Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Shops: Memories of Old England

Is there anywhere that hasn't changed in the last 50 to 60 years?

My family moved out of their Brixton flat to a house, 36 Seymour Road, Mitcham, Surrey. It must have been shortly after I was born, as my mother told me about the neighbours gathering around that novel product, a television, to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. I cried too much as a baby for them to go up to London to watch the procession. (Mitcham became part of London, rather than Surrey in 1965.)

This picture is of a house in a different street, but by memory is quite similar in design. Ours was in the middle of the terrace rather than free standing, however.


My mother told me many years later that they moved out of Brixton because the Irish immigrants were bringing down the quality of the place. She particularly remembered seeing out of her window an Irishman standing naked in his flat opposite, hanging up his clothes to dry on the curtain rail. I had no concept of Brixton being an Irish centre when she told me: it was a centre of Jamaican life and culture by that time.

At the back of the house, the original outside toilet had been incorporated by the previous owners into an extension of the house, which included a bathroom. I assume this was quite normal, as the houses on either side also had bathrooms, although on one side, the previous owners hadn't got planning permission and the council was trying to get our neighbours to knock it down. Our extension had a bedroom built over it, giving us a three bedroomed house, with my brother and I having the luxury of separate rooms.

All heating (water and warmth) was by coal - used downstairs only, supplemented by electric fires or paraffin heaters. (We eventually got coal fire based radiators some years after we moved to a different house, although my bedroom was not included. I remember ice on the inside of the windows.) A land mine (ie a very large bomb) had exploded nearby during the war and the structure of the house was said by my mother to be unsound, although I couldn't see anything wrong with it. I think it was mainly that the cement between the bricks had disintegrated somewhat (although whether by the impact or age, I don't know). The floorboards downstairs were full of rot and woodworm: my mother nearly killed herself treating it with preventative fluid (which she then found out contained arsenic).

One of the distinguishing features of the area was that it had been used as a relocation and rehousing area for refugees from the blitzed Dockland area of East London. Some, such as the Heathcotes next door, lived in normal houses, but there were still quite a few of the temporary pre-fabricated huts that had become permanent housing. The Heathcotes had a car. Since we lived next door, we were one of the few families in the area that went out for day trips. Cars were a rare sight on our road.

What ever it's state then, it's still there, being sold in 2010 for 171,000 pounds and 223,000 in 2011: I think there must have been significant renovation work in the mean time. See the value graph below:


The miracles of the internet have made me digress. Such was the area in which I lived. On the corner of the turning at the end of our block of housing was a small shop called Krett's. I remember little about it, but it seemed dark and crowded. It had a counter with a glass show front, with produce scatted across the floor (a sack of potatoes, fire wood, etc) and wooden shelving units around the walls. It was not that dissimilar in internal impression from some of the older style rural shops still here in Poland. It's long since gone, overtaken not, I think, by supermarkets, but by the building of a new block of flats with a shop in the bottom, which is now Jalaram Food & Wine, a sub-Post Office.


I don't recall seeing a single Asian or other immigrant face when I was young. It was only sometime later that my Mother told me that the family at the bottom of our garden were Polish. I would never have known.

Apart from local shops, a distinguishing feature of England was the local pubs. Our district was not a 'pub on every corner' area, but there was one at the top of the road, a short way along the main road. I must have been taken in there once in my early teens. It still had gas lamps on the walls. I'd heard of gas lighting, but had never seen it before. Although they were not used, they were still there 'just in case'. (I suspect that the cost of redecoration was the real reason.) Much of the seating was plain wooden benches, attached to and running along the sides of the walls. It looked a bit like something out of a Victorian picture, compared to the pubs in the centre of Mitcham. I had worked in my school holidays which looked very different. If my Mum was busy, the owners of an old coaching inn, complete with stables for the horses, would look after me at lunchtime. I also went into others. They were modern in comparison. (To protect my Mum's honour as not being a daily pub goer, she had admirers who took her out and, given the lack of money for babysitters, I went along.)

Although I have few specific memories of the Krett's corner shop, the idea of it being there is clear. My mother told me that other people did not like Mr Krett, but that he had been very good to us, allowing us children to stay when she had to go out and couldn't find anywhere else to leave us.

It is only my life in Poland that could possibly have brought the idea up, but is 'Krett' an English name? It was such a part of my growing up that I had no reason to think otherwise: it is not a very popular surname, but there are plenty of those. I even wonder whether other people disliking him because he was Jewish. The wonder of the internet (not for a second even dreamed of in those days) came to my help.

There are a scattering of Krett's in England and Wales and the US, with references found to Germany, France and other parts of Old Europe. And then I came across


Their search facility gave me this Google result, showing that Slovakia is full of people with the surname 'Krett'. I also found some in southern Poland, near to the Slovakian border (I think). It's a reasonable guess that Krett, or his family were from (Czecho)Slovakia.

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