Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 15 seconds
Everyone has a story. Charles Baron is having lunch at the Highbury Barn pub – nothing remarkable about that, except he was born on 6 May 1920 to JewishÂ refugees from the Russian pogroms – 95 years ago. So what are his memories of pre-World War Two Islington and life in the airforce?Â Interview byÂ Nicola Baird
Charles Baron, 95, was born at home in 54 Colebrooke Row. Charlesâ€™ Romanian father and Lithuanian mother were renting the ground floor and basement. His parents (who spoke their home languages so had to talkÂ to each other, and their children,Â in Yiddish) were both emigrĂ©es from the Russian pogroms who had met in the East End of London.
“When I was very small we moved to the second floor of 17 Chapel Street, which is now the market. My mother and father rented over theÂ shop. Iâ€™m the youngest of four. My brother Louis Isaac was 13 years older than me; then there was Emanuel (who later called himself Earnest or Ernie) and my sister, Esther,” says CharlesÂ over a pot of tea outside the Highbury Barn.
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It’s the last day of October and Charles’Â extended family have met for Sunday lunch. His daughter Sarah Clay, who works at estate agentÂ Hotblack Desiato, has introduced her Dad to Islington Faces. While we talk Charles’ adult children kick a ball with their kids around the paved area outside the pub and Mrs Lovellâ€™s The Greengrocer.
“Islington was a very poor place,” says Charles who often helped his mother on her lace and embroidery stall at White Conduit Street.
“White Conduit Street was a Jewish community of shopkeepers, mostly selling clothes. My mother had to stand from 9am until 7pm â€“ sometimes I minded the stall and spent freezing hours there in the pouring rain,” he says.
Because Charles and his Mum worked hard, cooking wasn’t a big part of family life. “She didn’t have time to cook,” he explains, “so sheâ€™d send me out to get the family fish and chips – It was thrupence: tuppence for fish and a pennyworth of chips. We’d eat bread at breakfast.”
“I used to look out of my window and enjoy seeing Baron Street oppositeÂ [his family name] and Sainsbury’s on the corner [now a betting shop]. There was a pub opposite too [The Alma]. OnceÂ I remember seeing a fat lady rather drunkenly cross the road to below my window. She then sat down and the next thing I knew there was a puddle surrounding her so presumably she wasn’t wearing underclothes!” says Charles who may have been used to outdoor plumbing (that’s what yards, or what we now call gardens, used to be used for), but was clearly shocked by a public pee.
His story seems so 21st century, covering Romania, Lithuania and even Sainsbury’s. I have to pinch myself to think of Islington nearly 100 years ago when one of the early Sainsbury’s was just a corner shop in Angel with rabbits hanging outside. Charles would be sent here to buy the week’s ration of butter (a quarter of a pound) which was patted out by the shop assistant.
CharlesÂ knows many parts of IslingtonÂ well as he has also lived in Baalbec Road and Petherton Road.
- Places Charles Baron knew in 1930s and 1940s Islington
- I liked going to the Islington Empire*, near where Angel station is now. It was a theatre and music hall and had comedians.
- I went to Sebbon Street School, off Upper Street [now called William Tyndale School]. I won a scholarship to Owens School. It has an Old Boys Society and Iâ€™m now Father of the House – we meet once a year.
- I used to have to run away from gangs of anti-Jewish boys when I went to the synagogue at Lofting Road*. We used to walk and run everywhere.
- Iâ€™m no longer interested in professional football because itâ€™s all about money. We used to spend sixpence to go and watch from the Clock End. All the kids stood and the small ones were passed over the heads of the adults to the front. I remember liking Herbert Chapman (legendary Arsenal manager 1925-34).
- My elder sister, Esther, played the violin to accompany silent movies at the Finsbury Park Empire. She learnt at school and then taught me and I got to like it. I didnâ€™t take it seriously but I remember giving my squadron in the air force a recital and won great admiration. Iâ€™m am amateur musician but I was made a Member of the Musicianâ€™s Company so I am a Freeman of the City of London and can drive my sheep across London Bridgeâ€¦ Â See more about what this means in this short video.
Just as Charles has no problem coming to Islington from his home in Lincolnshire, heâ€™s able to slip backwards and forwards in conversational time.
â€śMy parents were not well educated and we had no money. My father ran away from Romania and somehow got to England. He worked as a storekeeper in a warehouse here,â€ť explains Charles whose life chances changed dramatically when he was 11 and won a scholarship to Owen School (now Dame Alice Owen*) when it was based in Clerkenwell.Â
After finishing school Charles got a job as a bank clerk working at a branch of the Anglo-Czechoslovak & Prague Credit Bank, at 48 Bishopsgate. â€śI took the job because they offered five shillings more than anyone else!â€ť he admits to laughter from his wife Julia who clearly knows him very well. â€śI used to go to work wearing a suit that cost a fiver from a shop on Upper Street, tie and trilby. But when Hitler took over that bank I got the sack because I was Jewish.â€ť
War broke out in 1939.
â€śI was called up in 1940, when I was 20, and joined the air force. I was then away until 1946.â€ť It was an exciting time for the soldiers whoâ€™d never left London before â€“ but came with a great cost.
â€śOne out of every two air crew was killed. One of them was my elder brother Ernie,â€ť he says sadly. Charles was one of the lucky ones: working as a navigator on the Bristol Beaufighter aircraft, which took him to the Middle East, India and Burma [in what was East Pakistan and became Bangladesh] and saw him rise up the career ladder, finally becoming a squadron leader.
â€śThe Beaufighter was a night fighter, one of the first aircraft to have airborne radar. Our job was to make lives as unpleasant as possible for the Japanese.â€ť
After the war he went back to India to work in civilian jobs. Then in his 50s he qualified as a management accountant.
Although Charles only spent his young life in Islington, heâ€™s had a surprisingly long connection with the borough because some of the seven children from his second marriage moved to Islington and family gatherings are still here. Gatherings are often large because Charles married three times and had eight children. He now has 13 grandchildren and his first great grandchild was born on 24 October 2015.
â€śI just had one daughter with my first wife, and sheâ€™s now a pensioner,â€ť says Charles in disbelief as he finishes his cup of tea. Turns out that his daughter Rosalind is 68 and lives nearby too, in Stroud Green.
Charles married Julia in 1990, â€śa week before my 70th birthday.â€ť The pair have just celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with a party at their home in Lincolnshire.
Islington Faces found it an absolute pleasure to meet Charles and his family and to hear a little more about Islington all those years ago. To realise that Charles may have even been drinking in the same pubs as George Orwell of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four fame (or just walking past each other on Highbury Fields) is a fascinating thought!
- If you have any questions youâ€™d like to ask Charles Baron about Islington – particularly the Angel area or Highbury Barn – in the 1930s/1940s do send a message to Islington Faces and weâ€™ll see if he can answer them. Thank you.
The Islington Empire Cinema existed for six years (1932 to 1938) and closed down under the title of ABC Cinema in 1962.Â It was on the site of the infamous Royal Bank of Scotland building.
The synagogue in Lofting Road (originally known as John Street) was opened as the North London Synagogue in 1868. It had around 200+ worshippers. It was closed in 1958 when the synagogue was amalgamated with Dalston. According to http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol8/p117 from the late 1860s many Jewish families moved into Highbury and Mildmay Park. In 1967 the Dalston synagogue was amalgamated with Stoke Newington and it was closed.
Dame Alice Owen School moved from Clerkenwell to near Hatfield. More about its history, including paying students beer money (!) is here.
Over to you
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This blog is inspired byÂ Spitalfields LifeÂ written by the Gentle Author.
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