Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Living in Westcliff

Apart from being born in Rochford, I spent the first twenty one years of my life living in Westcliff.

Westcliff, or to give it its full title Westcliff-on-Sea, is a suburb of Southend.

When I came into the world in 1942 in the middle of the Second World War, Southend was largely depopulated. Being close to the Continent and also close to London, it was a natural target for enemy bombing, and most people had been evacuated.

We lived in West Road, a street that became West Street at the ancient village centre of Prittlewell. Looking out of my bedroom window I could see the start of Hamlet Court Road, residential at that point but eventually becoming Westcliff’s equivalent of a High Street.

My earliest memory is of the prelude to, and aftermath of, being severely burned in an accident while I was still a baby. My parents were told not to expect me to live, but I showed ‘em.

I also remember being in my pram on a nasty rainy day, and hearing my mother talking to another young woman. They both hoped that the rain would stop, and they both hoped that the war would soon be over. I remember gaining the impression that when the war ended it would stop raining.

I was still only a little boy when the war ended, and at five years old I started school. I went to Westborough Infants School in McDonald Avenue, followed by Westborough Junior School next door.

There were still quite a few small corner-type shops in those days, as it was many years before the advent of supermarkets, and very few people had cars, so shopping was done either on foot or by bus (it still is even today in our house).

Two doors away from us was an off-licence, and two doors away on the other side was a shed where a cobbler plied his trade.

Further down the street there was a grocers (Mr Winn), with a big bacon slicer, and a sub-post office on the premises; a butchers, with sawdust on the floor to soak up the blood; a bakers; and a sweet shop (Mr Barker). Mr Winn also ran the sub-post office at Prittlewell.

When I was 11, I went to the Grammar School, having passed the 11-plus. It was Southend-on-Sea High School for Boys, and was maybe fifteen minutes walk away, but a lot less when I started going on my bike.

It was a very good school, but I’m afraid I didn’t work as hard as I should, probably subconsciously because of disappointment at being demoted from the top quarter to the second quarter by one mark.

I used to muck about too much at school, and only realised towards the end of my school career that I should have been working. I consequently came away with a paltry two O levels. Years later, I discovered that Prime Minister John Major was equally successful at school.

Contemporaries at school included Danny Linehan, later captain of the Canadian Olympic hockey team; Robin Trower, renowned rock guitarist who was original lead guitarist with Procul Harum; Jeremy Blandford, well respected organist; and, certainly the best known, the late Vivian Stanshall, co-leader of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, the first person to walk down Southend High Street sporting green hair.

Our music teacher was Reginald Foxwell, and organist who had a programme on the BBC’s Light Programme. He let it be known that he would teach any of the boys to play the organ. I deeply regret that I was not interested. How foolish.

I loved my bike. I went everywhere on it, and especially, during the school holidays and on Summer evenings, I just went out for rides. I must have ridden down every country lane for miles around.

It was at that sort of time that I developed my love of local history. Of course it was Essex local history, but I obviously continue my interest today as a Blue Badge Guide in the Leicestershire and Rutland area.

We used to have a lot of cinemas in the area, and at one time or another I visited just about all of them.

Actually in Westcliff there were two, both in London Road. The Metropole (operated by Essoldo) was a handsome place. It later changed its name to Essoldo, and later to Classic. Many years later I was its General Manager. There was also the Mascot (also Essoldo), which burned down in the sixties. There was actually another cinema which had closed before my time, reached up an alley from Hamlet Court Road.

Westcliff had, and still has, the Palace Theatre.

In Southend itself there were several. The Odeon (operated by Rank) was the main one, in the High Street, and at the top of Pier Hill was the Ritz (also Rank). Then in Alexandra Street was the Rivoli (operated by ABC), later ABC, in Southchurch Road was the Gaumont (Rank) and reached via an alley from the High Street or from Warrior Square (there were two entrances) was the Strand (operated by Essoldo), later renamed the Essoldo. Back in the High Street was Garons, part of a local shops empire, and in the arcade by Victoria Circus was a tiny cinema which had many incarnations and many names, including the Civic, New Vic and Continental. Many years later I was Assistant Manager of the Ritz and later still Deputy General Manager of Rank Cinemas Southend (Odeon, Ritz and a retail shop).

In Tylers Avenue, off the High Street, was the Regal Theatre, which specialised in nude shows, and on the Pier was the Pier Pavilion, famous for its Summer Shows.

In Leigh, there were two cinemas, the Corona and the Coliseum (both operated by Essoldo) and there was another whose site I knew but do not actually remember being open.

Other cinemas in the area were the Plaza at Southchurch, the Palace at Shoeburynes,, the Kingsway at Hadleigh, the Regal at Rayleigh, the Rio at Canvey Island, the Broadway (at one point Century at Pitsea and the Radion at Laindon.

I spent many happy hours watching films at many of these cinemas.

I was still living in Westcliff when I left school and started work, in the City of London, later joining the Rank Organisation as Trainee Manager at the Odeon Gants Hill.

If anybody reading this has any connections with Westcliff or the Southend area generally (Born? Lived? Worked? Relatives?), I would be very pleased to hear from them.