Stepping on history

INDUSTRIAL ACTIVITY IS NOT what one would associate with present-day Notting Hill Gate in London’s Kensington district. About the only thing that is made on a large scale in the ‘Gate’ is food, which currently is only available on a take-away basis.  Yet, walking along the pavements in the area, you can see evidence that once upon a time the area was not devoid of industry. This is in the form of circular cast-iron coalhole covers. These metal discs that are almost flush with the pavement could be removed to provide an orifice through which coal could be supplied to the coal cellars beneath the pavement.  Using these holes, the coal deliverers, usually covered with coal dust, could avoid entering the house. Many stretches of pavement have been re-paved, omitting the covers, because many of the former coal cellars have been converted to usable living space. The covers that remain – and there are still plenty of them – are often covered with patterns in bas-relief and bear the names and locations of the companies that manufactured them.

I was intrigued by one company, which made many of the covers in Notting Hill Gate, ‘RH & J Pearsons’ whose covers bear the words “Automatic Action” and the information that company was in Notting Hill Gate. I wondered where their factory was in the area, which is no longer associated with trades such as casting iron coalhole covers. I thought that there would be little information about this, but I was wrong. I shall try to condense some of the sea of informative material about these metal discs, over which we walk often without noticing them.

The company Robert Henry and Jonathan Pearson, which operated between the 1840s and 1940, was located at the following places at various times:

“Nos. 141 and 143, High-street, Notting-hill, Middlesex (1871) …and 91, 95, and 97 Camden Hill Road; Iron, Steel & Metal Warehouses, 21, 22, & 23 Upper Uxbridge St.; Manufactory & Workshops, 14, Durham Place, Notting Hill Gate, W. (1879) 141, 143, 145, High Street, Notting Hill Gate, London, W. (1901)” (https://glassian.org/Prism/Pearson/index.html)

All of these places are in Notting hill Gate.

In addition to coalhole covers, the company, which described itself as ‘manufacturing and retail ironmongers’, manufactured a wide range of ironmongery for domestic use including, for example, kitchen ranges, grates, fireplaces, railings, gates. They also produced electrical fittings (for lighting and cooking) and gas fittings. In addition, they supplied a wide selection of plumbing material and sanitary appliances.

Robert Pearson lived between about 1821 and 1893. His brother Jonathan lived between about 1831 and 1898. Both died in Newcastle-on-Tyne, where they were born (https://glassian.org/Prism/Pearson/index.html). Their father, William, was a hardware manufacturer. According to the 1861 England Census, both brothers were living in Kensington. The 1871 Census entry for Robert reveals a little about the size of the firm:
“Ironmonger, Senior Partner in the firm of R. H. & J. Pearson … employing 66 men”

So, Pearson’s was a large local business.

A document published by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea gives an insight to the manufacturing of coalhole covers (‘plates’):

“Skilled artisans were employed to design and carve wooden patterns of the required shape and size. From these an endless number of moulds were produced by ramming sand around them in a box called a flask. The pattern was then removed and molten metal was poured into the cavity. Sadly many examples of Victorian cast iron work has disappeared with the exception of street furniture, in particular coal plates.”

(file:///C:/Users/adama/Downloads/07%20-%20Grouped%20Pieces%20and%20Miscellaneous.pdf).

Of Pearson’s, the document adds:

“R H & J Pearson and Sons in Notting Hill Gate was one of the largest wholesale and retail ironmongers in the area and their name appears on countless plates. Robert Henry Pearson established his business in the 1840s and by the year of his death in 1893, 200 people were employed by the firm.”

One other bit of information about Pearson’s relates to one of its employees, John Henry Mills (1880-1942), who was born in Notting Hill Gate. On the 11th of November 1895, he was ‘bound’ to Pearson’s to serve an apprenticeship for five years. By late January1899, he had already run away and enrolled with 5th Rifle Brigade (London). For committing some now unknown felony, John was discharged on the 21st of March 1899. Soon after this the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out in South Africa. John served with the Imperial Yeomanry during this conflict. After the war, his movements are unknown, but he is known to have served in WW1. After marrying in 1918, he and his wife lived in London, where by 1939, he was recorded on an official register as a “housekeeper”.  (www.bansteadhistory.com/BEECHHOLME/Beechholme%20Boer%20War/Boer_War_M.html)

Clearly, ironmongery had little appeal for young Mills.

Pearson’s made many of the coalhole covers in Notting Hill Gate, but by no means all of them. It is worth glancing occasionally at the pavement to see the variety of coalhole covers still in existence. It appears that some of these once mundane items are stolen, to be sold to collectors. Some of the stolen covers have been replaced by artistic modern covers. A good example is one with poetry on it near The Gate Cinema. Now redundant because coal is hardly used for domestic purposes in London, these metal discs are remnants of an era now fading ever further into history.

The gate that has disappeared

NOTTING HILL GATE is a stretch of roadway, 670 yards long, that runs west from Bayswater Road to Holland Park Avenue. It is part of what was once a Roman Road that ran from London to places west and southwest of the city, passing through what is now Staines. The ‘gate’ in the street name refers to a tollgate that stood along it until about 1860. The gates of this barrier were placed so that there was no way of bypassing them via the few side roads that existed prior to the development of the area during the 19th century. I have no idea of how much was charged at this turnpike, but one might get a rough idea from a list of charges levied in early 18th century Wiltshire:

“1s. for a coach or wagon, 6d. for a cart, 1d. for a ridden or led horse, 10d. a score for cattle, and 5d. a score for sheep.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol4/pp254-271).

I became curious to learn where the Notting Hill gate was located. I found the answer in a book that I bought whilst browsing the shelves of a local charity shop.

According to Florence Gladstone and Ashley Barker, authors of “Notting Hill in bygone days” (published in 1924), a detailed history of the area, the tollgate known as ‘Notting Hill Gate’:

“… was the first of three successive turnpikes at this spot and crossed the road east of the site of the Metropolitan Station. It seems possible that the toll-keeper’s house occupied the corner where that station is set back from the road. The very interesting view of this gate by Paul Sandby, R.A., dated 1793 … faces west and apparently shows the end of Portobello Lane and the Coach and Horses Inn.”

This gives a clear description of where the turnpike (tollgate) was located, but today, the appearance of the area described has changed considerably.

To begin with, Portobello Lane no longer exists, at least not with that name. It most likely followed the course of the present Portobello Road and connected with Notting Hill Gate along the southern stretch of what is now Pembridge Road. On a map surveyed in 1863-65, Portobello Road is marked in its present position but the northern stretch of it that led through what were then open fields to Portobello Farm was then still called ‘Portobello Lane’.

Today, the Underground station, formerly the ‘Metropolitan Station, is not visible on the road as it can only be accessed by staircases leading down from the pavements to a subterranean ticket hall. The platforms of the Circle and District Lines are housed in what was part of the original station, which is set back from the road. These platforms were opened in 1868 and were accessed through a building set back from the road as can be seen on an extremely detailed (1:1056) map surveyed in 1895.

During the 18th century, The Coach and Horses Inn stood at number 108 Notting Hill Gate, a few feet west of Pembridge Road (formerly ‘Portobello Lane’), where today a recently opened branch of Marks and Spencer is doing good business.

The tollgate disappeared long ago, and so did much of Notting Hill Gate that would have been recognisable to the two authors of the book mentioned above. The most prominent survivor of pre-WW2 days is the Coronet, currently the home of the Print Room theatre organisation. Near it but clothed in a dull, modern (1960s) exterior is The Gate Cinema, whose well-conserved auditorium was constructed in 1911 within a building that had been a restaurant since 1861 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1385016). Most of the rest of the architecture lining Notting Hill Gate is mostly 20th century and/or aesthetically unpleasing.  

I am not sure that what preceded the buildings that we see today was necessarily much better aesthetically, but we can get an idea from a short stretch of buildings, currently numbered 26 to 70, opposite the northern end of Church Street. These are mostly shops, whose ground floors stretch away from the road to join buildings with two or three storeys set back from the road. Judging by the architecture of the buildings above and behind these shops, they were probably already built by the end of the 19th century. A drawing created in 1912 by William Cleverley Alexander (1840-1916), who resided near Notting Hill Gate, shows some of these buildings looking remarkably like how they appear today. However, since he created his picture, the row of buildings has been changed by the construction of two banks, each with a neo-classical façade.

While I would not recommend visiting Notting Hill Gate for its own sake, it is the gateway to far more attractive sights such as Portobello Road, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, and Notting Hill of movie fame. And if you are thirsty, there are at least nine cafés within a paper cup’s throw away from the Underground station, and the number continues to increase.

A theatre resurrected…

Early in November 2018, I saw the opening performance of a new production of “Love Lies Bleeding” by Don de Lillo, which was premiered in 2005, at the Print Room in London’s Notting Hill Gate. The play deals with the question of euthanasia in a situation of a person with persistent vegetative state. The playwright deals with moral and other questions relating to this in a sensitive way. As with most Print Room productions I have seen, the acting was superb, at times gripping.

COR 1

The Print Room theatre began its life in 2010 in a converted printers’ warehouse in Hereford Road, close to Westbourne Grove. We attended several excellent performances there, seated on not very comfortable chairs. In summer the warehouse, which was poorly ventilated, could become very hot. I remember watching “The Kingdom of the Earth” by Tennessee Williams one hot May evening. The heat in the theatre complimented the seediness of the characters. A year or two ago, the Print Room shifted to the Coronet in Notting Hill Gate.

When I began living near this place, the Coronet was a cinema. It was the last cinema in London to permit smoking in the auditorium. Smokers had to sit in the balcony seats, not in the stalls below them. The cinema had two screens, the larger of which was in what looked like an Edwardian theatre. Indeed, the Coronet started life as a theatre when it was opened in late 1898 (see: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/CoronetTheatreNottingHillGate.htm).    It was designed by a theatre architect WGR Sprague (1863-1933). Eighteen years later, the theatre began to be used as a cinema. Many of its original features were retained. By 1923 it became a full-time cinema.

COR 3

In 1972, the Coronet was threatened with demolition. It was saved and made subject to conservation regulations following local residents’ successful protests. In 1993, when I first came to live close to the Coronet, the cinema looked run down but romantically picturesque. The local Kensington Temple Church bought the Coronet in 2004, planning to use it as a place of worship (as has happened with so many former cinemas in London). As a digression, it is interesting to note that cinemas in London have been converted to churches, whereas in Communist Albania the reverse was true during its period of official atheism.

COR4

The Kensington Temple spruced up and restored the Coronet, but kept it running as a cinema. They used it occasionally as a place where their congregation could listen to preachers. Once on a Sunday morning I passed the Coronet, whose doors were open, and looked into the auditorium where a very enthusiastic clergyman was rousing his lively audience.

The Coronet cinema closed in 2014. It had been bought by the Print Room, which had shifted from Hereford Road. Thus, the Coronet became a theatre once more. The Print room have preserved many of the decorative features of the original theatre but have made some major internal modifications. A new stage has been built to cover the space where the original lower level stalls were once. This stage extends to the lower level of the raked seating that had formerly been the original theatre’s Dress Circle. The seats in this Circle have become the new auditorium. Although much has been done to preserve original features, the theatre has been decorated to give its walls a fashionable distressed appearance. The place reminds me a little of what I remember of the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris when I saw it in the 1970s soon after the British director Peter Brook re-opened it.

COR 5

Although the theatre and its productions are wonderful, the bar must not be missed. It is located beneath the new stage in the space where once the stalls were located. Its concave floor reflects the raking of the seats that were once affixed to it. A grand piano serves as the bar where drinks are sold. The dimly lit bar is decorated quirkily with all manner of bric-a-brac, largely chosen by the staff and, no doubt, sourced from the nearby Portobello and Golborne markets. The bar is open an hour before and an hour after a performance. It is closed during performances because its ceiling is the theatre stage. Even if you cannot manage a play, a visit to the Coronet’s bar is a treat.