A London square lacking a soul and New Delhi

THE HIGHEST PLACE in north London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’) is Central Square. Designed to be a focal point for people living in the Suburb, this often-windswept square is a dismal failure. Apart from the occasional communal fetes held on this large open space, this area is somewhere that people walk cross usually without stopping to linger. I was brought up in a house not far from the Square and rarely during the 30 or more years I lived in the area could this heart of the Suburb be described as a lively meeting place. Visits since leaving the area over 30 years ago, have never revealed much, if anything, going on in what might have been a wonderful heart for the local community.

Free Church, Central Square

HGS was created by Dame Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936), who was married to a cleric, Canon Samuel Augustus Barnett (1844-1913). The Barnetts lived close to the Spaniards Inn near Hampstead. The architect Raymond Unwin (1863-1940) was important in conceiving the layout and design for the Suburb. Another architect involved with the creation of HGS, especially the environs of Central Square was Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944).  Building commenced in about 1904/5. The plan for Central Square was finalised in 1911 after several changes in its design. These changes have been summarised as follows (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=BAR011):

“Raymond Unwin’s first design for the suburb (February 1905) had communal buildings including a church, chapel, hall, library and shops; the site of the square was to be levelled and extended to the north. Unwin and Edwin Lutyens, appointed architect in May 1906, proposed a more formal plan in 1906-7; this and a third scheme by Lutyens did not meet with Mrs Barnett’s approval. The final plan of 1911 of Central Square as built is a variant on Lutyens’ plan for a rectangle broken up into four clearly articulated spaces each defined by a double row of trees and a lily pond.” 

It was a shame that the shops and library never materialised. Had they been included in the final plan, the Square would have had a chance of becoming a vibrant communal centre and maybe the Suburb would not have developed into the staid and rather precious district that it has become. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who lived close to HGS in Hampstead’s North End, did not differ from my assessment of the Square:

“The omission of shops from Central Square has proved a disadvantage; the square has never become a real social centre. Not only shops, but also cinemas, pubs, and cafés have been refused admission. Institute education and divine worship have not proved to be as much of a lively attraction as the social reformers hoped for.” (“Buildings of England. London 4: North” by Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, published 1998)

As for the lily pond, if that ever existed, it had disappeared by the time I was a young child in the 1950s.

Apart from the four lawns separated by footpaths, the Square has the following notable features: a church on its south side; a church on its north side; tennis courts on its eastern edge and near them, a monument to the memory of Dame Henrietta Barnett; and on its east side a large building called ‘The Institute’, which houses Henrietta Barnett School. Central Square is flanked by two equally sterile rectangular open spaces: North and South Squares.

Lutyens was responsible for the design of many of the structures standing around Central Square: St Jude Church with its tall spire, constructed 1909-1911; the Free Church with its dome, begun 1911, but only competed in the 1960s; the Henrietta Barnett Memorial, completed about 1938; and the Institute’s design has some input from Lutyens. And that is not all. Lutyens also designed some of the houses in North Square and in Erskine Hill that leads north from it. Friends of mine lived in a pair of semi-detached houses designed by Lutyens on Erskine Hill. Externally, they were not unattractive buildings, but inside I was not impressed; the ground floor rooms were small and not well fed with daylight. Taken in isolation, one might forgive Lutyens for this defect in his design, but since first seeing my friends’ homes, I have discovered that Lutyens was prone to creating designs that were less than ideal.

When visiting Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed in the 13th century, we saw a couple of lodges that had been designed by Lutyens. A friend pointed out that he had omitted guttering in their design, which is a strange thing to miss out in a country where rain is not infrequent. The result is that over the years water running off the lodges’ roofs have damaged the brickwork of their external walls. The latest “National Trust Magazine” (Spring 2021) highlights a design failure at Castle Drogo near Dartmoor in Devon, designed by Lutyens and constructed between 1911 and 1930 for the founder of Home and Colonial Stores, Julius Drewe (1856-1931). Designed to look like a mediaeval fortress, the place was equipped with the latest of 20th century features including electricity generated by a ‘hydro-turbine’. Despite all of its up-to-date furnishings, it is prone to old-fashioned water leaks. This was largely due to Lutyens’ choice of asphalt, a relatively new material as far as roofing was concerned. In addition, the article in the magazine reveals:

“The windows were designed without windowsills …this leaves little protection from the Dartmoor elements…”

In 1897, Lutyens married Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton (1874–1964), who was daughter of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton (1831-1891), Viceroy of India between 1876 and 1880. In 1911, the capital of British India shifted from Calcutta to Delhi. And with this move, Lutyens was chosen to head an architectural team to design a new administrative complex in Delhi. His views on the kind of architecture that he considered suitable were disdainful of Indian architecture:

“Lutyens regarded Indian architectural interventions as mere ‘spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect as there is in any art nouveau’. Indian buildings, according to him, reflected a childish ignorance of even the basic principle of architecture. He also firmly believed that in countries outside of Europe ‘without a great architectural tradition of their own, it was even more essential to adhere strictly to the canons of the architectural style’.” (https://thewire.in/history/friendship-faltered-raisina-hill).

This patronising and denigrating view of traditional Indian architecture that includes treasures like the Taj Mahal and the great stepwells in Gujarat and elsewhere, along with his dogged adherence to certain aspects of European classical architecture, are a poor reflection of Lutyens’ own aesthetic sensibilities and help to explain why I do not rate him amongst the best of 20th century architects. However, many might disagree with my judgement: chacun à son gout, as they say across The English Channel.

Although Lutyens’ creations in New Delhi are much admired, one part of his design showed lack of planning. This is evident in the Viceroy’s House, which he designed. It stands in a complex of buildings on Raisina Hill. Lutyens had wanted the House to stand prominently, like St Judes in HGS, so that it could be seen from all around. Unfortunately, Lutyens:

“…had seen the perspective plan of the buildings earlier but had failed to take adequate notice of the gradient. When he discovered it finally, it was perhaps too late. Lutyens wrote to his wife Emily: ‘I am having difficulty with Baker. You remember the perspective showing the secretariats with Government House. Well, he has designed his levels so that you will never see Government House at all from the Great Place. You will [only] see the top of the dome.’” (https://thewire.in/history/friendship-faltered-raisina-hill)

Well, in my humble opinion, a top-rate architect should never have made such an error and even worse blamed it on his colleague, the eminent architect Herbert Baker (1862-1946). To some outcry in India, there are plans to replace some of Lutyens’ creations in Delhi (www.thehindu.com/news/national/what-is-the-project-to-redevelop-lutyens-delhi-all-about/article29865323.ece)

I have never visited Delhi, New or Old, but I hope that what Lutyens created there is more joyous than the sombre atmosphere that reigns in and around the soulless Central Square in the Hampstead Garden Suburb.

EVERYONE NEEDS GOOD NEIGHBOURS

I HAVE BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH INDIA since my earliest days. This association was unconscious for the first 18 years of my life, that is before I met Indians, including my future wife, at university. During my childhood and until I was 30, I lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’) in the shadow of the tall conical spire of St Judes Church. This brick edifice that can be seen from all around the HGS and many other places in northwest London was designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) the husband of Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton (1874–1964), who was a daughter of the 1st Earl of Lytton, a former Viceroy of India. It was Lutyens who was given the task of designing New Delhi, the new capital of British India, between 1912 and 1930.

 

H0

St Judes Church by Edwin Lutyens

The construction of St Judes began in 1909, a year after our family home at 36 Hampstead Way was built. The church was consecrated in 1911, but not completed until 1935, after Lutyens had finished working on New Delhi. The north side of the church lines one side of the grassy Central Square, which was also laid out by Lutyens. The north side of the square is lined by the south side of the Free Church, a domed edifice designed by Lutyens. Its construction began in 1911 but was not fully completed until 1960.  As a child and for many years later, I had no idea that Lutyens had an important connection with India. In general,  I do not like the buildings designed by Lutyens in either HGS or in New Delhi. The only one of his buildings that appeals to me is Castle Drogo in Devon.

A recent visit to the HGS brought back several memories that I will share with you. Our house at 36 Hampstead Way looks much as it did when I was a child. In those days, and still today if you look carefully, the name ‘Inverugie’ can be discerned above the front porch beneath layers of whitewash. When my parents bought the house back in the early 1950s, they did not like the name and had it covered with paint. Despite many repaintings, it can still be seen if you know where to look.

When I was a child, our neighbour on Hampstead Way was the elderly spinster Miss Reinecke. Our other immediate neighbours on Hill Close were the very elderly Mr and Mrs Palmer. They sold the house to a young family, Mr and Mrs ‘S’. I used to babysit their children when I was a teenager. It was an easy way to make some pocket money because their children were always asleep when I arrived, and they never woke up while I was on duty. On one occasion, I was baby-sitting long enough to listen to the five long-playing records (LPs) that contained an entire performance of Wagner’s “Mastersingers of Nuremberg”. We rang on the doorbell the other day. Although Mr S could not recognise me at first, once he knew who I am, he remembered all sorts of things. He told me that all of the other houses in Hill Close have changed hands, sometimes several times, since we sold the house in the early 1990s.

A house at the top end of Hill Close used to be occupied by one of my father’s colleagues at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’), Professor Percy Cohen (1928-1999).  He was born in Durban, South Africa, and after obtaining a degree in social anthropology, he moved into the field of sociology. Occasionally, he used to stop his car and pick me up to give me a lift a part of the way to University College London, where I studied for many years.

A few steps lead up from the Cohen’s end of Hill close to a footpath that runs between hedges. When I lived in HGS, there was a tennis court on the south side of the path. All of the houses on Hill Close, including ours, had access to this court. In the second half of the 1960s, I used to play tennis there after school with three of my friends. We used to play in the fading light of the late afternoon. What with poor light and the well-worn markings on the hard court, there were often arguments about whether a ball had landed inside or outside the lines. Today, the court has disappeared and has been replaced by a well-manicured lawn, which is used by residents of a block of flats on South Square.

The footpath that begins at the end of Hill Close disgorges at South Square. A house on the corner of the footpath and South Square was once occupied by the Zacharias family. Mr Zacharias was a US diplomat. My sister and his daughter, Missie, became good friends. I enjoyed spending time with Missie’s brother, and my parents got on well with his. Occasionally, we would be invited to parties at their house. At one of these, we were introduced to Patrick Gordon Walker (1907-1980), who was an important British Labour politician. I remember being impressed at the time. I realised he was a famous person but had no idea why he was. Eventually, the Zacharias family returned to the USA. Just before they left, they came to our house to give us many half empty bottles of liqueurs and spirits.  My parents stored them in a cupboard in my father’s study. They were not keen drinkers. The bottles remained untouched, gathering dust for many years. They were still there when my father sold the house. I hope someone managed to enjoy their contents rather than chucking them away.

Henrietta Barnett School and the HGS Institute line the eastern side of Central Square. Until our recent visit, I had never noticed a stone plaque inserted in the wall of the school building. It reads: “This stone was unveiled by Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret on 2nd July 1957 to commemorate the jubilee of The Hampstead Garden Suburb, 1907-1957”.

I was 5 years and two months old on the 2nd of July 1957. I remember that day well. I was spending the day at my mother’s sisters house near Wildwood Road in HGS. Sometime that morning, she took me and my young cousin to Wildwood Road and seated me on a piece of street furniture, a metal cupboard fixed to the pavement, which contained equipment needed for telephones. She handed me a Union Jack flag attached to a blue wooden stick. When the fancy car carrying Princess Margaret drove past, I waved the flag. You might wonder how I remember so much about that flag. The reason is that it was stored in my aunt’s downstairs bathroom for many years afterwards and I saw it each time I used the room.

Southway leads east from the south-east corner of Central Square. Harold Wilson (1916-1995), Prime Minister between 1964 and 1970 then again from 1974 to 1976, lived in a semi-detached house on Southway until 1964, when he moved to 10 Downing Street, closer to his workplace. Unlike his minister Gordon Walker, I never met him. The brickwork on the former Prime Minister’s home in Southway includes three bricks inscribed with letters. One reads “HCP”, another “AEP”, and the third “1909”, which might be the year the house was built.

Bigwood Road intersects South Way and leads south to Meadway, crosses it,  and then becomes  Meadway Close. One of my father’s close colleagues at the LSE, Lionel Robbins (1898-1984), lived in a substantial semi-detached house on this cul-de-sac that ends close to the Hampstead Heath Extension. Lord Robbins was an important twentieth century British economist. I cannot tell you about his contributions to economics because I only knew him as a friend of our family.

Lionel was over six feet tall and his wife, Iris, was truly short. He drove a tiny Mini and Iris drove a far larger vehicle. My mother knew that Robbins was fond of spaghetti. My parents were fond of Italians, and often invited my father’s Italian postgraduate students, amongst which was the former Prime Minister of Italy, Romano Prodi, to our home for dinner. Almost always, they invited Lionel Robbins as well. This was because my parents knew that most of my father’s Italian students were in awe of the great Lionel Robbins. At these dinner parties, my mother served spaghetti which Robbins enjoyed, and the young Italian guests sat around the great man enjoying his presence and the opportunity to chat with such a famous economist.

Almost opposite the home of the Robbins was the home of my school friend at Highgate School, Timothy Clarke. Tim is the younger brother of Charles Clarke, who became head boy at Highgate School before studying at Cambridge University. A member of the Labour Party, Charles served as Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006 in Tony Blair’s government. Once a Head Boy, always a Head Boy! I lost contact with Tim after we left Highgate. Whenever I pass his childhood home, I remember that there was a stylised metal sailing ship attached to its front door. When I passed it recently, I noticed that the door was no longer decorated with a ship.

We had parked our car near the intersection of Hampstead Way and Meadway, opposite a house on the north-east corner of the intersection. The building is a kind of terrace containing three or four houses. I never knew anyone who lived there, but I do remember that whenever there was to be a general election, somebody in that group of houses always put up an orange poster promoting the Liberal Party. Despite this and Harold Wilson living in the Suburb, the majority  of voters in the Hendon South Constituency, in which HGS is located, always voted for the Conservatives. When I was young, our MP had a memorable name: Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (1903-1985). I wonder whether his name subconsciously inspired me to take up dentistry. He held Hendon South from 1945 until 1970, when he retired from politics.

We drove away from the Suburb, a place that I found dull in my youth, with many memories revived in my head. I hope that you have enjoyed the selection I have shared with you.