By Sam Lomberg MBE
I believe I’m correct when I say that the authors of some of the recent books about Fitzrovia neither live or ever lived in Fitzrovia. They’re too young to have ever known the “real” old Fitzrovia and gathered their information from various sources. I have no intention of delving into historical facts that have already been well covered; neither will I rely on information from various sources. I will concentrate upon my childhood memories of Charlotte Street and the surrounding area — in other words first-hand personal experiences.
My mother presented me to the world in the Middlesex Hospital on Thursday July 1 1920. I was a bit annoyed about this since I had planned to arrive during the weekend, when there were longer visiting hours and room for more admiring visitors!
Until I was about fifteen, we lived in number 111 Charlotte Street — this was considered to be the “posher” end of the street, where the houses were more well-kept and mostly newer than those at the lower end closer to Oxford Street. At that time we called the area “The West End” (Fitzrovia came later). We proudly pointed out that Charlotte Street was not a part of Soho, which we considered to be a disreputable area frequented by prostitutes.
Our house had four floors. The front door had hand carved motifs and a heavy door knocker (no bells in those days) and as a child I considered it to be massive. There were also three marble doorsteps with an Italian mosaic design. In those days, it was quite usual for people to live and work in the same house and my father, who designed and made costumes, had his “workshop” in the front part of the ground floor.
At the back there were two Italians, the Marus brothers. They were wood carvers and made the most beautiful furniture. I used to sit there for hours watching them work, fascinated by the way in which they carved out designs, using their chisels with dedicated care and with the skill of a surgeon. They always made a point of speaking to me in Italian. Foolishly I always answered in English.
The large, high-ceilinged room in the front of the first floor was our “sitting and dining room”, used only on special occasions. Since the kitchen was on the second floor, my poor mum had to run up and down the stairs carrying trays of food for our guests — furthermore the high ceiling made the room difficult to heat. No such thing as central heating.
When you looked out of the windows at the back of the house, you could see Howland Mews, which consisted of stables with small apartments above them. In those days horse drawn carts were still very much in use and Joe May, who had a fairly large removal business, kept his horses there.
I loved to stand at the window listening to the horses. The clop-clop of their hooves as they moved across the cobblestones, the sound of them munching their hay and “talking” to each other. But best of all was the smell, which reminded me of a farm I was once lucky enough to visit. I would close my eyes and pretend I was in the middle of a large field full of horses and forget all about the rooftops with their smoky chimneys. Hitler’s bombs flattened Howland Mews, grass grew among the rubble and the horses were gone.
My father learnt his trade in Paris and lived there for many years, during which time he met and married my mother, who often spoke to me in French.
Mutter, who was Austrian, lived on the top floor. Her husband was dead and I only had vague memories of a very kind man with a beard. Mutter always insisted on speaking to me in German “because that is the best way for you to learn a language which may come in useful one day”. How right she was, but of course I always answered in English.
I did not appreciate it at the time, but later in life I realized how lucky I was that mum spoke to me in French, Mutter German, and the Marus brothers Italian.
My earliest memories go back to when I was four years old (1924). This was an important year for me because I started school — my first day at school was a great event, I was very proud and couldn’t understand why some of the kids were crying.
Our popular local copper from Tottenham Court Road station, known to us as “Jock”, used to patrol Charlotte Street regularly and often escorted us kids across the road — not that there was much traffic to worry about. In 1924 much, if not most, of the traffic passing through Charlotte Street was horse-drawn.
I went to Upper Marylebone Street School (which stood where the University of Westminster now stands on the Corner of New Cavendish Street and Cleveland Street), an excellent school that turned out a good many well-known personalities. We were a very mixed bunch of kids with parents of all nationalities. Among those represented in my class alone were Argentina, France, Switzerland, Russia, Poland and even China. At the age of eleven we could participate in various exams, which if passed provided us with scholarships enabling us to attend such schools as Marylebone Grammar and Regent Street Polytechnic.
A parked car was a curiosity to be carefully examined by all the kids playing in the street. We prided ourselves on being able to identify the individual models – “That’s a Morris – an Austin” and so on — cars didn’t look alike like they do now. On Sundays there were no horse carts and very few cars. The shops were closed and it was very peaceful. Around lunch time there was a “muffin man” who came round selling home made muffins and crumpets – I loved the crumpets.
During the summer there were also “barrow boys” with strawberries and naturally the men on three-wheeler bikes selling Eldorado Ice cream and Walls Ice cream. I preferred Walls’s. If I only had a halfpenny I had to be satisfied with a fruit lolly — for a penny a real ice cream and if I managed to scrounge tuppence then I had a choc-ice.
Although the shops were closed on Sundays, you could get milk. Hewsons Dairy in Charlotte Street had an “Iron Cow” — the only one I have ever seen and maybe the only one in England? The “Iron Cow” was fitted into the front door of the dairy. When the dairy was closed you could get milk by “feeding the cow” with some pennies, followed by pulling down a handle. The milk would then come out of a tap under which you held your jug.
One of my friends, Bobby Brown, who lived across the road and who was a couple of years older than me, had a “proper bike with a crossbar” — I only had a junior one. On Sundays when things were quiet, although I could barely reach the pedals, I would ask Bobby to “Let me have a ride”. He agreed to let me have his bike for a ride around the block provided I paid him a penny, which I gladly did if I had one. It’s no surprise that Bobby turned out to be a very successful businessman.
Sunday was a special day. One of my very special treats was when my dad took me to the Café Conté on the corner of Charlotte Street and Goodge Street — Café Conté looked just like (and smelled like) a typical French café. The owner was French and so were most of his regular customers. They would sit there sipping a Pernod or drinking coffee and dunking their croissants, while playing dominoes, chess or draughts. Dad loved going there on Sunday mornings — it reminded him of his days in Paris. I have yet to drink coffee or eat croissants, which taste as good as Café Conté’s.
But then life was so different. We played in the street — could run with our hoops, spin our tops, play marbles, conkers, we flew paper airplanes, played football and cricket with home made bats. We also made our own scooters and pushcarts, if you were lucky you had a pair of roller skates. We were hardly ever indoors unless the weather was very bad and it wasn’t a drama if you fell over and bruised your knee.
There were no deep freezers or fridges so most days my Mum would send me to the local grocer to buy butter and other necessities. There were no supermarkets, no fast food other than fish and chips from our dearly beloved Solly’s the local fish and chip shop in Cleveland Street — “a pennorth” of chips, lots of salt and vinegar out of a newspaper. Life was simple and uncomplicated – not many luxuries, but those we had were very much appreciated. I’ve tried explaining all this to my grandchildren, they just don’t understand a word of it!
The author of this piece is visiting London and will give a talk about his memories of 1920s and 1930s Fitzrovia at 7.30pm Tuesday 7 September, at the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre, 39 Tottenham Street, London W1T 4RX This is a free event and everyone is welcome. Refreshments provided. Organised by Fitzrovia News and Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association.