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.

Wandering along Warren Street

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Warren Street is a station on the Northern and Victoria Lines of London’s Underground network. Situated at the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road, both important arteries, Warren Street itself is comparatively small and of minor significance in the greater scheme of things. Be that as it may, this short street, which runs south of and parallel to Euston Road, has had some importance in my life.

 

When the Underground Station was opened in 1907, it was named ‘Euston Road’. In 1908, it acquired the present name.  By the time that I began using the station regularly (in 1970), the Victoria Line had been serving the station for two years. Warren Street itself was built in the late 18th century as part of the Fitzroy Estate. It was named after Anne Warren (1737–1807), who married Charles Fitzroy (1737-1797), First Baron Southampton.

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In the early 1970s, when I was studying at University College London (‘UCL’), one of my fellow students on my BSc course in physiology was a young Indian girl, Lopa, who is now my wife. She spent a couple of years living at the International Students House (‘ISH’) which faces Great Portland Street Underground Station. She and other Indian students introduced me to really good Indian food. This was served at the now no longer existent Diwan-i-am restaurant on Warren Street. It was here and at other nearby restaurants, such as Diwan-i-khas, Lal Qila, and Agra, that food was cooked by Indians and Pakistanis rather than by Bangladeshis, who operated the majority of so-called Indian restaurants in the UK. While Bangladeshi cuisine might be excellent, much of the ‘Indian’ food cooked by Bangladeshis is less satisfactory.

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When the Diwan-i-am was in business, so were many car dealers who had their premises on Warren Street. These have long since disappeared. One business that still exists and predates the Diwan-i-am is Tiranti, an important supplier of, to quote their website: “…materials, equipment and tools to sculptors, modelmakers, mouldmakers, designers, prototypers, woodcarvers, stonecarvers, specialist plasterers, building picture and furniture restorers, potters and ceramicists.” Giovanni Tiranti started this enterprise in High Holborn in 1895. The company first began using premises near Warren Street in 1945. I am not sure when the Warren Street shop opened, but it was about 20 years ago at least. I never purchased anything there but my late uncle S, an engineer by profession and a keen sculptor in his spare time, was a regular customer.

 

I studied at UCL for twelve years. During the last five of these, I was studying dental surgery at the now, sadly, no longer existing Dental Hospital. Warren Street Station was the most convenient place from which to reach the Dental School from my home in Golders Green. It was a few yards from the station to the passage that led from Tottenham Court Road into Mortimer Market, where one part of the Dental Hospital was housed. In those days, the passageway was flanked by an official Iraqi Tourist Office. I used to visit this occasionally to look at the fine exhibitions of photographs shown there. The staff, no doubt agents of the late Saddam Hussein, were friendly. Once, they gave me a gift of four LPs of Iraqi folk music. Many of the ancient sights in the photographs might well now have suffered damage during the troubles that afflicted Iraq long after I had become qualified as a dentist.

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There were several photography suppliers’ shops on the stretch of Tottenham Court Road near Warren Street. Their windows displayed a huge range of camera bodies and lenses. I bought my first SLR camera at one of these shops. They have mostly gone now. So also has Sterns. This electrical shop was well-known for its superb stock of African music LPs. Some years after I had left UCL finally (in 1982), Sterns, which opened in the early 1950s, moved from its somewhat aged premises on Tottenham Court Road to a newer shop around the corner on Euston Road. This has also disappeared, but Sterns still goes on in the form of an on-line firm.

 

One rainy early Monday morning, I emerged from Warren Street Station, and walked to the Dental School. The streets seemed emptier than usual. When I arrived at the school, the doors were locked closed. I was puzzled. Then, I bumped into another student, also soaking because of the weather. Shamefacedly, we realised that we had turned up on a bank holiday.

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Some time during the mid to late 1970s, a branch of McDonalds opened on the corner of Warren Street and Tottenham Court Road. Occasionally, I used to pop in there for a snack on my way home. Now, some decades later, Warren street is lined with ‘trendy’ eateries, one of which is housed in an old dairy on the corner of Conway Street. Much of the original tilework of the former dairy of J Evans has been preserved. Although there are many newer buildings on Warren Street, a few of the original late 18th century structures have survived.

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While Warren Street is not worthy of a long detour, it provides much more than a name for an Underground Station.