This is a glimpse of Fortess Grove, a wonderful, hidden-away cul-de-sac just a couple of minutes walk from Kentish Town station. Who knew! It's tiny - but a real treasure.
This post is about Fortess Grove and another nearby hidden wonder of NW5, Railey Mews, and the former commercial building that unites them.
So first let's get our bearings -
So we're on the east side of Fortess Road. This map is from the Camden planning site - because the building outlined in green is being redeveloped.
As you can see, this buiding stretches from Fortess Grove to Railey Mews - though there's otherwise no direct pedestrian access between the two streets. It was a large but undistinguished vehicle repair shop - the home of M. & A. Coachworks until towards the end of 2015.
The building is difficult to date and an estate agent has declared it - with a sense of the past that would merit a place in 1066 and All That - to be a 'Victorian coachworks building from the 1920s'. It's address curiously was 36-52 Fortess Grove, which suggests a fairly dense residential development before the building went up, whenever that was.
As of 2017, planning permission was given to redevelop the building - hollowed out and with a new roof - with a business floor, and with a total of ten 2-bed or 3-bed dwellings. And that work is now well underway.
This is what the site looks like from Fortess Grove -
And here's the view from Railey Mews - and just to help you get your bearings, we've included another of Kentish town's hidden delights, the Pineapple on Leverton Street -
Fortess Grove has the charm of a serpentine curving access from Fortess Road, which keeps the residential part of the street very much a secret -
I've been able to find out very little about the history of Fortess Grove except that a bomb fell here during the Second World War. But as you can see, it has real charm.
Railey Mews isn't a dead end, but it is if anything even more tucked away - a mews street with its cobbles in tact. Residential, though with a couple of former industrial buildings - but it seems that none of the initial mews properties survive in tact.
If you have a spare half-hour in Kentish Town, then come and take a look!
This wonderful photo of sixty years or more ago - posted here courtesy of Jean McCrindle - shows two of the key figures of the British New Left ... outside an iconic venue of the New Left.
The writing on the back says: 'Ralph [Raphael Samuel] + Edward Thompson + Ernest (the tall guy) + John, Two of the ULR coffee bar people, watching'.
E.P. Thompson (1924-1993) was a Marxist humanist, a peace campaigner and the most distinguished historian of his generation, the author notably of The Making of the English Working Class. He was a member of the Communist Party but in 1956, after the revelations of Khrushchev's 'secret speech' at the 20th Congress of the CPSU denouncing Stalin's 'cult of personality', he - along with another Yorkshire-based historian, John Saville - set up what was in effect a dissident journal, the Reasoner.
After the Soviet-led invasion of Hungary later in the year, both Thompson and Saville left the CP. They closed the Reasoner after three issues but the following year they started the New Reasoner. It was the birth of the British New Left.
Raphael Samuel (1934-1996) was also a historian and the founding figure in the History Workshop movement. He was also a member of the Communist Party, again leaving in 1956. And early in 1957 he - along with Stuart Hall, Chuck Taylor and Gabriel Pearson - set up Universities & Left Review, similar in scope to the New Reasoner, but brighter in design, more concerned about culture and aiming for a slightly younger and less party-oriented readership.
The two journals coalesced at the beginning of 1960 to form the New Left Review. It wasn't an easy alliance and Edward Thompson was at times lacerating in his criticism of Raph and of Stuart Hall, the initial editor of NLR. But those early issues of the Review are a world apart from the theory-heavy (indeed, all round heavy) NLR which emerged out of a 'palace coup' a couple of years later.
And the iconic venue?
Well, one of Raph Samuel's more quixotic ventures was to establish a ULR coffee bar, the Partisan, in Soho. It lost money - quite a lot of money - but kept going from October 1958 to early 1963 (though it was in some decline after 1961). It was a remarkable venture, a 'socialist coffee house', an 'anti-espresso bar', a meeting place with linked offices above which became the heart of a national New Left Club movement.
And all this in Soho - where Marx once lived, where generations of political emigres published and agitated, and which was seen as on the cutting-edge of cool. The coffee house was in Carlisle Street - and that fits with the photo ... it's Soho Square that looms in the background on the right.
The historian Mike Berlin made a radio programme about the Partisan - it's below - and his illustrated account of the club published to accompany an exhibition of Roger Mayne's commissioned photos of the Partisan (held at Four Corners in 2017) is worth seeking out.
The date of the photo - well probably 1958-60.
And Jean McCrindle (born 1937)? Well, she - like Raph - was brought up in a Communist household and joined the CP herself (and also left over Hungary). She was active in the New Left Clubs in Scotland where she was a student.
According to Raph (he says he changed his name to Ralph for a while because fellow-YCLers in North London found his real name impossible to pronounce), he and Jean first met at the CP headquarters on King Street in Covent Garden in the underground room where student 'aggregates' were held. He also recalled proposing to Jean when aged 21 at the summit of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh - though Jean's memory is more that they talked about getting married.
There's a celebrated photo of the couple taken at Trafalgar Square in 1956 ...
... there's no doubt about the location - you can see the National Gallery in the background. And the occasion? Uncertain - but the big political gathering in Trafalgar Square that year was the anti-Suez demonstration on 4th November.
By the end of that month the engagement was over.
Jean McCrindle - who I met this week - has herself been a lifelong activist, pioneering feminist and teacher and twice stood for Parliament.
I have a bronze bust of Charles Bradlaugh - one of my proudest possessions. And now I have two. Here's the story.
First of all, if you are wondering who Bradlaugh is - well, one of the most prominent and remarkable of Victorian radicals: a Parliamentarian, atheist, Republican, birth control advocate, Irish and Indian nationalist, and determined campaigner, journalist, pamphleteer, orator and propagandist.
A bit like Tony Benn in more recent years, Bradlaugh was both loved and hated. (Though unlike Benn, he was an opponent of socialism ... and a freemason!)
Returned to Parliament by the electors of Northampton in 1880, Bradlaugh then fought a bitter and protracted struggle to be allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons - to affirm, or even to be allowed to take the oath on the Bible when he was an avowed unbeliever.
He spent a night in detention in the Houses of Parliament (supposedly in the clock tower) as part of that turbulent, and eventually successful, campaign.
I bought the bust of Charles Bradlaugh at auction many years ago. It's about ten inches high and the work of Francis Verheyden, a Belgian sculptor who moved to London where he lived for several decades prior to his death in 1919. There is an artist's signature mark, 'F. VerHeyden', at the side of the bust.
The rear of the bust also bears a small casting tag: 'CIE DES BRONZES / BRUXELLES' - suggesting that the bust was cast at the prestigious Compagnie des Bronzes in the Belgian capital.
Charles Bradlaugh died in January 1891 at the age of 57. He was buried, amid much fanfare, at Brookwood cemetery on the outskirts of London. A monument at his grave erected two years after his death 'consists of a bronze bust of Mr. Bradlaugh, by Mr F. Verheyden, on a red granite pedestal', according to a tribute volume, Champion of Liberty. 'It was erected at a cost of £225, and the money was subscribed absolutely spontaneously, without a single appeal or one word of request.'
There's also an imposing statue of Bradlaugh - unveiled in 1894 - in his former constituency of Northampton, and a hall which takes his name in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
As you can see, the bust at the grave is very similar - though not quite identical - to my much smaller bust.
The Brookwood bust was stolen many years ago, as was the bronze wreath on the pedestal. Whether this act of desecration was simply criminal or also in part political or ecclesiastical is not at all clear.
Happily the National Secular Society - the freethought organisation which Charles Bradlaugh founded in 1866 and which still thrives - is now restoring the monument at Brookwood. I was asked to loan my bust to a specialist company, Ryman & Leader, so they could make a fresh cast. This they will now scale up - by a factor of three or four, by my reckoning - to make a replacement for the missing Brookwood bust, though it will be made of a special resin rather than bronze.
Here's Andrew from Ryman & Leader when he came round the other day to return my bust - and to give me a resin copy of the original. Thank you - that's really kind and much appreciated. Which is the original? Well, if you can't tell it hardly matters!
The resin copy is splendid and wonderfully convincing. The colour tone is almost identical. The weight is more or less the same. The only difference - it doesn't quite have the feel of metal, and it doesn't ping when you hit it (delicately!) with a spoon.
I am still puzzled about the purpose of the bust that I bought all those years back. It may have been a prototype made by the sculptor to seek the approval of whoever commissioned him before embarking on the bigger, and more expensive, bust. Or perhaps some small busts were made as a means of raising funds for the memorial - though I am not aware of any other Bradlaugh busts around (if you are, do please let me know).
But I am very happy that my Bradlaugh has now been twinned!
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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