115 years ago, on June 26th 1897, a local paper, “The Richmond Herald” celebrated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee by publishing an interview with the district’s oldest inhabitant. His name was James Harbor, a boot maker, and he was 93 years old. To celebrate our own Queen’s Diamond Jubilee here is an interview with one of today’s oldest inhabitants. He is 102 years old and has been living in this area for the last 95 years.
Sonny was born in Chiswick on 20th May 1910. When he was 7 he moved with his family to Byfield Road in Isleworth where he attended the Blue School. It was a world without central heating or indoor sanitation or electricity or free health care or a car on every drive. It was a time when children died from diphtheria and polio and the poor had to rely upon charity as Sonny remembers…
“After the 1st World War the food situation was very bad. I can remember going to Mr and Mrs Cox, the local butchers, who ran a free soup kitchen. On Sundays and Mondays they would boil up scraps of meat in a copper - and on Tuesdays we would go and collect it in a jug. It was very nice.”
Cox’s had been a butcher on South Street in Isleworth for 100 years. Their motto was “Although the times are difficult, we’ll endeavour to Maintain Best Service.” There were a number of family butchers in Isleworth in the early 1900’s and many butchered their own meat. Sonny remembers seeing cattle and sheep being driven through the streets to be slaughtered.
1910 was the year in which George V succeeded Edward VII, Crippen was found guilty of murder and Bamforths of Leeds began publishing ‘saucy postcards’. The Great War was still 4 years in the future. Sonny was 8 years old and sitting on his mother’s knee when in 1918 he heard the War had ended.
Although there was a great deal of poverty at the time - and his family often resorted to the local pawn broker - Sonny had no sense of missing out. His life centred around his 2 brothers, 3 sisters and his mother who was “loveable and loving”. He was a member of the Blue School Football Team, and with no traffic to worry about, played cricket in the street. He remembers swimming in the public pool behind Isleworth Public Hall and going there once a week for a hot bath. There was also a Saturday Cinema in the Hall where for 2d you could see stars like Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin, Pearl White - and the evil criminal genius Dr. Fu Manchu. Sonny recalls marching with his school down to All Saints Church and pumping the organ. The church was burnt down in 1943 by children playing with matches. Sonny said it was a great shame because it had been a beautiful church.
Sonny left school at 14 and became a 7 year apprentice carpenter/joiner at Osterley Construction Company, ‘graduating’ when he was 21. Later he went to work for the Freeholding Construction Co. in Richmond and eventually became a supervisor.
Transport in those days was by open topped buses and trams. The seats on the exposed upper decks had canvas ‘aprons’ fitted to them to protect the passengers from the worst of the weather.
“I can remember riding on the tram towards Brentford. As we passed the hospital the TB patients sitting outside enjoying the sun on the balconies would wave at us. There was a fire station outside the Catholic Church. The appliance was pulled by a horse that lived in a meadow where the new Blue School now stands. In an emergency a fireman would ride the horse up the street before harnessing it to the appliance. Later on they got a fire engine with a motor.”
The 2nd World War came and on 7th October 1940 a 1000 lb German bomb landed in Worton Road just around the corner from where Sonny was living…. “The blast was so great and the vibration so strong that it broke the iron frame of our family piano.” That bomb, one of many to fall in and around Isleworth during the war knocked, down 6 houses and killed 7 people.
Sonny joined the Royal Corps of Signals and served in Italy. His fiancée - a nurse - wanted to get married before he went overseas but Sonny felt that with the possibility of him being killed or wounded it would not be a sensible thing to do. That was the end of that engagement. When he finally returned home and all in one piece, he met another girl, also a nurse, and they married in 1951. The couple moved into Haliburton Road in north St Margarets.
North St Margarets were once part of the London Borough of Hounslow. In 1994 the boundary was moved and the area joined the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. Good for house prices, bad for council tax payments!
Haliburton Road is now residential but when Sonny and his wife moved there it had a couple of shops, a diary, an underwear manufacturer and a factory that boiled beetroots. Surprisingly the ‘knicker factory’ is still there. Compared to his family home in Byfield Road the house in Haliburton Road was large and comfortable. As was usual at the time Sonny modernised the house with an indoor toilet and bathroom.
Although he misses his wife who passed away some years ago Sonny is a man content and at ease with himself…
“I have a daughter who looks after me and her husband is a great chef. I often have Sunday lunch with them. I love life and I enjoy it too. My advice is to keep active and to do everything in moderation. With its open spaces and the river and Kew Gardens to hand St Margarets is a good place to live. I have found peace and contentment here.”
Although they are from different centuries Sonny and James Harbor, the ‘oldest resident’ of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee have one thing in common. Neither of them have any memory of their Queen’s coronation - Victoria’s in 1838 and Elizabeth’s in 1953. “It was all a long time ago,” was Sonny’s only comment.
– from Martyn Day