Camden Is: Christine Kerr

For Camden Is, local residents recall what is was like to grow up in Camden. #2: Christine Kerr. Born 1947, Greenland Road, Camden

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"My father was a barrow boy and when I was about four years old I remember being in Camden Market with him and my mother, and on Hall’s stall next to his greengrocers they were “drawing” the chickens, pulling the insides out and cleaning them. It wasn’t as bad as you’d think.  The stall had rabbits, bacon, ducks, chicken and eggs. They piled up some orange boxes and stood me on them so I could reach the butcher’s block. I was an only child, a spoiled little cow, so I had a nice dress on which they covered up with the smallest white coat they could find, and rolled yards of the sleeves up. They showed me how to put my hand inside the chicken and pull the insides out. Had my hand right up the chicken’s bottom, and they told me to feel for all the bits and drag them out slowly. “Well done,” my dad said. My mum thought it was terrible.

My mum was working at a piano factory on Lyme Street, so in the summer holidays I went with my dad on the job. We’d get up at four in the morning to go to Covent Garden for fruit and vegetables – I never knew what they cost because they were always free for us. I’d help him load up the lorry and chuck banana boxes around. One day we were going in the big maroon and cream lorry, maybe an Austin, to Rochester Market in Kent. You cross the Medway bridge over the river, and I was sitting on dad’s lap – there were no seatbelts then – and he said: “Do you want to drive?” He did the pedals and gears and I did the steering wheel. It was like driving a bumper car. And then as we crossed the Medway the engine started making all this noise and sputtering, and I went: “Oh no have I broken it?” But he said it happened all the time and he jumped out of the lorry, grabbed some rags and undid the radiator cap. There was steam everywhere, and he was running away, shouting to me, “Don’t get out of the cab, whatever you do don’t get out”. Then he went to the back of the lorry and found an old tin watering can, poured the water in the radiator and run away when it make this “psssst” sound. Then it started working again. I think that was the highlight for me, driving the lorry, and I remember some of the fruit, peaches so big you needed two hands to hold them, and the juice ran all down your chin. But peaches seem to be tiny things now.

We lived at 28, Greenland Road, on the top floor in two rooms, me and my mum and dad. There was a tin bath in the basement which we brought up to the third floor for a bath, and my mum would boil water for it. The “kitchen” was a cooker on the landing and a cabinet for the food. Water was down one flight of stairs, from a corner sink. We never had water in the kitchen until I was five and they put in a big old butler’s sink. My mum used to give me a bath in it. Anyway, we kept all our food in the kitchen cabinet since it was mostly in tins, we didn’t have a fridge, and one day a tin of Spam or corned beef disappeared. My mum was going to do it for our tea and it wasn’t there. So after that she planted food to see if it would disappear and everything went. We had locks put on the rooms then. The thief was a neighbor downstairs, and she was a big drinker with a tiny husband she used to beat up. I was very scared of her. She seemed to be about 6ft 6ins tall but she had a lovely dog, an old English sheep dog, and I used to lie on the landing with him having a cuddle.

When I was 13 or 14 years old I was in the pub, the Malden Arms, with all my friends, who were mostly two years older than me. We’d party every weekend there to the music. It was the early 1960s, before the pill, and our drink was gin and orange, it was the bees knees. There was an arch from the lounge bar into the public bar, and suddenly I saw my dad staring out me through it. He shouted: “You! Outside! Now!” but a crowd of boys came to protect me because they didn’t know it was my dad. He told me to stop drinking, and I said: “I’ll stop when you do!” and then he laughed and said I could stay so long as the boys saw me safely to my door by ten o’clock before he came back at eleven. My dad was the biggest boozer in Camden.

My father had been dead 18 months when a couple of tecs came round –that’s what we called police detectives, because of seeing them on the television – and my mother phoned me and said, “I’ve had two big tecs round the door looking for your father. They say he owes all this tax.”

“How much?” I asked.

“I don’t fucking know, it’s like telephone numbers to me.”

Anyway, my mum told them he didn’t live there any more, and said: “If I tell you where he is will you get some money for me out of him?” And they said yes, and then she said: “Golders Green Crematorium.”

My dad would have loved that. He won so much money with our dog, a Border Collie called Bobby, who would only eat Cadbury’s chocolate. (Don’t ask.) He would get all the other barrow boys to get different kinds of chocolate, Frys, doggy choc drops, whatever, and lay them all out. Then the boys would bet on whether the dog could pick out the Cadbury’s. And every time Bobby would go for the Dairy Milk, and dad would win the bet."

This story was originally printed as part of a heritage booklet for the 30th anniversary of Castlehaven in 2016. Download the full book hereWritten by Fiona Clague and Kate Muir.

About Castlehaven Community Association:

The Castlehaven Community Association was established in 1985 as a result of a group of local residents concerned about the lack of local facilities for children and older people. Since its inception the charity and company limited by guarantee has always been managed by a voluntary board of local residents. Castlehaven is a small but high profile, vibrant community association that continues to develop and respond to the needs of local residents.