Life in Downham before the Second World War


The Downham Estate started to be built in the 1920s on farmland on the border of London and Kent. It was built by the London County Council to re-house families from the overpopulated parts of Central London, Bermondsey, Deptford, the Elephant & Castle and the East End, where the living conditions and polluted air exposed them to tuberculosis. It was believed that the pure air of Downham and well-planned houses would solve many problems. Some people welcomed the move but others did not want to go and live “out in the sticks”.


The houses were built in red brick and all their roofs had red tiles. All the houses had front and back gardens. They had privet hedges between the pavement and the front gardens. Most of the houses were in blocks of six and eight. The end houses on each block had a side gate that lead to the back garden. On the corners of the roads the council maintained small gardens that were planted with shrubs.


The houses were of two storeys. There were a lot of different designs. Some houses had two bedrooms with the bathroom and W.C. on the first floor. On the ground floor there were two rooms and a kitchen. There were some houses that had three bedrooms on the first floor, and on the ground floor one living room, a kitchen and a bathroom with a W.C.  To get hot water for a bath, a copper, which was made of iron, had to be lit in the kitchen. One could use wood or coal in the fire. The water had to be pumped from the kitchen to the bathroom. The pump was worked by hand.


The interior decoration consisted of distemper on the walls of the bedrooms and whitewash on the ceiling. There was wallpaper on the walls of the sitting room, staircase and hall. The walls in the kitchen had no plaster but the bricks were painted.


The houses had gas lighting and the cooking was also done by gas. In the living rooms were fireplaces, which also heated the ovens in the kitchen. This was very handy during, and after,  the  war  because the gas was often cut off so families were able to cook meals in the oven.


When the council estate was built, the people in the private houses in Bromley objected to it, so they had a wall built across Valeswood Road and Alexandra Crescent. This meant that the people on the estate had a long walk to Bromley Hill if they wanted to catch a bus to Bromley.


Trams ran along Downham Way. The tramlines started at Grove Park and the trams finished their journey at Victoria. On Downham Way there were two sets of tramlines and at Bromley Road there were two sets of three tramlines.  That was because on Downham Way the trams got their electric power from the overhead cables and on Bromley Road the power was in a conduit under the third track. When the trams reached Bromley Road the tram driver would get out of the tram and manually disconnect the overhead power and then he would slip a large electrical conductor, which was called the “shoe”, under the tram and connect it to the middle track. When the driver did that the locals called it the Changeover.


Trams were not comfortable to ride in. They rocked from side to side and to get on a tram one had to walk into the middle of the road in order to board the tram.


Every Saturday morning there was a black and white, silent, movie show at Wesley Halls. The local people called Saturday mornings at Wesley Halls “The Tuppeny Rush” because it cost two pennies to get in.