Tottenham to Cottenham

By Philip Saunders

Including extracts from his late mothers book  ‘A Tottenham Childhood’




  A year or so ago I had just parked the car by the old church hall and Alex and I were about to hurry into church when another car pulled up by us. The driver had an address to go to, 182 (or similar high number) West Green Road, Cottenham, and asked us if we could direct him there. I was perplexed; I reckoned I knew the village quite well, but not this street. The obvious exception would be the new developments off Broad Lane, but the name was too ordinary for those, and in any case the number was far too high. And yet the name had a curiously familiar ring about it. In haste and perplexity, we sent them off to enquire at the newsagents. Minutes later and some way into the first hymn I realised their mistake. I cannot explain how it had arisen, but surely they were looking for West Green Road, Tottenham, not Cottenham (Cambs), and, by a bizarre (and now ironical) chance, they had asked one of the few people in the village who ought to have realised. Why? Because I had been born and spent my early years in Tottenham, merely two or three streets away from West Green Road, the busy road of Victorian terraces and shops where my great grandparents had lived at no. 169, and which some readers at least may be familiar with, running between Turnpike Lane and Seven Sisters tube stations. Alas, this had dawned on me all too late for my lost enquirers, and I can only hope that they went back to the source of their address, got it corrected, and probably had as good a laugh about the mistake as I did.


The incident made me reflect on these connections. When I was young, ‘the Great Cambridge Road’, i.e. the A10 trunk road as it springs out of Tottenham to Enfield, was locally the main road, its resonant name conjuring up the king’s ancient highway to a great city (of course this was before we thought of roads just as corridors of pollution). Once, memorably, I had gone on the pillion of my dad’s BSA Bantam up that road to spend a day in that city. I could not know then that I would spend the greater part of my working life in or around Cambridge. In consequence of that road, the railway and a dozen other things, there are many small ties between Tottenham and the Cambridge area. Occasionally in my job as an archivist at the County Record Office I stumble across them. There is, for example, the story revealed by the Trumpington parish records of one Thomas Bonning, a deranged or inebriated parishioner who in 1824 ran amok in a Tottenham nursery, flattening the flowers and ending up in a pond, forcing the Tottenham authorities to demand his confinement to an asylum. Or again, I am intrigued to see reference in a Peterborough School Medical Officer’s report of one hundred years’ later to ‘the Tottenham method of cleansing’, resorted to in ‘very refractory cases’ of head and body lice.

It may have been once, but it cannot be pretended that Tottenham today is a pretty place, though it is not without some surprisingly good buildings and interesting corners. That it continues to hold my allegiance must be due to more than a famous football team (well, they were once). It is nice, then, to have been connected with a pamphlet which my mother, Barbara Phillips, has written, entitled A Tottenham Childhood, by doing little more than preparing it for the printer.

 She too is Tottenham born and bred, and holds the place in affection, having lived, taught or preached there for more than fifty years. Her small magnum opus began as a humble attempt to commit to writing some tales of her childhood which she was in the habit of telling one of my brother’s daughters, but, with the addition of some illustrations, developed in a year or so into a 40-page printed pamphlet. When it first appeared one reviewer described it as ‘…so vivid and warmly written that even those who did not grow up in Tottenham in the twenties can imagine the scene very clearly’. Another wrote: ‘…an important contribution to social history …a joy to read’. No wonder then that, a decade later, it is in its third reprint and has incidentally raised a worthwhile sum for the Methodist Homes for the Aged, the charity founded by Rev. Walter Hall, the minister of our old Tottenham church.

If you enjoy reading reminiscences or wish to be enchanted or amused I can thoroughly recommend it. You do not have come from North London to find it interesting, as sales are nationwide, but especially in the Abergavenny area (where my mother had lived), demonstrate.

Philip Saunders


 There follows a number of extracts from Barbara’s book that have been selected to convey what life in Tottenham was like from the beginning of WW1 and through to her early teens. Where possible we have added some photographs to help illustrate her story. 




 I was born in 1913 – on March 26th – more than a year before the Great European War, which made such a difference to our lives. I arrived at 2 o’clock in the morning under my own steam! My father had gone to fetch Mrs. Arrowsmith, the midwife, because my mother was in labour, but by the time she arrived I was there!
My mother told me that I was born ‘in a caul’, a sure sign, she said, that I would never drown. A short while after I was christened Barbara Lily Hand, after my two aunts.I


 I don’t remember living in the house in which I was born. It was no. 96 Durham Road, Tottenham. Durham Road is now called Kitchener Road after Mrs. Kitchener, one of Tottenham’s councillors.


  My earliest memory is moving to no. 62 The Avenue, where we had a bathroom but no hot water. I was one and a half. We were bathed in a tin bath in front of the kitchen fire – a very public affair, as we lived and ate our meals in the kitchen.
I have just a couple of memories of things that happened during those war years, 1914 to 1918. I remember my mother trying to earn some money by making, sewing and stuffing toy clowns. The materials were either delivered to or collected by my Mother and included a huge sack or bag of sawdust.
The other thing I remember was going to a party for grown-ups in the house next door. Our next-door neighbour was Mrs. Innocent. Other people called her Mrs. Embleton – I think she had been married twice, but both husbands must have died. Mrs. Innocent and her daughter May used to make paper hats for Tom Smith’s to put in their crackers, and used to give us some of the ‘overs’ and we children would make our own paper hats. She also gave us some paste, but sometimes my mother made our own with flour and water.
I can’t remember much about the party, but I do remember the siren going, which meant there was an air raid. I was put under the kitchen table and told to go to sleep – which I did. Then I remember being wakened by the sound of the ‘all-clear’ and my mother carried me home next door and put me in my own bed.


  My father was a very shadowy figure, whom I scarcely knew at that time. I could only have been one year old, or nearly two, when he was called up for the army. He was a very smart man, very proud, whose shoes were always shiny black. He was in Mesopotamia or Salonica for three and a half years, so I must have been five years old when he returned. My mother was quite upset because I said he wasn’t my Daddy. He was clean-shaven and I am reputed to have said ‘He’s not my Daddy – my Daddy’s got sticking-out side whiskers’.

There was a party at our local school to celebrate the end of the war. I had not started at school, but my mother took me round to the school where there was a demonstration in the playground. The central figure was Britannia. She was dressed just as she appears on an old penny – with gold helmet and the red, white, and blue Union Jack in a shield. It was quite splendid. She held a trident in her right hand. I can still see it all very clearly.





  Sometime before Christmas each year I used to go and stay with my other grandma and aunties who lived at Shepherds Bush. This was my fathers’ mother and sisters. My grandma belonged to the Sunshine Guild, an association to help the poor children of London. They collected money for toys and food and then, a short time before Christmas, a large hall would be hired, and big party would be held to which hundreds of boys and girls came. Who gave out the gifts? Well, there was always the Sunshine Fairies, of whom I was one. It was very exciting to be so important.

Of course, Father Christmas came too, and the children cheered and cheered. One year, there was I, standing in my fairy dress with my crown and wings and magic wand with the star on top and my hair in long curls (put there by curl rags the night before) and, of course, with the hand-crocheted lace on my drawers showing, when a lady kissed me. I don’t remember whether I liked it or not, but my mother told me never to forget that I had been kissed by Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll.



  Christmas was, of course, the most important event in the winter, and we looked forward to it for ages. We children did not have pocket money, but Uncle Will, my favourite Uncle, used to give us twopence every Tuesday evening when he and my Grandma (Grandma Ellis, my mother’s mother) came to see us, sometimes with Grandpa Ellis, though he was frail and old.
We saved these twopences and that was the money with which we bought our Christmas presents. I well remember one Christmas when we three eldest children each put 2 1/2d which made 7 1/2d and bought my mother a tin kettle. She always chose something useful for the home.

We put up decorations at school and had some kind of parties. I can’t remember any very clearly, so they couldn’t have been very outstanding.

My mother made mincemeat and Christmas puddings, which we all stirred, and I can tell you we children were very naughty. We would all slip into the parlour where the goodies were kept and pinch a few currants and sultanas and I can remember my mother being very cross with us. We never had a Christmas tree.

On Christmas Eve we went to bed early and hung up our stockings or socks for Father Christmas. There was always something in them, including an apple orange, piece of coal and, of course, some dolls’ clothes for me and some games for the boys.

We always had Christmas dinner at home, and this would be either goose or pork and always ham, because my father always had a whole York ham given to him by one of his customers and this was shared with Grandma Ellis.

After dinner and washing up we walked a mile from The Avenue to my Grandma’s at 169 West Green Road, where we had tea. We always had a big Christmas cake which my Grandma decorated with white icing and marzipan fruits.




My Dad didn’t earn very much money, but he was never out of work. In those days it was considered wrong for mothers to go out to work unless they were widowed, so you had to make a little money buy a lot. We always had good food – mostly pudding (plain suet ones) and lots of rice.

The boys were very heavy on boots. They liked to play football and, on cold winter days when the pavements were frozen, they used to make slides in the streets and in the playground at school. Children used to get into trouble for making slides, as they were dangerous in the street, and if they saw a policeman they made a run for it.

Tottenham today is very different from the Tottenham I remember as a little girl. It was a lovely district with tree-lined roads and well-kept houses. There were hardly any motor cars on the roads, only horses and carts. Horse-droppings did not stay on the road very long, for people would take a bucket and shovel to get the manure for their gardens. It was eagerly sought, and if a horse left a deposit in front of someone’s house it was considered their property; if someone else took it there would be an argument.

The water cart came down the road once a week and washed the street down and road sweepers were about frequently. It was all clean and tidy and front gardens were very neat


At the top of The Avenue was Broadwater Farm, which stretched to Lordship Lane in one direction and Downhills Park in the other. During the long summer holidays, when it seems the sun always shone, Bob and Ted would take me out. Sometimes we went to play on the field at the top of the road – part of the farmland – where the cows would be grazing. If we went to the field for the afternoon our Mother would come a little later and bring a picnic tea.

We were always pleased to see her because she was a lovely, happy, smiling person. The tin kettle would be full of water and we would collect some dry sticks and make a fire at the foot of a tree and Mother would boil the kettle and make tea. Then we would have a walk by the Moselle brook which ran through the field and be home in time for Dad’s tea


  Nearer to Downhills Park, where there was a recreation ground for the boys to play football, some tennis courts and a bowling green, there was another old farm which even then had fallen into disuse.   It was just wild, and wild flowers and weeds flourished there.   There was a water tower at the side of the park, which lent a majestic aspect to the pastoral scene.


  The first time I was bridesmaid was at Auntie Lily’s wedding when I was eight years old. You have seen the photograph. I was very fond of Auntie Lily; she was the younger of my Mother’s two sisters. She married my Uncle Reg, whom she had met at another wedding shortly before. He came from Norwich and after the wedding she went to live there.

 The day was my eighth birthday. Now you know what it is to be eight. I wore a cream crepe de chine dress with three flounces, my usual white drawers with lace hanging down (which I hated) and a big cream leghorn hat with a huge blue bow at the front. I also had a bouquet and carried my little Egyptian bag which my Uncle Will brought back from the war for me, with pictures on it.


  I must tell you something about our Sundays. Certainly our spiritual life was not neglected. My Mother was a real Christian, not a pious, sanctimonious person, but one who overcame all her anxieties because she believed God was with her all the time, and she tried to pass on her belief in God and in Jesus to her children.

On Saturday evenings our shoes and boots were cleaned and polished until we could see our faces in them (I don’t remember my Dad ever in unpolished shoes; it was a ritual every evening for him to sit in his armchair by the kitchen fire and clean his shoes, including the soles).
Then on Sunday morning we got up at eight o’clock, half an hour later than all week. Breakfast was quite an event, with perhaps a boiled egg to go with the porridge. Dad might even have egg and bacon, but my Mother never ate any breakfast. At half past nine prompt we were all ready for Sunday School in our Sunday best. The boys would wear their Norfolk suits and nearly always I had a white dress. At the Wesleyan Sunday School, High Road, the girls had to wear white dresses for Sunday School Anniversary, or they could not sing in the choir – a white dress and a buttonhole.

I should say that we didn’t start going to the Wesleyan Sunday School until I was about four or five. There was a Tin Chapel at the top of The Avenue, on the corner of Mount Pleasant Road, with a field at the side and another at the back. This was a United Methodist Church and, as that was so near home, we were sent there at first.

We loved that Tin chapel, and when I was about twelve or thirteen years old a new church was built beside it and after I was fourteen, we always went there. I love that church to this day because it was there that I gave my heart to Jesus and learned what it really means to be a Christian, and I’m still learning now. I still thank God for Miller Memorial Methodist Church and for the Reverend Walter Hall who helped to lead me to Jesus.



  Another thing I remember very well was the things that happened in the street. For instance, soon after the 1914-18 war was over, men would come round looking very poor and ragged, and sing. Sometimes they sang hymns and sometimes nobody could tell what they were singing. People would give them a penny, sometimes more. My Mother always made them a cup of cocoa, if it was winter, and gave them a cheese sandwich.

Then the rag-and-bone man came round often, and we would get a balloon or a goldfish for some rags or for jam jars.

I don’t know why they called them rag-and-bone men, for they never collected bones, so far as I remember. They used to shout very loudly ‘Any old rags or lumber’ as they pushed their barrows along. On Sunday afternoons in the winter the muffin man came round. He was dressed in a white apron and wore a white chef’s hat. He carried the muffins on a baker’s tray on his head and rang a bell. There was also the winkles and shrimps man, who also came on Sunday afternoons, pushing a barrow. He would shout very loudly ‘Fine shrimps and winkles’ and folk would go out and buy some for tea.


One lovely Saturday morning my Mother asked me to do some shopping for her. She had heard there were English tomatoes at sixpence a pound at the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ in West Green Road. This was a stall in a gap under a railway arch or bridge. It was arranged that I should take my brother, Norman, in his pushchair, walk via downhills park, buy the tomatoes, and return by the shortest route, up Beaconsfield Road.

My Mother put the money for the tomatoes in an envelope and placed it in a fold in the pram hood. I got as far as Downhills Park, when I suddenly realised that I had lost the money. I did not dare go home without it. I took my usual refuge in tears and a kind gentleman came along and asked me the trouble. He asked me how much money I had lost and I told him it was one shilling and sixpence. He stopped another man and said he was willing to contribute half if he would do the same. When I arrived at the hole-in-the-wall they had Dutch tomatoes for fourpence halfpenny a pound and English for sixpence.
I felt sure I ought to buy the cheaper ones, so instead of getting three pounds I got four. That I thought was fine. It was a hot day so I allowed myself a few tomatoes on the way home.

When I got home my mother was very cross with me for not getting the English tomatoes; she wouldn’t have the Dutch and I was sent back to change them. I didn’t know how to tell the man at the hole-in-he wall because I knew they were now short. He held a short conference with another man, who said ‘give her the same weight in the English ones’. I didn’t dare eat any on the second return journey.

When I got home my mother found the money untouched in the hood of the push-chair and wondered how I’d bought the tomatoes at all. I then had to tell her the whole story. I had quite forgotten where she had put the money for safety.



  When we used to walk to see Grandma in West Green Road we usually took a route through Summerhill Road. At the top end was a slaughterhouse where they killed animals for the butcher. My brothers and I stood outside many times, listening to the cries of those poor animals. Across the road and a little farther down was a curious house with a large front garden, which had been neglected. I had so many fantasies about this house.

I thought a witch lived there, and my brothers used to tease me and dare me to walk on that side of the road. I don’t think I ever did! I was sure the witch would get me. Once I saw an old lady near the door and ran for my life. I was very stupid because I suppose she was really a dear old lady.



NOTE: The book ‘A Tottenham Childhood’ by Barbara Phillips is currently out of print although copies may still be available from Bruce Castle Museum.  


Background Image  shows Edwardian children playing in Mount Pleasant fields.

Article prepared by Alan Swain January 2021