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Post Memories: Dagenham emigrant talks beer, Blitz and Becontree

PUBLISHED: 14:00 25 September 2015 | UPDATED: 15:31 25 September 2015

Peter Nicholson in 1948

Peter Nicholson in 1948

Archant

Born in the year the Great Depression began, raised as Nazi bombs battered Britain, forced to leave his homeland to find a place to live – Peter Nicholson has a long history of overcoming adversity.

Peter Nicholson in GibraltrarPeter Nicholson in Gibraltrar

Born in the year the Great Depression began, raised as Nazi bombs battered Britain, forced to leave his homeland to find a place to live – Peter Nicholson has a long history of overcoming adversity.

Now, 58 years after his decision to emigrate to Canada, the Toronto resident is still working full-time, and still missing Blighty.

“I cherish my memories of growing up in Dagenham – but we were deprived kids. Innocent, happy – but poor,” the 85-year old said.

“In 1944, I remember hearing a V1 flying bomb cut out over where I lived, near Martins Corner.

The Becontree Estate after bombing by the Nazis   Photo: LBBD Archives/Valence HouseThe Becontree Estate after bombing by the Nazis Photo: LBBD Archives/Valence House

“There was a wedding going on, and the groom came struggling out of some destroyed buildings – his bride had been killed. It was so sad, but those were the times.”

Peter said he often uses his memories of the war to teach Canadians about the legendary British Blitz resolve.

“I once saw houses with the fronts blown off and a bobby climbing up a ladder with a cup of tea for the old women inside,” he said. “That’s British spirit for you. A cup of tea will cure anything.”

Despite being only a boy, Peter was employed at the Beckton Gasworks until, at the age of 16, he joined the Merchant Navy.

Peter Nicholson todayPeter Nicholson today

Though he enjoyed the opportunity to see the world, he recalls a tricky start to his career at sea.

“When I was in training, an instructor said to me, ‘You’re here to be toughened up.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but my dad already did that.’

“I wasn’t very popular with that instructor from then on.”

When he tried to get a home in Dagenham, however, he realised he was better off overseas.

Peter Nicholson's discharge bookPeter Nicholson's discharge book

“I was put on the housing list for years and years, and it seemed I was never going to get one.

“You would hear so much about people that had gone to Canada and found happiness, so eventually I decided I had better go myself.

“But Becontree was a beautiful estate – it had won awards.”

Peter married Jane before leaving, and he remembers evenings with her at the Robin Hood pub.

The Robin Hood in the 1950s    Photo: LBBD Archives/Valence HouseThe Robin Hood in the 1950s Photo: LBBD Archives/Valence House

“She would play piano and there used to be a sing-along,” he said. “This was our Saturday night. It was for everyone – families, too.

“There were also great picture palaces – and they were palaces – where you could go on dates.

“There was a superb one in Barking called the Rio that we would call the ‘R Ten’.”

Something that caused the new seamen a great deal of sadness around this time was the death of his brother, who was away with the army.

“I remember arranging to meet Donald in North Africa. But a chap came aboard near to the date and told me he had drowned.

“It was tragic – he was being lined up to play for Charlton Athletic FC.”

Peter’s new home, though it has given him many opportunities, fails to provide a most essential British pastime.

“It’s hard to get a proper pint here in Canada. It’s hard to find the same pub atmosphere.

“In Canada we have Little Italies, Chinatowns – but you don’t get a Little Britain. If you did, it would be full of pubs.

“It’s impossible to recreate the atmosphere you get in a British pub – and the reason for that is simple: you need British people to make a proper pub atmosphere.”


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