Letter writer’s glimpse into a world long gone

A handwritten memoir by the witty Fred Roy – a regular letter writer to the South London Press from the 1920s to the 1950s, lay for 23 years after his death in 1999 in an old captain’s chest. Finally rescued and transcribed by his daughter Hazel Roy as a lockdown project, it is a fascinating glimpse into a vanished world. HAZEL ROY tells some of the story and we quote some of the extracts.

Fred Roy was a bit of a legend – one of the most prolific contributors to the letters page of the South London Press from the mid 1920s to the 1950s when he moved to Croydon.

He also wrote weekly diatribes to the Torquay Times when he retired to the South West.

Indeed someone wrote to the latter paper because they could not believe it was the same man who had written such witty and erudite letters at least 50 years earlier to the South London Press.

His writing skills were early recognized at Heber Road Elementary School in East Dulwich winning him two national competitions.

Contracting Spanish flu after WW1 robbed him of a scholarship and leaving school at 14 to contribute to the family income, he found the few jobs available were both poorly paid and exploitative.

Always a rebel, Fred found a release through books, the music hall, cinema and the theatre and through cycling and hiking as far as his legs or his bicycle would take him.

He even spent a short time with one of his pals on the road as a tramp, finding endlessly ingenious ways to earn enough to eat.

His friendship with many young socialist intellectuals stimulated his education and love of literature.

He was prominent in the ILP and the Communist Party in the years leading up to WW2 and would regularly help break up fascist meetings called by the notorious William Joyce who later became Lord Haw Haw.

Fred Roy, top row, far left with fellow APR members

His path crossed with many notables, Ivor Novello and his formidable mother, Marie Lloyd (one of his aunts was her dresser) James Whale the film director (to whom he lent half a crown, never returned), and the eccentric novelist Celia Fremlin who was involved in a mass survey of the civilian population during WW2.

For a time he worked back stage at the Lyceum theatre and in later life was to tread the boards himself.

During the war he served in the Sydenham branch of the ARP through the worst of the Blitz and later spent time at sea before marrying a nurse and settling in Croydon after the war.

In later life he spent time acting, stood twice as a Labour councillor in Torbay (a result of his vitriolic letter writing) and became an enthusiastic user of the local nudist beach.

He moved to Manchester in his 70s where, with a daughter managing the Library theatre – the oldest repertory theatre in England- he spent many happy hours watching productions and occasionally offering outspoken advice to the directors, though he also travelled extensively with his horizons now fixed on seeing as much of the world as he could before he died.

Fred Roy

His death just short of his 92nd birthday left his daughter with a dilemma of what to do with thousands of pages of scribbled notes diaries and press cuttings, which constituted the outline of a memoir.

For years they sat in an old chest, until finally pieced together and transcribed during lockdown creating a fascinating chronicle of a vanished London from 1907 through to 1946.

The book, Longer Days has already earned enthusiastic reviews from Jeremy Corbyn MP and actor Julie Hesmondhalgh.

The book of his memoir is now available in South London book shops : Dulwich Books, 6 Croxted Rd, West Dulwich SE21 8SW Chener Books, 14 Lordship Lane, SE22 8HN Review, 131 Bellenden Road, Peckham SE15 4QY Bookmarks! Bloomsbury Street, WC1 5QB Housmans, 5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross N1 9DX Rye Books, 47 Northcross Road, SE22 9ET Crow on the Hill, 50 Westow Street, Crystal Palace SE19 3AF Clapham Books, 26 The Pavement, SW4 OAJ Kirkdale Bookshop, 272 Kirkdale, Sydenham SE26 4RS The Word, 314 New Cross Road, SE 14 6AF

Main pic: At a bomb crater. Fred Roy is the left of the two gentlemen, top right.

Two extracts from Longer Days…

Dr Head

On his family doctor I still cherish memories of the last time I saw Dr Head.

It was late autumn 1940, when Hitler was doing his utmost to blitzkrieg dear old scruffy Camberwell off the map.

There he sat, small and round, balding at the back, crouched over his heavy old fashioned desk, littered with the tools of his trade.

A stethoscope curled round a half consumed bottle of medicinal Scotch.

A crested china ashtray – ‘A present from Margate’ – full of ash and cigarette butts.

Bottles of medicine he had dispensed himself stood ready for collection, as did a pile of out dated periodicals and magazines removed from the waiting room and destined to help the war effort.

Half hidden below some medical pamphlets were fearsome looking instruments that would have delighted a De Sade or Torquemada.

It was dusk, just prior to the ghostly banshee howling of the air raid sirens heralding the arrival of Goering’s aeronauts and another night of pounding guns screaming bombs, death and destruction.

After writing my prescription, coughing and wheezing, he stubbed out his soggy dog end and re-lit a fresh Players medium.

Looking up he shook his wise old head and said, “These things will be the death of me”.

Sadly his diagnosis proved correct, and only a year or so later, while still in practice at 96 he went to bed one night never to wake again.

Second World War

Aliens were speedily rounded up at the start of the war; even bakers who had lived here for generations were not spared.

Frenzied mobs stoned and looted their shops, many were beaten up injured-even killed, simply because a great, great grand parent had permitted himself to be born in Kaiserland.

Naturally we were not told these things or allowed to witness them.

Harold and Elsie were still too young to appreciate what it was all about, but every morning on my way to school I had to pass the burnt out ruins of the shop where only days before we had bought our daily bread.

It saddened and sickened me, as I had liked the lady who had often given me a currant bun or surplus cake to eat on the way home.

But before long some of the patriotic fervour even rubbed off on the children as young as myself.
Anyone we disliked was dubbed “a stinking rotten German” and Hun replaced the Indians in our cowboy games.

Shown lurid pictures of the evil Hun tossing poor little Belgian babies into the air and then impaling them on their upturned bayonets horrified and frightened us.

‘That will happen here if we fail in our duty to King and country,’ we were told.

Just what we were to do as children was never made clear but we shared the general determination to do our bit-whatever that was.

More excerpts in next week’s paper




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