Blenheim Road 1950s and after- Gill Johnson Gilbert's memories
Gill Johnson Gilbert
Early Years – Gill Pool was born in 1930 in a gothic-looking house in Finchley Road, now demolished, which stood where the Quintin Kynaston School now is. There was a pear tree in the garden. She was only five when they left to go to Wadham Gardens, NW3.
War Time – Gill remembers the guns on Primrose Hill during the war and the barrage balloons. She remembers sticky tape across the windows and carrying her gas mask everywhere. Her eldest brother was killed in the war and both her parents died when she was about 12. She was evacuated with about eight other children of assorted ages to a friend’s house in Norfolk where they had a governess. Later, she went to boarding school. Then she was looked after by sisters 17 and 15 years older than she was. Her other brother, Edward lost a leg in the war, but is still alive now.
“When the Americans came they looked so completely different from the English people. In fact, the house in Wadham Gardens was taken over for an officers’ mess. Brenda and I went round to have a look at it and they gave us lovely Maryland chicken through the hatch. We hadn’t seen any of these things. There was always a queue for food. I think people got terribly tired with the war, but that is thinking about it afterwards.
3 Blenheim Road – In 1948, Gill moved with her sister Brenda to number 3 Blenheim Road. Their maids were Gladys and Maud who lived down Blenheim Terrace. They had to go downstairs for water and they only had gaslights. They shared a double bed and read the bible in the evening. They had been helping the family for a long time.
There was a shop in Blenheim Terrace, where a woman sat in the window mending laddered nylons, which were a novelty in those days. There were three greengrocers, a hardware store and the grocers who sliced everything for you. At Christmas they sent round a box of biscuits.
“There were hardly any cars in this road. The children were allowed to play. There were so many of the same age, as long as they didn’t go into Abbey Road. Up and Down was one game, and one moment there would be lots of children in your garden and the next minute they had disappeared into someone else’s garden. There were none of these barriers. I would go out and just leave everything open.”
No 3 was a leasehold from the Eyre estate. It was in quite good condition. No 3 and no 5, where Gill lives now, are similar. No 3 had a pulley for food coming up into the front room. There were shutters and no stairs down to the garden in no 3. They had the whole of no 3. There were three bedrooms and a bathroom. Gladys shared her time between Brenda and her other sister Phoebe, so they had “dirty days and clean days” when she came to the house. Tom Johnson–Gilbert was a lodger in Phoebe’s flat. That is how they met.
“We were married in St John’s Wood Chapel, the Church at the roundabout when Noel Perry-Gore was the vicar. My address was wrong, [as it was] in St Mark’s parish, and I had to leave a suitcase with friends in their flat at the bottom of the High Street, to be a resident there.
This friend went to Francis Holland School with me. Much later my daughter Katy went there tooand for one year she had the same headmistress that I had had. I only stayed there till I was nine because of the war but the headmistress was still there in Katy’s time.
For the wedding, lots of people came down from Scotland and we had a bagpiper and my brother gave me away. I remember somebody winking at me as I went back down the aisle. The reception was held at Browns Hotel where my parents-in-law were staying in the West End.
My wedding dress was creamy brocade with tiny little bits of gold all over it. Because of shortages, I had it made into an evening dress later, cut low. It was high and had sleeves with buttons all the way down, no train. My veil was like a net curtain. It was made for me by somebody in Kensington. I went with Brenda to choose the material at Dickens and Jones and then I didn’t like it, so we went back to exchange it for the other.
It was a lovely wedding. in fact, I didn’t want to leave the party to go on honeymoon. It got foggy as we got to Oxford and our driver had to leave us. Tom had to find the way to Burford where we spent part of our honeymoon. Part, we spent in Dublin because we had used up all of our travel allowance, which was probably £25 in those days, because we had been abroad in the summer with friends”
Gill’s brother got married during the war and due to rations, the cake had just one or two layers with a cardboard piece which you lifted off, making it look like a much bigger cake.
The Cat – For a while after marriage they lived in a horrid little flat in Notting Hill Gate. They then shared a flat with Tom’s brother and his wife and they each had their own cookers side by side in the kitchen. Gill learnt cooking from her sister-in-law. St Mary’s Mansions was in Maida Vale, Little Venice.
“I took my cat there, smuggled her in. When we had the Hoover on, she fled for about a week, but she was found again. She lived till 17. Then, we had Mona Lisa, Lisa, actually, but she moaned a bit. She was a ginger female and she lived till she was 19.
Just after the war it was very difficult to find a place to live. They even had squatters in Hanover Gate, in one of those flats down there”
5 Blenheim Road – Gill came to number 5 Blenheim Road in 1953. The grass in the garden was about as high as their daughter, Katy. The house was in reasonable condition. There was hessian on the floor. Natasha Spender came round.
“We bought the house from Stephen Spender and he was using the bottom part of the house, the basement, to do his writing and he let the top of the house to Americans. Then, he must have moved back to Loudoun Road after that. We bought the whole house, with a mortgage. We paid £5,500, freehold. Stephen made a passage through the basement room to the garden with bookshelves. It was all OK. There was a big sycamore tree in the garden, which we took out as it was in the middle towards the back and a tree of heaven had to come down as it had honey fungus. We had very quiet neighbours. Nice!
My brother went to Arnold House [School] and it was a Dame school in those days and then, our son, Christopher went later and had to call all the mistresses ‘Sir’. He brought a bottle of Chianti back for the geography mistress once. He made some friends there. You knew a lot of people in the road, everybody was quite friendly. You got to know them partly through the schools”.
Tom got a car after they had been married for four years. Later, Gill got a series of Minis, in two or three different colours. Gill had au pairs. The nicest one came from Switzerland. She took the children for walks. There was a children’s cinema on a Saturday morning at Swiss Cottage. Katy went twice to church, and the curate came round to visit. Katy was very sociable. Gill did not go to church, her father was a non-practicing Jew, and mother Church of England.
“On Coronation Day we gave a party in the evening. Today it would take hours to get ready but then it was just a few drinks, peanuts and olives. Some people went on to look at the fireworks on Primrose Hill. Other people, friends, used to give a great fireworks party.
I remember the Festival of Britain, one of my friends was an architectural student and was in on it, Jean Symons, her husband was Cecil, a heart specialist at the Royal Free Hospital. I remember the fun fare, the skylon, the other buildings and it was very cheerful after the war. People were wearing cinched in waists. I used to buy my clothes at Harvey Nichols, Dickens and Jones, Harrods and Marks and Spencers, all over”
Italy and France – They often went to a house near Rome for holidays, with friends, and would drive round Italy. Gill had taken Italian lessons in the hall behind the synagogue in Abbey Road.
“I wanted us to buy a house in Italy but it was much further and then a house in France sort of fell into our hands. My brother was married to Elisabeth Frink at that time and they got part of a huge silk worm factory as a house, and they were living there all the time and there was another part of it for sale, and we bought it. It was in the beginning of the Cevennes where Stephenson ended his “Travels with a Donkey”
We didn’t have running water for the first two years. The farmers used their own cisterns. We had to fill up in the town and wash our hair in the river. Edward sometimes allowed us to go in for a bath or shower! We had electricity, a fridge. We did a lot of sitting on the terrace and reading, playing tennis. We always had friends to stay, as did Elisabeth and Edward. This was about 1964.
Elisabeth was a fantastic person very hospitable, she would get up at six in the morning and go down to her studio which was in another barn and then she would always have people as guests, interesting people, Laurie Lee, Julian Trevellyan, and Mary Fedden, his wife. The Pilkingtons. We had happy times there. I like most of Lis’s work. Her first huge heads we always call Ted’s heads because they look like my brother Edward. Later on they were divorced.”
Activities – The coming of the supermarkets has changed shopping. Gill likes Waitrose. There used to be two pubs in the immediate area of Blenheim Road. Gill might have used them occasionally. They went to the cinema sometimes. Now she goes to the National Theatre quite often with Katy as it is so convenient to be able to park underneath. Occasionally they went to the ballet. Gill used the bus a lot. She studied English Literature and went to creative writing classes. She used the tube, too, from St John’s Wood.
St John’s Wood – Gill likes the gardens and the trees in St John’s Wood. She does not like the basement developments, she wrote to the Council about that. She likes the thought that Blenheim Road has been going since 1835. The houses have nice architectural features. They had open fires when they came. They had a coal hole where there is a shower now, and a bunker round the back. What a difference it made when they were not allowed to have the fires anymore, the smog used to be terrible.
“I remember someone walking down Finchley Road with a sort of flare in their hands and a bus following very slowly. The smog really was dense when it came. All the family used to smoke, my father and mother, and my sister, Brenda, used to go round in the morning looking for stubs. Then, Tom smoked and we met a lot of doctors once and they said that cigarettes were bad, so he turned to little cigars but I am sure that cigars were just as bad.
These houses are nice. We’ve had good parties here. I like the high ceilings, the shutters and the stair handrail, things were well made. There was marble round the fireplace and we scraped off the paint to expose it.”