Neville Turner Returns To Elder St
Neville in the cellar where he sheltered during the London blitz
Three years ago, I wrote an account of Neville Turner’s childhood in Elder St in the forties and fifties, and yesterday I had the pleasure of accompanying Neville when he visited his former home for the first time since he left in the sixties. Neville’s family lived here from 1931 to 1974, and were the last to inhabit this eighteenth century weaver’s house before it fell into disrepair and was narrowly saved from destruction at the hands of British Land through the intervention by the squatters of the Spitalfields Trust in 1977.
From the moment we walked through the door, the cats intuitively recognised Neville as a special visitor and – as you can see in the picture above – chose to accompany him closely as a gesture of respect to the returning son of the house.
Neville fondly remembered Mrs Knuckles who lived in the front room when he was a small child, she had been bombed out of her own home and Neville’s family took her in. Later, this became Neville’s bedroom. “I took this off,” he exclaimed in surprise pointing at the dado rail, “I did it so I could line the room with hardboard, even the cornice, and I hung wallpaper from Sanderson’s that cost me a week’s salary.” When he was sixteen, Neville was apprenticed as a tailor in Savile Row and by the age of eighteen, he had moved to another job in Aldersgate where he received double the wages – as a cutter in a ladies’ fashion house, permitting him the disposable income to decorate his room with fancy wallpaper.
Yet Neville’s tastes have changed in the intervening half century and he complimented the current owners on restoring the panelling and replacing the dado rail. “We wanted out with the old in those days,” he confessed to me in regret, “I used to walk across bomb sites to work in Aldersgate and we looked upon Centrepoint as the future – I used to love looking at that place.”
Upstairs on the first floor was the living room and kitchen in Neville’s day. Decorated with boldly patterned wisteria wallpaper, this was where the extended family enjoyed memorable Christmas dinners at a long table. “My father was in the gambling game and if people couldn’t pay their debts they gave him things, so we had two cookers and we were the first in the street to have a big American fridge and a car,” he explained as we stood in the current owner’s bedroom that was once Neville’s kitchen. The quiet yard at the rear of the house contained a stable in those days and was used to store costermongers’ barrow for the market. Neville recalled the clatter, the equine smells and the flies that filled the kitchen in the summer months.
Neville’s family only lived on two floors of the four storey house, so we did not ascend any further to the rooms above where a docker and his wife lived then, but descended instead to the cellar. “We never went down here much,” Neville declared as we climbed down to where he and his family were joined by their neighbours to shelter from the London blitz.
In wartime, the ceiling was re-inforced with corrugated iron and a steel prop to support the roof in case the house collapsed overhead. Around a dozen people passed long nights together here during the bombing, playing cards while Neville and his friends amused themselves by melting down lead scavenged from the nearby bomb sites to cast toy soldiers in a mould. “We were lucky no bombs fell on Elder St,” Neville admitted to me with a grin of relief. Today the cellar is in use as the kitchen of the house and Neville recognised the nineteenth century stone sink. “It was always dripping and an enormous fungus grew upon it which rather frightened me,” he recalled, “In fact, my father used to grow mushrooms down here.”
“If you were born here, this is your heritage,” Neville said to me, feeling comfortable again in his old home, “It was a community, everyone lived outside and it was completely safe. We even knew all the policemen at the station next door by name.”
“People I met were shocked, they said, ‘You live where?’ They couldn’t believe we didn’t have a bathroom,” he continued,” But I used to go the bathhouses in Goulston St, Pitfield St or Ironmonger Row – which was popular because it had showers. I’d never seen a shower before and you could pay extra to adjust the temperature.”
“I was the youngest of three children and – at a certain point – my mother said to me, ‘Don’t you think it’s time you got married?’ and I left here in 1964 and married Margaret in 1968,” Neville concluded with a shrug, “We moved down to Putney, but it was soulless and I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I’m sure people who grow up there like it, yet I didn’t – so we moved back to the Kingsland Rd to be in the East End again.”
On the first floor, Neville (fourth from left ) sits next to his father for Christmas in 1968
Neville relaxes in first floor room which was once his family’s dining room
Neville aged eleven in 1951
Neville sits in the ground floor room which was his childhood bedroom
Neville is welcomed back by the presiding spirit of Elder St
The first floor room during the squat to save the building in 1977
Neville sits in the window on the first floor
Neville’s ration book
Neville sits on the step in Elder St just as he did as child in the nineteen-forties
You may like to read my original story