Ruth Doniach - Memories of 14 Langford Place 1946-55





I lived with my family at 14 Langford Place from 1946 until 1955.Our landlady was Dame Laura Knight who lived next door.
Upstairs lived James Robinson the conductor and Sam Kutcher the violinist rented a flat in a ‘flying freehold’ on the other side.
Paul Hamburger the musician lived in a house whose garden bordered ours.
The first Israeli Ambassador lived in Langford Close.
My father Nakdimon Shabtai Doniach ghost-wrote the Friday Kutbah which was read at the Regent’s Park Mosque – he must have been one of the very few Jews to have ever claimed this honour!
The Sheikh would make clandestine visits to our house to collect these works.
My mother Thea Doniach (nee Pilichowski) produced an illustrated history of St John’s Wood for her ATD dissertation at Goldsmith’s College, which I would be happy to share.

PRE-SCHOOL 1946 – 1948

I was sent to two different nursery schools before starting at Barrow Hill School when I was five.

The first was to Mrs McCaffrey’s at number 2 Langford Place – very convenient as we lived at number 14! I remember a very formal kind of teaching with emphasis on geography based on looking at a large globe which formed the main teaching resource. In addition we had cardboard cut-outs which had to be placed correctly for the buildings to stand up on their own. I was then taken away and sent to number 20 Abbey Road where an enthusiastic Czech lady called Gita Frankel, set about putting her Montessori training into practice.

We were given wooden boards with various tying activities such as connecting suspenders, hooks and eyes, shoe laces, buttons and button holes etc. I only remember learning one song at Gita’s nursery:

Down by the river where the green grass grows

there sits Polly washing her clothes. 

She sings, she sings, she sings so sweet

calling her playmates from across the street.

Playmates, Playmates will you come to tea?

Come on Saturday at half past three. 

Cream buns, cream cakes anything you see –

come on Saturday at half past three!

My older sister later did some work experience with Gita once the nursery school had relocated to number 8 Carlton Hill. She told me the following story: When a child refused to eat something and complained that he or she didn’t like it, Gita would say cheerfully: “That’s quite alright darling, you can certainly eat it without liking it!”


I was ashamed to admit that I lived in a posh house rather than in a council flat where the other Barrow Hill pupils lived. So I told them that I lived in Ramsgate and came to school by train each morning!

The other shameful thing was that I was dressed in Chilprufe vests, liberty bodices, Viyella shirts, woollen skirts, long grey socks and brown lace up shoes from Daniel Neals. How I longed for the flimsy nylon dresses, shiny satin hair ribbons and patent leather shoes worn by the other girls….

I remember learning to read. We were given a book about Rover the dog who was an attractive red setter. The reading scheme was Beacon Readers. I was told how to read the first page and it seems to me that I just carried on and read all the rest of the book with no further help but maybe I have simply forgotten the effort invested in acquiring my reading skills!

We all had to have a school photo soon after starting school. We were taken into the hall where there was a brand new tricycle and a white sheet as backdrop. I got on the trike for the photo (which I still have!) and was very disappointed when I had to get off and go back to the classroom.

At assembly we sang hymns and I still have the hymn book. I enjoyed singing and learning the hymns by heart. The ones I learned first were: Praise my soul the King of Heaven, Praise him, Praise Him all the children praise Him, We plough the fields and scatter, Jesus friend of little children, be a friend to me.

One of the songs we sang always made me feel sad and think of my little sister Ann who had died. This was a song called:

Little brown seed, oh little brown brother, are you awake in the dark? Here we lie cosily close to each other. Hark to the song of the lark……

At lunch-time and after school we would go the cemetery to play – which we called the burial ground – or berry for short…   On the way to school I walked past a shop in Circus Road where the pungent smells of roasting coffee greeted me every day.

I remember walking on the low wall opposite St John’s Wood Station which continued in Abbey Road – it is still there today!

Coming back from a birthday party on a windy winter night, my hat blew off significantly in Waverley Lane – never to be found. It was a maroon tweed and velvet hat to match the Peter Pan coat purchased at the only shop for middle class children – the afore mentioned Daniel Neals in Baker Street.

We had a series of nannies and au pairs. One of them was Polish and spoke very little English. She asked me (aged five) where the Police Station was. I thought she was asking me where the Polish Station was but told her she could ask at the Police Station which was on a corner opposite the side entrance to Barrow Hill. The oddity of this exchange didn’t dawn on me until many years later….

My younger sister died from cancer aged three and a half when I was nearly seven and I was obsessed with babies thereafter. Soon after my sister’s death I was walking along the road outside the school and turned to look at a baby in a pram and walked into a lamp post bumping my nose. I was taken to St John & Elizabeth Hospital but didn’t need stitches. I remember the nuns putting some silvery powder on my nose to help it heal.

The only other time I remember visiting St J & St E was when my little sister had bitten a piece out of Dad’s cut-throat razor blade. Amazingly this caused no damage but she was diagnosed with kidney cancer a year later……

At Barrow Hill School the head teacher was called Miss Edwards but she left soon after I arrived and was replaced by Mr Porter. The other teachers I remember were Miss Satin, Miss Dennis and Miss Bates.

The smell of boiled cabbage remains with me to this day as this was the overpowering odour of lunches. I had to sit at the table after everyone else had finished because I was  left-handed and forced to eat with my right hand which made me rather slow.

The toilets were outside in the playground and smelled really horrible; the doors were half doors painted brown and didn’t lock properly.

The classrooms were built on several levels like small theatres and the desks were stuck to the floor and the wooden seats stuck to the desks with metal bars. We had only gas light and at dusk in the winter the school caretaker would come and light the gaslights with a long pole.

When I first began school we had to rest after lunch on little camp beds before afternoon lessons began. These beds were placed in rows on the lower level of the classroom.

I remember only a few names of my co-pupils:

Joyce Crimmins, Carole Jenkins*, Susan Lunzer, Elizabeth Dunbar, Margaret Steinitz, Pauline Trotman, Leila Bowman, Tommy Stiles, Paul Mather, Roberta ?(known as Bobbie), David King, whose father had a sweet shop in Allitsen Road where we would spend our sweet coupons on liquorice sherbets, barley sugars, flying saucers and occasionally blue ice lollies or pink bubble gum.

*Carole Jenkins once invited me to tea and I was very impressed with her prefab in Marlborough Hill and slightly envious as it seemed a lot cosier than our huge and slightly gloomy house in Langford Place.

I was not a sporty kind of child and was usually an onlooker when the other children played  games involving any kind of physical agility. The main games were skipping games and a favourite was a game with the following rhyme:

All in together girls

Never mind the weather girls

When it’s your birthday please jump out

January, February etc (all chanted in a singsong voice)


I left Barrow Hill in 1953 and went to the new primary school in Marlborough Hill called George Eliot. The head teacher was Mr Bradford and my class teacher was Miss Hammett. We had to sit in order of test results and I disliked having to sit with the boys as I was 5th in the class and the top four were boys. Two of them were Nicholas Swingler and Andrew Segal who both enjoyed making sarcastic remarks and teasing me for being a girl….

My only moments of glory were winning a book prize for the London Essay Competition two years running – one was Bambi and the other Wind in the Willows.

We were all given rather ugly Coronation mugs as souvenirs and I still have mine!


A large notice on the high wall next to the imposing gate to our house read:

NO HAWKERS, NO CIRCULARS, NO TRESPASSERS.  I wondered what these strange messages meant but none of the tradespeople were in the least deterred.

Mr Byman was our window cleaner and arrived like many other tradesmen in a horse drawn cart which was parked outside the house. The coal was also delivered by horse drawn cart and I clearly remember the acrid smell of the hessian sacks used to carry the coal in to the house.

Once a year the onion men would arrive from Brittany with their strings of onions hung across the handle bars of their bicycles. They looked very exotic with their fishermen style berets and their loose navy blue trousers. My mother would enjoy chatting to them in French as she was very proud of her French origins.

Mrs Goff was our cleaner – called ‘charwoman’ in those days before political correctness had arrived. She was not very bright and my sister and I enjoyed teasing her but she was very good natured and invited me to tea at her house at 29 Ordnance Hill. I was very impressed because all the washing hanging near the fire was beautifully ironed and folded!

Every few months a knife grinder would knock on the door and would sharpen knives, shears and scissors. The grinding noise was oddly soothing.

Occasionally we would go shopping in Blenheim Terrace and it was a treat to visit the cart horses in Blenheim Mews opposite a large grocer shop which I think was called Cliffords, the same as the corner shop in Nugent Terrace off Abercorn Place.

My mother employed a Miss Edwards who was a rather pinched and humourless elderly seamstress. My younger sister and I used to tease her and one day my sister ran off with her handbag and threw it in the bath having removed a packet of cashew nuts first which she was stuffing into her mouth while sitting on the lavatory next to the bath!

Ernie the gardener was Mrs Goff’s brother. He was what was then known as simple minded but very sweet. We acquired a tortoise as a pet which we named after him.

A vivid memory of road menders who, though not strictly ‘tradesmen,’ were nonetheless a part of street life in those post war years, needs mention. When roads required repair during winter months, the road workers would set up little huts in which they stayed on guard all night keeping themselves warm with charcoal fires in round metal containers with holes on their sides. These men seemed to me rather romantic and a bit scary at the same time with their mysterious nocturnal existence…


The local shops were all very distinctive and atmospheric. I have clear memories of the different smells in each one. There was Mrs Phillips the fishmonger on the corner of Hill Road and Nugent Terrace smelling of course of fish. Then there was the delicatessen shop in Nugent Terrace which smelled of all kinds of exciting foods such as rye bread, herrings, salami and cheesecake.

The shoe mender’s in Nugent terrace smelled of leather. Outside the shop was a large poster of a bespectacled cobbler mending a shoe who bore an uncanny resemblance to the owner of the shop – I was totally convinced that they were one and the same!

Jackson’s was on the corner of Alma Square and Hill Road (a cul de sac) and as soon as you stepped inside there was the wonderful aroma of teas which were stored in huge metal canisters decorated with charming designs (maybe Indian or Chinese?).

Leamy’s was the stationer and newsagent in Nugent Terrace. This was not an exciting shop but must be included as it was always there and I understand still remains – though under new management…

Cliffords was the large grocery shop on the corner of Hill Road and Nugent Terrace. I was fascinated by the ham and cold meats slicing machine and admired the dexterity of the professional slicers!

To be continued……….!

This page was added on 01/02/2013.

Comments about this page

  • I enjoyed your amazing recollections, Ruth Doniach! You mention Gita’s nursery – my sister Susan went there – must have been mid-50s. Both she and I attended George Eliot primary school, like you. Mr Bradford was the head teacher and Mrs Hammett was my class teacher – later I had Mr Boon. You mention Nick Swingler – I knew him later as the big brother of Clare Swingler, a friend from the Witches Cauldron coffee bar, Belsize Park. I have built a website about memories of the Witches Cauldron – with incidental memories of George Eliot (and William Ellis, Gospel Oak, where I went to secondary school). Did you ever go there Ruth? Here’s the link to the George Eliot bit

    By Paul Ernest (17/05/2021)
  • I lived in St Johns Wood from 1946 to 1953 /4 too. I also went to Barrow Hill school and then to the George Elliot school for a short time before we moved. Certainly we shared similar memories although I was a few years younger. Thank you Jeanne.
    Angela Ruth.

    By Angela Ruth (26/01/2020)
  • As one of the editors of this website , I was fascinated to read your contribution about living in Langford Place. We would love to have your mothers’ history of SJW on the website. Please let us know how this can be arranged.
    Jeanne Strang

    By Jeanne Strang (10/09/2017)

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