1966 and all that – The Demolition of Walmer Road
The West Cross Route was first mooted in the 1950s as part of a projected vital major arterial road into central London from the west. The main artery was to be a four lane dual carriageway extension of the A40 beginning where the Westway (itself an 800yd extension of the A40) met Wood Lane and ending by merging into the start of the Marylebone Road in Paddington. The road would be elevated to carry it above existing buildings so as to keep demolition of such property to a minimum. This objective was generally achieved throughout its 4 mile length through the capital except in the area of Notting Dale around Walmer Road which was to be the site of the first of two access points along its route, the other being at Paddington where the Harrow Road would join it. At the first access point a new roundabout sited below the new road was necessary to facilitate vehicular access. As this roundabout was below the road a huge demolition program was required to accommodate it which would decimate a large and densely populated part of Notting Dale completely destroying the community resident there. The roundabout was sited broadly in a square area bounded by Oldham Road to the west, Silchester Mews to the east, Walmer Road to the north and Silchester Road to the south. All these roads would disappear at least in part along with sections of Blechydon Street whilst Calverley Street, situated between Oldham Road and Silchester Mews, Silchester Terrace and Latimer Mews would disappear completely – in short an entire area and its community. Walmer Road was somewhat unique in that only the south side (nos 2-128) was to be demolished along with part of the north side (nos 3-49 and 103-121) leaving isolated in the middle almost an island of three blocks of the north side (nos 51-101) which would remain quite literally in the shadow of the elevated dual carriageway above. (See maps at foot of page)
Although in the Royal Borough, this part of Notting Dale was designated in Charles Booth’s 1902 survey as amongst London’s poorest and had long been perceived by Kensington council as a blot on the local landscape. Already characterised as the centre of the infamous race riots of 1958, the horrific murders in nearby Rillington Place a couple of years earlier, along with a more recent shotgun killing in Walmer Road, its houses were in poor repair without inside sanitation or hot water. It’s little wonder they viewed the construction of the West Cross Route as an ideal moment for some opportunist slum clearance though how much thought was given at the time to the fate of its occupants is extremely debatable. It may be worth noting that at this roundabout an exit was planned (and built and the spur still exists today) for a further dual carriageway to strike out northeastward to join the foot of the M1. This plan was floored by objections from residents of the adjoining St. Quintins Estate and others, though it seems the same amount of consideration was not afforded the residents of the aforementioned streets of Notting Dale which were demolished leaving a community in tatters. A perfectly feasible alternative site for the roundabout existed only c.250 yards to the south west on the west side of Latimer Road on open Council owned land used at the time for, amongst other things, training learner motor cyclists. I trained there myself in July/August 1964. So it seems certain that ‘slum clearance’ was the prime motivation.
I was 17 when demolition began in spring 1966 continuing through summer of that year and was carried out by Johnnie Corney, a local jack the lad in his late 20s who fancied himself as the Notting Hill representative of Sinatra’s New York Rat Pack. His demolition business had been created in the 1950s by his father, Jimmy, a quiet reserved man and carried on later by Johnnie who had dropped lucky with this large contract and did very well financially out of it enabling him to further advance his playboy ambitions. I found him a likeable ‘flash ‘arry’.
In the aftermath of the WW2 there had been a need for demolition companies across London which had been left with hundreds of uncleared bomb sites serving as makeshift playgrounds for local children including a belter between Walmer and Silchester Roads where I ‘fought’ many ‘wars’ as a youngster. They were also used as unofficial dumps and I would remove old radios and TVs dumped there and strip them of the copper wire which I sold to one of the several scrap metal dealers in the area.
Thus these new demolition companies sprang up, usually created by people with rougher edges and a blue collar background. No exception were the Corney family who I knew quite well as I had gone out with Johnnie’s younger sister Brenda for a while and was also friends with Johnny Fletcher who married Johnnie Corney’s other sister Sylvia. The demolition required the removal of the rubble, designated as ‘hard core’, which was taken to nearby sites where new building work was going on and used as a base for foundations. This hard core removal was carried out by individual owner-drivers of tipper lorries who would receive payment for it from the building companies as well as receiving cash from Johnnie for removing it. All of these drivers were locals known to Johnnie. I knew most of these people as well including Jimmy Smith, father of my good friend Roy and Jackie Vass, later a publican in Acton. The demolition work brought a welcome injection of ‘fresh’ (cash) and we often all socialised together, young and old as was the tradition then. We used mainly the ‘Latymer Arms’ on the corner of Latimer Road and Walmer Road or the ‘Kenilworth Castle’ on St. Anns Road. Both had music or entertainment at weekends usually in the form of a pianist and drummer accompanied by the local Sinatra/Bennett/Martin/ wannabes, many of whom were good singers including Johnny Fletcher and particularly his older brother Alfie who always sang ‘Passing Strangers’ with his wife, Connie a la Eckstein and Vaughan. In the Latymer, Danny MacDermott’s father would always play the spoons if there was a shortage of singers. Another entertaining singer in the Kenilworth was a guy who didn’t seem quite the full ticket and he used to do ‘Autumn Leaves’ whilst crushing Smiths crisps in his hand held above his head allowing them to cascade all over his suit. Another night he did ‘The Ghost Riders in the Sky’ and in the middle produced a gun which he fired at the ceiling as everyone dived for cover – fortunately it was a starting pistol though with this particular individual you couldn’t afford to take the chance. Dull it wasn’t.
My Mother was always tickled pink by Corney as he turned up for work every day wearing a suit, fresh white shirt, ostentatious cufflinks, tie and polished shoes you could see your face in. Frank would have been impressed. Off would come the jacket revealing thin red braces (always thin) and work would commence on the demolition. She was less tickled with the consequences of the demolition, actioned by smashing a huge steel ball against the masonry (no science degree needed here), resulting in a constant stream of dirt, dust and filth raining down on the remaining three blocks on Walmer Road causing unimaginable mess and making her job of keeping things clean completely impossible. This continued day in day out, week in week out making everyday life, which had never been exactly a picnic in this neck of the woods, difficult. To be honest as a youth I didn’t take too much notice and along with everyone else just got on with things – I had a new job and a very busy social life to get on with and the young are adaptable and can take adversity in their stride and you got plenty of practice at that living in Walmer Road!
There were other unwelcome consequences; in common with any large city there had always been a healthy population of rats however the demolition rendered a large number homeless and they naturally moved to the remaining three blocks still standing. One morning my father nearly stepped on one that was sitting on the stairs as he came down. He whipped off his slipper and tried to clump it but it soon made good its escape through a small gap in the door to the understairs cupboard. Inside it we soon discovered they had eaten a large hole in the lathe and plaster about 2ft 6” square so they could get about freely – they had made a West Cross Route of their own! On another occasion my mother went to get coal from the bunker in the back yard and as she pushed the shovel into the trap door at the bottom a rat ran out through the trap door and over the shovel – I don’t know who was more surprised, her or the rat – it was certainly arguable who ran the faster. I think the Pied Piper would have thought twice about accepting this contract. We had a Persian cat Rupert who did his best but was badly outnumbered.
Against this backdrop work progressed until finally the whole area was gone and we were left looking at an empty space where our neighbours and friends had lived. Also gone was the (Silchester) mews opposite where daily the totters would stable their horses. It now began to dawn just how close this new road with its constant thundering traffic would be. We could nearly touch it. Up until then I didn’t even know its route but by now to continue to live there was looking to be something way beyond the austerity or harsh conditions we could all do standing on our heads.
For my mother I think the most difficult cross to bear was the loss of many good neighbours who over decades had become firm friends upon whom you could rely. People such as Albert ‘Bertie’ Read at no.64, an ex Japanese P.O.W who suffered terribly at their hands whilst being forced to work on the bridge over the River Kwai. He later became the Kwai P.O.W’s representative appearing on television to highlight their plight. Then Bill Burrows at no 73, a kindly surgical instrument maker who repaired everyones watches in the evenings for nothing. Opposite was Johnny Neal who gave me a ten bob note when as a lad I found his driving licence lying in the road. At 91 was toolmaker Harry Bracher, newly married to Pat Wright who would take me fishing every Sunday in his Ford Consul after first picking up his younger brother Alan at 13 Silchester Terrace. And many other kind, helpful neighbours too numerous to mention.
I think it was easier for me being younger and having a wide circle of friends spread around other parts of west London – I had after all gone to school in Chelsea and made many friends from that neck of the woods. Also I was working in Blackfriars and making new friends there however I still lost a lot of good friends overnight who I had grown up with.
There were to be other ramifications that would soon manifest themselves; with their core customer base summarily removed remaining local businesses in the immediate vicinity soon felt the pinch and began to flounder. Erstwhile busy local pubs once the social hub followed suit – the ‘York’ quickly closed allowing the nearby ‘Notting Barn’ to soldier on for a few more years. The ‘Prince of Wales (aka The Feathers’) and The Black Bull both on Silchester Road had already fallen to Mr Corneys steel ball. The Harrow Club, up until then a very popular boys sports club lost several key members heralding a change in its status towards a unisex youth club.
There were other interesting businesses that fell to the demolition: Tommy Lane at 71 Silchester Road had long been the ‘go-to’ man in the area for bike repairs – operating from a small overcrowded shop he was a rather frail looking man who suffered badly from deafness. He was quick to help anyone and there wasn’t anything on a bike he couldn’t fix – and all done for buttons. Then there was car breaker Fred Hannington whose yard was opposite me on the corner of Silchester Mews and Walmer Road, – a quiet man who broke almost exclusively Rolls Royces and customers would come from far and wide for parts. I watched him build himself a wooden horsebox body on the back of a Rolls chassis and made a lovely job. I think someone bought it from him and so he just built himself another. I thought he was very talented. One day a well spoken young man looking lost (and slightly worried having arrived in Walmer Road) stopped outside my house in a lovely old yellow and black 1925 Doctors Coupe and asked me where Hannington’s yard was (there was no sign though he was nearly within touching distance) – so not getting too many opportunities to ride in a Rolls Royce, I said let me get in and I’ll show you. I took him up Walmer Road and into St.Helens Gardens left into Oxford Gardens, to the bottom then left into Latimer Road and left back into Walmer Road and back to my house. Realising he was back where he started he exclaimed ‘but where’s Hannington’s Yard!’ – I just pointed opposite. He paused for a moment before seeing the funny side of being, quite literally ‘taken for a ride’. At number 5 Walmer Road there was Tiddy Maybank the greyhound owning newsagent who never missed a meeting at White City unless he was (seriously) ill. This shop was never empty, it was either busy, very busy or ‘we need more staff’. With the impending demolition of his business premises and house (he lived at no.18) he moved to Sudbury taking a kiosk outside Sudbury tube station where he traded for many years. Next door to Maybanks’ was Morrissons the dairy and opposite was a butcher and next door a grocers. Further along the north side were Ivy Kirkum’s sweet shop the outside guarded by Bill Kirkum’s Bull Mastiff – it was quite busy allowing Bill to buy a Vauxhall Cresta which helped the image he liked to project as a middle aged playboy. All the aforementioned lost there businesses along with the cafe in Calverly Street and Sylvesters Fish and Chip shop in Silchester Road. These are the ones I remember. Apologies to those I have missed.
With the demolition completed my Mother took stock and quickly realised that with the spectre of 24/7 noise and dirt from the soon to be built road, moving was the only answer. We moved to a rented house in Staines in April 1967.
Although Walmer Road may have been a rough tough area viewed by outsiders as a ‘no-go’ area, the majority of residents were decent hard working people doing their best in spartan conditions. Whilst there can be no denying the area had a (very) hard edge
To conclude, the West Cross route may have ripped the heart from Notting Dale destroying a vibrant, lively and interesting area but it couldn’t destroy its spirit which lives on today in the hearts and minds of its far flung ex-residents.