Where there are dolphins

I HAVE NEVER VISITED MOSCOW, but I imagine that the huge, rather forbidding looking apartment block on Grosvenor Road facing the River Thames, would not look out of place in the Russian city. Covering seven and a half acres of land, built with twelve million bricks and almost seven thousand external window units, and containing at least twelve hundred flats, this mammoth building complex, which has been home to many of the famous and infamous, was completed in late 1936. This enormous residential complex is called Dolphin Square.

Maps surveyed in 1869 and 1913 reveal that the land on which Dolphin Square was built, which is west of St Georges Square, used to be the site of the several long buildings that together made up the Royal Army Clothing Department and its storage depots. Before that, the land was occupied by the work premises of the developer and builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who built much of Belgravia and Pimlico. A few years after his death, the army leased the site and the depot stood there until 1933, when the lease reverted to the Duke of Westminster (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Army_Clothing_Depot).

An American firm, Fred F French Companies, bought the freehold of the former army clothing compound, and then, discovering it had insufficient funds to develop it, sold it on to Richard Costain Ltd. Costain commissioned the architect Stanley Gordon Jeeves (1888-1964), whose other works include the now demolished Earls Court Exhibition Centre and the still standing large, art-deco Latimer Court at Hammersmith, to design the residential complex that exists today. Writing soon after it opened, the writer AP Herbert (1890-1971) wrote a book extolling the virtues of Dolphin Square. He wrote that it is:

“…a city of 1,250 flats, each enjoying at the same time most of the advantages of the separate house and the big communal dwelling place …”

Commenting on the fact that the complex included a restaurant, he wrote:

“…fortunate wives will not have enough to do. A little drudgery is good for wives, perhaps. The Dolphin lady may be spoiled.” (quotes from www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=2792)

From outside the building, Dolphin Square looks monolithic and forbidding. However, on entering the huge courtyard within it, this impression changes. For, the courtyard contains a lovely garden, which was designed by Robert Sudell in about 1937 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1455668). Though much modified since then, the formal garden retains much of the original design concept including an axial avenue lined with chestnut trees. Appropriately, the middle of the garden is adorned with a fountain with three sculpted dolphins. Created by the sculptor James Butler (born 1931), this was placed in 1987 to replace an earlier fountain. This pleasant garden would be one good reason to entice me to live in this extraordinarily massive complex. 

As mentioned already, Dolphin Square offers its residents a restaurant. It also contains an arcade of shops, a café, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a laundrette, underground parking, a bar, a brasserie, a hotel, a tennis court, and more. And all of this is within a short walk of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. This proximity to the centre of government means that many MPs have made use of Dolphin Square as their London ‘pads’.

Apart from politicians, including Harold Wilson, William Hague, David Steele, and many others, Dolphin Square has been home to people of fame and notoriety. According to an article in Wikipedia, some of these include Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana Mitford; the novelist Radclyffe Hall; Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies; the comedian Bud Flanagan; the spy John Vassall; and the tennis player Rod Laver. Princess Anne lived in Dolphin Square briefly in 1993, General de Gaulle based his Free French Government in part of the Square in WW2, and Sarah, daughter of Sir Winston Churchill, was:

“…evicted from the square for hurling gin bottles out of her window.” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33785352).

It seems that a fascinating book about the residents of Dolphin Square is waiting to be written.

I had passed Dolphin Square plenty of times before entering its garden recently, but until now I had no idea that this far from attractive building was home to such a fascinating range of people nor that it contained such a fine garden. Just as one should not judge a book by its cover, it is a mistake to judge Dolphin Square from its exterior.

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