1901. Edwardian London. Harry Young enters the world. Given the family’s terrible financial state, and his father’s poor business sense, Harry was probably lucky to be the only child born to his father, Percy, and his mother (who remains nameless in his memoir for some reason). Although there is little recollection of his infancy, Harry chronicles his pre-teen years with a sense of wonderment at the hustle and bustle of the ‘Hollow Way’ (Holloway) Road, Islington where he grew up.
He recalls how ‘[the] centre of the road was occupied by the Electric trams; huge double deckers running on steel racks and capable of quite respectable speeds.’
Most of the buildings at the bottom of Holloway Road ‘were tiny dilapidated Victorian hovels’ although, of these, his ‘father’s bicycle shop was the most imposing building in the whole row.’ (I do wonder if he wrote that tongue-in-cheek?) It seems that the location of his father’s shop was, however, at the epicentre of all things entertaining for a young boy.
Harry’s home was flanked on one side by a ‘Beer-shop […] of the lowest type’ which, if you’ve read my introduction, you’ll know was frequented by all sorts of riff-raff (don’t forget the two-by-fours)!
The other flank was occupied by ‘the Farrier, one of the few remaining in London’ due to the advent of the motor car. In the immediate vicinity was ‘“Cassidy” the tobacconist, […] “Old Simmonds” the grocer, the barber, “Jacks”, and “Ted’s Tea Bar”, where one could get slabs of “Nelson” a sweet cake with a coating of sugar icing, or Chelsea Buns, or Rocks or “Fly Cemetries”, [sic] [which were] two sliced concoctions stuffed with currants.’
[If the street numbers have remained unchanged until present day, Percy’s shop would have been just in front of the cab to the left of the picture below, opposite number 89 Holloway Road.]
Aside from all the delights offered by the shops, during the summer the streets were filled with ‘“Pitchers” or “Street Hawkers”, who did turns or sold novelties, with a spiel, or patter.’ Various tricks, gimmicks and performances were on show, all in the hope of persuading a passer-by to part with a copper or two. Of all the various showpieces, ‘pride of place goes to the flame thrower with his torch and bottle of Paraffin, […] petrifying the citizenry with a great four foot blast of flame from his mouth.’ None of the small boy’s wonder is lost as Harry reminisces over his days on the Holloway road.
Sadly, the home he shared with his family was a different matter.
I have already touched upon how his father lacked any sort of business sense, and Harry goes as far to say the he ‘was the most unfortunate, unluckiest, unhappiest man [he] ever knew. His whole life was one long series of disasters, tragedies and mishaps.’
Suffering ‘chronic life-long ill-health due to childhood starvation’ Percy Young grew up the son of a ‘drunk itinerant cabinet maker’ experiencing early in his life ‘the vigour of East End poverty.’ Unfortunately, it didn’t get any better for poor Percy, after trying to follow his classmates on a day trip that he had not been able to afford, ‘he was found asleep in the gutter […] by a passing mounted patrol man and roped to his horse […] to be sent to Gravesend Industrial School,’ which was a delinquent’s school-cum-workhouse.
Life didn’t improve much for Percy Young when, in later life, he ‘[fell] into the clutches of a gang of con-sharks [who played] the old trick of granting [Percy] the managership [sic] of a furniture, on payment of a “returnable” deposit.’ Needless to say he never saw the deposit money again. Even the law was against him, ‘being warned by the County Court Judge not to sign documents without understanding them.’ There is far more to the tragic tale of Percy Young that will not fit in this entry, but I suspect that had he the foresight to write a memoir it might very well rival his son’s.
Mrs Young, Harry’s mother who, despite my best efforts, must remain nameless, was a far less complicated person than her ill-fated husband. Although she shared in the melancholy that accompanied Percy’s existence, she seemed a simpler, more grounded person who took pleasure in the small pleasures she afforded.
‘She came from a raucous, beer mopping East End (Bethnal Green) family, accustomed to blurting out immediately whatever entered her head.’ I mentioned in my introduction her daily habit of ‘twopenny worth’ of beer, which I have since discovered was a full pint from the ‘Beer-shop’ next door!!
She was, at the risk of sounding a little elitist, the sort of salt-of-the-earth woman who could make the best of any bad situation. Harry himself writes how ‘she was incredibly resourceful and cheerful, greeting each new misfortune and disaster with a laugh. […] However difficult the times, […] she would somehow rustle up a meal, always contriving to get me [Harry] a dinner.’ Most of Harry’s recollections about his mother extol her patience and fortitude in the face of the adversity that was her husband.
Just as a ‘true East-Ender’ would have it, she remained belligerently active well into her eighties. In fact, Harry recalls ‘when she was over 82 [he] received a telegram from a Holiday Camp at Clacton to go and collect her after she had collapsed while dancing at two in the morning.’ We should all be so lucky!
Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858
Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
Header Image: Holt, David. ‘Old London Post Cards 053 Holloway Road c.1921’ flickr.com. Web. Accessed 05 March 2019. <https://www.flickr.com/photos/zongo/8542909660/in/photostream/>