SW15: Decline and fall

We start our walk at the Post Office at 197 Upper Richmond Road which is quite close to Putney Station along the main road (the South Circular) towards Sheen. Turn right out of the Post Office and continue a short way along Upper Richmond Road (ie back towards Putney Station) to just after Burston Road.

Stop 1: 169-171 Upper Richmond Road (Site of Former Electric Palace/Globe/CineCenta Cinema)

There is just an office block stepped back from the road but from 1910 until the mid 1970s there was a cinema here.

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It started life as the Putney Electric Cinema around 1910 but from 1929 it was called the Globe. It was an independently owned cinema right up until 1968 when it was taken over by the small chain called CineCenta. In 1969 it began screening uncensored films where membership was required to gain admission. It returned to regular Art House programming in 1971 and eventually closed on 24th December 1976 – fittingly with the movie “The Last Picture Show”.

The cinema was demolished and eventually was replaced by this rather dull office block. This is the view looking along Upper Richmond Road which is to the left of the trees. The building sits back from the main road. I guess this is another example of allowing for a road widening – but that never happened.

There is a good picture of the old cinema at http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/14973 (by the way the map on this link is wrong!)

Continue to the junction with Putney Hill. Cross over Putney Hill and turn right up the Hill.

Stop 2: The Pines, 11 Putney Hill

A short way on the left is The Pines. The Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne lived here for some 30 years from 1879 until his death in 1909.

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Swinburne was by all accounts a highly excitable character and an alcoholic. Although Swinburne is often said to be a decadent poet, perhaps it was more talk than action. Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying that Swinburne was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.  More on Swinburne at: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/swinburne/acsbio1.html

Possibly fascinating fact:  Swinburne appears on two Blue Plaques in London but he has to share both. The Putney one he shares with Theodore Watts-Dunton, who owned the Pines and who had taken Swinburne in (I wonder if he realised in 1879 that Swinburne would stay 30 years!). The other blue plaque we saw in Chelsea, SW3. It is at Number 16 Cheyne Walk and this he shares with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who he stayed with in the 1860s and 1870s.

Optional Stop 2a: Ross Court, 81 Putney Hill

At this point you can take a bit of a diversion to go to the other end of Putney Hill (and I mean the other end). It is quite a hike, so you can get a 39 or 93 bus up the hill to the Green Man (Don’t get the other buses because they stop at a different place at the Green Man). From where the 39 and 93 stop at the Green Man you will see Putney Hill veers off behind the bus stop to the left whilst the main road goes straight on. Go down this bypassed section of Putney Hill and at the end at number 81 you will come to an interwar estate of flats called Ross Court.

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Nothing special except Flat 2 (in the block on the left as you go in the gateway) was where an impoverished Harry Gordon Selfridge lived out his last days with his daughter in a rented flat. Apparently he used to go up to Oxford Street from Putney by bus – he had to change on the way at Hyde Park Corner and on the second bus, he would say to the conductor: “Selfridges Please”. (Well according to a Daily Mail article http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2210421/Mr-Selfridge-Extraordinary-story-retailing-visionary-revealed.html)

Now retrace your steps to the bottom of Putney Hill and at the bottom turn right to continue along Upper Richmond Road

Stop 3: 139 Upper Richmond Road (site of Lime Grove)

At the end of the block of shops is an access road going through an archway of the building.

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Just about here was the location of Lime Grove, the birthplace of 18th century historian Edward Gibbon. His most famous work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. The Putney Society have erected one of their Blue Plaques here above the roadway.

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Useless fact: when London telephone exchanges had names, the exchange for Putney was GIBbon. This translates to 442 in numbers which would have become 8442 when we moved to 8 digit numbers in London, but sadly the modern day phone numbers round here do not have that exchange number.

Return to the corner of Upper Richmond Road and Putney Hill/Putney High Street

Stop 4: Zeeta House

Now the building at the corner of Upper Richmond Road and Putney High Street dates from the late 1930s.

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It is now split into a number of shops but when it was built this was the premises of Zeeta and Company, a bakers and confectioners owned by the Kensington department store company, John Barker.

By the late 1950s Zeeta and Company had 17 stores across London but in 1958 14 of these were closed. Putney, Kingston and Croydon carried on but by 1962 all these had closed too. Hard to see but if you look closely there are grain motifs on the tops of the second floor windows on the High Street facade, a little reminder of the baking trade. There is a little bit more info on the House of Fraser archive site (they bought Barkers in 1957 which may have precipitated the closure):

http://www.housefraserarchive.ac.uk/company/?id=c1406

Today the street scene is somewhat different from when Zeeta was trading. Along the north side of Upper Richmond Road here there are no less than 7 estate agents in a row whilst on the other side and sweeping round into Putney Hill there are 5 more. And just round the corner in Putney High Street are a further 4.  So that makes 16 estate agents in all in this very small area, which I have to say I find a bit depressing.

On a positive note, this building has a rather nice sundial on the wall which was installed for the Millennium.

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It has the quote “Time like an ever rolling stream”.

Now go down Putney High Street. Take the second on the left.

Stop 5: Putney Bus Garage, Chelverton Road

Almost immediately on the right is Putney Bus Garage. It is a bit of a surprise because the streets off Putney High Street are very residential.

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Although this is a modern building, there has been a bus garage here for a very long time – at least 100 years.

Now you may not have noticed but some London buses have a little code on the side. This is their running number. Before privatisation, London buses all had an alphabetic code letter or letters followed by a removable metal plate which had a number. The letter(s) signified the home bus garage and the number was the running number of the bus that day. Some bus companies still use the old system of garage codes and associated running numbers.

The letters sometimes have an obvious connection with the location of the garage (eg SW = Stockwell). But many do not as in the case of Putney whose code is AF. Why? Because when the London General Omnibus Company started using letter codes about 100 years ago, they gave garages a single letter code, sometimes but not always related to the name of the garage, so B was Battersea but Q was Camberwell. But they soon ran out of letters so they started again with AB, AC etc.  So Putney got the letters AF. Logic prevailed later and newer garages like Stockwell were given letters which had some connection with the location. Today this garage is run by London General, a name from the past but only conjured back into life when London buses were privatised in the 1980s. This is one of the bus companies which still uses the old system.

Retrace your steps to Putney High Street and turn left. Continue along Putney High Street until you reach Putney Bridge Road which you cross over and turn down (ie right). Immediately on your left is Brewhouse Lane, go down here 

Stop 6: Brewhouse Lane

In this nondescript road on the right as you go away from Putney Bridge Road, author Hilary Mantel recently unveiled the Putney Society’s latest plaque. This commemorates Tudor politician Thomas Cromwell who was born in 1485 in the vicinity of Brewhouse Lane.

Thomas Cromwell was the great-great-great uncle of Oliver Cromwell and rose from poverty to become chief minister to Henry VIII. Cromwell strongly supported the English Reformation, but fell from power after arranging the King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. She was not quite what Henry was expecting and the marriage was annulled just six months later. Cromwell was executed for treason and heresy in Tower Hill on 28 July 1540.

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There is nothing physical to remind us of this Cromwell connection apart of course from this new plaque.

Continue towards the river. On either side is a pub (the Boathouse on the right, the Rocket on the left)  and go to the left of the boat slipway.

Stop 7: Putney Wharf

This is a newish riverside development. The Boathouse pub (a Youngs house) is in an old building but the Rocket (a Wetherspoons) is in the ground floor of a massive apartment building, which even though it steps back still towers over everything including St Mary’s Church as we shall see shortly. In front as you turn left along the river, there is a sculpture, which it turns out is one of nine on the Putney Sculpture trail.

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This is called Punch and Judy and is the 5th on the trail (so it is right in the middle of the trail). There is a little map on the plinth, which you can follow if you want to see the others.

From here there is a good view of Putney Bridge – there has been a bridge here since 1729. It was a toll bridge until 1880.

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The current bridge which opened in 1886 was designed by civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette – who is of course famous for creating the London sewage system.

Loop round in front of the Rocket pub. You will see the “back” of St Mary’s church. Veer to the right and you soon come back to the High Street. Turn to your left and immediately here is our next stop.

Stop 8: 25/27 Putney High Street – now Odeon Cinema (Site of 2 former cinemas)

Today you see a modern(ish) Odeon Cinema dating from the mid 1970s.

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But oddly this was the site of not one but two old cinemas.

The older of the two was at Number 27, nearest to Putney Bridge Road. It first opened in 1907 as the Electric Pavilion, was renamed Blue Hall Cinema in 1920 and then the Palace Cinema in 1927. In 1930, it fell into the ownership of Gaumont British Theatres, but was only renamed Gaumont in 1955. Finally it was called Odeon from 1962. 

The other cinema was at Number 25. This was the Regal Cinema, built in 1937 by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) in their typical Art Deco style. It was rebranded ABC in 1961

In the early 1970s, EMI the owners of the ABC did a deal with the Rank Organisation who owned the Odeon. The Odeon was purchased by EMI and it closed the same day as the ABC in December 1971. Both were demolished in 1972 and a new three-screen ABC cinema – one of the first purpose built multi screen cinemas in Britain – was opened in September 1975. This cinema has also gone through a few name changes but curiously has now ended up with the name “Odeon”.

Some more info and pictures on the wonderful cinema treasures site: 

http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/14969

http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/14971

Now turn back towards the river

Stop 9: St Mary’s Church

In front of you and slightly down to the right of the church tower is a coffee shop which proves to be the way into the church.

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This old Church may still be standing but it has had its fair share of ups and downs. It got substantially reorganised in the 1830s, even to the extent of moving a 16th century chantry chapel from the south to the north side of the chancel. It then suffered a catastrophic fire in 1973. As a result it has been radically rebuilt, so much so that the altar is on the north side of the worship space rather than the more traditional east end. Today as you can see in the pictures, it is completely overshadowed by the apartment block in Putney Wharf (this is the one with the Wetherspoons on the ground floor).  But is still worth going in.

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A lot of the old monuments were severely damaged in the fire, but some bits were salvaged and are on display on the walls.

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However this church is best known for its association with one event from the English Civil War.  In 1647 there were a series of discussions about the make up of a new constitution for England. They are known as the Putney Debates, because the debate started here at St Mary’s on 28 October 1647 although they soon moved to the nearby lodgings of Thomas Grosvenor who was  a senior officer in the army.

There is a very professional looking mini exhibition display about the Putney Debates, which is well worth a look.

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Return outside and have a look at the clock tower

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The clock tower has a sundial, which is of somewhat older vintage than the one on the Zeeta House building with the words: “Time and tide stay for no man”

Go in front of the clock tower towards the river and cross the High Street at the junction with Lower Richmond Road.  Go a little way along Lower Richmond Road which runs beside the river.

Stop 10: Kenilworth Court

Soon on the left hand side is a large block of flats with no less than three Blue Plaques. Two were erected by the Putney Society – one is for Lord Hugh Jenkin, at one time local MP and Minister for the Arts and the other for Gavin Ewart, described as a noted poet but I have to confess I have not heard of him.

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But the one that intrigues me is the English Heritage plaque for Fred Russell who lived here from 1914 to 1926. The plaque describes him as the father of modern ventriloquism.

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Turns out this is because he is said to be the first person to use a knee-sitting figure. He started off as a journalist, but from 1882 began performing in public his hobby of ventriloquism. In 1886, he went professional after being offered an engagement at London’s Palace Theatre.

Now go down to the river on the right hand side of the Star and Garter building opposite and go to the riverside, and walk towards Putney Bridge (ie to the right)

Stop 11: Boat Race Marker and Boat Houses

On the SW14 walk, I mentioned in passing that the start and end of the annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat race is marked by stones bearing the letters “U. B. R.”. The end point at Mortlake was just off our route, but the start point in Putney is right on our route just down from Putney Bridge.

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Now walk along the river away form the bridge and just a little further on are a series of boat houses – I counted 11. This has a wonderful atmosphere even when there is almost no one on the water. It makes for a rather unique little bit of London.

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Keep walking along the riverside.

Stop 12: Festing Road (aka Festive Road)

Now just before the gardens, take a left down Festing Road. This is where David McKee, creator of the children’s character Mr Benn, used to live.  In the books, Mr Benn lives in London at 52 Festive Road. Apparently inspired by Festing Road, McKee actually lived at number 54 – next door.

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In November 2009 local residents installed an engraved paving slab in his honour – see BBC news report http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8375309.stm .

McKee is quoted as saying “I think it was because in the first book I drew myself looking out of the window, and I thought it would be quite nice to have him next door”.

I am not sure this slab is still in situ as I could not see it when I visited!

And that I am sorry to say concludes our walk through SW15. For onward travel return to Putney High Street.

So we have seen a glimpse into 16th Century (with Thomas Cromwell), the 17th Century (St Mary’s and the Putney Debates) and 18th century (when Edward Gibbon lived here). Putney was the place where two very different colourful characters (Swinburne and Selfridge)  lived out their last years. We have seen the decline and fall of some 20th century cinemas and wound up at a real address which has been fictionalised in children’s books. Again much more than I expected when I first started out in walking SW15.

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5 thoughts on “SW15: Decline and fall

  1. A fascinating blog: congratulations and thank you.

    A small point regarding the GIBbon (442) Putney exchange/code. Putney’s original exchange was not GIBbon – it was (and effectively still is) PUTney – 788 – though along the west and eastern edges of SW15 a few addresses were allotted numbers really belonging to neighbouring SW18 (VANdyke – 826) and SW13/14 (PROspect – 770). However, the GPO began to run out of numbers in the early 1960s, and it was only then that GIBbon was created. The first numbers appear in the 1963 telephone directory, but only lasted until 1966 – by 1967 Putney had gone all-numerical, and GIBbon’s 442 code was changed to (01-)789.

    Oh, and while I agree that St Mary’s Church is sadly overshadowed by the Putney Wharf apartment block…believe me, it’s not as bad as the monstrosity that was there before! This was the much-loathed 1960s ICL (formerly ICT) building, HQ of the company created by the Wilson government in 1968 to try and keep Britain as a significant world computer manufacturer. The current building was built on to the part-demolished shell of its predecessor in 2005, and although it is admittedly slightly bigger, its cascading frontal curves and varied cladding are a great deal easier on the eye – and in my opinion kinder to the church – than the brutalist concrete monolith before it ever was. See here: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110107165544/http://www.buildingforlife.org/case-studies/putney-wharf/photos?p=9 . And here: http://www.thamespilot.org.uk/ixbin/hixclient.exe?a=query&p=thames&f=generic_largerimage_postsearch.htm&_IXFIRST_=8&_IXMAXHITS_=1&m=quick_sform&tc1=i&partner=thames&text=putney%20bridge&tc2=e&s=MnF2wNksXdy

    Finally, here is a webpage with an early 1950s photo showing both the two old cinemas, Regal and Palace, side-by-side: http://www.manorfields.co.uk/mfel/putney-village-and-town-0 . They narrowly escaped destruction in November 1943 when a Nazi bomb demolished the dance hall on the opposite corner of Putney Bridge Road. That night over 100 people died inside the hall – and also on the street directly outside the cinemas, according to this haunting eye-witness account: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/28/a8128028.shtml

  2. thanks so much for this. as a local boy now living abroad its just so great to see the old haunts and some of the changes. Thanks for all the hard work. Really hoping for SW18/19/20 😉

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