Memories of an ex-stevedore

I am introduced to Bill through a mutual acquaintance, his neighbour to be precise, whose flat I have just photographed. The photographs are intended to serve as a document, a visual memory of the homes that are under threat of demolition. When I ask Bill whether he would talk to me about his memories of living in his flat, and if I could photograph it, he immediately agrees and shows me around.

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Bill has lived in his flat on Achilles Street for 64 years, ever since he moved in in 1953. Bill was born in St Olave’s Hospital in Rotherhithe – now a housing estate – in 1928 and is 89 years old. He started to work in 1942, and on his way to work by bike London was getting bombed all around. “All the houses in our neighbourhood were getting bombed, but in those 6 years our house managed to stay safe.” After the war, the houses were being pulled down and his family had to move. His father was working in the docks at the time and didn’t want to move too far away from work. They found this flat on Achilles Street, a London City Council building at the time and built not long after the war. Bill and his family moved in when he was 25, and he has lived here ever since.

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The flat hasn’t changed much since moving in, and for the family, it was the first home where they had electricity and a bathroom. When we talk, Bill shows me some photographs of his mum and other family members. You can see the same settee and other furniture in the photographs, and his mum’s bedroom still has the same wallpaper as when she passed away 20 years ago. Also, the gas fire is still the same as on the day they installed it; only Bill is not allowed to use it anymore for safety reasons. Bill used to know all the neighbours, and he still remembers all the names of people and in which flat they lived. Sadly, many of them have moved out or died, and “now you don’t know who lives next door!”

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Bill is still incredibly fit for his age. He manages the whole household by himself and has a memory as sharp as a pencil. When he shows me photographs of him and his colleagues at the docks, he tells me the name of every person, where they were from and whether they have died or are still alive. Bill worked in the docks as a stevedore (somebody loading and unloading ships) for 30 years and has very fond memories of that time.

“It was a wonderful time, the camaraderie amongst men was out of this world”, he reminisces, “not like today where everyone just looks out for themselves. Working at the docks was hard work but it was very rewarding”, he continues. “It was all about friendship, you knew all of your mates and we helped each other out.” Together they played football and cricket, and took part in marches. “Many of the strikes were to support other people and when we went on strike, everybody was united! This kind of camaraderie doesn’t exist anymore today.”

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Bill started working in the Surrey Quays Commercial Docks in 1950 and took bus 202 which used to run from New Cross to Rotherhithe to work. “At that time, there was work in abundance”, he remembers. When those docks shut in 1969, the workers were sent to Millwall and West India Docks where Canary Wharf now stands. In 1980, when all the docks shut down, Bill, after 30 years of being a docker, was made redundant. But he was lucky. After looking very hard for another job, Bill started work as a maintenance worker in Nat West Bank in the city less than 2 months after being made redundant. He worked there for another 13 years doing anything that needed doing such as cleaning, polishing, repairing before retiring in 1993. “It was a good job and well-paid”, he says. “At that time the bank paid all their own staff, engineers, labourers, everyone. Now all the services are sub-contracted, and you see what happens…like with Carillion now. How can the government give them a £2bn contract with taxpayer’s money without doing their research?”, Bill asks.

Bill also has fond memories of New Cross and Deptford, and how he would spend his free time. “We’d come home from work and there was plenty to do. The Venue was a cinema called Kinema, there was the New Cross Empire Theatre, the Broadway Picture House and the Odeon in Deptford. And if you wanted a drink, there was mile of pubs on Deptford High Street. You could start at one end of the High Street and by the time you arrived at the other end you’d had enough.“ Sadly, pretty much all pubs on Deptford High Street have disappeared and whilst many of the pubs in New Cross are still here, Bill says they’ve been taken over by Goldsmiths students, “and you  might as well call New Cross Goldsmiths with the amount of buildings they own”, he says half-jokingly. For Bill, New Cross pubs are too dear now, and he likes to go to the Greenwich Wetherspoon’s or the Crosse Keys Wetherspoon’s in the city, where he has been meeting his former Nat West colleagues, those still alive and well enough to go, every Wednesday since he retired.

Bill is very pragmatic about change. “It’s progress, I suppose”, he says. Curiously, he doesn’t mind if he has to move into another flat, but this is mostly to do with his age. “When you get to the age of 89, you don’t expect too much. If I was younger, I’d be more interested in how I live but now it doesn’t’ make a lot of difference to me; as long as they don’t send me to China or North Korea, or into an Old People’s home – I don’t want to go there. I want to live somewhere quiet and stay in the area I’m familiar with; that’s important. I can look after myself and just want to be able to do my thing.” When I ask him if he would miss his flat, considering it hasn’t changed in all these years, his pragmatism comes out once again: “I haven’t had much change in my life, I moved from Rotherhithe to here, that was my only change. I won’t get a flat as big as this but it’ll be something I can manage better. I might even get a nice view into the park. But I don’t want to live on the ground floor though, it’s too noisy!” He does feel sorry though for the younger generation, for leaseholders and private renters. “They are probably in a much worse situation than me. Most of the flats are private now and they’re not building any more council houses.”

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“New Cross was one of the last areas without being out in the suburbs”

As I walk into Mughead Coffee on 359 New Cross Road, the staff are busy baking cakes for the next day. The wonderful display of home-made brownies and cakes, sandwiches and other savouries draws you in, and the fact that food is prepared on site makes you want to try something even more. When I get the camera out, Star King, one of the owners of the business, is slightly concerned about the mess behind the counter whereas to me this is nothing more than the evidence of the baking going on. The flour stains on her apron remind of baking at home, evoking the warm memories of mum’s cooking. Upon request though, I don’t photograph the ‘mess’.

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Mark and Star King are the business owners of Mughead Coffee. They love coffee and set up business in June 2017 with a 5-year lease, knowing that the area might be redeveloped in the near future. “At the moment it’s just talk and no fixed plans have been approved yet. It might not even happen and so we set up with the hope that we might be able to stay”, Star explains. The reason why they set up in New Cross is its art scene, the amount of artists and freelance workers that live in the area. “When we were looking for an area conducive to coffee shops, the Deptford and New Cross area stood out. This location here is so good – the layout of the courtyard and the fact that the buildings are set back from the road – you won’t find anything like this anywhere else”, Mark explains. With the limit of the 5-year lease, Star and Mark have not invested much money in the building itself, but they have built up a very good customer base very fast. Their customers are, according to Mark, “50% from Goldsmiths and the other 50% are freelance workers in the area.” The coffee shop was pretty much an instant success, at least in terms of popularity. “We’ve got dozens of people who come daily, with some customers having become almost family and calling the café their community hub. We know many of our customers by first name, know about their personal lives, and we’d miss the community if we had to go. It seems there really was a need for a place like this.”

The 5-year lease, however, makes the future uncertain and it carries a high risk for their business. “If the area does get redeveloped, we might not be able to find anywhere in the area within our budget. Where coffee shops are successful, the rent is already high and we need to find a balance between affordability and profitability in a difficult business climate. At the moment, we’re working towards financial ‘security’ if things remain as they are, but we fear we’ll be pushed out of here.”

When I ask Mark what he thinks about what’s generally happening in London, he describes it as an “unstoppable ripple effect”. “It is the inevitable pushing out of populations through exorbitant pricing. People who used to be able to afford Greenwich had to move to Blackheath before then being moved on to Hither Green, which is also now becoming unaffordable”, he expands. Mark and Star live in Hither Green and expect to be moved on again to somewhere further out soon. “Most of London is inaccessible to us as renters and entrepreneurs, and New Cross was one of the last areas without being out in the suburbs.”

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It is evident that regeneration affects all those who don’t have the money to pay the high rates charged after an area has been developed. This applies to homes and to businesses. Currently, the buildings on New Cross parade are owned by the council which makes rents more affordable, giving some entrepreneurs the chance to run an independent business. However, once the area has been regenerated with buildings owned by private developers, rents will be so high that most current businesses will not be able to set up again.

After a while, Mark has to leave; he needs to pick up their child from school while Star remains behind the counter baking and serving customers.

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