Two freedom fighters in London’s Hampstead

PLATTS LANE WINDS its way between London’s Finchley Road and West Heath Road in Hampstead. It follows the route of a track between Hampstead Heath and West End (now West Hampstead). This track was already in existence by the mid-18th century. According to a historian of Hampstead, Christopher Wade, the thoroughfare was first called Duval’s Lane to commemorate a 17th century French highwayman. Louis (alias Lodewick alias Claude) Duval (alias Brown) who was, according to another historian, Thomas Barratt, famed for being gallant towards his victims, many of whom he robbed on Hampstead Heath. Barratt related:

“It used to be told that, after stopping a coach and robbing the passengers at the point of the pistol on the top of the Hill, he would, having bound the gentlemen of the party, invite the ladies to a minuet on the greensward in the moonlight.”

Duval was hung at Tyburn soon after 1669.

Over time this track’s name became corrupted to Devil’s Lane. A pious local resident, Thomas Pell Platt (1798-1852), probably put an end to that name after he had built his home, Childs Hill House, nearby in about 1840.

Platt graduated at Trinity College in Cambridge in 1820 and became a Major Fellow of his college in 1823. While at Cambridge, he became associated with the British and Foreign Bible Society and was its librarian for a few years. He was also an early member of The Royal Asiatic Society (founded 1823) as well as a member of The Society of Antiquaries of London. In 1823, he prepared a catalogue of the Ethiopian manuscripts in a library in Paris. In addition, he did much work with biblical manuscripts written in the Amharic and Syriac languages. Apart from being a scholar, he was an intensely religious man. He died not in Hampstead but in Dulwich.

Platt lived near the lane named after him for quite a few years. The same cannot be said for a later resident of Platts Lane, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), who was born in Moravia (now a part of the Czech Republic). Masaryk added the name Garrigue to his own when he married the American born Charlotte Garrigue (1850-1923) in 1878. A politician serving in the Young Czech Party between 1891 and 1893, he founded the Czech Realist Party in 1900. At the outbreak of WW1, he decided that it would best if the Czechs and Slovaks campaigned for independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire. He went into exile in December 1914, staying in various places before settling in London, where he became one of the first staff members of London University’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, then later a professor of Slavic Research at Kings College London.

In London, Masaryk first lived in a boarding house at number 4 Holford Road in Hampstead (http://tg-masaryk.cz/mapa/index.jsp?id=285&misto=Pobyt-T.-G.-Masaryka-1915-1916). In June 1916, he moved from there to number 21 Platts Lane, which was near to the former Westfield College where his daughter Olga was studying. The house, the whole of which he rented, became a meeting place for the Czechoslovak resistance movement in England. Masaryk stayed in Platts Lane until he departed for Russia in May 1917. It is possible that he returned there briefly when he made a visit to London in late 1918. On the 14th of September 1950, the Czechoslovak community affixed a metal plaque to the three-storey brick house on Platts Lane, which was built in the late 1880s. It reads:

“Here lived and worked during 1914-1918 war TG Masaryk president liberator of Czechoslovakia. Erected by Czechoslovak colony 14.9.1950”

Actually, Masaryk only used the house between 1916 and 1917. The year that the plaque was placed was a century after Masaryk’s birth year. The day chosen, the 14th of September, was that on which he died in 1937.

Not too far away from Masaryk’s Hampstead home, there is a place on West End Lane that used to be called The Czechoslovak Club before it became the Czechoslovak Restaurant and currently Bohemia House. Here you can see a portrait of Masaryk and enjoy yourself sampling Czech beers and food. The establishment is within the Czechoslovak National House, which was founded as a club in 1946.

The houses where Czechoslovakia’s freedom fighter lived in London still stand in Hampstead. However, that is no longer the case for another freedom fighter and founder of a new nation, who lived near Platts lane on West Heath Road, the wealthy barrister and founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948). In the 1930s, Jinnah practised law in London. One of his biographers, Hector Bolitho (1897-1975) wrote (in 1954):

“One day in June 1931, when Jinnah was walking in Hampstead, he paused before West Heath House, in West Heath Road. It was a three-storied villa, built in the confused style of the 1880s, with many rooms and gables, and a tall tower which gave a splendid view over the surrounding country. There was a lodge, a drive, and eight acres of garden and pasture, leading down to Childs Hill.

All are gone now, and twelve smaller, modern houses occupy the once-pretty Victorian pleasance. Nearby lives Lady Graham Wood, from whom Jinnah bought the house; and she remembers him, on the day when he first called, as “most charming, a great gentleman, most courteous…

… In September 1931 Jinnah took possession of West Heath House, and he assumed the pattérn of life that suited him. In place of Bombay, with the angers of his inheritance for ever pressing upon him, he was able to enjoy the precise, ordained habits of a London house. He breakfasted punctually and, at nine o’clock, Bradbury was at the door with the car, to drive him to his chambers in King’s Bench Walk. There he built up his new career, with less fire of words, and calmer address, than during the early days in Bombay.”

It was at West Heath House that Jinnah entertained Liaquat Ali Khan (1895-1951), another of Pakistan’s founding fathers and its first Prime Minister, who had arrived from India. Bolitho wrote:

“A great part of the fortunes of Pakistan were decided оn the day, in July 1933, when Liaquat Ali Khan crossed Hampstead Heath, to talk to his exiled leader.”

Bolitho recorded that Liaquat’s wife recalled the occasion:

“Jinnah suddenly said, ‘Well, come to dinner on Friday.’ Sо we drove to Hampstead. Іt was a lovely evening. And his big house, with trees—apple trees, I seem to remember. And Miss Jinnah, attending to all his comforts. I felt that nothing could move him out of that security. After dinner, Liaquat repeated his plea, that the Muslims wanted Jinnah and needed him.”

At the end of the evening, Jinnah said to Liaquat:

“’You go back and survey the situation; test the feelings of all parts of the country. I trust your judgment. If you say “Come back,” I’ll give up my life here and return.’”

Jinnah returned to India in 1934, and Pakistan was created in August 1947.

Judging by Bolitho’s description, Jinnah’s Hampstead house could not have been very far from the house which Masaryk rented in Platts Lane, which, like Jinnah’s garden, is close to, or more accurately on, Childs Hill. I have found Jinnah’s house marked on a map surveyed in the 1890s. It was located on the west side of the northern part of West Heath Road, about 430 yards north of Masaryk’s residence on Platts Lane.

It might come as much of a surprise as it was to me to learn that the founders of two countries, each of which was founded soon after the ending of World Wars, both lived in Hampstead for brief periods in their lives.

Leamington Spa, Heydrich, and the tragedy at Lidice

CLOSE TO WARWICK, there is a town that reminded me both of Brighton on the south coast of England and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) in the Czech Republic. The grandiose architecture, mostly neo-classical, of Leamington Spa reminds me of some parts of Brighton and the area around the town’s spa buildings, both new and old, brought faint recollections of visits I made long ago to the Czech spa town to my mind. What I did not know when we visited Leamington Spa was that it does have a not too distant historical relationship with what was once known as ‘Czechoslovakia’.

Czechoslovak memorial in Leamington Spa

SS General Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was one of the main ‘architects’ of the Holocaust and in 1942 he was the acting Governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the area now known as the Czech Republic. In January 1942, he was Chairman of the Wannsee Conference at which the terrible fate of the Jewish people was decided. On the 27th of May 1942, Heydrich was shot at while driving through Prague. During this attack, a hand grenade, thrown into his open top vehicle, exploded. Heydrich was rushed to hospital but died of his wounds or sepsis resulting from them early in the morning of the 4th of June. His senior, the Chancellor of Germany, the dictator Adolf Hitler, was furious.

The assassination attack was carried out by Czechoslovak men who had been trained in England and then parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The men were volunteers, who were members of the Free Czechoslovak Forces stationed in the Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa, where there was a training camp for them. It had been there since 1940. Seven of the Czechoslovak men flew from England in December 1941 and parachuted at various paces over their native land. Two of them, Jozef Gabčík (1912-1942) and Jan Kubiš (1913-1942), carried out the attack in Prague that led to the ending of Heydrich’s life. These two men and the others dropped over Czechoslovakia sacrificed their lives in the struggle to free their country from Nazi tyranny.

In November 2021, we paid a brief visit to Leamington Spa. Amongst its attractions is the pleasant Jephson Gardens, which are close to the spa establishments after which the town gets its name. The Park is named after the physician and philanthropist Henry Jephson (1798-1878), who promoted the superior healing powers of the town’s spring water. An attractive circular neo-classical temple containing a statue of Jephson was erected in his honour in 1849. This stands atop a small mound. Close to it there is another monument, also circular.

The other monument was unveiled in 1968, 50 years after the formation of Czechoslovakia out of the ruins of the failed Austro-Hungarian Empire. The memorial is in the form of a circular fountain. A bowl is supported by a single pillar on which the heraldic emblem of Czechoslovakia can be seen in bas-relief. Something, which at first sight resembles a large mushroom, sprouts upwards from the centre of the bowl. Closer examination of this reveals that it is a sculpture depicting a cluster of open parachutes. On each parachute, there is a name of one of the group of volunteers who parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The monument was designed by John French.

According to a noticeboard close to the Czechoslovak volunteers’ memorial, this small fountain also remembers the thousands of Czechoslovak citizens, who were murdered by the Nazis in reprisal for Heydrich’s death. After numerous arrests were made, two Czech villages suspected of having been involved in the assassination plot, Lidice and Ležáky were literally wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis. Their innocent inhabitants were mostly killed, but some were sent to concentration camps. These poor people are remembered in Jephson Park, which is such a lovely place that one would not think that it could possibly be even remotely associated with the human tragedies that followed the death of a monstrous member of the Nazi party.

Fingers in the cup: taking the water in Slovakia

THE ONLY MINERAL WATER you can get in London’s Hampstead today is bottled water from a shop or supermarket. In the 18th century, people came to Hampstead to imbibe the allegedly curative iron-rich chalybeate waters available from the spring in Well Walk or at the elegant spa rooms established on that street. Walking along that thoroughfare where once people flocked to take the water, which rivalled that which is still available at Tunbridge Wells in Kent, I remembered an experience in the Slovakian part of Czechoslovakia, before that country split into the separate Czech and Slovak republics in 1993.

With a friend, I drove to what was then Czechoslovakia in about 1992. The objects of my trip were to visit a country I had never been to before and to collect information about music in Czechoslovakia to help my friend, the late Michael Jacobs, who was writing a new edition of “The Blue Guide to Czechoslovakia”. 

Bardejov, Slovakia

The furthest east place in which we stayed was the small town of Bardejov in north-eastern Slovakia. We did venture a bit further towards the edge of the country, to the Dukla Pass where there was a Soviet Russian victory over the Germans during WW2, but only as a day excursion.  

At Bardejov, we booked into a hotel just outside the centre of the old, picturesque town. The accommodation was part of a spa complex, where people came to take the curative spring waters that issued from beneath the ground. My friend and I were keen to sample these, not because we were unwell, but out of curiosity.

The waters were dispensed in a building a few yards away from the hotel. It was late afternoon when we entered the tap room. A tubby woman in white uniform indicated that she was just about to close up for the day, but somehow, we communicated to her that we only wanted to taste one or two of the different spring waters. She was happy to oblige. She picked up a small porcelain beaker, and before filling it with some water from one of the springs, she rubbed the inside of the vessel with her (un-gloved) middle and index fingers. Seeing this, my travelling companion decided to give a miss to tasting, but I took a swig of the metallic tasting water.

I handed the beaker back to the attendant, who wiped it again with her two fingers, before filling it with water from another spring. I cannot remember that there was much difference between the tastes of the two waters I sampled. After thanking her for letting me try the waters, we returned to the hotel. At the back of my mind, I had two thoughts. One was that I hoped that I did not get ill after drinking from a glass that had been ‘wiped’ with fingers that had probably wiped many peoples’ beakers during the day. The other thought was that perhaps it was something in the lady’s fingers that gave the healing powers, rather than the spring waters themselves. I did not get ill but will probably never get to know whether my wild idea that it was the lady’s fingers that had curative properties, rather than the spring water, held even a grain (or drop) of truth.

A long time has passed since that visit to Czechoslovakia, but that brief experience at the spa near Bardejov lingers in my memory. Thinking about it makes me wonder about the  hygiene of the conditions prevailing when people came to Hampstead to take the waters in the 18th century, when not much was known about the role of microbes in the transmission of diseases.

This brings me back to the present, when in the UK cafés can only serve hot drinks in disposable cups. Often these are covered with special lids with orifices through which the drinks can be sipped without removing them. I always remove these lids for two reasons. First, I do not like sipping through a tiny hole and, second, I wonder about the cleanliness of the server’s fingers, which place the lid on the cup. I will leave you with that worrying thought.

Appeasement and leisure in a London park

NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN (1869-1940) has earned a poor reputation, mainly because of his unfortunate policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, which included the Munich Agreement in September 1938, which allowed the Nazis to invade the Sudetenland, the western part of Czechoslovakia. It took the disastrous German invasion of Poland before the then Prime Minister, Chamberlain, finally made Britain declare war on Germany.

Today (24th of November 2020), we revisited Gunnersbury Park, which we ‘discovered’ for the first time a few weeks earlier. The front of the grand house, the Large Mansion, which was acquired by Nathan, a member of the Rothschild family, in 1835, has a terrace running next to its long rear façade. At each end of the terrace, there are two neo-classical archways, which we did not examine carefully on our first visit.

In one of these arches, there are two commemorative tablets inscribed in upper-case lettering. Both note the fact that Gunnersbury Park was opened for use by the public by “The Right Hon. Neville Chamberlain, M.P., Minister of Health”. The rest of the information on the tablets relates to the financing of the purchase of the park (from Lionel Nathan de Rothschild). One tablet commemorates that a quarter of the cost of the park, purchased by the Boroughs of both Acton and Ealing, was provided by Middlesex County Council. The other tablet recalls that in 1927, The Urban District Council of Brentford and Chiswick joined those of Acton and Ealing in the ownership and running of the public park. Thus, for a while, the park was managed by three different district councils. In 1965, Brentford and Chiswick became absorbed into the new Borough of Hounslow. That year, the Borough of Acton became part of the new enlarged Borough of Ealing. So, now the park is managed by two boroughs instead of three. According to a gardener, with whom we spoke, one of these boroughs has spent far more money on the park than the other.

In 1926, when he opened the park at an occasion that has been recorded on film (https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-official-opening-of-gunnersbury-park-by-the-rt-hon-neville-chamberlain-m-p-1926), Neville Chamberlain was Member of Parliament for Birmingham Ladywood, representing the Unionist party, now part of the Conservative and Unionist party. Two years before he opened Gunnersbury Park, he was appointed Minister of Health by the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Although he might have had good reasons for doing so, allowing the Germans to enter Czechoslovakia and overrun the Sudetenland seems unforgivable. However, and this by no means makes his policy of Appeasement more palatable, his opening the gates of Gunnersbury Park to the public has provided joy to visitors from near and far for many decades. I heartily recommend a visit to this lovely place filled with picturesque delights.

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.

Divided but unified

CZECH BLOG

Notting Hill Gate, not to be confused with ‘Notting Hill’ as in the Hugh Grant film, on the western edge of central London is not lacking in mediochre modern architecture, mostly constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. One building stands out as being aesthetically a cut above the rest. This is the former Czechoslovak Centre, the Embassy of Czechoslovakia, a fine (if that is an appropriate adjective) example of ‘Brutalist’ concrete architecture.

The Centre was built between 1965 and 1970, and was designed by “…Šrámek, Stephansplatz and Jan Bočan, from the Atelier Beta Prague Project Institute, were the architects of the embassy, working in cooperation with British architect Robert Matthew and based in his office” (see HERE for detail). The building won an architectural award from RIBA in 1971. Unlike many buildings built at te same time, the Czechoslovak Centre building has not suffered from ageing. It stll looks in great condition.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. It split into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. Despite this, the Czechoslovak Centre building continued to have diplomati cfunctions. The building was divided into a Czech Embassy and a Slovak Embassy.

Before and after the separation of the two parts of what was once Czechoslovakia, I was a member of  the Dvorak Society, an English organisation for promoting interest in music from  the Czech and Slovak lands. The Czechoslovak, and then later the Czech and Slovak embassies used to host occasional congenial recitals of music for the Dvorak Society.

On one occasion after 1993, my wife and I attended a recital at the Slovak Embassy. After the music was over, we were treated to delicious food and Slovakian wine. The ambassador mingled amongst the guests. My wife asked him how the Czechs and Slovaks were coping with sharing the same building. Smiling, he replied:

We have to cope well because we have to share the central heating and hot water system that was installed to serve the building when it was a single embassy.”

Two professions

We made several visits to Central Europe in our car during the mid-1990s.

CZECH

Twice during those years, we drove to the Czech Republic, entering it from the eastern edge of what had formerly been prosperous West Germany. The Western part of the Czech Republic, which had been the largely German-populated Sudetenland before 1945 is thickly forested with tall dark pine trees. We were dismayed to discover that for the first ten or so kilometres beyond the border, the roads through the Czech forests were lined with ‘gentleman’s’ clubs and prostitutes.

When we were in the middle of one forest, the rain began pouring down. At the corner of a road junction in the middle of the wood, we saw a young lady dressed in a shiny red jacket with matching short hot pants. Our three-year old child saw the woman, took pity on her, and said:

“Shouldn’t we offer her a lift.”

The innocence of our child was touching.

Hungary is south of the Czech Republic. In the late 1990s, we drove into it from Austria. For the first few kilometres of Hungarian territory, we saw no prostitutes, but numerous dental surgeries with signs both in Hungarian and German. Often the dental surgery was in a little compound that included a restaurant and a food shop. The presence of so many dentists offering their services so close to the border with Austria suggested that dentistry in Hungary was good value compared with that in Austria. And, while a member of an Austrian family is having his or her teeth repaired, the rest of the family could enjoy a good Hungarian meal and buy some tasty souvenirs to take back home.

Dental tourism is still popular in Hungary. English newspapers frequently contain adverts encouraging people to obtain supposedly cheaper dental treatment in Budapest.

The proximity of Bohemian prostitutes to the Czech border and Magyar dentists equally close the Hungarian border made me consider a possible uncomfortable comparison. I wondered whether people ever see some similarity between the two professions. I hoped not!