“(Catford) the only place in all of London and the south-east set to remain impervious to gentrification” – Lucy Mangan, Journalist (The Guardian)
One day in 1995 I was at work and driving through London and on impulse took a detour to Catford and to Barmeston Road where my grandparents used to live to see the house that I used to visit with my parents when I was a boy.
It was having a bit of renovation work carried out to it at the time but although it seemed smaller (everything looks smaller as you grow older, especially chocolate biscuits) it looked almost as I remembered it and the memories came flooding back.
We used to visit Catford two or three times a year. At first we went on the train because dad didn’t learn to drive until about 1963 and then we would drive down there in his Austin A55, registration SWD 774. He hated parking his car on the road because of the blind bend and the steep camber, so steep it meant that the car door would hit the pavement if not opened with caution. He had a parking light which was clipped to the drivers window and then attached to a torch battery. I think it was the law to have a parking light in those days.
Nan and Granddad didn’t live in all of the house because they only rented the top floor and this meant that there was a curious arrangement of walking through someone else’s home to get to theirs because there was only a single shared front door. As I grew older I always found this rather odd and can remember feeling shy and self-conscious about walking through an entrance hall that obviously belonged to someone else.
At the top of the stairs there was a door into the living room and the stairs dog-legged through a mezzanine and doubled back towards the front of the house. The living room was quite small but this was the main room of the house where they lived, entertained and had all of their meals. It was always smoky because there was an open fire and granddad used to smoke a couple of packets of embassy cigarettes every day.
There was a dining table and chairs and a blue three piece suite with granddad’s chair in front of the fire and with the best view in the room of the television set. In one corner there was a black bakelite telephone and four colour coded volumes of the London telephone directory. Not many people had telephones in the late 1950s and when they answered the phone they always said the number, which was Hither Green 6515. By the fire place there was large empty whisky bottle which granddad used to fill with silver sixpences and this was their savings plan for their holidays to Benidorm in Spain.
There was a side window which looked out over the front gardens of the neighbours (I recall the curiously named Kitty Roper) most of these have been tarmacked over now to provide car parking space but there weren’t so many cars then so most people still had proper front gardens with front lawns and lovely flower beds.
There was a door which went to the very back of the house and the small kitchen with old fashioned cupboards and a sink with a cylindrical gas water heater over it. There was no bathroom in the flat so this is where they had to wash and there was always someone ‘on guard’ when Nan was in there doing her daily ablutions!
Back on the stairs there was a WC with a high level cistern on the mezzanine, painted a vibrant canary yellow and then a few more steps and a corridor with my grandparents bedroom first and then at the front of the flat a small spare bedroom where I used to sleep and then the best front room, which was only opened up once a year at Christmas.
We weren’t really allowed to go in the best room for fear of breaking something precious or rearranging the brightly coloured velour cushions on the two-tone grey three-piece suite but when no one was around my sister Lindsay and I used to sneak in there and throw the cushions around and jump on them in some sort of juvenile outburst of defiance.
At the front of the house there was a concrete wall with sturdy pillars supporting a wooden gate with a small front garden (that’s my mum in the pictures above probably somewhere between 1946 and 1948), the garden was neat and tidy with Victorian ceramic rope edging separating the lawn from the borders but by 1999 that had all gone and the inevitable wheelie bin stood where the lawn used to be.
People didn’t have wheelie bins in the 1950s and most of the rubbish was either burnt on the fire or was taken away by the rag and bone man who used to come along the road once a week on his horse and cart shouting at the top of his voice something I could never make any sense of to alert residents to his approach and I can remember the shout and the clip-clop of the horses hooves on the road surface as though it were only yesterday.
At the back of the house was a garden which belonged to the owners but Granddad had a little plot at the bottom. The soil was dark, almost satanic black and he grew a few vegetables on his patch.
There was a rough built wall at the bottom of the garden and directly behind that the River Ravensbourne, a tributary of the Thames, it was only a couple of yards wide and quite shallow but it bubbled and gurgled across pebbles and got faster and more dramatic after it had rained. I used to pick up stones from the garden, lean over the wall, and throw them into the water. In September 1968 there were heavy rains and the little river became so swollen that it burst its banks and there was a lot of flooding in Catford and nearby Lewisham but I don’t suppose this affected nan and granddad in their first floor flat.
There was a smell about London in those days which I can almost still taste but can’t describe it, it has gone now so it was probably pollution! The name Catford, by the way, is derived from a ford across the river around about here where cattle used to cross when being taken up to Smithfield Market.
This is more up-to-date picture of the house that I found on an Estate Agency website:
I thought it looked rather sad; the old cord pull sash windows have been replaced with UPVC but interestingly the house next door has kept the original feature, the half tiled porch has gone and the plastic front door has been brought forward to the building line, the garden wall has gone and the little space behind is now a car parking area.
Sir Henry Cooper, British heavyweight boxer came from the area and Spike Milligan went to school at Catford Brownhill Boys School and often visited the suburb where his aunt and uncle lived. He always claimed to have lived in Catford and wrote about the area in his books and sketches. Ben Elton the comedian and writer was born in Catford in 1959 and Cat Stevens lived in a flat above a Catford furniture shop in the early sixties
Both nan and granddad used to go work which was quite unusual really. He was a bus conductor on the old London double-decker Routemaster buses operating from the Catford depot on Bromley Road in South London. I can still remember him in his dark blue London Transport uniform with his red conductors badge and his leather satchel slung over his shoulder walking home from work in a jaunty sort of way all along Barmerston Road.
The Catford Garage was originally opened in 1914 and was one of the largest south London depots. It was always associated with the Routemaster and in fact was the last garage in South East London to operate them. The Routemaster was a double-decker bus that was built by Associated Equipment Company from 1954 and introduced by London Transport in 1956 and saw continuous service until 2005.
Nan worked at the Robertson’s jam factory which was on Barmerston Road itself. They used to make Golden Shred marmalade and a range of jams and had an inappropriate golly as the company symbol. We used to have golly badges and they are collectors items now but I haven’t got them any more and that’s a real shame. In 2006 Robertson’s sold out to Premier Foods and in 2008 the new company announced that it would discontinue the Robertson brand in 2009 in order to focus on its more successful Hartley’s. Robinson’s factory has gone now but the bus garage is still there.
We used to go to Catford throughout the 1960s, once in 1965 I went on holiday there with my friend Tony Gibbard for a week by ourselves. As I got older I didn’t really like going there that much and I was excused the visits. Then in about 1969 or 1970 nan and granddad left Catford and London and came to live in a flat in Hillmorton near to us and I never visited Barmeston Road again until that unplanned detour thirty years later.
This is me with the badges in about 1959. The dressing gown was bright red.
I am glad that I passed by Barmeston Road that day in 1995, I don’t suppose for a moment that I will ever do it again!
As a Catford boy I can attest to the fact that Spike Milligan indeed was a local, seen sometimes on a 141 bus going through Brockley on the way to somewhere or other.
I can attest to the Gollywog factory!
Curiously my father drove busses but from Camberwell. But my best mate at the time Freddy, his dad was a conductor on a bus from Catford.
Thanks for the comment. I wonder if your pal’s dad knew my granddad? My favourite place in Catford was the Peter Pan playground and boating pool – I think it’s a supermarket car park now!
The Peter pan pools, I fell out of a canoe there once 🙂 We used to trudge to the Open AIr Pool in Bellingham in the summer (along with about a billion people) to swim, look at girls, have an arrowroot biscuit and walk home again.
wow. Relived some of your memories. So manythings have changed, I can understand your attachment with the house and how it has changed over the years.
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I immediately thought, “Onslow and our Daisy might’ve lived in that neighborhood!” Of course, at least one of those cars would’ve had to been trashed out and have a big dog living in it. LOL!
I see where you are coming from! Thanks for stopping by.
You could be on “Back In Time For Tea”. I could comment on lots of things here but the question that comes most to mind, I’ve no idea why, is this: In what year did the requirement to show parking lamps (in 30mph areas) in the UK come to an end?
A good question. I have no idea!
Lovely family memories set off by a sense of place. I went to look a couple of my childhood homes a few years ago. Interestingly, one looked exactly as I remembered it and the other looked smaller. I also had a fine collection of golliwog badges and figurines, and a very similar dressing gown. Was it Ladybird?
Do you know I think it was! Thanks for the memory nudge.
Such vivid memories of a bygone age. I immediately thought of old sitcoms Steptoe & Son and On The Buses reading your post. Thinks were less but so much more back then if you get my drift.
Seems you’re a bit like me, with remembering what others call useless information,
Your dads first car and rego. My dad never had a car I had the first in our family a 1940 Morris 10 rego BE133, we didn’t have a phone used to use a phone box and put our tuppence in, but my first phone number when I started work? Avenue 5418 and 5419.
Your mum in 1948 doesn’t look much older than what I was, I was 13, going on 14, I suppose, your mum looks around 18 or 19
The great Spike lived here in Woy Woy north of Sydney
his headstone I believe reads “I told you I was sick:” The funniest genius to the end.
Lovely post made me feel nostalgic for the England that was but is now gone forever.
Thanks Brian, glad I dragged up some memories for you. My mum was 14 when that picture was taken. Registration numbers are important, my own first car was WRW 366J and first telephone number was Rugby 71677, it was a shared line with a neighbour so if you were quiet you could listen in!
Love that Spike Milligan quip.
So if your mother was 14 and I was 13 I’m old enough to be your father. Come to think of it I have a daughter from my first marriage who is 60 years of age, which is probably pretty close to your age I’d think.
My favourite rego number was OMR 799 my youngest daughter will be 40 in a couple of months, her name is Emma, she was a bit of a terror, (she is the mother of the 2 gorgeous girls who I write about from time to time) and the War Office was for ever saying QMR (Oh Em ARE)
Thats true about Spike and the headstone.
He often appeared on the wireless when living in Woy Woy, there was one bloke loved Spike and had him on whenever possible and one day I heard Spike talking about the Goons and he was telling how once each of the Goons was given the word which they had to use in a limerick. You can imagine the hilarious result, The 5 words were. Stowaway, Bombay, Tiller, Gorilla, Bombay. Once heard a limerick never to be forgotten.
Spike was always one of my favourites especially on chat shows where he could be so unpredictable. I read his auto-biography a long time ago.
This year I will be 64, I have a daughter who has children and lives near by (she is a teacher) and a son who is working his way around the World. He is currently living and working in Auckland.
Spike wrote one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, I still have my copy it’s old and battered now. “Puckoon”
I was waiting for you to ask for the limerick. but then you probably know it. It’s the only one I’ve ever been able to remember, once heard never forgotten
Be nice to be 64 again
Working his way around the world, that’s the son to have 😀
I blew up the pic of the rag and bone man as that car behind looked like my first Morris 10, and it certainly appears to be
Now that would be a coincidence!
My brother and I went back to the first farm we lived on until I was 10. There was nothing there anymore. The house and barn were gone. So we pulled a few bales to where we thought the living room used to be and sat as if we were back then. Places hold such memories.
What a lovely thing to do, what a shame the house was gone!
In 2001, I visited the town in Italy where I lived until we moved here . . . everything looked familiar but different. Distances were by far the most difficult things to reconcile with. I remember riding a bike “downhill” from where we lived . . . but the road is barely sloped. The house we lived in was either leveled and rebuilt or heavily renovated.
The timespan between visits was 35 years.
You have photos to refresh the memory. Unfortunately, I have nothing but imperfect memory. Still, the life you describe is lots different from the memories I have of my time in Italy. But then, I assume that’s the case for everyone.
What a great story. It is those small details that make memories work their magic.
For some reason my Catford memories just stick fast.
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I used to live in a shared house in Preston – walking in through somebody else’s house was strange, but having the people on the top floor walk past our rooms on their way through was even stranger. Lots more familiar stuff in your post, including rag and bone men, parking lights and black soil. They used to mix soot in the soil to make it black because this made it warm up sooner in spring.
I never knew about the soot trick, thanks for that contribution!
I know lots of useless stuff. 🙂
I lived. In Aitken33road got bombed out from house and went back in 1947 to 33 A prefab and lived there until I married in 1958 Mum worked in robos factory until the prefabs were pulled down and Dad died there in 1959 my sister lived there until she married also grew up with others from barmeston road and charlesly road.
If anyone from there is reading would love to hear from you pdw
Thanks for adding this, I have fond memories of Barmeston Road.
I have been working in the warehouse at No. 2 Barmeston Rd. Since about 1989 and wonder if that is where the Robertson Jam factory was that you mentioned? As I only remember it being at the large premises in Bromley Rd. There is also another warehouse at 4 Barmeston so it could even been there?
I would say that this is exactly the place.
I and my family lived in the last prefab 33 aitken road we went back to in 1947 after being bombed out of our house in 1943(I think this year) there was a house next door to our left which was the last housein the road on that side that belonged to the factory and the Frances lived there,then there was the main gate into factory across the whole road where all lorries and other factory traffic went in and out, the factory was behind all the houses in that part of Barmeston Road and premises went all the way back to the railway track. Next to the Front of Robertsons in Bromley Road was the Glenifer Laundry then the Bus Garage all the way up to Bellingham tell a lie there was the Coal yard on the corner of Bellingham Road. I have to go now but will get back to you later It is nice speaking to you as I am very interested in what has happened and if any of my old friends are still around. as I am in Australia now and it is now daytime oppposite to you. At the moment I am having trouble with email program but that wont effect us in contacting each other.
Thanks for adding this information.
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Ah, nostalgia. My grandparents house, a large through terrace home was demolished many years ago along with the surrounding streets, all that is left is the old cemetery in the middle of a now shabby housing estate. The busy high street that once had family run shops on every corner is now simply a road into the city.
I sometimes dream about my childhood visits to Grandma and Grandad’s house and often wish I could go back and sit around the large dining table eating Sunday lunch one more time.
All things must pass. I hope my own grandchildren keep their memories just as I do.
Yes I hope for the same. My older ones might. I’ve two who will be 21 and 20 this year and four aged between 14-18, but there’s five little one’s under 6 plus another one on the way and I doubt they’ll build up many memories.
Love the photo of you in your dressing gown. Fond memories!
I think we all had dressing gowns like that with a bit of braid around the edges!
I had a red one with matching slippers
I’m always astounded at how much you can remember- including the telephone number. My memories are always much fuzzier, but yours trigger things like the rag and bone man that I doubt I’d even think of. Love the shots of your Mam, looking so pretty and happy 🙂 🙂
Thank you Jo. Those pictures of my Mum really capture the house as I remember it.
Catford’s nearly my stamping ground now as my son and family live in Hither Green. I would have expected Catford rather than HG to have the telephone exchange, but I notice that you, like me, can remember those old pre-STD numbers. TATe Gallery 2921 if you fancy giving it a call.
I always liked going to Catford and getting on a bus with a day ticket and just drifting.
What amazingly clear, detailed, memories, Andrew. In the 1940s Raynes Park (now upgraded by estate agencies to West Wimbledon) we had a neighbour called Mr Figg who followed the horse and cart with a bucket to collect droppings for his garden. He picked up the recycled grass with his bare hands.
Thank you Derrick. In the 1960s I had a bike with a sort of luggage holder on the back with a spring mechanism to keep it in place. Dad found a box that fitted and would take me on a bike ride and fill the box with horse deposits. He didn’t have a similar arrangement on his own bike I seem to recall. Clever man!
I love this post. I also recall, with fondness my grandparents’ place. I spent a lot of time there, in the city, as my aunt is only 2 months older than me and we were very close.
Thank you. I need to do a post about my other grandparents house in Leicester.
My maternal grandparents house and farm still stands as it did many, many years ago, but my paternal grandparents house has been swept away in re-development. When reading your post about your grandparents answering the phone with the number, I was astonished that my London number came, uncalled for, into my head. I lived in Maida Vale sixty years ago and the number was Cunningham 3585. I had forgotten this until now. How very strange is memory.
I remember that we always answered the telephone with the number but now we just say hello. No scam calls in those days I imagine.
Maristravels did you mean your grandparents had a farm in Barmeston Road
No, a flat that looked out over some soggy fields!
I didnt mean your grandparens but the othe person that mention hers had a farm in barmeston road it was at the other end from yours
Two hundred years ago it was all farmland. Lewisham, Catford and Hither Green were developed in the mid 19th century and all farmland was built over by about 1900 with the arrival of the railway.
I only remember rows of housing and an estate of post war pre-fab bungalows.
Old memories have a way of hanging around in the back of your mind until something triggers them, Andrew. I enjoyed reading about yours. My grandparents lived in so many houses, it’s hard to identify with any of them. I do go by my old home in Diamond on occasion. Lots of memories there, as I have been writing. 🙂 –Curt
Memories and plans – essential!
I know this area very well as I grew up in Bromley and my maternal grandparents, when I first remember them lived in Bellingham, then moved to Forest Hill and then to Crofton Park/Brockley. My paternal grandparents lived in Downham. I worked for a while at Lee Green Housing Office and visited people all over the area. I remember those steep roads and struggling up and down them! My first flat was in Forest Hill and my sister’s first flat was in Hither Green. My first husband grew up in Lee. I used to really like Catford; the people were friendly and there was no pretentiousness about the place. Your quote from Lucy Mangan (who grew up in Catford) is spot on!
Thank you for adding these memories Clare.
Having read the flood of emails received over the weekend I thought you may be interested to see a recent picture of No. 50 (taken this morning) together with one of No. 2 Barmeston Rd where I have worked for over 30 years!
Gurney & White Ltd (Electrical Wholesalers) Catford branch 2 Barmeston Rd Catford London SE6 3BH
T. 0208 333 1001
Thanks for adding this.
Andrew I can’t believe your childhood was so much like mine. My nan lived in Stepney Green and we had to go up every other weekend. First on a horrible bus and then my dad got a motorbike and sidecar equally horrible. It wasn’t until I was about 7 he got a car. I was so travel sick every time.
My aunt and uncle also lived in a house where people lived on the top floor ..very strange and my uncle was a bus conductor.
I also stopped going when I was 14 as I got a Saturday job. I also remember a weird smell..kind of dampy earthy
Thanks for adding your memories here.
Reading this has taken me down memory lane. I lived first with my grandparents in one of the prefabs at the beginning on the road and then my parents rented the top floor of number 56. The Weatherstones were on the bottom floor if I remember correctly. Great to bring back the memories of the area. Dad worked on buses, then as a postman, DO at the end of road and mum worked in Robinson jam factory.
Great memories and similar too. Thanks for adding them.