Ada’s story of growing up in kind old Stratford surrounded by poverty

�Ada Johnson (nee Asher) begins her story in 1921 following a fire that destroyed Asher’s Shoes, her family’s shop and warehouse at 119 Angel Lane, and the tragic death of her father at 35, leaving her mother penniless and providing for seven children.

She said: “We were not as busy as the shops nearer the beginning of the lane, since most people could not be bothered to walk over the bridge.

“But we were lucky that Stratford railway works, the workshops of the Great Eastern Railway, were opposite.

“They employed many men, and my mother realised she had to sell the types of boots they wanted, known as army boots with toe caps and naval boots without.

“In those days, Stratford was a poor neighbourhood and the workers never forgot how kind my father had been when they were hard up.

“Appalled to see children barefooted, he regularly sent a sack of shoes to the local school to be distributed. Those men always bought their boots from my mother and kept us from starving.

“The market stalls in Angel Lane supplied us with fruit and vegetables, and there was also a Sainsbury’s.

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“In the 20s and 30s, Sainsbury’s had many shops, though small in comparison with the supermarkets today.

“The shops were tiled and spotlessly clean, and it was a pleasure to be served by the staff, all clad in white coats and overalls. In those days they sold eggs loose from large baskets, the cracked ones removed and sold cheaply.

“I went to Salway Place School, the same one as my brothers and sisters. In the winter, huge fires burned in each classroom, and in the mornings mothers would stand at the railings by the playground, supplying their children with sandwiches and hot cocoa. They were all very poor but the children were well cared for.

“Very near to our school, on the corner of Salway Road and Angel Lane, was the Theatre Royal, made famous in the 1950s and 60s by Joan Littlewood.

“In the 1920s, different companies performed there every two weeks, and their children attended our classes.

“I found lots of amusement walking down Angel Lane. In the winter it looked like fairyland, a vision of light with the oil lamps hanging on the stalls, and the small windows in the Edwardian shops glowing in the twilight.

“Christmas was a happy time and we children looked forward to it. The stalls in Angel Lane were decorated with lanterns.

“A ‘fifty-shilling tailors’ appeared on the right-hand corner of Angel Lane opposite the Town Hall. The stalls were only on one side of the lane, the right-hand side, walking into the lane from Stratford Broadway, and all the traders respected each other.

“During the day Angel Lane was filled with bustling crowds buying their groceries, fruit and vegetables.

“There was a wholesale market in a turning near Stratford Broadway supplying local and surrounding districts, so fruit and vegetables were always fresh and plentiful.

“In the middle of Stratford Broadway, the beautiful church of St John’s and the Gurney Memorial have survived the two world wars and can still be seen.

“On the right side of the road, entering from The Grove, there were several Georgian houses and buildings, including the original Sarah Bonnell School, which had started as a school for poor neglected children.

“It later developed into a fee-paying high school for young ladies and renamed West Ham High School.

“The houses and the school were destroyed in the Second World War. I viewed this scene of destruction with great sorrow since I spent many happy years at the school as a non-paying scholarship pupil.

“Opposite the church stood the New Empire Palace of Varieties, more commonly known as The Stratford Empire, which was bombed in 1940 and then demolished. A Tax Department office later occupied the site.

“A door away, and still standing today, is the Victorian pub, Edward VII, which was formerly known as The King of Prussia and renamed during the First World War owing to the hostilities with Germany.

“The Town Hall with its beautiful facade still survives. Next door was the Bonallack’s shop, later demolished to make way for a fire station.

“In the Broadway towards Bow Road there were many more small shops and stalls. In time, some shops were demolished to make way for the usual high street names.

“As with its surrounding districts, Stratford was a mixture of factories, shops, offices, grand houses and artisans cottages.”