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”.