Friday 23 September 2022

London Symphonies - The Burnt Oak Boogie

Time for another installment of London Symphonies.  Today the symphony is Burnt Oak and the Watling Estate. 

Where do all of the people live? I used to work down near The Tower of London and St Katherine's dock. I was having lunch at Dickens Inn once and I got chatting to an American Tourist. He told be of how he'd spent two days touring Buckingham Palace, the grand museums, Madame Tussards and the Tower of London. He was mightily impressed. He was a cab driver from New York. He then said "We've seen all of these grand palaces, but where do the ordinary people, who drive buses, sweep the floors and clear the drains live?" I explained to him that London is full of council estates, where the working people live. Our workers are, by and large, shuttled around by our wonderful buses and trains, provided by London Transport. He was mightily impressed when I told him that there were several less than a mile from where we were sitting. They were cheap, affordable and by and large well maintained. The only snag was that it is almost impossible to get one anymore. 

One of the largest of these estates was the Watling Estater in Burnt Oak. Join me now for a look at Burnt Oak and the Watling, past and present and then we'll dig into the story.

Built between the first and second world war as part of a scheme to provide "Homes fit for heroes". The initial tenants were selected by The London County Council.  Snobby residents of leafy surrounding areas such as Edgware and Mill Hill referred to it as 'Little Moscow' and looked down with disdain on the residents. Unlike many of the estates built in the 1960's and 1970's, the estate was built for people and with families in mind. Houses had gardens, there were communal green spaces in front of flats and a whole host of parks, ensuring children never had to walk too far. On any bus ride through the Watling in the 60's and 70's, you would see children kicking balls and riding bikes and scooters around these areas.

There were schools, churches, clubs for adults and children, shops and great transport links, with a tube station, a trolley bus and other buses (My son played for the Watling club, formerly the Watling Boys club (Sadly council duplicity saw the club lose it's clubhouse, despite some hollow promises). 

As the estate was planned in more puritanical times, no pubs were provided in the estate. Fortunately for thirsty drinkers, one of Englands oldest roads, the Edgware Road, originally built by the Romans, was at the top of Watling Avenue. As stage coaches, travellers and the workers that supported them needed rest and recuperation, Burnt Oak Broadway had a liberal selection of rather fine looking pubs, such as The Bald Faced Stag, The Broadway and the Prince of Wales.  None of these are pubs anymore. The only original building still standing is what was The Prince of Wales. The Bald Faced Stag was demolished, with only the facade remaining. The sole pub on Burnt Oak Broadway is a small, shop pub called Blarneys, which as you may have guessed is an Irish drinking den, suitably done out with a tasteful green frontage.


Until the turn of the century, the beating heart of Burnt Oak was the Watling Market. The market was itself a thriving community. It had butchers, fruiterers, green grocers, flowers, plants, gifts, records, trinkets and tools, all of which catered for those of us on a budget, the market was not one catering for the local Waitrose shoppers of the parish, but far more fun than a sterile shopping centre. Once you got to know the stallholders, they'd look after you and palm the rubbish off on those that they didn't like or didn't recognise. Back in 1983, when I was trying to get a proper job, I bought my first suit from the market and it didn't look too bad at all!

After the turn of the century, the market rapidly declined. It became derelict and is now a car sales lot. I find it sad that the council couldn't see a way to have transformed the market into a thriving hub for new entrepreneurs and give young people a chance to start a business. Running a market stall is a great way to learn how to run a business. 

The demographics of Burnt Oak have completely changed. As recently as the 1970's and 80's, the estate was a white, working class community, this was reflected in the music life. In the late 1960's the original skinhead culture took hold. For many years, the bridge over the Underground was adorned with the legend "Burnt Oak Boot Boys". The sound of the era was the Ska music of the Pioneers and Desmond Dekker and the groove, look and feel of the music infused itself deep into the youth culture of Burnt Oak. Music was central to everyone growing up in the 60's and 70's. For many, the disco nightspot of choice was Jingles, behind the Old White Lion, down the Edgware Road in Edgware. For the Metallers, a short ride on the 52 to Kingsbury and the Bandwagon and the Punks would jump on the Northern Line to Camden Town for the Roundhouse and Tottenham Court Road for the Marquee Club.  A sharp hair cut was always required. Many would nip up to Park Way, behind Burnt Oak Broadway saw Syd's barbers,  the cheapest place for a decent haircut in the Borough of Barnet (no pun intended). 

Until he became a teenager, I'd take my son there for a haircut and then down to the Pound Shop for a treat. I explained that if we went to Syd's there was cash left to buy sweets. If we went to a Mill Hill Barber it would cost twice as much!

The community was drawn from working class English, Irish, Italian and Greek families, moved to the Estate by the LCC. Each community set up businesses locally. The English and Irish tended to work in the building and motor trade. The Italians and Greeks in the food and hospitality sector. There were some amazing cafe's such at The Betta Cafe on the Watling, as well as great chippies and Tonibell Ice Creams. Burnt Oak also boasted a wonderful old school Chinese restaurant opposite Woolworths and a nice Indian opposite Tesco's. There were wonderful fishmongers, butchers, fruiterers and greengrocers. In the early 1980's, the Salvage shop opened. It provided great bargains (if you didn't mind the smell of smoke from the fire damage). I bought my first stereo there and still use the speakers. 

There are still a few of the old Burnt Oak business around. Aspens flower shop is wonderful and the prices beat everyone else in the Borough. Sydney Hurry's undertakers are another survivor, as are Lloyds motor spares over the road and Dan's carpet shop over the road from where Tesco's used to be. 

These days, Burnt Oak is known as Little Romania. For me this is quite ironic. My Dad was a bomber pilot and in a letter he sent my mother from a prisoner of war camp in Buchaest, Romaina in 1944, it said "It's very pleasant here, the conditions are good, it reminds me of Burnt Oak on a misty Novembers evening in the rain". If you've not tried them, the cafe's are worth a visit. The food is good and you get a friendly welcome. There are all manner of shops and if you are making authentic curries, you can source everything you need. There are also a couple of wonderful fish mongers and a great Irish butcher. If you are looking to save a few pennies, or like fresh ingredients it is well worth at trip 

As for my connections, my family have long standing ties. My maternal Grandparents moved to Burnt Oak in 1941, from Kentish Town. Being of Irish heritage, they became members of the Parish of the Annunciation. When a new curate, Fr Fred Smythe arrived at the Parish, he was sent out to meet the congregation. He turned up at the O'Neill household (who became my Uncle Jimmy's in-laws) at 8pm. He turned up at the first house on the list, a good Catholic family. He knocked and the occupant Mrs O'Neill shouted "Who is it" through the door. He replied "It's Father Smythe from the Annunciation". She replied "All good people are in bed now, go away". Fr Smythe replied "Are there any Catholics who aren't in bed?". She replied "Go around to The Fannings (my grandparents) at 56 Milling Road, they never go to bed". Fr Smythe did and became a firm family friend. He conducted my parents wedding at the Annunciation, on 28th October 1944, after my Dad escaped from the POW camp and made it home. The last big family do we had with my Dad was at the Annunciation, when my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary at the Annunciation, 1984. Fr Smythe gave a blessing as they retook their vows. We adjourned to the club after for a celebration meal. The Annunciation Catholic club was legendary. My eldest brother even met his wife in there! We didn't realise it would be the last big do that all the family attended as my Dad passed away in 1987.

Sadly, my grandparents died long before I was born. However I had a surrogate Grandma, Mrs Annie O'Keefe of Homefield Road. She lived in one of the metal houses, familiar to all locals. 

When I was born, my mother was very ill. She took on a lady to help with the cleaning. Mrs O'Keefe turned up. She was a lovely, little old lady from Kerry. Her husband Joe was a caretaker at the local public loo's. He got around on an old black bicycle. They had a lovely old mutt called Beauty. We didn't have a dog, so I'd always be nipping around for a cup of tea and a piece of cake and to play with Beauty. I think that's where I got my love of dogs from. Joe also bred budgies, that he he kept in a structure attached to his shed, made of chicken wire and wood. I'd go around and watch World of Sport with Joe, he'd advise me on the horses. HE always loved a grey filly.  Annie O'Keefe was the kindest person I've ever met. All of my brothers and sisters are geniuses, when I turned up, the family would relentlessly tease me and wind me up.  I would dream of when I could grow up and thump them. Sadly when you grow up, thumping your siblings is not socially acceptable. At school I was always compared unfavourably to my brothers and sisters. I was dyslexic and pretty useless at everything. 

Annie was probaby the only person that was kind, didn't tease or judge me and made me feel special, welcome and loved. Annie was a person of deep faith. Her form of Catholicism was kind, open, accepting and loving. Not the horrible, judgemental form that we see so much of.  After my Dad fell out with the Parish Priest at the Sacred Heart in Mill Hill when he shut the parish drinking club, we went back to attending the Annunciation. He always said that he preferred Burnt Oak's Catholicism, with it's drinking club. Being an Aussie he despised snobbery, which he said was rife in some areas of the Sacred Heart parish. 

When Annie finally retired from working for my Mum, she was given a large cash gift. A week later, the Annunciaton newsletter had a line in saying "Thank you to the anonymous donor for the generous gift". The amount specified was exactly what my Mum had given her. if I learned one thing from Annie, it was that money doesn't make you happy, people do. I've always had an open door and I've always tried to make people feel welcome. To me, Annie exemplified the best of the working class culture of Burnt Oak.

I went to school just up the road from Annie at Orange Hill School on Abbotts Road. It was handy as, when it was raining on the walk home, I could nip in for a cuppa. At Orange Hill, I met a whole bunch of talented musicians, such as Boz Boorer and Phil Bloomberg of the Polecats. They were an inspiration. When you see your mates and peers doing things well, that you aspire to do, it is a great motivation. Orange Hill was a school thay did its best to inspire you. BBC Radio London presenter Robert Elms often mentions this and also credits several of the teachers for opening his eyes to what a boy from Burnt Oak could be. Myself, Boz and Phil would sneak out and nip into the Betta Cafe on the Watling, for a tea and to do the NME crossword and discuss the latest punk rock releases. In the video above, there are a few pictures of the early False Dots, taken before a gig in the school hall. We would plan to be Rock and Roll stars and Boz always carried a cassette player around, with tapes of punk and rockabilly tracks. One day it would beRockabilly such as  Ugly and Slouchy by Rose and the Maddox Brothers, the next day punk like Boredom by The Buzzcocks. 

When our band finally got it's act together, we didn't quite make it to the USA and Japan like the Polecats. We did however do  a residency of gigs at The Bald Faced Stag between 1983-4. The pub had a bit of a reputation as a den of scalliwaggery. It almost lost it's licence in 1983, largely due to the efforts of my ex girlfriends step father, who would take her younger brother to the pub rather than send him to school when he was 10 years old. A new landlord was brought in and part of his remit was to save the license and bring in music. We were well paid and well looked after. When the licensing issue was resolved, he was despatched to another failing pub and the well paid gigs ceased (we did make it to Dingwalls, Belgium and Scandinavia so we didn't do too bad in all honesty). 

And today? With my bus pass, I took a trip to the top of the hil, got off at the Coop and walked back via a winding route, passing all of the places that had some interest for me. The Coop used to be a magnificent department store, with carefully dressed windows. It is now a Poundstretcher with boarded up windows with pictures.The cinema where my mind was blown by the original Planet of the Apes is now an Iceland, the old cinema long being bulldozed. Tesco's started in Burnt Oak, but the site of the store I know has been bulldozed and there is a block of flats going up. The fishmongers have no live eels outside, my old branch of Natwest is now a slot machine emporium. The Betta Cafe is now Lekki's cafe. It is easy enough to mourn the passing of the old, but Burnt Oak was always about more than a few buildings. It is the people that matter.

I walked around the rather wonderful Silkstream Park. It is one of Barnet's most attractive. I also visited Watling Park, where I spent many a wonderful time watching my son play for the Boys team. It is still wonderful on a sunny Autumn day. Burnt Oak was always about providing homes for people who do the work and the shops and services reflect this. I play five  aside football with a bunch of guys, many of who are from Eastern Europe. They are mostly in the building game. They don't want smoky old pubs or greasy bacon sandwiches, of the type I love so much. Times change and we must embrace the change. The London of my youth did not have the amazing range of food, drink, music and culture we now see. In Burnt Oak they now boogie to a different tune, but it is still a fascinating place and I for one still love it. 


Unknown said...

Wonderful and evocative memories reading your recollections.

Your time is definitely an overlap of my time in the Oak and especially Orange Hill School.

I too (eventually) went to Orange Hill and seriously thank many of the teachers there who opened my eyes to theatre and drama especially Robin Fogg and Sheila Deutsch. Along with the names of Harman, Hunt, Raine and Derek Culley the headteacher,
although I think he preferred master! My time there coincided with Boz and recall him making his Top of the Pops debut, which was all the school talked about.

Burnt Oak where was I was born and raised, attending the Annunciation, The Annexe (which backed onto the grounds of Edgware Hospital) and then going to Ireland but returning to do one more year at the Annunciation in Mr, McNicholas' class before going to Finchley!

In my late teens I was a drama youth worker in the Annunciation Youth Club. I created and presented a very successful entertainment night there 'Razzle Dazzle', which showcased much of the local talent and, of course, showcased much that the club did, Boxing, Judo and Irish dancing! I would also sing folk music in the social club on Sunday evenings. So many of my formative even performative years were spent, nurthured and developed in Burnt Oak.

I knew Fred Smythe well and regularly sung and did the readings at mass including a few Christmas Midnight 'Specials'.

Also from a young age I helped out at the ABC Cinema in Edgware particularly on Saturday Morning Pictures. As I grew older I would work there every school holiday.

Perhaps given all of this it was no surprise that I should eventually become an actor, which is what I did, then gave that up to do other professional things but returned again to my passion and its what I do today with moderate success.

Thank you for sharing your memories, and in so doing, rekindling mine.

Keep up the brilliant work.

Anonymous said...

A lovely and unexpected trip down memory lane this morning. Sometimes we just need the prompt for all those memories to flood back - great read

Anonymous said...

My nan lived next door to Annie O'Keefe and had also moced out from Kentish Town. I lived in the house late 60s and again from 86-02. All the places you mention were very much part of my growing up. It was a great place to grow up, climbing trees, jumping streams etc

Anonymous said...

I lived in Burnt Oak as a child from 1954 until 1971. My parents managed to buy a house in Montrose Avenue which was conveniently situated between Silkstream and Montrose parks. My first school was Barnfield, then Orange Hill Girls in Abbots road before it was relocated to Edgware. Burnt Oak was a great place to grow up, you could criss cross the areas between the council estate and the Broadway via a maze of little alleyways which followed the Silkstream and we spent a lot of time paddling there. Wouldn't pass Health and Safety regs now but we survived!