Many North Laine residents will remember the Pianola Shop in North Road, where the Fountain Head pub now stands . There was a wonderful sign on the side of the building, in Cheltenham Place, which was still there many years after the Pianola Shop closed. The owner of the shop, Mary Belton, recently passed away in a nursing home at the age of 98. I did an interview with Mary in 2000 when she was living in a flat above what had been the Pianola Shop and below are some extracts from that interview.
Mary's father worked for the Aeolian Company
Mary discovered the pianola from her father, who worked for the famous Aeolian Company at their English factory in west London. The Aeolian Company had produced the first grand piano pianola in 1904 and became in the early decades of the 20th century what the CD is for us today. The pianola allowed people who were not good piano players to listen to the classical music of the day by buying the music rolls which the pianola played. Information for each note was stored on the roll by means of holes - the longer the hole, the lower the note. A typical roll would hold about 8-9 minutes of music on 10-15 metres of roll. The player would then sit at the pianola and use the foot treads to activate the mechanical process.
Mary's memoriesHere are some extracts from what Mary told me:
“I was born on 20th January 1914 in London. I later married Eddie Belton, who was a heating engineer at 33-34 North Road. At the time I got married in 1950 I was living in Centurion Road where I had been living for a year. We lived in the premises above the shop as Eddie was the office manager. After a couple of years there, they didn't want the premises any more so we moved to Saltdean and it was there that I thought that I would like a little shop because my trade had always been pianos. So we moved back into Brighton, to a little disused inn in Bedford Street, The Bedford Arms. It wasn't big enough so when a man came along and offered me a thousand pounds in cash, even though my husband was away on holiday at the time visiting our son in the army at Bielefeld in Germany, I said yes. I stuffed the money in my pocket and when I saw this place [100-102 North Road] I said to the workmen who were doing the place up, 'you can stop work now because I don't like it like this and I'm taking it'."
She slammed down the money
“I went around the corner to Dutton, Briant & Watts in Marlborough Place and I slammed the money down and said 'I'm taking that place'. I moved just like that and that day or the next morning I moved by myself. I worked all night and at 4am I had to have a bath. I took a chance lighting this old copper gas geyser. I lit the thing and got into the bath and looked around and thought 'What a lovely place - just what I want'. I got into bed at 4.30 and then the bell rang and it was Eddie and my son turned up from Germany. I had to get up and make them breakfast. I must have left a note on the door in Bedford Street. That must have been in 1970 for the pub [North road Inn] had been empty for two years."
An old-fashioned shop
“We had the two shops. Eddie did the office work in one. Now it's called Total Percussion but I call it 'Total Concussion'. The shops were side by side and we knocked a hatch through the wall. I had my showroom in the big shop and Eddie had piano rolls in his shop and two pianos where people would come and tit-tat to test their rolls out. People really loved us. We were an old fashioned shop and my husband would send the piano rolls off without taking the money.
He'd send the rolls off first and then a few days later send the invoice and we never got let down once, not once. We were world wide known. We've got two pianos in Honolulu and two in Japan. I worried over the two pianos sent to Japan because they went from Shoreham Harbour and I couldn't get the money until the ship was five miles out."
Tony Mancini, the 'trunk murderer“I got into the [pianola] trade because my father worked for the Aeolian Company in London. When I left school I couldn't find any job so I just ran away with a fair for six months. We had a bus to sleep in and one day I awoke on Newcastle Town Moor and I looked out of the window and there was this little tiny tent and it said on it, 'Tony Mancini - Come and See Me, 6d a time'. He was the Trunk Murderer. I couldn't believe I was next to a murderer. He openly said to everybody, 'I did do it but I got off'. I never spoke to him - I kept well away."
Mostly wholesale in North Road
“North Road then was mostly wholesale. There were twelve shops of Bennetts. I used to get my glue from there - a good old fashioned firm. There was Freeman, Hardy & Willis on the corner of Kensington Gardens. I did my shopping mostly in Gardner Street. They were good little shops where you could get just about anything. There were two fish shops, bakers and tobacconists."
Upper Gardner Street market
“I remember gas flares from the time before I moved to North Laine, but that might have been my imagination, I'm not sure. They were a poor lot then. There was Harry Cowley - he wore a bowler hat. He was a chimney sweep really and he was a very fair man, very good. He'd let the stalls out at 1s a time. He it was who got it all marked out on the road with numbers. Before that they'd be up at 4am, opening up, and there'd be fights over the spaces before he sorted that out. It wasn't clean like it is now. You could pick up a bug or two if you bought pictures. There'd be bugs behind the paper - you could hear them."
"The Troxy was a fleapit. If you went there, you knew all about it when you got home. In 1910 my father was a painter and decorator with his father and he told me that when the Coronation was being built, he painted it and he couldn't understand why the men tied up their trousers at the bottom with a piece of string but when he got to his lodgings he found out why - he was full of them big huge human fleas. You could go in for 2d in those days and a girl would come round in the interval with a spray to kill off the bugs."
[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 216, May/June 2012]