Catherine Phillpotts, University Librarian

Catherine Phillpotts, University Librarian

My Mother and I lived with my Grandparents on the Becontree Estate, Dagenham, which I understand was one of the estates they shipped people out to as part of the Bethnal Green slum clearance (in the 1920s?). The two up two down house was inhabited by my Grandparents, my Mum, Me and two of Mum’s siblings – so somewhat overcrowded!

My Grandparents moved first to Becontree into a maisonette on the estate. Then later got the house where they had 5 children! Seven people in just 2 bedrooms!

My Mum was born there during an air raid and Nan couldn’t get to the shelter, so had to give birth under the table in the front room!!

The house had an inside bathroom and toilet (luxury!), but no basin in the bathroom and originally no hot water upstairs. There was a galvanised iron copper in the kitchen for heating water (and for doing washing in!). You had to fill the copper with water (there was a tap above it), turn on the gas ring underneath it, and then you could fill buckets with hot water (the copper had a drain tap at the bottom for filling the buckets) and take them upstairs to the bathroom. This had to be done with military precision, as otherwise there was a risk of someone getting scalded. The bathrooms and coppers in these houses were considered a major improvement on the housing in Bethnal Green. I remember my Nan standing on a chair and using a large broom handle to move sheets around in the copper to wash them. Pretty dangerous, as it was full of near boiling water. My Aunt still lives in the same house.

Some of the houses did not have a separate bathroom (in favour of having more bedrooms) – just a separate toilet. For them, the bath was in the kitchen. Those houses were all upgraded (roughly around 1970 I think) and small prefab bathrooms were craned over the roofs into the back gardens and joined onto the houses. 

There was a real sense of community on the Estate; a short trip to the local parade of shops was always made longer by stopping to speak to neighbours we passed en route. My Nan knew everybody (or so it seemed). I remember that there were a lot of elderly ladies in our street (widows – possibly due to WWII?) who all wore wrap-around pinafores and “Rosie the Riveter” style headscarves during the day and scrubbed their front steps regularly. They looked very similar to Hilda Ogden. A lot of people worked at the Ford, Dagenham plant or other nearby factories. My Grandfather worked for Jeyes and my Grandmother used to solder circuit boards for Plessey. She was in demand in the neighbourhood as she could often fix televisions that were on the blink. My Mum had worked at the telephone exchange but then became an auxiliary nurse (often working night shifts).

One evening in the ‘70s the flood warning sirens went off. These were the same (or sounded the same) as the air raid warning sirens from the 2nd World War. People all came out of their houses and scanned the sky for bombers. There was a real sense of alarm.

There were no bombers fortunately! – and a great sense of relief, although no-one seemed concerned that there might be a flood or an unusual tide coming up the Thames which could have affected all of the houses.

We regularly went to Mayesbrook Park & Parsloes Park. Mayesbrook Park had a beautiful sunken, Italian garden, sadly now gone.

Later my Mother lived in Bacton (low rise), on the Lismore Circus estate in Gospel Oak (now demolished although it was a comparatively recent build). By this time, I had left home, however I was a regular visitor.