Last week, I had the pleasure and the privilege of getting the first dose of my Covid-19 vaccine. Okay, maybe not “pleasure” – it was still an injection after all – but you get my drift. I’m always going on about how much history you can find in London if you scratch the surface a little bit. I realised just how true that statement was as I made my way to St. Charles Hospital for my jab. It was a relatively short journey, but there was a new story every few steps. I thought I’d share some of that history today – a snapshot from Ladbroke Grove to St. Charles.
Before we get into the specifics, Ladbroke Grove itself is a noteworthy street. Normally, it’s just your average, if pretty long, main road, but every August bank holiday (aka the last weekend in August), it’s utterly transformed for Notting Hill Carnival. This wonderful annual event, an explosion of colour, music, good vibes, and great food, is a celebration of Caribbean culture, and has been gracing the streets of Notting Hill since 1966.
Check out AMLimitless Design who produced those stunning costumes on the left.
Ladbroke Grove has charted a path through the centre of Kensington since the nineteenth-century. Construction started at the Holland Park end in the 1830s – apparently it took 40 years for it to eventually reach Harrow Road! It’s named after James Ladbroke who developed the surrounding estate, which is why you’ll find lots of references to “Ladbroke” in the area’s place names. This is possibly only of interest to me because I’m a nerd about this kind of thing, but it’s also on Ladbroke Grove, at its corner with Lancaster Road, that you’ll find Kensington’s oldest purpose-built and publicly-funded library, the North Kensington Library! It opened in 1891 and is still going strong. It was saved only recently, by local residents, from being relocated.
Our walk begins just a tiny bit further down at Ladbroke Grove tube station, which you can see here in a view of Ladbroke Grove from 1866! This image was actually taken just opposite the future library site, which would be built just off shot in the right hand corner of the picture a few decades later. The tube station at this point had only been open for a couple of years and was still called Notting Hill station. For some orientation, the bridge in the distance is the tube railway bridge and the building on the left is the Kensington Park Hotel. So, we’ll head under that bridge now and let us begin.
1) Claudia Jones Street Art
On the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Chesterton Road, you’ll see the very cute, very Instagram-friendly Portobello House, a hotel and bistro. If you walk past it, just a tiny ways down Chesterton Road and look at the back section of the building, you’ll find a beautiful and very colourful new addition to Kensington’s street art.
It was painted by Josephine Hicks (aka Hixxy) for London Mural Festival 2020 and commemorates the indomitable Claudia Jones. She was the founder of the first major Black newspaper in the UK, The West Indian Gazette, and she also started this country’s first regular Caribbean festival. It was held in St. Pancras Town Hall in London in 1959 and while it wasn’t the direct inspiration for the great Notting Hill Carnival, it was one of its important precursors. Claudia Jones made so many significant contributions to British history – if you’re interested, I’ve written a lot more about Jones in a separate blog post.
2) Hablot Knight Browne Blue Plaque
(Photo: Spudgun67, Wikimedia Commons)
Coming back onto Ladbroke Grove, a little bit further down, you’ll find a building with a blue plaque at the junction of Ladbroke Grove and St. Charles Square.
This was the home of Hablot Knight Browne between 1874 and 1880. Browne is more commonly known as “Phiz” (I know, sounds like something out of a Beano comic). Browne was an illustrator and it was under the pseudonym Phiz that he illustrated the works of none other than author Charles Dickens. (That reveal would have been slightly less impressive if you’d already read the writing on the plaque, but anyway…) Apparently he chose the name “Phiz” simply because it paired well with Dickens’ pseudonym, “Boz”. It was also related to Browne’s illustrative job as a depicter of “physiognomies”, or a person’s facial features or expressions.
This immortal pairing had begun in the 1830s and was cemented in 1836 when Dickens was looking for a new illustrator for his Pickwick Papers. In a literary collaboration I wasn’t expecting, Browne actually beat rival applicant, William Makepeace Thackeray for the job. Don’t feel too bad for Thackeray – consider it an opportunity; it gave him more time to focus on writing Vanity Fair and becoming a world famous author. Browne went on to work with Dickens for the next twenty-three years and illustrated a total of ten of Dickens’ novels, including David Copperfield and Bleak House.
Browne was born in Lambeth but moved here to Ladbroke Grove towards the end of his life. By this point, he wasn’t regularly illustrating anymore, mainly due to a stroke in 1867 which partially paralysed his right arm. Although he certainly didn’t let that affect his productivity! Between 1867 and his death in 1882, he produced approximately 1,000 drawings. From 1878, so while he was on Ladbroke Grove, he was being partially supported by an annuity from the Royal Academy. The last two years of his life he spent in Brighton.
3) St. Michael and All Angels Church
This nineteenth-century church you’ll find diagonally opposite Phiz’s plaque. It was completed in 1871. If you think that the church tower looks a bit stunted, then you’d be absolutely right; it was never finished. Despite being incomplete, it became quite a fashionable church in the 1870s and 1880s (perfect for those who wanted to achieve purification of the soul, as well as climb the social hierarchy). Members of the congregation at this time even included members of the Royal Family! Queen Victoria’s fourth child, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, played violin in the church orchestra.
This church’s major importance though is the role it played in the funeral of Kelso Cochrane in 1959. Cochrane was a local resident, born in Antigua and had moved to London in 1954. He was working as a carpenter but his aim was to save enough money to study law. In May 1959, he was on his way home at around midnight when he was attacked by a group of white youths. It was a racially motivated attack – this was the dark era of London’s history when it was relatively normal to see notices in flat windows which read, “Rooms to let – no blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. A survey in the mid-1950s also revealed that 90% of London landlords would not take Black lodgers. Cochrane was stabbed, barely five minutes from his home on Bevington Road, and died shortly after in hospital. To this day, no one has been charged with his murder.
His death came at a time when race relations in the country at large, and especially in North Kensington, were probably at their most strained. Less than a year before Cochrane’s murder, race riots had ravaged the area for two weeks: a 200-strong white mob had rampaged through Notting Hill armed with weapons, attacking Black homes and businesses, and crying racist slogans. There was also a lot of far-right political activity in Kensington at this time; they were targeting the area because it had become home to many West Indian residents in the years after the Second World War. Shortly before Cochrane’s murder, Oswald Mosley, ex-leader of the British Union of Fascists, had announced that he would be standing for election in the North Kensington constituency in the 1959 general election.
Cochrane’s funeral marks a watershed moment in the easing of these tensions, as many people, Black and white, came together to show their solidarity and unity against racism in the UK. The funeral was held here, at St. Michael’s, in June 1959 and was attended by over 1,200 people. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any copyright-free images of the funeral, but you can see one here which gives an idea of the huge number of people who gathered outside the church to show their support and their outrage at this tragedy and the subsequent lack of justice. They then joined the procession from St. Michael’s to Kensal Green Cemetery. It was peaceful, respectful, with people singing and dancing to Calypso and Blue Beat. Cochrane was buried at the cemetery, where people stayed and sung hymns for as long as an hour afterwards.
Campaigners rallied after the funeral. They demanded justice for Cochrane and were fuelled by a renewed determination for laws against racial discrimination in the UK. One of the most vocal campaigners was Claudia Jones. Six years later, in 1965, the first Race Relations Act was passed.
Cochrane’s death had many far-reaching influences like these, stretching into the following decade and beyond. Darcus Howe, journalist and broadcaster, who was also involved in the organisation of Notting Hill Carnival from the mid-1970s, believed categorically that, “if it wasn’t for the murder of Kelso Cochrane, Carnival wouldn’t have happened”. The tragedy of his murder and the fact it should never have happened is undeniable, but at least it helped produce something as lasting and joyous as Notting Hill Carnival.
We’re going to leave Ladbroke Grove behind us now and head down St Charles Square.
4) Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity
Tucked away in a quiet, residential part of Kensington, next door to St. Charles Hospital is the Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, a Catholic community of nuns, and they’ve been here since 1878. The original community of Sisters came over from Paris in the nineteenth-century to “establish a new centre of contemplative prayer in London”.
Each Sister in the monastery takes vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. They are “cloistered nuns”, meaning that they do not leave the monastery site, here in St Charles Square, other than for medical or other necessary reasons. They spend the vast majority of their religious lives behind the monastery’s 22ft enclosure wall. This all sounds quite foreboding and prison-like but, of course, it’s all deliberate and consensual, with the intention of fostering a sense of silence and solitude, allowing them to dedicate themselves more fully to God.
They have limited contact with the outside world so, for example, only one of the Sisters has access to a radio and TV (I wonder how they choose which one – I’m imagining an intense tournament of rock, paper, scissors), and she is the point of contact between the outside world and the community within the walls of the monastery. Despite that, I do think it’s hilarious that they still have an Instagram account. There is also, according to the Diocese of Westminster, “a designated Sister for media relations”, who I assume is the one posting on the Gram. The Influencer of the monastic world. The only person who can truly use the hashtag, #blessed.
The Carmelite Order goes right back to, possibly, the late twelfth-century, although their official origin is foggy, when a small group of pilgrims made their way to Palestine and dedicated themselves to a simple life of prayer and manual labour. They lived on Mount Carmel, hence the name “Carmelite”. At first, the Order was reserved exclusively for men. Women created their own informal communities regardless (Sisters doing it for themselves, am I right??), so from 1452 they were officially allowed to form monasteries and become members of the Carmelite Order. The monastery in Kensington is a direct “descendant”, so to speak, of sixteenth-century Carmelite reformer, St. Teresa of Avila, who founded a community in Spain. The women who continue that tradition here in West London come from a variety of difference backgrounds, including careers in the navy, modelling, and nursing. They spend their days dedicated to at least two hours of silent prayer, work maintaining the monastery, regular services, the monumental job of creating six million altar breads a year for the churches of the Diocese of Westminster (including Westminster Cathedral), and, understandably, a bit of recreation time thrown in there too. There is also the important job of looking after the two monastery cats, Poppy and Heather. If you think this may be the life for you, please be aware, you will also be required to get up every day at 5.20am.
5) St. Charles Hospital
Last but not least, we’ve made it to St. Charles. Part of the NHS, our National Health Service, founded 1948 to provide publicly-funded healthcare, based on need, not on a person’s ability to pay.
The hospital itself has much earlier foundations than that. It was opened in 1881 by the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as the St. Marylebone Union Infirmary. The foundation stone had been laid two years earlier and it was built as an infirmary for the nearby St. Marylebone workhouse, which was in operation from 1730 right up to 1965 (when it was known as Luxborough Lodge) and was located on Marylebone Road. The hospital was a notable late nineteenth-century construction because it came after the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867. This Act centralised the provision of healthcare to a certain extent and also levied a Metropolitan Poor Rate across the city to fund its hospitals, making St. Charles (then St. Marylebone) one London’s first publicly-funded hospitals. The architect of the hospital, Henry Saxon Snell even received a congratulatory letter from nurse Florence Nightingale for his important work. Nightingale is famous for her work during the Crimean War, but she was also a great social reformer and spent many years campaigning for a more centrally-administered healthcare system, as well as better hospital conditions, particularly for the poor. One of the results of her work, as well as the work of other social reformers, was the 1867 Poor Act mentioned above.
A further link to Florence Nightingale, in 1884, a nurses’ home was added to the site, making it the oldest surviving nurses’ home established by the Nightingale Fund for the training of nurses in Poor Law hospitals. In 1923, the hospital’s name changed slightly to St. Marylebone Hospital and finally it became St. Charles in 1930.
Then, in 2021, it became one of about 1,500 sites across the UK offering Covid-19 vaccines, where I got mine on a sunny Tuesday in February!
Hablot Knight Browne
- ‘Hablot Knight Browne’, Britannica, (accessed 24/02/2021)
- ‘Illustrations for Dickens’ Novels’, V&A Museum, (accessed 24/02/2021)
- ‘Hablot Knight Browne’, Wikipedia, (accessed 23/02/2021)
- ‘Hablot Knight Browne’, The Victorian Web, (accessed 24/02/2021)
- ‘Hablot Knight (Phiz) Browne’, The Royal Academy, (accessed 24/02/2021)
St. Michael and All Angels Church
- I. Blagrove, Jr. (ed.), Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival, (London, 2014)
- ‘Ladbroke Grove’, Wikipedia, (accessed 23/02/2021)
- ‘The Portobello and St. Quintin Estates’, British History Online, (accessed 23/02/2021)
- ‘Murder of Kelso Cochrane’, Wikipedia, (accessed 23/02/2021)
- ‘Sixty years on, Kelso Cochrane’s daughter finally finds peace in north Kensington’, The Independent, (accessed 24/02/2021)
- Carmelites Notting Hill, (accessed 23/02/2021)
- ‘Our History’, Carmelite Nuns of Great Britain, (accessed 25/02/2021)
- ‘Notting Hill Carmel: “I knew I wanted to give God everything.”‘, Diocese of Westminster, (accessed 25/02/2021)
- ‘Lifting the veil on life in a 21st-century monastery’, Evening Standard, (accessed 25/02/2021)
- ‘Carmelites’, Wikipedia, (accessed 25/02/2021)
St. Charles Hospital
- ‘St. Charles Hospital’, Wikipedia, (accessed 26/02/2021)
- ‘St. Charles’ Hospital’, Lost Hospitals of London, (accessed 26/02/2021)
- ‘St. Charles’ Hospital’, Historic England, (accessed 26/02/2021)
- ‘St. Marylebone, Middlesex, London’, The Workhouse’, (accessed 26/02/2021)
- ‘St. Marylebone Workhouse & Ragged School’, St. Marylebone Parish Church, (accessed 26/02/2021)
- ‘St. Charles Centre for Health and Wellbeing’, PastScape, Historic England, (accessed 26/02/2021)
- ‘Metropolitan Poor Act 1867’, Wikipedia, (accessed 26/02/2021)