John Harvey: J& J Motors

11 Mar

Everyone has a story. John Harvey was just 15, with such a passion for clothes he was thinking of training as a tailor, when he started work in the garage at the top of Corsica Street. Turned out he loved mending cars too, and by his early 20s he was running the garage. Forty-five years on J&J Motors is the last blue collar business on a road originally backed by coach houses for the grand homes facing Highbury Fields. Interview by Nicola Baird.

A J&J customer painted this picture for John Harvey - can you see him working on the car?

A J&J customer painted this picture for John Harvey – can you see him working on the car?

If you were making a movie of John Harvey’s life you’d start by zooming in from the view of Union Chapel at the bottom of Corsica Road then panning to where 15-year-old John from an Irish-Islington family is leaning on the white brick wall by the garage’s big blue sliding doors. It’s his first day and he’s saying to himself ‘One day I’ll own this’.” Fast forward to him at 22 or 23 years and his boss Fred Elborn has made John his partner. Fred had taken the garage on from his dad Arthur Elborn, so when Fred died in his 50s John was able to buy the business from his widow.

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John Harvey at work.

John Harvey at work.

“I’ve never had another job,” says John slightly bemused as we chat at J&J Motors. Now 60 he has a wealth of stories to tell about garage life, the locals whose cars he’s serviced and street life including a few TV and film tales.

“Part of Quadrophenia was filmed in the garage,” says John Harvey looking round the garage off Corsica Road where he started work aged 15. In the film the main character is a London Mod working in an ad agency. But according to John the first takes saw Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels) working in a garage. “I said that guy over there who thinks he’s a motor mechanic with a bracelet and rings isn’t. It’s too dangerous. And someone sitting on a chair (a producer?) asked what I meant. They brought a lorry with all theses scooters and cars and parked them outside but it was packed away in minutes,” says John pointing out that this scene ended up being cut.

In the late 1990s a well-known gender variant visual artist based in Highbury asked John if he’d mind his garage being used by Channel 4 for a programme about transgender. John didn’t mind at all.

“Some people think my partner John and I are brothers. I’m John – he’s John – surely our mother would have thought of a different name? Then there was a big gang of gay women, some of whom would only trade with women. They were convinced John and I were gay and would come here because we didn’t judge or talk out of turn. I say who’s so right that they can have an opinion about someone? Loads of TV people turned up for the Channel 4 film. There was a camera on a see-saw then Del cycled up the road and cycled into the garage to get the bike fixed, and later on I was interviewed too,” continues John.

“When the programme was screened I was watching TV with my mum and said to her ‘Who’s that on TV?’. Even though she could see it was me, at the garage and it had my name on the screen she wasn’t having it. She didn’t think I could be on TV!”

Happy holidays
John was born at the Hommerton Hospital, Hackney but grew up in a house on St Paul’s Road, going to school at St John’s Primary School at the Angel. He then went to secondary at “St James in Spanish Place down the West End. My mum didn’t want me going to Highbury Grove,” he explains. What his mum did want was to give him a proper childhood.

“In Islington everybody played in the streets. When the schools closed we’d go to Ireland for the summer holidays. My mum’s family is from Ballybunion in Kerry and I’d play with the Flathery family – there were 13 kids so there was always someone to play with – who had horses and a grey donkey, so I learnt to ride. Another family had tractors and cars – it was Tommy Quane who went on to have a garage in Ireland who taught me to drive. I was probably 11 but it felt like a great education and we’d just drive around the fields. It was safer than it sounds,” explains John.

John’s school was shut when he was just 15 so he needed a job – “it’s now one of those swishy places, a cookery school now”.

John Harvey: "Corsica Street has changed masses."

John Harvey: “Corsica Street has changed masses, but every day I enjoy the view of Union Chapel.”

Places John Harvey likes in Islington

  • The site of Highbury's old outdoor pool which had famously cold water.

    The site of Highbury’s old outdoor pool is  remembered by John Harvey from J&J Motors as having very cold water.

    I played football on Highbury Fields as a kid. You just got a team together and away you went. There were loads of kids around ready to play a match. I see the football coaches and kids paying to play at the weekend and think it’s just different times.

  • We used to swim in the open air pool at Highbury Corner. There was a rumour that if you got in there before 8am you could swim all day for free. But it was surrounded by trees and so always freezing cold.
  • This classic cafe - the Seven Steps - is now a home.

    This classic cafe – Ted’s Cafe then the Seven Steps – is now a home.

    Corsica Street has changed masses. The garage used to rent the coach house next door that’s now two houses. There was always someone doing something: there was Dickinsons Rubber Ltd that made mats, now two houses. There were engineering companies and shops at the bottom of the road – a barber, off-licence, grocers and my Italian friend Andy’s café. We used to get dinner on his plates and always forget to return them.

  • I liked getting dinner at Ted’s Café (that became The Seven Steps) and is no more now.
My first boss Fred Elbourne’s dad, Arthur Elbourne, set up the garage. He’s on the left of the photo. Fred knew I wanted a garage so he showed me the things I needed to know. When Fred died I bought the garage off his wife

John Harvey: “My first boss Fred Elborn’s dad, Arthur Elborn, set up Elborns Garage on Corsica Street, N5. He’s on the left of the photo. Fred knew I wanted a garage so he showed me the things I needed to know. When Fred died I bought the garage off his wife.”

“I wanted to be a tailor,” he remembers. “I had a fascination with clothes, like most people have at 14 or 15. People wore smarter clothes then, they’d never go out in tracksuits, it was more mohair trousers and a sports jacket. I used to have my clothes made by a tailor, Dave Wax at Highbury Corner – he’s long gone now. I’d watch him and I was fascinated by the way he chalked the pattern.”

But things took a different turn as a result of John helping out his brother-in-law Billy Quantrill and his dad Bill Qunantrill. “They had a supermarket at Highbury Corner and a fancy goods shop on Upper Street. I’d just come back from Ireland and Billy wanted me to go buying with him. On the way their car went wrong. They called Elborns Garage (now J&J Motors) who did the work, but I fixed it by the time the garage arrived so the guy said ‘was I looking for a job?’.”

John said no, as he wanted to go back to Ireland for the rest of his holiday, but when he returned he walked up to the garage and was asked to start the next day. “There was so much work around: it was different days,” adds John.

20150217_141849 (1)

Liverpool Buildings, Liverpool Road, Islington.

John is the third generation to live in Islington as his dad was born in Liverpool Buildings on Liverpool Road, N1, though he thinks his grandfather came from Chichester. “I’ve got this wonderful piece of parchment at home showing that someone in the family had the keys of the City of London,” says John. According to legend those keys mean one of his relatives had the right to drive sheep over Tower Bridge, a silken rope if they were to be hanged and if stopped by a policeman for being drunk they’d be put in a taxi and sent home, rather than arrested.*

It’s a chilly February day (a month from St Patrick’s Day) and John’s wrapped up well in woolly hat, warm trackies and overalls. It’s only when he sits down for a cup of tea that he turns on a heater. Most of the time his garage – with its big open doors – is basically as cold as it is outside. It’s clear you have to be tough to be in the auto business. Though in this Highbury location he’s fixed Barbara Castle’s husband’s car* and “loads of actors and actresses who you’d know off the telly.”

20150210_160928 (1)

J&J Motors on Corsica Street.

Changing Islington
“Islington has changed. Because house prices have galloped people buy for an investment and stay for 18 months. With Highbury & Islington station you can be in the City of London in minutes. It’s all about being able to commute now. Two of my friends at school ran garages. But the people I grew up with have all moved out. They bought houses in Kent and different parts of Essex.”

Years back John was touched to be invited to one neighbour’s leaving party – though he remembers it as a strange evening.

“The lady opposite was going to live in Devon. She invited me to her going-away party. On the Friday night it was to be held groups of people came up to the garage – all my neighbours – and they walked to the back and started talking. I thought that’s weird. Then it clicked: she’s holding her party in my garage! Everyone else knew, the only person who didn’t know was me. I’d have said yes if she’d asked.” It was a good evening though once the ‘hostess’, Brenda, arrived with the drink and the party started properly. “I was the last to leave at 1.30am or 2 in the morning!” he says with a grin.

Before J&J Motors predecessor Elbournes Garage opened the site had a coach house and stables.

Before J&J Motors predecessor Elborns Garage opened the site had a coach house and stables. As a nod to this John Harvey has fixed up a hay manger in the building.

“Neighbours use us like a post office if they want something delivered,” he says. “But when the cafes closed local people fed us. Vera used to bring tea and toast and marmalade every day for breakfast. I’d known her since I was 15 but it was nice of her! And two ladies, Nora and Jo, made me and John a dinner every day even though I’m vegetarian. It started as a joke, they’d say ‘what are you having for lunch?’ We’d even get a Christmas dinner with paper hats and a glass of wine!”

It’s clear running his garage has given John a fulfilling career with plenty of human interaction. He agrees, “when I was about 18 or 19 a sprayer at the garage wanted me to come with him to Australia. But I stuck it out. I’ve been 45 years here in Corsica Street and there’s not a day I haven’t enjoyed coming to work.”

J&J Motors, 63 Corsica Street, N5  Tel: 020 7226 3147

  • You might also like this islington faces interview with Miles Brown from Brownings Garage, off Amwell Street here.

Quadrophenia scenes were also shot at Alfredo’s Café on Essex Road. See the interview on Islington Faces with waitress Nina Marcangelo here.

Freedom of the City of London – more info here

Barbara Castle, MP brought in the seat belt law, but famously couldn’t drive.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via at Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook or join the Facebook group. Even better follow (see menu top right) or follow me on twitter @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola



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