Most residents and visitors feel St John’s Wood is a paradise of gardens full of lilacs and pear trees, with bird song and the sound of musicians practising filling the air, but there are some people, in fact and fiction, who had other ideas. Here are a few of them – if you know any more, please let us know.
Mary Richardson Eyre (d 1922)
Mary was the daughter of Reverend Henry Samuel Eyre, vicar of All Saints, Finchley Road. She lived at 23 St John’s Wood Park from 1872 – 1884 and loathed it. To this day this road gives me the shivers and I never go through it if I can possibly avoid doing so –it is so dull, so damp and so overgrown with trees, she wrote in 1904. The house was comfortable but outside it was a patchy stucco abomination like so many in this locality. Despite having loving parents – her dear father was a perfect gentleman and always too kind and her mother took enormous pains with the small ugly garden and made it into a perfect bower of flowers – she was never happy there, nor at the next house she lived in when they moved to 35 Finchley Road. This was a nicer house with a bigger garden but there was literally noone in St John’s Wood for us to associate with- the Society, such as it was, being impossible. She remembered foggy dark winter days in ugly St John’s Wood.
Having married the curate of her father’s church she first lived at 7 Marlborough Hill, which was entirely furnished by Maple, and then moved to 28 Marlborough Hill, which had four sitting rooms but when they gave a party, we provided very good music but the St John’s Woodites talked so much, one could not hear a single note of it. When the new railway company put the railway line through the centre of the parish, this was directly opposite her house in Marlborough Hill and resulted in even fewer residents worth talking to – All the other people on the other side of Marlborough Hill left en masse and for two years we had houses full of navvies for neighbours.
Moreover, the house was not well built. We woke one morning to find that daylight was showing through the walls in Patrick’s dressing room and study. Both these rooms were built off from one end of our little domicile. Patrick at once sent for a builder, who came and propped it up, telling us the only thing to be done was to pull that part down and rebuild it, and that the whole of the house must be underpinned. We had taken it on a repairing lease, and our landlord would do nothing.
[Westminster archives – mss of Poor Mary]
The isolation of St John’s Wood did not appeal to Adolphus Crosbie in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Alington (1864). When his fiancée said I think you don’t like St Johns Wood, he replied No, I do not. I have always disliked it. It amounts to a prejudice I dare say. But if I was made to live here I am convinced I should cut my throat in the first six months.
Frank Greystock in Trollope’s TheEustace Diamonds (1861) visualises painfully just how far north of Oxford Street loyalty to his Lucy might take him:He must alter the plan of living at once, give up the luxury of his rooms at the Grosvenor, take a small house somewhere, probably near the Swiss Cottage, come up and down to his chambers by the underground railway
Old Jolyon in John Galsworthy’s Man of Property (1906 but writing about the 1880s) goes to St John’s Wood and he looked about him with interest; for this was a district which no Forsyte entered without open disapproval and secret curiosity. His cab stopped in front of a small house of that peculiar buff colour which implies a long immunity from paint. It had an outer gate, and a rustic approach.—-
Old Jolyon sat down in the chintz -covered chair, and looked around him. The whole place seemed to him, as he would have expressed it, pokey; there was a certain – he could not tell exactly what- air of shabbiness, or rather of making two ends meet, about everything. As far as he could see, not a single piece of furniture was worth a five-pound note. The walls, distempered rather a long time ago, were decorated with water-colour sketches, across the ceiling meandered a long crack.
These little houses were all old, second-rate concerns; he should hope the rent was under a hundred a year; it hurt him more than he could have said, to think of a Forsyte, – his own son – living in such a place.
— Old Jolyon marched out through the French windows. In descending the steps he noticed they wanted painting. Young Jolyon, his wife, his two children, and his dog Balthasar, were all out there under a pear-tree.
—“You’ve got a nice little house here,” said old Jolyon with a shrewd look;”I suppose you’ve taken a lease of it. “ Young Jolyon nodded. “I don’t like the neighbourhood, said old Jolyon; a ramshackle lot.” Young Jolyon replied; “yes we’re a ramshackle lot.”
John in Compton Mackenzie’s Poor relations (1910)
If a taxi had lurked in any of the melancholy streets through which John was making his way to Hill Road he would have taken refuge in it gratefully, for there was no atmosphere that preyed upon his mind with such a sense of desolation as the hour of evening prayer in a respectable northern suburb. The occasional footsteps of uninspired lovers dying away into by-streets; the occasional sounds of stuffy worship proceeding from church or chapel; the occasional bark of a dog trying to obtain admittance to an empty house; the occasional trend of a morose policeman; the occasional hoot of a distant moto-horn; the occasional whiff of privet shrubberies and of damp rusty railings; the occasional effusions of chlorotic gaslight upon the raw air, half fog, half drizzle; the occasional shadows that quivered upon the dimly luminous blinds of upper windows; the occasional mutterings of housemaids in basements – not even John’s buoyant spirit could rise above such a weight of depressing adjuncts to the influential Sabbath gloom.