Calcutta Road was where God and Mammon faced each other. For on one side of the road was the Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic School, with Our Lady Star of the Sea Church behind it in Dock Road, and a little further down, a little wooden chapel just by the ‘Gem’ sweet shop.
Sharing the morality front line with them was the ‘Labour Exchange’, which daily sat in judgment on the ‘Sick, Lame and Lazy’. On the other side, supported by the powerful Brewer’s was the Railway Men’s Club, and ‘The Tute’ or to give it its full title ‘The Club & Institute Union’. Whilst Dad was a fully paid up member of the National Union of Railwaymen, you would not find him in any of these clubs, nor would you find him in Church. In our house there was never any money left over for drinking, or the offering plate. Despite that we rarely missed out when either Church or Club had a ‘Bun Fight’.
As for that wooden chapel, one night it burned down. I can remember going to look at the wreckage the next day, and a man came along, and walked into the charred remains. He picked up what was left of an accordion, and wept. Didn’t his mother ever tell him ‘Big boys don’t cry’?
So what if anything had I got to cry about? Not a lot, but I was learning a hard lesson. In pre-war Britain with high unemployment, family life was a daily struggle to make ends meet and survive, and the larger your family the greater the struggle. The burden of this struggle fell upon our parents, and it was all too easy for us. To all intents and purposes we children lived the ‘life of Riley’. After all we did not have to concern ourselves with where the next shilling for the gas was coming from, and was it worth trying to fiddle the meter. All we had to do was turn up for meals on time, and have it put in front of us. So what had we children got to worry about?
Nobody ever came to Tilbury seeking cultural or spiritual enlightenment, but in any community there are always those who are prepared to give their time and effort to show that there is more to life than the daily grind. At the forefront of this effort was the Methodist Church in Calcutta Road, with its Sunday school, which we all attended. It was here that we learnt those choruses that stay with you for a lifetime.
‘Jesus loves me this I know’
‘Jesus bibs us shine’
‘Will you come to our mission will you come,
Bring your own cup-n-saucer, and a penny for your bun’
That last line bothered me, for in our house the only cups that had saucers were on the top shelf of the dresser in the kitchen.
Never to be used by us kids, but I need not have worried, for mum had it all organized, and sent us off to the ‘Bun fight’ with an assortment of battered and chipped enameled mugs and plates.
Their other great outreach was the Cub and Scout troops, to which my brothers belonged. I can remember going to the Scout Hall with them, and seeing a model galleon under construction. It was made entirely of matchsticks, of which there was no shortage, as almost everyone over fourteen smoked. You could find spent matches everywhere, and you could fill a matchbox with used matches in a day. Wonder if that galleon ever got finished?
Quite how mum managed to kit out two growing boys in uniforms we shall never know, but she was a constant knitter, and no doubt the Scout Troop had a uniform fund.
Of course the Methodist’s did not have it all their own way. There was St. John’s Church in Dock Road where I was baptized by the Rev’ Browne, no doubt Mum had all of us ‘ done ’ there.
Like most Sunday Schools, St. John’s operated a ‘ Loyalty Card scheme. ‘ Each Sunday that you attended, you got a picture stamp depicting a scene from Scripture, and this you stuck on your card. This would start on the Sunday that school went back after the long summer holidays, and if you had at least 10 stamps on your card by the end of term, you got to go to the Sunday School Christmas Party. The trick was to choose your churches carefully, go to say the Methodist on Sunday morning, and the Church of England in the afternoon, and that way you were guaranteed all the mince pies you could eat, and still go home with an orange.
Then there was the Docker’s Gala Day and a Carnival procession, with the ‘Query Boy’s’, of which dad was one, for among his many talent’s was playing the Drum and Fife, another skill he perhaps acquired in his short spell in the army when he was single.
On Carnival day, together with the other musicians, about 5 in all, he went to the Off License in Montreal Road. There in the back store room, they would ‘ black up ’ covering their faces with boot polish, and so hiding their identity – hence the title ‘Query Boy’s’. Boot polish is very hard to remove, so don’t try it at home.
Then with somebody’s piano on the back of the coalman’s lorry they would join the Carnival procession. That coalman’s lorry would feature in our lives again soon.
Last but by no means least among those who sought to enlighten our lives, was our one and only Cinema, The Palace in Dock Road, known locally as ‘The Bug Hutch’, due to its reputation as a good place to catch something nasty, but that didn’t deter me. I was totally seduced from day one.