IN SEARCH OF FRANK ARNOLD
When assembling the recently published volume THE FRANK ARNOLD PAPERS - derived from those same papers and available to all as a free ebook - I left out a fair bit of stuff for various reasons, among which was the following account of a visit to the streets of his childhood. Undated, but references to his first fifteen years and visiting forty years later suggest it was circa 1969:
"...I looked once more at number 50. The timberwork was painted recently and the front door, once mud-brown, is now bright red. The ivy has been removed from the adjoining garden wall. Otherwise, the house is unchanged. I had forgotten the little canopy over the front door, which also covers the front door of No.48. That house was home for the first fifteen years of my life; when I was not away at school, I had to find what place in it I could in the company of four neurotic women and their drunken old mother.
In other pieces, Frank referred to Wentworth Road and Melbourne Terrace in connection with his childhood in my own area of London. Since it's only a twenty minute walk from home I visited Wentworth Road. Frank wrote that he was "was born within a mile of Wanstead Park", which description fits Wentworth Road so this could be his birthplace. It's a short road whose house numbers only go up to 38 and which shows no signs of having suffered WWII bombing damage. I think we can therefore reasonably conclude that 'number 50' was 50 Melbourne Terrace. However, modern street maps show no such place, so either it has been demolished since or renamed. (The nearest Melbourne Terrace is in Waltham Forest, but it's too short to fit the description.)
If Frank's father was fighting the Kaiser when Frank was born, it may be that the two didn't meet until young Frank was four or five years old. He didn't stick around long, leaving when Frank was nine and breaking all contact a year later. He may not have supplied any financial support either since Frank's mother appears to have had to take in lodgers after the departure of her husband, hence that reference to "four neurotic women and their drunken old mother". Frank named his father as one of the few men in his life he admired, but this doesn't strike me as very admirable behaviour.
Armed with theses two street names I took a bus to the reference library at nearby Stratford, to see what could be gleaned from the electoral register. Not much, as it turned out. There was no one named Arnold residing on Wentworth Road according to the register, but I had a copy of that page printed off anyway. (Only later did it occur to me that if her husband was away, Frank's mother may have been staying with her parents when she gave birth - and it would almost certainly have been a home delivery with the aid of a midwife, as the majority of births were back then.) Of a Melbourne Terrace, there was no sign. There were however three Melbourne Roads. I had checked these out beforehand but only one of them, in Ilford, actually fitted Frank's description. On the one hand Ilford was a bit far afield, but on the other that particular Melbourne Road intersected Thorold Road, then home of Walter Gillings and site of the first ever meeting of an SF group in the UK. This coincidence appealed to me but, alas, the electoral register showed no Arnold family living there during the period in question. So I left it there, a dead end.
UPDATE (2021): Having subsequently acquired a pre-war copy of the London A-Z I was able to confirm there was no Melbourne Terrace then. At some point the L.C.C. - the old London County Council - renamed a lot of streets and a guide to these is included with the A-Z. It was not listed among those either. Which suggests Frank misremembered and that it was probably Melbourne Road. The A-Z also shows the best candidate - the Melbourne Road off Barking Road - looking markedly different to how it does now, the chunk nearest Barking Road having since been hived off the form Didsbury Close. All the original houses in that section are gone, presumably lost in the Blitz, which fits Frank's description. Number 50 is in what remains, but is not the original. No, this house looks to have been built in the 1970s or 50s. So I'm prepared to tentatively identify this as the street where Frank grew up.
A week before the collection was due to be published, I unearthed another small tranche of Frank's papers. These contained specific details about his wartime flat I hadn't known before, including that it was in...
"...14 Crawford Street - the house is still there - a pleasant byway running between Baker Street and the Edgware Road. Here during time-off I was able to offer tea-table hospitality to fans home on leave and up in town, whence we could have a good piejaw before slipping across the road to the Beehive or round the corner to the Volunteer. The time I spent there preserved a link between the pre-war S.F.A. and the postwar Circle, and I keep a modest pride in it.
So, naturally, a few days later, when I was going into town anyway I checked these out. The Beehive pub is about a hundred yards from 14 Crawford Street, which is the sort of place it would cost a fortune to live in these days. It always amazes me that Frank and others were able to live at these addresses in central London on what were, even for the times, quite meagre salaries. Back then, what with smog and the like, I suppose the suburbs were considered much more desirable, but since the arrival of the Clean Air Act that's no longer the case.
I walked from Crawford Street to Hanover Terrace, which overlooks Regents Park, a stroll that took me twelve minutes. Here I found the blue plaque I'd expected commemorating Wells' years at that address. Walking directly back to Baker Street I discovered the other pub Frank mentions - The Volunteer - which is a few yards from 221B, where a line of tourists were patiently waiting to be admitted to Sherlock Holmes' fictional abode.
When I got home I resolved to check what the official records could tell me about his birth and his parents' wedding. These would be held at Newham Registry Office, a mere five minutes walk from my home, though according to the website:
We do not have the capacity to undertake lengthy searches. Searches in the birth or death index covering a period less than five years can be made, but only where accurate registration details have been given. We are unlikely to be able to search for periods between 1891 and 1965.
This all seemed very reasonable, so I strolled over there to make an appointment. However, it turns out they were in the process of moving and the records weren't in the building any more so it was no longer possible for me to do such a search. A year earlier, and it would have been.
A pity. I had been hoping to find Frank's date of birth, mother's maiden name, and the date his parents got married. I wanted the dates to confirm a suspicion that had been growing in my mind since I started this journey, namely that Frank's father might have been forced to do 'the honourable thing' and marry his mother after getting her pregnant and that he would never otherwise have married her. As Frank himself wrote:
"My father and mother were by far the worst-matched couple I have ever known. It was inevitable that they should part company and that I should be brought up by only one of them. At the time of the parting I was nine years old, and was given into the custody of my mother."
A year after leaving, Frank's father severed contact with them, which further supports my theory that Frank was the unwanted result of an unintended pregnancy. This is speculation, of course, and these events happened almost a century ago, but I think it fits.
- Rob Hansen, 1st January 2018.
Also by Frank and available both on this site and in the free ebook: