I USED TO PARK our car in Kensington’s elegant Edwards Square when going to work at my dental surgery in West Kensington. From the square, either I walked to work, or I caught a number 28 bus. When I felt lazy, I used the bus. The nearest stop to Edwards Square is outside a row of three Iranian food shops and their neighbour, the Apadana Iranian restaurant, which is a pleasant place to enjoy Persian cuisine. While waiting for the bus, I used to stare idly at the Persian shops with their outdoor stalls where fruits, especially piles of pomegranates, are displayed.
Today, more than four years since I retired and even longer since I last stood at the bus stop, we visited the Iranian stores to buy a bunch of fresh tarragon. While my wife was making the purchase, once again I stared idly at the colourful shops, some of whose windows are filled with stacks of tins of Iranian caviar from the Caspian Sea. It was then I noticed something I am sure I have never seen before.
What I saw was a newish circular blue commemorative plaque on the wall between one of the shops and Apadana. The plaque reads as follows:
“Kensington & Chelsea. JACK THE RIPPER 1891-1899. Also known as Dr SSA Hasbro. Surgeon & Restauranteur LIVED HERE”
At first sight, this looks like one of many commemorative circular blue plaques, which can be found all over London. On closer examination, there are several things that are worrying. Rarely, if at all, do these blue plaques in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea bear the words “Kensington & Chelsea”. Often, they bear the words “English Heritage” or “Greater London Council” (or one of its predecessors: GLC or LCC). Another problem is the dates given. Do they refer to the period that Dr SSA Hasbro lived in this spot, or what? The next problem is that the true identity of Jack the Ripper has never been determined. As for Dr SSA Hasbro, all references to this name on Google direct one to the plaque under discussion, including an article by Lucy Elliott.
Ms Elliott wrote an article about blue plaques in “The Kensington Magazine” (September 2020 issue). With regard to the plaque for Dr SSA Hasbro above the Iranian establishments in High Street Kensington, she wrote:
“It is not known when this suddenly appeared but certainly gives visitors to the area, pause for thought (and quite enough consternation for the residents too). Definitely a fake.”
She is most probably right.
It is a little bit worrying is that the so-called Jack the Ripper, who is commemorated on this misleading sign, is said to have been a restauranteur and the plaque is almost directly above the Apadana restaurant.
KING ALFRED RULED the West Saxons from 871 to c886 and king of the Anglo-Saxons from c886 to 899. He was known as ‘Alfred the Great’. Amongst his many achievements was encouraging education and proposing that primary education was taught in (Old) English, rather than Latin. Winchester was Alfred’s capital and the place where he was buried there for a while. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, his remains were removed to Hyde Abbey near Winchester. This was destroyed in 1538 during the Reformation. Despite this, his grave remained intact until 1788, when the land where he was interred was redeveloped to build a jail. Since then, the whereabouts of his remains is unknown.
Despite, the disappearance of his bones, King Alfred dominates the centre of Winchester in the form of a huge statue near to the city’s cathedral, rich in gothic features, and its Guildhall, which is richly adorned by Victorian gothic features. The statue was erected in 1899. A plaque at its base reads:
“To the founder of the kingdom and nation D. October DCCCI. Winchester and the English name MDCCCI”
DCCCCI, being Roman for 901 and MDCCCCI, being Roman for 1901.
The tall bronze statue was designed by Sir William Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925), a sculpto who might have been unknown to me had I not become aware of him whilst walking near London’s Holland Park back in 2017. He was an important figure in the New Sculpture movement, whose members’ oeuvres bridged the gap between the neo-classical tradition, popular during the 19th century, and early modernist trends at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the next.
I was roaming around Kensington taking photographs of buildings of interest prior to writing a piece about them when I spotted a plaque on a house in Melbury Road. Number 2a was Thornycroft’s studio, which was designed by his friend, the architect John Belcher (1841-1913).
Although I did not realise that they were created by Thornycroft before I wrote this today, I am familiar with two of his other creations: the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside The Houses of Parliament and “The Sower” at Kew Gardens. His Alfred statue is far larger than the other two.
I wonder what the great king would have thought if he knew that at his feet today, there is a short-term car park and that his capital’s cathedral now charges a fee for visitors to enter within it.
INDUSTRIAL ACTIVITY IS NOT what one would associate with present-day Notting Hill Gate in London’s Kensington district. About the only thing that is made on a large scale in the ‘Gate’ is food, which currently is only available on a take-away basis. Yet, walking along the pavements in the area, you can see evidence that once upon a time the area was not devoid of industry. This is in the form of circular cast-iron coalhole covers. These metal discs that are almost flush with the pavement could be removed to provide an orifice through which coal could be supplied to the coal cellars beneath the pavement. Using these holes, the coal deliverers, usually covered with coal dust, could avoid entering the house. Many stretches of pavement have been re-paved, omitting the covers, because many of the former coal cellars have been converted to usable living space. The covers that remain – and there are still plenty of them – are often covered with patterns in bas-relief and bear the names and locations of the companies that manufactured them.
I was intrigued by one company, which made many of the covers in Notting Hill Gate, ‘RH & J Pearsons’ whose covers bear the words “Automatic Action” and the information that company was in Notting Hill Gate. I wondered where their factory was in the area, which is no longer associated with trades such as casting iron coalhole covers. I thought that there would be little information about this, but I was wrong. I shall try to condense some of the sea of informative material about these metal discs, over which we walk often without noticing them.
The company Robert Henry and Jonathan Pearson, which operated between the 1840s and 1940, was located at the following places at various times:
“Nos. 141 and 143, High-street, Notting-hill, Middlesex (1871) …and 91, 95, and 97 Camden Hill Road; Iron, Steel & Metal Warehouses, 21, 22, & 23 Upper Uxbridge St.; Manufactory & Workshops, 14, Durham Place, Notting Hill Gate, W. (1879) 141, 143, 145, High Street, Notting Hill Gate, London, W. (1901)” (https://glassian.org/Prism/Pearson/index.html)
All of these places are in Notting hill Gate.
In addition to coalhole covers, the company, which described itself as ‘manufacturing and retail ironmongers’, manufactured a wide range of ironmongery for domestic use including, for example, kitchen ranges, grates, fireplaces, railings, gates. They also produced electrical fittings (for lighting and cooking) and gas fittings. In addition, they supplied a wide selection of plumbing material and sanitary appliances.
Robert Pearson lived between about 1821 and 1893. His brother Jonathan lived between about 1831 and 1898. Both died in Newcastle-on-Tyne, where they were born (https://glassian.org/Prism/Pearson/index.html). Their father, William, was a hardware manufacturer. According to the 1861 England Census, both brothers were living in Kensington. The 1871 Census entry for Robert reveals a little about the size of the firm: “Ironmonger, Senior Partner in the firm of R. H. & J. Pearson … employing 66 men”
So, Pearson’s was a large local business.
A document published by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea gives an insight to the manufacturing of coalhole covers (‘plates’):
“Skilled artisans were employed to design and carve wooden patterns of the required shape and size. From these an endless number of moulds were produced by ramming sand around them in a box called a flask. The pattern was then removed and molten metal was poured into the cavity. Sadly many examples of Victorian cast iron work has disappeared with the exception of street furniture, in particular coal plates.”
“R H & J Pearson and Sons in Notting Hill Gate was one of the largest wholesale and retail ironmongers in the area and their name appears on countless plates. Robert Henry Pearson established his business in the 1840s and by the year of his death in 1893, 200 people were employed by the firm.”
One other bit of information about Pearson’s relates to one of its employees, John Henry Mills (1880-1942), who was born in Notting Hill Gate. On the 11th of November 1895, he was ‘bound’ to Pearson’s to serve an apprenticeship for five years. By late January1899, he had already run away and enrolled with 5th Rifle Brigade (London). For committing some now unknown felony, John was discharged on the 21st of March 1899. Soon after this the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out in South Africa. John served with the Imperial Yeomanry during this conflict. After the war, his movements are unknown, but he is known to have served in WW1. After marrying in 1918, he and his wife lived in London, where by 1939, he was recorded on an official register as a “housekeeper”. (www.bansteadhistory.com/BEECHHOLME/Beechholme%20Boer%20War/Boer_War_M.html)
Clearly, ironmongery had little appeal for young Mills.
Pearson’s made many of the coalhole covers in Notting Hill Gate, but by no means all of them. It is worth glancing occasionally at the pavement to see the variety of coalhole covers still in existence. It appears that some of these once mundane items are stolen, to be sold to collectors. Some of the stolen covers have been replaced by artistic modern covers. A good example is one with poetry on it near The Gate Cinema. Now redundant because coal is hardly used for domestic purposes in London, these metal discs are remnants of an era now fading ever further into history.
COLVILLE SQUARE GARDEN in North Kensington is seventy-two yards east of a section of Portobello Road, where stalls with various foods do business most days of the week. The square was laid out in the1870s by the local developer George Frederick John Tippett (1828 – 1899). By the 1950s, the area around Colville had a large proportion of the local ‘black’ community, numbering about 7,000 (https://citylivinglocallife.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/colville-community-history-newsletter-issue-18.pdf), living there. Conditions in the locality became particularly bad not least because of the activities (www.rbkc.gov.uk/vmpeople/infamous/peterrachman.asp) of the notoriously unscrupulous local Polish-born landlord Peter Rachman (1919-1962). Unfortunately, in addition t0 Rachman’s poor behaviour with his mostly impecunious tenants, the area became seedy and crime ridden. Since those days, things have looked up and the area has become a far more pleasant place to live and visit.
Colville Square Gardens is a typical London square surrounded by residential buildings. Long and thin. it runs parallel to Portobello Road between Colville Terrace and Talbot Road. Much of the garden is used for recreational activity and includes a play area for young children. At the south-eastern corner of the square, there is a decorative iron gate leading to a nursery and pre-school. The gates bear the words:
“In memory of Pat McDonald”, and her dates:
“1940 – 1986”
A small, rather indistinct plaque next to the gate records:
“Pat McDonald. Working-class heroine. Lived and worked in North Kensington from the 1960s until her death in 1986. She was the driving force behind the campaigns for better housing, more play-space, and new nurseries. May her fighting spirit live on.”
There is no mention of who placed this memorial.
Pat’s endeavours to improve the care of children under the age of five began in about 1967 when she:
And this is almost all that I have managed to discover about North Kensington’s local heroine. It seems that the poor lady’s life ended tragically. Two websites allude to her tragic, premature end. From one of them (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=34069), we learn:
“The Colville Nursery Pat McDonald gates are dedicated to the People’s Association community activist play worker, who was murdered by her husband.”
The association was most likely the ‘Notting Hill People’s Association’, which was set up in 1966 to:
“… to widen access topeople with grievances and problems and to resolve them with legal advice – to resolve the individual problems but also to campaign on more general issues.” (www.unionhistory.info/britainatwork/emuweb/objects/common/webmedia.php%3Firn%3D1618+&cd=8&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk).
Once again, whilst walking along a street which I have used hundreds of times, I came across something I had never noticed before. This time it was the quite conspicuous gate in memory of a social reformer and the far less conspicuous memorial plaque close to it. I pride myself on being reasonably observant, but clearly, I have not been nearly as aware of my surroundings as I believed.
I HAVE NEVER SMOKED. Therefore, when smoking was banned in cinemas, I was not upset by this ruling. The Coronet cinema in Notting Hill Gate was one of the last cinemas in London to enforce the ban. Smokers sat upstairs in the circle and non-smokers sat downstairs in the stalls. Despite the smoking, it was a delight seeing films at the Coronet because the cinema was housed in what was once a theatre that first opened in 1898. The original interior décor, though in need of some restoration had been preserved.
The theatre was designed by the theatre architect William George Robert Sprague (1863 – 1933), who also designed the Novello and Aldwych theatres in London. Audiences at the Coronet were able to see famous actors such as Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt on its stage. From 1923, the Coronet became used as a cinema, the screen being positioned in the theatre’s proscenium arch. In 2004, the Coronet was bought by Kensington Temple, who used it for prayer meetings. When not being used for religious purposes, films were screened there for public audiences as before.
In 2014, a fringe theatre group, The Print Room, which left its original premises in nearby Hereford Road, acquired the Coronet and began using it as a theatre once more. A new stage was constructed. It covers the area of the theatre where the stalls seats used to be. The audience sits in the steeply raked seats of the former circle seating area. Where the stalls used to be, has been converted to a quirkily decorated bar area. Because the bar is just beneath the stage, the bar is closed during performances to prevent noise from it being heard in the auditorium during a show. All of this has been done without changing what has been left of the place’s old internal décor.
The Coronet occupies a corner plot. Its exterior has neo-classical decorative features with pilasters, pediments etc. There is a dome high above the main entrance, which is located at the corner of Notting Hill Gate and Hillgate Street. For as long as I can remember (about 30 years), the lead-covered dome was unadorned.
The covid19 pandemic began closing London in about March 2020. The Print Room, like all other theatres in the country, closed. As it is close to shops that we use, we passed it regularly. During the summer, the theatre was covered with scaffolding whilst builders redecorated its exterior. By the end of summer, the scaffolding was removed.
Several weeks later, I could not believe my eyes. A statue had been placed on the top of the dome. The figure on the dome appears to be bound by ropes or cables and his or her face is covered by the sort of mask one might wear if one was a beekeeper. The figure is holding what looks like a large open book or an artist’s palette in its left hand, whilst pointing a pen or artist’s paintbrush into the distance with the right hand. Close examination of the sculpture reveals that at present the ropes are holding down a protective covering. I look forward to seeing what is being concealed.
“Historical images and photos of the Coronet show that there was at some point a statue on top of the dome roof. The statue appeared to be of a life size human figure, the details of which were difficult to precise.
The proposals include for a life size bronze sculpture of the artist Gavin Turk as the famous English portrait artist [posing as] Sir Joshua Reynolds. The statue is based on the Alfred Drury sculpture which stands in the Anneberg Courtyard of Burlington House in the grounds of the Royal Academy, and is a design by contemporary artist Gavin Turk. The new statue celebrates the notional idea of a theatrical/cultural building which had a figure calling the people into the venue.”
Looking at old pictures of the Coronet, it seems that the new sculpture will not resemble the original. If the sculpture that now perches on the dome is by Gavin Turk, a leading British sculptor, it will be in good company. Not far away, there is an abstract sculpture by Antony Gormley on the roof of Holland Park school.
Noticing that a statue had arrived on the dome of the Coronet hit me dramatically. I was very pleased to see it as it will enhance a theatre which is already remarkable for the high quality of its productions. Furthermore, it is heartening that the only remaining elegant edifice on Notting Hill Gate’s main thoroughfare, mostly ruined architecturally in the 1960s and 1970s, is being well-maintained and tastefully improved.
THE EYES OF MOST VISITORS to Kensington Gore are attracted to the spectacular Royal Albert Hall and, opposite it, the monument to Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. Immediately to the west of the Royal Albert Hall, there stands the comparatively less impressive twentieth century building housing the Royal College of Art (‘RCA’), designed by H T Cadbury Brown and opened in 1962. Next to this geometric structure of concrete and glass and on its south side, there is an edifice whose appearance is a dramatic contrast to it. The walls of the RCA’s southern neighbour are covered with figurative illustrations, created in the ‘sgraffito’ technique. Bands of ‘putti’ carrying musical instruments, scrolls of paper, or singing, appear to be scurrying across the walls of the building. Maybe this is not surprising because once this place housed The Royal College of Organists (‘RCO’).
Founded in 1864 by the organist Richard Limpus (1824-1875) to promote advanced organ playing, it received its Royal Charter in 1893. The building next to the present RCA and facing the Royal Albert Hall was designed by Lieutenant Henry Hardy Cole (1843-1916) of the Royal Engineers, and the ‘sgraffiti’ decorating it was created by Francis Wallaston Moody (1824-1886).
Lieutenant Cole was a son of Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), a civil servant who had an extremely important role in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851. His building, erected 1874-75, was originally constructed to house The National Training School for Music. It was paid for by Sir Henry Cole’s friend, music lover, and a fellow member of the Society of the Arts, the developer Charles James Freake (1818-1884), who lived in Cromwell Road (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/sir-c-j-freake).
“Lieutenant Cole had returned in 1871 from India, where he had been Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey, North-West Provinces, and his previous architectural work seems to have been confined mainly to publications on ancient Indian architecture and archaeology, and the preparation of casts for the Indian section of the South Kensington Museum, which he catalogued.”
“He was not left to design the school on his own. It was evolved in consultation with his father and was subjected to criticism by members of the Science and Art Department. A committee of management was appointed in July 1873 …”
Moody was a protégé of Sir Henry and a teacher at the National Art Training School, a forerunner of the RCA.
Between 1883 and 1896, the building was used by the newly founded Royal College of Music, which moved into its new premises south of the Royal Albert Hall in about 1896. The large variety of musical instruments that have been depicted on the building’s walls reflect the place’s first occupants. Between 1896 and 1903, it stood empty. Then it was leased to the RCO for 100 years at a ‘peppercorn’ rent. When it was learnt that after expiry of the lease the rent would be increased considerably, the RCO moved into new accommodation in 1991. Currently, at least in 2018, it is owned by an entrepreneur, Robert Tchenguiz.
The Lieutenant, who designed the RCO building, became the Curator of Ancient Monuments in India. His “First Report Of The Curator Of Ancient Monuments In India” was published in 1882 in Simla. This contains some of his views on dealing with archaeological items and sites. For example, he wrote:
“Experience has shown that the keenest investigators have not always had the greatest respect for the maintenance of monuments. Archaeological research has for its object the elucidation of history, and to an enthusiast the temptation to carry off a proof of an unravelled mystery is undoubtedly great. If there were no such things as photographs, casts, and other means of reproducing archaeological evidence, the removal of original stone records might perhaps be justified …”,
and, regarding the now controversial British possession of some famous sculptures in the British Museum:
“Sometimes, indeed, the removal of ancient remains is necessary for safe custody; and in the case of a foreign country, we are not responsible for the preservation in situ of important buildings. We are not answerable for keeping Grecian marbles in Greece; neither were we concerned for the rights of Egypt when Cleopatra’s Needle left Alexandria for the Thames embankment.”
However, regarding India, the Lieutenant wrote:
“In the case, however, of India—a country which is a British possession—the arguments are different. We are, I submit, responsible for Indian monuments, and that they are preserved in situ, when possible. Moreover, as Mr. Eergusson remarks, Indian sculpture is so essentially a part of the architecture with which it is bound, that it is impossible to appreciate it properly without being able to realise correctly the position for which it was originally designed …”
In order to satisfy the needs of museums in Europe, the lieutenant suggested that perfect replicas of artefacts can be made as is well demonstrated by the superb life-like plaster casts that can be seen in the Cast Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which were opened in 1873 and established by Sir Henry Cole and the art collector John Charles Robinson (1824-1913). In general, Sir Henry’s son was against moving historical remains from British possessions. To make his point, he wrote:
“The removal, for instance, of Stonehenge to London would, I imagine, provoke considerable excitement in England, and be condemned by a majority in the scientific and artistic world.”
I am not sure that Lieutenant Cole’s views were shared by the American sculptor and collector of antiques George Grey Barnard (1863-1938), who bought and whole cloisters and other architectural items in France and then had them shipped to New York City. There, they were reassembled and displayed in the superb Cloisters Museum at the northern tip of Manhattan.
Looking at the outside of the former RCO building, I could not detect anything that reflected its architect’s experiences in India except, if I stretch my imagination, for the upper storey windows that faintly recall the projecting windows that can be found on ‘havelis’, for example, in Gujarat and Rajasthan. But maybe I am letting my imagination run a little wild.
A WHITE STONE BUST depicting a man wearing a jacket and a waistcoat is perched on a pile of books carved in the same material and stands on a marble pedestal in the centre of the open access bookshelves in the public lending library on Hornton Street in London’s Kensington. His face has copious mutton-chop sideburns but neither moustache nor beard. The person depicted is James Heywood (1810-1897), who founded the first public library in Kensington in about 1870. His sculptural portrait in the library was created by Middlesex born James Adams-Acton (1830-1910), some of whose other busts include representations of Emperor Caesar Augustus, John Wesley, and ‘Pharaoh’s daughter’ (www.artuk.org/discover/artists/adams-acton-john-18301910).
Heywood, who was born in Manchester, was a man of many achievements (www.gracesguide.co.uk/James_Heywood). Son of the banker Nathaniel Heywood, James studied at the universities of both Edinburgh and Geneva before joining the family bank at Manchester. On inheriting a large sum from his uncle, he left the bank and matriculated at Trinity College Cambridge in 1829, where he continued to study but did not graduate. In 1838, he was admitted to the Inner Temple in London, where he was called to the Bar but did not practise as a barrister. In that same year, James became a founder member of the Manchester Geological Society. The next year, he was one of the founders of the Manchester Athenaeum, which provided reading rooms and lectures.
“James Heywood, Esq of Trinity College, Cambridge, residing at 17 Cork Street, London, Barrister of the Inner Temple, author of a Report on the Geology of the Coal District of South Lancashire, published in the Transactions of the British Association, & also of a Report on the state of the population in Miles Platting, Manchester, published in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London; a gentleman much attached to science, being desirous of becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, we the undersigned, do, from our personal knowledge, recommend him as deserving of that honor, & as likely to be a useful & valuable member.”
So, by 1839, Heywood was residing in London. In addition to his scientific work, he was involved in politics. Between 1847 and 1857 he represented the constituency of Lancaster Northern. He was a member of the Whig/Liberal Party. In 1859, he moved to Kensington (Kensington Palace Gardens), where in about 1870 he established Kensington’s first free public library at Notting Hill Gate. Heywood was a Unitarian. His home in Kensington was close to the current location of a Unitarian church, which was only established on this site in 1887. However, before that, in 1867, the Unitarians began meeting in Kensington at Sir Isaac Newton’s old home, now demolished, in Church Lane. The history of the Kensington Unitarians, found at www.kensington-unitarians.org.uk/images/EssexChurchInKensington_forInternet.pdf reveals that:
“The congregation was growing under the Chairmanship of James Heywood, MA, FRS, MP, ‘one of Kensington’s most distinguished citizens’…”
The church moved to its present site near the Mall Tavern in the 1880s.
The free library, which Heywood created in Kensington and was opened on the 15th of August 1874, was located at ‘106, High Street, Notting Hill”, according to “The Catalogue of Mr James Heywood’s Free Public Library”, published in 1879 (and viewable on Google Books). The ‘High Street’ is now named ‘Notting Hill Gate’. If the numbering was the same then as it is today, then 106 would have been on the north side of the street just west of Pembridge Road, roughly between where Tescos and Mark and Spencers Simply Food stores stand currently. Today, the Notting Hill Gate branch of Kensington’s public libraries stands on the corner of Pembridge Road and Pembridge Square.
Heywood’s library was open seven days a week and before receiving a book, an applicant had to fill in a form with the following wording:
“I REQUEST TO READ
Name of books ….
Date …. Signature of applicant .…”
Reading books in the library was free of charge but borrowing them required a monthly payment of sixpence (2.5 p) and one penny (about 0.5 p) per book borrowed. The catalogue included a very respectable variety of books and periodicals. I was pleased to note that there was a book about Albania, “Travels in Albania and Other Provinces of Turkey” by Lord Broughton, Baron John Cam Hobhouse Broughton (1786-1869), who accompanied Lord Byron on his trip through the Balkans at the beginning of the 19th century.
Given his important contribution to the development of public libraries in Kensington, it is entirely appropriate that James Heywood is commemorated in the main branch of the library system of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is also worth noting that like his pioneering establishment in Notting Hill High Street, the library is not entirely free for borrowers. Although books may be borrowed free of charge, other items including DVDs can only be borrowed after making a payment.
THE RIDGEWAY IN MILL HILL, with spectacular views over north London and the nearby countryside from each side of it, is a pleasant place to wander. St Pauls Church is a simple Gothic revival edifice. It stands across the road from the famous Mill Hill School (established in 1807) and one of a line of three war memorials separated from each other by a few yards. The church has a plaque attached to it that informs the viewer that it was built by the anti-slave trade activist and politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833), consecrated in 1833, and became a parish church in 1926.
While we were looking at the plaque, a man (a cleric) arrived by car, unlocked the church, and invited us inside. We asked him about Wilberforce and his connections with Mill Hill. He told us that the great abolitionist had lived in Mill Hill and was for a short while the neighbour of his friend Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), who is best known for his ‘founding’ of Singapore. Our new acquaintance explained that Raffles’ widow, his second wife, was buried in the churchyard of St Pauls (Mill Hill), but not the great man himself. Raffles, who was an abolitionist, was disliked by Theodor Williams, the Vicar of the parish of Hendon in which Mill Hill lay, who was sympathetic to slavery because his family had profited from slavery in Jamaica. Williams insisted that Raffles be buried outside the parish church rather than within it. Until 1914, the whereabouts of Raffle’s remains were unknown until they were stumbled upon by accident in a vault whilst the ground was being dug up to build an extension to the church. In contrast, his one-time neighbour, Wilberforce was interred in Westminster Abbey.
As an aside, but one which is important for me who has an interest in double-headed eagles, the Raffles coat-of-arms includes one of these imaginary creatures.
Returning to Wilberforce and Raffles, our informant told us that they were neighbours at Highwood Park (on Highwood Hill), 1100 yards northwest of St Pauls. William Hague, politician, and author of a biography of William Wilberforce (first published in 2008), wrote that the abolitionist moved into his new home in Mill Hill on the 16th of June 1826. Wilberforce wrote:
“I shall be a little zemindar, one hundred and forty acres of land, cottages of my own, etc.”
By ‘zemindar’, he was referring to ‘zamindar’, the Hindustani word meaning ‘landowner’. Wilberforce’s neighbour, Raffles, was already installed at Highwood Park when the abolitionist moved next door. Raffles wrote of his home there (quoted in “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne [publ. 1876]):
“A happy retirement … a house small but compact … Wilberforce takes possession tomorrow of the next-door house so that we be next-door neighbours and divided the hill between us.”
Sadly, Raffles died on the 5th of July 1826, shortly after his friend Wilberforce moved on to Highwood Hill.
Before moving to Mill Hill, Wilberforce had lived for some time in Kensington Gore, which runs along the south side of Kensington Gardens. His home from 1808 to 1821 was Gore House, built in the 1750s and set in three acres of grounds. It had interiors designed by Robert Adam, but sadly it was demolished and eventually replaced by the Royal Albert Hall, which occupies the site of the house and its grounds. Writing in the 1880s, Edward Walford quoted Wilberforce as having written of Gore House:
“We are just one mile from the turnpike at Hyde Park Corner, having about three acres of pleasure-ground around our house, or rather behind it, and several old trees, walnut and mulberry, of thick foliage. I can sit and read under their shade with as much admiration of the beauties of nature as if I were down in Yorkshire, or anywhere else 200 miles from the great city.”
Highwood Hill on the edge of London would have provided the ageing Wilberforce with what he had enjoyed at Gore House but without being so close to the heart of London.
Prior to moving into Mill Hill, Wilberforce had lived in Marden Hall in Surrey and at ‘The Chestnuts’ on Honeycroft Hill in Uxbridge. Unfortunate circumstances led to Wilberforce having to leave Mill Hill prematurely. These included financial difficulties arising from falling income from his land in Yorkshire and losses incurred by his son William. By the end of 1830, Wilberforce and his wife decided that they had to move out of their home on Highfield Hill. They moved to Brighstone on the Isle of Wight, and then later to East Farleigh in Kent.
Wilberforce felt that there was one disadvantage of Mill Hill when he moved there in 1826. The problem was that the nearest church, the parish church at Hendon, was three miles away. William Hague explains what happened next. Here is a summary of what he wrote. In Spring 1828, Wilberforce spent two months in London during which he approached the Church Commissioners regarding establishing a new church near his home in Mill Hill. At first, his plans for the church were welcomed by Theodor Williams, the Vicar of Hendon, who was, as already noted, unfriendly to the anti-slavery movement. However, once the construction of the chapel, the present St Pauls on the Ridgeway, began, Williams reacted vigorously against the idea. Hague is not certain what caused this change of heart on Williams’ part. One reason might have been that there was an Act of Parliament that allowed the founder of a new church to select and appoint its vicar. Another was that Williams was known not to like the Evangelicals, which included Wilberforce and other promoters of the abolition of slavery.
Despite the difficulties raised by the Vicar of Hendon, the chapel was built, but remained a chapel rather than a parish church until 1926. We liked the simple architecture of the spacious church, but this view was not shared by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and his co-author Bridget Cherry, who wrote:
“A typical cheap church of its date in the Commissioners’ style…”
The church contains some attractive stained-glass windows. That above the high altar at the eastern edge of the church is a copy, in painted glass, of “Dead Christ and Three Marys” by Annibale Carracci (1557-1602). It was created by Charles Muss (1779-1824) and WG Hodgson and dated 1809. Muss was an enamel painter to King George IV. Three other remarkable windows were created more recently (www.stpaulschurchmillhill.co.uk/jubilee-window.php). One of them, illustrated above, depicts chains and alludes to Wilberforce and slavery; another commemorates the Middlesex Regiment, which used to have some barracks in Mill Hill; and the third celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
We drove to Highwood Hill to see what, if anything, is left of the houses occupied by Raffles and his neighbour Wilberforce. Highwood House, built soon after 1817 and much altered since, was hidden from view behind dense vegetation and by a building close to the road. Just east of this across the narrow Nan Clarks Lane, there is a decaying wooden signboard to which a metal commemorative plaque is affixed, which faces the main road, Highwood Hill (the A5109). The plaque bears the words:
“Site of Hendon Park residence of William Wilberforce from 1826 to 1831.”
Behind the sign, there is a newish wooden fence, the boundary of a small estate of large residential houses. Hendon park was:
“… a substantial brick building in 1756 … was rebuilt and stuccoed in the early 19th century … it had fallen into neglect by 1951 and had been replaced by three houses and Crown Close by 1961 …” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp21-23).
We left Mill Hill, having learnt much about two men, whose connection with the place we were previously unaware. There is far more to Mill Hill than this and I hope to write about other aspects of this lovely part of London in the future.
HOLLAND HOUSE in Holland Park (west London) was built in the early 17th century (about 1604) in the Jacobean style. It was designed by the architect John Thorpe (dates uncertain: c1555-c1655), who is thought to be the creator of Audley End House in Essex. In 1939, King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) attended a debutante ball at Holland House. Little did they know that this was to be the last great ball to be held at the house. After the German Luftwaffe began devastating London, Holland House was hit by twenty-two incendiary bombs during a ten-hour raid on the night of the 27th of September 1940. Much of the old house was destroyed apart from the east wing. Fortunately, the library and its valuable contents remained undamaged. A video (www.britishpathe.com/video/holland-house-damaged) made by Pathé News shows the house shortly after it was bombed.
The house remained as a ruin until 1952 when its then owner, Giles Fox-Strangways, 6th Earl of Ilchester (1874-1959), a Member of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England from 1939–1959, sold the remains of the house and its extensive grounds (now Holland Park) to the London County Council. Eventually in 1986, what was left of the building was transferred to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In normal, non covid19, summers, the now well-preserved remains of the house become the home of a temporary theatre where opera is performed. For many years, but no longer, the relatively intact part of the house was used as a youth hostel by the YHA.
Recently, I have acquired a facsimile edition of “History and Antiquities of Kensington” by Thomas Faulkner, which was published originally in 1820. I have also my own copy of an original edition of Volume 5 of “Old and New London” by Edward Walford, published in 1878. Both books were published when Holland House was still intact, and both contain engravings showing how the house looked both outside and inside. Faulkner’s book contains a lengthy detailed listing of all the artworks and books that the house contained. These items included several paintings by artists as famous as Teniers, Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds, and Hogarth, to name but a few. Luckily, most of the art treasures in the house were removed for safety before the outbreak of WW2. The illustrations, some of which I have reproduced, demonstrate how great a tragedy it was that Holland House no longer remains intact.