The above photograph shows Beverley Path in Barnes, one of the many hidden passages around the railway lines where the terraces of Victorian railway workers’ cottages, council homes in my childhood, are now home only to the very rich. This wall along one side is very significant in my story and that of my family, and even more so now that the same process has been inflicted on my adoptive home of Brixton. Gentrification.
Over the years I’ve noticed that, on discovering I am from Barnes, people tend to make a lot of false assumptions about me, my background and family, based on the kind of place that Barnes is today. But when my mother first lived there as a child in the 1930s, and even when I was born there in 1961, Barnes was an ordinary, if very green and leafy, part of London (well, Surrey, in fact: it didn’t become part of the city until Greater London was created in 1965 and swallowed up the new borough of Richmond upon Thames). My primary school, Westfields, was surrounded by blocks of council flats on 3 sides and, on the 4th, a working factory.. My daily walk to school took me alongside 2 of the factory’s walls, including this one, where at this time of year the ground below would be littered with the tiny translucent, featherless bodies of baby sparrows, fallen from their nests below the eaves (not to mention the piles of white, yellow and grey dogshit that were everywhere in those days). I vividly recall that on hot summer days the factory doors would be open to reveal the clanking machinery and oily sweaty men inside. The factory, known as Omes or Beverley Works, made aeroplane parts during the second world war and car parts later. It was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a housing estate but the factory walls still stand, as does the ironwork gateway:
I recently paid a nostalgic visit to Barnes and was sad to see that the little pub just along the terrace from here, where the factory workers used to drink at the end of their shift (and where I drank myself in later years) has closed down. I remember it as the Manor Arms, a tiny, cosy wood-panelled room run by a landlord called Stewart Grainger, with a lovely old-fashioned vinyl jukebox, bar billiards and a guitar on the wall signed by Marc Bolan. In recent years it has been a fish restaurant and more recently a lovely bright little pub called the Idle Hour. I am sad to see it closed but maybe it will become a pub again.
The Beverley Works factory is significant for my family story, too, because my Mum worked there during the war, and the experience changed her life. Without this experience she may never have met my Dad. I’ll let Mum tell this in her own words, from her memoirs:
“My next job, which was to have a profound change in my life, was with the local engineering firm, OMES Ltd at Beverley Works in Willow Avenue. I was secretary to the owner, Harold Aron, a German Jew, who set up this electro-forging plant, a modern system using electrical machines in place of the old fire-based forges. He had smuggled out of Germany a great press (as high as a house) together with its Jewish inventor, Mr Eumuco, who also worked there.
Mr Aron was a man of Quixotic temperament, who would hire and fire at will, swear and browbeat his managers, but who would also show great kindness to people. He was also a director of Rothmans, Rotax, and a firm making the newly invented Perspex.
His wife had been an opera singer and while in Italy had become acquainted with the Mora brothers who had invented the electro-forging machines. Mr Aron brought them over, bought houses for them in Hillersdon Avenue and Station Road, and they worked in the factory as charge hands.
Through a mutual friend he had given the job of accountant to a person of previous dual German and British nationality. He was Leslie Kingsley (born Kleeman). His father, a German Jew, had been managing director of the North British Locomotive Co. and before the war had gone with his family to Roumania [sic]. Leslie had witnessed the brutality of the Iron Guard when demanding identity cards of people on beaches who would not readily have had them to hand when in swimsuits. From an exclamation of disgust to another man on the beach he became involved in the anti-fascist underground movement. The man on the beach was a professor who told him what was happening in Roumania and introduced him to the resistance movement. One day he got a message from his contact that the fascists were on to him and he should get out of the country quickly. By this time the war had started and his parents had flown to south America and his two brothers to England where they changed their name to Kingsley and joined the army.
Leslie escaped to Palestine where he worked for the British army and eventually came to England and joined the RAF. By this time he was a communist. He was thoroughly interrogated by military intelligence and told them all he knew about what was happening in Roumania and about his involvement with the left wing. He had a minor accident while on physical training and was immediately discharged as unfit, which he believed was an excuse because of his communist links.
We shared an office at Omes and it was from him I learned about politics. Such was my political naivety that when the 1945 election came I asked Leslie, “What is the difference between the Labour and Communist parties?” He laughed and said, “Ask me that question again in a year’s time.” By then of course, I knew and joined the Communist Party in 1946.”
Which is how, 5 years later, she came to meet my Dad at a local Party meeting. Dad had recently moved to new digs in Barnes from his first London digs in, as it happens, Brixton (where I later moved to from our home in Barnes: closing the circle). But to return to Mum’s story:
“There was a strong communist group in the works.
Percy Glading, a Communist who had worked at Woolwich Arsenal, was “framed” by an MI5 agent and spent four years in prison. On his release he got the job of works manager at Omes. All the other managers would cow-tow and grovel to Mr Aron but Percy would stand his ground and swear back. He was the only staff member for whom Aron had respect.
Aron would send Christmas presents to various people, as did most firms. He would wrap them himself and then pass them to me to post off. All hell let loose on one occasion. I had put the wrong labels on identical looking packs. What a bonus for someone and a let-down for the other. Was a bribe involved?Such was the success of the work or Aron’s contacts that the factory was honoured by a visit from the government minister Sir Stafford Cripps. I was instructed to take down his speech in shorthand but was not provided with a desk so had to stand in the workshop surrounded by workers who were laying bets on whether I would get it all down or not and doing their best to distract me. No-one knew whether I succeeded or not and it is possible that I improvised a bit.
A landmine was dropped close to the works demolishing most of Brookwood Avenue, Willow Avenue and Cleveland Gardens. It was guesswork whether it was aimed at the factory or or the railway line and Barnes Bridge but it made space for a metallurgy laboratory to be erected on the Brookwood Avenue/Willow Avenue site. Taking a short cut across the bomb site to work I found an ancient coin, which may have been Roman.
At the end of the war Aron was told [by government officials] that if he wanted to continue to receive government business he must get rid of Percy Glading. The workers threatened to strike but Percy persuaded them not to. He took a golden handshake and went to work for the A.E.U.”
Percy’s widow, Rosa Glading, was a family friend who lived at the end of our road. She lived to be over 100 and was active, and activist, to the end. I didn’t know her late husband’s story until I read Mum’s account, and a brief trawl of the Internet now finds him portrayed only as a notorious spy, unquestionably guilty of the crime for which Mum says he was “framed.” History, as they say, is written by the victors.
This old factory wall in the heart of one of London’s most exclusive areas just goes to show that places, like people, are not always what they may seem at first glance, and it is always worth digging a little deeper to see beneath the surface.