ROMAN ROAD IN east London is a section of a road running northeast from Shoreditch. It is part of a Roman road, once known as ‘Pye Road’, which ran from London to Venta Icenorum that was near Norwich. The modern road passes through an area known as Globe Town, which lies just east of Bethnal Green Underground Station. Known as ‘Eastfields’ until the start of the 19th century, the area was then called Globe Town, probably because there was a pub with that name in the area. The area was developed in the late 18th century to accommodate French Huguenot and Irish silk weavers. The weavers had looms in their homes.
By the late 19th century, Globe Town had become an overcrowded slum. Then, there were not only weavers in this run-down district but also dockworkers and people considered to be disreputable: thieves, prostitutes, and vagrants.
At the start of the 20th century, some of the slum buildings were replaced by improved habitations. Some of these can be seen whilst walking along Globe Road, which runs north from Roman Road. The buildings along Globe Road were mainly constructed by the East End Dwellings Company (‘EEDC’) between 1900 and 1906. This philanthropic company was founded in 1882 to create model dwellings. One of its founding fathers was the vicar of St Judes Church in Whitechapel, Samuel Augustus Barnett (1844-1913). Samuel and his wife Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936) unwittingly played an important role in my childhood and early adulthood. For, it was their idea to create the Hampstead Garden Suburb (in north London), where I lived for almost 30 years. Interestingly, the Anglican church in the Suburb is also dedicated to St Jude.
The aim of the EEDC was to house the poor economically, yet not without making some modest profit. The company’s first project was Katharine Buildings in Aldgate, which were opened in 1885. The buildings in Globe Road were completed between 1900 and 1906 and are still in use. Apart from the EEDC buildings, Globe Road offers the visitor a few other treats. One of these is The Camel pub, whose menu includes a range of pies. Nearby is another pub, The Florist Arms, which offers stone-baked pizzas. If these food items are not to your taste, The Full Monty Café offers tasty snacks, Opposite the latter, there is a small second-hand bookshop, which raises money for a Buddhist organisation. The London Buddhist Centre is housed on the corner of Globe and Roman Roads. A short distance east of Globe Road, Roman Road crosses the Regents Canal, which is flanked on its east side by pleasant parks.
Aubrey House, at first known as ‘Notting Hill House’, was completed by the end of the 17th century. It is at the western end of the street and was attached to some springs with medicinal properties: the Kensington Wells. In the mid-18th century, the house was enlarged by its then owner, Sir Edward Lloyd. The house and its extensive grounds passed through the hands of many different owners. Between 1767 and 1788, it was the home of the diarist and political observer Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811), the daughter of the second Duke of Argyll. By the mid-19th century, it acquired its present name, Aubrey House, to commemorate Aubrey de Vere, who owned the manor of Kensington at the time of the Domesday Book.
In 1863, the house became the property of a politician and Member of Parliament Peter Alfred Taylor (1819-1891). He was a radical, a supporter of the northern states in the American Civil War, and an anti-vaccinationist. A website, british-history.ac.uk, noted:
“Peter Alfred Taylor was M.P. for Leicester from 1862 until 1884 and was a noted champion of radical causes. His wife Clementia was also famous as a philanthropist and champion of women’s rights. They were closely involved in the movement for Italian liberation and Mazzini was a frequent visitor to Aubrey House. In 1873. Taylor sold the house to William Cleverley Alexander, an art collector and patron of Whistler.”
The Taylors opened the Aubrey Institute in the grounds of the house. This was to improve the education of poor youngsters. WC Alexander (1840-1916), who bought the property, employed the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) to decorate the walls of the reception rooms of the house. Sadly, today, all that the public can see of the house, which is now a private residential complex, are glimpses over the outer wall of the roof and the upper storey windows.
Aubrey House used to be neighboured by the now demolished Wycombe Lodge and its large garden. In its place, there is a set of recently built houses arranged around a rectangular open space. This is called Wycombe Square.
Walking east from the wall of Aubrey House, we pass several places of interest including Wycombe Square. On the south side of Aubrey Walk is the club house of Campden Hill Lawn Tennis Club. This was founded in 1884, only seven years after the first championship competition at Wimbledon. Its twelve courts, six outdoor and the others indoors, are not visible from Aubrey Walk. Almost opposite the club, numbers 38-40, a 20th century art deco style building, contains the former home of the singer Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), who resided there from 1968 to 1972.
At the eastern end of Aubrey Walk there is the distinctive Victorian gothic church of St George (Campden Hill). In the middle of the 19th century, the area between Kensington Church Street and Campden Hill Road, the area containing Uxbridge Street, Hillgate Street and Place, and other small lanes, was a slum. It was where labourers in the nearby gravel pits and brickfields lived, often with several families in one tall, narrow house. Many of the folk living in this locality were destitute, which is difficult to imagine when you look at the place today. It was decided to build a church nearby to cater for the poor people living in this deprived area. This became St George’s on Aubrey Walk. The first church was an iron building, a large hut, which had been used by soldiers as a chapel on the Crimean War battlefields.
In 1862, the Vicar of St Mary Abbots, the parish church of Kensington arranged to break up his huge parish into smaller units, one of which became the ecclesiastical district of St George. John Bennett, a local builder, financed the construction of a church to replace the iron structure. The first stone of the present church, which can accommodate 1500 people, was laid in 1864. Its architect was Enoch Keeling (1837-1886). The building he designed is a rare example of ‘continental gothic’, also known as ‘Eclectic Gothic’. This style makes use of brick and stonework of various colours, both externally and internally. Its exterior gives an Italianesque impression. This is especially the case when you look at the prominent bell tower at the southeast corner of the church.
St George’s was actively involved in providing education, and social work (including a soup kitchen on Edge Street) to its congregation who lived in the nearby slums. It also played a major role in the Temperance Society, which served Kensington, Notting Hill, and Shepherds Bush. Before WW1, services at St George’s were well-attended, and a wide range of music was played. Writing in a booklet about the church, its authors, Tom Stacey and Ivo Morshead, noted:
“Elaborate settings for the choir were juxtaposed with favourites from ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ … The repertoire consisted of works by Stanford, Goss, Barnby, and Handel … St George’s was hardly classy at this time but it sang the same music as its more fashionable contemporary churches … Perhaps the music was above the heads of some of the congregation; yet St George’s remained a full church until the outbreak of the 1914 War.”
By the 1890s, the people that attended services at St George’s were becoming more similar to those living in other parts of Kensington because slowly but surely housing conditions were being improved and what had been a ‘down and out’ part of Kensington was ‘coming up in the world’. Many of the former slum dwellings just east of St George’s are still standing, but instead of being the residences of the poor, they are the much sought-after homes of the wealthy.
In nearby Kensington Place, east of the church, stands the parish hall, St George’s Hall. In 1901, the Victorian building was, according to a plaque affixed above its main entrance:
“… acquired and altered to commemorate the glorious reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria born at Kensington Palace May 24: 1819”
It is now used for residential purposes.
Aubrey Walk, although short in length, has several interesting sights. In the 19th century, it linked two social extremes. At the western end was the fabulous Aubrey House and at the eastern end, the poor of Kensington flocked to attend services in St George’s Church.
LIFE DEPENDS ON WATER. A few days ago, at the end of March 2021, we drove to a village in Oxfordshire to see two old wells. They are no ordinary wells: they were gifts from India while it was still part of the British Empire.
Edward Anderton Reade (1807-1886) was a British civil servant in India between 1826 and 1860. Brother of the novelist Charles Read (author of “The Cloister and the Hearth”), Edward was born in Ipsden, a village in Oxfordshire (www.oxforddnb.com/). He entered the East India Company in 1823. In 1832, he was transferred to Kanpur (Cawnpore), where he introduced opium cultivation to the district. In 1846, he became Commissioner to the Benares Division, a position he held until 1853 when he was moved to Agra.
Edward encouraged genial relations with the local Indian gentry and aristocracy. One of his Indian acquaintances, who became his good friend, was Ishri Prasad Narayan Singh (1822-1889), the Maharajah of Benares, who reigned from 1835 to 1889. During the years before the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (aka ‘First War of Independence’ or ‘The Indian Mutiny’), Reade and the Maharajah discussed much about England including the shortage of water that existed in Ipsden, the part of Oxfordshire where his family lived. Apparently, the villagers in this part of the Chiltern Hills had little or no access to clean drinking water, much as must have been the case for many villagers in India.
During the Rebellion of 1857, the Maharajah remained loyal to the British. In June 1857, the town of Kanpur was besieged by Nana Sahib and his forces. After 3 weeks, the British garrison surrendered under condition that the British inhabitants would be given safe passage out of the town. However, Nana Sahib decided to hold about 120 women and children and kept them housed in a house known as the ‘Bibighar’. This ended badly when some of the hostages were killed. Some of them tried to escape their grizzly end by jumping into a well at the Bibighar. This well became one of the most powerful images of the Rebellion in the minds of those who lived in Britain.
I do not know whether or not it was the tragedy at Bibighar that brought the conversations he had with Reade to the forefront of the mind of the Maharajah of Benares after the Rebellion was over, but in 1862, after his loyalty to the British had been formally recognised, he consulted Reade as to making a charitable gift to the poor people of Ipsden, whose plight he recalled. The Maharajah financed the construction of a well at Stoke Row, not far from Ipsden. It is also possible that the Maharajah remembered the help that Reade had given him when constructing a well in Azamgarh (now in Uttar Pradesh) back in 1831.
Work commenced on the well in March 1863. The well shaft was dug by hand, a perilous job for the labourers as they removed earth from the depths of an unlit and unventilated shaft, bucket by bucket. The shaft, 4 feet in diameter, was 368 feet in depth, greater than the height of St Pauls Cathedral in London, for this is depth of the water table at Stoke Row. Special winding machinery constructed by Wilder, an engineering firm in Wallingford, was installed. It is topped with a model elephant. The mechanism and the well stand beneath an octagonal canopy topped with a magnificent metal dome with circular glazed windows to allow better illumination. It resembles a ‘chhatri’ or architectural umbrella such as can be seen at war memorials on London’s Constitution Hill and on the South Downs near Hove. The structure, restored in recent times, looks almost new today. Reade, who helped plan the Maharajah’s well, planted a cherry orchard nearby; dug a fish-shaped pond (the fish was part of the Maharajah’s coat-of-arms); and constructed an octagonal well-keeper’s bungalow next to the well. The profits from the cherries harvested from the orchard were supposed to help to finance the well, for whose water the villagers were not charged anything. The Maharajah’s well at Stoke Row was the first of many such gifts given by wealthy Indians to Britain. Other examples include the Readymoney drinking fountain in Regents Park and a now demolished drinking fountain in Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:
“Reade was wryly amused that an Indian prince should thus give a lesson in charity to the English gentry.”
The well at Stoke Row provided the locals with fresh water until the beginning of WW2, when, eventually, piped water reached the area. It provided 600 to 700 gallons of water every day. The Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row is relatively well-known compared to another Indian-financed well next to the parish church at Ipsden, where Reade’s grave is located. The well, whose winding mechanism is similar to that installed at Stoke Row, is not covered by a canopy. It stands by a cottage next to the entrance to the churchyard. It was presented to Ipsden in 1865 by ‘Rajah Sir Deon Narayun Singh of Seidpor Bittree’ (I am not sure where this is: these are the words on the well), who had, like the Maharajah of Benares, remained loyal to the British during the 1857 Rebellion.
The Ipsden well is deep but not nearly as deep as that at Stoke Row. A lady, who lives in the cottage beside the well, told us that she had tasted water from the well and it was ice cold, deliciously clean, and tasted pure, having been filtered by many feet of chalk through which it has seeped. She said that once a year, the local water board opens the well and takes a sample of its water to check its purity.
Both wells are worth visiting. We parked in Benares Road in Stoke Row close to the Maharajah’s gift. After viewing the well head and its surroundings, we bought hot drinks at the village’s shop-cum-café, which his run by a couple of friendly people from Zimbabwe. I am grateful to Dr Peter U for bringing the existence of this unusual well to my attention.