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go back to the last page you were on A Hard Day's Work

Len Denham

We were not destined to stay in Netherwood Street for long as the new Westcroft Estate in Cricklewood was being completed and by the end of the year we would have moved there. But it was from Netherwood Street that my mother would take us all for a walk to see whether we might run into my grandfather.

Now this was no mere stroll. It involved walking up Hemstal Road, a tidy climb uphill to reach West End Lane along which ran the 28 bus destined for Wandsworth and the 53 bus headed to that strange sounding place, Plumstead Common. We crossed the road near to the Police Station, which featured strongly in the case of grandfather and the Christmas turkey, and proceeded down Broadhurst Gardens passing the shop of Mr Copeman who regularly shaved grandfather with a cutthroat razor and who gave me my first haircut.

Before we reached Fairhazel Gardens, some way along which we hoped to find grandfather finishing his liquid lunch, my brother Leslie would have given up on his training for the fifty kilometre walk (or whatever the equivalent was in those days) and opted for a ride in the bassinet. This rather stately perambulator was now on its third resident, being the favoured mode of transport for the baby, Ronald, then just over a year old. Alas two occupants were all that the springs could take and poor mother could push. So I got the training whether I liked it or not.

One day we happened upon Grandfather, or 'Doctor' as he was known in those parts for some reason that nobody ever explained to me, starting rather than finishing a pint of mild. My mother remarked upon this and enquired whether he should not be thinking of returning his horse and cart to the yard at Acacia Road.

It transpired that the 'Doctor' thought he had something to celebrate as a couple of hours before the baker, not a man that he counted amongst his friends, had parked his handcart in front of the horse-drawn milk cart and neglected to secure the shutter. Grandfather's horse, Joey, knew an opportunity when he saw one and, whilst the baker downed a pint, Joey downed a tray of cakes.

The baker saw this as the equivalent of a purchase made by 'Doctor' on behalf of his horse whilst 'Doctor' saw it as downright stupidity on the part of the baker and refused to entertain his claim. The baker departed without satisfaction and grandfather concluded that this was good cause for an extra pint.

These walks with the objective of finding my grandfather, if he had not already turned tail for the stables at Acacia Road, were a fairly regular occurrence and on those occasions when we did succeed in tracking down the 'doctor' we would return with him to the yard.

There the horse would be taken out of the shafts and put in its stable. The stables were laid out in a huge square and the set up not dissimilar to an American barn. Individual boxes provided the outer perimeter of the square and faced inwards across a wide corridor to boxes forming the inside of the square and facing outwards. Thus the horses could see their companions opposite.

An overhead rail ran above the corridor and as soon as all the horses were safely stabled they received their reward for a hard day's work.

And a hard day it was as they were pulling a fully laden milk cart at six o'clock in the morning and feeding time was about four o'clock. Unless they were fortunate enough to come across a stupid baker the only food they had during the day was what they found in their nosebag during a short break when the roundsman enjoyed a cup of tea provided, if he was lucky, by one of the maids at a big house.

'Doctor' probably did all right as his round included many big houses with servants and he worked the same area for more than fifty years, first for Buckingham's Dairy and then United Dairies when they absorbed the smaller firm.

This feeding time for the horses was a fairly terrifying experience for a rising four year old because the feed was placed in a huge bin suspended from the overhead rail. As the bin commenced its journey around the square the horses on three sides of the square could not see it but there was nothing wrong with their ears and as soon as they heard the clanging and rumbling of the feed bin starting its journey they started neighing in a deafening chorus supplemented by the sound of their hooves cracking against the wooden stable walls as they tried to will the food bin to reach them faster. The racket was at its worst when the bin reached halfway, the horses housed in the second half presumably fearing that the food may run out before it reached them. But as more and more of them were fed so they became quiet until all one could hear was the steady sound of seventy or so horses munching in unison.

Then came the time we had been waiting for as we were taken to be lifted up to stroke the friendlier of the horses. You will have realised that the four corner stables on the outer side were considerably larger than those on the straight sides and it was into one of these stables that we went for our final treat. A docile grey horse would allow Les, and sometimes me, to be placed on its back and be led in circles around its box. Why Les always got a ride and me only occasionally I cannot explain.

Back then to our grandparent's house, or more accurately, upper half of a house on the corner of Lowfield Road where my grandmother would provide tea and we would await the return of grandfather. I remember that he often brought home a milk bottle filled with shelled eggs. The bottles in those days were almost as wide at the top as at the base and were sealed with a rather stiff cardboard cap, which was pressed into grooves in the bottleneck and subsequently removed by pulling a tab. The eggs brought home by grandfather were those cracked during the day, broke into the bottle and sold cheaply to the dairy staff. The milk roundsman carried butter, eggs and cream as well as milk but not the other groceries, which they frequently deliver to their customers today.

These walks were probably where I first heard the stories of my mother's childhood. How, as a schoolgirl, she had to meet my grandfather on his milk round at 5. 30 a.m. every day and help him with his deliveries until 8. 30 a.m. before she returned home to prepare for school at 9 o'clock. There were no bottles of milk in those days and milk and cream were dispensed by jugs from metal churns into the customers' own jugs. The measures were gills more often than pints and the work very hard on a little girl's hands on a bitter, cold winter morning.

Written by Len Denham