Reminiscences of John Roberts

September 2010
I was born in 1927 over the newsagents shop and general stores of my father at 107 Brighton Road, three doors up from the post office. I was at St John's school with Charlie Holloway who you've also interviewed. He and I were born in the same year. He went into the army and I went into the navy.

Keith Gaffney later lived in the flat above the shop; my father let it to him and his family. Keith used to run an amateur dramatic group, the Clarendon Players; rehearsals were at the Noahs Ark pub in Brighton Road. Keith's mother was the cook at Redhill telephone exchange in Clarendon Road in the mid-1950s. Keith and his wife Sylvia later ran the Merstham Amateur Dramatic Society, I believe. They once put on a pantomime at the Market hall (not necessarily in their Merstham days) and I was involved in the scene shifting. Sylvia had a lovely voice. Unfortunately she has passed away. Several years later we went to the Harlequin to see one of the Surrey Operatic Society productions and met Keith there. It was quite a reunion. His daughter was stage manager I believe. His son Duncan learned to play the drums over the Brighton Road shop.

Brighton Road in those days (1930s/1940s) was like another Redhill High Street; there was everything you could want there. There was nothing that you couldn't but there. If you wanted a pram there was a pram shop, if you wanted a fur coat there was a furriers (Pilbeams) three grocers and two bakers. There were two shops called Roberts, my Dad's and B.J.Roberts further down the hill on the same side. That was a music shop that later became a cafe. There was even a pawn shop down towards Reading Arch. Tusons it was called. I remember Little Jack who used to work there, he used to stand some of the stuff he had outside. We bought suitcases there, and jewellery. Stroud's yard was a little further up. Stroud had a haulage business; he had a shop but I can't ever remember it being used for retail, and he just kept the yard to keep his lorries in. Next door to him was Watts premises which was used by one brother downstairs as a plumbers shop and the other brother was upstairs as a dentist. The original Brighton Road Post office was next to that. What is the laundrette now was Ward's shoe shop, then there was Martin's the butchers, then another hairdresser, then Green's the paper shop - there were three paper shops in the Brighton Road, us, Mayes' and Green's. Then there was the book shop. Reddy the whole greengrocers also had a yard along there, and a place alongside where they used to ripen bananas that they imported green. There was a tobacconist next door to that, all they sold was fancy tobacco. Then there was Worth's the bakers and another butcher, and then the Mathodist Church, followed by Hughes' the grocers and the Athenaeum printing works. After that was Dorman's fish shop and a group of cottages before Stile Cottages that stood in the walkway through to Garlands Road. On the other side of the path going up the hill was Mayes, who sold papers and confectionery, Knights the butchers, Roberts' music and radio shop that I mentioned earlier, and which eventually became the Value Cafe, then another greengrocers - Marchant's - then a second hand and bric-a-brac shop. Then there was Fords the jewellers and watchmakers, grays corn merchants and Miss Stepney the habadasher.

After that was Pickford's removals. They would stable the horses for the circus in their yard. Then Denny's Dairy. I remember that Mr Keen of Denny's Dairies had a dairy farm at Leigh. They would milk the cows there and bring the milk in lorries to the Redhill dairy, bottle it and take it out on the horse and cart to sell. They also sold it in the dairy. My father said that at one time cows were kept on Redhill common and their milk sold in the dairy. This was in the days when it was quite usual for animals to be grazed on common land. Mr Keen's farm was near the Seven Stars pub out Leigh/Newdigate way and as a schoolboy I rode a horse there from the Brighton Road once. It had a sore and either couldn't wear either a saddle or couldn't be hitched to a cart and I had to exchange it for another. The replacement had been out in the fields for several weeks and wasn't keen on being ridden. It was so frisky that it threw me off twice but I got it back. Bill Carver was the manager at the farm - the same man that had the betting office in Redhill.

Denny's cows on the common by St John's Church. Perhaps the lady and the boy were part of the Denny family.
Next door to Dennys was a shoe shop that became the post office. Then there was an alley that led to the Ancient Order of the Foresters office that was built around the back of the shops. Next was Horwood's the hairdressers - 4d men, 2d boys, - then a health food shop and then our two shops at 105 and 107. There was a tobacconist next to us followed by Mrs Frisco running another sweetshop, and another shoe repairer, Hicks. Graves Coaches used to be next. They kept all their coaches on site. Their access way was eight feet six inches wide and at one time they bought a new coach that was eight feet wide. It was a work of art to get that in their yard. Further up was the vets in the same building it's in today followed by Freeman's cycle works (they later moved across the road) and the Padlock, also still situated today where it was then. Grice's the bakers came next and last of all, on the corner of Brighton Road and Garlands Road, was the New Inn pub.

Opposite our shop, starting at Brook Road, there was the Redhill Motor Cycle Works, Bishops the Bakers, Pilbeam the ladies clothier, Loaders the cafe, Theobald's barbers and tobacconist and Wright's bootmakers and repairers before he moved down into the High Street.

When Baker's car sales showroom was a little way up the hill - (Baker's was once Graves' Coaches and is now Honda) - they had a delivery of cars on a two-decker transport lorry one day and the brakes couldn't have been applied properly and it ran away. It didn't get far because just outside our shop was a lamppost that it hit. Being articulated the lorry swung round and the top deck of cars went into the window of the upstairs room where I was born. When I was on leave from the navy I went to a dance at the Market Hall and met a nurse from the isolation hospital at Whitebushes. After the dance I walked her back there, leaving her at the nearby lodge. I then had to walk home over the common - the blackout was in force and it would probably have been pitch black there anyway. I'm walking along and I hear the rattle of chains. I stopped and the rattle stopped. As son as I started off again so the chains started to rattle agin too. It frightened the life out of me and my imagination started to run riot. But I got all brave and lit my cigarette lighter. It was a donkey, tethered by a chain on the common.

There were several new and secondhand furniture businesses locally too, and they all did house removals. Lawrence's had three lorries, Buckland's had three lorries, Wakeman's had two and Collingwood's had one.

We had eight paper rounds from the shop. As a kid I did lots of different rounds for Dad. One morning during the war I'd gone to deliver papers in Garlands Road and the siren went so I nipped back to the shop. One of the houses I would have delivered papers to got bombed. Whether I'd have been near it at the time I'll never know, but if I'd carried on I might not be here now. We had a cellar which is where we went when there was a raid on. One time we dashed down there and Dad remembered that he'd left the takings on the kitchen table and sent me up to get them. When I was in the kitchen a plane went over firing a gun and I felt not a little exposed. I grabbed the money and hot footed it back to the cellar. We had a great big shed which we used as a warehouse. It had a corrugated iron roof with felt under. Years later it got to leaking like a sieve and I was repairing it. I got the corrugated Iron off and found three bullets in the felt. I think that was the plane that dropped the bomb at Shaws Corner and killed several people.

I left St John's School in 1944 when I was fourteen. I went back there a few years ago when the children were interviewing old pupils. I was the first one in and when they asked me if I had liked my time there I told the truth and said no, I'd hated it. Perhaps I was a bad lad, perhaps I was no good at schooling, or maybe it was a combination of the two. I had the cane a few times. Mr Tarr was the worst. he say 'Have you had the cane today, Roberts?' I'd say 'No, Sir', and he'd say 'Well come out here and get it then'. We used to play football in the ring and he would referee the matches. I remember a disagreement I had with him on the field and I threatened him with a fight - I got a good hiding for that too. I wasn't just the cane; he could use his fist as well.

I had a photograph of Mr Mole's class before the war - in about 1937 - and there were forty-five boys in that class. There was Mr Mole in his suit and tie; he had been a sergeant major in the army. I liked Mr Mole. His son was killed on a bike at the bottom of Mill Street.

Anyway, I was fourteen in October 1943 and I left in August. My first job was at the Athenaeum printing works. Charlie Holloway was also there. We were grease boys really, clean the dirty ink rollers and feed the paper onto the machines. There was a foreman there who thought nothing of whacking you. I was a bit of a rebel I suppose and one day he whacked me once too often and I whacked him back and nearly got the sack. Mr Totly was the manager and he had me in the office and asked me what it was all about. I told him what had happened and said that if anyone hit me I was going to hit them back. He asked how I felt about a job on the vans and I went for it. We used to go up to London delivering during the blitz. The used to print Wells Gardener Dart novels, paperbacks, They also printed railway timetables and every other Thursday we used to go to Euston Station late in the evening and deliver all the instructions for the rail alterations - I didn't really know quite what it was about. Of course there were all the barrage balloons and we used to go by Mitcham Common where there was a gun battery. Sometimes they'd be firing away - it was quite exciting but somehow we never thought of the danger.

My second job was welding at Charlie Riders in Frenches Road. Charlie's son went in the army and when he came out he had a shoe shop at Woodhatch. Charlie Riders' place was on the other side of the road from the entrance under the railway into Holmethorpe. There's houses built there now. Facilities were pretty limited there. The toilet was a bucket and you washed your hands where a pipe came off the water tank. Wouldn't be allowed today.

I remember some of the other shops in Redhill, such as Brems' the radio shop in Clarendon Road. Mr Brems lived in Woodside Way and we used to deliver his papers. Then there was Linter's in London Road who used to sell radios and bikes and cars. Sidney Linter sold the cars and lived just south of Merstham.

I went into the navy in 1944 aged sixteen and a half and earned ten shillings a fortnight. I was a cook a county class cruiser and we sailed out to Murmansk. When action stations sounded cooks had the choice of going into the magazine and passing shells to someone else or helping out in sick bay. I chose the magazine. I saw action at Scapa Flow, on Russian convoy duty and in the Far East on Japanese operations.

I was at Corsham Royal Harbour, Wiltshire) during the winter of 1946/7. That was a really bad winter, freezing everywhere, and Prince Philip was there. I got hauled up in front of him for not saluting an officer. I'd kept my hands in my pockets because it was so cold, hoping he wouldn't notice.

While I was at Corsham the local farmers camp to the camp to get volunteers to help with their sheep. If the sheep got snow on their backs and fell over they couldn't get up. The farmers were going to pay us to go into the fields and knock the snow off the sheep. We went in the hope of getting a few bob but who got it I don't know. It certainly wasn't us.

I came out of the navy in 1947/8. As we walked out of the camp there were people with handfuls of fivers trying to buy our cardboard boxes with our demob suits in. Must have been because of the clothing shortage. I went to work for my father. I had wanted to stay in the navy but he wanted me to go into the business, so I did. I worked seven days a week dusk to dawn and got a fiver. This was good money as lots of other people starting work then only got around 3 a week, but I was getting up very early and putting in lots of hours. When I got married I chose Easter Monday. I got up at 5am to deliver the papers, worked until 12 noon. Had a bath and got changed, got married at 2pm, had a reception in an upstairs room in the Greyhound opposite (when Mrs Short was the landlady) and we went to Bognor for our honeymoon. We came back Thursday for Surrey Mirror day on Friday.

Peter Wakeman who had the furniture removals business opposite our shop in Brighton Road borrowed my bike once to go into Redhill. This was in about 1949, we were living at Monson Road at the time. When I came to go home realised that my bike hadn't been brought back. I asked Peter where it was and he'd biked to Redhill to go to Lloyds Bank, forgotten he had it and walked back. When he told me this I walked into the town and there it was still leaning up against the bank wall five hours later.

Talking about Lloyds Bank, I remember a 'phone in a box in the entrance to Pringles office, now the London Road entrance to Lloyds Bank. I never did find out what that was for. (It was a 'phone link to the police station)

We had another connection with Lloyds Bank. I came out of the navy in 1947/48. I'd lived above the Brighton Road shop until I joined the navy in 1944 but didn't live there when I came out. We got married in 1949 and lived with my sister in Monson Road for a year and then we lived opposite the shop in a house we bought at number 90. My Dad rented his shops at 105 and 107 from Mr Lambert, the baker, on a 21 year lease. Mr Lambert was a big landlord around here. When the shop lease ran out Mr Lambert wouldn't renew it. Dad either had to buy the freehold or get out. Mr Lambert wanted 3,000 for the pair of shops. One was the newsagents the other was a general store. Nobby Clark was the manger of Lloyds Bank and I went to see him. I put my cards on the table and said I didn't have any money. We agreed that I could offer Mr Lambert 2,500. Nobby Clark asked how we were going to pay it back. I said I'd have to pay it back. He said he knew I would and said, 'I'll give you a mortgage; o and get the shops for 2,500'. So we bought the shops and that was that. There were six rooms behind each shop as well as a cellar. My Mum and Dad lived behind one shop and the Gaffneys rented the other rooms.

After my parents died I was left with the shops. The Gaffneys left and I rented their flat to Dan Air who put stewards and stewardesses in it. It was a bit of a problem because we had the lorry with the papers come at 3am and we started work at 5am with two vans, so we needed our driveway clear. One Christmas the stewardesses had a big party in the flat, you could hear it for miles and I couldn't get near the driveway. I had a chat with Bob Stainsby and asked him to have a word with the partygoers to clear the drive. Any way, Bobby came back and said, 'She's got no bloody clothes on!'

After a while Dan Air stopped paying the rent and said I'd have to get it off those in the flat. Sometimes there were two there, sometimes six, so I said that I wanted the rent once a month and I wanted a bit of responsibility, with someone designated to collect it. One of those in the flat reluctantly agreed and all went well for a few months but then they started saying that so and so hadn't paid yet and they'd be in tomorrow and son on. It was far from satisfactory so eventually I got rid of them all. My son took it on after then. We had moved in 1963 from 90 Brighton Road to Clarence Walk. We had forty-six years there.

This photo is of me outside the shop in Brighton Road on the last day before the shop closed, some time in the 1990s. I had retired five years before. My son had taken it over and I worked for him. I'd been at the shop from when I was born in 1927.
A view down Brighton Road inOctober 2010. The new buildings on the left replaced a number of older shops. Roberts two shop stood close to where the centre of the new building.
Grateful thanks to John Roberts for the above.
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