The First Barbican Baby

14 April 1971 Evening Standard article featuring the first new babies on the Barbican Estate.  Valerie is holding Moira in the middle.  The editor of the Evening News lived above them in Andrewes House and she is also in the photograph with her new baby.

(interview with Valerie Healey transcribed by Helen Hudson)

We moved into Andrewes House in 1969.

Our second flat was in Willoughby House but due to my ill health at the time the stairs over the four level flat proved too much.

We moved from there to Lauderdale Tower and after some time, and largely by accident, we noticed that for the same rent (the apartments were still rented at this time) there was a very large flat duplex flat at the end of Ben Jonson House.  It had larger bedrooms than our tower block flat which suited us better at the time so we decided to go with that one.  It had wrap around balconies on the lower level and a pleasant wide balcony upstairs.  We were very happy there and, in fact, remained there for many years. As you can see, we moved around the Barbican Estate quite a bit over the 38 years that we were there!

What was the process to change flats?

There was a Barbican Management Office and it was somewhere on the podium; I think it was at the bottom of the now demolished St Alphage House.  You just applied and if you were a long-standing tenant there seemed to be no problem with moving around between apartments.

So, did you arrive in the Barbican when it first opened?

Yes, we were one of the first (if not the first) tenants in Andrewes House.  Even then, parts of Andrewes House were still not open but the Wood Street end was; that is the end where the Crowders Well (now the Wood Street Bar and Restaurant) pub is now. This end would adjoin Gilbert House but Gilbert wasn’t finished yet.

The whole of the Barbican was a sea of mud.  There were no gardens apart from the small garden that they had just established in between Speed and Brandon Mews.  There was absolutely nothing for children there, though.  There were no play areas at all on the whole Estate.

Following the birth of my first daughter, as a young mother, I pushed a huge pram around (there were no buggies then) and my overwhelming memory is of the smell of hops from the Whitbread brewery.  You could actually tell the time of day from it.  You could see the smoke from the brewery chimneys in Chiswell Street.  It was a very particular smell and, even now, whenever I smell hops, it reminds me of the Barbican!  The dray horses worked hard delivering to the local pubs.  The local children loved the horses and would gather round as they went past.  You could go and see them in the stables.  The grooms would show the children the horses and demonstrate what they did to look after them.  The Barbican definitely had a village atmosphere then which I think still exists.

What was the initial auction / invitation to apply process?

The City favoured at the time young professional couples for what they termed an “inner city regeneration project”.  They sent applicants an information pack on the Estate and application forms (including forms for several references to be provided). It had been a huge bomb site for many years, so from the point of view of prospective residents, the sight of these high quality brutalist style buildings arising out of that was a very exciting thing.

Memories of the flats themselves and surrounding area

When we moved in, we felt part of this “futuristic” space… a light, airy, warm space… a flexible space… we knew it was something special.  We had no idea at the time that it would become an icon of brutalist 60s design some years later.  However, at the time it gained the reputation as the ugliest estate in Europe and was out of favour for a long time.  During that period, the right-to-buy scheme was introduced.

As a young mother, and having this large pram, shopping for food was a problem.  There was no Waitrose and no other supermarket.  One just relied on Whitecross Street and the market which was open on Friday afternoons between about 12 and 2.  That was it!  There was also a little shop called Liptons where cheese and other cooked meats were sold, although the stalls sold everything from eggs to batteries, from tights to strange looking unidentifiable kitchen equipment!

Whitecross Street also boasted a very nice wet fish shop run by two elderly men called Bill and Ron.  Ron was a bad tempered chap and, if he was having a bad day, you would be charged more for your fish than if he was in a good mood.  They actually smoked fish on the premises so the produce was extremely fresh and tasty.

Another interesting shop was Halls Butchers which was located on the corner of Whitecross and Banner Streets and is now a coffee shop.  The queues for Halls during the limited time it opened stretched round into Banner Street as people waited to buy their meat in their lunch break.  Halls was an old fashioned family run business headed up by the elderly dad and assisted by what appeared to be his many sons and grandsons!

Many of the stalls were run by real old characters who moved their stalls around the various London markets.  Children’s clothing, shoes and even a toiletries stall where you could get peculiar shampoos for 25p… were all on offer and the stallholders got to know local customers and would often chop a few pence off the price!

There were a few shops on the Goswell Road crescent.  I think the fruit shop was there at the time but there weren’t many shops that were of interest and I think there were a number of empty units.  Unlike the present line up, there was no dentist or optician.

For groceries, though, it was a problem.  A few years later, a small Fine Fare opened in Cheapside.  To Barbican residents this was wonderful addition because you could actually go to what resembled a supermarket and buy food basics.  It was quite tough in the early days from the point of view of feeding a young family.  I don’t think the City had thought through that the fact that they were inviting young couples to move into the Estate and those residents would require the appropriate local amenities.

Laundry was also a problem.  I recall having a (then) twin tub washing machine and you had to hook the pipes over the kitchen sink because you weren’t allowed to plumb in an automatic machine due to concerns over the garchey mechanism.  There was no laundrette until much later.

The initial leases were for 3 years and then it went up to 5 years – quite short letting periods – and people moved on quickly.  Lots of colourful celebrities lived in the Barbican then.  Alvin Stardust and other pop stars.  Obviously Clive James and Sir Peter Hall and dear old Frank Dickens (Fleet Street cartoonist, creator of the Bristow comic strip) who propositioned my daughters and me all at the same time!  Hilarious! Everyone knew him and knew not to take any notice of his foibles!

I recall that a number of MPs were residents including John Smith, we saw them regularly.  Norman Tebbitt and his wife lived in Willoughby House and my late husband got to know them quite well.

Were tenants social?

People were fairly resourceful in that way and I remember attending dinner parties in various types of flat around the estate as it wasn’t easy to eat out in the area.  There was no community hall where residents could meet although later, the management allocated a room in one of the blocks which was intended to be a coffee and chat area.

I remember Butlers, the wine bar at the bottom of Shakespeare Tower which is now an architect’s office (but still has the Butlers name etched into the window I think).  Very nice Sunday lunches were available there and all the Barbican “characters” would appear.  It was like Soho in the middle of the City and great fun!  All sorts of people from different walks of life mixed and made friends there: doctors, surgeons, MPs, people from the Arts, publicans, journalists, builders, architects…, everyone relaxing and enjoying their Sunday drink and lunch.

How did your children find the Estate?

Even though there wasn’t much for them to do, they remember the Barbican as being a real adventure playground because of the number of unoccupied buildings and various works going on.  There were half finished buildings and other areas that were left empty most of the time.  The corner building that now houses Virgin Active gym was an unused car park which was left open, so local children would hurtle around in there making carts out of old bits of wood they found and building “secret” dens. They called themselves the “Barbican Gang”!  Nobody bothered them and they had a wonderful time.

When the podium level was built at the bottom of Shakespeare Tower, my younger daughter remembers hurtling up and down on her roller skates. It was safe because there was no traffic.  She also remembers going trick or treating sitting in a supermarket trolley, with the older kids pushing her and one well known celebrity giving them 5p! Other residents were more generous and they returned with a large bag of goodies.  They all dressed themselves up looking quite scary.  They made their own fun.  When the Barbican Centre first opened and the lake was filled, my daughters told me (much later) that they had built a polystyrene raft which they paddled across the lake.  The one and only security man furiously jumped up and down at the edge telling them to come back, but everyone around thought it was hilarious.  It was the sort of harmless thing that children do and is still fondly recounted by my daughters.

To my knowledge my elder daughter was the first baby born in the Barbican Estate.  A couple of years after she got married, and by then she had a young daughter of her own, the Corporation held a tea for her and presented her with a bouquet of flowers.  It must have been to mark an anniversary of the opening of the Barbican Estate.  It was covered by the local paper which was called the City Recorder and which contained much City news.

They went to school at Prior Weston when it was a small infant and junior school headed up by a man called Henry Pluckrose, who was very progressive and highly regarded internationally.  Not everybody agreed with this style of teaching.  Of my elder daughter (aged six at the time) Henry said “Your daughter will be a teacher”.  She is now an Executive Head Teacher in charge of a number of schools, so Henry was spot on!  All the children had a lovely time at school and my elder daughter adored it.  Following Prior Weston my daughters went to Raine’s Foundation (Raine’s Foundation School is a Church of England voluntary aided school in Bethnal Green).  We used the tube to travel to the school and although Barbican station opened Monday-Friday it closed much earlier in the day and was also closed at weekends.  It was very quiet here on Saturday and Sunday with few visitors and very little traffic.

We now have the Neaman Practice.  Who did you have in the early days?

It was a joint practice between Dr Lascelles and Dr Sturrock before Dr Neaman joined.  We all queued for hours as there was no appointments system.  Dr Sturrock was a little bit mad and seemed preoccupied with the UK climate, but he was a good doctor.  Dr Lascelles was also nice but he left and I think that’s when Dr Neaman came and everyone thought the world of her!  The surgery used to be on the corner of Wallside (where the dentist surgery was later located).

Did you work?

Yes, I did.  I joined Whitbread at their offices located in North Yard (where the current Guildhall student accommodation now sits).

I continued working for Whitbread for about 10 years until they moved their offices to Luton.  Whilst I was there I was able to leave home Ben Jonson House and walk down the to the brewery – all of 2 mins travelling!  That was very useful for me because I was nearby for my children.

I can honestly say that our family was a true Barbican family.  Like all families there were happy and sad times.  My daughters were born and grew up here and my husband died here.  You could say we have come the full circle of life here.  My daughters remember it with great fondness.  They have introduced their own children to the Barbican Centre and the Estate itself.  My younger daughter still lives in the area so she brings her children to the library – the same library that she used.

It is not in the same place of course.  It was then situated in the Cripplegate building (now UBS offices) behind Ben Jonson House.  That building used to be part of the Arts Educational School which was a stage school where many well known celebrities trained.  There is a beautiful theatre inside the building and I cannot understand why the public are not allowed inside to see it sometimes as I am sure it has a real history.

There was also an annexe to the school where Tudor Rose Court is now located.  It resembled a shed almost like an air-raid shelter where ballet classes were held for the local children and naturally my daughters went.  A Miss Neald ran the ballet school and she was one of the real (in the image of Dame Lynette) characters of dance.  If they made a wrong move she would bang her stick loudly on the floor.  They were terrified of her but adored going nonetheless!

Arts Educational moved to Tring and latterly, when I lived in Tudor Rose Court, I tried to find out if any pictures of the “shed” existed but I was unsuccessful.

There was also a small Girl Guides Group somewhere on the Estate; it must have been in one of the City buildings close to Cheapside.  My daughters went but it wasn’t very popular; there just weren’t enough children at the time.  Both of my grandsons who live locally are now Scouts (1st City of London Lord Mayor’s Own) so we retain strong links with the City.  I feel that we owe a lot to the City as a family.  My daughters have introduced their children to places where their grandfather used to walk.  I find it touching and that the next generation now identifies with the Barbican – it has a kind of continuity.  We really were a Barbican family.

Did you know anyone rejected from the original application process?

No.  Everybody that I knew and who applied managed to get in.  The management took up references and the process was quite rigorous.  You had to demonstrate that you were “professional” to be accepted so although it was termed “inner city regeneration” there was, in fact, some social engineering involved!

What was the wildlife garden before it became so precious?

The wildlife garden was a filled in bomb site.  Apart from the “shed” mentioned above, the remainder of the area (now the wildlife garden) was left alone and became overgrown – the precursor of the current wildlife garden I guess!

Was there much mixing between Golden Lane and the Barbican Residents?

Not much that I was aware of except on the fringes.  For example, I had many friends from the Golden Lane Estate because I knew parents of children at the same school.  I think someone who held a post in the Barbican Association organised parties for the local children including those from Golden Lane.  Some of the Barbican residents used the Golden Lane community hall bar.

Has the space at the bottom of Lauderdale always been a shop?

Yes I think so. Crispins was the first shop that I remember.  It was rather expensive and I don’t recall using it much.  The hairdressing business opened early on and endured for a long time.

Do you remember Milton Court?

Yes very well.  Some of the Guildhall School of Music offices were there I think.  The City morgue was on the ground floor together with the Coroner’s Court.  I sat on the jury there a number of times.

There used to be a bridge from Willoughby House to Milton Court.

There was a public weighbridge in the street outside and a children’s dentist who was a kind gentle elderly man who could calm even the most anxious child! The dentist and other offices could be reached by podium level.

Management of the Estate

In the early years there were no service charge accounts so there was no record of how service charges were spent.  Eventually, after pressure from residents, the management began to produce more business like documentation.  However, there did seem to be some poor management.  Companies taken on to do things either didn’t do the work or didn’t do it properly.  It seemed to take a long time to correct these shortcomings.

What about the Garchey?

I absolutely loved the garchey.   All the smelly refuse could be dispensed with quickly (there was no recycling then).  Many residents disliked it however.  It was considered an “open drain” but as long as it was cleaned regularly it was very efficient.

Do you remember fanfare when the Centre opened finally?

Yes, I do remember it.  It was amazing that all these facilities were minutes away.  I went on my own to one of the earliest Mozart concerts and I remember being thrilled that this standard of excellence was available to me and literally on my doorstep!  I saw a number of thrilling Shakespeare productions at the theatre.  The technical capabilities backstage were way ahead of their time.

Thank you for sharing with us, Valerie, and bringing us that newspaper cutting to scan in.  You are clearly still part of our community on the Estate and we hope to see you and your family around for many years to come!