I was born in Bermondsey and grew up there in the 1950s and 60s. I was inspired to use it as the backdrop for my novels when I realized that the once tight knit community I grew up in had vanished forever.
You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone; so goes the saying, but I think that sometimes you can know what you’ve got just at the point of losing it. When they were in their seventies my parents were part of a reminiscence group called ‘Bermondsey Memories’ and one day a group of academics came to their house conducting a study about building ‘communities’ in the modern world. They were looking for answers in the history of Bermondsey: the village-like, working-class, riverside area in the heart of London. But all my parents could tell them were that times were hard in those days, growing up between the wars, and people naturally helped each other. Ironically, the very things that had potentially caused most misery in the lives of Bermondsey people: the poverty, poor housing, lack of health care, had proved to be the source of their community spirit. But when your birthplace becomes the subject of an academic study, you know it is fast fading into history and I wanted to capture that lost world before it was totally forgotten.
Although my books are works of fiction, I’ve drawn on many of my parents' and grandparents' stories of their lives in Bermondsey for inspiration. My debut novel Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts was largely inspired by my grandmother who started work as a powder packer in Pearce Duffs custard factory before World War One and worked there for most of her life. The Bermondsey women’s strike of 1911 gave me the starting point for the story, when I realized that my grandmother would have been one of the thousands of strikers who walked out of the factories, dressed in their Sunday best, one sweltering day in what became known as the ‘Summer of Unrest’. The ending was inspired by my grandfather’s experiences in the Royal Field Artillery during World War One. Although reticent about the war, he always said how deeply affected he’d been by the plight of the war horses he rode, and I’ve woven this into the novel’s conclusion. It seems fitting that the story of the ‘custard tarts’ and their men who marched away should have been published in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War.
Jam and Roses, my second novel, is set in the Dockhead area of Bermondsey, and I’ve been inspired by my mother’s stories of growing up in the largely Catholic, poor riverside community of docks, warehouses, food factories, slum courts and alleys, where the depth of poverty of its residents was equalled only by their generosity of spirit. Life was hard, but there were many inventive ways to soften that harshness. My heroine, Milly Colman, for instance, loves the yearly trip ‘down hopping’. She finds a freedom in the hop fields that allows her spirit to expand and her heart to soften. Again, I have drawn on many of my mother’s ‘hopping stories’ for this section of the book. As a child it was her only holiday and though the children were expected to work, it was an eagerly awaited escape to the country each year. Milly’s sister Elsie, is a sensitive soul, unsuited to the tough life she’s born into and she escapes to a fantasy world of talent competitions and ‘grottos’. I first heard about these childish constructions, using shells and bits of coloured paper or glass found on the Thames foreshore from my own aunt who remembered making them as a child in the twenties. Amy, the youngest sister, runs wild in the streets, and many of her street games are those I played myself: Run Outs, British Bulldog, Tin Tan Tobernopple - though the game goes under many names, Tin Can Copper or Tin Can Alley, among them!
But in all the personal stories of hardship I heard, whether it was of a beaten wife or a child incarcerated in an asylum, there was never a hint of self pity. There was always a sunny side. The ‘jam’ of hard graft in a jam factory was always offset by the ‘roses’. Which could take the form of a few weeks ‘down hopping, or a factory beano, or the literal roses planted in Bermondsey due to the selfless work of Ada Salter, who founded the Beautification Committee and filled Bermondsey with trees and flowers in the dark days of the depression.
The streets and buildings of Bermondsey I mention in my novels are for the most part real. Much of the area today is unrecognizable, as it was razed to the ground, firstly by Bermondsey Council’s ambitious slum clearances, then later by the Luftwaffe! In 1927, Bermondsey’s MP Dr Salter prophesied that when the next war inevitably came ‘Bermondsey will be an area of smashed buildings, wrecked factories, devastated houses, mangled corpses, and bodies of helpless men, women and children…’ Fourteen years later, the Blitz proved him tragically right. This was the backdrop for my third novel Gunner Girls and Fighter Boys, where I drew heavily on my father’s own war diaries of his time in the RAF in the far east and on his letters home to my mother, who was herself a gunner girl in the ATS.
My latest novel Bourbon Creams and Tattered Dreams returns to nineteen-thirties, depression hit Bermondsey and to Matty Gilbie, a character from my first novel. She has found success on Broadway and in the talkies, but is forced to flee America and her mobster boyfriend, returning to Bermondsey with her dreams of screen stardom in tatters. There she exchanges tinsel town for biscuit town! The only place Matty can find work is Peek Frean’s biscuit factory, which occupied such a vast tract of land along the railway viaduct that it became known as ‘biscuit town’. Employing more than four thousand people, the women had to be single, were strictly supervised and wore caps like Thirties’ lady’s maids, which of course my heroine Matty hates, along with the smell of bourbon creams! This detail was inspired by a ninety-year old relative who still finds the smell of a custard cream can induce nausea seventy years after she last worked at Peeks. By the fifties, the headgear had become a white turban, and the ban on married women lifted, but very little had changed. My own mother joined the stream turbaned women who would supplement the family income by working the evening shift at Peeks, and the great perk for us children, was always the weekly bag of broken biscuits, sold cheap to workers! Needless to say, for a heroine as resourceful as Matty, biscuit town is not enough and she doesn’t intend to stay on the bourbon cream line for ever!
Here are a few photographs of the locations mentioned in the novels, as they were at the time they appear in my books.
Listen to some of the songs featured in the books.
We Are The Bermondsey Girls
My Dear Old Dutch
Mother I Love You
If Those Lips Could Only Speak
Down Every Street
Dear Old Pals
Cruising Down The River
Call Round Any Old Time
(Members of the Bermondsey Memories Reminiscence Group, recorded by Teresa Tyrell in collaboration with the Horizon Radio Project 1991.)
Spa Road, Bermondsey. 1906. The building with pillared entrance is the Town Hall.
Pearce Duffs custard factory, Spa Road, Bermondsey,
where Nellie Clark works in Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts.
Arnold's Place, Dockhead, Bermondsey, where Milly Colman and her family live in Jam and Roses.
St. Saviour's dock, Bermondsey.1927. The 'Dockhead' in Jam and Roses.
Children leaving Dockhead Convent School , 1906.
This is the Colman sisters' school in Jam and Roses.
Surrey Docks ablaze following air raids in September 1940. The sight that May and Bill would have witnessed as they stood on Tower Bridge in Gunner Girls and Fighter Boys.
Bomb damage to Garner's and other leather factories in The Grange area of Bermondsey during the Blitz 1941. Garner's is where May and Bill worked in Gunner Girls and Fighter Boys.
Air raid shelter under Spa Road railway arch, Bermondsey in 1939. This is similar to the John Bull arch air raid shelter which features in Gunner Girls and Fighter Boys.
The ill fated John Bull Arch. First bombed in December 1941, this is the arch housing a large air raid shelter which features in Gunner Girls and Fighter Boys. This image shows crews repairing damage from a V2 rocket in October 1944. Ten days after repairs were completed it was hit by another V2 and completely destroyed.