VANISHED GLORIES OF A GENTLER ERA IN BROMPTON
permission of Stephen Raynor
is a comparatively new settlement that was founded to house
the Dockyard workers. It evolved from Brompton; indeed it
was originally called New Brompton.
part of Brompton has effectively ceased to exist, as Frances
E Rudge, now living in Southend, relates:
in 1984, my sisters and I returned to Old Brompton for a visit
we could not believe our eyes, for with the exception of the
four public houses, the hardware store, the Conway Hall and
part of the Holy Trinity School, the whole of Brompton as
we knew it between 1920 and 1934 had vanished.
and the Holy Trinity church were gone. Westcourt and Middle
Streets together with Wood Street and its high-railed walls
were all turned into a neat estate with not a soul in sight,
not even a dog!
estate had made inroads on the Brompton side of the Greet
Lines where we played as children. My father was in the Navy
when I was born at the naval nursing home in Gillingham in
1920 after which my mother returned with me to 50 Wood Street,
Old. Brompton, a Georgian house covered in Virginia creeper.
I well remember the porcelain bell pull on a wall of the large
front room we occupied. I was followed in swift succession
by two sisters.
years I attended Holy Trinity infants school. This was
reached at the end of a narrow railed lane; I enjoyed every
day at this school, at the end of which we children would
linger at the forge which stood at the beginning of the lane
and watch with fascination as the blacksmith shoed a horse,
holding a handkerchief to our noses for we hated the smell
of the horn as it sizzled and sent out smoke when the hot
shoe was applied to the horses hoof. The smithy disappeared
in the early 1930s.
child I thought the Holy Trinity Church a lovely church and
remember clearly the lantern slides at Easter and Christmas;
on Good Friday each child received a hot cross bun. Sunday
school classes were held in the Conway Hall; having a stage,
the hall was also the venue for school plays and Christmas
tea parties (given jointly by the vicar and teachers), Brownie
meetings and presentation of prizes. I was delighted to find
it was still there in 1984.
from the High Street, we finally settled in a cottage at the
foot of Westcourt Street overlooking a disused team yard.
had no garden we children played in the street, but in summer
it was always the Great Lines we rushed to a vast expanse
covered with grass and fragrant clover where sheep also grazed.
reached to Gillingham on one side and Chatham Hill on the
other. The large war memorial stood at the top of the hill
down which we would roly-poly all the way to the gates of
grazed on the Lines, and we experienced several exciting moments
when a Tiger Moth plane touched down and the pilot clambered
out complete with leather helmet and goggles.
were held there and school sports. Two sounds when heard today
take me instantly back to the Lines a lark singing
as it rises higher and higher toward the sky and the bugle
boys of the Marines and Army endlessly rehearsing the Last
Post and Reveille. We children would roll in the lovely cool
clover and listen to these summer sounds.
and I attended the Holy Trinity School for Girls. There were
three other schools in Old Brompton at the time: The Wesleyan,
the Roman Catholic and the Garrison School in the Army barracks.
weekday morning at 6 oclock the dockyard bells would
ring, summoning workers to the docks. The summers saw crowds
visiting the docks during Chatham Navy Week and of course
all the locals, especially we children, crowded the pavements
when the Royal Marines left for two-and-a-half years
service abroad, their columns preceded by a smart band in
all its glory with gleaming musical instruments and bandsmen
complete with white helmets. We never failed to be thrilled
by this parade as we followed to the gates; in the parade
would be a column of artificers commonly called Tiffy
were the bands naval and military during our childhood in
Brompton. There was always something of interest; the word
bored was never in our vocabulary.
High Street had a number of shops to cater for our needs.
I remember well two grocers Friends and Summers, opponents
in the local elections. We all patronised these, and there
were also the Army and Navy Stores, but they were exclusively
for officers and their wives, many of whom lived in officers
quarters in Mansion Row.
was Simmons the baker where we could buy a pennyworth of broken
biscuits and what a lot we got as we munched them happily
on our way to the Lines. Thorntons was our tobacconist and
near the Wood Street end stood Coppers the fishmonger, whom
we would watch unloading enormous blocks of ice and with a
hasty dash to be the first to pick up chips of ice that had
fallen from the blocks, soon to melt in our hands. I can almost
smell today the delicious aroma of Mrs Finchs pease
pudding and faggots.
the greengrocer in Middle Street stood the only butcher in
Brompton with an abattoir at the back, reached by an
alley that ran from Wood Street through Middle Street to Westcourt
a week, cattle would be driven along the High Street made
to turn right into Middle Street, the cows, with heads held
high and nostrils quivering, could smell the slaughterhouse,
and naturally, would try to run away. We children experienced
a vicarious thrill when we saw the cows, and would rush into
Twyfords the drapers the moment we heard their hooves
pounding the road and sometimes the pavement in their attempt
to escape. We then watched with bated breath until the last
of the terrified animals was coaxed into the abattoir from
where they could be heard moaning piteously.
the Holy Trinity School were officers tennis courts;
we earned many a sixpence retrieving balls that had been lobbed
too high. Sixpence was worth earning in those days and was
very often surrendered to our parents, for employment wages
were then very low. It is incredible to believe now that sixpence
bought steak (3d), two pounds of best King Edward potatoes
(three halfpence) with the other three-halfpence going on
a savoy cabbage...
top of this road, past the vicarage, was my favourite haunt
in late spring a small meadow. My friend and I called
it our buttercup and daisy field; military horses
grazed here no doubt accounting for the lovely long
stems the flowers had we couldn't wait to crawl through
a hole in the fence, feeling the long cool grass on our bare
legs as we waded through to pick the huge buttercups and long-stemmed
daisies as fast as we could and hurriedly make our escape,
for we were trespassers and often saw Red Caps patrolling
was much to attract children in and around Brompton, many
walks which children today wouldnt dare take. On hot
summer days, my sisters and I would walk all the way to the
Strand, or Causeway as it was called, taking sandwiches and
lemonade made with powder bought for a penny a bag.
we would be hungry after a long walk and a spell in the swimming
pool, we would walk through the Army barracks and cheekily
ask the guard on duty for some bully biscuits.
once were we refused. These biscuits were about three inches
square, the colour of a dog biscuit and extremely hard. Not
for nothing were they called iron rations! They had to be
sucked first to soften them, so they lasted, all the way home.
Needless to say they were very good for our teeth.
were seasons in those days, and in the cooler weather out
would come the whips and tops, a great favourite with both
boys and girls. Little traffic passed through Middle Street,
so we could play with safety in the street, for we had no
and tops had to be played on a hard surface. While girls usually
had a carrot or a squat slowcoach
top, the boys favoured the dreaded window breaker
a very fast-moving top that seemed to leap in the air
when the boss gave it a mighty thwack with a thin
leather strip. It earned its name: if played too near a house
it would occasionally smash a pane.
was not a dreaded season for children, for on Saturday afternoons
we were allowed to go to the tuppenny crush at
the Invicta cinema in Gillingham. However, we had to earn
our tuppence. This meant running errands for elderly neighbours
and, in the case of girls, wheeling babies in their prams
with strict instructions not to allow them to lie on their
tummies or sit them up.
was no orderly queue outside the cinema in those days, just
a mass of boys and girls. The crush came when the side doors
were opened and boys at the back heaved and pushed forward
often crushing us girls against the wall. One unfortunate
girl fell, causing quite a panic; once inside, boys would
throw peanut shells at the girls. Fresh roasted peanuts could
be bought for a hapenny outside the cinema and were
were varied. In the early days there was always a cowboy serial
with Tom Mix or Ken Maynard; for the girls it was the glamour
of the Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler musicals that set our hearts
racing. We would walk home singing some of the songs from
those wonderful films, and where there was space
we would form a line kicking our legs up high and imagine
we were a chorus line.
of the girls in summer wore white canvas plimsolls or sandals
that needed constant cleaning with a white blanco block. This
expense was spared however, as we were asked, when playing
on the Great Lines, to bring home large pieces of chalk. Once
washed this was every bit as effective as blanco for whitening
canvas shoes. For some reason, this was a chore we enjoyed.
in and around Old Brompton bore evidence of the chalk hills
of Kent, with the hopscotch numbers children that drew heavily
on the paving stones.
our bedroom window could be seen the River Medway and the
beautiful red sails of the sailing ships and barges etched
against the evening sky with Rochester Castle in the background.
On foggy days we would hear the foghorns on the river. This
was one of the first sounds, together with the dockyard bells,
that I missed when I left Old Brompton in 1934.
you, Mrs Rudge. Your last paragraph in particular will bring
many nods of approval from readers.