The Britain to which the Karbatznicks fled from Russia – Judah in 1903 and Leah in 1906 – was a very different place to the Britain in which we live today. Poverty was widespread, the National Health Service and retirement pensions were still years away, and most people rarely travelled beyond the confines of the area in which they lived.
We can assume that the trip from Dokshitzy to England was the only time that the Karbatznicks had been on a ship, and assuming that the journey from the shtetl to the docks to board the boat was by train, that was probably their first time on a train.
Travel across London by train had been introduced by the arrival of the London Underground in 1863, and horse-drawn buses in London were commonplace when the Karbatznicks arrived, but – for most people – a trip in a motor-car was unheard of.
The first car in Britain is thought to have been imported in 1894 and by the end of the following year there were 14 or 15 cars on the road. A few years later, by the turn of the twentieth century, there were an estimated 800 cars in Britain, which had climbed to 8,465 cars by the year of Judah Karbatznick’s arrival and 53,169 by the end of that decade.
We have no idea whether Judah ever travelled in a car, but we do know that the sight of a car around the East End’s Brick Lane was a rare and exciting event. In later life, Barney Lewis would recall the excitement when a car was seen in the area.
The roads of London were pretty quiet a hundred years ago, certainly by our standards. Three-colour traffic lights were only introduced in 1926, with a manually-operated set in Piccadilly. A set with automatically-changing lights didn’t appear until 1927 (in Wolverhampton of all places) and they were considered a one-off experiment until their widespread introduction in 1930 – the year in which there were one million cars on Britain’s roads for the first time.
We’re unsure whether any Karbatznicks owned a car by then. Freda Colp’s husband Bert certainly had a car (a Rover 12) before the outbreak of war in 1939, then in 1945 bought a silver 1938 three-litre Jaguar and sprayed it British Racing Green.
London had seen plenty of motoring firsts, including several traffic islands – introduced in the 1860s before cars were even invented. They were the idea of a Colonel Pierpoint, who arranged an island at the top of St James’ Street so he could safely cross the road to his club safe from horse-drawn carriages. Proud of his invention, he often turned round to admire it, until the day when he lost his footing and was run over by a horse-drawn cab.
During the war, the government relaxed the rules – which had only been introduced a few years earlier, on 1 June 1935 – requiring drivers to pass a test, so Dora Cramer’s husband Sam took advantage and applied for a licence. Many years later his grandchildren claimed that his fifty years on the road without ever taking a driving lesson or passing a test had caused terror among other road users.
Though driving tests had been introduced in 1935, driving licences had been around for more than thirty years, since 1 January 1904 in fact, when the Motor Car Act of 1903 came into effect. This was the same Act which raised the speed limit to 20 mph and introduced car registration numbers, leading Earl Russell to camp out all night to be the first to register a car in London, thus securing the numberplate A1.
Dora and Sam Cramer’s son-in-law Martin Walters missed the bargain of the century in 1959 when he applied to Wiltshire County Council for the numberplate MW1 – they told him that the price was an astonishing, er, zero. Then they announced that as a car to which they had issued the plate in 1936 hadn’t been officially scrapped, the number plate couldn’t be issued again.
Many years later Martin and son Simon saw a Rolls Royce driving round with that numberplate – MW1. The car was worth a fortune, as was the numberplate!
When the Karbatznicks first drove cars, ‘dated’ numberplates didn’t exist, so in a way all plates were ‘private’ numberplates. However, having a personalised plate with your own initials wasn’t as popular as today, though Barney Lewis hankered after BL1, which was owned by his sister-in-law’s brother, who had inherited it from his father, B Levison. Mr Levison’s son was unwilling to sell it to Barney, who was delighted one day to spot a car with the registration BKL1 (Barney Karbatznick Lewis 1). So Barney chased the Hillman Minx on which it was displayed – and bought the car!
Barney allowed his daughter Shelley Gilbert to drive the car, so she drove it each day to Brent Station (later renamed Brent Cross Station) on the Northern Line, where she left it while she took a train to the West End. After doing this daily for several weeks, Shelley arrived back at the station one day and proceeded to drive the car downhill towards home, only to discover that the brakes weren’t working. Unable to stop the car as it lurched towards the North Circular Road, Shelley had to steer the car towards the central reservation, where it finally came to a stop.
Shelley was unharmed but Barney was devastated about the car. The Minx went to a scrapyard but the numberplate was retained and was transferred to Barney’s green Volvo. Barney loved that numberplate.
Barney managed to buy Sylvia one of the first Mini Minors in the UK. It had a cream exterior and stood proudly outside 38 Woodstock Road, Golders Green. Sylvia’s daughters recall her as possibly the worst driver in London, and she had only driven it once or twice before she and Barney, plus son John, were due to take it on a motoring holiday to Spain.
Sylvia was in the house, chatting on the phone, not realising that John – who was not yet 17 and didn’t have a driving licence – had decided to tinker with the car. He sat in the driver’s seat, turned the key, and listened to the hum of the engine. John couldn’t resist driving the car forwards a few inches , the backwards a few inches, then…… well, moments later Sylvia’s phone call was interrupted by a loud crash and she ran outside to find that John had smashed the car into a tree.
The car was repaired and made it all the way to Spain. One afternoon, Barney and John decided to go to a bullfight, leaving Sylvia to potter around the shops and beachfront. Sylvia decided to take the car for a short drive but probably forgot that in Spain they drive on the other side of the road. She managed to turn the car upside down in a ditch, with Barney and John arriving back from the bullfight to discover that Sylvia was missing. They later traced her – she was in hospital with a broken collarbone.
Sylvia’s driving never improved and eventually her family had to insist that Bournemouth police withdrew her licence.
Maurice Colp recalls being in his father’s Jaguar when Bert gave Freda her first – and last! – driving lesson. The Jag was a powerful car, and Freda could barely see over the steering wheel nor reach the pedals, but she managed to put the car into gear, navigate the first corner as they proceeded onto the Finchley Road in Golders Green, and immediately mount the pavement. Bert was able – only just – to apply the handbrake and the car stopped a few inches from a lamppost.
Freda announced that this driving was not for her and gave up. Maurice says that Bert was relieved.
Bert Colp then had a silver Vauxhall, an Austin A70, and a 1951 Standard Vanguard (in which Maurice was taught how to drive and passed after only seven lessons). Then came an Austin A30, a two-tone Hillman Minx, a Peugeot 303, and his final car, a Ford Corsair Automatic. Maurice later sold that car to cousin John Lewis for £200.
Bessie’s husband Alf Venitt owned two dream cars, a red American Buick 8 with two spare wheels in the front wings and a black American Studebaker – both were huge cars. Around 1947 or 1948, Alf’s daughter’s Joyce and Gloria, and all their cousins, would pile into those cars and even today can recall the excitement of being taken for drives.
Alf had received his driving lessons from Bert Colp, before the war, and during one of those lessons Alf drove over London Bridge in pouring rain. For reasons which are unclear, Alf panicked and applied the handbrake, causing the car to swerve and end up facing the other way with oncoming cars hurtling towards him.
Relatively few women of that generation drove cars. When Dora Cramer was asked by her grandson Simon, late in her life, why she hadn’t driven, she visibly blanched and her face filled with horror at the thought of ever having sat behind a wheel. Bessie Venitt did drive – and her nieces and nephews wondered how she ever passed her test. She had 16 lessons, after which she parked her Ford Prefect outside Freda’s house and had to ask her nephew Maurice, who was only sixteen years old at the time, to reverse her car as she found that too difficult.
Bert Colp bought his daughter Joan (Finger) a brand-new Ford Anglia in 1955 for £190.
As mentioned elsewhere on the website, left with two daughters in 1947, Bessie Venitt decided to learn to drive. She didn’t take to it like a natural – the family joke was that she single-handedly paid off the debts of the British School of Motoring. Daughters Joyce and Gloria lightheartedly claim that fear stalked the streets of London. Was it just a coincidence that the Department of Transport’s safety campaign, `Keep Death off the Roads`, was launched about that time?
Bessie once took her sister Freda to the Ionic Cinema in Golders Green and parked on the Finchley Road. Coming out, Bessie spotted a man trying to open the car door. With no hesitation she walloped the man with her handbag. When he had recovered, he pointed to her dark green Morris 1100 parked immediately behind his.
One day, Bessie took her car to Stewart and Arden at Henly’s Corner for a service. A while later, the mechanic phoned her in a panic to say that her car had been stolen. “What are you talking about?” retorted Bessie, “I just drove home in it”.
Bessie was a formidable lady who made decisions and damn the consequences. She was driving along one day, indicating left (to go and see Miriam) when she decided instead to go and see Dora and Sam and turned right. She couldn’t understand the annoyance of the other motorists who hooted her.
Miriam Burke, like her sister Bessie, learned to drive after being widowed, and would dart around north-west London, latterly in her Austin 1100, a common sight until thieves stole it. It was later found by police in Edinburgh, leaving the family astonished that the battered old thing had managed to travel so far. The three Finger boys recall Auntie Miriam’s cars for one particular reason – whenever she arrived at their house, she’d open the boot to reveal bags of sweets ready for distribution to the kids.
Miriam received insurance money when her car was found and she never drove again. For Sam Cramer, he almost had to pay to stop driving – a garage wanted to charge him to take his car away. In the end they took it away for nothing and gave him £15 for a brand-new unused extra wheel and tyre. Sam decided to split the money between his grandchildren and gave each of them a fiver. Do the maths – he had four grandchildren!
Sam’s daughter Lilian Gordon passed her driving test as the 1950s came to a close and recalls her dad asking her to take his car to the garage to buy petrol. In those days, petrol was served by an attendant (the first UK self-service petrol station didn’t open until 1961, in Southwark), and Lilian pointed at a pump and asked for four gallons. The attendant shouted at her, “No,” at which point Lilian realised that she was staring at a diesel pump. Having then filled up with petrol, Lilian asked for air in the tyres, and in response to “How much do you want?” (presumably meaning what pressure do these tyres require?), Lilian said, “Oh, about a shilling’s worth please”.
Wearing seat belts in the front of a car wasn’t compulsory until January 1981 (until the 1960s most cars weren’t even fitted with them), and rear seat belts didn’t become commonplace until well into the 1990s. The first standard seat belts were introduced by Saab in 1958, then by Volvo in 1959. Lilian Gordon recalls seeing a Bernard Cribbins film earlier than that, perhaps in the mid-50s, in which he played the part of a nervous traveller. Cribbins got into the back of his Rolls Royce and belted up a rear seat belt – the audience had never seen anything so strange and hooted with laughter.
In the early ‘60s, Lilian and a friend went to tour Holland; they arrived in Amsterdam and hired a car. It was a Volkswagen and the girls realised that the locals weren’t friendly to them as they drove through the country. Wondering whether this was because they were driving a German car a mere 15 years or so after the war ended, the girls bought a Union Flag and tied it to the aerial. Everything changed – the Dutch suddenly became friendly to our two intrepid travellers. Until, that is, the girls stopped to fill up with petrol.
After getting the attendant to fill the petrol tank, Lilian asked him to fill up the water reservoir. She didn’t know for certain that it needed water, but she knew that this was what you asked in those days. The attendant said, “No water,” leading Lilian to tell her friend that it was strange for a petrol station to have no water. So they went to another garage and received the same response: “No water”. It was only at the third garage that a mechanic told the girls that Volkswagens had an air-cooling system and didn’t need to be topped up with water.
The roads of Britain were starting to fill up. We reached 2½ million cars in 1952, 5 million in 1960, and 10 million in 1967. Today there are almost 30 million cars in the UK and 34 million if you include motorcycles, lorries and other forms of motorised transport. A far cry from the horse-drawn carriages and a mere handful of cars when our story began about 110 years ago.