W8 is Kensington and like many of the central postcodes I am spoilt for choice, especially given all the famous (and infamous) people who have plaques to commemorate them. I have therefore decided to have a theme. I will focus on nine lives shown on some of the blue (and not blue) plaques in W8. Why nine lives, well you will see…
We start our walk at High Street Kensington Station as there is no convenient Post Office from which to begin. (by the way note the initials in the picture above MR for Metropolitan Railway and DR for District Railway, as both companies used the station)
Go out of the station and cross Kensington High Street and take the side street almost opposite the station entrance. This is Hornton Street. Go up the slight hill with the Town hall on your left. Turn right into Holland Street and soon on your right is our first stop.
Stop 1: Radclyffe Hall – 37, Holland Street
Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall (1880 – 1943) is better known as Radclyffe Hall, today really only remembered as the writer of a book called “The Well of Loneliness.
This was published in July 1928 and is the story of Stephen Gordon who is a woman attracted to women. Whilst working as an ambulance driver in World War I, she finds love with Mary Llewellyn, but their happiness together is marred by social isolation and rejection.
Although the book has a lesbian theme, it is not sexually explicit. I have not actually read it but I am told that the only sexual reference consists of the words “and that night, they were not divided”. However the Sunday Express did not like it (not much change there then) and waged a campaign against it. There was an obsecenity trial in Britain in November 1928 at which the court judged the book obscene because it defended “unnatural practices between women”. The book continued to be published abroad and after Radclyffe Hall’s death, a British edition was published in 1949, without legal challenge. It has been in print ever since.
As we can see from the blue plaque, Radclyffe Hall must have lived at this Kensington address when the book was published and the trial took place.
Useless fact: The copyright protection for The Well of Loneliness expired in the European Union on January 1, 2014 but in the United States copyright protection will continue until at least 2024.
Now walk along Holland Street and take a right down Kensington Church Walk. Halfway down is a little garden dedicated to our next “life”.
Stop 2: The Alec Clifton-Taylor Memorial Garden
Alec Clifton-Taylor (1907 – 1985) was an architectural historian. He had very strong views on building materials and believed that local materials had to be used for building to “look right”. He was not a fan of much Victorian and subsequent architecture bemoaning the fact that the railway allowed the transport of cheaper materials alien to the locality. Along with Nikolaus Pevsner and John Betjeman, he is considered one of the important experts on English church architecture.
But he would not be known to a wider public were it not for his BBC television programmes. In 1974, Clifton-Taylor presented a programme on mediaeval building in the series on British architecture, The Spirit of the Age. He then went on to present three popular series of programmes: Six English Towns (1977), Six More English Towns (1981), and Another Six English Towns (1984). In each episode, he went to a particular English town, such as Stamford or Saffron Waldon and discussed the towns’ architectural character and evolution.
He lived in Kensington for many years and was president of the Kensington Society, so hence I guess the location of this garden.
Go past the garden and soon you will be back at Kensington High Street. Cross over and go past the Barker’s building and turn right down Young Street. Our next stop is just behind the Barker’s building on the same side of the street.
Stop 3: William Makepeace Thackeray – 16, Young Street
In his lifetime, Thackeray (1811 – 1863) was up there with Dickens as one of great Victorian novelists but today he is best known for just one book – Vanity Fair. Published in 1848, it is a wonderful panoramic portrait satirising English society with one of the great lead characters of all time – Becky Sharp.
This is one of 6 plaques dedicated to Thackeray. There is actually another one just round the corner at 2 Palace Green. That is on a house which was built for Thackeray in 1860 but the building is now the Israeli Embassy. I though it might be a bit difficult to take a photo of that one! So that is why I decided to go for the plaque in Young Street. The two other Thackeray plaques in London are at 36 Onslow Square, SW7 and 20 Albion Street, W2. There are also plaques in Tunbridge Wells, Kent and Lismore in the Irish republic.
By the way Young Street was laid out in 1685 and this house actually dates from 1690, although the facade you see today is much later (1804 – 1805 according to Pevsner)
Go to the end of Young Street and turn right into Kensington Square. Our next stop is just on the right.
Stop 4: Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones – 41, Kensington Square
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898) was an artist and designer closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement and William Morris. He was a founding partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company. He is also known for his stained glass. Burne-Jones was not one of the original Pre-Raphaelites but his early paintings are heavily influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Later he developed his own style.
My favourite Burne-Jones pictures are the Briar Rose series which he painted in the late 1880s. These were purchased by Alexander Henderson, who would become the chairman of the Great Central Railway (1899 – 1922) and then deputy chairman of the London and North Eastern Railway (1923 – 1934) which had absorbed the Great Central when the railways were grouped in 1923. He also later became Lord Farringdon of Buscot Park – his country estate in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire).
The Briar Rose series are four pictures of the same moment in the Sleeping Beauty story in different locations. The panels have verses by William Morris. When Burne-Jones saw the room which Henderson had placed them in Buscot Park, he agreed to paint additional panels with the same rose motif to complete the decorative scheme of the room. The estate is now owned by the National Trust but the house and contents are managed by a separate trust. It’s well worth a visit and not just of this rather special room. It is an unusual National Trust property as it still has the family living in it and being able to impose their own mark on the house.
More info at: http://www.buscot-park.com/
Go round the other side of the square. There are two plaques in quick succession.
Stop 5: John Stuart Mill – 18 Kensington Square
John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) was an English philosopher and political economist. Mill was a strong believer in freedom, especially of speech and of thought. According the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Mill.htm), he defended freedom on two grounds. First, he argued, society’s utility would be maximized if each person was free to make his or her own choices. Second, Mill believed that freedom was required for each person’s development as a whole person. He also though men and women were equal.
Our next plaque is just next door.
Stop 6: Hubert Parry – 17 Kensington Square
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848 – 1918) was a composer, teacher and historian of music. He is best known for the choral song “Jerusalem”, the coronation anthem “I was glad” and the hymn tune “Repton”, which is used as a setting for the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.
I had not quite appreciated that what we call Jerusalem was actually a short poem called “And did those feet in ancient time” by William Blake. It was in the preface to his epic work “Milton, a Poem”. The poem was said to be inspired by the legend that a young Jesus, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea, visited Glastonbury. Blake does not say that the visit actually happened but implies that a visit by Jesus would briefly create heaven in England, in contrast to the “dark Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution.
This poem was published in around 1808 but was little known for the next hundred or so years. But in 1916 the poem “And did those feet in ancient times” was included in the patriotic anthology of verse The Spirit of Man, edited by the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. The aim was to boost morale given the high number of casualties in World War I and the perception that there was no end in sight.
The change of title to ‘Jerusalem’ seems to have been made in 1918 about the time it was used for a Suffrage Demonstration Concert. However, Parry always referred to it by its first title. He had originally intended the first verse to be sung by a solo female voice, but this is rare in contemporary performances. Sir Edward Elgar rescored the work for very large orchestra in 1922 and it is this orchestration rather than Parry’s which is usually used – in particular when it is trotted out at the Last Night of the Proms.
Now continue along the south side of Kensington Square and leave by Thackeray Street. Our next stop is just to the right.
Stop 7: Joan Sims – Esmond Court
Joan Sims (1930 – 2001) was perhaps best known for her roles in the Carry On films – not surprising in that she was a regular appearing in 24 of the 30 films. Only Kenneth Williams appeared in more. He was in 26!
Her first role was in Carry On Nurse and she was in the final one of the original series Carry On Emmanuelle . Over the years Sims’ characters evolved from an “object of desire” in the early films to frumpy and nagging in the later ones. Her carry on work has kind of overshadowed everything else.
But I did find she popped up in the 1989 video for Morrissey’s song “Ouija Board, Ouija Board”. This features Morrissey being led into the woods by some children who take him to see a medium, played by Joan Sims. The video also features an early appearance of a rather slim Kathy Burke.
Her last acting role was in the 2000 television film “The Last of the Blonde Bombshells” which was about a recently widowed woman (played by Judi Dench) trying to reunite the members of the 1940s swing band with which she played saxophone.
Continue down Thackeray Street and at the end turn right. Our next stop is almost immediately ahead.
Stop 8: T S Eliot – 3 Kensington Court Gardens
This is the flat where to poet Thomas Sterne ( T S) Eliot (1888 – 1965) lived at the end of his life and in fact it is where he died.
In his lifetime Eliot was best known for many serous works of poetry. But thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber he is perhaps just as well known as the librettist of one of the most successful musicals of the 20th century. In 1939, Eliot published a book of light verse, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. “Old Possum” was fellow poet Ezra Pound’s nickname for Eliot. Lloyd Webber has said that Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was a childhood favourite of his.
Lloyd Webber began composing the songs in late 1977 and premiered the compositions at the Sydmonton Festival in 1980. The concert was attended by T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie Eliot and she apparently loved the songs that Webber had composed. She gave her blessing for the songs to be adapted into a musical. The Eliot estate insisted the original poems were used as the text. And the solution was that the show is almost completely told through music and dance with virtually no spoken dialogue in between the songs. The set, consisting of an oversized junk yard, remains the same throughout the show without any scene changes.
There is one significant exception to the songs being Eliot’s verse set to music by the composer, and that is the most famous song from the musical, “Memory”. The lyrics were written by Trevor Nunn after an Eliot poem entitled “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”.
Cats opened at the New London Theatre in May 1981 and ran for 21 years in London, whilst the Broadway production which opened in 1982 ran for 18 years. Cats is currently the second longest running musical on Broadway and the fourth longest running in the West End and of course having so little dialogue makes it ideal for an international audience. Somewhere in the world there always seems to be a production on the go.
So now you know why I chose to call the blog of W8: “Nine Lives”!
Fascinating fact: Judi Dench was supposed to play the part Grizzabella – the cat who sings the song “Memory”. But she had to pull out during rehearsals because of an injury. Famously Elaine Paige took the role in the first production and made the song her own. One wonders what would have happened if Judi Dench, not exactly known for her singing voice, had not had to pull out. Would the show have been so successful – or would Lloyd Webber have found another way to sneak the “hit” song into another part of the musical. Having said that Judi Dench has been in musicals. She played Sally Bowles in the original London production of Cabaret in 1968 and then in 1995, she played Desiree Armfeldt in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
But on a more serious note, my friends Annette and Rod decided to retire to a country cottage and they moved to a little village called East Coker, just outside Yeovil. This is the name of one Eliot’s Four Quartets poems. Eliot’s connection with East Coker is that one of his ancestors came from here. And Eliot’s ashes are in the parish church at East Coker, so we often pop in and see him when we are down that way.
Turn back up the street named Kensington Court and take the left hand road. Ahead you will see a pedestrianised alleyway. Our next stop is just at the start of this on the building on the right.
Stop 9: Colonel R E B Crompton – Kensington Court
Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845 – 1940) may not be a name which is that well known but he played an important part in the development of the use of electricity. He was a pioneer of electric lighting and public electricity supply systems. The company he formed, Crompton & Co., was one of the world’s first large-scale manufacturers of electrical equipment. He was also an early campaigner for an international standard for electrical systems. Whilst his main factory was in Chelmsford Essex, he seems to have worked and experimented right here in Kensington which seems unthinkable today!
So that is the end of our “Nine Lives” but I felt I coud not leave this part of Kensington without mentioning the lives of the three major shops which dominated High Street Kensington for so many years:
Go up the pedestrianised alley and then road the little road ahead. At the end is Kensington High Street. Turn left and the first store is ahead at the next corner.
Stop 10: John Barker and Company
John Barker set up shop in Kensington in 1870. He was an ambitious man and over the years acquired neighbouring property and expanded the shop until by 1892, the store employed over 1000 staff in 42 departments. But they were in lots of small shops and so a rebuilding programme was started.
The building we see today was started in 1936 but war interrupted work and it was only finally finished in 1958, by which time the Barker’s group of companies had been bought by House of Fraser.
In 1982 the number of sales floors was reduced from seven to four. It was then refurbished and redeveloped in 1986/87 as a compact store in the eastern part of the building with a new arcade of nine boutiques in the western part. The remaining part of the building was turned into offices which were taken by the Daily Mail group of newspapers, which at the time included the Evening Standard. Now the Mail and the Standard are separate but they still seem to live in the same building along with the Independent, which has the same Russian owner as the Standard.
The smaller Barker’s eventually closed in 2006 and much of the space is now occupied by the american food store Whole Foods Market but you can get a feel for how grand the old store must have been if you go in the main entrance to Whole Foods Market
Our next stop is the next building.
Stop 11: Derry and Toms
Derry & Toms started as a drapery store in 1853 and came to occupy the block between Barker’s and Pontings. It was bought by Barker’s in 1920 who already had bought Pontings in 1907. The three stores continue as separate concerns with Barker’s being the up market one and Pontings and Derry & Toms catering for the middle-class.
The wonderful Art Deco building we see today dates from 1933 and with the addition of a roof garden installed in 1936 – 1938. The garden survives today and is open to the public. Have a look at this aerial picture https://maps.google.com/?t=k&om=1&ll=51.501073,-0.191858&spn=0.000972,0.00192
But sadly Derry and Toms closed as a store in 1973. It had a brief flowering as Biba until 1975 but the shop floors were then stripped out and one side became Marks and Spencer and I believe the other side became BHS, although now that has long been replaced by something else. But there remain some lovely decorative features on the outside and a little reminder of the old name with the intertwined initials D and T. Plus some rather fanciful woodland reliefs, with squirrels I think!
Go past Derry and Toms and the entrance to the station and you will get to the site of the third store, Pontings, now largely forgotten.
Stop 12: Pontings
Ponting Brothers started as a drapery store in 1873. It was a profitable concern until 1906 when an ambitious scheme to diversify the trade foundered and the company went into liquidation. Pontings was snapped up by Barker’s in 1907 but the business continued to trade under its old name and with its own buying team. However it was very much the dowdy sister of the three stores and was never had the kind of major rebuilt the other two did starting in the 1930s.
Amazingly Pontings carried on as a separate store for over 60 more years but it finally closed in February 1971. It had a brief rebirth in the lower ground floor of the Barker’s building where it became known as ‘Pontings Bargain Basement’. This did not last long as it was out of keeping with the rest of the store and so Pontings ceased to be a store name.
The store used to be to the right hand side of the entrance to the station and much of the space is now taken up by Boots.
Much of the information about these three stores has come from a very interesting article on the University of Glasgow’s website http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_91174_en.pdf (they hold the House of Fraser archives, in case you wondered).
And so we have reached the end of our W8 walk. We have heard about some of W8’s famous residents as well as the three main stores that used to line the High Street.
We are now right by High Street Kensington station for onward travel.