Christmas is a special time… even in what might now been described as poor or deprived childhoods. It made families stronger, closer and happier. The period often defined our communities and increased the importance of families and friends.
In the “island” communities in and around the Royal Docks, traditions were established and very much remain today, according to those who still live or lived in the area.
It was a time when workers took a short break from their daily toil. Yet the very places they worked in played a massive part in creating the Christmas spirit. Local factories knew what it meant to give the children of struggling families a special treat.
Having spent the last month speaking to scores of people, the first thing they pointed out from the 50s, 60s and 70s, was the lack of anything to do with Christmas in the shops before December!
“Now it begins in September,” said Sukhdev Kullar, who still runs a store in Silvertown, where he has spent all of his life.
Laura Grainger said: “Harrods have their Christmas card delivery in July now, and the supermarkets start selling Christmas goods before summer is finished.”
Friend Ron Deljit, who runs one of North Woolwich’s two remaining pubs, the Henley Arms, told the first of many amusing Christmas yarns, when he revealed how as a youngster the family became attached to Harry the chicken as their family pet over four months. Unfortunately, Harriet as she was re-Christened, ended up as Christmas dinner!
When preparations started, the creation of home-made decorations seemed to be a thing many remembered. As a seven-year-old Audrey Trott remembered: “Making paper chains for what seemed like days and getting the glue feeling on your tongue for ages as we made more and more of them. I can almost still taste it now.”
In later years, the decorations became bigger and brighter. Woolworths led the way with tinsel, cards and special decorations. Cuffs store across the River Thames in Woolwich was a big attraction, and they had a Father Christmas in store.
“The smallest of things were wrapped up and put in pillow case that was hung on the end of the bed while you were asleep on Christmas Eve,” said Terry Myers, now 75, who lived in North Woolwich. Oranges, apples, combs, there were any number of surprises to upwrap. Cox’s orange pippins, and nuts were a favourite. “And dates,” said Josie Webb. “They were hanging about in the house for what seemed like months.”
“And no matter what it took, we always had a real Christmas tree,” said John Grainger. “There were needles about for weeks afterwards as they were a bugger to hoover up, but that made it real. After Christmas we re-planted the tree in the garden in Rhea Street, North Woolwich, or at my nan’s in Auberon Street, hoping it would re-grow, but it never did.
Josie begged to differ. “Our always did, perhaps we had the golden touch! And trees ALWAYS had a fairy on top, said Josie.
Laura said candy cones hooked on the tree were her favourite tree decoration.
For many, it seems the happiest memories were from the 50s, 60s and 70s.
In the days leading up to the big one, children would have parties at their schools including Drew Road, Silvertown and Elizabeth Street or Storey Street in North Woolwich.
Those things have remained the same. Nativity plays, carol concerts, and a special school Christmas dinner, though many of them are now more multi-faith as the local community has changed.
Children so looked forward to the parties staged at local factories for the youngsters of workers. They realised how much it meant to families struggling to make ends meet. Among those in the Royal Docks area were at Tate & Lyle, Ranks, Standard Telephone and Cables, Loders and Nucoline, John Knights, Henleys and Printar Industries (PR Chemicals).There was no charge to workers.
Lorraine Stevens enjoyed the parties at Tate & Lyle, were her mum Joan worked. She recalled how she used to queue up for presents in the “older section” for kids at Tate’s parties. “The presents were much better!” she said. “If you pretended you were a year older you got a better gift.”
Stan Dyson went to the Tate & Lyle parties in the 50s “with my young sister Kathy and two brothers John and Roger.” He added: “Back in 1954 I ended up sitting next to and becoming friends with Canning Town child film star Jenny Jones.”
Stan said: “I loved Christmas so much. It was lovely going shopping with mum to Rathbone Street to see all the lights and the market traders were so friendly to everyone. I had favourite records at the time and would ask them to play music for me on the record stall and they did. Mum would buy a chicken on Christmas Eve as we could not afford a turkey.”
John Martin, now living in Noarlung Downs, South Australia, said: “We lived in tough times, but we always had the Tate & Lyle party to look forward to. One year I even got a Brylcreem dispenser and tub of Brylcreem!”
Angela Lewington said: “I always envied the Tate & Lyle kids. We went to the parties organised by Standard Telephones. My brother always seem to get a John Bull printing set!”
Seasonal trips to the panto were run by some firms. Valerie Wernham said: “I always used to go to the parties organised by Pinchin & Johnson, We were often taken to see panto as well.” Others told of trips to the circus in the run up to Christmas.
West Ham MP Lyn Brown said: “Christmas traditions in our family have changed over the years as we have lost and gained people. My mum worked at Tate’s and my dad at Aluminum Foils , so my sister and I went to parties at both firms.”
Brian Cook recalls how he got a “super speedboat” from Tate and Lyle’s party in the 60s.
Children were always smartly dressed at the factory parties. Many locals in the Royal Docks area worked at Ford’s plant in Dagenham,
“Ford always had decent presents. We looked forward to it. I had a smashing tennis racket one year,” recalled Lesley Quirk as a ten-year-old.
Workers were usually given a Christmas bonus to help cover the cost of providing a proper family Christmas.
With many fathers finishing work early on Christmas Eve, when Lesley grew up in the 60s and 70s, she remembers her father Tom’s routine,…the same most years!
“My dad Tom would go to The Ram pub in West Silvertown and come out merry and then he’d go to Rathbone Market shops near our home in Canning Town and buy my mum Grace some jewellery at the last minute and presents for my brother and I.”
But a lot of familes would have saved all year via the “Christmas Club”, like the ones run by George Miles, the butcher in North Woolwich or Wyatts the greengrocer.
“Many of the presents were bought from Woolworths in Barking Road, Canning Town, or Staddons at the Abbey Arms in Plaistow or in Rathbone Market, “ said Lesley.
People saved up all year round via Provident loan or or via other loan clubs, or even collected Green Shield stamps all year and then suddenly went out on a spending spree.
Many in North Woolwich and Silvertown walked through the pedestrian tunnel or caught the Woolwich Ferry to go to the bigger shops in Woolwich to buy the gifts or caught a bus to East Ham or Canning Town to buy gifts.
“There were no fridges in those days, just a larder,” remembered Sheila Grainger. Pam Wellman agreed: “We did the shopping every day going to the butchers and greengrocers to keep everything as fresh as possible.”
If the loan club had paid out enough, the money may have been used to buy a winter coat, said Pam. There might even have been a visit to London to Selfridges if the budget stretched that far.
Christmas was a time for looking smart. Keeping clean and smart meant an extra visit to the public baths, next to where the Henley Arms still stands. “Not many people had a bathroom, there were mens’ and ladies’ nights and the women bathed with the children.
“The shout would often ring out “more hot water in number 6”. I remember the taps were very wide and water came gushing out. There was a big stick to disinfect the baths after, “ said Audrey.
There might also be some unexpected “unofficial” bonuses for families. Stories of dockers bringing home anything from meat to fruit they had smuggled out of the docks were legendary. The local cigarette factory Phillip Morris and Tate & Lyle also had employees take “more than a few items” home to help with the Christmas celebrations. Women would stuff the material inside their underwear and the men found novel ways of taking out contraband.
Lorraine said: “One year dad came from the docks and we thought he was going to die. His collar and shirt was covered in blood and he seemed distressed. It was only when he told us how he had smuggled meat wound around his neck that the full story emerged. We had steak as well that Christmas!”
* Pictures credit: With thanks to Tate & Lyle Sugars Ltd, Brian Cook, Julia Myers, Stan Dyson and the Grainger family
Watch for part two of Christmas traditions coming shortly in the Forgotten Stories series.