The Railway Set, the Racing Set, the Fast Set and the Movie Set

By Nick Pedgrift

A potted history

The invention of the railway engine was the start of it.

That gasping new metropolis London no longer needed the market gardens that existed outside the city at Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Chelsea or the farms at Portobello and Notting Barn. Fresh produce could be rushed in by rail from the real countryside.

What to do with the land? Portobello Farm was named after the sacking of Puerto Bello on the Spanish Main by Admiral Vernon of the Royal Navy, as commemorated by the Portobello Star, Vernon’s Yard and a number of other local names. It was soon to have an even racier connection.

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The race track

Well, all these Londoners need entertaining – and bull and badger baiting had recently been outlawed – so how about a race track on the old Portobello Farm?

Investors queued up and the Notting Hill Racecourse was opened to great fanfare in the 1830s. The great and the good flocked out of Westminster, Kensington Village and the City itself to see the masters of the turf and their accountants. Minor royalty attended.

Great success-but-big problem: the lawyers conveying the land had failed to extinguish or advise on the implications of the right of way down Portobello Lane (now Portobello Road). This effectively made it impossible to charge admission fees to the great unwashed from the piggeries of Avondale who also loved a flutter. Result: the Top Five Thousand stayed away and bankruptcy loomed.

The rise

Enter the property developers: distance from the Palace proved no obstacle to the hurried construction of numbers 17 and 19 Elgin Crescent in the late 1840s (London was expanding with the speed of Mexico City and Manila). Open views beckoned – no sign of Arundel yet – and the rest of the straight part of Elgin was soon propped up against those two – allegedly the only houses with proper foundations, while the late Laundrette was still a public house.

The rest of Elgin gently curving – that’s the clue – soon followed and Arundel too. Why the curve? Well the racecourse was rectangular with one end curved. A quick look at the map will show how in fact the present street lay-out follows the racetrack shape; Westbourne Park Road was the back straight!

Very few memories still remain – Hippodrome Mews was the site of the grand stand; the entrance on Holland Park Avenue can be imagined at the Car Hire depot – a newer form of transport.

For these new developments, the brilliant architect Papworth, creator of the Montpelier Estate in Cheltenham, devised this gem of an idea; instead of every house having a long rather narrow garden, why not let everyone have a short garden and – you’ve guessed – a large communal garden? Then they could perambulate around the hoggin paths (now restored) in hats and finery (still to be seen) and one could almost, almost be nearer the Palace. The extension of the new-fangled underground line to the City was well-timed to fuel the investors’ confidence.

A quick series of acts of Parliament followed; the Kensington Gardens Acts which – those amazing Victorians – even included constitutions for the gardens which are legally binding today!

The decline

Then it all went terribly wrong: enter the pigs.

The slummiest and poorest part of the borough was the piggery and the potteries of Avondale Park and the westerly winds blew the smell over the pleasant new green spaces of Elgin and Arundel Gardens. In fact, a taxi driver told the author that Mary Place was named after a woman well-known in the area who fell into and drowned in the pig slurry in the eponymous street.

Flight to the suburbs on the improved transport followed and the area went into decline, until the invention of refrigeration, which meant pork could come in to Town from Suffolk and was cheaper and better, too. The pottery industry also benefited from cheaper transport and moved out to make way for social housing around the gypsy encampment as it is today. The area revived without smelling salts and forty or fifty years of quality living followed until the Great War.

The authors

Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ best friend and author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White set one of his minor novels in Notting Hill. I didn’t finish it – but respectability was all, and the occupants were trying to be upward – but my dear – too far from the Palace which ever way one looks-and those ghastly gravel pits at Notting Hill Gate on the way, such an eyesore. Katherine Mansfield, the pre-eminent New Zealand bi-sexual short-story writer, lived at Number 95 Elgin Crescent for a time during her short bohemian life (1888-1923) before moving in with Armenian mystic Gurdjieff of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” fame at Fontainbleau seeking a cure for her T.B. Sax Rohmer lived in Elgin Crescent; he was the author of Dr Fu Manchu a sort of Bin Laden of his day; his death ray was still a popular image in the 1930’s and led to a spate of Dr Fu Manchu films such as “To The Death Chamber”. He moved on to the sylvan climes of Gatton Bottom near Reigate when his first royalty cheque arrived from Mr Zukor in Hollywood.

Edgar Wallace the most prolific author of the 20th Century (Bosambo of the River was memorably played by Paul Robeson) lived on the square when he was a penny dreadful journalist, allegedly escaping through the gardens to escape his creditors at the front door. More ominously, the Notting Hill Rapist was hideously active in the early 1980s which explains the over-abundance of locks on some of the older back doors.

The war

he Gardens in the 20th century fell into decline as wars held back economic growth. During the Second War, everyone had taken Lord Wooton’s exhortation “Dig for Victory” to heart and every kind of sensible vegetable was grown in the gardens. In the 60s, so touchingly featured in “The L-shaped Room”, the streets had become largely bed-sits –a flying lavatory can still be seen in the south west corner of the gardens.

The slum

The film “Scandal” with Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals playing Lucky Gordon who himself told the author one could often hear gun shots ring out in the 50s and stabbings? Well man; just commonplace! It all reminded us of the association with the Profumo Affair when the Establishment seeking kiff kicks and blue beat clubs would pitch up from the south side of the Park. Now the Establishment lives here!

The Notting Hill Carnival reminds us of the Windrush era when Rachmanism entered the language and Peter Rachman’s enforcer Michael X (later to be hanged for murder in Trinidad ) would visit immigrant nurses’ and bus drivers’ flats with his Alsatian to collect the rents. “No Blacks Gypsies or Irish” was on many For Rent notices in newsagents’ and tobacconists’ windows. This led directly to the 1965 Race Relations Act: the first of its kind in the world. Nick Roeg’s “Performance” with Mick Jagger and James Fox was set in the corner house on Powys Square – symbolic of the ‘back of beyond’ although Anita Pallenberg, Keith and Brian Jones’ girlfriend told the author that all the interiors were shot in SW3!

The revival

The meteoric growth of prosperity in London in the 1980s onwards led to the revival and rescue of the gardens and the houses that surround them. The wide streets and formerly grand stucco frontages received a fresh injection – and a lot of building work led to the houses being restored to the splendid parades and commensurate gardens they had always intended to be – and as we know and enjoy them today.