Red Rose from Pevensey Road

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In November 2014 there was a 70th anniversary service in St Mary’s Church, Summerstown, remembering the victims of one of the worst Second World War bomb incidents in Wandsworth. At 830am on Sunday 19th November, a V2 rocket smashed into neighbourng Hazelhurst Road, directly on top of the houses in front of Smallwood School. After the service we walked the short distance to the site of the bomb crater behind Sutton Courtenay House. Here the names of the 35 people who died that day were read out by relatives and petals were scattered in their memory. A guitar ensemble from Burntwood School performed an emotional rendition of Fields of Gold. It was a deeply sad but spectacularly moving occasion. We returned to the Church for tea and it was here that I first met Rose and her sister Shirley. We wanted to put together a display of local people’s memories of the incident and she was one of the first that I talked to. I couldn’t have wished for someone with more vivid memories or a sense of bringing the past to life. It would be rare for me to do one of my rambles in this area without recounting one of her anecdotes or observations.

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Rose Mangan was born the fifth of seven children at 26a Pevensey Road, the ‘rough end’ as she liked to call it, though apparently not as rough as Hazelhurst and Foss Road which were considered ‘out of bounds’. Her father George worked for a while as the gate-keeper at Streatham Cemetery and the dust yard in Alston Road. Her mother Alice lost her first husband in the war. Rose came into the world on 19th May 1928. Life was harsh in the Fairlight area just a few years on from the General Strike. In the years before the establishment of the NHS, whole families with grown up children inhabited single rooms. Houses were damp, cold and rat-infested. Infant mortality was rife. Local newspaper reports show how tough it was in the ‘Tooting Slums’. ‘Vermin, bugs, rats mice and fleas’ screamed the headlines. ‘In four rooms in Foss Road lived seventeen people. In the front room of a Hazelhurst Road dwelling, sleep a husband and wife together with a son aged 23 and a daughter of 20. In a back bedroom live a married daughter her husband and four children’. There were reports of an undertaker entering a premises with a coffin for a dead child and having to fight off a rat attempting to get at the body. ‘Children are being raised in circumstances which may easily lead to impaired vitality, poor physique, tainted morals and a low conception of what should be life’s fine adventure’. These conditions would shape Rose and her politics, giving her a lifelong concern for the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people, in particular their housing needs.

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This was the year that all women over the age of 21 got the vote and were now on the same terms as men. The first talking picture appeared in London and Tooting was awash with seven cinemas. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in Steamboat Willie. Amazingly Rose was born on precisely the same day that Hollywood starlet, Tallulah Bankhead ‘wet the rabbit’ with a bottle of champagne and in frnt of 22,000 people, officially opened the new Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium. That seems so prophetic given that this week they’ve finally started knocking it down. Rose didn’t go to school much and the ‘School Board Man’ was a regular visitor at No26a. Fortunately here was a passage-way at the back of the house connecting it with Khartoum Road, providing a good escape route from him. Rose started work aged 14 at the Shirley Box Factory in Merton. The evening before Sunday 19th November 1944 she went out dancing above the Co-op store on Tooting High Street, what we refer to as the ‘RACS building’. She was with her regular tango partner Ronnie Fletcher, a promising boxer from a large family in Khartoum Road.

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At breakfast time the next morning, the Nazi rocket ripped Hazelhurst and Foss Road apart, killing 35 people, injuring over 100 and destroying 50 homes. The threat of bombs didn’t worry Rose too much, she was a carefree young girl and had already witnessed quite a few incidents. She was a typical teenager, enjoying life and feeling indestructible. Fourteen children died that day, many of them her classmates from Smallwood Road School or people she would have known. Three of them were from the Hinson family. Joan Hinson who also worked in the box factory was a great family friend. The photo below shows them all on a works outing to Hastings in 1944. The bomb killed her mother Winifred and two brothers, Raymond and Robert. Joan herself was pulled out of the rubble. It was a most wonderful thing that through the commemoration the families got back in touch and Rose was able to give the Hinsons a funeral card which she had held onto for over seventy years.

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Rose’s recollections of this neighbourhood were so clear – she remembers the area being very poor, but lively and populated by colourful characters like Cocker Woodley and Mrs Hammond selling second-hand clothes from barrows on the street. Her sister-in-law Doris worked at the Laundry and Rose showed me a few pieces of fancy linen which had fallen off the back of the Anglo American wagon. There were shops on every corner, most notably ‘George’s’ at the junction of Pevensey and Rostella Road. He sold everything. Rose often got sent out for a ha’porth of jam which she brought back in a saucer. You could buy rhubarb and watercress which was grown locally on the allotments behind the cemetery. Rose was considered a ‘weakling’ so was encouraged to eat plenty of iron-rich watercress. I asked her once what she ate it with and she looked at me like I was mad – ‘We ate it on its own because we couldn’t afford anything else’. They also couldn’t afford fresh milk, so always bought the condensed version out of tins.

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Despite that, pubs were affordable to most people and The Fountain Hotel was the centre of the community where everyone met for a drink and a sing-song and very often a punch-up. There were regular Saturday night brawls in Khartoum Road, Rose would watch them from her bedroom window at the back of Pevensey Road. Men and women of all ages, always starting after the pubs shut, and usually over money. People lent each other money for the rent and there were nearly always disagreements over payment. Memories were short and next day they’d all have a cup of tea together and be the best of pals. One of the favourite photos Rose shared with me was of her father-in-law Frank, walking out of The Fountain proudly clutching a live chicken he’d just won in the raffle. Other characters were a street entertainer who went by the name of Jelly-on-a-plate, an Italian ice cream maker called Jumbo who sold bright yellow ice cream and was interned, a one-armed dustman called Dumper Sergeant and an ARP Warden called Streaky Bacon. Whenever there was something to celebrate, the residents lit fires in the middle of the road which often damaged the tarmac. On VE Day there was a huge bonfire at the junction of Pevensey and Rostella Road. It got a bit out of control and lemonade bottles in the shop on the corner started to pop their corks. As she told me, Rose leaned back and smiled ‘What a fascinating era!’

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There was a main bomb shelter in what was known as ‘The Old Park’, the small recreation ground just off Cranmer Terrace. There were other shelters in Pevensey Road but they were very flimsy and no one felt safe. The preferred gathering point for people when there was an air-raid was in the passageway of the house. Rose just liked to take her chances and didn’t generally bother taking precautions. The sound of the ‘ack-ack’ anti-aircraft guns were a familiar soundtrack from this time. Fairlight Hall played a big part in everyone’s lives. Rose and her sisters Shirley and Jessie were members of the Girls Brigade and did a lot of marching around the area. Rose’s future husband Frank Cook who lived just a few doors away at No12a Pevensey Road got presented with an enormous certificate for his contribution. There were ‘magic lantern’ shows and a lot of activities for children and young people.

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Rose remembers Leonard Shepherd, the man who who come to the area as a teenage missionary and had stones thrown at him. He persuaded Sir John Kirk to set up a ragged school and Fairlight Hall opened in 1905. After the V2 incident she recalled crowds of people covered in dust streaming towards Fairlight Hall where they received medical treatment. Rose Mangan and Frank Cook got married on 12th September 1953 at Wandsworth Town Hall and left their respective homes on Pevensey Road to live briefly in Clapham. They missed Tooting too much and were soon back. David was born in 1955, Julie nine years later. Rose was a popular dinner lady at Ensham School and the College at Tooting Broadway.

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On one of my visits Rose produced a plastic bag full of yellowing newspaper cuttings from the late sixties. They contained some lurid headlines ‘Battle of Tooting Broadway’, ‘Residents on War Footing to take on Council’. ‘Every Street will Fight’. This was the age when concrete towers were all the rage and the Council in their wisdom wanted to compulsory purchase the Fairlight houses and put residents into grey blocks. People who had lived all their lives in this area, some through two world wars, were terrified of being moved out of their homes. ‘Anti-Development’ Groups were organised and Rose played her part in seeing off the property developers. Those little houses they wanted to knock down are still going strong, now over one hundred years old, exchanging hands for ridiculous sums of money.

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Rose was a very special person whose love of life, twinkle and inner light shone through so brightly in older age. It was a real privilege to have known her briefly and I will always treasure those little chats we had. Her memories and stories will live on. Thank you Rose, for shedding a light on the history of this area, for being so generous with your knowledge and passing it on in such a lovely warm friendly way. She typifies the Tooting character that I love so much, a little bit cheeky with a heart of gold, resilient in tough times but able to laugh about it. She was just the kind of person there is not enough of in the world, someone who doesn’t take things too seriously, can see the funny side of adversity and has a healthy disrespect for so-called authority. Rose lived life to the full through times of extraordinary turmoil and change. Another of the great war-time generation whose like we shall perhaps never see again is gone, but the memories live on forever. Walk past the RACS building and imagine Rose and Ronnie dancing the night away, stroll past George’s and hear the lemonade bottles popping, look at a bunch of watercress and imagine her tucking in – and when we get a new Stadium in Plough Lane, think of Rose and the almost nine decades of history that came before and toast her with a mug of condensed milk. One of the great Women of Summerstown, Red Rose from Pevensey Road – we salute you.

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Rose died on Mothers Day, 11th March 2018. It was one of my greatest honours to be asked by Julie and David, to read the above account at her funeral service.

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