The Buildings

The Buildings or to give them their full title Portman Buildings were in Lisson Grove, St Marylebone and they were the most prominent building in the area. They were situated about a third of a mile from the Grove’s junction with the Marylebone Road. One corner of this junction was dignified by the buildings of Marylebone Grammar School, formerly the Royal Philological School, founded in 1792. Close to the other corner was the Florence Nightingale Hospital for Gentlewomen. Such an upmarket start to this street could easily suggest that this was what we might now call an area of gentrification, it was not. Like so many London streets, Lisson Grove was a mixture, but socially it was largely a working class area. We were on the wrong side of the Marylebone Road to have any social pretensions. However, this long, busy street, at its farthest end, did reach the edge of St John’s Wood very close to Mr Lords Cricket Ground. Readers may recall the exchange between Professor Higgins and Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion "How do you come to be so far East? You were born in Lisson Grove"- "Oh what harm is there in my leaving Lisson Grove? It wasn’t fit for a pig to live in."

Making one’s way up Lisson Grove from the Grammar School, one passed the back end of a brewer’s bottling establishment, the post office, a cul de sac of small non-descript terrace houses, at least two sweet shops, the Sunlight Bag Wash Laundry with its notice "Don’t kill your wife let us do it for you", a doctor’s Surgery and then a dairy. The dairy was one of the hundreds of such, owned and run by welsh speaking families of farming stock. This particular dairy was run by a Mr Lloyd; my mother patronised that of the Jones family further up the street. I must pause for a moment and record that in the mid-1920s this particular dairy pioneered a new development in milk distribution. A Milk Machine was fitted on the front door, the reservoir or tank was inside the shop. You inserted your penny and having placed your jug beneath the protruding tap, you pressed the handle and out flowed the creamy white liquid. Sadly it did not work for me and I went home to face my mother with neither milk nor money. I seem to remember that this technological innovation was not popular and was soon abandoned.

By the side of the dairy was a very narrow street, again a dead end, it contained a wood yard and led to the Roman Catholic Primary School staffed by the nuns of the convent situated behind it, then just two or three small shops, the back entrance to a Billiard Hall and there was Portman Buildings.

There was, of course, the other side of the Grove, from which several side streets ran, one of these leading to the Bell Street Market and the "Met" music hall on the Edgware road where I once saw George Robey, the Prime Minister of Mirth, at a first house. Ashmill Street also on that side of the Grove was considered very rough by my mother and I have no recollection of ever having walked down it, we Royalls, after all, had standards to maintain, we came of good Norfolk stock, my father was a policeman and my mother had been in "good service".

Portman Buildings were built in 1887 by the Artisans Workers’ and General Dwellings Company and in 1987 they were demolished and replaced by a development of luxury apartments called Portman Gate, which were sold on the Hong Kong property market.

The Artisans, Workers’ and General Dwelling Company was founded by a group of working men and clerks in 1867 to provide decent small houses for workers. Portman Buildings was the company’s first Block Buildings and was the result of the need to build affordable accommodation for workers nearer the centre of town, so as to be close to their place of work and to cut down on traveling expenses.

The Building was of a solid and imposing construction, faced on the outside with red brick and stone. It had a frontage on both Lisson Grove and Broadley Terrace. The main arched entrance was on the latter street and there was a lesser entrance in Lisson Grove. Both these entrances had strong iron double gates which were locked each night at 10pm, leaving just a small opening for late comers to pass through. Once a year the lesser gate was shut and locked to prevent a Right of Way being established. Local people had the habit of using the "way through’ as a short cut.

The plan of The Buildings was simple; a rectangular site, with a continuous L shaped block facing Lisson Grove and Broadley Terrace. Inside there were two rectangular buildings running parallel to Lisson Grove, thus providing two Court Yards off which the blocks of flats had their entrances. Six stories high, Portman Buildings dominated the surrounding area, overtopping St Paul’s church across the road.

The roofs were flat and surrounded by strong, high, thick, black railings- the space above each block of flats was separated from that of its neighbour by similar railings. Clothes could be dried on the roof, each housewife supplying her own clothesline and carefully removing it when she collected her washing.

It was hard work carrying a basket of wet washing up to the roof from the lower floors and I think that, for the most part, only the tenants from the higher floors made use of the roof as a drying facility. Children were actively discouraged from playing on the roof. However, under the careful eyes of our parents, we let off fireworks on the roof on November 5th. I was taken from my bed one night, wrapped up warmly, and taken up so that I could see Madam Tussards Wax Works in Marylebone Road on fire. On another memorable occasion, the tenants gathered to watch the Graf Zepplin fly overhead, I seem to remember that this was on Cup Final Day.

The Buildings were divided into "blocks" most of which contained 24 flats, four to each floor, two each of three rooms and two of two rooms. Each pair of flats shared a lavatory, these were situated each side of the communal Wash Room which was supplied with a large stone copper in which the water was heated; each user supplying her own fuel. There was general agreement as to who used the facilities on which day. Each Wash Room also contained a large enamelled iron bath which was rarely used; a tin bath in front of your own fire was preferable, and a great deal more comfortable than wash house facilities.

The landings and flights of stairs common to all were kept scrupulously clean. Once a week they had to be washed thoroughly, each housewife taking her turn in rota. No slackness in carrying out this duty was tolerated, any housewife falling short of an acceptable standard would quickly be called to account by her neighbours. The problems caused by old age or illness would be coped with by neighbours.

Until 1929 the only lighting provided was by Gas and the staircases and landings were somewhat dimly illuminated, this, however, was advantageous to courting couples, the homes of the girls "going steady" were small and provided no privacy. There was a convention to be observed, the couple would snuggle close to each other near the front door of the flat, thus allowing other people to pass unimpeded. Those needing to pass would do so in silence, no acknowledgement of any kind being made. I was once foolish enough to ask on passing Nellie Crabbe and her young man "What are they standing there for?". Once inside our own front door, retribution swiftly followed. My question was left unanswered, but I learnt that some questions were best left unasked.

On the whole, the residents of Portman Buildings were a law abiding community; one or two of the Blocks were considered by the others to be "rough", "noisy" or "common", but in those days there were no T.V. sets or "Ghetto Blasters" churning out music at all hours. Children were expected to be, and for the most part were, quiet on the stairs. Today, many inner city dwellers would regard the blocks as havens of peace. The tenants were naturally a mixed bag, tenancies were, by preference, given to those judged likely to pay the rent regularly, with high standards of personal cleanliness who were unlikely to be trouble makers. The block in which we lived, first at No 229 and then on the floor above at 233, included amongst it’s tenants, two policemen (one of whom was my father), two postmen, a porter from a nearby block of mansion flats, a lamplighter, two railwaymen and a somewhat mysterious retired merchant seaman whose wife was rumoured to have money.

One feature of Portman Buildings was the existence of what was referred to as "The Old Maids Block". The flats in the block were what today we would call Bed-sitters. All the tenants were spinsters or widows. From time to time, the ladies no doubt suffered from the mischievous attentions of some of the children, but for the most part this was never allowed to get out of hand.

The Buildings were controlled, if that is the correct word to use, by The Superintendent, he allocated tenancies, he received the rents, arranged for essential repairs and arbitrated in disputes between tenants. He inhabited a dimly lit office which faced the main gate and from where he could keep an eye on all who used that entrance. A man of few words, he was a figure of authority, separated from callers by a well-polished mahogany counter, on which rested a large leather bound ledger. I cannot remember ever seeing him outside the office, his only assistant was an elderly lame man who walked with a stick. The job of this assistant, normally referred to by us as the watchman, was to patrol the courtyards during parts of the day to ensure the good behaviour of the children, and to shut the gates at night. From time to time, of course, the watchman suffered teasing from the more daring of the boys and because of his lameness pursuit was out of question. Apart from his rather lame assistance, The Superintendent administered The Buildings unaided - an autocratic ruler of a kingdom of some 230 flats.

Out of school hours the Courtyards were comparatively quiet places, but on summer evenings, Saturdays and during the school holidays they were alive with healthy, boisterous children. Groups of children played a variety of games, some noisier than others. Ball games predominated, and the thud of a ball against a wall could be annoying to some residents and acrimonious exchanges between the children, the offended tenants and the parents of the children sometimes disturbed the communal peace. There were certain generally accepted limits governing what was acceptable behaviour; in any case cheekiness to grown ups was discouraged. There were, of course, children from families considered rough, who overstepped acceptable limits and there were grown-ups generally recognised as "miseries". For the most part, this large group of disparate characters living in very close proximity to each other, achieved a reasonable standard of co-existence.

Although one could not claim that a "Sabbath Calm" enveloped The Buildings on Sundays, it was noticeably a quieter day overall. This was not due for the most part to the attendance of the residents at Divine Worship at the nearby church of St Paul, Sunday was just different. The day had its own rituals, in the early afternoon the Salvation Band, complete with its "Blood and Fire" flag, marched into the courtyard and played hymns; if the weather permitted, we sat at our open windows listened and cast down our pennies of appreciation. Later, the Muffin man, tray on head, announced his presence with the ringing of his brass handbell, and on most Sundays the shell-fish man, minus bell but with a loud voice, offered us if not cockles and mussels, then cockles and winkles.

Few vehicles of any kind came into the courtyard, apart from the coalman’s horse-drawn cart and the dustcart; the milkman’s trolley was pushed by hand. A motor vehicle was rare indeed, if one such appeared, it was likely to be an ambulance. News of its arrival would quickly spread around The Buildings and in a short time a largish group would gather to watch the proceedings. There were two types of ambulance, the white one, often referred to as the "Accident Ambulance" and the feared grey "Fever Ambulance". The arrival of one of the later would cast a cloak of gloom over the courtyards, conversation would be hushed, especially among mothers, if a child was the intended passenger. Diphtheria and scarlet fever were feared diseases and many who left in the "Grey" or "Fever Ambulance" did not return. If any children were present then they, no doubt, whispered the verse used whenever a Fever Ambulance was seen:

"Touch your collar

Never swallow

Never catch the fever"

By the mid and late twenties horse drawn vehicles were still in use at funerals, but increasingly motor vehicles were becoming the norm. A funeral was a community event, immediately a death became known a collection for a wreath was organised. On the day of the funeral, the blinds of all the flats surrounding the particular courtyard from which the funeral left would be lowered until the cortege had gone. A largish number of residents would gather and stand quietly at a respectable distance from the Hearse. Once the cortege left, the crowd dispersed, the blinds were raised and life resumed its usual pattern. I have no memory of weddings, obviously they took place and, indeed, my sister was a bridesmaid to Nelly Crabbe the lamplighter's daughter - no longer would Nelly and her young man have to huddle close together by her front door on the landing below ours. Their place was taken by her younger sister Bertha and her "intended".

Occasionally, in the summer, we were visited by the barrel organ man and the girls would dance to his limited repertoire of tunes. The Rag and Bone man with a handcart would pass through the yards, but not if the watchman saw him approaching.

A few shops were built into the ground floor of the Buildings and fronted on Broadley Terrace. There was a "Corner Shop" which was not on a corner, presided over by "Old Mother Matthews", it sold a limited range of groceries and sweets; my mother had grave doubts about the freshness of the goods and never shopped there. Alongside the main entrance was Mr. Murray the Butcher, Mr Perowne the Barber (Ladies and Gents saloons), Monks the Newsagent and Tobacconist, and on the corner, Eves the Chemists. Across the road was the "Oil Shop" where we bought such essentials as, hard yellow household soap, soda, soapflakes, hearth stone and of course Oil (paraffin). Nearby was Jones the Dairy, from which we received our twice daily deliveries of milk. Having pushed his barrow into the courtyard, the milkman would visit each block in turn, carrying his heavy metal can up six flights of stairs if necessary, the milk being ladled into the customer’s own jug.

The real focal point of the area was the nearby Church Street Market which, on a Saturday, was crowded until late at night with a heaving mass of people. It is the winter evenings I remember best, when the stalls were lit by acetylene flares, the air was scented, amongst other things by the smell of toffee being made on two, if not three, stalls - the toffee being stretched out like large skeins of wool. The raucous cries of the stall-holders and the salesmen in the open fronted shops all but deafened one. Saturday night shopping was a serious business for those hoping and looking for bargains, but for a young school boy the market could be an exciting place in which to be. Each street corner seemed to be occupied either by a hot chestnut seller's barrow or baked potato vendor's oven. The Church Street market, of course, opened busily for most of the week, but the atmosphere on a Saturday night was magic to a child.

My parents lived on the top floor of the flats from choice, there being no one overhead to make a noise and the rooms were lighter. However the choice was costly for my mother in terms of energy. She had to carry her shopping by hand to the sixth floor, not an easy task when you also had a baby and a young toddler to cope with. The Buildings possessed ten pram sheds rented out at one shilling per week - the Royalls were the proud possessors of one such. To have a pram shed was to be numbered amongst an elite. One aspect of life on the top floor did not appeal to me. In order to clean the large windows my father would sit out on the window sill his legs dangling inside. It looked a dangerous business and probably was; each time this performance was carried out I was sick with fear.

Regents Park was no great distance away and on fine summer afternoons Mother would pack up a picnic tea and we would spend an hour or two near the lake and, if Dad was not on duty, he would join us. But it seemed that not many families made use of the park.

In 1928 the Landlords began a scheme of modernisation and refurbishment, they were, I think, in the vanguard of landlords who set out to improve such working class properties. Each flat was given a kitchen with its lavatory, sink, copper and bath, a great improvement, although the cooker remained in the living room. Gas was replaced by electricity, but we retained our coal fire. A year or two later my parents began to talk of moving out. My father was given permission to transfer from the Albany Street Police Station to either Bushey or Edgware. In February 1933 the move took place and we moved to the L.C.C. Housing Estate at Burnt Oak, then almost on the edge of the country. Our crowded flat in The Buildings was exchanged for a semi-detached three bedroom house with a garden and over the garden fence was the Hendon RAF Aerodrome.

© Prebendary Arthur Royall

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