Changing London

North Kensington’s divide: What the Grenfell Tower tragedy exposed

One year on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the 24-storey North Kensington block of flats – now covered in protective plastic inscribed with the words ‘Forever In Our Hearts’ – and other public buildings were illuminated in green. It was just one of many ways that people all over the world have paid their respects to the 72 people who died this tragic fire.

More than 250 firefighters and 70 fire engines were needed to put out the blaze, which started in the early hours of June 14th 2017, and it was 60 hours before it was fully extinguished. So severe was the fire that two London Underground lines needed to be partially suspended and the A40 Westway was closed in both directions.

The fire is believed to have been started by a faulty fridge-freezer in a fourth floor flat and then rapidly spread via external cladding, leaving the building uninhabitable. A public inquiry, which opened in May and could last until 2020, will look in detail at how the tragedy unfolded – considering everything from the events on the night of fire to the recent refurbishment of the block.

But there are also much bigger questions to be answered here. The devastating fire at Grenfell Tower brought to the fore the inequality in Kensington and Chelsea. It is one of the wealthiest boroughs in England, but according to a report released by the local MP average incomes can “drop 10 times as you cross a street”. Grenfell Tower, where the majority of flats were council-owned, stands just a short walk from some of the most affluent households in London.

Unfortunately the stark differences in income, health and other factors of people living in North Kensington – and the borough as a whole – is nothing new. “This is a jarring juxtaposition of worlds – the wealthiest five per cent and poorest five per cent of the city population living at opposite ends of the same street, according to the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s own statistics – yet in historical terms, it is not startling in the least,” noted the authors of a book produced several years to accompany an excellent TV series – the Secret History of Our Streets – about six less-well known parts of London.

North Kensington’s dividing lines

When the social explorer Charles Booth visited North Kensington in 1890 he found two very different worlds existing side-by-side with each other. To the east of Portland Road lay the Ladbroke estate mansions on Notting Hill, where the residents were described as ‘Upper middle class, serving keeping class. Wealthy’.

But in the area adjoining the western side of Portland Road in an area known as the ‘Potteries’ or ‘Notting Dale’ lived “the lowest class which consists of some occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”. Booth added: “Their life is the life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink.”

Booth believed that Notting Dale – the site of present-day Lancaster West Estate and Grenfell Tower – was somewhere that was “not only a disgrace; it is large enough to be a danger also. According to police these are a succession of streets the majority of whom inhabitants are criminals. Every year the area of criminality is extending.”

Before the area became heavily populated, Notting Dale was little more than fields, visited by travelling gypsies. Over time it also became popular with those quarrying for stone for making bricks, as well as with pig keepers who bought up land after being evicted from other sites around London. Notting Dale – which was accessed via what is now Pottery Lane – became densely inhabited as people moved here from slums which were being cleared in other parts of London. Many Irish migrants also came to North Kensington during the Irish Famine of 1845 to 1849.

The aforementioned Secret History of Our Streets book noted that in Notting Dale “living quarters for both humans and animals were squeezed into the area, which soon attained an unenviable reputation for filth and odour.” It added: “Offal was boiled in open vats; and animal and human ordure alike collected as stinking, stagnant lagoons in the deep concavities left by the brickmakers.” The “foul lakes emitted the gaseous stench of hydrogen sulphide” and unsurprisingly disease was rife.

Poor Law Commissioners said in 1838 that in some homes “were built over stagnant water” and “the floors have given way, and rest at one end of the room in the stagnant pool, while at the other end, being still dry, contains the bed or straw mattress on which the family sleeps.” The poor people living in the slum were often left in the hands of unscrupulous landlords who charged relatively hefty rents, while providing terrible shacks from accommodation.

New housing was built in Notting Dale in an attempt to revive the area. For example, after Latimer Road tube station was opened in 1868, it was hoped to attract the lower middle classes and artisans to newly-built properties. But when they did not make the move as intended, houses were subdivided and individual rooms were let separately and, given they lacked internal plumbing, they soon became slums.

The terrible living conditions in Notting Dale were a far cry from those on the neighbouring Ladbroke Estate, which was developed from 1821 with plush terraces of stuccoed brick houses built around large communal gardens. The plan for the scheme was drawn up the architect, landscaper and surveyor Thomas Allason, who was inspired by Nash’s work at Regent’s Park. His designs was scaled down significantly, but the 15 garden squares and surrounding homes that were built were nonetheless impressive.

There were a number of fault lines separating the slums of Notting Dale and the plush housing of Notting Hill. As I’ve already described, Portland Road was one of these – with two contrasting worlds on either side of the street. But – as a BBC programme on the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire pointed out – in 1864 a physical wall was built separating the two neighbourhoods. Most of it has gone and there is better access from surrounding streets into Notting Dale (now Lancaster West Estate). However if you walk down Wilsham Street you can still see a high stone barrier separating well-to-do St James Square with the adjoining social housing.

St James Square

Reasons for optimism

The passing of the Housing of the Working Classes Act in 1890 gave local authorities the powers to clear slums so that new homes could be built. In North Kensington tenement blocks were subsequently built and the London County Council said the area had undergone a “very marked improvement”. But in places like Notting Dale poor quality housing and overcrowding was still common place in the 1930s.

During the Second World War considerable damage was inflicted on North Kensington and many of those that could afford to leave the area did so in the years that followed. The Notting Hill houses that were vacated were often divided up into bedsits and, as I wrote in my blog last week, many became home to West Indians who arrived from the Commonwealth on the Windrush and other ships.

There was however hope for North Kensington when ambitious plans were announced in the 1960s to replaced substandard housing in Notting Dale. Architect Peter Deakins, who had been involved in the Golden Lane Housing development, created the master plan for the new Lancaster West Estate, incorporating gardens, offices and a shopping centre. However, the scheme was considerably downgraded and it was not linked directly to Latimer Road Underground station as originally intended.

At the heart of Lancaster West Estate was Grenfell Tower, which was designed by Clifford Wearden and Associates and built between 1972 and 1974. It originally contained 120 flats, but this was later expanded to 129 units as non-residential units went through a change in use, meaning that up to 600 people could be housed. Some 900 people lived in surrounding lower-density buildings, which included three finger blocks – Testerton, Hurstway and Barandon Walks – as well as three and four storey linear blocks.

From watching long-terms residents interviewed on TV in recent weeks there was an air of excitement when Grenfell Tower and the rest of the Lancaster West Estate first opened. The original ambitious scheme wasn’t built, but people were still proud of leaving behind crumbling terraced houses and moving into new, modern homes. Unfortunately this optimism wouldn’t last.

Divisions endure

The North Kensington episode of the Secret History of Our Streets focused on Portland Road and demonstrated how the make-up of the northern and southern parts varied enormously. “Casual earning, very poor,” was how Booth described the inhabitants on the former section in 1890. Meanwhile further south, he found “shopkeepers and small employers, clerks and subordinate professional men. A hardworking sober, energetic class.”

If you walk down Portland Road today you can still see two distinctive halves. On the northern half there is social housing, while on the southern part you find expensive, privately-owned terraced homes lived in by people working in the City. In some ways, the distinctions are becoming starker. Clarendon Cross near the centre of Portland Road once boasted butchers, bakers and the like, but they have been replaced by antique shops, dog grooming parlours and day spas.

Portland Road

And it is in this context that the Grenfell Tower tragedy – and the inequalities in the borough it highlighted – needs to be seen. Affluent people live cheek by jowl with poor people who are struggling to get by on lower incomes.

As I described in my blog last week Notting Hill gentrified from the 1980s, but the neighbouring Lancaster West Estate – which incorporates Grenfell Tower – fell into decline. Many of the problems were deemed at the time to be drug related. In the 1990s gun violence became an issue and in one incident a police car was fired at as it left the Grenfell Tower underground car park. Some measures were taken to improve security, such as cutting off through fares to non-residents, but in general terms Lancaster West Estate suffered from underinvestment.

Fast-forward to January 2015 and the Duchess of Cambridge opened a brand new Kensington Leisure Centre and neighbouring Kensington Aldridge Academy. Just metres away Grenfell Tower, which residents had said was a death-trap given problems ranging from outdated fire extinguishers to lack of fire escapes, was starting to be modernised.

However in the aftermath of the devastating fire, it is this refurbishment programme that is now being unpicked. The controversial cladding installed in 2016 was meant to improve energy efficiency as well as its external appearance. Ultimately, it appears that this addition was a major contributing factor in so many lives being lost.

At the Grenfell Tower public inquiry a fire engineer outlined safety flaws at the block. Barbara Lane said the materials used in the cladding did not comply with fire performance standards for high-rises, flat entrance doors did not meet building regulation standards and fire doors to the protected stairwells, which dated from 1974, could only withstand fire for 20 minutes. Its supposed short-comings like these that have made campaigners angry.

What will happen next in North Kensington remains unclear. The Grenfell Tower tragedy has certainly bought the local community together. Survivors of the fire formed a group called Grenfell United to honour the memory of the dead and help all those affected rebuild lives, while also seeking justice for those responsible.

“Grenfell Tower can remain an ongoing symbol of pain and loss – a monument to our failure to listen and to care for one another,” said the Right Reverend Dr Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington at a memorial service on the anniversary of the fire. “Or it can become a symbol of change and renewal.”

“We pray today that from the ashes of the tower will rise a new resolve to see each other’s welfare before our own, to listen to each other, to ensure no community has to grieve again as this one has, where we learn to love one another just as we are loved, not just in times of disaster but as a regular way of life, whatever our differences of ethnicity or faith.”

As the Grenfell Tower public inquiry continues, the historical divisions within society in North Kensington endure. But the pressure from local people is now on the local authorities to bring about meaningful change. The world is watching.

Wilsham Street barrier

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