Model Dwellings Which Saw Two World Wars

by Diana Cameron-Shea

On 1st August 1914 Ellen and Joe married at St Paul's Church, Lisson Grove. After the wedding the happy couple and their families returned to a celebration lunch at their new home – a spacious flat in Wharncliffe Gardens, Lisson Grove.

These five storey blocks of flats – six in total – were built originally in the late 1890's by the Wharncliffe Dwellings Company to provide homes for families whose houses were demolished to make way for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, the Chairman of which was the Earl of Wharncliffe. Over the years, from when these new model homes were built, they were occupied by people from all walks of life – policemen, railway workers, carpenters, undertakers, shopkeepers – people who wanted a comfortable and convenient home in which to bring up their families. The frontages of the flats were paved, with hedges all neatly clipped and iron railings and small walls. All looked very smart, with huge carriage entrances in the middle of each block to allow horse-drawn vehicles to enter.  And each flat was designed so that sunlight entered at some point each day – a very modern idea for the times.

Joe, who had been a blacksmith and farrier when he saw military service in India with the Royal Dragoons and in South Africa with the 3rd Kings Own Hussars, worked as a piano maker for Bechstein at the time of his marriage and met many of the famous concert pianists of the day. His greatest joy was to listen to such musicians as Leo Ornstein, Zeisler, Chaminade and Dame Myra Hess among others try out the concert grand pianos in places like the Royal Albert Hall; and to know that his skill had a hand in displaying their skills too.

Two weeks after their wedding Joe left to go to France with the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner. Ellen busied herself making a comfortable and welcoming home for his return after the War.  Her own family lived nearby in Church Street and she looked after her father and her older brother, William, until he, too, went to join the army to fight in France.

The flat was light and airy. It faced onto Lisson Grove, opposite the Church of Our Lady with a good view, from the sitting room and master bedroom windows up towards Lord's cricket ground and down towards Marylebone railway station. There was the sitting room with tiled grate and open fire, a large master bedroom with room for bed, dressing table, chest of drawers and wardrobe, two other bedrooms for the children the couple hoped to have and a kitchen and an inside lavatory. Today we're very used to having a bathroom and toilet inside our houses. However, this was a new idea when these flats were built – and made them much sought-after. The kitchen housed a gas stove for cooking, sink and cupboards beneath that, another set of cupboards with a working surface on top of these, shelves for storage along the walls and another item of furniture that housed pots and pans and dishes and which Ellen, who was of Scottish descent, called a 'press'.

There was no room in the kitchen for a washing machine. Although these had been invented, they weren't in common use in family households. Sheets and towels and 'heavy' washing went to the local depot for the Sunlight Laundry, who collected the dirty washing and returned clean – and pressed – items the next day. Often these returned items came by bicycle with a boy riding the bike and either pulling the laundry behind in a flat, covered trailer or pushing a small box trailer on the front of his bike. Other washing was done by hand at home and taken up, in the laundry wicker basket, to the very top of the blocks of flats where lines and poles were set out so that laundry could be easily dried away from the children playing in the play yards between the blocks of flats.

For shopping all Ellen had to do was to take a short walk down to Church Street. There, in addition to market stalls selling everything from apples to coal scuttles, there were fishmongers, butchers, bakeries, a dairy which sold milk, butter, cheese, cooked meats and ready-made pies; furniture shops, clothes shops and market stalls that sold all sorts of material to make clothes and household items. Ellen was a professional seamstress and worked for Madame Gray at Machinka & May – the fashion house; and in later years for Hardy Amies. All sorts of shopping was, in those days, sold door-to-door and brought by horse and cart. The coal, for the fires in the flat, came on the coal cart, drawn by two huge Clydesdale horses named Bert and Bolly. Children would go out to give the horses sugar lumps and bits of apple while the two coalmen hoisted big sacks on their shoulders and took the coal to the shutes. They wore leather hats with flaps down their neck and shoulders to protect them from the coal dust. The milkman, who brought the milk to the door, drove a pony and trap and it was a treat for children to hold the pony's bridle and walk him along while the milkman ran up and down staircases delivering the glass bottles of milk with their cardboard disks in the tops (no aluminium foil tops then.)

During the First World War, while there was fighting in Europe, here at home London was subjected to frightening air raids. Huge Zeppelin airships dropped high explosives that killed people and obliterated property. When, in 1918 the War came to an end Joe returned – as did Ellen's brother, William. While Joe's wounds from fighting were broken bones and gunshot damage, William had been gassed in the Trenches and suffered from lung problems for the rest of his life. He lived back at home with his widowed father, but came to Ellen each day for his man meal.

Ellen and Joe had their family of five children, one of whom died shortly after birth, leaving the three girls to share one of the bedrooms and the boy to have the smallest of the flat's three bedrooms to himself. Life in the period between the two World Wars was often difficult and times could be hard, but the family pulled together and had a close family life. Doing odd jobs was the norm for the boy and one of which he was particularly proud was bowling, in the practise nets at Lord's for the Middlesex Second Eleven. He was spotted by a scout and asked to try out for the team. He won a place too, but had also tried out for Arsenal football club and won a place on a development scheme there too. Now the very proud parents had to make a choice. Which sport should it be? The lad would need a trade too (no sporting professionals then), but he'd been apprenticed in the Gas, Light and Coke Company – so that was OK. So, should it be cricket or should it be football?

The decision was made for them – war was declared and their only son went off with the Royal Engineers to the Far East. By the time he returned in 1946, via Germany, he'd had a knee injury which put paid to either sport. While he was away abroad, Wharncliffe Gardens had their own war experiences when one of the blocks of flats was severely damaged by a flying 'doodlebug' which hit  the block killing families and the block had to be demolished afterwards.

As their children grew up and married and several grandchildren came along, Ellen and Joe stayed in the flat and saw in their comfortable old age surrounded by the familiar place they knew. They died within a year of one another.

Sources: Private Cameron-Shea  family papers; Charles Booth Notebooks; BBC Television.