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Peter Young's Memories of 1950s and 1960s Brentford

Peter Young wrote in July 2020 with recollections of a rich combination of sights, sounds and smells.

During my early years, even though I didn't know Brentford that well, I was aware of huge changes to the river frontage upstream from Kew Bridge. I grew up in Chiswick, firstly in Hartington Court, a block of flats which had been taken over during the war, and lived there until 1953. I then moved to a new-build end-terrace near Grove Park Station, just in time for the Coronation. During those years I was a pupil at Strand-on-the-Green school.

In the 1950s, the Brentford riverside was essentially in the business of gas production. Groups of coal barges were towed up the river by tugs, unloaded, and the coal turned into coke (which was the main means of heating in our house). Brentford was very smelly in those days. The river side of the High Street was one very long, very high brick wall. Piles of coke could be seen on the other side and the enormous gasometer dominated the landscape.

Part of my schooling involved going to Brentford Swimming Baths (I still shudder at the smell of chlorine!) usually on the 655 trolley bus. We got on at Kew Bridge, went along the High Street, and then turned up Boston Manor Road. I can remember the armatures sometimes coming off the wires as the buses navigated the corner at Half Acre.

Over the years the Brentford stretch of the river changed out of my conscious awareness. I'm not even sure when the gasworks was closed or demolished. It could have been when I moved on to secondary schooling at Chiswick Grammar school in the late 1950s. One day it was cranes and coking ovens, the next, those three tower blocks had appeared. My father and older brother used to go to watch Brentford – the Bees – play at the football ground, walking there along Green Dragon Lane. My brother remembers the coal yards, and also a building at the Kew end of Green Dragon Lane, I think single storey, which served as an office for ordering coal. In the window were several teddy bears or small model bears. Again my memory is rather on the dim side, but we both share this glimpse of the past. And now the football ground is located in the Triangle formed by the railway lines. In the 70s it was just overgrown with weeds. My brother had a box to stand on at the football ground. But as I am not a football fan, those delights were not part of my history.

There was a similar change in the waterfront along Strand-on-the Green.
I used to walk to school along the towpath, and just upstream from the City Barge pub there was a barge riveting business. Thames barges would be moored on the grid platform out in the river. Inside the shed on the bank, rivets were heated to red-heat, and then thrown to the riveters on the barges, who caught them in leather mitts. The rivets were positioned and then hammered home with pneumatic hammers. You can imagine the noise this made with an empty steel barge! Then one day the barge-works closed and that stretch of the river frontage became desirable residences for more of the folk who worked in television at Shepherds Bush. Gradually the whole area moved up-market.

In 1961, my family moved to The Ride, opposite Boston Manor House. I spent a lot of time in Brentford Library (gift of Andrew Carnegie) but never darkened the doors of the swimming baths again. It was during this period that the M4 Flyover was built. Huge boring machines arrived in Boston Manor Park and sank deep holes for the concrete piles that were to support the roadway.

During the early 60s, while at school at Chiswick Grammar, I had a variety of summer holiday jobs: the first was at the Pyrene Company in the Great West Road, just beyond the now-demolished railway bridge. I worked in the metal-finishing / paint division, testing paints for coating washing machines (rather than working on fire extinguishers or chromium plated car bumpers).

In 1962 I got a job at Strand Electric in Power Road, Chiswick, testing dimmer boards for theatrical lighting systems (very boring as there wasn't very much to do). The next two summers I worked at the BBC Film studios at Ealing, and was responsible for transferring thousands of cans of film to the new film storage unit in Windmill Road. (This would appear to be no longer there: it's the factory between St Faith's church and The Globe pub.) I was also given instructions on which films were to be recycled – at that time the BBC people had no inkling that there would be any future interest in some of their less prestigious output, and this is why almost all of the episodes of Dixon of Dock Green disappeared. These shows were all recorded on 35mm film, and took up a lot of space – a half hour drama required nine cans of film!

In the 1970s, having returned to England after spending four years in South Australia, where I had taken up the hobby of photography, I took a photo of the Joss Press, long closed, realising that the High Street was about to be developed. The Joss Press played a minor but significant role in my early years. When I lived in Grove Park, my family were active members of the congregation at St Paul's Church. Every summer the church held a garden f๊te in the vicarage garden. That meant producing publicity, and we got the fliers printed at the Joss Press. The Joss Press building soon disappeared along with many of the old shops along the High Street. The Red Lion on the corner of South Ealing Road lasted a little longer, but is alas no more. On the opposite corner, some blocks of flats were built, but these seem to have disappeared as well.

Gradually the streets between the High Street and the Railway line were demolished (such as Layton Road, see a photo of the boy here in 1973; houses were still standing on one side of the street, but the other side had been flattened). Businesses along the GWR came to replace them. The Watermans Arts Centre was built on the site of the gasworks.

I left London in 1981, and rarely return there. The reason I started corresponding with the Brentford High Street website in 2014 was seeing a request for historical photographs; I remembered that I had that colour slide of the Joss Press Printers in my archive. Although I was too late to see them in business, this belated photo acted as a reminder of the early days.

I still find myself roaming the streets and taking photographs of the changing face of Worcester. It's not possible to stand still. With the coronavirus Lockdown, the city has already adjusted to new ways of being, and I've been out there recording it, because one day people will look back and wonder what 2020 was like.


Links are included above to just two of Peter Young's great collection of over 90 colour photographs of Brentford taken in the early 1970s: see the full list.


Published August 2020; updated December 2020