John Edmonds (1911-1984): Habits, Culture, and Belief – Writing Lives

John Edmonds (1911-1984): Habits, Culture, and Belief

New Cross Station in 1839. The surrounding green areas give an idea of the ‘glorious playground for the children of the neighbourhood’ (16) before excavation and building work would take it away.

As a child, John Edmonds always sought fun. He was an intelligent boy, who felt that life was best lived making the most of the moment. The emphasis he places upon childhood as a foundational base for good character is portrayed through a boyhood filled with play and laughter–a key facet of John’s attitude is turning something ordinary, or perhaps unfortunate, into something profitable. Living in an impoverished area of London that had succumbed to the industrial vines of the railways could have led to a dull childhood of disinterest. The bleak surroundings of 118 Eugenia Road were uninspiring for a child, be it not for a little imagination. But the area between the ‘Surrey Canal and the railway to New Cross Gate, formed a glorious playground for the children of the neighbourhood during the twenties and early thirties when the vacant land enclosed within these bounds was being progressively excavated for its underlying land and ballast’ (16-17). John’s childhood was not teeming with items of any great materialistic value, but the basic essence of his working-class home was enough to keep him entertained in a remarkable show of “making do” against all odds. ‘There was also little demand for more factory and garage accomadation [sic] in this district during these times of economic depression’ (17). This allowed John to enjoy ‘the use of a few acres of green space with exciting things to do and see at all times of the year’ (17). That a mere ‘few acres of green space’ (17) are seen as such a haven is almost sad. Yet, the spirit John possesses to take the little good available and use it to its fullest is deeply admirable. In all weathers, John and the local children would find something to do with this space. His lot was small, but he intended to make the most of it.

Ever enquiring and wishing to learn more about nature, as touched on briefly in Education and Schooling (Part One), John enjoyed summers investigating ‘plant and insect life […] where the ballast had been exhausted or work in connection with its excavation had not begun’ (17). The juxtaposition of the adventurous child’s foray into nature against the mechanical, decadent language of industrial excavation is symbolic of the innocence and hope that shines through in John’s memoir. Despite the impositions of modernity and the struggles it brings for the working class, John was impeded but never stopped in having fun.

The nearby Southwark Park provided green space where John would enjoy playing and examining insect and plant life.


Boating Lake, Southwark Park, c. 1936.

John in many ways mirrors Les Tebbutt, the father of author Melanie Tebbutt. Like John, Les was ‘a quiet, unassuming, working-class boy, strongly attached to his family and neighbourhood, independent, occasionally solitary’ (Tebbutt, 2012, 1). Tebbutt contends that these ‘“average steady-goers”’ (2012, 1) are ‘often overlooked or dismissed in favour of the more dramatic accounts of youth and adolescence that have dominated popular understanding of young people’s lives’ (2012, 1). Whilst John does subscribe to some of the pleasures that Tebbutt suggests are integral to defining the working-class boy of the interwar period – John ‘enjoyed’ (75) football and ‘loathed’ (75) cricket – he exemplifies a very pleasant breed of young man in a very turbulent time to grow up in, unconsumed by pressures over masculinity. ‘The First World War significantly compromised pre-war expectations of “being a boy”’ (Tebbutt, 2012, 70). Yet, John did not indulge in any of the militaristic uniformity or jingoism that Tebbutt contends took control of interwar boyhood experiences. Rather, John’s indulgences signalled an astute sense of sensitivity. He was much more interested in the delicacy of insect life or the impressive logic of the railways.

Many boys at his school took up a “rougher” disposition in which sport and a gang of “lads” was central to their social life. John however, found sanctuary in his retreat to the quieter tenderness of free time spent with Angeline. Just like his outdoor play, John’s relationship with Angeline was based on childhood innocence, as discussed in Education and Schooling (Part Two). Their relationship was pure in their deep mutual connection ,and in the desire to learn with one another. John’s thirst for some of life’s finer intricacies such as ‘the mysteries of religion, animal reproduction, and […] art, music, and literature’ (81) had drawn ‘ridicule’ (81) from classmates. With Angeline, John could express himself without reserve. He cherished time spent with Angeline, in which they would read and discuss great literature and talk about mammal reproduction without the pressures of his male friends.

Jack Black, rat catcher, 1851.

One of the many quirks of South East London street life that stood out to me in researching John’s memoir was the ‘local rat catcher’ (50). This man emblematised community joy in a period before modern technology as we know it. It was a time when simple, stripped-back entertainment elicited untold pleasure. The rat catcher’s performances formed ‘the most spectacular street entertainment […] we children ever witnessed’ (50). In a shocking performance, he would plunge both a rat and a ferret into his buttoned shirt before a ‘widening blood stain showed on the shirt’ (51). After then demonstrating ‘how easily rats could be killed by delivering a sharp sort of karate chop with the edge of his palm to the animals [sic] neck’ (51), he ended the show by ‘killing a rat with a quick bite with his strong teeth’ (51).

The Grand Surrey Canal, where John would often play, c. 1915-1925.

Where John expresses his boyish adventurousness, it is coupled with a demonstration of the tremendous mind he possessed. Like Les Tebbutt, his life was not lived on the edge, entrenched in drama. Yet, his autobiography is an intriguing insight into the mind of a thoroughly thoughtful man. John notes that ‘The Grand Surrey Canal provided a playground where in summer swimming, paddling, and tiddler fishing were practised’ (86), before flexing his intellectual muscles, casually and quaintly noting the best method of catching ‘Gasterosteus aculeatus, if you prefer it’ (86). John was a quietly confident man, proud of his natural intellect, and jocundity and wisdom come in equal measure in ‘The Lean Years’.



2.237 EDMONDS, John, ‘The Lean Years’, MS, pp.89 + 3pp. list of illustrations (c.18,000 words). BruneI University Library. 


Tebbutt, Melanie. Being Boys: Youth, Leisure and Identity in the Inter-War Years. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.



Boating Lake, Southwark Park – 

Jack Black, Rat Catcher – 

New Cross Station – 

The Grand Surrey Canal – 

The nearby Southwark Park – 

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