My memories of Billericay High Street
In the early fifties a trip to Billericay High Street was a weekly outing. Living in Great Burstead most of our groceries were delivered by the local grocer, kindly Jim Fennel and since poverty made luxuries rare, my childhood impressions of the High Street are necessarily limited but I remember it fondly and athough I am 3,000 miles away, sometimes wander there in my memory when sleep does not come.
Our first stop was a clinic or office near Sun Corner where Mum would pick up our subsidized orange juice and cod liver oil which children were provided with after the war and into the fifties. Then we would be ready to move on to other shops.
I smile as my memory takes me past Cramphorn’s where Dad bought seed for his huge vegetable plot. While my parents were busy with the assistants weighing out carrot, lettuce, marrow, tomato and cucumber seed or deciding on sets of onions and raspberry canes my brother and I would sample the dog biscuits so invitingly laid out in big sacks. It was hard to resist the crunchy delicacies in such inviting hues of pinks, greens and browns!
And there is the Post Office where on my seventh birthday my mother and I opened my first savings account with my 5s gift money. I was made to feel very important by the staff as I signed my name in my childish scrawl and still have that account nearly sixty years later.
As I move along to Cottis bakery I imagine the windows and counters as they were, full of delicious cakes and buns with the smell of freshly baked bread pervading the atmosphere. We could only afford to buy bread because other indulgences were beyond Mum’s budget. Once, however, she splurged on six, day old jam donuts at half price …a rare bargain. At home, mother sprinkled them with water and put them in a warm oven. No donut I have eaten since has tasted so good. Years later I met a Canadian who had equally fond memories of Cottis’s bakery. He had served in England during the war and found himself in the darkness of early morning Billericay with nowhere to shelter from the lashing rain and bitter cold temperatures. The only place that showed any signs of life was the bakery. Drawn by the smell and the promise of warmth he was welcomed and given hot tea and freshly baked buns amply spread with butter
Just up the road is the sweet shop, smelling richly of tobacco, that also sold Enid Blyton’s Sunny Story Magazine which I coveted. My older sister said she would pay for it but only on condition I was sufficiently brave to ask for it myself. With no other way to get the magazine, I put my shyness aside and triumphantly walked away with my treasure. Sometimes we spent our sweet ration there which was about 4 oz of sweets a week. We gazed longingly at the range of large jars full of yellow sherbets, toffees, dolly mixtures, bon-bons, floral gums and jelly babies trying to make the wisest selection usually choosing small sweets so we got more!! They were put in tiny white bags which were twisted at the corners. Later we would share them out equally so we all had some of each. After rationing finished we spent our penny halfpenny bus fare on three or four gobstoppers and walked the two miles home!
Nearby was a beautiful old house covered in ivy with a sign saying Foxcroft Children’s Home. As we went past with our loving mum holding our hands, we could not imagine having no parents to love you, nobody to tuck you up or read a story with you, nobody to run to when you fell over or had a bad day at school.
Trotting along past Bairstow and Eves the estate agents from whom our parents bought our house in 1949, past Shelley’s the ladies dress shop whose windows were full of lovely things we could never afford, we reached Goodspeeds the fish shop. It was just off the high street tucked away behind the St Mary Magdalen church, the steeple of which could be seen from far away. The fresh fish lay on a huge tiered table that was covered in green material that looked like grass. There were fewer varieties of fish to select from in those days, the staples being cod, haddock sole or skate and for an indulged cat, white-fish. While Mum made her careful selection as to size and freshness we children stood transfixed looking at the giant stuffed fish in a glass case on the tiled wall. It was huge, gaping at us with its glazed eyes and its mouth open as much as ours!!
Sometimes we went as far as the station where we would order coal or coke from a little shed just outside the station. We had lots of wood to burn from the apple orchard where we lived but needed coal to keep the fire going over night when it was really cold. When it was delivered the coalman struggled in with bag after bag of coal on his back as my mum or dad counted the sacks. He looked terrifying with the whites of his eyes gleaming through a black layer of coal dust.
Just opposite was the beautiful Chantry Café where we learned at school Christopher Martin met with other Pilgrim fathers before their long journey across the Atlantic on the Mayflower. It was a lovely Tudor building and a landmark but never frequented by us, as mother could not justify spending scarce cash on tea and a cake when we could have the same thing or better at home. We sometimes saw one of Billericay’s characters in that area. He was “the judge” a wizened old man who roamed the streets pacing solemnly hour after hour hands clasped behind his back. Rumor had it that he was once an influential barrister but in his dirty grey coat and old hat jammed down over his ears, his long nose dripping there was little indication of his former glory.
Now here is Billericay Library, my favorite place, where Dad took me at the age of five to borrow my first book. The whole family valued that library. Outwardly it was an ordinary shop front building, the children’s library at the back, adult library looking out on the street and a reference library upstairs but inside it was full of treasures. Mr Tom Williams, an inspirational teacher at the primary school ensured we visited the library as a class where staff read Greek myths to us with a magical passion. This was a forward thinking example of school/library cooperation which was rare then. Years later I decided to become a librarian and worked at that library before going away to Library School. My career spanned forty years, mostly in Canada but inspired by those initial experiences at Billericay library.
And there is Woolworths which when it arrived meant we had become a modern town. I can smell the newness of it still. It was our first experience of a self- service store with bright lights and wooden floors and low counters. Later I got my first Saturday job there earning the princely sum of 12s and 9d for the whole day. Mostly I remember my brother and I selecting a birthday gift there for mother with great love. We chose a pink plaster poodle standing appealingly on its hind legs, its collar studded with diamonds. We did not see its tawdriness just its cuteness and picking up a box paid for it and hurried home only to find the box was empty. It had taken us so long to save that shilling and we rushed back the two miles so distressed we were hardly able to speak, but the supervisor, Miss Lamb, was compassion personified and mother got her birthday present after all.
And now homeward bound in my memory, we pass the Police Station, cross over to the cottages at Sun Corner where we wait for the 251 Eastern National bus that will take us down Bell Hill where the ruins of the old mill stood, past cows grazing contentedly in nearby fields, past the prefabricated houses put up as temporary accommodation for Londoners after the war, past the swings at South Green, past Weedon’s the paper shop where my brother became a paperboy and alight at the Kings Head where we hurry up Mill Road to the happy security of home.