As noted in an earlier post on this blog, at the end of 1961 my mother Julia Callan-Thompson moved to a two room top floor flat at 24 Bassett Road, London W10. The area around Bassett Road had been developed as a series of housing estates in the 1860s in conjunction with the extension of the Metropolitan train line on a viaduct constructed over the Portobello stream and marshes to Ladbroke Grove. The station at this latter location was originally called Notting Hill, which is why an area that might more properly be designated Notting Dale is better known by the former designation. The development of the area was followed by an economic depression, which led the likes of nineteenth-century busy-body Florence Gladstone to complain: “Whole streets were not inhabited by the class of people for whom they were designed.”
In the late-nineteenth century rather than housing city clerks, many of the buildings in the Ladbroke Grove area were under multiple occupancy by members of the working class, and in particular Irish labourers who’d been forced by famine to migrate and were engaged in the construction of new railways in the area. Multiple working class occupancy of these building was something that would continue for more than a hundred years. By the beginning of the sixties the rail network was still providing work for many of the recent immigrants who were enlivening this drab part of west London; although now rather than constructing railways, a substantial proportion of those who’d been enticed to the metropolis from the West Indies with promises of remunerative employment were involved in the smooth running and maintenance of public transport.
24 Bassett Road is a large house with some neo-classical features such as the pillars that hold up the porch to the main door. By the early sixties the building’s generous rooms had been carved up into smaller units. I’ve been told the property was owned by a Trinidadian called Sandy Dalton-Brown who liked bohemians. My mother made friends with her landlord and would visit him at his home near Hyde Park. At one point he offered to sell her both the flat she rented and that of another tenant, so that the rent from the second flat would pay off the one hundred percent mortgage which he offered to arrange for the two dwellings. Before the introduction of stricter controls on British building societies at the start of the sixties, it was common for property speculators to off-load properties to both tenants and other parties with one hundred percent mortgages which the seller had pre-arranged. Indeed, constant resale was one of the best ways of inflating the value of slum dwellings. Despite the prices paid under such arrangements generally being above market value, ownership still proved cheaper than renting.
Apparently my mother didn’t like the idea of being a landlady, so she opted to remain a tenant. Dalton-Brown seems to have been known by this double-barrelled moniker in bohemian circles, which is how he is listed in my mother’s address book, without a forename or even a prefix such as Mister. It may be that Dalton-Brown was fronting as landlord for the real owner of the property, since the use of nominee landlords was common in Notting Hill at the time. If Dalton-Brown ever actually owned either parts or all of 24 Bassett Road in the early sixties, he’d at least partially sold up before my mother moved out since the Kensington General Rate book for the year to 31 March 1966 contains the following listings: Basement Flat – Dalstead Property Co. Ltd; Ground Floor Rooms – Miss Mary Murphy crossed out and entered by hand G. J. Warden; First Floor Rooms – The Occupier; Second Floor (on which my mother lived) – Miss Whitehurst. Dalton-Brown is said to have been involved in many different business ventures, and also seems to have owned a race horse which was kept at a stable in the north of England.
In one of the two basement flats was a Trinidadian musician called Russell Henderson who’d come to London in 1951 as a mature student and never left. Henderson was a first cousin to Sandy Dalton-Brown – who at one time owned or managed at least part of the property – and some of those in Henderson’s circles referred to his and my mother’s landlord as Uncle Sandy. In 1952, Russ Henderson linked up with Sterling Betancourt. Together they made some recordings of Henderson’s piano music which were released as singles by Melodisc. With the addition of Mervyn Constantine they switched to playing pan drums and became The Russ Henderson Steel Band. When Constantine left the band, it was augmented by Ralph Cherrie and his brother Max Cherrie. As well as performing regular gigs, they also appeared on the radio and in both TV shows and feature films; including Danger Man, The Saint and Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (Amicus, 1965, in a segment also featuring Roy Castle and the Tuby Hayes Quartet!). By the mid-sixties, with a minor shift in the line-up, Henderson was running his ensemble as both a steel band and a jazz quartet. For the latter, he’d sit at the piano, Sterling Betancourt played drums, Max Cherrie was on double bass and Gigi Walker blew the trumpet. The group had house spots as both a jazz ensemble and a steel band at different London venues, and also played further afield. Henderson continued to make records in the sixties but all are now deleted and they have become collector’s items; however, one of his best tracks, West Indian Drums, appeared a few years ago on the CD compilation London Is The Place For Me Volume 2.
In the second basement flat at 24 Bassett Road was a Jewish refugee from Nazism called Ruth Forster (covered in an earlier blog). Both Forster and Henderson lived at 24 Bassett Road from the nineteen-fifties right through to the mid-eighties. Forster appears to have died in the mid-eighties, while Henderson moved on to other parts of west London, where he still lives, now aged 85. Another very interesting occupant of a conversion at this address in the earlier part of the sixties was Peter Hammerton, who’d set up an Interplanetary Society in the late-fifties and was a fixture of early science-fiction conventions. Hammerton was a friend of the writer Michael Moorcock who also lived in the area. During the half-decade my mother rented her two room flat at 24 Bassett Road, she would take long trips to Europe but nonetheless liked having somewhere secure to come back to, despite being away for periods of up to six months. Eventually in the summer of 1966 she moved on to a pad at 55 Elgin Crescent W11; this street is only a short walk from Bassett Road, but the flat my mother lived in there was located to the east of Ladbroke Grove, rather than to its west like her old gaff.
At the time it was first developed in the 1860s, the area around Elgin Crescent was known as The Stumps. A hundred years before my mother moved there it was described in Building News as ‘a graveyard of buried hopes’ with ‘naked carcasses, crumbling decorations, fractured walls and slimy cement work’. The terraced houses in Elgin Crescent were of a similar pseudo-classical design to the detached building my mother had just left in Bassett Road albeit with fuller whitewashing. When Julie moved in, the property at 55 Elgin Crescent had just been divided into flats by a development company, so she signed a three year lease which she was able to sell on at a small profit when she left for Paris less than six months later.
In the mid-sixties, Michael X’s mother Iona Brown lived in Elgin Crescent, and she made money practising Obeah and dispensing spiritual advice from her flat. However, Iona Brown died in May 1966, shortly before my mother moved to the street. Someone my mother had befriended and who lived in Elgin Crescent at the same time as her was Terry Taylor. He had a place right by Finches pub, possibly at number 16. At the end of 1966, my mother left London to live in Paris and after a year there travelled on to India. When my mother took up living in London full-time once again in the summer of 1969, it was initially in a flat she shared with Terry Taylor and other friends at 58 Bassett Road. But that’s another story….
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!