I am Balham boy.
When I lived there, Balham was over 850 years old and, as a local, I knew that because during the “Great Survey” of England in 1086, it was recorded in ‘The Domesday Book’. Known then as Belgeham, it was shown as having “1½ ploughs and 8 acres of meadow”. By the time I lived there it had grown considerably.
It was my home town from 1939 to 1971, at which time my mother and I emigrated to Australia. In 2008, to commemorate the centenary of the 1st Balham and Tooting King of Siam’s Own Boy Scout group (K.S.O.), I compiled and edited reminiscences of fourteen former members. The Wandsworth Borough’s archivist, in a thank you letter for the copy I lodged there, informed me there was not much information about Balham in the archives so I offered to write my recollections of living there. Here is my contribution to the archives on Balham.
In the 1920s Byrne Road, a turning off Bedford Hill Balham, was one step up from being a slum. The houses were three storeys high with self-contained basement flats. They were overcrowded and had minimal modern conveniences, no bathroom and only outside lavatories. Renting number 35 were my maternal grandparents, Charles Henry Figg and Ellen (nee Snell) and their six children; Kathleen (Kit); Ellen (Bob), Margaret Ivy (Peg, my mum), Ada (Lit) Charles (Wag) and Patricia (Pat).
I was born in 1932 and my memories of number 35 are of an entrance hall with a hallstand at the left, on which were an oil lamp and a leafy plant. On the right of the hall were banister rails and a stairway leading down to the basement. I used to run past them just in case ‘the witch’, Mrs Andrews, who lived there, grabbed me. I now realise that she was probably just a lonely old lady, maybe a WW1 widow. At the back was a small garden bordered by a fence on the other side of which were the Southern Railway tracks. It was a busy suburban commuter line and trains would go by about every ten minutes. I used to enjoy watching them, especially the steam trains. Maybe that was the reason the houses at the lower end of Byrne Road were cheap to rent. It was a loop road which went from, Bedford Hill back to Bedford Hill. Half way around Byrne became Culverden and rents increased, possibly because the distance between road and rail was greater.
Du Cane Court Balham High Road London S.W.12. circa 1937
Memories of Balham began for me around the age of three when I used to be taken by my mother to visit her mum, my ‘granny grunt’. The number 88 bus we travelled on from Mitcham Figg’s Marsh, where we lived, went along Balham High Road. As we neared Balham Station, my nose would be glued to the bus window as I watched and waited to see Du Cane Court come into view, then let everyone know, “My dad built those and put the flag pole on top”. He had been a bricklayer on that project. I didn’t become a real Balham boy until the end of 1939 when I was seven and I started living with gran and granddad Figg from Monday to Friday, so I could be in the London County Council’s education catchment area and able to attend school there.
When my parents started to move up in the world we went to live in Sutton, Surrey. By law, all children over five years of age had to attend school, but the Surrey County Council did not cater for the education of disabled children, which I was. To comply with the law, I was sent to a home for crippled children in Bournemouth on the southern coast but, in 1939 because invasion was possible there, mum and dad were finally able to get me away from that draconian institution. But there was still the problem of education. They resolved that by sending me to ‘Hill Crest’ Preparatory School for girls, which also took boys up to the age of 10. It was in a big house on the corner of Bedford Hill and Culverden Road, about a mile from Childebert Road where gran and granddad lived. The head mistress was a lovely lady named Miss Hoare, whose father tended the house’s magnificent rose garden. Initially, a push chair was used to get me to and from school, but then I got a tricycle with 20” wheels which gave me independence and became my means of transportation.
Miss Hoare -back row rt.- and the pupils of ‘Hill Crest Girls Prep. School’.
A couple of days each week my gran would clean for a lady at number 39 Elmfield Road, situated at one end of Childebert Road. I used to visit there and play with a coffee grinder that fascinated me. It had a drawer to catch the fresh ground coffee. Those visits led to me becoming quite adventurous when returning home on my trike. I would often continue around the block (Childebert – Elmfield – Cloudsdale – Ritherdon) to Childebert Road. It was due to those exploration that I discovered a small shop on the corner of Cloudsdale and Foxbourne Roads. It was like Aladdin’s cave to me because, besides having sweets and cigarettes, it sold all kinds of novelty toys. During the war years the shop-keeper occasionally found pre-war stock which was a boy’s delight, such as real caps for cap-pistols (better than the head of Swan Vesta matches) and cap-bombs on string. One year he even had penny bangers and a few other fireworks, though each customer was only allowed to buy a certain number.
1940 brought another change of address for the Figg and Irwin families. My grandparents moved to 47 Louisville Road, Upper Tooting and my parents rented a flat almost opposite at number 28. The phoney war was coming to an end when we moved there, but government regulated Civil Defence and Air Raid Precaution preparations were still being enforced. Those included building air raid shelters big enough to hold 40 people down one lane of the roadway. Four or five, spaced about 100yds apart, were built along Louisville Road, but they were only ever used by children and courting couples so they were soon demolished.
A more popular alternative to street shelters, was the conversion of some houses’ cellars into shelters. Every tenth house, or thereabout, was designated an A.R.P. storage point and the occupants were made responsible for keeping the issued fire extinguishing equipment of stirrup pump, water bucket, long handled incendiary bomb scoop and a filled sandbag ready for use. My father was a bricklayer who had served his apprenticeship at a Yorkshire coal mine, so he reinforced the cellar
of No. 47 as though it was a coal mine gallery. Because he was sent to work away from London to build factories and accommodation for workers, mum and I would go across to number 47’s cellar when the sirens went. The first time we sat out an air raid in the cellar we recorded the start and finish time of the raid in pencil on the plain wooden side of the stairs we were under. That became a regular occurrence. At the end of the London blitz we totalled the amount of time we had spent sheltering there which was 1,296 hours = 54 days and nights. Our written record was still visible when we moved out of 47 Louisville Road in 1962.
The blitz on London began in September 1940 and the nightly ritual of going down into the cellar when the siren wailed soon became a normal part of life. When morning came and the ‘All clear’ sounded, it was time to find out where bombs had landed. One of the first places to receive a hit was the stables between the flats at 2 Louisville Road and St. Anselm’s catholic school playground. One night was particularly noisy and destructive. Noisy from the mobile Anti-Aircraft gun firing in the road outside number 47 and also from the pumping of water from the pond on the common at one of Louisville Road to fight fires at the other end in Balham High Road. That was the night the Methodist Church and G.N. Motors Ltd. were destroyed by fire due to shortage of water. Destructive because, as well as G.N. and the church, Chetwood Road was just about razed to the ground by a ‘land mine’. That could have been one of the same stick of bombs that resulted in a London bus going into a bomb crater outside Woolworths in Balham High Road. The same bomb caused the deaths of lots of people sheltering in Balham underground station. Hanging on a wall in the Chestnut Grove Pie and Eel shop was a photograph of the bus in the crater. It hung there for many years after the war was over.
The picture that was hanging in the Chestnut Grove Pie and Eel shop.
The first year I lived in Louisville Road I continued to attend Hill Crest school because it was still close enough for me to ride to on my tricycle. The route I followed was from home to the end of Louisville Rd., across Elmbourne Rd. on to Tooting Bec common, then left along the footpath past the Common Keeper’s house and depot, over Dr Johnson Ave, past the tearooms then across Bedford Hill, left into Culverdon Rd. and finally, “Good morning Miss Hoare”. The total journey was less than two miles but in 1940 what exciting and interesting sights there were for a young, 7-year-old on his way to school!
Less than 100 yards along the footpath over the common was a barrage balloon site. When there wasn’t a raid on, or one wasn’t imminent, the balloon was down about level with the roof of the house in Elmbourne that had been requisitioned as a billet for the crew. They would often talk to me and explain about the balloon and what the things on the site were for. But, best of all, they would pump up the tyres of my tricycle for me.
The common had been transformed by anti-airborne invasion and wartime preparations. From the junction of Elmbourne and Louisville Roads the first thing one could see was a structure with a flight of steps up to a stage area about 8 feet from the ground. It was protected from the elements by three walls and a roof. That was where the Civil Defence wardens gave demonstrations and showed Ministry of Information films. On the horse-riding track parallel to Tooting Bec Road, just across from Franciscan Road, a pig sty had been built. The pigs were a magnet for us young boys and we would watch them and throw things at them until stopped by the Civil Defence warden who was looking after them. He explained that they were there to help the war effort, which was the same reason that a lot of the common had been turned into allotments for growing food. In autumn we would collect acorns and give them to the ‘pig man’ to feed the pigs but we never received a rasher of bacon in return! In our imagination a potato scrumped (stolen) from an allotment and eaten raw tasted as good as an apple.
Anti-Aircraft guns used to operate from the common and at one time a rocket battery was installed there. We never saw them during the day, we only heard them at night.
The part of the common by the running track at the end of Dr Johnson Avenue, was known as ‘The Dell’, and had been left untouched. That area gave us youngsters plenty of space to play and exercise our bodies and minds. Yet we always had to be on the look-out for the Common Keepers (Brown Bombers) in their brown uniforms riding big heavy bicycles. It was forbidden for the public to ride bikes on the common but, with a look-out in place, we would ride our bikes and play at ‘follow-my-leader’ pretending to be despatch riders. Tree climbing was also against the Bye-Laws of the common, but we ignored that rule too. We gave names to most of the trees we climbed, such as ‘Spikey Bill’, ‘Lighthouse Tree’, ‘Armchair Tree’ and ‘Parachute Tree’ from which we descended by forward rolling between a forked branch parallel to the ground. Playing soldiers and having shoot-outs was alright but climbing trees or playing ‘follow-my-leader’ was more exciting, even though we needed to be alert for a quick get-away if a ‘Brown Bomber’ appeared on his bike.
When I became eight, just after Christmas 1940, I was old enough to join the Wolf Cub pack at Balham Congregational Church situated on Balham High Road next to Du Cane Court. The pack was part of the 1st Balham and Tooting K.S.O. Boy Scout Group. During the war, most of us wanted to earn our ‘National Service’ badges, which involved taking the trek-cart around Balham on Saturday mornings and collecting waste paper. The paper would be taken back to the church’s lecture hall where it was sorted, bagged, bundled and stored ready for collection. Those sacks of waste paper were a fantabulous climbing challenge for us cubs to play on. After the war the hall was renamed ‘The John Bevan Room’ in honour of the church’s war time vicar.
1st Balham & Tooting K.S.O. Scout Group, Officers and Rover Crew 1952.
L – R: Toby Turner; Bob Irwin; Ivor Hodges; Martin Quarendon; Ken Warner; Arthur Quarendon; ‘Pa’ Riches; Joan Simmance; Charles Hanwell; Ron Smith; Pam Simmance; Roy Mark; Harry George Anderson; Chris Owens; Mike Selby.
Many civic occasions involved the use of members of the Boy Scouts Association. In 1952 I was a member of the K.S.O’s Rover Crew and therefore a Balham and Tooting Rover. We had been asked to provide an honour guard at the ceremony to mark the departure of the final tram to run from Tooting. I wore my District Rover Crew black uniform scarf and was part of the guard. I think the tram was a number 2, to the Embankment via the Elephant and Castle. Its route was through Balham, Clapham, Stockwell, The Oval, Kennington and The Elephant. My main recollection of the event is of a large crowd and bright magnesium flares giving off lots of smoke. Those were to light up the scene for the television cameras to record. Apart from a few coughing fits the ‘Last Tram’ was cheered on its final public journey with due pomp and ceremony.
In 1953 members of the District Rover Crew were once more called upon. That time to mount an overnight security guard on the ‘Coronation Beacon’. Our duty was to prevent it being set alight before schedule. The beacon had been built on the Streatham side of Tooting Bec Common, the railway being the dividing line. If memory serves me correctly, it was built near the open-air swimming pool. Balham’s beacon was one in a chain around Britain which were lit, simultaneously, to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Some of Balham’s senior scouts were also recruited to sell programmes along the route of the coronation parade.
Being a member of the scout group that met at Balham Congregational Church it was natural that I should become involved in the social activities of the church – especially as young ladies were involved. The Rev. John Bevan was the vicar when I first joined the group as a cub. When he retired The Rev. Peter Ackroyd, a very scholarly man, took over. Around 1948 The Rev. Selwyn Roberts became the vicar and had some quite revolutionary ideas to bring the church alive. One of his initiatives was to form a youth group. That became ‘The Saints and Sinners’, a group of young adults, over sixteen, from the church’s youth groups who would meet purely for socialising. Members came from the Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, Boys Brigade and Girls Life Brigade. Guides and Scouts held their meetings on the church premises, but the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades met at the Constitutional Church’s Mission in Zennor Road. Hence, the two groups did not know each other very well. Luckily, becoming Saints and Sinners soon rectified that. Any young person from the congregation was welcome to become a member of the ‘S and S’. It was a great place to meet like-minded members of the opposite sex. Founding and long-time members included Carol Saunders, Shirley Riches, Molly Turner, Roy Graham, Alfred (Nobby) Noble, Harry Anderson, Bob Irwin (me) and those who met and married – Valerie Goddard to Roy Mark, Ann Tancred to Peter Capp, Evelyn Saunders to Ivor Hodges, June to Lewis Faulkner and Yvonne to Ralph Andrews.
The ‘Saints and Sinners’ operated as a conventional youth club for two or three years. As the members grew older and very few new members joined, their attendance petered out due to work and/or study. However, a group of them kept in contact and would socialise regularly. Those still alive are in touch even after fifty plus years and occasionally get together.
One of the girls, Evelyn Saunders, a ‘Gold Medal Ballroom Dancer’, arranged lessons for those of us interested in learning ballroom dancing. One Sunday after evening service she took us to a dance studio above one of the shops in Balham High Road. It was near ‘The Hole in the Wall’ (Gaumont) cinema, that had started life as a swimming pool. That fact was apparent from the way some seats were very difficult to see the screen from.
Balham had two well-known ballroom dancing venues; the Court Ballroom, with a sprung floor, was above the shops in Balham High Street opposite Du Cane Court. The other, less salubrious, was ‘Nina Mason’s School of Dance’, also in the High Street at the junction with Ritherdon Road but closer to Tooting Bec. It was in a converted loft above an automobile accessory shop adjacent to Moira Court. The entrance was up a flight of stairs into a dim lit lobby smelling of ‘Californian Poppy’ perfume, the young female’s pheromone of the day.
Older ‘Saints and Sinners’ dressed for the dance.
Ivor Hodges; Malcolm Mark; Martin Quarendon; Bob Irwin; Roy Mark; Roy Graham; Evelyn Saunders; Carol Saunders; Vicky; Valerie Goddard; Monica.
Almost opposite the Balham Constitutional Church were ‘Hamilton Hall’, the ‘Balham Constitutional Club’ and the ‘Territorial Drill Hall’. Two or three of the Rover Crew who lived relatively near the church, became members of the Constitutional Club, thereby having a close venue where they could adjourn to relax with drinks after a late meeting. The club had several recreational sections, one of which was a lawn bowls green at the rear of the premises. It was there that I learned to play bowls. My mentor was Stan Allen, a well-known character in the Surrey bowling fraternity. During my fifty years of playing bowls, in both Balham and Australia, I never met anyone who played the game with the same irreverence, enjoyment and skill that he did. Apart from winning a couple of trophies, the two best moments in my bowls career were firstly when I played second in the rink skipped by Stan against one skipped by Tom Brown (at that time the world single’s champion) and we won. The second occasion was when Stan took me as his double’s partner in the Brighton Tournament. We were eliminated in the first round, which we lost by one shot. No shame because our opponents were a pair who were the current representatives for the Welsh National Team.
In the late 1950s the Constitutional Club was taken over by Barney Coleman who owned ‘The Castle’ public house in Tooting. He upgraded the premises, which caused the bowls club to be disbanded due to the bowling green being built on. That was the period when the gambling laws in Britain were being relaxed. Barney, an astute business man, obtained a licence and opened a casino (gambling den) on the first floor of the club. After its closure many of the club’s bowlers joined the ‘Balham Club’ in Ramsden Road that also had a bowling green out the back. Another bowling club in the area was the ‘South London Bowling Club’, where W.G. Grace was reputed to have played. It was also where the English Bowling Association was formed.
The South London Bowling Club members 1970 season.Stan Allen – Front row; Bob Irwin – Third row, both extreme left.
In the early 1960s, I leased industrial premises at 236, Cavendish Road, Balham, previously used by Civic Batteries, whose owner was Geoffrey Shrubshall. He was a former Mayor of Wandsworth and known as “Mr Sodium’ because of his involvement in converting the lights of Wandsworth’s main roads to Sodium, which gave a yellow light. Geoffrey took me as his guest to a meeting of The Balham Rotary Club, of which he was a past president. Later I was invited to become a member. My membership classification was ‘Sports Goods manufacturer’ because my company had made a sailing boat using fibre glass.
Regular weekly meetings of the Balham Rotary Club were held on Tuesday lunchtimes from 12 until 1-30pm at the Bedford Hotel (where my grandfather used to drink back in the 1930s). A leading light in the Balham Rotary Club in the 1960s was a past president, Ernie Russell, a local builder. He was very much involved with the Balham Senior Citizens’ Association (B.S.C.A.). I feel certain he was an instigator in their formation. His sister-in-law, ‘Auntie Mabel’ always claimed to be only 19 because her birthday was on 29th February. She lived in Du Cane Court and would recycle greeting cards into birthday cards. She took it upon herself to send each B.S.C.A. member a card on their birthday – all 400 of them.
When I was a rotarian the B.S.C.A., that had been started by the Rotary Club of Balham, had approximately 400 members, all over sixty. It had its own constitution and executive but was supported financially and physically by the Balham Rotarians. Money was raised for the purchase and maintenance of a 12-seater mini-bus that was used to transport seniors to various functions. It was also used once a week to collect Down’s Syndrome youths from their homes and take them to a ‘Gateway’ club where they could meet other young peoples with the same syndrome for social interaction, to enjoy dancing and other activities.
The B.S.C.A. had a full social calendar that included social evenings once a month, fortnightly bingo nights, a choir to entertain other groups and to enter (and sometimes win) competitions and a yearly holiday. Rotarians, along with their families and friends, also helped on those occasions. Social evenings involved taxiing about 250 senior citizens to and from a local church hall. That required members using their private cars to augment the mini-bus, each making several trips. Apart from general socialising there was always entertainment of some type. Various local church, youth and service groups, conjurors or other individual performers, would come to perform and (hopefully) keep the seniors happy for an hour or two.
On other occasions, we rotarians and B.S.C.A. members would trepidatiously tread the boards and face the footlights. We were well known to the audience as local businessmen and helpers, so they thoroughly enjoyed seeing us let down our hair (those of us who had any). As a last resort there was always the pub style pianist and a good old sing song.
For about two weeks before Christmas the Balham Rotarians devoted a lot of time to fund raising for the B.S.C.A. They played Christmas carols on ghetto blasters and rattled collection tins on the streets of Balham. With co-opted friends they would be rostered in two-hourly shifts to stand outside Tesco’s supermarket, (formerly the ABC cinema) on Balham High Road between Chestnut Grove and Ramsden Road. A rotarian’s caravan was decorated with Father Christmas’s sledge, reindeer, coloured fairy lights and a loud public-address system that belted out Christmas carols. Each evening it would be driven around Balham streets, accompanied by the tin-rattlers knocking on doors and asking for donations. The money collected was used towards the cost of a Christmas dinner and a summer holiday for the B.S.C.A. members.
Fund raising for the B.S.C.A.
‘Raffling Big Ted’ : Fanny Thoms; Peggy Neill; Josie Payne.
Wandsworth Town Hall was the venue for the Christmas dinner and was an occasion that called for ‘all hands to the pump’. A three-course dinner, including wine, was cooked and served by Balham Rotarians for 350 members of the Senior Citizens Association whom they had taxied, in their private cars, to the town hall. The K.S.O. Rover Crew use to do the washing up because there were no dish-washing facilities at the town hall.
Early in the summer 120 B.S.C.A. members, who could afford to make a token payment, were taken away on holiday. Arrangements were made with a Ponting’s holiday camp manager, possibly a rotarian, that for the week before the season officially started the camp would be fully booked, at a reduced rate, by B.S.C.A. It helped the camp staff sort out any problems before the full paying public arrived and it gave the pensioners a subsidised holiday. A ‘Win, Win’ situation! Several volunteers, one of whom was a doctor, went with them to help run things. Although it was great fun accompanying the old people, it was exhausting trying to keep up with them.
B.S.C.A. holiday campers’ fancy dress competitors.
I had to resign from Rotary in 1968 because I was no longer a local business man. My last outing with the rotarians and B.S.C.A. was taking part in the Balham & Tooting carnival parade. The B.S.C.A. entered a float which was a tableau of ‘Old King Cole’s’ court. I had made a glass fibre fountain for the ‘Beatles’ Apple shop and one of the trial pieces was used as a large coronet over the King’s throne. On the float sat King Cole (Ernie Russell) the Queen of Hearts (Marjorie the Association’s Hon. Sec.) the Jester (me) and the court cat (Peggy Neill – my mother) plus an array of courtiers.
Young’s Brewery of Wandsworth provided a brewer’s dray which we decorated. The dray was pulled by two beautiful shire horses who were fitted with their finest show harness. I am certain they knew they were in their Sunday best and behaved accordingly. Details of the parade’s start and finish elude me, but I know I walked, carrying a bucket and collecting money, alongside our float from Balham to Tooting Broadway, then along Mitcham Lane to Church Lane. The horses had a little trouble going up the gradient of Church Lane. The floats finally arrived at Dr Johnson Avenue where they were judged. That was the year we came first! Also, we had collected a good sum of money towards B.S.C.A. funds.
After emigrating to Australia, I kept in touch with a few rotarians and members of the B.S.C.A., but when I visited Balham in 1978 the B.S.C.A. was no longer in existence. I was unable to discover what had caused its demise after successfully acquiring St. John’s Hall, Byrne Road as their permanent headquarters.
St John’s Hall, Byrne Road, Balham, London S.W.12.
B.S.C.A. – Ponting’s Holiday Camp, Paignton Devon 1968.Peggy, Fanny, Gordon, John.
Peggy and Fanny take the plunge??
Balham & Tooting Street Carnival – 1968
B.S.C.A’s float : ‘King Cole’s Court.Jester-Bob Irwin, Maid-Anon, Princess-Fanny Thoms.
Float Judging.B.S.C.A. First Prize.
B.S.C.A. Helpers 1968.
Bob Irwin (Rotarian); Marjorie Anon (Secretary); John King (Rotarian);
Gordon McDee; Peggy Neill (Bob’s Mum);
Ivy Plautt (Rotarian Gus Plautt’s wife).
In 1998, I visited England to bury my mother’s ashes and attend a re-union luncheon to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the scout group to which I had belonged. My mother’s sister Pat, then in her 80s, came with me to Wandsworth cemetery in Magdalen Road and we buried Peg’s ashes in the family plot where her two husbands were interred.
Afterwards we took a nostalgic drive around Balham, including Byrne Road. Talk about ‘posh-ville’! The road outside the houses numbered 1 to 50 had been made private, so we were unable to get near number 35. Apparently, despite trains nearly coming through the back doors, their market value had risen to well over the £1,000,000 mark. That was understandable as they were very suitable for converting into several flats and located in a very well serviced commuter area. Overhead and underground railway stations and numerous bus stops within easy walking distance meant 30 minutes to central London by public transport.
Aunty Pat was, to say the least, gobsmacked at the transformation that had taken place. There were no children playing in the street, watching their pet dogs sorting out the canine hierarchy with the occasional fight, or listening to ‘Thunder Bill’ telling stories and predicting when thunder was coming. No brother Wag (nicknamed because of the way he walked when he’d pooed himself) in front of groups of older boys saying ‘sausages’ 100 times to earn a penny (he had a lisp, so he pronounced it ‘thothages’) The Byrne Road Pat and her siblings had known was gone – until the next swing of the pendulum.
The High Road from Clapham South to Tooting Bec underground stations, and approximately a mile either side, encompassing parts of Streatham and Clapham common, with an occasional foray south towards Tooting Broadway, defined my boundaries of Balham.
Now it is 2018, I am 85 years of age and live in Perth, Western Australia.m But I am still a ‘Balham Boy’ and able to picture the local landmarks Peter Sellers referred to in his 1958 travelogue parody, “Bal-Ham, gateway to the south”.
It still stands ‘Four square on the Northern Line’ and the coloured lights remain changing from red to green and back again.