Tag Archives: victorian london

Leaving Victorian London

For the past seven years, I’ve lived in Victorian London and now it’s time to leave. In 2009, we moved into a small terraced house in Herne Hill, built in around 1880 and modelled along classic London proportions. I wrote about that “common little London house” here, shortly after we moved in. It had the standard measurements of houses of this era – a front that measured one rod, ie 16 ft 6 in – and is pretty much identical to hundreds of thousands of houses thrown up in this era as London expanded alongside railway lines like Japanese knotweed. Throw out the contemporary fittings – the central heating, white goods, plastic toys – and you have a house that even a Victorian might still recognise.

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I loved the house when I moved into it. I mainly loved the coal hole on the front step but I also loved the way that when I visited friends almost anywhere else in London I would immediately feel at home. Their house or flat was invariably built along similar dimensions, with a near-identical floorplan adapted only for the size, from grand five-storey detached dwelling to the more humble two-storey terraced house I occupied.

Humble. That word scarcely seems appropriate or even tasteful given the prices such houses now fetch. My house was one step up from the traditional two-up two-down and would have been built, I imagine, for the artisan working classes. Now it makes a fine first home for rich young City bankers exiled from Clapham and Fulham, whose first act is to insert white wooden slatted blinds, paint the front door sage and apply for planning permission to build a side return. The Victorian Londoner would have known his social class simply by the size of the home he inhabited, but it is no longer quite so easy, with the traditionally wealthy forced to occupy somewhat dingy homes originally intended for the poor. Instead the status-conscious London homeowner is forced to mark out his superiority to hangers-on and renters via window furnishing, colour scheme and the size of skip required for the proposed extension.

We’ve time-travelled now to the 1930s, occupying a house that is almost comic in its determination to differentiate itself from the Victorian houses on the other side of the railway line. You can see that in the bourgeois stained-glass window on the stairs, and the wide hallway but most notably in the garage that is attached to every house on the street. It’s an addition that perhaps best distinguish the change from urban to suburban, even if, in 90 per cent of cases, the garage has since been adapted for some other purpose as Londoners in any type of house relentlessly look for a way to tack one more room on to any property they purchase.

I loved my Victorian house. After all, my youngest daughter was born right there in the front room, much like a Victorian baby might have been. But I was glad to leave, tired of the living room slugs and the damp bathroom – badly adapted from the old rear utility room and outdoor privy – and endless noise from the new neighbours and their builders. We’ve moved by choice – the area no longer suits us, but even if it did, we couldn’t afford to live there. Gentrification is the process that eats as all, and as we had moved in because the previous tenants couldn’t afford the rent, we were forced out in part by demographic changes that made us no longer feel entirely at home in a place we’d lived for so long.

Shortly after our landlord put our house on the market, I was in the front garden when a car pulled up. A man got out and asked me how much the house was selling for. I gave him the answer, and after laughing, he introduced himself as a former occupant. This was the house he had grown up in with his parents and three brothers forty years before. I showed him round, and as he pointed out old home improvements, old trees he used to climb, he talked about the past, the street back in the 1980s, when the larger homes were multiple occupancy and the neighbourhood was 80 per cent black. And I told him how two doors down, the last black family on the street are preparing to move as Herne Hill’s Claphamification continues apace.

 

London timewarp: James Smith & Sons umbrella shop, Holborn

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This article appears in the current issue of Completely London magazine

When you first stumble upon James Smith & Sons, it’s tempting to believe you have slipped through a timewarp in the Holborn pavement and landed in Victorian London or, more prosaically, chanced upon a perfectly realised film set. The plate windows of the New Oxford Street shop are crowded with umbrellas and walking sticks, while the polished frontage of carved mahogany, brass, enamel and engraved glass boasts, in richly painted font, that James Smith & Sons was “Established 1830”. It’s easy to believe it hasn’t changed a jot since then.

The interior is every bit as spectacular as the outside, and English Heritage have listed the whole thing at Grade II*, noting that it is a ‘typical high-class late Victorian or Edwardian shop and as such is a rare survival in London’. The shop has been occupied by James Smith & Sons since 1867 and while there have been some updates – a new till, electric lighting – much of the façade and interior date to then. “There have been some changes but not many,” says Robert Harvey, the owner. “A few years ago we spent a considerable amount refurbishing the shop and on the day we opened a customer came in, looked around and said, “I thought you were having it redecorated?’.”

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Fittingly for such a classic-looking shop, James Smith & Sons, which is still owned by descendants of the original James Smith, specialise in the very British trade of umbrellas and walking sticks – as one writer has noted, “the art of applying the shade to the ribs with just the right amount of tension is no small matter”. The umbrella is still seen as a key piece of kit for a well-equipped Londoner looking for protection from the elements in this most rainy of cities, and an umbrella from James Smith & Sons is as desirable as a pair of shoes from John Lobb or suit from Savile Row. The shop is also popular with foreign visitors, who purchase English umbrellas as well as walking sticks and seat sticks (collapsible seats, originally for shooting but now more likely to be found at Glyndebourne). They also once sold items like swordsticks and swagger sticks as well as ceremonial sun shades for African chiefs; according to legend, one American customer asked the company for walking sticks made from every English wood possible and received more than 70. The range of umbrellas stretches into the thousands and about 30% of the stock is unique, existing as just a single item, with its own combination of material, colour, wood and style of handle.

The shop’s appearance is, admits Harvey, an anomaly as well as something of an accident. “Looking through the records, the business survived by a miracle,” he says. “The Smiths never had enough money to refurbish and I’m not sure they were the sort of people who looked long-term – they were never sure how long the business would last.” The appearance eventually became a trademark, and the shop has made regular appearances in London guidebook, even appearing in novels, in one instance when the villain of a thriller purchases a murderous swordstick from a strange old shop “marooned on an island surrounded by traffic”.

But while the appearance is identical to the Victorian shop, the attitude is different. “Unlike the Smiths in the 19th century we see the business as having a future providing a great product,” says Harvey. “But we also try very hard to retain that original character, not as a museum piece but as an example of 19th-century commercialism in the 21st-century.”

Secret London: stink pipes

There is one of these just around the corner from where I live.

Herne Hill stink pipe

It’s long, thin, green and old and thrusts straight into the air like a giant’s, er, finger. It’s not a telegraph pole – there are no wires coming off it – and it’s too tall to be a broken street lamp.

It is, in fact, a stink pipe, one of four such items of street furniture that can be found within a half-mile radius of Brixton Water Lane. These stink pipe were built around the same time as London’s Victorian sewer network in the 1860s and are basically just huge hollow pipes that allow potentially lethal gas to escape into the atmosphere, far above the rooftops.  They often seem to located near the locations of culverted rivers – these ones are found more or less on the route of the Effra or its tributaries – suggesting that when these rivers were incorporated into the sewer system, they required some sort of additional safety valve (the buried Fleet famously exploded at King’s Cross after just such a build-up of gas in 1846).

Some stinkpipes are rather elaborate, but the ones I’ve seen around Herne Hill and Brixton are pretty basic and utilitarian. If you want to find some finer examples, like the fine crowned stench pipes of Kennington Cross, you should check out the excellent London Stench Pipes blog, which is devoted to these marvellous oddities leftover from Victorian London.