In January , when the 1921 census became available, I decided to look for my father. He was six months old in the summer the census was taken and children are usually easy to find in the records. They don’t move independently and rarely change their names. I didn’t expect much from the search because I already knew where he was born, but it was an excuse to play with a new archive. I found him straight away. Edward Reginald Hill was just where I expected him to be, in Eltham, South London, an only child living with his parents. It was a bigger household than I had realised. His maternal grandfather and great-grandmother were living with them, but the address was more surprising: 11 Mars Avenue. It struck me as implausible, and a check revealed no such surviving road. ‘Mars’ was an outlandish name for a London street and the family wasn’t in the avenue-dwelling classes. My grandfather was a pressman working for a lithographic printer in Chancery Lane, where he was classed as a ‘heavy worker’. Nor was he the head of the household: that was his father-in-law, John Coomber, who had been a sailor in the royal and merchant navies. Now, at 46, he was employed by the government at Woolwich Arsenal ‘making war medals’, which sounds dismal and more like a postwar employment scheme than a real job.
The only two living descendants of this household are me and my younger cousin Geraldine, who has made much more effort with family history. ‘Mars Avenue?’ I asked. ‘Ah,’ she replied, ‘that must have been when they were living in the hutments. Dad used to talk about that.’ Her father, Ron, my father’s younger brother, was more forthcoming than mine had been. My father was uncomfortable with communication of any sort. He would never, for example, say exactly what his job was, except that it was ‘with the railway’. When I got married, the registrar, needing something more specific about him to put on her form, looked me up and down and wrote ‘executive’, which may or may not have been the case.
The hutments, Geraldine explained, were temporary housing. They consisted of single-storey dwellings built, according to a surveyor’s report, ‘with slight weatherboarding’ on the outside and finished internally with ‘Uralite slate’. They were put up during the First World War to accommodate the workers at Woolwich Arsenal. It must have been John Coomber’s job that entitled the family to their spot on Mars Avenue, which would explain why he was recorded as the head of the household. The Eltham Hutments were in every sense provisional, literally and architecturally an interim phase in 20th-century social housing, flung up to cope with the influx of workers at the arsenal after 1914.
It was not the first attempt to house them. The nearby Well Hall Estate, now known as the Progress Estate (and a conservation area), was, according to The Buildings of England, ‘the first and most spectacular’ of the wartime estates built by local authorities in loose imitation of Hampstead Garden Suburb. One thousand houses and two hundred flats were designed, laid out and built between February and December 1915. It was largely the creation of Frank Baines, who had been a pupil of the Arts and Crafts architect C.R. Ashbee. He turned the wartime shortage of materials to his advantage, varying the construction and employing vernacular techniques such as tile-hanging and half-timbering. He gave historic details to houses that were harmonious but not uniform and arranged them in a curving layout to create an Edwardian version of an 18th-century estate village.
By 1916 there was neither time nor money for this degree of imagination. Twenty thousand new workers were taken on and shift working, essential to keeping up production, was impossible unless they could live close by. The first hutments began to go up in September 1915, 1500 of them on the Eltham side of Shooters Hill. This phase was laid out in streets named by someone at Woolwich Council too busy to look for suitable local references and perhaps in a state of mild hysteria. They included Jupiter Terrace, Venus Road and Mars Avenue. As more hutments were built, the area became known as The Planets and while the residents of Uranus Terrace must have got tired of the joke, the addresses did not have the depressing effect, recalled by one resident, of the more relevant but ominous names given in later phases, such as Turbine Terrace and Rifle Road. The general store on the estate, run by Mrs Combes, was located in ‘Howitzer Street by Grenade Gardens’. The story of the Eltham Hutments was written up in 1985 by the local historian John Kennett, whose family had also lived in them. Kennett collected reminiscences from his relatives and others who remembered them from childhood, including some, such as Mr Sparrow, who had helped put them up. Sparrow was a tea boy to a carpenter employed on the building work and recalled that ‘an asbestos type of material was used in the construction which would explode all over the place when put in front of my fire.’ I thought of my father’s chronic asthma.
The huts were built to a standard plan, with a living room and three bedrooms. They had mains drainage and gas lighting, a stove in the living room for heat and a copper in the kitchen for warming water for the bath. The bath itself was either installed in the kitchen, with a lid over it, or took the form of a separate iron tub, which could be hung up on non-bathing days. A WC, coal hole and pantry were just outside the back door and there were private gardens. The steeply sloping roads were unmade, which meant that shopping, furniture and small children were transported with difficulty and sometimes in combination, prams being often used to bring up the coal. Bread and milk were delivered, the muffin man came with his bell and some people kept chickens.
Over time, the amenities increased. The temporary wooden church, St Barnabas, boasted a dramatic society, where Mrs Winifred Young persuaded a timid young Frankie Howerd, who lived in the hutments from the age of two, to take his first steps towards a theatrical career. There were no air raids on the scale of the Second World War’s, but hutment dwellers could not be oblivious to the hostilities. The former Labour chancellor Denis Healey, who spent the first five years of his life there, remembered a Zeppelin coming down on Blackheath ‘like a great meteor’. There were other dangers too. The tar roofs would melt in summer, sometimes setting the huts alight, and one woman recalled that she was ‘sharpening a pencil to do my homework when suddenly I fell on the floor’ as a result of the Silvertown explosion, ‘which seemed to shake much of Eltham’. That was 19 January 1917, when fifty tons of TNT exploded at the munitions factory on the other side of the Thames, killing 73 people and turning the nearby gasometer into a fireball. Among residents of The Planets, housekeeping standards were variable. The Well Hall Estate was built for ‘more senior and skilled workers’ and was considered a middle-class area, but the hutments were meant for manual employees and the neighbours were soon complaining that ‘some of it was almost a slum.’
By the end of the war there was dissatisfaction among the tenants. Rents were high, at nine or ten shillings a week, and the huts had deteriorated. Residents formed the Government Hutments Protection League and in January 1919 invited the local MPs, one Conservative and one Labour, to inspect the estate. Kingsley Wood, Tory member for West Woolwich, commissioned a surveyor’s report which found that the rents were too high and the complaints, especially about damp and condensation, ‘fully justified’. It recommended repairs and rent reductions. The Ministry of Munitions was unsympathetic. Its records blame the complaints on agitators and ‘the more lawless section’ of the community, adding that ‘after the armistice, the better type of tenant tended to move away … leaving a very rough element in possession.’
Which brings us back to my family, who stayed on at the hutments until about 1928. As a sample of the working class in England between the world wars their story is not untypical in its oblique relationship to national events and its private sufferings, borne with a mixture of stoicism and embarrassment. By the time of the 1921 census, the inhabitants of 11 Mars Avenue had between them been caught up in four wars that more or less spanned the rise and fall of the British Empire. All that is known about the oldest of them, Susannah Coomber, is that she was born in Rochester, probably in 1843, gave inconsistent accounts of her age, and on the rare occasions when she was required to engage with legal formalities made her mark with a cross, being unable to write her name. She also said that she had once seen Charles Dickens. Her husband, Edward, who died in 1906, had been in the navy and fought in the Crimean War and then in the unpopular, cynical Second Opium War. Her son John, now head of the household and also in the navy, was in the Boer War, arguably the last Victorian and – in its pioneering use of concentration camps – the first modern war. John was invalided out of the navy in 1916 with a Silver Star medal, which wasn’t awarded for gallantry but was useful because it showed that a man had an honourable discharge and so should not be handed a white feather or otherwise harassed as a conscie or a coward. That was when he got the job at the arsenal and was able to move his family into the hutments.
On the 1921 census John describes himself as ‘married’, so presumably he thought he was. In fact, he had been a widower for eleven years. He had married Alice Austin Goad in 1892 when she was four months pregnant, giving his occupation as cheesemonger’s assistant. Their daughter Edith, my grandmother, was born in June the next year, but perhaps the marriage was never much of a success. In any event, around 1899 Alice took Edith to her mother-in-law’s house and went away. The family never saw her again. Shortly afterwards, in Kentish Town, she gave birth to a son, naming John Coomber, almost certainly falsely, as the father. John, either heartbroken, too ashamed of his abandonment to face the cheesemonger or something of both, joined the navy as a stoker. In 1910 Alice got married again, bigamously, to a man called Frank Beckett, a barman in Brixton. She died three years later of heart and kidney disease, under the name Alice Beckett, at the age of 37.
With her father at sea for long periods, Edith must have felt that she had lost both parents, which may explain something about the woman she became. In 1914, when she turned 21, her father marked her coming of age by arranging for her to have all her teeth out. This was not so unusual in working-class families: toothache and gum infections were terrifying and dentistry expensive. Gran, as I knew her, seldom bothered with false teeth, but a photograph from the time shows a pretty, petite young woman with large eyes, not yet quite chop-fallen. Soon after war broke out she took up with Earnest Hawkins, a local Greenwich man a couple of years younger than her. He too was in the navy, serving on the Princess Irene, a Canadian Pacific liner repurposed as an auxiliary minelayer. It’s possible that on 27 May 1915 neither of them knew that Edith was pregnant. That day, the Irene, moored in the Medway Estuary near Sheerness, was being loaded with mines for a laying expedition. The explosion that destroyed the ship sent up a column of flame three hundred feet high, followed by another of smoke. Debris and human remains were scattered as far as the Isle of Grain. Earnest Hawkins was among the 352 dead.
When his baby was born in February 1916, Edith named her Irene Hawkins Coomber. She waited more than a month to register the birth, close to the legal limit, and under ‘Name and Surname of Father’ the registrar has written ‘Earnest Victor Ha’ and then struck it through. Edith was obviously uncertain about the right way to proceed, though she clearly didn’t have any hopes of help from Earnest’s family. There would never have been a safe or legal prospect of an abortion, but perhaps not much pressure to have one or to give up the baby either, given her own family’s history. Edith, Irene and John Coomber were living in Woolwich Road at the time, but moved soon afterwards to the hutments, where being among the rough elements meant that eyebrows were not so easily raised as they might have been on the Well Hall Estate. Edith perhaps implied, and may have more or less felt, that she was a war widow.
She got a job as a clerk at the Ministry of Pensions, and it was probably sometime in 1919 that she met my grandfather, Percy Hill, who was, like Earnest, a couple of years younger than her. Percy was born on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton and in September 1911 had been apprenticed to a lithographic printer. His indentures were drawn up in Camberwell, on the road where I now live. The apprenticeship had only a few weeks left to run when war broke out, and it seemed to Percy, as to many other young men, that it held out a more exciting prospect than his present situation. He joined up promptly on 28 August and was with the Middlesex Regiment at the Somme, where a mortar exploded next to his trench, burying him alive. His fellow soldiers had all but given up on him when, it was said, someone shouted, ‘Let’s have one more look for Percy!’ and they found him alive among the bodies in no man’s land. He was transferred to the Labour Corps and diagnosed with ‘anxiety neurosis due to service’.
As I remember him, kind but mostly silent, smelling of Old Holborn and doing the pools, he was still anxious, picking fretfully at his fingers. When he was discharged with a pension of eight shillings, calculated on the basis of his having suffered 20 per cent disability, he got a job with a printer. By then, his own family had largely dispersed. A sister emigrated to the US, one brother went to South Africa and another to Canada. They had always been peripatetic; in truth, they were flitters. When I asked Grandad why they moved so often, he said in his usual deliberate tone of mild amusement: ‘because moving is cheaper than paying the rent.’ Edith, beside her personal attractions, offered the prospect of a home and some stability, and Percy was prepared to take on Irene. They were married in December 1919 and went on a brief honeymoon, leaving Irene at Mars Avenue with Susannah and John. As Kingsley Wood’s inquiries suggested, there were concerns about child mortality in the hutments, ‘primarily due to the conditions of the dwellings’. Irene caught diphtheria and by the time Edith and Percy returned home she was dead. Percy registered the death and arranged the burial, then he and Edith settled into their long, unhappy marriage. On 22 December 1920, on the first anniversary of Irene’s death, my father was born, probably in the hutment hospital, which was made up of two huts joined together and presided over by Nurse Lindsay. A photograph shows him, aged about two, with John Coomber in the garden at Mars Avenue. John looks every inch the old sea dog, despite being only in his forties, and he is making or mending something. It’s a suburban retelling of The Boyhood of Raleigh, except that closer up I notice that my father is not looking at his grandfather. His gaze is turned awkwardly away and he already has the expression of wary uncertainty he was to wear for the next eighty years.
John’s employment at the arsenal came to an end in 1922, but the family stayed on at Mars Avenue. Susannah died there in 1924. Four years later, Woolwich Council began to sell off the hutments to private companies. The Planets was bought by Castlewood Estates. Each hut received £10 towards the cost of moving to one of the new houses that were going up in the latest campaign to accommodate the local working class. Soon the place where the hutments had been was covered over with new streets. The Coombers and the Hills now divided, with John Coomber moving to his own home in Sidcup Road and Percy, Edith and their two sons installed at 280 Footscray Road, a classic three-bed semi-detached with garden. It was not the Progress Estate, but it had some of the same touches, a little oriel window to the box room and a gesture to half-timbering on the gable. There is a photograph of my father and his brother outside the front gate, both in their school uniform of shorts and ties, badly fitting jumpers and bony knees. The family had been transformed: it had become the mid-20th-century model. The multigenerational household of Mars Avenue, where the Crimean War was in living memory and marriage at best a loose concept, had become a suburban, nuclear family. Alice and Irene were never mentioned, and my father grew up in the habit of saying as little as possible.