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.

Czech point

 

MUCH OF WHAT HAPPENED when we visited the Czech Republic in 1999 was our fault, but what followed left a bad taste in our mouths. We drove to Loket in the western part of the country, in what was once known as the ‘Sudetenland’ and stayed in a nice hotel, where we had stayed two years earlier, in the centre of the small town near to Karlovy Vary. Every day, we used our car to explore the country.

 

LOKET wiiki

LOKET in Czech Republic  (Source: wikipedia)

One day, we drove to Teplice (Teplitz in German). It was here that Beethoven met Goethe at the town’s well-known spa. On the way, we stopped in the square of a small town near to Teplice.  My wife and our small daughter were standing, waiting for me, when a car sped towards them and skidded to a halt about a foot away from them. Had it come any closer and they had not run, my family would have been badly injured or worse. Why had the Czech youths driving the car done this? Was it to scare them or even to hurt them because my Indian wife looked to them like a gypsy? The gypsies in many central and eastern European countries face much hatred and prejudice from those who regard themselves as true locals.

Somewhat shaken, we continued our journey to Teplice, where I parked in a spot (next to a police station) where one needed to purchase a parking ticket to display in the windscreen. Inadvertantly, I did not buy a ticket. We went off for a walk for an hour or so, and then headed back to the car. Before we reached it, I went into a music store to look at CDs and the others walked ahead to the car. A few minutes later, I reached our dark blue SAAB.

Our vehicle was surrounded by policemen. My wife was shouting at them in erratic German, accusing them and the Czechs of behaving like Nazis and trying to murder us. It was only after a couple of minutes that I noticed the clamp attached to one of our wheels. Blue in colour, it matched our car perfectly. It had been placed because of my not having bought a parking ticket. We were required to pay a fine.

“How much?” I asked.

“1500 Crowns”

“I don’t have that much cash.”

“How much do you have?”

“Five hundred,” I replied.

“Not enough. Go to that cash machine. Get more.”

We paid 1500 Crowns (about £25 in 1999) as required, and then asked for a receipt for what seemed like an excessive amount to pay for a parking infringement. One of the police officers brought a receipt book. He wrote something on one page, and then tore it and 14 other pages out of the receipt book. We looked at the fifteen receipts we had been given, each one to the value of 100 Crowns. Only one of them bore a date and our car’s registration number. The fine must have been 100 Crowns, and the rest a gift to the policemen of Teplice.

The following day, our penultimate in the Czech Republic, we ran out of cash. I suggested that as it was a Sunday and banks were closed, that we drove to a border crossing where we were likely to find a bureau de change. Why we did not look for a cash machine, I cannot remember. We drove along a road that led to a frontier post on a road into what had once been East Germany. On the way, we passed a road sign that I did not recognise but will now never forget. As soon as we drove into the Czech frontier post compound, our car was once again surrounded by uniformed men. They told us to drive into a small gravelly parking lot where I noticed an abandoned car with British registration plates. We were asked to disembark and hand over our passports. At this point, my wife, who was already fed up with the corruption of Czech officialdom, began banging her forehead against our car. Meanwhile, our passports were taken into a hut to be photocopied. Our crime was that we had driven to a frontier post that could only be used by local Czech and German pedestrians.

It transpired that the solution to our problem was to pay a fine.

“How much?” I asked, trying to explain that we had arrived at this post hoping to change some money.

“How much have you got?”

Having already learnt that 500 Crowns was likely to be insufficient, I said that I had enough Deutschmarks to pay up to 1000 Crowns.

“You will pay one thousand Crowns. You can change money there,” we were informed by one of the uniformed officers who pointed at a booth nearby.

Once the transaction was over, our passports were returned, and we headed back to our hotel in Loket, thoroughly disgusted by the corrupt behaviour of some Czech officials.

My wife and daughter went up to our attic bedroom to rest whilst I stayed at the reception to settle our bill.

“I have come to pay for our stay.”

“36,000 Crowns,” announced the receptionist in impeccable English.

“But,” I replied, “you agreed 18,000 in your confirmation email.”

“Your daughter has extra bed.”

“No, she did not. We brought her bed from London, as agreed in the email.”

“No, it is 36,000”

I took out my credit card. I knew that the hotel was trying to cheat us and that if I fell for their price, my wife would have found it hard to forgive me after what had happened to us already in the hands of the various officials we had met recently. Waving my card at the receptionist, I said:

“18,000 and no more.”

“We need 36,000”

“18,000, and no more,” I said more forcefully that I am usually and placing the credit card back into my wallet.

“Ok, 1800 will do.”

We left the Czech Republic the next day and have not yet felt the need to return. This is a pity because the country, which I have visited four times, does have a lot to offer the visitor.

Many years after our unfortunate trip to the Czech Republic, we were in Bangalore (India) when I learnt how to deal with corruptible policemen. Our driver, ‘R’, decided to take a short cut by driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction. A policeman stopped him. We said to R that we would pay the fine. Getting out of the car, he told us not to worry.

After a few minutes, R returned smiling. He told us:

“Fine is usually 300 rupees. I told him that if he accepted 100 rupees, it would save him the trouble of writing out all of that paperwork. He was happy with that.”

Clearly, a considerate crook can expect considerate behaviour from a crooked cop.