Memories of the Heath and Highgate in the late 1940s and early 1950s
- Credit: Thomas Radice
Thomas Radice grew up in Highgate Village from 1946 and has lived the rest of his life within reach of the Heath. A former senior civil servant and House of Lords official, he is a trustee of the Heath & Hampstead Society.
Like many of my generation, my life was disrupted – perhaps permanently – by the Second World War.
In 1939 my parents took a lease on one of a pair of “picturesquely irregular Georgian remains” (Pevsner 1952) on the corner of Highgate Hill and Hornsey Lane, next to the Old Crown pub.
From our garden we looked across to Holy Joe’s – the RC landmark with its green dome, visible from all over the Highgate side of the Heath. No 2 Hornsey Lane and its smaller neighbour No 4 look much the same today as in this Edwardian sketch.
In our time the front railings were missing, having been removed for scrap iron in 1939-40 (they were reinstated around 1980).
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On Guy Fawkes’ night my younger siblings and I, with our friends from next door, aimed rockets at the roof of the church to see how many hits we could get.
My father saw me briefly as an infant before leaving for the occupied Italian colonies in East and North Africa, then on to Sicily and Italy (safely behind the fighting), where he ended up as a Lieutenant Colonel, heading the civilian administration of Florence. As a four-year-old I would show people a postcard of the Palazzo Vecchio and tell them “that’s my father’s office”; it was.
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My birth and solitary early years were spent with my mother and grandmother in Hessle, on the banks of the Humber. After four years abroad my father finally returned on two months’ leave after VE Day, but opted to serve his remaining seven months with the Control Commission in Germany. My mother and I remained in the East Riding. My only memory of that brief reunion in 1945 with the strange person whom my mother had talked about so much comes from this photo – a foretaste of an awkward relationship that persisted for the next 55 years.
So we did not come together as a family in Hornsey Lane (the house having been sublet during the war) until I was rising six. My first school was Byron House, a kindergarten in North Grove. Then it was off to Westminster Under School in September 1948. Amazing to think that from the age of not quite eight, after some initial escorting by my father (who worked in the Treasury), I was taking myself to school in central London. In the winter, as I walked down Highgate Hill from the relatively clean air of Highgate to catch the bus from Archway, the fog got thicker and yellower by the yard. I always travelled upstairs on the bus; I count myself lucky that all that passive smoking has never caught up with me.
From Highgate we would often walk to the Heath via Waterlow Park, the Holly Lodge Estate and Merton Lane. I have happy memories of taking my toy yacht to the nearest pond, which at that time would have fitted more accurately the name that it still bears – the Model Boating Pond. The LCC Parks Department had given it a hard concrete edge, designed for easy launching of different sizes of craft, including large steam-driven scale models of ocean liners. During the fifties noisy petrol-driven speed boats became common and eventually had to be banned. My little yacht was primitive – no linkage between boom and rudder, so it tended to get becalmed or go round and round in circles. It was a question of going over the other side and waiting patiently for the breeze to bring it ashore. Nowadays (as I pointed out to the City during the Ponds Project) it would get irretrievably lost among the marginal plants that (for commendable ecological reasons) now border much of the pond. Perhaps the time has come to give it a new name – few model boats are to be seen on it now.
Among other memories of those times are the lumbering steam lorries still used by coal merchants during the fearsome winter of early 1947; the soothing hum of the trolley buses going up Highgate Hill (the 271 bus still follows their route); the early morning chuff-chuff wafting up from the marshalling yards off Junction Road; the milk still delivered by horse and cart (though now in bottles); tobogganing on Parliament Hill and being terrified of big boys shouting at me to get out of the way of their huge sledges; and the LCC park keepers in their brown tweed suits and trilby hats.
As I got bigger we sometimes walked on to Kenwood House and visit the Iveagh collection, which reopened to the public in 1950. Soon after that my father acquired a Morris Minor and as my younger siblings grew in number and size, driving tended to take the place of walking from our doorstep.
Sadly I have been unable to find any pictures, whether family photos or postcards, that capture that particular time. There are some marvellous photos of life on the Heath by John Gay (a family friend), but they belong more to the sixties. Maybe readers can help me from their own collections?