ACTON IS NOT usually given high priority on the list of places that visitors to London might compile. However, this district in west London, once a borough in its own right between 1865 and 1965, now part of the Borough of Ealing, is not devoid of interest. After a visit to our dentist, whose surgery is close to Acton’s High Street, we took a look around the area. Churchfield Street, filled with small shops and various eateries, leads east to Acton Central Overground Station.
Opened in 1853 as ‘Acton’ station, it was first a stop on the North and South Western Junction Railway. In 1925, it was renamed ‘Acton Central’. The original 19th century railway building built in about 1876, a rather too grand edifice for such a humble station, has now been converted into a pub/restaurant, whose menu looks appetising. Crossing the tracks, we reach Acton Park, about which I will say more later.
The name ‘Acton’ might derive from Old English words meaning ‘oak town’. At the beginning of the 19th century, the parish of Acton was mostly agricultural land with a small population of about 1400 souls. Between 1861 and 1871, the population increased from about 4000 to about 8300, reflecting the urbanisation of the area. By the mid-1880s, it had reached about 12000. No doubt the accessibility of London via the railway helped increase the area’s attractiveness for people wishing to live in leafy suburbs within easy reach of their workplaces in the centre of the metropolis. Many of the streets near the station are lined with substantial, well built houses.
Acton Park is an attractive, municipal recreation area with lawns, trees, bushes, a café, a putting green, and other facilities including a ‘skate park’ and a children’s nursery. At the northern edge of the park opposite Goldsmiths Buildings, there stands a fine stone obelisk. This was moved to its present position in January 1904 from its original sight in the grounds of the now demolished Derwentwater House on Acton’s Horn Lane. It commemorates James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater (1679-1816). The date of his death is significant, as I will explain.
James was the son of the 2nd Earl (1655-1705) and Lady Mary Tudor (1673-1726), whose parents were King Charles II and one of his mistresses, the actress Mary ‘Moll’ Davis (c1648-1708). James was brought up in France in the court of the exiled James Francis Edward Stuart (1688-1766), ‘The Old Pretender’, son of the Roman Catholic King James II of England, who was forced to leave England by the Protestant William of Orange. James Stuart, encouraged both by a desire to re-establish the line of James II on the English Throne and by the French monarchy, made various attempts to gain the Throne of England. One of these was in 1715, a year after the Protestant Hanoverian King George I had become crowned King of England. In December 1715, The Old Pretender landed in Scotland, having sailed from France.
In 1709, James Radcliffe, whose memorial stands in Acton Park, sailed to England to visit his recently inherited estates in Cumberland and Northumberland. In 1715, he joined the conspiracy to put his companion since childhood, The Old Pretender, on the Throne of England. A warrant for his arrest was issued, but at first he evaded capture by going into hiding. At the Battle of Preston (9th to 14th November 1715), when the Jacobite forces fighting for The Old Pretender were defeated, Radcliffe was arrested and taken to The Tower of London. After various attempts to reprieve him, he was executed in February 1716. His heart was taken to a convent in Paris, where it remains. The monument was erected by Radcliffe’s widow, Lady Derwentwater, who was living in Acton at the time of his execution. Her home, Derwentwater House, which can be seen marked on a detailed map produced in the early 1890s but not on one published in 1914, stood where Churchfield Road East meets Horn Lane, where today the newish shopping centre, ‘The Oaks’, now stands. Edward Walford, writing in 1883, noted in connection with the house:
“It is said that the iron gates at the end of the garden have never been opened since the day her lord last passed through them on his way to the Tower.”
Acton Park was created in 1888, mostly on land that had been owned by The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Across the road from the park and opposite the obelisk, you will see the elegant Goldsmiths Almshouses. This building was erected in 1811 and enlarged in 1838. They were built on land left to the Goldsmiths Company by John Perryn, in whose memory one of Acton’s residential roads is named.
Tree-lined Goldsmiths Avenue is just 360 yards north of Acton Central Station. Number 78 used to be named ‘Tilak House’ in honour of the Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). In early May 1907, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), a freedom fighter and father of the idea of ‘Hindutva’, an expression of Indian nationalism which underlies the political philosophy of India’s currently ruling BJP party, held a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 at this house. The house was then the home of Nitin Sen Dwarkadas, brother-in-law of another Indian patriot who lived in London, Shyamaji Krishnavarma (1850-1930). Today, there is no memorial to this event.
Other attractions that caught my eye in Acton include St Marys Church (established by 1228, but the current building dates from 1865-67) and its nearby peaceful rectangular cemetery on West Churchfield Road. The Old Town Hall with its accompanying municipal offices was built on the site of the former Berrymede Priory. Designed by the architects Raffles and Gridley, the town hall was built in 1908-10, and extended in 1939. Berrymead Priory, a dwelling, is commemorated by a thoroughfare named Berrymead Avenue, where our dentist practises. It was built on the grounds formerly occupied by William Savile, 2nd Marquess of Halifax (1665-1700), who died here. The priory must have been lovely. Walford noted that it was:
“… a picturesque Gothic edifice of the Strawberry Hill type, and occupied the centre of several acres of ground, which are planted with fine trees and evergreens.”
One of the priory’s better-known inhabitants was the novelist and politician Edward Bulmer (1803-1873), Lord Lytton, who lived there between 1835 and 1836. In 1849, the place was purchased by the wealthy cavalry officer George Drafford Heald, who lived here briefly with his wife, the glamorous Irish born actress and courtesan Lola Montez (1821-1861), one time mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and also of the composer Franz Liszt, whom he had married in 1848. The Healds had to flee to France soon after their marriage, which contravened the terms of her divorce with a previous spouse. Lola and George’s marriage did not last long. However, the building named ‘Berrymead Priory’ lasted longer, until 1982 when it was demolished.
Our Lady of Lourdes, a small Roman Catholic Church built in 1902 in the Romanesque style, was designed by Edward Goldie (1856-1921), who built many other Catholic churches. This church is on the High Street close to another decorative public building, The Passmore Edwards Library, built in 1898-99 and designed by Maurice Bingham Adams (1849-1933) in what Nikolaus Pevsner describes as:
“… his typical rather bulging Baroque paraphrase of the accepted Tudor of the late Victorian decades.”
Adams also designed the Passmore Edwards Library in Shepherds Bush. There is more to Acton than I have described, but maybe what I have written might whet your appetite to explore a part of London that is somewhat off the tourist’s beaten track.