Barking and District Historical Society

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John Blake

Articles > People > A-D

The following article about our Chairman appeared in the Barking and Dagenham Post in April 2012


I actually owe my parentage to the Post! During World War II my mother Joyce Warren read a piece in the Post by the Mayor Cllr Mrs Evans criticising local girls for not doing enough for the war effort and urging them to write to the troops serving overseas.  Mum sent letters as requested and one was passed randomly to Don Blake of Arnold Road, Dagenham. They were pen-pals throughout the war and met when Dad was demobbed in 1946 and married the same year. I came along two years later – maternity beds  were at a premium during the baby boom years that followed the war so like many Dagenham infants at time, I was born at the East End Maternity Hospital in the Commercial Road. We lived with grandparents in Halbutt Street and Arnold Road before the council  gave us a prefab on the Limbourne Avenue estate. My brother Jim was born there in 1950. It was a very close knit community and I remember the wonderful street party we had for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. By today’s standards, the estate  was a shanty town, but the prefabs had fridges, separate bathroom and toilet, heating and a big garden. Although they were intended to be temporary, they were not demolished until 1959 when we were moved to Chadwell Heath, an area that has remained my  home ever since. One thing that greatly overshadowed our childhood was my mother’s epilepsy, which was a result of her being buried in an air-raid shelter along with her parents and siblings when their home in Eastfield Road received a direct hit  from a German bomb. We had long periods of quiet as mum recovered from her seizures.

I attended the old Beacontree Heath Junior School until 1959 – it was a run-down Victorian building well past its sell by date. During the war it had been a mortuary for bomb victims and was more suited for that purpose. It was far too small and  when all my classmates were in attendance, some had to sit on the floor- not an ideal learning environment to say the least. It was not a good start to my education. When we moved to Chadwell Heath I went to Warren Junior and Secondary schools, which  were a great improvement on the previous school, but there was a heavy emphasis on craft skills like woodwork and metalwork and I did not excel in such subjects. In my final year I was became library prefect – little did I know the impact that  would have on my life! I left school without any qualifications although I was awarded the lower school art prize and the upper school history prize.

Like most kids in the 60s I had a job long before I left school – I had a gained a post with Hampstead Council (later Camden) as a library assistant. On the daily commute from Chadwell Heath I started to use the time reading up subjects we had  never touched on at school – politics, economics, commerce, constitutional law. Within four years I had got myself through O and A levels. Working in the library was great fun and as Hampstead was a great area for the good and great I got to meet  lots of interesting people. I spent five years working in Camden’s Housebound Library Service. It was one of those jobs when the unexpected always happened - one very amusing incident I remember was when I visited an elderly retired nurse who mistook  my book carrier for a doctor’s bag and started to undress – it turned out that she was expecting a doctor to examine her – just as I was persuading her that to replace her clothing, the real doctor arrived! I could not get out of  her flat quick enough!

In 1966 I got my first taste of foreign travel when an uncle invited me to join a youth delegation to East Germany and the divided city of Berlin. The East Germans had made a mistake with our visas and on the last day of our visit we were there illegally  – we waited anxiously at a railway station at the border, when two guards armed with sub-machine guns came towards us – they took us to a room where we were not interrogated as we feared, but invited to watch the Germany-England World Cup  final!

By 1972 I was beginning to get itchy feet and decided to try for a totally different career path –I got myself a seasonal job as a white coat at Butlins Camp in Ayr, Scotland. People are always impressed when I say I was a white coat, until I explain  that I was a kitchen skivvy and my choice tasks included sorting out food for the pigs swill. I survived three seasons, before I saw the error of my ways and returned to librarianship – I never strayed again! My next career moved was to Barking  College as a senior library assistant where I remained until 1979 when I achieved a my ambition of gaining a place at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth where I gained a joint honours degree in librarianship and international politics. I became a chartered  librarian in 1982. During my vacation periods I worked for Barking and Dagenham Library Service and I have very happy memories of working at the old Whalebone and Central libraries and I returned there when I graduated in 1982.

The following year, much to my surprise, I went back to Barking College as Deputy Librarian where I remained until my retirement in 2009 having spent a total of 32 years at the Rush Green site.

Volunteering has been very rewarding for me and I have made some great friends – I started on the Barking and Dagenham Talking Newspaper for the Visually Impaired in September 1988 as part of the Barking College team – the TN had been founded  by college staff and has always supplied a team of readers. I have been on the committee of the Chadwell Heath Historical Society since it was founded in 1994. I am also very proud to have been a founder member of the Friends of Valence House and was  on their committee for 11 years and museum volunteer for 12. Currently I am chairman and secretary of the Barking and District Historical Society. I took on the post for 1 year in 2000 to help them out and have been there ever since!

Any spare time I have is spent reading, doing crosswords, travelling and enjoying the company of friends.

I describe myself as one of nature’s plodders, but I always get there in the end. I have reached that stage in life when the bits have started to drop off, but probably more content with life than I have ever been.

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