Tag Archives: George Grey Wornum

Better living through gas: Kensal House

This post is an  appendix to the journey up Ladbroke Grove I’ve been on in the last two weeks. I won’t bother you with many more of my personal reminiscences but I do remember being struck by Kensal House in the time when I was working in North Kensington and taking the 52 bus home every night to Kensal Rise. Looking down from the upper deck of a bus I recognized the unique character of Kensal House sitting below the level of the road next to the railway. I wasn’t any kind of expert on the architecture of the area then but I could see it came from a more optimistic time than the late 1970s and had seen better days.

 

Kensal House 1936 K66-702 - Copy

[Ladbroke Grove 1936]

In the 1930s planners and architects were enthused with the possibilities of new forms of housing, and possibly were no longer in thrall to paternalistic Victorian notions of raising up the working classes by improving their living conditions. Le Corbusier’s description of a house as a machine for living in was a fresh idea. (from 1923) It was a brave new world of course as of 1931 (although Aldous Huxley’s phrase was ironic). The housing scheme which utilised a no longer needed corner of the Gas Works site was sponsored by the Gas, Light and Coke Company. There was a team of architects headed by Maxwell Fry, with Robert Atkinson, C H James and Grey Wornum (whose work has been on the blog before). They were joined by a housing consultant, Elizabeth Denby.

In 1938 Ascot Water Heaters Ltd published a survey of recent developments called “Flats: Municipal and Private Enterprise” which featured the new estate.

Kensal House site plan - Copy

In the introduction Bernard Friedman says: “To the Greeks physical fitness, beauty of form, and congenial environment were essential to the harmony of life.”

Kensal House 1936 p68 top

[On the left, the school]

Maxwell Fry goes on to describe the thinking behind the scheme. Although he sounds a bit patronizing (“The idea that animated both sides of the work was the desire to build a group of homes where people whose incomes allow them little above sheer necessity could experience as full a life as can be”.) it is also clear that he was concerned with the lives of future residents – ” hardship centres around the lack of practical things, such as space, sun, air hot water, cooking facilities and so on. If these things are not remedies in the new home…then it is no great change for the better.” He goes on to explain that a “type plan” for three and two bedroom flats. The bedrooms would be all on one side of the flats allowing them to be smaller and the living rooms bigger with light on the bedrooms in the morning and the living rooms in the afternoon. Above the ground floor the flats all had balconies with built-in flower boxes. The kitchens were equipped with “drying balconies” and of course Ascot Water Heaters provided constant hot water. (Fry emphasizes these, but then they were the publishers.). Fry also emphasizes the “more civilised” internal staircases (“a nice feeling of going up your own staircase.”)

Kensal House 1936 p68

[1936. Note the balconies]

The consultant to the project, Elizabeth Denby describes it as “the first urban village to be built in Britain“. The design committee also had responsibility for ensuring the new residents settled in and that rent and fuel costs remained reasonable. She remained on the new estate for a while in her consulting role. She reports on the success of the Club Rooms and the social club which took in members from the surrounding area, and took particular pleasure in the enthusiastic take-up of the gardening facilities. “On a sunny evening or at the weekend each balcony was its tenants leaning elbows on the rail, smoking, gossiping,  happy, like a group of cottagers perched above each other on a steep cliff. The possession of canaries by some of the tenants intensifies the country illusion.” Again, you can see a degree of condescension in her surprise that working class people responded to improved living conditions by looking after their new homes but the scheme was well-intentioned and did succeed in showing the way forward for planners.

 

Kensal House 1937 K70-565

Both Denby and Fry mention the light available in the new flats – big windows, airy spaces, the feeling of a garden. This was an idea that was taking hold in the sun-worshiping 1930s. Sun lounges, gymnasiums, fresh air and exercise. I’ve encountered that enthusiasm for the outdoors in various spheres such as the Bauhaus houses in Chelsea and the dancing philosophy of Margaret Morris.

As it grew older Kensal House got a little worn down, as I saw it in the 1970s but its fortune revived and the atmosphere of pleasant living in a garden-like environment is still visible in a set of photographs from 1992.

Kensal House 1992 K-191

This one and the one below show the same walkway between blocks, possibly even the same trees.

Kensal House 1992 K-197

So that little pocket of 1930s optimism remained.

 

Kensal House 1992 K-192

The gas lamps have been replaced as in this view of a grassy knoll, but the sense of separateness is still intact.

Kensal House 1992 K-193

Behind this picture you can see the same water tower from last week and the site of the Sainsbury’s super store as it was.

Kensal House 1992 K-194

The fenced gardens and the curved facade.

Kensal House 1992 K-196

The shaded lane between the blocks.

Kensal House 1992 K-198

Kensal House (a Grade II* listed building) is still in the architectural text books, still praised as an example of well designed urban development. So Fry and Denby and their committee could claim to have done something useful and interesting on a small slice of industrial land.

Postscript

A little while ago I worked with the SPID Theatre Company on a project they were doing with residents of Kensal House so thanks to them and the residents’ group who visited the library during the course of their project. Read more at their website: spidtheatre.com/wordpress where you can download a brochure about Kensal House.


Modern life in Kensington:1937

This week we’re going back to that house we caught a glimpse of in the post about two photographs from the 1860s. In the course of the research about them I came across not only an estate agent’s brochure for the house but also a hand written mock-up of the brochure from Chesterton’s, who have been long established in Kensington.

This week’s pictures are not of the same house though, not really, because in 1937 when it went on the market the Victorian suburban villa had been turned into an ultra-modern town house, with every new convenience. It was “a model example of the art of reconstruction, combing all the advantages of the old and new; with every possible labour-saving refinement.” They always say that though, don’t they? Let’s go on a tour and see for ourselves.

Front view - loose photo

The house was re-modelled according to the design of George Grey Wornum, a leading architect of the day, now remembered best for the RIBA building in Portland Place, and the interior of the ocean liner the Queen Mary. One of the pieces about him I read called him something like a progressive traditionalist. You can see that. It looks like a 30s building but not nearly as radical as say the two houses in Chelsea Old Church Street we looked at last year.

Inside the prospective buyer could see some understated luxury.

Drawing Room 02

One end of the drawing room, with its “recessed hardwood staircase providing additional access from the dining room ..and leading to the south terrace.”

The view of the other end of the room shows “the maximum natural light” (the 20s and 30s were the era when people really began to appreciate , and even worship sunlight”. This “superb room” is “of a height quite unusual in a modern London house and, while homely, is suitable for receiving 150 guests”. Not that homely then.

Drawing Room 01

In those days you also had a library, “panelled in a rich brown walnut” with “large concealed cupboards built in.”

Library - Study

There’s another example of a library in a 30s conversion here.

“The casement door leads to the garden beyond.”

Garden view - loose photo

“Campden Hill is quiet and healthy” Far from the madding crowds of Kensington High Street down the hill but still convenient for the shops. The three big stores on the high street all owned by the John Barker company by this time were in their heyday in the 30s.

rear view showing terraces

“The Terrace is electrically lit”. The door on the left is the Library. The other three open off the drawing room. Note the sun terrace on the second floor, another favourite feature of the sun worshippers.

Far end of the garden

The far end of the garden “contains an Italian pool and a delightful sunken rose garden, overlooked by a small summer house.”

You could have quite exhausted yourself by this point, trekking to the rear of the property. Just have a quick look at some of the “fittings and equipment”:

Boiler

“The Iron Fireman Stoker fitted to the Boilers is Thermostatically controlled and stokes automatically for weeks on end with no labour other than the simple operation of the removal of clinker.” Sounds great. Just get the parlour maid some overalls and she can do it. She can relax afterwards in the Servants  Sitting Room.

“The house is centrally heated on the Panel System. Electric Power Points are also provided in every room.”

There’s more natural light in the dining room through the “glazed ornament cases”. The artificial lights are “cleverly concealed in ceiling and cornice”.

Dining Room

Here’s the view of the dining room from the hall.

Hall

At this point in the tour you’ll want to have a look upstairs, via the “circular sweep of the landing”.

1st floor landing

And we can relax in the principal bedroom.

Principal bedrom 01

It’s another nice large room, with a shiny ceiling.

Principal bedrom 02

You get a rug by the fireplace with its own sheep.

The suite is completed by a large dressing room, two bathrooms in pastel shades and a wardrobe corridor, its walls lined with seven completely fitted and automatically lit lady’s wardrobes (gentleman’s wardrobes are in the dressing room).

Principal bedrom 03

Is that the door to the wardrobe corridor? Some nice padding there. If you get lost in there, the maids’ bedroom (for four occupants) is also on this floor, with their own bathroom in a seperate corridor. An improvement on the attic, no doubt.

I certainly wouldn’t complain. Just take the weight off your feet before you go.

cover - sitting room

Postscript

The house is still there, in Upper Phillimore Gardens with some alterations to the front (and possibly many inside). Apart from the other links I’ve inserted you could also have a look at some slightly earlier “modern” interiors added to the gothic mansion known as the Abbey, which was just down the hill. There are some colour pictures of 1930s interiors here.

A couple of days ago we had a launch for our World War 1 exhibition which will travel around libraries, schools and community centres in the Borough over the next few months. My tanks to everyone who made it happen. For those of you who won’t get to see it, much of the material we used, from our archives, and contributions from local people, is also on our Great War website: http://www.kcworldwar1.org.uk. Have a look.

Postscript to the postscript – April 1st

I’ve just looked at a copy of Trystan Edwards’s Good and bad manners in architecture (1924) courtesy of my colleagues at Westminster Central Reference Library. It contained a picture of the house prior to Wornum’s remodelling. Here it is:

15 Upper Phillimore Gardens from Food and bad manners in archittecture - Edwards 1924 p138 captioned a house designed by Ruskin - Copy

It’s the gothic one. If you remember this was also discussed in the post Two streets in Kensington. Thanks to Susie H for retrieving the book.


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