Monday, 13 January 2014

Growing up in Sheerness

With the reserve now quite well flooded, accessing it from alongside the barn at the rear, as is the normal route for those of us with such access permission, is proving to be both difficult and and in my case results in quite a bit of pain. Spending a few hours wading through either deepish water or soft, clinging mud in wellie boots, raises the pain levels in my arthritic feet to quite a high and long lasting degree. Couple that with the fact that Midge, the older of my two dogs, has just had an operation that means until the wound has healed that she can't do anything remotely energetic or be in wet conditions, and it means that my visits to the reserve are severely restricted at the moment. So time to look at something different.

Reading Sheila Judge's book "The Isle of Sheppey", the other day, I was intrigued by the following comment. "The Great Depression of the late 1920's and early 1930's hit Sheppey as much, or more, than the rest of Britain. The dockyard had work, but there was not much other work about. Sheerness had a dispirited air, the streets of residential houses looked shabby, and there had been very little improvement in living conditions. True, most of the houses now had gaslight, a water tap and a flush lavatory, but there were few with hot water systems or bathrooms and the toilets were still out back".
Whilst that described the conditions in the 1920's/30's, clearly little continued to change because it was still an accurate description of the street that I was brought up in during the 1950's, some 20 odd years later. Until we moved to a posh" council house in 1958 when I was eleven, we lived in Unity Street, in Marine Town, Sheerness. I say Marine Town because in it's early years, well before I was born in 1947, Sheerness was made up of three areas. Mile Town was the area that contained the High Street and surrounding roads and streets, known as that because it was formed it was created a mile away from the hub of Sheppey, Bluetown, the dockyard and army garrison. Marine Town was at the eastern end of Sheerness, close to the seafront and the area that you leave when heading towards Minster. Banks Town, was a small area in between the other two, that contained some impressive terraces built by Sir Edward Banks, the buildings in Sheerness Broadway being some of them. Eventually all these areas became Sheerness-on-Sea and now are hardly ever mentioned.

So, back to Unity Street in the 1950's. As I think I have mentioned in a previous blog, it was one of several similar streets in that area, all made up of lines of small, terraced, two up-two down houses, mostly rented by their inhabitants. No.58, our house, was in the middle of the street and walking through the front door you stepped straight into the small front room. Passing the steep stairs to the two bedrooms you then walked into the equally small living room with it's solitary gas light over the fire place. As I recall it this was the only light in the whole house, although there might of been non-used gas lights in the bedrooms, either candle-light or darkness was the order of the day up there. Running off from the living room was the scullery, which was low-roofed and formed the short piece of an L-shape at the back of the house. In the scullery we had a stone sink and one cold water tap, a gas cooker and a free standing round metal bin known as the gas boiler, in which laundry was boiled before hanging out on the line outside and a gas cooker. When were very young we sat on the edge of the draining board and were washed from water, often cold, in the sink. As we got bigger we had a strip wash at the sink in the freezing scullery and once a week, on Sunday evenings, there was the weekly bath. This consisted of bringing in the metal bath, always hanging on a nail on the garden wall, putting it in front of the living room fire and filling it with water heated up in the gas boiler. This weekly aid to cleanliness was shared by myself and younger sister and I believe, by my parents afterwards!
Going up the stairs there were two bedrooms, my parent's at the front looking down on to the street and that of mine and my sister's at the rear. Neither rooms very large and although they had fireplaces they were never used, that luxury was reserved for the living room only. Even that downstairs fire though, was often only kept alight by my father coming home from night work and then trawling the nearby beach for driftwood. Between the beds of my sister and I there was a roughly made wooden cabinet that I recall had a drawer at the top, which when opened I clearly recall had the words "Jaffa Oranges" stencilled on it. At night, to avoid us being scared of the darkness, we had a small wax "night-light" burning which unfortunately scared me even more because it caused shadows to flicker on the walls and ceiling.

Outside in the garden, alongside but separate from the scullery, were the coal shed, which was more than often empty, and the only toilet. Perhaps for ventilation purposes, I recall that the toilet door had a foot gap at the bottom of it and one thing is certain, in the winter there was no retiring to the toilet to read the paper as is common these days, sitting there with snow blowing under the door was a very brief experience!
The garden, come yard, was longish and narrow and in it my father grew some vegetables for a while and I had a tortoise run. We sometimes had some chickens and always the rabbit hutch, which reared the rabbit, or rabbits, that we always killed and ate every Christmas.
The back gate opened up into the narrow alley that not only seperated us from the back gardens of the next street, Clyde Street, but also served for several years as the playground that we roamed up and down, inventing all kinds of games such as "feet off ground" and "he".

What other memories of living there. Well I suppose that 1953 was the most memorable. In February of that year we had the well documented Floods, when the sea broke through the defences and flooded most of low-lying Sheppey. To a 5 year old child, to have the sea running right through your house, flooding the whole street and trapping us upstairs, was an exciting event. To my mother, who daily had to stand in freezing water in the scullery and try and cook meals on the gas rings just above the water, it certainly wasn't. To add to the excitement, the milkman came down the street in a rowing boat and we lowered my mother's shopping bag down on a rope from the bedroom window for him to put the milk into.
Also in 1953 we had the current Queen's coronation and the street parties that took place to celebrate it. Below are some of the people that took part in the Unity Street one. Apparently I'm one of the young lads at the front but although I can identify my mother at the back, I haven't a clue which one I am, especially as there was several "cowboys".


  1. Growing up in the 50s and bringing it all back so vividly !!

  2. My grandmother lived at No 50 Unity Street - Edna Graham. We migrated to Australia in 1955 and lived in Raneleigh Road before migrating. Have been back a couple of times. Can remember our Coronation street party, I dressed as a golliwog - heaven forbid these days!!

  3. When were the houses in Unity Street built please. Xx