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My Chislehurst by Don Drage

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Don Drage is Chislehurst born and bred with an extraordinary, lifelong association with one particular road. Now in his seventies, he remains heavily involved in community life and is busier than ever. Read in his own words, Don’s memories of the home town he has never had the desire to leave.

“People tell me that they are from Chislehurst, but even if they have lived here 40 years, I’d still consider them a newcomer. There are very few of us who can say that they are ‘proper Chislehurst’.

I was born in 1942 in Widmore Maternity Hospital, which no longer exists. Years later, the maternity nurse that delivered me also delivered my first born child.

I was one of five; three boys and two girls. Growing up, we lived at 125 White Horse Hill. We never had electricity, just gas lighting, a toilet in the yard and one cold tap. Bath night was once a week on a Friday. Dad used to bring the tub in from the garden and we’d heat the water with a fire underneath a ‘Copper’ in the corner of the scullery. Mum had a mangle by the back door and us kids had to take turns to rotate the handle. I used to go to bed by the light from a candle – no health and safety in those days. If the gas ran out we had to put a shilling in the meter.

 

My dad, Sidney, was from Chislehurst. He lived in Frognal Villas on Green Lane, just at the end of Mead Road. I looked it up in Bromley Library and found out that his father (my grandfather) had been in that house since 1895. My mum, Doris, was Chislehurst-born too. Her mother’s maiden name was Harland.

Dad had lots of different jobs when we were growing up. At one time he was a gardner at Coopers school and later he worked at the Cray Valley Paper Mills. In the 1950s, him and my brother Bob worked at Aquila, an MoD testing facility near Bickley Manor. It was all top secret what they got up to, but at one time they were working on timers for hand grenades.

My earliest memory is of the air raid shelter which was at the bottom of our garden on the allotments. There were bunk beds down the sides for us kids and mum used to sit across the opening in a deckchair.

When they had the dog fights in the air, every other bullet was a tracer which lit up so the pilots could see what they were firing at. One night, a tracer bullet hit the backdoor, worryingly close to mum’s head. After that she kept a dustbin lid by the door to hold over her head while she was running to the shelter.

There were huge barrage balloons protecting certain areas from the bombs. We had one at the top of White Horse Hill to protect the gun emplacement that was there. It was attached to the ground with these huge steel cables.

On V.E day we had a party on top of the Hill, what is now Walden Rec. I was only a little boy and I can picture it now, marching along amongst all the adults, banging my toy drum.

I first went to school at Mead Road when I was five, moving on to St Nicks in 1949. It was just after the war and there was no money for uniform or school dinners. I was only seven and I used to get the bus home for lunch. I still remember the horrible art teacher who gave me a slap for wasting paper.

I was only at St Nicks for two years as Red Hill opened in 1951 and that was closer to home. I was among the first intake. Although there was plenty of land, they hadn’t got round to landscaping it. We were surrounded by builders’ rubble and had to go to the top field (Walden Rec) to play our football matches.

At 11, I went to Edgebury Secondary School for Boys and from there went on to Bromley College of Art and got my national certificate in Building. I served my apprenticeship as a joiner with a firm called Hibberd Brothers in Lambeth.

By the time I was 21, I had been promoted into the office as a joinery surveyor. Barclays Bank was our main client so I had to draw up the plans for all their counters and desks so the workshop could build them.

As an innocent young lad of 13, my sister’s dance troop was putting on a panto in St Nicks village hall. They were looking for a boy to play Cinderella’s evil stepmother and I got roped in. Prince Charming was played by Mavis, a girl who lived up the hill. We went out selling tickets together and that was it really. We married at the Methodist Church in 1962, two days before Mavis turned 20. It’s been 54 years now.

We lived with her parents at 35 White Horse Hill for the first year, then moved two doors away and rented no. 31, which was owned by the Annunciation church at that time.

I left Hibberd Brothers after thirteen years and used my connections at Barclays to get a job as an architectural technician within their in-house property department. As a bank employee, I could get a cheap mortgage which is how I could afford to buy no. 125 off mum. Dad had died in 1963 and she couldn’t look after it on her own. She moved up to no.31 where we had been and my brother Charles moved back in to look after her. He still lives there now.

Mavis and I have been in no. 125 ever since. It was built in the 1890s with Harland bricks – you can see the initials R.H on them. Richard Harland, the brickmaker, was my great, great, great grandfather. As a boy, Great Gran Harland used to live with us. Her husband was the great grandson of Richard Harland. So you see, White Horse Hill really is in the blood.

Our son Kirk arrived in 1964 and then we had our daughter Kim two years later. They both live locally and we have three grandchildren and two great grandchildren now.

I have been a Chislehurst Society road steward for 17 years after my friend’s father got me to sign up as a member. In the 1970s, there was a big fuss because the Society objected to the Barclays sign we were trying to put up on the High Street branch. The letters were supposed to light up separately, but the Society thought it was more suited to Vegas than Chislehurst. In the end we had to compromise and make a special sign to keep them happy. It was all in the papers at the time, hard to believe now.

I took voluntary redundancy from the bank at 50 and worked part-time as a handy man until 1999 when I had to stop work altogether due to ill-health. Although committees are not really my thing, I’m still involved with the Chislehurst Society. I’m a member of their history group which is how I’ve come to know so much about my genealogy. Photography is my big thing and I’ve had my pictures published in three different books about the history of Chislehurst.

For at least seven years, I volunteered as part of the Wednesday morning working party that helps to maintain Chislehurst Commons. I’ve retired from it now and have become their official photographer instead, so I’m still out with them every week. I thoroughly enjoy their company – the Keepers, the Trustees and all the other volunteers. I like to feel that I do my bit because the Commons are such an important part of Chislehurst. I don’t believe the Trustees get enough support, not enough people appreciate what they do. Maybe this is a sign of the times as the Commons are not used as much as they were. We were always out playing in my day. You don’t see that so much now.

Would I ever leave Chislehurst? No, why would I? This is where I belong.”

Interview by Gwen Lardner, on behalf of the Trustees of the Commons

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