Memories of Blenheim Terrace
and the surrounding neighbourhood
I was born in 1902 at number fifty two Blenheim Terrace, the last house but one on the side facing south. In those days, the address was St John’s Wood, Middlesex, and it did not become London, N.W. until some ten or twelve years later. Blenheim Terrace is a cul-de-sac, and the high wall at the end marked the boundary of land belonging to Harrow School i.e. all the ground beyond that wall was Harrow School’s property. This meant that the walls at the end of the gardens at the back, opposite Carlton Hill, were party walls but the side walls, front, and back was the property of the one house – down to the end of the row of houses. This is not generally known, but it is so. (This meant that when Mr. Webster, at number 50, wanted to put railings between 50 and 52, to match the front and far side, he had to obtain permission from number 52. This was given, but the railings belonged to 52, as they do to this day. That took place somewhat before the beginning of this century.
The land beyond the boundary wall was, in my father’s time, an Archery Ground, and stretched from Carlton Hill to Marlborough Place and that was how my father always referred to it; but, in my childhood, it was used as an exclusive tennis club. There was a pavilion in the centre and some eight or nine courts. It used to be very pleasant in the summer months to listen to the sounds of the games going on.
Many of the things we needed were delivered to the door. The milkman had his cart with its’ churn of milk – we took out our jug and he measured the milk in a gill measure, filling up the pint and a drop over to allow for any shortage. The baker had a handcart and brought along the bread. We would order the greengrocery on Friday and Mr. May, the greengrocer, had a number of lads lined up for delivering.
There were more uniforms in those days. The butcher had a striped apron and, of course, the postman was in full uniform. Many years later when students were teaching nursery rhymes to young children I would ask them what “Ratatat-tat” from the postman stood for. They thought it was, perhaps, the sound of the letters falling on the mat; but it wasn’t. The postman had an official knock: Rat-tat’. If he needed a response he did a double knock: Rat-tat. Rat-tat. All that has long disappeared.
When you walked “up the Terrace” (no-one called it a village in those days, nor has it ever been a village), you soon came to the shops. On the side facing north you came first to the clock and watchmaker. His big clock in the window was useful for checking the time, and he had quite a selection of watches and, I suppose, some jewelery, though I do not remember that with any accuracy. Checking the time was an important matter, and if our clock had stopped, or, in some way, she was uncertain of the time, Mother would tell us to listen for the church clock to strike. That was the clock at St Mark’s, Hamilton Terrace, and we could hear it strike, if we listened carefully.
Next to the clockmaker was the Dairy. When I was little, this was Mr. Parson’s shop. Butter was cut with wooden pats from a huge slab. It was weighed and patted into shape and folded into grease-proof paper. Eggs were there, of course, and cream, as well as milk. When Mr. Parsons was on his round he was helped in the shop by his daughter, Mary, who did much of the serving. Many years later, when Mr. Parsons had retired, and his sons gone to Australia, May joined them there. They had rather a tough time, I believe, but May kept in touch with some older cousin of mine throughout the rest of their lives.
I think, perhaps, it was the boot and shoe repairer who came next, and then a Builder, Myland, by name. After that came the little a draper’s shop kept by Miss Hendry with the help of her little assistant, Maggie. My chief recollection of Maggie is of her poor red chilblained-fingers, very swollen in spite of mittens. What a boon that little shop was! All the ordinary things that were needed for sewing were there. Mother did a lot of sewing and I was frequently sent for cotton, tape, and so on. A lot of the things would be so much, and three farthings. Miss Hendry had a dislike of fiving a farthing change, and would try to make you take a paper of pins – much to my Mother’s annoyance.
I think we must have reached the corner shop which was Storey’s, the grocer’s. The post office was in this shop then, and so you would walk in to the post office by the window, and further in to obtain the groceries. It was a high-class grocery. Bacon would be cut to the size of rasher that you chose, freshly ground coffee was often to be enjoyed. All the dried fruits, citron, peel and sugar were weighed for you. There were no ready-made packets.
When you came out from Storey’s to continue towards Abbey road, the houses lay further back. The next that I remember was the butcher and the last shop, the chemist. Robert Glaister, the chemist was a Scot. He had large jars of coloured water in the window and all the prescriptons – or most of them, he prepared himself. He had the shop for many years until eventually he retired as an old man. He had given much faithful service to St John’s Wood.
Now, we cross the road and begin to come back along the south-facing side of the Terrace. There is the public house, ‘The Marlborough’, but the first shop is Mr. Meek’s, the ironmonger. He has come from Holland. I seem to recall him as wearing a large brimmed black hat when he went on Sundays to the Dutch Reformed Church. I never saw his wife, to my knowledge, but from quite an early age his son was made to help in the shop. Young Mr. Meek came to own the shop and to run it successfully, and very usefully, for many years before retiring and selling the property.
Now we come to Mr. May, the greengrocer, already referred to. He had a very good shop and a wide selection of fruit and vegetables. In the summer, when I had a penny, which wasn’t often, I would ask for a pennyworth of cherries. He would pick up a large handful, put them in a bag and I was happy for the next hour.
The bakery was next. There was a good selection of bread, rolls and cakes; also delicious home-made potted meat in an oval glass dish, with a thin cover of fat and a sprig of parsley. It cost, I think, seven pence and we used to have one when we had visitors to tea. The baker generally gave its customers a little cake ad ‘a Christmas Box’ each year.
Now we come to Mr. Dean, the grocer; a rival, I suppose, to Storey’s. A very high-class grocers! Everything was weighed separately. Sometimes, they got forward with weighing and had one-pound and two-pound bags of sugar packed in blue paper, in readiness. Mr. Dean was a little alarming to a small child as he was elderly and wore a fitted ‘smoking’ cap on his head.
The newsagent and confectioner came next. Later on, when Storey’s wished to discontinue having the post office, the newsagent agreed to have it and very grateful we are to this very day.
We come now to the fishmonger’s, where you can select, at will, what you will have.
I don’t recall any others – but going down Blenheim Passage there was in the side of the present ‘Drum and Monkey’ (Durham Arms, as it was then), another greengrocer.
Further along the Passage at the corner of Ryder’s Terrace was another little grocer, and going down the Passage on the right there seems to have been a laundry. I have seen young girls doing complicated ironing “goffering” as it was called, and sometimes doing very fine mending of stockings. What happened to it I don’t know but by the time I was grown up, there was a junk shop there, which had all sorts of things.
Once a week, the dustmen would call to collect rubbish and take it away. At the back of our house, in the garden, was a brick built container with a slate roof into which our rubbish was put. It is still there and I use it to keep flowerpots and such like, needed in the garden. The dustmen would come in, with sacking over their head and shoulders, with a large basket and a shovel and would proceed to shovel out the rubbish into a basket and take it away. The dust-cart was drawn by a strong cart horse who frequently had a nosebag of food to comfort him when he had so much standing about to do.
Another cart was the water cart to water the road in hot weather, or to wash down the drains. It was shaped like a tank and could either send out a full spray to water the road and ‘lay the dust’, or shut off one side and use only half when washing down the gutter and drains. Road making was, of course, very different before motorcars took possession and needed a smooth clear surface.
There were occasional excitements. Once, on the way to school, the cavalry from the local barracks had lost a horse, which was galloping along Abbey Road with one or two soldiers in hot pursuit. The road sweepers formed a line with their long brooms and he was recaptured. I hope the men were kind to him.
Then there was the excitement of Halley’s Comet. In those days, on a clear evening, the stars could be seen in their beauty. (How we mess them now!) We all went to the front door, looking out to see it. I was desperately keen to see it. They told me where to look having decided that they had found it, and I can only hope that I saw it, but I should not like to say, for my interest in astronomy began early, and still remains. For many years, I could go into the garden and name the constellations, perhaps see a shooting star, and look at the Milky Way, but now that is over.
And, of course, in those days street lighting was very different. They were gas lamps, and every evening the lamplighter would come along with, I suppose, a lighted torch on the end of is long pole. He would then pull down the chain that released the gas and then the lamp would light up. Presumably, he came in the morning to turn off the lamps but do not recall that very clearly.
There was the crossing sweeper who had a stool at the corner of Abercorn Place and Abbey Road. He hoped for a few pence from passers by and was ready, on bad days, to sweep a clear way through the muddy road for ladies in their long full skirts to cross without too many mud splashes.
From time to time, there were the street singers with their traditional tunes – a woman selling lavender and, occasionally, the knife grinder would appear. Then, we went and with our knives that need to be re-sharpened and he sat with his wheel and did them. There was also the man who came every weekend and sang out ‘fine large winkles’, and frequently one could see a man carrying a covered tray full of muffins and crumpets on his head. He did not call out, but carried a hand bell which he rang in rhythm with his footsteps.
Life has become impersonal; but we are not machines, although machines are controlling us more and more. We are human beings and as such must try to persevere the warmth and fellowship among neighbours and those whom we meet day by day.
After her death, The Royal College of Music received the personal papers of Florence Windebank amongst which was a hand-written account of her life in Blenheim Terrace, St John’s Wood. It was forwarded to Westminster Archives, who sent it on to the St John’s Wood Local History Group for use on our website. We hope that you are as interested in her life in the first half of the last century as we have been. It is a wonderful primary source.