Thornhill Square in the 1920s and 1930s, by Charles Humphries


Dear Ms Jennifer Christie,

I was most interested in your views of the square, having been born in No. 31 in 1917 & later, after the death of my father when I was 5 moving next door around the corner to no. 32.

In those days there were 4 families in no. 31, & we were on the ground floor with only one cold water tap situated in a sort of scullery where my Father,Mother, & my two sisters (10-11 years younger than me) lived in two rooms until after the death of my farther when we moved next door, where they had electricity & a bathroom, probably one of the few houses then so equipped.

I attended the school in Lofting Rd. leaving at 14 to join the fur trade in the west end until 1939. I had joined the T.A. in 1938 during the Munich Crises and served in the Middlesex Rgt. until I was de-mobbed in Germany in 1945.

I married a German girl whom I met in England, & we have a son who is an IT manager for Accurist watches. He took me to see Thornhill Square a few years ago & I was so surprised how it has changed,–back to the old days when the gentry lived there long before I lived there of course, in a not so affluent period.

My mother used to tell me when the square was once gated with a gate man there to guard the square against undesirables. So now it is back again to a very much desired residence, so it has done the full circle.

As I am now 87 & restricted in my movements I shall not be able to revisit the square again where I spent so many happy childhood days- playing with my friends in the gardens which, I see are now far better laid out than they ever were in my day. I now live in a bungalow in Dereham, Norfolk with my dear wife who looks after me so well.

The street lamps you say were recently erected in the square, are they really the old lamps that I remember? The ones I knew as a boy were gas lights, and the lighter-man came around just before dark with a long metal pole that he pushed through the lamp which then turned on the gas & then ignited it.I never did discover just how it worked-probably it had some sort of igniter much like those on a gas stove which was operated by a switch at the bottom of the pole. There was a metal bar about 18 inches long that jutted out from the top for a ladder to be leaned on so that the lighter-chap could clean the glass. Also affixed to this bar was a metal notice warning against any street cries on pain of a 40 shilling fine. I used to think that it meant that you could not cry in the street if one was so inclined. Later I realized it meant that street vendors were not allowed to extol their wares in the sacred precincts of the Square. Though the effect of a fine had little impact as there were many who did that for most of the week, especially on a Sunday afternoon, when the cries of “Cockles & Mussels”, could be heard together with a fellow with a board full of muffins on ‘is ‘ead & ringing a loud bell to boot. On weekdays one had a variety of noises from vendors in which to contend,—-The guy ‘wiv’ a 3 wheeled contraption for sharpening knives or scissors,–The rag & bone man who sometimes gave you a goldfish in a bag of water in exchange for old clothing. The coal-man driving a horse driven cart shouting, “Coals” in a loud voice” and many others.

But those lamps had other uses for us kids you know, as in spite of having a nice garden in which to play, we often used the lamp-posts as wickets for cricket, while the girls, their skirts tucked into their usually blue knickers (much to the interest of us boys) strung a rope along the top of the post and swung around it accompanied to shrieks of joy.

Each family in the Square had a key in which to gain entrance to any of the three gates, one east & west,& another south of the garden. Us boys considered it rather “cissie” to gain entrance in this fashion, and preferred to climb the railings to the top, & then jump to the ground. I still have a small scar on my knee where I misjudged the leap and as a result came a cropper. The very small even managed to squeeze in between the rails for a while until they became too large, or until some unfortunate kid had to get help to extricate usually a him.

Yes, I did go to Thornhill Rd. school, can’t say I learnt very much there though. Most days I got caned for some misdemeanour or other. Our teachers were mostly a sadistic lot, and enjoyed their powers to inflict punishment whether needed or not. Strangely, I mostly remember being punished though not guilty at that time. He went on caning me trying to make me admit to my crime until I had to give in, as I realized I could not win the argument, and that my hands could not take any more. Most of my learning such as it was, I achieved at night school, or later on reading books on a variety of subjects that interested me at the time.

Leaving at 14, as was the norm then, I tried for any job going, as money was needed desperately, and as it was in the middle of the depression, jobs were not easy to find. After a variety of jobs at about 12shillings & 6 pence a week, one of which was at an artificial leg fitters, where I had to take a leg to the city via the Underground with it tucked between my legs, much to the amusement of the other travellers. I finally ended up in the fur trade which was my fathers’ old trade before he died. I stayed in that job until 1939 when I spent the next 6/half years in the Infantry.

When we moved next door to no. 32, we were next to a wood sawing business and the noise of sawing went on for most of the day until we hardly noticed it.It came in handy during Guy Fawkes day when they would allow us to fill our guys with the sawdust for free. Opposite no. 32 was a Conservative party hall where once a year at Easter, children who had no Dads, were treated to a party where they had all manner of kid shows and conjurers. But the main attraction as far as I was concerned were the choc ices freely distributed, until upon leaving we each got a bag of sweets and an apple and an orange. Guess who I voted for in later years?????

Do the bells still chime on Sundays? I used to go to Sunday school there until my Mum discovered that the penny for the plate was being spent on sweets……

Today’s world is indeed another world to that of my childhood days, much of it I admit to some extent is an improvement. For a start, and unaware of your current modern day views, and I must therefore tread warily, I find that good manners in general seem to have plunged to levels that were unacceptable in my day. We were taught to be polite to our elders, always obey our parents, and at school, our teachers were always right never to be questioned in any way. Classes were considerably quieter, and talking was not allowed unless during question time.

Though we were poor, and speaking for myself, and young friends in the Square that occasionally did get up to some mischieve at times, we never indulged in the present day pastime of muggings, graffiti drawing, and general mayhem of yobbish behaviour of some of today’s youngsters. Neither was swearing heard to the extent as seems to be the normal acceptable trend of today’s standards. I have never understood why it is necessary to use swear words so frequently.I am by no means a prude I might add, My army days made sure of that, I firmly believe that the television programmes have much to answer for in this respect, and to some extent in the upbringing of children

We were always brought up to not expect anything in life unless it was worked for, we had no benefits in those days, and my mother received no help in any shape or form. Other than a mortgage for a new bungalow that my mother acquired when we moved to Eastcote in 1938 and was quickly paid off by the end of ww2. We never bought anything unless we could pay for it in cash which was previously saved up for. To this day I have never owed a penny, –paid cash for cars, and even my credit card is always paid up before interest is due. The only reason I use cards is because it is safer than carrying cash around.

You asked whether I saw any action in the war. I did of course, it was what I had been trained for for so many years. I was a Vickers machine gunner, circa 1914-18 vintage (the gun, not me!) but still a most efficient weapon in the right trained hands. I will not bore you with tales of warfare and its horrors that may be of little interest to you, but I will give you a short answer to your question nonetheless.

I landed on Gold Beach in Normandy, a few days after the initial landings in terrible weather with most of us seasick after days at sea. I got involved pretty quickly in actions against crack German SS troops who had spent years in Russia, and many of us were only the first time in action.—Many of my mates were lost without firing a shot,—but we improved…………..Though still in the Middlesex Rgt. I was part of a section that was usually attached to other units that wanted increased fire power with our guns so as to bolster any flagging defence positions.

We eventually, after some disagreements with the enemy, reached the German border on the Rhine after a failed attempt to end the war earlier by massed parachute and glider landings at Arnhem. Due entirely to false intelligence and the usual cock-ups of those in command. After a big battle the Rhine was crossed, and here is the most amazing part of my war narrative, and the main reason for me telling you.

As we drove through the main road towards a small village near Dorsten, little did I know that my future wife, a young girl of about 11 was sheltering in the basement with her family in a house only a couple of miles away that was in the cross-fire of guns from both sides. It wasn’t until soon after the cessation of hostilities that she came to England as a hospital worker.

I had a school friend in Huntingdon street, I remembered this especially because the father of the boy had an old Edison cylinder gramophone that even at the time was an ancient piece of equipment, the modern ones were wind up clockwork affairs with a huge trumpet for speaker volume. We had boxes of needles which ahd to be changed pretty often for the 78 records.

For goodness sake don’t tell the vicar about the strange episode of the penny that oft times went astray, ending up at the sweet shop instead of on the plate at Sunday school. May well thwart whatever chances I may have had of me going to heaven.

All I recall of Kings Cross is the cinema on the corner of the cross-roads adjoining Pentonville rd. & the Cally. Is it still there, or is it a Bingo hall by now, this being the usual fate of the old cinemas.

I used to go to see the old silent films there with the piano player doing his nut belting out appropriate music according to the current film action. The only trouble sitting in the 6 (old penny) stalls was the noise of the trams passing by, which did sometimes distract from the dire antics of the villain endeavoring to have his evil way with the hapless heroine.

The price of the ‘pictures’ as we called them was 6d, 9d.& 1 shilling, though by the time I left school and had my own money, it had gone up to 1 shilling & 6 pence for seats in the balcony. In my teens I could take a girl to the ‘flicks’, buy her a choc ice (if I thought I was on to a good thing) for half-a-crown (2 shillings & 6 pence). Unfortunately, the choc-ice turned out to be a waste of money in most cases.

Yes, I did sometimes sing carols with some of the lads & lasses, the proceeds shared out among us for sweets I remember.The best carol we boys liked was “While shepherds wash their socks by night”, no doubt you know of it, or perhaps another version? Sad to say no mulled wine were was ever partaken, though we did have some hot cocoa at the end of the ordeal.

Lofting Rd. stays in my mind (apart from it was my twice daily trek to school) mainly because of the horrifying spectacle of the coal carts being pulled by sweating heavy horses who were whipped all the
way up the incline, we lads shouted to the drivers our concern in no uncertain terms, not that it made any difference to the plight of the poor animals of course. One of the other advantages of there still being many horse drawn carts about was that we could get free rides on the back providing the driver didn’t catch us, if he didn’t see us, other kids would soon shout to him with,” Look be’ind guvnor”just for the joy of seeing him turnaround and give us a taste of his whip.

I often envied boys with Dads who made them wooden carts equipped with wheels often of ball bearings and steered by a rope attached to the steerage in front. They made a satisfying clatter over the pavements with as many three passengers on board. Later I yearned for a tricycle, but that too was beyond my Mother’s finances.

But nonetheless I had less expensive pastimes, the proud owner of a catapult which I became quite adept at…..The lamp nearest us at 31 was a prime target I must confess, have they repaired the small crack in the glass yet?

Kind regards

1 thought on “Thornhill Square in the 1920s and 1930s, by Charles Humphries

  1. What a wonderful, evocative description. Really brings the past to life again. Thank you so much for taking the trouble to share your memories.

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