A FRIEND INVITED us to dine one evening at the exclusive Mosimann’s Club in West Halkin Street in London’s elegant Belgravia district. As it was dark when we arrived and I was too busy chatting with our host, I failed to notice the exterior of the establishment. Years later, I noticed that the narrow façade of this fancy eatery, named ‘The Belfry’, is that of a Victorian gothic church with a slender spire.
The church was being used by the Presbyterians in 1866, so wrote Edward Walford in the 1880s. The website of The London Metropolitan Archives catalogue reveals more:
“…a chapel was built on Lower George Street, called the Ranelagh Chapel. In 1845, on the death of the Methodist minister, the church joined the English Presbyterian Church and was renamed Ranelagh Presbyterian Church. The lease on the Lower George Street chapel expired in 1866 and the church merged with a Presbyterian Mission in West Halkin Street, Belgrave Square. The name Belgrave Presbyterian Church was adopted. The church was rebuilt in 1881. In 1923 the church moved to premises in Emperor’s Gate, Kensington.”
The former church is an unusual structure in that the end facing the entrance is considerably wider than the façade. As to when it was originally built, I am uncertain. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, does not give it a mention in his extremely detailed guide to the buildings of the City of Westminster in which it is located. However, he does mention the chapel’s neighbour, to the left of it as you face the façade. Far more attractive than the chapel is the façade of its neighbour which is decorated in a neoclassical style. It has two porticos supported by pillars with Doric capitals. This building was built in about 1830.
Today, the Doric pillars flank entrances to a branch of Waitrose food stores. This shop also has an entrance on the street parallel to West Halkin Street, Motcombe Street. Thus, two temples of food stand side by side. If you cannot afford to dine in the former church, then you can console yourself and appease your appetite by acquiring something edible in Waitrose by stepping between the Doric pillars. In case you are wondering what we ate at Mosimann’s, I am afraid I cannot recall as it was so long ago, but I do remember enjoying it.
MUCH OF GREATER LONDON is green space, which has not been built on. According to one source of information, Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (‘GiGL’; http://www.gigl.org.uk):
“Roughly 47% of Greater London is ‘green’; 33% of London is natural habitats within open space according to surveyed habitat information and an additional 14% is estimated to be vegetated private, domestic garden land.”
Of this ‘green space’, much is accessible to the public either free of charge (e.g. Regents Park) or for a fee (e.g. Kew Gardens). This piece is about an example of a type of green space in London that is open to a select few. I am referring to many of the gardens in London squares that are or were surrounded by residential buildings. Some of these (e.g. Gordon Square in Bloomsbury) have been taken over by local councils and are now open to the public in general. However, many of these garden squares contain gardens that may only be entered by people who are eligible to be able to pay a fee for a key to unlock them. Some of the squares confine those eligible for keys to residents in the square or in neighbouring streets. I know of one privately owned garden, that within Princes Square near Bayswater, which is open to anyone who can afford the annual fee. This square garden, being privately owned, is dependent for membership fees to ensure its maintenance. Those eligible to use the gardens within squares, whether privately or partially privately maintained, can be expected to pay something towards the maintenance of these often-beautiful local amenities.
Recently, a friend admitted us to the garden of Norland Square in Kensington. Like many of these limited access gardens, it is surrounded by formidable cast-iron railings. These railings were removed during the Second World War when metals required for war materials were in short supply. They were only replaced in 2007. Like most of these squares, the passer-by cannot see much within the garden beyond the railings because of hedges and other vegetation grown just within them to preserve the privacy of those using the garden. So, being allowed to enter Norland Square provided us a rare opportunity to examine the interior of one of these ‘secret’ gardens.
Norland Square takes its name from the Norland Estate, 52 acres of land bounded to the south by Holland Park Avenue, on the east by roads now named ‘Pottery Lane’ and ‘Portland Road’, on the west by the boundaries of the parishes of Kensington and Hammersmith (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp276-297). The northern edge of the estate was roughly 200 yards north of the present Wilsham Street. The estate passed through several owners in the 18th century. They lived in a mansion, demolished long ago, which used to stand close to the present number 130 Holland Park Avenue. The name ‘Norland’ was used as early as 1599 to describe the ‘Northlands’, the land in the northern part of the Parish of Kensington (north of the present Holland Park Avenue), which includes the estate (www.rbkc.gov.uk/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Norland%20CAPS.pdf).
Writing in 1878, Edward Walford, author of a series of books called “Old and New London”, noted that during the reign of William IV, the then well-wooded estate belonged to one of the Drummonds, a family of bankers of Charing Cross. Prior to these occupants, the first to live in the former Norland House was Thomas Marquois (died 1802), ‘Professor of Artillery and Fortification’, who used the building as an academy to teach both civil and military subjects to sons of the gentry, who were hoping to join the British Army. According to the website about the Norland Estate mentioned above:
“Board and lodging, plus instruction in Greek, Latin, French, writing and arithmetic could be had for thirty guineas a year, but fortification, mathematics, navigation, drawing, geography, dancing, fencing and riding were all charged as extras. Marquois’ prospectus contains a plan of the academy and its grounds, which were indeed very well suited to his purposes. Besides the house itself there were stables, a manege or riding house, a fives court, a cricket ground, gravelled drives for hack riding, and an artificial ‘mount’ from which the various activities of the pupils could be kept under constant review.”
Marquois relinquished the property after only four years in 1765.
In 1825, fire destroyed Norland House. In 1838, Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy (1780-1854), clockmaker to the Crown, who then owned the Norland Estate, sold it and the ruins of the mansion to a solicitor Charles Richardson, who raised money to develop the estate for building purposes. The layout and design of the southern part of the estate, including Norland Square, was carried out by the architect Robert Cantwell (c1793-1859). The houses on Norland Square were leased to their first occupiers by Charles Richardson in 1842 and 1843.
Except for Norland Square Mansions on the south-west corner of the square, which has a few features slightly suggestive of art-deco style, the other houses surrounding the square are those built in the early 1840s. The mansion block occupies numbers 53 to 57 Norland Square. Interestingly, these plots do not figure in a list of the original lessees of the other plots in the square. Number 52, which neighbours the mansion block was leased to Robert Cantwell in 1842. A detailed map surveyed in 1865 shows that where Norland Square Mansions stands today, there were no houses but instead a garden extending between number 52 and a house, now no longer standing, on the corner of the square and Holland Park Avenue (then named ‘Uxbridge Road’). On a map dated 1913, the position of the mansion block was occupied by a school. This same building, which has a different ground plan to the current block of flats was still present on a detailed map surveyed in 1938. So, it would be reasonable to say that the mansion block was built after 1938.
Getting back to the present, we found that the ‘secret garden’ in the centre of Norland Square is both attractive and well-maintained. In addition to an extensive lawn furnished with occasional wooden benches and a table, there are plenty of shrubs and trees. There is a small well-equipped children’s play area at one end of the garden and tennis courts at the opposite end. While we spent time in the garden, a couple of elderly women were taking their daily walk around it and a young lady was exercising her dog. Areas like this are invaluable during periods of ‘lockdown’ during the current covid19 pandemic, offering lucky city-dwellers a welcome respite from being ‘confined to barracks’ and if they are fortunate to have a garden, they provide a much larger open space to ‘take the air’ than their own smaller patches. We were both grateful and happy to have been able to see and experience what is usually hidden from us by iron railings and curtains of dense vegetation.
The Bangalore United Services Club was established in its present pleasant premises in 1868 by members of the British military, the United Services. It was an officers’ club. With a very few exceptions (some members of Indian royal families), the Club only admitted Europeans (i.e. white people). One of its best-known members was Winston Churchill, who did not like Bangalore and left the city leaving an unpaid bill at the Club. After WW1, some Indian military officers were admitted as members, but other Indians were excluded. After 1946, the Club was renamed “The Bangalore Club”, and civilians, both ‘white’ and Indian could become members. My late father-in-law became one of the first Indian members in the early 1950s.
Today, the Bangalore Club is regarded as being one of the top (elite) social clubs in India. To become a member, applications must be made, and a hefty amount of money must be deposited with the Club. Then, the prospective member is put on a waiting list. The average waiting time is currently about a quarter of a century. This slow method of entry can be bypassed if you are the child or the spouse of an existing member. It so happens that I married a member of the Club. I was eligible to become a ‘spouse member’.
Simply being married to a member is not enough to get you into the Club. The spouse candidate needs first to apply, and then to find six sponsors, who are already members of the Club, and then to attend an interview. The interviews are only held a few times a year. Missing the interview might wreck the candidate’s chances of ever becoming a member. So, the candidate, who might be living anywhere in the world, must drop everything and attend when he or she is summoned.
I was lucky. My father-in-law (‘Daddy’), a well-respected and much-loved member of the Club, arranged that I would be called for interview on a date, when he was certain that I would be in India. However, he did not tell us about the interview before we left London. Had I known, I would have packed my only smart suit, but I did not. As soon as we arrived in Bangalore, Daddy told us about the interview, and we told him that we had not brought my suit. Undismayed, he rang around his friends in the neighbourhood, and he and I drove from house to house, trying to find a suit for me to borrow. Eventually, some kind person lent me his incredibly smart double-breasted jacket suit, which fitted me well. Unfortunately, I had to return it after the interview.
For a few days before my interview, Daddy and I visited several venerable members of the Club to get their signatures for my sponsorship. At each of their homes, I was received kindly, offered drinks and snacks while my potential sponsors became acquainted with me. At last, I was ready for the interview.
On the day of the interview, I woke up with an attack of influenza. My temperature was high, but the interview could not be missed. I was dosed up with paracetamol. Just before we left the flat, with me in my smart suit, Daddy sprayed me with some Eau de Cologne, saying it was best that I should smell pleasant when I met the interviewing committee.
I arrived with Daddy at the Club, where we joined about ten other candidates. Each candidate was chaperoned by a member, who would introduce him or her to the interviewers. Daddy was my chaperone. The interview procedure involved introducing me to each of several Club Committee members. Each Committee member asked me questions. Daddy was clearly worried about what I might say in response. So, as soon as I was about to answer any of the questioners, Daddy would interrupt me, saying something like:
“You remember me. I have been a member since 1954. How is your father? He joined at the same time as me, you know.”
I do not recall having answered any of the questions. Being Daddy’s son-in-law was enough to persuade them that I would be an acceptable member of the Club.
As we walked away from the interviewing room, Daddy congratulated me for becoming a member of the esteemed club. He led me to the Men’s Bar (for men only), where we downed draught Kingfisher beer. Oddly, my influenza symptoms were beginning to subside by then.
Sadly, Daddy is no longer around. Today, the Men’s Bar is no longer for men alone. Its name changed in about 2017, by which time both men and women were permitted to use its facilities. Daddy would, I believe, have approved of the liberation of the former Men’s Bar.
Finally, let me emphasise that I do not agree with Groucho Marx, who said:
“Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member”