WHERE A JUDGE ONCE WALKED IN CHELSEA

WALKING HAS ALWAYS been my favourite and almost only form of exercise. I do not enjoy games, gyms, or swimming, or any other sport, but I love to stroll through towns, villages, and rustic landscapes, exercising my body and especially my eyes. I always carry a camera to record anything I consider of interest or picturesque or curious. With the current (January 2021) restrictions on moving far afield from home to take exercise, I must confine myself to wandering around within a short distance of home. Luckily, the borough, within which I live, and its neighbours are full of fascinating places to see, photograph, and investigate. One of these is Justice Walk, a short (77 yards) passageway leading from Chelsea’s Old Church Street to Lawrence Street.

But first, let me tell you about number 46 Old Church Street close to the beginning of Justice Walk. This building has a sculpture of a cow’s head attached to its façade as well as two pictures made with coloured tiling. One of them, with the words ‘An early mower’, depicts a man holding a scythe and taking a drink from a small barrel. The other shows a milkmaid carrying a wooden pail on her head. An alleyway on the north side of the building leads to a modern gateway. On the north wall of the house there is a name plate that reads ‘The Old Dairy Chelsea’ and near this there is another tiled painting showing a milkmaid watching cattle standing in a stream with ducks and ducklings. Behind the gates, there is a larger brick building with a pediment bearing a cow’s head as well as the date ‘1908’ and ‘estd. 1796’.

The house and the building behind it were part of Wrights Dairies, which is well described in a blog article by ‘Metrogirl’ (https://memoirsofametrogirl.com/2018/11/14/wrights-dairy-cow-heads-chelsea-history-kings-road-old-church-street/) :

“The dairy was one of the first in Chelsea and was erected on Cook’s Grounds (the site of Glebe’s Place today) in 1796. Around 50 cows and two goats grazed nearby, providing milk for the dairy … A frequent visitor to the dairy was Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who lived a few minutes walk away on Cheyne Row … The Old Dairy was forced to move slightly west due to rapid redevelopment in the late 1800s, with Cook’s Ground and the nearby kitchen gardens of the Chelsea Rectory being swallowed up by housing. Wright’s Dairy set up their headquarters and a shop at 38-48 Church Street (now Old Church Street). The fields behind the dairy were used for the grazing cows.”

The cow’s head on the former dairy looks out at pictures of pigs across the road. These adorn a pub with the name ‘The Chelsea Pig’. Originally called ‘The Black Lion’, the establishment is said to date back to the 17th century.

Justice Walk is extremely picturesque. It is dominated by a large brick building, whose appearance is suggestive of authority, topped with a triangular pediment. This was formerly a Wesleyan chapel, which was built in 1841. It was used as a chapel and a Sunday school between 1843 and 1903 (https://chelseasociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/1997-Annual-Report-1.pdf). Many estate agents have misrepresented this building as a former courthouse, glamourising with words such as these (www.russellsimpson.co.uk/stylist-the-court-house/):

“A historic courthouse and jail that once held highway robbers and thieves before they were transported to the British penal colonies in the 18th Century has been transformed into a luxury £14.5 million home.

The Court House, on the aptly-named Justice Walk in Chelsea, is one of London’s last surviving courthouses and gaols and has been dubbed “Britain’s most expensive prison cell” after undergoing a designer restoration and makeover. Built in the early 18th Century, the majestic house of justice tried hundreds of criminals with highway robbery, drunken behaviour and petty theft – of a kind similar to legendary highwayman Dick Turpin (who was executed in 1739 for horse theft).”

So much for Dick Turpin and other exciting misinformation. Opposite the former chapel, there is a house whose front door is surmounted by a scallop shell and other ornate decoration. The door bears the name ‘Judge’s House’. Given what I have learnt about the so-called courtroom, which was really a chapel, I wonder whether a judge ever lived in the house. My doubt is increased when I read (in “The London Encyclopaedia, edited by B Weinreb and C Hibbert) that Justice Walk is most probably named after John Gregory, a Justice of the Peace, who owned property in nearby Gregory Place and in Kensington Church Street.

Several houses at the corner of Justice Walk and Lawrence Street stand where there was a factory and showrooms for the renowned Chelsea china. The china establishment was demolished at the end of the 18th century (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp84-100). Although the china works are long gone, the Cross Keys pub still exists, though closed during the ‘lockdown’. Established in 1708, it is Chelsea’s oldest pub. Its customers have included JMW Turner, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler, painters; Dylan Thomas, poet; Bob Marley, musician; and Agatha Christie, novelist.

Seeing all that I have described took about fifteen minutes, but you could easily miss it all if you walked past in a hurry. Although I did not perform much exercise looking at this tiny part of London, seeing it provided plenty of food for thought. After exploring this area, my wife and I walked out of Lawrence Street and began a vigorous stroll along the Thames embankment which provided lovely vistas in the hazy winter sunshine.

Beer and biryani in Hampstead High Street

MANY PEOPLE HAVE FAVOURITE restaurants. My parents were no exceptions. Amongst the restaurants they frequented often in London during the early 1960s were Mon Plaisir in Monmouth Street; Otello in Soho; Cellier du Midi in Hampstead; and the Tung Hsing in Golders Green, one of the first restaurants in London to serve ‘Pekinese’ cuisine. For Indian food, they patronised the Shahbhag in Hampstead High Street. 135 feet west of that still extant restaurant there is an archway decorated with sculptures depicting sheaves of barley and an inscription that reads:

“Established 1720. BREWERY. Rebuilt 1869”

The archway is at the street entrance of a covered cobbled lane that leads to a converted Victorian industrial building, now named ‘Clive House’, within a yard of varying width. The yard contains a well-head covering a well that looks quite old, and certainly not of recent construction.

The brewery was that of the ‘Hampstead Brewery Co. Ltd’ founded in 1720 by John Vincent (died 1755).  In about 1713, Vincent, already a landowner, acquired the Jack Straws Castle pub near Hampstead’s Whitestone Pond (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp66-71). He founded the brewery behind a pub called the “King of Bohemia’s Head” in 1720. In 1733, he was granted a 33-year lease of a spring by the trustees of an estate in Hampstead, which contained it and other wells including those with curative mineral waters. It was:

“…used only to supply the Vincents’ brewery in High Street and a few adjoining houses, was of little value to anyone other than the brewer.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp169-172).

Thomas J Barratt, a historian of Hampstead, wrote (in 1912) that Vincent selfishly believed that:

“… he could utilise the water to his own profit and the benefit of some of his neighbours; therefore, with the leave of the trustees, he laid down pipes and conveyed water from the pond not only to his brewery but also to a number of better-class houses in the town. He charged the householders for the water, and no doubt did well out of the transaction; but when, after many years, the Chancery decree brought about a day of reckoning he was ordered to pay £322 for arrears of rent, and the water was advertised to be let to the highest bidder. When Gayton Road, a thoroughfare now connecting Well Walk with High Street, was being formed, remains of the pipes conveying this water to the brewery were discovered a few feet below the surface.”

In addition to the brewery, Vincent acquired much other property in Hampstead including several pubs. On his death in 1755, Vincent’s brewery and other properties passed to his younger son Robert, who is thought to have continued running the brewery with his elder brother Richard (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp111-130). Richard entered Wadham College, Oxford, in April 1736 and became a barrister (Inner Temple) in 1743 (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Alumni_Oxoniensis_(1715-1886)_volume_4.djvu/270).

In 1787, Robert’s widow Elizabeth became involved in running the business and some of the Vincents’ pubs in Hampstead including the ‘George’, the ‘Black Boy’, and the ‘Coach and Horses’. She retained an interest in the brewery until 1812, which is well after it was taken over by Messrs Shepheard and Buckland in 1797. The brewery was rebuilt in 1869 with two shopfronts on the High Street, and by the 1880s, it was owned by Mure & Co. In 1928, the company had 184 employees, but it closed in about 1931. Reffell’s Bexley Brewery acquired it in 1931 (https://builtforbrewing.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/on-hampstead-high-street/).  

The brewery buildings had become quite dilapidated by 1959 when they were being used for motor repairs. Later, the structure was converted for use as office space and an attractive group of residences were built within its compound.  The main brewery building is now named Clive House. It is currently the offices of the Pears Foundation, which is:

“…an independent, British family foundation, rooted in Jewish values, that takes £15 ‐ 20 million of private money every year and invests it in good causes.” (https://pearsfoundation.org.uk/who-we-are/).

The Brewery’s grounds were adjacent to the grounds of a church, which has been converted into residential dwellings, which retain some of the original windows topped with ogival arches. This building is labelled as ‘Trinity Presbyterian Church’ on a map surveyed in 1866. It was founded in 1844 and had its roots in Calvinist theology. The church’s story is as follows (https://search.lma.gov.uk/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/LMA_OPAC/web_detail/REFD+LMA~2F4352?SESSIONSEARCH):

“Trinity Presbyterian Church began after a report by the Presbyterian district visitor for Hampstead that Scottish inhabitants needed a preaching station … By the end of 1845 the average attendance was 130 in the morning and 80 in the evening … The congregation moved to Well Walk Chapel in 1853, however, the building was dilapidated, so a site at 2 High Street, on the corner of Willoughby Road, was bought in 1861. The new church opened in 1862. It was demolished in 1962 … Shops were built on the site and the hall was converted into Trinity Close.”

So, what can be seen today was the church hall.

All this history is making me hungry. So, let us return to the Shahbhag, which my parents enjoyed back when I was a youngster. I went there once in the early 1970s and had a pleasant meal. Then, I did not return to it until the mid- to late 1990s.  It looked different to what I remembered of it, but its location was the same as of old. I sat down and ordered a meal. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I looked around at what was arriving on the plates being served to other diners and I did not like what I saw. It looked and smelled far less attractive than the food that I was used to having in other Indian restaurants at the time. I was beginning to regret having entered this restaurant, mainly for nostalgic reasons. I waited and waited for an extremely long time, but my food did not arrive. I looked at the time, almost 45 minutes had elapsed since giving my order, and realised that soon I had to meet my wife and some friends. I called the waiter and told him that I could wait no longer and that I would be cancelling my order. He seemed undismayed as I walked out of the restaurant.

Recently (January 2020) when I explored the grounds of the former Hampstead Brewery, I noticed that the Shahbhag was still in existence but closed for the time being because of the current viral pandemic. I am glad it still exists as it is something that reminds me of my parents, but I doubt I will be entering it again when it reopens. When restrictions relating to covid19 ease up, I would rather have a beer than a biryani in Hampstead.

A house, a spa, and Gray’s Anatomy

I ENJOY FINDING links between seemingly diverse subjects. Recently, I discovered a connection between an old house in Hampstead in north London and the famous textbook “Gray’s Anatomy”.

On crossing East Heath Road, having just visited the Vale of Health, I saw a pair of wooden doors framed by a substantial brick archway. These doors are the entrance to the grounds of Foley House, which stands on a plot at the corner of Well Walk and East Heath Road. Even though it is partially hidden by the trees that grow within the railings that surround it, the upper windows of this three-storey brick building can be seen. From its architectural style, I guessed that it was pre-Victorian, maybe 18th century. Just south of the main building, there is an outhouse with a white painted wooden weatherboard façade. The top of the façade has six small apertures each above one of two shelves. Presumably, these are parts of a dovecote.

One source (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp15-33) states that the present Foley House was built between 1771 and 1773 by the Holborn glazier Edward Helling. Helling, whose dates I cannot find, had already died by 1781. This house (or an earlier one on the same site) was built for Mr John Duffield. who was:

“… the first Spa manager …” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1342099)

The spa was across Well Walk opposite Foley House.

In the late 17th century, Hampstead became well-known for its supposedly curative Chalybeate spring water, which is rich in iron salts. The spa was established on land that was leased in 1698 by Susannah Noel on behalf of her son Baptist, 3rd Earl of Gainsborough (1684-1714), who was lord of the manor, but a minor.  The lease:

“…granted 6 a[cres]. of Hampstead Heath, including the well of mineral water, to 14 trustees, who were admitted as copyholders at a rent of 5s. a year to use the income for the poor of Hampstead. The trustees leased all the property except the pond or springhead north-west of the mineral spring to John Duffield in 1701 for 21 years at £50 a year, on condition he spent £300 over 3 years improving it, and agreed for a second term for improvements worth £200.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp169-172).”

According to Thomas Barratt, author of the encyclopaedic “The Annals of Hampstead” (published 1912), one of these fourteen men was one Thomas Foley. The house might have been named in his memory.

Duffield was quick to develop the mineral spring into a spa. Christopher Wade, author of “For the poor of Hampstead, forever. 300 years of the Hampstead Wells Trust” published in 1998, quotes an advertisement for a concert that was to be held in the Hampstead Wells on the 18th of August 1701. By then, Duffield had built his Long Room, an edifice containing a ‘Pump Room’ and an ‘Assembly Room’. The latter measured about 72 by 30 feet and was tall and airy with large windows. It could accommodate 500 people The Long Room, which was demolished in 1882, was located where a house called Wellside (built 1892) stands in Well Walk today.

Wade wrote that Duffield:

“… had done well enough for himself to build ‘a goode brick house’ costing £1000. Some historians claim that that this became Foley House on East Heath Road, but the evidence is confused. (The house is not shown on a detailed map of 1762)”

The words “a goode brick house” are quoted from the manorial records of 1706. Barratt notes:

“Mr GW Potter is of the opinion from the description given in the record that this house was, in all or in part, that now called Foley House…”

Well, if the house that we see today was only built in 1771, it is not surprising that it was not shown on the map created in 1762. I looked at that map (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp15-33) and Wade is right. There is no building marked where Foley House should be found. However, in “The Buildings of England. London 4: North”, the architectural historians Nikolaus Pevsner with Bridget Cherry write that Foley House was:

“… built in 1698 for J Duffield, the first spa manager …, but with mid-c18 three-bay front … Early c18 stables, weatherboarded.”

Pevsner and Cherry were describing the house that we saw, but its absence from the map is puzzling. I speculate the following. Duffield did have a house built in 1698 on the plot where the present Foley House stands. Maybe, it had been demolished by 1762, when the map was drawn, and then later replaced by the house built by Edward Helling, mentioned above. Alternatively, the map was incomplete or not 100% accurate.  

Several Victorian buildings neighbouring Foley House on Well Walk (currently numbers 21-27) bear the name ‘Foley Avenue’. Designed by Henry S Legg, these were built in 1881 on land that was once part of the grounds of Foley House.

And now for the link that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. One of the people who lived in Foley House was the physiologist and surgeon Sir Benjamin Brodie (1783-1862). In an autobiographical note (“The works of Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie … with an autobiography”, published 1865), he wrote:

“In the year 1828 I engaged a house on Hampstead Heath, which at that time was a comparatively rural retreat. My family resided there during the summer and part of the autumnal season, and I generally was able to go thither to dinner, returning to my occupation in London in the morning.”

Brodie helped to acquire the building at the north end of Kinnerton Street in Belgravia, which became the medical school for St Georges Hospital (while it was located at Hyde Park Corner in what is now ‘The Lanesborough Hotel’).  One of the students who was taught by Brodie in Kinnerton Street was Henry Gray (1827-1861), author of one of the most famous medical textbooks, “Gray’s Anatomy”. Gray dedicated his masterpiece to his teacher and colleague Brodie.

Brodie used Foley House between 1828 and 1837, when his lease expired. Then, he bought a property in Surrey. As Gray was under ten years old when Brodie lived in Hampstead, he would not have been a visitor to Foley House.

Had I not written about Kinnerton Street and its association with “Gray’s Anatomy” shortly before spotting Foley House in Hampstead, there would have been hardly any chance of me being able to realise the connections between the house, Brodie, and his student, the famous anatomist.

Enjoying space in France

WE LIVE IN A SMALL flat without neither garden nor a balcony, but near the centre of London and two large parks. For several years, we used to drive to France, where we hired country houses in rural locations from an organisation called Gîtes de France. A ‘gîte’ is essentially a furnished house available for rent to holidaymakers.

The organisation used to issue handbooks listing the houses available in various regions. Each home is given a category between the lowest 1 and the highest 3 ‘épi(s)’ (ears of corn). When we planned our trips, we used to choose from the houses on offer in the 3 épis grade. We had several criteria that determined our choice of holiday home. First, it had to have at least 100 square metres of usable space because we wanted to experience living in a spacious place for at least one week per year. Second, it had to be equipped with machines both for both clothes and for dishes.  In addition to fulfilling these requirements, there was one more thing we always wanted: a barbecue.

My wife had hired gîtes before we married, which is why we considered doing this for our family holidays. The first one we hired was in a small village, Poilly-sur-Serein near the famous wine-producing town of Chablis in Burgundy. The building was easily large enough to house my wife, her parents, who had flown over from India, our daughter, and me. We used the barbecue almost every evening, preparing vegetarian kebabs for my in-laws and meaty ones for the rest of us. Staying in Poilly-sur-Serein whet my appetite for trying other gîtes.

One April, we hired a lovely house in the south of Provence, not far from Orange. It was next to a cherry orchard and had a large garden. We could not use the garden much during the day because that year there was a heatwave in the south of France. Temperatures were hovering around 37 degrees Celsius and the best place to be was in our air-conditioned car, in which we explored the local and not so local sights.

One of our favourite hires was also in the south of France, in the Aveyron region. The house was located inside the walls of the ruined Templar’s castle at St Jean d’Alcas, which is but a few miles south of Roquefort-sur-Souzon, the centre of Roquefort cheese-making.   We visited the small town of blue cheese fame several times and ate some meals in its restaurants. At one of these, a cheese trolley bearing thirteen different types of Roquefort was wheeled to our table. Although they looked alike, our waiter patiently explained the characteristics of each before advising us that it was best not to select more than four of them on a plate at any one meal. At another eatery in the town, I could not resist sampling the ‘Menu Roquefort’, a three-course lunch consisting of dishes that included the town’s famous blue cheese. My starter was an omelette which incorporated the cheese. This was followed by meat in a sauce based on Roquefort. The dessert was a Roquefort soufflé. Although this might sound heavy, it was not because whoever prepared it was a good cook with a light touch.

The gîte at St Jean d’Alcas was so lovely that we hired it a second time, a year after our first visit. During the second stay, there was a grand celebration in the tiny village. It was probably Bastille Day. Long tables were set out in the lane running alongside our house. In the evening, we were invited to feast with the locals, who had flocked in great numbers to the usually deserted village. We joined the friendly crowd seated at the tables and were offered one of two main courses. On offer from huge cooking vessels, there was either tripe in a delicious sauce or grilled local sausages. It was a fine occasion with unlimited wine. The following morning, the tables and benches had disappeared, and the picturesque village had returned to its normal sleepy state. 

There was only one shop in St Jean d’Alcas and its merchandise was limited in range but delicious. It sold bottles of a liqueur like ratafia, but with a different name. Apart from that, we had to buy our food supplies elsewhere, mainly in street markets and supermarkets. Shopping for daily needs was one of the many attractions of having our own home away from home.

One curious feature common to all the gîtes that we hired was that each of them had only one toilet/bathroom however large the building. In 2000, we hired a large house in the Haute Loire at a tiny village with a ruined castle, Arlempdes. Its location next to the castle walls was wonderful. It overlooked a sharp curve in the river. This four-storey building had accommodation for eleven people, but only one toilet and shower. Both were inconveniently located in the basement of the gîte. Had there been eleven of us, or even just five of us, having only one toilet would have been extremely inconvenient. As we were looking for extra space to enjoy, this property more than fulfilled our requirements.

We gave up driving through France several years ago. Most of the places we wanted to visit were more than a full day’s tiring drive across France. On the way out, this did not matter as we had an exciting holiday to enjoy. But the return journey was never much fun. There was the long drive through France towards the English Channel, much of which involved driving through the often-dreary areas of the northern part of the country. Then, there was a shorter but much more exhausting ‘schlep’ through Kent and south-east and central London … and the prospect of returning to work. By the time we reached our tiny flat, we were ready for another holiday.

Spectacles and Mahatma Gandhi

MANY PEOPLE REGRET having to wear spectacles. I am not a part of that crowd.

When I went to school and university, my eyesight was so good that I did not need to consider wearing glasses. However, many of my fellow pupils were not born with such satisfactory vision and were forced to wear spectacles. I felt that those who wore glasses looked far more intelligent than those who did not. I do not know when and from whom I got that rather ridiculous idea. My parents did not wear glasses until they were about 45 years old, by which time I was in my early teenage. Yet, I knew they were both intelligent long before they discovered that they were having to hold their newspapers and books ever increasingly further from their eyes before they finally resorted to wearing spectacles.

I qualified as a dentist in 1982 without needing to wear glasses apart from safety goggles whilst drilling teeth at the dental school. About three years later, I decided it would be a good idea to protect my eyes whilst treating my patients. Instead of goggles such as handymen (and handywomen) use, I decided to ask an optician to make me a pair of ‘specs’ with tough plain lenses. I was extremely pleased with my spectacles. Wearing them, I looked in the mirror and immediately felt more intelligent, however ridiculous this might sound.

As I approached my mid-forties, the plain lenses needed to be replaced with prescription lenses as my eyesight was no longer what it had been. After a year or so, I began noticing two things. First, at night I was seeing three red traffic lights where there was only one. Secondly, when sitting far away from the stage in a theatre, I could hear what was being said or sung but the performers on the stage were barely distinguishable from one another. Watching a play was a bit like watching from afar insects moving about. Enter my new pair of long-distance ‘specs’ and these problems were resolved. But now I had two carry around two pairs of glasses: one for reading and the other for seeing afar. The solution was to try bifocals, which I have grown to like.

My first pair of spectacles was made by an optician’s firm in Kent, near where I worked. Since then, I have had several pairs made extremely competently in Bangalore, India. Most of my Indian ‘specs’ have been made by a company called Lawrence and Mayo (‘L&M’), which has several branches in the city. We favour the branch that used to be on Mahatma Gandhi (‘MG’) Road, but has, since the construction of Bangalore’s metro train system, been located nearby in Barton Tower, which overlooks MG Road. This branch has supplied eye care for several generations of my wife’s family and at least one of the staff has known members of at least four generations.

L & M was founded in Calcutta in 1877 by two Jewish families, the Lawrence’s and the Mayo’s. According to Girish Bhagat (www.scribd.com/document/352875229/1-Case-Study-on-Lawrence-Mayo-2016-Only-Case-Study-Material), the two families:

“…set up optical businesses in two cities simultaneously: London and Kolkata. Later they went on extending their businesses all over the world … After Kolkata, they went ahead in setting up their branches over large cities of India. It soon gained the reputation as being known as authorised opticians to kings and viceroys alike …”

Apart from London and India, the company had branches in Cairo, Spain, Portugal, Colombo, Rangoon, and Singapore.

The families who established L&M were originally named ‘Lazrus’ and ‘Myers’. According to Vivek Mendonca, whose family took over the firm (www.brandyouyear.com/2020/06/dr-vivek-g-mendonsa-group-director-marketing-lawrence-and-mayo.html):

“They were Opticians, Watchmakers and Craftsmen of fine custom made Jewellery, which they used to embellish on customised spectacles for Royal Families, Prince and Princesses based on colour stones based on their coat of arms.”

Of the Lazrus family I found the following information (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/Community/exe/history/lazarus.htm):

“Frank Lazarus (s. of Mathilda Lyon and Lippa Lazarus of Plymouth), who married into a family who were among the founders of the Jewish community of Hartford Conn., USA, and who later returned to England. He was in the optical business and apparently had a business called Lawrence and Mayo, with a branch in India, and which is now one of the biggest and the oldest optical firms in India.”

Of the Myers, I have not yet managed to discover anything about them.

However, I have found that amongst their many customers, the Indian branches have served some well-known people including Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, and J.R.D. Tata.  As if that were not enough, they have supplied eyewear to:

“…queens, viceroys, barons and other people of high repute chose Lawrence & Mayo as their personal optician. During the Wimbledon Finals of 1923, Queen Mary was spotted styling the Amulet inspired glare protectors from Lawrence & Mayo.” (https://youandeyemag.com/optician/lawrence-mayo/)

Although the quality of the work they have done for me is more than satisfactory, learning about some of their former customers is additionally gratifying.

Today, the 5th of January 2021, about two years since I last obtained a new pair of specs from L&M in Bangalore’s Barton Tower, I picked up a new pair from a local optician, owned by an Indian optometrist in London. I am about to give them a ‘test drive’ and hope that they will be as satisfactory as those made by Gandhi’s erstwhile optician. They are certainly better looking than the glasses that appear in many portrayals of the Mahatma.

Accidental death of an architect

ELEGANT BELGRAVE SQUARE is but a stone’s throw from Hyde Park Corner. Many of its neo-classical buildings are home to diplomatic missions and their staff. As with many London squares, the centre of Belgrave Square contains a private garden. That at Belgrave Square is adorned with sculptures, mostly statues of eminent people. At each of its four corners, there is one. The people depicted at these four positions are Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460); Christopher Columbus (1451-1506); Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the liberator of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama; and José San Martin (1778-1850), liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Almost facing San Martin on the north east corner of the square is a statue of Sir Robert Grosvenor, First Marquess of Westminster (1767-1845), upon whose estate Belgrave Square was built.

Elias George Basevi

On the eastern side of the square, close to the statue of Simon Bolivar and within the garden, there is a sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta (1921-1981), which was completed after his death by Mark Holloway. It is called “Homage to Leonardo. The Vitruvian Man”.

Interesting as all the above-mentioned are, the sculpture that intrigued me most is a bust of Elias George Basevi (1794-1845), who is described on his plinth as ‘architect’. I guessed that he was likely to have been involved in the design of Belgrave Square, and I was right. According to a plaque on the base of Grosvenor’s statue, he designed the neo-classical terraces surrounding the square for the Haldimand Syndicate, which was under the control of the brothers George (1781-1851) and William (1784-1862) Haldimand, of Swiss origin, sons of a banker born in Switzerland and an English mother. In 1825, William, a Member of Parliament:

“… negotiated successfully with the 2nd Earl Grosvenor, Seth Smith and William Cubitt for a 99-year lease on Belgrave Square, where he had 49 houses built: 16 to be owned by George Haldimand, 14 by himself, eight by Prevost, four by Smith and three by Cubitt…” (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/haldimand-william-1784-1862)

The Haldimands were related to Frederick Haldimand (1718-1791), who became Governor of Quebec in 1777. Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who was involved in creating the square, was a major Victorian property developer.

As for Basevi, at first, I thought that his surname sounded Italian. His family might have come from that country as its origins were Sephardic Jewish. The Basevi surname is particularly associated with Sephardic Jews in Verona (https://judaism_enc.enacademic.com/2089/BASEVI). His father, Joshua, usually known as ‘George’, was a London City merchant (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2616-basevi-george-joshua). Elias George’s aunt, George’s sister Maria (née Basevi), was married to Isaac D’Israeli, whose son was Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881), who was Prime Minister between 1874 and 1880. In 1810, Elias became a pupil of the great architect John Soane (1753-1837), who specialised in creating in the neo-classical style. According to the Dictionary of National Biography (‘DNB’) (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/1615), from which I have gleaned much information about Elias, he:

“… also studied at the Royal Academy Schools, where Soane had recently been appointed professor of architecture. In 1815 he visited Paris with his brother, and on completion of his architectural training in 1816 he embarked on a three-year study tour of Italy and Greece, staying the longest in Rome and Athens, but also travelling extensively elsewhere in Italy and even visiting Constantinople.”

Regarding Belgrave Square, the DNB relates:

“Basevi designed and handled the construction of the terraced houses making up the four sides of the square (1825–40), though not the four detached villas at the corners. He treated the stuccoed terraces of eleven or twelve houses on each side as single palatial façades, giving each a central columnar portico and end pavilions in a similar manner to John Nash’s terraces in Regent’s Park … The financial success of this speculative development during an economically depressed period was due in large part to Basevi’s precise and scholarly attention to detail, not just in the design of the individual houses but also in the paving, street furniture, and composition of the square as a whole.”

Elias Basevi’s other projects included, to give just a few examples, St Thomas, Stockport, Cheshire (1822–5); work at several country houses; a building at Balliol College Oxford; Beechwood House and The Elms in Highgate; and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, whose construction was completed after his death. Beechwood House was built for the architect’s brother Nathaniel, a barrister, in 1840, who was married to a niece of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850).

Noticing Basevi’s buildings in Highgate, I looked at John Lloyd’s “History, Topography, and Antiquities of Highgate”, published in 1888, and discovered more about Basevi. He wrote that the Basevi family had been prominent in the Anglo-Jewish community. One member of the family, Napthali, the grandfather of Benjamin Disraeli’s mother, was an early President of The Jewish Board of Deputies, which was involved in the struggle for the emancipation of the Jews. The Basevis moved away from the Jewish faith as did their kinsmen the Disraelis.

Elias Basevi married Frances Agneta Biscoe. They produced eight children, one of whom was given the name James Palladio Basevi (1832-1871), who became an officer in the Royal Engineers.

On a personal note, I attended Highgate School between 1965 and 1970. Some years later, I acquired a copy of the “Highgate School Register 1833-1988”. Today, I looked up ‘Basevi’ in the index of pupils and discovered that in March 1840, James Palladio Basevi joined the school. This son of the architect joined the school two years after the Reverend John Bradley Dyne (1809-1898) had become headmaster. Dyne was to raise the school’s reputation considerably.  Other Basevi family members attended the school were William Augustus Basevi (joined January 1841), George Henry Basevi (joined January 1842) Frederick Biscoe Basevi (joined April 1844), Charles Edward Basevi (joined June 1844). All of these fellows were sons of the architect of Belgrave Square. Why they went to Highgate School is a bit of a mystery. Part of the reason might have been that their uncle, Nathaniel, had his home at Beechwood, a short walk from the school. however, their father, the architect lived in central London. The historian Alan Palmer, who used to teach at the school, wrote that out of the 43 graduates of Dyne’s first ten years, only 16 came from homes near the school. His reputation as a headmaster was already excellent by the time that the first of the architect’s sons entered the school, which attracted boarders.

Elias, who became a Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society, ended his life in a frightening way. The DNB relates his tragic ending:

“He died on 16 October 1845, aged fifty-one, after falling through an opening in the floor of the old bell chamber of the west tower of Ely Cathedral while inspecting repairs. His remains were buried in Bishop Alcock’s chapel at the east end of the cathedral.”

The bust of Elias George Basevi is smaller than the other commemorative sculpture placed in and around Belgrave Square and easy to miss if you are walking around the square. I only noticed it because I was watching two people walking with their dogs within the square’s private garden. Had I not seen the bust, I might have never explored the life of this man whose family had connections with Highgate, where I attended secondary school.

A hotbed of demoralisation and crime in north London

A WINDING LANE leads from Hampstead’s East Heath Road into the picturesque Vale of Health. I wrote about this isolated, small settlement surrounded by Hampstead Heath in the summer of 2017 (https://hampsteadadam.travellerspoint.com/2/) and have not revisited the place until today, the 2nd of January 2021. Little appears to have changed since then, but I have learnt a little more about the place.

As for its name, the place was not always as healthy as its name suggests. I wrote:

The land on which the Vale is situated is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086 AD). It was then owned by the Abbots and monks of Westminster. By the 18th century this swampland in the middle of the part of the Heath, then known as part of ‘Gangmoor’, was inhabited by impoverished people and was malarial. In the 1770s, the area was known as ‘Hatches’ or ‘Hatchett’s’ Bottom, because Samuel Hatch, a harness-maker, had owned a cottage there before 1770. This unsavoury hollow was described in about 1817 as a “stagnate bottom, a pit in the heath” by the sculptor Joseph Nolleken’s wife (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73). It was a vale, but not a healthy one.”

However, by 1801 when the land had been drained and property developers began building houses in the area, it gained the salubrious-sounding name by which it is known today.

Apart from the famous Indian artistic genius Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who stayed in the Vale in 1912, the settlement was home to many other well-known people including the author Compton Mackenzie; the barrister Alfred Harmsworth; DH Lawrence; the philosopher Cyril Joad; and Stella Gibbons. Earlier notable residents included the law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818); the poet and essayist James Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who entertained leading literary figures such as Hazlitt, Keats, Lord Byron and Shelley in his house in the Vale; the publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873); and, also, a Prince Eszterhazy.

During the 19th century, not only were the literati and wealthy attracted to the Vale but also it was a popular place for hoards of trippers, whose names never made it into the annals of history. The author of “The Northern Heights of London” published in 1869, William Howitt (1792-1879), describes these pleasure-seekers and what they did in some detail. He wrote that:

“This Vale of Health used, till of late years, to present a sight at once picturesque and pleasant. In front of a row of cottages, and under the shade of willows, were set out long tables for tea, where many hundreds, at a trifling cost, partook of a homely and exhilarating refreshment. There families could take their own tea and bread and butter, and have water boiled for them, and table accommodation found for them, for a few pence…”

And then, everything changed for the worse according to the puritanical-sounding Howitt:

“Recent times have seen Sunday dissipation reasserting itself, by the erection of a monster public house with a lofty tower and flag, to attract the attention of Sunday strollers on the Heath. Of all places, this raised its Tower of Babel in that formerly quiet and favourite spot, the Vale of Health … that taps and gin palaces on a Titan scale should be licensed, where people resort ostensibly for fresh air, relaxation, and exercise, is the certain mode of turning all such advantages into popular curses and converting the very bosom of nature into a hotbed of demoralisation and crime…”

This demoniacal-sounding establishment is marked as ‘Suburban & Hampstead Heath Hotel’ on a map surveyed a year before Howitt’s book was published. On a map surveyed in 1912, it is marked simply as ‘Hotel’. Just a few houses away southwest of it, another building is marked ‘Hall’, to which I will refer shortly. According to both maps, the hotel stood where today there is a twentieth century block of flats called Spencer House. Opposite this edifice, there is a caravan park, which has been in the possession of the Abbotts family for over 160 years. Since the late 19th century, this patch of land has been fairground land. About ten members of the family live on the site in caravans, and other travelling fair workers can camp there free of charge. In exchange, members of the Abbott family, who operate travelling fairs, are allowed camp for nothing on other fairground owners’ sites when they travel around the country.

Returning to the building that upset Howitt, “A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73) notes:

“… the Suburban hotel (also called the Vale of Health tavern) with towers and battlements and accommodation for 2,000 was built in 1863 …”

This source also notes another establishment, which was being built whilst Howitt was writing or just about to publish. This was the ‘Hampstead Heath Hotel’, which was built in 1868. This stood between two groups of ‘villas’, that is between 1-6 Heath Villas and 7-12 Heath Villas. It was the building marked as ‘Hall’ on the 1912 map. It is now occupied by a mid-twentieth century block of flats, smaller than Spencer House, named ‘Athenaeum’.

The Hampstead Heath Hotel closed in 1877, when it passed into the ownership of Henry Braun. His great grandson, Frances Francis wrote (www.francisfrith.com/uk/hampstead/vale-of-health-hotel_memory-7431):

“My great grandfather Henry Braun owned the Vale of Health Hotel … overlooking the lake, from 1877 until the early 1900’s. The hotel was used as an Anglo German club called the Athenaeum and by 1908 had 1200 members – 500 English, 700 German, including many political radicals. The hotel became a factory during World War I and then remained derelict for some years. The hotel was eventually pulled down in 1958, when I was 15 and I remember with sadness watching ‘luxury’ flats being erected in its place.”

The club closed in 1914 and then became used as a factory until it was demolished and replaced by the present building in 1958.

According to the County History to which I have already referred, The Athenaeum club’s larger neighbour, the hostelry that Howitt detested was:

“The large Vale of Health tavern, originally intended as a hotel and sanatorium, was sold in 1876, became associated with the fair, was let as flats, and c. 1900 became a hotel again on a smaller scale, with the upper rooms let as studios … Spencer House (flats) replaced the Vale of Health hotel in 1964.”

Howitt would have been even more dismayed to have learnt that there was a third hotel built in the Vale of Health in the 1880s. It stood next to the Athenaeum on the site now occupied by Byron Villas. It was at number 1 Byron Villas that the writer DH Lawrence lived in 1915.

Today, Howitt would most probably be happier with the Vale of Health than he was in 1869. The hotels have gone, and there is not even the tiniest of stalls where refreshments may be obtained. He might disapprove of the parked cars and the caravan site opposite Spencer House, but there would be hardly anything that he could find to decry.  By the edge of its large pond, one of the sources of the River Fleet, the Vale of Health remains a quiet oasis in the heart of north London.