Remembering Sea Alley
by Mark Sadler
I grew up in a dockers’ terrace on Sea Alley, in East London. Our house was one from the end of the row, near to where the street split into three tributaries, like an old piece of frayed rope. At high tide the water from Lyons Brook* would flood the narrow channel almost to the end, where it joined up with Greenland Row and Whalers Row. A stone staircase ran along the front of the houses. When the water was at its highest point, it would come up over the third step, leaving the fourth step clear for you to walk on. You could always reach your house without getting wet, except during the Spring tides when the river would come in under the front door. My mother would lay down sand bags in the hall, and in the kitchen for us to rest our feet on while we were eating dinner at the table. It’s the reason we never had carpets on the ground floor of our house; just rugs that we could roll up and take upstairs.
One of my earliest memories is of my older sister – Rosemary – screaming the place down because there was a small crab in the front parlour. My father stormed in with a cigar in his mouth. He picked up the crab by one leg and tossed it out through the front door.
When the tide went out it would leave behind chains of small wet sand dunes that clung like limpets to the base of the bottom step. My mother and the women from the neighbouring houses would emerge with their brooms and aggressively sweep the sand back towards the river, as if it was a dog that they were shooing off their property.
It was common for the rising water to carry away things that had accidentally been left out. A lot of empty milk bottles, some bearing messages for the milkman, went that way, carried off by the ebbing current, along the last leg of the Thames estuary, all the way to Southend-on-Sea.
That was how Rosemary lost the toy pram that she got for her seventh birthday. She forgot to bring it inside and the river took it. When my father found out he caned her. He was an angry man, who had endured a lifetime of sacrifice and hard graft. Everything he owned he saw in terms of the hours that he’d worked in order to pay for it.
I almost lost my reading glasses the same way. I had taken them off and placed them on the third step while I played marbles. When my mother called me in for tea I forgot to pick them up. I found them the following morning, half-buried in a small mound of sand outside John Essen’s house. The left lens had been badly scratched and my parents couldn’t afford to get it repaired. Whenever I put them on at school, it felt as if the scratch on the lens was a reflection of a scratch on my retina. It made my eyes water and drove me half mad for an entire term. Eventually I paid to have the glass replaced, using the money I earned from my Saturday job at Finch’s Butchers.
After I left school I went to work at Rawlings Enamel, which was a family-run business located at the far end of Sea Alley. In the 1970s, they gave up on the enamelling and focused exclusively on hot-water bottle manufacture, which was still profitable thanks to some ongoing international contracts, mainly in Northern India and Nepal. The factory closed in 1987 after the owner, Simon Rawlings, passed away. I decided not to look for another job and took early retirement. At the moment I still live nearby, although next year I will be relocating to Woodbury to be closer to my daughter. Now that Rosemary’s gone there is very little keeping me here.
I was going through some old things in the loft the other day and I found the glasses that I was telling you about. My head must have got a lot bigger since those days because they don’t fit me any more!
* Known as Beavel Brook before J. Lyons & Co. sponsored it in 1919.
The endorsement ended in 1932, but the name stuck.