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Memories of Norwood

Eric Chapman recounts life in West Norwood

I was born in the summer of 1925, at 10 Penrith Place, West Norwood, and I suppose my awareness of my home town really starts from 1930. Therefore I have strong (if youthful) recollections of the whole of the 1930s - at least of my perception of that period in the West Norwood of yesteryear.

Eric ChapmanMy earliest recollections are of trams - that is the 33, 48 and 78 trams that clanged noisily up and down the high street. For some reason, buses don't seem to figure so clearly in my memory of that period - perhaps it was because they were quieter, rubber-tyred, and petrol-engined, whereas trams were very noisy - steel wheels on steel rails, and powerful electric motors whining with changing pitch as the driver, always standing, notched the brass-handled controller up and down. I was particularly fascinated by the rail layout, and how the points worked, which sent trams along different sets of rails. All in all, this was a typical boy's reaction to mechanical things!

As a teenager, I recall placing penny coins on the track, noting with pleasure how flattened they became after the trams had passed over them! This is a good indication of the level of ordinary traffic at that time - that a young lad could with ease walk out to the middle of the road without any danger! I could never imagine that trams would one day be taken out of service - such a permanent feature had they become in London. These red monsters lived in the tram depot (now I believe, the bus garage) in West Norwood, where in the ill-lit interior, I used to watch entranced as the overhead pick-up arms sparked vivid blue flashes as it made intermittent contact with the electricity supply.

On one memorable day, when my mother was taking me by tram somewhere - probably to Brockwell Park - where my taxi-driving father spent most of his time on the Herne hill cab rank, - to my great delight, a brand new design of tram appeared, where, strangely, the driver was actually sitting down. It seemed much bigger that all the others I had seen, but the greatest surprise was that it was painted blue! A blue tram - whatever next? Had London Transport gone mad, I wondered? But no, the transformation didn't last long, and soon all trams were painted in their normal colour again. (This was probably a 'Feltham' tram from the Streatham routes, given a different coat of colour). All the time, I was conscious of mists and fogs, now known to have been caused by coal fires, and sometimes they were so thick, it was not possible to know exactly where one was. Strangely, in those days, parents didn't have to even think about the safety of their children. Society, maybe through reasons of religion, and stricter codes of behaviour, seems to have wanted an ordered society where such things were not part of the code of living.

Another strong memory was the opening of the Regal cinema, in Norwood road, in January 1930. This was to a young child an amazing fairy-land palace. Not only was the front of the building lit by bright neon tubes, but the whole outside of the cinema seemed to be ablaze in a golden light. Inside were more magical things: superbly wrought stucco designs, mock fountains, incredible suspensions hanging from the ceiling, and above all, so many lights in red, green and blue! I quite believed the pictures were coming from behind the screen, until the beam of light coming from a little hole at the back of the cinema, was pointed out as the source of the picture! Incidentally, why was a massive 'safety screen' raised and lowered at each performance - I mean who was it protecting, after all, any danger was coming from the projector box, with its inflammable film!

The Regal

In those days the cinemas offered many other attractions apart from the two films on offer. All cinemas had a theatre organ, which during the intermission, rose on a sort of hydraulic ramp, so that all the audience could see the organist. Sometimes the word to the songs he was playing were projected onto the screen, so that everyone could join in the singsong! I recall such names as Phil Park, Vincent Collier, and Louis Mordish , all organists who played throughout the thirties. At the end of their performance, they would start to slowly disappear into the bowels of the cinema, their hands waving goodbye to the audience! (The Regal cinema has now been replaced, I believe with a 'B and Q' DIY store). Sometimes there were live stage shows, once including a circus with a lion! Mainly though, it was the so-called Regal Redheads, a line of dancing girls which provided a lively interruption to the programme. It mustn't be forgotten that the music hall was still not dead, and such shows would have been familiar to the audience.

Neither should it be forgotten that there was usually a newsreel, which was always interesting, especially if it showed a huge new ocean liner being launched. I believe I can remember (just) a silent film being shown in this cinema.

The Regal had its own publicity department, who produced a little pamphlet, showing which films were coming during the next four weeks. I recall that across two pages were printed one week's programme, with shots from each of the two films, or perhaps of the stars. Probably my main memory connected with the Regal was when "Snow White" arrived, and queues built up from the box office door, right round the corner and up an alley adjoing the cinema, then doubling back on itself and returning again to the high road, where it queued outside the shops!

I don't ever remember seeing such a long queue again at the Regal. In those days, there were commissionaires at all cinemas. They wore uniforms suggesting only those of the highest rank in one of the Services; they were festooned with gold braiding, lanyards, and wore military style caps. The phrase 'dressed in a little brief authority' springs to mind in connection with these incredibly dressed men. Each cinema had its own colour scheme - I believe the Regal's colours were green and gold. Their raison d'être was to control the queues, and they really came to life when a big film was being shown, stopping under-age youngsters (such as me) from gate- crashing, and allowing only so many patrons in at one time. In short, their word was absolute law.

So for many years, this was our main cinema, and I wouldn't like to guess how many films I saw there. Many years later, I would be standing amidst the demolished hulk of the building, taking a few photos of a cinema that had given me so much pleasure over such a long time.

The Regal

The Regal

The Regal

Yet there was another cinema - we called it the bug-hutch, and it was to be found right up Knight's Hill past West Norwood railway station on the other side of the road. perhaps to call it a cinema was stretching the imagination a little far - one had the feeling more of being at an amateur film show. I seem to remember cups of tea being available, but mostly I remember the suspicions that the place was less clean that it should be! Anyway, I saw quite a lot of adventure films there, and all for a penny or two! Beyond the 'bug-hutch' there was the Brotherhood Hall, where years later I remember playing the piano in a concert of music given by a music society. By then I had become a student at the Guildhall School of Music.

I mentioned Brockwell Park earlier, and recall how pleasant it was in the thirties (for all I know it might still be). There was a clock tower at the top of the hill, and a pond - or maybe it was a lake, and I think there might have been some aviaries - but it was a long time ago and I might be wrong about that. In that stretch of the main road which lies at the foot of the park, the tramlines converged into a single line track, and at some time a very bad accident is credited to have occurred at this point. I believe it happened during one of those pea-souper fogs we used to have in those days, when two trams both believing the single track was clear, advanced at the same time, producing the inevitable result.

I suppose the shops in West Norwood didn't figure much in my childhood; maybe a recollection of my mother chatting endlessly to friends she met in the high road, more particularly, an occasion where she met a neighbour outside a shop called Pugh's right next door to John Peed's seeds, where the pavement went right back. Inside this shop, which had amazing curved glass windows, was an incredible mechanical arrangement into which the salesman placed the customer's money and his bill, and then pulled down a chain. This sent the contents whizzing across the shop to the pay desk, where the clerk removed the money, stamped the bill, and sent it shooting back to the salesman, who then completed his sale. I never could understand what the motive power was for these contraptions, but I imagine the reason for them was something to do with removing temptation from an erring member of the sales staff!

Then there was a large furniture shop called Day's; the owner's son, John Day was in my class at school. But for me, my favourite was a bicycle/toy shop called Parke's, who always had a good stock of Hornby model railways, and at Christmas time it was a treasure trove of goodies! I bought my first toy 35mm projector from this shop, and it gave me hours of pleasure, little knowing that the film supplied with these toys were short lengths cut from actual cinema stock, and being made from cellulose nitrate, were very highly inflammable!

It wouldn't be right to leave West Norwood, without mention of the library - not the new one adjoining the cemetery, but the original one just up towards Knight's Hill, opposite St Luke's church (where in 1948 I married Margaret Upton from Tulsemere road, also with equally vivid - yet less long - memories of the area). Here, all books were bound in leather, presumably to preserve them from the continuing war and tear occasioned by so many borrowers, and they were to be found in very dark blues, greens and reds; quite beautiful, really, but they were so boring. As was the decor of the library - all done out in dark oak, I believe. There was a librarian here who became well known for his hair-style; although nearly bald, he had a few strands of black hair somehow brilliantined down towards the front of his head in a kiss-curl, producing a very strange appearance as he bent down to stamp one's book! It was in this library, too, before the outbreak of war, in 1938, that we all had to go to be fitted with our gas-masks.

By 1939, we were living in Glennie road, right at the top of the hill, having left Hitherfield road in 1937. My parents must have found the threat of war worrying, as with three children (I had two sisters) they must have understood fully what might be about to happen. At the start nothing happened, but later we were to have the 'flying bombs' and the V2's, one of which destroyed the church in Chatsworth road with a mighty explosion. Always after the railways, yet never actually hitting them, the bomb-damage in West Norwood remained for many years after the war. My wife has memories of a very big party at the Jewish Orphanage Home, celebrating the end of the war. I found myself working as a junior clerk in the TMC factory in Martell road, later moving to Rosendale road, where I remember the fall of France in June 1940. By 1942 I was working in Chappells of Bond street until my call up in 1943 (to the Royal Corps of Signals with which outfit I went over to Normandy for the D-day landings in 1944).

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