Coronation memories, Waterloo Street, 1953

John Finn remembers the previous Coronation in a long-gone Finsbury street

Coronation teacup. (CC2.0 Essie @ Flickr)

It was Coronation Day, and the rain drizzled down for most of it. No, not the event of a few weeks back, but 70 years ago – Coronation Day: 2 June, 1953.

We had watched the ceremony of the young princess being crowned in Westminster Abbey and then paraded through the wet streets in flickering grey and white on the 12-inch screen  of our new floor-standing Sobell television set (its screen as big as my iPad). Its highly polished rosewood cabinet had doors to hide the fact that it was a television. And then we were off to spend the rest of the day with my grandmother Helena Banbury (who we called Nanny Banbury) in her Waterloo Street house in Finsbury, just off Lever Street, behind St Luke’s church.

We had been invited to the Galway Street party, the fund for which Nanny Banbury had contributed to in a weekly collection organised through the Royal Oak pub further along on the corner with Galway Street, her ‘regular’. 

All of the Banbury family would be there, uncles, aunts and cousins, all crowded into the little front room of number 16, a room so familiar in my memory I sometimes think I could draw it with pinpoint accuracy. 

I was nine years old and the eldest of the Banbury cousins, and I had sometimes stayed there when I was much smaller. (In fact, there was a period of my early years when I seemed to live with various of my parent’s relations – Auntie Helena out in Barking, and both grandmothers. Not sure why but probably something to do with my parent’s complicated marital history.) 

Number 16 Waterloo Street was a ‘two up, two down’ in a terrace of cheaply-built, plain smoke-blackened brick houses opening straight onto the street, with a single six-paned sash window to the right of the worn wooden door with a boot scraper built into the brickwork by its side and with a religiously whitewashed step. 

Waterloo Street (Islington Local History Centre)

The name of the street told the story of how old the houses were. They faced a high brick building which was some kind of warehouse, with a huge pair of dusty green doors flanked by stone bollards to prevent cartwheels hitting the doorframe. I never saw those doors open. 

In the far right-hand corner of the house’s small backyard was the WC, a dark unlit cobwebby closet, with a wooden seat surrounding the conical earthenware pan, and the obligatory torn squares of newspaper pierced onto a nail in the toilet wall. On the high brick wall surrounding the yard usually sat a resentful black cat whose name I never learnt and who stayed out of sight whenever we were there. 

Mostly out of sight, but very audible, was a cockerel which occasionally strode along the wall. On the earliest visits I remember, the kitchen was in the back room where there was a black coal-fired range with its hob and various oven doors set in the chimney space. I recall burning my finger on it when small and having the finger smothered in butter, an old-established household remedy then. 

At some point later, the kitchen moved into the front parlour which is where we were gathered on that rainy summer day. 

My grandfather, ‘Pop’ Banbury, had died in St Bartholomew’s hospital only the previous February so there was a missing presence in the easy chair with the polished wooden arms which stood to the right of the fireplace, the window to the street above it. 

To the right of the window was a small table covered in a tartan print oil-cloth, with a cupboard on it and a tray before the cupboard, on which were a tin tea-caddy, a souvenir from an earlier coronation, that of George V and Queen Mary. 

On there, too, was a bowl full of sugar cubes with tongs, a metal tea strainer sitting in a small bowl and a bottle of sterilised milk, tall with its beer-bottle type cap – sterilised because it kept longer in those days before fridges. Attached to the wall above this little shrine to tea-time was a brown Bakelite box with a switch and a speaker grille – the relay radio set. Since the house was in that time lit by gas, this was one way of receiving radio broadcasts. A weekly subscription rented you a box on the wall fed by cable to each house, giving you the choice of several radio stations which you selected by turning the switch to one of four or five of settings. 

A scrubbed wooden table stood in the middle of the room (us cousins invariably sat under it) and in the corner was a chest of drawers with a cupboard above, in which was stored cutlery and crockery, and linen. In the alcove to the left of the fireplace was a gas-stove. Above the mantelpiece was a large mahogany-edged mirror, in front of which were a display of framed family photographs between two tall matching pale-green china vases. 

To the right side of the mirror was the gas bracket, a swan-necked pipe jutting from the wall with its incandescent mantle which gave a greenish-yellowish glow when lit in the evening, hissing constantly. Around the wall in the remaining spaces were parked unpainted wooden kitchen chairs. It was a tight squeeze with about a dozen adults and us children. 

My grandmother would make tea in a vast black earthenware pot, and pour it into an assortment of cups and saucers, at least one of which I remember so clearly, had the motto ‘Time and Tide Wait for No Man’ on one side and ‘A present from Southend’ on the other.  Nanny would pour the tea from her cup into a saucer and sip it from that. I’m told that this was common practice among her generation, but later I did wonder if she had copied this practice from her eastern European parents.

All of the talk would be of anecdotes and reminiscences, most of it heard before and would be again. Occasionally some would laugh at what Nanny had to say, much to her fury and she’d slap them all down, after which a new thread of conversation would be started. I heard most of this from under the table but would creep out if the cousins got too noisy or silly, to listen to the adults talking. From time to time, fingers would be put to lips glancing in my direction if the content wasn’t thought suitable for my ears. 

Eventually, us children would be told to go and play in the street. Which was a whole new experience for me and my brother and sister who normally played in the quieter semi-suburban privet hedged roads of Stamford Hill. Here, new street games were introduced to us by the children of Nanny’s neighbours. Really friendly children too, who would sometimes knock at number 16 to ask us out to play if they discovered that we were visiting. I remember especially Mary and her brothers of a family who lived further along Waterloo Street opposite to the pub. Looking back, I can now see that they were relatively poor in a poor area. Their house was unlit with plaster and ceilings cracked and crumbling. I was too scared to go beyond the doorway.

This day, though, it was too wet to play in the street. The Coronation street party? There wasn’t one. It was rained off. The wooden stage erected across Galway Street near the pub,  from where it had been intended that the locals would be entertained, stood forlorn in the drizzle with its red, white and blue bunting and union jacks dripping onto the crepe paper pinned around the stage front, itself now draining of its patriotic colours. Instead the sandwiches, cakes and wax dishes of jelly were handed out to each child in damp brown paper bags to take home, along with a certificate to record that the said child had been present at the non-party. I recall that mine had the inked-in words ‘Galway Street’ smudged by a raindrop. We were also given a propelling pencil, striped red, white and blue with a crown on the end to protrude and retract the lead. Nanny had also bought us each a cup and saucer with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s portraits surrounded by regal heraldry. Plus a small photographic portrait of the new Queen, encased in plastic, which, if you altered the angle, turned into the Duke of Edinburgh. Lots of this kind of souvenir were everywhere and are now collectors’ items. Mine have long gone, unfortunately. 

Inevitably, the family party moved onto the Royal Oak for the rest of the day, while we children played outside in the now-drying street under the light of the gas lamps which had been lit by the lamplighter on his bike. From time to time the doors of the saloon bar with their frosted glass would open and the noise of laughter and jangly piano would emit an adult who might bring us lemonade and crisps, but also one of the old black clad widows who were friends of my grandmother. Following an old custom, they would often give you a silver coin, sixpence or a shilling, or, occasionally a florin or a half-crown. An old superstition had it that to give silver to a child  would bring the giver good luck. I hope it did.

And so ended the day. As it would for only a couple of years more before Waterloo Street and the surrounding area would be swept away and its residents moved en masse to the new Brunswick Estate on St John Street opposite to Finsbury library. And a couple of years more still before Helena Banbury died in 1960. Aged 16, I was allowed to attend her funeral. It left the estate and, proceeded by the undertaker on foot, his top hat removed, moved slowly up St John’s Street until it reached Rosebery Avenue where the flower-decked hearse and mourners’ cars sped off to Islington cemetery in Finchley.  Her former neighbours from Waterloo Street lined the estate and street to pay their last respects. I heard some point me out as ‘Rene’s boy’. 

A little bit more of old Finsbury had passed away.

John Finn leads numerous guided walks and is a tutor on our training courseFind out more about upcoming guided walks in Islington and Clerkenwell at our website.