Dame Esther Rantzen shares memories of Hocroft Avenue in London

‘We were one of the first to get a television – the paper boy watched it through the letter box’: Dame Esther Rantzen, 83, shares memories of the street where she grew up in Hampstead

  • Dame Esther Rantzen, 83, looks back at her time on Hocroft Avenue in London
  • READ MORE: Marti Pellow shares memories of Pattison Street, Glasgow 

My parents moved out of London to Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in 1939, realising London would be targeted with bombs. I was born the next year. My earliest memory is standing in my cot, aged about 18 months, listening to the wail of the air-raid sirens.

When I was five we moved back to Hampstead in London, to Hocroft Avenue. It was classic suburbia. 

My father washed the car on Sundays. We had a privet hedge and a neat garden full of butterflies. I used to run round with my fishing net, trying to catch them in the hollyhocks.

It was a neat row of semi-detached houses, and middle middle class. The smart people lived in much grander properties at the other end of the road which were sort of neo-Georgian, but ours was classic mock Tudor.

I was an avid reader and devoured every book we had. My parents didn’t censor anything so I read short stories by Guy de Maupassant which gave me nightmares, and Ideal Marriage [by TH van de Velde], which was full of mysterious stuff – basically, it was all about sex. 

Presenter, journalist and campaigner Dame Esther Rantzen, 83, shares her memories of Hocroft Avenue in London

Hocroft Avenue in Hampsteas as it looks todat 

My mother Katherine was not told about the facts of life until her older sister discovered the finer points on her wedding night. My grandmother was a wonderful woman, but not the perfect mother.

When I was 10, my father got a job with the United Nations in New York, so we spent two years on Long Island. I loved America – still do. 

I found the Americans free and easy compared to the stiff-upper-lipped Brits.

After we returned to London we lived in a neighbouring street, Hocroft Road. My father Henry was now head of the BBC’s engineering design department and we were one of the first houses in our street to get a television. 

But it was banished to the hall because my parents believed television killed the art of conversation. The paper boy used to spend hours watching it through the letterbox.

I was close to both my parents. My mother was funny and naughty. I once invited a friend to tea who had an anarchist husband. When my mother came into the room, he didn’t get out of his chair, so she tipped it forward. 

My father always had a smile and was extremely absent-minded. He tried to be best man at two family weddings on the same day but forgot he was expected to speak at the second reception. The bride never forgave him.

Her parents moved out of London to Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in 1939. Pictured: Esther (far right) with her parents (centre) and sister (second left)

He also loved inventing things. He devised a spoutless teapot because he said cleaning the spout was difficult. I pointed out that that was a jug. 

I got my academic ambition from my father – my sister Priscilla and I were expected to have a career as if we were boys. 

He taught me not to self-limit and to go for broke. We were the centre of our parents’ world. When I discovered this wasn’t the case for a lot of children, it spurred me on to found Childline.

I’ve been back to Hocroft Avenue and the privet hedge has been uprooted. I’d like to say my time in America gave me a taste for wider horizons, but my children will tell you I hate change. When I’m happy in a place, that’s the place I’m happy in.

  • The Silver Line is the only free confidential helpline providing information, friendship and support to older people, open 24 hours a day, every day of the year; 0800 4 70 80 90.

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