Memories of the Square
by Steve McManus, resident from the 1950s to 1983
My family and I moved to Warwick Square in the late 1950s. I vividly remember being made lookout for the arrival of the Bishop & Sons removal van that was on its way to number fourteen via Buckingham Palace Road, the unofficial border between the elegant environs of Belgravia and the still evident bombsites of Pimlico.
Our occupation of number fourteen consisted of renting the ground floor and basement. The main hallway was communal access for the residents living above, among whom was a lovely Scotswoman named Sheila Williams who had a daughter named Boodie and who kept a succession of Irish terriers, all named Captain.
The ground floor consisted of the usual large drawing room looking onto the square. There was a bedroom, and then a dark corridor led to a large room at the back which soon became known as the bunk-room, in that it had four bunks to accommodate the progeny of my parents Niall and Fiona MacManus.
All boys, we were aged 15, 13, 11 and 5. Most of our time was spent in the basement, where the elder boys would do their homework at the dining table in the evening and where Sunday lunch would be served. Otherwise, we ate in the kitchen — quite the darkest, most gloomy place in which I have ever consumed my cornflakes.
Of course, what came with our occupation of number fourteen was access to the square — made possible by the receipt of a Yale key. This hallowed object was the subject of intense security, for to lose it meant having to request a replacement from the square’s agents based at number fifty. The charge for a new key was ten shillings: a veritable fortune in those pre-decimal days. As such the key was put on a loop of string and hung round the user’s neck to minimise the danger of losing it. Alas, I recall at least one occasion when the key slipped its moorings and fell into the drain outside the gate facing number fourteen. Mea Culpa.
The square was an Eden for those privileged to possess a key. It was the perfect meeting place for residents, especially in summer when mothers of young children would bring trays of tea and biscuits out and sit companionably on checkered picnic blankets.
Before long I made friends with four other boys of my age, and we soon became known as ‘the gang’. The gang’s members were James Fanning, Tom Gidley-Kitchin, Stephen Carrigan, young Pip, and myself. The square was our preserve between four and five o’clock each school day and during those sixty minutes we boys ran, played, fought, laughed, and rode our bikes with all the energy that youth provides. A highlight was riding through the sprinklers, meant not for our entertainment of course but rather to water the forlorn grassy areas.
At weekends we would be hired as ball-boys for those elders and betters using the tennis court. Two of us would be posted inside the court and two stationed outside, ever alert for an over ambitious lob or mistimed forehand smash.
When my family first moved to the square its lawns, flowerbeds and hedges, were decidedly run-down. The railings that had been removed in the war had not been replaced and something resembling chicken wire was the only barrier between those inside and those passing by. The less fortunate lads from Churchill Gardens would delight in lobbing missiles through gaps in the wire as they passed on their riotous way towards Victoria station.
Fortunately, everything was to change with the arrival of Mr. Eric Callaghan, who took up the role of square gardener and who lived in a flat that may or may not have come with the post.
Mr. Callaghan was a recently retired schoolmaster. However, he had had the misfortune to lose much of his life’s savings in the stock market and was now reduced to supplementing what remained with a gardener’s stipend.
Mr. Callaghan was kindly and tolerant of the gang. Indeed he used his schoolmaster’s experience to curb our wilder excesses. Within two years he had also tamed the garden, especially the grass, which while not striped could now properly be referred to as a lawn.
There remained the occasional act of vandalism, of course. I confess it was me who, having being given a sheaf knife for a birthday, strolled into the garden and decided to test its sharpness on one of the long black rubber hoses used to deliver water to the sprinklers. The knife was razor sharp and made a nice nick in the pipeline. I was impressed. However, the felony was raised at the next meeting of the garden committee, chaired by Colonel Swinton. This imposing man had been a prisoner-of-war in the Pacific theatre and (surrounded once more by wire) would patrol the square armed with a cane, ready to be shaken at any transgressor of the garden’s byelaws. Colonel Swinton drew attention to my act of vandalism with the words, ‘No names, no pack-drill.’ but it was clear I was the number one suspect. I know this because my mother was invited to the meeting — a kind of public shaming by implication.
One day we awoke to find the gate path leading to the church end of the square had acquired a bright red wooden noticeboard. The notice forbade the riding of bicycles beyond it, the intention being to restrict the gang to the tennis court end of the square. No one minded the intention, but the board was mounted on a wooden stake at least six feet high. Having fought totalitarianism in the war, my mother did not take kindly to the board towering over her like some Big Brother prop from a stage adaptation of 1984 and she determined to organise a campaign of resistance. Fellow residents were rallied to her cause and the garden committee held to account. In due course the committee saw sense and not long after the board was taken down. It did reappear, but was less obtrusive, having had its stake sawn in half.
As the sixties dawned I found myself aged ten and set to leave London to continue my schooling at Dartington Hall in Devon.
Not long after this, Professor Hare, who lived in number eight, died and my mother got in first with an enquiry to the agents as to whether the MacMani could move into the now vacant flat. It was ground floor only, but came with its own front door, which was handy because my father was able to relocate his private medical practice there and put his brass doctor’s plate outside. Number eight was unusual in that the ground floor had a double frontage, so people living above had to enter through number nine. One of these was a Mrs. MacMillan whose sitting room was directly above my bedroom and who would always complain about my noisy attempts at mastering the typewriter. Again, the kitchen was tiny but touchingly it retained access to a dumb waiter that milkmen used to send their dairy’s wares from the basement up to the thirsty tenants above.
Returning in the school holidays I would always be sure to have a walk around the square, but by the end of the sixties people were doing things differently there. A more tranquil air prevailed, with the rowdy exploits of the gang merely a faint echo from times past.
In 1983 I bid a final farewell to the square, returning in 1990 to hold my wedding reception at number eight. Which seems a good place to end this ‘grass was greener then’ garden memoir.