What is the Commonwealth Institute?


Now that the new version of the Design Museum has now opened in the former Commonwealth Institute building it seemed like a good time to look again at the old place. I’ve written about it as an empty vessel and a near forgotten building but not really as a going concern.


So,  according to this explanatory pamphlet: “What is the Commonwealth Institute? Put simply it is a centre for information about the Commonwealth; a supermarket of resources and activities……The Commonwealth Institute exists to promote a better understanding of the Commonwealth and its people in Britain.”

Or was it a place for children to race around on school trips or during the holidays?


I never went there myself but I know that a generation of London school children frequently did so I asked one of them, my wife, what she remembered and this odd object on the central platform was one of them.


She recalls some kind of globe in there, but I’m happy to get further information. Most of this week’s images come from Commonwealth Institute publications from 1964, 1965 and 1973. My wife would of course have been too young to have been there in the early years.

She also remembers this sort of time honoured activity, still happening in museums today.


The institute shop, featuring a brownie. At this point my wife gave me a detailed account of the changes in uniform she remembered. This will strike a chord with some of you.


The art gallery has a distinctly 1970s look in this picture.


And a 60s look here:


The exhibition: “Commonwealth Art Today”.

Many people also remember the entrance hall, with its stained glass.


And some of the exhibits.


This one was recalled by more than one person.


The lion was described as “a bit mangy”, but he had his fans.


Diplomats were also a significant category of visitor.


“Well, that’s our bit, now shall we go to the shop?”

The Institute also had a library, in the now demolished administrative wing.


And this place, the Resources Production Unit, which used all sorts of new-fangled equipment.


Not to mention the restaurant with its view of the park, which some people I’ve spoken to remember fondly.


Another feature now gone, much recalled by many was the walkway to the entrance. (My wife remembers it as “a bridge” which is how it would have seemed to the groups of children passing over it.)


You can find some other views of it in my previous posts.

As we started with a postcard, let’s finish with an artist’s impression of the new building as it would look in 1962, the start of an new era.


And let’s wish the Design Museum success in its new home.


The Commonwealth Institute was one of those buildings I have photographed myself on many occasions. I’ve used a few of those picture in previous posts but there will be some more next week in a supplementary post featuring more images of the building’s fallow years. If you have any memories or pictures of this quirky but much loved building please feel free to share them with us, so that the Commonwealth Institute does not ever become a forgotten building.

Biba supplement

As I said in last week’s postscript I wasn’t sure whether I would have time to write a post this week, especially as the only one I had in draft and nearly finished was one of my quirky ones which I was really saving for December. Then I realised that as the Biba post had gone down so well regular readers might well appreciate some of the out takes. I always scan more than I need. So this week’s easily digested offering consists of more selections from Welcome to the New Biba and a couple of other items of interest. I’m just adding a few comments.


Another one of those dark-eyed Biba beauties in faux leopard skin, a perennial favourite. (Even if we didn’t say faux in those days).  The London Fashion Guide of 1975 had this to say about the big version of Biba:


“Louche”. That’s the word.

The picture below shows that Biba was in the same decade as Laura Ashley.



Biba frequently used original 20s/30s images in their promotional literature, like this one, pointing to the household section:




Welcome to the new Biba  presents the household section in this whole page image of the ultimate Biba furnished household inside a classic London mid-Victorian terrace:



Other departments –

The flower shop:


Sweaters, featuring an update of a 1950s pin-up image.



Accessories, and even a bit of habadashery:







And lingerie (imagine a uniformed lift attendant calling out the floors):



Which calls for some more languid laying around. The model is wearing an Edwardian style cotton nightdress, with plenty of the ubiquitous Biba make-up.




Upstairs in the Rainbow Room some even more elegant hanging around.




Biba had also branched out into mail order. This is another familiar image, an advert for Biba’s catalogue. I’m still looking out for a copy.


Finally a small surprise.

Among the ephemera in our collection I found an article from the Lady written by one of Biba’s earliest models,  another icon of the 1970s, the actress Madeline Smith. Always a pleasure to see her.



The writer Bevis Hillier described the new Biba in the Derry and Toms building as  “turning an art deco masterpiece  into a masterpiece of art deco pastiche…(it) will remain a classic monument to 1973”.  I can’t improve on that.


As I’ve said I’ve been quite busy this week with The London History Festival. Excellent talks so far by Benet Brandreth, Peter Frankopan, Sarah Gristwood, Dan Snow, Hugh Sebag Montefiore and Michael Jones – only Juliet Barker and Philip Mansel to go. Thanks also to our interviewers – Paul Lay, Sophie Ambler and friend of the festival Roger Moorhouse. And not forgetting my co-director Richard Foreman and from Waterstones, indefatigable booksellers Michael and Lauren. Plus of course the staff and volunteers without whom it couldn’t happen – Isabel, Kim, Tim, Maggie, Veronica, Karen, Sue, Sandeep and Matthew. We’re going to do it all again next year.

So I hope you’ll forgive this relatively slight post. I’ll try and find something more substantial next time.

Biba – the final chapter

I have often been asked when I’ve written about some of the other famous shops on Kensington High Street (Barker’s, Derry and Toms, Pontings etc) when was I going to do something about Biba, and I’ve had to reply well we don’t really have very much in the way of pictures, apart from images in books and a few newspaper and magazine cuttings. There are plenty of images online too, which don’t need any further dissemination from me. Our photographer took a few pictures of the windows but never went inside.


[The reflections show the pictures were taken of the front and side views of the shop.]

However, I have recently found a few ephemeral items from the final Biba era, when it was in its most ambitious location -the former Derry and Toms department store building – and these offer a hint of what it was like.

The Biba story is largely a Kensington story, from a period when Chelsea was the main fashion centre in London. The first Biba shop was in Abingdon Road, off High Street Kensington. When it grew out of that on they moved to larger premises in Kensington Church Street. (1969)


Finally they took the leap from boutique to department store in 1973. For reasons that were largely beyond the control of the founders (management /ownership issues, the 3-day week, inflation etc) the big shop couldn’t survive, and closed in 1975. The name, the style and the legend lived on though, and remains a potent reminder of that particular period in time just before punk.


I did a piece recently based on some promotional material from Derry and Toms in the 1920s and 30s and at the time I thought how appropriate it was that Biba ended up in the same building. There always was a distinctively vintage feel to Biba fashions and design, filtered through the soft focus extravagance (have I used that phrase before recently?) of the early 70s.


The new shop was far more than a boutique.


In fact it seems to have been a struggle to fill the premises, and some accounts talk about the acres of space inside for shoppers to spread out. (In an article in the Sunday Times magazine of September 1975 Philip Norman says “On the ground floor alone more seats were provided than in the public hall at Euston Station” )  There was a diversification into food and household goods (own branded – they even sold baked beans and washing powder). Speaking of powder:


Many of this week’s images come from a free newspaper style giveaway called Welcome to the new Biba. 300,000 were printed so the pair of copies I came across in a filing cabinet in the archives are “scarce” according to Ebay but not unique. It is an illuminating insight into the Biba style.


The text has something of the  counter culture about it. The idea of speaking honestly and playfully about what was on offer. And  naive about sexual politics sometimes, as people were in the 70s.


We have to cut them a bit of slack these days. This is the imaginative era of albums by Roxy Music, books by Michael Moorcock and Angela Carter. A little bit of what Sally Bowles in Cabaret calls “divine decadence”. (I’m quoting from my memory of the film. Correct me if I’m wrong)


The neo-20s, art deco-esque style has proved remarkably durable.


Note the lamp.


“The most beautiful shop in the world”, according to the Drapers’ Record


The colours of the 1970s may not have lasted.


Nor some of the whimsical stuff.


[A section from a snakes and ladders style board game called “lifts and staircases”]

But there are some enduring images.


People I’ve spoken to who went there always smile fondly about the place. (And I ask myself why was I not one of them? I was in London at the time.) All good things come to an end of course.


Back at 87 Abingdon Road another small shop was in business.


Passers by might have had no idea of the magnificent dream which started there.



Welcome to the new Biba is reprinted more or less complete (and rather better looking than it does on newsprint) in the excellent book Welcome to Big Biba: inside the most beautiful store in the world(Antique Collectors Club 2006) by Steven Thomas and Alwyn Turner, available in libraries and bookshops.

On another matter, the 8th annual London History Festival continues. Tonight we welcome Dan Snow, author, broadcaster and podcaster. Tickets are still available and all being well, I’ll be at the door tonight. Details here and here.

I often think that I won’t manage to write a new post in time for Thursday if I’m busy or preoccupied with something else but this time it’s genuinely possible that there won’t be a new post next week so don’t panic if this one has to last for a fortnight. Normal service will be resumed very soon. Honest.



Chelsea below

I’m probably cheating a bit by starting with this picture but I know that one or two Chelsea fans read the blog who might be interested. Below you see Chelsea Football Club at a time before the many  developments of recent years. It looks rather open and unadorned.


Part of Brompton Cemetery is visible at the top of the picture.

The pleasures of aerial photography are a little difficult to convey on a blog. What you really need is the actual photograph sitting in front of you on a desk and a magnifying glass in your hand. Orientation is part of the puzzle, and roving around the landscape from a bird’s eye view, looking for landmarks and spotting place you know. It helps when there’s a river:


In this picture you can see Battersea Bridge and Albert Bridge, Chelsea Creek and Lots Road Power Station with a full compliment of chimneys pouring smoke into the air. I zeroed in on the area near the power station.


You can see a few large barges moored between a pair of jetties, and then a building with a curved ramp, possibly some kind of parking structure which wouldn’t have been visible from Lots Road.

The Power Station is also visible in this picture, not a bird’s eye view exactly , more a view from a tower.


You can see the edge of the Chelsea Old Church site, and the walled off area which would become Roper’s Garden after some landscaping. This shows the church from the air.


Roper’s Garden is still unfinished – it wasn’t completed until 1963. One of my predecessors has annotated this picture taking note of the crowd visible around the church and speculated that the date is May 1958, when the reconstructed church, badly damaged in World War 2, was re-consecrated. That sounds plausible. Near the top of the picture on the right you can see the Kingsley School, a classic early 20th century county school, which was used by ARP  fire watchers as a vantage point during the war. They would have seen the bombs dropping on the original church. Right at the top you can just make our the rectory garden, one of the largest private gardens in London at the time, and the rectory itself which was photographed by James Hedderly.

Another set of gardens is visible in this picture, further along Cheyne Walk.

Albert Bridge is in the foreground and the end of Oakley Street.


This is part of a large photograph which was too big to scan all at once. You can see a small part of the gardens behind the houses on Cheyne Walk but this section gives you a better view.



You can see how large some of the gardens are, which explains how Dante Gabriel Rossetti who lived in one of them was able to keep his large menagerie of exotic animals (The “murderous kangaroo” and the recalcitrant zebu for example see the Victorian dreamtime post linked to above and this one.)

You can just make out the Phene Arms at the top left of the picture.

The trickiest  kind of aerial picture to deal with are the top down variety like this one.


I’ve left it uncompressed as with a couple of the others so if you click on the image you can see a bigger view. You can make out buildings such as Chelsea Old Town Hall, Swan Court, the cinema building  where the smaller modern Curzon Cinema is, next to Habitat. The fire station with its practice staircase is on the left with the old burial ground layout of Dovehouse Green, the remnants of St Luke’s Hospital and the Thamesbrook old people’s home (built on the site of the former Chelsea Workhouse.) You can also see an empty site on the corner of Sydney Street where the Chelsea Palace music hall had been.

A detail further along the King’s Road shows a large building where a number of lorries are parked.


This is the area that was developed in the 1980s as Charles II Place, where there is now a car park, residential properties and fronting onto the King’s Road, Marks and Spencer. (Does anyone remember the short lived Gateway store which was there?). I think this is also the site of the  Market which was featured in a Bignell post.

Should we go back to St Luke’s Church?


In this picture from 1931 you can see the original symmetrical layout of the .grounds. On the right are the workhouse buildings which were taken over by the London County Council in 1930

Another 1931 picture shows another empty site on the right of the picture.



Click on the image to see a bigger version. The empty lot was where Cranmer Court. The series of long shed-like buildings next to it were demolished to make way for Chelsea Cloister. There was quite a lot of development in that part of Chelsea in the 1930s.

If you look in the bottom left hand corner you can see the Chelsea Palace years before its demolition.

We’ve been moving slowly towards South Kensington. The final pair of pictures come from photos which show a wide area, like this one:


You get  a sense of the broad sweep of the landscape in this picture but by zooming in you can see a few interesting details.


The Fulham Road crosses the picture near the bottom, That tall block with trees behind it is Elm Park House. Around it are the apartment blocks of Elm Park Gardens. You can see that the gap between the block near to Elm Park House is much wider than it is today and there is scaffolding up on the blocks next to the gap. It looks as though there is still one more block to build which would put the picture at about 1970.

This picture is further east but comes from the same set of images.


It shows South Kensington Station on the left of the picture with Pelham Street running alongside. I haven’t quite been able to decide if the buildings next to the tracks on the west are the ones I looked at in a previous post. Maybe.  Further back you can see Chelsea Cloisters and Cranmer Court. In the centre foreground you see the strange curved shape of Melton Court. Opposite the station, at ground level, it looks like an innocuous apartment block but from the area you can see how the architect fitted it into its curved site.

So that’s an odd selection of pictures looking down at Chelsea from various angles. It’s an acquired taste I suppose but I’m fascinated by these views from above.

Postscript – an unrelated matter

I’ve written about  a few recent deaths this year, of people I never knew but just as last week’s post was published I heard about the sad passing of Richard Cavendish who was a regular user of the Local Studies Library. He was always good humoured and affable with the staff and it was a while after I first spoke to him that I realised that he was the author of a book called the Black Arts, a book about magic and witchcraft which I and many of my friends read avidly back in the early 1970s (what can I say – the occult was a bit of a thing back in those days). He was also one of the editors of the part-work encyclopaedia Man, Myth and Magic , which I collected in weekly parts. It was all a fascinating introduction to the world of strange phenomena and beliefs . I’m very glad I was able to tell him that I was one of his fans.





The stone carvers, and others: St Cuthbert’s Church

St Cuthbert’s Church, Philbeach Gardens was built in the 1880s at a time when churches were springing up all over London to serve the growing population of  former suburbs like Earls Court and Old Brompton which had consisted of country houses, markets gardens, inns and lanes. The builders, vicars and others were spiritual entrepreneurs, carving out new parishes from older larger ones which were better suited to sparser populations. After some struggles with ecclesiastical authorities the Reverend Henry Westall (a curate from St Matthias’s, Warwick Road) succeeded in getting formal consent for a new church.


St Cuthbert’s is a distinctive looking building with its iron fleche on the roof rather than a tower, seen here at a later date surrounded by houses. It also sat next to the  railway lines around the Earls Court Exhibition Centre. The full story of its creation can be found over several pages of the Survey of London but I’ll try not to duplicate their good work here.

From the beginning St Cuthbert’s was associated with High Anglican and Anglo-Catholic forms of worship. Perhaps as a result of that the interior of the church was highly ornate and decorative. And possibly also because of that a great many photographs of the interior were made. Sometime in the late 1960s our photographer made copies of more than two hundred images, which I’ve been looking at with interest.

Some show the elaborate interior.


With such features as this giant lectern (designed by W. Bainbridge Reynolds, a member of the congregation) and the many paintings, some of which can be seen in the background.


Others are group photos of people associated with the church. The account of the church in the Survey of London tells us that the members of the congregation took part in the furnishing and decorating of the church. They enthusiastically organised themselves into teams which they called Guilds. This is the Guild of St Margaret:


The guild ,”under the direction of Miss Harvey” according to one caption, were responsible for vestments, banners and other drapery, like this example from the high altar.


But most of the group photos depicted the Guild of St Peter,  the stone carvers.


A mostly male group dressed in their best clothes for a Sunday. But sometimes the group looked more businesslike.


The ladies are wearing aprons or smocks. Some of the work was done by professional craftsmen but ordinary members of the congregation took classes to learn some basic skills. You can see one of the ladies holding a mallet and a chisel, demonstrating her technique.

Here they are again with the same master craftsman.


The caption says they are “under the direction of Mrs Dalton” Is she the one in the middle behind the table?

Or is she one of these?


The pictures identify several people by name. Below, the Miller family, featuring Walter, Gerald and Laurence (the youngest, on the left). Mrs Miller is in there too but I don’t know which one is her.


Below, a group of acolytes. The church was known for “extreme Anglo-Catholic ritualism” according to the Survey, or you might describe it as picturesque ceremony depending on your point of view. There was some Protestant backlash at the church in 1898 when the “agitator” John Kensit interrupted a Good Friday service and was arrested for his trouble. There must have been enough acolytes on hand to deal with him.


The picture below shows St Cuthbert’s Hall, attached to the church, built slightly later in 1894-96.


You can see the Great Wheel on the left looming over the buildings around it. The caption reveals that the people in the foreground are Father Hatt, a man only identified as the Beadle (on the left) and on the right Miss Kenny (the organist) and Miss Carr. The identity of the man with the bike and the others in the background are unrecorded. We can have a closer look.


The two ladies seem to be wearing veils but you can see that Father Hatt looks quite young. There is another picture of Miss Kenny actually at the organ.


But we’re not much nearer to her. As always with old photographs there’s something more you’d like to see if you could only get closer.

For a final picture let’s move forward in time, past two world wars to 1954 where the church sits in a peaceful looking residential street still only a short distance from railway lines and busy roads.




There are more than 200 pictures of the church and hall interiors in our collection, making it one of the best documented churches in the borough. I discovered them for myself when I was asked to find some pictures of the hall (the only part of the building I’ve ever been inside). I came across the stone carving ladies and wanted to see more of them.

Thanks of course to the Survey of London who can always be relied upon for a good ecclesiastical story.

The clocks have gone back so WordPress time and London time are in sync again but I’m still going to launch new posts on Thursday morning rather than just after midnight which means the accompanying tweet should get seen by more people. So don’t panic if new posts don’t appear at the crack of dawn.

While I’m on the subject of publicity, this month brings with it the 8th annual London History Festival at Kensington Library. We have an excellent line up this year featuring, among others, local boy made good Hugh Sebag Montefiore (brother of Simon) talking about the Somme and the always popular Dan Snow with a talk on his favourite heroes and villains from history. Details can be found here. And don’t forget our fringe events – Philip Mansel on the history of Aleppo, for tragic reasons even more relevant now than when we booked the event and on November 10th renaissance man Benet Brandreth talking about his Shakespeare novel. I’ve done a few Shakespeare related posts this year, and there may be a couple more to come.

Halloween story – the invitation

This week’s guest blogger from the European Institute of Applied Cyanography is the recently appointed Chief Investigator Kristina Jones who is following up on a previous post.


The customer, whose name was Phelps, was a man with an obsession, He was convinced of the existence of a subterranean passage which ran from a basement somewhere in Chelsea House towards the river. It had once been possible to exit the tunnel in the octagonal summer house built by Lady Cathryn Beck in the grounds of Beck House, according to Mr Phelps. Proof of this lay in a 19th century account of a walk through the tunnel by Henrietta Cole-Elliott, unpublished of course, but thought to be among the papers deposited in our collection.

He had seen the watercolours by Mrs Fletcher showing the summer house and a tunnel, possibly unconnected but I knew she couldn’t always be trusted on the details. I said as much but he wanted to believe differently, as people sometimes do.




I promised to look through the boxes and Mr Phelps reluctantly left. I admit to being in a less than perfect mood that morning. I had finally been appointed to the post formerly held by my colleague and friend Marianne Collins only to be told by the Deputy Director that the new dress code applied to anyone who sat on the enquiry desk or went to meetings outside the building. I had nothing against the black dress and tights but the outfit definitely enflamed the desires of some of the customers. I imagined Marianne would have been quite amused.

Feeling a little guilty about not taking Mr Phelps seriously, I sat down with the Elliott boxes, wearing a warehouse coat and the white archive gloves and looked at every item, checking them against the deposit list. There was no sign of the tunnel account but to be thorough I also went through all our copies of Mrs Elliott’s books. I frittered away some time reading passages from her faery novel but finally got back to business and the last thing I looked at was a large format edition of Esoteric Churches of London (1905) with many photographs. Stuck to the rear endpapers by some desiccated Sellotape was a pamphlet entitled “Traveller’s notes for Lady Beck’s House”. It came away from the book in my hand. The title was so intriguing that despite the air conditioned coldness of the room I settled down in the most comfortable chair with my overcoat draped over my shoulders to read the whole thing.

“For the amateur Traveller Lady Beck’s house presents a particular challenge. At the present time the house is quite empty and lacking in furnishings, particularly the many carpets and wall hangings which were sold at auction when the Lady became a widow. There is no atmosphere to speak of, aside from the feeling of abandonment. I saw no sign of the celebrated tunnel. I found no portals”

There, then – no tunnel. Surely that settled it? I decided to ignore the reference to portals. I have heard quite enough about doors which lead to unexpected places. Marianne has been gone for more than a year and her flatmate Blanka hasn’t been seen for some time. I miss Marianne but not her friend.

Mrs Elliott goes on to say. “Adepts of the Trick will imagine Beck House and wish fervently that it had survived into the age of photography. Or that the strange combination of light and chemicals had occurred to some savant in the previous century. Miss Collins has hinted that the higher adepts had employed other methods, a workaround she called it, an example of her idiosyncratic phraseology.”

She moved on to a discussion of another matter. Nevertheless, I felt the already cold room turn chillier at the thought that this Miss Collins was the same as the one I knew. I put the book aside and let my mind wander off, thinking about her and her sudden departure. I wished I had Blanka there to ask questions.

I picked out a copy of the standard edition of the book and went through both side by side. Closing time rolled round and the motion sensitive lights went out one by one until I sat in a single cone of light, the rest of the basement room in darkness. I put my arms into the sleeves of the coat and buttoned it up before continuing. I did this as surreptitiously as possible out of a superstitious desire not to trigger the lights. By the end of each copy I was exhausted, and I could easily have missed it. But when I forget myself and stretched out my arms several lights went on and I could see the rear end-papers of the de luxe edition more clearly, and the bulge where something had been pasted over. I used a craft knife to cut a slit around the bulge and carefully removed a small envelope. On the front, in neat copperplate handwriting was written my name

Inside was a single piece of card, with fancy edges.

“Beck House, Putney Heath.

Miss Kristina Jones is invited to a fancy dress ball for Halloween, on Thursday 31st October 1906.7.30pm”

On the back was a printed notice: “Lady Beck recommends Mrs Matilda Stuart’s Photographic Studio and Costume Hire, Brompton Road.

I put the card and the envelope together in a larger envelope which I put in the inner pocket of the overcoat. I didn’t dare put it in my bag, out of an irrational fear that it would vanish or get stolen. I keep a change of clothes in my locker but I didn’t want to linger in the building. I looked up at the picture we call “The Cross Dressing Count”.


I let myself out the back way, my coat belted up and my hat pulled down low as if I was trying to disguise myself.


I had no desk duties or meetings the next day so I dressed in my usual clothes. I subjected the card and the Cole-Elliott collection to some routine enquires looking in street directories and the ephemera collection and particularly looking for photographs. I actually found what looked like the Stuart studio, and several images of Brompton Road from that period. I also tracked down a picture of Henrietta Cole-Elliott in one of the Fletcher family albums.



I didn’t show the picture to any of the others at the Institute. I didn’t want any of them to tell me that the woman next to Henrietta wasn’t Marianne. I knew it was.

Then there was the question of getting to the ball. I knew about Marianne’s ex, Daniel and had even met him once. And I’d spent a few evenings at Marianne’s flat. At the end of an evening, when the creepy flatmate had gone off she had told me about the Trick. And that was how I could get to the ball

If you can believe it, I can explain the Trick quite easily. Some people can use photographs as gateways to other times and places. Marianne’s ex was one of them. And according to her, so was I. She told me this when we were both tired and slightly drunk. The memory had a fuzzy frame around it as if I could easily choose to believe it was a mistake or a misunderstanding. Or it could suddenly sharpen and I could see that my view of reality had been fundamentally altered. She had told me about the first time Daniel had used the Trick. And now it was my turn

I looked through some photos of Brompton Road which looked like they came from the right period. I settled on a couple from a collection by Ernest Milner who took pictures of streets for the new railway companies who were building deep level tube lines beneath them. . I wondered if I could use one of them



There was no problem with a costume. I used to work at the Sekmet Gallery in Holborn. The photographer Aiofe Campbell had an exhibition of her Goth pictures there. The staff all wore elaborate Euro-Goth costumes for the opening, paid for by a Dutch TV company. We kept them. So on Saturday morning I put on a vaguely 18th century outfit, some appropriately gloomy make-up and sat down at the table with the picture in front of me.



The main problem was taking the idea seriously. But after a few minutes I calmed down and allowed the picture to take over all my attention. I ignored the white letters showing the date at first but then changed them in my mind. I imagined the view in 3D. I heard distant sounds clattering. At the last moment there was an unfamiliar smell, quite pungent. I felt myself leaning forward.


The clattering was the wheels of a wooden trolley being pushed along the street. A man in dark clothes wearing a peaked cap was pushing the trolley walking beside another man in an overcoat. A woman in black with a pale face across the road stared at me but showed no sign of seeing me appear out of nowhere. The two men looked at me and shared some joke, but they didn’t seem hostile. I grabbed the skirts of my dress on both sides and walked onto the main road. It was early in the morning. There were a few people about, mostly men, but a few women in dark, heavy dresses, or skirts with white blouses. Everyone looked at me, but no one spoke. One young woman in an elaborate wide brimmed hat smiled at me and nodded. I nodded back. I looked at the shop fronts, noticing the numbers. It wasn’t long before I reached Stuart’s studio.


I had to wait for it to open. A young woman in an ankle length artist’s smock let me in and called for Mrs Stuart a middle aged woman in the white blouse and skirt combination. I couldn’t imagine how they dressed like that every day. My costume was bulky and a little tricky to move around in but it had been made in the 21st century. Compared to the women around me I was lightly dressed.

Mrs Stuart looked me up and down as if gauging how I would look in one of her photographs. I showed her the invitation, now a hundred years older than any other example.

“You’re rather early Miss Jones. But I suppose you had no way arriving at a more convenient time. Please, come into the studio. Many of the guests are coming here today in costume to have their portraits made. You can wait here. Some of us are travelling by automobile, and I know Mrs Hope-Elliott would want me to extend every courtesy to a special guest.”

She was formal, but friendly. If she knew where I was from I must have been an object of great curiosity. Perhaps she was even a little worried. I spent the morning sitting in a hall. Once I’d seen one picture done I didn’t need to stay in the studio and drawer attention to myself. For a while a morose teenager sat with me waiting for her mother.


I carefully took a few pictures on my phone. I was particularly taken with a group of witches.


The day passed. Mrs Stuart put on her own costume.


Four of us got into the rear of a substantial vehicle shut into a cab with curtained windows while a chauffeur and a uniformed attendant sat in front. Mrs Stuart drew the blinds but I knew where we were going, and took a peek as we crossed Putney Bridge. Something was happening in the distance



The new Beck House must have been a step down for the widowed Lady Beck, but it was still a large property. It was only late afternoon

[Picture withdrawn – B. Azdajic]

Inside I started shaking at the thought of actually seeing Marianne who had traveled so far from home and was now presumably stuck in the wrong time. Inside my dress was a packet of photographs I had taken only yesterday and printed on high quality paper. That should be all we would need I assumed. I jumped when I saw her.


But when she hugged me I realised that she had simply made a bit of an effort for the costume party. I asked her what I considered to be the obvious question.

“Couldn’t you just have sent me a letter? Wasn’t it all a bit tenuous? I could easily have missed that invitation.”

“Well, when you send a message across a hundred years you have to be sure it only gets to the recipient.”

“Haven’t you heard of solicitors? Don’t you remember that bit in Dr Who? The guy in Blink who comes to the door?”

“You have to make sure that no-one else gets the message. I’ve been on quite a journey. When I wanted to come home I thought of you. But I had to hide my intentions from anyone else who might be interested. Blanka thought any of the living in the Third City could do the Trick, but she was wrong”

Now that I’d found her I was much more impressed by the Trick and wanted to show off.

“I’ve got a bunch of photos with me. And my phone. Does anyone use those to Travel? I’m ready when you are. Back in time for a tuna melt at that place you like.”

She kept her arm round my shoulder.

“There are a couple of things to do here first. We can’t go from this house anyway. . And like I said, there are other interests involved, and a few obstacles. We’ll have to get past some of the guards.”

She looked out of the window at the Heath. I did the same.


As she said, still a few obstacles



The picture of Ms Jones is a detail from a photograph by the German photographer Luna Feles.

Normal service will be resumed next week.


Bignell at work

I’ve been having trouble with the post I was going to do this week. I had the pictures I wanted to use but I couldn’t find the right way to write about them. I came into work on a Saturday and while I was waiting for the computer to finish the things it likes to do when I log in the cursor alighted on a folder of pictures by John Bignell, a not quite random selection of images which showed people doing various forms of work. So almost immediately I decided not to force the other post into existence but to let Bignell take the reins. We haven’t had a Bignell post for a while so why ever not?

As always with Bignell he moves from the world of art and artists in which he had many friends to a more ordinary world of shops and street stalls where he appeared to be equally welcome. Here is the sculptor, Loris Rey at work in his studio in 1959.


We’re lucky to know the date of that picture. In others you have to infer from the picture itself when it might have been taken. In this case the late 1950s or early 1960s is as close as you can get.


An old school  milk float with a perky horse pulling milk, a man and a dog. You can imagine Bignell wandering the streets setting up pictures like that as he came across people he might have known, or struck up an acquaintance with, but on other occasions it looks like he was invited.



Everything looks clean and modern in this picture but it has an undeniably period feel to it. It’s sparse compared to a modern operating theatre.

Back on the streets, a rare colour picture taken in the old World’s End area.



Sea food al fresco. The St John’s Church Hall visible in the back ground and the green grocer’s stall we’ve seen before.

This is another street stall much further east along the King’s Road.



The three people posing for the picture look eminently recognizable (if anyone knows them?)

Not far away from that location, a flower stall.


Thank you Madam, says Bignell. The lady herself is clearly not quite sure what he’s doing, and why she’s in the picture.

Bignell also went into shops. Here a grocer slices meat.


And Loris Rey works on something else.


Here is a shop which is possibly devoted to Japanese goods, complete with a kimono-clad member of staff.


Bignell was forever popping into art shops and small galleries.


Framing work done here. Half a notice on the subject is visible in the door.

Art supplies available here. The picture below may be at Green and Stone, the long established shop on the King’s Road.

Bignell was in  butchers.


And fish shops


A 1970s look to that picture – the woman’s hair (and the guy with his back to us whose hair is getting good in the back as Frank Zappa used to say). And see the slogan – “Go to work on an egg”.

More hair in this picture where Bignell looks in a a barbers (“well groomed hair”).


And a classy looking florists.


The Pottery. Anyone remember that one?


Bignell even looked at used car lots. This one was where the new fire station on the corner of Dovehouse Street was built.


Finally, some actors at work.


I wonder what she made of it all?




I know sometimes a Bignell post can seem like a random selection, but there’s always something interesting there, even in the most throwaway  sort of pictures.


Note the little figure of the girl in leg braces, a charity coin box, in the background. Those used to be everywhere. The two women are crossing to the south side of the King’s Road possibly near Glebe Place (E A Fownes is now My Old Dutch).

Have fun identifying some of these locations.

Next week there will be another guest blogger for Halloween so I make no guarantee about factual accuracy.

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