Builders with delusions of grandeur

Edna Dungate: April 1939
From the private collection of Brian Dungate

Supporting the war effort

It is well known that decorative iron railings were removed during WWII, allegedly to support the war effort. Although it is relatively easy to find photographs of what one of the more privileged squares and terraces looked like before they were removed, it is more difficult to find them for other streets. The photograph alongside, taken in April 1939, shows the youngest of my three sisters, Edna, in front of our house in Coventry Street, in the Prestonville area of Brighton. It is easy to imagine how different the whole street would have looked then, since all of the houses had similar railings. They were probably removed in the autumn of 1942.

Pretensions of grandeur

Although many of the streets in Prestonville have terraced two-up, two-down houses they must have had pretensions of grandeur when built. In Coventry Street, the elongated doorstep areas of the houses on the east side had attractive multi-coloured geometric-patterned tiles and, astonishingly, every room had a push button to summon a maid, who – had there been one – would have seen where she was required to go on a large mechanical display board in the kitchen, which was ‘below’stairs’.

Where would the maid have gone?

Where the original developer considered there would have been accommodation for a resident maid within the house, or who among the prospective buyers could have afforded or would have wanted to employ one, it is difficult to imagine. In contrast to this indication of the developer’s pretensions, for houses on the west side of the street the box-framed toilet access was via a door in the small rear backyard garden. Those on the east side had an inside loo and, later in many cases a bathroom converted from a bedroom on the half-landing level.

Definitely not luxurious

Those reading this today might imagine that a converted ’bathroom’ of the time offered luxury. In fact, where they existed, they had a large copper gas-fuelled geyser and a basic white bath. Few people used them, even if they had one, because the houses had no central heating, of course.

Heating only at Christmas

Other than at Christmas, we never had any heating whatsoever in any room other than the kitchen. That room was small and virtually entirely filled by a large black kitchen range (which also served to  heat the room as well as flat irons for ironing), a dresser, a large white ‘butler’s sink’, which was also used for washing clothes by hand, and a table, where, in our case, our entire family of six ate.

Bathing in the kitchen

There was no room for a mangle, which was in the back garden, alongside a large metal ‘bath’, hanging from a hook on the wall, which was taken into the warm kitchen to use when the converted bathroom was too cold to contemplate using. Coal or coke, delivered by the coalman in hundredweight (50 kilo) sacks had to be carried through the house and stored in a backyard shed next to a backyard larder where perishable food was kept.

Unwelcome guests

It should also be added that we also unwillingly shared the house with mice, which had free run of the terraced housing, and against which mouse traps were an ineffective weapon. In any case, these required precious cheese, which was a staple evening meal for as long as the ration allowance held out.

Electricity supply

All rooms had provision for gas lighting to be used, but, unlike many neighbours, our house had been subsequently wired for electricity. It could be used for little more than lighting however, since most of Prestonville had a DC power supply until well into the 1950s. Refrigerators, washing machines and record players were out of the question before AC power was laid on, even if one could have afforded them as Britain slowly recovered in the 1950s.

Yet for all that, you only need to look at the photo to see a shy but happy young girl and, indeed, we were a happy family. You don’t need luxuries in life any more than you need railings to be happy.


Comments about this page

  • That was all very interesting Brian, many thanks for your first hand account of those times. Oh how times have changed!! The part about the electricity supply made me recall how even the house in Amberley Drive that I grew up in, which was built in 1949, only had one single power point in the front room – I think only 6 in the whole house! Also, when I started work in 1970, I went to a friend’s house off the Lewes Road, and was amazed that the TV was powered from a connection into the front room light. The house had a lighting circuit, but no power circuit! Again, many thanks.

    By Peter Groves (16/04/2010)
  • Memories!! I was born and lived my early life on Prinsep Rd, and remember well the day they came for the railings, although unsure of the date. Not quite the same as those shown in the picture, I thought they were decorated with chrysanthemum-like flowers. The pattern seemed to be common to the area of Poet’s corner, although we did not call it that. Where the front gardens faced a drop off, such as Sackville Rd, near the railway bridge, they were left for safety reasons I suspect. I have not been back to UK since 1983, but would imagine they still remain. They were not the only things collected for the war effort, families were encouraged to throw in any unwanted metal household objects, such as pots and pans, as we believed the material was needed to be re-cycled into aircraft, and other weaponry. We were left with just the tall pillars that supported the railings, and used to like to jump off these onto a loosely fitting manhole cover on the black and white marble front path.The noise we made doing this was guaranteed to bring rapid remonstrations from my grand-mother, and a speedy choice of another game!! I think the builder of the homes in this area had similar delusions of grandeur, not that we really were impressed. Marble fireplaces in the infrequently used sitting room, ceiling rosettes, and crown mouldings too, all of which we thought was so outmoded. We had a bathroom and separate toilet upstairs, and the dreaded geyser over the tub. I wouldn’t stay in the room when it was being lit, as it was inclined to put out a minor explosion and a long flame when lit, or even a shower of soot. It cost my mother her eyebrows on one occasion - more reason to keep a distance!! We had a big Kitchener range in the kitchen and a gas stove in the scullery, and the inevitable copper in the corner for the laundry. The mangle was a huge wooden rollered beast set outside, where it did a fantastic job of popping the buttons off shirts, and nipping the fingers of unwary users. Monday of course was laundry day, and the whites had to be white, or “What would the neighbours think!”. Most disgusting was laundering cloth handkerchiefs, pre soaked in salt water, to set the contents, gross to recall. We also had an outside toilet, used to store deck-chairs and the lawn mower in winter. Lack of toilet paper during the war meant the children had the task of cutting up squares of newspaper and stringing them to hang on a hook, as a replacement! Ouch. We must have had good drains to cope with it, and not block. We didn’t have any call bell, but did have a weird door bell, like a coiled spring that hung in the kitchen, with a little bell on it. Not sure how it worked, but a great temptation to jump up and ring the bell to make the dog bark madly. Brian omitted an important use of the range – heating curling irons!! I am of an age where little girls had Shirley Temple ringlets, put in rags over night, or curled with these instruments of torture. Heated on the range, they were hot, and I think we all had the experience of burnt ears from careless use! No sign of gas lamps, but I know there were houses not too far away that had them. Power outlets were few and far between, maybe one in each room, and one in a corner called ‘Power’. that was used for the radio, where we gathered to listen to Golden Oldies such as Palm Court Hotel (?), which featured light classical music deemed suitable for Sunday listening. Tommy Handley and Arthur Askey were favorites too. What I do recall was the huge diversity of plugs, and having to buy the correct one for each and every appliance. What a relief to come to Canada and find one size fitted all, and came attached! I sometimes, in a fit of nostalgia, look at property listings in Hove and can hardly believe my eyes. My parents had the chance to buy our house for £1,600, and refused; “Too expensive”, if only we could have known the future.

    By Patricia Overs (17/04/2010)
  • Hi Brian, what a fascinating article. I’m living in your old house now, as my husband is the caretaker of Stanford school and I’ve often wanted to hear more of the history of the house (indeed we have debated in the past whether the toilet was originally built there or not- now I know!) I don’t know if you know the house has a cellar? It was blocked up when we moved in here and we didn’t know it existed, but after chatting with some of the neighbours we realised all the houses along here have one and we found ours behind a board in the cupbord under the stairs – could this be where a maid would’ve been accommodated? It’s full of a centuries worth of junk (not ours) so we’ve never used it. We have quite alot of the original features of the house left, but unfortunately only one of the fireplaces remain – the one in the front bedroom, apparently it was blocked up in 1959, I don’t know if this is when you and your family were still living here? I’d love to hear more from you, as I am fascinated by this house and it’s history, and of course the school. Please get in contact with me, my e-mail address is Thank you for the article anyway, very, very interesting read.

    By Hayley Cropp (27/05/2010)

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