The Clapham Society Local History Series — 10

Clapham, SW4: Sixty Years Ago An Outsider’s View
by Peter Hopkins

Reminiscences sent to The Clapham Society in December 2013 by a former, temporary resident

I first arrived in Clapham in March 1955 at the age of 19 – an unsophisticated young National Service soldier who had left school in Cheshire a few months earlier. It was only the second time I had ever been to London. Heavily accoutred in FSMO (Full Service Marching Order), I clumped noisily in my Army hobnails up the steps of Clapham Common Underground station. A heavy kit bag was balanced sideways across the top of my large square backpack. Below this dangled my small pack and empty water bottle. On the front, my ammunition pouches, also empty save for a Kitkat chocolate bar, were trying to ride up my chest, counterweighted by the unusual load on my back. In those days, similarly laden young servicemen were a common sight in London, usually in transit at mainline railway stations on their way to or from large Army or RAF camps. But my surprising destination that day more than half a century ago had a most unmilitary address: 1 Offerton Road, Grafton Square, SW4.

I was in the RAOC (Royal Army Ordnance Corps), which was responsible for army supplies. Its identity was lost long ago, when the Royal Corps of Logistics was formed to absorb all the former ‘service’ regiments. After six months’ training near Aldershot, I had to my great surprise been posted to the War Office, as it was still bluntly called in those days. Later, its identity was euphemistically disguised as the Ministry of Defence when it merged with the Admiralty and the Air Ministry. I had not realised that the authorities employed ordinary National Service conscripts at the War Office. It was an unusual posting – and a very lucky one, as I certainly had no influential friends in high places!

Initially, I had been ordered to report from Deepcut barracks, near Aldershot, to Lansdowne House in – of all unlikely places – Berkeley Square, W1. This, according to Vera Lynn’s melodious wartime lyrics a decade or so earlier, was where ‘a nightingale sang’, so for a young provincial naïf like me Berkeley Square was invested with a kind of glamorous chic. I was puzzled: Mayfair seemed an incongruous setting for anything to do with the Army, especially after the barracks at Aldershot!

However, Lansdowne House proved to be merely the Army offices where they sorted out my accommodation and informed me of my workplace. The latter was not to be the well-known War Office building in Whitehall, but somewhere called Chessington – which I had never heard of. As for accommodation, there were few military barracks in London, and these were mainly for soldiers with ceremonial duties, so servicemen posted to the War Office were paid a lodgings allowance and lived in civilian B & Bs. In Army parlance, this was a really cushy number, as it meant no barrack room, no kit inspections, no muster parades, no ‘fatigues’, no cookhouse, no guard duties – and, as icing on the cake, no uniform! We were, incredibly, allowed to wear ‘civvies’. The billeting officer spoke on the telephone to a Mrs Wilson, and my heavy boots were soon clattering back down the Underground on the way to the Northern Line, Clapham and Offerton Road – my digs for the rest of my two years of National Service.

In the mid-1950s that part of Clapham had a neglected and run-down air. Grafton Square was hardly Berkeley Square. Its very shabby and unkempt weed-grown central garden was surrounded by broken railings. Almost all the houses in the area needed refurbishment and a coat of paint. And yet their terraced architecture suggested that the district had seen better days. Once, no doubt, the Grafton Square garden had been well-manicured, and patrolled daily by smart nursery maids pushing perambulators and holding the hands of little boys in sailor-suits and little girls dressed like Alice in Wonderland. I supposed that some generations ago it had been quite a fashionable suburb on the outskirts of London, inhabited by wealthy merchants and City men who wanted to live close to the country. As London had expanded, desirable dwellings had evidently moved further out, leaving this area to decline into cheap lodging houses.

Cheap indeed! Mrs Wilson’s weekly charge for bed-and-breakfast at 1 Offerton Road was thirty shillings (£1.50). Yes, 30/- per WEEK! And it included full board on Sundays! There was another lodging house nearby where I heard that young soldiers paid even less: only 27/6 weekly (£1.37). It is strange to reflect that nowadays, of course, that entire weekly rent wouldn’t buy a cup of coffee. But it must be remembered that National Service basic pay for a Private soldier was then 4/- (20p) daily, or £1.40 per week. And even the national average weekly basic wage in the mid-1950s would have been well under £10. I cannot now recall what the Army paid me as an official lodgings allowance, but by 1956, after several stages of promotion to sergeant, I was receiving total pay of about £3.50 a week – and this was certainly enough for my simple requirements, even in London.

When, 30 years later, I first read Philip Larkin’s short poem Mr Bleaney, I immediately recognised my room at Mrs Wilson’s. As a bachelor, Larkin knew all about pre-1960s digs! In this poem, his economical but sharply observed detail captures with great authenticity the drab atmosphere common to most cheap digs in the 1940s and 50s. I occupied a cramped little chamber on the top floor – once, no doubt, a servant’s room. I could touch three of the walls while lying on the bed. Frayed curtains, worn lino, 40-watt bulb: but what more could you expect for thirty bob a week? There was a tiny, antiquated, free-standing gas heater on which I could balance a kettle and even – with a little ingenuity – make toast. I was three floors up, and there was no fire escape. The entire house would have failed any test applied nowadays by the fire service or the Health & Safety Executive!

Although in retrospect this all sounds depressingly shabby and spartan, I must stress that it did not seem so to me at the time. Post-war austerity was still in the air. There were all kinds of shortages unimaginable in these days of plenty, and the Fifties are now viewed as a rather bleak and dingy decade. In any case, I had no previous standards by which to judge things. My background was respectable working-class, scrambling into lower-middle. At home on the Wirral I lived in a typical suburban ‘semi’, and my father was a skilled electrician working in Birkenhead. We had no telephone, no car, no fridge, no television, no washing machine, nor had most of our neighbours. And my previous experience of accommodation away from home and family had been on cycling holidays with friends, staying in youth hostels, where the very basic facilities made even our simple homes seem luxurious!

My tiny room looked out over Offerton Road, which was always very quiet. I do not recall any parked cars. Every fortnight or so, an oldish man trundled a large handcart along the middle of the road towards Grafton Square, periodically booming out “Yib-o-o-o-w!” The second syllable was intoned deeply, and sustained over several seconds in a resonant, rather mournful bass which carried well. I interpreted the origin of his mysterious cry as “Any old bones?” Such men as he, scattered all over London, must have been the inspiration – twenty years later – for Steptoe & Son. Albert and Harold in their TV series were given the extra luxury of an old horse to pull their cart, but I don’t think they indulged in a street-cry on their rounds. I suppose the rag-and-bone men have long gone.

Mr and Mrs Wilson were Londoners born and bred. They seemed very old to my youthful eyes, but were probably only around 60. They had half a dozen male lodgers at 1 Offerton Road, and curiously enough, I was the only Englishman. Everyone else was Scottish. There were three other young War Office soldiers like myself, all from the Dundee area, and two elderly civilian office workers, who had the best rooms and were of course permanent residents. One of these hailed from as far north as Wick, and was appropriately named Bob Sutherland; the other, Mr Mack, was a senior clerk at the National Union of Seamen, whose head office was then nearby in Old Town.

Breakfast at Offerton Road was served in the tiny basement. There was no organised shift system and not a lot of room at the table, but somehow we usually managed to stagger our arrival times so that overcrowding was rare. Mrs Wilson dispensed the breakfasts from a tiny cooking-space off the basement. It could hardly be called a kitchen, as it was no bigger than a telephone box. The whole region was always very gloomy, being semi-subterranean, and this – combined with Mrs Wilson’s ageing eyesight – meant that plates were visibly not always properly washed!

There was one bathroom-and-toilet for the use of all the lodgers, liberally furnished with torn sheets of newspaper suspended from string. I cannot now remember how the water was heated, but I think we had to give Mrs Wilson notice when we wanted a bath.

Mr and Mrs Wilson had a television set, and she was an ardent admirer of the American pianist Liberace – then just becoming known in the UK for his candelabra, glittering sequined jackets and oily sentimentality. TV was still a relatively rare luxury, but popular ownership had been boosted by the Coronation a couple of years earlier. Mrs Wilson was also a keen fan of The Archers, which by then had been running for about four years on the radio. She was very upset by the untimely death of Grace Archer, talking about it to her lodgers, though we young soldiers knew little about the programme. When away from home, we heard the ‘wireless’ only occasionally. (I confess that I did miss The Goon Show. Like many of my contemporaries, I had been a keen fan since its start a few years earlier). None of the young soldiers had a radio in his room. Radios were expensive, and on top of that a wireless licence was required in those days. In any case, with their bulky valves (no transistors yet) and slow ‘warming-up’, a radio was still seen as a piece of household furniture rather than a portable accessory. So ‘the wireless’ for most people was essentially a single family possession rather than a personal one. The ubiquitous ‘trannie’ was still some years away in the future.

Each day all my Dundee fellow-lodgers commuted northwards by bus or tube to a sub-branch of the War Office in Golden Cross House, somewhere between Trafalgar Square and the Strand. In contrast, one curious feature of my life in Clapham was that I travelled south, in the opposite direction to most rush-hour commuters. Every morning I headed out of town when the bowler-hatted hordes were heading inwards, and of course vice-versa every evening. This was because my War Office destination was not in Whitehall, but down at Chessington in Surrey. Each morning I stood on an almost empty platform at Clapham Junction, facing a platform packed with people bound the other way. I then had the luxury of boarding an almost empty train. However, by the time we had travelled through places like Wimbledon, Raynes Park, Motspur Park and Malden, we had picked up more and more civil servants also bound for Chessington South. Many were employed at the War Office, but there was also a huge branch of the Ministry of Supply on an adjacent site. I never really understood the purpose of this long-defunct government organisation, but its name suggests that it must have had something to do with things like wartime rationing and post-war shortages. (Rationing had ended only a year or so before my National Service, and many things nowadays regarded as commonplace were either luxuries – or completely unobtainable).

Having spent my life on Merseyside until then, I knew little of London apart from what I had read in books or seen depicted in films. Clapham Common and Clapham Junction I had heard of. Our landlady, Mrs Wilson, was very proud of Clapham. It was, she assured me, a particularly healthy place to live, as six different currents of air flowed across the Common – a claim which puzzles me to this day! Of neighbouring suburbs, Wandsworth and Brixton were known to me, but only as the names of prisons. More cheerfully, I associated Battersea, to the north, chiefly with the 1951 Festival of Britain pleasure gardens (the Festival still being a recent memory). Further away, Herne Hill was a name familiar to me as a keen cyclist – for here there was a track which had been used in the 1948 Olympics and where professionals like Reg Harris, Arie van Vliet and Mario Morettini could still be watched.

Knowing only large northern cities with vast sprawling suburban housing estates around them, I had made the mistaken assumption that native Londoners spent their leisure time in the West End, wandering around Trafalgar Square, shopping in Regent Street, eating in the Strand, enjoying shows at the Palladium, and so on. When I made some remark which implied this way of life, Mrs Wilson was surprised. ‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘Horace and I haven’t been Up West for years!’ It was quite a revelation to me, but I came to realise that for ordinary Londoners it was not necessary to go ‘Up West’ in order to ‘have a life’, as people say nowadays. The various suburbs of London, once geographically distinct entities as villages and small towns, still had their own flourishing independent lives. Central London was of course much more expensive and probably populated by more visitors and tourists than genuine Londoners, whose trips there were confined to special occasions. Nowadays, I suppose the TV ‘Soap’ Eastenders, illustrates this very well, all the action being centred on the fictitious Walford.

Gradually, I became very familiar with certain parts of Clapham. Cafés were important to all the lodgers, as Mrs Wilson did not provide an evening meal. One we used regularly was the Polygon Café, which took its odd title from the postal name of the irregular group of buildings in which it was situated. It was the kind of establishment nowadays referred to as a ‘Greasy Spoon’, and had the virtues of being both handy and cheap. It never seemed to be busy. A young woman called Doreen was the only employee, dishing up various simple dishes on toast. Later an Italian family opened a café on Clapham High Street. I cannot remember whether it offered much in the way of Italian cuisine, but I doubt it. Amongst the public at large, British tastes in the mid-1950s were still insular rather than cosmopolitan. I patronised this Italian place a good deal in the summer, as they did very good salads. Whenever I appeared, the young waiter would immediately call loudly into the kitchen “One very nice ham salad!”

Close to Clapham Common tube station there was a coffee/hot dog stall which remained open into the small hours. A ‘dog sandwich’ consisted of two-and-a-half sausages between two slices of white bread. Why the stall-holder bothered with the half sausage I had no idea, but he was quick and skilful at bisecting sausages with the edge of the slice he used for picking them up. I can’t remember the cost of a dog sandwich, but for an extra 1d (one old penny: about 0.4p) you could also have a pickled onion. I used to patronise this stall on my way back to Mrs Wilson’s after having two or three pints at The Windmill pub on Clapham Common.

Another feature of Clapham Common – and one which seems very dated now – was ‘Concert Parties’ on summer evenings. These recalled the 1920s world of JB Priestley’s Good Companions. I suppose the performers were minor professional entertainers engaged by the Council. They used the park bandstands, suitably draped. Passers-by could stand and watch these performances – for nothing. If you sat in a deck-chair, a fee was collected by a brown-suited park keeper with a metal LCC badge on his hat, which was not an official peaked cap, but more informal – like a trilby. I saw these keepers in other London parks, too: their brown ‘uniform’ was evidently intended to look vaguely tweedy and rural, in keeping with the park.

The performances on the bandstand consisted mainly of singing and dancing, with the occasional comedian, but a one-off variation has stuck in my mind because even sixty years ago it seemed very old-fashioned. This was a melodramatic monologue of the kind which must have been very popular on Victorian and Edwardian stages. The solo performer recounted a lurid murder story, something along the lines of Maria Martin (of the Red Barn Murder). I don’t think it was in verse, but he accompanied his monologue with exaggerated histrionic actions. The only bit I can recall is a frenzied ‘Dig! Dig! Dig!’ as he mimed the act of thrusting a spade into the ground with each ‘Dig!’ That must have been when he was burying the victim’s body. Nowadays such a performance would be seen as a satirical send-up of old-time melodrama. It was meant to be taken seriously, but even to a young suburban provincial like myself, it seemed embarrassingly ‘stagey’ and hammed-up. I can’t remember how this performance was received, but present-day television viewers accustomed to Frost, Morse, The Bill, Taggart and other modern crime drama would have considered it grotesquely overdone – and found it comic rather than blood-curdling.

Most of my entertainment consisted of going to the theatre and what was then called ‘the pictures’. All over London there were Pullman cinemas, a ‘chain’ which specialised in showing continental films and classics rather than the usual new releases appearing at the giant ‘picture palaces’. Brixton Pullman was the nearest, but in addition to the Pullmans, I also used to go to what now seems a very strange survival – the Clapham Pavilion, near Clapham North tube station. I think it must have been privately owned, for it was too run-down to belong to any big chain and it can’t have been very profitable. The films shown were older and unlikely to have mass-appeal. It was here that I saw Battleship Potemkin for the first time. I had never heard of it, or of Eisenstein, but was fascinated – though it must have seemed immensely dated even in 1955.

My theatre trips were more ambitious. As, on demob, I was due to read English at Oxford, I seized the chance to go to the Old Vic as much as possible, handily placed just up the Northern Line. I must have seen more than twenty Shakespeare performances during my time in London (for years I kept the programmes – and now wish I still had them!) Up in ‘The Gods’, gallery seats were, I think, half a crown (12½p). If you wanted a better view, some limited standing was permitted for a similar price in the aisles of the stalls. But you HAD to stand! If you grew tired and sat down on one of the stairs, an usherette would come and sternly flash her torch at you! I suppose it was because of fire regulations.

At that time most of the dashing male roles at the Old Vic were played by their jeune premier John Neville, though there were occasional appearances from the likes of Richard Burton (as Henry V). I also remember seeing Paul Rogers, Wendy Hiller, Rachel Roberts and Ann Todd (the latter as Lady Macbeth). As You Like It I saw several times. It was, of course, a very good performance, but my principal reason for drooling repeatedly from the gallery was my infatuation with Virginia McKenna, who played Rosalind, and who was then in her prime. She was better known as a film actress, so I had never expected to see her in the flesh. I had her picture on my desk at the War Office!

Less cultural, but more of a bargain, were the free seats I frequently enjoyed at various other theatres – all in the West End. Behold one of the few advantages of being a National Serviceman in London at that time! How was this managed? Well, for the benefit of impecunious young servicemen in the capital there was an institution known as the Nuffield Centre, just off Trafalgar Square. It was presumably funded by Lord Nuffield and was certainly not under the control of any of the Armed Forces. At an unpretentious little entrance you showed your paybook to a doorman, presumably to prove that you were a genuine serviceman, and inside there was a good cheap cafeteria, bar, TV room and so forth. It was not open to officers and so was rather like a club for ‘Other Ranks’. At the office, you could enquire whether they had any complimentary theatre tickets for that day. They almost always had at least a few, though you could never predict what would be on offer, so it was always ‘pot luck’. Such tickets were available only on the actual day of performance, usually for a matinee, and they were nearly always for the most expensive seats, such as the orchestra stalls.

No doubt an element of benevolent sympathy towards impoverished young conscripts played a part in the theatres’ apparent generosity, but only a small part! No tickets ever appeared for evening performances of very popular shows, because they could obviously be sold. The tickets supplied to the Nuffield Centre came at more or less the last minute and were of course for seats they couldn’t sell, so the theatres were not losing anything by giving them away. Furthermore, theatre managers knew that it was bad for business to let the ordinary paying punters see embarrassing gaps in the front stalls, which were so visible from the rest of the auditorium. So it was better for them to have young servicemen providing ‘Bums On Seats’ than to have empty spaces. We nearly always got these plum front seats: they were naturally the most expensive and therefore less likely to be bought by most theatregoers, especially for matinées.

In this matter of free theatre seats, by being permanently resident in London I enjoyed a great advantage over most National Servicemen, for they were generally just passing through and could only take pot luck on the odd day. I could pop into the Nuffield Centre on almost any day I chose, and in this way I was able to see many plays, though I could not now identify the theatres. Two I recall were Bell, Book and Candle (with Lilli Palmer, I think) and All for Mary (with David Tomlinson). I even saw Paul Schofield in Hamlet – unusual in being Shakespeare at an ordinary commercial theatre instead of the Old Vic. Though I didn’t appreciate their significance at the time, two new ground-breaking plays were then running in the West End: Look Back in Anger and Waiting for Godot. Needless to say, there was no chance of getting free tickets to either of these! The highly successful musicals running at that time were Salad Days, The Boy Friend and Kismet. The Mousetrap was still relatively young, so was not yet breaking records!

Whilst I generally managed reasonably well on my Army pay, any supplement was always welcome, and at the weekends I would sometimes take extra jobs – usually a few hours in the kitchens of cafés or restaurants in central London for about 2/6 (12½p) an hour. One evening I washed up until 1.30 am in the Mapleton Restaurant, near the Prince of Wales theatre in Coventry Street, which connected Piccadilly Circus with Leicester Square. The unsuspecting diners were happily ignorant of the rather squalid conditions behind the scenes, which were reminiscent of Orwell’s experiences of restaurant work in Down and Out in Paris and London. The waitresses, who seemed to be mostly Irish, Scottish or Italian, were very friendly in a rather patronising way. I was no threat: they rightly saw me as a harmless innocent lad barely out of school! As I was in the kitchen all the time, whilst they were constantly in and out, I would be subjected by each in turn to rather catty comments about the others, though when these colleagues reappeared through the door, the air was thick with ‘Dears’ and ‘Loves’. I suppose it taught me a bit about young women, green as I was!

More often, I worked at the famous Lyons’ Corner Houses, which vanished long ago in the late1960s. I found some details in surviving letters written home. One Saturday I worked at the Oxford Street Corner House from 9 am to 11 pm, for which I received £1.5s.10d (£1.29). Until noon, I filled sugar-castors, arranged cruets and ash-trays, and swept ‘closed’ areas of the floor; the rest of the day was spent wheeling a trolley around, collecting trays and empties. On other days I wandered around with a pot in each hand, ‘topping up’ customers with tea from one or coffee from the other. The staff canteen where we spent our breaks was excellent – and of course all our food and drink was free! Getting back after late-night work was never a problem, for all-night buses ran from the Embankment, and there was one to Clapham about every 20 minutes. I recall an occasion when I was not back until nearly 3 am – yet the coffee/hot dog stall near Clapham Common Underground station was still open and doing business.

I enjoyed my eighteen months in Clapham. After the first couple of weeks, I collected my bike from home. Cars were still beyond the reach of most people, so it was possible to cycle around London on summer evenings – even central London – without feeling too threatened by the traffic. In the milder months I even cycled 11 daily miles each way to and from Chessington instead of taking the train. I regularly attended midweek evening meets as a spectator at Herne Hill cycle track (for this type of racing was unfamiliar to me, there being no tracks on Merseyside). On Sundays I used to cycle further afield, usually into Surrey or Kent, but occasionally Berkshire and Hampshire. Just once I cycled to Brighton and back, but most of my runs were less ambitious – through such places as Guildford, Dorking, Redhill and Sevenoaks. In the 1950s, everyone apart from cyclists and ramblers was having the traditional Sunday ‘lie-in’. As there were far fewer cars, there were none of the modern car-dependent temptations to lure people out: no 24/7 supermarkets, no vast DIY stores, no garden centres, no Sunday markets, no car boot sales. This left the early Sunday morning roads almost empty for the cyclist. Mrs Wilson would provide me with sandwiches cut from whatever joint my fellow-lodgers were having for their Sunday lunch.

So it wasn’t a bad way of getting through National Service, what with the Old Vic, the art galleries and cinemas, Herne Hill stadium and cycle runs into the Surrey countryside. It was certainly preferable to what most of my fellow-conscripts had to endure for their two years!

I returned to Clapham for a nostalgic visit in January 2004, a few months after my wife Margaret died. There was no problem in finding Offerton Road, but the whole area was now much more spruce. The post-war shabbiness had gone, and of course there were cars everywhere. The Fire Station was still in the same place, but the Polygon Café had long disappeared, as had (I think) The Cock pub where I had the occasional drink 50 years ago; and the large factory which had been Ross Optical was now something else. Frustratingly, I couldn’t clearly recall the layout of many of the things I remembered – in particular, how to get to The Windmill, where I had enjoyed many a pint on summer evenings.

Peter Hopkins
December 2013