Shapesoftime

Marshall Mateer

Sid Catches the Bus

A bus stop. Stoke Newington. August 1936.

A woman is waiting. She is heavy set, wearing a light summer coat over a white silk blouse with strands of hair awry in the wind. She is, maybe, fifty years old. A young man, tall with a lumpy knapsack joins the queue.

He dumps his pack on the ground and, a little awkwardly, straightens himself up. He takes a half step forward and looks up the road – a baker’s van (Holgate’s?) and a few cars but no bus; Louis Silverstein’s taxi speeds by on the other side; a horse and cart loaded with sacks of flour lumbers by harness jangling; a shiny new ‘Standard’ car cruises past; a Pickford’s removal lorry with Max Cohen and Issy Bronstein chatting in the cab throws a deep shadow and a chill over the pavement as it passes; a butcher’s boy on a delivery bicycle, his feet on the basket, freewheels along carrying best cuts and scrag end wrapped in paper. Stoke Newington on parade.

Still no sign of a bus. He looks at the woman, hesitates, then looks again. “Are you … are you Leah Manning?”

She turns and looks up at him. He is very tall. He has a moustache. He continues hurriedly, “I was at the meeting last night.”
She smiles, her eyes quizzical. “Oh Yes – and what did you think?”

“I didn’t realise … I mean it’s obvious when you think about it, but if the generals are in revolt … well you don’t have an army to fight back with do you? And, what you said, they would need doctors … and nurses … and all that equipment … you see I’m a student … I’m going to be a doctor.”

“A medical student! We are sending a Medical Unit to help … as I said last night. Doctors and nurses and everything they’ll need … and ambulances … a complete unit … and very soon. But they need more money. Could you get the young people here to make a collection?”

“Well … yes. We could put posters in the Silver Cup [Cafe] – we do that a lot. And make a collection down the High Street on Saturday. I’m sure we could.”

“That would be most helpful.” She reaches in her handbag and hands him a few pamphlets, “There, that will help you. Just get in touch with Litchfield Street [the SMAC offices] if you want any more.”

They both look up the road. A bus is approaching.

“By the way you didn’t tell me your name.”

“It’s Sid, Sidney Avner.”

The bus slows to a halt. The conductor reaches out to help the woman onto the bus, but the young man steps away from the kerb. She looks back over her shoulder, “Are you not getting on?”

The young man shoulders his knapsack. “No … I’m waiting for the bus to Spain.”

To Mann Centuria - Carlos Marx barracks, Barcelona, September 1936

Sid Avner did catch his bus, arriving in Barcelona at the beginning of September 1936. Today we see him (on the left) holding the banner tied to his rifle in the now iconic photograph of the The Tom Mann Centuria.

Having joined the International Brigades, Sid was one of the seven ‘British’ who died at Boadilla del Monte – a village to the west of Madrid – on the 20th December 1936. He was just 21 years old.

Stoke Newington is a suburb to the north east of London – in 1936 a mix of Victorian villas in leafy streets, crowded rows of workers’ housing and post world war one semis. Established and brand new landmarks: the steeple of St Mary’s church and The Savoy, a new art deco styled cinema. Sid’s house looked out over Clapton Common where cows grazed.

The economy was on the up and unemployment was down. You could, unless you were one of the 1.5 million still out of work, buy: latest fashions for women and a stylish suits for men; a suite of furniture with “rich tapestry covers” for the home; a “silent” refrigerator – gas or electric – that “won’t interfere with your wireless”, which might have been the latest four valve ‘Defiant’ wireless set with a “mystic eye station finder”; and these all available for weekly payments of a few shillings on an installment plan. There was a new aspirational market for housing … labour saving modern homes for £30.00 deposit in Romford a few miles away or 7 shillings a week rent for the latest council flat in nearby Hackney overlooking ‘The Common’.

Sid Avner lived in relative comfort, his father running a “costumery” (women’s clothes) and the family had high aspirations sending Sid to Davenant Foundation School. One of his comrades in Spain described him as coming from a background which gave “all the comforts and luxury of life that capitalism had to offer a privileged class,” adding that, “When Fascism threw out its challenge … He gave up his career and took his stand for the democratically elected government of Spain.”

The storm clouds were gathering over Europe and in Britain recruitment for the new ‘reserve’ army regiments had become a matter of urgency. The neighbouring borough of Hackney was a stronghold for Mosely and the BNP. Politics in meeting halls and on the streets was often febrile spilling over from heckling and heated debate into anger and, more occasionally, to brawling and police intervention.

The Silver Cup Cafe on Church Street was where Sid and his friends of the Young Communist League (YCL) met. They were busy – meetings, posters and pamphlets, marches and demonstrations, sports and the next outing to Clissold Park. Discussing Abyssinia, the Berlin Olympics, events in Spain, unemployment at home and rent strikes in Stepney where Sid went to school. Sid was very busy – he was their “keen” secretary.

Leah_Manning_1946 NPG

Leah Manning was a Labour MP who visited Spain where she saw and reported on: Franco’s violence and repression in Asturias (1934); the bombing of Guernica (April 1937); and the plight of Spanish refugees in French camps in (August 1938). She was honorary secretary of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (SMAC) and was a leading organiser of the evacuation of the Basque children to Britain. She spoke at many Aid Spain meetings and, though not in 1936, she did give a “lantern lecture” for the Stoke Newington Labour Party about ‘The British Medical Unit in Spain’ on 24th January 1938.

The first British Medical Unit (BMU) left London on the 23rd of August 1936. In Spain they established the English Hospital at Grañén, just a few miles from the Aragon front line.

Louis Silverstein was a taxi driver who volunteered in 1938 and then, it seems, “volunteered himself out” a few months later. Myer ‘Max’ Cohen – Max Colin in Spain – was a motor mechanic, apprenticed in Hackney, who was working for ‘Pickford’s’ removals when he volunteered in December 1936. He served with the medical units near Madrid in 1936 and 1937. He was wounded and sent home for treatment, returning to Spain for a second period of service, being repatriated in May 1938. Issy Bronstein went to Spain early in December 1936 and worked as a motor mechanic returning home, it is thought, in December 1938 when the International Brigades were disbanded. All three men lived in Stoke Newington at some point during the 1936-40 period though there is no record that Cohen and Bronstein met there or in Spain. Volunteers Morris Levy and George Dimitroff (Georgios Demetriou) a Cypriot, were both lodgers in Listria Park [perhaps both in Mrs Gold’s house?] in 1939 after their return from the Civil War. Dimitroff, a merchant seaman, having survived the sinking of SS Ciudad de Barcelona in 1937, died in a torpedo attack in the North Atlantic in 1940. And the young boy on a bike? I imagine him, just left school that summer in his first job and enjoying his feeling of freedom. Five years later he may have been on a battlefront fighting for that freedom.

Some suggested further reading

The IBMT Database of Volunteers from Britain and Ireland 1936-39 provides outline facts, brief biographical notes and references for further research. Search by name or locations >>

‘A Life in Education’, Leah Manning’s autobiography written in 1970, is in the Internet Archive library >>

Forged in Spain‘ Richard’s Baxell’s book of essays – published Nov. 2023 by Clapton Press – has an excellent biographical essay about Leah Manning, ‘The Niños Second Mother’, with copious notes and references. Highly recommended!

‘The History of Stoke Newington’ by Amir Dotan provides a wealth of material on the place and its people. Fascinating! Access online >>

A NOTE ON MONEY PRICES AND WHAT WAS AFFORDABLE . Manufacturers and retailers were targeting new markets in the working & middle classes ushering in Americanisation and a new consumer society. Mains water, gas and electricity were gradually being rolled out across the country. In 1936 the average weekly wage was £4.00 a week (Hansard 1937) – about £250 a year – though many were out of work due to seasonal conditions for at least several weeks during the year and holidays were unpaid. Wages were very different depending on the geographic region and with agricultural workers receiving only half that of their urban colleagues. Women earned only half the male wage.

CAREERS FOR YOUTHS. J SAINSBURY offers a splendid opportunity In the Provision and Butchering trade for tall, well educated Youths (aged about 16) at their new branches; commencing salary 25s per week rising to 30s after six months, with a minimum of £3 at 21 years for a qualified salesman. Applicants are invited to apply in their own handwriting to Staff Manager, Stamford House Blackfriars London S.E.1″ Daily News (London) – Monday 06 April 1936, page 19.

Affording the basics of food, rent and clothing took up most of the available money for a large part of the working population. Then there was soap, medicines and weekly dues (insurances, union, church, clothing club, Christmas club, holiday club, whatever you subscribed to). For those in unemployment or with only part-time work their income was simply “insufficient”. By the 1930s unemployment benefit – 15s 3d – was well below what was required to maintain a person’s or family’s welfare and health.

  • SOME PRICE EXAMPLES FROM NORTH LONDON, 1936
  • A loaf of bread (2lb unwrapped) cost eight pence three farthings.
  • Empire Butter, “rich in sunshine vitamins” 1s a lb. (Sainsburys)
  • But for many the diet was, as one of the hunger marchers said, “bread and margarine.” (Reynold’s Weekly, 1st Nov 1936)
  • A quart (2 pints) of milk cost 6d
  • At the Co-op baked beans were 4d a tin – special offer, two tins for 6d. Bacon for frying was 1s 4d a lb though forehock of bacon (no bone) for stewing was only 6½d a 1lb.
  • Cigarettes. ‘Woodbine’ and ‘Star’, 5 for 2d or 10 for 4d. Other brands typically 10 for 6d or twenty (in box) 11½d. Oh! and don’t forget – matches at 1d a box and ‘Wriggley’s’ chewing gum 1d a packet.
  • A ton of “free burning cobbles” (good quality coal for an open grate) was 40s a ton. A single sack (1 cwt) around 3s 4d. Allbright Coal Co Ltd, Leytonstone.
  • A man’s suit in the ‘Ponting’s’ summer sale was 25s 9d – with two pairs of trousers.
  • A gas refrigerator was 2s 6d a week from the local Gas Showroom – with a 5 year guarantee. 1930 saw the birth of “white goods”.
  • 8 shillings was the monthly cost of a bargain three piece suit of furniture – 8 shillings a week for 4 years roughly £35.00. With a free gift of an oak-cased clock and your fare to our showroom in Shoreditch refunded. (Home Furnishing Mart, Old Street, EC1)
  • “See your country” on a BSA bicycle with “exclusive, Terry Leather Top Spring Seat” from £4.19s 6d or 5s down and 2s 3d weekly. (Jones Bros, Mile End Road) Though you get a secondhand one for half that or less with a bit of haggling.
  • Cinema tickets ranged from 1d in a few cinemas with 3d, 4d, 6d and a 1s being more typical. 1s 6d for better seats in a new cinema or the West End. (Mass Observation)
  • If you attended political meetings or marches 40s seems to have been the standard fine at the magistrate’s court for “disturbing the peace” if things had kicked off.
  • Rents for basic family accommodation – typically from around 10s a week upward – average in East End London 12.6d.
  • For most people a new house was just a dream – for many there wasn’t even the luxury of dreaming.
  • House prices … £500 or 12s 6d a week with £25.00 deposit for a new semi-detached with tiled kitchen and orchard garden in one of the new estates beginning to circle London.
  • A new model ‘Flying Standard 9’ saloon car cost £149.00 – a two year old secondhand one £95

POVERTY – FOOD, HEALTH and INCOME. The examples above are indicative, many taken from local newspaper advertisements. Local shops and market stalls, who didn’t place adverts, provided cheaper options. But in choosing cheaper options the quality might also lessen – in the case of food on the slope to poor diet and health risk. For those on the poverty line, including all the unemployed, their income simply didn’t provide enough. Medical advice (e.g. Boyd-Orr, ‘Food, Health and Income’, 1936) and journalistic investigation (e.g. Orwell, ‘Wigan Pier, chapters 5 and 6, 1937) highlighted the problems but despite the accumulating evidence and the growing chorus of advice the government remained blind to the relationships between employment, income, diet and health. ‘The Thirties – An Intimate History’ raises stark parallels to Britain in the 2020s and makes illuminating and uncomfortable reading. Gardiner quotes furniture maker Max Cohen’s description of existing on the dole: “by Tuesday … all I had to live on was dry bread and tasteless cheese … fasten my belt … and hang on until Friday [for the next dole payment].”

  • REFERENCES
  • Juliet Gardiner, ‘The Thirties – Chapter 5’, 2010.
  • Max Cohen ‘Life on 12s 6d’, chapter 6 of ‘I Was One of the Unemployed’ published in 1945 with a foreword by Sir William Beveridge – accessible from the Internet Archive library.