Tuesday, 4 March 2014

On being trade...a memory of Penge


My mum used to deliver meals-on-wheels in Penge - delivering hot dinners to lots of old people who might otherwise have missed out on a decent meal.

Now, as older residents will know, near the centre of Penge there used to be set of alms houses called the William IV Naval Asylum (know back then as simply 'the naval cottages'). They are described here:

Forming three sides of a forecourt garden, the red-brick and stone almshouses were built in 1847 by Hayward & Nixon to a design by Philip Hardwick, designer of Euston Arch. The style was Tudor Gothic with many gables and clusters of tall octagonal chimneys, the three groups unified with horizontal string courses and parapets. The almshouses were opened in 1849 and living accommodation was generous with living room, dining room, three bedrooms and a tiny maid's room approached by its own winding staircase.

The houses weren't intended for able seamen or even petty officers but for the relicts of senior naval officers and, back in the early 1970s, those naval widows were getting meals-on-wheels. I can vaguely recall the place - in particular the chimneys which were so different from the predominantly late Victorian housing in the rest of Penge (or that part of the town not bombed by that nice Mr Hitler).

So mum delivered the dinners to these very posh ladies, so posh that, for one, mum had to go through the kitchen door. The front door was only opened for visitors and mum, for all that she was bringing the only hot meal that lady would get that day, didn't qualify as a visitor. Mum was trade. And trade used the kitchen door.

Sadly the naval cottages are no more (although the architecturally more interesting Watermen & Lightermen Almshouses still remain) but remembering that my mum's act of care was viewed as trade always brings a smile to my face. Indeed the idea that posh folk shouldn't sully their hands, let alone open the front door, seems somehow foreign and distant these days (even though we still privilege some jobs as better and special - the law and medicine in particular).

Back then the vestiges of that older world lingered on in Penge. Many of the women mum took dinners to had been in service up to getting married and there were still bits of that old wealthy Penge too. As well as the naval widows there was Dr Arnott, retired university professor and communist, and his wife (a former union general secretary) where three dinners were delivered, the third being for their maid. There were couples in houses too big for them on the grand Cator estate and there were old ladies on Belvedere Road in mansion flats filled with fading glory.

Even back then most Penge residents were cramming onto trains every day to London, working in banks, insurance companies and the other engines of commerce in town. Mostly these workers weren't the ones in suits but the others, the sort of City of London trade - janitors, repair men, receptionists, lift operators, boilermen and post boys. They joined, in that egalitarian way of the commuter train, managers from Bromley or Beckenham and grand folk from further into Kent, out Sevenoaks way where the stockbrokers and merchant bankers reside.

It's a long while since I was last in Penge but this picture of a place that changed as the grand houses around Crystal Palace declined and the town joined the London commuter world sticks with me. And the mild offence that making my mum go round that back to do someone a favour of taking a hot meal also remains. I will have been guilty of judging someone by what they do but I hope I've never given the impression that somehow another person isn't 'our sort' just because of the job they're doing.


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