Notting Hill may have become intrinsically linked to floppy-haired male leads unconvincingly impersonating Horse & Hound journos and Britain’s best-known excuse to drink Red Stripe while covered in glitter, but its history is a little more chequered. 'Streets of Sin: A Dark Biography of Notting Hill', is the latest work by historian and London devotee Fiona Rule, and it’s full of the kind of depravity with which you can sicken your rich mates who brag about their new pad in Ladbroke Grove. Here are ten things they'll wish they’d never found out about their gentrified borough.
Before Notting Hill morphed into its current incarnation – rows of tasteful cream-coloured frontages occupied by big-quiffed heirs to home counties fortunes – it enjoyed a former life as, amongst other things, a race course intended for London’s aristocratic class. The grandly named Kensington Hippodrome was fraught with controversy from its creation in 1837. As well as alienating the local community by being built upon an ancient right of way, its creator John Whyte sourced the capital for the ill-fated venture from the crippling proceeds of the Jamaican slave trade.
Quaintly named Pottery Lane, which took its title from the brick kilns that dotted West London in the nineteenth century, used to go by another moniker. Cutthroat Lane, as the thoroughfare was known during the deep, grinding slum-years that made up a large part of Notting Hill’s history, was a notorious hotspot for violence and, er, more violence. The area soon became known for animal baiting and dogfighting, courtesy of vagabond showman Samuel Wedgebury.
Whilst pottery-making was big business, it wasn’t the sole trade enjoyed within the dark slum-days of west London. There was pig keeping (smelly), septic tank cleaning (smellier), chimney sweeping (oppressive, exploitative of minors, also smelly), and the bowstring business. The honourable profession of bowstringing isn’t as noble as it sounds; the primary source of said strings was catgut, natural fibres found in animal intestines. The ensuing detritus contributed to the creation of ‘The Ocean’, a huge slurry pit, which was eventually filled-in and would become Avondale Park. Think of that the next time you’re pushing your kids on the swings out Avondale way.
This large expanse of viscous muck contributed to the cholera epidemic that caused untold deaths in the nineteenth century. Medical officer Mr CM Frost was despatched to Piggeries and Potteries slum to identify the root cause of the illness, but failed to recognise that it was due to residents drinking dirty water that was precipitating the epidemic. Believing cholera to be airborne, Mr Frost recommended the removal of the pigs – which a magistrate did on a temporary basis – to literally no effect whatsoever.
Oh, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the average life expectancy within the P&P slum was 12 – a short innings compared to the relatively geriatric average (37) for the rest of London.
There are at least two ‘Ripper’ murderers within Notting Hill’s jaded past. ‘The Blackout Ripper’ preyed upon women during London’s night-time WWII blackouts, while ‘Jack the Stripper’ was responsible for West London’s ‘nude murders’ in the mid-1960s.
By the end of 1945, London was slowly awakening, blurry-eyed from years of Blitz conditions and rationing, and sorely in need of a drink. Reasonably priced alcohol was in short supply in the capital following WWII, and since the demand was high, a lucrative black market trade sprung up across London. The murder of retired policeman Frank Everitt – found dead in a cab in Notting Hill – and West End bar owner Henryk Malinowski highlighted how the supply of contraband booze was inextricably linked to the dark rustlings of the London underworld.
10 Rillington Place
Nothing captures the imagination of ‘Rotting Hill’ more than the John Christie murders. Responsible for the deaths of at least eight women, including his own wife, Christie’s home of 10 Rillington Place was destroyed following the discovery of his gruesome exploits. He was depicted (creepily effectively) by Richard Attenborough in biopic ‘10 Rillington Place’, and remains London’s second most infamous serial killer, following Whitechapel’s ‘Jack’.
‘Heavy glove gangs’ may sound like a sartorially elegant but ergonomically encumbered troupe, but in fact this was the name given to the heavies that enforced the wishes of ruthless landlords in the middle of the twentieth century. In fact, these gangs were so closely linked to one particularly ruthless Notting Hill resident, Peter Rachman, that the term ‘Rachmanism’ was entered into the OED as a synonym to describe the exploitation of tenants.
The frothing cauldron of racial tension that was Notting Hill in the 1950s soon led to riots on a vast scale. The August Bank Holiday of 1958 saw the west of London in a fervour as violence erupted across the borough between down-on-their-luck Brits and the harried West Indian community. The first Notting Hill carnival took place eight years later on the same bank holiday, becoming a powerfully symbolic gesture of Britain’s increasing cultural cohesion.
By David Keevill
Want more horrible history? Take a look at the five places in London you never knew had a grisly past.
OK, so now it's time to GET READY FOR NOTTING HILL CARNIVAL 2015!