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Wartime Reminiscences

June 2016

of Bombs, Horse Meat, Fog and Garlic Sellers. Life in a Bygone Maida Vale

These fascinating reminiscences of life in Maida Vale in the dark days of the Second World War and its aftermath take us back to a very different world from today. They were originally written for us back in 1999 by Ron Phillips of Castellain Mansions and we are reprinting them to highlight the value of local history in putting our contemporary way of life into context. We welcome similar memories from members and encourage an interest in our local history. Further contributions welcome.

Having lived in Castellain Mansions, built in 1906, for half a century makes us old ‘uns look back to the time when we first moved in during 1942. The first really heavy Blitz was about over and by then Maida Vale was littered with bomb sites disfiguring the area with ugly looking gaps in its beautiful terraces and mansion flat townscapes. Fortunately Castellain and Lauderdale Roads were still reasonably undamaged, hence the installation in the latter’s large basements of a ‘British Restaurant’ indicating that food was in rather short supply, a situation that might possibly worsen as the war continued. Most of the meals in this makeshift eatery were fairly staple, though sometimes we would be faced with slices of horse or whale meat on our plates. At the time we were paying £11 for a month’s rent, inclusive of rates and water supplies. However as the war progressed and the prospects of victory improved so the demand for flats began to increase and so did the payment of premiums, to house agents or their staff who imposed ‘key money’ as a means of securing empty apartments for new clients.

Apart from the mansion blocks other local housing had become rather insalubrious. Portsdown Road, between Elgin and Sutherland Avenue, later renamed Randolph Avenue, had become a notorious red-light district with the street girls walking their beats and swinging their keys and touting for business even during the day. The main thoroughfare of Maida Vale was notable for its elegant late-Georgian houses which had become extremely dilapidated. Eventually the west side of Maida Vale between Sutherland Avenue and Kilburn Park Road was demolished allowing council housing to be created to form the ‘Maida Vale Estate’.

The post-war period still provided us with the large Paddington Recreation Ground, dominated by the finest cycle track to be found in south-east England. The Bandstand was the site of the Sunday Concerts and although it still remains, is only used mostly in August. We had a few interesting local institutions. At the Elgin end of Castellain Road the current betting shop was the scene of our local subscription library, run by an elderly French lady known to the residents as ‘Mademoiselle’. It was well used and she had a good supply of fiction. She and her shop disappeared in 1948 when the Council bought a local unused church and renovated it into the present day Maida Vale Library.

In the post-war years shopping presented no price problems and we had a large Co-operative Society store in Shirland Road where member shoppers collected their ‘divi’. On the Lauderdale Parade, Lamberts, a very large double-fronted superstore sold meat, fish and general groceries at normal prices. There, neighbours met and chatted for another ten minutes after shopping-for-meals was completed. Those fifty or so years ago takeaways had not yet been thought of and housewives actually cooked meals! Maida Vale had yet to see wine-bars and a multitude of cafes.

Few homes had central heating although there were radiators fed by a coal-fired kitchen range or grate. Most residents had fireplaces in all their rooms. Prolonged chilly spells meant the purchase of large sacks of coal or anthracite at regular intervals from Charringtons or other coal-carts which toured throughout the local streets. The mansion flats stored fuel in large cupboards at the rear of their blocks. Porters had the tiresome morning task of removing a flat’s rubbish and raising household fuel to appropriate windows. Naturally we all worried about another terrible winter such as we had endured in 1945 and also in 1947, when London ran out of coal. Many of us, including myself, had to empty our small children’s prams in order to refill them with fuel at a coal depot. Today mansion flats are still topped with long ranges of now unused chimney pots.

Coal usage was also responsible for the awful winter ‘smogs’ we suffered. The worst was in 1953 when in November there was a real terror of a fog with visibility, one night, reduced to only a yard or two. Within a week 4000 Londoners had died from breathing difficulties. Milk was delivered to our doorstep, no longer from churns, but in bottles. The laundryman called from a firm called White Knight and our linens were all marked with black indelible ink. Washing machines and laundrettes had yet to make an appearance. There were chimney-sweeps, knife-grinders, caning by kerbside craftsmen and genuine French onion and garlic sellers cycling around the neighbourhood.

Now we live in a different age. Still the young Mums and Dads seem happy enough with what they now have, so we, who remember another time, shrug or smile and ponder as to what the future may hold for those who follow us.