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Charles Chilton


The Midland Hotel and St Pancras Station in 1939

Charles tries to keep the past alive
WHEN Victorian entrepreneurs built King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, their plans changed what was then a well-to-do area on the edge of London into a bustling hub for supplying the capital.
And now, 150 years later, dramatic upheavals are happening again: the high speed rail link to Europe and the accompanying development of the railway lands are bringing similar changes.
As bulldozers smash the physical reminders of the 19th and 20th-centuries into rubble, a three-year project to record the memories of people in the area is under way, called King’s Cross Voices and managed by the King’s Cross Community Development Trust.
Charles Chilton MBE, a retired BBC scriptwriter, has told his story.
Mr Chilton was a pioneering radio producer behind the cult 50s show Journey Into Space, Alistair Cooke’s first broadcasts from America and a host of other well-known BBC programmes. But his background was humble: born in Sandwich Street off Euston Road in 1917, he was raised by his grandmother after his father was killed in World War One and his mother died in the ensuing flu epidemic. He tells of a King’s Cross that is still recognisable – but not for much longer.
The Chiltons originally came from Nottingham and settled in King’s Cross because it was where the trains terminated.
“My great-great grandfather was a miner and he had been buried underground three times, says Mr Chilton.
“He didn’t want to ride his luck any longer so he headed south.”
The family moved to Sandwich Street which was built in 1810.
Charles says: “It cost 12 shillings and six pence a week rent and what bought the level down was the railways.
“There were hundreds of poorly paid workers looking after the horses and sorting out deliveries and they had to live near by.”
His home was typical of a large working class family of the period.
“There were four families in our house and no bathroom – but there were two outside toilets and that was luxury,” he recalls.
“I delivered newspapers on roller skates. I got up at six and delivered until 8.30am. I went home at four for my tea and then was out delivering again.
“I was paid two shillings a week and I spent it on the Funny Wonder comic because it had Charlie Chaplin in it, and The Wizard and The Rover, which were boys adventure series.”
He delivered the Sketch and the Mirror – “hardly any one read papers like The Times” – and the Daily Herald. The Herald encouraged Mr Chilton to read.
He says: “They had coupons and when you got a weeks worth you got a Dickens’ novel. I’d collected them all after about two years.”
When school finished at the age of 14, he went straight to work.
“I got a job in Gray’s Inn Road making electric signs,” Mr Chilton continues. “My gran was bamboozled because they said it was an apprenticeship, but it was just cheap labour.
“In Christmas 1932 I walked out. It was sacrilege, but I soon got a job at the BBC.”
Working in the record library, he wrote an unsolicited script for a show about jazz musicians, and it lead on to a career at Broadcasting House that lasted until his retirement in 1979. But his family were not impressed at first by his decision – even though their building firm JF Kirkham meant they survived the depression with a degree of comfort compared to their neighbours.
“Lots went without food,” Mr Chilton says. “I knew people who had not had a day’s work in six years. You’d see them going to the pawn shops in Chalton Street to raise enough for something to eat.”
But despite their relative prosperity, times were also hard for the extended Chilton family.
He said: “We had one meal a day – on Monday you’d have what ever was left over from Sunday. On Tuesday we’d have a stew.”
Sundays were special: the food improved, there was no school and the afternoons were free.
He said: “It was the only day of the week I had breakfast – my uncles and aunts got paid on Saturdays, so we could afford it. We’d have eggs, bacon, sausages and tomatoes but never toast – we always ate bread and marge. We didn’t want to risk burning it.”

• The King’s Cross Voices Exhibition is open every day except Sundays and Wednesdays at Holborn Library. Call 020 7974 6342 for more details.