THE PEOPLE’S FREE STATE OF PORTOBELLO MANIFESTO
BY TOM VAGUE
Down and Out in Portobello
‘Reality lies bleeding in Portobello Road. Can this really be the end? Down and out in London with amphetamine psychosis again.’ Tony D, in the punk fanzine ‘Kill Your Pet Puppy’. Orwell Mansions, on the new Portobello Square W10 development off Golborne Road, is named in allusion to George Orwell living on Portobello Road (or possibly the Orwellian style of the block?). He did indeed begin writing ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ along the road at his blue plaque house, number 22, but that’s at the other end in a different area, near Notting Hill Gate.
In 1927-28 Orwell (when still known as Eric Blair) is described as having a room on Portobello Road, just enough money to live and all his time free to write. (Like Orwell, I’ve got a room on Portobello, just enough money to live on, and all or most of my time free to write. But, whereas he was only here for a few months before leaving for Paris and becoming one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, I’ve been down and out in Portobello, struggling to write for over 20 years.) The Golborne Portobello Square is in fact closer to the site of the Portobello farmhouse (on the south east corner of the Portobello and Golborne Roads junction) than the pedestrian precinct at the junction of Tavistock Road south of the Westway in W11, which is more commonly and quasi-officially known as Portobello Square.
Ye Olde Nuttynghull Market
‘Imagination starts with raffish Portobello Road’, wrote Monica Dickens, Charles’s great-granddaughter who lived on the corner of Chepstow Villas. The most imaginative account of how Portobello market began is in the 1977 guidebook by Craig Sams, which has: ‘in the middle ages there was a market on Nuttynghull Street. Later the Romany gypsies and the travelling Irish tinkers peddled their wares while local farmers and pig-rearers sold their produce.’ Knottynghull is mentioned in the Patent Rolls in 1359, but as a wooded area only inhabited by robbers. Up until the mid-19th century North Kensington was entirely rural, though Notting Barns farm and the seasonal gypsy camp in Notting Dale can be traced back to the middle ages.
In the 1860s, when the Portobello Road and market were established along the old farm lane, the far out hippy guidebook has: ‘triumphal processions from Greenwich docks would stop at Trafalgar Square to bask in national recognition before carrying on by oxcart to Portobello to get on with the serious business of transforming the fruits of conquest into hard cash.’ It really started as a local flea market and wasn’t known for antiques until after World War 2.
Porto Belo Pirates of the Caribbean
Portobello Road does, however, have a naval origin. The farm and its lane were named in celebration of England’s defeat of Spain in the 1739 battle of Porto Belo (now in Panama), under the management of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon. The original Porto Belo is said to have been named by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and Francis Drake was buried at sea near to it in 1596. The port had previously been captured and plundered by the Caribbean pirates William Parker in 1601 and Captain Henry Morgan in 1668.
The British victory in the battle of Porto Belo also inspired the lyrics of ‘Rule Britannia – Britannia rule the waves’, as it was seen as avenging the disastrous blockade of Porto Belo in 1726, in which 3-4,000 British sailors died of tropical diseases. The battle was the highlight of ‘the War of Jenkins’ Ear’, so named after an incident in which a British captain had his ear torn off by the commander of a Spanish boarding party. The Spanish duly retook Porto Belo and Admiral Vernon was defeated in the battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741, with further heavy losses.
In New York, recruitment for the British war effort resulted in a multi-racial uprising of Africans, Irish and Spanish prisoners known as ‘the Slave Plot’. With some historical irony in the late 20th century the Portobello farmland was occupied by Afro-Caribbean, Irish and Spanish communities. Admiral Edward Vernon, who gave his name to the Yard mews (once occupied by Virgin Records) and antiques market on Portobello Road, as well as Mount Vernon in Virginia, was also responsible for the word ‘grog’. Due to his reputation for watering down rum supplies, he was nicknamed ‘Old Grog’ after his Grogram coat, referring to his stinginess, and the term was transferred to the beverage.
Ain’t No Surf In Portobello
The song ‘Ain’t No Surf In Portobello’ by the Scottish punk band the Valves refers to the Portobello beach near Edinburgh, which acquired its name from members of Admiral Vernon’s crew who bought the land with their share of the victory’s proceeds. The music-hall singer Harry Lauder, who also hailed from the Scottish Portobello, had a ‘Portobello Lass’ song. There’s another Portobello near Durham and Dublin has another Portobello Dock. The Portobello Star bar was named in allusion to Vernon’s flagship and the Princess Alexandra was renamed the Portobello Gold referring to New World exploitation. The corner of Lonsdale Road was the Portobello Tavern and there was a Portobello Street and Mews on the site of the Portobello Court estate. Porto Belo in Panama has a proper Lent carnival in March established by escaped African slaves.
Notting Hill in bygone days myths
Notting Hill could mean ‘Nutting Hill, in allusion to the rich woods which no longer cover it’, as GK Chesterton put it, or be derived from the Saxons Sons of Cnotta tribe, but that’s just a theory with no evidence to back it up. However, there is evidence of Roman activity in the area; Holland Park Avenue was part of the Roman road to Silchester and a burial ground was discovered at the start of Ladbroke Grove. According to a 1970s archaeological survey there would have been a villa on or around the site of St John’s church at the top of the Notting Hill knoll. But this can’t be verified unless we can get ‘Time Team’ to dig up the area or a basement excavation comes up with something.
The Kensington manor is defined by two underground rivers, Counter’s Creek and the Westbourne, but Florence Gladstone noted in ‘Notting Hill in Bygone Days’, ‘there is no foundation for the statement, occasionally met with, that a vast lake underlies the district.’ The de Vere medieval lords of the manor appear in Laurence Gardner’s ‘Realm of the Ring Lords’ as the mystical elf kings of Kensington. There are theories that two of them were Robin Hood, and the Elizabethan Edward de Vere is thought to be Shakespeare.
The short-lived Hippodrome racecourse (1837-42) was unsuccessful because the clay soil made the going heavy, not because the land was overrun by pigs or bought by Baron Warren Todd to build luxury flats on (from Tony Allen’s local pub quiz). It’s not a myth that the Ladbroke estate was built on the racecourse, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the horse racing betting agency. As Florence Gladstone put it, the Hippodrome ‘determined the future aspect of the whole district.’ Captain Martin Becher, of Becher’s Brook fame, was the course manager and Bangor Street in Notting Dale was renamed after him.
Dickensian Notting Hill
Charles Dickens local myths/uncorroborated stories include him appearing at the 20th Century Theatre on Westbourne Grove, and taking opium at the Paul Smith shop house on the corner of Kensington Park Road whilst researching ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. Dickens did appear at various local venues including Holland House and Kensal Green cemetery. He didn’t write about Notting Dale but the local slum area was featured in his ‘Household Words’ journal. The blocks of the Henry Dickens Court estate, established by his councillor grandson on the site, are named after Dickens characters. The north end of Portland Road didn’t become a poor area due to its proximity to the gypsy camp, as claimed in the BBC ‘Secret History of Our Streets’ series. By the time Portland Road appeared the gypsies had been incorporated into the multicultural Notting Dale slum, along with English, Irish and Italian communities.
The German Electric Cinema and the North Kensington ghost bus A hundred years ago, at the outbreak of the First World War the Electric Cinema was attacked in anti-German riots because the London and Provincial Electric Theatres company was German-owned; not because the manager was suspected of signalling to Zeppelins from the roof. In the 30s the North Kensington ghost bus story arose after a fatal car crash on St Mark’s Road in the early hours. The driver is said to have swerved into a lamppost to avoid the phantom number 7 of the General Omnibus Company (by then succeeded by London Transport), sightings of which had been reported at the same time as the accident.
Portobello Road, street where the riches of ages are stowed
The 1971 Disney film ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ features a World War 2 proto-Carnival song and dance routine in Portobello market including a time travelling West Indian steel band. The ‘Portobello Road’ song lyrics sum up the mythology of the market: ‘Rare alabaster? Genuine plaster. A filigreed samovar owned by the czars. A pen used by Shelley? A new Boticelli? The snipper that clipped old King Edward’s cigars? Waterford crystals? Napoleon’s pistols? Society heirlooms with genuine gems! Rembrandts! El Grecos! Toulouse-Lautrecos! Painted last week on the banks of the Thames.’
Christie at the Electric and Mosley in the KPH
The most popular Portobello myth is that the local serial killer John Christie of 10 Rillington Place worked at the Electric Cinema as a projectionist. He did work at a cinema in Hammersmith and was associated with the Royalty on Lancaster Road, but there is no evidence of him being employed at the Electric. The building is also said to be haunted by the ghost of a manager who slashed his wrists in the upstairs office (now the members club). Christie probably didn’t go to the KPH much either, though it was the favourite pub of Timothy Evans. In the 1958 riots it’s said to have been the fascist HQ, and Oswald Mosley appeared at a 59 election meeting outside the library on Ladbroke Grove, not in the KPH. Mosley’s Union Movement bookshop was on Kensington Park Road and he did visit the Earl of Warwick/Portobello pub in Kensal, outside of which the West Indian Kelso Cochrane was subsequently murdered.
The Legends of 58 and the 60s
The short-film ‘Sorry We Don’t Help Darkies’, shown at last year’s festival, is an authentic looking re-enactment of the 58 race riots but the basic premise of the film is historically inaccurate, projecting back the institutionalised racism of the police in the 70s and 80s. In fact the white rioters attacked policemen who came to the assistance of black people, and were reported shouting “coppers are n***** lovers.” Yet, a real version of the mod ‘Absolute Beginner’ character in the Colin MacInnes novel did exist. Momodu Kamara recalls the Jewish boyfriend of his wife’s sister going round the area on his scooter and reporting back to the West Indians on the whereabouts of the Teds, as portrayed by Eddie O’Connell in the Julien Temple film.
Carnival and Performance
Notting Hill Carnival wasn’t founded after or during the riots by Claudia Jones, the 59 London Caribbean Carnival founder, as propagated in some quarters, or in 64/65, but by Rhaune Laslett and the London Free School hippy community activists in 1966. The Caribbean Notting Hill Carnival was established by Merle Major and Leslie Palmer in 72/73, as Ishmahil Blagrove’s Carnival photo history book sets the record straight. Most of the stories about Michael de Freitas aka Michael X are true, though his involvement in the Princess Margaret sex photos affair as portrayed in ‘The Bank Job’ film is stretching it. During the filming of ‘Performance’ in 1968, the authenticity of Mick Jagger’s on-screen relationship with Anita Pallenberg (Keith Richards’ girlfriend) is said to have nearly caused the Stones to split. But the interior scenes were shot in Lowndes Square, Knightsbridge, not Powis Square.
Hendrix and head shops
Jimi Hendrix really came up with the song title ‘Purple Haze’ from the sight of 167 Westbourne Grove, which was painted purple when he was staying there in 1967, on his return from a UFO Club trip one morning. He died of drug misadventure 3 years later on Ladbroke Grove. According to the police report he was still alive when the ambulance arrived at 22 Lansdowne Crescent, then known as the Samarkand Hotel, but DOA at St Mary Abbots Hospital in South Kensington. He was reputedly last seen at the Globe on Talbot Road and the Mangrove on All Saints Road. Various other local addresses including 110 Golborne Road have claims to being Hendrix crash pads. The first hippy headshop was probably the Family Dog Shop at 2 Blenheim Crescent, although there was also Forbidden Fruit at 295 Portobello and Simon’s Stable at 297 in the late 60s. The original Rough Trade shop at 202 Kensington Park Road was previously another headshop/printshop. The tradition has since been maintained by Lee Harris and Hank’s Alchemy at 253 and 261 Portobello.
Rock and reggae legends
In punk rock mythology the Clash formed in Portobello market in 1976, as recalled by Joe Strummer in ‘All the Young Punks’: ‘I was hanging about down the market street… when I met some passing yobbos and we did chance to speak, I knew how to sing and they knew how to pose...’ In other versions the pivotal meeting took place on Ladbroke Grove, Ladbroke Road, Westbourne Grove, Golborne Road, in Shepherd’s Bush and the Lisson Grove dole office, or it was a total fabrication to cover up the premeditated poaching of Strummer from the 101’ers. They did, however, frequent Henekey’s (the Earl of Lonsdale) on Portobello and the Elgin on Ladbroke Grove as the group came together, so the myth is more or less true. The ‘Clash City Rockers’ inscription discovered by Geordie Ian in the concrete alongside a garden wall down Elgin Crescent is in Joe Strummer’s handwriting according to Chris Salewicz (along from: ‘Let it be known I was once owned of thee’ in different handwriting).
In 1977 Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ‘Exodus’ album and Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ single were recorded at Chris Blackwell’s Island Studios on Basing Street; not at Trevor Horn’s subsequent Sarm Studios, as the luxury flat development hoarding mural claims. Most other rock and reggae greats, including Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, the Stones, the Eagles, Mott the Hoople, Aswad, the Clash and the Slits, were in the studios in the Island years from the late 60s to the early 80s. Apparently true legends of the Portobello Hotel on Stanley Gardens include Alice Cooper keeping his stage prop snake in the bath of room 13, Tina Turner liking the place so much that she bought a house next door, Damon Albarn working behind the bar and Graham Coxon as the porter, and the much publicised Johnny Depp/Kate Moss champagne bath. tomvague.co.uk colvillecom.com Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate Vague 78