The spiral staircase
In the areas of Holland Park, Notting Hill, and Kensington, all in West London, there are a lot of small roads known as Mews. These long, narrow, often cobbled places, are at the rear of grand Edwardian town houses, and once provided the stables for the coach and horses from the house at the front, and later, garaging for the early automobiles. The upper floors of these small mews dwellings also offered accommodation, initially for coachmen, and in time, chauffeurs. Once parking became common on the street, or driveways were opened up to allow cars to be parked there, these mews houses were often sold off.
After the Second World War, they were frequently used as garages and service stations, for the repair and sale of used cars; as car ownership grew in popularity, and affordability, for the working classes of the early 1950’s. By the mid 1960’s, young trendy people began to take them over, converting them into bijou residences, with kitchens and bathrooms built on at the back, and one or two bedrooms upstairs. Popular with artists, early pop stars, and as second homes for the country set; they soon became chic and desirable, featuring in TV show episodes, films, and in the society pages of newspapers, and magazines. By the time of the property price boom of the early 1980’s, they ranged in price from many hundreds of thousands of pounds, up to a few million, for the really classy areas.
Not that you got a lot for your money. You had to park on the cramped street area, as the garage was now your living room. There was no garden to speak of, as it still backed onto the larger house that it had once served. Light was a problem, as it was dwarfed by the bigger houses, and very close to the other mews houses opposite. You had to go straight in off the street, with no porch, or hallway, and there was no outlook, save the house opposite, or a large wall to the rear. To alleviate this problem, many owners extended the properties skywards, adding extra floors, roof terraces, or large dormers, to allow more light. These houses also had the additional annoyance of not being built with stairwells, and having no free space to accommodate the installation of one. So, the way to the upper floor, or floors, was at best a large-tread ladder, or a rudimentary stair system, often bolted to the wall.
As more and more of these old places were converted, the use of spiral staircases, fashioned in wrought iron, became the norm. This saved space on the ground floor, and allowed easy access to the bedrooms. However, large furniture, beds, wardrobes, and other items, still had to be winched up from the outside, and taken in through window spaces.
From the point of view of an ambulance crew in that area, spiral staircases were a nightmare. It is almost impossible to get someone down from an upper floor, via a spiral staircase. The conventional equipment in use for this task, a metal folding carrying chair, will not make it around the sweeping turns in the spiral, and it has to be lifted above shoulder height to achieve any hope of success. This is just about possible with a patient who is small in stature, and light in weight. Get someone over six feet tall, or weighing over twelve stones, and you are in serious trouble. It is not unknown to have to get the Fire Brigade out to help, then remove the window, and put the patient onto a set of ladders, or a mechanical hoist. This is obviously a long-winded process, and a lot of trouble; also completely unsuitable in a real emergency. We usually resorted to asking for more assistance, extra ambulance crews to help with the awkward lift; and this was not always possible at busy times, when all available resources were committed.
One very busy evening, we were called to just such a mews house, close to Holland Park. The job sounded serious, given to us as; ‘male unconscious, unresponsive’. This was a diagnosis that often meant something serious, when the location was the property of someone rich, and probably articulate. This would not be a panicky caller in a pub, the worse for a few drinks, exaggerating the condition of a fellow drunk.
Sure enough, we were flagged down outside the house, by an elegant lady in night attire, and she looked very concerned. Once inside, we were shown up the dreaded spiral staircase, to the small bedroom above, entering through what was essentially a large hole in the floor. A male was lying on his side on the bed. He was a large man, who looked to be about 60 years old, and he was naked. He was also very obviously dead. The lady explained that he was her lover, and that this was his house, but he allowed her to live there, and she had done so for over fifteen years. When he came to London from his house in the country, he would stay there, and the arrangement had suited them both well, since she had met him when she had been an airline stewardess. She was worried that we would have to tell his wife, and also very worried about where she would live, as she had no claim to the house, or anything in it.
She told us that they had been making love, shortly after he arrived, and he had suddenly given a cry, and rolled over. She had at first presumed that he had simply climaxed, and turned over to rest, so she had not checked on him for a few minutes. She later went back upstairs, to offer him a drink, and realised he was not responsive, so had called 999. We explained that we could do nothing for him, but we would have to take him to the hospital to be certified dead, as he had not seen a doctor in years. We would also have to report the sudden death to the Police, as a legal requirement.
The lady was understanding, despite her concerns and distress. My own concern was how we were going to remove this man’s body, as he was a good six feet plus tall, and weighed close to twenty stones. I asked the lady to go with my colleague, to sit in the ambulance, give some details of the deceased, and await the arrival of the Police. I considered asking for more ambulances, but knew that this was impractical, as it was extremely busy. I quickly decided that commonsense and practicality would have to be foremost in my decision-making.
Summoning all my strength. I dragged the man off the bed onto the floor, and across the short distance to the staircase opening. Making sure that there were no obstructions below, I placed his legs into the hole, dangling them down like those of a parachutist, I lifted his torso from behind, and launched him through the large hole in the floor of the bedroom. He flopped to the ground floor, landing with a thump on the shag-pile carpet, barely missing the ironwork of the staircase as he did so. I went outside, and got my colleague to bring in the trolley bed, so we could load the man on it, and put him into the ambulance.
As we waited for the Police to arrive, it never even occurred to the lady to ask me how I had got him down from the bedroom.