bad planning. Oddly, a short stretch of track in the market place had been built on tiles and underneath them flowed a wide stream. Obviously, before they built the railway, this place had been a ford. The engineers had driven in piles to set the railway and a small station***** above the water — not always very sweet water either. Some people seemed to regard any stream near a town as the natural dumping ground for dead cats and other items for which they had no further use.
On the remaining side of the triangle (should you be getting lost: to Tommy’s right, that is, but in the far corner near the railway) stood an old coaching inn, untouched over several hundred years, with a cobbled yard at the side and, in the rear, an extensive stable. The innkeeper himself kept several horses, a few local people had one or two, and visiting circuses also made frequent use of the premises. In fact, the proprietor almost always wore riding breeches, red waistcoat, hacking coat and a bowler and did all his journeying around the neighbourhood on horseback. A very popular man.
A couple of doors along, father, sons and daughters ran an old-time family pharmacy – the shelves arrayed with bright blue and orange decanter-shaped containers. The premises served also as a large post office. Two of the sons had trained in dispensing medicines and their father oversaw everything, a venerable figure with his long, lean face, pointed beard and, invariably, a smoking cap (a sort of fez with a tassel on top).
While the pharmacy portrayed the respectable face of medicine, every market worthy of the name would have its resident quack, generally known as Doctor Brown. That name might cover a multitude of sins. Our Dr Brown was a fine figure of a man clad in a cutaway black coat, striped trousers, patent leather shoes and a tall silk hat on his head – proper morning dress – his fair moustache waxed to two long points. He looked clean, every inch a doctor, and the tale he told about the pills he sold, that was part of the weekend entertainment and a huge crowd would gather around him. According to their number, so the length of his story grew and, proportionately, the sales at the end of it. He gave value for money in pills, potions, and perorations and did very well indeed.
In the middle of the triangle was the old village green, as it had been before this small town became a botched urban district. Marked out by a low iron railing, it comprised a pond, a patch of grass, and a couple of may trees. On warm summer days the out-of-work and assorted idlers would sun themselves there, six or a dozen of them lying on their backs while, around them, the activity of the market went on.
This was a market of long standing and not just weekly, like many in the country. Most of the stallholders worked every day of the week except Sunday (a few on the coaching-inn side operated on Saturdays only). Although they held regular pitches, they had no licenses, no permits. Rather, they occupied their places by right of conquest. If you went along there at 4 in the morning you would see that a board or a trestle had been thrown on the ground at the site and a man or men guarded it. Later in life Tommy became quite deeply concerned with these people, but more of that later******.
As darkness fell, the shops around the marketplace lit up incandescent gas lamps, reasonably bright, none of the brilliance of electric lighting. The stallholders used paraffin flares — a can with a metal tube hanging from it and a burner at the bottom producing a flame about 18 inches high. It would have been very dangerous in an enclosed space. According to his wealth, each stallholder had one, two or three of these flares burning. This always attracted crowds on dark nights — the greatest numbers guaranteed on Friday nights when, as Tommy sometimes observed, the market’s character changed to a degree.
That was the night the workers drew their wages and a little more money than usual flowed into the tills of shopkeepers and stallholders who shouted their wares ever more vigorously to make themselves heard above the hubbub. Everybody with a few pennies to spend felt the pleasure and excitement of it. The publicans did well too, of course. Diagonally opposite the coaching inn, stood the market triangle’s second, less grand pub and on Fridays a throng would gather on the pavement outside both establishments, holding pint pots and talking until late into the evening.
This played a part in generating another of the market’s thriving businesses, operated by gentlemen offering funds to those who, during a hectic weekend, got through their wages, perhaps leaving no money to buy even food for the family until the next week’s pay arrived. On the Monday morning the procession from the sidestreets would begin, a ragged band making for the pawnbroker’s shop (adjacent to that second pub). Father’s best Sunday suit, mother’s best Sunday costume, even the children’s boots and shoes would go over the counter. The pawnbroker advanced a shilling or two on them. The hope was — and, generally, it did happen — that these goods would be redeemed the following Friday night, ready to be worn at the weekend.
Some women carried huge bundles to the pawnbroker’s shop, undoubtedly including sheets and blankets, which would be missing from the family’s beds for the week – if ill fortune befell them in the meanwhile, how were the children to be kept warm? How were the old people to be kept warm? Short of clothing, short of bedding, short of food during the worst part of the week until the man’s wages, to some extent, redeemed them…
Even so, many did survive on the tiniest of incomes, like Tommy’s family, keeping at least an outward appearance of what was called respectability. They frequently suffered deprivations in their home. But even in those circumstances they could still find energy and time to do a little to help others, as with church work. But the toll on nerves, the irritation, the bitterness, the feeling of instability and fear of even worse overtaking them often blighted the lives of people who were doing their best to keep things going under difficult circumstances. And of course the children often suffered the lash of the tongue or the slap of the hand, not always deserved.’
**** An online search suggests World War I brought about the restriction of licensing hours to 9am-11pm, then 10pm – although one source says the 1914 Defence Of The Realm Act tightened the permitted hours even further. The current much looser laws came in during the 1980s with further amendments in 2005.
***** My father doesn’t name it, but this must have been Lower Edmonton station, on Edmonton Green, opened 1872; the market grew up in the late 19th century alongside the working-class influx from London’s “inner suburbs”.
****** In fact, my father’s Memoir barely touched on his life after World War I, because he stopped in July, 1919, with the Peace parade celebrating the Treaty Of Versailles – not to mention 600 pages and 250,000 words under his belt. What he’s referring to is that he spent much of his working life post-WW1 as an Edmonton market trader (a draper) – a barrowboy – in partnership with younger brother Alf, until they moved on to a small shop.
Yet all sorts of things could make Sam feel a little less poor, a little less strait-jacketed by circumstances. Here, improbably, it’s new developments in street lighting:
‘Some months passed. On the main road the navvies had finished their work: tramlines put down and rather high standards erected with light fittings on the top of them. Arc lamps*******. The night they were switched on was the first time street lighting by electricity in that area had been attempted.
These lamps rely on two sticks of carbon fitted with a slight gap between them so that when a current passes through them it leaps the gap – the arc – and creates a bright light. Sometimes they work well and sometimes not at all. Sometimes they give a steady light and sometimes a flickering light. But the effect excited many people to take an evening stroll just for the sheer joy of seeing the lights and their road illuminated at night.
Tommy too felt something romantic, quite thrilling, about it all as he made his way to the marketplace and up the street to Mr Frusher’s******** house or the church. Very old, dingy buildings became interesting in this mauvish, pinkish light. So did people on the street. Their clothes could not be seen in detail, their faces took on an unusual colour, and they looked different – not the rough-and-ready folks he was used to seeing about.’
******* Arc lamps had been gradually introduced to London streets from 1878 onwards.
******** Mr Frusher, the vicar/choirmaster/Scoutmaster, music teacher – a mentor to the boys of the community, he figures extensively in two Making Of blogs later in June.
All the best – FSS
Next week: The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam, 1904-1912 – the diverse influence of school and teachers: from batty old Dizziba to the dynamic, heroic AE Page…
* In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.