David Dunn shares his recollections of growing up in Southend Village; a settlement in Lewisham which was separated from Catford by a wide belt of farmland. Through Dunn’s memories, we revive the experiences of those who grew up in Catford during the 1950s. From the popularity of the Saturday morning pictures, to coffee bars with jukeboxes, the cultural vibrancy and the evolution of our transport links.
For the 23 years — 1948 to 1971 — that I lived in what was called Southend Village, Catford was a significant part of my growing up. How I experienced Catford, was dependent on my age and what I was doing at the time. Up until I was 11, it was a destination for entertainment or shopping; and after that, Catford became a crossroads in my travel, either changing bus routes for school or connecting with a train for work. I don’t think I was unique in my outlook and approach to Catford, as Catford in those days was vastly different to what it is today.
I would not have any recollection of my first passage through Catford, having popped out in Lewisham Hospital in February 1948 (one of the coldest winters), before starting my life in a semi-detached house on Southview Road. This was my grandparents’ house which my parents shared with them. Four years later, my parents were in a newly built flat, courtesy of Lewisham Borough Council.
Growing up in the 50s saw fairly frequent visits to Catford. The trips to Catford were initially by tram and when these were phased out before 1952, it was by bus, with Mum focused on either a visit to the cinema or shops. Catford then was a busy and vibrant place.
We sometimes went to the cinema in Lewisham — I think that was the Odeon or Gaumont, but more often it was Catford. There was the Eros at Rushey Green and the ABC which was on the corner of Sangley Road, which was where I went when I was older on a Saturday morning with friends. The Saturday morning pictures were put on specifically to show appropriate films for children. At the beginning of each Saturday morning session, the “ABC Minors Song” would be played whilst the lyrics were presented on the screen. Everyone remembers one specific line from it; “We’re the minors of the ABC.”
Cinema was very popular then (there were nearly 5000 cinemas in UK, as opposed to less than 1000 now and audiences in the 50s were four times larger than in the 70s). Full audiences were the norm, even for matinee performances. You were shown to your seat by an usherette and enjoyed an ice cream at the interlude. Smoking was more prevalent then, so that added to the atmosphere. I was fed a diet of Hollywood Westerns, WWII dramas and British comedies — and the Pathe News! My parents did not own a TV until I was much older so the cinema and radio were their (and my) only entertainment. The growth in TV ownership gradually killed off the cinema.
Mum shopped in Catford quite regularly. At that time in the 50s, there was a wide variety of shops for clothes, food and general household items. Three shops stand out in my mind. One in Catford Broadway was called Percy’s; it sold linens. You could choose something and pay for it in instalments. Certainly pre-dates the credit card! In Rushey Green there was a pram shop called Swaddlings, also known as the doll’s hospital, where they repaired damaged toys. The shop that fascinated me the most, was a drapers called Youel’s, situated between the Black Horse pub and Sangley Road. Mum bought curtains there, but the real attraction lay in the way cash was handled. When you purchased something the assistant took your cash, put it in a container which was part of an overhead system of cables, and these containers whizzed back and forth from the tills to the security protected cash desk. It was quite exciting to watch as it had a novelty value. Far more interesting than the shop assistant handing you your change.
The Town Hall featured in my early life to an extent, as Mum paid the rent there every week and when I was in the Cubs and latterly the Scouts, there was an annual St George’s Day Parade. All the Cub packs and Scout troops would assemble somewhere like Torridon Road and then march behind a band with flags flying and into the Town Hall, although it was actually the Lewisham Theatre.
After the age of 11, Catford had a different place in my life. It changed from being the focus to somewhere I used to pass through on the way to school and latterly work. I was fortunate to pass my 11+ exam and went to Colfe’s Grammar School, back then it was an all-boys school based in Lewisham. Today, Colfe’s (one of the oldest schools in London) is based in Lee since it moved in 1963. Every day during term time, I would pass through Catford by bus to go into Lewisham. The school used the Town Hall for Visitation Day (when the School Governors came for prize giving) and for dramatic performances which were joint with Prendergast School. Prendergast School was in Rushey Green at that time.
Eventually, I had a degree of independence and with it came the need to venture beyond Catford for the cinema or other social activities, so Lewisham and Bromley replaced Catford to some extent. Coffee bars with jukeboxes were popular — this was the 60s and pop music was taking off in a new direction with groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Coffee bars in the 60s were independent undertakings and not the chains which exist today, with their uniformity of design and offering. There were a number of live music venues (whose names I cannot remember) where groups would perform, mainly R&B.
Even when I left school at 18 and started work, I did not escape Catford. I began my career with the Greater London Council at County Hall, Waterloo. My daily commute was by bus, from outside what was The Tigers Head pub to St. Lawrence’s Church and then a walk up to Catford Bridge Station. Due to the location of the bus stops going towards Bromley being split by Sangley Road, you would find yourself sprinting across the road to catch the first bus. Then followed by the frustration of sitting at the Bus Garage as they changed crews. I never questioned the need to do everything at such a rush, it just seemed normal.
Catford has always been well served with buses; I can remember four of the routes that passed our flats on Bromley Road. That, combined with the cost, probably gave my Dad no reason to own a car. In the 50s, only about 10% of the population owned a car; by the 70s, this had increased to 50%. Although we mainly used the bus for short trips, sometimes we would go to Farnborough or into Central London (Victoria). I suppose we were fortunate that we were able to go that far from home, easily and cheaply. My aunt used to use the bus every day to go from Southend Village to work at Lipton’s Tea in Shoreditch.
Catford nowadays is no different from most other town centres. Out of town retail has killed many high streets, which is rather sad. But town centres need to think beyond shops. Catford was the focus of my, and many others entertainment when I was growing up. Catford has good transport links and needs to take advantage of those, to regenerate itself in terms of culture and leisure.
When I was growing up in Catford, there obviously was not the amount of traffic there is today. Catford was, and still is literally a crossroads where the South Circular Road crosses the main London to Hastings road. But the roads were arteries that served a heart, which was Catford. Today, roles seemed to have been reversed and Catford is controlled by traffic.
I still have fond memories of Catford as it played a significant part in my formative years but obviously, it is now a totally different place.
This is the beginning of an exciting time for Catford Town Centre. The more people involved, the better the needs of the whole community will be reflected. Have your say via Commonplace, and share the project with people you know locally.