|Charterhouse Square, and the block of flats now known as Florin Court and as Whitehaven Mansions in the Hercule Poirot TV series, fictional home to the great detective|
The block of flats was designed in 1936 by Guy Morgan (no relation) for professionals and City managers as a “pied-a-terre” during the week while working in the City.
As a result, the flats were small, with mainly one or two bedrooms and very small kitchens and bathrooms. There was porterage, a restaurant and bar in the basement, a swimming pool, a car park and two squash courts.
All this changed during the Blitz when the Charterhouse itself was destroyed and the pensioners were evacuated to Godalming.
Two buildings in the square were gutted, and the area between Aldersgate and Moorgate was completely flattened except for Cripplegate Church, which was still standing but without a roof. The City offices and staff were moved wherever possible to offices in the West End. The residents had been given Planning Approval for office use while the City was rebuilt.
In 1935 my father was posted to The City of London Division and we left Catterick Camp for a flat in Maida Vale. In 1947 he decided to retire from the Army after serving in China, Gallipoli, the Western Front and India with the South Wales Borderers, who were moving to Hong Kong. He became the Secretary of the Territorial Army Association at Finsbury Barracks.
My sister Joan and I moved for the umpteenth time to local schools and my brother Robert joined Charrington’s Coal, and at the same time was cramming for entry to Cranwell College.
My mother and her two sisters inherited a legacy including glass and china from Uncle Dick Sprague, the American Consul in Gibraltar. As a result, my mother managed to buy a small four-bedroom house at 18 Ladbroke Road, Notting Hill Gate. My brother passed first into Cranwell and my sister was sent to a finishing school in Switzerland, and I was given a bicycle with 3 gears!
When my sister returned from Switzerland, she joined the BBC and went to Alexandra Palace when television was in its infancy. My father also suggested to her that she should join the ATS.
On May 8 1939, my brother Robert was tragically killed in a mid air collision with a fellow cadet while flying near Cranwell, which obviously shattered my family. He was about to receive the Sword of Honour.
When war was declared my sister was already on her way north to an unknown destination, promoted Lance Corporal, and became a WAAF. She was asked to sign the Official Secrets Act and was then lectured by Watson Watt on the mysteries of RADAR. Later she thought that she had been taken to the Code Breaking Centre at Bletchley park.
My father had rejoined the Army and sent to The City of London Division at Hay on Wye. I had been sent down to a “crammers” in Horsham to catch up on my lack of education, and to pass the School Certificate.
On return to Ladbroke Road I first of all decided that I wanted to be an aircraft designer and joined Fairey Aviation at Hayes Middlesex as a student apprentice, working at a bench with the prototype Barracuda being assembled in the centre of the works. I left Fairey Aviation and joined the Army in a Young Soldier’s Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and was posted directly down to the New Forest, where the Battalion were doing their summer training under canvas.
My mother realised that as the rest of the family had moved away, she decided to let the house to the Russian Embassy and moved out of London to stay with friends.
When the threat of invasion receded, my father was posted up to London to the War Office and promoted Brigadier. As we had let our house he managed to find a flat in Charterhouse Square at the time when the area was not very popular due to continuous bombing.
It now appears that Kate Watkins’ parents lived in the flats, but moved out due to the bombing! Luckily, the block had a concrete roof, and the Air Raid wardens (including residents) were able to dispose of the incendiary bombs.
The remainder of the residents would seek shelter in the basement and bar, which was still operating.
My father persuaded the management to allow our cocker spaniel Chum to live in the flats. The only problem was when we had an air raid; the lifts were closed and he or my mother (who had by now joined him) had to walk down nine flights to the Square. Chum died on the steps of the War Office in 1943. When I heard the sad news from my father I was in Italy and shed a tear!
My sister had a car accident while taking official documents to outlying RAF stations and ended up convalescing in Torquay, where she met a Polish Pilot Officer, Jerzy (George), and they were married and had their reception in the restaurant of Charterhouse Square.
At the end of the war, my family moved to Eastbourne with Joan and her young son Robert. Unfortunately her husband had been killed flying over the Azores ferrying Mosquitoes to Europe.
My father managed to pass the flat to his sister Mrs Taylor, and later her sister, Mrs Cooper, also acquired a flat in the building.
When I returned from the Middle East after the war, I was demobbed and shortly after enrolled at the Bartlett School of Architecture. As my parents had moved to Eastbourne, my aunt kindly allowed me to stay in her flat, until I burnt the electric kettle!
When I had to find alternative accommodation luckily the management were very kind to a student on a Government grant, and I was given a very small flat on the half-landing of the eighth floor.
In the second year, I invited an Interior Design student Felicity James to supper. She didn’t like the pressure cooked meal I had provided, which was disposed of down the loo! Somehow, she managed to miss the last train back to Kensington High Street and being a resourceful ex-Wren (boat’s crew), she found my camp bed and laid it outside in the corridor with a pillow and blanket for me. The porter was highly amused the next morning when he came to empty the dustbin!
Sometime later, I was invited by Felicity down to Bedhampton to meet her parents. To prove that I was a man of worth, I bought Commander James’s Triumph 500 motor bike for £50 and a year later Felicity and I married at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and were provided with a slightly larger flat at £75 per annum ‘rent restricted‘. This included heating, hot water and porterage, and I was allowed to park the motor bike in the basement car park.
By this time Felicity had left the Bartlett and started working part time at Story’s in Kensington at approximately £1 per day. It is surprising how many friends one could entertain in a one room flat: on the bed, on the floor, and in the corridor. We would give small supper parties where she would buy a chicken from Mr Hartley in Farringdon Road. At this time rationing was still on and a chicken was about the only product fit for a party, apart from whale meat!
I used to ride down to Lulworth to attend courses in gunnery as I had joined the Inns of Court Regiment with their HQ in Chancery Lane, and we kept our armoured cars in Gray’s Inn. Felicity would come down by train and stay with a Wren friend in Studland, and in the evenings we would tour the Dorset coastline - petrol was 1s 6d per gallon! On another occasion we were invited down to the Henley Regatta and on the way we had a puncture outside Marlow. We were given cups of tea by a kind old lady and ended our journey by taxi, leaving the poor old bike on the side of the road.
As a result I realised that four wheels were better than two and bought a 1927 Singer 16 with cast iron wheels and a canvas hood for £25. I parked this jalopy in front of the flats, sometimes next to a magnificent drop head Bentley owned by the Chairman of Crosse and Blackwell.
I had now qualified as an architect, but found it difficult to get a job. I wrote to all the main architectural firms, but each one apologised that they were unable to employ me due to the lack of work and the licensing required for building. The only exception was Guy Morgan (as said, no relation), possibly due to the fact that I was living in a flat which he had designed before the War, who had offices in Eaton Square.
After a short time he was able to employ me at £600 a year. I worked with four other assistants with our drawing boards on the billiard table. I was then moved down to a small office in the basement and given sites of bombed out buildings to evaluate the potential for redevelopment. One such site was in Piccadilly next to the Turf Club, which I designed, and much to the satisfaction of the client, received Planning Approval. At the Coronation I marched past the site, which had been converted into a grandstand for the occasion.
By this time I felt that I was worth more than £600, especially as our second son Adrian had been born. Guy Morgan made all the excuses, so I walked back to Charterhouse Square to tell my wife that I was now unemployed.
I set up my drawing board over my desk and tried to design buildings, one of which was for a fellow resident’s mother who lived near Petworth. A few days after I had set up my drawing board, my other possible client decided not to proceed. I found it difficult to concentrate, so managed to rent a room above Northern Rock in Curzon Street, adjoining a fellow architect, whose father was our immediate neighbour. Being on the fifth floor, I only saw the occasional rep who came to see my next door neighbour.
One day I received a phone call from my landlord’s secretary asking me down to see him at 9.00am as he was a busy man. That night we were anxious that perhaps my father had not paid the £150 rent as he was now stationed in Germany with the Army of Occupation. Alternatively that I was practicing illegally in a private flat!
I was introduced to my landlord Kenneth Rees Reynolds who immediately asked me to join him for breakfast. He was a Chartered Surveyor and by pure chance had met another surveyor who happened to be a client for whom I had designed a building in Piccadilly.
It appeared that before the War he had commissioned Guy Morgan to design the Charterhouse Square block of flats. His family owned a number of properties in London and some had suffered war damage. He had commissioned an architect Norman Aylwin to develop a bombed site in Soho and who wondered whether I would help to solve the difficult problem. I think he was pleased to hand over the commission to me, as he was involved in other work and I suspect that his client Rees Reynolds was a taskmaster. I managed to solve the problem and get Planning Approval.
In the meantime he asked me to look at another site in High Holborn which was owned by his family and had been badly bombed. Having obtained approval, he asked me to proceed with the work. I realised that I had little or no experience in running a contract and managed to persuade David Branch, whom I had only recently met at Seely and Paget, to join me. I managed to persuade the management to let him have a two roomed flat overlooking the Square and he moved in with Jean from Cloth Fair, with their bed on their Austin 7, and left their flat to John Betjeman, a friend of Lord Mottisham (John Seely).
Rees Reynolds very kindly allowed me to rent a very small flat as an office. It was not long before there were four of us working there and a secretary with a typewriter resting on the draining board in the kitchen.
Flat 115 had been occupied before the War by a well known yacht designer Morgan Giles and was probably ideal as a “pied-a-terre”. Although we were eternally grateful to my father for managing to pass the flat from one generation to another it was hardly ideal for a family of four.
There was a magnificent view from the convex non-reflecting window on to the Plane trees below and from the balcony the view of Smithfield Market in the foreground, St Paul’s, the Old Bailey and the GPO tower in the middle distance, and Hampstead on the horizon.
Unfortunately the flat itself had a number of drawbacks: the kitchen was tiny and, with a washing machine against the door onto the corridor, Felicity was unable to get out of the kitchen as the other door had stuck. However, all was well in the end!
The internal bathroom was also very small and the washing line had to go over the bath. There were no fitted cupboards so I managed to erect a hanging rail or two. The second bedroom for the two boys David and Adrian meant that I had to build two bunk beds. To keep them amused I laid a plywood panel on the floor hinged to the skirting board on which they laid their train set, which could be hoisted up against the wall when not in use!
However, the balcony was a godsend, as it gave us fresh air and made a play area which, in summer, included a paddling pool with water being splashed onto the pavement below! In the winter, they even made a snowman!
Although very happy there, from time to time we looked at alternative options of moving, but at that time being self employed I was ineligible for a mortgage.
We had outgrown our small office and moved to Great New Street. At last I bought a slightly better car for £75 from an “Arfur Daly”, and was allowed to keep it in the underground garage having fun with the turntable to get into my allotted bay.
As the surrounding area of Charterhouse Square had been bombed, there were no local shops apart from the dairy on the corner of Carthusian Street and the Sutton Arms, and its “Jug and Bottle”.
The alternative was for Felicity to take the pram past Smithfield Market - and the ‘bummerees’ wolf whistling - to Farringdon Road butcher and grocer. To give the children some exercise they would go either down to the Square below or the Postman’s park behind St Botulph’s.
While we were in residence we were woken up in the early hours by a fireball racing through the roof of part of Smithfield Market and lived with the smell of burnt carcasses for at least a month. Also the Great Smog which brought London to a standstill, and culminated in the Clean Air Act.
By chance, I met an Army friend who invited us to dinner at their house in Hampstead. He told us that he was renting his house and introduced me to the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, who seemed to be delighted to help. In a very short time I was offered a house which I couldn’t possibly refuse, and we left Flat 115 to go to 17 Thornton Way.
Sometime later Charles Harman Hunt, Rees Reynold’s partner phoned me to say that the flat opposite in Balfour Place had become vacant and were we interested. It was another offer I could not refuse and we moved the office to Mayfair. After five years, when the office lease expired, we moved to Tilney Street, a stone’s throw from the Dorchester and Playboy Club, and round the corner from the Cavalry Club where I would stay.