The Kensington years

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In the summer of 1949, Peter, now 20, and Zach travelled on holiday to France to stay with one of Zach’s friends, a 44-year-old widow, Monny, with her three sons aged 17, 15 and 6, in the village of Senneville, in the Haute-Normandie region some 57 miles (92 km) North-West of Paris.[i]  

Monny | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

Monny’s late husband Jean, had joined the French Resistance less than a month after the Fall of France in June 1940 and, two years later, transferred to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret British WW2 organisation,  before becoming leader of the JONGLEUR (Juggler) network in the city of Châlons-sur-Marne in the Champagne region of occupied France.  He had been arrested by the Germans in July 1943, interrogated, tortured, then deported to the Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was executed in March 1945[ii]

Her youngest son remembers Peter and Zach’s arrival in a beautiful convertible Lancia sports car and how Peter quickly became a family friend.  Then, in September 1949, when they returned to London Peter moved into Monny’s house in Abingdon Villas, Kensington, as her lover[iii].   

Britain at that time was very different from Britain today and the legacy of the war was everywhere to be seen.  In major cities, particularly London, there were vacant bomb sites, unrepaired houses, temporary ‘prefabs’ and gardens turned into allotments.  Society was still strongly influenced by war as most grandfathers had served in the First World War, most fathers in the second, and most young men were being called up for two years National Service[iv].   Public attitudes towards sex and marriage were strongly conservative and marriage was the norm, with 400,000 marriages in the UK in 1950.  Although the divorce rate had increased sharply in the 1940s it remained uncommon enough to be a potential source of shame throughout the first half of the 20th century[v].  

Generally, women tended to be married in their early 20s, and most were expected to stay at home, raising a family and taking care of housework, whilst their husband went out to work.  Although many social conventions had been swept away during the war and contraception was beginning to be seen as a way of giving women more control over their own destiny, ‘the Pill’ would not become available until 1961, and then only to married women.

The household at 81 Abingdon Villas was certainly unconventional for the time: Monny, who adored children, ran a small bi-lingual nursery school from her home.  Her eldest son, Michel, was away at boarding school in Reading, then Bristol, whilst her younger two sons remained at home and both attended the French Lycée school in South Kensington.  The top floor of the house was rented to Mario, a young Basque who had arrived in Britain in 1937 with his brother Ven as child refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and his girlfriend Juliet.[vi] 

Although the BBC had resumed television broadcasts after the war, audiences were still small as television receivers were expensive and unreliable, so visual entertainment was principally provided by films.  In 1950 there were nearly 5,000 cinemas and the early 1950s was a golden age for British film, with directors like David Lean and Carol Reed and producers like Michael Balcon, whose Ealing comedies brilliantly reflected the social character and physical environment of post-war Britain[vii].

Peter’s own career in film was beginning to take off with his work on a succession of successful feature films including the 1952 ‘Goon Show’ spin-off “Down Among the Z Men” starring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and others, and the 1953 melodramatic film noir “Cosh Boy” set in the bombed-out streets of London. “Cosh Boy”, starring Joan Collins and directed by Lewis Gilbert, was the first British film to receive an X-rating due to the perceived violent content and plot based around the newly identified problem of ‘juvenile delinquency’, blamed on a lack of parental control and discipline.  The film is described by the British Film Institute (BFI) as being well ahead of its time in its frank depiction of unmarried teenage sex, pregnancy and abortion: all deeply shocking in the repressive early 1950s.  However, the film is badly spoilt by its ending, which suggests that all a boy needs is a damn good thrashing by his father and he will turn out alright.[viii]

Although Peter had retained some contact with his own family during these post-war years, they don’t seem to have been particularly close.  I have no doubt that Peter’s unorthodox lifestyle would have been difficult for his parents to come to term with, but his bricklayer father Charlie, and older brother Arthur who had also become a builder, did, at some point, help him to carry out some refurbishments to the house in Kensington.[ix]

Peter still had his Royal Enfield motorcycle and JM recalled how thrilled he would be to be taken for rides on the pillion.  Now that regular work was coming in, Peter was at last able to afford to buy himself a car, a pre-war Bugatti, which was apparently lovely but very temperamental, so he spent a lot of time fixing it and not much time driving it. 

Monny’s middle son JP left the house to go to University in Paris where he would set up home with his girlfriend Miriam, later his wife, whom he had met at a party at Zach’s house.[x] 

Peter, Monny and JM’s new-found family life was very happy and uneventful for the next seven years.[xi]  My father seems to have been content with the structure and stability of a household which appears to have been run on a traditional family set-up with him taking on the role of father figure to JM, taking him on outings, buying him a bicycle to get to school, and even a wire hair fox terrier named ‘Dusty’.

The 1955 British prisoner-of-war film “The Colditz Story” starring John Mills and Eric Portman, directed by Guy Hamilton, and edited by Peter Mayhew, was a huge box-office success – in fact it was the 4th most profitable film in Britain that year[xii].  From the proceeds of the film, Peter treated himself to a newer – and more reliable – Riley sports car, and he and Monny bought a remote holiday cottage near the village of The Narth, Monmouthshire, with stunning views across the Wye Valley, South Wales.  The cottage was very isolated with just the convenience of running water, but no electricity and a pit toilet outside.[xiii]  He was also now able to indulge in his passion of motorsport taking part in several rallies in the Riley, but I’m not sure if he ever won anything apart from a framed picture that I still have in my own home.

During the latter part of the 1950s, the British film industry was coming under increasing competition from new technologies as the public were turning to home entertainment in the form of television.  Fortunately, Peter was able to transfer his editing skills to this new medium and was offered the role of editor on the BBC series “The Adventures of the Big Man”.  It was in the Walton Studios canteen that that he met Elisabeth Brock, a 22-year-old part time model and continuity girl working on the set of the popular “Adventures of Robin Hood” television series being produced on the same site.  He fell madly in love and Elisabeth quickly became pregnant but the pregnancy was terminated with a dangerous and illegal ‘back-street’ abortion. 

Young woman wearing raincoat and hat in front of fountain in Trafalgar Square, London
Elisabeth Brock modelling raincoats in Trafalgar Square, London, c1956 | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

Monny, who was by now over 50 and well-past childbearing age, was absolutely devastated.  She suffered a nervous breakdown and moved back to Paris, leaving her by-now teenage son in London in the care of a family he barely knew so he could finish the school year.  The abandonment by JM’s mother and stepfather, together with the onset of puberty, was a terrible ordeal for him and resulted in his worst ever academic performance.[xiv]

To be continued soon……

[i] Correspondence and conversation with Monny’s son JM Oct 2021


[iii] Correspondence and conversation with Monny’s son JM Oct 2021

[iv] Britain in 1950 by Ronald Quinault, published in History Today Vol 51 Issue 4, Apr 2001

[v] last accessed 10 Jan 2022

[vi] Correspondence and conversation with Monny’s son JM Oct 2021

[vii] Britain in 1950 by Ronald Quinault, published in History Today Vol 51 Issue 4, Apr 2001

[viii] BFI last accessed 29 Dec 2021

[ix] Correspondence and conversation with Monny’s son JM Oct 2021

[x] ibid

[xi] ibid

[xii] The Times 29 Dec 1955 p12

[xiii] Correspondence and conversation with Monny’s son JM Oct 2021

[xiv] ibid