By Tony Scotland

 

Elizabeth Freda Bernstein was born at 613 Finchley Road in the London suburb of Child’s Hill on 25 May 1923. Her father, Isaac Bernstein, was a retired businessman from South Wales, and her mother, Grace née Nunney, was one of ten children of a master plasterer in Paddington.

Freda never knew much about her family, because her mother died of pneumonia when she three, and her father died in mysterious circumstances two years later. By the will of her father she was made a ward of the Public Trustee, which managed the small fortune he left in trust for her, and placed in the care of her maternal grandparents in Queen’s Park, London.

It was only at the end of her life, and through this book, that Freda learned that her name came from her Lithuanian grandmother Fradel Bernstein, who, with her husband Hyman Joseph, had fled the pogroms of Russian Poland at the end of the nineteenth century and settled in the booming coalfields of South Wales – first as itinerant hawkers of amber, then then as drapers and outfitters.

Freda’s father, Isaac Bernstein, was a bright, determined and likeable boy who studied and worked hard to improve himself. He became a British subject in 1903, and slowly built up a thriving business in boots and property. In his mid-fifties, foreseeing the worldwide slump to come, he retired from active commerce, went to London to draw up his will – and, to the astonishment of his friends and the shock of his family – he suddenly married. His wife, a cook in a boarding house in Swiss Cottage, was not only twenty-six years his junior, but a gentile too. His family in Tredegar, a brother with a dozen children, recoiled in Orthodox horror at his apostasy, and banished him from their lives with a ritual funeral.

Fearing, nevertheless, that the Bernsteins might claim Freda’s inheritance, the elderly Nunney grandparents raised Freda in complete ignorance of her extensive connections in Merthyr Tydfil, Tredegar and Newport. When the responsibility of looking after a growing girl proved too much for them, Freda was sent to a High Anglican girls’ boarding school in Berkshire, and to a local parson and his large family as a paying guest in the school holidays.  

She left school shortly after the fall of France, and the Public Trustee enrolled her in a smart secretarial college which had been evacuated from Mayfair to the Cotswolds. A year later, as the Germans entered Ukraine and the Japanese landed in Indo-China, Freda emerged with shorthand and typing and a credit in journalism.  Like any young person she wanted to find a job in London, but the Trustee, like any guardian, was eager she should stay out of harm’s way during the Blitz and found her a job with a pig farmer. In the event the farm job fell through and Freda joined the BBC, first as a junior in the Monitoring Department, which had been evacuated to Evesham, then in the pioneering Features and Drama Department, working for the humorist Stephen Potter, and finally, after a spell in Light Music, she found herself in the orchestral planning section of the Music Department in Marylebone High Street, working for Lennox Berkeley.

Freda was immediately drawn to Lennox, but his private life was complicated and it was some time before they were able to get to know one another. The obstacle was Lennox’s feelings for the young RAF officer with whom he was living in a flat in Pimlico.

At the end of 1945 Lennox left the BBC to devote more time to composing and a new teaching post at the Royal Academy of Music. Three months later Freda too left the BBC, to become secretary to an old friend of Lennox’s who was a director of Sotheby’s. After a protracted and dramatic courtship Lennox proposed, and they married in one of the coldest English winters on record. The RAF officer was best man and Freda was given away by a married admirer. The only other guests were her landlady and two of the airman’s bachelor friends who were strongly opposed to the marriage.  After a night in Claridge’s Mr and Mrs Berkeley went their separate ways, Lennox returning to the flat in Pimlico, Freda to her digs in Hertfordshire.

In January 1947 they moved into a large house in South Kensington lent by a friend who was wintering in Madeira. There the marriage really began, Lennox working towards the composition of some of his finest music, Freda providing the peace and security they had both sought for so long. In May 1948 their first son, Michael, arrived. By then the Berkeleys had become tenants of the Regency house in Little Venice where they were to spend the rest of their lives together. In 1950 Julian was born, and in 1956 Nicholas. The house was soon filled with students from the Royal Academy and artistic friends drawn by Freda’s charm and warmth. Around them, and contributing to the widely-appreciated ambience of 8 Warwick Avenue, was an eclectic mix of old furniture and paintings which Lennox had inherited from his family in France, and interesting, and often significant, objects and pictures which Freda herself acquired with her natural gift for recognizing treasures in the junk shops and market stalls which still abounded then.

Following Lennox’s death in 1989 Freda moved into the mansion flat in Notting Hill Gate where she still lives today, surrounded by friends and admirers and looked after by kind carers.