Commuting with Niven

After leaving school in 1943, I was apprenticed to my uncle, the proprietor of a ladies and gentlemen’s’ hairdressing salon in London’s Piccadilly Hotel.

For my starting wage of 2/6d per week, my many duties included manicuring (both ladies and gents); shampooing (ladies only) and assisting the ladies’ hairdressers in pin-curling – an obsolete method replaced by rollers. I was also expected to clean the basins, sweep out the cubicles make the tea and, from time to time, change the layout of the display cabinets. After gaining more experience, I was allowed to assist with beauty culture (face massages, mudpacks etc.)

In addition to my weekly wage, I received tips varying from 6d to half-a-crown and, very occasionally, a ten shilling note – usually from highly-paid USAAF officers.

My uncle’s clients included many famous personalities. Among regulars from the showbusiness world were Jack Train of ITMA fame, Nan Kenway and Douglas Young (radio and music hall stars), actors Tom Gill and Jeremy Spenser, David Miller (father of child star Mandy and uncle of the Squadronaires bandleader Jimmy) and popular singer/ pianist Leslie Hutchinson – better known as ‘Hutch’.

I remember manicuring the record-breaking flyer Jim Mollison, former husband of Amy Johnson; and champion jockey many times over, Steve Donahue, who had the tip of a little finger missing -apparently bitten off by a horse. We saw American boxer Gus Legnevich – over here to fight and beat Freddie Mills in the world light-heavyweight championship in May, 1946. Plucky Freddie regained the title two years later.

Another regular was Arthur Greenwood, former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

Even away from work there were interesting moments. Rushing to catch my train home from Paddington one evening, I fell into the only vacant seat of a single compartment – the ones where five or six people sat face to face. Suddenly, the man next to me offered me his evening paper. I turned to thank him and found myself staring at film star David Niven, even more debonair in Army Major’s uniform.

Other experiences were not so pleasant. Although the Blitz was behind us, we still had to contend with the ‘Doodle-bug’ menace which began in 1944. Occasionally, there was time for the siren’s warning when all the staff took refuge in the hotel basement. But even here, there was some compensation, as the kitchens were next door and the head pastrycook would sometimes send in a tray of chocolate eclairs – an unheard of luxury in wartime!

Once, while having lunch in Lyons Corn House, which I did almost daily there was a tremendous explosion nearby as a ‘doodle-bug’ fell on the Regent Palace Hotel. Another morning, as I got off the train at Paddington, the whole station trembled as if an earthquake had struck. In fact, it was caused by the flying bomb passing so low over the roof before coming down elsewhere.

After the war ended, I stayed on for a further two years, before deciding to try something different but those memories of my first four working years will always remain with me.

Joy Skinner