David Winskill reviews “Memories of Tenants of Margaret Hill House”
Margaret Hill House on Middle Lane has always brought to mind a large German Schloss! I think that is because of the big round tower on the corner of Palace Road and the broad, low pitched roof.
A dedicated sheltered housing scheme of 23 flats, it was named after the founder of the Hornsey Housing Trust (HHT), established in 1933, which now operates 385 sheltered properties all over Haringey.
The idea for the book
The idea for the book came when the manager, Rhonda Challenger, contacted Hornsey Historical Society (HHS) with an idea for tenants to record their life memories.
Jennifer Bell, now HHS Secretary, took on the project and interviewed the residents: she found that they all introduced themselves, saying something like: “ … my life hasn’t been very interesting.” This book, the story of the tenants of eight flats, proves them all wrong!
The first thing that struck me is the geographical spread of the residents’ origins – as far away as Nigeria and as close as just round the corner in Hawthorn Road, with stops off at Barbados, Cyprus, Southsea, Chelsea, Jamaica, Edgware and Surrey.
The youngest person sharing her story is 68 and the oldest is 95. They all have had fascinating lives, careers and families and there is an openness and terrific generosity of spirit in how much they share with the reader.
The UK before the Second World War
It is fascinating to learn of lives lived before coming to London but reading about the UK before the Second World War also shows just how much the fundamentals of daily life have changed. Like Barbados and Cyprus, the London of the forties and fifties seems an equally foreign place.
Eddington Grannum left Barbados for London in 1957. Like so many from the Caribbean he joined London Transport then moved to the Post Office and (I’d have loved his job) became a supervisor on the underground Rail Mail that operated the private 6 1/2 mile route from Whitechapel to Paddington.
He also offers a vivid illustration of how prices have ballooned and also of how support was given to first time house buyers:
… in 1963 I got my own house at 73 Maryland Road. The house was £3 000 and I was earning £10 per week- it was a huge amount of money. You could get a 100% mortgage from the Greater London Council. It was easier and you didn’t have to have a deposit.
Older by fourteen years is Elsie Spain whose earliest memory is of winning a baby competition when she was two. In 1921 she started Campsbourne School and remembers that every playtime her mother “… had a big white jug and she used to fill it with hot cocoa and take it down the school and all the kids at the railings got a hot drink from the cup.”
Married for sixty years
Joyce and Harry Wightman were both born in 1927. They started writing love letters to each other when they were eleven; lost contact for a few years, re-met when the 21 year old Harry was demobbed from the RAF in 1946 and have been married for sixty years. “I suppose we could blame Hitler!” says Harry. There’s a film in this!
Perhaps the most riveting piece of narrative in the book is Hephzibah Lewis’ account of her premonitions of the deaths of her grandfather and her mother. Spooky!
Phil Dart came originally Kingston in Surrey and had eleven brothers and four sisters. His mum “… stopped at me because I was the best looking!” Like many others in the book, his childhood was unimaginably hard to modern readers – the brutal physical work of simply doing the family washing; putting food on the table; keeping warm and the ever present threat of disease and premature death.
However, this was balanced by the knowledge that there were plenty of other people in the same boat and a great sense of community and optimism. Something that perhaps we have less of today.
Jennifer Bell has made a masterly transcription of her interviews. She has created a relaxed, conversational style that captures the authentic voices of her subjects while at the same time make the accounts fluid and accessible.
‘Memories of Margaret Hill House’ is produced by the Hornsey Housing Trust in association with the HHS. Much credit must go to Jennifer as well as HHT for understanding the value of the project to the wider Hornsey community and the great pleasure and enjoyment it gave to the residents who took part.
It certainly gave your humble reviewer a lot of fun reading it!