This post is the first in a series of occasional posts where I reflect on my past, good and bad. This first post is about the early days, what I can remember from my childhood and schooldays. I have done some research into my family history and know a fair bit about where I came from. My story is typical of a lot of people from London of my age, nothing really remarkable happened but the late 60’s and early 70’s were an interesting time to grow up in London.
My family came from Cork, Ireland, to the UK back in the early 1830’s. So technically I am Irish by descent. A lot of families left Ireland around that time due to severe economic hardships in Ireland mainly caused by a massive increase in population, following the Napoleonic Wars, and the repeated failure of the potato crop. They came for work.
I was born in 1963 in North Kensington, the poorest part of the Royal Borough of Kensington. I was born in Queen Charlottes hospital, Hammersmith as was my sister Anita (1962) and my brother Stephen (1964) and we lived in Bosworth Road, W11. All of the houses in Bosworth Road were demolished as part of the areas slum clearance activity in 1972. The house had no inside toilet, no hot running water and no bath. We washed in a metal portable tub in the living room in front of a coal fire. There were two bedrooms housing my two parents, me and my two siblings and my grandmother. Bit of a squeeze!
I have looked at the historical addresses of my forebears and, interestingly, over 130 odd years between when the family first arrived in the area up until my birth, my relatives all lived within one mile of Bosworth Road. I guess it was quite common in years gone by for families to stay in the same area. Also interestingly all of the streets that appear in my family history since 1830 have all been demolished totally in most cases and at least partly for the rest. As I mentioned earlier it was a poor area and the slum clearance was dramatic. Six previous generations had all been, christened and married and had their deaths recorded in the same church, St Johns.
In early 1969 the whole family thought we had died and gone to heaven. We were rehoused by the council on the 4th floor of a brand new tower block about a mile and half away, Whitstable House, in Silchester Road W11. It seems that the council finally gave in when my mother was expecting her 4th child, my baby brother, Peter (March 1969).
The block had 20 floors in total although weirdly the lift only went up to the 19th floor and from there people on the 20th floor had to walk! The block overlooked both the underground track (Hammersmith & District line) and the controversial A40 flyover (the Westway). It was modern and most importantly it had three bedrooms, luxury! Mum and Dad had one room, my sister another, and myself and my two brothers shared a large double. Still seemed spacious to me.
The block was part of a new estate but was still surrounded by lots of old fashioned streets destined to disappear in the aforementioned slum clearance program. Remarkably, considering the war finished twenty odd years previous, there were loads of bomb sites. Houses and other large areas decimated by the Luftwaffe. These bomb sites and the ongoing slum clearance provided a vast playground for young boys.
We absolutely loved it. We clambered over rubble, went down big holes, made camps, set fires and generally had great adventures. It was a fantastic time and it felt very safe.
We also used to like to watch the men and their machines smashing down old houses. Our favourite was the ‘wrecking ball’ crane. They would move the jib on the crane making the giant iron ball swing straight into the bricks of a house devastating it and making a tremendous noise and mess.
We were in completely in awe of the men standing on top of roofless houses standing on the edge swing pick-axes between their legs removing bricks, whilst next door the whole house was on fire. They had no harnesses, no helmets and no other safety equipment. I think in those days health & safety had not been invented. Below there is a link to a video made by Pathe News in 1971. It has no sound on it but shows plenty of scenes of what I remember watching. It is fascinating. It could be probably used today on a H&S course as a lesson in what NOT TO DO! Definitely worth a watch. The main focus of the video is Ruston Street where my great-grandfather lived before he died. Ruston Street led to Ruston Close which was previously called Rillington Place, which and previously been very famous because of the murders of John Christie. A very interesting case worth a read particularly if you are in favour of bringing back the death penalty for murderers.
Myself, my sister and my brother went to Avondale Park junior school, St Marys Place. We would walk down Walmer Road to get there. Walmer road was one of the many streets completely devastated by demolition work needed to build the Westway flyover. 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.
Other buildings of note in the area include the Trellick Tower which was designed by a chap called Goldfinger which always amuses me. It was completed in 1972 and stands on the site of Southam Street, W11 where my great-great-grandfather lived. A tiny bit of the street remains. The Trellick Tower was the tallest residential block in London at the time.
About half a mile away from our flat was the world famous Portobello road market. We used to go there virtually every other day just to do our day-to-day shopping. The market was very long and was sort of divided into three parts. At the top end, near Notting Hill Gate it was mainly antiques. In the middle adjacent to Ladbroke Grove it was fresh veg stalls, fish stalls, shoe shops and shops like Tesco (no superstores in those days). The far end, up towards Golborne road was like the fore runner of car boot sales. Loads of stalls selling all sorts of odd stuff including secondhand clothes etc. We used to love poking around in that stuff!
The whole area was exciting, busy and vibrant and although I definitely would not want to live in London again it was the most fantastic place to grow up. I really enjoyed my childhood living in and around North Kensington.
In my next post I’ll talk about my life from 12 onwards.