Tag Archives: Portobello Road

The Electric Cinema: Portobello’s Fleapit and Picture House

I’ve spent the last few days working on a new post. But as I worked I knew that in another room far away from me my friend and colleague Isabel Hernandez was working on the final (?) post in her series on cinemas in Kensington. My efforts naturally have to give way before her magnum opus.

 

If some cinemas have become relics of the past, then how about a cinema that has survived to become a picture house worthy of its age. For the time being I have decided to conclude my cinema blogs with the Electric Cinema, given we have some excellent photographs to share with you and even if much attention has been paid to this unusually designed building over the years as both saint and sinner in various publications, I thought I would end the subject on a positive note. This one survived the cull, despite the odds, and is now apparently the oldest working cinema in the UK.

 

 

 

There are many in the North Kensington area who will know this building intimately and have come to know ‘the Bug House’, or the ‘Bughole’ as it was sometimes referred to by the local people, as a familiar fixture at 191 Portobello Road.

The Electric Cinema was built by Gerald Seymour Valentin in 1910, on the site of a timber yard owned by Thomas Henry Saunders. It was built in the midst of grocers, butchers, confectioners, decorators, plumbers, cheesemongers, fruiterers…the list is long. You can see the canopies of the many shops stretching right along the street in the image below. It was decided that an entertainment venue was probably a worthy addition in so busy a street.

 

The cinema opened on the 27th February 1911, although another source states that it was on Christmas Eve, 1910. Perhaps there was a preview? The Electric Cinema is first listed in the 1912 local directory, under the ownership of London and Provincial Cinematograph Ltd.

 

 

 

 

 

Valentin was an architect with little to go on as far as cinema building went. There was no exemplary blueprint to fall back on, and the glamorous cinemas of the 1930’s/40’s were yet to be imagined. In 1910 cinema design was still in its infancy and the age of electricity was relatively new. The development of radio, the accessibility of gramophones, and now cinemas, heralded a new era in the world of entertainment. If the industrial age was a significant cornerstone of advancement and prosperity, then technology was a cauldron of possibilities. The British film industry was still very much a new concept. Moreover, the venue was built well before ‘talkies’ became the norm.

 

It is thought that Valentin built the auditorium with a Music Hall in mind. Geoff Andrew, a former member of staff at the cinema, wrote:

 

“It was no shock to learn from detailed acoustic analyses carried out in the late Seventies that the auditorium was far more suited to live musical performance than to the reproduction of sound by electric speakers; after all, it was built eighteen years before the introduction of the ‘talkies’, during which period (1910-1929) live piano or band accompaniment would have been used to supply the emotional atmosphere for the moving images on the screen.”

 

The audience seated in an early image below gives you an idea of how little space there was within the small area. I imagine not as comfortable as the plush cinemas of later years. In fact, nearly all of the cinema space was devoted to the auditorium. It is estimated that the auditorium had the capacity for 600 seats all on one floor.

 

 

 

 

 

The cinema met with problems over the course of many years. Its age meant that costly repairs were essential if it was to continue being a viable and safe venue. During the course of the sixties, it was not uncommon to hear about the latest calamitous dysfunction within the building, such as a leaking roof, or a whole row of seats collapsing. It was when new management in 1969 took over that a much-needed refurbishment took place to improve the building – certainly the general condition of the auditorium: the roof was repaired, an efficient heating system was installed, carpets and new seats were bought – it was a welcome change.

 

 

 

 

The auditorium’s paneling does not appear remarkable in any way in these images. The walls were repainted at some point during the sixties. Some described it as lurid. Aesthetics had to take a backseat to other more important things, like keeping the cinema open and getting paying customers in to watch films as it was intended to do, with enough to make the necessary repairs when the roof or the gutters went awry in inclement weather, which is quite often in the UK, and affected the cinema numerous times. It is important to note that prior to this period the cinema had not been touched in fifty years or so.

 

 

 

 

Another view of the auditorium. Note the buckets at the back. I describe them as ‘old world’ fire hydrants.

 

 

 

 

Unlike later, larger cinemas, the frame surround to the screen was relatively simple without a distinctive proscenium arch. Nothing unusual for its time, except the screen remains the same to this day and was never modernised like some of the Electric’s counterparts were over the decades to accommodate CinemaScope – an anamorphic lens series used in the 1950’s and the precursor to the likes of Panavision which allowed for films to be projected at different ratios. I am, of course, only describing this in a very rudimentary way.

 

 

 

 

Standing enclosure for 27 persons. Not a huge space when you look at the room generally, maximising space sounds like a good idea if you do not mind being in very close proximity to other people, or indeed if you mind standing up. Generally, the community spirit of The Electric gave it a more casual approach to such things. A laid-back acceptance of how it all worked.

 

 

 

 

Below is an example of that casual atmosphere. Many of the staff at the cinema took great pride in the Electric’s friendly reputation.

 

 

 

 

Below you can see the dark brown nicotine stained ceiling. Years of tar accumulated over time and yellowed the panels giving them a rather unpleasant, greasy look. It is said that it was at least 1 inch thick. Quite grotesque in retrospect, but not surprising when smoking was usual in public spaces.

 

 

 

 

During the refurbishment already mentioned, the old projectors were replaced with new projection machines purchased from Winston Churchill’s Chartwell home. After his death they had come onto the market almost new, or so I thought…

Dave Hucker a former manager at the Electric informed me that these particular images show the ‘Italian made Cinemechanicas which were the best projectors in the world at that time and the same at the NFT.’

He goes on to say:

“These date from an upgrade in the mid/late 70s when new seating and a decent screen were installed. This brought the cinema up to a very high standard.”

 

 

 

Enormous machines compared to the digital tech we have now. A fraction of the size.

Also, we cannot fail to look upon these images and not think about a spectre of the Electric’s past, the mass murderer, John Christie of 10, Rillington Place, rumoured to have worked here as a projectionist sometime in the forties. Just one of many stories that are not verifiable, but add a certain mythos to the cinema.

 

 

 

Below you can see the signage of former times. The Electric was renamed The Imperial Playhouse around the period of the First World War, something of a grand title perhaps, but it seems fitting considering the cinema also weathered the Second World War. Initially, there was an order for cinema closures to avoid crowds gathering during the Blitz. A wise precaution. Yet not surprisingly, as London grew more resilient to the raids, cinemas simply carried on. During air raids, an announcement flashed onto the screen and audiences would head out to the nearest shelter, usually collecting a refund on the way out. A very calm attitude considering the circumstances.

 

 

 

 

The image below shows The Electric in 1977 advertising Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road. What you may not know is that the cinema, as well as showing some rare classics and notable masterpieces, would often show new films that might perhaps never have seen the light of day, given that distributors were not confident they would do well, so they regularly shelved them. In fact, directors as varying in their styles as their eras, received their first British releases at the Electric. Directors such as Orson Wells, Fritz Lang, Martin Scorsese, and John Huston. Hard to believe, but when you are starting out, or simply trying to establish yourself outside of your usual base, it isn’t always plain sailing, and it wasn’t initially for these now well-known auteurs. Creative efforts are so often thwarted, and talent is a mixed bag of luck, hard work and vision. Everybody starts at the beginning somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Double bills were part and parcel of the Electric experience in its varying incarnations. Films would be programmed together because of their similarities and it offered customers value for money. Geoff Andrew states that:

“The juxtaposition of two films can throw up interesting ideas by means of the films’ similarities and differences. For instance, in a season of movies dealing with madness, we doubled Hitchcock’s famous Psycho with John Huston’s film Freud.  Or Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers with the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup which offers a far less dark but in its way equally cynical view of political machinations.”

I don’t see that level of thought going into the general cinematic experience currently, with some exceptions, like The Prince Charles in the West End.

 

 

 

 

My husband’s programme, Shock Around the Clock, which he has kept over the years. A precursor to the continuing successful horror film festival, Frightfest. Over a period of 12 hours one would sit and watch several films back-to-back. No mean feat, as personally, I probably would have died from a migraine the size of a planet. But it shows the dedication of some film buffs and those organisers willing to go the extra mile.

 

 

 

 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre apparently made its first run in uncut form at the Electric cinema. Although the cover you see is from the third instalment. Below a list of what was shown.

 

 

 

 

 

Programme booklet credits.

 

 

 

As with most cinemas the spectre of closure loomed over The Electric too. And it did close in May 1987 after staff, local residents and celebrities campaigned in vain to keep it open, despite efforts over several years to return the cinema to its former glory under different ownership. Mainline Pictures who took over in 1987 renovated the building and brought the cinema up to scratch, rebranding it the Electric Screen. This was no bad thing; The Electric desperately needed a facelift. Or did it? As with most information the truth can sometimes be a little stretched or simply incorrect. Dave Hucker, former manager at the Electric, points out that this was one of many myths surrounding the cinema. Unfortunately, programming was also changed, and regulars began to stay away. Changing from repertory to single-run programming proved too much of a change, altering the cinema’s personality, if such personification can be allowed here. What made it unique had been altered to the point where revenue began to fall. Whatever the reasons, as it stood, it could no longer compete with West End arthouse cinemas, even as a second-run rep house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cinema entrance below. Interestingly, in 1938 plans were submitted detailing a proposed alteration to The Imperial Playhouse as the Electric was then. Had this been carried out, the façade of the building would have been radically transformed, making it look more like a Thirties art deco building. The dome was going to be removed completely and a permanent canopy above the entrance was to be erected, which sounds intriguing. In the end none of it came to fruition, I suspect due to a lack of money. Austerity during the war years halted a lot of ideas.

 

 

 

Below you can see the tiled floor in more detail at the entrance..

 

 

 

 

The doors leading into the auditorium.

 

 

 

 

The box office which reminds me of fair grounds for some reason. The place where you could purchase reasonably priced tickets and enjoy the inexpensive programming. Alas! No popcorn anywhere!

 

 

 

 

The Electric is currently owned by retail entrepreneur Peter Simon who was once a local trader. He invested a considerable amount in the restoration of parts of the cinema before leasing the site to Soho House.

Below is an image of what The Electric looks like today.

Gebler Tooth Architects took on the job using the original plans and any early photographs that were available:

“We’ve restored all the mouldings in the auditorium. The High-level mouldings just needed washing. It was hard to determine what colour the auditorium was painted in the first place. We’ve gone for an ivory background with mouldings and the gilding left but washed.”

They wisely acquired the shop next door and expanded the space for upgraded WC’s, an air conditioning plant, and a restaurant.

Gone are the days of the affordable fleapit. Lamentably money keeps things ticking over until it doesn’t. Without it closures happen. I say lamentably because it shows up the inequalities within communities. Not everybody can afford the changes.

 

 

 

 

Portobello Road, taken from the roof of The Electric in the 1980s before the wave of tourists took over chasing after the Notting Hill dream. Sitting on a 52 bus I have often been asked by visitors if this was the correct transportation to take them to Portobello. The Portobello of Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, a big blue door and celebrity. Prior to that, Portobello Road was a Disney song in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

And don’t forget Paddington Bear, although his claim is far more established in my opinion, as his creator lived in the area.

As a child, Portobello Road was nowhere near as glamorous as it is now portrayed on the big screen. It was the place where you went to get your fruit and veg, settled down for a cup of tea in some greasy spoon café. And if you fancied some entertainment, perhaps an obscure double bill over at the eccentric and unique 191 Portobello Road after a couple of drinks at the local pub.

For me it was Spanish School twice a week down the other end of Portobello after Secondary school, and the occasional visit to Garcia’s with mum for chorizo and bacalao. And sometimes, when I later worked in the area, it was the occasional lunch for a take-away from any one of the many options along Portobello Road. Over the decades I have noticed its gentrification. Now it’s so different I almost think I imagined what it was like before. I suspect the same can be said of our changing city and its buildings generally. But Portobello will always be Portobello and perhaps its historic cinema too will remain so. It has survived this long, we shall see.

 

 

 

 

Postscript:

It has taken me an eternity to finish this blog, not because it was particularly difficult, but because so much has happened in recent months, both personally and otherwise. I kept shelving it, not really having the time to complete it. Getting around to finishing this proved challenging, but I am grateful that I have been able to do so. Also, I realise that The Electric Cinema is well known in the area and as an iconic cinema much has been written about it. I tried to keep things succinct as far as possible and have probably not covered everything. Everyone has a wealth of memories regarding the past – an impossible task for a blog. But I hope you have enjoyed it and allowed for some escapism from the isolation. At this point many of us will be re-evaluating life and some of us will be struggling with the fallout of this for various reasons.

We live in very strange times indeed, and perhaps we are on the threshold of drastic changes given how our lives appear to have been turned upside down. I’m not sure what to make of it as the everyday now seems not so normal. And we wonder what was normal to begin with. The things we once thought were important are now in question.

Please look after yourselves and take good care. Look out for each other and help where you can. We will endeavour to keep you posted where possible and continue to offer a virtual service for Local enquiries.

 

Postscript to the postscript

My thanks to Isabel, and to her husband Paul (who added some personal knowlege) for this excellent post. Also to the many people who worked at the Electric and those who have donated material to the collection.

Dave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


From darkest Peru to West London: Paddington Bear in Kensington

This week features the return of our Paddington correspondent, my esteemed colleague Isabel Hernandez who has turned her attention to the other Paddington.

“It’s nice having a bear about the house.”

Well you know, I cannot dispute that. As bizarre as that line seems out of context I actually think it has a point, for I do indeed have a rather earnest-looking, anthropomorphic bear gracing my bookshelves often making me laugh when nothing else will. He lives in the pages of a certain set of stories I keep on there as well as physically imposing himself in a small space next to the books wearing a red hat, blue duffel coat and red wellington boots with a label attached that says, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”

Many will know who Paddington Bear is, where he came from and why he was named after a London station. I also think of him as a West London bear, even if he did originate from Darkest Peru, not Africa, as Michael Bond had originally written, until it was pointed out that there are no indigenous bears living in Africa, so he set about diligently doing his research by paying a visit to Westminster Public Library followed by a trip to London Zoo until he eventually settled on Peru.

It may seem strange that a bear should be so iconic (not unlike Winnie-the-Pooh) but Paddington just happens to be so in a very down to earth way. In re-reading the stories recently and hunting for the 50 statues dotted around parts of London before they were auctioned off, I was prompted into reading Michael Bond’s autobiography, Bears & Forebears. A Life So Far, which not only is a guide to how he came to breathe life into all of his creations (for there are others aside from Paddington), but also gives a wonderful insight into his own life and the influences and inspiration that later (I think) contributed to his best known character.

Meet Paddington. Here he is as originally drawn by British illustrator Peggy Fortnum, a lady who (according to Michael Bond) using pen and ink ‘understands Paddington perfectly and with a few seemingly deft strokes….manages to convey a living breathing creature.’

paddington-bear-peggy-fortnum[1]

A Bear Called Paddington was first published in 1958 by Collins. There were eight stories in that first book of the series. Several more were written in subsequent years and are still being written to the present day. Paddington, you see, moves with the times. As it turns out Paddington was conceived on a typewriter one spring morning in a one-roomed garden flat near the Portobello Road, “…it was a bit like living in a caravan,” said Michael Bond, “The kitchen had to be tucked away in a cupboard at night and during the day the bed was used to provide extra seating for visitors. But the market was just around the corner, and Holland Park, with its peacocks and its shady walks, was only a short distance away.”

Not difficult to see why this was a haven….

Holland Park 1962

 

Much has been made of the location of 32 Windsor Gardens where the Browns live. Many have made the literary pilgrimage visiting a location by the same name in West London – only a stone’s throw away from where I used to live in the Paddington area. Karen Jankel (Michael Bond’s daughter) has since explained how the fictitious address came into being, which is not in any way related to the real address with the same name. Michael Bond himself reveals in his autobiography that number 32 Windsor Gardens was “in my mind’s eye Lansdowne Crescent – a quiet street of rather grand houses off Ladbroke Grove and close to Arundel Gardens where we lived.” Imagine my surprise at the revelation! I too was under the same misapprehension as everyone else.

 

Lansdowne Cres 1970

Lansdowne Crescent, named after the Lansdowne area of Cheltenham, was built about 1842-1846. The houses are typical Victorian builds and here we have a 1970s photograph showing some typical cars of the day.

29, Lansdowne Crescent 1979

 

We all have our own ideas about what fictional places look like when we are reading a story so I decided to look and see if we had anything interesting that might live up to my imagination. Above is a rather picturesque image of a house that exists along Lansdowne Crescent taken in 1979 although you would be forgiven for thinking this might be more of a 1950s film studio print. The dramatic lighting here must have been caught in the early morning. There are milk bottles still waiting to be taken in and (no doubt) breakfasts to be served. I could imagine the Browns living here under Mrs Bird’s scrutiny. I rather think Paddington might have been taken with the foliage growing around the house too.

But, I’m a little ahead of myself. Geographically we need to start at the beginning and that is Paddington Station seen in the photograph below (courtesy of my colleagues at the Westminster City Archives).

paddington-is-better-known-for-its-magnificent-railway-station-than-for-its-saxon-namesake[1]

 

This location has been the terminus for the Great Western Railway from as early as 1838, but the larger part of the mainline station, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, dates from around 1854 with the underground Metropolitan Railway being the first in the world following in 1863. Paddington Station warrants a blog all to itself and summarising its history here would be an injustice. (Something for another day perhaps…)

Why was Paddington Bear named thus, aside from the obvious?

“We called him Paddington because for some years Paddington Station had been my first port of call whenever I travelled to London, and it was also just down the road from where we were living at the time. Besides, it had a nice, West Country ring to it; safe and solid”

We also know that Paddington wears a label round his neck with the words:

“Please look after this bear. Thank you”

“It was the memory of seeing newsreels showing trainloads of evacuees leaving London during the war, each child with a label round its neck and all its important possessions in a tiny suitcase, that prompted me to do the same for Paddington.”

pic03_evacuation_from_station.1[1]

(Image first published in The Daily Telegraph)

And so a bear was named and rescued by the Browns, “an immigrant in a strange country with no money and nowhere to go”.

The strangeness of a place and the sudden upheaval of one’s life can be a daunting and frightening experience and yet perhaps there can be found, when we look closely, almost a haven or familiarity in the new friends we make and the new places we explore, depending on where we end up.

Portobello Road 1951

 

Which brings us to Portobello Road, a familiar haunt of Paddington’s, seen here in 1951; it has always been a bustling and diverse community selling everything from antiques, bric-a-brac, fruit and vegetables to fashion, household goods and street food. Indeed this year both Portobello and Golborne Markets celebrate a 150 year anniversary.

In the books, Mr Gruber (a family friend) is a central character in Paddington’s life. An immigrant himself he has an understanding of the young bear’s unfamiliarity with his new home:

“Mr Gruber was born in Hungary and his antique shop in the Portobello Road is an oasis of peace and quiet in Paddington’s life: a retreat where every day he can share his elevenses, discuss the world in general over cocoa and buns, and seek sound advice from his friend whenever the need arises.”

Perhaps his antique shop resembles this one?

Portobello Road Market 1970

Everybody sells something a little different and people are always on the lookout for something unique.

Portobello Road Market 1960s K4075B

Portobello Road - Kennedy McCreadie 1964

(Photograph by Kenny McCready 1964)

This gentleman appears to be about to pay for something but we have no idea what.

The market also has many fruit and vegetable stalls –that was its main function before the antiques moved in. Back in the 1950s shopping in markets was where the average shopper would buy things. The concept of supermarkets was not yet realised to a great extent. Everything was pennies and shillings, pounds and ounces and people knew each other by name. That may still be the case to a degree but times have definitely changed. Paddington certainly seems to enjoy doing his daily shopping in the market – not sure what he would think of a large Tesco store.

Portobello Market 1958 Mrs I.M Cain's fruit stall

[Mrs I.M Cain’s fruit stall in 1958.]

Portobello Road 1958 Mrs Rudd's salad stall 79450

[Mrs Rudd’s salad stall in 1958.]

Portobello Market 1958 Jaffas

This unnamed gentleman also has a fruit stall with what appears to be a fish stall next to him (1958). I rather like his sign, shaped like individual oranges saying JAFFAS on the top of the stall – the oranges and not the cakes I suspect – seems to be the most popular orange variety sold in Portobello.

Portobello market 1958

Here’s another unnamed gentleman also selling Jaffa oranges.  I wonder if they are any good for marmalade…

I almost wish these photographs were in colour. The colours on that stall would have been very vibrant.

Lyons van 1958

A Lyons Tea van with a fresh delivery. Paddington does like his buns after all.

Portobello Market 1958 Imperial Playhouse Ltd

In the background is 191, Portobello Road, home of the Electric Cinema, first opened in 1910. In the London Post Office directory of 1958 it is listed as The Imperial Playhouse having been renamed in 1932 during one of Notting Hill’s less salubrious periods in history. It went back to its original name in the late 1960s and despite its precarious existence it remains an iconic survivor. Few original cinemas remain in London now, not least those of the West End which are succumbing to the indignities of redevelopment. How much has changed since Paddington Bear’s original debut! And yet, modern technology has brought him to life on the big screen premiering him in Leicester Square for the first time. Our bear from Darkest Peru has come a long way, and even though he has very much become something of a universal bear despite his being quintessentially an English bear, I personally think of him as a West London bear and I almost half expect to see him traipse down the Portobello Road with his trolley in search of some tasty buns for his elevenses with Mr Gruber any day now.

Postscript

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The quotes I have used are taken from Michael Bond’s 1996 autobiography: Bears and Forebears. A life so far which I borrowed from the library’s biography  collection. (Out of print but still available through Amazon and other sources)

The post itself is not about any one specific place; it’s more of a geographical jaunt following some of the places we know Paddington Bear has frequented and still does by all accounts: a fictional character set in real surroundings given one or two imaginative alterations here and there.

Michael Bond has expressed that he has no intention of retiring as a writer and I do believe we’ll be seeing a lot more of Paddington, which I, for one, am very pleased about. You see when I feel a little put out upon occasions, for example; during my commute in and out of London, I too have a particular stare that usually indicates my displeasure at someone’s rudeness or lack of consideration. Whether this is a universal thing we learn as we age I do not know. This is why when Paddington directs his formidable stare at anyone he deems discourteous I cannot help but crack a smile – it’s incredibly funny when it’s done by a bear:

“Paddington had a very persistent stare when he cared to use it. It was a very powerful stare. One which his Aunt Lucy had taught him and which he kept for special occasions.”

And here I conclude my rather whimsical homage to Paddington Bear.

Postscript to the postscript (by Dave)

My thanks to Isabel, and apologies because I still haven’t worked out how to add an author on WordPress. This post kills two birds with one stone for me. Not only do we get Paddington but also the Portobello Market which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. You can expect more on the market in the months to come.

I know lots of readers don’t live in London but forgive me a bit of advertising. For Holocaust Memorial Day this year we have an event on January 27th at Kensington Library featuring historian Roger Moorhouse. Follow the link for more details. Roger gave an excellent talk at our London History Festival in November based on his book “The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s pact with Stalin 1939-41” so despite the sombre subject I can highly recommend this talk especially in the light of recent events.

 

Another Postscript (June 2015)

There is a Paddington related event in Portobello / Goldborne market on June 20th. See below.

168_3na_paddington


Portobello Court: new housing 1949-50

Portobello Street Feb 1945This is Portobello Street (formerly called Bolton Street) in February 1945. You won’t find it on maps today.

Your eye is drawn to the horse and cart, still commonplace in London at that time. But look up from the cart at the almost entirely torn down political poster on the wall where the big caption “Labour gets things done” survives. This was of course months before the election of 1945 which resulted in a landslide victory for the Labour party.

Housing developments in Kensington were not a direct result of the election. There was a huge impetus for new housing after the damage and dereliction left by the war. One typical development was the plan to demolish the whole of Portobello Street to make way for a new housing estate.

Portobello Street

This map, overlaid with the new buildings shows the extent of the new estate.

Portobello Street 1945This photograph has been marked up by someone in the planning office. It was another four years before the site was cleared and looked like this, in1949:

Portobello Court site 12.5.49

Below is the view looking roughly west with Lonsdale Road at the right of the picture :

Portobello Court site 12.11.49

The building work has only just begun and just like with modern  projects the builder’s hut is the first thing to be constructed. This one looks rather more substantial than the prefab units of today.

Looking at the site from another angle you can see the tower of the Convent of Our Lady of Sion, now converted for residential use and known as Thornberry Court, and nearer to the building site the classical front of the Methodist Chapel, now demolished. The buildings on the other side of Westbourne Grove  have also been demolished. This section of Westbourne Grove was originally called Archer Street.

Portobello Court site 08.07.49

In the picture below you can see more of Lonsdale Road and Colville School. That section of street used to be called Buckingham Terrace (and before that Western Terrace), and the school known as Buckingham Terrace School.

Portobello Court site 13.6.50 02

Here is a slightly different view of the same side of the new estate, showing the entrance to the school and what looks like a removals van.

Portobello Court site 13.6.50 03

The tower of All Saint’s Church in Talbot Road is in the distance.

This picture shows the east side of the development.

Portobello Court site 13.6.50 04

The path running up to the gates is all that remains of the line of Portobello Street. Colville Street goes from left to right

Tricky isn’t it? Let’s try this one:

Portobello Court site 16.5.50 03

You can see the estate taking shape. The street in the foreground is Denbigh Street. The bus is parked at the corner of Westbourne Grove. (Not to mention the bowler hatted Man from the Ministry standing there). Colville Street carries on from Denbigh Street and Lonsdale Road can be seen in the background.

To complete the rectangle of streets we need one more view:

Portobello Court site 20.6.50Portobello Road itself, running across the back of the picture with the tower of St Peter’s Church, Kensington Park Road just visible, thankfully for the modern viewer.

The previous pictures of the site were taken in May and June of 1950. The last three are all from July of that year.

Portobello Court site 14.7.50 02

The housing blocks get taller.

Portobello Court site 14.7.50 01

A number 15 bus can be seen on Westbourne Grove.

Portobello Court site 14.7.50 03

Here is another view of that corner. The estate is almost finished.

If this selection of camera angles, street name changes , demolished and still existing buildings has left you confused let’s take a final look back at 1945. Below is a view looking down Portobello Road in 1945.

Portobello Road Feb 1945

Once again the planner’s pen is at work marking the end of Portobello Street.

A woman stands on the corner looking down the street perhaps unaware that everything behind her is marked for destruction, and new housing.

 

Postscript

As you can imagine although this post is economical in terms of words it had a high level of difficulty as far as accurate captions were concerned. Local resident and historian Maggie Tyler helped me with orientation and identification of streets and churches but any errors are my own. Current and former residents of Portobello Court may spot things I’ve missed. Corrections and comments are welcome.

I had intended to include a 1970s picture from our photo survey to show the completed building but when I looked at the set of John Rogers photos of the Kensington part of Westbourne Grove I decided they deserve a post of their own, which will be coming soon.


Portobello Road in the 90s

Having done posts on Portobello Road in the 1950s and the 1970s I was keen to continue the story so I was pleased when we recently acquired a large number of photographs of streets in the borough which our Planning department no longer needed. The photographs were all taken in connection with planning applications, so they had no artistic or historical intent. And of course there was no intention to cover a whole street or district or capture an atmosphere. Their existence depends purely on someone’s desire to make changes in a building.

I looked through the three folders devoted to Portobello Road and picked out images I liked, not expecting to see any kind of story, thinking I would simply see shop fronts and stalls, some of them now gone, some of them still here. But what does emerge is a feeling for the decade, a decade which doesn’t seem to my recollection at least to have a distinctive identity.

Number 265 in 1990 and 299 in 1991, properties in need of improvement after the effects of the 1980s.

See the handwritten notice about DHSS estimates on this locked up property. But remember these are the properties someone wanted to improve not examples of how the street as a whole looked. At the same time the commercial life of the market continued and some businesses were looking prosperous.

Here, around number 345 on a quiet morning in 1991:

And here at 117 where you can see the entrance to Vernon Yard, a mews which was at one time the home of an early version of Virgin Records:

The collection has a few composite pictures made up of several individual photographs put together to form a larger image.

This one shows a whole row of shops at 139-151 continued below in a second version:

It’s an interesting technique which has probably now been replaced by digital methods of merging images. Here’s another example from 1995 of number 205:

Sometimes the applications included interiors and rear views, some of which can be interesting. This image of number 95 shows the street view:

But it also comes with a view of the roof, which gives us an unusual rear view of the tower of St Peter’s Church in Kensington Park Road:

A series of pictures show the market in full swing with the shops behind them in 1994:

See the comic shop Fantastic Store at 166 also visible in the picture below.

Two years later another business is at the same address (although the German food stall remains):

In 1997 an internet cafe opens at 195 with a mission to explain:

Despite the changes you could argue that the basic character of the street remained unaltered. Some of its long established institutions remain:

The Warwick Castle has been at 225 since the 19th century.

Further up the road another long established (since 1974) institution carries on trading.

I sometimes think the 1990s were recent times, until I realise they were in another century and there’s more than a decade between then and now. Those years are retreating into history. Some things of course don’t change too much.

Back at the beginning of the street:

You can still find an obscure sports car parked near the Sun in Splendour just as we saw in the Portobello Road in the 70s post. (My transport correspondent says it’s not a Lamborghini, a Ferrari or a Maserati – suggestions welcome)

And on Saturdays you’ll still see a crowd of people making their way down the narrow street from the top of the hill to the bottom.

Thanks to all the anonymous photographers and above all to Michael Robertson of the Planning Department.

Postscript

We now have two suggestions for the car parked near the Sun in Splendour – is it a Camaro Z28 (owned by Malcolm Wood) or a De Tomaso Pantera? Here is a bigger version of the picture:

At the moment I’m leaning towards the De Tomaso – see the picture below:


Portobello Road in the 70s

Our last visit to the Portobello Road (see link in column two) proved to be quite popular so we’re returning there this week after a gap of twenty years or so. Now we’re well into what I think of as living memory. I made the point in the fifties post that some of the images could easily have come from the thirties rather than the fifties. By contrast some pictures from the seventies look almost contemporary to my eyes at least. The devil of time is as always in the details.

No Madam, I’m not going to go on forever about the nature of time and memory. Just to say that for me at least the concept of the present has expanded as I get older and it’s not too much of a stretch for me to consider any time in my adult life as the present day even though for some the early seventies have been consigned to the dustbin of history. You can stop yawning now Madam.

Back in the seventies then and for me any visit to the Portobello Road began here at the junction with Pembridge Road:

1973’s incarnation of the Sun in Splendour looking a little down at heel compared to the way it looks today. Pictures of Kensington or London in general from this time have some common characteristics. They look a little less crowded than modern streets, the cars look slightly alien (is that a Ford Frontenac on the right? Suggestions from car enthusiasts welcome) and of course you can imagine Regan and Carter dangerously swerving across your path in their Granada. Or Bodie and Doyle in a Capri for that matter. North Kensington was a favourite TV location at the time.

The road is narrow at this point. There were fewer shops and almost no stalls, although I recall one shop with hip merchandise on sale outside including boxes of bootleg LPs with their all white cardboard sleeves. The market itself didn’t really begin until you crossed Westbourne Grove and the slope down the hill got steeper.

This was and still is the antiques sector with dozens of stalls and the many arcades.

I don’t know if this man is a seller or a buyer but he looks like a market regular from one side of the stall or the other. Here’s another view slightly earlier:

Those three are almost certainly Saturday views. The view on a weekday would be more like this:

You can just see the spire of St Peter’s Church in the distance.

As the antiques stalls thinned out you began to see ordinary high street shops and family businesses. The stalls start to become devoted to food.

The Electric Cinema is visible in one of its periods of closure. The food market wasn’t confined to Saturdays but there were some weekdays when there were fewer stalls.

Eventually you came to the railway bridge and the Westway and a final set of stalls with books, second-hand goods of all kinds and yet more bootleg LPs. I don’t have a picture of this area in the same photo survey set as the others. The photographer was working on weekdays and there wouldn’t have been much to see at that point.  But in my memory the open area beyond the motorway seemed enormous, full of people. It was the epicentre of something although from this distance in time I can’t say what. I looked at the area on Google Street View this afternoon and it was much smaller than I remembered.

Past the Westway the street became much less busy. The view north from the junction with Cambridge Gardens:

In the final stretch to Golborne Road there was another of North Kensington’s many religious establishments, St Joseph’s Home across the road from the Dominican Convent:

Its bulk is disconcerting after the smaller scale of the market. At this point we seem to have taken a further step back in time.

I would never have made it this far on my Saturday afternoon trips to Portobello in the 70s. Somewhere around the Westway we would have found our way to a bus stop and either got the 52 back up to Kensal Rise, or the 31 making its way to Camden Town – in those days one of London’s most tortuous bus routes.

Here’s one final picture to get us back to the70s. The serious business of selling antiques which is both glamorous and seedy.

Postscript

I was told today that one of the stallholders featured in the 1958 photos I used in the Portobello Road in the 50s post from last year is still running a stall. She’s the woman in the checked coat here:

So congratulations to her. If you recognize any of the people featured in the blog I’d love to hear about it. I’ve met a few people who’ve found their way into the Local Studies collection and I always like to hear about them. Especially the three women in the first picture this week. Any ideas?


Portobello Road in the 50s

I was born in the 1950s so although I can’t remember much if anything about that era, because I was alive then it doesn’t seem to me like it should be described as the historical past. More like an annexe to the present. But looking at these pictures from 1958 demonstrates how far away from us the 50s are. No internet, no mobile phones, almost no television by comparison with today. Only a few subtle differences in this photograph could place it twenty years earlier.

North Kensington has not yet become a particularly bohemian or counter cultural area. These images are from the other side of a cultural divide. It’s a view of almost forgotten working class west London.

That’s Mr Brooks and his vegetable stall. A hard working photographer from the Ministry of Health took these photographs to illustrate a now forgotten display about food retailing. They would have been thrown away if the man who donated them to the Local Studies collection had not had been thinking of their value to later generations.

A little further down from Mr Brooks’ stall is a branch of the once ubiquitous Woolworth’s stores.

In this photo you can see the Electric Cinema looking a little grim but obviously open, one of the longest surviving institutions of Portobello Road. In 1958, according to that year’s Kelly’s it was trading as the Imperial Playhouse.

But fruit and vegetable stalls in gloomy streets are not the whole Portobello story even in the late 50s. The market even then was an outlet for antiques, bric a brac and other second hand goods as shown in another set  of photographs from the same period.

I think you can see a couple of penguin paperbacks on top of the pile of books.

I couldn’t resist including this one. Some kind of basket made out of a dead armadillo. Try getting one of those on e-Bay.

This set of photographs seem brighter and more optimistic to my 21st century eye. Perhaps it’s just that they were taken on a sunny day or perhaps it’s the fact that the people in the pictures are not buying food but browsing for more interesting items.

The 1950s are still a long way off though. Look at this final image:

A trio of excited young women examine the contents of a stall selling jewellery. The detail that caught my eye was that all three are wearing gloves. So we’re still on the other side of that cultural divide.

The next time we go to the Portobello Road it will be to the 1970s a far more familiar era.

Thanks to the unknown Ministry photographer and to Corry Bevington who took the other photographs which are from the HistoryTalk collection.


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