Tag Archives: Michael Moorcock

The adventures of Jerry Cornelius at Derry and Tom’s famous roof gardens

1. A troll across the rooftops

I  went there with my parents when I was about 13 or 14. Kensington High Street was a serious shopping destination in those days, a little classier than Oxford Street. We took in all three of the department stores Ponting’s, Barker’s and Derry and Tom’s . We had afternoon tea on the Sun Pavilion Terrace in the Famous Roof Gardens (The word famous seemed to be part of its title). I now have only vague impressions of the Gardens – the stillness, the strange expanse of flowers and trees – and can only remember comparing it in my mind to the sort of earthbound parks I was used to. We bought this very postcard that day:


That postcard now lives inside my battered (but signed by the author) paperback copy of Michael Moorcock’s second Jerry Cornelius novel, A Cure for Cancer. For one year I read that book continually, starting it again as soon as I finished it. I had it out from the local library until the paperback came out, a process which in those days used to take a long, long time. Phrases and sentences from the book stick in my memory like catch phrases, particularly the chapter titles.

2. Wild whirlybird in one man war.

“The time might be 31st July 1970.

London, England. Cool traffic circulates. A quiet hot day: somewhere in the distance – a bass tone.”

“Within the vine-covered walls of the Dutch garden the sultry sun beat down on colourful flowers and shrubs.”

Early in the novel Jerry finishes an encounter with a female officer of the American Occupying Forces in the Dutch garden and enters the Woodland garden locking the door behind him.

Sun Pavilion 02

Here he is shot at and shouted at by a man in a helicopter. A number of ducks come to grief from stray shots. Jerry takes shelter in the stream beneath the bridge. The helicopter lands and the shooter gets out. Jerry disposes of him with his vibragun, a useful gadget which shakes things to pieces Then he hijacks the helicopter and gets the pilot to take him to Earls Court.


For those of you who never came across him Jerry Cornelius was an odd amalgamation of sixties characters: James Bond, Doctor Who (the Pertwee version), Big Breadwinner Hog (if you remember him), John Steed and Emma Peel (both of them maybe), Adam Adament possibly, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. (Malcolm McDowell could easily have played him, but the Jerry Cornelius film The Final Programme featured Jon Finch as Jerry.) Moorcock created him lovingly, but you weren’t really meant to like him I think.  Creators don’t always get their way so a lot of us did.

Jerry seems to be the secret owner of Derry and Toms. He orders the lift attendant to leave and the waitresses in the restaurant to lock the doors. The middle class ladies who had to take cover during the gunfire are abandoned and left to their own devices.

Sun Pavilion

3. How a banana endangered the Lennon sisters

The roof gardens were the brainchild of the long-time chairman of the John Barker Company, Trevor Bowen. It had been intended that the new building would have seven floors but there were objections from the fire brigade whose ladders wouldn’t go up that far. So Bowen had the idea of a garden on the roof instead of the final floor.  There were layers of concrete, screed, asphalt, bricks, clinker, breeze concrete, turf and topsoil, all without the need for any major redesigns of the load bearing capacity of the floors below.

And on top of it the secluded pleasures of a secret garden.

Spanish garden

Just beyond that wall instead of more lawns and flower beds, a city street.


But stay seated in one of the many quiet corners and you could forget about the outside world. The gardens were opened in 1938 and stayed open in that form until 1973.

4. Come away Melinda

Trevor Bowen seems to have been inordinately (and justifiably) proud of his creation. He certainly showed it off to many visitors.

MS21714 Trevor Bowen, and Miss Diana Wynyard 1940s

Bowen with Miss Diana Wynyard and some other interested parties at a fund-raising event during the war.

MS21714 Trevor Bowen, General Sir Alexander Hood and Mrs Attlee 1945

Bowen with General Sir Alexander Hood and Mrs Violet Attlee in 1945. What is that woman on the right doing in the flower bed?

MS21714 Trevor Bowen, and Muriel Pavlov 1955

Bowen with Muriel Pavlov, star of Doctor in the House, 1955. “ A pleasantly warm afternoon, a green vista of wide lawns and pleasant gardens, the mingled murmurs of a string orchestra, the soothing trickle of waterfalls and a pretty girl to light it all with her fascinating smile – and all five storeys above the noisy bustle of Kensington High Street” as the Kensington Post and West London Star put it.

5. Blonde mistress of Nibelburg’s tower of terror!

The gardens were also used for company functions. In the days when the big department stores were institutions that employees joined for life the company provided social events for them. Below, some of the buyers are at a dinner dance in 1947 to celebrate Bowen’s 25 years with the company.

MS21708 Buyers at the dinner for T Bowen 1947

In 1954 Bowen was Master of the Company of Bakers. Here he is with some of his guests:

MS21734 Dinner Dance July 15 1954

Bowen died in 1964 but he might have been pleased that the Gardens have outlived Derry and Tom’s, Barker’s and Ponting’s. Closed while the building was unoccupied between 1973 and 1978, they became a nightclub for a while in the 1980s.They are now part of the Virgin empire and are used for events and functions Here is a link: . http://www.roofgardens.virgin.com/

You can still visit the gardens at certain times but although I work so close to them I’ve never attempted to see them again. Sometimes it’s better to leave places to memory and imagination.

Derry and Toms Kensington High Street Roof garden K72-437

6. Sing to me darling in our castle of agony

Jerry Cornelius roamed freely across the killing fields of the 20th century through several novels and short story collections. He always came back to Kensington though. It’s a tasty world.


[Jerry on the cover of New Worlds, the SF magazine edited by Morcock]

The olfactory code

The section headings are borrowed from chapter titles in A Cure for Cancer. Moorcock implies that these are  from actual publications and song titles but some of then are too good for that. Derry and Toms Roof Gardens also appear in other Moorcock novels such as Breakfast in the Ruins.

The illustrations of Jerry are by Mal Dean who collaborated with Moorcock on several projects.

The photos of visits and functions come from a set of albums and scrapbooks donated to the Library by the Trevor Bowen Estate. There is one album with a set of early pictures of the gardens which I haven’t  used this time because they went together so well as a set. You can expect to see them here in the very near future.

Copy of corneliusad

[Illustration from the dust jacket of The Final Programme]

Forgotten buildings: the Convent of the Poor Clares

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”.

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