Circling the Square: life in the city’s urban village

“All the old communities have gone” is a familiar cry among Medway people of a certain age. That’s mainly true, I fear, but life has changed. We are much busier and neighbours nowadays seem less important in this era of e-mail, txts, social networking and driving everywhere.

One in the great communities in the Medway towns was Bishop’s Square, off St Margaret’s Street in Rochester. These four roads — Horsley, Langdon, Ridley and Mitre — are an unusual example of a self-contained urban village.

I have good reason for an interest. At 7 Ridley Road lived George Gull, a master painter and decorator, and his wife Kate (née Marsh). They had six children: Bill, Annie, George, Kate, Cyril and Ern and later brought up their granddaughter Gladys. Her father, Bill, died in the Spanish flu epidemic in the last days of the First World War, shortly after his wife had died in childbirth.

Kate Gull, left, with her husband George. They cared for their orphaned grand-daughter Gladys, centre.

That’s them in the picture on the right. If you look carefully, you will see that the lower window pane is etched with the words Gull Bros, decorators. Next door at No 5 lived John Richard Rayner, a cathedral bedesman and carpenter with Aveling and Porter, with his wife Mary (née Webb). They had three sons, John and the twins Albert (who died in infancy) and Sidney.

In January, 1920, Annie Gull and Sidney Rayner walked the hundred or so yards to St Margaret’s Church, and married. Four decades later I became their second grandson.

Various other relatives were scattered across the Square. My parents’ first house was in Horsley Road, opposite my great aunt and uncle (and godparents) Cyril and Dorothy Gull, and just along from my Great Aunt and Uncle Kate and Bert Pitcher. Indeed their daughter still lives nearby.

But enough of me. It’s the chance for Betty Finn to reminisce about her childhood around the Square. Betty wrote to the City of Rochester Society: “School holidays were long and summers seemed hotter but there was not enough money for family holidays away. There were, however, so many local places to explore and delight in within walking distance of The Square.

“Two ‘playgrounds’ were the New Gardens [also known as Willis Gardens and The Improvement] and the Backfields. The New Gardens had a glass-panelled shelter that was handy in inclement weather and for ‘secrets’ scratched on paintwork. We always used to check the latest romantic new bulletin there.

“The gardens sloped down to the riverside to one of the entrances to Fort Clarence. We never entered this particular one but I have to confess that like many other Rochester children (no doubt unknown to their parents) we were able to enter the tunnels from the fort in Maidstone Road — where we had a hidden supply of candles and matches — and travelled some way in the direction of the river.

“On one occasion we discovered a hitherto unexplored tunnel that led to a door we were able to open. We found ourselves in the commissary, a building that seems to contain Army stores — iron beds and mattresses, etc.

“The Backfields was not very useful for games because of the steep slope, though the handrails by the steps were good for gymnastic efforts and there was a small play area with swing and a seesaw. On the few occasions when there was a heavy snowfall, the field was idea for tobogganing.

“In the summer holidays we often used to walk along the riverbank, taking sandwiches with us together with lemonade which was made with a bag of crystals. We went past the seaplane works, allotments and fields and on to paddle in an area called Safety Bay. Sometimes we went beyond the bottom of Manor Lane at Borstal, where I am told the magnificent trees still stand, to play hide and seek in the old cement works ruins.”

The organist let down by a choirboy

Yes, Mrs Finn, I was also privileged to play in the old cement works — but under strict supervision. My father had played there as a lad and in the early 1960s took me and my brother Philip.

It was a magical, cathedral-like structure and I wish I could remember more about it. It was also pretty dangerous — as all good playgrounds are — and was demolished not long after.

But back to Mrs Finn’s sentimental journey — and St Margaret’s Church. “My father used to pump the church organ, as did his two brothers in turn. He was very partial to reading lurid crime magazines and on one occasion at least became so immersed in the gory plot that he forgot to pump and poor Mr Sellen, the organist, was cut off in the middle of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.”

Betty also admires the architecture of the area: “There were so many interesting houses near the Square, particularly in St Margaret’s Street, Borstal Road and Watts Avenue, where at one time an actress, a very glamorous figure, lived with her young son. She was often seen driving around in an open sports car.

“There was more than one private school, including The Chestnuts in Watts Avenue, which was presided over by a stately lady, Miss Snowdon-Smith. There was another small school high up on a bank on the left of Borstal Road just before Ridley Road.”

Betty concludes: “Only the newer houses in Borstal Road grated a bit, especially as they seem to have been built on the old cemetery. I wonder if they are haunted by the former occupants of the site?”

Well, I know a little about that cemetery — but would like to know a lot more. My great-grandfather John Richard Rayner, mentioned above, kept an eye on this overgrown graveyard, a gothic affair with plenty of ivy, angels and creepy vaults, just by the turning down to Backfields.

As a boy he had lived in the house opposite, Prospect Cottage, which was demolished in 1895 and what became the Fontenay nursing home built. (A painting of the house and his mother hangs on my study wall.)

The graveyard was excavated in the early 1970s, when 700 extra graves were unearthed, identifying it as a much earlier burial place. Those remains were reburied in a huge vault against the cathedral’s north wall.

On the site were built half a dozen out-of-keeping town houses. Whatever possessed the authorities — I presume this was an overspill cathedral graveyard — to sanction such pointless desecration is beyond me. I suspect it’s the same crass mentality that removes memorial stones from graves so it’s easier to mow the grass. Don’t get me started.

Great Uncle Bert, clowning about at the VJ party

Back to celebrations in the Square. My Great Uncle Bert Pitcher, a First World War submariner and later chief petty officer who served much time in the Far East, was a bit of a clown. In fact, he dressed as one for the street party in Ridley Road to celebrate VJ Day in August, 1945.

VJ Day in the Square with Uncle Bert the clown

Here are two pictures of it, supplied by his daughter Betty Baker. In the top picture he is the rather sad-faced clown on the left. His mother-in-law, my great-grandmother, is on the far left. Two up from her is the lady who became Mrs Hampson, mum of my first schoolfriend, Roger. They moved to Cookham Hill. I lost contact with him many years ago and I wish I could find him.

In the second picture, Uncle Bert’s in the middle and it looks as if there’s a conga going on at the right.

Enid Bradley, of Stroud, Gloucestershire, and a former Miss Arnott, lived at 3 Horsley Road. She writes, in response to Betty Finn’s reminiscences: “One shop, the sub post office at the Langdon Road end of Ridley Road, was run by Mrs Collins (pictured here, on the left). The other shop on the opposite side was run by the Misses Piggott (who terrified me in my early years) and was taken over by Mrs Elliott, with her son David.

“The gentleman in Langdon Road interested in photography was Mr Kelly [he took this photograph] who lived with his elderly mother. I used to take our accumulators to him to be charged (for sixpence) for our first cat’s whisker wireless.

“Mr Arthur Horniblow, verger at St Margaret’s Church, lived on the corner of Langdon Road, nearest to Horsley.

“The actress who lived in Watts Avenue was Eileen Pollock — she acted often at the Castle Theatre [later the police station on Castle Hill] and also in the West End and films.

“The small private school was the only house on the left hand side of Borstal Road between Watts Avenue and the Square (not as far up as Fort Clarence) and run by two sisters. It was opposite a row of two or three houses hit by a bomb in April, 1921, and the land was subsequently used as allotments.”

Hide and seek under the post office gaslight

Mrs Margaret Richards, who was brought UP in the Square, adds more colour to the description: “The homes going towards Borstal in St Margaret’s Street above the old cemetery were very stately,” she says. I remember them being bombed one night. The next morning the roadway had disappeared and there was a ledge over 12 or 18 inches wide to get by on.

“After a raid it was common practice for kids to hunt shrapnel – and a favourite place to find this was behind the Blind Hut near Fort Clarence’s wall.”

Blind Hut? What was that? “This hut was a workshop for blind people, who made baskets and lots of wickerwork. Mr Wilkinson, who lived in one of the big houses in Langdon Road, was blind and he used to go there every day. He had a daughter, Margaret. The hut was at the beginning of Horsley Road and the end of Langdon Road. The wall of Fort Clarence is at the back of this piece of ground. We used to sneak by to go into the fort.”

Fort Clarence should have been strictly out of bounds in the war — but, girls will be girls.

Mrs Richards adds: “During the war there were lots of things going on in the fort. We used to see men going down the steps and never dared to follow them. In Borstal Gardens, opposite was a gun emplacement. It was never used as far as I know. Perhaps it was there in case of invasion. The fort had another exit below Borstal Gardens and had a large iron door — which looked enormous to us.”

Mrs Richards recalls other more peaceful activities: “Does anyone remember the roly-poly bank in Borstal Gardens — good for sledges in winter? If you had a good run you went through the hedge at the bottom and ended up in the orchard!

“Mrs Collins’s shop in the Square had gaslight outside — that was a great place to play hide and seek in the twilight. You could get a Bovril cube for a ha’penny — boy, were they strong! I’ve no doubt that lots of people remember Jack Kelly, well known for his photography, who used to ride around the Square with a box on the back of his bike — flat cap, of course, with bicycle clips. And what about the Slades, who used to have film shows in the air raid shelter? Popeye, mostly.”

Mrs Richards has made a sentimental journey to her roots: “It was a strange feeling, bit where I lived the windows had not changed.” (Glad to hear it, Mrs Richards — there’s nothing more horrid that uPVC on an old house).

“It was 56 years since I left. I just wish I could have had a look at the back of the houses.” Can any kind reader help with that?

More vivid recollections of the area have come from Mr Brien Stigant, of Maidstone Road, Chatham. You can read them here.

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9 Responses to Circling the Square: life in the city’s urban village

  1. Janice Rossabi nee Dash of No 4 Horsley Road and No 8 Ridley Road says:

    We moved into the square from Hillingdon when my father was demobbed and began work as a flying instructor at Rochester Aerodrome after the war. First at No 4 Horsley Road between Mrs Phillips at No 2 who had syringia blossoms adorning the slate roofed outdoor toilet, and Mr and Mrs Hackett (Anne and Teddy) who had three children, Anne, Edward and Margaret, chickens, a huge sack of peanuts, a mangle, and a black upright Morris. The bugle from the fort at the end of the gardens sounded wonderful on a Sunday morning.
    Opposite the Gulls mentioned in the main reminiscences were the Carpenters, who had a marvellous white scooter, and who used to go hop-picking in the Summer – I longed to join them. Mr Carpenter worked in the paper mills and had copies of the comics! Rules meant that their children were not allowed to enter the competitions. Brenda would lay the table for tea every day with the radio playing Children’s Hour. Her sister Jean was older and she had a younger brother.
    We played late into the night on the street, shrieking in the half light as it got dark, long after the summer swifts and martins had ceased their cries.
    Mr Bucket needed help with his bread van that famously snowy winter on the short steep hill from St Margaret Street. Tin trays on the back fields and cold hands and feet and chilblains galore were a feature of that winter.
    We moved to No 8 Ridley Road. Mr Gull’s team did the interior painting and decorating including french polishing and varnishing– I remember sitting on the stairs watching the patterns being traced onto the woodwork. My mother was very impressed that the decorators wore clean white overalls every morning. Mr Pritchard, the builder who had moved into the house he built atop St Margaret Street, built our bathroom above the kitchen, and a grey breezeblock garage to house the black Sunbeam Talbot which replaced the bike on which Dad used to travel to the aerodrome, registration EGO 702. He used to fly over the house in Summer and waggle the wings to us. The hedgerows along the airfield yielded marvellous blackberries. And the airfield itself produced enormous field mushrooms which Dad brought home. Bluebell Woods were family outing (minus Dads ) specials. There was a house which would provide hot water – the Mums even carried a teapot. (No wheelie baskets then – I cannot remember how we got there – but a lot of walking was involved. We used to walk home on a summer evening from Aylseford Priory, feeling like ancient pilgrims in the sunset)
    Stan Packer lived across from us in Ridley Road, in a large fronted white or cream house, which always looked like Summer, with steps up to it. Mrs Collins’s shop was at the far corner. My mother hung a huge flag out of the upstairs window when we won the Ashes – Stan was a great cricket fan. We had a cellar into which coal was dropped from the grating in the pavement, where the copper was kept for boiling – the lid always gleaming pink from careful cleaning. Dad had a workbench with a last on it for mending our shoes.
    The Broughtons lived next door to the left of us in what seemed like the Labour Party headquarters, adorned as it always was with huge red paper roses and posters. My mother used to make crab-apple jelly with fruit collected from a garden backing onto ours. Mrs Bradd, an elderly lady who lived by herself, was next door to us on the right. She would bake a round brown loaf and give it to my mother every week, with rolls of sweets for us children – Charles, Leslie and me (and often gave me wondrous little gifts). She loved her cat. Mrs Collins later informed me long after we left the square that no little child missed her generosity. Even as a student and a teacher many years later her letter would come annually enclosing a 10 shilling note and addressing me as Dear Miss Janice – with news of her health, her garden, her cat – she was a quiet legend, and so dear. I only knew of her demise when Mrs Collins returned the money I had sent to her for a Christmas parcel – Mrs Collins was in close contact with Mrs Bradd and invariably knew what to select. I was indebted to thm both.
    So many memories ….

    • Edward hackett says:

      A lovely story about bishops square which i know very well. i lived there with my parents betty and ted hackett and my three sisters anne christine margaret. my mother betty, 95, still lives at no 6 horsley rd. anne also lives in the area. edward and christine live in australia and margaret resides in south africa. i know this im edward. thanks for the memory

  2. Lydia says:

    Fascinating article. Do you know what year the houses on the square were built? We thought it was 1890s but from the census I think it might be earlier? Also was there ever a pub on the square? We were told our house on the corner of Mitre/Ridley Road was a pub, but haven’t found any evidence of this.

    • SteveR says:

      My father, aged 90, whose grandparents lived opposite in Ridley Road, thinks not.

      The corner house where you live was inhabited by Mr Holliday, his teacher at Troy Town School.

      I suspect the houses are earlier than 1890.

      • Pat Taylor says:

        My recollections of the Square were of visiting a schoolfriend, Gillian Cork, who lived at 27 Langdon Road. We both went to Borstal School where I started aged 4 in 1951.

        Gillian’s father was Jack Cork who worked for Newcombs gents outfitters in Chatham, and his unmarried sister was the teacher of the youngest class at St Matthew’s School, Borstal. Gillian’s mother had an allotment on the Borstal Road, between the public gardens and the start of the houses and we used to spend many hours there with her in the summer holidays, taking a picnic and playing in the shed on the plot.

        The Mr Buckett mentioned in the piece above was my uncle Charlie, my mother’s brother. Another brother, Harry, was the baker at the St Margaret’s Street shop which he took over when my grandfather died.
        I am trying to find out whether there was a food shop on the corner of Horsley Road, which I have been told was run by my maternal great grandmother, Mrs Featherstone. She died in the early 1900s but somebody might recall their grandparents mentioning it.

  3. Lynn Clarke Ahrens says:

    I lived in Borstal St from 1956 to 1968 and as a young girl had piano lesson with Miss Cork. She was very sweet and patient but quiet elderly…or so she seemed to me! She lived in a old dark house which was full of old fashioned furniture and gave me Smarties from a jar at the end of he lesson…..I was a terrible piano player !!!!!

    • Stephen Guest says:

      Are you the Lynn Clark who lived next door to me at No 6 Borstal Street?
      Your father was Frank Clark and you had a sister Ann?

  4. Lee Winter says:

    Love this article and while the shops and bakers are gone, there is still a real sense of community here.

    Couple of questions – why is there a banked entrance/gateway to the square? I’ve heard this area was a military parade ground – presumably connected to Fort Clarence – in the distant past before it was developed?

    Does anyone know about that? More Langdon Road memories welcome!

  5. Kirren summers says:

    I came across this article while researching the age of my house for insurance quotes.
    I now live in 7 Ridley Road with my (soon to be) wife Emma, my daughter and son stay every other weekend and we are planning on having a baby of our soon. It was good to see the photo of the house from years ago,
    The front door is no longer on the front of the house, it’s now on the side.
    From the moment we walked through the door to view the house, it just felt “right” and we knew it would make a happy home, so it’s nice to hear happy memories of a family that clearly had a happy life here and in the square itself.
    It still has that feeling you describe of a village, it feels like a very content and happy community within a larger community.
    I would load photos but can’t figure out how to on here.
    Thankyou for letting us read your stories/memories.
    Kirren

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