Forgotten buildings: the Convent of the Poor Clares

Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books feature a number of Kensington and Chelsea settings among various apocalyptic landscapes spread across time and space. Jerry wanders through Holland Park in the grip of a new ice age, chases a villain into the Pheasantry in the King’s Road and gets attacked by a helicopter in Derry and Tom’s Roof Garden. When he returns to his bombed headquarters in Ladbroke Grove he stands on the rubble of the destroyed Convent of the Poor Clares. When I first lived in London in 1973 I made a pilgrimage to Ladbroke Grove to find Moorcock’s house and see the rumoured sign on the door warning off casual callers signed Moorcock-Cornelieius.  The address I had gave no clue to who lived there but I was still satisfied to have seen the place. If I had looked across the road I would have seen the flats which stood on the site of the Poor Clares.

I was reminded of my visit when a woman came in to the library looking for a photograph of the North Kensington street she had lived in as a child. I found one at the right date and supplied her with a copy. As a follow up she asked me if there had ever been a convent in Ladbroke Grove. I knew of course that she was referring to the Poor Clares, located on the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park Road. The woman had a memory of visiting the convent with her mother who wanted to buy something at the convent’s shop or so she now thought. She seems to have found the place slightly disturbing, and to have got the impression that she might be forced to stay there and to be made to be “poor”. Children suffer from all sorts of strange misapprehensions and misunderstandings. Some people will remember how strange and forbidding nuns used to look in their traditional full length black habits with only their faces showing. Or is this a purely Protestant phobia?

Anyway having confirmed to her that there had indeed been a convent on Ladbroke Grove I searched for some photographs of it. In the 1970s the library had a photographer on the staff who tried to visit streets and buildings before they were demolished and in this case he had visited the building after it had been closed as a convent and was empty, awaiting demolition.

As you can see, it’s not a particularly forbidding or scary building. This could easily be a large private house if you saw it in a rural rather than urban context but it is already empty by the time of these photographs. Abandoned buildings soon start to become mysterious, almost as if that is part of the process of decay. The next stage is that they become frightening or even threatening. Formerly warm homely places where people lived together contentedly become imaginary settings for violence and horror. Have a look inside….

Harmless everyday objects start to become grim and unpleasant. The interior becomes silent and an empty corridor looks ominous. Outside nature re-asserts itself and starts to reclaim its territory.

The Convent of the Poor Clares Colettines was built in 1860, designed by Henry Clutton. When it was built there wasn’t much nearby apart from the Elgin public house. But as the 19th century progressed North Kensington grew up around it and by the 1960s the enclosed order would have been surrounded by all the sounds of urban life. You can imagine that by 1970 the nuns might have been glad of their move to Barnet. The building was demolished soon after these photos were taken. A housing estate and day nursery were built on the site and the mysterious convent ceased to exist.

I’ll be presenting a few more forgotten places in this blog but I’m always interested to receive suggestions especially of buildings demolished in living memory. There may be photographs in our collection, so please leave a comment if you have any suggestions.

Michael Moorcock’s books are all worth reading but my favourite is still the second Jerry Cornelius novel “A cure for cancer”. I should warn the unwary reader that in the words of the author: “This book has an unconventional structure”.


9 responses to “Forgotten buildings: the Convent of the Poor Clares

  • Michael Gall

    Thank you for your marvellous blog.

  • Michael Gall

    I would love to see the photographs you mention taken by your staff photographer back in the 1970’s are they available at local studies.

  • David Walker

    Our photographer took a large number of images of Kensington and Chelsea streets in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These are available in our Photo Survey collection in the Local Studies Library at Kensington Central Library.
    Thank you for your kind comments.

  • North Ken

    I remember the high wall well and seeing many nuns or “penguins” as we called them in the North Kensington area. My Mum was actually assaulted by a nun when she was pregnant with me in the 1960s – a chemists shop door was deliberately smashed into her in Portobello. My childrens’ piano teacher remembers teaching a group of nuns, piano at an evening class in North Kensington in the 60s; she said it was the only time they went out all week. Can’t have been much of life for them.

  • Samantha

    Is it possible to locate records from this convent? I’m currently trying to gather information about my Nan’s mum for her and we’re hitting a bit of a dead end…my Nan can remember running to this convent when her grandmother was on her deathbed but I can’t verify her name etc because the convent isn’t there anymore!

  • Jennifer Harris

    I discovered this description of what I believe to be this convent in M. V. Hughes, ‘A London Home in the 1890s’:

    ‘Our windows looked right down into the grounds of a convent. I forget the name of the sisterhood, but it was a very close one. The nuns never left the premises, ate no meat, (sic) and grew all their own vegetables. We had this information from our doctor, who also attended them; he told us that some one had mistakenly sent them a turkey for Christmas, (sic)and they had given it to him. We used to watch them digging and hoeing and watering, and often leaping about over the beds from sheer joie de vivre. Then there were frequent processions with chanting, and on special days coloured banners, figures, and (sic) crosses were carried round the paths.’

    The newly-married Hughes’ lived in a six-room flat at the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park Road. The flat came with an odd proviso, ‘Arthur scrutinized the terms of the lease in order to find some objection, but the only one he could discover was our being forbidden to keep pigeons. “I don’t want to keep pigeons,” said he, ‘and heaven knows I never shall, but I refuse to be told that I mustn’t.” So the clause was deleted.’

    Hope this adds to the conversation (or at least amuses anyone)

  • Amber Tallon

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve lived in that housing estate with the day nursery you mentioned for the last 23 years and it’s fascinating to know what was there before it!!

  • Pennie Limming

    I’ve just found your blog and read this entry which is fascinating. Do you have any details/information on St Mary Abbotts Hospital which I believe was off Kensington High Street.

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