Demolition: the fall of a town hall

In December 1983 I went down to Kensington High Street from North Kensington Library. It must have been one of those half days when I finished at one o’clock because it was around lunchtime. I saw from the bus that the former Kensington Town Hall had been partially breached by a wrecking ball and that the large hall in the centre of the building was now open to the elements. I was astounded. And, I admit, a little excited.

 

 

This is history now. Rumour had it that the GLC (remember them?) had been planning to list the building on a Monday, so to prevent this, demolition began the day before. Arguments followed, for and against. Some called it a desecration of a fine old building, some argued that it was financially necessary for the Council to maximize what it could make from the old building. Some said it was an architectural loss, others said that London has more than enough mediocre Victorian municipal buildings and wouldn’t miss this one. Although many years have passed the controversy has never completely been forgotten. But having noted the issues, I’m going to stick with the facts of the matter. And the pictures. Because although the building has gone, Council photographers, including our own John Rogers recorded it, and its passing. We have also been given photographs taken by members of the public. As regular readers will have realized, I like a bit of destruction. The poetry of devastation. So let me indulge myself.

 

I’ve been reading the Survey of London of course, and a handy little book published by English Heritage called London’s Town Halls, and it seems that nobody like the Town Hall that much. Its design had been reached by a “badly organised competition” from which “Gothic and Elizabethan styles were specifically excluded“. The architect, one Robert Walker (no relation as far as I know) went with (the Survey quoted Building News) “a commonplace Italian design“. (The term “Italianate” is often used pejoratively by architectural writers, as in the phrase “crude Italianate villas” applied by one writer to expensive houses in the Boltons in Old Brompton Road).  It was opened in 1880 and extended in 1898-99. It was large enough to be a serviceable town hall until the current building in Hornton Street was built. There is a post about its construction here.

 

 

This picture shows the rear extension from the garden in Church Walk.

The garden was formerly part of the church burial ground.

 

 

You can see St Mary Abbotts in the picture below.

 

 

But back to 1983. This is a view from a roof on the opposite side of the High Street, after the middle section was cleared of rubble.

 

 

The next pictures are a little earlier, immediately after the initial demolition work.

 

 

Jets of water to dampen down the dust in the air.

 

 

The view on the street after the boards went up.

 

 

And just before, a huge pile of debris.

 

Close up to the pile.

 

 

 

On the pavement, life goes on.

 

 

What was left of the building was actually left standing for a couple of years while it was being decided what to do next. The final demolition took place in 1984.

The great hall, partially cleared.

 

 

 

But before we leave this little detail from the side of the building intrigued me.

 

We’ll come back to the Town Hall again in the new year when we’ll have a look inside. Next week is the start of my usual series of short daily posts for the run up to Christmas

 

Postscript

A few hours after I published last week’s post news came through that Pete Shelley, founding member of Buzzcocks had died aged 63. As a 63-year old myself I am totally opposed to the deaths of men of that age. And as others have said, he took a bit of my life with him. Buzzcocks were one of the great punk bands and one of the first to make a record (the Spiral Scratch EP) by themselves, without any help from a record company. Shelley wrote and sang love songs with a sharp edge, catchy but uncompromisingly noisy. Sometimes at this point I quote a favourite lyric, but although Shelley wrote perfectly good pithy lyrics, what I remember most is the sound – the curious guitar on Ever fallen in love, and the powerful climax in the same song when guitar, drums and voice come together in a controlled explosion, the .  It’s perfectly appropriate that Buzzcocks recorded for United Artists who brought us records by Can (Shelley was, like me, a Can fan).

I had to explain to a couple of people who Pete Shelley was. What I said was imagine if Paul Weller died. Or John Lydon, Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry? Joe Strummer is already gone. Pete Shelley was in that league.

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