42 Chelmsford Road

This is one of a long row of terraced houses in Chelmsford Road, which in the early 1900s was regarded as being one of the “nicer” streets in the area. Further up the road, some houses were in a poor state of repair, and a number had been left derelict and empty. But number 42 was kept neat and painted, at least on the outside.

Early in 1914 the Walker family moved in, bringing their possessions in a covered van from round the corner in Beaconsfield Road. There were seven Walker children, and the youngest, seven-year-old Harold, was to remember helping to move the family’s most precious possessions in a coster barrow (the kind of barrow then used in markets). These included a whatnot – a wooden stand designed to hold ornaments – a wooden coal scuttle and a highly polished brass shovel.

Harold was very aware that Chelmsford Road was “posher” than Beaconsfield Road, but missed the friendly neighbours they had left behind. However, some of the residents were far from posh – there turned out to be huge rats living in the sewer pipes.

All over the neighbourhood, many residents used their houses as business premises as well as homes. Most of the keepers of the dozens of local shops lived in the back and upstairs rooms. Harold Walker remembered a shop in Gamuel Road that specialised in smoked fish, including “the most delicious kippers, bloaters and haddocks”. The fishmonger, a Mr Daines, prepared the stock in a smoke hole in the yard to the side of his house – no one complained, even though the smell of the fish pervaded the area. Nearby there was a “rag and bone shop”, which offered metal, bones, rags, paper, jam jars and every sort of rubbish for a few pence.

Harold’s mother sent him shopping almost every day – there were no school lunches at that time, and children came home in the middle of the day. For Harold, the break was usually mostly spent in either a dash to the High Street or a trip to the off licence for beer. He remembered with resentment that he rarely got his lunch until just before afternoon school started, and blamed this for the stomach trouble from which he suffered later in life. But he did sometimes have a little pocket money to spend – this he generally did in the sweet shop, which offered a choice of bulls’ eyes, hundreds and thousands, honeycomb, locust beans and a green liquorish which Harold thought disgusting, but which children still bought.

The Walker family moved house within Walthamstow on several occasions during Harold’s childhood – this was very usual, and easily organised, as almost everyone rented from a private landlord, usually by the week and with only a week’s notice on either side. And moving was easy for another reason – most people had very few possessions by modern standards. Neither did many of the landlords do anything to maintain their properties. It was the damp, fungus and smell of dry rot in the house – and more visits from rats – that made the family move on yet again just after the Peace Party in 1918.