Moving to Letchworth
By Eric Fitton


There were so many people unemployed at that time in Oldham it was classed as a ‘Distressed Area’.  Out of work youths congregated on street corners (they became known as the Corner Boys) with nothing better to do than kick a football or play Pitch and Toss, they would often get up to mischief to relieve boredom so causing nuisance and annoyance.  Various schemes were thought up to combat this, one of the most successful being the renovation of Oldham Cricket ground.  The men would be given meals for the work they did on the ground, they could not be paid, officially, as this would have jeopardised their seven shillings and sixpence per week unemployment benefit (known as dole money). People who had been out of work for a specified length of time qualified to attend ‘Training Centres’, which had been set up by the Government, in various parts of the country.  Ernest who had been out of work the required length of time met the criteria, was selected and went to Letchworth to be trained, as an engineering fitter, at the Ascot G T C in Pixmore Avenue.  These trainees were lodged with local families, very often sleeping four or more to a room and being fed in the Centre canteen.  Many of the youths at the centre became unpopular with local residents, away from parental control and money in their pockets for the first time in years there was a tendency to have a few beers on pay days.  There were many lads from South Wales (another distressed area) in training there and every time one of them got a job they used to form up and start to sing.  I understand this used to irritate the other lads and often caused fights.  One of the most famous of these Welsh boys was Tommy Farr who later became British Heavyweight Boxing Champion but whether he took part in the singing or the fights I never heard.  Local girls who became friendly with them were looked down on and got nicknames like “Ascot Lil”.   Soon after Ernest arrived in Letchworth a job vacancy arose at the local Co-op for a baker’s deliveryman, which he successfully applied for, terminated his engineering training and was pleased to lose his Ascot boy stigma.  The idea of working for the Co-op (Stores), regarded as a ‘job for life’ was heaven to anyone who had lived in an area of high unemployment and had not had a job for three years.  He and two other deliverymen had board and lodgings with the tenant of a four bedroom council house and had the luxury of a bedroom each.  On his first trip home to Oldham he told us of this wonderful new gadget his landlady had, which enabled her to boil water on the sideboard.  It was 1935 and electric kettles were coming on the market.

Ernest saved, from his £2.18s. (£2-90p in to-days money) wages per week, £25 with which he paid the deposit on a house and this enabled us, in August 1936, to migrate south and join him.  Father, who had been unemployed in Oldham for five years, got a job immediately at Kryn and Ley the local foundry, earning one shilling an hour, £2.8s. (£2-40p) per week of 48 hours. One of the first things we got for our new house was an electric kettle, it was not bought but rented, at two pence per week, from the First Garden City Limited.  In 1940 FGCL decided it was no longer economic discontinued this rental and they were offered for sale. We bought ours for about two shillings and sixpence.  In 1960, it was still in good working order when I gave it to my sister.  To transfer my scholarship, from Lancashire County Council to Hertfordshire County Council, could have been arranged but would have cost £100, plus of course the cost of new school uniform etc. an impossible sum to find.  So in 1936 my education ended at 14 years of age.   This was unfortunate because leaving a Grammar school at 14 I was a long way behind the boys who left Elementary schools at that age.  I had spent two years learning French and German, not long enough to be really proficient but that time had not been spent on maths and that would have been more use to me. Some years later when in the RAF I realised again the shortcomings in my education.  German prisoners of war were used to assist us in the kitchens at RAF Warton and I found that although I knew all the correct grammar and tenses of their language, I could even sing the Christmas Carol Stille Nacht ----(Silent Night) in German, my colleagues with three words -----Machen (make)---- Zie(you) ---- Krank (sick or bad) could get just as much work out of them.

Letchworth was a wonderful place designed by Ebenezer Howard who had stipulated that every house had to have a garden and a fitted bath, so there was no need for tin baths in front of the fire.  However there were some strange ways of complying with this rule.  Howard Cottage Society, the biggest landlord in the town, installed the baths in the kitchens and put a hinged wooden lid on the top.  This lid served as a work surface when the bath was not in use and as the general practice was to bath only once a week, the lid got more use than the bath.  This weekly event also applied to washing hair and an advertisement for a Shampoo for Ladies Hair had a popular catch phrase “Friday Night is AMAMI Night” which appeared on posters and bill boards for many years.  The plumbing, to these kitchen and to baths, in early council house bathrooms was the “Donnelly System”, unique to Letchworth and a nightmare to all except the most skilful of maintenance men. When properties were modernised in the 1970’s, a system was taken for use as an exhibit at the local museum and a highly polished brass and copper miniature was made by the workforce, as a present for the Housing Manager, Harold Brightwell, who retired at that time.  Water heated by a back boiler was piped to the kitchen sink, a separate lever was then used to re-route it to the bath, and it was not possible to control it from the bath.  Fun and games could be had by naughty boys, or other sadists, who would operate it from the kitchen, to send cold water to the bath when someone was in it.

I got a job as a van-boy, in the grocery department of the Co-op.  The van I worked on was a travelling shop serving the outlying areas of Letchworth and the villages. My job was to try to persuade people to come out to van to purchase groceries.  Most of them preferred to give me the order at the door and for me to bring their goods to them so I was kept running up and down garden paths all day, which kept me pretty fit.  Most of my customers could be conned into thinking they were special because I remembered their co-op number and this did help sales.  I doubt if any of them realised that I had written it in very small figures on their door posts. In those days we used to have Thurston’s Fair visit Letchworth on Icknield Way and Hitchin on Butts Close a couple of times each year.  It was noticeable that our sales of food in Glebe Road near Icknield Way and Westmill near Butts Close were much lower when the fair came.

When I was about 16 years old I became friendly with Bill Judge who worked in a grocery shop and one Saturday we decided to go on a railway outing to Southend-on-Sea.  The tickets cost two shillings and four pence and for this we got the return journey to Southend, about seventy miles each way and free admission to the Kursall pleasure gardens, including the dance hall.  We had both worked for five hours Saturday morning then caught the train at 4pm arriving in Southend  about 5.30.  Enjoyed ourselves for a while and then went to the dance where we got friendly with two girls from London who were on a similar trip to us.  After the dance finished we caught our train home, arriving back in Letchworth at about 4.30am Sunday morning.  Two hours sleep then we got on our bikes and cycled some thirty odd miles to Harlesden in North London to see these two girls again.  Spent the day walking round Kew Gardens with them and then cycled back to Letchworth arriving in the early hours of Monday to start work at 8am.  Thinking back on this, I can’t imagine any of to-day’s youths doing anything like it, they are far too sensible.  Still we enjoyed it at the time although it probably put us off the girls as we never contacted them again.

I joined the Church Lads Brigade and stayed with them for a few months but left and joined the Boys Brigade when it was founded in Letchworth in 1937.  As I was the only boy who could play a bugle I was immediately made Sergeant/Bandmaster and given the job of teaching others to play bugles.  Somehow or other I managed it and again ran into trouble with neighbours, this time of North Avenue and Common View where we held band practices in the Church Hall.  It was about this time that I met and started ‘courting’ Jean.  Our meeting took place when I had a date with another girl and we went for a walk together.  On the way home this girl introduced me to her friend Jean and the next day in the town I got caught up in the hundreds of girl workers coming out of the Spirella corset factory.  Jean was one of them and the smile she gave me was enough for me to drop my previous date and from then on it was Jean only.  We used to go to dances at the Co-op Hall or to the Cinema on Saturday nights and for cycle rides evenings and weekends, often to Bedford to hire a boat and row up and down the river there.  Simple pleasures but we enjoyed them.   One of these Bedford outings was a group effort with eight of us, four boys and four girls and we carried picnic lunches with us.  We rode two abreast and the first disaster took place at Clifton when the two leaders fell off and the rest of us piled on to them.  Plasters and Iodene were bought from a chemist in Shefford, we patched up the injured and proceeded on our way.  At Bedford we hired two boats and off we went up the river and found a nice spot for our picnic.  Then came calamity number two.  Three couples had taken sandwiches and cakes but Bill had decided to do it better and brought tinned strawberries and tinned cream.  Standing on the bank he opened the strawberries, put them in a dish, passed them down to the boat and slipped.  One poor girl in a lovely white skirt finished up with a lap full of bright red strawberries.  Quite an eventful day.

Cycling was good in those days, very few cars on the roads, all cyclists greeted each other as they met and eventually Jean and I bought a tandem that enabled us to travel further and faster on our rides.  One evening on the way back from Bedford, we had reached Clifton (obviously becoming our bogey village) about 8 or 9 miles from home when the chain broke. In order to get home as quickly as possible I put Jean on the front to steer, gripped the saddle pillar and ran, pushing her and the tandem all the way to Letchworth.  When we reached Jean’s home I was completely worn out and there was her mother hanging out of the window yelling at me for keeping her daughter out till that time of night.

With Ernest’s job, bread was delivered to customers fresh every day six days per week and he had a boy to help out on Saturdays as that was the day he collected cash, also customers bought extra to cover for Sunday. On the Easter Bank Holiday roundsmen would start work at 2am to ‘bag up’, then deliver Hot Cross Buns. I at 14 years of age would help Ernest on this early morning delivery, as he would allow me to drive his van.  Luckily we never got caught, neither did we get found out on the delivery to one customer who lived on Hitchin Road.  Her order was 2 bags of ordinary and 1 bag of ‘extra spicy’ buns.  Only one kind of bun was ever made so we used to put one bag to one side of the front door and two bags on the other side.  I did this on Good Friday for each of the three years I helped Ernest and there was never any complaint. The Co-op ‘dividend’ (the amount returned to members, calculated on the amount of purchases) was nine-pence in the pound in Letchworth.  In Oldham it was two shillings and sixpence.  Mother was highly delighted, father in work and two sons working for ‘the Stores’.  Jobs for life she thought.  With money coming in she was able to send regular payments back to Oldham to settle our debts to the doctor.  She had suffered from Asthma for many years and I believe the doctor’s bills were quite considerable.  Letchworth Garden City however was not the ideal place for her with that complaint and the last five years of her life were a long struggle with illness till she died in 1941.  She spent some weeks in Mount Vernon Hospital Rickmansworth and I, with my girl friend Jean, used to go every weekend on our tandem to visit her, a return distance of 88 miles.


The War Years

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Copyright Eric Fitton © 2008 page last updated 30/09/2008 16:05