I lived in Kensington Gardens from my birth in 1947 until 1962, when my family moved out to Patcham on the northern fringe of the town. I lived at number 12 at the north end, which was then a funeral directors business W.A. Stringer & Son. My father was the manager there. The property seemed very old to me at the time – as indeed it was.
Most of our time as a family was spent in the basement, in our living/dining room and scullery/kitchen at the back. There was no hot water on tap – it all had to be heated up on the gas stove. The ground floor was the ‘reception’ area for the undertakers, an office and the chapel of rest. At the rear we had a small concrete yard and small flower bed, surrounded by high walls. I had to be quiet when I was playing out in the yard if relatives of the deceased were visiting the chapel!
Almost a disaster!
There was a towering wall at the back of the yard, behind which were the backyards of the houses in Upper Gardner Street. One night in 1948 the wall dramatically collapsed. Luckily I was not in my pram in the yard at the time (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this now!) but it did leave the yard floor looking like crazy paving. On the top floor we had two bedrooms, for my parents and for my brother and me. The latter room also doubled as the family ‘parlour’ or ‘front room’. It contained sitting room furniture as well as our beds, to which we repaired on Sunday afternoons and to watch ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’on ITV in the evening.
A very cold bathroom
A rear extension at first floor level led to an unheated bathroom, where hot water was obtained by firing up a rather alarming gas geyser. When we left in 1962, the property was modernised and when I visited it in 2005 found it in basically the same layout, although the shop floor has been lowered and our old basement area is now uninhabitable.
Two undertakers in one street
Kensington Gardens was in my days mainly composed of ordinary, working class shops – a butchers opposite us, a greengrocers and pet shop on the opposite corners with Gloucester Road, a newsagent, an ice cream parlour (del Marco’s, who later moved to London Road opposite St Peter’s Church), a sewing machine repair shop, and shops selling clothes, shoes, second hand furniture from house clearances, and a rival funeral directors down at the southern end of the street. Two undertakers in one street. Was this perhaps an indication of relatively high mortality in a poor working class area?
A real sense of community
The ‘Kensington’ next door to us was an unpretentious working man’s pub. The newsagent shop, run by Gus in my time, was earlier run by a Mrs Potter. My older brother, born in 1940, remembers brightly coloured Christmas annuals in the window always being a great attraction. In the later stages of the war when flying bombs came over, she would pop across to shelter with my parents and brother in the Morrison shelter we had in the basement. It may be my rose coloured glasses but I do think there was a real sense of community in the street in those days. Certainly my mother seemed to know practically everyone there!
The history of the street?
Does anyone know the history of the street? Has it always been pedestrianised? I know the North Laine area (an expression unknown to us when I lived there was developed in the 19th century along the lines of the mediaeval field patterns. Perhaps KensingtonGardens lies on the site of an old market garden, used to help feed the growing Regency town south of North Street.
An exiled ‘Kensington Gardener’
Kensington Gardens is to my mind a classic and fascinating example of urban social and economic change, as the town around it and indeed the country as a whole developed – a microcosm of urban change, in fact. Someone should write a book about it! I left Brighton in 1966 to go to university at Liverpool, and have lived in North West England ever since, but, although I now regard myself as an adopted north westerner, at heart I remain a Brightonian and a ‘Kensington Gardener’!