A Child’s Eye View of Mitcham:1922-1934

Local History Notes 25: by Kathleen Watts

We are very grateful to Kathleen Watts for letting us publish her childhood recollections. Kathleen lived in one of the cottages which formed Berkeley Place, built on what had been Killicks Yard adjoining Berkeley House and Berkeley Cottage in London Road, Mitcham.

Review in MHS Bulletin 149 (Mar 2004)

Plan of the property in 1924.
Copyright Surrey History Service.
Reproduced by permission.
Plan of the property in 1924.
Copyright Surrey History Service.
Reproduced by permission.

Published by Merton Historical Society – February 2004

Further information on Merton Historical Society can be obtained from the Society’s website at
www.mertonhistoricalsociety.org.uk or from
Merton Library & Heritage Service, Merton Civic Centre, London Road, Morden, Surrey. SM4 5DX

A Child’s Eye View of Mitcham,
Kathleen Watts
Home, with my mother, older sister, three brothers and a
collection of cats, kittens and uninvited families of mice,
was for some years during the 1920s and 30s, a quaint,
rundown red brick cottage. It was in every practical sense
very uncomfortable to live in, halfway to derelict and not
too far off being condemned as unfit for habitation. The
weekly rent of seven shillings (35 pence) had long been
considered exorbitant by all the tenants of our row of
cottages, who begrudgingly handed over this hard-to

come-by sum to the miserly landlord.

My mother and my sister c.1912

Tucked away beside a busy main road in Mitcham, and half-hidden by tall wooden gates, our
cottages were known as ‘Berkeley Place’, which did at least sound rather upper class, and here
we lived in a part of Surrey which was neither London in one direction, nor yet deepest countryside
in the opposite direction, towards the Sussex coast.

Tucked away beside a busy main road in Mitcham, and half-hidden by tall wooden gates, our
cottages were known as ‘Berkeley Place’, which did at least sound rather upper class, and here
we lived in a part of Surrey which was neither London in one direction, nor yet deepest countryside
in the opposite direction, towards the Sussex coast.
Berkeley Cottage and Berkeley House, London Road. These houses were built shortly before 1814 on part of
the site of Sir Julius Caesar’s house, a mansion often visited by Queen Elizabeth I. The gates in the right of the
photograph led to Berkeley Place.

Photograph by Tom Francis, reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library Service

In its own peculiar way this small home of ours was unique, as no other house in which I dwelt later,
and there were many, ever quite took root within my memory as did this down-at-heel hovel of a
place. There was neither kitchen nor bathroom. The cooking of meals, and a weekly bath for us
all, was made possible by heat from the coal-burning range in the small living room. Buckets of
water for these operations were carried in from the one tap in the scullery.

Here the ceiling was festooned by cobwebs, and in a corner of the stone floor stood a boiler for
washing the family’s clothes. This often doubled up as a means of boiling puddings, particularly
useful at Christmas. Also in this damp, cold scullery was a coal cellar for storing the essential wood
and coal, and nearby a primitive type of lavatory covered by a rickety wooden seat. The chain
which hung overhead would occasionally oblige by flushing when pulled up and down several times,
but its moods were erratic, as were those of all the plumbing arrangements in the house.

There were very few cars on the roads during my childhood. Journeys were made by trains, trams,
buses, bicycle and horse and cart. However in summer small coaches – charabancs – were often
seen, full of happy people on a day’s outing to the coast or the countryside of Surrey and Sussex.

One day council workmen arrived to undertake a major operation – to reconstruct the main road
close to where I lived. They used pickaxes, drills, forks and shovels to remove the six-inch square
wooden blocks which had been flattened by steamroller and covered in tar and grit to lay the old
road surface which had withstood the wear and tear of years.

In spite of the noise, inconvenience and upheaval this work caused, it all seemed worthwhile to us
because of the main attraction – the arrival each day just before twilight of the night watchman. As
darkness fell the roadside took on the appearance of a glowing stage setting as the oil lamps were
lit inside dark red glass containers which the watchman placed along the roadworks. Inside a large
perforated steel drum a glowing coke fire was by now also casting a warm welcoming glow, and
later in the night the watchman rested in his little hut by the coke brazier, occasionally coming out
to patrol the area and see that all was well until the morning.

Sadly, the little homesteads of Berkeley Place were soon to be considered unfit for habitation and
were demolished. With our neighbours we were moved to spacious and brand-new council houses
in another part of Mitcham, off the Western Road, an area considerably less green and fragrant than
our surroundings on the London Road.

Now we were surrounded by paint and varnish works and the gas works, dominating most of the
area close to our new homes. However, we were thankful for a clean, roomy house with a large
garden, and a new school to attend closer to home.

Happily, though seventy years have passed, many of the dearly loved places of my childhood still
remain much the same – the river Wandle, and Ravensbury Park, the Cricket Green and Vestry
Hall, the ‘common’, and still, the busy London Road going on as it did then, towards the sea.

Postcard view of the ‘Cock Chimney Works’ in Batsworth Road,
the paint factory of J J Schweizer & Co. Ltd, c.1930

In a small patch of garden outside the front door we grew lilies of the valley, fragrant white summer
jasmine against the wall and beds of rhubarb and mint. All these were nourished by the droppings
collected up from the tradesmen’s horses which clattered along the nearby main road, which in
those days was constructed from solid small blocks of wood overlaid by layers of tar and grit.

We attended the Infant and Junior schools, roughly half a mile’s walk away; as there were no school
meals we trudged home at midday, to return for afternoon lessons, which finished at four p.m.

The small Infants’ school was known as the ‘Star School’. Most of our teachers were spinsters,
who were on the whole kindly, although very strict. Punishments for our small misdeeds were
regularly handed out.

Benedict Primary School, known in my day as The Star School

However in the summer we had eight weeks’ holiday from school, time happily frittered away by
my friends and me. We wore the soles of our shoes into holes by skipping and playing ball games.
On Mitcham common there were small lakes to fish in, wildflowers such as harebells and heather
to gather, and the nearby River Wandle where we paddled and learned to swim.

The summer was marked by exciting events, such as maypole dancing and the crowning of the May
queen, sports days and various ‘processions’. We went in search of wildflowers and grasses which
we arranged in baskets and entered in the annual Flower Show, held at that time at the News of
the World sports ground. In August the famous Mitcham Fair came to town, with its side-shows,
boxing arena, coconut shies and brightly lit roundabouts of galloping horses.

Towards Christmas rehearsals began for the Nativity play. At home old bed sheets and towels
were put to good use making costumes and reappeared as colourful attire in the school hall’s stable
where baby Jesus in his manger was clearly a large wax doll.

At Christmas a group of us always went carol-singing at the doors of the better-off houses. Heartily
and loudly we sang a selection of traditional carols, before a bold volunteer amongst us dared to
knock or ring the bell. Sad to relate, we were seldom rewarded with a penny or even a halfpenny.
Often the door would be angrily opened, then smartly slammed in our faces, often accompanied
by the snarl of a menacing dog. Undeterred we repeated our efforts.

Much more reliable was the pre-Christmas pocket money we earned by running errands for
neighbours, delivering newspapers and helping with domestic jobs. Helping a shop-keeper at
weekends could prove fruitful — taking home for instance, left-over fruit from Elswood’s the
greengrocer, stale cakes from Chivers the bakers, or cracked eggs from the dairy, all welcome
treats that were normally in short supply.

On Sundays all year round we attended church services, church parades and, most enthusiastically,
Sunday school on Sunday afternoons. Our teacher was a Miss Garforth, who lived in a large house
in Mitcham Park. Sunday school was at three p.m. at the tiny chapel which stood almost behind
the Vestry Hall at the corner of Nursery Road. Miss Garforth usually wore a long coat or cloak
which covered a full flowing skirt which brushed across the dusty wooden floorboards of the
chapel. In a large side pocket of her enormous skirt she had bags of chocolate buttons, peppermints
and eucalyptus sweets with which she rewarded us for good behaviour and attentive listening to the
Scriptures which she read aloud to us. We also sang hymns, and it was fascinating to watch Miss
Garforth thumping the organ keys and pumping briskly on the pedals while the ancient organ gave
out many wheezes and groans and missed out some notes altogether.

Berkeley Place was close to the London Road, and not far from the well-known Cricket Green,
around which were many family-run shops. Apart from the dairy, baker, butcher and greengrocer
there was also a small post office, a draper, chemist and ironmonger. The latter smelt strongly of
carbolic, paraffin and other oils and spirits. Stacked neatly in a corner were always bundles of
firewood bound with string. As children we especially loved the sweet shop, where bags of broken
pieces of chocolate were sold for a penny.

Most of the shops served rich and poor people alike by conveying their goods to houses by horse
and cart, or by large wooden barrows, such as were used by the dairy roundsmen. Errand boys
on bicycles delivered meat and fish to customers. On Sunday mornings during winter, ‘Old Harry’,
a fishmonger, came trundling into our yardway pushing a long heavy barrow laden with a variety
of shellfish, a wonderful display of shrimps, prawns, cockles and whelks. Sometimes there were
crabs and small tubs of jellied eels. All these were carefully and artistically displayed in decorative
china dishes, decorated with sprigs of parsley and watercress.

Another welcome sight at Berkeley Place was the arrival of the fruit and vegetable merchant, Mr
Thurston, who called midweek with his horse and cart loaded with fruit, vegetables and flowers.
While customers shopped the horse waited patiently, half of his head hidden inside his nosebag of
oats which he munched contentedly. Hanging along a rope at the back of the cart there were usually
the lifeless bodies of hares and rabbits strung upside down, which swung back and forth with the
rhythm of the cart as it progressed along the row of cottages. I suppose that at the tender age of
eight I might have felt a pang of regret for the fate of these well-loved wild creatures, but not for
long, overridden as it was by the prospect of rabbit stew, eked out with potatoes and bread, which
my mother could cleverly stretch to last for a few days.

Summertime brought the Romany gypsies – dark-eyed women wearing large earrings, with thick
plaited hair. They came to sell wooden clothes pegs, brushes, combs and trinkets, and were always
keen to read a ‘fortune’ from the palm of a hand. From faraway Brittany we saw onion sellers with
strings of large onions tied to each side of the bicycles they rode. I cannot recall ever seeing a single
onion being unstrung from the bunches, or remember these foreign men calling at our house to sell
their wares.

In winter before darkness, fell lamplighters came to light the few gas lights by our cottages; in spring
and summer there were chimney sweeps who came carrying brushes, poles and sacks to remove
the large amounts of soot that accumulated from the constant fires. The sweep with his soot-
blackened clothes and face, though with kindly eyes and snow-white teeth, could never banish the
fright of small children or silence the barking of dogs on first sight of him.

Postcard view of the shops in The Broadway, Mitcham c.1920