A Grumpy Serenade

An illustration of a bookseller in Finsbury Square from 1828.

Snippets 162. When American Thomas Rees went on a tour of Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century, his journey concluded in Britain, the birthplace of his father. His account of his travels was published under the title Sixty Days in Europe and What We Saw There, in 1908. The moment when he finally visited his father’s old house for the first time should have been fascinating and emotional, but he didn’t receive the welcome he had hoped for:

My father was born near St. Paul’s Cathedral and I thought while I was in London, I would visit his old home. The house stands on Finnsbury Square [sic], which is a small park surrounded by an iron fence. As the park is the property of the owners of the houses which front on that square, in former days each family that lived fronting on the park had a key to the iron gate which enclosed it.

The houses are built in rows as they are in residence districts of most large cities. They are all alike, are each four stories high, besides a basement half above ground, and are numbered clear around the square, commencing with Number 1 and ending with about Number 60. The house where my father was born was Number 45. Of course I got off at the wrong corner of the square, and had to follow clear around the block to come to the number which I wanted to find.

As I came up to the somber old house that had stood there over a century, I naturally had some peculiar feelings which would likely come upon persons when they have found a place of which they have always heard with reverence and have never seen. I went up the few stairs on the outside to the main landing to the parlor floor. There was a number of push buttons and speaking tubes that connected with the upper apartments, one of which was marked “The Housekeeper.” I pushed the button indicated by this label and immediately in the parlor at my left was heard the sound of music from a brass band of considerable proportions. I was both surprised and delighted to think that I was welcomed to my father’s old home with such a genuine display of melody and musical enthusiasm.

About this time a little, old, gray haired man, who seemed to belong to a past generation, came down the upper stairs in response to my signal on the bell. I asked him if he was the housekeeper, to which he replied no, that he was the janitor, that the housekeeper was out and that the building was an office building occupied by lawyers, doctors and real estate men, but that none of them were in at that hour of the day. I told him that my father was born in that house, but instead of meeting me cordially, he looked at me with apparently considerable suspicion and I do not think he believed what I said, and, evidently thinking I had some designs on the house, he backed off upstairs, and that was the last I saw of him.

The door from the hallway into the parlor from which the sounds of music continued with unabated fury, was of the double-spring pattern, having spring hinges which allowed the door to swing either in or out. I took the handle of the door and started to open it, but as I did so, a man on the other side grabbed it and jerked it shut more violently than I had opened it. I narrowly escaped having my head caught between the door and the jamb, and I returned the compliment by giving the door a jerk back and came about as near catching the other fellow as he had me. After a slight tug-of-war between us, during which the door vibrated actively back and forth, he finally slipped through the crack and got out into the hallway and asked me what I wanted. I told him that I did not want anything, but that my father was born in that house, and that I would like to thank him for the grand serenade on my home-coming. He did not seem pleased and informed me that he was not serenading me but was operating a company for the making of records to use in phonographs, and that it required absolute silence in order to get perfect records. He presumed already the slamming of that door and our conversation would be found in the middle of one of the most superb marches that had ever been produced for phonographic instruments.

This ended the conversation, the gentleman retreated into the music room, while I went on upstairs, found all the offices locked and all of the tenants probably out to lunch. I think by this time the janitor was fully armed and ready to call the police to rid the premises of my presence, so I came away.

I find, after all, there is not much satisfaction in looking for the house of your father in this world and I have concluded it is better to look for your father’s house in the world to come than in this one, for there, we are told, are many mansions, while in my father’s house in London there are only lawyers, doctors, real estate men, and other people bent on commercial pursuits.

The “somber old house” Rees’s father grew up in no longer exists.  The seven storey building that replaced it was built in 1930.


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About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyardview.wordpress.com Administrator of frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in 20th Century, Books, Britain, England, History, People, Snippets, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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