The Arc of Joan, for Joan Barham

From the life of Joan Barham

By Suzie Champion

It has been said that when our environment changes, when the familiar buildings and the outline disappear, and people move or are moved away, our memories, those unique histories, gradually diminish along with those reminders and nowhere is that eradication truer than in the East End of London. The politics of profit over-ride the welfare of the people. Some call it corporate vandalism, others, gentrification. Its official title is ‘redevelopment for regeneration’. An interesting note: according to a leading academic, the 2012 Olympics brought over nine billion pounds to the East End, yet Newham still remains the second most deprived local authority in England. Neighbouring Tower Hamlets picks up the Bronze.

But the true riches are the people themselves. Their stories reveal the wealth and one such person, Joan, is a diamond, pure East End. Her sharing opens a portal into an intimate view of the places that are now ghosts in the machinations of progress, because many of those places, fundamental to Joan’s early life, no longer exist. Moreover, as she reminisces, it becomes apparent that as dire as life sometimes became in the early twentieth century, there was always support and a cohesion that ran through the family and community; a rare thing in today’s society. So, let’s follow Joan on a journey into her East End.

Born at home in the then newly constructed West Ham Buildings on Manor Road, eight years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Joan claimed ninth position of thirteen children. She is proud of the fact that her brothers and sisters never argued and they all “pulled their weight”. Her mother was relieved of housework as her daughters had that covered and the sons did the errand runs. You could say, thirteen was a lucky number for them, more, because ‘The Buildings’, as they were known, had a bathroom and separate toilet that houses didn’t have. The typical sanitary accommodation was an outside toilet (frozen pipes, and human parts, in winter) and the usual visit to the local Public Baths, or if you were semi-lucky, a galvanised tin bath.

Joan lived at ‘The Buildings’ until shortly after her father’s death. She was seven at the time and had many warm memories of that place, but one in particular stuck out for her. She told me, “Mum had him [father] laying out in the front room in the coffin, without the lid, while me and my sisters ran around the coffin playing games and thinking nothing of there being a dead body in it. He couldn’t hurt us ’cause he was our dad.” Even in death, there was a familial closeness.

A hangover from the Victorians, it was customary for families to have their deceased loved ones laid out in the front room or parlour until the funeral, allowing for the paying of respects. This intimate and powerful ritual of mourning and honouring the dead is now lost to us. Maybe Health and Safety has something to do with it, or maybe we regard death and dead bodies as anathema to our current style of living as we try to stave off growing old, both surgically and chemically.

Having fought in the First World War, Joan’s father had been exposed to the chemical weapon of choice at that time, the vesicant; Sulphur Mustard, or Mustard Gas, as it was commonly coined. Added to his debilitated condition was the arduous work of being a stevedore at the docks. He was in his early forties when he died. On the day of his funeral, Joan remembers an upstairs neighbour looking after her and as she looked out of the window at the horse and carriage carrying her father’s coffin, she says, “I remember thinking, a horse and cart. I’d love to have a ride on that.”

Innocent as to the relevance of his death, Joan was protected by having a large family surrounding her, easing the space left by his passing. It’s only now, when others talk about the activities they shared with their fathers, that Joan wishes she too could have had those memories. It makes it doubly poignant to know that Joan has no photos of him either, as no family portraits were ever taken. Without some form of evidence of a life lived or a building built, all becomes a little mythical, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. However, by putting herself on the map of life through this story, Joan will surely not go the way of myth; although, contemporaneously, she could pass as a Demeter or a Penelope.

From ‘The Buildings’, Joan’s family moved round the corner, to Brighton Road. She speaks fondly of the hours spent on the street with her friends, chalking hop-scotch squares on the pavement or playing Knock Down Ginger (presumably, nothing to do with flooring redheads. Apparently, the name originates from the colour the council painted their doors, as it was an ‘estate’ game.) Then there was skipping. The rope stretched across the street and all the kids would join in as they ran under, jumped over, or just plain skipped in the middle.

This is testament to the few vehicles on the roads and to the lack of parental fear of their children’s safety while playing out. Trust and security in the community was phenomenal as Joan highlights, “…’cause, them days, you could leave your street door open. You could leave it open all night. My mum had a string in the door. You just pulled the string and you was in. We never had a bolt on any door.”

The children used to look forward to their annual jaunt to Marden, Kent, where they would hop pick with their mothers to earn a few pennies, and at weekends, the husbands would arrive and the atmosphere perked up as they all rallied together to have a good time. On one occasion, Joan’s brother-in-law stole a lamb and slaughtered it, because food was in short supply, but when the farmer came looking for his lost animal, the carcass ended up in pieces, down the toilet, which was a hole in the ground covered by a tin hut. Considering sugar on bread was a meal, potato skins were deemed a luxury and Christmas presents were a tangerine, two nuts and some dates in a stocking… the discarding of a whole lamb’s carcass doesn’t bear thinking about. Luckily for the brother-in-law, the farmer never discovered him.

Joan’s next move was courtesy of the Germans. Along with her mother and sisters, she was evacuated to a little house in Cheshire. Nearby was a butcher-cum-delicatessen. One day, she went to buy her mother some pastries and in the window saw a sign for help wanted. She was fourteen years old, and decided to apply for it. Much to her joy, she was taken on and she worked in the bake room, making meat pies. “Out of the back door,” she says, “I could see the windows of our house and when he wasn’t looking, I’d shove pies over the wall to my sisters.” Maybe he did know this, because not long after, he gave her bags of pies and sausages to take home.

Joan’s mother was listening to the radio one day and heard that Brighton Road had been bombed out. She immediately decided to return home. The family would surely have perished had they remained in the house and continued to use the Anderson shelter. There’s that lucky number thirteen again. Joan told the butcher of her mother’s intent, and he went straight round to the house to ask her if he could adopt Joan, because she was such a good worker. In her fear of her mother handing her over, Joan threatened them both with running away. The story makes her shiver. “He even paid our return fares, thinking we would be back, but we never did.”

On their return to London they temporarily moved in with a friend of Joan’s mother until they secured a house in Steele Road. When they went to view this house they noticed a large hole in the wall of the kitchen, but this had nothing to do with Hitler. The previous occupier had kept a pony and this hole was apparently its entrance! They found someone to brick it up and eventually moved in. West Ham Buildings had a bathroom, but this house and the one in Brighton Road didn’t, so Joan’s family would walk the short distance to the Public Baths in Church Road, which incidentally is now home to Newham Amateur Boxing Club.

By now Joan was around seventeen and her first job was working for a place called Freeman’s, where she sorted donated clothing. It was a dirty job, and she left after three weeks having found human excrement in some underwear. She then went on to become a machinist and tailor, making men’s shirts and suits at Horne Brothers, a well-known company renowned for its quality goods. When she got her first week’s wages she took her two sisters to Pollards (Pollard W. Waide & Sons), like Primark, only cheaper, and bought them each a coat and hat and her niece a signet ring the following week; such is the generosity of this woman.

Still in Steele Road she met Reginald, and here romance blossomed twice. First, when Joan’s brother married Reg’s sister; Joan was chief bridesmaid and Reg was best man, and the second time was when she and Reg tied the knot. The first matrimonial home saw her back to her place of birth, West Ham Buildings, but this time she didn’t like it, so she managed to secure a house back in Steele Road at the other end. It was already condemned, on the list for demolition, but it was habitable and they wanted it so much they paid the rent arrears from the last occupant. Not a silly woman, Joan knew the council would have to re-house her when the time came to pull it down and so settled in and she and Reg started their family.

One of Joan’s next-door neighbours, a milkman, let it be known to her that her own milkman was overcharging. She said, “I used to sometimes get eggs too, but the amount would always stay the same. I didn’t think about it until he said.” When it came to the next Saturday, she challenged the milkman about it and he got uppity and said, “You’ve been talking to him next door, ain’t ya?” Joan laughs and says, “After that I got my milk free for the next couple of weeks.” It sounds as if you’d already pre-paid him Joan.

‘The Buildings’, and both Steele and Brighton Roads, no longer exist. The flats were demolished in the 1960s when the area became run down, and now occupying that original site are Star Lane DLR and Star Lane School playing fields. As for the two roads, they’ve been swallowed up in the widening and rerouting of the A1011, Manor Road.

Joan moved to Meredith Road, to a four-bedroom house where her family grew up then went off to have families of their own, before settling where she is now, a stone’s throw from where she entered the world. Reg died in 2006, just after their 50th wedding anniversary, and since then, Joan has expanded her social life and is enjoying every moment of it. She talked about her four children, who have given her thirteen grandchildren (there’s that number again) and seven great-grandchildren, and she says there are more to come. Joan not only has this extended family, but they were a cyber-family too, her children having set up a Facebook account for her to stay in touch. Unfortunately, Joan was diagnosed with macular degeneration some years ago and gradually she has had to give up her social networking as her eyesight deteriorates. But the spirit of this woman will not let her stop living her life to the fullest.

Only recently, she appeared on the promotional video for the West Ham United Foundation’s 25th Anniversary. They are supporting Friends of the Elderly as part of their engagement in the community. The video was shown on the BBC’s Match of the Day programme, where Joan can be seen playing football, giggling with a friend, and being interviewed. Moreover, she could teach our footballers a fair game, because you won’t see Joan diving for sympathy. Her type had the mould broken long ago.