‘They were hard times, but I enjoyed it…’

The words of Ted Harrison, a resident of Hackney interviewed in 1983, capture the mood of his and others’ childhoods in London’s East End in the early twentieth century. His account of his childhood is part of a fascinating series of oral histories from Hackney Archives, being digitised at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. For the past few months I’ve been delving into many of these oral histories, recorded in the 1980s with residents of Hackney born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Hackney audio collection edited
A few tapes from the Hackney Archives audio collection

One consistent theme in the recordings is that life in Hackney at these times was tough for many people. Day-to-day life was often about ‘getting by’; taking what work was available, working long hours, and living hand-to-mouth. There were no unemployment benefits, so a period without work could mean relying on the goodwill of extended family and neighbours, being fed by local missions and soup kitchens, being placed in a workhouse, or sent away for longer periods of labour on a government farm. Families were often very large – one interviewee had ten siblings! – and crammed into just one or two rented rooms in a house.

Hackney - Charles Booth's Poverty Map
Ted Harrison was born on Pitfield Street, shown here in the middle of Charles Booth’s colour-coded map of Hoxton showing levels of poverty in the area

Despite these conditions, the kids of Hackney found creative, ingenious ways of making the most of their free time. The recollections of Ted Harrison and others in the archives demonstrate that the streets and squares of London were their play spaces; whatever bits and pieces they could scavenge and scrounge were their toys.

Street games were many and varied, but very often rough (at least the ones that boys played were – we’re hoping to hear female perspectives on street games as we continue exploring the collection). One that crops up in many of the oral histories is Jimmy Jimmy Knacko (or Knacker), also known as ‘weak horses’. This involved a team of boys with one kid standing with their back to a wall, another making a ‘back’ by bending at the waist and putting their head against the first, with others lining up and doing the same behind them. Members of an opposing team would then take running leaps onto the backs of those bent over, resulting in a pile of boys on the ‘back’. One interviewee – Mr Ashton – explains that the knack (pun intended) was for the strongest jumper to go first, aiming to get as close as possible to the person at the wall, and leaving space for others to leap up behind. Ted Harrison recalls that most times the person at the wall (known as the ‘pillar’) would end up getting knocked quite hard against the wall as a result. Once all were ‘mounted’ the team would then chant “Jimmy Jimmy Knacko one two three, I bobbaree, I bobbaree, I bobbaree and away!”

Clip of Ted Harrison talking about Jimmy Jimmy Knacko – skip to 1 min. 23 sec. for the chant!

If they managed to do this without any part of them touching the ground then they would repeat the process. If not, the teams would swap around. Result: hours of fun, likely getting a sore back and a few scrapes and bruises along the way.

This film held at the British Film Institute shows the same game being played in Yorkshire in 1900 – skip to 22 sec.

Gentler street games did exist, involving toys such as hoops and skimmers, marbles, and diabolos. There was also a game called tippy-cat or tip-cat which sounds like as much fun as you can possibly get out of two sticks. One stick – the ‘cat’ – was short with tapered ends, so that it could be ‘tipped up’ into the air when hit on the end with a larger stick, then batted away while in the air. The batter would then get points based upon the distance away the cat has landed, as measured in jumps. Again, potentially hours of fun, likely with less chance of pain.

Other activities such as making ‘grottoes’ were seemingly creative, but actually were thinly veiled attempts to wheedle a few pence out of adults. This pastime involved collecting discarded oyster shells to build – no-doubt in a very artistic manner – a small ‘grotto’ or castle in the street. Passing adults would be invited (or harangued) to view the splendour of the grotto in return for a small coin – in Ted Harrison’s words: “ah go on Guvnor, only a farthing!”. Grottoes were invariably set up near pubs in the hope of captivating adults in a more generous mood. However, you had to beware rival grotto-crafting children who might come and knock down your creation to eliminate competition.*

For many of the interviewees, their childhood memories were strongly shaped by the experience of London during a time of war. Ted Harrison describes how when the First World War broke out, children in the East End formed ‘tin bands’ using tea chests, saucepans, comb and paper and the like as instruments, and marched around local streets. In an outburst of patriotism – coupled with canny entrepreneurial spirit – Ted actually marched his ramshackle band all the way from Shoreditch to Trafalgar Square and the Embankment, singing a song about the German General von Kluck along the way, and happily gathering up coins that crowds threw at them. However, his band’s glory was short-lived; a rival tin band from another street picked a fight with them and stole their ‘instruments’.

Fights and scrapes were evidently a common part of East End childhood, though they were more staged or ritualised, rather than truly violent, according to an interview with Hackney author Alexander Baron. He also tells of street rivalry being played out via an informal Sunday football league. Teams of players would be formed street by street, and fixtures somehow organised by word of mouth. The result was that come Sunday, a street team from, say, London Fields would end up playing a street team from Hackney Marshes.

Alexander Baron describes street football matches in Hackney

Uncovering these personal memories of childhoods in the East End has been absolutely fascinating for me, and especially so hearing about them directly via sound recordings of oral histories. It’s made me realise just how important sound archives are to preserving aspects of our lives that maybe otherwise we don’t give much thought to. It’s also inspired me to be more creative: I’m off to find some oyster shells and try my hand at making a grotto…

This blog post was written by Richard Crappsley, an Unlocking Our Sound Heritage volunteer at LMA. 

*For more information about grottoes see A. Roy Vickery and Monica E. Vickery’s ‘Memories of Grottoes, 1905-1935’, published in Folklore in 1977.