Sounds and Smells in our Special Area
Lizzie Maxwell’s grandmother used to live in Langford Court.
The family would go to see Mrs Thornton in St John’s Wood on most Sundays, from their home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Lizzie remembers that it was number 82 and her phone number was Cunningham 0267. It was a heavy Bakelite phone with a satisfying ring to it. Mrs Thornton’s flat looked out onto Abbey Road. It was tiny with a bedsitting room holding both a daybed and a nightbed, plus kitchen and bathroom. But Lizzie can still picture her beautiful bureau. Lizzie’s grandmother was friends with Freddie Picknell who owned the garage in Langford Place. They both worked for the Conservative party.
Mrs Thornton had photos of two of her sons, Desmond and Cyril, who both died in the Second World War within six weeks of each other, which was devastating for her and the family. Lizzie’s father was called Alan. They were brought up in Edgbaston but when Alan became a highways engineer they moved to London for his work in the City. Lizzie remembers lorries full of tar and men in protective leathers, spraying the tar and spreading it on the roads. She still loves the smell.
Lizzie spent a lot of time in her youth at Great Ormond Street hospital as she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. This caused swelling in her major joints so that she had to have plaster all the way up her legs. This was released twice a day for intensive physiotherapy. The disease affected her eyes too. Operations to try to save her sight were not effective and her blindness became progressively worse.
Her mother’s father had fought in the First World War and came to stay with them in the summer. He would go off with a packet of sandwiches to watch cricket at Lord’s. He was a great singer and used to sing with Lizzie. Once when she was sitting on his knee, he told her about an incident in World War One when his friend on his horse beside him was blown to bits. Lizzie can still recall his agonised face and his voice as he remembered the horror. Later, in the next war, a memory concerns American soldiers marching around St John’s Wood, chanting in time to their footsteps “Ho, hoi! Ho hoi!”
Lizzie remembers being taken to the Zoo aged about eight, actually stroking a leopard and feeling its fur. Also the hippo and the smell as it opened its mouth to receive a loaf of bread from her father, a horrendous smell. In a photo she is wearing a blue coat with a velvet collar and a beret.
When she was about 17 she went to the Royal College of Music to learn singing. She was taught by Veronica Mansfield for a short time, and was then taken on by Mark Rafael. She also went to him at 17 St John’s Wood Terrace for extra lessons.
When she was young, they used to go and eat at Oslo Court which was always beautiful and elegant. There they had a piano in one corner, which was uncarpeted, so that you could dance. On one New Year’s Eve they did the Conga through the kitchens. They also went to the Seashell in Lisson Grove and Lizzie remembers the smell of fish and chips in the car on the way home. They might also go to the Heroes of Alma pub. The atmosphere was old fashioned. She attended St John’s Church, and as a child loved the two Christmas trees which used to be put outside. She also loved the huge tree outside the window behind the altar, watching leaves shaking in the wind and squirrels running up and down its trunk during the service.
In 1978 she and George Maxwell moved to 95 Charlbert Court looking onto Eamont Street. The entrance hall held their dining table. Then there was a nice sitting room, two bedrooms and a bathroom. The back door from the kitchen went onto the gardens by the music recording studios in the De Walden rooms. Downstairs lived Deirdre, a sweet woman who married Quentin Hogg, and Oliver Robinson, son of Heath.
Lizzie and George’s son Anthony was born in 1980 when Lizzie had already lost the sight of one eye. She remembers an emotional time in church, trying to come to terms with the situation. June Savage, who took the Sunday school, helped her, and John Slater, the vicar was terrific. Andrew Walker the curate was very good pastorally. A spiritual retreat weekend also helped to heal her feelings.
The Maxwells moved to 65 Charlbert Court looking onto Mckennel Street. Lizzie wanted another baby and James was born in 1986, by which time she was registered blind, but she knew what to do with a baby the second time around. As the boys grew up, they would walk Lizzie to the little park, made from the old cemetery by St John’s, and later to Regent’s Park, where she would sit on a bench while they would go off and play and come back every five minutes or so to see she was all right.
Anthony went to a nursery in Carlton Hill and Madeleine was very good with the children so when she moved her nursery to Lisson Grove, Lizzie sent James to her again. They went to St Christina’s in St Edmund’s Terrace and then to St Anthony’s in Hampstead. Later Anthony went to the London Nautical School and James to Christ’s Hospital. They were sociable children. Lizzie arranged for them to do lots of things with the American School students in their holidays.
They would go to concerts at the Albert Hall, Festival Hall, and Wigmore Hall. They loved the cinema, whether at Swiss Cottage, the Everyman Hampstead or the “fleapit” 1930s cinema in East Finchley. They would always go to a pantomime and to the Royal Tournament.
In St John’s Wood Lizzie misses the Royal Horse Artillery with the lovely sound of the horses clopping along the road and the gun carriages being dragged along behind. She is proud of their history and tradition.
Lizzie is blessed with a strong feeling of Christianity, and enjoys the rhythms of church life, even now making Christmas cakes for the church sale as she has done for many years. St John’s the building, was opened up by removing the choir stalls to give space in the round. She thinks this is a very good arrangement.
She remembers many of the shops in St John’s Wood. The ironmonger in the High Street was not fond of children, which was a pity as her shop was an Aladdin’s cave for the boys. On one corner of Charlbert Street and Charles Lane there used to be a French couturier, Le Connoisseur. Lizzie went to see if she could get something for her wedding in 1979 and tried on a beautiful “hankie” dress, but it was not quite right for her. On the other corner was a baker and she used to buy pure rye flour from him and remembers watching the pastry being stretched for making the apple strudel.
When Anthony was born Lizzie needed the launderette as she had no washing machine. The one she went to was run by a Scottish lady and her friend who, to keep them going, relied on a tin mug full of “tea – and something special!” A bomb had fallen in Circus Road, leaving destruction for many years after the war. Dr Charkin’s surgery used to be in Circus Road, and then moved to St Ann’s Terrace, where his son joined him. This surgery has now moved to St John and Elizabeth hospital. Lizzie remembers the hospital, from when she was a child, with the nuns and their starched headdresses, as her grandmother was often there as a patient.
Part of the charm of St John’s Wood was always the eclectic mix of people and their common interest in the preservation of this special part of London.