Derek Raggett - memories of a local plumber


Jeanne Strang
Jeanne Strang

Derek’s childhood

Derek was born in 1938 and brought up in Chippenham Mews off Sutherland Avenue. They had an air raid shelter under the Colisseum cinema in Harrow Road near the canal, which they used during air raids . “Everyone was smoking” he says “I got a bad chest from that”. So having started at the Amberley Road school, he was then sent to the Open School in Wood Lane, Hammersmith. They had canvas curtains to the classrooms which they could draw back so the children could get as much fresh air as possible. And they had lots of exercise. “We had Nitty Nora to inspect our heads for lice” he laughs.

The start of his career

When he was 15, a neighbour got him a job with Martins, the builders, in Hamilton Close. They employed about 20 people and did a lot of maintenance work for Middlesex County Council, places such as children’s homes. There was bomb damage to be repaired. They did little new work, maybe put a basin in a bedroom, that’s all. Derek found that he liked plumbing and went to night school in Amberley Road to learn it properly. (They also taught carpentry and other such subjects). In those days lead pipes were used for plumbing and Derek used a blow lamp to make the joints, lead was flexible. “We just washed our hands afterwards, we didn’t know what a danger it could be”. Gradually copper came in instead of the lead, though you can still find lead pipes in some older houses in St John’s Wood. And now of course it is plastic.

The Margetson Sisters

The Margetson sisters lived in Hamilton Terrace at number 15. Stella had written the booklet “St John’s Wood – An Abode of Love and the Arts” published in 1988.           They were spinsters and set in their ways, being quite put out when Derek arrived at 10.15 for a 10 am appointment. After their coffee and cigarettes while doing The Times crossword, they would go to Regents Park to feed the ducks and then to the High Street for lunch.  Derek had to take off his shoes when going into the house, and they gave him a pair of thick fisherman’s socks to put on instead. When the council changed the street lights they refused to have the modern “bubble on the end of a stick” in front of their house. They bought one of the discontinued square glass ones. These had originally been for gas, then converted to electricity in time, and Derek mounted the lamp on a post against their brick pillar.

One Saturday night they called Derek as there was a funny noise and they thought the boiler was going to blow up. Actually it was the record player going round and round  They gave Derek a bottle of wine along with his bill. They were guardians of local matters, complaining about traffic problems to the council. Their beloved Morris Minor was stolen and they bought another one. They liked to park immediately outside their house and used to put their dustbin in place to keep it free till their return.  Once the Martins electrician came there to do some work wearing postman’s trousers. They phoned the office “We want a proper electrician, not a postman!”

Clients in Hamilton Terrace

Another owner in Hamilton Terrace was an antique dealer with a shop in the Portobello Road. His house was full of unusual things.  Someone else often gave the dustmen tea and cigarettes while they were resting on the house wall. Then there was the person who asked Derek and his mate to take a sofa out of the basement and raise it to the top floor for the au pair to use. “That’s a bit heavy!” “It’s all right the au pair will help you” And she was a very large East German girl! They discovered that the sofa would not go up the stairs, so arranged an elaborate system with ropes to pull it up the outside of the house. When the owner returned and saw what they had done, “That’s the wrong sofa! You’ll have to take it down and take the other one up now.”

One time, Derek was working in the loft of a house in Hamilton Terrace, and the owner said she would be out for half an hour. Derek finished the job and found he could not get out of the house as she had inadvertently double locked the front door with a mortice. Meanwhile her fierce dog was alerted and Derek had to retreat to the loft for safety till she returned an hour or so later. Another anecdote concerned someone who  locked herself out of her own house, and “she was a smart lady, covered in jewels, she borrowed my van with its oily equipment in the back and the ladders on the top, to go to her daughter’s school to get another set of keys”.

More Anecdotes

Another old lady was frightened to go into her kitchen as there was such a terrible noise coming from in there. She had left the waste disposal machine going and it was vibrating the cups and saucers on the drainer. “You don’t see waste disposal units any more.”  Another story involved Derek putting a pane of glass in a skyroof. Later the owner phoned the office to say he hadn’t done it, that there was still no glass in the roof. Derek insisted that he had completed the job, went round to see the lady, stood on a chair and poked the new pane with a broom handle to show her. “Oh yes, now I see” she said “and you have left your finger marks all over it!”

In Hamilton Close, Mr Slade had a horse and cart, a big horse. Derek thinks he did coal deliveries in the area, and maybe a bit of rag and bone collecting too. His grandson used to catch a ride with him, down to the Crown pub, which is now Crockers. “Crockers Folly we called it, built to get the railway trade, only the railway never came there”.

Derek used to shop at the Church Street market regularly on a Saturday afternoon. Now he goes to supermarkets where you can park. You used to be able to park anywhere, now it is all zoned. There is a river under Hamilton Terrace, lorries are not allowed there, there is a notice saying 3 tons heavy vehicles won’t break through the road surface.

Changes over Time

Changes in the area concern many more foreigners. Muslims tend to have bright fittings and gadgets, Orthodox Jews have two sinks, for meat and milk, and two dishwashers, and time switches to work the lighting on the Sabbath. New flats have been built. Baths are often changed in favour of walk in showers. Fashions alter too, jets in baths are less poplar, they need separate pumps to keep them going. Baths used to be white and tinny, then colour was the fashion, “Remember the avocado green? Shell pink, sky blue, and apricot but now we are back to white but a better quality”. Derek had a friend who lived in a prefab after the war. Although it was in fact just a box with concrete floors, a lot of people who had them had come from places with just an outside loo and no bath, so this, with plumbing, was very good news.

The Plughole

Derek has many stories about people losing things down the plughole. A mother was rinsing a baby tooth when it fell out of her hands and her son was terribly upset as now the tooth fairy would not be able to find it – Derek did, and happiness was restored. A man lost the tiny gold post which kept his false tooth in place. He was going to be best man at his friend’s wedding the next day, so was desperate to get it back. He was overjoyed when Derek retrieved it. When Derek was still in his teens, he and his boss were called out to a woman who said she had lost a valuable ring while she was on the toilet. They set up a system  of increasingly sized cords and ropes in order to draw a large piece of folded cloth all through the waste system to drag it out. What a performance! Nothing found. The plumber tried to re-enact what might have happened, and told his assistant, Derek, to look all over  the floor of the lavatory “And I found it, it had fallen behind the claw foot of the old bath, Was she  delighted!”


Derek earned £2 2s a week. He gave his mother £1.50 He cleaned cars for 2/6d  a time. He went to Queens Park Rangers at Shepherds Bush on a Saturday and to one of the many cinemas. The Colisseum was popular as they changed the programme three times a week, It showed one film on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, then changed on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and changed again for the Sunday showing. There was always queuing for the popular films,  a 1/6d queue and a 2/3d queue. You would be called in to go wherever there was a seat for you.

A real friend

Derek was nominated for a Westminster Council award, but did not want to be named. His long term clients all recommend him to one another. He has retired now  but gives advice and assistance to many of them, who are now his friends.

This page was added on 17/06/2015.

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