Tag Archives: Niddry Lodge

Niddry Lodge: not the Tower of Babel

The original Niddry Lodge was one of the buildings built by Stephen Bird on the patch of land currently occupied by Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall and the Central Library. Bird built a house called Hornton Villa (later known as the Red House) for himself and kept most of the rest of the property as his garden. But he built a second stucco villa at the north western section of the house with a smaller but still generous garden. Its first occupant was a general. He lived there till 1843 but it was the next owner the  Dowager Countess of Hopetoun who must have given it the name Niddry Lodge after one of her husband’s other titles.

This photo shows the two houses in 1972 just before their demolition. Niddry Lodge is on the left.

01 TH construction 1972 Jan KE73-94

The Survey of London devotes just a paragraph to Niddry Lodge ending with the owner who followed the Countess in 1854.

The house was in some ways an ordinary early 19th century suburban villa. The inhabitants lived quiet comfortable lives we can probably assume. Here is a view of the south front in 1954.

Niddry Lodge south front 1954 K60-62 - Copy

But the most interesting part of the house’s history occurred in the last decade of its life.

Niddry Lodge Campden Hill Road 1972 K74-111 - Copy

As you can see the sign on the gateway now reads The Linguist’s Club / School of English. Beyond those unassuming walls lay a unique establishment.

Niddry Lodge - Linguist's Club  poster K62-404 - Copy

The Linguist’s Club was founded in 1932 by A T Pilley (Ari Thaddee, known as Teddy) who had been born in Paris of Polish emigree parents who moved to London when he was 4 years old. The Club was intended as a meeting point for linguists, translators, language students and anyone with an interest in languages. It was also a club for dancing, watching films, travel and general socialising.

During the war Pilley served in the RAF and at Bletchley Park. Afterwards he became well known as a linguist, and the co-founder of the International Association of Conference Interpreters and the Institute of Linguists.

I don’t think it would be overstating the matter to say that he believed in promoting international co-operation and understanding through the teaching of languages. The Linguist’s Club motto was: Se comprendre, c’est la paix (Mutual understanding is peace)

Cartoon in Evening Standard 1960

[Cartoon and article from the Evening Standard in 1960]

The Linguit’s Club had premises in Holborn and in Grosvenor Place but when the Club moved to Niddry Lodge in 1965 the larger premises allowed Pilley room to fulfill all his aims for the club on a bigger scale.

Class in progress

Formal teaching.

Prospectus image featuring Mr Pilley and Mrs RossInformal gatherings.

Niddry Lodge - AT Pilley and students from prospectus K64-240

Talking to the students.



outdoor class

Outdoor teaching and discussions in the still substantial garden.


High tech aids – these look quaint to us but Pilley was actually a pioneer in this area and had designed portable equipment for simultaneous translation at international conferences.

The Club stayed at Niddry Lodge until 1972 when the Council needed to demolish it as part of the development of the new Town Hall.

contact sheet 1972

I have a few images from this time on contact sheets.

Niddry Lodge 1972 contact sheet K72-507 400dpi - Copy

This one shows the main entrance with the Club name still above the door.

Below some assorted pieces of furniture with one of the original fireplaces.

Niddry Lodge 1972 contact sheet K72-507 400dpi

Finally, a view of the site before demolition began.
Niddry Lodge - the Red House 1964 K64-165

Niddry Lodge just visible between the trees, safe in its garden for a short while longer.



My thanks to Eleonora Pilley who first told me about the Linguist’s Club and her father Peter Pilley who sat down with me to talk about his father Teddy and the Club. Once again the blog has introduced me to people with a fascinating story to tell.

The name Niddry Lodge lives on in the section of the Town Hall building which has been rented out and now has its own address, 51 Holland Street.

Building site 1972-1975: Kensington Town Hall

I was talking to a meeting about blogging the other day and I showed the group a couple of pictures from the post about the Red House, like this one. They were interested so I decided to take the story further this week.

00 352NA3 17 Jan 1972 KE73-135

January 1972: in the foreground is the car park behind the then 12 years old Kensington Library. Most of  these pictures were taken from its roof. On the left is the civil defense hut. Next, just  visible through the winter trees is a white building, Niddry Lodge. Beside that is the Red House, owned and occupied by the Council at this time but formerly the home of a couple of famous people. On the right is Hornton Cottage, the last of the three houses to be used for residential purposes.

A few weeks later there is snow on the ground:

01 TH construction 1972 Jan KE73-94

The cars are all gone and most of the trees lie fallen on the ground. Demolition has begun at Hornton Cottage.

01a 352NA3 31 Jan 1972 KE73-92

The once secluded gardens are laid bare. The Red House is under siege.

02a 352NA3 7 Feb 1972 KE73-100

Almost exactly four weeks later all the buildings on the site are gone. For some reason two trees in the centre are spared.

03 352NA3 6 March 1972 KE73-86

May: Building materials start to arrive on the site as work begins. Compare the trees with how they were in the previous picture. Despite the imminent threat of destruction they carry on.

05 TH construction  09 may 1972 KE73-145

June: the ground level is lower than it was.

05a TH construction 1972 June KE73-146

A few men are wandering around the site. A couple of them are examining some large plans.

06 TH construction  07 aug 1972 KE73-70

August: more digging.

By the end of the year the site looks like nothing but a big hole.

07 TH construction  dec 1972 KE73-213

In the centre is that concrete platform with its surviving trees.

In 1973 the building work began in earnest.

08 TH construction 02 jul1973 KE73-194

There are actually fewer pictures from this year than others. I don’t know quite why this is but by early 1974 the work was beginning to affect the Central Library:

09 TH construction 23 apr 1974 KE74-55

This picture shows the entrance to the car park under the Town Hall site. Builders seem to be securing the area where the exit ramp will be.

On the main site the two levels of the car park are visible. Contrary to urban myth there is no third level.

10 TH construction 01 may 1974 KE74-54

By July the new building is rising above ground.

11 TH construction july 1974 KE74-82

This view shows the eastern side of the site.

12 TH construction aug 1974 KE74-98

What’s that octagonal structure?

14 TH construction 1975 March  KE75-43

This angle shows the space between the two wings of the building nearest to the Library.

Now it’s 1975.

15 TH construction 1975 March  KE75-44

The new building is now a confusing mass of concrete and scaffolding.

16 TH construction Apr 1975 March  KE75-57

On the left of this picture is the edge of the library. I should explain that there are roof terraces linking the west and east wings of the library and I imagine the photographer perched on a step ladder to take all of these pictures. He must have had a better head for heights than me. When I went up there last week to get some modern pictures I experienced a distinct feeling of vertigo, despite the fact that I was perfectly safe. The fear of falling is of course entirely rational. The fear of the heights themselves at least in my case is not. I require a significant thickness of glass between myself and the panorama below before I feel safe at height. Nevertheless I managed to take some pictures from a similar angle.

Copy of DSC_4317

And that octagonal structure?

Copy of Town Hall 1978 02a

It was a pond. In 1978 wild fowl were taking advantage of this amenity, but unfortunately the bottom of the pond was not watertight and there were problems with leaks which couldn’t be rectified. So today there is a memorial garden in the area which you can see in my first picture.

And that tree that seemed to hang on to life? Well there are three trees in the central open space. One of them is a memorial tree for Sir Winston Churchill, specially planted. Another commemorates the 1997 wedding anniversary of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. But there is another one.  This is a tricky spot for trees to grow, with limited light but it could just be the same one.

Copy of DSC_4327

For the record:Kensington Town Hall, designed by Sir Basil Spence, built by Taylor Woodrow Construction Ltd. Completed in 1975.


My apologies if this post is of greater interest to my colleagues than my general readers. But a building site is a building site and it is fascinating to see a large building take shape wherever it is. I hope so anyway.

Black and white photographs by John Rogers.

We still need to tell the story of Niddry Lodge. Coming soon.

Elegy for the Red House

This week it’s time to tell the story of the Red House.

It was built about 1835 by the brick manufacturer and house builder Stephen Bird for his own family. He called it Hornton Villa and it lay at the top of a large site behind Kensington High Street between Campden Hill Road and Hornton Street. The Villa had the bulk of the site as its garden but shared the site with another stucco villa called Niddry Lodge and another house almost joined to the Villa called Hornton Cottage. Bird died in 1865. It is not clear exactly when Hornton Villa became known as the Red House. It may have been in the 1880s when the Peto brothers added a stable block and made some additions which the Kensington historian W J Loftie regarded as “incongruous” although it would still have looked innocuous when compared to William Abbott’s gothic fantasy the Abbey which was built in 1879 at the southern end of the plot. Abbott also acquired the bulk of the Red House’s garden although it was still left with enough to retain its secluded position.

The man I called the explorer took a lease on the Red House in 1896.

He was William Martin Conway later Baron Conway of Allington Castle – art historian, traveller, mountaineer, author and MP. He lived there with his wife Katrina and their daughter Agnes until 1907. Conway travelled in the Himalayas, Kashmir, the Alps, South America and the Arctic and had a parallel career as an academic . He was director general of the Imperial War Museum from 1917 until his death in 1937.

Katrina aged 16 in 1872

Katrina in 1885

Agnes seen below with her great grandmother particularly loved the house even though she suffered a severe injury there. When she was 14 she and a cousin were playing a particularly risky version of hide and seek on the roof of the house. Fleeing from discovery they crossed over from the Red House to Hornton Cottage. Agnes fell through a skylight into an empty studio. Among her injuries was nerve damage to one side of her face which caused her lifelong difficulty and lengthy medical treatment. Agnes too became a traveller and an archaeologist.

Martin Conway must also have had a strong emotional attachment to the place judging by the many pictures he painted of the interior which you saw last week. It’s hard to place his pictures inside the unremarkable exterior shown in these photographs taken in 1964 and 1972.

After the Conways departed the most notable residents were Herbert Clark Hoover and his wife Lou. Hoover was in his early thirties and was already a millionaire. He came to London as a successful mining engineer with interests in many parts of the world but became involved with organising food relief to Belgium during the Great War. But along with the globetrotting Herbert and Lou were bringing up two young boys and building a collection of books on scientific subjects at the Red House.

Hoover in 1916

Lou Henry Hoover

In his memoirs Hoover also has a roof related story. One night In 1916 Herbert and Lou heard the sounds of a Zeppelin raid. They went to see that their two sons were all right but found the bedroom empty. They scoured the house, even the attic, and found the boys on the roof watching the explosions in the sky. Like the parents you wish you had instead of hauling the boys downstairs Herbert and Lou sat with them and the whole family watched a Zeppelin being shot down. The following day Herbert took the two boys to the crash site to collect a few pieces of the airship.

The Hoovers left the Red House for good later that year but in 1938 after his other career as President was over, Hoover paid a sentimental visit to the Red House. Describing himself as an American gentleman and former resident rather than a former President he convinced the butler to let him in, tipping him with a 10 shilling note so he could stand again in the oak panelled library and remember himself, Lou and the boys together in it. To the discomfort of the butler he lingered over “revived emotional pictures” and “finished him” by shaking his hand.

After the Second World War the Abbey was badly damaged and the Council bought the whole of the site including the Red House, Niddry Lodge and Hornton Cottage. The remains of the Abbey were demolished and the Kensington Library was built in 1959. The Red House and Niddry Lodge were used for Council offices for more than twenty years.

Below,barely visible through the trees Kensington Library

By the early 70s the house was empty. Inside there were only traces of the Red House as it had been. Finally in 1972 the time came for the northern half of the site to be cleared to make way for a new Town Hall.

Here is the Red House in January 1972 still behind its walls and trees:

Now with the walls down and the trees felled, its companion Hornton Cottage already being demolished:

Now in its final weeks. First you see it:

Now you don’t.

These days if you go to the Customer Service Centre at the Town Hall to pay your council tax or get a parking permit you’re somewhere near the Red House. Perhaps it’s possible even now to make an imaginative connection with the man who took these photographs of the Indus Valley in Kashmir and the Matterhorn:

So was there a mystery in the Red House? Two remarkable families lived there and despite the fact that the house itself is utterly gone, through the paintings of one man and the words of another it lives on. That’s a kind of mystery.

Photos of the Hoovers from Volume 1 of Hoover’s Memoirs – The years of adventure 1952

Pictures of the Conways from Joan Evans – The Conways: a history of three generations 1966

Conway’s photos from Episodes in a varied life 1932

Other photos from Library collection

For more on the Abbey see Forgotten buildings: the Abbey in list of posts opposite.

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