VICTORIAN ARCHITECTURE AND HISTORY OF NOTTING HILL
Whenever people come to my flat for the first time, I see the same expression on their faces, that same quizzical one. After we pass the first and the second door and walked up the first and the second stairs, that’s when they usually verbalize the thought behind that look. While we’re panting from climbing up the third staircase, they take a break from their unexpected exercise of that day and ask me “What kind of person planned this building and called himself an architect?” Each time, I reply with a smile and a mumbling, which sounds like “I don't know.”
Well, today, I decided to find out. I started with things I thought were the oldest in the building and made a list of them to search later. The list included:
- Very old small sash windows that make the weirdest, loudest noises
- The sickly greenish carpet floors
- Old looking, beige toilet and bath fixtures
Then I decided to look into my neighborhood, it’s history and architectural contributors. Notting Hill is an area of London, which has been in constant change. It’s become popular with the extending borders of London. In 19th century, the landowner was a family named Ladbroke. They worked on advancements of the Ladbroke Estate. Specifically James Weller Ladbroke was in charge and he worked mainly with an architect named Thomas Allason. This is when the housing plans came to life. In 1837 the Hippodrome was built, though it was unsuccessful and so was closed in 1841. On those racecourse tracks, crescent-shaped roads were built. (Blenheim Crescent, Elgin Crescent, Stanley Crescent, Cornwall Crescent, and Landsdowne Crescent). I’m assuming this was around the time my house was built. These houses on my street were a part of Allason’s plan to give each house individual gardens. Those gardens were not public but were communal “secret” gardens in the rear of the houses.
In the history of British architecture, there’s a sudden change in terms of house architectures that is called “the 1890 Pivot”. In his books from the 1850s John Ruskin mentioned a needed change and return to the medieval style. A designer, William Morris, influenced by Ruskin’s advice, started a movement in 1859 by building his own house. This arts and crafts movement revolutionized the architectural design. The movement aimed to use only the local materials and gave specific care and attention to every detail of the design. From then on, the movement spread towards many directions, interpreting different historic styles and mixing them with the Middle Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean influences.
As for the short list I had made, I looked into them specifically and found out much more than I was expecting. The sash windows have an old, weight balanced system to operate. The main problems of the kind of sash window I have in my house (the wooden ones) are based on the swelling or shrinking of the wood, which causes the window to get stuck at times and get too loose and rattle at other times. Hence, the annoying noises.
The carpet was simply a new style that came stemmed from the Victorian architectural developments and an adjustment to the lifestyles. When the floors used to be stone, it was harder to keep the heat in and with the decrease of sanitary issues; it was probably a safe option to cover the floors with carpets.
The toilet was done by a slightly more known brand, which is presently selling bathroom fixtures and plumbing supplies; a British manufacturer established Armitage Shanks in the Victorian era. I’m guessing the beige color was a correct choice according to that time’s trends.
The extra stairs up to the top floor where my room is, made more sense after I came across some information about the tax rules of the houses back in those years. It simply stated that taxing of each floor was made separately so instead of building a third floor, a different type of roof called Mansard roof was used to create extra space in the roof, allowing to use it as a third floor.
I have to add, however, that the architectural style of my house seldom covers the Victorian era architectural style. During that time, being a good architect meant to be able to combine and be aware of different architectural styles from around the world and also from the past. Many different architectural gems in London that were created around the same times, can be of different architectural styles like gothic, medieval, French, Greek, Hindu and many more.
In Victorian Literature, Notting Hill doesn’t take up as much space as it did in some authors’ lives.
“Notting Hill is a comparatively cheap district, lying between Kensal-green Cemetery and Campden-hill, and continuing the town westward from Bayswater to Shepherds Bush. Here a fair-sized house may be had from about £75 to £120, according to whether it approaches the western or eastern verge of the district. Stations: Notting Hill, Latimer-road, on the City and Hammersmith; Uxbridge-road on the West London; and Notting Hill-gate on the Metropolitan Line, A good deal of confusion arises from the similarity of name between the two stations of Notting Hill and Notting Hill-gate, which are more than a mile apart on two different lines; the former (City & Hammersmith) being at the north end of Ladbroke-grove, and the latter (Metrop.) nearly half a mile to the east of its south end in Notting Hill High-st. Omnibus routes: Westbourne-grove and Uxbridge-road.”
Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879
An exiled 1848 Hungarian novelist, Louis Kossuth lived near Chepstow Villas. Charles Dickens’s grandson Henry was also a local. William Bull wrote this in the Bayswater Chronicle of Portobello Road about the 1870’s Notting Hill Carnival :
“Carnival time was on Saturday nights in the winter, when it was thronged like a fair… The people overflowed from the pavement so that the roadway was impassable for horse traffic which, to do it justice, never appeared. On the left-hand side (the east side) were costers’ barrows, lighted by flaming naphtha lamps. In the side streets were side-shows, vendors of patent medicines, conjurors, itinerant vocalists…” (1923)
As the local railways expanded, more people started moving in. There were times around 1860 that for a brief time Notting Hill gained a bad reputation. The riots and sudden inclination of crowds were crowding the area and causing the constructions to be left unfinished. The whole area smelled bad and probably was unsanitary. However, the revolutions did not stop and with them the developments of Notting Hill changed it into a wanted place for upper classes in around 1866.
‘A rat crept softly through the vegetation, dragging its slimy belly on the bank while I was fishing in the dull canal, on a winter evening round behind the gas house, musing upon the king my brother’s wreck, and on the king my father’s death before him, white bodies naked on the low damp ground, and bones cast in a little low dry garret, rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year, but at my back from time to time I hear the sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs Porter in the spring. O the moon shone bright on Mrs Porter, and her daughter, they wash their feet in soda water.’
TS Eliot, from The Wasteland, 1922
The history of Notting Hill turned out to be much more than I had expected. The area is definitely not the central setting for the major historical events, but merely a witness to many movements, riots, celebrations, changes and wars. Perhaps, not being burned down as much as some of the places in the rest of the city had worked on its benefit and kept most of the buildings through time.
This place always gives me a feeling that whatever is happening here stays a secret and that’s why so much is happening but no outsider knows about it. It holds a place in history where people came and lived, but scarcely talked about.
Primary Sources:Bull, William. Bayswater Chronicle of Portobello Road. 1923Dickens, Charles(Jr.). Dickens's Dictionary of London. 1879Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land.1995