Between Mortimer Market and Iraq

MANY LONDONERS WILL HAVE walked past Mortimer Market without knowing it exists. Yet, I used to visit it every working day for about five years. It played an important role in my life and greatly affected my career. How it did, I will reveal later.

Mortimer Market lies a few feet east of Tottenham Court Road (‘TCR’) between Capper and University Streets. Immediately to its east, runs Huntley Street that is parallel to TCR. I used to enter Mortimer Market through a short, covered passageway leading off TCR. Vehicles can enter the Market via Capper Street.

Mortimer Market before 1949
Mortimer Market before 1949 when this photo was published

Until 1886, Capper Street was known as ‘Pancras Street’. This street has existed for over 300 years. Its history is outlined in some detail on an interesting website (https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/). Before it was laid out, the land on which it runs was part of Capper Farm, which was in existence by 1693. The farmer, Christopher Capper, whose widow died in 1739, kept cattle. Members of his family, his daughters, kept the farm going until at least 1768. After his death, the family moved to crop growing in preference to rearing cattle. In 1756, the Duke of Grafton constructed the Euston Road that ran along the northern boundary of the Capper’s farm. At first, the Capper sisters raised an objection to it, saying that the dust raised by traffic along the new road would spoil their crops. The Duke and the sisters eventually came to some agreement. By 1770, the Capper sisters gave up their farm. It was then bought by Hans Winthrop Mortimer (1734-1807), who merits an entry in Wikipedia and on the History of Parliament website (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/mortimer-hans-winthrop-1734-1807 ).

Mortimer was a property speculator and a Member of Parliament between 1775 and 1790. In the 1774 General Election, he was defeated by Sir Thomas Rumbold (1736-1791), who served as British Governor of Madras between 1777 and 1780. Rumbold became well-known for being corrupt. His misdeeds included what was effectively the theft of a precious ring from the Nawab of Arcot (Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, who reigned 1749-1795). Rumbold’s corruption preceded his stay in India. This involved, amongst other things, bribery during the election he contested against Mortimer. After a court case against Rumbold, Mortimer was awarded £11,000 in damages in 1776 and also gained the parliamentary seat that Rumbold had tried to win by cheating (bribery). It is a sign of the East India Company’s wobbly ethics that a man as corrupt as Rumbold was appointed the Governor of Madras so soon after losing his case of corruption.

Mortimer spent a great deal of money acquiring property in Shaftesbury, his constituency and also in London.  

The land, which Mortimer bought that had been the Capper’s farm, became known as ‘The Mortimer Estate’. Some of this estate was later sold and became the site of University College (‘UC’) London, which established in 1826. Mortimer Market began to be built on the western part of the estate in 1795. Old maps of the area show that in the 19th century Mortimer Market was like a piazza containing two parallel rows of small shops. This can be seen in a photograph published in 1949 and reproduced on a British history website ( www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol21/pt3/plate-27).

By 1963, the shops in Mortimer Market had been demolished. In that year, a purpose-built structure standing where the rows of shops had once stood was opened as University College Hospital Dental School (‘UCHDS’). It was this architecturally undistinguished building that I used to visit during the clinical years (1977-1982) of my studies of dentistry. The building is so non-descript that it does not get even a tiny mention in Pevsner’s detailed guide to the buildings of north London.  Prior to 1914, what was to become UCHDS was known as the National Dental Hospital, founded in 1861 and located at 187-191 Great Portland Street (see: https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/uchdental.html). In 1894, the establishment relocated to 59 Devonshire Street. Twenty years later, it amalgamated with University College Hospital. From 1963 until its closure in 1991, 9 years after I qualified as a dentist, UCHDS was housed in Mortimer Market.  The former dental school building still stands and looks very much like I remember it, but now it houses a centre for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

As mentioned earlier, I used to reach the entrance of the dental school by way of the passageway from Tottenham Court Road. However, the hospital could be reached via the network of underground passageways that linked various building of the hospital both with each other and UCL itself. To the right of the passageway if you face it from TCR, there used to be the premises of the Iraqi Cultural Centre. I went in there several times. On one occasion, I mentioned to one of the friendly men who worked in their shopfront office that I am fascinated by folk music from all over the world. He told me to wait and within a few minutes he returned and presented me with an album containing two LPs of recordings of Iraqi folk music. For years after this, I enjoyed listening to them.

During several of my brief lunchtime visits to the Iraqi Cultural Centre near Mortimer Market, I noticed something strange in it. Men would suddenly appear from what seemed like nowhere, maybe from doors hidden in the shop’s internal walls. When Saddam Hussein’s regime (1979-2003) began to attract western military attention, I remembered these curious appearances, and wondered whether there was something other that cultural promotion going on in this place so near my dental school. My suspicions have been confirmed: according to the writer Said K Aburish (born in Palestine in 1935), writing in 2004:

“Years ago Saddam Hussein used the Iraqi cultural centre in Tottenham Court Road to conduct intelligence against dissident Iraqis and to eliminate political opponents.”

Also, The Guardian newspaper noted on the 30th of April 2002:

“The Iraqi government also used some of the students on its scholarships as spies, and set up a London surveillance network based at a “cultural centre” on Tottenham Court Road. There were sporadic assassination attempts against dissidents: in 1995 Latif Yahia, a defector previously employed by the Iraqi government as the official double of Saddam’s brother, alleged that he had been attacked with knives by five men speaking Arabic while stuck in traffic on the capital’s Edgware Road.”

My time studying in Mortimer was quite exciting but not as much as what must have been going on nearby in the cultural centre.  Thinking back to my years of study, we had some lectures given us by a young Iraqi dentist, who was working on his PhD – something to do with denture fixatives. He seemed very pleasant, but now I wonder… 

While I was studying at UCHDS, I had wanted to write about the history of Mortimer Market. In those days before the Internet, although I looked at several books in UCL’s very well-stocked library, I did not find anything about the story behind this little-known part of London. So, what you have just read is what I was hoping to write more than 38 years ago.

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