Michael Caine’s Sister
I was born in 1937 in a terraced house in Kings Square, Barbican, the last of three sisters. Two more brothers and another sister arrived later. The Barbican had no high rise and office blocks in those days although I was too young to remember anything about the area or house as we were all evacuated to Chesham at the start of the war. Our new home was a tithe cottage near Ley Hill Farm that the farmer let out to house our family. My mother had a part time job in a local jam factory and between times produced me two more brothers and a sister.
I started in the local church school at four years old and was soon able to read quite well and have always loved books. In those days my favourites were Fairy Tales because everybody got what they wanted in the end. These days it is history, where most people got what they deserved!
I don’t think I was a good pupil although I always wanted to learn. My ability to do as I was told was at cross purposes with my need to do as I liked.
I recall the teacher; satisfied with my progress in one of the regular “reading out loud whilst stood round her desk sessions”, told me to go and see if the weather was up to going outside for playtime. I came back and told her it was ‘xxxxxxg down’. Strangely enough I was not made to stand in the corner for this comment. I could see nothing wrong with my report anyway; it was!!
I did however get banished to the corner when the class orchestra’s repertoire did not include enough ‘tings’ on my triangle to satisfy my ambition; so I ‘tinged’ when I thought appropriate, which was most of the time. After a while the teacher noticed the class were sniggering and turned to see me conducting from my corner. She made me class conductor!
My auntie was in the Woman’s Land Army and was posted near to us. She would visit and bring American Airmen from Bovingdon. They would bring us chocolates and nuts and invite us to parties at the airfield. The nuts were cracked in the kitchen door and left their mark; ruining the jamb. The yanks gave us chewing gum that tasted like Germolene!
My auntie’s brother was not keen on her seeing the Yanks and would wait for her return to our house and treat her very badly. I recall that he would also hang my brother and I up on hooks in the kitchen that the farmhand would have used for hams with our feet just touching the table when we made a fuss about his treatment of his sister. We did not like this; or him!
At about the time I was due to leave the local church school at the end of the war my mother found she was unable to pay the rent on the cottage and find for five kids on part time jam making, so; as was not unusual at that time, we did a moonlight flit. All our goods and chattels; there was not very much, were loaded on to a ‘Steptoe type’ horse drawn cart, we all; that’s five kids and my mother, climbed on amongst our worldly goods and we headed back to London; Islington this time, where my auntie had found her sister a place to live above some shops. The accommodation consisted of four rooms and a shared lavatory in the yard.
Three of us went to White Lion School which was about an hours walk if we stepped it out. We left home early in the morning when Mum went to her job in a lens making factory in City Road and our eldest sister also worked somewhere or other. My youngest brother was taken to the Council Nursery.
We had free dinners at school and were home before my sister and Mum, so had to get on with the chores like clearing the grate and preparing veg. for their dinners. We had eaten so could only scrounge a some bread and jam if we were lucky.
By the time I was ten we were as a family, in real trouble. Mum and older sister were unable to feed us and pay the rent; so the rent was not paid, with the inevitable result. We were evicted. The bailiffs arrived during the morning and my brother and I had been told not to let anyone in. This ploy did not work and we were soon on the pavement with our furniture, and a brand new big lock on the front door. When Mum came home; with the help from a neighbour, the lock was smashed off and we moved back in for about a week. The landlord went to court again and this time our furniture was put in store.
My Mum and sister tried to get us a bed for the night with various neighbours but they were little better off than us so we were left to wander the streets. A friendly copper gave us a warm cell for the night at the local Nick and introduced us to the Rest Centre. (Work House). Where we were washed in strong smelling disinfectant and deloused. Although of course we were not cooty. Nitty Nora had seen to that with her regular visits to our school. Anyone with anything at all suspect was sent down to the Pine Street cleansing centre where treatment varied between standing naked in a bowl of wall paper paste; that smelled and stung a bit, whilst the stuff was applied all over with a paste brush, to leaving the centre boasting vivid patches of Gentian Violet ointment on all the bits that showed; and few that didn’t!
My mum was told she and my sister must work in the laundry if we were to stay and this did not go down very well, so we left.
We went to grannies, first then to a Convent, then to sleep on the floor at mum’s friend.
On one occasion around this time my hard pressed Mum dumped the four of us on the steps outside of Dr Barnados; rang the bell and disappeared with my sister to watch from round the corner. As no one came to the door; perhaps they could see what was on the step, she had second thoughts and came back for us, but life for her and her brood was pretty bad.
I was eleven and the eleven plus exams loomed. I told my teacher I was too tired because we had no home. “Don’t be silly, everyone has got a home”. How little she knew!
Mum still worked to pay for these sparse facilities and eventually four rooms were found for us in a condemned house. Although the window and door frames were funny shapes and angles to me it was home. Even though the house was condemned we could not hang out our washing on a Sunday.
My youngest brother was around four at the time and a darling. With a mop of flaxen hair and blue eyes he could charm anybody. We had a whip round and came up with a halfpenny and sent him into the local Italian cafe where he was prompted to ask, “What yer got fer er apenie”. With cries of “Bella Bambino” from his wife, the Italian fella was prompted gave him a big pile of stale curled sandwiches and cakes which we all consumed very fast. The natural progression from this was the question when next day he was coached to ask, “What yer got fer nuffink”. Amazingly the result was the same and we ate well for several weeks until my mum found out and we got a good hiding. My brother still greets me with this question when we meet. “What yer got fer nuffink”
One of our escapades was to play ‘The famous five’. I was Georgina and my brother was Dick. The dog seemed happy to take on the part of Timmy. The thing that made this game different was that we climbed up on to the roof of the Agricultural Hall in Islington and played it running up and down the glass North lights. It was not long before the police were called and they got us down; the dog was lowered by rope and his little legs were going like he was swimming. This escapade provided us with a ride home in a Black Maria and a certain amount of local kudos.
Another event I recall involved my then six year old ‘little darlin’ brother: he on his bike, a frozen paddling pool on Highbury Fields, and my brothers. We, having been forced to take him for a walk persuaded him he should ride out on the nice flat ice on his little trike. First keeping to the edges, then at our prompting venturing out towards the middle, where naturally the ice broke and they both disappeared into the water. My eldest brother waded in through the broken ice and pulled them both out, cutting himself in the process.
On our wet way home we brainwashed him into believing that he had disobeyed us and had gone on the pond despite our advice, threats and warnings. We repeated this so many times that by the time we finally got him home he would have argued with anyone in the world that it was his fault; his brother had saved him; and his bike, and that he was very very sorry. Pats and hugs all round. That’s how heroes are born!
Our home was once a posh multi storey Mansion House for the local gentry, but was in a very bad state by the end of the war, together with many other properties in the area that had been through the blitz. Some were bombed, some, like ours suffered from the shock waves and neglect. It was fumigated regularly to kill at least some of the bugs but a breeding population always survived. It was rumoured that when the bombed out properties were knocked down the bricks walked off on their own! The smell in the passage ways was awful and the place was not really fit to live in but it was all we had and as we all got older and earned some money our standard of life improved.
I left school at 15 and got a job at the Express Dairy cake factory learning how to decorate cakes. Some of the designs were lovely. I was told that under no circumstances was I to eat any of the cakes, “we will know if you do”, I was told. I thought at the time they had secret X ray machines and cakes would show in my tummy if I transgressed. This despite the fact that I was starving hungry most of the time. It didn’t matter because I was lippy to the manager and got the sack quite early on.
Barratts sweet factory was next, and soon after that I moved on to a factory where alabaster figurines were cast. My job was to trim off the rough bits and paint them. This last occupation took me through to 1960.
During this period the old house, although it was a listed building did not get any better. I still recall the windows and doors all being out of shape and not closing properly. My mother; cleaning the outside of a first floor window, sitting on the cill with the top light pulled down on her lap, got stuck when it would not push back up. I came home to hear her yelling out to me to “get a man”, to go inside and shuffle the frame up. If we locked ourselves out we lifted the man hole cover in the yard and dropped down into the coal hole. My brother stencilled roses all over the distempered wall with my Christmas present which was definitely not in the things we were allowed to do in the rental agreement and of course there was hell to pay.
At least we had food, by the time my story ends we were all earning some cash and were still together. There were times leading up to then when you would not have bet the rent on us surviving as a family. Our success, such as it was, was down to my mum. She must have been in real despair on many occasions.
Obviously traumas still come and go but I have lived for many years on the estate. My memories are very real and make me appreciate what I have. It would take a very long book to record all the things that happened to Michael Caine’s sister and her family in her early years.
As described to Alan Orchard over several hilarious and some times poignant interviews.
Alan Orchard. 09/01/2010
These are my interpretations of the events as I see them and I am not the spokesman for the KRA or anyone else. Please do not publish this effort in part or as a whole without permission.
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