Last summer I had to put Glourie House up for sale.
The damp and decay could not be maintained.
Empty rooms were haunted by ghosts, the ghosts of my ancestors.
They don't seem to know how to act and are afraid to confront me.
I can't stand hearing the squeak of their fearful, retreating footsteps.
Never once have I heard their voice.
An American tycoon had opened a golf course on the coast road.
Sunk in a dram of whisky, I reluctantly sold him my ghosts.
It's my last day to water the plants and have high tea.
Brick by brick, the house and its contents will be stripped and shipped to the States.
My ghosts are going to become part of an oldie worldie theme park, yahoo.
Maybe next summer they will speak to others through me.
Drawing and words in creative response to The Ghost Goes West (1935), starring Robert Donat.
Glourie House For Sale (2019)
93x58" oil pastels
There is a voice behind the ghost and the silence of pictures: British film star, Robert Donat, 1905-1958.
Before we get to the voice, here are a few memorable facts about this now largely forgotten actor who was so highly acclaimed in his lifetime.
A poetically inclined child, Robert would recite Shakespeare in the streets and on the trams of Manchester. "Oh there goes that funny boy again, saying those queer words."
A rising star of the stage, he broke into movies with a rebellious laugh. Donate had a screen test for Men of Tomorrow (1932) but the director, Leontine Sagan, thought he was a terrible ham and caused the struggling actor to break down into peels of laughter at the futility of the test. Two days later the test was seen by the head of studio, Alexander Korda. He was so impressed with the jollity that he hired Donat on a three year contract. Breaking into movies isn't usually a laughing matter.
Donat made one film in America, The Count of Monte Christo, but disliked the cultural experience, and never went back. Hollywood Studio executives chased him through the courts, but Donat struck a lucrative and unique deal to have high-budget films made in England, culminating in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939) for which he won his Oscar.
Several generations of American actors recognised the subtle and charismatic charm of Donat's performances. Spencer Tracy sent him a postcard applauding his decision not to work in the States; otherwise us bums would all be out of business. And then Jack Lemon commented: "The best screen actor to me, without any frigging question, was not even Spencer Tracy, but Robert Donat. And what made him so good was that he always seemed to be acting in the first take of a scene. You have the feeling he has never said those particular words before. You should have the feeling that the film was shot in sequence, even if it wasn't. You should believe that the scenes were acted in chronological order, with no embarrassing little jarring discrepancies of emotion. Robert Donat had that, too – the wonderment that made us think those things were really happening to him."
Vicky Lowe describes the appeal of Donat cutting across class boundaries:
"Therefore, despite being categorised through his stage work as a classical actor, alongside the likes of Gielgud and Olivier, on film, there is a palpable difference in Donat’s aural presence. Whilst nearly all of the famous stage/screen actors of the 1930s came from a comfortable (usually Southern) background, Donat is a notable exception. Michael Sanderson has researched the parentage and place of education of famous actors of the time including Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks, and Laurence Olivier. All except Donat went to either private school, university or both. Whilst his image fits in with the rest of his peer group, his voice can be interpreted in terms of its difference to his peers. His voice in this country, therefore, was recognised as being beautiful without being necessarily classified as ‘posh’: classy rather than class – bound. Kinematograph Weekly explains Donat’s vocal appeal in this way: ‘In a country of so many dialects and empire markets, spoken English should be unplaceable. […] You cannot ‘place’ Robert Donat’.
‘The best speaking voices in the world’. Robert Donat, stardom and the voice in British cinema"
Vicky Lowe, 2004
I want to bring this homage bang up to date. We in Little Old England have endured several years of political chaos in a desire to shift away from the European Union in the direction of new alliances struck with America and other trading blocks. To resolve our current stalemate, we are going to have a winter General Election and another intense period of party political sound biting and speechifying. It's interesting to note, that many of Donat's characters in the movies of the 30s and 40s, in the context of that turbulent political period, have memorable set-piece speeches to deliver: whether as a politician in the Houses of Parliament (The Young Mr Pitt); or as a legal big wig (The Winslow Boy); or in The 39 Steps as Richard Hannay, on the run for his life, seeking sanctuary in a lecture hall and having to deliver an impromptu speech about Scottish politics, grouse shooting and the fisheries.
So as I listen to Conservative, Labour, Liberal, Brexit, SNP and other voices, I will filter them through to one exquisite moment in the film, Knight Without Armour. As we Brits bicker and fight to play a role on the world stage, perhaps we can rewind and take a leaf out of Dietrich and Donat in this Russian Revolutionary (shades of Zhivago) saga. Dietrich is an aristocratic prisoner of war. Donate is escorting her to a trial and an unknown fate. In this memorable scene they romantically bond over the poetry of Robert Browning contemplating how to live, laugh and love, moments before a Cossack attempts to slit their throat as the scene concludes. As a cautionary footnote, Knight without Armour, ends on a rather tame note. That doesn't really matter. We often don't succeed in threading together the complex narrative of art and politics.
Last summer, you could fall in love with a film star and the fragility of performance and voice.
Jordan Stone, film maker in conversation about his parents, Barbara and David Stone,
who opened a pioneering art house cinema in 1974 at the Gate, Notting Hill.
The family moved to England in 1971. I think what my father originally wanted to do was to open a New York styled delicatessen in London where you could get bagels, cream cheese, smoke salmon, pastrami on rye bread. That was his original plan.
But my parents had a passion for underground, avant-garde and independent cinema. They had been attending film festivals from the very early 1960s, whether it was Cannes or Venice. They were the creators of the Spoleto Film Festival in 1959. And so they were very familiar with European directors, the press, film critics, historians and writers. They had also been involved in the various film art movements in New York. They had made films themselves and also produced films with Jonas and Adolfas Mekas.
So at some point, they realised that there was this huge area that was missing in film exhibition and distribution. And that was their talent: to create a distribution and an outlet, a cinema, at the Gate in Notting Hill for showing these independent films. At that time films were still being dubbed for UK release. And there were films that would not have found a way out of their country of origin. My parents combined their passion with the business. But taste has to obviously come first. You have to create that and show it to the public. In America there is also a certain passive-aggressive approach to business whereas in England, it's a lot more passive. Maybe aggressive is not the right word, but they were more proactive, a term used today, but not used then. And so, it's like everything aligned at the right time. A cinema became available for them in Notting Hill. It was called the Classic. I think the previous owners couldn't afford to keep it going and that was the moment to strike as it were.
What you have to realise is that the distribution company Cinegate and the Gate Cinema went together. What we distributed was what we showed. In the Cinegate catalogue, we had a huge collection of experimental cinema from Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Stan Brakage and the Mekas Brothers.
And what also was remarkable were the late night double bills, mainly from other distributors, mostly American classic and cult films from the 1930s up to the 1970s. My parents created this culture of late night screenings that started at 11pm and went on till 2 or 3 in the morning. No one else was doing that. I still bump into people who tell me that they saw this film 25 times because they went to the late night program every other night. And unlike other cinemas, the Gate was open 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year including Christmas Day, New Year's Day. We were open every single day.
Other cinemas started to copy us with late night programming. The Scala started doing the all-nighters at weekends. The Electric that was just down the road from us, on Portobello Road, was a repertory cinema. Peter Houghton who ran that cinema had perfect taste. It was an absolute fleapit at the time, but they created their own cult even before the Gate. But it was very different from our cinema. They would show a week of Hungarian movies and then ten days of German New Wave and then a week of Charlie Chaplin. And they showed a lot of films that we distributed that fitted perfectly into their programming. But they weren't opening movies. We were and they were independent, art house films.
There is a nice little story. The Electric went through many periods of running out of money and my father insisted on lending them some. It was a real beautiful little moment unheard of that one cinema would help out another in the same area. I don't think my parents started up their operation thinking in a competitive way whatsoever as opposed to enhancing the whole concept of British Independent cinema.
A few years later, once everything was going well, my parents had a good relationship with EMI and Barry Spikings, its head at the time. He had produced The Deer hunter and EMI had a cinema in Bloomsbury. But they had no idea what to do with it. They didn't know how to program it and so they gave it to my parents and the rent was completely reasonable. After a while, Gate Bloomsbury (now the Curzon Bloomsbury) was divided and had two screens. Then some short time after this, the same thing happened with Rank who had a cinema on Camden Road. My parents took that over and it became Gate 3. And finally, in the basement of a Mayfair hotel, there was this wonderful, tiny, super-exclusive cinema with just 40 or 50 seats. That became Gate Mayfair. When we first opened in Mayfair, this must have been about 1980, Mephisto, which was a huge success and went on to win Best Foreign Picture Academy Award, that was shown at Mayfair on a second run. I think it was playing for 9 months. My sister says it was shorter. But it felt longer.
The majority of art house movies were definitely not American. The only American art house movies would be ones made by first time directors who sometimes had a distribution deal with a major company. And so the only way you would find out about these films was going to film festivals where the producers would be at Cannes, Venice or wherever they were trying to sell their films. My parents would be looking out for these types of films. Jonathan Demme was a Roger Corman protégé and his first couple of films we opened, I think we even distributed them. There was CB Radio and Melvin and Howard.
There were moments that brought great controversy that fed into the success and mythology of the Gate. Derek Jarman's first film, Sebastian, for example. The dialogue was in Latin and there were scenes of men making love to each other. It was definitely not pornographic, definitely an art film. But they were under a lot of pressure from the Board of Censors which was run by a guy called James Ferman, who was also an American. There wasn't much love between him and my parents. There were lines around the corner of the Gate Notting Hill because the only film prior to that which could be conceived of as a homosexual film was A Bigger Splash. That was a film about David Hockney and we ended up showing that at the late nights. But Jarman's film was a full-on feature film and made by someone we had never heard of. We had a lot of celebrities and famous people coming to see that film in 1976.
And then a couple of years later with the Oshima film, In The Realm of the Senses, where you had two lovers making love throughout the film and in the end the girl cuts the man's penis off. That film was refused a rating by the Board of Censors. My parents came up with a way around this; which was to turn the cinema into a club. So people had to be 18 and pay a minimum 25p or 50 pence membership and then they could buy a ticket to see the film. But as kids growing up, we were told to stay away from the cinema because my parents were expecting to be raided by the Home Office every day. I also know that for that film to be seen, they put together a list of very well known people who had signed a petition demanding that this film be allowed to be shown to the general public. This was not just film people or from the entertainment industry, but also politicians.
The regeneration of Notting Hill had not happened at this time. That was much later. Everyone who was everyone was coming to the Gate. You had to imagine Harold Pinter living down the road and he would want to see everything. We had people who loved film and wanted to see films that the film critics were writing about and that would not otherwise have a chance in a lifetime of being released in its original form. We had punk musicians, artists and photographers, a lot of theatre people and of course, the general public.
My father was always charging a little bit more at our cinema. There was a reason for this because we were showing films exclusively. I think our first ticket price in 1974, for Fassbinder's Fear Eats The Soul that opened the cinema, was 60 pence; but after a year or two, this went up to 90 pence. And of course, we were an art-house. You were going to pay to see art. He wasn't trying to rip anyone off. It was a very exclusive approach however.
And my father was actually quite short and the rows in the cinema were based on his leg- room. What he wanted to do was get as many seats in as possible. So we did have a reputation of having very thin rows, but that was based on the fact that he was quite short. I think we had 282 seats. If you look at the Gate today, my father would be surprised what it turned into with the sofas, the tables, the feeding and drinking during the film.
I remember we were one of the first households that had a video projection system at home because film-makers from around the world were sending us films to watch. We grew up watching films that never made it into distribution. We had friends coming over to the house who never knew what a video was, VHS or Betamax. And we had equipment that was flown in from the states. This was set up in one of the rooms in the house, a screening room. Actually whether we lived in New York or London, my father always had a 8mm and 16mm projector set up in the house. Saturday night we would be watching films. They were very social events with film critics, Chris Petit, Nigel Andrews, David Robinson and filmmakers. We were also very friendly with someone who worked at the National Film Archives and every weekend he would come with a 16mm print under his arms, something that was 40 or 50 years old. My mother would do a big dinner and then we would all sit and watch the movie. That was a large part of the Stones' reputation.
From the age of 11 or 12, I was working in the cinema and the Cinegate distribution dispatch office. Cleaning the films, packing them up and taking 16mm and 35mm prints to whoever was renting them. My brother and sister were also working with me in the cinema, making popcorn, tearing tickets and in the projection booths. I was also an actor and then at the age of 16, I had already started a video production company. Then a producer friend of ours asked if I wanted to be a runner on one of his films. That's how I started making my way up as an assistant director and have never stopped. I still am a first assistant director on feature films, commercials, and music videos. I was based in L.A. for a long time, too. And now I'm operating out of Italy. I look after a lot of the filmmakers who come to shoot here and I've turned that role into a type of service producer as well. I've produced projects with Sofia Coppola, Mike Figgis, Spike Lee. I’m a filmmaker myself. My films are not commercial and that is a result of most of my life working on other people's movies whom I've learnt so much from.
The lesson that my parents ingrained in all of us is that you have to do what you feel is right - for you! And we grew up in an anti-commercial atmosphere. Anything that was American studio was the devil. We knew from the beginning that people who went to America to make films, compromised their creativity, because a producer or the studio said we want more tits and ass and more violence. However In the last 5-10 years in America, I've found that there has been a rush of films that are very independent. But most films can't be made unless they have a distribution deal. The film studios and media companies will put money into a film for its distribution rights. The filmmakers are not dictated to as badly if it’s a non-studio film because they have got the money just for distribution. So what's happened is that it's allowed much more of an independent approach to American filmmaking.
There are many different structures to put a film together. You can raise money privately; you can raise money through pre-sales, through distribution sales, money from the studios, from several companies or countries. Tax incentives. It's a whole quagmire of things before you can get interest for the project. But if American studios are involved, the more control they have over the finished product. It's a different process for a European or a Chinese filmmaker.
I saw a space to do commercially what my parents had done in London during the 1970s. I ended up for a while programming two cinemas in Milan in the same style as the Gate. I also created CinemaStone and this is not just a production service company, but it also dealt with film and event programming.
I grew up doing what I was destined to do.
Barbara Stone Unpublished - trailer for film written and directed by Jordan and Veronica Stone
Jordan Stone's website
Poster art work from the Barbara Stone Archive recently deposited at King's College, London
And which will be available to view over the coming years
Drawing by Constantine Gras:
When a kiss fans out
Watercolour, pencil, ink
9.5 x 12 inches, 1994
Link to film event called Emotion and Economics - A history of the Gate Cinema
Obituary for Nigel Whitbread (1938-2019)
Modest, talented architect with a passion for walking, travel and sports cars
Nigel Whitbread was born in Kenton near Harrow. His parents had a grocer’s on St Helen’s Gardens in North Kensington and the family moved in 1949 to be nearer the shop. That was Nigel’s home from the age of ten to his death.
After attending Sloane Grammar School, Nigel joined the firm of Clifford Tee and Gale where he served his apprenticeship demonstrating a great talent for drawing for which he became renowned and which he taught later on. He went one day a week plus night school to the Hammersmith School of Art and Building. Subsequent to this he became a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
But it was Nigel’s time at Douglas Stephen and Partners that was the most influential time in his career. It was a small practice, but doing important things and at the forefront of design influenced by Le Corbusier and other modernists. It was there that Nigel worked with architects from the Architectural Association and the Regent Street Polytechnic: Kenneth Frampton who was the Technical Editor of the journal Architectural Design; and Elia and Zoe Zenghelis and Bob Maxwell who both spent most of their careers in the teaching world. Nigel remarked that it was like going to a club with the bonus of doing terrific work.
In the early 1970s Nigel went to work with Clifford Wearden and Associates on Lancaster West Estate. It was a huge job for a small group and unusual for councils to use private architects in those days. The whole scheme had been well prepared by the time Nigel joined to lead the team in designing Grenfell Tower. While a lot of brick had been used in LCC and GLC buildings, he thought that putting bricks one on top of the other for twenty storeys was a crazy thing to do. So insulated pre-cast concrete beams as external walls, were lifted up and put into place with cranes. The concrete columns and slabs and pre-cast beams, all holding the building together, were also designed in response to Ronan Point, the tower that partially collapsed in 1968. Nigel remarked that he could see the tower standing in 100 years time.
In 2016, Nigel visited Grenfell Tower at my invitation, when I was community artist in residence. He visited residents in their flats for the first time and enjoyed hearing how they viewed the spacious flats (built to Parker Morris Standards) and the stunning views.
It is impossible to know the sadness and anger he must have felt as he witnessed the tragic fire that occurred on 14 June, 2017.
Nigel retired after working at Aukett Associates for 30 years. His projects included the Landis and Gyr factory North Acton and Marks and Spencer's Management Centre Chester: two award winning buildings he co-designed. As a director of the practice, he had a lot of responsibility, but spent time mentoring younger architects.
Nigel was happy in his retirement and in his travels over many years, including recent trips to India, the Himalayas and Colombia. He continued to use his skills in helping his local resident’s association draw up the St Quintin and Woodlands Neighbourhood Plan which was accepted by the local authority under the Localism Act.
He will be remembered by his friends and family as a dignified, humorous, generous and inspirational man.
Silchester and Lancaster West Estate Open Garden Estate Weekend, June 2016
Here's a link to an interview with Nigel and the other architects of Lancaster West Estate.
Anna Bowman: "I really enjoyed Emotion and Economics. It was great to see Adam Ritchie's film set in NY and the extract from the fascinating film about RD Laing. They were a wonderful reminder of the past and the damaged video/film just added to the atmosphere. Constantine Gras' curation was superb and the live actors, speakers and extracts of films worked really well. His film about the garden near Grenfell tower was very moving - a poetic and considered response to what happened there."
This is a documentary film of an event curated by Constantine Gras that won a special distinction prize at the Portobello Film Festival, 2019. It celebrated the history of the Gate Cinema, Notting Hill, London from 1911 to the present day. A narrator told the story of emotional creativity in the world of boom and bust capitalism. A monster mash-up of films included silent shorts, extracts from the films of British film star, Robert Donat, and art house cinema of the 1970s.
The Electric Palace - Silent Years (1911 - 1931)
0:00:00 Introduction by the narrator:
"The cinema experience as we know it started with the opening of picture houses between 1907 and the first World War. This period saw an unprecedented investment when businessmen shed their cautious approach to risk in search of massive financial rewards."
0:01:33 Introduction by Horace Sedger, American business man who opened the Electric Palace picture house in 1911:
"There are many nay-sayers, who put us down! Who think films corrupt young and impressionable minds. They say there is no future in this newfangled technology. Humbug we say! The cinema is a mere infant."
0:04:34 Extracts from silent films available to view on BFI player
The Production of a Map (1917), Delhi Durbar (1911), Demonstration of Suffragettes (1910)
Tilly and the Fire Engines (1911)
0:06:35 A poem written by a projectionist from the silent cinema.
"I'm here in a fireproof box that is hot as a stokehole floor,
And my head goes round to a clicking sound and a rickety motor's roar
And my nose smells films and my tongue tastes films
And my eyes they can see film too
Till I'm sick unto death at the thought of films."
The Embassy - The Coming of Sound (1931 - 1963)
0:08:50 Mary and Jorge visit the cinema to see a Robert Donat film.
0:10:30 Dr Victoria Lowe, University of Manchester, on Robert Donat’s "Art of acting in the age of mechanical reproduction."
0:14:14 Film extracts from Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), The 39 Steps (1935) and Knight Without Armour (1937)
0:16:07 A letter to Robert Donat from a fan: “Will meet you at midnight on Sunday outside Boots.”
The Classic - A full blown repertory (1963-1974)
0:17:29 Adam Ritchie introduces the film he made in New York in 1966 with Yvette Nachimas called Room 1301: “The dangerous film stock was then destroyed, so there is no way back.” Followed by screening of film (15 minutes long). A film about a worker lost in the maze of a high rise office block.
The Gate as Art House (1974 - 1985)
0:37:08 Nigel Andrews, Financial Times film critic, shares his memories of the pioneering Gate cinema in the 1970s and the American couple, Barbara and David Stone, who screened and distributed independent movies from around the world.
0:43:44 Trailer for Barbara Stone - Unpublished (Film in production)
Explores the life of a mother, filmmaker, teacher, distributor and exhibitor
Written and directed by Veronica and Jordan Stone
0:49:32 Extracts from Fear Eats The Soul (1974) and Sebastiane (1976)
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Derek Jarman
To The Gate Picturehouse And Beyond
Anthony Smith, Director of the BFI, 1986
“I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms against the proposal to transform the Gate Cinema into a take-away hamburger restaurant.”
0:51:38 Jonathan Barnett, Director of the Portobello Film Festival, introduces his film R.D. Laing On Iona: “They were all tripping on magic mushrooms and had a go at R. D. Laing because he cancelled a seminar. And then he gave them a talk about anger and had them eating out of his hand.”
Followed by screening of film (10 mins)
1:02:50 The narrator:
"We have glimpsed how the history of this cinema has been shaped by pioneering figures with one eye on entertainment or art and the other on box-office takings. Managing a sustainable business in a constantly changing world. We have experienced the power of film stars and their impact on the audience. We have celebrated the history of film made on fragile celluloid stock."
1:06:05 Constantine Gras on how he curated this programme and on the concluding film, Strawberries Are For The Future, which is about the garden (and gardener, Stewart Wallace), in the shadow of Grenfell Tower - a year after the tragic fire claimed the lives of 72 people.
Short extract from the film.
Lee Ellwood, current manager of the Gate Picturehouse
Dylan Stone, artist
Adam Ritchie, photographer and film maker
Jonathan Barnett, Director of the Portobello Film Festival
They talk about how the Gate Picturehouse chain and potential for screening independent shorts, the Barbara Stone Archive that has just been deposited at Kings College London and the vibrancy of community activism and counter-culture in North Kensington.
Many thanks to Jonathan Barnett and Lee Ellwood for facilitating this event.
Jordan Stone for providing background research.
Narrated by Jackie Kearns with performances by Richard Seedhouse, Claire Finn and Harvey Steven.
Costumes by Adriana Solari.
Filming and sound recording by Harry Green.
Photo above, from left to right:
Horace Sedger, director of Electric Palaces Ltd that opened the cinema at 87 Notting Hill Gate, in 1911.
Barbara Stone, manager of Cinegate and Gate Cinema that opened in 1974.
Stewart Wallace, gardener at Lancaster West estate who stars in The Strawberries Are For The Future (2019).
The following is a conversation with Jonathan Barnett and Leona Flude, Portobello Film Festival director and co-ordinator respectively. They discuss a range of topics: the origins and ethos of the 23 year old film festival; the pleasures and pitfalls of independent film making and exhibition; the supremacy of European and world cinema over the current British scene; and the future of the festival.
Constantine Gras will be curating a 2 hour programme of short films during the festival in September 2019 at the Gate Cinema Notting Hill. This will be called Male Emotion and Economics: The History of British Film from Cecil Hepworth to Derek Jarman and beyond. This will also be a site specific event with actors telling the story of the Gate Cinema, one of the first electric picture palaces to open up in 1911 at the dawn of the British film industry. Short films being screened include Jonathan Barnett's portrait of R.D. Laing (1984) , Adam Ritchie's Room 1301 (1965) and Constantine Gras's The Strawberries Are For The Future (2019). In addition, there will be another programme of films drawing on our local history and includes Washing Dirty Linen in Public (2019) and North Kensington Laundry Blues (1974); the latter is a film about the campaign to save the Silchester Road bath and wash house and has never been screened before.
Jonathan Barnett: I used to be a roadie for a band called Here and Now who came from Ladbroke Grove. The big thing that they used to do was free festivals and free music. There was this free music thing happening in the Grove in the late 1970s, early 80s. At the time this whole area used to be really run down, a slum. You wouldn’t believe it now. But out of slums comes a great deal of creativity. And I was totally into all of this.
Then these VHS camcorders came out so you could actually make a film for next to nothing which you couldn’t do before-hand. What got me going was the original video for The Message by Grandmaster Flash. It was filmed on VHS in the streets of New York and you could almost touch it. It was so real. And the fact that it was little bit amateurish actually made it look better than the stuff that was horribly professional. It also meant the means of production and distribution weren’t owned by the state. It was owned by ordinary people who could make films. So I filmed the carnival in 1982 and basically that’s what I did for ten years. I just filmed anybody that I thought was interesting with my VHS camcorder. Also around the beginning of the 1990s you started to get digital technology coming in.
So this was the context for why we decided to do the film festival. It was started by these people called Massive Videos that was run by Barney Platts-Mills and Ghanim Shubber. Barney made these amazing films called Bronco Bullfrog and Private Road in the early 1970s. He was into making film with kids off the street and he wanted to have a festival. They got money from City Challenge and started the Portobello Free Festival. This was around 1996 and they didn’t charge filmmakers for showing or people for admission. The first two years we were in tents on Athlone gardens which was great. It was just supposed to be a platform for all those people making films and who had nowhere to show them. Definitely came out of the genius loci of this area which used to be a frontline for innovation and we were the place that did counter-culture in terms of film.
Leona Flude: I was born around here and I think I met Barney via Courttia Newland who is a writer and is actually doing something now with Steve McQueen for TV. I used to go to school with Courttia and there was a group of us from Ladbroke Grove who started to go to Massive Video. Barney, Ghanim and Jonathan were there and telling us, yeah guys, make a film, just make a film. So everyone just mucked in. Someone would write a script, then we would go somewhere and film it. Then it got to a stage with needing to show these films somewhere. So the idea was conceived of having a film festival and it went on from there. But I have to say that without Barney and Ghanim, the festival would never have happened. They were amazing and inspiring, giving life and confidence to young people from the area who never thought that film was in their remit.
JB: I always thought the Portobello Film Festival needed a Banksy figure. The tools are there now and anyone can make a film on a budget of nothing if they want to. But not a lot of the films are very good because they are self-indulgent. It’s the selfie-generation rather than someone who wants to tell a story. But there will be people able to use this technology and make a really brilliant film. Obviously, the documentary is the easiest one, because you just find someone who is interesting and you point the camera at them. Also it’s more intimate in a way if you are doing it yourself, rather than a great big camera crew and everything. The secret? It’s got to be interesting to other people. That’s the thing about Banksy. He is street art, but everybody loves it. We need a film maker doing the same thing, with a bit of story to it or somebody interesting acting in it with a bit of star quality. I suppose it’s only just happened. We’ve only had digital for a short while, so it will take a bit of time for people to get used to it.
JB: What are the stand-out films? Guy Ritchie had his first film with us and also Shane Meadows. Sarah Gavron who made the feature Suffragettes in 2015, we had her film when she was a student at the National Film and Television School. Arguably, the films were better in those early days.
L: They had a bit more depth to them. Nowadays they are all so self-obsessed and if you find a film has really high production values, it’s usually quite dull, which is such a shame. It is difficult sitting through those films sometimes. But the European films are amazing.
JB: Yes. The European stuff tends to be of a higher quality, more challenging. I think film is regarded more highly as an art form on the continent than it is in England. Particularly good films are coming out of Spain and Ireland and Germany.
L: And Russia. You just think to yourself, how are these people having these great ideas for films.
JB: We get a lot of dramas that can be a bit dreary.
L: Especially the one’s about crime.
JB: Yes. They are made by middle-class people who probably don’t know anything about crime. There has always been good animation
L: And The British films usually do good comedy.
JB: The whole point is you make a film and other people have to watch it. So you want to leave them in a higher state than when they came into it. That’s what a work of art is about. People have to realise that they can do absolutely anything they want and they should not be trying to conform; if they want to conform, fair enough, go to film school and get a job as assistant director at the BBC. But if you want to be creative, use these tools that are available to you and do absolutely anything you want. The whole idea of a short is brilliant, because you can distill all of your bestness into ten minutes and that’s really quite exciting and a challenging thing to do.
L: We have had a few really really good films. The one for me was German. It was an arty film about a guy smoking cigarettes. It was black and white and won best film or best art film probably over 10 years ago now.
JB: N from last year was quite good. That was a send up of German expressionist films. It was clever and it wasn’t too long.
L: And Jermaine and Elsie set in Ladbroke Grove about a guy looking after that older woman.
JB: Yes. It was about this guy who was a carer for an old lady and it turned out that she was a racist. And he was black and gay. But she ended up really liking him.
L: Cass Pennant used to submit a film every year and he’s gone on to do really good things for Netflix. The work he showed here was about football fans.
JB: Casuals was about Millwall fans and their whole culture, the clothes they wore. That film was great. We’ve had a few top directors. Julian Temple showed his London Babylon here. And Mike Figgis. The last few years we are getting stuff from the Ken Russell siblings.
L: I have to say that one of the best stand out evenings was the screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc that was made in 1928.
JB: That was fantastic. In The Nursery did the soundtrack live with synthesisers that had these sound effects like bells. The actress who played Joan of Arc was amazing, her acting, her face. And to think they found that print in a can that was dumped in the back of someones house.
L: For me that is the best. I didn’t need to go to another film festival after that.
JB: One of the most exciting evenings we had was with Chris Cunningham. He used to do adverts and pop videos for people like Bjork. He was obviously the darling of the advertising world and we had this weird film of his, Rubber Johnny, a Frances Bacon type film. One minute there was nobody there and then about 500 people turned up and we could hardly fit them into Westbourne studios.
L: The queue went all the way around. I knew who he was, but I didn’t know he was that big. And it was like what the fuck! We also had another great evening with Ladj Ly and he won at Cannes this year.
JB: Yes! From a film called Les Miserables but I don'’t know if it was the original book. Ladj Ly came from one of the Paris suburbs. Whatever you say about England, it's far more integrated than France. Anyone who is ethnic minority they just whack them out to the suburbs, to the ghastly ghettos. So that’s where he’s from and they had a year of riots there and this guy filmed all the riots.
L: And we brought their production team over here to the festival and had a great evening. I'm wondering if things were almost more exciting back then.
JB: Culture has got very standardised of late. But one thing you do get at the festival, because we are kind of street level, is you get things when they are just starting out. The mainstream pick up on those good films that you first see at Portobello.
L: And also I think from the film festival being free. There’s so many more free film events around London.
JB: It’s inspired other people to do the same thing, which is great. Free is terrific. We have to thank the sponsors over the years for that including the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and The Westway Development Trust. We have this organic festival. It goes where it goes. We are not leading it anywhere apart from the fact that we are trying to keep it free. The foreign side of it which is programmed by Raymond Myndiuk will always be there because the foreign films are so good and they send them to us in droves. This year, we are doing three weeks at the Muse gallery with non-stop foreign films every evening.
JB: Tim Burke who sadly passed away recently helped start the Pop Up Cinema under the Westway. It started when the Mutoid Waste Company did a thing there one Christmas. They turned a Wessex helicopter into a spider and they had all the top graffiti artist there. Chris Bailey from the Westway Development Trust brought in Barney who then involved us. I wanted to get in a cheap projector, but Tim said - no let’s do it with a professional one. He got that in and a giant screen, The containers were our idea. The top one being the projector booth. And so we started the summer after the Mutoids had been there. Tim was putting on stuff throughout the year. We had Dave Pitt from Inn on the green doing the bar and on a nice day it was a great place to hang out. We were at the Pop Up from 2010 to 2015.
L: We would love to go back.
JB: It’s hard not being there. We are trying to make film a live experience and that was the perfect venue. They say it’s location, location, location. We got twice as many people at the Pop Up because it’s on Portobello Road and it always used to be full at 5.30 before we start at 6. There was an excitement in the air. So the last three years have been a bit of a struggle.
L: With us not being at the Pop Up, it's like we don’t have a home.
JB: Yes. We need the Pop Up. And when Grenfell happened, we decided that we didn’t want to exploit it, which is what a lot of people were doing coming into the area. We wanted to do something for local people. So we’re putting on these shows at the Maxilla which is called A Song For Notting Dale and it's not making a big political statement or everything. It’s for locals telling them they are respected.
L: In the future we want to secure funding, so that we don’t have to stress every year about paying the rent. Also getting the Pop Up back would be brilliant.
JB: It would be great if someone said, here’s thirty grand a year. We’re not asking for a fortune. That’s cheap for a big festival that lasts three weeks. And then we could really go for it and put on more special events. And we have lots of old films in the office we want to digitise.
In conclusion, some tips for film makers thinking of submitting to the festival:
L: Get someone else to edit your work. When you edit, your just too emotionally involved and will end up trying to keep everything in. And don’t forget sound quality which is just as important as the visuals.
JB: I would say keep it short and get someone interesting to act in it. There is nothing wrong with filming on the street. If your camera's in close, with a good built in mic, you’d get a good picture and this will save you having to light it. And do something interesting and original. If you have fun that will come across in the film. That’s what the original Shane Meadows films were like. He was obviously having a laugh doing it, even though a lot of it is complete nonsense, And when your film is on, come along and bring a load of mates. That’s the whole point. It’s a party. This is your version of Cannes even if it's the only film your ever going to make.
1862. Irish washerwoman at Counters Creek watches a turd floating downstream to the Thames.
A 16 year old laundress at a workshop on Latimer Road, 1890. Dreaming of better pay and romance.
1924 and a depressed char lady, thinks about going to a birth control clinic that has opened in the area.
V-E day in Europe and women at the Silchester Road bath and wash house sing:
“We're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line!”
Testerton Road, North Kensington 1967:
West Indian sisters are flooded out of a slum house and seek sanctuary at the bath house.
1970s: the building of Lancaster West estate and the campaign to save the Victorian bath and wash house.
1980s: residents of Grenfell tower look down on the bulldozed bath and wash house.
Dirty Linen washed on 12 pages
Artist's book, 6x4"
Oil pastels, ink, pencil
Project blog post: To marry an ironer is as good as a fortune
WASHING DIRTY LINEN IN PUBLIC (2019, 46 mins)
SCREENING DURING THE PORTOBELLO FILM FESTIVAL 2019
On A DOUBLE BILL WITH ROBIN IMRAY'S 1974 DOCUMENTARY
NORTH KENSINGTON LAUNDRY BLUES (1974, 10 mins)
MUSE GALLERY, 269 PORTOBELLO ROAD, NOTTING HILL, LONDON W11 1LR
Washing Dirty Linen in Public was first performed as a guided walk and performance piece
that was commissioned as part of Serpentine Galleries Hito Steyerl: Power Plants.
Extracts were also staged during the Portobello Pavilion festival of art.
Jackie Blanchflower: I can't tell you how pleased I was that I gave up my Saturday morning to come to the Power Walk last Saturday. It was great to have the guided walk and performances and lovely to hear from locals who remembered the Silchester Baths and the campaign to save them. It is really good to make history come alive and of course it does repeat itself! It would be great to expand into discussions on power and powerlessness and speaking to power.
Mary White: It was fascinating. There was a good sense of flow through the ages and it was inspiring to hear how women have worked together to be empowered in various ways in the area over the course of time. It made me proud to be a North Kensingtonite, and reminded me how so much of what we have today has been hard-won by those who have been activists in the past.
Judith Blakeman: Well researched and beautifully acted, with a space at the end for older residents to chip in with their personal reminiscences. A very interesting and intriguing afternoon.
Flora Cornish: I loved the walk and performances and social history and artworks yesterday! After building the sense of layers of history and continuity, to find there were women in the room from the laundry campaign and hear from them was the icing on the cake!
Dominic Carey: I enjoyed the walk - it’s good retracing exactly where things were before the changes that I remember and things before my time like the site of the creek. An enjoyable afternoon. Well done.
Edward Daffarn: It was very empowering to learn about the laundry protests from the 1970s.
John Whelan: I thought it was a wonderful introduction to a story that really related to the local area. It was fantastic the way you set the scene and used the wider history as an anchor with the piece. The performances really captured the everyday lives and story of the laundry. And the music and earphones worked really well.
Yvonne Allison: I was born in a family of ten children and one of the reasons for that was that my mother did not have access to birth control. And when she did go to a clinic, she was turned away because she was black. Your scene set in the house of Margery Spring Rice really brought it home to me. And the last scene as well. The one in the slum house. When my father did come to London, it was the Rachman era. It didn't matter where migrants came from, even if they were well spoken or educated. It was all the same experience for them. Watching this encapsulated the whole thing for me. Thank you so much!
Washing Dirty Linen In Public was commissioned as part of Hito Steyerl: Power Plants at the Serpentine Galleries. It was a guided walk enhanced by theatrical performances and also a related art exhibition. The latter took place at Latymer Community Church on 27th April 2019.
The story of women's labour and activism from 1860-1970 was set in the world of laundries and the bath house at Notting Dale. A guided walk set the scene for actresses who performed in the park at Silchester Estate, before moving on to Freston Road and finally ending up beneath the elevated A40 Westway. Once upon a time this area was known as soap-sud island. At its peak, in the early 20th century, there were over 300 laundry workshops and factories in North Kensington. Despite the long hours and hardship, many women were able to establish new modes of self and collective identity, as well as economic independence.
The research was conducted via online archives and related literature; there is however, only one book on the subject, English Laundresses, A S0cial History 1850-1930, written by Patricia E. Malcolmson and a fine one at that. In addition, I interviewed Jenny Williams. She was one of many activists in North Kensington during the 1960s-70s who tried to prevent the demolition of the Silchester Road bath and wash house and was then involved in the running of a community laundry. This all culminated in the writing of five short scripts that were performed by Shelagh Farren, Nina Atesh, Rachele Fregonese, Rebecca Hanser, Mina Temple, Michelle Strutt and Rawleen Evelyn.
The aim of the project was to bring a hidden story to light about women's labour and to explore its contemporary relevance for the #MeToo generation and the conflict over equality in our increasingly fragmented and polarised society. Washing dirty linen in public is a metaphor for social and artistic struggles that are needed to renew the body politic.
1840s map of North Kensington, showing the Hippodrome race course
Narrative overview of Washing Dirty Linen In Public
Counters Creek is an ancient stream that runs from Kensal Green Cemetery into the River Thames. By the middle of the 19th century, the creek becomes an open sewer and is in the process of being culverted. Today it flows under the elevated Westway and down the middle of Freston Road. During extreme weather conditions it can flood to the surface and damage basement properties.
The northern part of the parish of Kensington was still semi rural. The colony of pig farmers and brick workers that had originally settled here and were the focus of public health interventions, are in decline. People, dogs, pigs and poultry all lived together in poor housing. There was no church or school in the area. With men out-of-work, women establish a cottage industry taking in washing from an expanding upper middle-class. This became the dominant form of women’s labour in Notting Dale.
Jane - wife, head of the family, mangling woman
John - husband, turns my mangle
Laundresses used manufactured soap that was dissolved in water to form a jelly. Notting Dale was one of the few places in England where local soap was made. It used recycled raw materials from the pig farms and brick works. Food refuse was collected from the well-off houses and boiled down to make fat and this was combined with ash from the brick making industry to make the soap.
Performances by Shelagh Farren and Nina Atesh at Waynflete Square on Silchester Estate
And the SPACE (Supporting People And Community Empowerment), 214 Freston Road
Performance in Waynflete Square on guided walk: Shelagh Farren as Irish migrant, Kathleen Doherty.
"I’ve done eight hours solid bent over that wash-tub. The skin on my hands is all raw. Mrs Peters will do all the ironing, thanks be to god. Good luck to her with them frilly shirts. Gowns in fancy colours. And those blooming bloomers! Someone’s got a right royal arse. They belong to them rich people down Notting Hill Gate. They like to buy the best from Paris. I can read you know! Well, a few words on them labels. They want nothing but the best and when they’re soiled, they want it cleaning. And they expects the likes of us to do it for a pittance."
Third Mother’s meeting held in the drying room of a laundry in Latimer Road.
The opening of Latimer Road Mission as the first community building in Notting Dale.
It offered a pioneering creche facility for the laundresses who worked in the area.
The Latymer Community Church is the direct descendant of the original mission.
Latymer Christian Fellowship Trust (formerly The Latymer Road Mission)
Leaflet celebrating 150 years of loving and serving the community, 1863 – 2013
There is a growing urbanisation and industrial expansion of laundries. The working conditions in workshops are unhealthy, with long hours (10-18 hours a day are the norm) and poor pay. But new found economic status for working-class women as the bread winner.
Laundresses had a reputation for hard working followed by drinking and brawling. Pubs in Notting Dale were open on a Sunday in defiance of licensing laws. There were often more women to be found in pubs then men. Laundresses could be paid by beer that was consumed on the job. Theft and crime from the laundry industry was rife. Many laundresses saw an opportunity to abscond with linen and clothes.
West London Observer, 1884 and 1892
Newspaper image © Successor copyright holder unknown.
With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive
Harrow Mission Church opens on Latimer Road and is converted into the Harrow Club in 1969. It is a Grade 2 Listed building.
Opening of Silchester Road Baths & Wash House at a cost of £51,168 (today £6.5 million).
There were 3 swimming pools and 74 baths classed for use.
The water from the 1st class baths was recycled and used by those in the 3rd class baths.
The public laundry had 60 separate washing compartments.
Washers could earn as little as 2 shillings and 6 pence for 12 hours a day (with breaks).
Ironers earned 3 shillings and 6 pence.
3s 6d = £15 in today’s money.
Performance in The SPACE by Nina Atesh as Florence Smith, 16 year old laundress.
Supported by Shelagh Farren and Mina Temple.
"We’ve been working about four hours solid without a break. But it’s better to be here than at home.... or at school. They treat me like a child. But I’m the first in the family to earn a proper wage. And here I can make six shillings a week. I have to give half to mother mind. But the other...... half..... well it goes in the....piggy bank. And I hide that under the floorboard. Otherwise father will drink it all up."
Sayings and thoughts of women (and men) in Notting Dale:
“A shilling you earn is worth two given you by a man!”
Men: “To marry an ironer is as good as a fortune.”
Women: “The best ironer gets the worst husband.”
To wash on a Monday is to be virtuous.
But who washes on Friday is half a slut;
And who that washes on a Saturday is a slut to the bone.
The washing week:
Collection and sorting on a Monday,
Marking, soaking, washing and mangling on a Tuesday
Wednesday is ironing and airing
Thursday is folding and packing
And Friday is delivery of the snow white linen.
1888 Kensington Directory
Amalgamated Society of Laundresses and Working Women is established and campaigns for better safety and wages. However small laundries run by women fear going out of business if their work is regulated by the Factory Acts.
Estimated 200,000 attend a Labour Demonstration at Hyde Park including the Amalgamated Society of Laundresses.
249 laundry workshops and 58 laundry factories registered with Kensington Council’s Medical Officer of Health.
First woman factory inspector to be employed in London is appointed by Kensington authorities. Miss De Chaumont, Inspector of Workshops, will visit over 200 laundry workshops in North Kensington during 1907.
Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette campaigner, addresses a meeting for women at the Silchester Road and Bath House.
Narrative storyboard of the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre, 1924-74
The third birth control clinic opened in England by Margery Spring Rice and friends.
Performance in the SwimFarm under the Westway by Rachele Fregonese and Rachel Hauser.
Margery Spring-Rice has just opened a birth control clinic for working-class women on Telford Road and encourages her depressed cleaner, Freda, to pay a visit.
Freda: I wish I knew about those things before I got married.
Margery: It’s easy to learn. There are a few methods and we need to find what suits each woman. In most cases, that will be the use of a cervical cap. It is really simple to use when you get the hang of it. I don’t think Mrs Jenkins or even the daughter for that matter, fully understood what we were talking about. She then got angry and shut the door on us. After that we heard her throwing out their...what is it....food waste...hopefully nothing more. Out of the window and down into the yard. It nearly fell on someone’s head.
Freda: I spose, she’ll be wanting to throw out her daughter now.
Margery: Hopefully not out of the window.
West London Observer: “During the sale of the effects of a German laundress who died from hunger recently at the age of 80, a diamond of superb quality valued at over £3000 was found in the pocket of an old bodice she used to wear.”
Photo display at Latymer Community Church.
Mrs Joan Hales doing her Monday wash, circa 1946.
Reproduced from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Performance at Latymer Community Church by Mina Temple.
Victory in Europe Day and Joan Stewart, with a heavy heart, goes on her weekly visit to the wash house.
Joan: I wonder who’s washing today when the whole of London is celebrating the end of the war? I knew it! Only us old timers. Hilda and Nessie and the others. They’ve had their tea and sarnies. What a racket! Just listen to their false teeth. Ah. Here’s a space for me, right at the end, where it’s a bit quiet. I can see them looking at me, wondering what I’m doing over here. Silly cows! Don’t they know it’s my Wednesday wash!
Flood Havoc in Notting Hill for 60 homes as families wade waist-deep in sewer water.
Cinema Poster: Leo The Last
Orange sequence shows the revolution moving from the laundry to the street.
The film, Leo the Last, is made on Testerton Street just prior to its redevelopment into Lancaster West Estate. In the penultimate scene, an aristocrat, played by Marcello Mastroianni, incites women at the bath house to join the revolution against poverty and housing.
Performance at Latymer Community Church by Rawlene Evelyn and Michelle Strutt.
Grace Augustine is visited by her sister, Jackie, in a slum house on Testerton Street.
Jackie: And why the wall all damp under these cracks?
Grace: I was gonna hang up a few posters. Beaches and sunsets. They add colour to these grey walls.
Jackie: You cann add colour to this slum. Me no joke. You no notice round here, how all the houses painted black.
Grace: It’s for the film.
Jackie: It like you live in fantasy world round here.
The North Kensington family planning clinic closes down on Telford Road. The land is being redeveloped and contraceptive services are finally being taken over by the NHS.
Local resident's comment at the exhibition Q&A:
"I was there as a teenager. We had a big picture of a bra and it said.
How can we wear our bras if we have nowhere to wash them?"
The closure of the Silchester Road Bath and Wash House as part of the Lancaster West estate redevelopment. Women campaign to save the building and its laundry facilities.
The council open a laundry under the Westway and after more campaigning, local women, take over the running of the laundry.
Demolition of the Bath and Road House and closure of the Westway Laundry.
The last of the large family-run laundries, White Knight Laundries, closes its North Kensington branch with the loss of 75 jobs. It had been providing domestic and commercial services since 1933.
Notting Barns as framed by the Westway flyover and the Circle and Hammersmith and City Railway.
The four tower blocks of Silchester Estate and Grenfell Tower at Lancaster West Estate.
Photo early 1970s, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Archives
Our guided walk and performance navigated around railway lines, across Silchester estate and under the Westway.
At the launch of the Power Plant exhibition at the Serpentine, Hito Steyerl outlined her visionary art that connects technology with the discourse of power; she also addressed the (Sackler) elephant in the room. For me, I've got more of a swine complex. One that oink oinks in North Kensington. The roots of our land here are connected with pig farms (and potteries) and these gave rise to the first of many public health issues. The Victorian authorities prohibited this form of labour in the 1860s. This is the point at which my current art project, Washing Dirty Linen in Public, that was developed as part of Hito's exhibition, comes into play. As that land was being urbanised, laundresses and industrial laundry work, took root. This was later connected with the building of the Silchester Road bath and wash house that had extensive cheap laundry facilities. These female-centred modes of work lasted until the 1970s with the building of the estates (with hot water, baths and central heating!) and the advent of consumer appliances that minimised the need for laundries; the so-called sexual revolution also freed women to enter the wider workforce and not be tied to the demands of large families.
All these historical elements are being woven together for an exhibition and guided walk on 27th April 2019 at Latymer Community Church. My collaborators, actresses from the People's Company, have been bringing historical scripts to life drawing on their own memories of parents and distant ancestors from Ireland to the West Indies. We are thinking about how washing is being exploited in today's society with domestic home workers and in the hand car wash industry. In the background of our project is #MeToo and the recent Gender Pay legislation for companies. This liquid history is ripe for creative reinterpretation and has a contemporary resonance.
Landscape for Colin MacInnes:
"Out of this road, like horrible tits dangling from a lean old sow,
there hang a whole festoon of what I think must really be the sinisterest highways in our city...."
(Text from Absolute Beginners describing the streets of Notting Dale, 1958)
oil pastels, 16x20, 2012
High Rise living with ceramic creature comforts
Oil pastel, 16x20, 2012
Top photo: Shelagh Farren at the Westway graffiti wall.
She will be playing the role of Kathleen Doherty, laundress in 1860.
"Pat doesn't like me working, but I'm not going out begging like some tinker and I've seen what it's like in the workhouse. If I have to, I will wash all the clothes in the Dale to put food on the table and pay the rent."
Bottom photo: Rawleen Evelyn as Grace Augustine, resident of basement flat at Testerton Road in 1969:
"The council change everything round here. One day a house is here. The next day, gone. But maybe the bath house will survive."
Washing Dirty Linen in Public
A performance based walk and exhibition about women's labour and activism in Notting Dale
Saturday 27th April at Latymer Community Church, 116 Bramley Road
Exhibition display of archive images, drawings and short films from 11am - 5pm
Performances also taking place at the church hall throughout the day
Guided walks at 10am and 2pm, booking via Eventbrite
Walks sold out - please contact us to be added to reserve list
Commissioned as part of Hito Steyrl's exhibition at the Serpentine, 11 April - 6 May 2019.
When I was visited by Hito Steyerl and staff from the Serpentine Gallery last year, I took them for a walk around the streets of Notting Dale. I explained how housing issues and community activism were captured in a map made during the Latymer Mapping project.
Fast forward a year, Hito was preparing for an exhibition at the Serpentine and kindly asked me to recreate the dynamics of the map as a walk. I didn't want to revisit the politics of housing. I thought about using lost or forgotten spaces. Counters Creek that is buried under the streets. A cinematic narrative of historical voices. Each coming together to shed light on contemporary issues; but I needed a focal point.
One detail on our original map highlighted the history of laundries in the area. At its peak, there were over 300 workshops and factories in North Kensington supplying cleaning services to the working class households and their more affluent neighbours, as well as hotels and restaurants. As I dipped my toes into the research, the idea formed of connecting the first laundresses of the 1860s with the Silchester Road and Bath House that was built in 1888; and then relating these to the post-war slums and the building of the social housing estates. I envisaged a series of working-class women characters, including recent migrants, who created and then carried on a tradition of women's labour. Many of the original businesses were family run, perhaps with a woman at the helm. Washing could be a capital business and the advent of steam powered machinery was rapidly employed to maximise profit. For the laundresses the work was hard and poorly paid, but could be relied upon at times when extra income was needed for the household. The gathering together of women in this mode of labour created a new social dynamic inside and outside of the home. Becoming an ironer of silk was one of the more specialised roles that entailed better wages. There was a local saying that men of a certain temperament flocked to the area in the hope of marrying and being kept by an ironer. In the archive, there are also early examples of women organising themselves into unions that wanted to improve the working conditions for laundresses that were not fully regulated by the Factory Acts. And also accounts of laundresses taking part in the large labour demonstrations of the 1890s, travelling on a processional float to Hyde Park and getting joyously pissed, dancing and singing, effing and blinding.
From this schematic outline, I penned the following characters and they will be performed during the guided walk and at the exhibition on the 27 April:
Kathleen Doherty is a migrant from the Irish Famine, who, for a pittance, washes the clothes of the prosperous class in Notting Hill. Looking across the open fields of Notting Dale, she has a comical vision of the future.
Florence Smith, 16 years old, already a veteran of the steam laundry workshops, contemplates her adult life as a silk ironer.
Freda Palmer is the charwoman who befriends her employer, Margery Spring-Rice and contemplates visiting a birth control clinic that has just opened.
Joan Stewart sets off for her weekly visit to wash clothes at the Silchester Road Bath's. It’s no ordinary day: the country celebrates victory in Europe while Joan contemplates the fate of her family.
Grace Augustine is a West Indian mum, living in a damp, unfurnished flat, on a road that is about to be demolished for the building of Lancaster West estate. She is visited by her sister Jackie and both are forced to seek sanctuary at the bath and wash house.
The monologues and dramatic sketches will be performed by Nina Atesh, Rawleen Evelyn, Shelagh Farren, Rachele Fregonese, Rebecca Hanser, Michelle Strutt and Mina Temple.
It was a pleasure to meet up recently with Jenny Williams who told me about her involvement in the laundry narrative. She was raised in North Kensington, worked for the Greater London Council's Women’s Committee and managed children’s services for Lambeth and Camden. She became involved in many of the local community campaigns from the 1960s-80s that addressed the chronic lack of child care facilities and play spaces.
As we will discover in the following interview, there are strong parallels between the 1890s laundresses and their 1970s counterparts who saw their beloved Victorian bath and wash house demolished for redevelopment. As a result of effective campaigning, the women were able to get RBKC council to open a new laundry under the Westway. The unglamorous world of soap and suds was the setting for dissent and collective solidarity at a time of profound social change, especially for the elder residents of the community.
One of our battles in the 1970s was to try and save the Silchester Road baths and wash house. It was really well used. Mothers who had large families, tended to load up their prams and go to the wash house. You took everything in a great pile and when you came out it was all folded, ironed and you pushed it home. You had your time and day for going. You could be there for three hours and it was very cheap. While you waited, you could buy tea and coffee and bacon rolls. There was a real community aspect to it. That was why there was such an outcry about it. We’re talking about people who had practically been going there all their lives and suddenly the council wanted to close it down. It wasn’t just about losing the laundry. The building had 3 swimming pools at one time: a ladies pool, a gentleman’s pool and a public pool. There were also individual baths and a medical baths centre.
When the council announced the closure in 1974, for the continuation of the Lancaster West development, the local women were furious. So it wasn’t difficult to get their support. We even had Max Hastings come to one of our laundry meetings and he wrote an article in the Evening Standard. There were meetings with Cllr. Middleton who I believe was chair of Libraries and Amenities at the time. He said it was rather like Livingstone meeting the savages. We didn’t take very kindly to that sort of remark. The local MP, Sir Brandon Rhys-Williams, was very supportive considering he was a Tory. Also the dust men and Tony Sweeney, the trade union shop steward.
I know it wasn’t terribly appropriate, but we got hold of a lorry and took part in the Carnival. That’s me in the middle with the large hat on!
Alongside the campaign for retaining a laundry, we got a preservation order on the baths building. Mainly because it was designed by architect Thomas Verity who didn’t usually do municipal buildings. Also it was a nice building. Then various other people got interested in it and put forward these different proposals about how it could be used, including putting a stables in there. Our view was that it should be a community centre and there should be different facilities including a covered market. Then we went to a public inquiry. But the council won in the end. It was pulled down.
The council were struggling to get their head around what was happening. Our campaign was just part of a lot of community activism taking place in North Kensington. And we kept telling them we didn’t want a laundrette, we wanted a laundry! The council finally agreed. After the baths closed, they built us a new laundry under the Westway, right next to the Maxilla nursery centre.
So we had our laundry which lasted about 5 years. Then in 1980, the council again decided to close it down, So we had another campaign and what the council did was classic. They said to us, why don't you run it! They hand things over, so as not to have anything more to do with it. So we set up a laundry company. Residents wanted to continue to have sinks that they could wash things in and to have access to irons. This service lasted for another 9 years until the machinery started to break down and became too expensive to repair. To be fair to the council, they had actually put in very good quality Miele machines.
At this point, the Greater London Council Industry and Employment Committee gave us a grant and we put in a brand new laundry. It was a steam laundry and we had to have a rota of women who managed the boiler. The new laundry was opened by Mike Ward who was the chair of Industry and Employment at the GLC. We told him to bring in his washing for the opening. They supplied us with very expensive machines, the cost for the washer extractor was £5,980 for ten which was a lot of money in those days. Good old GLC! We even had heat exchangers put on top of the dryers, so it was quite economical. The GLC were very interested in green projects. It really was a super service. That lasted for another 5 or 6 years, until again, the laundry machinery broke down. And it was also the time when residents stopped using the service.
So our laundry campaign and business started in 1974 and went on into the late 1980s. A lot of us spent many years looking after the laundry, as well as doing other things in the community.
Photographs kindly reproduced by Jenny Williams ©