Exceptional Rayleigh Characters

A dozen - never to be forgotten

By Sid Barker

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In past years there were several well remembered, never to be forgotten characters in and around Rayleigh.

My earliest recollection is a man who used to walk up and down Crown Hill and along Station Road all day long. He always wore a bowler hat and dark suit, had his hands in his trouser pockets and his lips were curled in a somewhat strange fashion so that he seemed to have a permanent worried look on his face. I never saw him talk to anyone, although I was told that he used to tell people he was Adolf Hitler. He was around in the 40's and 50's and I believe he lived in one of the small terraced houses in The Approach, facing the rear of the railway station.

Ronnie Monk was another well known character who was around Rayleigh in the 50's. He was a tall, strapping man of unknown age, although facially he had the looks of a young lad. Ronnie always wore a flat cap and lace-up army type boots, but no socks. He actually lived in Thundersley and could often be seen travelling between there and Rayleigh on the number 1 bus. He always rode on the open rear platform and would swing on the central hand pole, shouting at the top of his voice to anyone he knew as the bus passed them by. All the bus conductors knew him and I doubt they ever charged him for his fare.

Reputedly Ronnie was exceptionally strong and as a result was employed at the Rayleigh Station coal yard, where he shoveled the coal out of the wagons, filled the coal sacks and loaded them onto the delivery lorries. For this he was paid 2/6d (12 1/2p ) a day. Instead of being given a half crown coin, the coal merchants had to pay his daily wage as 30 pennies as he thought this was much more money. In the evenings he could often be found watching a film in the Regal Cinema. He used to smoke, but instead of inhaling, he used to blow, producing a shower of red sparks in the darkened cinema. He always sat near the front in a seat adjacent to the aisle and as young lads we used to walk past and knock his cap off. Sadly I think he died in the late 50's or early 60's.

Another character that also came from Thundersley but was often to be seen in Rayleigh was named Mrs Chate. She was a short, but quite large lady, who as I recall always wore a lot of make up. If you got in her way in the High Street, she would swear at you and hit you with her walking stick  (I don't think she did this to adults, only us teenagers). Mrs. Chate could often also be found in the Regal. I well remember one occasion when about seven or eight of us came in there and saw her sitting in a seat in the right hand row, next to the wall, near the front (the sixpenny seats). A young lad unknown to us was sitting in the seat directly behind her. The cinema was quite empty but we all sat in the row behind her next to the young lad. After a short while someone lit a banger and put it under her seat. We all promptly moved to other seats before the banger went off, and when it did Mrs Chate stood up, turned round, and gave the poor innocent young lad sitting behind her the most almighty whack round the head. She lived on the Hart Road Caravan Site, Thundersley, in a tiny caravan and when she died in the early 60's it was simply dumped complete on the site rubbish tip.

Up to the mid 50's, Preston House was the only house in Preston Gardens and was the home of Frank Fremlin (who we called Uncle Frank) and his "housekeeper", Stella. Frank was I believe an American by birth and had pursued a theatrical career, possibly as a conjurer. They both liked a drink and would often be seen early afternoon when the pubs closed (I think they used to drink in the Crown) coming home in a taxi and literally falling out of it onto the grass verge at the side of the road, eventually getting up and staggering into the house. Sometimes they would get a lift home in an old lorry, the driver presumably being a fellow drinker, but still barely able to walk. As young kids, we knew what time they always arrived home and tried to be in the vicinity then so we could watch their antics. Eventually Frank sold the property and moved into a small cottage on the High Road, roughly opposite the garage, where I believe he died.

Preston House had quite a bit of ground attached to it and it was bought by Jim Ross a builder from Forest Gate who had already built some bungalows in Hambro Avenue. I used to help out in the school holidays and can remember that when he took possession of Preston House there was a large shed in the grounds which when opened up was found to be an Aladdin’s cave of curios. It was full of theatrical costumes, make up and props, old prewar American magazines, and carpenters tools which I was told were very expensive top quality American ones as they had red wooden handles. There were also a number of real pistols, including at least one matching pair, bayonets and knives, tin helmets, ammunition, and other US military items.

The only other things I remember clearly were a lot of photos taken from the Russo Japanese War 1904 of beheaded and mutilated corpses. The builders men would not let me look at these, but of course curiosity got the better of me and I managed to steal a crafty peak during their tea break. I do not know what happened to all these treasures but I was allowed to take some magazines, an old board game, a tin helmet, some blank ammunition and a few other bits and pieces. After being emptied the shed was demolished. I also remember that near the house was a very large old water tank full up with empty gin bottles. No prizes for guessing what Frank and Stella’s favourite tipple was! I think that about five bungalows were built on the land, plus an electricity substation (now demolished) which had something to do with the electrification of the railway line.

Another character that I remember in the early 60’s was a chap named, I think, Roland who lived somewhere around the back of the station. He always walked around with a smallish dog on a lead. Some of us horrible teenagers would engage him in conversation and then tell him we were going to kill his dog at which point he would always burst into tears, much to our amusement.

Still in the 50’s and 60’s there was a little dwarf who lived in Louisa Terrace, the old Prison and Police Station buildings that stood at the junction of Down Hall Road the site of which is now part of the Travellers Joy car park. He used to walk around pushing a full sized bicycle which was much too high for him to ride. He always struck me as a miserable person, but with hindsight, he probably had a very large chip on his shoulder as a result of his disability. I well remember using the phone box that stood at the corner of Down Hall Road and London Road in the days when calls cost 4d for unlimited time when there was a furious banging on the door. It was the dwarf, and thinking he wanted to use the phone I terminated the call and let him in, only to realise that all he wanted was to shelter from the rain!

After Louisa Terrace was demolished the dwarf moved into a flat above the shops next to what was GB Domestics which he shared with a man known as Pedro, who himself was also a bit of a character. I was told that Pedro originally hailed from Gibraltar. He obviously had no fear of heights and a good sense of balance as he could often be seen repairing roofs without any form of safety equipment. I think it was in the late 50’s that Pedro had a falling out with another local and they arranged a duel with knives on Rayleigh Mount. I believe they both got injured and were subsequently arrested by the police. It was reported in the local papers at the time.

Right up to the early 90’s there was a man who we knew as Trampy Harvey. He lived in a semi-detached house with a large garden on the corner of Brooklyn Drive and Down Hall Road. Every day he could be seen digging his garden. I don’t think there was a weed in it and he was very skilled in growing vegetables. He would garden 365 days a year and in fact the blade of his spade was worn down to about a third of its original length. The hedge that ran down the side of his garden was also always neatly trimmed. He had a shed in the garden in which he bred canaries and I remember him showing me them and seeing mice running around the walls of the shed, obviously well fed on the bird seed.

The house did not have electricity, only gas and the original gas lights were still in situ. His daily diet was always potatoes, sausages and greens. He told me that he had only been further than Rayleigh once in his life and that was either to Southend or Hadleigh, I can’t actually remember which. Come rain or shine, whatever the temperature he would always go shopping wearing his flat cap, scarf, overcoat and wellington boots. Sadly one day he collapsed and died in Down Hall Road on his way to the shops.

Freddie and Jimmy Ferguson were brothers who lived for many years in a bungalow in Hullbridge Road, just around the corner from Down Hall Road. Their father also lived with them until his death. I remember he always wore leather gaiters, a trilby hat and had a long countryman’s type walking stick. Jimmy was a very pleasant fellow. He didn’t work but kept house and could often be seen out shopping, always wearing a flat cap and black jacket. Freddie had a defect in his neck that caused his head to lie over to one side. He was also very friendly and was employed by the council as a road sweeper in Rayleigh High Street. I remember he always kept his lunch in his road sweeper’s barrow. He wore a trilby hat and a light coloured rain coat. Freddie had a great knowledge of traction engines and would make quite detailed, although rather crude models of them out of pieces of scrap wood which he would sell for a few shillings. I was also told that he was involved in the setting up of a miniature steam railway, possibly in Maldon. I believe Jimmy died first and Freddie then went into Sweyne Court where he too died. I was told that after they had left the bungalow, it was found that one of the rooms had no floorboards as they had used them for firewood.

Perhaps the most well known of all the Rayleigh characters was Albert Cable. He was nearly always to be seen in and around the High Street. Albert was a cripple who lived in one of the cottages on the High Road and always walked around with 2 sticks. Whether he was born with a disability or whether it was a result of injuries he received when a bomb dropped in the high road I’m not sure. Albert was another one who would always ride on the open bus platform either from the town to home or to the Station Café. Again I doubt if he was ever charged a fare and I do remember the bus would always stop right outside his cottage to let him alight. He could also often be found in the Crown where the patrons always treated him to beers and gave him cigarettes. Albert will ever be remembered for always having one cigarette between his lips and two stuck behind each ear. Shortly before he died he was given one of the old hand driven black invalid carriages and used to go down Crown Hill in it to the Station Café all the way in the middle of the road!

These are some characters I remember. I am sure there were many more.

This page was added by Sid Barker on 18/01/2015.
Comments about this page (Add a comment about this page)

I also remember "Trampy" Harvey, but didn't know his name, or nickname, as he was often working in his garden. On the day of my father's funeral, he waited at the roadside outside his home on Down Hall Road, and as the procession passed him by, he removed his cap and bowed his head respectfully; my father, Peter de Neumann, was a keen gardener too, and won many awards for his flowers and vegetables - and a George Medal in March 1941.

By Bernard de Neumann
On 19/01/2015

As I recall, Albert Cable suffered from polio as a child, but his parents were both killed by a V1 which came down on the High Road, Rayleigh.

By Bernard de Neumann
On 19/01/2015

There was a man who lived in Thundersley, who lost his three outer fingers when he accidentally cut them off with a circular saw.  I don't know what his name was but he was universally known as "One finger, one thumb", after the song and dance with the words: "one finger, one thumb, one arm, one leg, one nod of the head, keep moving!"

By Bernard de Neumann
On 19/01/2015
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