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Stool tales

26 February, 2021 — By The Xtra Diary

St John’s Smith Square

IT feels like winter has been seen off though, as we have been touring Westminster from the comfort of wherever it is you read these pages, there is little need to peer through closed curtains yet.

And so with your comfort in mind, off we set for another meander.

We departed last week outside the Regency Cafe in Regency Street, leaving us suitably full of both fry-up and the sense of Art Deco 20th-century interior design.

With this in mind, we turn round the corner into Page Street and ponder how the tastes and fads in architecture trundle in a circular fashion.

It is in Page Street we first glimpse a striking block designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Built in the 1930s, Lutyens’ traditional arts and crafts vernacular was, by then, out of fashion. Thankfully not before the Duke of Westminster employed Lutyens to build new homes for workers in Page, Vincent and Regency streets.

Lutyens used a clever trick with red bricks and white render, creating a vertical chess board. That was his secret, recalled architecture critic, Nikolaus Pevsner: he called Lutyens “without doubt the greatest folly builder in England” and added “the British have a fascination for the folly like no other country”.

He went on to say the Brits need not be ashamed of that fascination as “to appreciate a folly a degree of detachment is needed, which is only accessible to old and humane civilisations”.

These delightful flats by this delightful architect were sold by the Duke of Westminster on a 999-year lease for a shilling to Westminster council in 1935 – and it would lead them to a role in the “Homes For Votes” scandals that hit the council under Dame Shirley Porter.

They were at the centre of an unlikely court case in 1990, prompted by Westminster’s intention of selling Lutyens’ 532 flats to private owners. The duke argued his gran and grandad had handed the council a 999-year lease on the agreement that they would be let at low rents to the “working classes”.

The council claimed such a definition did not exist any more and considered, on the sly, this was an opportunity to get rid of a swathe of Labour-voting tenants and replace them with wealthier private residents. The courts went with the duke.

Leaving Lutyens, the duke and dodgy Shirley P behind, we now walk down Marsham Street, once home to Jonathan Snow, a businessman in the 1770s.

He has left us descriptions of the fields stretching west, slowing being nibbled away by grand homes and peasants’ hovels.

Snow was heading home from south London to Marsham Street late on October 19 1774, accompanied in his coach by a vicar and two others, when they became embroiled in a high-speed chase and gunfight with a pair of highwaymen.

Snow told the Old Bailey during the trial of two men called Tomlin and Knight that “we had heard of a robbery that night in Gunnersbury Lane and having arms we determined not to be robbed”.

As they crossed the Thames, they noticed “a couple o’ fellows” and decided they looked like they were up to no good: a correct assumption.

Snow said: “They tried to force the coach to stop, while the passengers implored the driver to whip the horses up to speed.”

Pistol shots were exchanged while a hand-to-hand battle on the move unfolded. Despite the evidence, the jury voted to acquit.

Meanwhile Snow’s neighbour, William Gardner, also attracted the law’s attention. He was identified by publican Thomas Ellis as having visited his hostelry in Kennington and, after drinking more than his fill, he stumbled out into the dark night.

As Ellis went to clear up, he noticed six green-handled knives and forks were missing. Suspecting his customer was up to mischief, he took a constable to Gardner’s Marsham Street home. Lo and behold there on a shelf was the missing cutlery. Gardner told the court he had been “very much in liquor”, and had found the knives in his pocket a day after getting home from an almighty bender.

He accepted responsibility, he had absolutely no recollection of where he’d been or what had done, a defence that the Old Bailey was not overly moved by. He got a seven-year stretch in Australia.

From the shady past of Marsham Street, we head over to St John’s Smith Square to gaze at the lovely church – now a concert hall – at its centre. Its noteworthy towers, in each corner, are rumoured to have been placed there to please Queen Anne.

Poor Anne. She was said to have loved a drink and had a bit of a temper on her. No wonder: she had 18 failed pregnancies and suffered from gout and rheumatism.

During her reign, the “50 Churches” project to bring more places of worship into London got under way, and builder Thomas Archer came to Queen Anne with designs and a request to get started.

Anne, in her cups, took unkindly to the poor Archer, and was unimpressed by the stunning Baroque details.

Exasperated, Archer politely asked her what she wanted the church to look like. She responded by kicking over a foot stool, and when it landed with its legs in the air, she added: “I want it to look like that.”

If you look at St John’s today, you will see why Anne is said to have unduly influenced this church’s look.

And on that note of frayed royal tempers, until next week. Stay well, stay safe.

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