I’ve often wondered why the house where I was born had a name that suggests broad acres. Burghley House is on the front gates, in Loudoun Road. The side gate in Blenheim Road says (or said) no 16. It is hardly a grand house; just one of the vaguely gothic (after Strawberry Hill), high-gabled, white stucco variety found mostly, on the Eyre Estate, on street corners. I suspect they were put up as models in the early days, in the hope that other lease holders would follow suit.
My father, Guy Francis Johnson, a barrister by training and an insurance chairman by profession, took on the lease in the mid 1930s. My brother Brian was born there in 1936, and I in 1939.
Up to the war our establishment was quite grand, as it now seems. There was my mother (a Hampstead girl) and my two elder sisters, Pauline and Gill, born at my parents’ previous houses in Wellington Road and Haverstock Hill. Then there was Nanny Bird, Beatrice the nursery maid, Lily the cook (inherited from my father’s family in Sunderland) and her daughter Peggy, employed as parlour maid. Beatrice was a beauty queen, and eventually married a colonel. Our gardener (who can’t have been overstretched; it’s not a big garden) was called Tasker. Outside help was called in once a fortnight to polish the parquet with a heavy machine. Not that I remember all these details; my sister Gill remembers them. Whether other houses in the road had so much help I don’t know, but there was certainly a culture of passing servants around families, presumably until they wore out.
All this, or most of it, came to an end in 1939. I was only six months old when war broke out. We left London for Selsey in Sussex, where we had a house by the sea. After Dunkerque that was considered unsafe and we were evacuated to Hawick in Roxburghshire, later to Amersham, and only returned to Burghley House in 1946. This is the part I really remember. I believe the house was left empty for the war years. It was certainly cheerless when my parents brought us back. There were no serious bombs nearby, but an incendiary bomb had damaged the roof. My mother took me, aged six, to see the nursery where I was to live. There was a crack in the plaster, which my mother touched with her foot, only to bring the whole lot down. I was terrified.
Nanny no longer had an assistant. Lily was still cook, and we were joined by a maid called Alice, who, surprisingly, was German (and referred to by nanny as ‘German Alice”, presumably to make it clear she was not an under-cover agent.)
I was sent to my first school, Arnold House, on the corner of Grove End Road, ten minutes walk for a small boy clad in red and green and distracted by every little incident en route. Not, as I recall, ‘creeping like snail unwittingly to school’
Arnold House employed a well-known boxing pro to teach the nippers, odd as it seems. Jack (or maybe Dick) Gutteridge was a famous cornerman, genial and formidable to small boys. I certainly owe him the little trophy I won (what is lighter than a fly weight?) at the Seymour Hall. That was the summit of my Arnold House success. Then I was sent away to join my brother at a school in Swanage and in 1948 we left St John’s Wood for a house on the North Downs in Kent.
It is not easy to distinguish one’s own original memories from borrowed ones. It could be my sister’s prompting, but I seem to remember the lamp-lighter coming round with bicycle and ladder every evening to light the street lamps. Inevitably he was called Leerie, after the one in R.L.Stevenson’s poem. And there was a muffin man who rang a bell.
I only remember a couple of boys at school; the Rena brothers, who lived I think in Carlton (or possibly Clifton) Hill. My parents’ friends included the painter Otto Flatter, who lived in Elm Tree Road, and was celebrated for his cartoons lampooning Hitler, and a stained glass artist called Hugh Paule, whose garden at 1 Carlton Hill backed onto ours.
St John’s Wood was a brief period of my life, but the few memories I have of it are happy – and seem incredibly distant.
When we left Burghley House the lease was bought by the famous pianist Solomon, because, he said, there was room for two grand pianos in the drawing room, one facing Blenheim Road, the other into the garden.