A Local Historian’s View, 1950s


  • Graham Gower grew up in Streatham and he and his wife Marion have lived there all their married life. With their keen interest in local history, they are prominent members of the Streatham Society.

Q: Why did you move to Streatham?


We moved to Streatham when I was a baby, towards the end of the war. My father grew up in Brighton. By 1944 he was in the RAF, posted in London, and he wanted to live where the action was.


I grew up in Balham, but we never went to Streatham when I was a child: we saw it as too expensive and upmarket so we preferred to shop in Brixton or Tooting Broadway.

Q: Where have you lived in Streatham?


I grew up in Madeira Road, and after a time in Wimbledon, I moved back to Lexton Gardens where we’ve lived all our married life.

Q: What are your memories of growing up in Streatham?


When I was a baby, I’m told that I was in an air raid shelter when a VI rocket, dropped on Streatham Station, blew the door off! Quite a number of V1s were dropped on Streatham: There was an army camp on Tooting Bec Common from around 1942 to 1945. The troops maintained rocket launchers; the rockets were anti-aircraft defences.

There were lots of bomb sites in Streatham after the war. As boys we used to run around in gas masks and tin hats and throw things at each other. There were a number of boarded-up public air raid shelters. We were warned not to play in them, but we didn’t always take notice. One is still on the corner of Madeira Road and Oakdale Road near St. Anselm’s Court: you can see the mound of grass-covered earth.

At school in winter we often had lessons by candlelight as there were lots of power cuts after the war.

The tram tracks were dug up in Streatham in 1952. The tarred blocks were piled up at the side of the road and people were asked to take them. My friend and I had a trolley made of planks on pram wheels and we went round offering people a trolley load of blocks for 6d. The blocks were supposed to help the fire burn, but they spit dreadfully and made burn marks on carpets and people’s legs if you sat too close!

We stood outside Streatham Station asking people of we could carry their luggage home on our trolley, but we didn’t get many takers! We also stood opposite the station around Bonfire Night, asking for 1d for the guy, but people complained that it didn’t look much like Guy Fawkes!

When sugar came off the ration in 1955, Dad made toffee apples!

I had an evening paper round from around 1956 to 57 from the branch of WH Smith’s at Streatham Station, run by a Mr Place who was very tall and friendly. I used to go from Streatham Station to the top of the Dip, and I always used to walk through Francis’ Provisions at the top of Gleneagle Road. My cry was ‘News, Star, Standard!’. For a 6-day week I used to earn 5 shillings!

As the round started at 4.30 pm, if I went to a matinee at the cinema, I always had to leave the film ½ an hour before the end!

Next to the ABC Cinema used to be Norfolk House, a big Victorian house with lawns in front.

The coalman, milkman and dustman used to go round on a horse and cart. The horses used to know the route and would move from house to house in response to a whistle from their master. One of the horses ran over our kitten! My mum used to collect cats from bomb sites. At one time we had 5! We had problems with sewer rats in Madeira Road – the railway lines disturbed them.

Behind the United Reformed Church was an open grass area, which backed on to the gardens of Ellora Road. There was a way through the field out into Ellora Road, and at one time you could walk down to a hut which housed the Robinson School of Dance. I belonged to the cub scouts when I was a child, who met at the Dance School.

At the end of Hambro Road there was a first-aid depot during the war.

At one time in Streatham there was a large Jewish population, hence the two synagogues: the Liberal synagogue in Prentis Road and the Orthodox in Leigham Court Road.

There used to be a bandstand at the top of Streatham Common. The road that goes past the cafe used to continue left to the top of Streatham Common North Side. The bandstand was at the road junction.

There were prefabs on the bomb sites and also along the bottom of Streatham Common, opposite Greyhound Lane and along Streatham Common South Side. The horse trough used to be opposite Greyhound Lane too, but it was moved when they took part of the common to widen the road.

The top part of the common, above the path, was covered by allotments.

Q: What are your memories of the coronation in 1953?


In 1953, the queen did a tour of south London after the coronation and came through Streatham. I remember the whole school marching from Sunnyhill School down Sunnyhill Road to the High Road to see her pass by. We stood outside Astoria Parade, near the Odeon. The queen was in a black car. Afterwards, we children were all given a coronation mug, a spoon and a propelling pencil. The mug was from the London County Council, the spoon from Wandsworth Borough, and the pencil from the school.


My parents took me to see the queen drive through Tooting Bec Common.

Q: What are your memories of Streatham Hill Theatre


I remember seeing the pantomime ’Humpty Dumpty’ and going up on stage. (‘Humpty Dumpty’ was performed in 1952-3 and 1954-5).


I remember seeing ‘The Black and White Minstrels’, ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘West Side Story’.

Q: What are your memories of working in Streatham?


While I was at college, around 1970, I worked in Dalgleish Stationers, near Shacklock’s the Chemist, opposite Streatham Station. Dalgleish used to sell old postcards of Streatham.

Q: What are your memories of transport in Streatham?

I remember I used to irritate my parents by running upstairs on the tram and turning the backs of the seats around. The seat backs could face both ways, and at the end of the route the driver would push them all back so they were facing the right way for travel. The trams ran in the centre of the High Road and crossing the road to the tram stop always involved risk. When cycling I had to be careful not to get my tyres caught in the tracks.

At Streatham Station there were slot machines that dispensed chocolate, once it had come off ration. I also remember the excursion trains to the south coast. Streatham Station used to be mobbed!

Near my home in Madeira Road, a train used to regularly emerge from the tunnel carrying a large anti-aircraft gun. Trains used to pass by full of service men in uniform, who used to wave to me. All the trains were steam. At night, men used to walk along the tracks, hitting them to test for cracks etc.

Where Albert Carr Gardens is now was a large house called The Chimes, named for the large chiming clock on the outside. Opposite was The Chimes Newsagent and Cafe where you could buy tickets for South Downs Coach Company tours to Brighton, Eastbourne etc.

Q: What are your memories of shopping in Streatham?

The first shopping area in Streatham was Bedford Row, which ran south from Streatham Green. Pratt’s first started there. The High Road was developed northwards around 1930, and has the best examples of Art Deco architecture outside the West End.

We would go out shopping with our ration books to the co-op in Gleneagle Road, opposite the public toilets. That was our allocated store. The man behind the counter had an indelible pencil behind his ear. He’s lick the pencil and cross off our items in the book. I was always afraid I’d knock down the pyramids of cans.

There was another larger co-op store at Streatham Hill, where the Oxfam ship is now.

Pratt’s was the largest store in Streatham, with three floors. Once in Pratt’s I turned the wheel to bring down one of the fire doors, which blocked off a section of the shop. I managed several feet before my mother stopped me! Other larger stores were Tyrrell’s, opposite the police station, and Sharman’s, where WH Smith’s is now. Both were haberdashers, selling materials, cotton, braid and accessories. Sharman’s was particularly middle class. Another middle-class shop was Saponi furs. The Saponis used to live in Lexton Gardens.

Rodgers Curtains is still there. Iceland used to be Littlewoods. In Dorothy Perkins, (the shop on the High Road with Tudor detailing above the door, which I’ve not managed to identify yet!), there used to be a fountain. There used to be two Sainsbury’s stores at Streatham Hill.

Opposite Streatham Hill Theatre were Arthur Mead, which sold school uniforms, and a hobby shop.

Outside Dewhurst’s the butchers there was a bird in a cage that tweeted if you put a coin in the slot. At Toytown, opposite Shacklock’s the Chemist, if you put money in a slot, a train ran around a track in the window.

The UK Coffee Importers was next to Kennedy’s Delicatessen opposite The High. The wonderful smell of roasting coffee used to waft down the High Road. Shillingford’s was a high-class butcher. In The High was Featherstone’s wallpaper shop. The owner had invested his army gratuity to buy the shop.

All the shops closed on Wednesday afternoons and many shops closed at 1pm on Saturdays, or even all day Saturday. All the shops were closed in Boxing Day, as well as Christmas Day.

Originally Streatham was a true blue Conservative middle class neighbourhood. Streatham always returned a Conservative MP until the 1980s when the political colour changed as younger people from different backgrounds moved in, making Streatham a much better place.

Streatham High Road is the longest retail high street in Europe. Most of the Streatham shopkeepers belonged to Streatham Ratepayers Association. They wanted to preserve the old independent shops, so they opposed the proposed coming of Marks and Spencer, and a market on the site where Morrison’s is now. Lambeth Council does not own much property along the High Road so they do not have a lot of say in what happens there.

Q: Do you remember attending any events in Streatham?

In the 1960s there were lots of organisations which met in Church Halls and rooms above pubs. Above the swimming baths there was an Assembly Hall with meeting rooms. Sometimes there were mammoth jumble sales at the baths when they used to cover the pool!

A national boxing championship was held at the Ice Rink and you could see Freddy Mills box for 50 shillings! The side roads were full of coaches, like they are today.

Thousands of people lined the High Road to see the old crocks race from London to Brighton and cycle races used to come through Streatham too, including the medical students annual run, and trike racing!

Places I remember are the Stork Club, next to the Locarno, and the Bali Hai club and restaurant at the back of the ice rink.

Q: Do you have any memories of famous people in Streatham?

Derrick Guyler lived in Streatham Vale and I often saw him in Streatham Library.  There was also Benny Lee, the actor and singer; Bob Miller, leader of the Millermen band; Gilbert Harding and David Nixon. Shaw Taylor used to walk his Pekingese late at night.

June Whitfield sometimes used to open fetes on the field behind the United Reformed Church.

A member of the Crazy Gang – the one who used to blow smoke rings with his cigar, used to drink in the Pied Bull.

Our MP, Chuka Umunna, was born in Streatham and attended Hitherfield School.

2 thoughts on “A Local Historian’s View, 1950s

  1. is there any information about a pre-West End run of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot being held in the Streatham Theatre in 1955 or 1956. I have strong memories of attending it and it certainly made me a Beckett fan for the rest of my life. I would love to discover more about the preview I’m sure I saw in Streatham.

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