I must have walked miles like this in the two winters I spent in New Cross and several times an incident would occur which would break the monotony. One night we were proceeding through Deptford, near Surrey Docks, not a very select neighbourhood at the best of times. I was a few paces in front of the tram and we had been gliding through the fog like this for about an hour, when suddenly I got a shout from the driver, "Come on back, mate - we're stuck - dead line." I turned to retrace my steps and saw - nothing! No tram, no pavement and no sign of people - just thick yellow smoke, the oily flame of the torch in my hand and silence so deep you could cut it with a knife. I feared I had wandered off the track and held the torch nearer the ground to check but no, the rails still gleamed faintly in the flickering flare. Then a rattling chain and the thump of the platform steps dropping reassured me and I knew the driver was descending from the platform and coming to join me. I breathed a deep sigh of relie and backed a couple of steps back, almost colliding with the driver, and now just able to see the faint outline of the tram looming over us - but all the lights were out. "Better light another flare and prop it up the back - we are more likely to be hit from behind than in front," said my mate. So through the tram we went, torch aloft, and lit a second one which we wedged between tram and buffers, making sure it slanted away from the paintwork. Meanwhile, the driver told me that there was no juice and we would have to wait until the electricity supply came on again before we could continue. "The last time this happened to me was when some idiot driving a lorry mounted the pavement and crashed into a substation," he said.
Damage to a roadside substation cuts the supply of power to only a small section of road and the usual procedure is to wait until the engineers come along to fix it and send us on our way. But at 10 p.m. and in the thickest fog for years, how long was that likely to be? A friendly shout and measured footsteps heralded the arrival of a policeman, his black mackintosh cape dripping with condensed fog but a wide smile under his helmet. He told us he had been warned to look out for us. The driver had guessed correctly - it was a bus that had crashed into the substation box and rendered our stretch of line dead. "Can't stop, mate," he said, "got to keep the next tram from running too far - they've got through on the 'phone to your chaps so they will get here as soon as they can." So with that much information we had to be content and returned to the tram.
It might be just slightly warmer inside, we thought, but if it was we hardly noticed. We carefully counted our cigarettes - only five between us to see us through what looked like being a long night but we lit up just the same. We talked about the war, the job and our families and stamped up and down the tram trying to bring the circulation back to frozen feet and numb fingers. Our last passenger got off several stops past and we beginning to think we were the last people left on earth when a faint call sent us hurrying back to the platform. There stood a man I recognised as one of the regulars who used the tram to travel back and forth to his job in the docks. "The copper just told me you were stuck here," he said, "I've brewed up a pot of tea and stirred the fire up - only live round the corner - come on round and have a warm up." I felt I could have hugged him but we couldn't both leave the tram. No vehicle may be left unattended, even in these dire circumstances, so, like a true hero, my driver insisted on me going first. Don't worry, love," said our saviour, "You won't be all alone with me, I've got the old woman up." And so it was.
The entire family of mother, father and four children lived in one room under appalling conditions. The children curled up in both ends of single bed and the parents in a camp bed in the opposite corner. What with a kitchen table and chairs, a dresser and wardrobe cupboard and lines of washing across the room there was hardly room to move but all I saw in that first glance was the glow of the fire piled with tarred wooden blocks with flames leaping up the chimney. "Bit of luck, that," said my escort, "They've just finished mending the road outside. Those tar blocks burn a treat, don't they?" I had to agree. I wouldn't have cared if he'd been burning the wooden seats of the tram right then, I was so glad to sit there in the high backed wooden armchair and watch the steam rising from my clothes. "Let me pour the girl a cup of tea, Bert," said my hostess, "do you fancy a bit of bread and dripping, ducks?" Would I? But what about the rest of the family? A glance around the room told its own story. There wasn't much money to spare in this household. My four pounds a week wages was probably much more than the breadwinner was getting to keep his family of six and they were offering me what was probably part of their breakfast. But I had no real choice - it was quite obvious that an offer to pay would have deeply offended them and a refusal might have made them believe I thought myself too refined for such humble fare. So down went the doorstep of bread and dripping between sips of hot tea from a slightly chipped enamel mug and it was wonderful. I knew I would have go soon - I couldn't forget my driver, still out there in the fog while I was warm and fed, so I got the tea down as soon as I could, but it was hot and Bert and his missus were chatting away, mostly about their children.
They admitted they should have sent them away when most of their mates kids were evacuated but they just couldn't bear to part with them> The schools were closed down and weren't getting any education but the three boys were expecting to work in the docks like their dad and you didn't need much education for that - not the kind the schools provided, anyway. Neither of the parents could read or write very much and the family had been dockers for generations so who was I to suggest they might aspire to higher things. No one could have been kinder than those two and when someone offers all they have to a complete stranger that puts them in a class above any other, in my opinion. I asked Bert if he would see me back to the tram so I could allow my driver to return and he was glad to see the pair of us. Then Ada turned up, "Don't like to think go you out here all alone, duck," she said. She had muffled herself up against the cold and followed her husband out into the cold fog to keep me company while my drier had his tea and warm by the fire.
In the next quarter of an hour I had heard all about the children and how they could pick up a few coppers helping out at the local shops, doing errands for the old people and tackling a morning paper round. It must have been a happy family for all their poverty and I managed to get her to accept a shilling each for the children "From their new Auntie Doris," I said. Apparently counting oneself as a member of the family made it quite acceptable and I didn't feel so guilty wolfing down the bread and dripping after that. We had a cigarette and chatted on until my driver came back. We thanked our new friends once more and watched them disappear into the fog. It was after 11 p.m. by then and we knew the repair gang hadn't mended the substation for we were still in the dark. They finally arrived about twenty minutes later and ten minutes after that we were on our way.
I walked ahead for about twenty minutes longer, picking up one or two passengers as the pubs turned out. It takes more than a London pea-souper to keep some blokes from their favourite hobby, it would seem. My first contact with these few "rabbits" would be when I almost cannoned into them along the track. Of course, they heard the tram coming and simply walked into the road towards it, swinging on as it crawled past at a snail's pace. After the first couple I tucked my ticket rack into my money bag and issued tickets on the road to save myself the effort of climbing back on to the tram each time. A couple of chaps must have come straight off the pavement and on to the tram without passing me, still plodding away in front, and I found their few coppers fare on my locker top under the stairs. People were very honest those days and the poorer people were the more honest they were, it seemed. I think it was a matter of pride more than anything else. You have to prove you could manage without getting int debt or asking for charity. In fact, charity was a dirty word to most working people - much dirtier, in fact, than some of the four letter words bandied about today.
Hire purchase was becoming available for some goods but most people, especially the older ones, considered it not quite respectable to possess goods before they were paid for. My Gran always held these views and would go without rather than buy things "on the never-never". She made me save part of my pay every week until I had enough cash to refurbish my room and start a home of my own. When I had the magnificent sum of seventy pounds in the bank, she took me along to a dockside warehouse and for sixty-nine pounds cash we chose all my furniture - bed, large wardrobe, man's wardrobe and dressing table in walnut (veneer), dining table and four chairs in fumed oak, settee and two armchairs in imitation leather known as Rexene, a twelve foot by twelve foot carpet square and a fender and fire irons for the fire-place. They lasted for years and years, in fact, I still have the wardrobe and dressing table and I've been married for thirty-six years now. Our sense of values has certainly changed in that time until now the use of credit is regarded as normal and fare dodging, especially by the younger generation, has become the subject of self-congratulation rather than shame, I wonder why?
Of course, children didn't use Public Transport much in the war, those children still living in London only rode on buses and trams when they were taken out by their parents for a treat. When the authorities realised that thousands of children had either never been evacuated or had returned to London the schools began to open again but the children walked to and from school as they had always done. There were no special school journeys as there are now and bus crews weren't bowled over by a screaming, fighting and even cursing horde of school children twice a day as they are now either. And the tricks those little darlings get up to to avoid paying their fare would certainly disgust their grandfathers who used to leave their fare on the tram because the conductor was walking in front with a torch!
By this time we had reached Greenwich and it was well after midnight, and the fog was clearing, thank goodness. Our last passenger swung off as I climbed wearily back on to the platform. There was quite a long line of trams gliding through to New Cross, some from Catford, Lewisham, Brockley and Woolwich and we all carried on in convoy to the Depot. Then, after queuing up to pay in we dispersed outside the Depot and went our different ways home to sleep through what was left of the night. Of course, the night trams were running but all well late so I started out to walk down the Old Kent Road rather than wait at New Cross gate until one arrived. I heard it coming as I approached Canal Bridge and rushed out in the road to swing aboard. The driver pulled up right outside 234, saving me walking round the corner, and I was up the steps and into the house like a rocket. Although the fog came up again for several more nights, it never got quite bad enough to make me get out and walk and it was weeks later when I was working in fog again and I had another incident which always raises a laugh when I retell it (which is probably all too often).
Although the fog was pretty thick on the Embankment, the driver told me not to bother to walk in front. The fog always hung heaviest along the river and it would clear up once we left the water behind us. It was quite late at night and I knew I should have to leave the tram to pull the points over at the crossroad the other side of Westminster Bridge. At all main crossings a pointsman sat, pulling over the points so that each tram went off in its proper direction, but once the evening rush was over and the pointsman finished for the day, then all point pulling had to be done by the conductor. Each tram carried a points lever, four feet long and made of iron. It took a bit of lifting across to the pavement - there it was fitted into a slot and pulled across to send the tram round the corner. The lever had to be held against the tension of a heavy spring while the tram passed over the turning points. Then the lever was released allowing the points to return the track to the straight ahead position and the conductor pulls the points-iron out of the slot and dashes round the track to reboard the waiting tram. I had repeated this manoeuvre at lots of cross-roads without any mishap so what followed on this night was completely unexpected.
The driver pulled up at the usual spot and I alighted with the points bar and crossed to the pavement. The fog was rising from the river and swirling round my feet and it took me some little time to find the slot in the pavement and insert the iron bar. I strained to pull it across and felt the spring points engage. "Okay, mate - full ahead!" I yelled and the tram pulled away and I hung on to the bar. It was damp and threatened to slip from my grasp. I knew that if I let go while the plough was actually slipping from one track to the other then the plough would buckle and the tram would be in a position with the front wheels on one track and the rear wheels on another. The mind boggles! I desperately hung on and breathed a sigh of relief when I heard the rear wheels crash against the points and continue round the corner. For some reason the points-bar seemed jammed and I tugged it first one way and then another until it finally jerked out of the slot, nearly throwing me off my feet. I looked to wher I thought the tram should be waiting and saw nothing but fog. I began to hurry faster, surely I should have reached the crossroad by now?
Walking along the pavement and staring into the road I collided violently with a gentleman dressed in blue serge and found myself looking up into the bearded face of a tall policeman.
"Oh, good!" I exclaimed, "Have you seen a tram?"
"Hundreds," was the unhelpful reply, albeit accompanied by a twinkle in his eye and a broad grin. "Now, what's the trouble, young lady?"
"I think I've lost a tram," I replied, plaintively and the grin melted into a chuckle and the chuckle into a road of laughter. I began to see the funny side of it myself by then and we both laughed and I nearly choked trying to explain and stop laughing in one breath. Now, don't ask me how I'd managed it, but I'd not only started walking in the wrong direction but even managed to cross the road without realising it and we were both standing just under Big Ben, a point emphasised when it boomed out the half hour chime right over my head.
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