Julian Watson on Maude Ehrenstein (1894-1989) who spent her early childhood in Embleton Road. Ladywell. Her memoir recounts the deprivation she saw in Lewisham’s ‘Botany Bay.’
I rediscovered recently a much amended, undated and incomplete photocopy of Maude Ehrenstein’s memoir of her childhood in Ladywell.
Maude wrote on this typed memoir: “This was a contribution to the Labour Party’s National Contest for Archives and won third prize.”
She lived with her parents Alfred and Grace Pease and Marion her sister at 112 Embleton Road. The family are listed on both the 1901 and 1911 census returns.
In 1911 her father Alfred was an insurance clerk, mother Grace was at home, Maude was a shorthand writer and her sister Marion was at school.
The family had a live-in servant, Nora Theresa Taylor aged 23 who would have lived in the attic.
‘Embleton Villas’ were built in 1891 by local developer Samuel Jerrard, so the Pease family were early occupants. By 1939 she was living at 185a Widmore Road, Bromley sharing the flat with the Ehrenstein family who were Austrian Jews.
Charlotte Ehrenstein, aged 72 was described as ‘incapacitated’. Carl Ehrenstein was 47 and a translator from German and Frida Ehrenstein, who had been living there, and who was the same age as Maude, seems to have just moved out – her name had been crossed out by the enumerator.
Maude and Carl were married in 1940. Carl was a gifted translator and writer, who had moved with his mother from Vienna to London. Maude and Carl later moved to Whitstable where Carl died in 1971 and Maude in 1989.
Many things excited or saddened her as a child in Lewisham. When she was four years old (1898), and shopping in Lewisham High Street with their servant, there was a huge crowd of very excited people looking at the first ‘horseless carriage’ trundling along the street at 4 mph and later, in 1909 when she was at work, she first heard about ‘flying machines.’
When she was about six or seven years old she was shocked by a scene in Lewisham High Street and wrote: “I saw in our high street a large hole and grouped around it about half a dozen wizened little bow-legged men with yellow-grey skins. I know now that’s a sign of malnutrition [and rickets]. ‘Are they dwarfs?’ I asked Emma, our maid-servant. ‘No, only the paupers working on the roads.’”
These men were inmates from Lewisham Union Workhouse. The workhouse building, of 1817 and the later Workhouse Infirmary, survive intact, but generally unnoticed, as part of Lewisham Hospital. All adult inmates had to work hard as a condition of being taken into the much-feared workhouse.
Her political beliefs were formed and reinforced by a visit to the ‘slum cottage’ of the family’s washerwoman and seeing the distressing conditions that she endured, and then later, her two visits to an area of Lewisham adjoining Ladywell known often as ‘Botany Bay,’ but more properly as Mill Road.
This part of Lewisham, bordered by Loampit Vale, Elmira Street and the Ravensbourne, was an area of high deprivation with poor, unhealthy housing, high unemployment and very low wages.
At its centre was Lewisham Bridge watermill and the Maid of the Mill public house. This small picturesque pub stood on a site adjoining the green space in Cornmill Gardens and Glassmill Leisure Centre. The mill was close by.
There were terraces of cottages with delightful names, which were on a long, narrow island between two branches of the Ravensbourne.
These terraces were: Esplanade Cottages, Sophia’s Place and North Cottages. All have long gone, along with the other branch of the Ravensbourne.
Maude and her sister were forbidden to go there even though it was a shortcut to Lewisham Station.
However, Maud couldn’t resist it. What she saw there were: “Frowzy, dejected men leaning against the dirty walls of their houses, equally frowzy women standing on the muddy doorsteps gossiping and sometimes quarrelling with their neighbours, and a host of ragged children playing in the dust. Newspapers were at the windows instead of curtains.”
The ragged children weren’t at school because their rags weren’t clean enough and without shoes they were not allowed in school. Maude remembered that one boy went to school in high-heeled pink satin slippers because that was all that his mother could find.
She didn’t visit Mill Lane again until 1917 and then only because she was late for her train and Mill Road was a shortcut.
She thought that if she ran, she would be safe. She missed the train because what she saw was a revelation. She noticed that: “The lane was almost deserted except for a few, very young children playing on the banks of the stream [Ravensbourne]. They were decently dressed and were wearing shoes.”
The older children were all at school. Then she saw that: “The outsides of the houses had been whitewashed, the doorsteps had been hearthstoned [a soft stone was used for whitening doorsteps] and there were lace curtains at the windows. A door opened and two women came out wearing fur coats. ‘FUR COATS!!! And they had impeccable hairdos. I went up to an old man who was tidying up front gardens and asked him what had happened to the people who used to live here? ‘They’re much the same people,’ he said. ‘But it is so different.’ ‘I knows what you mean. It’s the regular jobs and the good money that’s what done it.’”
Maude realised then that the poorest of people knew what it was like to have good jobs and regular money. It could transform their lives. She later joined the Labour Party.
The ’Botany Bay’ or Mill Road area, which began just beyond the ‘Welcome to Ladywell’ sign under the railway bridge at the bottom of Ellerdale Street has been completely transformed. But thanks to the excellent ‘Side by Side’ digital maps offered free by the National Library of Scotland, we can see then and now images on the same scale next to each other.
To be continued