J Henry Foster
Dreams of love so true
All the seas of memories
I'm drifting back to you.
Childhood days–wildwood days
Among the birds and bees.
You left me alone
But still you're my own
In my beautiful memories
Nostalgic memories are often associated with music and in my case, its a fact. The wonderful melodies of my early youth still prompt the corridors of my mind, when, as a young boy I found myself embarking on my first ever holiday to the seaside. This was September 1936. Southend-on-Sea was my parents ultimate goal as a holiday resort; it was the Mecca for all EastEnders and the idea of actually going to the seaside was, sheer magic. I had seen many fascinating postcards sent by aunts and uncles, but this time, it was me who was actually going – and for a whole week!
We travelled by charabanc, and to ride in a charabanc was real posh, a great luxury. This one had enormous chrome wheels with a square bonnet and a huge chrome radiator that glistened in the sunlight. On either side, two large headlights gave the appearance of a magnificent machine. All the luggage was placed in the rear and I'm sure that there must have been no regulations on seats or passengers as it seems that every atom of space was taken. My Uncle Bill and Auntie Dolly had come with us on this holiday and I well recall uncle Bill buying Dickie Bird ice creams when we stopped at the half way house, it was a proper ‘wee’ stop, as all the men went one side of the coach whilst the ladies disappeared into the field. I cannot recall what week we had, but it must have been end of season, however, I do recall that our entire family slept in one enormous room, but, on reflection it was more likely a normal bay fronted front room, typical of many that still remain in Southend.
I recall walking along the sea front and having my photograph taken in a fun booth. We all placed our faces into a huge comic cutout. Mother came out like a gigantic fat lady in a tight swimming costume, Dad, a weed of a man. My Auntie Doll and my mother changed in a beach hut and we all roared with laughter when they both emerged with long skin tight costumes and rubber hats.
Marzipan fishes, Southend Rock, Punch and Judy, Cockles and Whelks, Candy floss and Jellied eels, a plethora of attractions. The Mecca of Southend-on-Sea was the Kursaal. This was Disneyland to every EastEnders. The ceaseless music, the shuffling hoard of holiday makers between crazy hair-raising attractions and glittering illuminations, was magical. To a young boy who had never seen such wonders as the Merry-go-round with its thundering pipe organ, the chair rides, the water chute, the Catherine wheel, the Haunted house, the roving clowns, the Wall of Death and watching the men throw wooden balls to knock a lady out of bed. So many happy people gathered in one place was just unbelievable.
My only recollection of Dad going into the sea was with rolled up trousers and a handkerchief knotted at each corner on his head. Dad had never learned to swim, he always said that he had never had the opportunity. My favourite pastime was bucket and spade, there really was golden sand at Southend in those days. The fascination of catching my first crab, building sand castles and going out to the Kent coast by pleasure boat was a great bonus. The boat, with a panoply of bunting and twinkling fairy lights chugged along the coast blaring music across the water. It seems that it was constantly playing ‘Pennies from Heaven’.
The beach, and the ‘Golden Mile’ was always packed. Miniature electric trains would rattle along the pier, and it was always difficult to find a vacant place on the shingle beach. Crowds would shift aimlessly along the promenade and I guess that most were Londoners with very little to spend. These were the days when money wasn't the ultimate in life. Material possessions were few, only one in ten thousand owned a motor car, certainly not the average man in the street. Children were content to have the opportunity of experiencing a new environment. A packet of marbles or a tup’penny comic was sufficient to entertain me, and I considered myself very fortunate to walk hand in hand with mother and father, memorable and satisfying. How sad it is that youngsters of today now lack that same sense of simple contentment. Of course I cried for more ice-cream, toffee apples, or rides on the roundabout, but, self-entertainment was everywhere, not only in the house but in the street.
As much fun could be had by watching the numerous buskers, escapologists, hawkers, and lay preachers as the more professional performers of the Kursaal. Roving jazz bands were the most popular; many dressed in Minstrel clothing would roam up and down amongst the many sunbathers giving a very professional performance; we would find a place, sit down and listen, for a meagre donation of a few pence, in a crumpled hat.
‘Happy Harry’, the Gospel’ist, would furiously peddle his harmonium to the delights of the converted or unconverted sinners amongst the audience. Tracts would be passed, and ‘Happy Harry’, dressed in a long tailed coat would take his place at the tiny organ, peddle furiously, and bellow out at the top of his voice:
‘It’s rolling in
It’s rolling in.
The sea of love
Is rolling in’
Hecklers would compete with their own Rugby song version, but it was like water off a duck's back to Happy Harry who would continue with his own ululation. As soon as the flock had gathered in sufficient numbers Harry would strike the coup-de grace with his offering bag. ‘Give’us’an’apenny’jus’fer’Jesus’, he would say. If you gave a penny you would receive ‘God Bless you Brother’, but, if it was a silver Joey you would receive more than the Pope's blessing, but, if you watched carefully when the crowd dispersed you would witness Harry whipping up his harmonium on to his back and saunter off across the road to the Falcon Pub for a breather. Father told me many years later that Happy Harry was a sobriquet for George Woods, but I am sure that he will always be remembered as Harry Happy.
Fire eaters would pour paraffin into great pillars of fire whilst midgets would clown around on improvised trampolines all adding to the pot-pourri of events along the seafront, but it was the mud artists that was the greatest attraction. We would gaze over the pier rails and watch spellbound the mud artists work in the grey slimy mud that was forever prominent when the tide went out. These artistes would scratch wonderful works of art in the wet mud with little slivers of wood. Some were as large as a tennis court, many depicting biblical or historical events. It was quite a skill to toss the offerings from the pier rails to the upturned dustbin lids that took the place of crumpled hats, but for kids, like sandcastles, it was much more exciting to see the tide gradually coming in, only to destroy such wonders.
The sweet aroma of burnt toffee, fried bacon, faggots, Pease pudding, sheep's heads and onions blended with the melodies of the period, all adding to the nostalgia of our stay. Sadly, this short holiday came to an end and this was to be my one and only holiday with my family, the war years and the eventual outcome never made it a further possibility, but the melodies remain of visiting the EastEnders Mecca of ‘Sar’fend-on-Sea.’