W11: Electric Dreams

W11 is Notting hill, famed because of the film and the annual carnival and also home to no less than three pre-First World war buildings which are today still used as cinemas.

Now there does not appear to be a Post Office in W11, so I am starting at the Ladbroke Grove one in W10 which is just yards from the border with W11.

Turn left out of the Post Office at 116 Ladbroke Grove and take the first street on the left which is Lancaster Road. The next main junction is Portobello Road. Turn left here and go to the next junction on the right which is Tavistock Road.

Stop 1: The Notting Hill Carnival Plaques

The story of the Notting Hill Carnival started from two separate but connected events. Here on either side of the little pedestranised area at the end of Tavistock Road are blue plaques to commemorate two people who are linked to the genesis of Carnival.

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The plaque on the south side is for Claudia Jones (1915—1964) . It was she who organised a “Caribbean Carnival” in January 1959 in St Pancras Town Hall as a response to the depressing state of race relations at the time – the Notting Hill race riots had occurred the previous year. Claudia Jones was born in Trinidad but her family went to the US when she was a child. There she became a political activist and black nationalist through Communism. As a result of her political activities, she was deported in 1955 and so came to Britain. She founded Britain’s first Black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette, in 1958, although this foundered soon after her death. But she is perhaps better remembered for her role in setting up the first carnival and is considered by some to be “the Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival” despite the fact that the first ones were actually held indoors nowhere near Notting Hill.

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The other plaque is on the opposite side of the road and is for Rhaune Laslett O’Brien (1919 – 2002). She was a community activist and the principal organiser of the Notting Hill Fayre or Festival, that evolved into the Notting Hill Carnival.

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The story goes that this street party for neighbourhood children turned into a carnival procession when Russell Henderson’s steel band (who had played at the earlier Claudia Jones events) went on a walkabout. So perhaps Rhaune has a stronger claim to be the “Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival” as the event she organised was actually outdoors in the local area.

And from these roots the modern day Notting Hill Carnival evolved. There is a great article about this from the Guardian by Gary Younge dated 17 August 2002:

http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/aug/17/nottinghillcarnival2002.nottinghillcarnival

Return down Portobello Road and at the junction with Wesbourne Park Road take a right.

Stop 2: Number 280 Westbourne Park Road

Our next stop is just along from the junction on the right. It is the famous Blue Door which featured in the film Notting Hill. In the movie, this was the door to the flat occupied by Hugh Grant’s character Will but in reality the building was owned by Richard Curtis, who wrote the screen play. Apparently behind the entrance there is not the flat you see in the film – it is a rather grand house. Curtis no longer owns the house and the original blue door was auctioned for charity. But the replacement door has been painted blue – I guess because everyone expects it to be blue. When I was there, lots of people were having their photo taken by it. There are various other locations hereabouts that were used in the film but I am going to resist pointing them out!

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Return to Portobello Road and keep walking along. This section of the market still has fruit and vegetable stalls but there is also more general merchandise. Just at the next junction, look out for this Joe Strummer mural on the end of Blenheim Crescent (to your right). Note the graffiti (!)

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Our next stop is just a little further down on the right

Stop 3: Electric Cinema, 191 Portobello Road

The Electric Cinema opened on 24th December 1910. It is hard to see the facade when the market is running – and to be honest it is not much of a facade, even though this is one of the first purpose built cinemas in the country.

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This cinema has survived against all the odds. I guess it helped that it was not on a main road nor owned by a big chain. It remained open (on and off) until the 1990s. As far as I can establish never succumbed to bingo and it has always been called the Electric – which is just as well given the mosaic floor in the foyer. The building was restored in 2001 and has an adjoining restaurant. It is a Grade II* listed building.

Keep walking along Portobello Road

Stop 4: Portobello Antique Market

We are now in the part of Portobello Road famed for its antique shops and arcades. It is called Portobello Road by the way because it was the road that led to Portobello Farm, near Kensal Green. And that had been renamed around 1740 after the Battle of Porto Bello. This was when Admiral Edward Vernon stormed and captured the spanish port of Porto Bello in the Gulf of Mexico in revenge for a spanish sea Captain slicing off the ear of a British mariner, Robert Jenkins – the so-called “War of Jenkin’s Ear”.

There are a couple of blue plaques in this section of the road. The first one you come across is on Number 169.

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Now here’s a strange tale. I was standing there looking at this blue plaque and a woman comes up to me and says: “you know she had that put there up herself”. And if you look you can see it is unlike the official blue plaques as it has no mention of the organisation which put it up. She went on to say that Susan Garth was quite a character and suggested she had been in business in Shepherd Market before coming here – but not in the antiques trade.

It turned out I was talking to Marion who owned the shop almost opposite, which has been in her family for years. She trades antiques on a Saturday but the rest of the week it is an ordinary shop and the man who rents it puts away all his stock on friday night so she can trade antiques on Saturdays. So we carry on chatting and she mentions she is in a book about Portobello, which just happened to be in the window of the shop. It’s called “Portobello Voices” by Blanche Girouard. I buy it and lo and behold Marion is featured as the first “voice”. It is a fascinating read by the way, but it does make you worry about how the local differences are being lost. (However haven’t people been saying that for years …)

There is another unofficial looking blue plaque a little further along the road at Number 115. This is to June Aylward and it claims she opened the first antique shop on Portobello Road. Again this appears to be an unofficial blue plaque.

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Sadly this is no longer an antique shop. It is now occupied by a Ben Sherman clothes store, which is a worrying sign of change.

 

 

 

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Keep walking along Portobello Road crossing over Chepstow Villas. Our next stop is on the right.

Stop 5: Number 22 Portobello Road

Who would have thought it. Here at number 22 is a blue plaque to George Orwell. Orwell was of course not his real name. That was Eric Blair. He was from Suffolk and the Orwell is the main river in southern Suffolk.

Orwell is best known for his works 1984 and Animal Farm but he wrote extensively and is often ranked as one of the most influential English writers of the 20th century. Afterall it was he who coined the phrase “big brother” and his pen name has given us the term “Orwellian”.

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Orwell had lodgings here in Portobello Road. He moved in  here in 1927 but he does not seem to have stayed long as he moved to Paris in the spring of 1928. It is strange to think of this little house as being “lodgings” but then it is only more recently that Notting Hill has become achingly expensive.

Fascinating fact: In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay describing the ideal pub, which he called “the Moon Under Water”. That no doubt is why Wetherspoons have used this actual name on some of their pubs (including in their one in Leicester Square) and they have adapted it so you also get pub names like “Lord Moon of the Mall”.

Continue walking along Portobello Road at the end continue into Pembridge Road which leads you to the street Noting Hill Gate. Just at the junction we have almost side by the side the other two old cinemas in W11.

Stop 6a: Gate Cinema

This building (or at least a bit of it) dates from 1861. The ground floor room (which is where the current cinema is) was known as the North End and Harvey Dining Room. In 1879, the building became the Golden Bells Hotel, and the ground floor room was known as the Golden Bells Coffee Palace and Restaurant. The ground floor room was converted into a cinema in April 1911 with the name Electric Palace. It did have a much more elaborate facade but this was destroyed by WW2 bombing and rebuilt with its now rather plain facade in the 1950s.

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The cinema has had various names. By 1934 it was the Embassy News and Interest Theatre. By 1944, it was simply known as the Embassy Cinema and it became the Classic Cinema in 1957. With the demise of the Classic chain in 1974 it was operated by an independent operator Cinegate under the name of the Gate Cinema. The Gate Cinema is today operated by the Picturehouse Cinemas chain. With its wealth of Edwardian plaster-work, it is designated a Grade II Listed building by English Heritage.

And just little further along is the Coronet.

Stop 6b: Coronet Theatre

This was built as a theatre in 1898 with some 1,100 seats over three levels – stalls, balcony and gallery.

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It became a full time cinema in 1923.  In 1931 it was acquired by Gaumont but kept its original name until 1950 when it started to be called the Gaumont. It was taken over by an independent operator in 1977 who re-instated the name Coronet. The main auditorium is virtually intact, but with only 220 seats in the stalls and 160 in the balcony, as the gallery is not used. So this is a rare example of a cinema which still has seats on two levels. In 2002, the disused stage area was converted to create a second screen seating 151, on condition that this was easily removable so as not to allow a return to live theatre usage should the demand exist.

Continue walking along Notting Hill Gate. I believe somewhere along here on the north side of the street was the first Virgin Records store but I have been unable to pin that one down.

Stop 7: Number 12 Holland Park Avenue

The shops stop and the road becomes Holland Park Avenue. Our next stop is a few houses along on the right.

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The plaque indicates this was the home – and workplace – of Caroline DeCamp Benn (1926 – 2000). She was wife of the now recently deceased Tony Benn. So I guess by inference this was the Benn family home. The bright red door now makes perfect sense.

 

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Caroline Benn was an educational academic. American by birth, she came to Oxford to study. She met her future husband over tea at Worcester College, Oxford in 1949. Nine days later he proposed to her on a park bench in the city. Sometime later, he bought the bench from Oxford City Council and installed it in the garden of their house in Holland Park (which I assume is this house).

There is a wonderful quote by Tony Benn refered to in a BBC article about the time of his retirement from Parliament in 2010: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1209497.stm

“She was my socialist soulmate. When people went through our rubbish every day, it was harder for her. I could respond in the House, she just had to take it.”

Keep walking along Holland Park Avenue. Our next stop is on the other side of the road at the corner of the street named Holland Park.

Stop 8: The Ukrainian institute

At the corner is a statue of St. Volodymyr. He was ruler of Ukraine from 980 to 1015. The statue was  erected by Ukrainians in Great Britain in 1988 to celebrate the establishment of christianity in Ukraine by St. Volodymyr one thousand years before.

And I guess it is here because the building at this corner is the Ukrainian Institute. This promotes a greater awareness, understanding and knowledge of all things Ukrainian. The Institute is maintained and supported a charity called the Society of St Sophia, a UK registered charity. It was founded in 1979 by Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, following his release from 18 years in Soviet prisons.

Today the statue is surrounding by a montage of pictures of people who have died in the recent conflict in Ukraine.

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keep walking along Holland Park Avenue crossing over when convenient. You will pass Holland Park station, one of the few remaining original buildings of the Central London Railway, dating from 1901.

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Take the next right (Clarendon Road). Walk up Clarendon Road and our next stop is just past St John’s Gardens

Stop 9: Number 50 Clarendon Road

Number 50 was home to Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, later Dame, Christabel Pankhurst.

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Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the leading campaigners for women’s rights. In 1889, she and her husband, Richard, established the Women’s Franchise League. It’s main achievement was to secure the vote for women in local elections . Then five years after her husband’s death she, with her daughter Christabel, and four other women created the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. The founders decided to form a women-only organisation to campaign for social reforms, largely in conjunction with the Independent Labour Party. They also campaigned for an extension of women’s right to vote. They were much more militant than previous groups and they adopted the slogan “Deeds, not words”

Interestingly the term “suffragette” was not the women’s own. It was first used as a term of derision for women’s suffrage activists by the Daily Mail journalist Charles E. Hands. But the term was embraced by the women, and we use it today.

The outbreak of the First World War led to a halting of much of the campaigning. But things did begin to change after the war. The Representation of the People Act 1918 enfranchised women with property who were over the age of 30. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21.

Christabel Pankhurst left the UK in 1921 for the United States. She returned briefly in the 1930s. She became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1936. But at the start of World War II she went back to the United States. I guess campaigning was in her blood and in the States she became a Christian evangelist.

Continue up Clarendon Road, taking the first left (Clarendon Gardens)

Stop 10: Hippodrome Place

When you reach Portland Road, there is a small pedestrianised area to the left and ahead is a street called Hippodrome Place.

 

 

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This is called Hippodrome Place not because there was a theatre of that name here but because the land hereabouts was briefly a horse racing track called the Kensington Hippodrome.

The land here was owned by the Ladbroke family and by 1821 had been inherited by James Weller Ladbroke, who initiated the house building. A landscape architect called Thomas Allason was appointed to layout the estate. The original plan was for a  large central circus with radiating streets built around gardens. A financial crisis in 1825 forced his plans to be greatly scaled down, and this original vision was not fulfilled. However some fifteen of communal garden squares were built, and they give this area its unique character.

Building work all but stopped in the 1830s but some of the undeveloped land was leased in 1837 to a man called John Whyte. Whyte built a racecourse but it was not a financial success and it closed in 1842. By then financial conditions had improved and the land was soon developed by Ladbroke who had crescents of houses built on Whyte’s former race course. So all we have left to remind us of the short lived racecourse is this street name.

Now take a left at the pedestrianised area and then take the road which curves off to the right. This is Penzance Place. This becomes St James Gardens. Continue along this until you reach a cross roads. Here turn left into St Ann’s Villas. Our next stop is a little way along on the right.

Stop 11: Number 17 St Ann’s Villas

Number 17 was the birthplace of music hall comedian Albert Chevalier (1861 – 1923).

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Chevalier was known for his sentimental songs, his most popular being My Old Dutch, a song published in 1892 about an old man’s long happy marriage to his wife. Now “Dutch” is said to be cockney rhyming slang. It could come from “dutch plate” (“mate”) or “Duchess of Fife” (“wife”). The first Duchess of Fife by the way was daughter of the then Prince of Wales and so a grand daughter of Queen Victoria. The dukedom was created in 1889 by Queen Victoria.

However Chevalier, who wrote the words to the song, claimed that his wife’s face reminded him of the clock face of a Dutch clock (!).

Retrace your steps along St Ann’s Villas which then becomes St Ann’s Road.  After Wilsham Street on the right, there is a 1950s estate which is our next stop.

Stop 12: Henry Dickens Court

The blocks in this estate mostly seem to have Charles Dickens connection, such as Dorrit House and Nickleby House. So why, I ask myself, is the estate called Henry Dickens Court?

It turns out it was named after Henry Dickens, grandson of Charles Dickens. Henry Dickens was an Alderman on Kensington Borough Council and an active advocate of municipal housing. The estate was built on a bomb site as part of the Borough Council’s post war redevelopment plan. The estate was opened by the Queen Mother in 1953.

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This brings us to the end of our W11 walk. We have seen three old cinemas and heard of some interesting connections. Now that this area is so gentrified, it is hard to think of this as a place of radicals, communists and socialists. But as we have seen George Orwell and the Pankhursts lived in W11 as well as a couple of people who are credited with starting the idea of the Notting Hill Carnival, not to mention the Benn family.

For onward travel, you will find Latimer Road station if you keep walking. Or else there are buses running along here that will take you to Shepherd’s Bush.

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4 thoughts on “W11: Electric Dreams

  1. Hi Stephen, really like this. I lived in Notting Hill for 8 years, Colville Terrace to be precise, and was constantly surprised to discover some of the amazing little things of contemporary history which the area has to offer to educate the culture-curious local or traveller/tourist.

    I think your guide is great start as a potted history for the independent traveller/tourist to use for a self-guided tour. I have some other little things you may want to add into it if you ever decide you want to venture back and meet up to discuss adding in over a coffee at one of the great independent cafes still remaining in the area.

    Indeed, it’s sad to see some of the great little independent cafes and other unique businesses have disappeared, or are at risk of disappearing, and the chains are taking over….

  2. Wasn’t always the Electric Cinema.This was known as the Imperial Cinema many years ago,mind you to many people it was simply The Bughole.

    • Yes it was at one time known as the Imperial. But when it opened in 1910 it was called the Electric and so the Imperial name came later. Had not heard about the nickname of Bughole but it’s understandable alternative name for what to many would have been a “fleapit” cinema.

      • when I lived in that area it was called the bughole I was born in notting hill in 1949 and went to issac newton school in the Portobello road till 1964.

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