The Tooting years

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Our Peter Mayhew’s birth certificate solemnly records that one Charles Peter Mayhew, son of Richard Charles Mayhew a Bricklayer and Emily Mary Mayhew formerly Banfield, was born at home at 984 Garratt Lane, Tooting, South London, on 2nd May 1929.

As a novice family historian, it took me a while to find my grandparents’ marriage as I’d assumed that I was searching for a Richard Mayhew marrying an Emily Banfield probably in Fulham, where they were both born and grew up in a close-knit community of large families.  When I eventually tracked them down, their marriage certificate states that on 25th April 1925 Charles Richard Mayhew, a 22-year-old Bricklayer, married 23-year-old Emily Banfield, and they were both resident at the same address in Brockley Hill – on the opposite site of London.  

The happy couple didn’t stay in Brockley for long as Charlie is listed on the 1925 Electoral Register[i]. at 984 Garrett Lane, Tooting, where their first son, Arthur, was born towards the end of the year.  Their only daughter Edna arrived two years later in 1927 and their third and last child, known as Peter, followed in 1929. 

In the early part of the 20th century, the fields around the village of Tooting were rapidly disappearing beneath streets of terraced houses, but it was the opening of Tooting Broadway underground station in 1926 that sealed its future as one of the most vibrant, diverse, and densely populated London suburbs.   Almost opposite the station, with entrances just metres apart, are Tooting Market, described as greatest shopping centre in South London when it opened in 1930[ii], and the Broadway Market, which opened in 1936 becoming the largest indoor market in South London.[iii]  Today these remain two of London’s oldest and most popular indoor markets which continue to draw customers from across the region. The jewel in Tooting’s crown however was the magnificently opulent Granada Theatre[1], one of London’s first dedicated ‘talkie’ cinemas, which opened in 1931. The Granada was a true ‘picture palace’, equipped with the latest innovations in modern cinema projection and sound, and generously spaced rows of seats for up to 4,000 people with room for another 1,000 standing at the back[iv] .  

Without doubt, having one of the greatest temples to popular entertainment just a couple of hundred yards away from their tiny flat had a big impact on the Mayhew family.  In the days before television in every home, going to the cinema was the most popular form of entertainment and many families went to the cinema once or even twice a week as the programmes were changed every Monday and Thursday to keep up with demandPopular genres from Hollywood included swashbuckling adventures and ‘safe scare’ (relatively family friendly) monster movies which made stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.  Comedy was dominated by the subversive and slapstick Marx Brothers, and outrageously glamourous musicals offered an escape from everyday life for all ages.  

Most British films in the 1930s were short, low budget films made to fulfil obligations imposed on distributors and exhibitors by the Cinematograph Films Act.  However, these gave novice film makers and actors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Mills, James Mason and Jack Hawkins, a chance to practice and perfect their craft.  Home-grown variety format comedy made screen stars of music hall veterans such as Gracie Fields and George Formby, and British-based thrillers were also very successful.

Films of that era certainly made a big impression on young Peter as later he would own 16mm copies of several films, including King Kong, The 39 Steps, and Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood filmed in glorious technicolor, which he would screen to enthralled audiences at local community events in the 1960s. 

Although the 1930s are generally remembered for the Depression with mass unemployment affecting over 20% of the workforce nationally, the standard of living for a skilled bricklayer’s family in the Southeast of England would be reasonably comfortable thanks to a boom in house building.  The Mayhew family would have been able to afford small luxuries, including those cinema visits and maybe trips to nearby Wimbledon Stadium for the Speedway or Greyhound Racing, which both arrived in 1928 and proved very popular indeed[v].

Postcard image of a man with two young boys walking along a seaside promenade in 1936
Charlie Mayhew with sons Arthur & Peter | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

The only surviving family photograph from that time shows Charlie and his two boys at a seaside resort.  Charlie’s style is clearly influenced by Hollywood.  He is very dapper with fashionable ‘Oxford Bags’ wide trousers with turnups, pullover, single breasted jacket with jaunty pocket handkerchief in the breast pocket and a trilby hat.  Smoking was an acceptable form of social behaviour everywhere: at work, at home, in pubs and, of course, in the cinema.  The cigarette habit was celebrated – even glamourised – by movie stars on the silver screen and emulated by the rest of the world[vi].

Peter is carrying a paper bag which might contain their lunch, so perhaps they are on a day trip.  If the boys were lucky enough to have a few pennies of pocket money to spend, they probably would have spent it on sticky sweets bought by weight from a corner shop and maybe even a “tuppenny blood” illustrated story paper printed in one or two colours on the front cover and costing 2d (tuppence), such as ‘Boys’ Cinema’[vii], with news about the Hollywood and British stars of the day together with film scripts re-written in story format, or ‘The Modern Boy’[viii], which featured thrilling stories of daring adventures in episode format.

In January 1938, the southernmost section of Garratt Lane where the family lived was renamed Garratt Terrace, with traffic rerouted through the adjacent Defoe Road, which was renamed Garratt Lane[ix].  Although later records appear to show the family had moved to 15 Garratt Terrace, this is the same small flat-fronted Victorian terraced cottage they’d occupied since 1925.  The house still exists today and remains divided into two flats[x] – just as it was when newlyweds Charlie and Em took up residence nearly one hundred years ago.

Map of Tooting
Map of Tooting showing the location of the Mayhew’s flat

Whilst Peter and his family were living an unremarkable working-class life in a busy London suburb, international tensions were rising to create the worldwide turmoil that would eventually lead to World War II. 

By the summer of 1938, just 20 years from the end of the ‘War to end all Wars’, Britain was close to armed conflict with Germany.  Air raid shelters were built across London to protect the public and trenches were dug in local parks.  Local councils appealed to residents to dig shelters in their own gardens or co-operate with others to make a trench for use by two or more households[xi].  Schools were being adapted for use a first-aid posts and gas masks were distributed from schools, church halls and public buildings.  Plans for the mass evacuation of schoolchildren to remove them from danger were well underway.

The anxiety experienced by families must have been terrible: armies, navies, and air forces were mobilising across Europe, prayers for peace were said in local churches and plans to evacuate school children were about to be actioned.  However, with just hours to spare, at 12:30am on 30th September 1938, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, reached an agreement in Munich between Britain, Germany, France and Italy and it seemed that war had been averted. 

The initial collective relief was huge:  the Prime Minister stepped from his plane at Heston airport in West London declaring “peace for our time” waving a sheet of white paper signed by Adolf Hitler spelling out the German leader’s desire never to go to war with Britain again.  Mr Chamberlain was welcomed by jubilant crowds at the airport then driven through the streets in an open topped car waving his hat to the crowds that lined both sides of the route before appearing in front of another rejoicing throng on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the King and Queen, and later outside 10 Downing Street.[xii][xiii]

However, this national euphoria was short lived when it quickly became clear that, until the Cabinet ordered the demobilisation of the Fleet and Territorial Army, the country would remain in a state of instant readiness for war.

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[1] The Granada building survives today as a Grade I listed building on Mitcham Road, Tooting. It is now a bingo hall.

[i]. London, England, Electoral Register: Wandsworth 1925 p363
[ii]. Norwood News 24 October 1930 p17
[iii]. Norwood News 20 March 1936 p2
[iv] Kinematograph Weekly 26 February 1931 p42
[v]Wikipedia last accessed 26 Oct 2021
[vi] Encyclopaedia Britannica online last accessed 26 Oct 2021
[vii] Boys Cinema story paper last accessed 27 Oct 2021
[viii] The Modern Boy story paper last accessed 27 Oct 2021
[ix] Norwood News 23 Dec 1938 p6
[x] Zoopla: Property History of 15 Garratt Terrace accessed 22 Oct 2021
[xi] Norwood News 30 Sep 1938 p1
[xii] BBC News: On This Day last accessed 09 Nov 2021
[xiii] Daily News (London) 30 Sep 1938 ‘Special Late Edition’ p1 &2