These Osbornes are the family of playwright John Osborne, who lived in Stoneleigh and Ewell for over twenty years, starting in about 1936. This article draws on his own memories of the time, as described in his autobiography, 'Looking Back', published in paperback by Faber & Faber in 1999, and is a companion piece to an article about his later life and career. (Link to: John Osborne)
Note: Names, addresses and dates have been checked where possible and some information of this type in the autobiography is incorrect. Where it is definitely wrong I have either corrected it or referred to the discrepancy in the text below.
John James Osborne was born in Fulham on 12 December 1929, the second child of Tom Godfrey Osborne (born 1899 Newport, Monmouthshire) and Nellie Beatrice Grove (born c.1894 London), who were married in 1925. The elder child, Faith/Fay, died of tuberculosis and meningitis in 1930, aged just two. The Osborne grandparents are relevant here, since they also lived in Stoneleigh: they were James (born 1873 Newport) and Annie Maud (born 1874 Newport, nee Prosser).
James's mother had been widowed very early and became an innkeeper in Newport; James trained as a jeweller and in 1911 was to be found with his wife and two children in Heavitree, Devon. It seems that he preferred to spend his time playing cricket and rugby, so that his jewellery business failed. He and Annie eventually went to live in Clandon Close, Stoneleigh, in a two up, two-down (Number 17), where Grandfather Osborne whiled away his days waiting on his lazy wife hand and foot. Family legend had it that he had been allowed to sleep with Annie on only two occasions since their marriage (1897), which couplings had resulted in Tom and a daughter, Nancy Muriel (born 1894). Nancy's husband, William Henry Fisher Porter, worked in Nigeria, which is how their son Tony came to be living with the Osborne grandparents in Clandon Close. Nancy died in 1937 and Tony remained with his grandparents until his father came to rescue him. Mr Porter was the main source of the senior Osbornes' income for a time, since he paid them for looking after Tony.
Tom worked as an artist and advertising copywriter, but he was asthmatic and tubercular and had many spells of illness. As a lad he had won a drawing competition, the prize for which was mainly a round-trip by ship to Cape Town; it was an ill-advised adventure for such a delicate boy - he lasted only as far as the Bay of Biscay and was hospitalised in Lisbon for several weeks: this cost his parents a lot of money and Grandmother Osborne did not let him forget it until his dying day.
While Tom and Nellie were still in Fulham they seemed to separate - John never knew why - with Tom living in various digs when not in hospital. John recalled his mother delivering clean laundry to the digs. The couple had met when Nellie was working as a barmaid and she has been described as an uneducated, abusive, shrill-voiced Cockney. John hated her but it comes over from his autobiography that she had a lot to put up with from Grandmother Osborne, who either belittled or ignored her. Everyone had much to endure from Grandmother Osborne.
Move to Stoneleigh
By 1936 Tom had returned to Nellie and they made a fresh start in Stoneleigh, at 68 Stoneleigh Park Road. (John recalled thirty or so moves during his childhood, as, once Nellie had scrubbed up and furnished one abode, she would grow tired of it and find somewhere else to absorb her energies. He said, 'Handing over the Hoover to my mother was like distributing highly sophisticated nuclear weapons to an underdeveloped African nation'. She worked at the Stoneleigh Hotel (now The Station pub), which had opened in 1935, during the Second World War and afterwards, with a brief stint in between at the Spring Hotel, which she found too quiet and gentile. Tom worked in London as an advertising copywriter when he was able to.
Postcard view of the Stoneleigh Hotel c.1930s Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
It sounds as if Grandfather Osborne led a dog's life. He had no work to speak of and spent his days waiting on Annie. She rarely ventured outside, even into the garden (and never went to church, as it would involve going out in the cold and God would not like her to risk her health). Meals were at set times, followed by immediate washing-up, and James was not allowed to sit down or have a cigarette until after dinner, which occurred at what we now call lunchtime; he did the shopping, changed her library books and much else besides, often making these chores last all morning, most of which he probably spent wandering around Nonsuch Park so that he did not have to go home.
John did not like Tony Porter and Tom dreaded a visit to Grandmother Osborne, needing to stop for a drink to fortify himself in advance. John had a wonderful descriptive talent and described Annie's hair as 'a strange substance, like a saucepan scourer made of white spider's web'.
Move to Ewell
Early in 1938 Tom and Nellie moved to a flat beside the Ewell By-Pass - apparently Number 8, Homedale: Homedale comprised a row of houses, each of which was divided into two flats, and was close to The Organ Inn (recently demolished, with the site currently belonging to Lidl), which John said was even nastier than the Stoneleigh Hotel. Tom then lost his job because of his illness.
For a short time John was in the choir at St Mary's Ewell (and later he briefly joined the Epsom Choral Society); he was sent to Ewell Boys' School in West Street, where he claimed to have learned nothing; he found the other pupils rough and noisy (noise was not allowed in his house - even music on the rented Ekco radio was too much for Nellie's nerves - and when Tom was ill John tiptoed about so as not to disturb him). The headmaster in John's time at the school was a Mr Jones, who made liberal use of the cane, especially when the boys giggled during Scripture lessons. Many other lessons were taken by a Mr Blundell, who was a drill-sergeant type of man. If John's narrative is accurate, the 'education' was pretty haphazard - you learned your arithmetical tables etc and if you showed no aptitude for a subject you were abandoned as hopeless. Surprising then that, after such a start at school, he became the literary star that he was. But, what is clear from his book was that he had imagination at an early age and was an acute observer of people, especially his own family, who provided him with much material for his plays and characters.
John was allowed to keep himself to himself at school after he accepted a challenge to fight another boy and was comprehensively beaten up: he was then considered unworthy of being a bullying target. According to him, the teachers allowed these fights to happen and did not intervene until death looked likely. He did however make one good friend, who was Mickey Wall of 39 Bradford Drive, near to the then new Rembrandt Cinema. The Walls' house was shabby and not very clean - or, as John succinctly put it, 'If Ewell Parade was Auschwitz to germs, 39 Bradford Drive must have been Butlins with special terms for cockroaches'.
Postcard view of Bradford Drive c.1930s Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
Ewell Parade was allegedly the next family home after Nellie had cleaned Homedale to death and John said that they lived at Number 2, (the Electoral Register, however, says 3A Corner House Parade, Epsom Road) above the twopenny library where Grandfather Osborne obtained his wife's reading material. John had Saturday tea and outings with the Wall family on and off until he was eighteen and described them as very different from his own family - they were 'quite loosely knit with dropped stitches all over the place, but as comfortable as an old pullover'.
John was a big film fan, and his favourite at this time was the 1938 version of The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Basil Rathbone. His Sherwood Forest was Nonsuch Park, where he would frequent the trees, bushes and undergrowth with a toy bow and arrow, wearing cycling gauntlets, pretending to be the famous outlaw. He did manage to rope in various other children to play the rest of the gang but didn't have a Maid Marion until he met Joan Buffen, three years his senior, whose widowed mother ran a local wool shop. He liked going round to the Buffen establishment but in 1939 Joan was sent away to boarding school and that was that. Nellie thought anyway that Joan was too upmarket for the likes of the Osbornes.
I pause here to observe that John's formative years must have been shaped to a large extent by the lack of a strong male role model. His grandfather was firmly under Annie's thumb and Tom was ill, with the household being dominated by Nellie. His maternal grandmother, Ada Grove, in London ruled her husband, erstwhile publican William Crawford Grove, who had apparently once spent a dirty weekend in Brighton with the music hall star Marie Lloyd. Grandmother Grove was also a lazy woman, according to John. By his own admission, John was a fairly sickly boy during his younger days in London, prone to fainting fits and staying away from school, so that he had above-average exposure to his mother and grandmothers.
An advertising industry benevolent society, which had previously paid for the Osbornes to go on holiday, decided at the beginning of the Second World War that the family should move to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. By now Tom had only one lung and was very weak. The society thought that Ventnor would be safer and the climate more beneficial for his health. However, when they arrived the weather was cold and foggy, which accelerated his deterioration and, after suddenly going blind, he died on 27 January 1940. He was taken back to the mainland, but Grandmother Osborne did not attend the funeral.
Nellie and John returned to Ewell, to live with Annie in Clandon Close. What little money Tom had left had been signed over to her in repayment of his medical expenses in Lisbon and, despite Nellie trying to contest this, she was left with nothing. She took a lowly-paid piecework job in a seed packing factory at Raynes Park and in the evenings she worked behind the bar at the Stoneleigh Hotel, struggling to make ends meet. The seed packing did not last long and she became full-time at the hotel, where she received very good tips (she was apparently highly skilled in juggling beer bottles and pouring several pints simultaneously - she styled herself as a victualler's assistant rather than a barmaid) and dealt in the Black Market to obtain extra ration coupons. Subsequently she and John moved to various digs. The 1945 Electoral Register has Nellie's address as 7 Walsingham Gardens, Cuddington, but apart from that I am not sure where else they lived, since John's account becomes rather vague on that score. He says that he spent two years attending Elmsleigh Road School, but I can find no trace of either school or road under that name - rather I believe he probably went to Stoneleigh East Council School in Chadacre Road.
Mickey Wall had won a scholarship to grammar school, so John saw him only at weekends, but they spent an enjoyable summer and autumn of 1940 in Mickey's garden, watching the Battle of Britain unfolding overhead. When Nellie was working in the evenings - and often sleeping under the billiard table at the Stoneleigh Hotel - John would be in the Anderson shelter at their digs, then apparently 120 Worcester Park Road, but on her evenings off she refused to go down there (these shelters were often semi-buried in the garden) and took up residence in a tiny cupboard under the stairs. Unfortunately, one night the house was blasted by a bomb whilst she happened to be sitting on the lavatory - 'Her face sagged, powdered and gaping black, her mottled sloped chest heaving with her moans. Her knickers were collapsed beneath her knees in a flounced silky bag.' Needless to say, John found this hysterically funny but Nellie didn't.
Example of an unburied Anderson Shelter. Photo by Simon Speed via Wikimedia Commons.
Grandfather Osborne died in 1942 and Annie then moved from Clandon Close to a flat over Tesco's Stores in Ewell Court Parade, Stoneleigh. Given that she no longer had her husband, she invited two sisters to come and skivvy for her and just did some light cooking herself. The 1945 Electoral Register gives her address as 6A Willow Way.
As mentioned, John had intermittent schooling and Nellie often obtained him a 'sick note' when it was not strictly warranted. However, he did now become seriously ill with rheumatic fever and was absent from school for around ten months. His first proper outing when he was on the road to recovery comprised a trip with Nellie to see Gone With The Wind at the Rembrandt Cinema, during which he fainted twice, once when Melanie Wilkes gave birth and again when a limb was amputated without benefit of anaesthetic. Other than that, he loved the film. John attended the Rembrandt frequently when he was a boy and said that the only time it was nearly empty was when it showed Citizen Kane, a picture that depressed and confused him - and the rest of the local population - at the time.
Pre-release poster for Gone With The Wind, 1939. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
And then John was gone with the wind too, sent by the benevolent society to a boys' convalescent home in Dorset; he had anticipated that it might be more like a reformatory and he wasn't far wrong. Subsequently they packed him off to a boarding school in North Devon, where he did manage to bring his education up to a reasonable standard (and had measles), but he was expelled in 1945 for punching the headmaster, who had hit him for listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio. He says that he lived in the elusive Elmsleigh Road when returning to Ewell but, as mentioned earlier, the 1945 Electoral Register puts Nellie at 7 Walsingham Gardens, Cuddington. John remained with his mother in Stoneleigh until he joined an acting touring company. Around that time he became engaged to a local girl, whom he said lived in Elmsleigh Road, but her home was actually in Chadacre Road; fairly soon afterwards he broke it off by letter and, when you read about his marital history, this was probably her good fortune.
Grandmother Osborne died in 1959 and Nellie in 1983.