Vignettes from Seven Dials Past

In 1980 The Whistler published this interview with Charles Attwater who lived in West Hill Place.

I was born at No 21 Belmont Street near St Bartholomew’s Church, off Anne Street. Shortly after my birth we moved to No 9 and from there to the now vanished London Street, which used to run alongside St Bartholomew’s Church. I spent my childhood from age three to ten years there. I went to Preston Road School and the Headmaster was called Ward. We called him Gaffer Ward and he was a most tough man.

My family were all musical and my only interest was music. I was a choirboy at St Bart’s and we had over 30 boys in the choir under Harry Mabell. I was there from the beginning of the 1914-18 war and I remember that during the war we gave a recital of Gounod’s ‘Mors et Vita’ and there was a Zeppelin raid in the middle of the programme and we had a blackout. We quickly arranged for the organ to be hand-pumped and we continued our recital in the dark. Saint Bartholomew’s was a very well attended church in those days. The Churchwarden there was called Charles Rubie, reputed to be a millionaire and he lived in Vernon Gardens. Every Christmas he took the choirboys to the Theatre Royal pantomime. He took us to Clark’s at 14 New Road and we would have tea there and then go into the Theatre Royal.

We moved to 15 Bath Street just before the war. In those days Brighton’s principle industry, employing most men, was the Railway Works, making engines. The men used to pour out of the Railway Works in hundreds. They would run down the road and catch their special trams from New England Road to the Seven Dials. I remember them coming out at 1 o’clock, running along and jumping onto the trams which were all lined up waiting for them, and they would hang on outside, inside, anywhere at all, so as to get home quickly for their dinners. Trams would come up Queen’s Road to the station and then go back to the Old Steine. Minimum fare was a halfpenny.

It was 1920 and I was 15 years old, and my brother was 18. When giving time signals the 2LO announcer would count 55, 56, etc up to 60 and when he got to 60 he would hit a gong and that would be for Greenwich Mean Time. We found we could transmit about 5 minutes before the time signal was due and we used to play a trick on people. We would announce the time. We would hold an enamel bowl up and count just like the 2LO announcer and when we got to 60 we hit the enamel bowl and said, “The time is now 8 o’clock and people used to set their clocks and watches by us and father would get so annoyed because he was particular about the exact time. He’d say, “But they are wrong!” We played that trick for a long time and father would be so annoyed because he checked the time every morning at the station. Other people in the immediate area could hear us of course. It was just a quirk of the set, We knew what to do to be able to broadcast but we never did find out how or why it worked. Our aerial was 60ft high and had a 6ft span and it stretched from the back of our garden, which was almost in the gardens of Buckingham Place, and came over our roof.

When we left there in 1922, we went to live at 13 Clifton Street. It was there that I started my apprenticeship with Thomas Harrington in Church Street. We lived there a long time. My mother bought the house: she paid £50 down and the balance in rent. It was a form of mortgage, not through a building society, but a private arrangement. She paid £500 for it and when she died many years later, we sold the house. Values had gone up tremendously but my brother said, “No, we can’t sell at an inflated price” and I think he sold it for £800, at what represented a big loss at the time. It was from that house that I married.

To be continued…


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