To say North Kensington in the 1950s and 60s was a rough area would be a gross understatement. It was an out and out working class area and had been ever since it was turned from farmland to residential in the mid C19th. I believe the original plan was for quality housing for a rising, prosperous middle class but somehow this never materialised, at least not to the east of Ladbroke Grove where the large houses and accommodation over the shops on Golborne Road were rented out by the floor or room with shared conveniences for all tenants.
When we moved to Golborne Rd in 1952 I was six and knew nothing of its history or reputation. It was only some sixty years later, when researching my family history, that I discovered my family’s links with Golborne Road went back far further than we knew.
I was born in St Albans in 1946. One of those curious quirks that resulted from expectant mothers being sent to makeshift maternity homes in the country as the main London hospitals were commandeered for returned servicemen. I was born in Diocesan House, once home of the Bishop of St Albans and my mother would wryly comment that the maternity home was in Folly Lane, a very suitable name considering how many of the occupants got to be there. My cousin Christine, some nine months my senior, was born at Shardeloes in Amersham, a similar grand old house although our parents both lived in the same street, Priory Grove, in Stockwell.
We lived with my maternal grandparents in a lovely old house, Montana Cottage. Grandad had been a master builder, from a long line of master builders who hailed from Hinckley in, what was then, Rutland. From the way Grandad spoke I assumed the family had come straight to Stockwell from Hinckley but in the 1871 census I found his father, Thomas Ireland, living at 3 Golborne Rd having moved there from Hinckley some time the previous decade. His marriage licence shows him marrying Elizabeth Hotter at St Martin in the Fields in 1858 and their first child, Thomas, was born in Kensington in 1860. My grandad was born in 1874 after the family had subsequently moved to Chiswick so would have been unlikely to have known and in any event died in 1948.
Doing further research I found Thomas Ireland not only lived on Golborne Road but built and owned a large number of properties the west side of the Iron Bridge (somehow it always seems to ask to be capitalised!). In 1869 he made application to the Kensington Vestry for leave to lay stone pipeware at numbers 51-55,66-72 and 74-78 being premises to the west side of the Mitre Tavern and St Ervans Rd respectively. He is named as property owner and laying the drainage at his own expense. He also, in 1872, is listed as a discharged bankrupt in The London Gazette so I can only wonder what turn of fate reduced him from property owner to bankrupt. Thomas’ original buildings still stand. One of them “Clarkes” is owned by Reg Thackeray, a local identity, who has been very helpful and accommodating whenever I’ve turned up with questions and camera.
But I digress.
We were fortunate in only having one other family with which to share the above shop accommodation. Others were very cramped, often with a family per room. Water heating and bathrooms were non existent. “However did you keep clean?” my children asked. On Saturday night the galvanised bathtub would be lifted off the wall in the hallway and lugged into the kitchen where it would be filled from saucepans and kettles boiled on the gas stove. I had the first, quick bath, then Mum with the addition of more hot water and finally Dad after some water had been ladled out and still more hot added. The rest of the week, in the words of my grandmother, one “Washed down as far as possible, up as far as possible and then washed one’s possible”. It is not hard to imagine how the phrase “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” originated when large families were all using the same bath. After several children had washed it must have resembled People Soup and one small body easily overlooked.
Clothing was similarly washed in a galvanised tub with a wooden scrubbing board and a bar of hard, yellow Sunlight soap. No such thing then as a daily change of clothes although knickers were probably changed a couple of times a week and the crotch rinsed out and hung up to dry overnight. At most, clothing was washed weekly or taken to the bagwash on the corner of Golborne and Southam Street. Tony Roper’s play “The Steamie” about a group of Glasgow women using a communal washing facility gives an idea of what it was like although the bagwash took in your clothing and returned it to you later that day to be dried at home. Mum would load the bag on my pushchair and wheel it along the road then retrace her steps that afternoon. Frequently someone else’s odd sock or handkerchief would turn up amongst your wash or some item of yours would be missing which gave an element of anxiety to the proceeding. From inside the shop one could look out the back and see the vats of hot, soapy water where the laundry would be stewed into submission. Anything delicate was washed at home and hung on a clothes line that extended out the back window on a pulley system and was affixed at its far end to a pole rising up from the backyard. This worked well until the rope broke and everything tumbled down into the filthy yard and had to be retrieved and rewashed. But people kept themselves clean to the best of their abilities considering the appalling conditions in which they lived.
Along our side of Golborne Road, just down from the corner with Kensal Road was a stationers’ that sold all sorts of fascinating types of paper – Bond, Antique Laid, Kraft, Manilla and Vellum to name but a few. I loved the smell and would find any excuse to go in and buy a sheet of fine silver tissue or lace paper. Looking at aerial photos I think this must have been number 3 where the Irelands lived but I can’t be sure after so many years.
Next door was a sweetshop, Wardells, run by an old woman who was always knitting. A girl about my age, Gillian, lived with her but I’m not sure of their relationship. Sweets were displayed on an open counter for you to chose your own mixture. I’m ashamed to admit a friend and I would go in and ask the woman the time. To tell us she had to go out the back to see the clock and in her absence we’d stuff as many sweets as we could into our pockets. We were never caught but I’m sure she must have suspected.
Gillian was a plump child with golden ringlets and elaborate , hand-knitted, lacy dresses. For some reason she never fitted in with the other children on the street and we’d tease her by singing “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair, so he wasn’t fuzzy wus ‘e?” and tugging her hair.
To fit in was crucial. When we lived in Stockwell Mum used to handmake my dresses with ruching, frills and smocking and my hair would be coaxed each night into ringlets with strips of rag. I attended tap dancing and ballet classes (and was useless at both due to a chronic lack of rhythm) I was so teased at Wornington Road school because I looked and sounded different from the rag tag children who attended that Mum had my hair cut into a straight bob and ran me up some plain gingham dresses that washed into shapelessness. My accent was still South London but at least I didn’t look obviously different.
I only stayed less than a year at Wornington Road. As well as the bullying, the level of teaching left much to be desired. Mum tells me I went, at six, knowing my 6,7 and 8 times table and left having forgotten my 3 times table. I was enrolled at St. Mary’s Catholic School on East Row and flourished there. But more later on that.
On the corner of Golborne and Edenham was a post office, either number 9 or 11 and across Edenham Street at lived Mrs Mabley with her children. There was also a family named Wilson who had children Dawn and Keith. I was friends for a short while with Ann Mabley and we would go to the Saturday morning Minors at the Prince of Wales cinema on Harrow Road. It was sixpence admission and I’d get another sixpence to buy sweets. Ann and her younger brother only ever got their admission money and an apple. I don’t recall there being a Mr Mabley. Number 15 was a tobacconist and sweet shop run by the Whites who had two sons Gordon (?) and Raymond about my age. Raymond had a bit of a crush on me and would sneak sweets to me when his dad wasn’t looking. 17 Golborne was also a shop down below. Its function varied as no-one ever seemed to make a go of it. The only business I can recall being there for any length of time was a secondhand shop that sold reconditioned electrical goods among other things. 19 was the premises of the shoe repairer Bert Cross and his wife Amy. They were unusual in that they were a childless couple and had the whole property to themselves.
The other side of us, number 23, held three families all of whom were immigrants. The Gonzalez and Ramayons were Spanish and the Christis were Greek Cypriot. The Christi’s daughter Yannoula was to become my best friend during those early years and partner in shoplifting. There was a dairy at 27 run by a Welshman Dai Francis. His daughter married Kenny Ball’s bassist Vic Pitt and on a couple of occasions gave us tickets for a Kenny Ball concert. There was a friendly agreement between Dai and my Dad that Dad wouldn’t sell fresh milk and Dai wouldn’t sell meat or bacon although Dad did sell sterilised milk, a horrible tasting liquid that came in tall, narrow bottles with a crimped top like a beer bottle. As many people didn’t have a refrigerator it had the advantage of lasting somewhat longer than regular milk.
Further along was a chemist run by an older man and his son. In my teenage years I had an after school job there filling bottles with some patent nostrum, iron tonic, which was a virulent red but much sought after. As I wrote previously, the bagwash was on the corner of our block.
Across the road, at the Kensal Road end were several shops. One was a fish and chip shop but the proprietors were very surly and expected you to bring your own newspaper in which to wrap the fish and chips. We always preferred the Greek shop the other side of the Iron Bridge. On the corner of Hazelwood Crescent was the Prince Arthur pub. During the week it was pretty quiet but Friday and Saturday night was regularly the scene of fights. It was not only men who indulged in fisticuffs but women, particularly the local “toms” who had fallen out over a client. They would strip off to the waist and bare knuckle box, pull hair and claw at each other until either other customers or the police broke them up. This was weekend entertainment from the balcony seats of our first floor lounge. Mum and Dad always said it was better offering than what was on our nine inch black and white tele.
At number 12, next to the Prince, lived the Howes and Higgs, a family named Fox and also Mr Fisher with his daughter Joan and teenage son David. Joan was to be come my Mum’s best friend despite a fifteen year gap in their ages. She worked as a cutter at Marks & Spencers in the days when British Made meant exactly that and they had their factory in Marylebone. The three Gs – Greens, Gethings and Gibsons were at 16 but I can recall nothing about them. (there did seem to be a curious alliterative chance as to who lived where on that side of the road!) Among others at 18 were the Digweeds, an established local family and the Doyles. Also the Healeys with a son John, a couple of years younger than me. We met up through Friendsreunited some years ago and it is to him that I owe a lot of this information.
Number 20 on the corner with Appleford Road was a doctor’s surgery at ground level and lodgings for several single men on the upper floors. From their names they seem to have been Irish. The Powers who lived in the basement were Irish. Mrs Power was the doctor’s housekeeper and their daughter Kayleen was also one of my friends. The other side of Appleford Road was a closed shop that was used as a workshop by a bespoke tailor. Above it lived a Polish (I think) couple with a daughter Juleika. I think they were refugees or DPs. Juleika and I were friends until one day she refused to return a book I had lent her. It was a very old one about cats (illustrated by Louis Wain from memory) and one of my favourites. I came home wailing and Dad went over to see her Mum but was told she wouldn’t make Juleika hand it back as “Gwen has so much and Juleika has so little” At a distance of sixty years I can see the logic in that but not at the time and I never spoke to her again. Forgiveness is not one of my virtues.
Gwen Nelson (nee Martin), 2014.
If you want to read more of Gwen’s memories, you will now find them on her own blog http://purrpuss1.wordpress.com