A historic town hall

FIRST WORLD WAR veteran William Frederick Stone died aged 108 in January 2009. He moved to Watlington in Oxfordshire in 1986 and lived the rest of his life in this small town. A popular figure in the town, he would have often passed the place’s Town Hall, which had been in existence even longer than him.

The name Watlington is probably derived from ‘tun’, meaning ‘fence’ or ‘enclosure’, and the people of ‘Wacol’ or ‘Waecol’, who also gave their name to the famous old road known as Watling Street. The town is close to another ancient cross-country route, the Icknield Way (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icknield_Way). There is evidence that there was a settlement at Watlington in the 6th century AD. The current street layout was already established by the 14th century and that there were inns in the town by the following century. During the English Civil War (1642-1651), Parliamentary troops were billeted in the town on the night before the Battle of Chalgrove Field on the 18th of June 1643, a battle in which their opponents, the Royalists, were victorious (www.britishbattles.com/english-civil-war/battle-of-chalgrove/).

Twenty-one years after the battle, in 1664, Watlington’s town hall was built by Sir Thomas Stonor (c1626-1683). He lived at Stonor Park, which is 4.7 miles south east of Watlington. The Stonor family were Roman Catholics and retained their faith throughout the Reformation and suffered for that during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The brick town hall is unusual in that no two of its sides are equal in length and none of its corners are right angles (www.watlingtontownhall.com/history.html). Part of the ground floor is an arcade open to the outside air. This area was formerly used to hold markets. The first floor of the building served as a grammar school in the 19th century. The clock mechanism on the second floor is said to have come from the studios of the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren. This is not the only timepiece on the outside of the building. The other is a sundial, which has been gilded with 24 carat gold. The town hall was extended in the later 17th  or early 18th century (https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101369012-town-hall-watlington#.YH28eehKhPY)  and was restored faithfully in the 20th century. Currently, the first-floor room, the former school, and beneath it, the under croft, are available for hire for social and other functions.

We came across the town hall quite by chance when driving home from visiting the Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row. Today, we revisited the town on our way back from seeing several other places in Oxfordshire, about which I hope to tell you in the near future. Driving through England on roads other than motorways takes one through small towns and villages and many of these have features worth stopping to examine. Apart from the town hall, Watlington is a charming old place with several half-timbered buildings, cafés, and shops. Once again, a day trip to the countryside near London has proved rewarding.

Beef, mutton, and martyrs

COPENHAGEN FIELDS WAS an open space north of the Barnsbury district of London’s Islington. In the 17th century, the place was beyond the northern edge of London. As with other open spaces in 17th century Islington, it was an area where people whose homes had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 congregated with what belongings they managed to salvage. By the 18th century, Copenhagen Fields had become a place where large numbers of Londoners used to gather for political meetings.

Animals being led to Caledonian Market

According to William Howitt writing in his “The Northern Heights of London” (published in 1869), the fields acquired its name following a visit of the King of Denmark to his relative King James I (reigned over England, Scotland and Ireland from 1603 to 1625). A Dane built a house on the open space, Copenhagen House. The name ‘Copenhagen’ appears on a map published in 1695. Howitt reveals that Copenhagen Fields and its house became a place of recreation for Londoners:

“It became a great tea house and resort of the Londoners to play skittles and Dutch-pins. It commanded a splendid view over the metropolis, the heights of Highgate and Hampstead …”

As mentioned, Copenhagen Fields was connected with political activity; it was a place of mass protests. Not long after the French Revolution, there was a meeting in the open space:

“On the 12th of November 1795 a public meeting was summoned by the London Corresponding Society in Copenhagen Fields which was attended by more than a hundred thousand persons. Five rostra or tribunes were erected, and Mr. Ashley, the secretary, informed the meeting that it at each of them petitions to the King, Lords and Commons against the Bill for preventing seditious meetings would be offered to their consideration.” (www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/france/copenhagen.htm).

The best remembered protest that occurred in Copenhagen Fields was on the 21st of April 1834. Thousands of people commenced marching from there to central London in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who lived in Dorset:

“In 1834, farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union. Unions were lawful and growing fast but six leaders of the union were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation for taking an oath of secrecy. A massive protest swept across the country. Thousands of people marched through London and many more organised petitions and protest meetings to demand their freedom.” (www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/).

Many of those marchers began their procession from Copenhagen Fields:

“Up to 100,000 people assembled in Copenhagen Fields near King’s Cross. Fearing disorder, the Government took extraordinary precautions. Lifeguards, the Household Cavalry, detachments of Lancers, two troops of Dragoons, eight battalions of infantry and 29 pieces of ordnance or cannon were mustered. More than 5,000 special constables were sworn in. The city looked like an armed camp.

By 7am the protesters began to gather marshalled by trade union stewards on horseback. Robert Owen, the leader of the Grand Consolidated Union and the father of the Co-operative Movement arrived.

The grand procession with banners flying marched to Parliament in strict discipline. Loud cheers came from spectators lining the streets and crowding the roof tops. At Whitehall the petition, borne on the shoulders of twelve unionists, was taken to the office of the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne. He hid behind his curtains and refused to accept the massive petition.” (www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/story/mounting-protest)

In June 1855, Queen Victoria’s Consort, Prince Albert, opened the Metropolitan Cattle Market (later known as ‘Caledonian Market’). This market occupied most of the area of Copenhagen Fields. It was built to ease the congestion caused by driving live animals into the more centrally located Smithfield Market. Although at first many animals walked to the market from the fields where they were raised, the market was built close to the goods yards of the recently built Great Northern and North London railways (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Cattle_Market).

Cattle travelled (under their own ‘steam’) two hundred miles from Devon at two miles per hour, walking twelve hours a day. Sheep from Wales, also two hundred miles from Copenhagen Fields, would be trotting across England to London for twenty days. Some cattle travelled even further: over five hundred miles from Scotland. These fascinating figures can be seen on a sign located in the park that stands where the cattle market stood between 1855 and the early 20th century, when trade in live animals began to decrease. Later, the market area was used for selling antiques and bric-a-brac. The Caledonian Market finally closed in 1963.

Much of the old market area is now used for recreation. On the south side of Market Road, there are enclosed sporting areas. The northern side is an attractive little park. All that remains of the market are the Victorian cast-iron railings, which are in various states of decay, and the market’s clock tower, which has been beautifully restored. The tower is 151 feet tall. It used to stand amidst the now-demolished dealers’ offices and close to the also demolished abattoirs.

Just north of the tower, there is a small café which is named in honour of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Within it, there is a wall facing the serving counter. This has two murals commemorating mass protest. One of them, painted in a style reminiscent of social realism depicts people of many different ethnicities marching beneath a banner of The Islington Trades Union Council. This bears the words:

“Reclaim our past. Organise our future”.

The other mural commemorates the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Panels on the walls of the café and around the north entrance to the park are decorated with scenes from the history of the area in the form of silhouettes. Some of them show animals being driven through the countryside. Others depict market scenes and the shops in which the meat was sold. Circular panels mounted on the walls of the tower show old photographs of the market in its heyday.

Although the park is not as spectacular as many other London parks, it is worth visiting to see the magnificently restored market clock tower and the several plaques and illustrations that provide clear explanations of the area’s historical importance. In addition, the small café and surrounding buildings within the park are good examples of contemporary architecture. The Caledonian Park, the former Copenhagen Fields, is yet another fascinating feature that contributes to what is wonderful about London.

Portobello Farm

THE BATTLE OF PORTOBELLO (or ‘Porto Bello’) was fought between the forces of Britain and Spain on the 20th of November 1739. The British were aiming to capture the settlement of Porto Bello in Panama during the early stages of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). The victorious British naval force of only six heavily armed vessels was commanded by Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757). This gentleman has been accredited for coining the word ‘grog’, meaning rum diluted with water.

Rail bridge over Portobello Road

A map of Kensington drawn in about 1810 marks a ‘Portobello Farm’ next to what is now Portobello Road. The owner of the farm is said to have named his farm thus to honour Admiral Vernon’s capture of the Panamanian town of Porto Bello. The road or track running past the farm was called ‘Portobello Lane’. In the early 19th century, the farm stood alone amongst open fields where cows, pigs, and sheep grazed.

A detailed map surveyed in 1865 shows the farm located near a slight bend in Portobello Lane, about 270 yards north of a bridge carrying the railway across the lane, 280 yards east of ‘Notting Hill Station’ (now Ladbroke Grove Station). Almost across the road from the farm, there is marked ‘Notting Barn Lodge’. A lane led west from there to a larger building marked ‘Notting Barn’.

Notting Barn was the manor house of the Manor of Knotting Barns. Writing in 1820, Thomas Faulkner, author of “History and Antiquities of Kensington”, noted:

“In the midst of these meadows stands the Manor House of Knotting Barns, now occupied by William Smith esq. of Hammersmith, it is an ancient brick building, surrounded by spacious barns, and outhouses; the road to Kensal Green passes through the farmyard.”

The manor was part of the property of the De Veres, as is evidenced by a document dated 1476. In that year, it was seized by the Crown. In 1543, when the manor was owned by Robert Wright, it was sold to King Henry VIII. Then, through the centuries the manor changed hands frequently. The manor gave its name to the area now known as ‘Notting Hill’. The name of the manor and the present district might well have Saxon origins.  Florence Gladstone, writing in 1924 (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=56157&annum=3000), suggested that a:

“…Saxon family, the Cnot-tingas, or ” sons of Cnotta,” may have made a clearing for themselves in the denser wood to the north. No less an authority than Dr. Walter W. Skeat suggests this Saxon solution for the name of Notting Hill. Other writers have thought that the encamp-ment was founded by followers of King Knut. Whether Saxon or Danish in its origin the little colony seems to have been entirely wiped out before the Norman Conquest; nothing but the name remaining to testify to its former existence. The popular belief that Notting Hill owes its name to the nut bushes which grew upon its slopes is a pleasant, but untenable, tradition. The name occurs in the Patent Rolls for A.D. 1361. There it is  ‘Knottynghull’, proving that the ‘k’ is original as is also the double ‘t’ .”

By 1897, both Notting Barn and Portobello Farm no longer appeared on the map and Portobello Lane had been renamed ‘Portobello Road’. Notting Barn Manor House stood approximately where today St Marks Road and Bassett Road meet. Where the farm had once stood, there were residential streets that still exist, including Bevington, Blagrove and Raddington Roads. Across Portobello Road almost opposite the site of the farm there was a large building labelled ‘Franciscan Convent’ and opposite it just north of the former farm there was another large building, which is unlabelled on the map but was ‘St Joseph’s Home for the Elderly’.

St Josephs was founded by a Roman Catholic order, The Little Sisters of the Poor (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/stjosephshome.html). They bought Portobello Farm on the 7th of June 1865. They resided nearby whilst the farm buildings were demolished and their new convent and home for the elderly was being built. The home for the elderly opened in 1869. The home was finally closed in 1978. After being demolished in the early 1980s, a new housing estate, St Josephs Close, was built in 1986 with its entrance on Bevington Road. The old convent wall that runs along the east side of Portobello Road has become an open-air public art gallery.

Across the road and almost opposite the former farm and its successor, St Josephs, stands a formidable looking building that currently houses a Spanish school, the Vicente Cañada Blanch Spanish School. This was originally occupied by nuns of the Third Order of St. Francis, whose convent had been founded in 1857. The building was designed by Henry Clutton (1819-1893) and built in 1862, but it was modified and enlarged later.

Nothing remains of either the manor house or Portobello Farm. However, the slight bend in Portobello Road near the Spanish school is as it was when the farm existed as can be seen on detailed maps that marked the farm. The entrance to the farm was on a stretch of Portobello Road north of the elevated Westway (the M40 motorway). On Fridays and Saturdays, this section of the road becomes an open-air ‘flea market’, a scruffy extension of the main Portobello Road market south of the motorway and railway bridges that have been built close to each other where they traverse the busy market precinct.  

I worked in Golborne Road for several years, near the streets that now cover the former Portobello Farm. Many of my patients lived in those streets. Most of them are probably unaware of the erstwhile existence of the farm, as was I until I researched this short essay.

Jacob’s cross in Lavenham

HAD IT NOT BEEN FILLED WITH parked cars, Market Square in Lavenham (Suffolk in East Anglia) would probably be recognisable to those who lived in the town several hundred years ago. The square is surrounded by old buildings, many of which are half-timbered. The most impressive of these is the Guildhall that was built in 1529. This large building attests the former wealth of the town, when it was an important centre of the wool trade in East Anglia. In its heyday, cloth from Lavenham was sent all over Britain and exported to Holland and Spain via the port of Ipswich. During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), Lavenham was the fourteenth richest town in England.

Lavenham boasts a 16th century market cross. Market crosses were erected to indicate that an area had been designated as being a market square by a bishop, or a baron, or the monarch. Lavenham’s market cross is made of stone. A three stepped pyramid supports a slender column surmounted by a stone sphere. A metal plate informs the visitor that:

“The market cross was erected in 1501in accordance with the will of William Jacob”.

So, who was William Jacob?

Jacob was one of Lavenham’s wealthy clothiers, involved in the wool textile trade. Despite his surname, it was highly unlikely that he was Jewish because most Jews had been expelled from England in the 13th century (and it was not until the mid-17th century that Jewish people began returning).  According to text on the website deverehouse.co.uk:

“William Jacob was the tenth wealthiest clothier and businessman in England, making an annual profit of 67 marks and with a gross turnover of 223 whole cloths (a gross turnover of £12m in today’s money, around 400 marks).  On his death he paid for the erection of the market cross that is still there 520 years later.  He did not branch into “straites” or “narrow cloths” and within 25 years of his death the cheaper narrow cloth was dominating the market and Jacob’s family were seeking other work.”

In his will, dated 1500, he wrote:

“I will have a cross made of my perpetual cost that shall be set upon the market hill in the village of Lavenham.”

The cross that was erected in Lavenham in 1501 was a copy of the market cross already present in the city of Cambridge. The Cambridge market cross has long-since disappeared. The stepped base is all that remains of the cross paid for by Jacob’s estate. The slender shaft that now stands on it was put up in 1725. It is interesting to note that far away in Florence (Italy) Michelangelo was beginning work on his famous statue of David in 1501. That sculpture was completed in 1504. Although many visitors come to Lavenham, many more visit Florence.

Suffolk was the most important clothmaking county in 15th/16th century England. William Jacob was one of the county’s 100 clothiers in business between 1480 and 1500. Other counties had far fewer members of this trade. Although William Jacob was the tenth most wealthy, the wealthiest was Thomas Spring III (c1474-1523) of Lavenham. By 1500, Suffolk was the most industrialised and urbanised county in Britain, but by 1700, the county had become a rural backwater. Suffolk and much of the rest of East Anglia might be regarded as a bit of a backwater nowadays, but it is a largely picturesque one with wonderful landscapes and a great architectural legacy due to its past prosperity during the golden age of the wool trade.

Keep your shirt on

My late father in law was enthusiastic about everything new until his very last days. Every day, he scoured the newspapers to discover the latest events happening in Bangalore. If I was visiting the family, I often accompanied him to events that events that caught Daddy’s eye.

For example, I accompanied to the launch of the new Tata Indica car. When we arrived in time for the launch, there was a large crowd waiting for the official launch. When they saw my aged father in law, dressed in a smart suit and wearing a tie, being supported by me and his walking stick, the crowd parted as did the Red Sea when Moses arrived on its shore. We were given the honour of being first to be allowed to sit in the new car model.

On another occasion, Daddy spotted that there was to be a huge shirt sale, at which customers, who brought an old shirt as part exchange, would be able to buy a new one at a substantial discount.

Before we set off, Daddy had to find a shirt that he was willing to part with. This was a lengthy business because he possessed a large collection of shirts, each one of which needed to be examined and considered. This task was difficult because almost all of his shirts were good quality and in good condition.

Eventually, a shirt was selected for sacrifice, and we set off.

There were many people and an enormous number of shirts at the sale. Daddy carefully examined what was on offer and kept selecting shirts and asking my opinion about them, flatteringly but unwisely overestimating my sartorial expertise.

The hours passed and time for eating lunch was approaching rapidly. After giving my opinion about many shirts, all of a lesser quality and beauty to the one he was going to exchange, I told him that the latest one that he was showing me was the one to buy. He bought it and handed his old shirt as part payment.

When we got back home, Daddy showed the family his new shirt. Nobody liked it. They were horrified that I had allowed him to buy such a ghastly shirt. Yet, Daddy loved it. He wore it often. The picture shows him wearing it, sitting with me in 2005 at the Bangalore Club.

Around the market with Mansour

I CANNOT COUNT the number of times I have passed Johnson Market on my way between Koramangala, where my in-laws live, and central Bangalore. The market building stands close to the busy intersection of Hosur Road and Richmond Road. Recently, I went on a guided walking tour of the area around Johnson Market. It was led by my good friend Mansour Ali, who runs a great organisation called “Bengaluru by foot” (www.bengalurubyfoot.com). I had visited Johnson Market several times before on my own, but Mansour’s tour enhanced my experience of it and its surroundings.

Johnson Market was built in an indo-saracenic style in the early 20th century on the site of stables that housed horses, which were imported into India in 1824 from Persia by Aga Ali Asker who was born in Shiraz in 1808. Some of the stables still exist, incorporated into the structure of the market halls. Ali Asker was one of several brothers. While the rest of ghem returned to Persia, he stayed in in Bangalore where he died after carrying out much valuable public work. One of his grandsons, born in Bangalore, was Sir Mirza Ismail (1883-1959), a great Indian statesman.

Johnson Market is for selling food. In addition to vegetables (including exotic vegetables like Chinese pak choi), there is a wonderful fishmongers shop and a beef market.

Near to the market, stands ‘Koshys Automatic Bakery’, which was the first mechanised bakery in the city. A stall beside it sells bread, cakes, and delicious filled puffs.

At both ends of the long building housing the Islamic Educational Board of India on Richmond Road, there are gateways leading to Muslim shrines well hidden from the road. One of them is a Sunni shrine, and the other is Shia/Sufi. Soon after the birth of Islam believers in this religion split into two main groups: Sunni and Shia. The majority of Muslims in India are Sunni, a small minority are Shia. It happens that there is a concentration of Shia establishments close to Johnson Market. This might be because Ali Asker and his descendants, many of whom had homes in the area, were Shias. Each of the shrines or ‘dargahs’ are peaceful enclaves, which although close to the main road, feel far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The leafy shaded Mysore Tobacco Company compound is across Richmond Road facing the two dargahs. Surrounded by trees and luxuriant foliage, the main building is a delightful example of colonial Bangalorean domestic architecture. Its windows are partially covered with monkey top woodwork. The large front porch is rich in wooden latticework and rustic carving that hints of idealised quaint country cottages in far-off England.

All Saints Church, founded by the Reverend Pettigrew (founder of Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton School for boys) and designed in Victorian gothic style by the English architect Robert Fellowes Chisholm and consecrated in 1870. It stands at the intersection of Richmond and Hosur Roads, and must have brought feelings of homesickness to Britishers living in pre-independence Bangalore. Stepping inside is like entering a village church in England. The garden surrounding the church contains a rich variety of plants, including a rather spindly olive tree, reflecting Pettigrew’s interest in botany. Tragically, part of this garden is under threat because the municipal authorities want it for use in the construction of a new metro line.

After visiting the church, Mansour took us to see another Shia dargah in a lane leading off Hosur Road. This shrine is connected with the battle of Karbala (600 AD) during which Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was slain by the caliph Yazid I. The shrine, which is revered by Shias, contains fine glass lamps and chandeliers which were probably made in Turkey over a century ago. Unlike mosques, where worshippers of different genders are kept separated, males and females can pray together in dargahs.

The Masjid e Askari is the only Shia mosque in Bangalore. Adjoining it, there is a recently built replica of a mosque in Karbala, the city close to where Hussain, sacred to the Shias, met his death. The replica, which is smaller than the original, is a beautiful construction with amazing mirror work mosaics in which words from the Koran are inserted in black tiling.

After spending three hours with Mansour, I felt that I had learnt much about the Shia branch of Islam and a great deal about a part of Bangalore which I have passed often without realising how interesting it is.