The Literaries of Putney

Putney High Street – A little less traffic in 1936

Putney High Street – A little less traffic in 1936

Tony Kane (Time & Leisure, Feb. 2010) -- Originally compiled by Scott MacRobert in 1971, Putney and Roehampton: A Brief History has just been published in a new edition.

This edition contains new material on the latest Roman map and an account of the archaeology of Putney by Pamela Greenwood, sections on The Putney Debates and Putney at War 1935-45, and chapters called Bestride the Millennium – Why we Love Putney Today and Literature and Leisure. Here is an extract from Literature and Leisure:

Putney is associated with many literary figures…

Arnold Bennett, (1867-1931) was a constant visitor and sometime resident of Putney. He set his 1908 intriguing novel Buried Alive in Putney with the protagonist Priam Farll living at 29 Werter Road. He had many friends in the area including the pianist Herbert Sharpe who lived at 29 Oxford Road. In the novel Bennett talks of Putney High Street where all was luxury. There was ‘not a necessary in the street. Even the bakers’ shops were a mass of sultana and Berlin pancakes - no one slept there now because of the noise of motors’. The noble arches of Putney Bridge ‘divided a first story (sic) of vans and omnibuses from a ground-floor of barges and racing eights’.

Bennett mentions the ‘milk-white’ buses crossing the bridge to London, the ‘red causeway’ of the railway bridge a few yards further downstream and, in the distance, Priam Farll ‘could descry the twin towers of the Crystal Palace, more marvellous than mosques’. How clearly the novelist captures the essence of Edwardian London when he writes about the massive advertising posters along the Upper Richmond Road:

‘There were York hams eight feet high, that a regiment could not have eaten in a month; shaggy and ferocious oxen peeping out of monstrous teacups in their anxiety to be consumed, (and) spouting bottles of ale whose froth alone would have floated the mail steamers pictured on the adjoining sheet.’

His description of Oxford Road is superb, with ‘white-capped girls cleaning door-knobs or windows, or running along the streets, like escaped nuns…. The tradesmen’s boys were continually leaping in and out of carts, or off and on tricycles, busily distributing food and drink as though Putney had been a beleaguered city.’

JR Ackerley (1896-1967) lived at Star and Garter Mansions where he wrote a number of books charting life in Putney including My Dog Tulip. Editor of The Listener, he fostered the careers of a number of major writers, and wrote openly about homosexuality. Amongst his friends were Siegfried Sassoon and EM Forster (1879-1970), who is depicted with his mother c1902 at 22 Werter Road. Forster was also friends with writer and founder of the Hogarth Press, Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) who lived at 9 Colinette Road from the age of 11 until he went to Cambridge. He taught Forster to ride on Putney Common.

Laurie Lee (1914-1997) describes finding ‘a snug little room over an eating-house’ in Putney Bridge Road in his autobiography As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Lee who was 19 in 1934 found work as a labourer in Putney and enjoyed the comforts of ‘Bubble, Squeak, Liver and B, Toad-in-the-Hole, Meat Pudding or Pie’ at the café’. It was in this room which ‘overhung the railway and rocked all day to the passing trains’ that Lee first started writing and won a prize for a poem he ‘dashed off with a sixpenny postal order’. Reference to the railway indicates that the room was more likely to have been situated in the Upper Richmond Road.

Commemorative plaques

Notable poet Gavin Ewart (1916-1995) FRSL regularly wrote about life in Putney, lived at Kenilworth Court and was commemorated with a blue plaque in 2009. An adjacent plaque was placed in 2009 to Baron Jenkins of Putney (1908-2004) Minister for the Arts and Putney MP 1964-1979. A blue plaque was placed in 2007 at 307 Upper Richmond Road for Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates (1880-1912).

In 2009 a plaque was placed 32 Landford Road to commemorate photographer Norman Parkinson CBE (1913-1990). In the same year Wandsworth Borough Council launched their green plaque scheme commemorating Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee (1883-1967) Prime Minister 1945-1951 who was born in Putney and lived in Portinscale Road.

The new edition of Putney and Roehampton A Brief History edited by Sue Rolfe, with contributions by Wandsworth Historical Society members including Dorian Gerhold, is available from: Hugh Thompson 54 Festing Road, London SW15 1LP.

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