Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Roy Porter: a New Cross Childhood

A plaque was unveiled on 5 June at 13 Camplin Street, New Cross Gate to commemorate the historian Roy Porter (1946-2002), who lived there from 1946 to 1959 and attended Monson School. Porter was best known as a medical historian - he was the Director of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine from 1999-2000 - and as the author of London: a Social History (1994). In the preface to the latter, Porter recalled his New Cross childhood:

"I grew up in south London just after the war. Three miles from London Bridge, New Cross Gate was… a stable if shabby working-class community completely undiscovered by sociologists. In many ways, that past now seems another country: bomb-sites and prefabs abounded, pig-bins stood like pillboxes on street corners, the Co-op man came round with a horse and cart delivering the milk, everybody knew everybody. Some of the houses in Camplin Street still had gas lighting, as did my infant school; clanking trams are a vivid memory, and it was fun creeping to school through pea-soupers, a torch vainly held out in front. In those years of austerity, ration-book coupons taught me my sums -locals grumbled about how run-down and old-fashioned the area was, hemmed in by the railway sidings, canal and docks that had long provided secure employment but which imparted a grimy, dingy feel.

The three-up, three-down council house that my parents shared with my grandparents and an uncle had an outside lavatory; a tin bath was hauled in once a week from the bottom of the garden, set down on the scullery floor, and filled from kettles and a wheezing Ascot gas water-heater. Domestic overcrowding was worsened but redeemed by the sanctity of the front room, used only at Christmas, though unlocked once a week so that the Rexine three-piece suite could be polished with Ronuk.

… There were plenty of things to do around home. The Gaumont, ABC and Astoria all lay within easy walking distance. There were municipal parks and swimming-baths. Millwall Football Club was' only five minutes away at the Den, Cold Blow Lane; there were also greyhounds on thurdays and Saturdays, and speedway on Wednesdays. In the summer 'there was the Oval, and that magical Surrey cricket team.

Nobody liked living in New Cross Gate. Yet there was much to be said for that kind of respectable working-class inner-city neighbourhood that is now pretty much a thing of the past. My parents had seen serious poverty around them when they were growing up in Bermondsey in the twenties, but all that had disappeared by 1950. Only a few kids got free school dinners - my class looked on them with a mix of pity and envy. All the men were in work, many with big local employers such as the council, Surrey Commercial Docks, the railways, London Transport, Borough market or Peek Frean's biscuit factory; women kept house and raised children. Husbands had wives, housewives had breadwinners, and children had parents (and aunts, in-laws and grandparents round the corner). Families stuck together. Menfolk slipped down to the Royal Archer, but there were· no notorious drunks or wife-beaters. Nor was there violence or crime. Girls skipped, and we boys kicked a tennis ball in the street, and mothers didn't worry too much: there was little backstreet traffic - no one we knew owned a car - and no fear of child-molesters.

…How different are things in SE 14 now? Camplin Street's terraces have changed remarkably little: even some of the privet hedges look familiar. In the fifties the talk was of bulldozing the area and redeveloping it with council flats. About flippin' time too, neighbours grumbled: the houses were dark and damp and never looked clean. In the event, nothing happened. Now many of them are privately owned, and the monotony of Deptford Borough Council's bottle-green and cream paint has yielded to rainbow hues, Regency doors and louvre windows, and kerbsides crammed with cars. Certain bits look more tacky now, but it is also livelier, brighter, less regimented, There must be fewer nuclear families with 2.4 children and grandparents and in-laws living round the block. What lives are led behind the front doors and the permanent lace curtains?

Five minutes' walk away, however, change hits you in the face. Millwall Football Club boasts a brand-new stadium with a multimillion-pound entertainment complex. Surrey Docks are closed, the canal is filled in, the railway a ghost of its former self. The local sweet factory and dressmakers have closed down. New Cross Road, which once wore an air of faded early Victorian elegance, is now a ceaseless roar of lorries hurtling down to the Channel ports, The big houses near the Marquis of Granby pub, once admired, are slums, squats or boarded-up, like many of the shops. Dossers and drunks litter the gardens, and some students of mine were mugged there last year. South London has gained a mean name for drug-dealing, racial violence, gangland crime and contract killing.

Things endure, things change: improvement, deterioration, adjustment - all respond to the deep pulse of the city. And in that respect the south London community where I grew up forms a cameo of London at large: the physical fabric engages in endless dialogue with the inhabitants; the townscape shapes them, while they reconstruct it. Factories and flats, railways and roads outlive individuals. People make their own cities, but never under conditions of their own choosing".

Porter wrote the above in 1994 and the area has arguably changed again, as perhaps it will always be changing. I am not sure that I believe that New Cross in the 1950s was free of crime and domestic violence, even if Porter didn't personally experience them. But he is right that many of the social landmarks have disappeared from that time. Of the big employers, only the Council and now the NHS remain, and The Royal Archer pub has recently been demolished.

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