I was thinking about all the skills that were needed when I lived in Petticoat Lane 1931-1956.
From 1938 until September 1939, when WW2 was declared and we were evacuated to Ely, every weekday I walked down Bell Lane on my way to Jews Free Junior School in Frying Pan Alley. Then 1942-1949, I walked on through Spitalfields Fruit and Vegetable Market to Central Foundation School for Girls in Spital Square. At the beginning of Bell Lane there were shops and houses with wooden doors that were regularly repainted. I would watch as the painter rubbed down the old paint then applied a pale coat and let it dry. He’d then paint the door with brown varnish and draw a comb though the wet varnish creating intricate patterns of wood grain and knots. He was a real artist.
The porters in Spitalfields Market could carry a tower of 5 or 6 circular baskets of produce without dropping even a leaf while the fruit and vegetable stall holders in Wentworth Street created works of art out of the produce they carefully polished.
The itinerant tradesmen included the knife grinder who had a large stone wheel attached to his bicycle. Scissors were the most expensive. If you brought him a pair to sharpen he’d let you have a go sitting on the saddle. The chimney sweep appeared at the beginning of winter. We’d clear everything away from the fireplaces and cover the floor in front with old sheets. He’d screw together tube after tube and finally the circular brush. A few brisk twists up the chimney and out would come a load of soot. Quite often there would be a few feathers from the pigeons that roosted on the chimneys and occasionally a dead bird.
The coal man called all year round as we cooked and heated water on the black iron range. He’d come up to us on the third floor carrying a hundred weight sack of coal on his back, hardly breathless at all.
We cooked with enamel saucepans that were liable to develop holes where the vertical sides met the bottom. You could buy tin washers to screw in place but that was a temporary measure. When the tinkers’ caravan appeared, we took down our saucepans to be repaired properly.
Few grocery items came ready wrapped. The assistant would carve off a lump of butter, slap its sides with wooden paddles until it was a neat brick and wrap it in grease-proof paper. On getting it home, the butter would be placed in a saucer of cold water and covered with a damp muslin cloth whose ends dipped in the water. Evaporation of the water kept the butter cool. We had a small wooden cupboard on top of the coal bunker on our balcony, its sides enclosed with metal mesh. The butter was stored there as were bottles of milk, but after a day the milk had often turned sour. My mother drained it through a muslin cloth and made cream cheese with it.
The grocers dispensed loose products like granulated sugar and tea in paper funnels. The paper would be folded into a double square, then a triangle, opened and the point rolled tightly to seal it and the goods poured in. Salt came as a brick. We grated it as needed – mainly for Koshering meat. Cube sugar came in packets, as did some biscuits, but there were always large square biscuit tins along the floor in front of the counter containing loose biscuits. One tin always contained broken biscuits – the cheapest of all and all too tempting to little thieving fingers
All those skills no longer needed!!
I thank all those lovely people who read and commented on my memoir ‘Woman in a White Coat.’