Monday, June 12, 2006

Lord Russell, tear down that wall

Simon Jenkins, in Landlords to London (1974), on Bedford Square in Bloomsbury:

The Estate's officers, with the experience of the haphazard development of south Bloomsbury behind them, went to inordinate lengths to ensure that nothing would mar the quality of their new neighbourhood. The conditions imposed by [the Bedford estate's agent Robert] Palmer on the builders went into mind-boggling detail. The proportions were all laid down, as were the quality of materials to be used -- 'best Memel or Riga timber' with floors of 'good yellow seasoned deals free from sap'. No trades were permitted nor was any change of use from residential allowed. Even the lesser streets which were built north of the Square -- Chenies Street and Store Street -- were banned to traders. Servants were expected to patronise the shops south of Great Russell Street, and strict limits were placed on through traffic. Gates guarded the entrances to Bedford Square from the south and Gower Street from the north and a shopkeeper was not even allowed to send his boy to make a delivery. He would only be admitted if he came himself, lest the tone of the neighbourhood should in any way be lowered.

He appends a remark about "the fortified suburbs of Los Angeles", but things have moved on. We have our own super-rich to mock these days.

And a bonus liberal London snobbery quote, did you know the cachet of your postcode depends on the price of a ticket there in 1870?

For the most part South London failed to develop the social prestige attached to the new northern suburbs. Certainly, especially on higher ground, pockets of eminent respectability survived into the twentieth century, for instance in Wimbledon, Dulwich and Blackheath. But none of them exerted on their surrounding estates the economic attaction of a Highgate, a Hornsey, a Hampstead or later of a Harrow or a Wembley Park. One thesis is that the railway companies were stronger to the north and had less need to court suburban traffic with cheap tickets, which in turn tended to drag down the economic tone of a neighbourhood. The LNWR, the Midland and the Great Western absolutely refused to introduce any workmen's fares throughout the nineteenth centur, thus neatly preserving a ninety-degree arc of north-west London from working-class colonisation.

He later uses the inverse -- financial troubles at Liverpool Street, and a resulting rush of cheap tickets -- to explain the "tone" of the Essex suburbs.

[Landlords to London, Simon Jenkins, Constable, 1975. The history of a metropolis considered as one long frenzy of property speculation -- an approach that fits London very well. Some repetition and loose editing, but if it was a 'quickie' book (preface says much of it comes from research for the Evening Standard, which he was about to edit) then it's a remarkably coherent one. His declared purpose -- a memorial to private land speculation, now that London is under the total grip of municipal development power -- is another for the hindsight file.]

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