Several of my dad’s family lived around Zennor Road in Balham. This page is a description of the road and some reminiscences of it from my Dad who was born and grew up there in the 1950s.
Zennor Road was built from the late 1860s as a series of industrial dwellings. The first plots were advertised for sale in 1868 and 1869 in blocks of three or four houses for each lot. They were described as a “delightful, salubrious and healthy neighbourhood, fitted with every convenience for small families, within five minutes walk of Balham Station and Tooting Common“. The lease was for 96 years and rentals were £35 per year and the ground rent was £5 per annum. The first stages were the odd numbers on the East side of the road and low even numbers on the West. This initial phase of building had three storeys (ground, first and second floors). The plots on the West side backed onto Dragmire Lane (later to become Cavendish Road) and were accessible with carts from the rear. Some of these became part residential – part commercial properties such as the Florists Shop at Number 6, which added an outhouse and greenhouse to the property in 1871. On the 1871 census, very few of the houses are numbered but I count that 23 were occupied, with the enumerator indicating blocks of 3 and 4 houses between them had been built but were yet be occupied. The initial stage of building included numbers 2-10 on the west side and the odd sequence up to 73 Zennor Road on the east and South East, although small differences in the designs of the properties on the East side show that this building work was completed in discreet blocks. Grove Road (which would in the fullness of time become Weir Road) still had substantial mansions with large decorative gardens.
The Newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s refer to the sales of leases for blocks of properties in threes and fours, reinforcing the view that the building programme had moved in stages, with the sale of each block funding the building of the next. The 1881 census shows the street to have been complete, except for a gap between 52 and 46. By 1893, the lease of the Triangle, a ‘block of six artisan’s dwellings‘ in the middle of the street, had come up for auction, suggesting that the building of Zennor Road was complete. The survey of 1894 (published in 1896) shows the geography of Zennor Road. Two parades of shops had been built to the Grove Road end. The lands all around it were fields and the large mansions still stood on Grove Road. The numbering of Zennor Road in the 1881 census continued to number 87 and had numbers 54 and 56 whereas the numbering scheme in the 1950s (below) show that the main body of the street ended at 85 and 52. I assume that the plots that would become 263 and 265 Cavendish Road (on the southernmost corner of Zennor Road) were originally attributed to Zennor Road and numbered accordingly.
Most of the incomers to the street were working class people from the Clapham and Balham areas. The houses were two or three storey buildings and the census shows each to have accommodated two or even three families in each. It seems that the ground and first floor were typically lived in by one family with the top floor occupied by another. On average each house accommodated between six to ten individuals.
In 1898, the fields to the south of Zennor became the site of Cavendish Road School, originally as separate infants and primary school. This would in due course be renamed Henry Cavendish school. Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), the famous scientist, had lived on Clapham Common, at the top of what was then called Dragmire Lane, but which would later become Cavendish Road. By 1910 to 1920, most of the fields around Balham were replaced by housing. The fields to the south and east of Zennor Road were filled with semi-detached houses and the mansions on Grove Road were demolished to make way for industrial housing. Several industrial plots were also established, including a bottle plant and stationery factory replacing the large houses on the south side of Grove Road.
The Ordnance Survey map of 1950 shows the street largely unchanged from 1894, although in reality, several of the houses had been bombed in WW2 and remained ruined and unoccupied in the post-war years. A bomb had landed at the Weir Road end of Zennor Road and another on Cavendish Road Schools. This is marked in this map as ‘Ruin’ in the bottom right corner – this was rebuilt and opened soon after the map was published as the building which stands today. The corner plot between 55 and 63 was a wood yard.
In 1936 Grove Road was renamed Weir Road and Dragmire Lane became Cavendish Road. The parades of shops at the North end of Zennor Road had been made part of the Zennor Road numbering schemes (1a-10a) but with the letter ‘a’ to distinguish them from the same numbers on Zennor Road itself. The plot at the end of the Southernmost tenement in Zennor Road (I infer this was 87 Zennor Road in 1901) was rebuilt after the war to become a doctor’s surgery with an address of 265 Cavendish Road. During the late 1960s the Triangle in the centre of the road was demolished.
Possibly because the road was not a thoroughfare to anywhere else, Zennor Road developed a reputation for being a rough street. The only people who entered it were people with business there and because there were few carts or (in later years) cars driving through, the children played in the street. The sides of the Triangle were long imposing brick facades without doors or windows and against these children played football or tennis. The houses soon became the oldest of the industrial housing to be built in the area and subsequent buildings were more spacious semi-detached properties rather than terraces. The houses were densely populated and, as early as July 1897, an outbreak of Diptheria was reported in the local press.
“A serious outbreak of diptheria is reported to have occurred in Balham. In Zennor Road alone, there are said to be no fewer than twenty cases. The Postmaster-General has issued instructions that all Postmen when approaching that neighbourhood are to smoke“.St James’s Gazette, 23 July 1897
In the 1950s and 1960s, the area attracted the attention of Paul Kaye, a London photographer with a keen interest in capturing the cheeky humour of London working class children. Kaye was born in Clapham but worked in London, making a living from portrait photographs of royalty and heads of state. However, he visited working class Balham and it is clear from the shots that he focussed particularly on photography in Zennor Road. Several of these photographs in this on-line collection are from Zennor Road, even if they are not labelled as such, taken particularly around the north end of the Triangle where the road widened and which was a favourite spot for the children to congregate. Photographs with children playing football with goals marked on long brick walls may have been taken against the side of the Triangle. Photographs of them on a patch of waste ground are on the site of the Triangle after its demolition.
The leases on the land of Zennor Road expired in the early 1970s and the whole street was earmarked for demolition. The last residents of Zennor Road moved out in 1975 and were offered alternative housing, many of them on the Blenheim Gardens Estate in Brixton. Others moved out of the area altogether. Zennor Road was rebuilt as a series of small industrial units which are still there. The site was recently (2017) sold for £30 million pounds, something that I am sure would have astounded the original residents. This is what Zennor Road looks like today.
The Finch and Gwyther families in Zennor Road (1895-1975)
Our family lived in Zennor Road for almost a century. The family history is available on ancestry.co.uk via a public family tree if anyone want to track the individuals or documents further, and details of the Finch and Gwyther families are on pages associated with this website. The first record we can find is of my dad’s great aunt, Caroline Matilda GWYTHER (1875-1932) who was born in St Mary’s Pembroke in Wales. She and her siblings were orphaned in 1891 when her father died (her mother had died in 1889) and the family were taken in by her aunt Caroline who had married Henry DAVIES. Caroline Matilda seems to have left Pembroke ~1895 when she was 20 and was married in 1897 to Ernest Henry TRIM (1876-1952). Their first son, Ernest George TRIM (known as George in later life) was born in 19 Zennor Road; in the 1901 census, Ernest and Caroline are living in 75 Zennor Road, the first in a block of two-storey buildings built in the late 1880s. It is visible on the picture below as first one of the two-storey houses abutting the three-storey houses. Ernest and Caroline had children born over the next 25 years and, like many, they moved around Zennor Road, taking the better houses as they were vacated; moving to less convenient ones if their fortunes flagged. In 1903, at the birth of their son Percy Frederick TRIM, they were in 36 Zennor Road.
By 1909, Caroline had been joined by her sister, (my great grandmother), Elizabeth Ann GWYTHER (1886-1952) who had also been born in St Mary’s Pembroke. Ernest had remained in 36 Zennor Road and Elizabeth was living with them. She married George William FINCH (1888-1946) who was from White’s Square in Clapham. The family initially moved away to Lower Orchard Street in Brixton (they are there in 1911), but returned to Zennor Road. Their children were born in Zennor Road, including my grandfather, John Sidney FINCH (1916-1982) who was born in 1 Zennor Road in June 1916.
The view from the Grove Road (soon to be Weir Road) end shows the main length of the road. The parade of shops had a separate numbering system and my grandfather was born in 1 Zennor Road, the first house on the left beyond the shops. The different sections of Zennor Road built at different times can be seen on the right – the five three-storey houses on the right are numbers 2-10 Zennor Road, which were built first and have the same design as those on the East (left) side of the road. Beyond this block which there is a change of design – these were a series of flats numbered 12-18 Zennor Road and known as ‘Potterton’s Buildings’. Beyond that there is a further sequence of two-storey houses is seen going on up to the corner. The Triangle – a set of flats occupying a plot of land in the centre of the road – are visible on the left in the distance as a block appearing to jut out from the main sequence of houses (but this is a trick of the perspective). 75 Zennor Road, where Caroline and Ernest Trim lived in 1901, is visible in the far distance as the first house seen past the Triangle. The houses are shown with metal railings in front of each house, which hints that this was taken before WW2, possibly ~1920. By the time my Dad lived there, these were all gone; believed to have been sawn off to provide metal for the WW2 war effort, and he remembers the stubs in the concrete cornices.
Members of the Finch and Trim families remained in Zennor Road and were born and died there. It was common for families to move from one house to another along the street as they became vacant. For example, my great grandparents, George and Elizabeth FINCH lived first in 1 Zennor Road, but by the 1940s, they had moved to 25 Zennor Road. My dad was born in 25 Zennor Road in 1946 and my great grandfather died in the same house in the same year. My dad grew up in number 25 and, when he lived there in the 1950s, he knew that several families along the street, including the Thwaites, Trims, Stockers were his father’s cousins and he was also aware that many others in the street were related by marriage. His Aunt Alice (Pettley) moved into the street to be near to her sister and lived in Potterton Buildings. He was often told that someone was his cousin but didn’t know exactly how. Many others, such as the Musgraves, have similar stories of their families living in Zennor Road.
Children playing in Zennor Road ~1961. The left picture shows Tony Gannon (far left) and my Dad (Tony Finch, 2nd from left) playing in the street. The right picture shows my uncle Denis (on the left with his left shoulder against the wall). They are playing shove ha’penny. © The Paul Kaye Collection / Mary Evans Picture Library.
Reminiscences of Zennor Road in the 1950s
My dad was born in 25 Zennor Road in February 1946. His most vivid memories of the road and its communities therefore date from the 1950s and early 1960s. He remembers many features of life there. For example, the doors to all the houses were always open – they did have locks on the front door but this was to keep the door shut to stop the draught and the key was found on the end of a piece of string accessed through the letterbox. He always told me it was because there was nothing in anyone’s houses worth stealing and in any case, there were always too many people about.
A plan of the family house at 25 Zennor Road is shown below. The ground floor comprised the front room (which was kept for best in case someone visited), the back room (which was a lounge for sitting) and the kitchen at the rear. When he was born, my dad’s Nan (Elizabeth Ann Gwyther) lived in the back room and that was the case up to her death in 1952. My Dad thinks that both his grandparents shared this room before he was born and it was probably the room in which his grandad died.
Before 1952, my Dad’s family lived on the middle floor. The backroom was the boys bedroom (him and his two brothers) and the front room was shared by his mum and dad and two sisters. The room that would be in later years a first floor middle bedroom was their kitchen. My dad was born in the first floor front bedroom. The top floor was occupied by my dad’s aunt, Ivy Elizabeth, who had married Christopher MATTHEWS. They shared the top two rooms with their two daughters (a younger daughter would be born later) and the flat comprised a bed-sit at the front and a kitchen at the rear. At this time, the house was shared by three families (which was not unusual) and had twelve adults and children within it.
In 1950, his aunt Ivy moved out to Streatham and my dad’s sisters moved into the rooms on the top floor. His Nan died in 1952 and this allowed the family to expand to fill the whole house. The boys moved into the front bedroom and my dad shared it with his brothers. There were two beds in the room and his eldest brother George had one and my Dad shared the other, top and tail, with his brother John. Because it was the front bedroom, my dad and his brother John could hear his Aunt Alice Pettley coming home from the pub singing at the top of her voice on a Saturday night. They used to open the window and look out when they were supposed to be in bed asleep. His mum and dad moved into the middle bedroom. From time to time, relatives would stay and everyone moved around. My dad remembers his uncle Bozzle (George) sleeping in his room and snoring so much he crept in with his mum and dad to get some peace. His cousin George (Bozzle’s son) was a regular visitor and stayed with them for extended periods.
In 1955, my dad’s brother Denis was born. He lived first of all in his mum & dad’s room. In 1956 his sister Elsie got married and, after living for a short while in furnished rooms in Tooting, she and her husband Dennis moved into the top two rooms. This meant that Jean moved to first floor back bedroom and was the only person to have a room to herself. After a few years, Elsie moved out to Battersea and my dad’s brother George (who had married in 1960) moved upstairs. This created a space in the ‘boys’ room – John moved to one single bed and Denis shared the other single bed with my Dad.
The lighting in his early days was by gas, and there were gas lights along the street against which the kids would play cricket and on which they would climb. The house had gas cooking and gas lighting. My dad remembers one time when the gas pipe was cracked and leaking – his mum had shut off the gas and went for an engineer. But my dad turned the gas back on again and lit the gas escaping from the hole – he still remembers the roar of the flame and the fact that there was a gap between the hole in the pipe and the bottom of the flame. He could then blow it out and relight it. By the time his mum returned, he had turned the gas back off again and his mum never knew he had played this game. Heating was by open fireplaces and every room had a fireplace. Coal was stored in the cupboard under the stairs – unlike others, their house didn’t have a coal bunker in the back yard.
Electricity came to Zennor Road around 1956. It was initially only on the ground floor and my dad’s brother John then hotwired the electrical system to take the electricity up to the top two floors. The light switches were hanging loose from the ceiling and if you put your hand round the door to turn the light on, and the light switch as facing the wrong way, you would get an electric shock. My nan got an electric washing machine (replacing the bagwash man – see below) with a mangle on top and my dad remembers putting his fingers into it and getting them trapped. They didn’t use modern wall-mounted plugs but rather used plugs that would fit into the lighting sockets and could be used to power domestic appliances. You could buy distribution plugs that would fit into the light socket and split it into two, allowing you to have a light in one and an appliance in the other.
Life on Zennor Road
My dad and his friends played in the street. Games included tennis and football (against the wall of the Triangle) and knocking bottles and cans from one side of the road to the other by throwing balls at them. He remembers marbles up against the wall and also shove ha’penny. The girls would be skipping and playing hopscotch. They made go-carts from pram tyres and wooden boards. Bonfire night (5th November) was a big event. Everyone in the street would get out all their burnable rubbish and wood and make a large pyre at the middle of the road where it widened just North of the Triangle. It was a social event for the children but an annual clear out for the adults.
Life in Zennor Road 1960-1970. The top photo shows girls skipping in the street at the top end of the Triangle looking East. The boys would play football (2nd photo) and here the goal is the wall at the NW end of the parade of shops next to Zennor Road. The bookmakers EW Evans (where my dad used to run my grandad’s bets) is seen behind. The Guy Fawkes night bonfire was a big event (3rd photo). This is ~1970 since the pyre is being created on the wasteland where the Triangle used to be. The area next to the Triangle (4th Photo) was where the kids would congregate. They are here climbing over an abandoned vehicle – the woodyard between numbers 55 and 63 (run by Nobby Clarke) is in the rear. The gates are closed hinting that this photo was taken on a Sunday. © The Paul Kaye Collection / Mary Evans Picture Library
Zennor Road had no telephones (although there was a public phone box in Weir Road) and so he and the other younger children ran paper messages about. This included his dad’s bets. Zennor Road always had a bookmaker. Prior to 1960, betting outside of race courses was illegal and in the late 1930s, my great grandad (George William Finch 1888-1946) had been the street bookie. He was arrested on at least two occasions for running illegal bets. By the 1950s, when my dad remembers it, the man who used to collect the bets was called Clark. He thinks that Clark was just front man and that someone else was the actual bookmaker – the police could only ever arrest the front man. In 1960, the Betting and Gaming Act allowed licensed bookmakers outside of the race courses. A bookmaker called EVANS opened in the parade at the end of the road and my dad would take his bets up.
Kids were often sent on shopping trips. One day he took his youngest brother Denis (about 9 month old) in the pram to the shops on Keith Terrace (Webb’s Dairy, along Cavendish Road) and forgot all about him. A while later, while he was playing on the road, his mum came out asked where Denis was. Denis was found sitting happily in the pram outside the shop where he had been left.
The dustmen would come through the house to collect the bins from the back yard and carry them back through the house. The dustmen always kept an eye on what they were carrying and would lift things out of the rubbish if they thought they could sell it on. My dad’s mum would buy carpets from the dustman. There were several deliveries along the street – usually from horse and cart – which included bread and coal. The bagwash man used to come along the street collecting the week’s washing in a pillow case and these would be returned later washed but not dried. There was a mangle in the yard and the washing went through this to get the worst of the water out before it was hung to dry in the yard. The milkman had an electric vehicle and the cartmen would collect their money every Saturday. There were two toilets in the house, one accessed from the yard (go out the back door, round the old washhouse and then in through the door) and the second on the first floor. There was no bathroom and the tin bath was in the back yard. This had to be filled from kettles boiled on the gas cooker. My nan had an old flatiron (back in the days when they really were blocks of solid iron), that was heated on the stove and then used to iron the clothes.
My dad particularly remembers Sundays. Everyone put their best clothes on on Sunday, even though no-one went to church. My dad’s dad always made cooked Sunday breakfast which he called the ‘cowboy’s breakfast’ because it constituted bacon, eggs and beans. The pubs were only open between 12-2 and dinner was timed to be ready for when the pubs closed and the menfolk came home. As you walked down the road on a Sunday afternoon, you could smell the roast dinners cooking in the houses. The whole family would sit down to Sunday dinner. Afterwards, the Salvation Army would come and do a service in the street and the kids would march back with them to Sunday school on Balham Hill. This was the only privacy parents ever got during the week. In the early evening, the van would come from the coast bringing winkles and cockles – the usual Sunday tea.
When someone on the street died, there would be a collection for the bereaved family. Everyone moved out of Zennor Road in 1975 when it was demolished. My aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins were all moved to the Blenheim Gardens estate in Brixton. When he was asked whether he missed Zennor Road, my grandfather said that he had been given a new house with all amenities and then been compensated for the fact that he had had to move. Although there is a nostalgia for some aspects of living on the street, my grandfather gave the clear impression that leaving it had been one of the best moves he had made.
Arguably the most famous person to come from Zennor Road is John Sullivan, the script writer, who was born in 35 Zennor Road and grew up along the street. My dad was in the year above John at school and he remembers him as being reserved and thoughtful. In hindsight, he was clearly taking in the characters along the street since my dad assures me that many of the characters that featured in Citizen Smith and Only Fools and Horses were reminiscent of individuals along Zennor Road. John also used the surnames of the people in the street, and one of the characters in Only Fools and Horses was Bobby Finch.
It has been suggested that a notorious South London criminal gang – the Richardson gang – came out of Zennor Road. There were Richardsons on the street and my dad had heard it suggested that there was a connection to a man they called ‘Old Man Richardson’ – who lived in one of the flats in 10 Potterton Buildings. However he didn’t think that this was true. Although there was a lot of ‘wheeling and dealing’ along the street, my Dad assures me that people generally had respect for the Police. Serious criminality was rare.
Almost everyone on the street was involved in boxing, including my grandad John Sidney Finch (1916-1982). Another of these was Harry (Bomber) Newton who had been a professional boxer in the years after the war. Like several in his position, he had boxed within the Army in WW2, becoming Middleweight Champion of British-Malaya in 1945. This success, combined with the vacuum of demobilisation, meant that he tried his hand as a professional boxer after returning to the UK. He had some success over a period of five years but retired in late 1949 or 1950.
At the Weir Road end of Zennor Road in number 10a lived Sam (Samuel Mountstephen 1883-1965), an old man who collected recyclables and junk. He wore a long coat and bowler hat and would be seen dragging a long train of prams onto which he would collect his wares. It was said that he had been an officer in the Navy in the distant past. People found it amusing that his floods of profanity were delivered with a posh accent.
Some of the photos above are © The Paul Kaye Collection / Mary Evans Picture Library. If you have any further information, photographs or anecdotes from Zennor Road, please feel free to share them with me. I will incorporate them into the description.