The smart move to city living

Friday, 18th June 2021 — By The Xtra Diary

Grove End House © Oast House Archive

Grove End House

HERE we go, here we go, here we go, the footie fans among us mumble under their breath as we embark on another virtual walk. As the lockdown extension has kicked in, Diary won’t down tools and revert to a pre-pandemic column yet, so sit back and let your mind wander…

We departed last week in Edgware Road, sharing nostalgic musings on the cluster of old radio ham and sound system shops that could be found there.

Now we’re ducking back off the main fare and walking to Gateforth Street, to marvel at the little cultural gem that is the Cockpit Theatre.

Built by the Inner London Education Authority in 1969 – oh for those progressive days! – it’s interesting for a number of reasons. Designed by architect Edward Mendelsohn, it was originally called the Gateforth Street Youth Arts Centre.

It’s snappier title, adopted a decade after its opening, references the famous West End 17th-century theatre that also doubled up as a cock fighting ring.

Our Cockpit was the first theatre to be built “in the round” – meaning with an audience forming a circle with the players in the middle – since the Great Fire of London.

In the early 1970s London Weekend Television took over the space to film a music show called – wait for it – In The Round, presented by BBC2’s first head of music and arts, the pioneering broad­caster Sir Humphrey Burton. Marc Bolan rocked out there in 1972 and today it is a full-time theatre, and remains a hands-on training space.

Now we head a few streets north to pause outside a classic St John’s Wood mansion block, Grove End House.

This area is interesting for it’s city-living designs. London had not been big on apartment blocks as other European cities had in the 19th century, but the idea started taking root around the turn of 20th. Buyers sought modern efficiency – and less need for domestic help – but with a sense of opulence. Design issues based on Edwardian ideas of behaviour; it wouldn’t do to have the dining room too far from the kitchen, but the bathroom must also be accessible without any guests having the uncomfortable experience (apparently) of walking past one’s bedroom to wash one’s hands.

Scott Ellis Gardens, names after ‘Britain’s wealthiest batchelor’. Photo: Oast House Archive

Once such niceties were dealt with, there was a mansion block building boom and St John’s Wood was at its centre.

Builder Abraham Davis was a key player: his father, Wolf, had been in the tailoring trade in Whitechapel and he and his six sons started build­ing shops and housing in the East End. Abraham would eventually be responsible for more than 2,000 flats in the immediate vicinity of where we currently stand.

As we gaze at Grove End House, a classic example of this type of project (though GEH dates from the 1930s), there is a lovely story behind its front door, all about “the man who made Glasgow bathroom conscious,” according to a mid-century Whitehall enquiry into living standards.

Glasgow-born John Mactaggart was the son of a coppersmith. After leaving school he got a job in a timber yard and over the next 10 years, built 1,500 high-quality homes for working people before setting out on his own.

By 1900 his genius at prefabricating units was married with a philanthropist’s sense of duty and care. He made sure each home he built was carefully designed, financed and managed to ensure they remained affordable for those on low incomes, but always offered the tenant a sense that they had moved up in the world, epitomised by the inside loos each home boasted.

Like the chocolate industrialists, the Bourneville and Cadbury families, Mactaggart wanted everyone to have not just a decent home but decent community. He insisted on playing fields, gardens and communal areas in his estates.

Such was his reach in Scotland that his model would be adopted pretty much wholesale by local authorities during the golden years of council housing. Mactaggart had many strings to his bow – a dedicated political campaigner on issues of world peace, he was a vocal advocate of the League of Nations.

1906 caricature of Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis by Vanity Fair’s ‘Spy’, Leslie Ward

He also was fascinated by the film industry and invested in productions. Aged 60, Mactaggart headed to the US and became friends with FD Roosevelt, who he advised on housing and the New Deal.

In London, he built housing in Westminster and used the income from the flats to finance other philanthropic schemes.

On his death, many were surprised at how little he left in his will – the reason being he had disinvested all his assets and poured them into his housing schemes so they had a secure future – and one such canny investment, made by the charity he established, is Grove End House, whose income supports charities, decades after John’s passing.

Now to Scott Ellis Gardens. The name comes from the fact it was built on land owned by Lord Howard de Walden, who earned the monarch’s favour for his derring-do to defeat the Spanish Armada.

The 8th descendent, Thomas Evelyn Ellis, born 1880, added Scott to his name, which came from his grandmother’s side. Called “Britain’s wealthiest bachelor” by the press in 1901 after inheriting land in Marylebone, Scott-Ellis drove a speedboat in the 1908 Olympics.

A Boer War veteran, he also served in the Royal Tank Corps in the Great War. He fell hard for Welsh culture, and used his money to become a patron of Welsh arts, teaching himself the language.

He wrote books under the name TE Ellis, and was also an inspiration to others: in his 20s, Auguste Rodin sculpted a bust of him. He also collected medieval armour, and the painter Augustus John recalled visiting Scott-Ellis at his castle in Kilmarnock to find him sitting comfortably in an armchair, puffing on a pipe, reading The Times and clad head to foot in armour. On that clanking piece of imagery, stay well, stay safe.

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