Memories of Billericay from 1947 to 1964
A childhood in The Avenue
By Robert Coward
I was born in Muswell Hill a few months before the end of the last war. My parents rented a mansion flat there but in 1947 my parents moved to Billericay where we rented a cottage on the corner of Station Road and The Avenue. We however continued to return to the flat in Muswell Hill until 1952 because it was occupied at various times by my maternal grandparents and aunts.
The cottage in Billericay by contrast was very basic. We had an outside toilet and when we had a bath we used a large bathtub filled with hot water. Originally we had no electricity and relied for lighting on gas lights. We had no telephone and the radio was powered by an accumulator which we bought from Thorntons a shop in the parade near the entrance of Western Road. The radio was dominated by BBC with the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme all of which were very good. There was Radio Luxembourg but the first commercial radio programme was Radio Caroline which operated off the Essex coast. Eventually we had electricity connected and were able to buy a Bush Radio in an arcade in Brentwood High Street near the bus stop for Billericay.
Station Road, The Avenue, Beaufort Road, Rosslyn Road and Bellevue Road were all unadopted and consisted of dirt tracks which in winter often became difficult to pass but were good playground areas for us children. This changed in the early 1970’s when the roads were made up and adopted by the local Council.
Occasionally we had tramps knocking on the door asking for food or drink. More often we had visits from insurance companies collecting premiums for insurance policies as well as rag and bone men collecting unwanted items whose presence was announced by a hand bell. Finally there were travelling salesmen knocking on our doors selling items contained in suitcases.
Because of food rationing after the war, it was common for chickens to be kept to provide eggs unless of course they were killed by foxes. I can only remember once seeing a fox whilst living in Billericay although they are common in most places nowadays.
Almost opposite us in Station Road was a cottage and yard belonging to the Cottee family who were one of the major firms selling coal in Billericay. They had coal bunkers in the back garden and we used to be sent as children to the Cottees back door to pay Mrs. Cottee cash for the coal we had had delivered. Mrs Cottee came from Halstead in North Essex and had a beautiful rich Essex accent. She had a son Basil who ran the family business. We bought our coal from them because there was no central heating and we had fire grates in which much effort was made into setting and keeping coal fires alight. The Cottee family had another yard near the railway station where there is now a car park. This was needed there because the coal was transported by rail from wherever it was mined.
Further down Station Road, lived the Shipton family who had a builders yard next door to their house and who were one of the main builders for the area for many years.
At the end of The Avenue, there was a dairy and smallholding owned by the Ricketts family from where we bought milk. Grace Ricketts also delivered the milk to us. The Ricketts family also had land off Perry Street and there is still a street named after them. Eric Ricketts who used to live in Mountnessing Road had a dance band which I believe carried on until the early 1970’s.
Just before you reached the dairy, there lived the Smith family consisting of Marjorie (Mrs Smith), and her 3 sons, Graham, Geoffrey and Gilbert the last of whom I am still in contact and must be my oldest friend. The highlight every year was the birthday party which his Mother organised. I recall there were sandwiches, magicians doing conjuring tricks and occasionally lantern slide shows which few people possessed in those days. I remember in particular them showing photos of Sun Street.
Bellevue Road was largely surrounded by swampy ground. In a side turning, Mr. and Mrs. Powell resided – Mrs. Powell used to give piano lessons. The Powell family was very active in the Methodist Church in Western Road. The Cocks family also lived in Bellevue Road about which I will speak when dealing with the Parish Church
We used to go up to Perry Street to pay the rent for the cottage to the Landlord who lived in a bungalow now no longer there. Before the estate of houses was built off Perry Street, there was open farm land and I can recall a man sowing seed using a violin type instrument in the fields.
In 1952 my parents bought a plot of land in Beaufort Road and upon which a house was built by a Mr. Smith who lived in Ramsden Heath. It was designed by Bill Shaw who lived with his wife and daughter Sandra in Mountnessing Road for many years.
In Western Road opposite Beaufort Road, there was for a time, a tennis court which was subsequently moved to Mountnessing Road and where Billericay Tennis Club started next to the railway lines. Further down Western Road close to Beaufort Rd was the local fire station. When the siren sounded my brother and I used to run up the road to see the firemen arrive and drive out in the fire engine at full speed.
Opposite the fire station was Chestnut Avenue. We knew one family called Brown who lived there comprising of Lillian (Mrs. Brown) and her husband Geoff and their three children Bob, Martin and Pam. The Mepham and Child families also lived in Chestnut Avenue. Mr. Mephan was a local Billericay solicitor for a long period of time whilst the Child family lived next door to the Brown family. Mr. Child was a caretaker at Billericay School in School Road. At the top of the road near the High Street before the more modern houses were built, there was a smallholding which grew vegetables for sale.
Further up Western Road is Wakefield Avenue and Lion Lane. These have a number of memories for me. Firstly there was a bungalow in Wakefield Avenue where the Cheshire family lived comprising Frieda and Arthur Cheshire who had 3 children; Keith who was about my age and who went to live in Clacton and his 2 sisters, Angie and Jennifer. There were also 2 other families called Cheshire in Billericay one of whom lived in Lion Lane and the other in Western Road but I’m unsure whether they were all related.
Next to the Cheshire family in Wakefield Avenue lived the Boyce and Curling families. Mr. Boyce was an accountant and Mrs. Boyce had an elegance about her which reminded one of an elegant Spanish lady. They had 2 daughters. The Curlings were very active in the parish church about which I will speak later. They had 2 children Celia and Chris, the latter of whom rose to become the senior partner of the largest firm of solicitors in Bristol.
Further up Lion Lane, a Miss Corcoran lived there. She was Headmistress of the primary school in Perry Street. The Catholic Presbytery was also in Lion Lane. Canon Roche, who is now commemorated in the Centre of his name at the Catholic Church in Laindon Road, lived in this Presbytery. He was also a commentator on religious matters on the radio.
The gate that separates Lion Lane from Wakefield Avenue has special significance for me. It was here that on one grey February day in 1952, I met Frank Piece (who lived at the bottom of The Avenue) who informed me that King George VI had died. In about 1950, I can just about remember King George VI coming through Billericay High Street with his wife on his way to open a site at Galleywood.
I also vividly remember the day of the Coronation in 1953 when our present Queen was crowned. It was raining but we admired the courage of the Queen of Tonga forsaking any cover and embracing the bad weather. It was a time of great excitement because it marked a new era which was encapsulated by the news on Coronation Day that Everest had been conquered by Edmund Hilary.
The High Street consisted mainly of shops with some private dwellings such as Hill House. The shops were mainly owned and run by local people. Where Boots is now was one of 2 fishmongers owned by the Horsnell family. The other fishmongers, called Goodspeeds, was situated near the church. There were also 2 Butchers shops; one called Clarkes and another run by Miss Alderslade: a general hardware store called Harrington’s as well as a shop called Leyland’s. All of these businesses were run by local Billericay families.
There were also several estate agents such as Iles and Quirks and solicitors such as Michael Collins and Co. who formed the bedrock of the family businesses in the High Street.
All shops were closed on Thursday afternoons for a half day and there was complete closure on Sundays.
Up to 1954, we had rationing which became progressively less stringent. To collect rations and orange juice for children, you had to go once year (for ration coupons and more regularly for orange juice) to a hut on the corner of Chapel Street and Hillside Road.
The first main change in the High Street was the arrival of Woolworths in about 1955 I think. I have seen a video about this on YouTube but I do remember vividly the day it opened. It was crammed full of people very excited about the novelty of such a store opening on the High Street and the opportunities it would provide.
Our first doctor was Dr. Gunter who lived in the Georgian House called Crescent House almost opposite the parish church. He was a tall, elegant man with a wife equally elegant who previously had been at drama school with Peggy Ashcroft. He had 2 sons one of whom named John Gunter followed his mother onto the stage as a famous theatrical designer. He sadly died of dementia in Muswell Hill a couple of years ago. His Mother also died in Muswell Hill sometime before. Dr. Gunter was a very good doctor who cared for his patients not only in a medical sense but also as human beings. His early death was a great tragedy and a loss to Billericay and the world as a whole.
The Cater Museum is another interesting place. The building was originally a shop owned by Fred Eales a great local character. Then in 1962, it was acquired as a museum and the main driving force behind the museum was Harry Richmond. He was one of the most modest people you could meet but also so talented because he was not only very interested in local history but also an accomplished artist. His book called ‘Billericay and its High Street’ as well as the museum itself are a lasting legacy to his scholarship and passion for the history of Billericay. In addition, there was the local branch of Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) which was also heavily involved in promoting the Museum as well as local people such as Mrs. Cater, Brian Edwards (a local solicitor), Mr. Blatchford and a Mr. Amos whose son is still alive. I remember the day the museum was opened. I think there is a photo of such occasion in the archive
Libraries also formed a major part of my life in Billericay. I remember firstly my father going to the private library which was where approximately Waitrose is located now. It was run by a lady who sadly died in a fire there. She lived in Mountnessing Road and rode an old fashioned bicycle.
The main library run by Essex County Council was where the local branch of Santander Bank now is. It was presided over in the 1960’s by Mr. Humphries resplendent in a bow tie. I spent many happy hours there and was later relocated to Burghstead Lodge where it remains today. One of the librarians was a Mrs. Thresh who lived in Norsey Road and whose sons were contemporaries of both me and my brother.
Opposite Burghstead Lodge is what remains of the Post Office of Billericay now used solely as a place to collect parcels but which was a fully functioning Post Office up until the 1970’s. At Christmas in common with others of my age, I was hired as a temporary postman to assist in the delivery of mail and I can remember delivering mail to Sunnymede. For a long time, a Miss Emery who lived in St Mary’s Avenue was the local Postmistress.
At the corner of the High St. and London Rd. is the police station in the grounds of which also used to stand where the Courthouse where the magistrates sat usually on a Tuesday morning.
In Laindon Road, there are the old buildings of the Great Burstead Primary School (now a local arts centre) but this has been covered elsewhere in the Community Archive. However, my sister, brother and I undertook our Infant and Junior School education.
Between the school and the police station, there was the Archer Hall where the Emmanuel Church is now situated. As indicated elsewhere in the Community Archive, the land was gifted for a hall by a Miss Archer who lived in Little Burstead. During the period I am writing about, it was used to put on plays and amateur operatics and it was said that this was where Billericay society congregated. After Xmas, there were pantomimes and I remember Barbara Tweedy being a leading actress. Finally it was the place where the counting for general elections was held. Under the Town Clerk in the 1950s and 1960s, Billericay became famous throughout the country as being the first constituency to declare its results in a General Election.
In Chapel Street, there was the Ritz Cinema owned by the Phelps family. My mother remembers going there soon after we arrived in Billericay and complaining that often the projector broke down at a crucial stage of the film. For a long time Miss Wormald was the usherette. As a family we sometimes went there but we mainly went in the late afternoon and early evening to the Palace and Odeon Cinemas opposite each other in Brentwood High Street. Thus began my great love of the cinema. We saw such iconic films as Bridge over the River Kwai and the King and I starring Deborah Kerr to name but two. The programme started with adverts by Pearl and Dean followed by Pathé News and then the feature film. What perhaps is most burnt in my memory are the clips showing how bodies of people from the concentration camps were dispatched without any ceremony into pits by tractors. Though there was little practical alternative, it was a vivid illustration of man’s inhumanity to man. Likewise we saw in news clips both on TV and in the cinema, evidence of the effects of a nuclear bomb on buildings in such cities as Nagasaki where what were presumed to be immutable steel structures became twisted and distorted by the force of the blast of such bombs. These were iconic images of the lethal power of the Nuclear Bomb which was a real political issue in the 1950s and which inspired campaigns such as CND.
Reverting back to the Ritz Cinema, it is interesting that in the 1950s and 1960s, Billericay had its own hospital, the Archer Hall for dramatics and Rose Hall for other community purposes. In spite of the expansion in the local population none of these now exist.
When I was seven years old, my Mother suggested that I should join the choir of the local parish church, St Mary’s Magdalene in the High Street, which I duly did. As well as services on Sunday morning, we had choir practices on Friday evening when the music for the following Sunday was rehearsed. The choir master was Tom Pearson and others in the choir were; Judith one of his daughters; Henry Whittaker who became Judith’s husband; Jean Beaumont who married David Pearson; John Giles who sadly died suddenly in the early 1980s; Mrs Smith, the wife of Rev Smith who was the vicar when my parents moved to Billericay in 1947; the Quirk twins as well as their father, Richard Baker who lived in Mountnessing Road and the Cocks brothers Richard and John who lived with their parents in Bellevue Road. We occasionally did weddings for which we got paid 2 shillings and sixpence. This was how I became a Christian.
In the 1960s, there was a joke that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer. Like all jokes, there was a element of truth there because in the early 1960s the churchwardens (Mr Baucher and Mr Terry Thomas) were also very active in the local Tory party. The Young Conservatives used to meet behind the Rising Sun on the corner of Sun St and Laindon Rd which no longer exists.
In respect of buses, there were two main companies, City Coaches which ran from Walthamstow to Southend and the Eastern National service which ran to Chelmsford. As this has been covered elsewhere in the Community Archive, I will not say much except that the City coaches had a cream livery colour as may be seen in photos in the Archive and used to come up the High Street and then turn around to go onto their destination. We would use the City coach to go to Walthamstow where we changed for a bus to Bounds Green and then a trolley bus onto Finchley where my paternal grandmother lived. In those days there were no bus passes. When you entered the bus there was a conductor who had a machine with various dials which produced different small, flimsy paper tickets.
We also had steam trains until the line was electrified in about 1960. Although steam trains were dirty and noisy, I can never forget the excitement and sense of awe I had when such a train came into the station in all its majesty. A man called Paddy used to work at the station looking after the flowers and generally caring for the station as a whole. He went to live in Abbeyfield and was a real character.
Often, as a result of advice from Dr. Gunter, we went to Southend Victoria to walk along the pier so that any bronchial problems could be disposed of by the fresh sea air. Near the pier there was what could be described as a crazy house and after the 1953 floods which affected the Essex coast there were markings on these buildings indicating how far the sea level had reached in terms of the structure. The floods even reached Wickford at one stage. It was a truly devastating flood.
We also used to travel in the opposite direction to Liverpool Street from time to time partly to visit my maternal grandparents who lived in London but also to occasionally visit Great Ormond Street Hospital, London.