Local historian Martin Sheppard has shared with me his mother Audrey’s recollections of her time living at Gloucester Avenue for a period after the war. She and Martin’s father, Geoffrey, moved into the ground floor flat as newlyweds and soon along came Martin’s brother, Peter, and then Martin himself. It is fascinating local and social history; enjoy the step back in time...
“When Geoffrey and I got engaged at Easter 1947 and settled to get married in June, we were looking for a flat in London. Dorothy, who had recently bought 35 Gloucester Avenue (with matrimonial plans, but these did not materialize), offered us the lease of the garden flat.
The house, opposite Cecil Sharp House, was well built and dignified, with stucco exterior and a front door with half pillars on either side up a flight of steps to the front door. Of the four flats, Dorothy lived on the first floor, where the sitting room had a balcony overlooking Regent’s Park. The top flat was inhabited, rather mysteriously, by a lady, said to be the mistress of a lord, and her two rather odd grown-up sons, who were seldom seen. On the ground floor were Mr and Mrs Dorin, a cheerful and kindly elderly couple.When Geoffrey was away, I liked to hear Mr Dorin’s snoring in the bedroom above ours!
Geoffrey went to negotiate and we took the garden flat at once, though it was not exactly love’s young dream. Its great advantage was the garden, which though small had a lawn and surrounding bushes and flower bed. Only the width of the back lane and the fine detached houses along Prince Albert Road separated us from Regent’s Park and the grounds of the Zoo, which was so near that the lions could be heard roaring at night. A concrete path sloped up from our door, past a dust-bin area and through a gate in the trellis which shut off the front garden. The lower half of callers could be seen through our small, barred ground-level kitchen window.
The sitting room had a pleasant bow window which looked out onto the lawn and let in a fair amount of light and sometimes sun. The bedroom, on the street side, was rather dark and cheerless, since most of the window lay below street level. Steam trains were still running down the main line a very short distance away and, because of the smoke, the net curtains in the window got very dirty and finally fell to pieces.
The kitchen was small and had absolutely no conveniences. One feature was a recess with such a low roof that it was virtually useless. The gas meter, a large square metal object sprouting pipes in all directions, hung at a drunken angle over the kitchen sink. I disliked this very much and Geoffrey somehow managed to put it straight, with I think considerable risk from escaping gas. Among the very old-fashioned utensils in the kitchen drawer, I found an enormous cleaver which might have been used to cut up an ox, let alone a rabbit.
There was one cupboard, but no shelves. When Geoffrey fixed one up for my pots and pans, Dorothy was highly incensed because we had not asked her permission, but Geoffrey soothed her down and all was well.
There was one other room in the flat, about ten by eight feet, with a window onto the garden, but this was entirely filled with Dorothy’s furniture and junk. Along the passage, which ran outside this room to the lavatory, were shelves containing old photograph albums belonging to Uncle Harold, including several entire volumes taken up with views of Gibraltar.
A narrow passage led directly from the front door to the bathroom, in which a further door, originally leading up to the street, had never been adequately boarded up. In the winter it was almost impossible to keep the bathroom warm. For heating water there was a huge copper geyser over the bath which exuded strange smells and noises. Cold drops of condensed steam would fall on to one from the ceiling. We had a paraffin stove, known as Little Friend, which helped to raise the temperature where most needed.
There was, next to the front door, a space under the stairs which led up to the first floor. Here Geoffrey established a workshop and later even got a lathe into it.
When Peter arrived, on 26 April 1948 at Bridgwater, he was established in his cot in the corner of the bedroom. His very first toy, a blue and white woolly dog, was suspended on a hook over his head. When the weather was fine he spent much of his time on the lawn in a capacious old-fashioned pram procured by Ruthie.
With Martin’s birth, on 15 April 1950, also at Bridgwater, Geoffrey told Dorothy that we must have the use of the small room for a nursery or we would have to leave; so all the junk and the photograph albums went into the garage and we were much more comfortable.
Dorothy was really very kind and fond of the children, and Geoffrey was a help to her in many ways. Although, because of ill health and other reasons, Dorothy never married, she badly needed a man’s company. This Geoffrey provided with tact and discretion.
When we were first married we had Sandy, our cat from Dinbren, with us. Geoffrey made him a little outdoor house, but he was not at all happy, got into lots of fights, and finally got ill. So we took him back to Dinbren, where he quite recovered.
At this time, Geoffrey was working for Hayward Tyler at their offices in Grosvenor Place. It was dull, unsatisfying work for him after the army, but he made the best of it. I did not realise it at the time but he must already have been somewhat diabetic, and I did not give him the right kind of food, but he liked what I gave him and never complained except once when I gave him vegetable sausages.
Shopping was done in Parkway and Camden Town and for several years, after we were married and the boys were young, the rations were quite short. I remember seeing some purplish-looking steaks of whalemeat, which was unrationed, and thinking that I would rather starve than eat them. Unwins in Parkway was a drinks shop patronised by Geoffrey. A cheerful character, whom we nicknamed Snowball because of his white hair, did the deliveries. I also shopped at the Dairy in Princess Road, which provided our milk.
We were very well placed for pram walking, being only a few minutes away from the park. A favourite walk was past the ‘Free Zoo’, where we could see llamas and other animals over the fence in the Children’s Zoo.
My first home help was Mrs Augias, always known as Mrs O, who came twice a week to clean for, I think, £2 10s. a time. She was a very reliable comer and always helpful with the boys. Her husband was French and had been in the navy, and then was a stoker at the Nine Elms Power Station. I asked her once if she could speak any French but she said she was ‘not inter-ested’, which became a byword in the family.
Mrs Kelly, a later help, was also very good and reliable and much liked by the boys. It was she who provided ‘Kelly Winds’ (reins), which were very useful when Martin began to walk. He had a way of taking sudden dives down the area steps and later was a fast runner. He had a little scarlet jacket which I could spot at a distance if he ran away. I still have it at Herne House. I took the boys out walking twice a day, as the flat was too small for them to get enough exercise.
When I had very bad flu, Mrs Kelly took Martin, aged three, and looked after him for several weeks. Geoffrey’s friend Bob Tufnell and his second wife, Joan, took Peter, aged five, to stay with them at Harpenden, but he was not very happy and didn’t like the food. I think from this time came his dislike of fish.We were very thankful to be together again with Irene at Dame Withycombe’s Cottage.
Dorothy had died in the autumn of 1952 and Hester, who had come back from India to nurse her, took over her flat. She it was who nursed me through the flu. She loved to have the boys up to play in her flat and made a set of spelling letters for Peter. Hester also had a fund of toys in her flat for the children and presented the boys with ‘Clever Bear’, which she bought for them (I think in Aden) on her way back from India.He is still with us at Herne House and comes out on rare occasions to amble slowly along and look about him and amble on again.
Hester, like Dorothy, greatly appreciated having Geoffrey to help and advise her; and, when she went back to India, left him in charge of the house and the tenants. She was also very hospitable and often had Father or Mother or Cilla or Ruthie to stay, as well as many other visitors. She called upon Geoffrey in all sorts of difficulties, large and small, which he kindly and patiently attended to; but one day, when he was battling with a particularly tiresome job in the kitchen, she observed that he really loveddoing that sort of thing. He was rather crisp with her!
Geoffrey had an ancient Wolseley car which had to have quite a lot of work done on it before a journey to Dinbren or Bridgwater. In those days he did all the driving. We used to go to Dinbren for Christmas and sometimes in the summer; and to Bridgwater for Easter and other holidays. Ruthie, as well as looking after the parents, on several occasions minded the boys while Geoffrey and I went on holiday. I remember Winifed Clay, Geoffrey’s cousin, used to come over from Ealing to take the boys out into the park while I packed. She always brought a supply of home-made buns and was most kind and helpful.
The first school that Peter went to was Primrose Hill School, a very short distance from 35 Gloucester Avenue, and there he was later joined by Martin. The school from the outside looks very much as it did forty years ago, but the classrooms are modernized and look much brighter and have many more facilities.
Our church, St Mark’s, was opposite the Zoo gates. It had been bombed during the war and a wooden hut had been built outside the walls at the west end, and here both the boys were christened. The Vicar was Mr Stuckey. He was witty and very friendly, and enjoyed coming in for a chat or a meal; but the services were very high and dry, and in no way adapted to the needs of small children. He had a housekeeper called Miss Jefferies, no beauty and of mature age, and he took her about with him to concerts and other events, and always hoped she would be invited if he was asked out anywhere. Geoffrey disapproved and did not invite her! Her old father came to stay at the vicarage from time to time and could be seen polishing the front doorknob.
Dorothy did not approve of an outdoor washing line, so Geoffrey got an early type of twin-hub washing machine which was a great help. The clothes had to hang up on strings across the kitchen. I remember being rather pleased with the effect of eighteen clean, ironed collars in a row. Later he got me an ironing machine, but this unfortunately was not a success, because it could only do flat things such as pillow-cases. Anything else was apt to get caught in the rollers and scorched. I never really made friends with it and it had to go.
We lived very economically and Geoffrey kept careful accounts. We had an arrangement that any sum over £5, out of the ordinary, should be specially noted. Being rather short of money when we were first married, I sold my wedding dress and other trousseau dresses, but in any case I could not have worn them again because Peter was very soon on the way and I was never so slim again.
We generally took the boys out somewhere in London at the weekends. Tea at Lyons Corner House, complete with band and uniformed Nippies, was considered a great treat. Sometimes Dorothy would babysit for us. While doing so she recovered our two armchairs. Then we might go to the pictures or elsewhere.”
Audrey Smith (1915-2013) married Colonel Geoffrey Sheppard (1904-1987) in 1947. Hester Smith (1894-1986) and Dorothy Smith (1895-1952), the daughters of Audrey Sheppard’s uncle Harold Smith and his wife Cecily, were the first cousins of Audrey Sheppard.
After the Dorins, the flat was occupied by Dorothy and Hester’s aunt, Margaret, Lady Newbolt, the widow of the poet Sir Henry Newbolt, known to us as Aunt Margaret. She was very deaf and to be spoken to via a large hearing device with an ear trumpet.
Pronounced as four syllables and often as ‘hinter-ested’.
Now living in Slovenia, Peter has acquired a taste for Mediterranean fish.
The ‘Clever Bear’ was a mechanical toy but covered in fur.
It is unclear when Audrey Sheppard wrote down her memories of the houses she had lived in. This reference to ‘forty years ago’ suggests a date in the 1990s.