Sunday, 13 May 2012

Meet the Neighbours

Both sides of my family hail from very lowly stock. Going back through the generations you'll find farm workers, soldiers, miners, lace makers... and the odd criminal! My ancestors lived off the land or worked in factories and mines; they got by with what they had, and occasionally turned to poaching for extra food, or perhaps to sell on for a small profit. My wartime hero ancestors were privates, gunners or able seamen; there are no lieutenants, captains or majors in my tree. Because of this humble background, I was always very intrigued by the fact that my mother and her family grew up in a very exclusive and expensive part of central London, in a Regency house in Chelsea.

My mother was born in Ireland and spent her early childhood years there. In the late 1930s the family relocated from Ireland to London and found themselves in the heart of the great metropolis. My grandfather worked for the Guinness Brewery and on arrival in London the family were housed in several properties owned by the Guinness Trust. The Trust had been founded by the philanthropist Sir Edward Guinness in 1890 "to help improve the lives of ordinary people, many of whom couldn't afford homes". The family were bombed out of one of these properties during the Second World War and for a time lived in the Guinness Buildings on Draycott Avenue in Chelsea. They were now living a mere stone's throw from Harrods and the famous Royal Hospital, home of the Chelsea Pensioners.

Wellington Square, Chelsea, taken c.1950
By 1950 the family had moved from Draycott Avenue to nearby Wellington Square off the Kings Road. This lovely three sided square is home to a beautiful collection of five floored Regency houses surrounding an idyllic garden square in the centre. The house my family moved into had been divided up into separate flats and was home to four other households. There were at least 14 people living in this residence at any one time. The property had been requisitioned by the council after the war to house some of the many people who had been left homeless after the Blitz. It's a shame we didn't own it for, if we had, we would probably be a very wealthy family today!

With the release of Ancestry's collection of London Electoral Registers from 1847-1965, I was amazed to see that my mother was raised with some rather distinguished neighbours.

Two doors down from the family home resided Lord John and Lady Agnes Clydesmuir. Lord John was the 1st Baron Clydesmuir who became an MP in 1929. He held many prominent posts within government and was Secretary of State for Scotland between 1938 and 1940. In 1943 he became the Governor of Burma. He was even a governor of the BBC. Distinguished neighbours indeed!

Peter Bull
My aunt can remember an actor lived further down the road, but she couldn't remember his name. Ancestry solved that problem. It was Peter Bull, a character actor who had acted in over 70 films, including Doctor Doolittle, Dr Strangelove, Tom Jones and The African Queen.

Living in number 9 Wellington Square were the O'Briens. This was a family I grew up knowing the name of but not knowing anything about. They were often mentioned at family get-togethers and there are photos of the O'Brien children with my cousin who also grew up in Wellington Square. The father, Toby O'Brien, was an Anglo-Irish journalist and, to quote Wikipedia, was a "public relations expert who spearheaded Britain's efforts to counter Nazi Germany propaganda during World War II". As press officer for the British Council, it was Toby O'Brien's job to contradict German lies and point out the truth in false German reports about the state of the war. His son Donough O'Brien has claimed that his father wrote the original wording for the World War II ditty 'Hitler Has Only Got One Ball', which is sung to the tune of the 'Colonel Bogey March'. My Nana was their cleaning lady and cooked for them when they held dinner parties. My cousin remembers Toby as "a lovely man" who used to let her sit next to him in the front seat of his car even though she was too small to see out of the window. She got to know the children of his second marriage and had the run of their house.

Maurice Buckmaster
The final distinguished neighbours that my family had were the Buckmasters. Maurice Buckmaster is, of course, well known as the head of the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II. The SOE's agents worked behind enemy lines, conducting espionage, subversion and sabotage. They blew up bridges and power stations, carried out assassinations (most famously killing Hitler's deputy Reinhard Heydrich) and encouraged and aided local resistance movements. It was dangerous and potentially deadly work as, if captured, an agent could expect torture and execution. My aunt remembers the Buckmasters, in particular having to take her 5-year old daughter around to the house to apologise to Mrs Buckmaster for a childhood misdemeanor which unfortunately my aunt can't recall. I would love to know what upset or annoyed her so much that she needed my 5-year old cousin to apologise.

My family left Wellington Square when the owners of the house decided they wanted it back. This was many years after the end of the war. Most of my family moved to the north London suburbs. But how wonderful to have lived in the heart of London and to have had these illustrious neighbours who played such key roles in the war, as well as actors and peers of the realm. My family look back with great affection and fondness at their time in Chelsea, and I must admit I feel a touch of envy that I was born so long after they left that I never experienced it for myself. The house may be in the hands of other people now but, to me, it'll always be my family's home.

Wellington Square, Chelsea today.
© Copyright D Johnston and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence



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