The independent London newspaper

Baron Clarke of Hampstead’s NW3 memoir

Peer's evocative book will prompt those of his age to recall a world long gone

29 August, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Tony and Mick Rooney fishing in the Vale of Health pond

HOW much a place changes in just one lifetime is at the centre of a new memoir by Tony Clarke – Baron Clarke of Hampstead.

It spans the years before, during and immediately after the Second World War, and what is striking is how recent those times are – yet there have been such tremendous changes during one person’s life time. In Once Upon a NW3, the Labour peer evokes the sense of life in London in the early decades of the 20th century.

He told Review one reason to look back to his youth – rather than write about his life as a trade unionist, politician and now member of the House of Lords – was to mark the kindness his generation was shown by older people.

“I was so grateful to those who made our lives so enjoyable in such difficult times,” he said. “It was about remembering the families who played such a role in our upbringing. We had no money but we were never poor because we had lots of love. It may sound simplistic, but it is true.”

Baron Tony Clarke’s book is called Once Upon A NW3

Tony’s memories create a Hampstead streetscape that is still beneath the boutique shop fronts and behind the security gates.

“Roads were very different things when I grew up in NW3 to what they are today,” he says. “Pedestrians are thrust aside where they brush along the walls, it is their job to keep out of the way of the all-important car. During the period of which I write, the picture is very different. Roads were playgrounds, meeting places and adventure centres lined with places of hospitality, cars infrequent objects of interest.”

A street party celebrating the end of the war

Tony joined the Post Office aged 14 and became a full-time official for the Union of Post Office Workers.

He stood in Hampstead for Labour in the 1974 general election, was a Camden councillor in the 1970s and would later be the chairman of the party nationally.

In 1998 he joined the House of Lords. “It is said a true Cockney has to be born within the sounds of Bow Bells. I can’t claim to have heard Bow Bells when I was born at 9 Gayton Road in April 1932. Perhaps the bells of Christ Church could be heard – and this made me a true son of Hampstead.”

His mother was a housemaid and his father a chauffeur/handyman for a family who lived in Rosslyn Hill.

They had quarters, and it was from here young Tony explored the world. He remembers with affection the shops and the tradesmen, and the sense of a shared community. He recalls Harvey and Shillingfords Grocers and how they treated customers.

“We were particularly lucky to have a friend in the shop, Mr Marshall, who, recognising our circumstances, would often direct us to the best of the broken biscuits,” he says. “Biscuits were sold directly from square tins with glass lids in a row along the front of the counter. At the end would be a tin with the broken biscuits. For one penny we got quite a few – especially when Mr Marshall was serving us.”

And as well as the butchers, bakers, grocers and others needed for daily staples, another store offers an image of life 80 years ago in Hampstead High Street.

“I can’t forget Andrews, which specialised in saddles and other horse riding clothing and equipment,” he writes, illustrating how horses still played a role in London’s transport economy. The war took Tony and his siblings out of Hampstead briefly as evacuees.

They were taken by train from St Pancras station to a village in Bedfordshire where he remembers feeling “cold and miserable” walking to school in the winter.

His mother soon collected them and Tony witnessed the war from the heights of Hampstead. What is perhaps most surprising is how child­hood could continue as adults set about killing one another.

Evacuees leaving Christ Church School

He remem­bers sleeping out by the Vale of Health pond. Cricket and football matches were played bet­ween anti-aircraft guns.

Stables in Hampstead police station were visited, and his friend Mick Rooney, whose mother ran the Duke of Hamilton in New End, bred rabbits in the pub’s back yard.

The Blitz began and Tony watched bombs strike.

“I remember a direct hit on New End Square,” he says. “A dear friend, Ronnie Richardson, lived in one of the houses that was hit. Some time before he had proudly shown me his model train layout his father had built in the attic of their home. He must have spent many hours constructing the intricate web of railway lines, stations, signals and level crossings.”

Tony, centre, and his siblings Evelyn and John;

Thankfully his friend and mother had been sheltering from the raids in the tube station and his father was abroad in the Royal Artillery.

“I remember searching among the debris of his home for any trace of his trains. It was a terrible blow for the family, but how lucky Ron and his mother were not to have used the shelter in the square that night,” he says.

Tony’s evocative book will prompt those of his age to recall a world long gone. For those born more recently, it offers a glimpse into a London that, for all the hardship, was rich in civic spirit.

• Once Upon a NW3. By Tony Clarke, published by Priority, £10 ISBN 978-1-901268-67-6


Share this story

Post a comment