The roofs were flat and surrounded by thick, black railings - the space above each block of flats was separated from that of the neighbours by similar railings. Clothes could be dried on the roof, each housewife supplying her own clothes line and carefully removing it when she collected her washing. It was hard work carrying a basket of wet washing up to the roof from the lower floors and I think that for the most part only the tenants on the higher floors made use of the roof as a drying facility.

Children were actively discouraged from playing on the roof. However, under the careful eyes of our parents we let off our fireworks on the roof on November 5`h. I was taken from my bed one night, wrapped up warmly and carried up so that I could see Madame Tussaud’s Wax Works in Marylebone Road on fire. On another occasion the tenants gathered to see the Graf Zeppelin fly overhead.

The building was controlled by the Superintendent who allocated tenancies, received the rents, arranged the essential repairs and arbitrated between tenants. His office, small and dimly lit, was by the main entrance where he could keep an eye on all who used the gateway. An elderly assistant, lame, walking with a stick, patrolled the courtyards at certain times of the day to ensure the good behaviour of the children and to close the gates at night.

During Saturdays and school holidays the courtyards were full of boisterous children. Ball games predominated and some tenants became engaged in acrimonious disputes on occasion, but although living so close together, most managed to live fairly amicably.

Sundays were different. It was noticeably quieter, and of course there were no 'getto blasters' or loud televisions at any time. In the afternoons the Salvation Army marched into the courtyard with a brass band and a 'Blood and Fire' flag, to play hymns.

A few shops were built into the ground floor of The Buildings along Broadley Terrace. A grocer's, a butcher, a hairdresser, convenient and quickly reached, but most people did their main shopping in Church Street Market.'

In 1928 the landlords of Portman Buildings began a scheme of modernisation and refurbishment. Each flat was given a kitchen with its lavatory, sink, copper and bath, a great improvement, although the cooker remained in the living room. Gas was replaced by electricity, but the flats retained the coal fire. By the 1980s the flats were very run down. Westminster City Council bought them and sold them on to developers.

In 1987, a hundred years after they were first built, the blocks were demolished and Portman Gate erected. This is a block of luxury apartments for a very different income bracket and sold on the Hong Kong market. All that remains of Portman Buildings are some photographs and the memoir by Arthur Royall1. When he was thirteen years old his father was transferred to a police station in Hendon. Arthur Royall found Hendon Aerodrome over his back garden fence and a complete new world must have opened up.


Footnote

  1. I hope it will be deposited in Westminster History Archive in 2001.

 

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Updated June 28, 2011