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|
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.
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.
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.|
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