‘My visit seemed to me akin to that of viewing an old friend’s corpse prior to its funeral, and on my journey home a decision was made that as the scene of my early life was about to be destroyed forever, I would set down a record of people and memories with the neighbourhood before advancing years dulled my recollection.’
(‘The Lean Years’, p. 2)
So is John Edmonds’ anguished indictment of his old home on Eugenia Road, South East London, that he resolves in the succeeding pages to preserve the memories of his childhood in this memoir, ‘The Lean Years’. John was ‘born a true Cockney within a mile of Cheapside and Bow Bells’ (68) on 26th December 1911. He would spend his first thirty years more peripherally in Bermondsey, yet this recount of his foundational years places him right in the thick of early 20th-century hustle, bustle, scarcity, and modesty of South East London. It is John’s brutal honesty, humility, and espousal of the British “stiff upper lip” that stands out to readers, enticing them into his quotidian life with an admirable atmosphere of getting on with things.
John is self-aware, offering a refreshing and insightful narrative of his formative years that is devoid of bragging. He acknowledges (in retrospect, completing the work at the ripened age of 59 in 1970) that ‘older people […] deplore the passing of “the good old days”’ (3). He adds that ‘writers really deplore the mental effort necessary to successfully adapt an existing way of life to changes as they occur’ (4). Instead, John offers readers a holistic, objective view of his experiences, allowing his audience to become immersed in the lively street life of South Bermondsey and Rotherhithe without the pretence of nostalgia.
For John, there ‘rarely have been “good old days”’ (4). He was a brazen working-class man, proud of his heritage, and thankful for the lessons his unprivileged childhood would teach him. Poverty aligned itself with John’s “Lean Years”, and he bears the brunt of working-class life in a deprived corner of London during the time of war and subsequent years. He recounts dressing in clothes borrowed from siblings, younger and older, as well as father and mother – undesirable, but necessary to preserve his modesty, so is the stringency that surrounds him. This, he does without any complaint.
Born to a strong-minded father, John tolerated many a rant on the economic state of the country via attacks on the Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. His father, mostly unemployed and a proponent of the Labour Party, attempted to instil working-class camaraderie into John. Though he is vague in his own views, John deems his father’s tirades ‘unfair’ (6). Despite this, John holds an affinity with his class, often musing at their admirable togetherness: ‘the most generous to the poor are the poor’ (49). Alongside his father’s strong beliefs, his mother’s intensity shines through. Her Christian faith was ‘unshakeable’ (60), and this, along with her empathy for animals, instilled a sense of morals and discipline in the young boy. However, the throes of economic uncertainty were so that even his Christian mother ‘was not above the practice of petty frauds in her attempts to fix the deficiency’ (42) when the pawnshop – the usual unfortunate bastion of reprieve – would not suffice.
His family’s struggles include comedic yet adverse episodes, such as the war against the old woman renting their “top back” rooms, an unavoidable necessity. This would become another battle to be won by his parents, on the grounds of overcrowding. Life was never without tribulations on some end of the spectrum for the Edmonds family. This led to the hectic life that pours out of John’s pages – evoking a community with collective acceptance of having little and making do. Where material wealth is absent, abundance of character prevails. The reader is invited to experience the louder than life aura of this unsheltered childhood; the booming, incessant cries of Old Frank, the eccentric rat catcher that did the rounds of these eclectic streets, and the stern schoolmasters who preached strict discipline. All of these form a well-rounded view of South East London life in these most difficult “Lean Years”.
Transcribed here, the memoir is handwritten, comprising approximately 15,000 words. His title, ‘The Lean Years’, is emblematic of this troublesome period, as he illustrates those fragile years in which food, clothes, and money are in short supply. John does not share anything from his later life; his only known employment is as a casual newsboy. An educated and cultured man, passionate about the intricacies of the London railways, his memoirs are an expansive, yet focused, view on local working-class life.
2.237 EDMONDS, John, ‘The Lean Years’, MS, pp.89 + 3pp. list of illustrations (c.18,000 words). BruneI University Library. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9517
Map of the Bermondsey Area of London – http://www.maps-of-london.com
The Blue Southwark Park Road Bermondsey South East London England In The Late 1920’s – http://www.pinterest.co.uk