East End Memories



When I was a kid, just about every borough in London seemed to have a large department store and I remember being taken to most of them by my mother. I cannot say that I found many of these stores especially interesting. To me, they were just places where I was made to put on uncomfortable clothes and then made to walk up and down so that my mother and the sales assistant could get a better look. As I did, my mother would tell me to stand up straight and to hold my head up and pull my shoulders back. Once back within arm’s reach, I would find myself being pulled and tugged at by my mother and the sales assistant. In other stores, I would be given endless numbers of shoes to try on and again told to walk up and down. There were yet other stores where jumpers and pullovers and the occasional shirt were held up in front of me in order to get a better look and, as always, I was told to stand up straight and pull my shoulders back.

At this time, just about every store was individually owned and was not part of a chain. Sadly, over the years, and with changing tastes, many stores closed down and were either demolished or else converted into a collection of smaller shops. Many of the surviving stores were taken over and became part of a chain once their name was changed. Although I did not especially enjoy going to these stores, there was one exception that I would practically beg to go to. This store was special to me, as it was to just about every kid growing up in London at that time. Despite the store not being in the East End, this made little difference to us kids since after our first visit going there, it would become a vital part of our childhood and a precious memory that we all still treasure.

For those of you that are unfortunate enough not to have heard of the place, and for those of you that have yet never had the privilege to visit this wonderful store, I will try to explain the attraction that Gamages held for me and for so many others. Firstly, let me say to those of you that think of Toys R Us as something special and to those of you who were saddened at the demise of F.A.O. Schwarz and finally to those of you who hold Hamleys of Regent Street and Macy’s at Herald Square in high esteem …. I can only say, using the immortal words of Al Jolson .... you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Children watching Toy TrainsGamages was not just a toy shop or even a toy store. No, these terms would not have done it justice, for Gamages was THE toy store. Every child would look forward to a visit there. Families from all over the place would take buses to High Holborn. The kids, already hyped up, would jump off the bus with glee and dance along the street with excitement in the direction of the store. Their anticipation would reach almost breaking point as they dragged their parents along with increasing speed the nearer they got to the entrance. Once they crossed the threshold and got inside, there were never disappointed with what they found, for here they would be presented with floor upon floor of all the toys fit to see and all the toys fit to buy. Gamages was an Aladdin’s cave just waiting to be discovered. A visit to Gamages would make a child dizzy with wonder and when it came to model trains, most of their fathers would be even dizzier than their children.

I remember the last time I went to Gamages with my parents. The visit was memorable to say the least. At that time, we were no longer living in the pie ‘n’ mash shop. We had moved recently from Mile End Gate to a little street just off Bethnal Green Road, near the Salmon and Ball public house. Our new home consisted of decidedly reduced quarters since, as they used to say in Victorian times, we had suffered a reduction in station. My father was no longer making pies and chopping up eels, but was working at Liverpool Street Station. This was not a happy time for us.

Since the move from the shop had been hard for us all, my mother felt it important to try to salvage as much as possible of our old way of life whenever possible. I remember that as it was near to Christmas, it was decided that we should go ahead and still make our annual trip to Gamages to see the toys and to meet Father Christmas. I was perhaps a bit old by then to meet him and talk about my wishes for gifts. It had been a number of years since I believed in flying reindeer and a fat and jolly old man bringing gifts. You will notice in the picture provided that a glimpse of trouser may be seen beneath the robe at the left leg, which of course, finally killed any further belief in this pretense. This was, I might add, a bitter pill to swallow. Since our reduction in station, I knew that this year Santa might not get down our chimney at all. Anyway once it was decided to go ahead with our trip to Gamages, I welcomed the opportunity. I reasoned that a trip to a place of such importance, regardless of the prevailing sad situation, should not be missed. I also remember promising myself to tolerate meeting that old charlatan dressed in red and phony beard and pretend that he was whom he claimed to be for the sake of my parents.

Let me give you some background information about my father: he was, to say the least, unhappy. He was unhappy at having lost the shop; he was unhappy at having to work on the railway; and no doubt unhappy for a multitude of other reasons. I am sure that these included having married and having had a child and having the responsibility that these bring, and so on. Naturally, this was all very sad for him. However, and as sorry as I was for him, it was how he chose to live his life during this time that made life even sadder for my mother and me, and at times, caused us much embarrassment.

One day in mid December, my mother arranged to meet my father after he finished his work. He was on early shift at that time, which meant working from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. We were to meet him near the clock on the Bishopsgate side of Liverpool Street Station. Steam trains were still in use and the station was filled with smoke and was very noisy from the engines blowing off steam and sounding their whistles. I remember the station announcer giving out information at periodic intervals, which were always totally incomprehensible to the average traveller. We arrived at the meeting point just before 2 p.m. and began to wait. And wait we did for my father did not arrive on time. In fact he was not just a few minutes late, or even late, but eventually arrived very late.

Bishopsgate side of Liverpool Street Station
Bishopsgate side of Liverpool Street Station

My father, like many people with sadness and unhappiness plaguing them, would drink. He had always drunk, but now he drunk to excess more often. This might not have been more than an occasional problem were it not for the fact that my father never knew when to stop drinking, besides which he was incapable of holding the volume that he consumed. Making matters worse was that when he drank, his mood would change and pass through a number of stages. He would most often begin his drinking in an angry mood. Someone or something would upset him and he would set about consoling himself by drinking. And as he drank, his mood would blacken. His anger would reach a peak after having had perhaps three or four drinks. After this, if we were lucky, his mood would mellow and he would pass through what can be called for him, his happy drunk phase. Should he continue to drink, he would next become maudlin. He would occasionally start to weep and, if my mother or myself should be present to suffer this stage of his mood swings, he would tell us over and over again how much he loved us and say again and again that we were too good for him. He was actually easy to deal with once he reached this stage. Following this mood, we knew that it would not be long before he passed out and freed us from this misery for several hours. However, it was during the earlier unhappy drunk phase that we would experience our greatest concern, as it often brought us much fear together with the occasional beating once my father caught us after chasing us about the room.

When my father was in his unhappy drunk phase, he would generally engage himself in conversation. He would be reliving a painful event such as a recent unpleasant interaction with someone. These conversations would start with his mumbling his dissatisfaction. This was always a bad sign, as it meant that worse things were coming. When he was at home, such conversations most often took place as he sat at the dining table while trying to eat his lunch or dinner. This was an especially dangerous time for my mother since he had both a knife and a folk in his hand – both potential dangerous weapons.

My mother had been raised in a home with a drunken stepfather and had been sent to the hospital on many occasions either from an unlucky blow, as she put it, or else thanks to being hit by a flying plate or cutlery. My mother had long since learned that knives should never be sharp. She always believed that on one cold dark night, if she was not ever ready, a sharp bladed knife would be plunged into her – by my father or, when she was a child, by her stepfather. Although this may sound ridiculous to anyone that had not lain in bed fully dressed and shaking with fear and ready to run out of the house once a marauding madman came bounding up the stairs intent on doing you in or at least wanting to do you harm, cannot understand the fear that sharp knives can instill. My father would get crazy whenever he decided to carve meat since he would not be able to find a sharp knife. My mother would always excuse this by saying that she had taken the knives for sharpening. He would grumble and say that they were always taken for sharpening and would not be pleased. Better he should be distressed that his sliced meat was not tissue paper thin and below his standards than we should be found with those daggers thrust into our chests and with our lifeless bodies sprawled across the bed!

That Look!Once my father arrived at the clock on the Bishopsgate side of the station, he was well and truly entrenched in his decidedly unhappy drunk phase and we knew that the afternoon was not going to be pleasant. My father had the habit of turning anything and everything around when he was in this mood. No matter what my mother said to him, he would see it as an attack and would react accordingly. He would be, at best, unpleasant and accusatory and, at worst, belligerent and combative. Immediately he arrived, he began complaining that my mother had that look on her face. My mother was unfortunate in that she could not hide her feelings from showing on her face. Under these conditions, when faced with a frightening and potentially violent man, her face would naturally show a certain fear. She was naturally upset that he was in such a state in public and also that he was showing, yet again, this side of his nature to me. When she was a child, she often voiced her disapproval to her stepfather and this most often brought her black eyes, broken bones and prolonged stays in a hospital. With my father, voicing disapproval also brought her slaps and occasional punches and once caused her to suffer the fingers of her left hand being caught between a closing door and the door frame as my father slammed it shut. And so, after many years of painful experience, she tried hard to hide her feelings, but the look always gave her away!

Now anyone with sense would have suggested not going to Gamages at this time. For us, this was not a viable option, since the mere suggestion of a change in plans would have caused my father to explode with anger. He had, as my mother used to say, to be handled with kid gloves. The smallest of perceived insults, the merest look of disdain or the smallest hint of shame, and he would have launched into a tirade that would have brought us angst beyond imagination. The only way to deal with this mood was to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and grin and bear it and hope for the best. Most certainly, we did not know how the afternoon was going to turn out, but at that time, we could do little but be swept up in it and be carried along like some flotsam and jetsam being carried back and forth by the sea. We were powerless to have any say in our fate that afternoon, and we knew it. And so, we went ahead with our planned happy trip to Gamages.

London BusBus signI do not how, but somehow my mother avoided a full-scale confrontation with my father at Liverpool Street Station and mercifully I remember quickly boarding a bus to Holborn. I say mercifully since we were very lucky not to have to wait for the bus, as this would surely have worsened his mood and risked his battling some innocent fellow traveller. I recall that when the bus arrived, it was reasonably crowded with few available seats on the lower deck. My father had the habit, even when sober, of forgetting that we were with him. He would walk down a street and soon become oblivious to the fact that my mother and I were not there. He had the habit of walking ahead with his hands clasped behind him, in much the same manner that policemen used to walk. He never glanced back to see where we were and so never waited for us to catch up with him. We had to do our best to keep him within sight to see which way he had decided to go. Often, my mother would have enough of this, and after referring to him as a silly old sod, we would make a turn in the opposite direction to his and go off on our own. He would return home later as if nothing had been remiss unless of course he had stopped off for a drink and then there would be danger to follow.

Once the bus arrived, my father staggered onto the bus platform and started to make his way to the upper deck. Obviously, he wanted to smoke. Let the old sod choke himself! These were perhaps our thoughts at this time. Anyway, quick as a flash, my mother took the opportunity to disassociate us from him and went inside and into the lower deck. My mother paid for the fares, I remember, and she told the bus conductress that she was paying for the railway man upside. She knew that he would be in no condition to offer fare and so avoided a possible contra temps here.

The bus sped on its way through the City and then as we approached Holborn, we were shamed to hear my father in his booming voice announce to everyone on the upper deck that it was Gamages next stop – everyone off to see Father Christmas! Redness and shame covered our faces at the hearing of his announcement. This was one of those moments when we would have wished for the ground to open and swallow us. We leapt up out of our seats and literally ran to the bus platform and practically flew off the bus the very second that it stopped. We needed to find sanctuary under the awning of a nearby shop or else in its entrance. We were so filled with embarrassment that we could not bear the thought of being associated with this person!

And then G-d smiled on us. It is believed that G-d will give you a way out once life becomes too much. For those of you that do not believe in G-d, let me hazard a guess that you have never been pursued by a drunken man or been embarrassed by one in public. Had these unfortunate events happened to you, believe me, you would rethink your lack of belief.

We were the first off the bus and now hide until my father was able to join us. There was a long queue of people waiting to get on the bus and normally they would have waited patiently for those getting off to get off before they began to get on. Without reason, suddenly, those wanting to get on, started to push forward and attempt to get on while those from both upper and lower decks began also to push forward at the same time in their efforts to get off. As a result, a sort of stalemate occurred where one group pushed on or while the other pushed off. Meanwhile the conductress could be heard asking for those without to wait for those within to get out and off before trying to mount the platform. Amidst the developing melee, we could hear my father bellowing somewhere on the upper deck, since obviously despite his announcement of the impending stop, he had failed to ready himself to join those getting off.

Eventually, the conductress had had enough of the pushing and shoving that was going on and I could see her push her way to the edge of the platform and inform the members of the melee that unless they were orderly, she would ring the bell and then no one would get on or off. Her words went unheeded. And, bless her for this, she rang the bell – actually, she pressed the button several times – and as she did she told everyone on the platform and those standing inside, to hold on. Mercifully, the bus moved off, taking those remaining passengers that were hoping to alight at High Holborn and Gamages on to the next stop and those waiting at the bus stop, to wait for the bus behind. The bus also carried my father on with the rest much to the relief of my mother and me.

I remember that we stood there under that awning and breathed a sigh of relief to be temporarily rid of my father. Suddenly, my mother started to laugh and soon we were enjoying the moment and found it funny that he had been carried off in this way.

Once we had collected ourselves, we decided to move from where we had taken sanctuary, but we did not make our way to the next bus stop to meet my father. We were relieved to be free and could not bring ourselves to put ourselves back in harm’s way. Instead my mother and I spent what was left of the afternoon wandering around Gamages, where we had a truly wonderful time. Incidentally, I even enjoyed talking with Father Christmas for the first time in many years.

Once we arrived home, there was no sign of my father. He eventually arrived home much later that night. We had taken the precaution of going to be dressed since we knew that there was a chance that we would have to pay for not finding him earlier in the day. Mercifully, when he arrived home, his mood was quiet and he went straight to bed without any interaction with us. Later we were to learn that after being unable to alight the bus at Holborn, he had sat down again and did not get off at the next stop. Instead, he fell asleep and was carried to the terminus, where he was wakened. His mood must have been foul at that time. Anyway, when he tried to board a bus to return home, he found that he had no money – obviously he had spent it all getting into the angry drunken mood that we had met him in earlier. Since he had no money, he could not ride home. His only alternative was to walk, and walk he did – all ten miles. London bus routes are long.

After learning his fate, we feigned concern and pity for him, which he lapped up, but we did not have our hearts in it. Far from it, for secretly, we felt that he got his just desserts. I remember thinking that he got exactly what he deserved. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can’t. And as my mother would often ask following such an event, do you still think there is no G-d?


Recently I was watching the T-Mobile Dance at Liverpool Street, which took place on the Bishopsgate side on 15th January, 2009. This event reminded me of the many miserable dances that my mother and I endured under the choreography of my father when under the influence and in sour mood. I was pleased to see that this venue, which held many sad memories for me, has now become the site of such a fun and fanciful happening as this.

I was reading your East End Toff piece the other day and it brought back memories of a little army suit I had as a child.  I also remember seeing versions of RAF and Navy uniforms as well as unused de-mob suits for sale.  I recall that my mother was still able to buy de-mob suits for me to wear right up until I was around 14 or 15.  I feel certain that she purchased them at Gamages.  Somehow they were still on sale to the general public.  Rob Humphreys


A few weeks ago I was contacted by a Mr. Paul Davis. Imagine my surprise when I learned that he believed himself to be the baby in the picture of the observers of the model train at Gamages. I thought that this picture was taken close to Christmas 1954, and since Mr. Davis was born in 1953, he was without doubt of an appropriate age at the time to be that child. I set about trying to find out exactly or thereabouts when the picture was taken and learned that it had been taken just before Christmas in 1954. In the meantime, Mr. Davis sent me a copy of a picture that his parents had had taken at that time of him in the same outfit as seen in the Gamages picture.


Mr. Davis has also given some information as to other members of the Gamages picture: Mr. Davis’ mother is seen to the left of him; his father is at the back of the picture – he is the tall man with a hat; behind Mr. Davis’ mother, one is just able to see his uncle (wearing glasses) and his aunt on his right – he believes that this is of his Uncle Harry who was his mother’s eldest brother.

I wonder what odds would be given by a bookie on the baby of the picture seeing this website and then turning to this story and then recognizing himself? The mind boggles!

Mr. Paul Davis and his wife Marietjie - 2010

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins