The Sutton Estate is close to my heart, for reasons set out in the attachment (Letter below). If the proprietors will let me scatter Aunty Una's ashes there, I would be happy for any residents past or present or their survivors to join me in a miniature act of remembrance for all of them.
MISS UNA CAITLIN MADIGAN, deceased
I am writing on behalf of my late aunt, Una Madigan, and myself, both of us former residents of the Sutton Dwellings in Cale Street. The Dwellings are a sacred ground to her because it was where her parents, John (Jack) and Josephine Madigan, lived out their exemplary lives, in 4 D Block ( subsequently Delmerend House). They are to me too because her parents were parents to me, although I lived with my mother, Maureen Brigid Dorling, when she was single, in 30 P Block. Una died recently aged 82 and it was her last wish that her ashes be scattered as close as possible outside the site of the Madigan flat. I very much hope that you feel be able to agree to my doing that in the near future.
Essentially, that’s it. The rest is about why I feel this matters, and it need not detain the hard-pressed. The warm reddish-pink brickwork, the daft ivory pediments over the block entrances, the unforgiving tarmac of the yards, on which kids nonetheless bounced, of Sutton Dwellings seem to live when they do not. But they remain, when all the curious generations for whose lives they provided a stage, a reference and a structure have passed. Of course the fabric has changed and looks set to change again, but it remains crucially important to our humanity to honour and respect those who dwelt within it. That is why I hope that room can be found within all the aspirational business plans to keep at least one of the blocks close to the way it once was.
Do you know when Una, and then I, were growing up the rooms were still lit by popping gas mantles and heated by cast iron ranges as black as your hat?
In the Dwellings dwelt a vibrant and colourful community in a drab postwar world. What an adventure playground the Dovehouse Street bombsite was. We all knew that the people who appeared fleetingly as grotesques, eccentrics and Characters were real people, but here’s the thing: you all live below, above and beside each other, yet the castle thickness of the walls and ceilings blanks out all the dramas within except your own. Here they come, to name but a few from a cast of hundreds. Harry O’Shea, who does the maintenance: wise, twinkling, soft-spoken, never out of a brown trilby, and a father of nations. Lenny Godbeer, who is supposed to help him, never out of paint-spattered overalls, never knowingly breaks sweat and makes keeping his job into an art-form. The uncountable Francis children who must have cornflakes at midnight since they all have to be up too early for their paper-rounds to do breakfast; except for one of the girls, who has a small enterprise with the Cliff Richard Fan Club. All are helping out their bedraggled, hard-pressed Mum after their Dad - truly, a kind, quiet and polite London cabbie – fatally crashed his wonderful cab. And here’s Peg, a stunted three-legged Jack Russell whom my grandmother promised to feed after her owner Mrs Elson died, which is just a ruse to rope her into providing daily lunches for Win and Frank, the speechless grown-up working Elson children.
Here is Bertha Diamond, who with her name plus the thickest glasses ever seen, requires no eccentricity, but shouts a lot. She is somehow related to Monet. This must be true, as her nephew is called Jason Monet and does brilliant indian-ink sketches in the street of Miss Bonner’s shop and other stuff, and – exceptionally for a London artiste – does not mind in the least talking about it. Another nephew, Graham Monet, has a trike for Christmas, which I take and drive away frantically all the way to Pimlico and back. Not feeling too guilty, as I suspect him and Philip Trigwell of filling my large red ride-along loco with cement the Christmas before. Now here is Mr Reece. We know he is Welsh, because he is beetle-browed and swarthy, and rushes frequently out of B Block in vest and braces to bellow high-volume gibberish at kids, who have vanished, and disappears as suddenly. Nellie Hiscock, with the loudest cackle bar none and permanent hair-rollers, who is said to have had the late Mr Hiscock’s ashes put in an egg-timer. Well, Una and I have at least seen the egg-timer. And here, finally, is Donald Keen, a travelling salesman with a car completely full of peanuts, always beautifully turned-out and immaculately spoken. One day in the Churchyard - as we call St Luke’s, where the kids imagine themselves playing for Fulham if not Chelsea and throw stones if they lose - he takes me on his very drunken knee and declares “Look all around you, this is God’s garden!“. I sort of believe him, and sort of still do.
Una’s parents, Jack and Josephine Madigan, were London Irish, both children of Irish-born immigrants. Born in 1935, she was the youngest of their four children, all of them brought up in the Dwellings. Jack was a clerk with Fulham Council, a quiet man, who could be both self-effacing and proud by turns. He educated himself, including a mastery of shorthand, and sang many arias badly. Josephine was a charlady, immensely cheerful, hardworking and funny. Their eldest son was John, who was clever, brave and unfailingly courteous. I used to have a very striking photo of him right outside D Block kitted up to leave for the war, all youth and cheerful vigour, just like the opening of Gone With the Wind. Like so many, he never spoke of afterwards of the war, which he ended as CSM to the London Irish Rifles. He was highly decorated for action at Monte Cassino in 1944, and was active for many years afterwards with the regimental association at the Duke of York’s barracks in King’s Road. Their first daughter, Maureen Brigid, is my mother, who now lives in a care home. I lived with her in P Block of the Dwellings until I was 11, when she sent me away to a state boarding school. I never really get over this decision taking me as it did from my home, my family and wider family of Sutton Dwellers whom I welcomed and felt welcomed by: detached from my culture, yet the bricks remain.
The second daughter, Eileen, also went away in the war, to work extremely hard as a Land Army Girl in Wiltshire. She married her tractor driver, who was much lazier than she was, set up home there and raised two children of her own. Eileen was lovely, funnier even than her mother, especially with her weird adopted country accent, and probably anyone else I can think of. She died tragically young, at 51, and came back to D Block in Sutton Dwellings for her final weeks, where helping to looking after her remains what I am most proud to have done.
Una, the youngest daughter, was a model aunt to me: kind, enthusiastic, a compelling talker and a great listener. She excelled academically, and won numerous prizes at her school, the Sacred Heart. She qualified as a nurse and subsequently as a midwife, for which she won the gold medal as top of her intake. She spent all of her career in the NHS, mostly at Westminster Hospital and latterly at Roehampton, apart from a period as an RAF officer, where she was highly regarded for her work supervising the evacuation of casualties by air. Her parents sometimes exasperated her – whose don’t ? – but it is beyond doubt that she loved them to pieces, and that their footsteps continued to echo the most resonantly through her life long after they had died.
So in honour of my aunt, her parents and siblings – Sutton Dwellers all – and of all the others whether known or forgotten who have passed through that community, it seems fitting that her passing should briefly be marked in the Dwellings, and that at least some modest part of those Dwellings themselves should be conserved.