Our lovely neighbour who still lives in the home where he was born in 1931 and shared with 10 siblings plus many pets.


How long have you lived here?

Since 1931. I was born in this house – in the back room upstairs. We lived on the top floor. They weren't flats. You came in the front door and went upstairs. Our neighbour, Dolly, lived downstairs and we shared the garden. Everyone respected everyone's privacy. No one ever locked the front door. My mother wasn't going to run up and down stairs, not with 10 kids, 4 girls and 6 boys.

I was offered this house for £500.

How did you all fit in?

We weren't all here at the same time. The older ones moved on. My oldest brother was 21 when I was born. I was the youngest. They've all gone now. My sister lived next door and two of my brothers moved round the corner.

Even so, where did you all fit in?

There was a bath in the kitchen and my brother and I slept on a board on the bath. We rented then. Everyone rented off private landlords. Our landlord came round on a Saturday morning asking for his 9 (shillings) and 6 (pence).

How did your parents earn the rent?

My mum had 10 kids but still had 2 jobs. She worked in the laundries. She was a tiny woman, five-foot-two, but she worked hard and she was good with starching so earned two pence more. And she did some cleaning. She never complained. A lot of mums were cleaners for the bigger houses round here. Most of the dads worked in the factories at the end of the street. The Wall's sausage factory was off Larden Road. The pigs used to go by in trucks. But the street was always clean. It was my job to wash the front step with whiting, like a block of soap, lime I think, that dried bright white. We all had our jobs. My sister blackened the stove with Zebra polish. The street was always full of children.

What's changed?

Now, I see some of my neighbours on television. They're actors or presenters. The mothers and fathers both work, jut as in my day, but the husbands are often abroad now. Everyone has nannies now. We never had nannies. We were the nannies. You hear of food banks today, but not then. Everyone got by and had enough. Christmas is like Hamleys these days, but we had one toy, a piece of fruit and 2 nuts. And a knob of coal for luck. We didn't have holidays, we had one holiday. We went to Richmond for a picnic on Petersham Common. Or a swim in the pond at Bishop's Park. Nowadays, people take their kids abroad for a fortnight in the Caribbean. I didn't see the sea till I was 14. I didn't get my first pair of long trousers till I was 14. It's much more middle-class now but everyone in this road is still lovely. Everyone seems in such a hurry though, which is a shame, because it'd be nice to get to know them better.

Back then, who were the local characters?

We always had people coming to the door: the muffin man; the Indian toffee man who sold toffee wrapped in brown paper tied with string; the grinder who'd sharpen your knives...You needn't to go anywhere for anything. They came to you or it was on your doorstep. There were nine shops on Cobbold Road alone, including a dairy. On Askew Road there was Hedge's, Hall's; Fisher's, the haberdasher; two fish and chip shops where they are now.

What was it like here during the war?

Noisy. Air raid sirens were always going off. And there were the doddlebugs (flying bombs). Until the engine cut. We'd go to school and not know if our home would still be standing when we got back. My sister and I lived in the Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden on a bunk bed. It was freezing. Mind you, I wasn't here all the time. We were evacuated to Eton. I sometimes tell people I went to school in Eton, but I don't mean Eton College.

I slept on a board on the bath tub.

Did you enlist?

I was too young for the war (WW2) but I did 2 years of National Service then you had to do 3-and-a-half years in the TA (Territorial Army). We did basic training in Devon – those Nissan huts were freezing – then I was posted to Germany, Lübeck and Hamburg. I expected the Germans to view us as the enemy but I found them very friendly. They had the same problems we did.

Did you enjoy the army?

National Service did me wonders. It gets you fit. I liked the swimming and cycling. I was part of REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and learned to drive. When I left I saved up to buy a bubble car, a German Heinkel. I appreciate quality and am happy to save for the best. I thought mum would hate that car but I couldn't get her out of it. She made carpets for it and sewed chair covers. We'd squeeze in, me, mum and Liz, and all our luggage. Liz is my niece. Her mother was ill with TB so she moved in with us. We toured Devon, Ilfracoombe and I had a caravan on the coast in Essex. It was green and mauve and the previous owners christened it Twixus.

Do you wish you'd had kids?

I have lots of nephews and nieces. Mum and I brought up Liz, who is like a daughter to me. I'm very proud of her. She became headmistress at Brentford. And the house has always been full of pets. In the war, Roy, a black Scottie dog, warned us of the incoming air raids. Over the years we've had 2 greyhounds, Assam and Coffee, 2 poodles, 3 cats, 2 rabbits, chickens, canaries, a parrot called Monty. I'm not getting any more. I'm not far off needing someone to walk me.

Do you still rent?

I was first offered the house in the 60s for £500 but I couldn't afford it. I didn't buy it till the early 80s when Dolly went. She had downstairs. We shared the garden. Today when I prune the rose I think of her. I never increased her rent. She always paid 7 and 6. And I paid her milk bill. I'd have been a useless landlord. Now I share the house with John. We met in 1974 at a party in Baron's Court. We were introduced by Katie, Dolly's daughter. John and me, we're long term friends. Some people think we're brothers, some think we're twins, which I take as a compliment because I'm twelve years older. John can do the things I can't. John chose the yellow (see photo). John does the house: I do the gardening. I've won quite a few cups for my hanging baskets. We're a good team. But I'm the boss.

How could you afford to buy the house?

I got a good job. I was the youngest and had a better education than them because they all left school at 14. I passed my 11-plus and went to Latymer Upper School. I was quite good at maths, but the only prize I ever won was for divinity, which is ironic as I'm not a godly person. When I left the Army in '51 it was so close to Christmas, I thought I'd get a temporary job. I put on my demob suit – there was a choice of three: grey, brown and navy pinstripe – I went for the pinstripe because I like to look smart – so I put on my suit and got a job at the Post Office Bank in Baron's Court and stayed. That became National Savings and part of my job was to visit schools and encourage saving. By the end I was calling the Bank of England every day, moving money back and forth, and ensuring people's savings were in safe hands.

How do you relax?

I'm a real fan of Dr Who. John decorated the loo upstairs like a Tardis. I used to be a keen dancer. I love music, jazz and opera. Mum liked opera. I like a good voice: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald. My favourite is Judy Garland. I love musicals. The Wizard of Oz is my favourite. Life was so black and white back then. To see all that colour... If something comes on, John tells me off for singing along. And I love detective stories, Sherlock Holmes and Morse. Both his daughters used to live on this street. I love a good murder. And I like knitting. I've even made up patterns. I knitted for the whole family.

Now that houses here cost over a million pounds, do you feel like a millionaire?

When mum died all she had in her post office book was £9. I thought, I'm not going to end up with £9. Do I feel like a millionaire? No. But one of the best things that ever happened to me was when I turned the tap on and out came hot water. That's when I thought I've made it.

Thank you, Jim. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.

Interviewed by Jo Reynolds Feb 2016

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