Category Archives: 20th Century

At last the 1936 show: Barkers of Kensington

We’re moving west along Kensington High Street and we’ve now reached the Barkers building, opposite the point where the High Street intersects with Kensington Church Street. We’ll pause here this week because the Barkers building is Kensington High Street’s signature building, which has been a central part of the look of the street for more than 80 years. Its curved frontage is like the prow of a ship, a luxury ocean liner of shopping.

 

 

Barkers is the first of the three department stores of Kensington. Along with Derry and Toms, and Pontings it was the focus of serious shopping in Kensington during the heyday of the big stores. The fact that it is now occupied by a number of different retailers and offices doesn’t distract from the grandeur of the building.

But this building was not the first Barkers store. John Barker came to London in the 1850s and worked at the Bayswater store, Whiteley’s. He leased the first of his Kensington properties in 1870, and began the slow process of colonizing the block between Young Street and Derry Street, and the streets behind (see this post about the streets at the rear of Barker’s) The first substantial Barker’s building can be seen in this from the west in a photo by the Stiles brothers.

 

 

 

You can just make out the letters of the name in the distance.

Here’s a closer look.

 

 

 

The expansion was dealt a severe blow in November 1912 when a fire gutted the east end of the main block.

 

 

In those days it was common for big stores to provide living accommodating for their staff either on site or nearby. Barkers had been acquiring property in Kensington Square for various purpose including living space for their staff. but there were still 20 people living on the fifth floor. Five waitresses died after jumping prematurely from high windows.

For a while the store traded from a site they had leased across the road

 

 

This would be where the Ladymere building would be built. You can see the side of the Royal Palace Hotel on the right.

The fire damage was repaired and the work of being a huge shopping emporium carried on.

 

 

Groceries for everyday use.

Special occasions

 

 

And fashion

 

 

The “display hall”, 1930. Women’s fashion was a big priority for Barker’s as demonstrated by two scans from the catalogue of 1935, the 65th year of business.

 

 

 

Plans for a new building began from the 1920s. The directors took inspiration from Selfridges and from visits to the USA. One of the chief directors, Trevor Bowen went there in 1919 and was particularly impressed by the Marshall Field’s store in Chicago. There were delays along the way. Barker’s merged with Derry and Toms in 1920 and their building was the first to be replaced with a modern version. (Bowen would have been particularly occupied by the roof garden, which was his brainchild and arguably remains as his most interesting legacy.) Plans for the new Barkers start in 1933 and building work started in 1936. It was an even more ambitious project than the rebuiling of Derry and Toms, with the two dramatic staircase towers which add to the impression that the building is about to start moving forwards. Work was intended to finish in 1942,  but was stopped during the War. Post war changes in planning law and building regulations also had a delaying effect so work carried on into the 1950s.

 

 

This 1951  picture shows that the last section of the frontage was not yet complete. It shows how the shape we know now was the result of another road widening. Note the huge sign warning about the bottleneck (still a feature of this section of the street). If you look in the centre distance you can see a big sign over the Slater’s store. Have a look at that here.

The building was finished in 1957 by which time the House of Fraser had taken over the company

This picture shows the finished building and how well it matches Derry and Toms.

 

 

Lowly Pontings (“the store for value”) limped on in a less  impressive building but was the the first part of this retail empre to go. (See one of my early posts here). I think you could say that in the 1960s, the zenith of department store shopping had not yet passed so Barker’s glided on into my teenage and adult life. Derry and Toms morphed into Biba and later Marks and Spencer and Gap In the 1980s and 90s but the Barkers building remained as the biggest thing in the High Street.

 

 

 

This picture looks west in a similar way to the first photo in the post.

 

 

 

While preparing this post it was inevitable that I would zoom in on this view.

 

 

Along with the lady’s nice coat (a winter picture, confirmed by those Chritmas trees), you can see a green bus.

Although you can’t make out much detail, Matthew soon found a picture of that actual vehicle using the strange powers of the enthusiast.

 

 

From the same date, the west entrance, with a toy display.

 

 

And the banner: Barkers of Kensington.

Below, a handy set of images showing some of the interior shops after this part of the building became a kind of small shopping mall. Barkers Arcade was a name I found a couple of times.

 

 

 

(Was there actually a branch of Hatchards there, or has the photographer inserted some shops for demonstrating what was possible?)

Despite changes in use and the decline of department store shopping the iconic building remains almost as it was originally envisaged, seen below in an architect’s drawing of a slightly wider high street in a slightly grander London.

 

 

 

Postscript

I haven’t done an obituary lately so this week let’s pay tribute to Roky Erickson, psychedelic pioneer with the exotically named Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Do you remember any of the other equally hallucinogenic names from Lenny Kaye’s compilation album Nuggets? (The Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Electric Prunes, the Nazz? And many others) Roky unfortunately was a victim of excessive drug taking and spent some years in mental hospitals. But he came back and recorded more general weirdness in later life. I had a couple of singles by him in the 1980s, my personal favourite, Bermuda but not forgetting Two Headed Dog, which features another couplet I love: “Two headed dog, two headed dog / I’ve been working in the Kremlin with a two headed dog.” I almost never use the word gonzo but that song deserves it.

Roger Kynard Erickson (did you see what he did there?) 1947-2019. Thank you. We are going to miss you.

 

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Another post about shops and restaurants

This week’s post doesn’t travel far from the previous one. Just across the road in fact, to the north side of Kensington High Street.

 

 

We’re looking back westwards at the first version of the Royal Garden Hotel. It won’t be the last we see of it on the blog so concentrate instead on the large retail space visible on the left on the ground floor of the Crown building – Hyper Hyper, with its distinctive caryatids. These (along with some plaster columns) belonged to its previous incarnation as the Antiques Hypermarket, a kind of permanent antiques fair, organised into small stalls which either sold proper antiques or just bric-a-brac depending on who you ask. The Hyper Hyper incarnation leaned closed to fashion.

 

 

The Antiques Hypermarket started in the 1960s, as did its fashion orientated cousin across the street.

 

 

 

Kensington Market dated from 1967, as did this handbill.

 

Being both “with it” and “way out”, it became popular, even beloved, through the 1970s and 1980s selling a wide variety of fashion and semi-related goods, but closed quite suddenly in 1999, when the owners sold up. The distinctive facade has gone now, one of the few to be completely replaced on the south side. Curry’s/PC World are in there now. I doubt if they have “good place to shelter from the rain” as one of their  major selling points.

I imagine some of you have some reminiscences of the Market….? No extra points for mentioning Freddie Mercury though.

I have to stay on the south side though, to show you the shop next door.

 

 

Another distinctive shop front, and a name taken from a much grander retail centre, far, far away. (Though still accessible for the casual viewer via Google Maps and other websites. I just took a brief turn down that surprisingly narrow thoroughfare.)

 

 

Looking back at Kensington Court you see a branch of Slick Willie’s and Persepolis, an Iranian restaurant. The blurred car in the foreground is a Rover 3500, which I think I have mentioned before, much loved by the Metropolitan Police. We’ll see another one of those in a minute.

Next to the Crown building on the other side of Old Court Place, once a fairly downmarket street, is the Old Court Building.

 

 

At this point it was home to Woolworth’s and a fashion shop called Che Guevara, among others. Although the iconic image of Che has lasted from the 1970s to the present day (I had a t-shirt),  I’m not sure you could name a shop after him these days.

 

 

The Old Court building occupied a whole corner.

This is the view from behind, showing a doorway with the Winfield brand logo used by Woolworths for their own goods, above a rear entrance. This back street leads to Kensington Church Street, past the now demolished Lancer Square.

 

 

(For those who are interested, Lancer Square circa 2012 can still be seen on Google Street View.)

I mention this rear entrance because it shows that the Woolworths company occupied a large space which perhaps resulted in some confusion later. I must warn you we’re about to go off on a tangent. Does anyone remember a restaurant called Grunts?

 

 

According to the writing on some of these pictures, Grunts, a specialist in Chicago style pizzas, seemed to be part of Woolworths.

 

 

So far so good but..

Although this is the Grunts exterior, and here by coincidence is another Rover 3500, a close look at this street makes you realize that it’s nowhere near Kensington High Street.

 


 

Some eagle-eyed work on Google Maps by my son Matthew (transport correspondent and technical adviser), who had nothing better to do at the time, indicated that this is in fact an unrelated street near Covent Garden, Maiden Lane. The church tower belongs to Corpus Christie Roman Catholic Church. The white building in the background is called Tower House.

Was there ever a Grunts in Kensington? I’d certainly like to know.

Back on the real High Street, we go back to 1978.

 

 

James Walker (no relation), jewelry and the beautifully named Superama. (A fashion arcade, according to Kelly’s)

Below in 1996, the Woolworths unit has been split up into smaller shops.

 


 

Compare the two pictures and you can see the ornamental frieze above the shops.

This area, near the bottom of Old Church Street saw a number of  changes in the 1980s and 1990s.

 

Virgin Records, on its way out in this picture from 1981. Nice boots, Madam.

Now I think the correct history of this section of just three storefronts after Virgin has Video Palace, an early video sale and rental outlet with connections to the Virgin empire, in this location. I went in there many times.

 

 

You may have to take my word for it but you can just about make out the words Video Palace near the front of that coach.

That’s a 49 Routemaster, by the way,(an RM not an RML in case you were wondering) going to Tooting Bec Station sometime between 1972 and 1987 (when one-man operation came in).

The Palace was followed by a J-Mart,as you can see below and then Tower Records, in 1984. This store predated the one in Piccadilly. (I think I can barely recall a little excitement at the time, although Tower turned out to be just a big record shop). They had their moment in London.

Opening soon, according to the notice in this picture.

 

 

Then with a separate Video store, still selling a few VHS tapes perhaps, maybe even DVDs.

 

 

Then it was Virgin’s turn to come back. The Virgin stores had a management buyout, and were re-named Zavvi, an identity no-one I knew really believed in. By that time I was buying CDs online, or at Fopp in the West End, and only entered any of the Virgin / Zavvi stores when Matthew wanted a new game. (I bought him Grand Theft Auto when he was too young, but it hasn’t brought him to a life of crime.)

Below, you can see that James Walker was replaced by the unimaginatively named Design Label.

 

 

But this too was closing down. We have a rare interior shot, with some dodgy walls.

 

 

It may seem as though shops in Kensington High Street always seem to be closing down, and while there have been plenty of changes over the last 20-30 years, retail life goes on. These photos get taken remember because someone is about to change something and has to tell the Planning department. There are still a few shops which have lasted for years and years.

We’re almost at a stopping point now so let’s look west. I find this view, of the corner of Church Street, with the trees in front of St Mary Abbot’s quite picturesque.

 

 

The bank on the corner has become a Pizza Hut.

Here it is as a branch of Barclays, with an Alfred Marks Bureau next door.

 

 

And here as Pizza Hut. Now that 27, bound for Turnham Green. A single-door Leyland Olympian. It had no real business being here in 1993, as it was part of a group purchased specifically for service on the 237. It was presumably replacing an out of service Metrobus, given the relatively greater importance to the garage of the 27. Now you know.

 

 

Although it’s been interesting to see the changes in Kensington high Street, I’m conscious of not bringing much of an emotional connection to this section of street. I don’t remember any memorable purchases at the record shop, whatever it was called. This is in contrast to the Virgin at Notting Hill Gate which is associated for me with a number of great albums.

Finally another quirk of this collection of photos. Here on a snowy day is that Pizza Hut.

 

 

In the background the unmistakable tower of the Gas and Coke Company, now a branch of NatWest. Below a dim figure seems to struggle in the snow.

 

 

But that’s not the same Pizza Hut. Is it?

 

 

It’s an interesting view though. Is that the entrance to an arcade? Is it the same snowy day. All suggestions are welcome.

 

Postscript

I may as well bow to the inevitable. We have a lot on in Local Studies at the moment so I’m moving to a fortnightly post to allow me to do a few other things, but this doesn’t mean that Isabel won’t suddenly come in with her next post – she’s becoming more prolific. There are plenty more ideas bubbling up so please keep reading. And of course, fewer posst probably means longer ones. like this one, for those of you who appreciate that. Thanks to Matthew.


A little bit of retail history: Kensington High Street at the turn of another century

This is the first in a series of posts using photographs from a collection of images given to us by our Planning department. One of my volunteers has been going through the collection, sorting them out and has shown me six folders of images of Kensington High Street. So you can expect to see many pictures over the next few months, from all sorts of angles. They date from the 1980s to the early 2000s. They tell many different stories, of shops and restaurants gone by, some of which were there for years, some comparatively fleeting. Famous names, and obscure ones. You may be pleasantly reminded of an establishment you’d forgotten, or surprised by a picture of somewhere you just can’t recall.

Inevitably, we have to start by going back to a building with one of my favourite descriptions from the Survey of London. It’s number 1 Kensington High Street once more. It was built as a bank in 1888, in a style I looked at in this post. It was listed in Kelly’s as the London and County Bank. From 1939 it was the Westminster Bank, and then later the more familiar name, the National Westminster Bank, who seemed to have moved about around 1985. It stood empty for a while, and at some point was converted into a wine bar / restaurant. By 1996 it looked quite lively.

 

 

Footlights (“Mexican, American & European Cafe Restaurant & Bar”), and next door a wine bar, Tumblers.

Below, a woman passes by ignoring the building and the photographer.

 

 

She probably missed the specials board at Tumblers.

 

 

One more image, and one slight mystery. Above the ground floor windows, you can see a strip of  what is often called ghost signage. It comes out best in this picture taken a few years later.

 

 

I had a close look from a 49 bus recently, and I could only make out the word Society at the right of the strip so it has obviously faded somewhat in recent years. From this picture and others I could read “Leamington Spa Building Society“. This was perplexing for a while until I looked at drainage plans for the property, which indicated that the Society was the owner of the property until 1991. Can anyone remember the Society trading from this address?

But come on, we have to get moving. Next door is a split frontage, half of which is a Bureau de Change, next door to which is a venerable establishment.

 

 

The Goat public house which has been there more than a hundred years.

Here it is again below. One of the interesting features of this section of the High Street is the heterogeneous roof line. Whatever is happening at street level, the surviving upper levels are distinctively 19th century. Short buildings rub up against taller ones, sometimes a couple of floors taller.

 

 

 

There’s Le Bistingo, on the right. Some of these names will be familiar. Some not. Le Bistingo later became Giraffe, a venue for world food and music, and later still Lupita, a Mexican restaurant one of my customers recently recommended.(I’ll let you know).

Next door was Strikes.

 

 

Strikes was a hamburger restaurant, very much in the 70s/80s style (anyone remember Tootsies, or my personal favourite from the Fulham Road, Parsons?) One of the current occupants of this block is Roadster, a modern hamburger joint, much visited by men on motor-bikes picking up takeaways, a practice which must be changing the restaurant trade.

Personal reminiscence (you may skip this paragraph if you’re not interested in my digressions). My uncle had an Italian restaurant in the Wandsworth Road in the 1960s. He tried to set up a takeaway in a nearby shop to cater to people who wanted something other than fish and chips. He called it the Carry-Out, a term you can still hear in films/TV of the period which had not yet been drive out by “take-away”. The venture was not a success and he moved to Esher.

Dino’s Trattoria was another incarnation of Le Bistingo. (If this is getting complicated, don’t stop me, I can barely work it out myself).

 

 

Below, you can see a whole row of those mismatched buildings. Next to Dino’s, an early Garfunkels (which must have been Strikes).

 

 

A couple of heads glide by in the foreground.

 

Cuba, seen again below, is now therefore Roadster. Phew!

 

 

Let’s take a moment and look at the street from above. As you can see the buildings are equally varied from this angle.

 

 

We’ll come back to rooftop views on another occasion, I promise. But back to ground level.

 

 

 

Lord John, gentleman’s outfitter at number 23, and the Stardust Cafe.

We haven’t gone far, I know but this subject is going to be taken at a slow pace so we can afford to pause at Kensington Court.

The corner place was a pizza restaurant.

 

 

And opposite a general store.

 

 

This has become a mostly pedestrian area, with protective bollards, and little trees.

 

 

And at this time, in the early 1990s, a fairly generic Coffee Shop.

 

 

Back in the old century, motorcyclists lingered outside the Electric Lighting Station (the sign is still there).

 

 

A young woman in a striped top and jeans is leaning on a handy bollard and taking a breather (from work in the coffee shop?) or just surveying the scene. What is she reading / not reading/ just holding? I’d like to go back and ask her, but of course I can’t. I had my chance in 1990 but I wasn’t thinking about time travel then. We’ll have to let her get back to her pre-millennium life.

We’ll continue in the next post, perhaps even crossing the street, but I can’t promise that. I might need a very long lie down. Ranging over a few decades and several sources can get complicated. See you next time.


Dancing in Arcadia: the May Queen Festival

I saw Paul Wright’s film Arcadia recently shown on BBC4 (with music by Adrian Uttley and Will Gregory) which brought together archive footage about our obsession with the mysteries of rural life in the UK. I was most drawn to the footage of traditional rituals and celebrations which link us to the distant past in ways which we don’t always understand. I’ve lived in London for a large part of my life but we lived closer to a more rural way of life in my childhood and adolescence. I’m part of what a writer in Fortean Times magazine has called the “haunted generation” whose imaginations were inhabited by the paranormal and supernatural as it was seen on TV (in dramas for children and public information films) and in books of fantasy and horror. The ephemeral nature of the pre-video world  adds to that haunted quality and has an echo in my work, which often consists of assembling fragments of the past in old photographs and paintings.

[Bob Fischer, The Haunted Generation, Fortean Times 354 June 2017, with follow ups in later issues.]

I thought, naturally,  of the May Queen Festival at Whitleands College, a favourite topic of mine as regular readers of this blog know only too well.

Here, in 1900, the students danced around a maypole in the traditional way.

 

 

It looks quaint and old to us. But remember, they too were in a modern age, remembering an older world of folk dancing and singing. The Maypole dance has been revived before in Chelsea like here, forty years or more previously, at Cremorne Gardens.

 

 

The College dates from 1855, not far off the scene in the etching. Perhaps some of the students or teachers could have sneaked away to wicked Cremorne and seen the dance. So perhaps it imfiltrated the collective memory of the College. In any case, the dance was a fixture at the May Queen Festival throughout its history.

 

 

In 1919, the students were ready to dance.

As they were again in 1921. Or, with the pole wrapped, perhaps they had finished a practice session.

 

 

The long white gowns and fancy dress had given way to a kind of fitness uniform.

1923, two students pose with a class of local children.

 

 

The quadrangle at Whitelands College could pass for a sylvan setting behind the walls of the House but their move to Putney in 1930 moved them into a much more rural setting.

 

 

In 1931 they’re back to a more traditional look with long gowns and some interesting medieval / psychedelic costumes.

Later groups of students were pictured dancing confidently.

 

 

 

And managing the more complicated stuff.

 

 

In 1937 they’re dancing in pairs.

 

 

The young woman in the middle about to be sacrificed later, of course, metaphorically obviously.

The celebrations were not confined to the Maypole.

 

 

 

1926, on the mat.

And in 1932 some Greek dancing on the grass.

 

 

Influence of Margaret Morris? Below, a little more Cecil Sharp.

 

And the just plain odd. Harlequin.

 

 

And hypnosis (or you may have a better guess.)

 

 

A tame version of sword dancing, with sticks instead of actual swords, and another dancing uniform.

 

 

The dancing looks a little more light hearted and less haunted as the 1920s moved into the 1930s but as before the First World War, darkness awaited all the dancers in one form or another. Arcadia drifted back into the background, but it would be back later, because that idea of a timeless earthly paradise remains in our imagination. It takes me back to 1970s children’s television and as I’ve been told, Derrida’s hauntology.

With the 1970s in mind, the final image is, another in a series of pictures which remind me of 1970s folk-rock bands and quirky photos on the inside of gatefold album sleeves.

 

 

 

The May Monarch Festival goes on, as I always say, and with it my greetings to this year’s monarch who will be crowned this month.

 

Postscript

I had an idyll of my own over Easter so apologies for not publishing a post for a couple of weeks. Obviously I couldn’t miss the May Queens.

It is an odd coincidence perhaps that John Bowen, author and screen writer passed away this week. (he was the author of a seminal work of folk-horror Robin Redbreast, which originally appeared in the Play for Today slot, like David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen.)

Another recent death for lovers of the weird, that of Gene Wolfe, the author of the Book of the New Sun quartet and many other workd of science fiction. My sympathies to the fans, friends and famillies of both of them.

 


St Ervans Road: another era

Firstly, I should apologise for those readers who accidentally got an early draft of this post emailed to them a couple of days ago. I pressed the wrong button while preoccupied with the way the streets near St Ervans Road had changed since 1970. The idea for the post came out of a conversation I recently had with a former resident of St Ervans Road, reminiscence of his childhood days living there. It stuck in my mind because his memories were largely happy, as opposed to some other memories of North Kensington I’ve heard recently.

 

 

The post box on the left was a goalpost when he and his friends were playing football in the street. As the picture shows, things were a bit quieter then. If you look at St Ervans Road now you will find that these houses are gone. The street is part of a whole set of streets filled with relatively new housing. The picture above looks towards Golborne Road. You might not be able to see it at this magnification / brightness but there is a street sign on the left for Acklam Road, which once ran west from the end of St Ervans Road to Portobello Road. Acklam Road still exists of course but it now snakes away from a gap on the north side of St Ervans towards a junction under the Westway and then back to the bottom of Blagrave Road. (If you’re not familiar with this part of North Kensington, follow it on Google Street View, as I did earlier.)

It’s complicated, jumping backwards and forwards from the past to the present. All I intended to do was to take a look at the street in 1970.

This is the norther corner of the street where it met Acklam Road.

 

 

 

I hadn’t planned to include a map but to avoid any further confusion here is a section from the 1935 Ordnance Survey.

 

 

You can see how Acklam Road once linked St Ervans, Wornington, Swinbrook, Bevington and Blagrove Roads before reaching Portobello. It now stops short of that at the end of Blagrove where the Acklam Village is located. And of course the southern side of Acklam Road where the houses backed onto the railway was swept away by the Westway.

One of the interesting aspects of these pictures is that the Westway was already there, in the background. The street looks quiet and the people are ambling around.

 

 

In close up the two women look quite unhurried.

 

 

There are plenty of old cars to spot, as you know we like to do. I haven’t named any myself – this post has taken up enough time already, but as always I welcome contributions from car enthusiasts. Does anyone remember that series of books from a publisher called Olyslager which covered British and American cars by decades? My friend Steve referred to one volume as “the Bible”. American cars of the 1950s, obviously.

 

 

 

People are chatting in the street, unconcerned with traffic. Above, a young woman offers servicing advice to a man with the bonnet of his car open. Perhaps he’s got a Haynes manual just out of sight.. Below, one man slouches on his bike while talking to a couple of friends.

 

 

Houses are for sale as you can see so no-one is expecting the development to come in later years. Perhaps some owners made a decent profit.

 

 

This is I think the northern end of the street at the junction with Golborne Road.

Below, the other end, with that post box again.

 

 

 

Some of the housing looks a little rough, like this section.

 

 

 

Some of those house may be empty, especially the one with all the rubbish outside.

But there’s plenty of activity for a quiet street.

 

 

Another conversation by a pair of mopeds.

Is that a Rover below?

 

 

 

And is that Trellick Tower rising just behind the houses?

 

 

A Morris 800, and the view back to where we started. What’s that in the distance?

Is it the Westway itself? This view is looking east from the junction of Acklam Road and Portobello Road.

 

 

The final view links us up with Acklam Road at the end of St Ervans, looking west.

 

 

The Westway has an anniversary next year, so expect some more pictures of it here then. St Ervans Road is now in another era.

 

Postscript

I was working on various matters yesterday so I never got to finish this post till this morning. There was also a slight digression when I checked on the Olyslager books. It seems there’s a copy of one in the Reference store. I’m going downstairs now to see if I can find it. (One of the pleasure of working in a library.Allow me to indulge myself while I can.)


Demolition on the high street

This week we’re starting with a return to the splendour of the Royal Palace Hotel, which we visited a couple of weeks ago.

 

 

Unfortunately this was in 1961, when its demolition had started. Parts of the interior were now part of a new exterior and many of its windows were just blank holes.

This picture shows the early stages of the work.

 

 

The parade of shops next to the hotel, of which Slaters was one, has gone. Note the original location of the bus stop.

The gate remains.

 

 

Soon the hotel itself was just rubble, piling up behind billboards.

 

 

No more guests.

 

 

Just pipes and exposed basements.

 

 

The north side of Kensington High Street was no stranger to demolition.

Look at this scene from the early 1900s.

 

 

The LCC had a road widening scheme in 1902/03 and nothing would stand in its way. See the sign?

Here it is again.

 

 

This picture was made from a glass negative which has a crack on the left. The small building to the right of the crack can be seen in two of the pictures in the post about Slater’s.

Here is another view of the same open space.

 

 

Where’s St Mary Abbots? Look closely, it’s just behind that metal structure, which must be an Edwardian crane

Into this space later emerged a striking building.

 

 

This building, in a 1924 illustration,  is sometimes referred to as the Crown building (the land belonged to the Crown Estate), or the Ladymere building. It was built for the John Barker Company and had seven public floors, with many lifts and a subway leading to the main Barkers building on the south side of the street. It is now more known for the ground floor shops which have stripped away part of the facade so you barely know what a grand building lies above street level. Like many buildings in the High Street, it’s at its best when seen from the upper deck of a bus heading west, particularly the tower (or “pavilion”) which is an unexpectedly exuberant feature.

 

 

 

Check it out next time you pass it. We’ll take a look at the shops in this area in more modern times in a future post, and possibly come back to this building, but first we should finish our business with the hotel.

This grainy picture from 1961 shows the site ready for development with now just the trees of Kensington Gardens showing beyond the billboards.

 

 

The empty site was to be filled with a new hotel, the Royal Garden Hotel.

In this picture the lodge building  which stood next to the King’s Arms hotel is still there. This small building survived the entire history of the Royal Palace Hotel.

 

 

One of my readers (see the comments section of the Slaters post) thinks it can also be seen in this print, a detail from an 18th century print called called A southern view of Kensington.

 

 

I wasn’t sure at first, but I’m warming to the idea. What do you think? (The viewpoint is I think from a spot just inside the Gardens looking south.)

In any case, the building was finally demolished as you can see in this 1965 picture of the new hotel.

 

 

It was designed by the Richard Seifert company in the style often referred to as brutalist, although you could say it was simply large and practical. It has been a popular hotel and  temporary residents include members of popular beat group the Monkees (I believe. I’m recalling a documentary) and of course the 1966 England World Cup squad.

The current version features aluminium cladding which was installed in the 1990s. I often hesitate to criticize or dismiss contemporary buildings but the truth is I haven’t found anyone willing to praise the refurbished version. Our ephemera collection contains this snippet from the  Evening Standard.

 

Thank you, Mr Nellen (and friend whose name was unfortunately torn off?)

The penultimate image this week is that original hotel, The King’s Arms, back in the 1880s, together with its small friend.

 

 

 

Postscript

This should have been last week’s post, but I was quite busy with work matters so I let it go for a week, and Isabel’s post last week attracted so much attention it deserved a second week as the lead post. As I hint above, you will soon be sick of Kensington High Street as I have recently been shown an extensive collection of images from our Planning collection which I intend to use in future posts.

On another matter, when I was much younger, I liked the Walker Brothers, even though they were no relation to me at all, and later I was fond of Climate of Hunter, one of Scott Walker’s later, more experimental works. But I can’t claim to have listened much to his late avant-garde works. Nevertheless I felt I should note his passing.

Another recent notable death (for me anyway) was that of Larry Cohen, film director / producer and screen writer. He was perhaps best known for “It’s alive!”. But my favourite was his 1982 horror film “Q – the winged serpent”, which featured a kind of Aztec dragon, the Chrysler Building and the late David Carradine. It’s probably one of those films people call guilty pleasures, but I just call films I like, such as Night of the Demon, The Devil rides out and Constantine.

I didn’t manage to fit this 1961 picture into the main body of the post but I thought I’d slip it in at the end. Two people asleep in the warmth of an afternoon undisturbed by the sound of the traffic.

 


The Kensington: a High Street Cinema

Ignore  my name at the top of this post. (We still haven’t worked out how to add an author.) This weeks’s post was written by my co-author and colleague Isabel Hernandez who is continuing her work on the cinemas of Kensington and Chelsea.

 

I mentioned in my last blog post that I might revisit the cinema theme and see what I could find in our collection for The Kensington Odeon. Given its fairly recent closure I wanted to acknowledge its history and presence on the High Street for the best part of 89 years or so. Not old by historic standards, but certainly not dull.

The Kensington Kinema opened on the 6th January 1926 on the site of what was 8-13 Leonard Place – a range of houses that existed between Earl’s Court Road and Earl’s Terrace along the High Street. The redevelopment of this part of the High Street was completed around 1930-31 with shops and flats erected on the site alongside the cinema.

The Kensington was designed by one of the foremost cinema architects of the day, Julian Randolph Leathart, and his partner, W F Granger; experienced men in their field. The owner was Joseph T. Mears, a builder by profession, and President of the (then) Cinematograph Exhibitors Association. It was the first of four cinemas in his collection.

The image below shows the building’s magnificent Neo-Classical style; the most notable feature being the proscenium with three entrance points. Some thought it an austere facade, but others, like Philip Hepworth (British architect 1888-1963), compared it to an ancient Egyptian temple…

“It prepares the mind for the great void behind.”

Certainly you can clearly see Greek and Egyptian influences when you look at these old images.

 

The Kensington. Opening January 1926 - Copy

 

Ideas for the cinema’s construction were being discussed from as early as 1921, but there was considerable opposition to this which delayed construction until 1923-24. However, the encouraging design was well received in architectural journals and eventually it won over the sceptics. The result was the creation of one of the largest cinemas in Britain.

The Kensington was constructed with a steel frame (much like the Kensington Central Library) with vertical posts and horizontal beams to carry its weight. Steel frames are nothing unusual now where buildings are concerned, but it was a rather modern technique to include in the assemblage of a cinema building of that time.

The opening of the cinema was successful. The new building even had the unique privilege of having its own tune. A music composition by Charles Williams to commemorate the opening was played. It was succinctly called: The Kensington March.

 

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A few passers-by and a policeman in the forefront of the image below is a good way to gauge perspective. The building does look like a temple.

It is interesting to note that as elegant and impressive as the cinema was at the time, there appears to be very little if no film publicity on display, giving the building a conservative reputation. On first appearance it doesn’t appear to convey the vitality that later cinemas exuded with pomp, promising visual entertainment unlike anything else at the time. Perhaps with only one major screen, very little open advertising was required. As to how you would know what time a film was to start is a mystery to me. It seems that films were usually run on a continuous loop throughout the day and it was perhaps by chance that you would catch a film from the beginning.  Early adverts would appear to show that performances were continuous.

 

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Obviously, this later changed with the Odeon’s gaudy advertising as I remember it, so you could say it is a matter of opinion what it is that one prefers with regards to information.

Most of us will remember the display board that was attached to the facade of the building. It was rather unattractive and not in keeping with the good-looking building, but as a cinema it was recognisable and informative. Whether you were walking by or sitting on the top deck of a bus, you could see what was advertised.

If you’ve read my previous blog post on the Westbourne Grove Odeon  you will remember I mentioned that Oscar Deutsch, who founded the Odeon brand, was very much a man who liked to advertise his cinemas extrovertly, including the use of neon lights with some buildings. In the case of The Kensington, it would appear initially that advertising was left to the local newspapers. In fact, newspaper and magazine listings were still the best form of information right up until the internet took over from printed material.

Below is the only clue I could find in the local newspapers of the time that there was a new cinema in town. The first film ever shown at The Kensington was Quo Vadis. It was advertised on the 8th January 1926, in the weekly Kensington News and West London Times.

 

 

Two of my more interesting finds in the collection were these architect’s plans for the cinema. I often think that some plans are works of art in their own right, so I always enjoy scrutinizing the intricacies of the drawings in some cases, even if I’m not wholly versed in the architectural details. These are not originals, yet interesting nonetheless.

The seating capacity for The Kensington, including the stalls and circle levels, was estimated to be between 2,350 – 2,370 seats, depending on what source you are reading. That’s a lot of seats! I’m not sure even the West End cinemas had that capacity. The plan was for more, around 2,700, but practically this would have reduced the comfort factor by reducing the leg room for customers. Something I think is not often considered after a major refurbishment in current cinemas. A case of – use all available profitable space, never mind the long legs! It would appear that numb legs are not considered within the design remit of modern auditoriums, except where recliners have been introduced. I have not had the pleasure...

 

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Another plan showing the proscenium opening where the screen is located and interestingly, the five levels of the cinema: the billiard room in the basement; the entrance hall; the tea room; the lounge and the roof gardens. A large entertainment establishment for sure!

 

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The auditorium was decorated in a Neo-Greek style. I think of it as new antiquity.  According to the Kine Weekly 1926, the furnishings were colourful, decorated in warm hues ranging from amber to red to warm grey. The terracotta murals and carpet also added to the welcoming atmosphere of this spacious cavern and it was said that the screen never presented a distorted view no matter where you sat. Something of a boast considering how large the auditorium was.

 

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The curtained screen below in regal repose until the next show.

 

The Kensington, later Odeon. RIBA

 

Below you can see the stalls and balcony, or circle if you prefer. You would be forgiven for thinking this was a large theatre, like The London Palladium, only slightly bigger.

The Kensington was sometimes used as a venue for other events, such as: variety performances, concerts, award ceremonies, premieres, even an exhibition held at the cinema in 1959 called “Better Towns for Better Living”. Its multiple usage was always a boon for the local community.

 

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Below is the elegant tea room with its art nouveau decor. Tea rooms have always been a staple of British social life since they were established in the 18th century. They came after the coffee houses of the 17th century which were places for social discourse and debate (usually men only). Tea, on the other hand, was very much the prerogative of the elite. It was very expensive and heavily taxed in that early period, which lends a whole new meaning to Tetleys and PG Tips. Fortunately, tea rooms later became a lot more affordable and considered reputable public spaces that women could frequent. Such egalitarian notions must have seemed avant-garde at the time.

 

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Below is an original poster I found advertising the cinema programme for Christmas Eve 1934.

 

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On the other side of the poster I was surprised by this rather interesting drawing, dated January 11th 1935. Rather than throw the poster away, it would seem it was better utilised as a doodling sheet. And why not? Perhaps this was the anonymous artist’s pet dog.

 

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It’s not every day one sees an elephant on the High Street and probably just as well. This image was taken around the 1950’s. National Savings was being publicly encouraged. It provided an easy and safe way for ordinary people to save small sums of money.

 

Circus elephants march past the Odeon with National Savings Slogans

 

The Kensington cinema changed its name to The Majestic in July 1940; a wartime security measure to prevent the enemy from identifying locations within the London area.

In January 1944 Odeon Theatres Ltd acquired The Kensington, bringing it into the fold of one of the largest cinema chains in the country. It reopened as The Odeon on the 9th October 1944.

Later, in 1976 the Kensington Odeon underwent a refurbishment that upgraded it into a triple screen cinema. The image below shows the cinema around 1967, before the change. Only one film is advertised: The Deadly Affair, based on John Le Carre’s first novel, Call for the Dead.

The recognised symbol of the-man-with-the-gong (Arthur J. Rank Ltd) can be seen on both ends of the display board. Fancifully, I look at that now and see a portent of the future being sounded.

In 1980 a further screen was added. And by 1991 two further screens made it into a six screen multiplex. Not a cinema to sit on its laurels the Kensington cinema upgrades were all attempts to maximise audience attendance allowing for variety and choice. But it was never the same. Just like most other picture palaces, something of the original quality of the cinematic experience was lost.

Unfortunately, much of the internal design of the cinema was altered through the decades after various refurbishments. So much so that it would appear much of the original decor was subject to damage, even if some of it was still intact. A short-sighted, cavalier attitude towards something so interesting.

 

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In July 1998 the Odeon underwent yet another refurbishment. By this point the once grand auditorium was no longer visible. It was reputed to have been the largest built in England, and yet not immune to the many changes over the years. Original details still remained around public areas like the main staircases, but overall the original design was mostly buried beneath modern contrivances.

 

Kensington High Street - south side, 265-267 1971

 

In 2007, the RBKC gave planning permission for the cinema to be demolished retaining only the façade.

It was hoped through a campaign led by the local community that the cinema should be listed as a heritage building and saved from ignominious obscurity.

 

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An image I took recently of the now defunct cinema on my phone of multiple talents. Looking at it I couldn’t help but remember all my visits to watch films there. And seeing it like that I felt perhaps sentimental about the change. It was, if you’re a more sanguine-natured individual, just a building in the ‘greater’ scheme of things.  But that old nostalgia has a way of bringing out the history in us, and at the risk of being accused of personifying the building, it seemed to me, forlorn.

The Kensington Odeon closed on 11th September 2015.  Never to reach its centenery as a purpose built cinema. The redevelopment includes a six-screen cinema, along with residential flats. I stated earlier that there was a strong opposition to the closure and a robust campaign was begun with a view to challenge the developers and the council.  Many in the community felt that they were excluded from the consultations which led to a rethink of the original plans. Still, the end result, after many years of uncertainty, has led to the cinema’s final demise. Its last curtain call, if you like. It has hosted celebrities, royalty, and best of all, those of us within the community who will remember it as it was for a very long time. Not just a building, but a High Street landmark – a disappearing way of life.

 

Kensington Odeon closed

 

Postscript:

Changes often do evoke strong feelings and unsurprisingly this includes anything deemed of historic import that is vulnerable to redevelopment. After all, we tend to form attachments to what we consider heritage or culture; our past. I suppose, in many ways, it gives us a sense of identity. Cinemas have come and gone over the decades. Closures are not a new phenomenon. Their former grandeur is much more sedate these days. Time sometimes has a way of transforming or diluting things in this way. I have already made the point about our evolving technology and the internet in my previous post, which has exacerbated the problem. Less people attend and less money is generated. Sometimes things simply fall out of ‘fashion’. But often we do not notice something is there until it is gone. On the one hand, if we don’t frequent the cinemas, then questions are asked as to their viability. Our changing habits do influence the existence of these places. The same can be said of libraries and museums in some respects. They cannot exist without people, or money. Cinemas can only upgrade to a point before the constant push of modernism keeps changing the script and that requires investment and innovation.  Unfortunately, we also live in a world where profit and wisdom are often incompatible. Ideally we would welcome a balance that benefits society as a whole – perhaps I am naively utopian in my view. There is no doubt that life is ephemeral, no less the physical buildings we associate our past with. But I think sometimes we need to reconsider our complacency about anything, and more to the point, the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

I hope you have enjoyed looking at the images in this post. I initially thought we had very few for a blog post, but there were enough to show you. Thanks for reading! Dave will resume posting next week.

Another Postscript – Dave

I saw a tabloid story from 2017 about Prince William and Kate Middleton (as they were then) going to see The Avengers at the Odeon High Street Kensington. Rumour has it that Princess Diana took the much younger Prince William and his brother to see the Harrison Ford film Patriot Games there also. For myself, I went there to see the first Alien film, and took my future wife there to see Bad Timing. Isabel is right. Something has been lost with the passing of these big old cinemas.


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