The Richardson Family at No 29

The 1950s and 1960s

Some childhood memories of life at Sydney House, No 29, Sydney Buildings.

In the 1940s, Sydney House was acquired by the GWR (Great Western Railway) who used it as a staff house for its employees. My Father, who had been working for the LNER division, was promoted to new headquarters at Bristol, and as the house was being used less and less, and he thought Bath would be a pleasant place to live, it was agreed that he should bring his family down from London. So it was that towards the end of 1951 Len and Ruth Richardson, and 7 year old daughter Valerie, decamped from suburbia and set off on a dark November evening for Bath.

Travelling with us on the train in wooden boxes topped with chicken-wire were Ruth’s canaries which she bred as a hobby. There must have been about a dozen of them then. I was very worried that the smoke and noise would frighten them, but they were tougher than I thought! From Bath Spa they were taxied straight up to the house for the night. It was all in darkness and we were too tired to do any more than settle them inside, and take our taxi back down to Pratts Hotel for the night. The next morning was wet but it brightened up after breakfast and it was decided to walk up to Sydney Buildings as there was still time before the removal van should arrive with our furniture. I was feeling a little apprehensive as the hotel and the buildings around looked very grand, a different world from the one I had known, but I was also excited and curious to see this new place.

The canal path in the 1960s

Having negotiated 'the slope', (no tarmac or handrails and uneven, broken steps then) a row of palatial looking houses appeared, with an enchanting waterway at their feet. The canal was pretty much a nature reserve then, full of fish, water rats, frogs, toads swans moorhens, etc etc and a variety of white, yellow and pink water lilies, all of which was a source of delight to me and many other children who came dipping for tadpoles and other marvels every spring. As we approached the iron bridge Dad pointed out our new house, which looked beautiful, being partly covered in red-leaved creeper and had the old, wooden shutters still in place. I could hardly believe my eyes. Mum immediately fell in love with it and vowed there and then never to leave it.

At that time there was a small wooden gate at the foot of the front steps and I have a vague memory of an ironwork arch between the two pillars and possibly a lantern hanging from it, but I have no evidence to confirm that particular detail. If there was an arch, its removal can be explained by the fact that some years later, a lorry backed into one of the pillars, rendering it unsafe and it was rebuilt, slightly off its old position, Some of the iron railing atop the wall alongside the pavement was still in place when we arrived, much of it possibly given up for the war effort, I suppose.


Other evidence of the war, when a bomb fell in the canal nearby, consisted of the loss of a small piece of masonry and the replacement of glazing bars in a slightly different style, where the glass was blown out at the back of the house. Inside, the bedrooms had gas fires fitted, but we only lit them for visitors in winter, or in case of illness. The other rooms still had coal fires, with a ‘stove’ in the kitchen, which had a flagstone floor. When the chestnuts came in we used to roast them on the grate in the evening, which I loved doing. Coal was shot directly into a cellar which had an exterior access point at the top of the cut-through. Part of this can still be seen just below the parking zone sign at the top of the cut-through. I was nervous about going into the coal cellar which was damp and smelly, but when I did, I saw my first stalactites, which were amazing, if rather weak and crumbly. Owing to the use of so much coal on fires and to power the steam engines running through Bath, ours and everyone else’s house was black in those days. Our cinders had been disposed of in the traditional way, on a cinder path running all along the back of the house.

On garden level, the basement room seemed to have been used as a food store, because there were large (meat?) hooks in the ceiling and partitions with cupboards above ventilated with mesh doors to keep mice and flies out. Another interesting place entered from the garden was a large room in which Dad stored all his tools and lawnmower. We thought it must have been a stable and tack room, as it had hooks and iron rings set into the walls which were insulated with wood with straw behind it. There used to be a ladder to a trapdoor in the ceiling; this opened into the floor of the present garage, so perhaps someone had a coach in there once? Having explored, the rest of my first day was filled with helping to unpack, at the end of which Mum managed to produce a spartan meal of ham and boiled potatoes, eaten at the kitchen table by the light of a naked bulb; nevertheless, to me, this was the start of a great new adventure.

Dad’s first job was to build the aviary for Mum’s canaries against the wall next to No 28.

Ruth Richardson and the aviary

The birds soon established a reputation for their trilling song, which could be heard from the canal bank opposite, but during that winter, a strong wind during the night shifted the aviary off its base, allowing a few of the canaries to escape. I think one or two were somehow retrieved, but we were very upset and Dad prevented a recurrence by bolting the frame to the wall. The second task was to put up Dad’s greenhouse as he was a keen gardener and had developed an interest in Exhibition chrysanthemums. Over the next several years he became a regular exhibitor at local shows and twice won ‘best bloom in show’, with a newspaper headline ‘Bath bloom as big as football’. (The plants were called Henry Truman – white, and Shirley Primrose – pale yellow.) Mum and I travelled with him, to the venues, guarding the tissue-wrapped blooms in wooden boxes, and we were very proud of his success.

Len Richardson at the Trowbridge Show, 1952

Dad was also a keen vegetable grower and eventually rented enough canal-side land to keep us in fruit and veg; I think his first allotment was one of those on the right a short distance down ‘the slope’; a nearby plot was cultivated by Mr Reg White , and the two became friends.


Another unusual job for Dad was to make our well safe. It is located under the house with access from the garden and was a boon in dry weather as the water level was constant; in fact, some ‘workmen’ once tried to pump it out, but after their lunch-break, it had filled right up again! The edges were rough, natural rock, and my parents were afraid I might fall into it, so Dad concreted over it and installed a hand-pump; I didn’t mind at all supplying the elbow-grease when he wanted a can of water!

Soon after our arrival the exterior wooden shutters had to be taken down as they were in bad condition. What a pity, but no-one considered the value of such features in the 1950s. We also had shutters on the inside which we made good use of to keep out winter draughts, but an unpleasant side-effect of these and the sashes was the hundreds of hibernating flies which appeared at the windows on the first sunny spring morning, to Mum’s horror.

Almost every Saturday afternoon we would put on our best clothes and walk down to town together to make whatever purchases were needed. My favourite was Woollies, especially downstairs where fancy goods and dolls house furniture was for sale. I clearly remember seeing the shell of St. James’ Church (it was roughly where M&S recently stood). It was badly bomb damaged and struck me as a very sad sight. I thought it would look much better if someone cleared away the rubble, but, of course, the whole thing was cleared away later on.

Our food shopping was done in Widcombe. The Co-op had a store there, with separate butcher and greengrocer next door. (In the place where the supermarket stands) There was also a fishmonger, a hardware store, selling paraffin for Dad’s greenhouse heater, and a chemist. I can still recall my excitement shortly before that first Christmas as Mum picked out a tree, and holly and mistletoe at the greengrocer’s and we staggered back home with it along the canal bank (no car then!) looking forward to the fun of putting up the Christmas decorations. In those days, children’s presents were always kept secret, and I never knew what I would get. Either that year or the next, I received a box of magic tricks. As we had family to stay, I put on a little show with Dad, who did the hard ones; one of his tricks didn’t quite come off, thereby revealing the magic, much to my disappointment, but causing great hilarity amongst the adults!

Views of the city were more detailed then than now, as the trees, hedgerows and shrubs were kept well in check. It was no problem for my young eyes to see passengers on Bath Spa platform boarding the London train which was in plain sight until the last carriage disappeared into the tunnel; If Dad was on board he would wave his handkerchief out of the window as the train steamed past.

Val with her mother and grandparents

Sydney Buildings was, of course, much quieter in those days. My memory is sketchy here, but there may have been the odd horse and cart, possibly with a connection to the old coal-yard or the Maltsters. The one feature of the latter I shall never forget was the all-pervading (and to me very unpleasant) smell of the drying hops when the Malt House was in use; Dad, who appreciated the end result, says he found it ‘delightful’. With so few cars about Mum didn’t have to worry too much when I wanted to practise riding my new bicycle up and down the road along Sydney Parade. A few neighbours did have cars and as we had an empty garage, a Mrs Ruck used to keep hers in there. Our immediate neighbours at No 28, the Jennings family also had one.


Other neighbours whom I remember from our arrival were the Shore family at No 27, Mr Dafnis in Sydney Parade (what wonderful photos!) and Lucy Breedon, who had a small dog, a corgi I think, called Fairy. Another nearby resident was a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman, whose name I knew, but cannot now recall. He was a Salvation Army officer and I never saw him wearing anything other than his uniform. For some years, at Christmas, members of the band would come to play carols underneath the street lamp at the top of the ‘cut-through’. As the post box is directly opposite our house, I can testify to its more frequent use in those days by all these neighbours.

In the same direction, up the steps and on the right lived a delightful old couple, the Holbrooks, in what used to be the old Dairy. I went inside once with Mum and I recall flagstones and a rather open-plan effect, quite unlike any other home I had seen. Mr Holbrook was a great walker and told us he walked to Brassknocker Hill, I think to visit a relative.

Going down the cut-through towards the iron bridge, the small building behind the large wooden gates and the land there was used by a Mr Philips, if I remember correctly. He used to rear poultry and kept the eggs and chicks in the heated shed. One night, the roof caught fire and all the poor birds perished, to my great sorrow, and his too, no doubt.

The most significant neighbours then for me were the Kyte family who lived in the cottage on the towpath opposite Nos 28 and 29. Mr Kyte was lock keeper and general guardian of the canal in our section. He frequently had to deal with belligerent or injured swans (no easy task as they could be very dangerous) over enthusiastic dogs, or little boys out to have some fun climbing on the lock gates, all of which he did with great gusto and dedication. He and his wife, had three children, Angela, Christine and Freddie, around my age and all very keen to make friends. In the school holidays they would be up very early, sitting waiting for me on the buttress wall at the bottom of the cut-through. In the summer Mr Kyte sometimes took us for a walk to Sham Castle and once as a great treat he took us along the canal in his punt to Sydney Gardens and back. I shall always remember them with affection.

I had to go to school, of course, and after some research, it was decided I should attend the La Sainte Union Convent at the foot of the slope (now converted to courts).

Val is in the front row, second from the left.

Within my first few months there, and before the juniors moved up to Lyncombe Vale, the King died. I remember hearing the news bulletin on the radio at lunchtime and catching the sombre mood. As the time grew near for his daughter Elizabeth’s coronation, spirits lifted, especially amongst our family in London, and Mum took me up there to see the decorations. We bought the usual souvenirs from street vendors. (Some had wares sold from a suitcase, and were constantly on the lookout for the ‘bobbies’.) I still have these treasures somewhere.

Dad decided we should treat ourselves to a television set as the ceremony was to be televised and it was installed with great anticipation just in time. Mum invited some of our neighbours in to watch with us and although those old sets had very small screens and black and white pictures, we sat glued for the entire programme, punctuated by the odd tray of tea and cake, and thoroughly enjoyed every moment.

I have virtually a lifetime of memories in Sydney House, and now that I am discovering something of its history and its former occupants, I understand that the experiences of the Richardsons there is just a detail in the larger picture as the years roll by in Sydney Buildings. Although a small part of me will always belong to London, I feel privileged to have had such a long and still on-going association with our beautiful city.

Val Milward [nee Richardson]

First posted on, 21 December 2009

Family photographs supplied by Val Milward

Published 2 February 2010

Sydney Buildings History Group ©