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Not Brentford

Childhood Memories of The Ham, Brentford by Harry Langley

The author

Thanks to Ann & David Podmore who sent a copy of the letter written by Harry Langley to his nephew Frank Terrance Reynolds, 22 January 1998.

They say "Harry lived at 154 Darwin Road, Ealing and rose from humble beginnings to be ultimately the **General Manager of the Royal Albert Hall. Harry was a relative of Ann's Reynolds family, he was well known to them & not given to 'spinning' a story, we believe this document gives an authentic view of life as it was, 'Warts & All'! ".

**Jean Dunsdon (nee Langley) wrote in June 2011 that whilst Harry worked at the Royal Albert Hall, he was not in the post of 'General Manager'. See Jean's notes about the Langley family, Harry was a younger brother to Jean's father.

At the end are some links to places mentiond by Harry.

Docklands of West London - Brentford

Much has been written about the Docklands of East London, but little has been written about the Docklands of West London-Brentford. The approach to the Dock itself was almost at the Half-Acre in Brentford High Street. The Dock was off the River Thames adjoining a short creek which led to the Lock, which was the first lock of the Grand Union Canal. Added to the Dock were two wharves situated between the first Lock & the second Lock, just beyond Brentford Bridge.

The first wharf was the Emanuel Smith, situated in the Ham. The second was the larger wharf which was across the canal on the borderline of the Duke of Northumberland’s Estate. The roads leading into the High St from the Dock entry were Catherine Wheel Yard, Plough Yard, Boar's Head Yard, Church Alley & The Ham.


There were many shops on the High St & the houses in Catherine Wheel Yard led to a breakwater adjoining the Canal. There were several work places within this area, one pub & the houses. Plough Yard led to the Skin Works & approaches to the entrances of the flats above the shops. Boars Head Yard led down to the Canal & in that area was a horse cart builders, a paint works & again several houses.

There were many barges towed into the canal or poked with barge poles. Some were unloaded on the wharves , but many were towed by horses up the Canal from the second Lock. Local chaps used to go to the canal tow paths carrying a lock lever to attend to the filling of the locks, many using a bike to get ahead. Many of the barges used to deliver their goods to places at Southall.

Monkey Boats

The other floating transport was the narrow canal boats, called "monkey boats", These travelled in Two's, manned by families of boat people, & on arrival their children were taken to school, situated in the Butts- this building is still there.

These families were very outstanding- very clean in appearance. Dad usually wore a bell-bottom trousers, waistcoat, buttons undone, watch in a pocket, linked by a gold chain, cap & boots. Mother would wear a dark blouse & a long black dress, a hat that draped down the back of her neck to keep away the sun in summer and a gold brooch. The boats were kept so clean, and the large water can on the cabin top would be very colourfully painted.


The boats in the Ham area were often there a couple of days waiting for loading. When loading was completed, tarpaulin sheets were used to cover the boat & these were kept in place with white washed ropes, even the bumpers were made with rope & scrubbed white.

Some barges arrived & were taken straight through to Southall. These were carrying sealed cargo & a man lived on board as they often contained cases of Tea.

Church Alley & The Ham

The next turning off the High St was Church Alley-here a large house adjoined the Church ground & at the rear of the house was a building which was used as a lodging house. The next road, The Ham, led down to the other Wharf. This road contained many houses, the school & a playing area alongside the canal, The Ham Green. The railway passed above this area across arches from the Dockland & there were horse stables under the railway arches in several places. The school is still there, now used as a workshop & the road passed under the railway.


Backing onto the railway was a small building with double doors, this contained the fire engine. The horses for this were kept in stables below the railway. In the event of a fire, a maroon was let off & the firemen arrived from all parts of Brentford, taking the excited horses from the stables to be hitched to the fire engine.

Hot water!

One always knew of an increase in families as a neighbour or two would be seen carrying saucepans & kettles containing hot water. The nurse would follow on her bike with Gladstone Bag strapped on the back.


Little earners

As lads, there was always something for us to do & ways to earn a couple of coppers. The Butts was a place to earn a little money as the people living there were known as "the posh people", but they were very kind in many ways. Autumn was the time for sweeping leaves from their pathways & in Winter there was snow sweeping, for a few coppers & sometimes a cake.

My Mother did the washing for two houses in The Butts & my job was to deliver the clean washing. It was always very well ironed & wrapped in tissue paper in an oval low level basket with two hand grips, plus the price pinned on the paper. The words from Mum were "Now then, don't come away & not collect the money"- usually two shillings (10p). At Christmas time we went carol singing in The Butts. Three or four of us carrying a couple of jam jars containing a bit of candle.

Another money earner in The Butts was Seville oranges. At certain times of the year barges would arrive at the wharves & during unloading very often the cases would break open & the oranges drop into the canal, we would gather as many oranges as possible, take them home, wash them under the tap, put them in a couple of boxes & take them to sell to the residents of The Butts, as our Mother couldn't afford sugar to make her own marmalade.


Household finances

Monday was usually an important day, especially when the family finances were short. This was pawnshop day. My Mother used to walk up to the High Ground to the Pawnbroker's shop carrying a parcel containing Dad's suit or his best boots. For this - two shillings!

Saturday was pay day & one of Mother's jobs was to organise the finances-the most important being the rent. This was placed in a tin over the fireplace & everyone knew that this could never be touched as it would be collected by the landlord on Monday.

The real fear was the Workhouse which was at Isleworth, next door to West Middx Hospital. Owing rent to the Landlord could mean being turned out of home to become a resident of the Workhouse. It was really hammered home to us & the fear always remained with us.

Even many years later when I passed that area, it always came up in my mind. Now, of course, the original building has gone but it still remains in my mind when I pass by.


Odd jobs - Winter

Our school days were fully occupied as there were many things we did for the home. There were jobs to be done, for instance in Winter time there was the need to keep our home warm. Any pieces of wood or sections of timber floating in the canal were taken home & kept in the shed until they were dry.

Another job was to visit the Gas works to bring home a large bag of coke, this was a Saturday morning job, taking our barrow which was made from a wooden box, about 2ft square on a plank of wood, with four wheels. The front wheels had circular movement for steering. Carrying our sack inside, one of us would sit to the front of the box while another brother would push.

On arriving at the Gas works, we paid our shilling & trundled the barrow into the Gas works Coke section where the sack was filled. We always took the biggest sack we could find & trundled home.


In Springtime we had to prepare for high tides, as very often our homes were flooded, in fact our front doors had a section of bricks across the front cemented about 15 inches high- the back door a wooden section held in by clay.

For many years we were flooded & we prepared by placing what furniture we could on empty crates borrowed from the pub, each time we were flooded the Council promised us a Council house, but it never happened in my time at home.


Another little earner

There were one or two jobs in the stables & these were carried out before & after school hours. These included clearing out manure, renewing straw & making up the food & water bins.


School time was started at the Infants School at the Half-Acre school. On reaching the age of 10 years we went to the Ham School. Here I became a Monitor- my jobs were to lay out books etc, & to refill ink pots.

The main job was ringing the school bell- this was started ten minutes to 9 o'clock for a few minutes-& then again a couple of minutes before 9 o'clock, the bell was on the roof & the rope hung down beside the teacher's desk. When the bell stopped, anyone arriving after this was late for school.

Another job I had was to collect 6 eggs from one of the tenants in a paper bag & take them to the Headmaster's house in Windmill Rd. I would leave the school at 10 minutes to 4 o'clock once a week & for this I received the sum of 2 pence.

On occasions two of us would report to the Headmasters house on a Saturday morning to do some weeding in his garden & for this we received another couple of coppers each.



In our schooldays there were always games to be played, at certain times of the year the boys would have steel hoops & a metal hoop to skim along the street, the girls had wooden hoops & a wooden short stick to knock it along.There was a certain time when the boys had marbles to play with & the girls were skipping on marked out squares on the pavement.


St Lawrence's Church was the church we attended for services.

First radio

One occasion I remember well was when my brother Fred made our first radio set. It was on a Saturday & he had been working on it for several days. He was wearing headphones when suddenly he called out "I have got it", we just couldn't understand what he was on about, so he disconnected the headphone pieces & placed them in a basin.

We all leaned forward, ears as near to the basin as we could & we heard the music. To us it was pure magic.

Progress was made & the next radio we had was a speaker on the wall - the set now charged with a battery & accumulator, as there was no electricity in those days. One of the first Radio Colleges, I believe, was situated in a property near the Half Acre - this property is still there.

One job I remember well was taking an accumulator for charging to a shop near the Market Place, & always being careful not to splash out the liquid as this could burn socks & boots.


Annual fair

Every year we had the Fun Fair which gathered in the Market Place in front of & around the Magistrates Court, the fair usually stayed for a week.


In The Butts was the Cottage Hospital, this property is still there. Our Doctor's surgery was near The Butts. This was Dr Parker - a smart man who wore a bowler hat & carried a Gladstone bag, he was always walking to see patients as he did not have a car.


It was always possible to buy pennyworths of specked apples, broken biscuits, stale cakes & the Butcher's shop sold 4 pennyworth of meat pieces.

Our Mother attended work, cleaning for two days at a house in Kew. On those days my brother & I were given 7 pence for our midday dinners. This consisted of 2 pennyworth of fish, 1 pennyworth of chips, & a penny for 2 buns. The following day we would have faggots & pease pudding to eat.


Work & The General Strike

My eldest Brother trained to become a Licensed Waterman & my other brother worked in the barge builders yard. My Father worked in the coal depot or worked on the barges unloading timber.

The General Strike was a big event to our age group - no school, crowds in the streets & the trains being driven by students accompanied by a policeman. A tram window was broken & a man in the crowd was arrested & given a month's hard labour in prison. (It wasn't the man who did it anyway!).

A suicide at the Six Bells

Another event of the day, the landlady of the Six Bells public house appeared out of the doorway with her arms covered in blood - her son had committed suicide.


At home a great event of the week was our bath time. This was usually on Friday evening, the copper in the scullery was lit to heat the water & the bath was brought in from hanging on the fence in the yard.



Christmas time was a really big event - the front room was used, an open fire in the fireplace amid the bright brass fender, poker & tools, in our early days we hung our socks on the bed-rail & discovered in the morning that they were filled with fruit, a few sweets & 3 new penny's, also perhaps a new pair of trousers, socks or a new shirt.

Providing for Christmas was a great event, our Mother would start preparing the Christmas Pudding, a large bowl was placed on the table and all the ingredients placed inside. We all took turns stirring the mixture. Also included in the puddings were three silver "threepenny bits".

Starting work

Another great milestone in our lives was reaching the age of 14 yrs. A manly world - short trousers no longer, we were given a new pair of long trousers to wear.

My first job was in the Skin Works in Plough Yard. Animal skins were brought in from the slaughterhouses, sheepskins were eventually made into sheets of parchment & cow skins into drum heads. Much of this was for the War Office & Government Offices.

We wore clogs, our legs wrapped in sackcloth, we had a sackcloth apron, we also had rubber gloves for handling, as lime was used to loosen the hair & fat from the skins.

My job lasted about 3 yrs until the orders for the Skin Works dropped. I then started work butchering at the "British & Argentine Meat Company" shop at the Half Acre.


Working for the British & Argentine Meat Company

This was a noted place for Argentinean chilled beef in perfect condition after travelling by ship from the Argentine. It was long hours & hard work. One of my morning tasks was a bicycle round delivering meat to Isleworth, on my way out to this area I called at my home in The Ham for a cup of tea & a piece of bread & dripping.

On one occasion I was on my way down The Ham when I saw a policeman at the side of the The Ham Green railing, standing with a trolley, this was made up of two large wheels & a long platform with a sheeted , waterproof cover, he signalled me to stop & asked me to go with him across The Green to the canal.

His colleague was on the towpath & several barges were moored there. The pathway was a firmly built one made of large concrete blocks. In the canal was the body of one of the bargemen who had fallen in the night before on his way back from the pub. Apparently the man had grasped a chain which was attached to the wall-facing of the canal but the policemen could not release his hand as the chain was too low for them to reach.

I was asked to be lowered down over the canal with the policemen firmly holding my legs, I managed to release the hand & was hauled back, the policemen were then able to remove the body with the help of hooked bargepoles, the body was then placed on a stretcher & carried over to the trolley & taken to the Mortuary at the Council Yard.

I was by now very late for my bicycle round & dashed home to wash & have a quick cuppa before making my way to Isleworth. I did not mention my adventure back at the shop as I would have got into trouble for slipping home for a cup of tea!



Later on I went to work in a factory on the Great West Road. In September 1939 the War was declared & eventually my papers arrived for service in the Forces. Brentford & its people began to change - shops began to go & the wharves started to close down.


Harry was in the 84 Field Co Royal Engineers No. 5 Beach Group (Sword), 3rd British Division and was a member of the Normandy Veterans Association, before returning to the battlefield for a Remembrance Service on 6th June 1994 he looked back on those harrowing times and wrote:-

"When the invasion of the French coast took place it could be imagined to be like the American films - a dash up the beach with Tommy guns blazing, reality was far from it. Just sea sickness, utter fear, and confusion, once ashore seeking rendezvous to carry out pre-arranged duties, these included clearing mines & making exits through the sand dunes.

We made it to Hermanville Sur-Mer, to the Mare Saint Pierre Church where I found comradeship, courage & dedication & saw pain and suffering. In a nearby field, a field dressing station was dug in, our task was to set up a water supply, as pure water was so important at this stage. Up the lane was the almost constant flow of field ambulances, jeeps & trucks, the trucks carrying those who had given their all."



There are notes about several of the yards mentioned by Harry (Catherine Wheel Yard, Plough Yard, Boar's Head Yard): see the Roads Off section.
There are postcards showing The Butts and the Cottage Hospital: search for 'Butts' on the home page to find them.
Searches of home page will help find more images and notes about Brentford Dock, barges, the Six Bells, the Great West Road.

Published in 2008; updated April 2020