‘The Secret History of Our Streets’

Caledonian Road Station
©BBC iPlayer - Image ©Keith Collman

For 18 seconds, six of my photographs scrolled across the screen of Episode 3 during the BBC2’s ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’ (iPlayer http://bbc.in/PhyeJ3) featuring the Caledonian Road (The Cally) in North London. They appear 31 minutes 42 seconds into the programme. As my birth place it was a great privilege to have made a contribution.

I learnt much about the Road’s history, from the archive material and recollections from its current residence. But in one hour it’s impossible to reflect everyones experience of living there. My memories come from the community in the 1950s and 60s.

I was born in 1948 at 17 Frederica Street, a three story town house with a basement, a home birth delivered by my great aunt Helen. Over time it was home for various members of the family. It started with my Nan and Grandad who rented rooms. They had three daughters, including my mum. As the family grew and married they would share parts of the house before moving on. My Great Nan had a room off the passage, she would give us a threepenny bit, whenever we visited. Other houses in the street were occupied by relatives and friends.

Life through a young person's eyes is much different as I’ve only fond memories of living there. I didn’t see working class, just normality, a close family in a community where everyone knew each other. At the centre of our area was the Prince Arthur pub situated at the junction of the Caledonian Road and Frederica Street, (opposite Pentonville Prison). Within 100 yards North or South were all the shops you needed, it was like a village. There was a bakery, newsagent, grocer, shoe shop, fishmonger, butcher, toy shop, underground station, cinema and Police Station.

Women used to go to the local shops wearing their slippers with curlers in their hair, it was normal, we didn’t think anything of it. As kids we roamed the streets, no mention of any dangers. My grandad’s allotment backed onto the railway which ran at the rear of our house. Entry was made through a door in a wall in Lyon Street. Once through I would see grandad high in the distance on the embankment. Whilst he worked I’d sit on the end wall watching the trains coming and going from Kings Cross station, including the famous Steam Engine The Mallard.

Eventually my nan and grandad purchased the house off the landlord. Grandad worked as an engine driver on the London Midland Railway. He would cycle to Kentish Town to start his shift, if his bike was in the passage then he was at home, possibly in bed after a night shift. If you woke him up you were in trouble, but he wouldn’t make a fuss, just call for a cup of tea.

After marrying, my mum and dad rented rooms at 13 Thornhill Square (front door shown in the program), in the 1950s dad was offered a job and a council house in the new town of Hemel Hempstead. Not long after moving Mum contracted TB, which could be a killer at the time. She was hospitalised for nine months in Watford. I went back to Frederica Street to live with nan and grandad, attending the local Robert Blair school in Blundell Street. I settled back into life in The Cally, waiting for nan to return from her early morning cleaning job in the Euston Road with our breakfast of crusty rolls and jam. Our next door neighbour Len, was a Tottenham Hotspur supporter and he would take me to the Spurs v Arsenal North London derby. He gave me a collection of Arsenal programmes from the 1950s, which I still have.

Mum recovered and we returned to Hemel Hempstead, but I was drawn back to Frederica Street staying there during school holidays, I loved it so much. In between times we would regularly visit as a family. As I grew older I would go on my own, often on the train driven by my grandad. If I was going to see the Arsenal I would have a fry up before or after the game, that was always something to savour, going to nan and grandad’s was always special. In 1965 grandad retired from the railways. They stayed there for a few years before selling the house and moving to Enfield to live with a close friend.

I believe Frederica Street was demolished in the late 1960s, to my great regret I was unaware at the time, with nan and grandad in a new home I didn’t have a reason to return.

After Nan and grandad died in the early 1980s I returned to The Cally to photograph the area before it changed from the place I knew. I was pleasantly surprised, although the streets on our side of The Cally had gone, many of the shops and pubs had survived. The people looked much the same as I remember, many from the generation of my grandparents. When I look at the photographs now I’m surprised I wasn’t challenged in any way. I certainly don’t remember being asked what I was doing.

Earlier this year I posted a small selection of these photogarphs on this website. Soon after I was approached by Century Films the makers of ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’ for use of some of the images in the program.

I continue to return to The Cally to photograph the area of my birth.

A small selection from my Caledonian Road portfolio: http://www.keithcollman.com/portfolios/caledonian-road-%E2%80%93-london-n7

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