Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A day at the Races

Peter McKie was a chair-maker and although much of
his trade was in the repair of chairs he also manufactured a folding stool, much like those sold to anglers today. Working from a shed in the back yard of the house where they lived in Pennington Street, Stepney there was no room to carry large stocks apart from the lack of capital for that.  The chairs were usually sold wholesale to market traders but at least once a year Peter would build up a stock, load up the small pony and cart that he owned and would go off to the races to sell them there.
Normally he would take one of his older sons with him but one year, 1905,  he allowed one of the younger ones, Ernie, to go along, together with 14 year old Joe.  What an adventure that was as young Ernie had never been far from the house before.  Pennington Street, to Tattenham Corner, Epsom was in the region of 17 to 18 miles by road.  The pony was not that young and although Ernie was allowed to ride on the cart from time to time, the pace was still a walking one and the journey took almost half a day to accomplish.
Over Tower Bridge and almost into “Indian territory” as it were for Ernie, he had never been on this side of the river before and to many east enders Bermondsey was almost a foreign country.  Along New Kent Road to Camberwell, probably places he had never previously heard of and then more new experiences as they got out through Streatham which was still effectively in the countryside in those days.
Coping with the early morning traffic with a pony and cart  was not the problem that it would be today.  Although there were quite a few manufacturers of cars in Britain by 1905, there were still not that many motorised vehicles on the road, and the many of them could not go a great deal faster than the much larger number horse-drawn carts, drays, traps and the like which clogged the main roads in and out of London.
Hills were avoided as much as they could, to save the old pony's strength for the long walk that he was no more used to than the boys were.  On to Mitcham a small village then where they stopped to breakfast on the sandwiches they had brought with them, having been on the road already for nearly three hours.  Fortunately for the two young boys, the pubs along the way were not open at that time of day, otherwise, perchance they would not have reached their destination.  On through Sutton and Banstead still no more than country villages at this time so more new experiences for young Ernie.  Finally to Tattenham Corner on the Epsom Downs where the fairground had been set up for the race meeting.  Ernie had not seen such a large open space before in his life.  There were parks near were they lived, but nothing the size of Epsom downs, rolling away into the distance.
Tattenham Corner also had its own railway station used by many of the Londoners who came down for a day at the races, so a good spot to catch likely customers for the chairs.  The Epsom race meetings usually lasted about a week, but Peter rarely had enough stock to take with him to justify staying for more than one day,
Having set off early in the morning they were there in good time for the first of the day trippers to arrive on the special trains which operated on race days  They did a good trade and sold most of the chairs by the time that racing had started and Ernie fully expected that they would then soon be starting for home.  It was not to be.  Peter “liked a drink”, as they say, so he was off to the bar tents with the takings leaving the two boys to look after the pony and cart.  They could hear all the excitement of the fairground, the steam organ on the roundabouts, the cries of the hucksters and screams of the girls on the ghost train.  Worse still they could catch the aromas from the food stalls,   They would have been able to see the helter skelter and some of the high rides and would have wanted to sample them, supposing they had some money, but they dare not disobey their father and remained where they were told.  They passed the time watching the racegoers toing and froing near the rails and having some inkling of the thrill of the betting and the racing, although they heard but could not see the horses thundering round the bend at Tattenham corner.
Peter did not return until racing was over for the day or all the takings had gone, whichever came first, Ernie didn’t know.  Fortunately in those days, being drunk in charge of a horse was not an offence, however Peter still had no intention of leaving.  Waiting until the crowds had thinned, he sent the two boys to scour the grounds for any of the chairs which may have been abandoned.  They came back with a reasonable number, only to find Peter fast asleep in the back of the cart and would not be roused.  Joe did not think that he was able to find their way back to Pennington Street so they had no alternative but to unhitch the pony and feed him and then make themselves a bed under the cart to wait until morning.
At first light they were on their way again, with all three riding in the cart this time.  Having spent the night on the ground in the open, which he had not experienced before, for Ernie, the shine on the adventure had worn off, so the return journey was not as exciting for him as the outward one had been.
There was also the foreboding of the reaction of their mother when Peter returned home without the profits that she would have been anticipating to provide for the family in the coming weeks.  Being the sort of person that she was she would lay some of the blame at the door of the 15 year old Joe, boys of that age being regarded as adult in those days. and regularly worked with his father.  Jessie McKie was a martinet, by any measure of the word, but try as she did to control her wayward husband's drinking habits, she was unsuccessful.  This was to be the last visit to Epsom downs.  At the time of the Derby the following year, Peter having been ill in the St. George in the East Infirmary died there three weeks before the race.