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Pat Lettres

Former Resident of Kensington Place and Kemp St

Pat in the back row at Pelham Infants

Pat Lettres was a resident of the North Laine before the Second World War, living in Kemp Street, above the Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Street, and finally in Kensington Place. He describes, in talking to Peter Crowhurst, what it was like to live in the North Laine and particularly 42 Kensington Place in the years leading up to and then into the war.

A witness to murder

I was born, I think, at 33 Kemp Street.  We lived in the flat over the top of the shop next to the printing press. It was a tea or coffee house. My father worked at Allen West - who didn't? My mother didn't work at all. We lived in Kemp Street for about four years. I can always remember the body in the trunk. I can remember looking out of the window with my family and I think it was a Saturday afternoon - the train had just come in from the football - and I can remember people shouting 'They have found a body', 'Eh, there's a body in a trunk,' or something like that. Crowds were swarming along Kemp Street to a house at the end.

Moving to the Lord Nelson

I wasn't more than six when we went to live at the pub (Lord Nelson). We lived there for a short period, upstairs. I don't know the circumstances, perhaps it was money I don't know. My grandfather was landlord of the Lord Nelson and they lived there. It was a typical working class pub. You would sit in there and have singsongs and things like that. Men would take their wives. There was a public bar and a private bar. My mother would make sandwiches and send them up to the pub - just on a Saturday night once a week for the pub to sell. The actual pub and the bars look hardly different today. There was a partition by the centre doors so you could go in and get a jug of beer without being seen. Apart from that partition the bars have hardly changed at all. At the back it is completely changed.

From there we moved to the corner of Trafalgar Lane. We lived there for a few years. The building is now a coffee shop. We then moved down to Sammy Gordan's tailors and we had the flat over the top at the corner of Kensington Place.

Into Kensington Place

After a few months of the war we moved to No 42 Kensington Place. Dad bought the house for £400. We were sitting tenants and the landlady died. Who wanted to buy a house with the threat of invasion on you? The room at the front was divided. That was our lounge, where Mother had a grand piano. Mother was quite a musician. She used to sing with Brighton & Hove Operatic [Society] and we used to have some marvellous Christmases there. We used to get going on the piano and sing away. I can remember during the war, during one Christmas evening, we went up to the pub, and there were a lot of Australian airmen in there and when the pub turned out, the family invited the Australians back here for the evening and they had a whale of a time.

The layout of our house

The room at the front was divided. That was our lounge where Mother had her grand piano. Behind that was my old Nan's room. Above that was the biggest room of the house. It must have been Mother and Father's room. At the back was Grandmother's room. When my Nan died, we took a lodger in by the name of Charlie, who used to be a porter at the railway station.  He used to live at No 41 and when Mr and Mrs Thirling moved away, he did not have anywhere to go, so we took him in.  He took over Grandmother's room at the back on the top floor. Downstairs was my bedroom. I used to share it with my brother until he got called up. We used to have a Morrison shelter. Whenever the sirens went we used to come down. Then there was the living room, the general living room. I used to play with my trains on the floor a lot. Of course the brick floor was uneven. It was so uneven I had to put down wedges underneath so it wouldn't sag down in places, otherwise the trains came off. The kitchen we called a scullery. In the far corner was a boiler, a built-in thing which was a large pot in a retaining wall, and underneath that was a fireplace where you lit a fire to do the washing. Just along a little bit we had a gas stove for all the cooking. On the right hand side there was a sink and draining board but no bathroom. We just went into the scullery and did the best we could.

My Grandmother's shame

My Grandmother was ashamed to go out.  Until we moved I can always remember her. She got up with assistance and she got dressed in a big black outfit, and she walked from the corner (of Kensington Place) to here and got straight back into bed again, and she lived her life in bed. She died in the middle bedroom the first morning that a bomb dropped on Brighton. The shock killed her. Bombs fell on Kemptown. We heard them whistle. She died at that moment. It always puzzled me as to why she could walk along the road but never got out of bed or did anything. I'm beginning to think she was in disgrace somehow because I have looked up records of my father (her son). He was born in Brighton Workhouse. I think that was where illegitimate children were born. I have a feeling that she was a bit in disgrace. Perhaps the Lord of the Manor had his wicked way with her and she got pregnant. The birth certificate gives no mention of her father. She was ashamed to go out.

My local schools

I went to school, a lot of it part time. In the early days of the war evacuees were brought down from London and we used to have to share the school, so I went half days. That was at Middle Street. Before that I was at Preston Road School and before that I was at Pelham Street (see below). After Middle Street School I went to Ditchling Road School (in Balfour Road), as it was known then.

Bomb raids

During air raids we used the Morrison shelter (at home) or the coal shelter under the pavement. I remember watching dog fights. The planes were very high and leaving their vapour trails. It was like cotton wool being tied up in knots. I can remember D-Day with all the aircraft going over - we wondered what on earth was going on. I remember one particular day when the Americans used to carry out a lot of daylight raids. We stood in our garden and looked up and watched squadron after squadron of these B52 bombers. We counted a thousand plus. We stopped counting at 1,000 aircraft. An amazing sight it was. I remember the incendiary bombs in Johnny Butts. The whole lot went up in flames. And the Intermediate School that went up in flames. It was at night time, we were in the house. They evacuated all the opposite side (of Kensington Place). Everyone over there came across to houses over this side. The nearest thing to [be hit by] high explosive bombs was the Astoria Cinema, that had one. That was the nearest to here. Brighton Station goods yard got bombed.  I remember going up on my bike, via Terminus Road, where you could lean your bike on the wall and see the railway line. We stood up there and watched it burn.

The first air raid of the war

We played out in the streets. When the war started, I was a choir boy and when it started on that Sunday morning I was singing in the Chapel Royal. They announced the war in the service and everybody went home. I remember coming out with one or two other boys. We were all in the choir and we came out of the Church through the Pavilion grounds. An air raid warden saw us and took us down into the Dome or the Corn Exchange area, down underneath there into some shelters. We could hear all sorts of noises and imagined the place was being bombed and when eventually they did let us out there was nothing. All they were doing was moving furniture!

During the war we used to listen to the radio a lot and always played in the street - playing alleys, little glass marbles, and we used to play in the gutter. We used to have races, little sports meetings. We would go around Trafalgar Lane in different directions and see who won.

Playtime in the war

We used to play football and cricket in the street. We used to go to the Albion, walking up to the station and going by train. I used to play with John Wall. He used to live at the top of Over Street above a tobacconist called Whale and Son, I think. We went to the cinema quite a bit. We used to go to children's matinees at the Old Court, next door to the Theatre Royal, and also to the Grand Theatre at the top of North Road. The Grand was a very smart place. They also did shows there. The matinees for 3d used to be Saturday mornings. We used to see a cowboy film. They would always have a serial which went on for weeks and weeks and weeks. It used to be called 'Flash Gordon's trip to.....'

Friends and neighbours

We used to get on with everybody. There was Mr and Mrs Campshaw, who lived about four doors down. I used to play with their daughter. Further along there was an elderly lady who lived on her own, named Miss Bleach. There was a family named Breaks, who finished up being my sister-in-law, as my brother married the daughter. There was a family named Taylor just along here - all working class people. The lady across the road used to take in theatre people, the lesser stars who were at the Hippodrome. Wee Georgie Wood stayed there once - his 'turn' was to be a little boy. We used to go to the Hippodrome. I saw Gracie Fields there and Tommy Handley. Good old shows they were.

We kept chickens on the radio

We used to have chickens in the yard. Someone from the pub would come down to kill them. Dad could never kill them. We were never lucky with eggs. The chickens came from a shop in Sydney Street that sold day-old chicks and we used to go down and buy tiny little chicks. We would put them in a box and keep them indoors on top of a radio. If you looked after them and kept them warm they would grow and then we would let them out on the floor and they would fight over bacon rind that we would give them.

I loved living here. When I come back now it brings back memories of childhood and memories of the war. I had a very happy time living in this area. I loved it. It was homely and cosy.

[Previously published in the 'North Laine Runner', No 190, Jan/Feb 2008 and part of the NLCA archive]

Excerpts from this interview appeared in The North Laine Book and Pat was at the launch of the book on 15 September 2016 when he enthralled a large crown with his stories of life in North Laine before and during the war. Sadly Pat passed away recently on 30th March, 2018. He loved North Laine and we will miss seeing him on his many visits to the area.

Pat on the right

42 Kensington Place is in the middle of this photo of Kensington Place today.

Pat’s parents

Pat’s grandfather, landlord of the Lord Nelson in Trafalgar St

The bar of the Lord Nelson in the 1930s