An MP from Robert St
Born at No 9 Robert Street
Dennis was born at No 9 Robert Street and, although destined to become both local councillor and the first Labour MP for a Sussex constituency, in the 1920s he was just a member of the Robert Street gang, which had its headquarters in the ‘Sale Room’ on the west side of the street.
The games that Dennis played
At that time every street had its own gang, playing energetically and competitively against one another. Street games varied with the season, beginning at Easter when great scaffolding ropes would be held right across the road, allowing 4 or 5 children to skip together. Also popular were hopscotch, marbles, cigarette cards, leapfrog and that favourite – knocking on doors and running away! Some games like whips and tops and exciting games of capture such as ‘Hot Rice’ and ‘Release’, which Dennis Hobden remembered with enthusiasm, have ceased to exist.
The centre of Brighton was very poor
During Dennis Hobden’s childhood, the centre of Brighton was very poor. There was high unemployment and families were very deprived, ill-housed and inadequately clothed. The majority of homes in Robert Street took in lodgers, some families confining themselves to one room in order to accommodate as many as possible. By these standards the Hobdens were comfortable. Charles Hobden worked for the railway, first as Fireman, and then later becoming a driver. His wife took in washing from two local pubs, which Dennis collected for her.
Front room only used for Christmas
Family activity centred on the basement living room and scullery. By contrast the ground floor front room was kept in immaculate isolation for Christmas and Boxing Days only. Dennis Hobden could remember the shining brass fender, photos in the then fashionable brass bullet-case frames and the bottle of port and bowl of nuts and oranges that were part of the season.
Slaughterhouses in Vine Street
Behind the Hobdens’ house in Vine Street were the slaughterhouses. Dennis could remember the sheep running down Gloucester Road to Vine Street and the sound of pole-axing heard from their house. No-one ever saw this take place but the boys often climbed and peered over the door of one slaughterhouse there to see the local Rabbi slitting animals’ throats.
The east side of Robert St with Dennis' house just out of view on the right
Lunchtime football in the street
A spectacle of another kind was the lunchtime football played in Robert Street by the Argus printers with a screwed up copy of the newspaper for a ball. If the boys got in the way they were chased. They would run to The Level but the atmosphere there could not match that of the streets.
Earning pocket money for the cinema
At the bottom of North Road was the Coronation Cinema. Entrance cost 3d. There were ways for Dennis and his three brothers to earn their Saturday matinee fee. For every empty jam jar returned to Barnes & Co in Foundry Street they earned ¼d and an uncle who sold magazines on Brighton Station every Sunday gave them each a comic, which they then sold for ¼d in Upper Gardner Street. Also Dennis had a Saturday morning job taking packing case straw from Sayers & Sons in Robert Street round to the coffin makers in Vine Street, where it was used to pad coffin linings.
Fine weather often drew the children out of North Laine to cycle on the sands between Palace Pier and West Pier or to take command of their ‘battleships’, the groynes. Sometimes with a pennyworth of broken cream biscuits from Longs on the corner of Tidy Street in their pockets, they would board a tram to Dyke Road and go blackberrying.
Dennis Hobden went to the Infants School in Upper Gardner Street, which later became a Boys Club. He then went to the Central School in Church Street and on to Pelham Street School in Cheapside. The poorest children, often with no shoes, were called ‘Grimmett Boys’ and were outfitted by the school in heavy dark grey workhouse-type suits.
He worked for the Post Office
In the 1930s Dennis Hobden left school and began work as a messenger boy at Ship Street Post Office. He remained with the Post Office and later worked at the North Road branch, where he was in daily contact with North Laine residents. In the late 1970s he was dismayed by the dereliction of the area he knew so well. Although individual properties had improved, overall he considered the area spoiled by Council neglect: the demolition, ugly open car parks, and heavy lorries. When the King Street/Bond Street car park was proposed in the early 1980s he commented: “In 60 years time people will wonder why it was ever built."
He saw the future of North Laine lying in the hands of the residents and relied on their articulated demands for change in order to pressure the Council into enabling North Laine to flourish as vigorously in the 1980s as it had in the past.
By Elaine MacDonald
[Mostly previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 23, December 1979-January 1980; then reprinted in No 232, January/February 2015 with a few minor editorial changes]