Near the shops: a chapel in Kensington

HIGH STREET KENSINGTON is not amongst my favourite London thoroughfares, but streets leading off it take one to places of considerable interest. One of these, Allen Street, offers a view of a building that outshines many of its close neighbours. But, before we reach this short side street, here are a few words about High Street Ken.

Even before the covid19 pandemic, High Street Kensington has been declining in importance as a centre of retailing activity. The retailing boom that made the street into a rival of, for example Oxford and Regents Streets, began in the mid-1860s. Prior to that:

“…most trading and manufacturing activity around Kensington High Street was on a small and local scale. An exception must be made of the Catholic candle-making business owned successively by the Wheble, Kendall, Tucker and Smith families from about 1765 until 1908. Its founder was James Wheble (1729–1801), scion of a prominent recusant family in Winchester. By 1766 at the latest Wheble was based in Kensington, and within a few years occupied miscellaneous properties on the present Barkers site, both in the High Street and on the west side of Young Street, where a warehouse was rated in his name from 1772 onwards.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp77-98).

This mention of candle making interested me because my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) established a factory making candles in King Williams Town in South Africa in the 1880s.

From the late 19th century until a few years ago, High Street Ken was a healthily flourishing retail centre. In its heyday, it boasted of three large department stores, Pontings, Barkers, and Derry & Toms. The impressive buildings that housed the latter two still stand and are fine examples of art deco architecture. They are located close to the Underground station, which has been in service since the late 1860s.

In recent years, the advent of on-line shopping, high rents, and the proximity of the Westfield mall at Shepherds Bush (opened 2008), which has good parking, have all conspired to make High Street Ken less appealing to shoppers. Consequently, at any one time a large proportion of shops remain empty awaiting new tenants. Sadly, what was once (especially in the 1960s and ‘70s) a bustling high street with trendy shops like Biba and the ‘funky’ Kensington Market, has become slightly dreary.

Various short streets lead off the south side of the high street. One of them, Young Street, leads to Kensington Square, which is well worth visiting to explore its exciting range of houses dating back to the 18th century and earlier (see https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/). Another road, Allan Street, west of the station, leads south from the high street. This street was a quiet cul-de-sac until 1852 when it was extended southwards. After that date, many more buildings were erected along it including the extensive Wynnstay Gardens, luxurious mansion flats, which was constructed between 1883 and 1885 on a site previously owned by Thomas Newland Allen (1811-1899), who was born at Chalfont St Giles (https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/chalfont-st-giles-buckinghamshire). A monument to Captain Cook, the explorer, stands on the estate where Allen was born.

Wynnstay Gardens is not a particularly attractive set of buildings. However, south of it and on the other side of Allen Street, there is a lovely neo-classical building just south of Adam and Eve Mews, which runs along its northern boundary. For many years, I had noticed it from a distance when wandering along High Street Ken, but it was only yesterday that I decided to take a closer look at this church.

Currently called the ‘Kensington United Reformed Church’, it was originally named ‘The Kensington Chapel’. Built in 1854-55 and designed by Andrew Trimen (1810-1868), it replaced the Hornton Street Chapel (north of the High Street), which was built 1794-95 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp386-394#h2-0005). Trimen was a prolific architect and also published a book in 1849, “Church and Chapel Architecture with an account of the Hebrew Church. 1,000 authenticated mouldings”, which was (https://manchestervictorianarchitects.org.uk/architects/andrew-trimen):

“… the first major publication to consider non-conformist architecture.”

The church, clad in ochre coloured Bath stone, and its impressive pillared portico,  is an elegant addition to an otherwise undistinguished street.  Its corner stone recalls that the church replaced the one in Hornton Street and that it was laid by the Reverend John Stoughton on the 26th of June 1854. If you walk along Adam and Eve Mews, you will notice a pair of doors at the east end of the north wall of the church. Above them are the words ‘Lecture Hall’. According to a plan of the original building, this led into a ‘schoolroom’ (built 1856) attached to the east of the church. This was used to accommodate ‘British’ and ‘Sunday’ schools.

John Stoughton officiated first at the Hornton Street Chapel, starting in 1843, and then in the new building in Allen Street until he retired in 1875. His congregation was far from uninteresting as this quote from John Stoughton’s book “Congregationalism in the Court Suburb” (published in 1883) reveals:

“It may be mentioned that Kensington, on many accounts, has long been a favourite place of residence for artists and literary men, and a few of these became some occasional, others regular hearers [i.e. members of the congregation]  … Curious characters at different periods, it may be added would come into the vestry to have a little chat; a gentleman during the Crimean War gravely proposed to the preacher of peace a clever scheme for blowing up Sebastopol; and at another time one of clerical appearance repeated, with extraordinary rapidity, long passages out of the Greek Testament.”

Stoughton was such a popular preacher that by 1871, none of the 1000 sitting places in the chapel would be left unoccupied.

The chapel was damaged by bombing in 1940 and only repaired in 1952-53. Today, the building stands in all its glory and hosts regular religious services for its Congregationalist congregation (it is an autonomous protestant church, which governs its own affairs), but parts of it are now used for non-ecclesiastical purposes. Next time you wander along High Street Ken, make the short detour to see what I consider one of the finer buildings in the area alongside the unusual looking Armenian Church in nearby Iverna Gardens.

A hero of Chile in Richmond-upon-Thames

BETWEEN OUR FRIENDS’ house in Richmond and Richmond Bridge, which crosses the River Thames, is but a short walk, taking not more than five minutes at a leisurely pace. Yet, during this brief walk that I took yesterday, on the day that my mother would have been one hundred years old, I spotted three old things that were new to me.

The first thing I noticed for the first time is a small single-storeyed building on Church Terrace close to the Wakefield Road bus station. What attracted me to it was a stone plaque set within its stuccoed façade that stated:

“The Bethlehem Chapel built in the year 1797.”

It is still in regular use. I picked up an information leaflet from a plastic container next to its locked door, and this provided me with some information about the place, whose façade looks original but has otherwise been substantially updated.  The interior of this non-Conformist place of worship appears to be similar to what it was when it was first built but considerably restored and modernised a bit (see images of the interior on the video: https://youtu.be/kIYuxaMyZsA).

John Chapman, market gardener of Petersham, where currently the fashionable, upmarket Petersham Nursery flourishes, built the chapel for an independent Calvinist congregation. It was opened by William Huntingdon (1745-1813), a widely known self-educated Calvinist preacher, who began life as a ‘coal heaver’ (https://chestofbooks.com/reference/A-Library-Of-Wonders-And-Curiosities/William-Huntingdon.html). Because of this, the chapel, which is the oldest independent Free Church in the West of London, is also known as the ‘Huntingdon Chapel’. By Free Church, the leaflet explains:

“We do not belong to any denomination. We are an Independent Free Church, which means that we are not affiliated to any organised body like the Church of England, Methodists or Baptists etc.”

More can be discovered about the congregation and its beliefs on the chapel’s informative website (http://bethlehem-chapel.org/index.html).

Between the chapel and the bridge, there is an Odeon cinema with a wonderful art deco façade. This was designed by the architects Julian Leathart (1891-1967) and W F Granger and was opened in 1930. It was originally named the ‘Richmond Kinema’, but this was changed to the ‘Premier Cinema’ on the 29th of June 1940:

“… to enable the removal of the Richmond name on the cinema, in case German parachutists landed nearby.” (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/6260)

In May 1944, the cinema’s name was changed to the ‘Odeon’. Before it was converted to a triple screen cinema in 1972, its huge auditorium was able to accommodate 1553 seated viewers.

Crossing the main road in front of the cinema, we descend Bridge Street towards Richmond Bridge, but before stepping onto the bridge, we turn left and enter Bridge House Gardens. This open space was the site of the now demolished Bridge House, which was the sometime home of a Jewish family:

“Moses Medina (nephew of Solomon Medina and three times treasurer of Bevis Marks) lived at Bridge House from the 1720s to 1734, having lived previously at Moses Hart’s old house. Abraham Levy lived there from 1737-1753. Levy was a wealthy merchant of Houndsditch.” (www.richmondsociety.org.uk/bridge-house-gardens/).

Solomon Medina (c1650-1730) followed the future William III to England and became “…the leading Jew of his day” according to Albert Hyamson in his “History of The Jews in England” (publ. in 1928), a book I found in the second-hand department of Blossom Book House in Bangalore. Medina became the great army bread contractor in the wars that followed his arrival in England. He was knighted for his services, thus becoming the first professing Jew to receive that honour. His reputation was called into question because it was alleged that he had bribed John Churchill (1650-1722), the First Duke of Marlborough (see “Marlborough” by Richard Holmes, publ. 2008). Moses, his nephew, was a rabbi at the Bevis Marks synagogue in London and thrice its treasurer and also involved in his uncle’s bread contracting, supplying this food to Marlborough’s forces in Flanders (https://forumnews.wordpress.com/about/bank-of-england-nominees/).

Bridge House was demolished in 1930 to create the present area of parkland. Well, I did not know about the Medina connection with Richmond when we visited the Bridge House Gardens. What attracted my attention as soon as I set foot in the small park was the bust of a man looking across a flight of steps and out towards the river below it.

The bust depicts a man wearing a heavily decorated military uniform with tasselled epaulettes. It is a representation of General Bernado O Higgins  (Bernado O’Higgins Riquelme), who was born in Chile in 1778 and died in Peru in 1842. Bernado was an illegitimate son of Ambrosio O’ Higgins (c1720-1801), who was born in Sligo (Ireland) then became a Spanish officer. He became Governor of Chile and later Viceroy of Peru. Bernado’s claim to fame is that he was a Chilean independence leader who freed Chile from Spanish rule after the Chilean War of Independence (1812-1826). He is rightfully regarded as a great national hero in the country he helped ‘liberate’.  But, what, you might be wondering, is his connection with Richmond?

O Higgins studied in Richmond from 1795 to 1798 and while doing so, lived in Clarence House, which is at 2 The Vineyard, Richmond. Whilst in Richmond, he studied history, law, the arts, and music (https://www.davidcpearson.co.uk/blog.cfm?blogID=632) and met  Francisco de Miranda, who was active amongst a London based group of Latin Americans, who opposed the Spanish crown and its rule of colonies in South America. The bust was inaugurated in 1998 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the departure of O’ Higgins from Richmond. Our friends told us that once a year, a delegation of Chileans arrives by boat at Bridge House Park to celebrate joyously in front of the bust of their national hero. As they arrive, another boatload of people arrives to join the celebration: members of the administration of the Borough of Richmond.

No far from the memorial to the great O’ Higgins, there is another remarkable sight close to the river: a tree with a small notice by its roots. To me, it did not look exceptional, but the notice explains that this example of Platanus x hispanica (aka ‘London plane’):

 “… is the Richmond Riverside Plane, the tallest of its kind in the capital, and is a great tree of London.” First discovered in the 17th century, this hybrid of American sycamore and Oriental plane, was planted a great deal in the 18th century. The plane growing near to the bust of O’ Higgins has a record-breaking height. What I cannot discover is the date on which the notice was placed. So, being the sceptic that I am, I wonder if any other plane trees in London have exceeded the height of this one since the notice was installed.

All of what I have described can be seen in less than ten minutes, but as I hope I have demonstrated, a great deal of history is encapsulated in that tiny part of Richmond.

A short stroll in Kensington

BEDFORD GARDENS IN Kensington is a short street connecting Kensington Church Street at its eastern end and Campden Hill Road up the hill at its western end. The facades of many of the buildings along this thoroughfare are at least partly hidden behind foliage that can be very luxuriant in the warmer seasons of the year. We have walked along this street frequently, but it was only recently that we noticed two commemorative blue plaques, which record that someone famous lived in the buildings to which they are affixed.  Also, we looked at one building, which has no commemorative plaque, but does merit at least one.

77 Bedford Gardens

A rich network of leafy wisteria branches covers the façade of number 4 Bedford Gardens on the north side of the road. Partly hidden by this vegetation, there is a circular blue commemorative plaque that informs the viewer that the composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941) lived there. He did so for many years in this house that was built in the late 1830s (www.rbkc.gov.uk/virtualmuseum/general/default.asp). What little I have heard of his compositions has not appealed to me.

Further along the road and on its south side, there is a blue plaque on number 27. It tells us that William Beveridge (1879-1963), “architect of the Welfare State”, lived in this elegant brick house from 1914 to 1921. During this period of his life, this Liberal politician left the Board of Trade in 1919 to become Director of the London School of Economics, a post he held until 1937, a year or so before my father arrived at that institution as a post-graduate student from Cape Town.

Many years ago, if my memory serves me correctly, a friend of mine, who was studying history of art at the Courtauld Institute, spent several weeks as a lodger in the home of the art historian John Pope-Hennessy (1913-1994). I remember visiting my friend there once back in the 1970s. The famous art historian, whom I did not meet, lived for some years in Bedford Gardens (www.kensingtonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/Annual-Report-1994.pdf) at number 41 ( according to a letter published in the “Times Literary Supplement” of October 29 1976). If there is a commemorative plaque for Pope-Hennessy on Bedford Gardens, I have not yet found it.

One house in Bedford Gardens that deserves a commemorative indication is a tall brick building with large studio windows on several of its five storeys. Built in 1882, it bears the numbers 77 and 79.  A sculpted head, looking like a classical Greek or Roman carving, is mounted centrally in the façade above the first-floor windows. This building was once used as artists’ studios; it might still be used by artists. According to an incomplete list (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bedford_Gardens,_London) of notable people who resided in Bedford Gardens, number 77 was used by the artists Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962), Robert MacBryde (1913–1966), Jankel Adler (1895–1949), and John Minton (1917-1957). Ronald Searle (1920-2011) also had a studio there but lived in nearby Bayswater and then Notting Hill (http://ronaldsearle.blogspot.com/2012/07/at-home-with-searles.html).

Minton lived at number 77 from 1943 to 1946 along with Colquhoun and his partner MacBryde (https://artuk.org/discover/artists/minton-john-19171957#). Colquhoun served as an ambulance driver in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WW2, but after suffering injuries in 1941, he moved to London where he shared studio space and his life with MacBride. The pair, who met at Glasgow School of Art in the 1930s, where their lifelong romantic relationship began, shared a house with Minton and after 1943 also with Jankel Adler ( http://www.blondesfineart.com/robert-colquhoun-artist). The parties these artists held at 77 Bedford Gardens were well-known in the artistic circles of London in the 1940s.

Kensington became a popular place with artists from all over Britain from the end of the nineteenth century onwards as this quote from a website (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1442898) illustrates:

“The late C19 saw a sharp rise in the number of artists’ studios in London, particularly in Camden, Hampstead, St Johns Wood and Kensington and Chelsea … Speculative studio development … started in the late 1860s in Camden, moving to Kensington in the 1870s, with the Avenue, Fulham Road built by Charles Freake (Grade II), and reaching a peak in the 1880s and 90s. By 1914, when the market virtually dried up, there were some 150 properties of this type in London ranging from pairs to groups of as many as thirty. Of these, approximately sixty multiple studios in Kensington and Chelsea contained 293 individual units. Consequently the number of artists recorded in these studios is extraordinarily high, counting many artists of great merit.”

77 Bedford Gardens was one of these developments. Today, few artists apart from the most successful of them could either afford a studio in this street or to live there. The accommodation in this short thoroughfare is now at the higher end of the property market. However, it costs nothing to stroll along this attractive little road, along which quite a few famous people have lived, and it is a pleasant thing to do.

Ulysses and the underground

THE IRISH AUTHOR James Joyce (1882-1941), author of “Ulysses”, “The Dubliners” etc., lived at number 28B Campden Grove in Kensington in 1931. While living in this flat, he worked on his novel “Finnegans Wake” (published in 1939) and married his long-term companion and muse Nora Barnacle (1884-1951). A blue plaque, which I had never noticed before during the 28 years I have lived in the area, on the house records his stay in Kensington. Joyce was not keen on this dwelling. In 1932, he wrote to Harriet Weaver Shaw:

“’I never liked the flat much though I liked the gardens nearby. That grove is inhabited by mummies. Campden Grave, it should be called. London is not made for divided houses. The little sooty dwellings with their backs to the railway line etc etc are genuine; so is Portland Place. But houses like that were never built to be run on the continental system and as flats they are fakes.” (quoted in http://peterchrisp.blogspot.com/2019/05/campden-grave-james-joyce-in-london.html

A few yards further west of Joyce’s temporary home, I spotted something else that I had not seen before and is relevant to what Joyce wrote.

The rear outer wall of number 1 Gordon Place is best viewed from near the end of Campden Grove just before it meets the northern end of Gordon Place. That rear wall is unusually shaped. Its windows are set into a concavely curved brickwork wall rather than the normal flat wall.

Today Gordon Place extends southwards, then briefly joins Pitt Street to run east for a few feet before making a right angle to continue southwards, crossing Holland Street and then ending in a picturesque cul-de-sac lined with luxuriant gardens. This has not always been its course. A map surveyed in 1865 shows Gordon Place as running between Campden Grove and Pitt Street. The section of today’s Gordon Place that runs south from Pitt Street to Holland Street was called ‘Vicarage Street’ and the cul-de-sac running south from Holland Street was then called ‘Orchard Street’. A map complied in 1896 reveals that Gordon Place was by then running along its present course. Vicarage Street had become renamed as part of ‘Gordon Place’.

Aerial views of the curved building, number 1 Gordon Place, show that its curved rear wall forms part of a deep opening that extends below the ground. Maps compiled from 1865 onwards show the presence of this hole and within it short stretches of railway tracks. The hole is a ventilation shaft for the Underground tracks, currently the Circle and District lines, that run just below the surface. Standing on Campden Grove close to the back of number 1 Gordon Place, one can hear trains clearly as they travel below the hole in the ground. How deep is the hole? The corner of Gordon Place and Campden Grove is 86 feet above sea level and High Street Kensington Station is at 43 feet above sea level.  The railway lines do not slope too much between the ventilation shaft and the station. According to Transport for London, between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington, they descend by 12 feet (www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/70389/response/179967/attach/html/2/Station%20depths.xlsx.html). Using the information that we have, we can estimate the depth of the shaft to be at least 43 feet (i.e. 86-43 plus a little more because the rails are several feet below the surface).

The Metropolitan Railway that included the stretch of track between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington stations was laid before 1868, and from the 1865 map, it was already present before the date when the map was surveyed. According to a detailed history of the area (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp49-57), houses near the corner of Camden Grove and Gordon Place (and in other locations nearby) had to be rebuilt after the railway was constructed between 1865 and 1868.  The 1865 map shows no house at the site of the present number 1 Gordon Place. This building with its concave curved rear wall appears on a map surveyed in 1896. It would seem that the developer who constructed number 1 did not want to waste any of his valuable plot; he constructed the rear of the building right up to the circular edge of the ventilation shaft.

So, now we have an explanation for the curiously curved wall and for Joyce’s comments about houses with their backs to railway lines. Some friends of ours own a house with an outer wall that forms part of another ventilation hole on the District and Circle lines. They told us that should they need to make repairs to the outside of the wall that overlooks the tracks, they would need to get special permission from the company that runs the Underground and that many precautions would be needed to protect the workmen and the trains running beneath them.

Life is often far from straightforward, but London is endlessly fascinating. James Joyce preferred Paris to London, where most of his books were published. I hope that it was not his experience with trains running close to where he lived in Campden Grove that influenced his preference.

A brief video that I made gives another view of the ventilation shaft described above: https://youtu.be/js87XIWn1gU

Exhibitionism then and now

THE DIORAMA IN REGENTS Park is no more. However, the building on Park Square East (number 18), a protected edifice which housed it, still bears the word ‘Diorama’ prominently displayed. Designed by Morgan and Pugin, architects, and opened in 1823, this former London attraction, a mere 700 yards away from Madame Tussauds, a current attraction, was described in “Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to its Sights, 1844”

(quoted in www.victorianlondon.org/entertainment/diorama.htm) as follows:

“The Diorama, in Park Square, Regent’s Park, long an object of wonder and delight in Paris, was first opened in London, September 29, 1823. This is a very extraordinary and beautiful exhibition; it consists of two pictures that are alternately brought into view by a very ingenious mechanical contrivance; the interior resembling a theatre, consisting of one tier of boxes and a pit, being made to revolve upon a centre with the spectators, thus gradually withdraws one picture and introduces the other to the view. A judicious introduction of the light, and other contrivances, give increased effect to pictures beautifully painted, which, by a concentration of talent, completes an illusion that with perfect justice may be pronounced ‘the acme of art’.”

In 1844, the place was open from 10 am to 4 pm and the admission charge was steep for that era, two shillings (10p in today’s currency). The technology employed to create the show was invented by the Frenchmen Louis Daguerre (1757-1851), of photography fame, and Charles M Bouton (1781-1853). John Timbs in his “Curiosities of London” (published 1867) provided more details of the Diorama:

“The Diorama consisted of two pictures, eighty feet in length and forty feet in height, painted in solid and in transparency, arranged so as to exhibit changes of light and shade, and a variety of natural phenomena; the spectators being kept in comparative darkness, while the picture received a concentrated light from a ground-glass roof. The contrivance was partly optical, partly mechanical; and consisted in placing the pictures within the building so constructed, that the saloon containing the spectators revolved at intervals, and brought in succession the two distinct scenes into the field of view, without the necessity of the spectators removing from their seats; while the scenery itself remained stationary, and the light was distributed by transparent and movable blinds-some placed behind the picture, for intercepting and changing the colour of the rays of light, which passed through the semi-transparent parts. Similar blinds, above and in front of the picture were movable by cords, so as to distribute or direct the rays of light. The revolving motion given to the saloon was an arc of about 73º; and while the spectators were thus passing round, no person was permitted to go in or out. The revolution of the saloon was effected by means of a sector, or portion of a wheel, with teeth which worked in a series of wheels and pinions; one man, by turning a winch, moved the whole. The space between the saloon and each of the two pictures was occupied on either side by a partition, forming a kind of avenue, proportioned in width to the size of the picture. Without such a precaution, the eye of the spectator, being thirty or forty feet distant from the canvas, would, by anything intervening, have been estranged from the object.”

Although the Diorama was successful from a cultural viewpoint it was not commercially viable. By 1850, it had been sold. In 1852, the politician and engineer Sir Morton Peto (1809-1889) bought the building, and it was turned into a Baptist chapel (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp262-286). More recently, its interior has been modernised and converted to be used for various purposes.

The former Diorama faces the south east corner of Regents Park, the English Garden, where once a year this area briefly becomes host to a contemporary cultural event: The Frieze Sculpture show. Various commercial galleries display works of art from their collections in the open air in this part of the public park. It is a show that we enjoy visiting and this year, 2020, was the third year running that we have attended.

This year, the show runs from the 5th to the 18th of October, a shorter time than in previous years because of the covid19 pandemic. Realistically, it could have been held for far longer given that it is in the open air and crowding is unlikely. The 2020 exhibition comprises 12 artworks selected by curator Clare Lilley (Director of Programme, Yorkshire Sculpture Park). The artists whose works can be seen are as follows: David Altmejd, Fabio Lattanzi Antinori, Gianpietro Carlesso, Eric Fischl, Patrick Goddard, Lubaina Himid, Kalliopi Lemos, Richard Long, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Rebecca Warren and Arne Quinze. Of these, I had heard of some of them and already seen some of their art.

Without attempting to describe the artworks, all of them were visually intriguing, well-executed, and most of them evoked light-hearted feelings to a greater or lesser extent. The visitors who were looking at them seemed to be enjoying what they were seeing. Both children and adults were having fun. A lot of selfies were being taken, especially next to the sculptures that featured free standing doorways by Lubaini Himid and another by Gavin Turk. Fabio Lattanzi Antinori’s “viewing room” also attracted many people. This simple electronic sculpture flashed up a series of ridiculous but amusing messages such as “Culture is £1.28” and “Raju is £0”, which together formed a curious critique of today’s cultural values. An artwork which was somewhat macabre and delightfully weird was a collection of latex rubber animal heads scattered around in the grass. Each head also incorporated a mirror. This collection, entitled “Humans-Animals-Monsters (2020)” was created by Patrick Goddard. So, when a viewer looks at one of the heads, he or she not only sees the animal or monster but also his or her own reflection.  One sculpture, which I liked but my wife and daughter did not, was a tower of twisted torn metal sheets created by Arne Quinze. One work, which I did not particularly like, but was popular with small children was a sculpture depicting an oversize sandwich, created by Sarah Lucas.  The other six artworks, although not insignificant visually, attracted me less than those I have just described.

In brief, although a far cry from the long-lost Diorama, the outdoor Frieze Sculpture show is great fun and worth visiting if you can. Interesting artworks are displayed in a lovely environment. Some of them seem in harmony with nature and others deliberately clash with it. I must confess that I have a great fondness for outdoor displays of sculpture. Maybe, this derives from my childhood when my mother used to create sculptural works and displayed some of them in the garden of our home in northwest London. Recently, apart from seeing the sculptures at Regents Park, I have enjoyed seeing artworks displayed outdoors at Salisbury Cathedral, Compton Verney House (in Warwickshire), and at Henry Moore’s former home near Much Hadham.

PS: If you cannot get to Regents Park, the exhibition is on-line for a while at: https://viewingroom.frieze.com/viewing-room/

See a short video made by me at the exhibition by clicking here:https://youtu.be/Hg1IfB4jR9U

Pelicans in the park

I HAVE BEEN FORTUNATE to have lived in parts of London close to large green open spaces. When I was at secondary school in Highgate (north London), I could walk there from my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, hardly needing to walk along streets. It was a short distance from my house to the grassy Hampstead Heath Extension. From there, I crossed a road to enter the wooded part of Hampstead Heath through which I walked to the Spaniards Inn. Then a few hundred yards of pavement followed before I entered the pleasant landscaped grounds of Kenwood House. Walking through this lovely park brought me to within a few hundred yards of my senior school.

When I was a student at University College London (‘UCL’), I was able to walk there through green areas most of the way from my family home. By walking the length of Hampstead Heath Extension, and then strolling southwards across the eastern part of Hampstead Heath, I reached South End Green. From there, I had to tramp the streets towards Primrose Hill, where once again my feet were on grass instead of paving stones. Primrose Hill led straight to Regents Park and from that splendid open space, it was a short walk along pavements to UCL.

Since marrying over 27 years ago, we have lived close to the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens. We are about three to four minutes’ walk away from the gardens depending on whether the pedestrian traffic lights are in our favour or not. We can traverse Kensington Gardens, passing close to the so-called Round Pond and then reaching The Serpentine Lake, where maybe one might stop for a coffee at the café by the Lido on the Serpentine. From there, it is not a long distance to the southeast corner of Hyde Park, which is next to Hyde Park Corner, a small green space ringed by busy roads. After crossing Hyde Park Corner, maybe having walked beneath Wellington Arch, which is surmounted by a metal quadriga, one road needs traversing before entering Green Park, which lives up to its name with its expanses of lawn and rows of mature trees. If you wish, you can walk along the northern fringe of Green Park to reach the eastern third of Piccadilly, and then you have arrived in the heart of the West End hardly having stepped upon the pavements lining busy streets.

After walking east through Green Park, one reaches the Mall and the front of Buckingham Palace. Cross the Mall and then you are in St James Park. By crossing this beautiful green space, you will soon reach Parliament Square and beyond it the Thames and the South Bank area.

Let us linger awhile in St James Park. The feature that endears me to this London Park is the St James Park Lake and its rich assortment of waterfowl. The park was established by King Henry VII on marshland watered by the now no longer visible Tyburn River, which runs in underground conduits. The lake, probably designed by the French landscape designer André Mollet (d. before 16 June 1665), began life as a canal dug for King Charles II. The king used it for swimming in the summer and for skating when it froze in the winter (a rare occurrence nowadays, thanks to the so-called ‘global warming’ that many believe is occurring).

There is a pedestrian bridge across the water, two islands, and a fountain, in the lake. A wide variety of ducks, swans, geese, herons, cormorants (or shags), and other birds congregate in and around the water. This is nothing peculiar. You can see the same in The Round Pond, the Serpentine Lake, and many other water bodies that are dotted liberally across Greater London. However, St James Park offers one kind of bird that you will not find anywhere else in London except at the Zoo. The park is home to a small population of pelicans. These creatures are often hard to see as they usually perch on the islands in the lake, but yesterday, the 11th of October 2020, at least three of them were walking fearlessly (it seemed) along the edge of the lake close to admiring visitors including my wife and me.

In 1664, during the reign (1660-1685) of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland, pelicans were first introduced into St James Park. These distinctive long billed birds, which symbolise the Passion of Jesus and the Eucharist in Christian symbolism, were gifts of the Russian Ambassador, who knew that the king appreciated exotic waterfowl. Charles was presented with two grey or Dalmatian pelicans (Pelicanus crispus). Sadly, they did not breed successfully, and the park needed to be replenished with new specimens occasionally. An article in the online version of “Country Life” (www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/st-jamess-park-pelicans-sparked-cold-war-stand-off-russia-usa-171954), published in January 2018, reveals:

“The Russian Embassy’s custom of occasionally presenting new pelicans continued during and after the Soviet era and other organisations – such as the City of Prague in 2013 – have also added to the birds’ numbers.”

However, a diplomatic incident erupted in the 1960s, when:

“… London’s Royal Parks accepted some American pelicans for the lake in St James’s Park … According to Foreign Office tradition, the presence of the American pelicans resulted from a Cold War rivalry between the American and Soviet Embassies. One day, a newly accredited US Ambassador called on the Foreign Secretary, whose office overlooks the lake. He noticed the pelicans and was informed about their history and origin.

Determined not to be upstaged by the Soviet Ambassador, his opposite number announced that he, too, would be presenting some pelicans – American ones – to grace the lake, an offer that the Royal Parks management accepted gratefully.

When the American pelicans duly arrived, they were, predictably, not friendly to their Russian counterparts. Indeed, rather mysteriously, they failed to flourish and seemed miserable. The US Embassy suspected the Soviet Embassy of harming the American pelicans – which the Russians denied – and relations between the embassies became glacial.”

That incident is something that we did not see recorded on any of the numerous informative signs placed near the perimeter of the lake.

Londoners are most fortunate to have so many green spaces often within easy walking distance from their homes. Many other great cities of the world do have significantly large public green spaces, for example Central Park in New York, Cubbon Park in Bangalore, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and Kalemegdan in Belgrade, but few have so many as liberally distributed across their areas as does London. Being within walking distance of both Kensington Gardens and Holland Park during our recent severe month’s long ‘lockdown’ helped raise our spirits during this bleak period. Not only was the walking we did good for our spirits, but it gradually increased the distance that we can walk comfortably before becoming physically fatigued. Even when eventually the pandemic of covid19 dies down, we might well think twice about taking public transport now that we know how pleasant it is to walk instead.

PS: If you wish, you can watch the pelicans feeding in the lake on:  http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/50409682

The story of a bookshop

THE BIOGRAPHY OF STANLEY Spencer, which I ordered online, was too large to fit through the letter flap on our front door. So, as is usual in such situations, the postman left a red and white postcard informing me that I could collect my oversized parcel from the local post office. Until October 2019, undelivered packages could be collected from a busy post office in Queensway. Since then, and throughout the 2020 ‘lockdown’, post can be collected from a new and much improved centre on nearby Westbourne Grove.

Much of the architecture on the stretch of Westbourne Grove between Chepstow Road and Queensway is unremarkable. An exception is number 26, which houses the Al Saqi bookstore. This elegant establishment specialises in selling (and publishing) books about the Middle East and North Africa. In 1978, two friends, André Gaspard and Mai Ghoussoub, left war-torn Lebanon to settle in London. They founded the Al Saqi book shop because:

“They yearned to recreate something of the heady intellectual freedom of pre-war Beirut, and to supply a then-untapped market for English and Arabic books on the Middle East and North Africa.” (https://saqibooks.com/about/history/).

They began publishing as ‘Al Saqi’ in 1983 and have been selling books, including some banned in certain countries, for well over thirty years.

Interesting as the bookshop might well be, its premises catch the eye and intrigue the passer-by. As the “Arab Weekly” wrote in December 2015 (https://thearabweekly.com/al-saqi-not-your-average-london-bookstore), the shop is;

“Not your average London Bookstore … London – Al-Saqi bookshop is housed in a conspicuous building in London’s Bayswater district. With colonnades and arches topped by 11 staring busts, its architecture recalls ruins that are found across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.”

It was the shop’s exuberant and unusual façade that has often caught my attention.

It was not Al Saqi who designed the façade of the building housing it. After he had spoken with a customer in Arabic, I asked a learned looking man, who was working in the shop, about the history of the building in which it is housed. He had no idea.

The architectural historian and his co-author Bridget Cherry mention the building in “The Buildings of England, London 3: North West”. They wrote that the highlights of Westbourne Grove include:

“… No. 26 built as an ‘Athenaeum’, 1861, by A Billing, stuccoed with columns and a good deal of sculpture (musical angels, busts of Milton, Shakespeare, etc.)”

A Billing was Arthur Billing (1824-1896), whose career included construction of, and restoration of, many churches in London and south-east England. Most dictionaries define an Athenaeum as an institution for the promotion of literary or scientific learning. a library or reading room.

Another source (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1066120) describes Saqi’s home as having once been a “… Theatre … built as a Shakespearean theatre”, but does not refer to it as an Athenaeum.  Just as I was beginning to despair of discovering whether number 26 was originally an Athenaeum or a theatre, or both, I stumbled across an informative website (https://archiseek.com/2013/vestbourne-athenom-westbourne-grove-b-wswater/). It describes the building as having been originally named ‘Westbourne Hall’ and quotes an article published in an issue of “The Building News” dated 31st of May 1861.

From the article, we learn that the newly built Westbourne Hall was attached to the Bayswater Athenaeum, which was on nearby Havelock Terrace (which, strangely, does not appear on a detailed map published in the late 1860s). From the detailed description of the façade of Westbourne Hall, it is certain that the premises of the bookshop are in the former Westbourne Hall, not the Athenaeum. The gaslit auditorium, equipped with lights installed by Mr G Reed, “the eminent gasfitter of Westbourne Grove”, had raked seats with “carved ends”. There was a gallery above the entrance end of the hall. The hall was equipped with what was then a “new patented system” of heating and cooling designed to keep the audience comfortable. The article added:

“When the new reading rooms, refreshment and committee rooms, and other offices are completed, the business of the Athenaeum will be removed into them, and look out upon Westbourne-Grove.”

So, it appears that The Athenaeum moved into Westbourne Hall. The article also gives an idea of the place’s original intention. It was to provide a place where the “respectable population” of the area could hear worthy events such as Shakespeare being read by:

“… a silver voiced popular preacher …Lectures on the Holy Land, Revelations, and Negro Slavery, an evening with amatory Thomas Moore …”

Another issue of “The Building News” (see  https://archiseek.com/2013/vestbourne-athenom-westbourne-grove-b-wswater/) gives a very full description of the building’s remarkable exuberant façade.

The subsequent history of the Westbourne Hall is found on an informative website (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp221-226). Here, slightly edited by me, is what is written:

“Westbourne hall in Westbourne Grove could hold 400 people for lectures and entertainments in 1860, when its lessee opened adjoining premises in Havelock Terrace as Bayswater Athenaeum and Literary Institution.  An ornate four-storeyed building with a hall for 1,000, designed by A. Billing, was built on the site of the first hall in 1861 and licensed for music alone by T. E. Whibley in 1863.  The Athenaeum, although welcomed for its educational value, had become the Athenaeum divan by 1865 and may have closed soon afterwards.  Westbourne hall continued to be used for concerts, plays, and public meetings until 1875 or later …”

A playbill preserved in the National Archives (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/6497ee39-a6e5-4a92-9acc-551fda7680ed) gives a flavour of what was on offer at Westbourne Hall:

“Wednesday July 1st 1868.

‘Benefit and last appearance of Miss Lydia Howard, the Baby Actress, when she will sustain her characters of Katherine! in “The Taming of the Shrew”, Falstaff! in “King Henry the Fourth”, Prince Arthur! in “King John” and Matilda Mowbray! Hector Mowbray!! Foppington Mowbray!!! Cobbleton Mowbray!!!! in The Four Mowbrays’. Also appearing: Miss Hazelwood and Mr J S Fitzpatrick Paddington”

That must have been a memorable evening. According to Anne Varty in her book “Children and Theatre in Victorian Britain”, Lydia, who was not yet five years old, ‘retired’ from the stage in 1869. Child actors and actresses were popular in Victorian times. As for the other ‘stars’ of that evening in Westbourne Grove, I have not yet found anything about them. “The Four Mowbrays” was a one-act farce by John Poole (c 1786-1872), first performed in the late 1820s.

So, there you have it more or less: the story behind the building where books on Middle Eastern and North African subjects are on sale. It is appropriate that this former Athenaeum/ theatre is still being used for cultural purposes. I am curious to know whether there is anything remaining of the Westbourne Hall’s former auditorium. Part of the building is now used by the HBA (Hirsch Bedner Associates) Gallery. A photograph of this organization’s premises looks like the space being used might well have been part of the auditorium (see https://foursquare.com/v/hba-the-gallery/5151a5e1e4b0cbcf6b5f4568). So, all is not lost.

Meeting the professor

AMONGST THE COURSES on offer in the third year in the Physiology Department at University  College London Lon, there was one with the mysterious title of ‘Connective Tissue’. I went to see our tutor Dr Roger Woledge, a specialist in muscle physiology, and asked him about this. He told me that it had been on offer for years, but no one had ever asked to take it. He suggested that I enrol in it so that it would be held for the first time ever, and at the very least he would discover what was on offer. I agreed, and he sent me to the office of Prof Robert Harkness to let him know that I was interested in finding out about his course.

As soon as I entered Robert’s cluttered office, I knew that I would enjoy studying whatever was on offer. There was barely any, if any, free space on the Prof’s huge desk. The walls of the office were crowded with books, runs of journals, pictures, old engravings, and even framed cartoons. There was a small paper notice stuck on the glass door of one cupboard. It was typical of Robert’s sense of humour and his take on common sense.

 His rotating office chair looked antique, rather like something you might expect to see in a bank manager’s office in the old Wild West. There was a glass fronted wooden cabinet filled with books and other objects. On the floor, there was a variety of things including polished wooden microscope cases. I was asked to close the door behind me quickly because he told me that his life would not have been worth living if the new black kitten, which had just emerged from a cupboard, was allowed to escape from the office. He and his wife, Margaret. would be taking it home that evening.

I imagine that Robert must have told me something about his Connective Tissue course whilst I stroked his affectionate young cat, but I do not remember what. All I can recall is that by the end of our brief but friendly interview, I had been enrolled on his course. When I reported this to Dr Woledge, he was delighted. The course was not to be held until well into the academic year, and, by the time it commenced, its participants included G Clough, who is now a professor at a major University, an MSc. Student, and me.

Some months later as I neared the date of graduation, I began investigating the possibility of starting a PhD and began visiting various people who were potential supervisors. While I was walking beside the iron railings enclosing the gardens of Lincolns Inn Fields after just having had two interviews that I had not enjoyed, I had a revelatory moment. It dawned on me that however prestigious a laboratory or potential doctoral supervisor might be, I would have to get on with him or her as well as his or her team of co-workers. I would be spending at least 3 years in their company. It was important, at least for me, that I should feel at ease with whomever I was to collaborate. If I did not, as I had just felt during the recent interviews, I knew that I would not be able to flourish as a doctoral student. Since that day, I have always asked myself whether I would feel comfortable working with whoever was interviewing me when applying for a post. Only once, I did not follow this rule, and then I ended up in a job that did not suit me at all.

On the next day, I visited Robert Harkness in his office.  As I entered and surveyed his undoubtedly individual office, I decided that whatever project that he had to offer would suit me as it would give me the chance to work in the genial company of Robert, Margaret, and their friendly team. He told me that he would be able to get hold of a Medical research Council (‘MRC’) grant for me, providing that I thought of an interesting topic related to connective tissue. He was not going to tell me what to research – I had to make that decision.

Then all of a sudden, he opened one of the leather-bound volumes that contained reprints of his published papers, and showed me a graph published in a paper that he had written for the prestigious Journal of Physiology. I forget what the graph illustrated but recall that it was divided into sections by several vertical dotted lines. He explained to me that he always had a great deal of trouble from the editors of the Journal. They were forever returning the manuscripts of the paper that he submitted to them, wanting him to make minor modifications and thus delaying publication.  He asked me to examine the vertical lines with a magnifying glass, and then I saw that they were made up of dots and dashes, which looked like Morse code. He asked me whether I was able to decipher Morse code. I told him that I could not. Gleefully, he translated the dots and dashes which he had drawn on the published graph and revealed that they spelt out the words ‘drat those flies’ repeatedly along the length of the lines. They had not been noticed by the journal’s fussy editors and were Robert’s revenge for their pernickety interferences.

Not only did I complete my PhD under the supervision of Prof Harkness, but also, I established a close relationship with him and his family. This friendship with the family, which my wife and I value greatly, has endured long since the deaths of the Prof and his wife.

Peel Street and paintings

WALKING ALONG A SHORT street in London’s Kensington recently, I observed things that I had never noticed before and was reminded of Tony ‘M’. When I was a student of dentistry at the University College Hospital Dental School, I first met Tony in the third year. In that year, we began to learn how to make crowns (‘caps’) for our patients. Instead of sending the work out to be done by technicians, we students had to learn the nitty gritty of fabricating crowns, mostly gold ones. We were assigned to one of three or four technician tutors. I was assigned to Tony’s group. Why visiting Peel Street in Kensington sparked me to think of Tony will be revealed later.

Peel Street in Notting Hill Gate lies in land that used to be known as ‘The Racks’. It was part of the extensive estate of Campden House, which was owned by the Phillimore family. In the early 19th century, the land was bought by John Punter and William Ward, who divided the land between them in 1823 after having agreed to lay out two roads: Peel Str and Campden Str. Peel Street lay in Punter’s share of the area. Although Punter retained several plots along Peel Street, the rest were sold to a variety of different people. Nearer the eastern end of the street several buildings were demolished between 1865 and 1875 during the construction of what is now the Circle Line. Though the tracks are underground, there are no buildings built above them. If you look through the gap on the north side of the road, you can see the rear of a brick building which fronts on Edge Street. Near the top of this place, some bricks have been made to project slightly and to spell the name ‘LESLIE’. The rear part of this L-shaped building is currently occupied by ‘The Spanish Education Office’. This building was flying Spanish and  EU flags. I have no idea about the significance of ‘Leslie’.

One of the houses on the south side of Peel Street used to be a pub. It still bears the lettering ‘Peel Arms’. It was probably in existence by 1889, but today it is a private dwelling. The pub’s clientele were probably mostly workers who toiled in the gravel pits that abounded in the neighbourhood. The pub is not far from the six-storey Camden Houses, brick-built blocks of flats erected in 1877-8 for labourers, some of whom might well have drunk at the Peel Arms. The blocks contain 125 separate flats. The entrances to the blocks have art nouveau features. The building were designed by the architect Edwyn Evans Cronk (1846-1919) for the National Dwellings Society Ltd. Cronk was born in Sevenoaks (Kent) and died in Redcliffe Square in South Kensington.

At the western end of Peel Street, there is another pub, The Windsor Castle. Unlike the Peel Arms, this is a working establishment, now popular with the locals, most of whom are not poorly paid labourers. It was originally built in about 1826 and then remodelled in 1933. The pub contains much of its original late Georgian building fabric and is a Grade II listed place. Although I have passed it often, I have never entered it or its reputedly fine garden. At the Eastern end of Peel Street, there is a wine bar, The Kensington Wine Rooms. When we were getting married, back in 1993, the premises were occupied by a branch of the Café Rouge restaurant chain. We held a pre-wedding dinner there. The premises now housing the wine bar once housed a pub, The Macaulay Arms.  It was listed as being in existence in the 1868 edition of “Allen’s West London Street Directory”. Thus, residents of Peel Street were only a few steps from three ‘drinking holes’.

The directory ( https://www.gutenberg.org/files/58160/58160-h/58160-h.htm) lists the residents of Peel Street in 1868 as follows:

“1 Upfold George, sweep/ 2 Arnold F., carpenter/ 3 Miles Frederick, painter/ 23 Mansell H., painter/ 26 Redman J., marine stores/ 28 Redman J., beer retailer/ 37 Taylor W., gardener/ 46 Lucas Wm. Grocer/ 53 Hobbs Mrs. general shop/ 55 Horskins Thos. Baker/ 63 Pollett —, bootmaker/ Harris W., greengrocer/ 67 Smart M., The George Brewery/ 69 Dunnett Mrs. dressmaker/ 77 Elson George, oilman/ 80 Evans H., gardener/ 82 Atwood Mrs, dressmaker/ 83 Salmon —, bootmaker”

Most of the inhabitants appear to have been tradesmen, merchants, and craftsmen, rather than labourers. This is probably because the list was compiled before the Campden Houses were built to house manual labourers and their families. Incidentally, there is still a greengrocer on Peel Street. Jack and Jessie’s excellent shop is opposite the Kensington Wine Rooms.

Peel Cottage stands almost at the corner of Peel Street and Campden Hill Road. It is next to number 118 Campden Hill Road (aka ‘West House’), a building on the corner of Peel street designed for the artist George Henry Boughton (1803-1905) in the late 1870s by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912). New Scotland Yard and Lowther Lodge (home of the Royal Geographical Society on Kensington Gore) were amongst the many other buildings designed by Shaw. Another artist, the landscape painter Matthew Ridley Corbet (1850-1902) lived at number 80 Peel Street, where once lived the gardener, H Evans.  

The entrance to Peel Cottage, which is dwarfed by its neighbours, is partially covered with ivy. It was seeing the blue, circular commemorative plaque on the wall next to its entrance that reminded me of my former teacher Tony M. The plaque informs the passer-by that the artist Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) lived in Peel Cottage from 1925 until his death. This brings me back to Tony M, about whom you must have thought I had forgotten already.

As a dental student, I spent many hours with Tony M as I struggled to make decent gold crowns that would fit my patients’ teeth in the conservation clinics of the Dental School. Each encounter with Tony involved a trip to the canteen in the school’s basement. Tony was unable to function without a fresh cup of the school’s barely mediocre coffee. Over cups of coffee, Tony used to encourage us when the clinical teachers made our lives miserable, help with our technical work, and chat. During one of our sessions together, Tony, knowing that art interested me, suggested that I visit Cottrell’s showrooms in nearby Charlotte Street (numbers 15-17) to see the fine collection of paintings that hung on its walls. Cottrell’s were an important supplier of dental equipment and materials. Today, although it has retained its original Victorian frontage, it is the premises of the Charlotte Street Hotel.

Dutifully and because I was curious, I visited Cottrell’s showroom and looked at the framed watercolours hanging on the walls of the two ground floor showrooms. The paintings were all works of the inhabitant of Peel Cottage, William Russell Flint.

Flint was born in Edinburgh. He studied at Daniel Stewart’s College and then Edinburgh Institution. Between 1900 and 1902, he worked as a medical illustrator in London. Later, he produced illustrations for books and “The Illustrated London News”. He was elected President of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours (now the Royal Watercolour Society, of which my wife’s cousin, Varsha Bhatia, is a member), a position he held from 1936 until 1956. He was knighted in 1947. Flint produced many well-executed, delicately tinted water-colour paintings. He often visited Spain, where he made plenty of images that often included sensuous portrayals of women in various stages of undress. It was some of these titillating paintings that Tony had sent me to see on the walls of Cottrell’s showroom.

It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s (before 1982, when I qualified) that Tony M encouraged me to pay a visit to Cottrell’s in Charlotte Street to widen my knowledge of the world of art. Many years have passed since then, but a memory of that brief glimpse of Flint’s paintings lingers in the back of my mind. Visiting Peel Street and seeing Flint’s home brought that all back to the forefront of my memory.

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.