Tough times in Little Italy

LIFE was hard in the economically-pressed years between the two world wars. Families had very little to live on and work was not always easy to find.

David Kindred

LIFE was hard in the economically-pressed years between the two world wars.

Families had very little to live on and work was not always easy to find.

Des Drew, of Lewis Lane, Stutton, was born in 1926 and lived with his parents where Cox Lane car park close to the centre of Ipswich is today.

He can recall as a lad he had one pair of short trousers, a single sweater and a pair of shoes, passed on to him from a girl next door. His mother would keep his clothes darned. His only other possession was a battered teddy bear.

Des explained how one day he went into the nearby Co-op store in Carr Street to see a crowd gathered round a man on the shop floor. It was his father who had tragically died of a heart attack. Young Des was then still a pupil of St Pancras School in Cox Lane. Des explained how he had to quickly grow up.

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“I was born in Permit Office Street. It was behind St Pancras Church in Orwell Place where the Cox Lane car park is now and I have often wondered why the street had this odd name. The area then consisted of Permit Office Street, Little Barclay Street and was known as 'Little Italy' because of the many Italian families who lived there including my grandfather on my mother's side, Giovani Marcantonio.

Union Street, although close by, was never recognised as belonging to the other streets and the families living there were for some reason not part of the same community.”

“Nora Atkins of Ipswich recently referred in Kindred Spirits to the 'lovely patterned marble floor, which was always clean' at Sainsbury's shop when it was next to Croydon's the jewellers in Tavern Street, Ipswich. As a lad in 1941 it was me who kept it so clean! My father had died from a heart attack two years before so as soon as I left school at 14 I had to find some work to help look after my mother and younger sister.

There was no job seekers' money paid in those days, you were on your own. I first got a Saturday morning job at Sturton's in Orwell Place. I had to take a gallon of paraffin oil to a lady's house in Tokio Road on a sack barrow, which squeaked all the way there, everyone I passed looked at me. When I got back to the shop I asked one of the Sturton sisters if she would put a little oil on the squeaky wheel. She said no as it would be taking some of the profits that the shop made! After a bit of cleaning around the shop floor I was paid a half a crown!”

“When I was 15 I managed to get a job at Sainsbury's. I hadn't got many clothes to wear, but my mother dressed me the best she could. I presented myself to a Mr Brooks, the shop manager, a tall man who looked me over. I was only going to be backhouse boy, but as Sainsbury's was an up-market store every one of the staff employed there had to look the part.

My job was to help a Mr Mick Dooly in the warehouse at the back of the shop, unloading of groceries from Sainsbury's own lorries from Blackfriars in London. Once a week the meat lorry would pull up at the front of the shop and I had to carry the quarters of beef weighing 154lbs on my shoulder, with the biggest part hanging down my back, the whole length of the shop and into the warehouse where Mr Alf Rutter, (I believe his name was) was preparing the joints of beef ready to place on to the counter in the shop where Mr Addison was in charge.

“If Mr Rutter was in the middle of tying up a roll of brisket beef he would leave me standing there with the quarter of beef slipping further and further down my back until I couldn't reach up to hang it on a hook. Then it I had to return to the front of the shop to bring in the frozen lamb. The driver would stack the carcasses of lamb up high on my shoulder. Having got to the rear of the shop I would have to stand there until Mr Rutter took the lamb off my shoulder one at a time.

“About half an hour before the shop closed for the day I would get my bucket of hot water ready with my bar of soap about a foot long, a scrub brush and finally a box of clean sawdust. Mr Rutter would use sawdust to scrub his meat block down with a wire brush. If I had been scraping the linen off the big cheddar cheeses which came, two to a wooden crate, my fingers would be red raw. All Sainsbury's shops were long and narrow. It was something to do with the rateable value of the shop front width.”

“Mr Brooks would give me the “nod” when he thought that it was time to start on the floor, usually when only two customers were left in the shop. I would get onto my knees and start scrubbing that floor. I could reach about one yard at a time. Having wiped the surplus soapy water up, I then covered that piece of clean floor with my sawdust. I would then move back a yard at a time and start again until I reached the front of the shop where I would turn round to do it all again down the other side of the shop. Sometimes a late customer would come in off the wet street in a hurry and kick my sawdust about. After they had gone I had to wash that piece again. By the time I had finished most of the lady staff had gone upstairs. There were rooms there where some of them lived. They had been sent to Ipswich from other branches and were looked after by a very able housekeeper.

“As it was during the Second World War there was fire watching to do. There was a rota on the wall as to who would be on duty each night. I was usually on with Mr Brooks the manager. As Sainsbury's lady staff lived above the shop we had to fire watch in a room above Croydon's shop next door. One night on duty I said to Mr Brooks why can't I wash that floor with a mop and squeegee standing up, I have to keep getting up and down on my knees to change the dirty water. No he said it would be against company rules! I said, 'I am packing the job in and leaving. I don't like wearing the striped jacked'. The staff wore uniforms according to rank and I was the lowest rank.

“I left the job and went to Ransomes Sims and Jefferies to work with a Mr Reeve on a drop hammer in the blacksmith shop. I finally left there and heard that they were now starting to build airfields for the United States Air Force. I got on a trolley bus at Whitton where we then lived after the houses round Cox Lane were demolished in the mid 1930s. I got off at Rushmere Heath and then walked all the way to Framlingham looking for Parham. I had gone past it, but eventually found it. The foreman working for Haymill's gave me a job.

“It took one year to build Parham Airfield. I saw the first flying fortresses arrive. The station became known as 153 390th Bomb Group Framlingham (Parham), it was now 1942. From there I was sent to join the workforce to build a new packing shed on the Cocksedge side of Rapier Street, Ipswich for war materials. While there I was called up for the Army just before D-Day.

“When I came out of the Army at the end of 1947 I went back into the building trade and stayed there until May 1991 when I retired.”

Can you tell us more about the area of Ipswich around Cox Lane known as 'Little Italy'? Write to Kindred Spirits at the Evening Star.

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