“All the old communities have gone” is a familiar cry among Medway people of a certain age. That’s mainly true, I fear, but life has changed. We are much busier and neighbours nowadays seem less important in this era of e-mail, txts, social networking and driving everywhere.
One in the great communities in the Medway towns was Bishop’s Square, off St Margaret’s Street in Rochester. These four roads — Horsley, Langdon, Ridley and Mitre — are an unusual example of a self-contained urban village.
I have good reason for an interest. At 7 Ridley Road lived George Gull, a master painter and decorator, and his wife Kate (née Marsh). They had six children: Bill, Annie, George, Kate, Cyril and Ern and later brought up their granddaughter Gladys. Her father, Bill, died in the Spanish flu epidemic in the last days of the First World War, shortly after his wife had died in childbirth.
That’s them in the picture on the right. If you look carefully, you will see that the lower window pane is etched with the words Gull Bros, decorators. Next door at No 5 lived John Richard Rayner, a cathedral bedesman and carpenter with Aveling and Porter, with his wife Mary (née Webb). They had three sons, John and the twins Albert (who died in infancy) and Sidney.
In January, 1920, Annie Gull and Sidney Rayner walked the hundred or so yards to St Margaret’s Church, and married. Four decades later I became their second grandson.
Various other relatives were scattered across the Square. My parents’ first house was in Horsley Road, opposite my great aunt and uncle (and godparents) Cyril and Dorothy Gull, and just along from my Great Aunt and Uncle Kate and Bert Pitcher. Indeed their daughter still lives nearby.
But enough of me. It’s the chance for Betty Finn to reminisce about her childhood around the Square. Betty wrote to the City of Rochester Society: “School holidays were long and summers seemed hotter but there was not enough money for family holidays away. There were, however, so many local places to explore and delight in within walking distance of The Square.
“Two ‘playgrounds’ were the New Gardens [also known as Willis Gardens and The Improvement] and the Backfields. The New Gardens had a glass-panelled shelter that was handy in inclement weather and for ‘secrets’ scratched on paintwork. We always used to check the latest romantic new bulletin there.
“The gardens sloped down to the riverside to one of the entrances to Fort Clarence. We never entered this particular one but I have to confess that like many other Rochester children (no doubt unknown to their parents) we were able to enter the tunnels from the fort in Maidstone Road — where we had a hidden supply of candles and matches — and travelled some way in the direction of the river.
“On one occasion we discovered a hitherto unexplored tunnel that led to a door we were able to open. We found ourselves in the commissary, a building that seems to contain Army stores — iron beds and mattresses, etc.
“The Backfields was not very useful for games because of the steep slope, though the handrails by the steps were good for gymnastic efforts and there was a small play area with swing and a seesaw. On the few occasions when there was a heavy snowfall, the field was idea for tobogganing.
“In the summer holidays we often used to walk along the riverbank, taking sandwiches with us together with lemonade which was made with a bag of crystals. We went past the seaplane works, allotments and fields and on to paddle in an area called Safety Bay. Sometimes we went beyond the bottom of Manor Lane at Borstal, where I am told the magnificent trees still stand, to play hide and seek in the old cement works ruins.”
The organist let down by a choirboy
Yes, Mrs Finn, I was also privileged to play in the old cement works — but under strict supervision. My father had played there as a lad and in the early 1960s took me and my brother Philip.
It was a magical, cathedral-like structure and I wish I could remember more about it. It was also pretty dangerous — as all good playgrounds are — and was demolished not long after.
But back to Mrs Finn’s sentimental journey — and St Margaret’s Church. “My father used to pump the church organ, as did his two brothers in turn. He was very partial to reading lurid crime magazines and on one occasion at least became so immersed in the gory plot that he forgot to pump and poor Mr Sellen, the organist, was cut off in the middle of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.”
Betty also admires the architecture of the area: “There were so many interesting houses near the Square, particularly in St Margaret’s Street, Borstal Road and Watts Avenue, where at one time an actress, a very glamorous figure, lived with her young son. She was often seen driving around in an open sports car.
“There was more than one private school, including The Chestnuts in Watts Avenue, which was presided over by a stately lady, Miss Snowdon-Smith. There was another small school high up on a bank on the left of Borstal Road just before Ridley Road.”
Betty concludes: “Only the newer houses in Borstal Road grated a bit, especially as they seem to have been built on the old cemetery. I wonder if they are haunted by the former occupants of the site?”
Well, I know a little about that cemetery — but would like to know a lot more. My great-grandfather John Richard Rayner, mentioned above, kept an eye on this overgrown graveyard, a gothic affair with plenty of ivy, angels and creepy vaults, just by the turning down to Backfields.
As a boy he had lived in the house opposite, Prospect Cottage, which was demolished in 1895 and what became the Fontenay nursing home built. (A painting of the house and his mother hangs on my study wall.)
The graveyard was excavated in the early 1970s, when 700 extra graves were unearthed, identifying it as a much earlier burial place. Those remains were reburied in a huge vault against the cathedral’s north wall.
On the site were built half a dozen out-of-keeping town houses. Whatever possessed the authorities — I presume this was an overspill cathedral graveyard — to sanction such pointless desecration is beyond me. I suspect it’s the same crass mentality that removes memorial stones from graves so it’s easier to mow the grass. Don’t get me started.
Great Uncle Bert, clowning about at the VJ party
Back to celebrations in the Square. My Great Uncle Bert Pitcher, a First World War submariner and later chief petty officer who served much time in the Far East, was a bit of a clown. In fact, he dressed as one for the street party in Ridley Road to celebrate VJ Day in August, 1945.
Here are two pictures of it, supplied by his daughter Betty Baker. In the top picture he is the rather sad-faced clown on the left. His mother-in-law, my great-grandmother, is on the far left. Two up from her is the lady who became Mrs Hampson, mum of my first schoolfriend, Roger. They moved to Cookham Hill. I lost contact with him many years ago and I wish I could find him.
In the second picture, Uncle Bert’s in the middle and it looks as if there’s a conga going on at the right.
Enid Bradley, of Stroud, Gloucestershire, and a former Miss Arnott, lived at 3 Horsley Road. She writes, in response to Betty Finn’s reminiscences: “One shop, the sub post office at the Langdon Road end of Ridley Road, was run by Mrs Collins (pictured here, on the left). The other shop on the opposite side was run by the Misses Piggott (who terrified me in my early years) and was taken over by Mrs Elliott, with her son David.
“The gentleman in Langdon Road interested in photography was Mr Kelly [he took this photograph] who lived with his elderly mother. I used to take our accumulators to him to be charged (for sixpence) for our first cat’s whisker wireless.
“Mr Arthur Horniblow, verger at St Margaret’s Church, lived on the corner of Langdon Road, nearest to Horsley.
“The actress who lived in Watts Avenue was Eileen Pollock — she acted often at the Castle Theatre [later the police station on Castle Hill] and also in the West End and films.
“The small private school was the only house on the left hand side of Borstal Road between Watts Avenue and the Square (not as far up as Fort Clarence) and run by two sisters. It was opposite a row of two or three houses hit by a bomb in April, 1921, and the land was subsequently used as allotments.”
Hide and seek under the post office gaslight
Mrs Margaret Richards, who was brought UP in the Square, adds more colour to the description: “The homes going towards Borstal in St Margaret’s Street above the old cemetery were very stately,” she says. I remember them being bombed one night. The next morning the roadway had disappeared and there was a ledge over 12 or 18 inches wide to get by on.
“After a raid it was common practice for kids to hunt shrapnel – and a favourite place to find this was behind the Blind Hut near Fort Clarence’s wall.”
Blind Hut? What was that? “This hut was a workshop for blind people, who made baskets and lots of wickerwork. Mr Wilkinson, who lived in one of the big houses in Langdon Road, was blind and he used to go there every day. He had a daughter, Margaret. The hut was at the beginning of Horsley Road and the end of Langdon Road. The wall of Fort Clarence is at the back of this piece of ground. We used to sneak by to go into the fort.”
Fort Clarence should have been strictly out of bounds in the war — but, girls will be girls.
Mrs Richards adds: “During the war there were lots of things going on in the fort. We used to see men going down the steps and never dared to follow them. In Borstal Gardens, opposite was a gun emplacement. It was never used as far as I know. Perhaps it was there in case of invasion. The fort had another exit below Borstal Gardens and had a large iron door — which looked enormous to us.”
Mrs Richards recalls other more peaceful activities: “Does anyone remember the roly-poly bank in Borstal Gardens — good for sledges in winter? If you had a good run you went through the hedge at the bottom and ended up in the orchard!
“Mrs Collins’s shop in the Square had gaslight outside — that was a great place to play hide and seek in the twilight. You could get a Bovril cube for a ha’penny — boy, were they strong! I’ve no doubt that lots of people remember Jack Kelly, well known for his photography, who used to ride around the Square with a box on the back of his bike — flat cap, of course, with bicycle clips. And what about the Slades, who used to have film shows in the air raid shelter? Popeye, mostly.”
Mrs Richards has made a sentimental journey to her roots: “It was a strange feeling, bit where I lived the windows had not changed.” (Glad to hear it, Mrs Richards — there’s nothing more horrid that uPVC on an old house).
“It was 56 years since I left. I just wish I could have had a look at the back of the houses.” Can any kind reader help with that?
More vivid recollections of the area have come from Mr Brien Stigant, of Maidstone Road, Chatham. You can read them here.