Life for Jews in Britain in the 1930s
I was born in the East End of London in October 1928, my parents were both Jewish although neither of them was very religious. In 1932 they split up and my mother was given custody of myself and my 2 elder sisters, she moved to Hanworth in Middlesex which at that time was little more than a village. My father decided to change our surname from Abrahams to the gentile (non-Jewish) name of Barrie, by doing this he hoped that people would not realise our heritage.
At this time my mother, completely gave up the Jewish faith and I was brought up as Church of England, I was also told that if asked if I was Jewish, to say no. Most of our new neighbours and my school mate had little if any contacts with Jewish people, therefore I don’t think that many of them realised that we were Hebrews.
In the poorer areas like Whitechapel where there were a large number of Jewish people, the native cockneys usually got on reasonable well with them. When Oswald Moseley with his fascist thugs marched through the East End he found his mob was faced not just by Jewish youngsters but also with crowds of local Dockies(dock workers). We know that most of the latter were communist sympathisers who loathed the fascists, but also that they had a loyalty for their neighbours no matter what their religion. In fact the Cockneys although they often made fun of the Jews were usually quite fond of them, and they mainly found them generous and hospitable, not like the myths some of which have lasted up to present times that all Jews are mean.
These myths still linger on, about 5 years ago whilst drinking in my club a man actually said to me, “People sometimes mistake me for a Jew, but I will prove that I am not by buying you’re a drink.”
The Jews were always viewed in a very bad light both in literature and the general press, examples are Dickens’ portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist and Shakespeare’s Shylock and therefore the general perception of Jews in the eyes of the public were of money grabbing spineless manipulators. In fact it was widely believed that the black market in rationed and other scarce goods was entirely run by “Yids” (as Jews were sneeringly called.)
Most people thought of the Jews as spineless and timid souls, they forgot that Max Baer who had held the world heavyweight boxing champion was Jewish.
My older sister later told me that in the school of Walthamstow she attended another little girl used to sneeringly say to her “You don’t eat bacon.” It was presumably from her parents that she obtained this startling piece of knowledge. Ironically we probably quite often had it as our house was never kosher.
Being told as a 4 year old to deny that I was Jewish, had a very big effect on me, I was convinced that Jewishness was something to be ashamed, and this feeling lasted with me for a large part of my life.
I am ashamed to admit that I used to laugh as anti-Semitic jokes and repeat them to others, looking back I am ashamed of my past behaviours.
During the war I was evacuated with my sister’s school and while I was just 11 years of age the bulk of the boys were 15 to 16. For my eleventh birthday Janice (my sister) bought me a sheaf knife which I proudly wore on my belt every day, it was my pride and joy.
When you get a group of boys one of them usually becomes the leader who the other boys all follow, in this school there was one whom we will call Jones (this is not his real name). He perpetually picked on me calling my Shonky and Yid and would accidentally bump into me, which obviously sent me flying. He also encouraged several of his classmates to follow his example. The schoolmaster ignored what was going on although he must have seen it and apart from the occasional “Leave the kid alone” from Josh the boy who was in the same digs as me. Most of the other boys thought it was funny, including another Jewish boy who felt that as long as they targeted me they would leave him alone. Jones made my life at school so miserable and I did not know who to turn to so one day at my wits end I drew the knife and stabbed him, I did not think that the blade would penetrate his clothing but apparently it actually pierced his skin
From then on Jones stopped his blatant bullying and obviously he had a grudging respect for me. This taught me an important lesson that it is never acceptable to put up with being bullied. Even if you risk a beating up this children did not ask what had to close his eyes to the blatant bullying and pander to keep popularity with the older boys, and to punish an eleven year old, even telling him that he would finish up on the gallows.
There are lots of myths spread about Jews that were believed by a large proportion of the population, one was that was that they are all rich, this does explain why s man live in the East End of London and other poor rundown neighbourhoods. Also queries about their patriotism was mainly foundless, obviously there are bad eggs in every batch, but my Grandmother said that she could dies in peace when she realised that here only grandson was joining the Royal Navy.
In the mid 1950s when I was in my mid 20s I was in a pub in the West End with a group of friends including my current girlfriend and I was joking with them when I realised that Elsie, my girl, was looking upset and I asked her what was wrong and at first she would not tell me and there was this Polish chap sitting there and he started smirking so I asked if he had upset her and she tried to hide it and then he said, “Tell him what I said, “It appears that he said whit is a nice English girl doing with a stinking Jew, tell him to Fxxx off to Palestine.” He was at least 6 ft tall that I could not care if he had been with Joe Louis I saw red and hit him off the bar stool on which he was sitting and knocked him to the floor and for the only time in my life I put the boot in, I got a couple of good kicks before the landlord dragged me off.
What hurt me most was there was I in the Royal Navy uniform and a foreigner in London trying to humiliate me. Elsie did not want to tell me as he was so much bigger than I was, she did not want trouble especially as she expected me to come off worse.
Apart from my childhood experiences and that isolated incident the worst I had to deal with was mostly banter with which I could cope and I feel that the current “political correct brigade” do far more harm than good with their policies.
My First View of Portsmouth
It was later November 1945 when my train pulled into Portsmouth Harbour station; I was tired after the long journey from the Isle of Man and struggled to carry my kit which included my hammock along the platform until I could grab a trolley.
At the age of 17 and 1 month this was the day that I had been eagerly awaiting, the day I was actually going to sea as part of the crew of a Royal Navy ship. Strictly speaking this was not true as although I was drafted on to HMS Ranee (a lease lend aircraft carrier that had been converted to act as a troop carrier), to take passage to Sydney Australia, I was classified as a passenger not crew, but on board my classmates and I were given tasks so we were not passengers in the tourist sense.
We boarded a coach and made the short trip to the Dockyard and on looking out of the coach’s windows was overwhelmed by the grey metal giants surrounding us. I was particularly fascinated by this giant aircraft carrier HMS Leviathan which was tied up near the Dockyard gate and from what I learnt later, although it was launched in 1943 it was never completed and was sold for scrap in 1968.
The Portsmouth I saw was a dreary looking city with bomb craters everywhere and dominated by the Dockyard with these magnificent ships, remember as a boy seaman our shore leave was limited to a few hours twice a week in the afternoon and as our pay was so poor that a trip to the cinema and a cup of tea at Aggie Weston’s was as much as we could manage. Aggie Weston was a sailor’s rest set up by a barrister’s daughter who provided a place where sailors could stay without alcohol, seamen could get a cheap meal, also there were magazines in the lounge and beds if required, her homes and the Salvation Army were a blessing for young lads away from home with very little money. Both of these organisations did outstanding work, what is more they never rammed their religious beliefs down their guests throats.
Although the city looked drab in those post war days, remember as a garrison city and the home of the Royal Navy it had been the target of regular air raids from Goering’s Luftwaffe and in 1945 there was no money or resources to regenerate the city into the pleasant if overcrowded metropolis it has since become.
On my first visit my chance to get to know the city and its inhabitants was limited, because after a week we set off to literally the other side of the world, but with my subsequent visits firstly while in the Navy and then after marrying a Portsea girl and moving here when I retired I have grown to love the city and its inhabitants and look upon it as my ideal place to live out my final years.
My motobility scooter
After much persuasion I was talked into having a try on my wife’s electric scooter and I went just a few yards, but as I was not happy I dismounted and made her park it. I swore that if my walking got worse, that I would go back to driving rather than use one of those awkward little chariots.
As I approached my 80th birthday, my walking was gradually getting more painful and I found that rather than going out I was staying indoors, as the effort of walking into town was becoming so unpleasant, my wife Angela felt that this was bad for me. So eventually I gave in to Angela’s pleas to have another try on her scooter. As she pointed out that if we both had buggies we could get out much more and visit places like the sea front and Gunwharf, trips to which were so expensive if we booked a wheel chair carrying taxi.
Son on a quiet sunny Sunday morning we agreed that I would go around the block on her scooter whilst she took her electric wheelchair.
There were very few people about and I did not find it too bad so when she suggested that we crossed Holbrook Road and went along Cresswell Street and into town I felt reasonably confident to agree. I must admit that when we did come upon pedestrians, I was inclined to stop until they had passed us. That journey went quite well until I reached our front garden and when I went to park instead of letting go of the control I gripped it tighter thinking it was a brake and I nearly squashed some flower pots in our garden.
So with some persuasion I decided to buy my own scooter, a machine which can travel at 98 miles an hour. I felt sure that Angela who after having a considerable number of driving lessons and could never get the hang of driving a car but could get on and drive around a supermarket with such confidence that I would have no problems. But how wrong can you be.
My first failing was that when I went to stop I was inclined to tighten my grip on the control instead of letting it go.
We both went into town and I had to visit the bank and it was agreed that I would meet Angela in Tesco, I entered the store and spotted her at the checkout and I drove up behind her but accelerated instead of braking giving her chair a right wallop.
When she had composed herself she drove off leaving me to pay and waited for me outside while I settled the bill. But a gentleman sitting opposite looked at me so warily when I went to leave he obviously was scared that I might run into him.
Another failing I had was to forget to turn the speed down when I have to manoeuvre, therefore I am inclined to hit door posts etc. In December we were invited to a party at the John Pound Centre, I asked this young lady who was ushering us into the building if I could leave my buggy outside and she said “bring it in.” I told her I was hopeless at steering it and she said, “Don’t worry I will park it for you” which she did expertly but when I came to leave, I could not find her so I had to manage myself but I finished up wedged in the doorway and I had to switch it off dismount and a young man bodily lifted it clear.
Another time I was coming home along Holbrook Road and I had my newspaper in the basket at the front of the scooter, when the paper blew away and without thinking I leant out to retrieve it without switching the machine off and I finished up on the ground, and my scooter which was still switched on in the road. Luckily the only damage done was to my pride.
I am gradually getting the hang of it now, but the worst thing is the smug looks I get from my wife, as she says we won’t take the short cut through Argos as you always get into trouble there.
Back in the 1950s whilst based in Singapore I repeatedly had a dream, in which I was drinking in this bar with 3 of my shipmates when a group of Scandinavians consisting of 2 men and 4 girls came in and sat at a nearby table, amongst them was this exceptionally beautiful blonde goddess. Apparently they were stewards from a visiting cruise ship.
In my dream I asked Ingrid, the lovely looking girl to dance, a request which she eagerly accepted and which we both enjoyed.
I feel that I should mention that at the time I had been away from the UK for over 2 years and missed having female companionship. In places such as Singapore, European women were in such short supply that junior ratings stood no chance of meeting any socially, and at that time any relationship with native or Eurasian were usually based on a financially agreement. The idea of cold bloodily paying for female companionship was abhorrent tome, so obviously I was quite eager to meet an attractive white girl.
At that time the Royal Navy paid its junior ratings every other Thursday with the ratings basic pay and once every three months they had what was called Quarterly Settlement all the extras that had accrued since the last settlement.
One such settlement occurred and as we had spent several weeks at sea when we earned a 1/- for each night we slept aboard the submarine and we had lots of other extras which meant that my pals and I felt really rich. This resulted in 4 of us deciding to have a more luxurious evening out than our usual runs which were normally to one of the cheapest beer bars in town where we swilled bottles of Tiger beer, listened to the juke box and ordered dishes of Chop Suey. The only girls who frequented these establishments were what were politely called bar girls, who would attempt to pick up sailors and their favours could be bought at a price.
This evening we caught a taxi to the wealthier part of town, we did not attempt to enter the Raffles Hotel as we knew from past experience that we would be humiliated and refused entrance, also the price of their drinks were more than we would have been prepared to pay so we went to this more middle of the road bar.
When we entered this establishment I thought to myself, “I’ve been here before” but realised that it was impossible.
But after about ½ an hour to my surprise a group of Swedes came in and sat at an adjoining table it was my dream coming true.
They were very friendly and one of the men told me that they were part of the crew on this cruise ship and that he lived in Stockholm. I explained that we were serving on a British submarine. They insisted on buying us all a round of Tiger beers with a chaser of schnapps, we obviously returned their hospitality and while we socialised with the men time passed by.
The next day I realised that I had literally let my dream slip through my fingers.
A moment in Time
The year was 1942, at that time I was just 14 years of age and I was in a classroom learning how the Dutch Admiral Van Trump hoisted a broom at his masthead to show how he was going to sweep the British fleet from the English Channel.
When to our surprise the Chiefs Officer entered the classroom, this was most unusual as normally the periods we spent in school lessons were strictly adhered to.
The Chief Officer, Mr Matthews, or Mat as we called him amongst ourselves, said “Boys, General Montgomery and the 8th Army have broken through Rommel’s lines and the German’s Africa Corp are on the run.” Previously all the war news that we had received was disastrous, firstly the collapse of Western Europe culminating in the evacuation at Dunkirk, which we were fooled into believing it was a victory.
Then the Japanese inflicted spectacular defeats on us by sinking two of our battleships they then went on to overrun Singapore which we had been told was impregnable.
Although we knew that eventually we would come through victorious, “there is no defeatism here”. But we had all become used to hearing nothing but bad news so this was all the more welcome. All the boys jumped to their feet and cheered.
I have never forgotten that morning, at that time I was on the Training Ship Exmouth, training to join the Royal Navy.