June 17, 2013
Not far from Highbury and Islington Station, numbers 95-101 Holloway Road look much like the rest of the houses stretching to either side – unloved, grubby Victorian piles with transient shops underneath: day-glo internet cafes, small lawyers specialising in immigration issues, greasy spoons which have seen better days.
Situated above the Wig and Gown pub, here’s nothing to show that, forty years ago, these houses were briefly the heart of radical black Britain.
The Black House was the brainchild of Michael X, a man of many contradictions. A published author, firebrand community leader and darling of the left-leaning avant garde, he was also a pimp, conman and megalomaniac who would later be hanged for his part in two brutal murders.
Born in Trinidad in 1933, the charismatic Michael de Freitas was a seaman when he docked at Cardiff in his mid-twenties and decided to stay in Britain. With job opportunities for West Indian immigrants solely of the dogsbody variety – working in car factories or in the bus garages – he became a pimp, living off the earnings of his girlfriend, and when the relationship ended, moving onto other women.
By 1957, with Cardiff unlikely to make him his fortune, he moved to Bravington Road W9, between Kilburn and Ladbroke Grove, with a prostitute named Sandra. Like many young immigrant men with few opportunities, de Freitas found no alternative but to hustle: getting back into pimping, organising gambling rackets with limited success, and taking part in a scam stealing luggage from the West London Air Terminal in Cromwell Road.
In 1958, DeFreitas moved to Southam Street in Notting Hill with his partner Desiree.
The future Labour Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson was born in the street at the same time (his 2013 memoir This Boy tells the almost unimaginably bleak story of his childhood in this Notting Hill slum), and the photographer Roger Mayne photographed the road between 1958 and 1961.
As he wrote in his 1968 autobiography, From Michael de Freitas to Michael X:
It was impossible to believe you were in twentieth-century England: terraced houses with shabby, crumbling stonework and the last traces of discoloured paint peeling from their doors, windows broken, garbage and dirt strewn all over the road, every second house deserted, with doors nailed up and rusty corrugated iron across the window spaces, a legion of filthy white children swarming everywhere and people lying drunk across the pavement…
As Desireee told David Peace, “Southam Street was rough, but black people expected that. You were lucky you had a room and nobody bothered you if you paid your rent.”
In the Notting Hill of the 1950s, two social groups of outcasts came together: the recent West Indian immigrants and the working-class white prositutes. Larry Ford, a sometime club owner and contemporary of de Freitas, noted that “you get two outcasts, social outcasts, the blacks and the prostitutes and these two get together and the money comes in.”
In his autobiography, de Freitas wrote about a woman named Sylvia, who he acted as a pimp for (although he claimed she simply turned up with £40 one day, handed it over to him, and their working relationship began from there.) He coldly pondered his position: “People have been trying to work out why prostitutes need a ponce since the profession began and nobody’s found a satisfactory answer. In this girl’s case I think she was a compulsive giver and she had no other way of making so much to give.” Sylvia certainly found someone who would take as much as she could make.
As De Freitas pimped, he quickly became well-known on the semi-criminal scene for the long hours his girls worked (“the way they saw it was that I sent the girl out to work and allowed her to do nothing but to stay on the job constantly. In fact, of course, she seemed to want to do nothing else” he wrote, probably entirely fictionally.)
But during the summer of 1958, Notting Hill sporadically exploded in incidents of violence. Carribean men were being attacked and beaten on the streets by large groups of white men, the flames of racial hatred fanned by Oswald Moseley, the Union movement and the White Defence League, whose motto was ‘Keep Britain White.’
Outside the Calypso Club on Westbourne Park Road, a meeting was held. As three West Indians addressed the crowd, urging them to start committees and write to their MPs to protest against the indiscriminate attacks and the rising tide of racial hatred, DeFreitas asked to speak. It would be his first ‘political’ speech.
He told the crowd “You don’t need committees and representations. What you need is to get a few pieces of iron and a bit of organisation so when they come in here we can defend ourselves.” There was a roar of support and Michael led an attack on a local club used exclusively by white criminals – “some of us lobbed petrol bombs in the back of the buildings while the rest waited in ambush out front.”
Surprisingly, de Freitas didn’t think the two weeks of sporadic clashes and violence now knwon as the 1958 Brixton race riots – which he could easily have claimed a leading role in – were racially motivated. DeFreitas believed the race angle was a creation of the press – “in general people just drifted into violence, finding themselves involved without knowing how or why.” Much like the riots of 2011, he believed “there’s always a large section of any population which is attracted to riots for kicks and to relieve the boredom of their dull lives. With a few wild ones throwing bottles everyone tends to get involved.”
He thought the racial element was only introduced as “white people don’t run to the blacks for protection, nor the blacks to the whites. They separate into their own colour groups, And there you have it, created out of nothing – a race riot. Or, at least, the atmosphere of a race riot. In actual fact, there still wasn’t much real action.”
Following the unrest of the summer came a wave of left-wing, middle-class, liberal, mainly young do-gooders who flooded into the area to try and help the minority population. DeFreitas was frequently in the mix, showing parties of MPs around the “real” Notting Hill.
Around this time, he also worked for the landlord Peter Rachman, having impressed Rachman when, as a tenant, he not only took him on in a tribunal to get his rent lowered, but attempted to start an entire campaign against his empire. Refusing to be cowed by Rachman’s heavies who called round, Rachman decided to take another tact: he offered DeFreitas a job. DeFreitas took it, and Rachman went on to help him speculate in property (Michael moved into the top floor of one of the houses he bought in Colville Terrace, operated a brothel in the basement, and opened up a gaming house in the basement of a property in Powis Terrace.)
When he saw Rachman was selling off his properties, DeFreitas thought he must have some sort of insider knowledge about the market, so he sold Colville Terrace and moved to Stoke Newington.
His second residence came with a second woman – a wealthy Canadian TV news reporter named Nancy, who lived in Primrose Hill. This seemd to be the tipping point of Michael DeFreitas’s life. He made attempts to escape the world of the hustler, returning to the sea and becoming a sailor again, a life he loved. But after surviving numerous “attempts to put me away for robbery with violence and running a brothel”, while in Notting Hill, DeFreitas was accused of stealing a pot of paint from the dockyards (“there’s always a lot of it lying around apparently spare – and everybody takes it.”) He was sent to prison for three months and when he came out in 1963, the world had changed.
When he came out, he moved back to his old haunts in Notting Hill, now populated by a new white influx of bohemians, artists and dreamers. Alexander Trocci was devising Sigma, his collective of publishing, universities and culture; John Michell was running a hip record shop; drugs were everywhere and the kids were rebelling. Michael saw they had money, noted their relentless self-promotion, and rather liked the bullshitty nature of their work and projects – you got cash, and then delivered something…or nothing. It was just another hustle.
He started painting, and wrote poetry – his poetry more successful, largely due to his race meaning he was regarded as a tremendously desirable commodity in England: the “cool spade.” That said, Diana Athill, then chief editor at Andre Deutsch met and “disliked” Michael, saying he was “either a nut or a conman” – but against her better judgement, many years later, the firm would publish his autobiography, transcribed from interviews by a white English civil servant and sometime pornographic novel writer named John Stevenson.
As the 1960s progressed, Michael, like many black men, began attending meetings of West Indian men, where race was frequently discussed, with events in America developing a new black consciousness across the world. Eating at the Commonwealth Institute as part of the launch of a black newspaper called The Magnet, Michael heard a speech by the American Malcolm X, the leader of the Nation of Islam and then somewhat of a marginal figure. Impressed, he invited Malcolm X to dinner n Primrose Hill that night – X turned up at 10.30 and despite Michael and Nancy being concerned that he wouldn’t want to stay as Nancy was white, they started listening to music and didn’t drive him back to his hotel until 1am.
For the remainder of Malcolm X’s British tour, Michael travelled with him. In a hotel in Birmingham, Malcolm told a receptionist to save a room “for my brother, Michael.” She took him literally, and entered the name Michael X in the reservation book. Michael swiftly adopted his new name.
Following Malcolm X’s assassination just three weeks later, Michael was profiled in the papers, portrayed as a leading light in British black nationalism and repeating Michael’s boasts that he’d been involved in organising the Notting Hill riots, had been to Russia for political meetings (he hadn’t, but he’d stopped off as a sailor to swap records and jeans for pots of caviar) and was the leader of a black British organisation which had 2000 members. With no one else at the fore, however, the article portrayed him as the voice of alternative black British culture, which led to him forming his own political group, the Radical Adjustment Action Society in 1965 (its acronym RAAS was specifically chosen as it was a Jamaican obscenity – raas claat, meaning sanitary towel.)
The political awakening of Michael X was still suppressed by the aggressive, somewhat childish hustler he’d always been, and his reputation ensured that he was never entirely trusted by those around him. Before long, he was on the move again – the press releases were handed to other people to write and he became interested in Islam, changing his name once again to Abdul Malik. He was still involved with the counter-culture, a key player in the London Free School (a sort of community run self-improvement centre, which Michael managed to get Muhammad Ali to visit in May 1966 when he was in the country to fight Henry Cooper at Arsenal’s Highbury stadium) and the Notting Hill Carnival (springing out of the LFS, the council said they’d only consider giving money for it if Michael wasn’t involved in any way.) He even ran the door security at the UFO at the Roundhouse, one of the few jobs he actually seems to have taken seriously and performed professionally.
Michael continued to portray himself as Britain’s most revolutionary black leader, with a speech in Reading seeing him talk about seeing black men running away while white men beat up black women in the Notting Hill riots, telling them “if you ever see a white laying hands on a black woman, kill him immediately.” The audience laughed, but Michael was charged under new race legislation (although Enoch Powell, saying similar things, was left alone.) He was sent back to prison, serving eight months of a one-year sentence.
When he’d come out before, the world had changed.
Now when he came out, it was Michael X who’d changed. A darkness entered his life and would follow him until his early and violent death.
When he was released, he found it hard to fit in with any of the political organisations he’d been involved with, so set about creating a smaller one of his own – something small enough to maintain control over, which he could dominate and use for his own ends. Having been largely ignored by the white liberals he knew during his time in prison which had left him with “hard grudges against a lot of people”, he decided it would be a blacks-only organisation, a “arts centre cum supermarket cum alternative living space.”
The Black House represented a harder side of the late 1960s – the hippie dream of love and togetherness replaced with a venue which was founded on ideas of segregation and suspicion. And, in the days before arts councils and minority grants, it would be funded by the rich white liberals who Michael X had started to loathe.
He used heavy guilt trips, targeting white radicals, saying they should donate as a way as a form of reparation for the crimes of slavery (to squeeze money out of John Lennon, he said reparations should be paid as Lennon had stolen and commercialised black music. He got a cheque for £10,000, which most likely went straight to his own personal account.)
A warren of rooms, stretching over three shops, was rented on the Holloway Road. Crumbling Dickensian properties requiring much modernisation, the rent was about four grand a year and was paid for by the wealthy Nigel Samuel, who had been spellbound by Michael (and the constant stream of black women he was introduced to certainly helped maintain his interest in the project. Royston Casanova, the son of one of Michael’s former lovers, said of Nigel that “he loved black women. He didn’t want a white woman or a Chinese woman or whatever…black girls had him by the balls.”)
Originally named the Barter House, it became quickly known simply as the Black House.
The first part of the renovation to be carried out was Michael’s luxurious office in 1969. A kitchen and dining room followed. But while he was often photographed wearing overalls and bearing a paintbrush, he worked more on publicity than the hard graft. This included writing articles in IT Magazine:
We hope to put into what was a run-down empty shell a supermarket, a restaurant and a cultural centre where things like a cinema and theatre will happen. There we hope to show the people of the host community what we are really like through our theatre…The Black House needs new toilets, paint and chairs. A small cheque could go a long way to building this, you can help to make this tree we have planted bloom by writing a cheque immediately and sending it to us, you can also help by turning us on to some paint or folding chairs which we urgently need There is also a communal eating place where we meet daily at 1.30pm to discuss further work, you can join us here too, the food is swinging, our cook is a beautiful cat. Sit and rap with him, let him transport you into another world with his wonderful cooking and fascinating stories.
A fund-raising brochure was written by a young black South African journalist called Lionel Morrison – he pitched the Black House as a centre for disaffected black youth, where they could make music, put on plays and learn about African history. Sent to the great and good (many of whom were put off by Michael’s notoriety), an estimated £20,00 was donated, including from Muhammed Ali (who donated several thousand), Sammy Davis Jr and John Lennon.
But nothing really came of the plans. Over the next year, the money kept rolling in, but nothing changed. When the hippies came to see the new project, nothing much was happening. The Black House supermarket – intended to sell only African and West Indian goods, with an entirely black staff – missed the announced opening dates time and time again. As John L. Williams wrote in his excellent biography of Michael: “As 1969 turned into 1970, it was becoming obvious that whatever the Black House was, it was not an inspiring oasis of peace and love in the midst of grimy North London. Instead it was an intimidating establishment used as a base for various kinds of illegal activity.”
Mick Farren said it was “full of North London rudies in pork-pie hats” and Michael spoke of him and his boys building up a bank and engaging in “fighting games, rough games.” He was surrounded by hard men, usually Trinidadians: Darcus Howe called them “a group of people around him who he’d look after. Big men. Give you £40 a week or whatever, and if he tells you to chop his head off, you do it.” The salary was supposedly for the work done at the Black House, but was in actuality a fee to work as his private militia.
Michael started sending out his boys to rip off the gentle hippie drug dealers – “terrible tales were coming back of armed robbery within what had been a very, very peace-loving, city-wide hashish-dealing scene,” recalled Mick Farren. “Michael…didn’t have a legit dealing set-up, there wasn’t a smuggler supplying him, so his wasn’t a proper business, it was parasitic.”
Drugs were rife but the Black House did, however, have a set of rules, modelled loosely along the same lines as the Nation of Islam. No alcohol (although dope-smoking was allowed), and interracial sex was banned. These rules – strictly enforced, often with threats of violence against rule-breakers – ended up in “people’s courts”, where rulebreakers were dealt with interally.
Michael was becoming a dictator, ruling over an almost cult-like gathering of followers and acolytes.
On 4 February 1970, Lennon and Yoko Ono popped by for a strange publicity stunt, where they arrived with newly shorn heads and a bag of their own hair, which they swapped for Michael’s bloodied Muhammed Ali shorts on the roof of the Black House.
The shorts were to be auctioned to raise money for world peace; the hair for funds for the Black House. As John L. Williams notes, “So baffling was this event, and so dubious was Michael’s reputation by this point, that this was the first Beatles-related publicity exercise to receive no coverage whatever in the national press.”
The following day, Lennon appeared with Michael on The Simon Dee television show. Lennon revealed that Sotheby’s declined to sell the hair because “they only sell art”. Michael’s plan to raise funds had taken another knock at the hands of the establishment.
In April 1970, there was no need to raise any more funds as an incident would lead to the house’s total collapse.
A young black American actor called Leroy House had been to work at a central London cleaning agency, but after various deductions the pay he received was less than he was expecting. Hearing the complaint, Michael assembled three men from the Black House and went to Clean-A-Flat cleaning company in Newburgh Street. They demanded £3 from the owner, 25-year-old Marvin Brown, and when he said he didn’t have any money on him, Michael picked up a bunch of files from his desk and said he could have them back if he came to the Black House with the £3. Brown called the police, and they headed down to the Black House.
Backed up by some 25 Black House regulars, Michael told the police to leave as they didn’t have a warrant. Left alone, Brown decided to pay the £3. Instead, Michael told him to come back in 30 minutes, and when he did, a court was assembled – some 30 black men and black and white women – and demanded Brown make amends for the way black people had been treated throughour history. Brown protested that as a Jew, he was also part of a persecuted minority – but no-one was impressed by this. Instead, they put a spiked slave collar (part of the Black House’s ‘museum’ of historical artefacts) on Brown, and marched him round the room until he burst into tears. When some of the women protested, his ordeal stopped and he was given his files back, but Michael then wanted him to pay a fine for bringing the police with him. Brown handed over all the money he had with him – £13. Michael have him back £8 and a signed copy of his autobiography (which he usually sold to guilty liberals at £5 a time.) He was then released. The police were waiting outside and Brown told them about his ordeal.
A week later, 50 policemen burst into the Black House and arrested everyone who’d been there during the original raid on Brown’s office. All facing trial, Michael decided to flee to Trinidad – he hated prison, and it was likely his notoriety would only give him a longer sentence than otherwise.
Additionally, the Black House was in an even worse condition than it was when it had first been taken over. The Black House had become a mixture of halfway house for black people and a youth club, with reggae club nights attracting hundreds of youths, stopped by police after complaints from the neighbours. While it was being vandalised by kids, Michael began practising Obeah, the voodoo he watched his mother performing while a child. Exorcisms were performed at the house, and residents were given amulets to wear – all of which added to the general air of paranoia and fear.
“When I saw what the Black House was about I became interested,” said Stanley Abbott, a community minded individual who was involved with the Black House at the very end, just before Michael abandoned it. “The Black House was no sinister den of sin. To me and thousands of black people in England in represented a place black youths could go. Inside the Black House was a community centre. There was amplifiers and loudspeakers, and the kids – hundreds of kids – used to play records and dance together. There were three kitchens in the Black House where the kids used to experiment with cooking. There was a library where one could go and read. I took an interest in the kids and helped them.”
The Black House finally closed in the autumn of 1970. Michael blamed its failure on the laziness of the inhabitants and resigned from all his posts within the Black Power movement – in effect, he handed the Black House and its mountain of unpaid debts to the remaining residents. There were solid, hard-working black people at the Black House, like Abbott, but just three weeks after Michael resigned, they folded in the face of the hustlers and hoods who dominated the Black House and the enterprise closed down for good.
In early February 1971, an increasingly crazed Michael X was back in Trinidad. By 1972, he’d been found guilty of the entirely senseless murder of Joseph Skeritt, a handyman who’d worked on a projected commune which was falling to pieces around him, and he was implicit (although never tried) in the murder of Gail Benson, the daughter of Tory MP Leonard Plugge. Benson had arrived at Michael’s proposed commune with her lover Hakim Jamal, an American cousin of Malcolm X (who came to believe he was God and was later murdered in the USA) and had been murdered for reasons that are entirely unclear. Michael deFreitas – aka Michael X – was hanged in May 1975.
The Black House lived on briefly in another form: about a mile up the road, a dynamic Caribbean immigrant called Herman Edwards set up ‘Harambee’ (the Swahili for ‘pulling together’) to provide a halfway house for vulnerable young people who had been in trouble with the law. Due to its similarities with Michael X’s organisation – in that it was intended to benefit the local black community and was located on the Holloway Road, not that it was in anyway a front for illegal activities – the press came to also refer to it as The Black House.
Funded by Islington Council, this second Black House lasted until the mid-1970s and was photographed extensively by Colin Jones in 1973. A book of his beautiful photographs was published in 2005.
Notes for this entry came primarily from Michael X: A Life in Black and White by John L. Williams, a tremendous read which is available here.
Colin Jones’ The Black House is also recommended and can be purchased here.
Both links take you to Abebooks, which, while owned by Amazon, support smaller booksellers – I have no affiliation with them or the site, but they’re my bookseller of choice.
March 11, 2013
Between 1961 and 1964, 18 Greek Street, Soho was the home of the Establishment Club.
The club was open for a little over three years, and for nearly half that time, the man most associated with it, Peter Cook, wasn’t even in the country. Very few photographs of its interior exist and not many recordings were made of the acts who took to its stage.
And yet, nearly fifty years after it shut, it remains one of the most iconic comedy venues in the world.
Opening a satirical nightclub had been a dream of Cook’s ever since he started performing at university. With the satire boom catapulting him into sudden stardom (he was starring nightly in Beyond The Fringe at the Fortune Theatre from May 1961), he wasted no time in setting up a joint venture with Cambridge colleague Nick Luard. His plan was to open a theatre/dinner club with a jazz club in the basement, which would feature a nightly satirical show on stage. “I didn’t think it was a risk at all,’ he later told Clive James. “My dread in my last year in Cambridge was that somebody else would have this very obvious idea to do political cabaret uncensored by the Lord Chamberlain. I thought it was a certainty.”
The flagrantly ironic name (‘the only good title that I ever thought of’, Cook famously said) came first; locating the premises second.
Cook himself wanted the seediness of Soho. At the time, Soho was the only place in England where sex was visibly on sale – in blue cinemas, strip joints, peep shows and stag clubs. An ongoing gangland turf war had been inflamed by the results of the Wolfenden Report, which had forced prostitutes off the streets and into the network of tiny rooms in the surrounding buildings.
On their first viewing of 18 Greek Street (then Club Tropicana, a club boasting an “all girl strip revue”), Cook’s wife Wendy recalled it was “the seediest of beer-sodden atmospheres. The windows were swagged in oceans of red velvet curtains…there were discarded G-strings, used condoms, plastic chandeliers – all the tawdry remnants of a former strip club.” It was perfect.
Cook and Luard at their new premises in Soho, 1961
The Establishment Club opened in October 1961. The décor was chosen by Sean Kenny, who had designed the sets for Lionel Bart’s Oliver and Roger Law (who, as one half of Fluck and Law, would go on to create the long running ITV satire puppet show Spitting Image) had a space for a nightly cartoon on one of the walls near the entrance.
The size of the place – “it was a tiny little room” recalled resident singer Jean Hart – meant it always seemed busy and intimate. Manager Bruce Copp recalled the layout: “There was a long approach as you went into the club; it was a long building, in fact, as most are on Greek Street. A good half of it was given over to the theatre and restaurant and the stage was at the far end of that. The first half was a long bar. As you came in the door, the bar used to be very crowded and yet you would recognise every face.”
Advance subscriptions had ensured there was a profit before the doors ever opened, and within weeks, membership applications quickly rose to 7000. Lifetime members received a portrait of Harold Macmillan.
Early visitors included EM Forster, the writer James Baldwin, Robert Mitchum, Jack Lemmon, Paul McCartney (on the cusp of fame) and George Melly, who visited almost nightly and had his own table kept permanently aside for him and wife Diana. The Club’s success in attracting members quickly became a double-edged sword: it was full most nights, but that meant many members couldn’t get in.
Cook on stage at the club, 1961
Some less welcome visitors also came through the doors early on – a group of local thugs turned up to innocently ask if the club had “fire insurance.” “Once, Peter brought them all in and threatened to put them all on stage. I thought that was absolutely brilliant,” recalled Christopher Logue, whose lyrics were sung at the club by Jean Hart. “Of course, they became terribly embarrassed and left.”
There was a first sitting in restaurant at 7.30pm before the early show started at 8.15pm. All the plates were cleared away before the show began – to avoid any “clatter and carry-on”, in the words of Bruce Copp. “The show comes first, and if they can’t wait, they are philistine and they will have to go. If they have come here just for the food, they must be mad.”
The menu from the Establishment
The show lasted for roughly 90 minutes, followed by a second sitting at the restaurant, and then the late show which started at 10.45pm. Dudley Moore, performing with Cook in Beyond The Fringe, would arrive and head downstairs around this time to perform with his Trio (he later complained he never got to see anything which happened upstairs in all the time he was there.) Cook also arrived at the same time, doing usually ten to fifteen minutes on stage every night.
The original Establishment Club players consisted of John Bird, John Fortune, Eleanor Bron and Jeremy Geidt – near-contemporaries of Cook’s from Cambridge and, like the Beyond The Fringe performers, had been involved with Oxbridge revues. A compilation of their best sketches, recorded in the club, was released on LP (it’s currently unavailable.)
The satirical magazine Private Eye briefly moved in upstairs (prior to Cook becoming the main shareholder, although he had already given them some financial assistance on occasion) – the opening of the club and the first publication of the magazine had occured within three weeks of each other. Upstairs Sean Kenny also had a studio, as did photographer Lewis Morley (it was on the first floor of the building where he took his famous photograph of Christine Keeler astride an Arne Jacobsen chair, which you can see here at the V&A’s website, along with an interview about the session from Morley.)
In 1962, the club saw three very different comedians perform landmark gigs.
The American comedian Lenny Bruce did his first and only London run at the club. Cook personally picked him up from Heathrow and the early signs weren’t good: “This dreadful shambling figure came out carrying three miniature tape recorders, which he insisted on playing all the way and which consisted of nothing but aeroplane noises and grunting and farting. And I thought, “What am I going to do with this wreck?” I had left him at the hotel, and the next thing that happened was that I got a call saying Mr Bruce had been asked to leave the hotel because there were hookers and syringes everywhere.”
Bruce endured a terrible week, struggling through the days as the only heroin he could illegally find in London was far weaker than the stuff he was legally prescribed in the US. Jean Hart recalled, “I sang a couple of nights when Lenny Bruce was there and it was awful. This creature was almost being eaten up. He was huddled in the corner like a little rag doll…nobody knew how to deal with this man whose habit was a hundred times bigger than anything our doctors had seen. He was going crazy, poor man.”
His material included the difficulty of getting snot off suede jackets, cancer, and asking the front row “Hands up who has masturbated today?” Christopher Booker remembered, “I loved it, but I was slightly worried by the atmosphere of the time; the menace of it. I went almost every night Lenny Bruce was there.”
Bizarrely, the singer Alma Cogan became smitten with Bruce, and attended every night of his run. Bruce didn’t reciprocate her affections – he spent most nights in the greasy spoon cafes around Leicester Square, which he liked because they reminded him of his early days in New York.
A return booking in May 1963 fell apart when the Home Secretary deemed Bruce an “undesirable alien” and he was refused entry to the country as soon as he reached Heathrow.
A similarly seismic performance came from a comedian who couldn’t be any less like Lenny Bruce: Frankie Howerd.
Hugely popular in the post-World War 2 period, Howerd’s career was largely regarded as being on the wane when he attended the Evening Standard Theatre Awards at the Savoy. Given the chance to say a few words (and his terrible nerves fortified by scotch), he brought the house down. Cook was in the audience and he immediately booked him to play the Establishment Club. On Howerd’s This Is Your Life many years later, Cook called him “one of the funniest men in the world. I’d say ‘the funniest’, but Dudley’s very sensitive.”
Cook also thought the irreverent Howerd might be a big name to attract new members. Howerd was paid £400 a week, and his act was written by a who’s who of comedy – Johnny Speight (author of Till Death Us Do Part) wrote the main bulk of the material, with contributions from Galton and Simpson (the writers of Hancock’s Half Hour), and Howerd had the routine checked over by Barry Cryer, Barry Took and Eric Sykes. He couldn’t afford for it to go badly. It didn’t.
His opening line – “If you expect Lenny Bruce then you may as well piss off now!” – brought the house down. He continued by pondering why a sausage was funnier than a lamb chop. His performances packed the club out. On the LP released of the act, Kenneth William’s instantly recognisable laugh can be heard throughout, and also in the audience was Ned Sherrin who was so impressed, he gave Howerd a lengthy solo slot on That Was The Week That Was. A star was reborn.
The Australian actor and comedian Barry Humpheries also made his debut at the Establishment in 1962 – although the reception was far less rapturous than it was for Howerd or Bruce. This Lewis Morley photo shows Humpheries relaxing outside the club in 1962.
Humpheries had served for a year as Sowerberry the Undertaker in Oliver, understudying Ron Moody’s Fagin, and was feeling creatively stifled. Having returned to Melbourne earlier in the year for his critically acclaimed first solo show (A Nice Night’s Entertainment, largely a showcase for his Melbourne housewife Dame Edna Everage) he remained an underground figure on the fringes of art and theatre in England. In May 1962, Peter Cook asked Humpheries to stand in for Lenny Bruce when the British authorities refused to let him enter the country.
Humpheries recalled first meeting Cook outside the club in Edna’s 1989 autobiography My Gorgeous Life. He had “a little upside-down smile, like a thin, kind shark.” After“some university students…doing impressions of Harold Macmillian and stopping to laugh at themselves and light smelly cigarettes,” Humpheries stepped onto the Establishment stage and began “his endless chatter.”
That evening the little tables in the club were packed with celebrities, and kind, supportive Peter pointed some of them out to me as we nibbled our steaks in the corner. That jolly little balding man with the wavy upper lip was John Betjeman, the famous poet, who apparently adored me. Over there in a grubby pink suit was a droopy man whose arms were too long for his body, chain smoking cigarettes with the wrong fingers. His name was Tynan, a critic apparently…Jean Shrimpton, the famous glamour-puss, was looking bewildered. Holding forth at her table was a carrot-headed camel-faced man in a crumpled corduroy suit called Dr [Jonathan] Miller, who seemed to be trying to knot his arms together with some degree of success. I even noticed a few journalists with notebooks at the ready.
As Humpheries droned on, he became aware the laughter he’d heard in Australia was entirely absent. “Instead of laughter and applause, I could hear an odd shuffling and clattering noise and even the sound of people chatting quite loudly amongst themselves.”
The act was a flop, and the critics were harsh. The Daily Mail reviewed the gig: “His eyes tiny like diamond chips, his mouth slit and thin like a beak, Barry Humpheries looked for all the world like an emu in moult.”
Humpheries later referred to his “highly successful, five minute season” at the Establishment Club. Continuing his dramatic and musical roles, he created Barry McKenzie for Private Eye in 1964 (which ran for a decade and spawned two movies in the early 1970s) before a triumphant return to Australia with the 1965 solo show Excuse I. Success in Britain eluded him until 1976’s Housewife Superstar! which became “one of the most popular series of one-man shows since Charles Dickens’ tours in the 1880s.” Edna – “the thinking man’s Eva Peron” – played to sold out audiences for four months, first at the Apollo, then the Globe. From that point on he was a West End fixture.
In September 1962, Cook sailed to New York with the rest of the Beyond The Fringe cast to start the show on Broadway. Just as it had been in London, the show was a huge success – as Harold MacMillan had attended the London run, so JFK turned up for a performance in New York. Cook also opened up a US version of The Establishment at the Strollers Theatre Club on East 54th St.
By the time Cook returned to London in April 1964, the Establishment Club was going down the tubes. It had run into serious financial trouble. As Luard ran into financial difficulties when a couple of his other businesses folded, he was forced by the bank to hand the club over to Raymond Nash, a “tough Lebanese entrepreneur” and stockholder who craved both legitimacy (the Establishment was an entirely straight business, something of a rarity in Soho.) Nash took over the running of the Establishment and it was the moment everything changed – in short, the intelligentsia stopped going.
Luard’s wife Elizabeth said “The collapse of the enterprise was sudden. Peter and Nicholas never, to my knowledge, discussed it – still less apportioned blame. Certainly Nicolas blamed himself; and perhaps Peter knew that he’d left his friend up the creek without a paddle.”
Since 1964, 18 Greek Street has been much the same as it is today – a bar with nightclub leanings. Formerly the Boardwalk, the occupier since 2008 has been the “funky cocktail bar and restaurant” Zebrano. Zebrano even paid quiet tribute to the former club by naming themselves “Zebrano at the Establishment” over one window.
On 15 February 2009, a plaque was erected outside, commemorating the Establishment. It was unveiled by the DJ Mike Read – it was going to be Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, but he pulled out when a newspaper revealed he’d fathered a child with his housekeeper.
In September 2012, Keith Allen and Victor Lewis-Smith attempted to revive the spirit of the Establishment Club with two nights of comedy and cabaret at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club on Gerrard Street. The evenings were planned as monthly pop-ups, following a conversation Lewis-Smith had with Cook’s widow Lin, where she claimed Cook was planning to reopen The Establishment when he died in 1995. Whether they will manage to get back into the original premises remains to be seen.
Note: there’s actually surprisingly little specific material on the Establishment Club in books dealing with satire. Most of the anecdotes are simply people saying “Gosh, yes, I remember it, it was frightfully exciting.” One of the more detailed books is Wendy Cook’s So Farewell Then: The Biography of Peter Cook, which I used alongside all the other major Cook books. Any more details gratefully received.
January 31, 2013
In February 2012, a blue plaque appeared on 11 Golden Square, Soho.
It’s not there anymore and neither was it up for long, which is a shame. It commemorated…well, have a look.
The plaque was the work of Dave Askwith and Alex Normanton, who made the signs look as authentic as possible and then surrepticiously secured them to buildings. Some lasted weeks, some months.
They released a book of their witty, realistic-looking work called Signs of Life in 2005. Now out of print, it’s available here on Amazon, or here on Abebooks if you can’t stomach non-tax-paying conglomerates.
It’s in the grand tradition of fake English Heritage signs which seem to be attracted to Soho – for many years, one was pasted to a window in Berwick Street reading “Tom Baker, Bespoke Tailor…worked here but lived round the corner” and for a while, Gavin Turk’s was displayed inside the Groucho Club – but I think this is my favourite. I’m all for it being made permanent.
A second Askwith-Normanton sign was on display a littler further down the wall when I took these photos. It too has now long gone.
January 24, 2013
At 72 Wardour Street in Soho, there’s a newsagent which goes by the unusual name of The Hobbit.
Or, at least, there used to be.
For the last twelve months, the shop has been empty and it’s only since it’s closed down that everyone seems to have noticed the odd name (if you google ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Soho’, you’ll see the sign has caught the eye of almost everyone with a camera.)
The newsagent was given the name in the early 1970s, simply because the owner Ray Grant was a fan of the book (his name can be seen on the right of the sign.) Run by manager Victor for most of its lifespan, the shop was an old-fashioned newsagent in the heart of Soho, and when I recall its dusty, faded, strangely East German-looking interior, I could kick myself for never taking photos.
The largely unmodernised shop was sold to new owners in 2007, who gutted, refurbished and turned it into something closer to a late-night mini-mart. They retained a later sign which had been erected by Ray Grant, but while the new owners diligently chiselled his name off the front, they left The Hobbit.
The name looks even odder when you see it on the modern sign – it seems to bear absolutely no relation to the other words, or the building its on, or any sort of possible business.
The shop closed down in late 2011 and after being empty for six months, the modern sign was removed to reveal the original 1970s frontage in all of its handpainted glory.
I think part of the joy of seeing the sign again is that it’s a reminder of how shop fronts used to look. Inviting, quietly attractive examples of the human sign-writer’s art. They’re not like the majority of newsagent’s signs today, which are uniformly awful: looming, back-lit slabs which people with no design experience have drawn up on a PC, squashed into shape and had printed on sheets of neon plastic.
So far the 1970s sign has enjoyed six unexpected months in the open air – but how much longer it will stay there is anyone’s guess.
January 23, 2013
The thing I love most about London’s history is how it often pops up in the most mundane of settings.
Just after Christmas, I set out to close a Co-Op bank account that I’ve not used for years. The nearest branch to me is in Islington, just opposite Angel tube station. Look, I’m aware neither of those are the most dynamic opening sentences, but bear with me. I did say the setting was going to be mundane.
It’s one of the more perplexing names in the tube network – why did they go for Angel? Why not Islington,or Upper Street, or something a bit more geographically helpful?
The answer is that it’s one of five tube stations named after a pub (the others are Elephant & Castle, Manor House, Royal Oak and Swiss Cottage) and when the Angel tube station opened in 1901, the Angel Inn was still thriving on the corner of the High Street – much as it had done since the fifteenth century.
But within twenty years of the tube station taking its name, the Angel Inn was closed. Today, the tube station is the only reminder that it was ever there.
According to Henry C. Shelley’s The Inns and Taverns of Old London (1909):
The Angel dates back to before 1665, for in that year of plague in London a citizen broke out of his house in the city and sought refuge here. He was refused admission, but was taken in at another inn and found dead in the morning. In the seventeenth century and later, as old pictures testify, the inn presented the usual features of a large old country hostelry. As such the courtyard is depicted by Hogarth in his print of the Stage Coach. Its career has been uneventful in the main.
Its career may have been largely uneventful, but the inn survived for generations and the galleried interior was immortalised by some of the most celebrated English artists of the day: not just Hogarth in The Stage Coach: Country Inn Yard (1747)…
…but later by Thomas Rowlandson (in Outside the Angel Inn, Islington)…
…and Charles Dickens, who called the Angel “the place London begins in earnest” in Oliver Twist.
Despite an 1819 rebuild as the area rapidly transformed from a rural to an urban one (some of its land was sold off to realise some healthy profits), the Angel Inn was eventually demolished in the dying years of the nineteenth century.
In 1899, they rebuilt the old pub as an ornate, six-storey, terracotta-brick building which still stands today.
Renamed the Angel Hotel, the new building was intended to do justice to what the brewers described (with some marketing hyperbole) as “the widest-known hostelry in the world.” The ground floor was faced in polished Norwegian granite; carved stone cherubs look out from the higher eaves; a mahogany and green-marble staircase led from the bar to a smoking room upstairs; and crowning the entire heap sat a grand baroque cupola, which quickly became one of Islington’s landmarks.
But within twenty years, the Angel Hotel had closed – its grand, high-Victorian design swiftly looked out of date and unfashionable, and the building’s three-hundred year history as an inn came to an end in 1921. The brewery sold the building to the Lyons catering empire, most famous for their vast Corner House restaurants which dominated the West End in the post-war period.
Staffed by waitresses affectionately known as ‘nippies’, the Corner Houses were more like department stores than tearooms, with several restaurants, numerous floors and hundreds of staff. In the 1950s, the company could boast it was serving over a hundred million meals a year to the British public.
The Angel Cafe Restaurant was opened in February 1922 as a grand, two-storey restaurant – large, but not on the same scale as the massive centrally located Corner Houses. The novelist Arnold Bennett came for lunch in 1924, and wrote that he preferred the “brightness and space” of the Lyons house to “the old Angel’s dark stuffiness.”
It lasted until 1959, when the Lyons company sold the building to the Council. Road widening schemes had been constantly mooted throughout the century (one estimate claims the corner was subject to seventy individual road-widening schemes from 1890 until the 1970s) and with a compulsory purchase order about to come into effect on the building, Lyons sold the site to the council a few years before they would have had to.
The decision was made easier for the company due to the increasing cost in the upkeep of the now shabby building – a slow and steady decline in Lyon’s trade from the end of the Second World War onwards meant the company were already feeling the downturn in fortunes which would see them go under in the 1970s.
The building was leased to the University of London’s Geology department until 1968, and then spent a number of years empty until the council finally abandoned their road widening schemes. Having escaped demolition by the skin of its teeth, it is now listed and has been fitted for bank use since 1979.
And that’s where we come in, with me popping in to close a bank account in the Co-Op, who occupy it today.
And that’s when I noticed this inside the front entrance.
The huge gold plaque commemorates the day in 1925 when the building was still the Angel Cafe Restaurant, and Victor Watson stopped by for lunch.
Watson was the managing director of Waddingtons, a firm of printers from Leeds who in the 1930s had started to branch out into card and board games. In 1935, the company sent a game they’d devised called Lexicon to the Parker Brothers in America, hoping they might agree to produce it in the States. In return, the Parker Brothers sent them one of their board games that had not yet gone into production: Monopoly.
Following a weekend of play, Victor’s son Norman urged his father to quickly snap up the rights, and three days after Victor had received the game, Waddingtons obtained the licence to produce and market Monopoly outside of the United States.
Watson felt that for the game to be a success in the United Kingdom, the American locations on the board needed to be replaced, so he and his secretary, Marjory Phillips, travelled to London for a day to work out which street names they would put on the board.
By all accounts, Victor and Marjory’s single day in London was a hectic one – Victor later admitted he’d slipped up by putting ‘Marlborough Street’ on the board when it should have been Great Marlborough Street – but in a short period of time, they managed to pick a broadly accurate selection of roads to represent the varying values across the board.
One of the only known facts about their day out (which would turn out to be a very lucrative one for the Waddington’s company) was that Victor and Marjory sat in the Angel Cafe Restaurant in the afternoon and reviewed their work.
And whether it was to celebrate completing their job, or just because he liked the name, Victor decided to include ‘The Angel, Islington’ on the board. Unlike all the other property squares, it’s the only one which isn’t a street, but a specific building.
You can find this plaque, unveiled in 2003 by Victor’s grandson (who is also called Victor and is also the managing director of Waddingtons), just as you walk into the Co-Op bank at 1 High Street, Islington.
A couple of doors away, there’s a Wetherspoon’s which has taken the name The Angel, but don’t be fooled. This Angel can only trace its history back to 1998.
October 19, 2012
As a child growing up in nearby Hatch End, the gravestone of John Port was always a highlight of a visit to St Mary’s Church in Harrow On The Hill.
On the afternoon of 7 August 1838, Port was a guard on the London to Birmingham train and as it travelled through Harrow, he slipped and fell while walking between the carriages to check tickets. Both his legs were severed as the train went over him and he died later that day from massive blood loss.
The coroner’s inquest found that:
the unfortunate deceased started with the Denbigh Hall five o-clock train on Tuesday last from the station at Euston grove, and having arrived within a mile and a quarter of Harrow, as was the usual custom, he dismounted from his seat for the purpose of collecting from the passengers what is termed the ‘excess fares.’ … In the performance of this duty the deceased was engaged on Tuesday, which compelled him to pass from one carriage to the other by the steps, and when in the act of placing his foot on one of them, at the time the train was proceeding at upwards of thirty miles an hour, his foot slipped between the wheels, which as they successivley passed over, dragged his legs in, crushing them inch by inch up to one of his knees and above the other.
His tombstone bears a gruesome poetic account of the incident.
- TO THE MEMORY OF
- THOMAS PORT
- SON OF JOHN PORT OF BURTON UPON TRENT
- IN THE COUNTY OF STAFFORD, HAT MANUFACTURER,
- WHO NEAR THIS TOWN HAD BOTH HIS LEGS
- SEVERED FROM HIS BODY BY THE RAILWAY TRAIN.
- WITH THE GREATEST FORTITUDE HE BORE A
- SECOND AMPUTATION BY THE SURGEONS, AND
- DIED FROM LOSS OF BLOOD.
- AUGUST 7TH 1838 AGED 33 YEARS.
- Bright rose the morn and vig’rous’ rose poor Port.
- Gay on the Train he used his wonted sport:
- Ere noon arrived his mangled form they bore,
- With pain distorted and o’erwhelmed with gore:
- When evening came to close the fatal day,
- A mutilated corpse the sufferer lay.
Over the years, the headstone has eroded to the point of near illegibility, despite being Grade II listed in 1983.
Port’s death came only eight years after the first ever British rail fatality, that of William Huskisson MP, who died in similar circumstances.
At the opening of the Manchester to Liverpool railway, he “lost his balance in clambering into the carriage and fell back upon the rails in front of the Dart, the advancing engine” which then ran over his leg, severing it. Huskisson died of blood loss, having “lingered in great agony for nine hours.”
Surprisingly, there is also a memorial nearby for another transport-fatality pioneer.
Two minutes stroll down the hill, on the corner of Grove Hill, is a plaque commemorating the first car driver ever to die in a road accident.
The driver, Mr E.R. Sewell had been demonstrating the vehicle, a Daimler Wagonette, to 63-year-old Major James Stanley Richer, Department Head at the Army & Navy Stores, with the view to a possible purchase for the company.As they drove down the hill at 14mph, a wheel shed it’s rim. Both Sewell and Richer were thrown from the car onto the road.
Sewell died instantly, and when Major Richer died four days after the accident without regaining consciousness, it became a dubious double-first – the first death of a driver in Britain, followed by the first death of a passenger in a car
The dubious accolade of being the first person to be killed by a car in Britain goes to Mrs Bridget Driscoll of Old Town, Croydon who on 17 August 1896 was run over by a Roger-Benz car while attending a folk dancing festival at Crystal Palace.
The driver was going at 4 mph (described by witness as “a reckless pace”), and at Mrs Driscoll’s inquest, Coroner William Percy Morrison said he hoped that “such a thing would never happen again.” He was also the first to apply the term ‘accident’ to violence caused by speed.
Since then, some 30 million people have lost their lives in car accidents, but a woman from Croydon is the name which appears at the very top of the list.
October 19, 2012
Just to the right of the doorway of St Mary’s Church, at the summit of Harrow On The Hill, is a small memorial tablet dedicated to Allegra, daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont.
The lack of detail on the stone hides one of the most poignant, saddest tales in literary history.
Born in Bath in January 1817, Allegra Byron was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), the teenage stepsister of the writer Mary Shelley.
She had relentlessly pursued Byron, and despite thinking her “foolish”, the combination of her advances and his weakness for women was too much: “I never loved her nor pretended to love her—but a man is a man–& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night—there is but one way.”
Byron in 1822
When the child was born, Byron was in Venice, and showed little interest in ‘the little being’ who had been named Alba in his absence. The child’s birth coincided with a time when Byron was at his most dissolute: a time, according to Edna O’Brien in Byron in Love, he was “bargaining with mothers and father for their daughters, brazenly naming his conquests from contessas to cobblers’ wives and claiming to have ‘tooled’ with two hundred women of one sort or another.”
Considering his lifestyle, his decision to have the child sent to him when she was a year old seems positively bizarre. The penniless Claire believed their daughter would be guaranteed a better future with her famous father, and sent him “my child because I love her too well to keep her.” Although she could not have realised it, she would never see her daughter again.
None of her many heartbroken, pleading letters to Byron would ever be answered and worse, his deep-rooted animosity for Claire was passed on to his child.
Byron had decided to “acknowledge and breed” his daughter, albeit in a conditional way – he gave her the surname Biron to distinguish her from his legitimate daughter and renamed her Allegra (its meaning of ‘cheerful, brisk’ couldn’t be a less accurate premonition of the child’s fate.) The first meeting between father and infant daughter was not promising: “My bastard came three days ago,” he wrote. “Heathy – noisy – & capricious.”
Within months, Byron had tired of Allegra and placed her in the care of the British Consul-General Richard Belgrave Hoppner and his wife, neither of whom were very fond of the child. When they left Venice, Allegra was passed on to their servant Antonio and then to the wife of the Danish Consul, “by which time she showed the remoteness of an abandoned child.”
At the same time, Byron was indulging in any romantic encounter which came his way, contracting myriad sexually transmitted diseases and writing his vast blasphemous and bawdy work Don Juan, published anonymously in 1819.
Byron’s feelings for his banished daughter veered between irritation and repulsion. Sent to a convent for her perceived attitude – at three years old, he said she was “obstinate as a mule and ravenous as a vulture” – Byron received a letter from Allegra.
My dear Papa – it being fair time I should so much like a visit from my Papa as I have many desires to satisfy; will you please your Allegra who loves you so?
The abbess of the convent included her own note inviting Byron to come to see Allegra before he left for Pisa and assuring him “how much she is loved.” On the back of this letter, Byron wrote: “Sincere enough, but not very flattering – for she wants to see me because ‘it is the fair’ to get some paternal Gingerbread – I suppose.”
Byron never responded to Allegra’s letter and never visited the child during the thirteen months she was in the convent.
In 1822, as Claire begged to see her daughter again – “I can no longer resist the internal inexplicable feeling which haunts me that I shall never see her anymore. I entreat you to destroy this feeling by allowing me to see her” – Byron sent Allegra even further away, to the Capuchin convent in distant Bagnacavallo.
Shelley and Byron had become friends after Claire had introduced them (their friendship quickly shattered due to Byron’s debauched behaviour), and the poet visited Allegra (who was effectively his niece) at the convent. Bringing her a gold chain as a present, he found the ‘shy and serious’ child expressing the wish that she would one day be visited by her mother or father. Claire was so desparate to see her daughter that she considered kidnapping her, or forging a letter in Byron’s hand directing her to be returned to England.
Sadly, any plans she was devising came too late. During the summer, Byron received word that Allegra had been “ill, dangerously ill” and as he half-heartedly arranged for her to conveyed to a doctor, she died “of a convulsive catarrhal attack” (most likely either typhus or malaria.)
She was just five years old, and had spent the last four of those effectively alone.
Whether it was genuine grief, or deep, unassailable guilt regarding the way he’d acted during his daughter’s short life, Byron was devastated by the news about the detested child he’d completely abandoned. When he was first told:
A mortal paleness spread over his face, his strength failed him and he sunk into a seat…He remained immovable in the same attitude for an hour and no consolation seemed to reach his ears, let alone his heart.
It was a “stunning and unexpected” blow, Byron told Shelley, but he refused to publicly admit his feelings or conduct towards Allegra had been anything but perfect.
Three years after Allegra died, however, he told the Countess of Blessington that her death had filled him with retrospective grief:
Let the object of affection be snatched away by death, and how is all the pain ever inflicted upon them avenged! The same imagination that led us to slight or overlook their sufferings, now that they are forever lost to us, magnifies their estimable qualities … How did I feel this when my daughter, Allegra, died! While she lived, her existence never seemed necessary to my happiness; but no sooner did I lose her, than it appeared to me as if I could not live without her.
Having never visited the convent while she was alive, Byron made a pilgrimage to it after her death, and gave what remained of her clothes for a statue to be erected on the grounds.
Allegra’s tiny body was sent back to England – “the body is embarked – in what ship – I know not’ – and a ghoulish rumour circulated that the child was sent back to England in two parts to save money. Whilst untrue, it’s existence hints as just how depraved the people of England believed Byron to be.
In fact, Byron lavished more attention on Allegra’s corpse than he ever had while she was breathing. She was conveyed from the London Wharf in a fine hearse and mourning coach, drawn by horses festooned with feathers and velvet; her destination was St Mary’s Church on Harrow-on-the-Hill.
The church was chosen as Byron spent many boyhood hours in the churchyard while a schoolboy at Harrow between 1801-1805, and it inspired his 1807 poem Lines Written beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow.
He knew exactly where he wanted her to be laid. “There is,” he wrote in May 1822, “a spot in the church’yard’, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree (bearing the name of Peachie, or Peachey), where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy. This was my favourite spot; but as I wish to erect a tablet to her memory, the body had better be deposited in the ‘church’.”
Byron composed a eulogy to be carved on a marble tablet inside the church door, commemorating “the memory of Allegra, daughter of George Gordon Lord Byron” and quoting a verse from Samuel: “I shall go to her but she shall not return to me.”
But the Rector of Harrow, the Revd John William Cunningham, and the churchwardens considered Byron so immoral, they refused the stone, citing Allegra’s illegitimacy which was compounded by the identification of the father’s name (it’s also likely Byron’s imfamous immorality helped sway their decision.) As such, Allegra was buried in an unmarked plot outside the door of the South Porch.
It was only in 1980 that a memorial tablet was erected on the side of the church near to the place she was interred.
Following Byron’s death from a fever in Greece, his remains were returned to England and a squabble broke out as to where he would be buried – his reputation was such that no one wanted him.
Westminster Abbey refused him burial, as did St Mary’s Church, something which Byron acknowledly sadly at the time of Allegra’s death.
The spot he had chosen for her grave, he wrote in a letter to his publisher John Murray, was the very one “where I once hoped to have laid my own.”
Lord Byron on his Death-bed by Joseph Denis Odevaere (c.1826)
September 23, 2012
On the SOAS campus in Bloomsbury is a small plaque unlike any other in London.
The building in Thornhaugh Street is the only one in London to bear a sign apologising for being built.
On the front, facing towards Russell Square, a plaque reads: “The University of London hereby records its sincere apologies that the plans of this building were settled without due consultation with the Russell family and their trustees and therefore without their approval of its design.”
UCL erected the building in 1988 as the Brunei Gallery – an extension to the School of Oriental and African Studies which operates as “an exciting venue in Central London…[hosting] a programme of changing contemporary and historival exhibitions from Asia, Africa and the Middle East”. On top is a Japanese roof garden.
All very unobjectionable, you might imagine. You’d be wrong.
The University is on land which is managed by the Bedford Estates, a trust which benefits the descendents of the aristocrats who bought up the vast empty fields of what would become Bloomsbury three centuries ago.
In 1669, the huge Bloomsbury Estate came into the ownership of the Russell family through marriage. Their land stretched from present-day Euston Road to the north, Tottenham Court Road in the east, and all the way down to Covent Garden to the south – a nice accompaniment to Woburn Abbey, which had been gifted to them by Henry VIII following the dissolution of the monasteries. The Russell family, who were given the title of Duke of Bedford shortly after they came into possession of the land, remain the owners of much of the area to this day.
Piecemeal building schemes continued throughout the centuries, but in 1893, the 11th Duke, Herbrand Russell (1858-1937), felt political and popular feeling was turning against the owners of the large London estates, living as they were in a manner which was entirely alien (and alienating) to most of the population. Worried that their visibility and proximity to the masses might make them vulnerable, he made the decision to sell the majority of the family estate to developers, although many of the pre-exisiting developments remained in the family’s vast property portfolio.
Herbrand Russell was for many years the President of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, and was credited with saving the native Chinese milu (or Pere David deer) from extinction by breeding them in Woburn Abbey, but his grandson, the 13th Duke, John Russell could find little positive to say about him: “a selfish, forbidding man, with a highly developed sense of public duty and ducal responsibility, he lived a cold, aloof existence, isolated from the outside world by a mass of servants, sycophants and an eleven-mile wall.”
One of the many institutions who bought land from the family in the 1920s was the University of London, in an era which saw the tone of the neighbourhood shift from the residential to the academic.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Georgian houses were taken over by publishing companies, who converted the decent-sized rooms into individual offices. On the other side of the road from the Brunei Gallery are the former offices of Faber and Faber, a blue plaque dedicated to one-time employee TS Eliot upon the wall.
While the Russell family have long been unable to prevent the British Museum and the University encroaching into their estate, as educational institutions were given the legal right to compulsarily purchase land when they needed to expand, one of the conditions of sale was that the Bedford Estate retained the right of approval on buildings which fronted onto certain viewpoints.
And one of the viewpoints they have approval on is when buildings – just like the Brunei Gallery – face onto Russell Square.
The Bedford Estates were consulted in the early days of the SOAS project, but, in their words, “the university slightly pre-empted the issue”, and the design was fixed without the consent of the Estate. Thus, when the University set about leasing the new building to SOAS, the apologetic plaque was demanded by the Bedford Estate, who specified the exact wording, size and materials to be used.
Underneath the apologetic notice is a plaque noting that the actual design of the building was never really an issue: it won a Civic Trust Award 1988. The Trust awards “do not simply reward good design, but also take into account the way in which schemes relate to their settings and to the people they serve.”
Essentially, the only reason the plaque is there is as a point of principle.
The current Duke of Bedford is the 15th, who succeeded to the title in 2004. Today’s Bedford Estate consists mainly of “residential property converted to office and small hotel use and private residential property.” It also includes lock-up garages and a number of squares, both public and private.
That list rather downplays the scale of his empire which the Sunday Times estimated in 2011 had given him a fortune of over half a billion pounds.
And, since 1988, a prime view of London’s sorriest building.
August 15, 2012
Hiding away on one of the leafy streets midway up Highgate Hill sits India House.
Bearing a blue plaque on the wall to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, there is little about 65 Cromwell Avenue that suggests it has the dubious claim of being the home of one of the first foreign terrorist cells to establish itself on on English soil.
Between 1905 and 1910, the house operated as an informal but hugely influential Indian nationalist organization. Fighting for Indian freedom from British Imperialism, India House was regarded as the one of the most revolutionary and radical centres of Indian nationalism outside India during the British Empire. Valentine Choril, the then-editor of the Times, even labelled the unassuming Victorian pile in a quiet, well-off side street “the most dangerous organization outside India.”
In the late 1890s, an Oxford-educated Indian named Shyamji Krishnavarma Bhansali (commonly known as S K Varma, 1857-1939) returned to England from India, where he had become increasingly resentful of British rule. He purchased a house in Muswell Hill with a view to establishing a base for an international Indian independence movement – one in the very heart of enemy territory.
His aim was to promote nationalist views amongst Indian students studying in Britain and Varma was visited at the house by a vast number of social thinkers and revolutionaries, including Lenin and Gandhi (then working as a lawyer.)
In 1905, Varma published his first issue of his anti-colonist newspaper The Indian Sociologist and inaugurated a new organisation called “The Indian Home Rule Society”.
1909 edition of The Indian Sociologist
The first meeting laid out the society’s aims: securing home rule for India, carrying on propaganda in England to achieve it, and spreading information about freedom and national unity in India. He followed the dictum of the philosopher Herbert Spencer (most famous for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest”, he is buried in nearby Highgate Cemetery): “Resistance to aggression is not simply justified, but imperative.”
In the same year, Varma purchased 65 Cromwell Avenue to be used as a hostel for 25 Indian students.
While ostensibly accommodation for students who were often racially discriminated against by other landlords, Varma’s underlying intention was to create a new generation of Indian radical patriots. It was formally inaugurated as India House by HM Hyndman, a Scottish Socialist, on 1 July 1905.
Varma may have been the driving force behind the foundation, but the activities which took place inside the house are most closely associated with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), described as an “Indian patriot and philospher” on the blue plaque.
Savarkar, considered the central icon of modern Hindu nationalist political parties, lived at the house from 1906 to 1909, and together with the other men now regarded as the founding fathers of Indian communism and Hindu nationalism – men like VN Chatterjee, Lala Har Daval and VSS Aiyer – he started radical student societies and produced publications calling for complete Indian independence by revolutionary means.
Still only in his early twenties in his time in Highgate, Savarkar was a fiery young law student from Pune, whose fierce and incendiary nationalism was not shared by all of the students in the house.
Gandhi made another visit to the organization (his first to India House) in October 1906, and it has been suggested that Savarkar’s militant views about revolutionary violence (and the consequences resulting from those practices) may have influenced Gandhi’s subsequent nonviolent philosophy.
By 1906, the organization was starting to attract the attention of the British authorities. An editorial in the Times suggested Varma should be prosecuted for preaching “disloyal sentiments” to the Indian students staying in Cromwell Avenue. Following police visits to both the house and the printers of The Indian Sociologist in 1907, and fearing arrest was imminent, Varma fled to France, and Savarkar took over the operation of India House.
With Savarkar in charge, India House became swiftly radicalized. Sunday night meetings took place, where Savarkar selected topics for lectures ranging from the philosophy of revolution to bomb-making and assassination techniques. Badges – known as Mutiny Buttons – were produced commemorating the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the Indians who had died were referred to as ‘martyrs.’ The outbuilding of India House was converted to a “war workshop” where chemistry students attempted to produce explosives and manufacture bombs, while the printing press turned out “seditious” literature, including bomb-making manuals and pamphlets promoting violence toward Europeans in India.
Savarkar was at the heart of the scheme, spending a great deal of time in the explosives workshop and emerging on some evenings, according to a fellow revolutionary, “with telltale yellow stains of Picric acid on his hands”. The residents of India House practiced shooting at a range in Tottenham Court Road and rehearsed the assassinations they planned to carry out.
In 1909, Savarkar published The Indian War of Independence, which was considered so inflammatory that the British Library removed it from their catalogue to prevent Indian students from accessing it. As Savarkar’s speeches grew increasingly strident – he called for revolution, widespread violence, and the murder of all Englishmen in India – Scotland Yard placed India House under surveillance, and started to send undercover officers to meetings.
Even so, they totally underestimated the true danger that was slowly fermenting.
In July 1909, a member of India House named Madan Lal Dhingra assasinated Sir WH Curzon – an Indian army officer with close ties to the secretary of state of India, Lord Hamilton. Two years before, The Indian Sociologist had named Curzon as one of the “old unrepentant foes of India who have fattened on the misery of the Indian peasant every (sic) since they began their career.”
A student at the University of London and the son of a wealthy Hindu doctor, Dhingra shot Curzon at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington at an event organized by the National Indian Association.
Wearing a sky-blue turban in the Punjabi style and a smart suit, a necktie and dark glasses, Dhingra filled up his coat pockets with a revolver, two pistols and two knives.
Dhingra reached the party at eight. He went around talking to people there for some time. It was past ten when political aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India Curzon Wyllie and his wife arrived. Their arrival added zest to the merriment. It was about eleven when the proceeding ended. Wyllie got down from the dais. Then there was some music. Wyllie was moving around talking to people informally.
Dhingra fired five shots right at his face, four of which hit their target. Cowasji Lalkaka, a Parsee doctor who tried to save Sir Curzon, died of Madan Lal’s sixth and seventh bullets, which the latter fired because Lalkaka had caught hold of him.
He was hanged at Pentonville the following month. But Indian intelligence sources suggested that the assassination was Savarkar’s brainchild, and that further actions were planned in Britain as well as India.
The Metropolitan police were unable to bring a prosecution against Savarkar, since he had an alibi for the night, but over the following year, police and political sources brought pressure on the residents of India House to leave England. Many moved to Paris (in the footsteps of Varma) where the Paris Indian Society gradually took India House’s place as the centre of Indian nationalism on the continent.
The police brought strong pressure on India House and began gathering intelligence on Indian students in London. These, along with threats to their careers, robbed India House of its student support base. It slowly began to disassemble, and the residence was treated “akin to a leper’s home” by the Indian students in the city.
In March 1910, Savarkar was arrested upon his return to London from Paris where he had briefly fled to. He was put in Brixton prison, charged with sedition and abetment to murder and deported back to India. He was freed in 1924 after serving 14 years, and turned to politics.
He established the Hindu Mahasabha and working throughout the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s towards Indian independence from British rule: pro-Hindu, pro-Indian self-rule, and largely anti-violence.
Savarkar was one of the pivotal people in the independence movement, but disagreed with those around him: He did not like the Muslim Jinna – he believed the Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus were two different races – and he disapproved of Gandhi’s hunger strike in 1942.
Following independence, the murder of Gandhi in 1948 by Nathuram Godse – the editor of a newspaper that held Mahasabha views – led to reprisals against Hindus, and Savarker’s house was attacked. In May 1948, he was arrested with nine other men and was accused of being behind Gandhi’s assassination. A witness stated to the court that Savarker had sent two of his men a mission to assassinate Gandhi and Prime Minister Nehru, charging them to “be successful and to return.”
In February 1949, Savarkar was the only one of the nine men to be released without charge – two (including Godse) were executed, five transported for life and one turned King’s evidence. He largely retired after the trial, and died in 1966 at the age of 83.
Over the years, Savarkar has been viewed as both patriot and terrorist, but his slow ascent to respectability has no better marker than the blue plaque on the side of the house that the British establishment once drove him from.
But that’s nothing compared to his veneration in parts of India. In December 2010, an exact brick-by-brick replica of the Highgate house was built in Savarker’s birthplace of Mandvi-Kutch, Gujurat. Set in 52 acres, the replica house contains a children’s play area, statues and a fountain.
The only thing it lacks is the blue plaque.
UPDATE: Thanks to Nicole for the following clarification: “The museum in Gujerat which includes an exact replica of India House was built to commemorate SK Varma, who founded it, rather than Savarkar.”
June 22, 2012
Chaim Reeven Weintrop was born at 12 Hanbury Street (just off the Commerical Road) on the 14th October 1896 to Polish-born Jewish parents “who had been in the country for years [but] could hardly be understood when speaking English.”
The Registrar chose to anglicise the name, alien-to-his-ears, to ‘Robert Winthrop’ – but it was under a third name that the boy would one day gain national stardom.
Leaving the poverty of the East End at 14, as a stowaway on a ship bound for America, Winthrop slowly wriggled his way into the vaudeville circuit as a low-ranking black-face comic. He toured America, Australia and South Africa (with limited success) before returning to Britain to enlist at the start of the First World War.
Winthrop’s better-known stage name was supposedly chosen after he endured bullying from a vicious sergeant. As soon as he was demobbed, he is supposed to have told the superior officer that one day, he’d make his name a joke and everyone would laugh when they heard it. The sergeant’s name was Flanagan. If the story’s true, he certainly succeeded.
Dressed in a moth-eaten fur coat while Allen looked dapper and smart, Bud composed their signature song Underneath the Arches, had a hit with the timeless Run Rabbit Run, coined his yelped catchphrase “Oi!” (which he shouted to cover up any words he fluffed on delivery, and was immediately echoed by the orchestra) and his popularity with the Royal Family paved the way for the Royal Variety performances.
Flanagan backstage at a Crazy Gang show with guest Charlie Chaplin
The duo’s numerous live shows with fellow double-acts Nervo and Knox, Noughton and Gold and solo act ‘Monsewer’ Eddie Gray saw them billed as the Crazy Gang – a kind of dream team of comedy – and their shows repeatedly sold out West End theatres for two-year-long runs from 1937 until the late 1950s (their final performance was in 1961.)
Sadly, not a lot of footage of them exists and the films they made are hard to find, but this clip from 1937′s O-Kay For Sound shows them in their later prime, and brings home how much Morecambe and Wise and the Carry On teams owe to the Crazy Gang. The business with the hat being accidentally knocked off time and time again just doesn’t age.
Flanagan remained a huge favourite until his death in 1968. Perhaps his best-known legacy today is the last job he performed in his final days: singing (in his melancholic nasal London twang) the theme tune for Dad’s Army, ‘Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler’ – a song which doesn’t date from the war, but was especially written for the TV show in the style of Flanagan’s war-time ditties (you can relive it here.)
Flanagan was cremated at Golder’s Green where he has a plaque – and his death was such a national event that his funeral was filmed by British Pathe. At 58 seconds in, Chesney Allen arrives – ironically, their working partnership was ended by Allen’s ill-health, although he would go on to outlive Flanagan by 14 years.
But unlike many of the performers of his generation, who were nostalgic for the London of their youth, Flanagan (who for a good stretch of years was the single most recognisable comedian in the country) looked back on where he’d come from later in life not with rose-tinted spectacles and rags-to-riches-nostalgia, but a mix of bitter amusement and abject disgust.
In his 1961 autobiography My Crazy Life, Flanagan was surprisingly frank about his feelings towards Hanbury Street.
At the time of his birth, the area was synonymous (and a century later, it could be argued it still is) with the murders perpetrated by Jack The Ripper.
In 1888, the body of one of the victims, Annie Chapman, was discovered in the backyard of no.29. Discovered in the early hours of the morning, the enterprising neighbours in the road of dosshouses had opened their doors by the middle of the day, charging admission for a better view of the bloodstain in the yard. Supposedly a bit of a party atmosphere began, with sightseers making a day of it and the pubs doing a roaring trade as the rubberneckers went back and forth.
Choosing that anecdote to set the scene, an aging Flanagan vividly painted a picture of his childhood home:
Hanbury Street crawled rather than ran from Commercial Street, where Spitalfields Market stood at one end, to Vallance Road, an artery that spewed itself into Whitechapel Road at the other. On one corner stood Godfrey Phillips; tobacco factory, with its large, ugly enamel signs, black on yellow, advertising “B.D.V” – Best Dark Virginia. It took up the whole block of the first turning, a narrow lane with little houses and a small sweet shop. This was known as Corbett’s Court. There is today a luxury block of flats in Kensington with the same name. I smiled as my memory went back to the Corbett’s Court I knew. The only luxury about it wa the rent of houses – 3s. 6d. a week.
On the next corner was a barber’s shop and a tobacconist’s which my father owned. Next door to us was a kosher restaurant with wonderful smells of hot salt beef and other spicy dishes, then came the only Jewish blacksmith I ever met. His name was Libovitch, a fine black-bearded man, strong as an ox. From seven in the morning until ten at night, Saturdays excepted, you could hear the sound of hammer on anvil all over the street. Horses from the local brewery, Truman, Hanbury and Buxton, were lined up outside his place waiting to be shod.
Then came another court; all alleys and mean streets. Adjoining was Olivenstein, the umbrella man, a fruiterer, a grocer, and then Wilkes Street. On one side of it was a row of neat little houses and on the other the brewery, taking up streets and streets, sprawling all over the district. On the corner of Wilkes Street stood The Weaver’s Arms, a public house owned by a Mrs Sarah Cooney, a great friend of Marie Lloyd. She stood out like a tree in a desert of Jews. It wasn’t a couple of hundred yards from Commercial Street, with its busy fruit market and rattling horse trams.
Stapleton’s Repository, where horses were bought and sold, eas next door to a fried fish shop, Number 14 Hanbury Street, where I was born. Next door was Rosenthal, tailors and trimming merchants, then a billiard saloon; after that a moneylender’s house where once lived the Burdett-Coutts.
Hanbury Street was a patchwork of small shops, pubs, church halls, Salvation Army hostels, doss houses, cap factories and sweat shops where tailors with red-rimmed eyes sewed by gas-mantlelight. It was typical of the Jewish quarter in the ‘90s. The houses were clean inside, but the exteriors were shoddy. The street was narrow and ill-lit. The whole of the East End in those days was sinister…
It was a very tough neighbourhood; in fact, it was Jack the Ripper’s slay ground. They tell a story of a man walking along Hanbury Street when a heap of rubbish fell on his head. He looked up and there was a kid leaning out of his window laughing like hell. The man shook his fist and shouted, “Come down, you little bastard, and I’ll kill you.” The kid laughed and said, “Come down? I can’t even walk yet.” That gives you some idea of the district…
Ours was a district where the weak went to the wall, and you had to keep your eyes open. When my father opened his fried fish shop, the salt cans were chained to each table – and to the counter.
Flanagan performed for the first time as a child in his father’s shop in 1908, demonstrating a magic act.
When the fish shop was closed on a Sunday, I let the kids in for a farthing, charged the older ones a ha’penny and gave them a show. Mothers would bring the children, and soon there was a sprinkling of grown-ups. I was making a local name until one Sunday, a big rat came out of nowhere and evil-eyed the audience. There were screams, and before you could say abracadabra, the place had emptied. It not only did me harm, but word soon spread, “There are rats in the fish shop”, which was not surprising as we were next to a horse repository, with its hay and oats. There wasn’t a morning when the traps had fewer than three or four big ones. I used to watch in fascinated horror as they drowned in a deep tub of water.
A blue plaque to Flanagan is on the front of the house, and two doors away is Poppies, a thriving fish and chip shop (which, while old, is not the one Flanagan’s father ran. Let me stress, it’s 100% worth a visit though. Delicious.)