Three pubs and a hero

LESS THAN 580 FEET long, Rathbone Street runs parallel to part of London’s Charlotte Street. Short though it is, it is not lacking in interest. The quiet thoroughfare was originally named ‘Glanville Street’, before being renamed Upper Rathbone Place, and then its present name (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol21/pt3/p12). Rathbone after whom Rathbone Place and Street were named was a carpenter and builder, Thomas Rathbone (died 1722), who lived in a house on the Place around 1684. Rathbone Street was laid out 1764-65 (www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/architecture/sites/bartlett/files/chapter31_hanway_street_and_rathbone_place.pdf). During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Rathbone Street was occupied by various artists including the sculptor M Bordier and the painter John Rubens Smith. Today, various vestiges of the past can be seen on the short street.

The Marquis of Granby pub at the southern end of Rathbone Street was named in honour of Lieutenant-General John Manners, Marquess of Granby (1721-1770), who fought heroically at the Battle of Warburg (1760) during The Seven Years War (1756-1763). He became Commander of the British Army in 1766. There are many pubs named after him because, it is said, he set up many of his soldiers as publicans when they retired from military service. The pub bears old boundary markers marking the demarcation line between the parishes of St Pancras and St Marylebone. The pub now stands in both the Boroughs of Camden and Westminster. In the past, the pub’s customers have included Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot. The building housing the pub was already built by 1765.

There are two other pubs in Rathbone Street. One of them halfway along it is The Newman Arms, another haunt of Dylan Thomas and also frequented by George Orwell. Established in the 1730s, this pub features in two of Orwell’s novels: “1984” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”. Once upon a time, the pub was a brothel. A painting depicting a prostitute in period costume covers a bricked in upper storey window. Across the road from the pub there is a plaque on a building that bears the words: “Hearts of Oak Benefit Society” and the date 1888. This marked the rear entrance to the offices of the Society. Its main entrance was 15-17 Charlotte Street (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/hearts-of-oak-benefit-society-w1). At the north end of the street, there is a third pub, The Duke of York. Bearing the date 1791, it was where the author Anthony Burgess was drinking when he witnessed an attack by a gang bearing razors (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Duke_of_York,_Fitzrovia). The pub’s sign bears a portrait of someone who is far younger than the pub, the current Prince Andrew. This pub is the only one with the name The Duke of York which has a pub sign depicting the current Duke of York. The pub was originally named to honour an earlier Duke of York.

Rathbone Street, short as it is, contains three pubs. Its continuation southwards towards Oxford Street, Rathbone Place, contains two pubs and another drinking place, once a pub but now named The Liquorette, in a stretch of road even shorter than Rathbone Street. Thus, there used to be 6 pubs within a stretch of roadway 364 yards in length.

Returning to the south end of Rathbone Street, its southwestern corner, we reach what first got me interested in this short lane. During WW2, there was a London Auxiliary Fire Station, Sub Fire Station 72Z, on this spot. During the night of the 17th of September 1940, it was hit by a bomb dropped by the German Luftwaffe. The building burst into flames. Seven firemen lost their lives. However, two men were saved by the brave actions of Fireman Harry Errington, who was later awarded a George Cross to recognise his bravery. He rescued two of his comrades from the flaming ruins. Harry Errington (formerly ‘Ehrengott’) was son of Jewish immigrants living in Soho. Harry, son of Baila and Shepsel Ehrengott who arrived in London from Poland in 1908, was born in Soho in 1910 (https://british-jewry.org.uk/New%20Member%20Area/BJ%20News/100806/Microsoft%20Word-B-JNews8final.pdf).  

After training to become an engraver, he had to abandon this because his lungs became affected by nitric acid fumes. Then, he joined a relative, a tailor in the Savile Row firm of Errington and Whyte. He became a master tailor. Then, WW2 broke out. Mike Joseph wrote in the “B-J News” of August 2006:

“It was in 1940 that Harry earned true celebrity status. Having joined the Auxiliary Fire Service at the outbreak of the Second World War a year earlier, he was one of several firemen on duty in a basement rest-room during an air raid, when the building collapsed. An enemy bomb had scored a direct hit, and twenty people died, including six firemen; Harry was lucky: he was only knocked out! When he came round, the building was on fire. He could have escaped with little difficulty, but two of his comrades were trapped under rubble: how could he leave them? He wrapped a blanket round his head against the flames and, digging with his bare hands, managed to free one of the men. He dragged him to safety, upstairs into the street, and then, although he was already badly burned, went back and rescued the other man.”

Harry was true to the words quoted from the Book of Joshua, which are written on one of the two commemorative plaques marking the former fire station in Rathbone Street:

“Be strong and of good courage.”

Harry returned to tailoring when the War was over but remained in touch with the London Fire Brigade. When he died in 2004, he was the last surviving Jewish holder of the George Cross.

Though less lively than nearby Charlotte Street in ‘normal’ times, Rathbone Street is worth a detour, if only to quench your thirst in one of its three pubs. I wonder whether Harry Ehrengott and his colleagues made use of any of these drinking holes during the odd quiet moments between their brave firefighting tasks.  

Fire! Fire!

WALKING ALONG THE ALBERT Embankment upstream from Lambeth Bridge, most people’s eyes will probably be focussed on the River Thames and the lovely views of the Houses of Parliament, Millbank Tower, and the Tate Britain. However, it is worth turning your eyes inland in order not to miss a wonderful example of, in my uninformed opinion, art-deco or, if you are fussy about distinctions, art-moderne architecture, whose decorative façade faces the river. Just in case you were wondering how these styles of architecture from the same time period differ, deco lays emphasis on ‘verticality’ and moderne on ‘horizontality’ (http://theantiquesalmanac.com/chicvssleek.htm). Important as this distinction might be to connoisseurs, the building on Albert Embankment is worth at least a few minutes’ examination.

The building in question is the former London Fire Brigade Headquarters, still a functioning fire station. The structure is built of bands of bricks separated by thin horizontal lines of white stone that form the top and bottom frames of the lines of windows, each consisting of lattices of rectangular windowpanes which are wider than they are tall. These design features help define the building’s horizontal sleekness, which is why it is considered by at least one authority (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1392337)  to be ‘moderne’ rather than ‘deco’.  However, it was not this that first attracted us to the building but its decorative panels at various levels and dramatic doorways at ground level.

The doorways, which are wide enough to admit the passage of vehicles are closed with sets of folding doors, consisting of four panels, each of which has a brass window covering (grille) with a geometric design. Some of the building’s decorative panels depict firefighters at work. These are in bas-relief and made of a white coloured stone. These were made by Nicholas Babb (probably Stanley Nicholson Babb; 1873-1957). Other panels, at a higher level, adorn the central section of the façade. These are also bas-relief in white stone but  have backgrounds formed of gold coloured mosaic tiles.  Created by Gilbert Bayes (1872-1953), who studied alongside Babb at the Royal Academy, their subject matter is borrowed from ancient mythology.

The building itself was designed by EP Wheeler, architect to the London County Council. He was assisted by G Weald. Wheeler also designed the ‘horizontalist’ building on Charing Cross Road in 1939, which was the former home of St Martins School of Art (www.designcurial.com/news/foyles-war-4354398), where my mother worked as a sculptor during the 1960s. The Fire Brigade building was opened by King George VI and his wife on the 21st of July 1937, not a moment too soon, given what was in store for London soon afterwards: the WW2 Blitz, which put great strain on the Fire Brigade.

To the left of the façade, there is a yard in which stands a tall brick tower. This is the so-called ‘drill tower’, used for training firefighters. The building, in addition to having been the Brigade’s headquarters, was also a training centre. The rear of the building, which I have not yet seen, has three layers of balconies, from which members of the public used to be able to observe parades and displays of firefighting skills. Today, the edifice is still used as a fire station but not as the HQ of the Brigade, which is now in Union Street, Southwark.

I enjoy seeing art-deco (and ‘moderne’) architecture. While there are plenty of examples of this in London, which you can spot if you keep your ‘eyes peeled’, the greatest concentration of this style of building that I have seen is in central Bombay in India. Both the Marine Drive and the Oval Maidan in south Bombay are treasure troves for lovers of this style. So, as a lover of this style that broke away from traditional architectural styles in the 1920s and 1930s, I was delighted to have stumbled across the wonderful Brigade building on the Albert Embankment.