A short street in Kensington and social differences

AUBREY WALK IS a short street in Kensington. About 260 yards in length, it leads west from Campden Hill Road. Originally, it was the approach road to Aubrey House. Until 1893, when it was given its present name, the short stretch of road was named ‘Notting Hill Grove’ (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp87-100#h3-0006).

St George, Aubrey Walk

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.

Honouring a Hindu hero in London

MI5 WORKS TO HELP protect our democracy in the UK. Its architecturally unflattering headquarters stand looming above the southern end of Vauxhall Bridge. A few yards downstream from it, and directly facing the main entrance of the Tate Britain across the river, there is a small grassy triangle close to the river. In the middle of the green space, there is a bust on a pedestal. The bust depicts a man with a moustache, who is wearing two chunky necklaces and what looks like a bejewelled turban. This is a monument to Basaveshvara, who lived between 1134 and 1168 (actually, these dates are not certain: he might have lived c1106-1167). A panel on the side of the pedestal notes that he was:

“Pioneer of Democracy and Social Reform”

Various people and organisations supported the creation of this monument to someone of historical importance but until now unknown to me and, I would guess, to many other people wandering past the bust. As one of the organisations involved in its creation was The Government of Karnataka (in southern India), I reached for my tattered copy of “A History of Karnataka” (edited by PB Desai), which I picked up in the wonderful Aladdin’s cave of a bookshop, Bookworm, in Church Street, Bangalore, a city which I visit often. It has 8 index entries for Basaveshwara, who is also known as ‘Basava’, ‘Basavanna’, and ‘Basavaraja’, all of these being transcripts from various Indian language alphabets.

Basaveshwar was born of Shaivite Brahmin parents at Bagevadi, which is now in the Bijapur district in the northern part of Karnataka. His name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Vrishabha’, the divine bull, Nandi, who carries the god Shiva. Early histories (the Puranas) described him as an incarnation of the god Shiva rather than a human being, but it is considered that he was certainly a real person. A devotee of Shiva, Basaveshwara was well-versed in both Kannada and Sanskrit learning. He was brought up in a social milieu in which people blindly adhered to the dogmas and rituals of Vedic Hinduism without bothering to understand the true spirit of religion. Desai wrote:

“Basava’s mind revolted against these ills and he decided to defy the existing order of things.”

After receiving the sacred thread, very roughly speaking a Hindu equivalent of the Jewish Bar-mitzvah or the Christian confirmation, Basaveshwara went to the Kudama Sangama, a temple complex at the confluence of the Rivers Krishna and Malaprabha. In 2011, long before I had ever heard of Basaveshwara, we stopped briefly at the Sangama on our way from Hospet to Bijapur (now named ‘Vijayapura’), both in Karnataka. When we were there, the rivers had dried up and we saw signs advising visitors to beware of crocodiles.  

Basaveshwara remained at the Sangama for about 12 years. In his time, as it is now, the Sangama was much visited by people from all walks of life. There, he met many scholars and learned men from all schools of Hindu belief. Eventually, Basaveshwara travelled to Mangalavada, the headquarters of Bijala II (c1130-c1167), the feudatory governor of the Kalachuri family (of the Chalukya dynasty). Soon, Basaveshwara became the Chief Treasurer of Bijala’s court. It was then that Basaveshwara:

“… started his new movement of religious and social reforms, treating all devotees of Siva [i.e. Shiva] as equal in all respects without the traditional distinctions of castes, communities and sects.” (Desai)

After about 20 years, BASAVESHWARA moved to Kalyana, the capital of Bijala, where his reformist ideas gained a great following. Bijala II, who had become suspicious of Basaveshwara, began crushing the movement inspired by Basaveshwara’s radical ideas that seriously threatened the traditional hierarchy that favoured the Brahmins, as well as advocating some hitherto unknown equality of men and women in spiritual aspects of life. For example, Basaveshwara sanctioned a marriage between the son of an ‘untouchable’ and the daughter of a Brahmin. Upset by this, Bijala sentenced the couple to death. Basaveshwara’s followers then plotted to assassinate Bijala, an act of which Basaveshwara disapproved. Realising that he could not restrain his angry followers, Basaveshwara retreated to Kudama Sangama, where he died. Bijala was murdered soon afterwards. Later, Basaveshwara became venerated as a (Hindu) saint.

Basaveshwara believed:

“…that every human being was equal, irrespective of caste and that all forms of manual labor was equally important.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basava).

These ideas sound familiar to those versed in the history of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived many centuries after Basaveshwara.  Yet, Basaveshwara is relatively unknown compared with Gandhi. Basaveshwara was certainly a reformer as is stated on the base of his bust near Vauxhall Bridge and his radical ideas were undoubtedly democratic when considered in relation to the time when he lived. So, it is quite appropriate that from his bust, there is a clear view of the Houses of Parliament, a home of democracy.

The bust on the embankment was erected by Dr Neeraj Patil, born in Karnataka, a member of the Labour Party and Mayor of the London Borough of Lambeth 2010-2011 and Dr Anagha Patil. It was unveiled in November 2015 by the current Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi. It is appropriate that Modi inaugurated this memorial as his parents were members of what was officially recognised a socially disadvantaged community, whose emancipation would surely have been approved by the reformer Basaveshwara.  And what is more, Modi is one of the first, if not the very first, of the Indian Prime Ministers, all democratically elected, who was not from a ‘high’ caste or social class such as Brahmin, Kayastha, and Rajput, and has completed at least one term of office. So, I feel that Basaveshwara does deserve a place within sight of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

Hindu reform in Bangalore

IN AN AREA OF BANGALORE FILLED WITH TRADITIONAL HINDU TEMPLES, I STUMBLED ACROSS A CENTRE WHERE A REFORMED VERSION OF THE RELIGION IS PRACTISED.

FINDING SOMEWHERE THAT I HAD NOT NOTICED BEFORE IS OFTEN FASCINATING. I have often been driven past this particular place in central Bangalore at speed. One day, I walked past this compound, located close to RBANM’s Ground, at a leisurely pace and discovered that it contains three buildings arranged around a rectangular garden. The two side buildings are typical old Bangalorean structures with verandahs and monkey-top woodwork as well as other typical traditional architectural ornamentation. The central building facing the street but separated from it by the garden has a simple facade supported by four plain pillars with Doric capitals. A stone embedded in the outer wall of the compound reads “Brahma Mandir 1879”. This compound contains the buildings belonging to the Bangalore Brahmo Samaj.

The Brahmo Samaj is one of the attempts to reform the practise of Hinduism. Founded in about 1828 in Bengal, it was a monotheistic form of Hinduism. The Brahmo Samaj was not the only reforming movement in 19th century India, but, like Arya Samaj, it became one of the better known and enduring attempts to reform Hinduism.

In my recent book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets, I have tried to show how the two sets of reformers differ:
The Arya Samaj, in common with the Brahmo Samaj, strove to reform Hinduism, but differed from the Brahmo Samaj in many respects. Members of Arya Samaj had no faith in the goodness of the British Government, whereas the opposite was true for the Brahmo Samaj. Arya Samaj believed in the superiority of Hinduism over other religions, whereas the Brahmo Samaj put Hinduism on the same level as other religions. Another of many differences between the two movements was that Arya Samaj wanted to revive Vedic traditions and to reject modern western culture and philosophy, whereas the Brahmo Samaj accepted western culture and ideas.”

I have yet to stumble across an Arya Samaj place of worship in Bangalore, but I feel sure that there must be at least one in the city. The Brahmo buildings I saw are good examples of beautiful Bangalore architecture, much of which is being callously torn down to make way for ugly new structures.