Tag Archives: London buildings

Urban Spaces

One of my earliest memories of starting work in London during the early 1960s was the sight of devastation as we approached a supplier’s premises in Aldersgate Street.

My companion informed me that this vast area laid waste on 29th December 1940 by German bombs was once Cripplegate and one of the only building left standing was the fire station where is father had been stationed during the war.

[A]t that time the old fire station awaited demolition, having been replaced by a shiny new building and perversely for an area which, at that time was virtually unpopulated – a mortuary.

Post-war London was drab, dirty and broken, centuries of pollution had turned white Portland Stone grey, and the capital was littered with bomb sites. The nascent NCP car park company started making use of these sites, their first foray had been Red Lion Square, bought for £200 in 1948, and fortuitously for them by September 1960 London was assailed by its first traffic wardens.

Slowly non-descript glass and steel edifices replaced what remained among the rubble of numerous bomb craters, the extent of the Blitz can be found on the Bomb Damage Maps drawn up by the London County Council. Now much of those prosaic post-war constructions are themselves being replaced by buildings more suited to the digital age. In an excellent Guardian article by Peter Watts he has discovered that many buildings have only had decades of use before being demolished.

Great Sutton Street, EC1VWith London now a forest of cranes redeveloping the redeveloped it is astonishing to find little pockets of war damage still visible 75 years after the Germans wrought such devastation. Driving around London I’ve seen these snapshots from a lost age: Hackney Road, Shoreditch; adjacent to the Hat and Feathers, Clerkenwell Road; or one deliberately left for posterity: Grade I listed St. Dunstans-in-the-East, near the Tower of London.

Now a new book Missing Buildings by siblings Thom and Beth Atkinson have identified many of these empty plots or rough and ready insertions into what was an elegant terrace. Curiously for many as in the Hat and Feathers there is no record of a bomb having actually landed on that spot, so could it be that the building was undermined by the explosion or do we always assume that every empty plot is the result of war damage?

Hackney Road, E2 #1

Hackney Road, Shoreditch


Hat and Feathers, Clerkenwell Road

With its beautiful photographs Missing Buildings shows how post-war London looked – buildings propped up, imprints of lost rooms, fireplaces long gone cold and chimney breasts snaking up the surviving adjacent building. With property prices moving remorselessly up soon none of these wonderful images will be left for us to reminisce about – the London we once knew. Missing Buildings is available from Hwæt Books.

All photographs ©Thom and Beth Atkinson reproduced by kind permission.


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Dukes, debts and debauchery

In the run up to the London Olympics I was invited to write a piece for a huge tome The Spirit of London. The man charged with improving my prose, and it certainly needed it, made his living as an inspirational speaker. Incredibly when young, George had such a severe stutter he attended voice therapist Lionel Logue’s speech coaching lessons. This rather convoluted introduction brings me to the subject of this post – the most debauched house in London.

[T]hirty-three Portland Place has played host to hedonistic parties, lavish fashion shoots and became the Logue consulting rooms in the Oscar winning film the King’s Speech. Built in 1775 by Robert Adam the house forms part of John Nash’s triumphal approach to Regent’s Park and is situated but a stone’s throw from the BBC.

After the ownership passed through a number of titled wealthy English families, in 1893 Baron James Blyth bought the property with the fortune he made from the gin distillers W. A. Gilbey. It was claimed that Blyth had bought his knighthood from a corrupt member of Lloyd George’s cabinet.

Described by a contemporary historian as: Blyth excluded a powerful presence, which made men tremble and women easy prey.

An inveterate party lover he started a tradition which seems to have continued into the 20th century. He was responsible for installing an ingenious hydraulic wall which separated the dining room from the music room. Powered by a water pump system in the basement it is still working today.

In 1954 the Sierra Leone government bought the house from the Bickerton family who had owned the property for 30-years and made considerable improvements including adding further floors. Reginald Bickerton had made his fortune writing mainly interesting works despite his blindness caused by exposure to mustard gas during the First World War.

Again 33 Portland Place seemed to be cursed as the Sierra Leone government, who had been using the property as their high commission, suffered several financial crises with an inevitable coup and civil war. The elected government were exiled, which put pay to funds to run the London high commission.

This paved the way for 33 Portland Place getting its most notorious owner. With the property, after 30-years of neglect, in a serious state of disrepair the 58-year lease was sold in 1999 amid unproven allegations of bribery and corruption to convicted fraudster Edward Davenport for just £50,000. Six years later he controversially acquired the freehold of the building for £3.75 million.

At this turn in the mansion’s history Davenport or ‘Fast Eddie’ as he became known began transforming the Regency house into a party palace. Agent Provocateur used its interiors for an ad-shoot featuring model Kate Moss; Amy Winehouse recorded the video for her hit song Rehab there; and the world’s ‘sexual elite’ were invited to parties at the house organised by Fast Eddie. On one occasion hundreds of gallons of cocktails filled the swimming pool to shoot revellers rowing across it for a drinks campaign.

Ultimately Davenport lost a long battle with Westminster Council who ruled the parties breached the property’s ‘residence only’. He was then forced to sell to meet the debts and fines incurred during his fraud trial.

This elegant property has now entered another chapter in its life. Comprising 8 reception rooms, a billiards room and 24 bedrooms it is available for hire.

Photos: 33 Portland Place Angel+Blume

A chip of the old block

I can remember my father telling of his surprise when the ‘newly completed’ elephant house at the London Zoo was vandalised. The structure up to that point was adorned with vertical flutes of poured concrete. On that day workmen with hammers started to chip off the newly poured flutes exposing the rough aggregate beneath [left]. Little did we realised at the time but that moment was probably the day that extreme Brutalism architecture had come to London.

[T]he Balfron and Trellick Towers followed in the mid-60s with the most controversial child of this style of architecture – The Barbican Estate.


Balfour Tower


Trellick Tower

Loved and loathed in equal measure the Barbican’s concrete was allowed to set for at least 21 days before workmen with hand-held pick-hammers exposed the coarse granite below the surface.

Built upon the biggest bomb site I’ve ever seen this gargantuan scheme took several decades to complete with many design changes. Its modest sized arts centre enlarged to compete with the newly completed South Bank Centre. The existing railway was moved to accommodate its ambitious design. Spread out over 40 acres the plan was for a place to live and work, with a school and landscaping including a pond where it was hoped the middle-classes might be tempted to stay and work. By its completion it had become the largest self contained development in Europe.

The site was originally known as Cripplegate before the Luftwaffe finished its work. For over a century London was an exodus of people leaving and the design hoped to reduce the trend which had left just 48 people living in the Cripplegate area.

In the event he scheme was dogged with problems extending its completion date the escalating the final cost. Major design flaws coupled with health and safety hazards made for very poor industrial relations with workers subject to backward and dangerous conditions.


Barbican balconies

Now Grade II listed it gets its name from the Latin ‘Barbecana’ referring to a fortified outpost or gateway such as the outer defence of the city.

Now an exhibition in the main foyer traces its progress over that 20-year period. The Barbican Exhibition: Building a Landmark runs to 29th November. Three decades of the estate’s construction from the mid-1950s to 1982 with rarely seen photographs of the construction trace the progress of the gargantuan scheme which saw the bomb site turned into a Brutalist architectural landmark.

Picture: Barbican balconies Andy Mabbett (CC BY-SA 3.0)

223 Bow Road

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building which you might have passed without noticing, and this one took quite a time to find.

The building this month is passed unnoticed by thousands every day standing as it does incongruously next to a drive in McDonald’s close to the Bow flyover, so anonymous are its outward features they belie the building’s importance.

[T]here is a story that the name Bow was derived from the shape of the arch of the 12th century bridge which spanned the river Lea where Bow flyover now stands. This bridge is thought to have been the first stone-arched Bridge in Britain and this was 60 years before the first such bridge was built across the Thames in London.

There is a story that this bridge was commissioned to be built by Queen Matilda after she ‘had been well washed in the waters’ when trying to cross by the ford when on her way to Barking. During the 14th century there was a chapel on the bridge dedicated to St Katherine and in this there lived a hermit. Chaucer referred to Bow in his Canterbury Tales which takes the name back at least to the 14th century.

No. 223 Bow Road seems to sit rather shyly near to the brash new MacDonald’s nearby. The building dates back to the 17th century and so it is possible that Will Kempe, a leading Shakespearean actor, who crossed the river Lea at Bow in 1600 on his 9-day Morris Dance from Stepney to Norwich, might have known this little house with its two quaint bay windows on the first floor.

Its rounded bays on the ground floor were added later in the early 19th century to make a shop front in the rural village of Bow. The oldest photograph of this building is of M. Howes was an old established corn and flour dealer selling animal feed, horse mixture, straw and hay from this double-bay 17th century house. Grade II listed it is one of the oldest properties in East London.

Welsh rare bit

J. Evans Dairy a Grade II listed building on the corner of Warren Street and Conway Street. Built 1793 and tiles circ. 1916 a rare surviving example of a Welsh dairy.

It is a cut through we cabbies use when wishing to turn into Euston Road from Tottenham Court Road, by turning down Warren Street we miss the traffic and join the bus lane at Great Portland Street which also has the added advantage if you time it correctly of enabling you to collect your evening newspaper without the inconvenience of having to stop as the friendly vendor standing on the corner presses the paper into your hand. I have used this cut through numerous times and have always admired this little corner shop with its blue tiles hardly realising how important the shop was.

French's Dairy, Rugby Street

French’s Dairy, Rugby Street

[B]efore we had supermarkets which now supply all our provisions, we were served quite adequately by door deliveries and one of the last to survive is the milkman.

From about 1860 onward, as a result of hard times in Wales, many Welshmen, especially from Cardiganshire set up dairy businesses in London.

Keeping cows on the premises in the middle of London, many if these dairies were set up in close proximity to the Marylebone/Euston Road which leads directly from Paddington Station, the mainline terminus of the Great Western which serves South Wales (in fact until very recently all early morning trains were still called ‘milk trains’).

Diary Outfit

In King’s Cross Road there is a faded sign of a company that supplied all the paraphernalia needed to produce milk products.

Lloyds Dairy Amwell Street

Lloyds Dairy, Amwell Street

London is home to the oldest and largest Welsh community outside Wales. The middle of the 19th century saw an exodus of Welsh dairymen to London with many setting themselves up as dairies. By 1900 it is estimated half of all dairies in the capital were Welsh.

Even by 1950 there were still over 700 Welsh dairies in the City. The last survivor in Clerkenwell is believed to have closed as recently as 2001.