Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Pamela Hansford Johnson Battersea Rise literary connection

Posted in Pamela hansford Johnson Battersea Rise literary connection, Uncategorized by sheelanagigcomedienne on December 2, 2015

Pamela Hansford Johnson 1912-1981  was born and lived at 53 Battersea Rise the ground floor of which is now a pleasant cafe with a little garden called Tim’s Kitchen. She was author of 27 novels, a critic and a Proustian scholar

Wendy Pollard is her biographer. I got our library on Lavender Hill to order it, as a matter of principle, and hogged it for months! I was intrigued to read the first paragraph in the introduction to it.  Some years ago, idling  while on holiday  in a second-hand bookshop in Galway, I came across a penguin edition of a novel called Too Dear for My Possessing. The name of the author, Pamela Hansford Johnson ….
This could have been Kenny’s or Charlie Byrne’s -well known Galway bookshops.

Pamela HJ biog by Wendy pollard


Pamela was the daughter of Amy née Howson, an actor and singer with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and Reginald Johnson, a colonial administrator who worked as chief storekeeper on the Baro Kano Railway in what is now Ghana. He was frequently absent, and she grew up with her mother’s family of actors and theatrical administrators. Her mother’s father, C E Howson, worked for the London Lyceum Company, as Sir Henry Irving’s Treasurer.

Pamela described her home in the first of the autobiographical essays contained in her book Important to Me, as “a large brick terrace house”on Battersea Rise. Battersea Rise runs between Clapham Common down and across the valley of Northcote Road/St. John’s Road and up to the Roundhouse pub going over the railway line near the site  of the awful Clapham Junction railway disaster in December 1988 when 35 people were killed and 500 people injured when three trains collided.



The house had been bought by her grandfather in the 1890s, a time when she claimed  “it looked out on fields where sheep might safely graze. But by the time I was born, the railway had come, and the houses had been built up right over the hills between it and us. Not pretty, I suppose.” I think her description of the house looking out on ‘fields where sheep may safely graze’ was somewhat fanciful for 1890 as Battersea Rise was a main road then and the streets in behind, Lindore and Almeric, had been built on the former mansion and grounds of the Ashness family by Thomas Ingram the most prolific of Battersea’s Victorian developers according to the Survey of London. The railway had come in 1863.



The delightful painting by Leonora Green entitled View from my window looking across at the Northcote pub up Battersea Rise towards number 53 is very much how it would have been in Pamela’s day.


Batt Rise Leonora


Most commentators claim Pamela was born in Clapham which is wrong. We are used to such confusions and some of us get more irritated than others about this! Of course, Battersea Rise is close to Clapham Common and, with its leafy, rustic connotations, is why our station got misnamed. Again I would quibble with the Survey of London comment ‘No doubt for snobbish reasons residents usually gave their addresses as being in Clapham, Clapham Common or Wandsworth, but Battersea very seldom, unless Battersea Rise, a name with cachet’ .  I wonder how Pamela referred to where she came from.


Her grandfather Charles had come from Australia in the 1870s and his family had been involved in theatre and musical entertainment there. He went on to work as an administrator for Henry Irving who had attracted his attention when Charles was playing in the orchestra of the Lyceum in London. Bram Stoker, who had been a civil servant and part time critic in Dublin became Irving’s theatre manager but the two two men clashed. Charles referred to Stoker as Irving’s secretary and Pamela related:One day he came home with a greyish volume in his hands, and said to his children, ‘Stoker has written a beastly book. It’s all about people who suck other people’s blood and lunatics who eat flies.’ He put it straight on the fire. It was, of course, the first edition of Dracula. (Important to Me: Personalia (1974 pp.67-68)




This Irving connection was important in Pamela’s early life and the hallways of their house were hung with Irving ephemera –  photographs, playbills, programmes and costume sketches . This and the anecdotes she would have heard came into play in her novel Catherine Carter (1952).



Pamela related that as Irving liked to deck his stage with good-looking people her grandmother Helen and her three daughters occasionally got non-speaking roles in his more lavish productions which toured. I was not impressed by a badly punctuated letter sent from Dublin from said grandmother Helen : Begorra and bejabers here we are right here! And don’t I like Dublin faith and I do especially the jaunting cars and the whiskey and the Guinness stout.



When Amy and Reginald married they joined Amy’s mother and her sister Kalie at 53. Pamela considered herself classless and thought of herself and family as Bohemians but  admitted in her memoirs that: I am afraid that my family was afflicted with a degree of snobbery : the thought of ‘marrying into trade’ afflicted them.

Pamela was christened at St Marks Church Battersea Rise and she attended services there.


St Marks battersea Rise

It has now become evangelical under the vicar Paul Perkins and runs an Alpha course for well-off but unfulfilled adherents and has been accused of homophobia Maverick church deepens C of E divide over gay marriage ..

Her father died suddenly when he came back on leave and his widow was left with debts and economies made. All manner of lodgers were taken in and PHJ wrote:

one was speedily removed, being suspected of sleeping sickness: one, a
rubicund Welshman, got into fights on the stairways with my Uncle
Charlie: one, who posed as a doctor living with his sister, sat quietly
upstairs manufacturing pornographic literature, until the police caught
up with him. (Important, p.67)

Pamela had attended Clapham County Girls School and began writing then. She wrote a poem called The Curtain which was published in a magazine The Town Crier when she was fourteen and it is unlikely the editor knew it was from self-asssured a young teenager who became an acclaimed novelist.


Pamela poem

She thrived at school and loved theatre and novels and wrote in Important to me . 

From the age of eleven to about fourteen, I and a few like-minded
school friends saved up for our Saturday treat. This was invariably the
same. We would climb to the top of the Monument, where we would
eat our sandwiches, and look out on the panorama of London. Then
we would go to the Old Vic – Lilian Bayliss’ theatre – to sit on a hard
gallery seat – price 6d .
She was involved with the Quondam Club, the old girls society and she remained close to Ethel A. Jones, the headmistress throughout her time at the school, until the death of the latter in 1966.
Her mother encouraged her to bring her friends- girls and boys home and little parties were allowed. That way mother thought she could keep a watchful eye on daughter.
PHJ could not go to university. Instead, her mother enrolled her
in a six-month secretarial course at the upmarket Triangle Secretarial College in South Molton Street, Mayfair. Through the College she obtained a job, in May 1930, as a shorthand typist with associated secretarial duties at a branch of an American bank, Central Hanover Bank and Trust Co, Regent Street. She kept on writing including doggerel about children for Woman’s Friend including this cringe-making one on the birth of Princess Margaret.
A jewel in a Royal crown
Into the world a Princess came,
And all the fairies, smiling down
Upon her, sought to find a name.
But they could think of nothing meet
For one so small – so very sweet.
Yet, as she glowed both soft and bright,
Cuddled within her cradle-bower,
They all agreed to name the sprite
After a jewel and a flower;
So, with one voice, the fairies chose
To call her Margaret and Rose!
(Note: the name Margaret means a pearl.
She had various boyfriends by the time she met Dylan Thomas.
Her poem ‘Chelsea Reach’was published in the Sunday Referee
and, as a prize for the best poem the newspaper had published in the last six months, a volume of her poetry, Symphony for Full Orchestra, appeared in 1934. In September 1933 another Sunday Referee
poem, ‘Thy Sanity Be Kept’, led her to begin a correspondence with its author, an unknown Welsh poet called Dylan Thomas. The correspondence developed into a romance, with meetings in London when he came to stay at Battersea Rise and so did his family and she went to Swansea. No doubt, he wanted more sex than he was getting from her.
They showed each other their work. In one letter he wrote: You’ve got a style and a matter of your own. … can’t think of anyone’s stories printed today that are better . You are bloody good…you’ve got nearly everything that Katherine Mansfield possessed and a good deal more. ..Go on, go on my darling lady.
Pamela and Dylan Thomas

Pamela and Dylan Thomas

There was serious talk of marriage. Dylan had told her he was the same age as her in his first letter, was actually not yet nineteen when their correspondence began and thus too young to marry at that time without his parents’ permission. Her mother erroneously and dramatically claimed to Phillip Snow, brother of PHJ’s second husband that they had got to the steps of Chelsea Registry office  and she followed them there and had forbidden the marriage!! Their stormy relationship and his letters to Pamela are recounted in the biography and he does come across as a young brat. They used to meet in the Six Bells on the Kings Road.

About the time of her first novel Pamela, mother and aunt sold up and moved to Chelsea. Pollard suggests that socially, central London was the place to which she aspired and reckoned a passage from Johnson’s fifteenth novel, An Impossible Marriage (1954),applies to young Pamela herself;
W.1. It had a magical sound in those days for the young living far beyond in the greater numerals:S.W.11,N.W.12,S.E.14. Perhaps it still has. It meant an excitement, a dangling of jewels in the dusk, music and wine. It meant having enough money not to get up on the cold,sour mornings and catch the crowded bus.
 Much later in 1956 she and Snow moved into a mansion flat at 199 Cromwell Road and in 1968, they moved to their last home, 85 Eaton Terrace in Belgravia.
According to her biographer her mother and aunt were buried in St Mark’s Cemetery but she must have meant St Mary’s cemetery which is opposite the church.

In later life Pamela invoked where she was brought up. In  June 1957, dining with C. P. Snow, at the Governor General’s residence in Malta, she recorded in her diary her impression of an‘exceedingly glamorous’ evening—‘lights in trees, beautiful garden….Oh,a long way from Clapham Junction’ (272). When visiting Eton after Philip, her son by Snow, had won a scholarship there, she observed: ‘O, a long way from Clapham Junction!’ Commentator Nicolas Tredell concludes: “This might suggest a snobbish disdain for low origins but come as the base by which to measure her upward mobility”


PHJ left Battersea when she was 22 in 1934 and so I finish this second literary connection to Battersea Rise. However, there is a conversation planned as part of the Battersea Society events for next year on Pamela Hansford Johnson.
















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