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”.
October 4th, 2011 at 8:19 am
Thank you for your marvellous blog.
October 4th, 2011 at 8:24 am
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.
October 5th, 2011 at 9:43 am
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.
October 15th, 2011 at 11:15 am
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.
November 26th, 2016 at 11:49 pm
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!
November 28th, 2016 at 1:12 pm
The Convent moved to Barnet, where they still are today. Contact details from their website:
January 31st, 2017 at 6:50 pm
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)
May 22nd, 2017 at 7:43 am
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!!
November 15th, 2017 at 8:54 pm
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.
February 15th, 2018 at 3:17 pm
thank you so much for this article. The Poor Clares are still in Arkley.
June 11th, 2018 at 8:40 pm
Hi l was placed in St Annes convent,no such atrocious took place.
Even though as a child all rather bewildering…
But not bad..well.fed,groomed,prayer..education,but not a true home
So sadness was there,not belonging..
Sadly folk see there own vision..but ,did they stay there?
I would welcome news of anyone else who was there..
Sister mary aquin was the Mother Superior..this was in the early 60s
April 20th, 2022 at 9:16 pm
Hi was at St annes convent. Yes with sister Mary aquin. She gave me the bat many a time. Yes it hurt.
December 7th, 2018 at 11:02 am
This is all aboslutely fascinating and as Londoners become lonelier and lonelier it is wonderful to be able to connect to the past. Me and my two brothers went to Tyburn School Homer Row off the Marylebone Road in 1955-65. The school was Roman Catholic and run by nuns. Sister Mary Phillipa was the Headmistress but there were also lay teachers whom we loved. And Mr Douglas the caretaker who was a little gruff but solid. I remember my mother taking me to the closed convent in St Charles Square when I was a child when Sister Mary Phillipa was dying. It was and still is a closed order so we stood outside just to show sympathy. My mother sent some small offering in to the nuns. Tyburn School was adjacent to the Church of the Holy Rosary which was a beautiful bijou of a church with statues and ornate interior. It was demolished in the late 60’s??? Does anyone have a photo I wonder? At Easter we strewed the flowers and crowned our lady and processed through the streets. All my sense of beauty and theatre can be traced to the religious artifacts and reenactments of that time. I was the Queen of the May, Mary of Nazareth we prided ourselves on our compassion for all and humanity. At least that is how we saw ourselves. Its all now gone into the past…….
September 21st, 2020 at 8:43 pm
The nuns could actually be seen playing cricket if you were lucky enough to live where you could see into the grouds, To the best of my knowledge the only lay man ever admitted was a plumber I saw going in once or twice! Like Jerry, I felt fond of ‘our’ nuns. I took a lot of (bad) pictures once they started knocking that lovely convent down. -=MM
November 2nd, 2020 at 10:33 am
My 18 year-old Grandmother Lydia Mary RICHARDSON is listed as a Nun here in 1881. needlessly to say, her vocation was rejected!
Listed below are all the Nuns at the time.
NameConstance Van BiervalietAge61
NameTeresa Van HollebekeAge54
NameBlanche S. MaxwellAge25
February 12th, 2023 at 8:10 am
Thank you 🙏 I still find it hard to actually imagine this convent right there after having lowerwood court ingrained in my head.
I live on Raddington Road and wondered if you have details on what once stood where I now call home ? Most grateful 🙏