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As Time Goes By: Months Of Turmoil

Eileen Perrin tells of a year of industrial unrest and soaring prices.

To read earlier chapters of Eileen's story please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/as_time_goes_by/

On January 1st 1979 there were floods in Devon and Cornwall following days of heavy rain and snow. In Scotland the temperature dropped to minus 21 degrees.

In mid January a series of strikes started all over the country. British Rail came out on strike and in January and February it was snowy and below freezing with icy roads and rail tracks: hundreds had great difficulty in getting to work.

Striking lorry drivers caused a shortage of goods in shops. There was a shortage of bread, which lasted throughout the year. A large wholewheat loaf now cost 34p (nearly 7 shillings in old money) - they used to cost fourpence halfpenny in the 1930’s. The price of vegetables went up. Sprouts doubled in price at 30p per lb, King Edward potatoes were 7p per lb.

A shoulder of New Zealand lamb sold at 72p per lb. Pork sausage meat was 40p per lb. Expensive for those days. We still had Seville oranges and I made 10lb of marmalade.

Delivery of petrol was affected and some petrol stations had to close. Members of the National Union of Public Employees came out on strike which meant the usual smooth-running of day-to-day life was disrupted. They included dustbin men, hospital ancillary staff, London Ambulance, sewage workers, water men, college canteen staff, school caretakers, lavatory attendants and grave diggers.

The Archbishop of Canterbury appealed to the nation to end the strikes, which were causing distress to the sick and dying.

On January 9th one of the older students at Kingsway College committed suicide. He poured petrol over himself and set light to it. I knew him as one who had tried hard to study, but failed to get far, as he was working at the same time to get money to support him.

In central London’s Leicester Square a 10 ft high stack of uncollected rubbish sacks were left for eight weeks, causing an increase in the rat population. They were eventually cleared at the end of February when men were paid £200 each to clear it up. A milk deliverymen’s strike began on March 4th and we had to resort to supermarkets for supplies.

On March 26th in the evening our first grandchild was born by Caesarean section to Val and Anne Marie, in Cambridge. She was named Tara Sophie.

After seeing programmes by Gordon Honeycombe on television, I decided to begin research on my Coan ancestors, - my single name - and wrote to my mother asking for birth and marriage certificates. From her marriage certificate I learned that her father-in-law’s name was William Joshua Coan, and on my first visit to the Public Record Office on March 27th I ordered his birth certificate and learnt that his father was John Tyrrell Coan, a letter carrier of Norwich.

About this time there was a student sit-in at our college office, when our desks were ransacked and some of our belongings stolen.

Les and our daughter Cathy decided that we could consider bee-keeping, and began attending lectures on the subject. They joined the Harrow Beekeepers’ Association led by Dr.Timmins.

Harrow dustmen started work again on April 12th after three months off. We had been taking our bags to the official Harrow rubbish dump.
On the 23rd a man was killed at Southall in street battles between Asians and National Front. Politician Airey Neave, spokesman for Northern Ireland, was assassinated by a bomb in his car in the House of Commons car park.

London Underground’s Jubilee line opened on May 1st. Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister on May 3rd, following the defeat of Jim Callaghan.

At Kingsway College over 500 sat the English O level exam.

On June 6th milk was up to 14p per pint. 2nd class postage was 10p. Petrol up to 98p a gallon.

A 30 year old student seemed to have taken a shine to me and became a regular visitor to the Enquiry counter in the General Office. He had lost his mother when a child and I think I became his surrogate mother. I helped him a lot with notes and books as John was hoping to go to university. One afternoon he invited me out to visit the Zoo to have a picnic. It turned out his friend worked there, who let us in by a side gate. For a surprise, John had arranged to pick up a bag with two glasses and a bottle of wine to drink with our ham sandwiches.

In August Lord Louis Mountbatten, his 14 year old grandson and three others with him were massacred by a 50lb bomb planted in their yacht just outside the port of Sliego, Ireland.

In South Down, Ireland, 28 British soldiers were murdered by remote-controlled bombs.

Cathy and Les who had set up a working beehive in the open grassland behind Elliott Hall, Hatch End, took 60lb of honey off that summer, most of which was sold at the Harrow Show.

In July we trailed round Norfolk, visiting Forncett St. Peter where my great grandfather John Tyrrrell Coan was born, then to Suffolk on the trail of my ancestors. On an interesting note I found in Lowestoft Maritime Museum that the meaning of what I had thought to be Cockney slang, the word ‘tosh’ (as in Hello Tosh !), originated in the name of a small sailing smack – a tosher. Tosh came to mean ‘Shorty’.

In September John had been accepted at University College to study Social Anthropology. One day we met at Dillons bookshop and after lunch in UCL refectory was taken on a tour of its many libraries. I saw seated in a glass case the mummified figure of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, - once the guiding spirit behind the university’s foundation. He was one who strongly advocated higher education should be available to all.

By October I was writing to Coans found in a library’s set of U.K. telephone books, and beginning to get in touch with some relatives, previously unknown to me. One was Leonard Algernon Coan, who had been a mayor in Bethnal Green in east London. Another was a first cousin, Leslie James Coan, in his sixties, who had been fostered out as a young child and told that his father (my uncle George) was dead. An incredulous story: I had known his father for years. He had lived near my parents during WW2, but had died some ten years previously.


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