By David Stoker
My family and I arrived in Crawley when I was three and a half years old. Our previous home had been a cramped second floor garret at 208 East Lane, Walworth, just off the Old Kent Road. It was the period leading up to the great London smogs and my elder brother was suffering badly from asthma. My parents had been advised by the doctors at the Evelina Children’s Hospital to move him away from the city as quickly as possible. Their first plan was to emigrate to Canada, but then my father, who was a carpenter, discovered that if he worked for the New Towns Commission for a year, his family would be allocated a brand new three-bedroomed house. Thus, we moved to 19 Blackdog Walk, Northgate, on 1 November 1951 which was then in the centre of one huge unenclosed building site. Within a few weeks there were two or three other children living in the street of roughly the same age as me.
When we arrived, the houses and flats in Oak Way, Five Acres and Willow Close were all still under construction, and our weekends and summer evenings were spent exploring the local building sites, climbing ladders, running along scaffoldings in a way that would horrify modern parents. My brother was then five and had to go to school, but I and a young friend were free to roam around and even ‘offer to help’ the builders. No-one seemed to object to our presence. At one time there was a large stack of bricks on some waste land between Oak Way and Willow Close which was later used to build a run of garages. Myself and several older friends burrowed into this stack and then covered it with wooden planks to create a den for ourselves. Inevitably there were the occasional accidents and I still have the scar on my left knee gained from falling over whilst playing on the site of the bungalow at the Oak Way end of Blackdog Walk.
In March 1953 I went to school. The Northgate Infants and Junior School were then under construction but not ready to accept children and so for the first term I attended the Prefab school situated on the corner of Oak Way and Barnfield Road. We still used slates and chalk to learn our letters and numbers, and I clearly remember the outdoor party we had to celebrate the Queen’s Coronation when we were all presented with a mug. My mother had a job as a secretary at ‘The Beehive’ at Gatwick Airport, and we were looked after by our granny. On one occasion during the school holidays, when there was nobody else available to keep an eye on me my mother took me with her to her work. and I spent an afternoon amusing myself on the derelict stands of the Gatwick Racecourse, shortly before its demolition to make way for the new airport terminal, or else watching trains at the old Gatwick Airport station.
Gradually the building work in Northgate came to an end and the builders moved on to Langley Green, so we had to find other forms and places of entertainment. There were lots of green spaces in Northgate and trees, bicycle sheds and other unoccupied buildings to climb on. Also, we built dams on the stream that separated Northgate from Three Bridges. Once, when I was about nine, I knocked myself unconscious and slid into the water as a result of a poorly secured rope swing over this stream, but fortunately my friends were able to drag me out. There was the wide strip of unused land between Northgate and Manor Royal which is now the route of Crawley Avenue and where we used to collect frogspawn and look out for newts. We would build soap box carts to race down the hill from the roundabout (now called the Tushmore Gyratory) down past the flats. The traffic was so light that it did not matter if we carried on into Five Acres.
One of my friends at Primary School told me where one could find a pile of rusty hand grenades at Gatwick Airport and so I accompanied him there to explore. The majority of these grenades had been drilled out and made safe, but every so often we would come across one that had been missed and contained a pin, now very corroded. These we causally tossed to one side whilst I selected one of the safe ones to take home with me as a souvenir. My father went berserk when he got home from work as he had recently been working on the Gatwick Airport site and knew that unexploded ordnance was found there from time to time. In fact, he had once witnessed the results when a reckless building worker threw an unused bomb that he had found onto a bonfire. My father insisted on burying my souvenir in our back garden. I never told him about the unsafe ones that we had found.
My brother had been to the school in West Green and he told me about the famous workshop at No. 2 Leopold Road where John Haigh, ‘the acid bath murderer’ had committed his nefarious crimes, so inevitably we had to go and explore. Another long-distance adventure during my childhood was a trip to ‘the Hawth’ which was then a large and rather mysterious wood pitted with what appeared to be bomb craters. In April each year it would be a sea of bluebells and we would return home with arms full of them.
The year seemed to be divided up into various seasons that were unconsciously recognised by children. Thus, hopscotch and marbles, were always played in the spring, whereas conkers could only be played in September when the fruit was freely available. (Nobody would dream about using protective glasses!) However, the highlight of our communal street activities for the year was Bonfire Night, on 5th of November. At the beginning of October each year the local shops began to stock fireworks. Strictly speaking they were not supposed to be sold to children under the age of fourteen but this law was largely ignored by local shopkeepers, and even where it was enforced, there was never any difficulty in persuading an adult or older child to act as our proxy. (In the same way, my granny always sent me to the local parade of shops in Northgate to buy her cigarettes: ten ‘Weights’ at one shilling and four pence (approx. £0.07 today) with me being allowed to keep the two pence change from one shilling and six pence (£0.075) ‘for going’.) In the lead up to Bonfire Night I would use this change to buy two penny bangers. A group of us would also dress up a guy in old clothes and drag it around town on one of our soap box carts begging for ‘a penny for the guy’ from passers-by which we would subsequently use to buy fireworks.
Setting off fireworks in the street, in advance of the formal Bonfire Night, was not at all unusual. We quickly learned the advantages of placing bangers in confined spaces to enhance their impact, for example by putting them into milk bottles or metal pipes, which could be quite impressive, although we had enough sense to stand well back. Likewise, I once put a lighted banger in a little round access hole in the ground which was covered by a cast iron lid chained to the rim. The subsequent ‘dull thud’ could be felt in the ground several feet away and the lid was sent flying 10-12 feet into the air despite the metal chain. I am not aware of any serious injuries to humans or animals caused by my friends and I at this time but there were certainly several ‘near misses’. It wasn’t only the children’s activities with fireworks that could go wrong. The planned back garden display supervised by my uncle Fred, who lived in Furzefield, West Green, was once over in less than five minutes, when a ‘Jumping Jack’, one of the first to be ignited, landed in his open box of fireworks.
All the local children in Northgate would collect wood and rubbish during the lead up to the 5th November for a large communal bonfire on the then unused land between Willow Close and Green Lane. There were always plenty of adults around for these occasions so this was a time for letting off the ‘pretty fireworks’: the Catherine wheels, roman candles, rockets, sparklers etc rather than the penny bangers and Jumping Jacks that were normally a part of our street games.
In the mid-1950s the Crawley Urban District Council provided an ‘adventure playground’ for local children on some land next to Ifield Avenue between the Town Meadow football ground and the public playing fields. This area was equipped with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, carpentry tools and loads of scrap wood for the kids to do what they liked, largely unsupervised. It was a great place for the children but today would represent a Health and Safety Officer’s nightmare. The attached photograph, taken in the summer of 1957 shows a group of us next to an oak tree that we had unsuccessfully attempted to burn down the previous week. (I think this was one occasion when the adults did step in.)
The boys in the picture are mostly from Northgate Primary School, I am second from the top, my friend Keith Holt is above me, and his brother, David, is standing on the rope swing. The boy in the check shirt holding him is Robert Thompson, but I cannot name the others. By this time my brother had moved on to Hazlewick School and begun to take an interest in girls.
During the summer of 1959 I transferred from Northgate Primary School to The Thomas Bennett School, in Tilgate and a new chapter in my childhood began, involving other more civilised interests and pre-occupations. Crawley was a wonderful place for young children to grow up in the 1950s, even if at times it could be a little bit risky for them. I feel sorry for modern children who now have so much less freedom than we were allowed.
(David Stoker, 2019)