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Joyce's Memories of 1940s and early 1950s Brentford

Joyce wrote in September 2012 with her memories of 158 High Street and her grandparents, Thomas and Lillie Wilson. I have added a few notes from research (in italics):

158 High Street Brentford

As soon as I got off the 667 trolley bus from Twickenham at Brentford Bridge I knew I was in Brentford. The smell from the Everton Toffee factory filled the air with delicious aromas for a small child.

In 1910 my grandparents Thomas and Lillie Wilson moved to the area from Battersea in 1910. The 1911 census shows the family at 95 London Road, Brentford. At that point Thomas and Lillie had been married 4 years and had three children, Lillie 4, Thomas 2, Elsie 8 months, all three born Battersea. Thomas was a confectionery packer and the census enumerator has added 'jam factory'.

The Wilson family moved to 158 High Street Brentford sometime after 1913, the house previously being occupied by Edward Ernest Hollyer, collector, Grand Junction Canal Co.

My grandmother and one of her daughters continued living at 158 High Street after my grandfather’s death until just before it was demolished. They were the last occupants of this grand house. They rented it from the Grand Union Company for a peppercorn rent and understood that the two houses – 157 and 158 had been built to accommodate Canal managers.

My grandfather was a labourer at the jam factory in Twickenham and my grandmother was a tailoress who made clothes for the grand people who lived around the Butts.

I was born in 1934 on the top floor of next door at 157 which was a twin of my grandparents’ house.

It was from my grandparents house that I learned to read. The first thing I read was a huge advertisement for The News Of The World that was on the greengrocer’s wall on the other side of the canal (Bridge Fruiterers at 1 London Road?). I used to love to watch the canal boats being pulled by horses along the towpath that went right along the house wall. The bargees lying on planks and walking the barge under the bridge was a real sight to see. The tow horses were kept in stables under the arches round by the Hams. Later it was the sound of the engines chug-chugging their way outside the window.

158 had once been a grand house so had iron railings around the little front garden. These railings were reduced to stumps when they were compulsorily collected during the war and the little garden had to be concreted over as it was right on Brentford High Street. The gleaming white door step was whitened every Sunday morning with a chalk block by my grandmother. We were all careful not to walk on it when we visited for lunch.

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The house was on four floors, the first being at the level of the tow path and the second at street level, so when I went to visit I was lifted up to see over the bridge to wave to them down below in the scullery that had been built out from the house. Then I was lifted up so that I could reach the old fashioned pull bell at the side of the front door. This jiggled a large spring mounted on the wall at the top of the stairs that in turn jingled the bell hanging from it. (My daughters used to ring that same bell many years later when we went to visit.)

The whole house was gradually slipping into the canal so was on a slant. The highly polished hall floor from the front door sloped from side to side so you had to hold on to the wall to stop slipping over - well at least I did! The bottoms of all the doors had been cut off on the slant and stuck on the tops to fill the gap, but best of all the stairs that went down from street level to the living room below, they were steep and narrow with a thick rope fastened to the side to help you up and down. A little window at the bottom of the stairs overlooked the living room where I could see Granddad sitting in his chair smoking his pipe. The smell of mint sauce still reminds me of those stairs, I suppose we used to have lamb for Sunday lunch when we went.

There were two rooms on each floor, a huge one, the ones on floors two and three went across the whole of the front of the house and a little one behind it. For most of the time when I was young, the floor was let out to different people.

One of the small rooms on the second floor had been made into a kitchen with a gas cooker, but there was no drainage or water in the house at all, it all had to be fetched from the scullery that had been built on to the back of the house where there was cold water tap and an Ascot water heater for hot water. In the corner of the scullery was a copper lined brick wash boiler with a fireplace underneath. The only time I knew this to be used was for my grandmother to boil the Christmas puddings.

My early memories include Rosie coming down the stairs and going through the living room carrying a slop bucket in one hand and a clean bucket for water in the other, and this was three flights of stairs down from where she was living. The bath was in the scullery. It had a lid that closed down so that it could be used as a work top. The toilet was outside under a lean-to built many years before by Granddad.

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At high tides each year the scullery was flooded with canal water. Most years it only covered the scullery and yards, but there were occasions when the water invaded the basement living room. To help prevent this my grandfather had built a wall about 2ft high across the door leading from the living room to the scullery.

One Sunday we were having lunch in the living room when water started coming up through the lino under our feet. There was a scramble to get chairs and other precious belongings on to the table while we all retreated up the stairs until the water went down and the clearing up could begin. The white goods in the scullery had already been put up on the table at the first sign of a high tide. There was a mark on the wall in the living room where a particularly high tide had reached the level of the piano keys. At the time my father was a boy and was sleeping there and woke to find himself floating on his camp bed.

Leading off the living room was a cellar that went partly under the road where coal was delivered through a hatch on the road. My grandfather has a carpenters work shop there. Within it was a small room where tinned food was stored. During the war my grandparents slept in the cellar as did I one Christmas although rather worried that Santa wouldn’t find me there!

Between the basement living room and the scullery was a door that led out onto a small garden lovingly cared for by my grandfather where he grew vegetables in war time and flowers that he loved best. From it was a gate that led directly on to the towpath.

In the yard at the back there was something that looked like a communal wash area. Part of the yard – about 8ft x8ft – was enclosed by next door’s wall on one side, the wall on to the wasteland at the back on the second and the third an fourth sides had low wall about 18ins high enclosing an area sloping towards a drain in the middle. Nobody knew what this had been used for.

A gate led on to the waste land at the back that seemed to have been used for dumping metal swarf. It was like a huge springy mattress where I enjoyed many hours jumping up and down and coming in with scraped knees – the first trampoline perhaps..

The 1838 map (no. 158 is marked "No.1", no. 157 "2") shows what looks like the scullery extension to the house, and the little triangle between the house and the canal was where my grandfather had his much loved garden. In the corner between the house wall and the tow path wall he had a tiny triangular shaped shed. My mother told me the scar on my leg that I have to this day was caused when she was holding me sitting on the wall watching the long boats go past, but dropped me on to the tow path when bee flew down her front!

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During one air raid on Brentford an oil bomb had fallen very close to the house. The thick black oil splashed up to the front of my grandfather’s immaculately painted white wall. He was very annoyed! Fortunately the incendiary bombs that usually followed the oil bombs to set them alight didn’t explode. If they had it would probably have been the end for the house as the oil leaked through the coal hole on to the coal beneath.

During the war white stripes were painted on the trolley bus poles (there was one outside no. 158) to stop vehicles bumping into them as there were no street lights and only very dim vehicle lights.

The lady who lived at 156 was called Mrs Harris and was my grandmother’s best friend. Across the road was Mr Dann the fishmonger next door to a second hand furniture shop. Both were frequented by my grandmother.(Notes for no. 159 include 'Pauline Chidwick writes ‘Mother always bought fresh fish from the tiny shop which was almost on Brentford Bridge and I can remember being sent there to buy live eels and going home on the bus with a wriggling bag at my feet!’ and Harry Langley also remembers ‘Crossing the Bridge our first shop was a small shop overlooking the Canal at the side. This was a fresh fish shop owned by Dan the fishmonger. As a small child, I used to imagine he got his fish from the canal.’)

I also have a record of my grandmother knowing Mrs Conway who lived at 157. She wrote a note to her daughter Lillie, who must have been 12, saying that Mrs Conway would be in to prepare dinner for the younger two children. This was probably written in about 1918 as it was on the back of a letter from her brother serving at the Front.

I went to live with my grandparents from 1952 -1953 travelling to work in Hounslow on the 657 trolley bus. I was married from their house, so my love of the old house never left me. I was so sad when it was demolished as we had been told it would be kept as a listed building. On the rare occasions I return to Brentford now it is with nostalgia that I look over the bridge.

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Published December 2012