Updated: Nov 19, 2021
My Shepherd’s Bush of 20 years was a world of maggots, murder and mayhem. We’ll start with the maggots. My neighbours’ bin became so maggot infested that the insects were seething throughout it and sticking and sucking around the rim. If you have never smelt maggots, it is one of the most repugnant things you will ever have to look forward to; it is basically the smell of rotting flesh, which is what attracted them in the first place.
The situation became so bad that my neighbour from New Zealand (a house-proud lady of about 60) tried to bag the whole bin up in the hope that the dustmen would take it away. When this was a failure, I and two ladies who lived in the flat downstairs did something quite terrible for a tour guide to admit to. So much so, in fact, I will not reveal how we got rid of that bin; you would need to ask me personally in subterfuge for me not to get a record and a bad rep.
Then there was the great deluge when the Shepherd’s Bush water tower, which is in the middle of the Holland Park roundabout, burst and the basement flat was flooded. Luckily I lived in the raised ground-floor apartment.
And then came the murders: yes, sadly there were two! One night at about 11pm the police came round and were hammering at my neighbour’s door. They then rammed it and went in. It turns out that my neighbour was a criminal who had murdered a Chelsea financier on his doorstep (for legal reasons it is probably best no names are mentioned). I was rather hoping it was just a regular Shepherd’s Bush drugs raid as the lesser of two evils. The second murder came at the end of my street in the last semi-detached house in our cul-de-sac. It seems a Polish man was killed in a fight over the squat set up there.
Now for the mayhem. At about 9am I was being a bit lazy at home and hadn’t bothered to get dressed yet when the police knocked at my door. They told me I had to leave immediately as there was a potential bomb outside in my street. I hurriedly threw on some jeans and a jumper and dashed out only to meet my New Zealand neighbour (who by the way didn’t buy my story about how the binmen had collected my maggoty bin). She had a little make-up bag with her because, like me she never goes out without her face on.
It was revealed later that it wasn’t a bomb at all. A lady turned herself into Hammersmith police station stating that the boxes placed around the Hammersmith/Shepherd’s Bush area were in fact her art installation and not nail bombs at all! She was very sorry for wasting police time; it actually made the news!
You may well wonder why I stayed put for 20 years, but to be honest I liked the excitement of my urban life there. But enough of my human nonsense - what of the history of Shepherd’s Bush, I hear you cry. One of my favourite stories comes from the 1908 Olympic Games held at White City in Shepherd’s Bush. It was due to be hosted in Rome, but Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906 and Shepherd’s Bush won it by default. This happened a second time when the Olympics were due to go to Japan, but due to the country being on the wrong side in the Second World War, we once again hosted the Olympics (at Wembley this time) in 1948. These were known as the Austerity Games as, due to the war, there was very little budget. However, the organisers were still very accommodating towards competitors allowing them to bring in food that they were used to. In this case the French and Italians were allowed to bring in wine, as the officials put it, "the point is, of course, that for such competitors, wine is part of their normal diet, and in their view at any rate, is a foodstuff". In fact we are the only city to have hosted the Games three times, with the more recent 2012 Olympics - this time actually winning the bid. America has hosted eight times and is due to hold the Games in 2028 in Los Angeles, which would remove the three-times only city status of London.
However, it is the 1908 Olympics we are concerned with and it is at these Games that the standardised distance of the marathon was set. The race was to start at Windsor Castle and end by the Royal Box in the White City Stadium. To achieve this they added 352m to the course, making it 26.2 miles (42.195km).
The story I love is of near marathon winner Dorando Pietri, an Italian runner. He was disqualified for being helped over the line after collapsing no less than four times. Instead, the prize went to an American, John Hayes. Queen Alexandra felt great pity for Dorando and had a special gold cup made up for him to create a winner of the hearts of all. I have to admit, though, on another occasion Alexandra showed herself to be a beast against her own kind. When Emily Wilding Davison raced across the track in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 as part of the suffragette movement to gain women the vote, instead of showing sympathy for Emily’s resulting death, Alexandra sent a message to the jockey, Herbert Jones, expressing her sorrow about the "sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman". There is now a road in White City named Dorando Close; it had to be a short street because he did look like a pathetic poor soul as he crossed the finish line!
White City gets its name from the Franco-British exhibition of 1908 that was held in a specially constructed building made of concrete and steel and finished in white plaster in the wedding-cake style. This was a new technique for building and was used for the Ritz on Piccadilly and the Central Methodist Hall in Westminster. The exhibition ran from May to October and attracted nine million visitors, on a site of 140 acres. It seems to have dealt quite heavily in stereotypes because there was an Irish Village and a Senegalese Village. The Irish Village consisted of a load of ‘Colleens’ doing domestic chores; the Senegalese Village was also called the “Native Village”. There were comments in the press at the time about how surprisingly clean the Irish were and the Senegalese people were - “cleaner than they looked”.
A terrible accident occurred at the exhibition when the airship of Captain Thomas Lovelace, an American aeronaut, blew up on August 14. The airship was in the shed and was due to fly that afternoon. It seems they were trying to inflate the gas-bag when the gas exploded. Miss Blanche Hill, Thomas’s secretary, was burnt to cinders while eating her lunch in the shed. Poor Blanche was only 21. George Leonard, Thomas’s foreman, was also killed. There are varying reports but about five to 12 people were injured in the explosion. One man had to have his burning clothes ripped off his body and was then slathered in oil and described as being in agony. Another employee, Edward Fitzgibbons, died later from his wounds.
A major exhibition in 1910 celebrated the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, when two gardens were created. I recently came across the Peace Garden for the first time - something I had never found while living in the area, even though it was on my doorstep. It has been adapted in recent times to a more British style and has been renamed Hammersmith Park. The exhibition ran from May 14 to October 29 and attracted eight million visitors; an extraordinary number to travel so far as in some cases.
By the 1930s the White City housing estate had been created and was followed by the official opening on June 29, 1960 of the BBC Television Centre, originally designed by Architect Graham Dawbarn as a ring of studios. The fine statue of Helios (Greek God of the sun) seen here has recently been re-gilded and is by British sculptor T B Huxley-Jones. In 2013 the BBC announced it was selling off some of its portfolio in White City; it still holds some audience-participation shows, but much of the complex has been turned into about 1,000 homes. A one-bedroom apartment in this complex would set you back about £800,000 to £850,000 and there is a special Mediterranean-styled Beach Club for residents at the top of the building. There is also the very luxurious Soho House members’ club designed with opulent velvets and wooden flooring. They have just recently created the most luxurious penthouse apartments by five British architects with floating staircases and all those marble trimmings you’d expect. These start at an eye-watering £2.9 million. Not the Shepherd’s Bush I’ve always known; somewhat downtrodden and unloved…
So on the theme of the downtrodden and unloved we come to a connection with Charles Dickens in the 19th century. It is here in Lime Grove that he set up a reform home for prostitutes with Angela Burdett-Coutts (heiress of the Coutts banking empire). To run the home it would cost them £700 a year, which in today’s term equates to £50,000. They found a house in Shepherd’s Bush called Urania Cottage, which at the time was a rural area, although Dickens always called it “The Home”… to make it feel to the women like a home rather than an austere institution. It was tucked away in a country lane with a garden where the women could create flowerbeds. The stables became the laundry. The house was surrounded by fields and they were able to let this out to a local milkman to graze his cows; he also supplied milk to the girls. Dickens enjoyed kitting it out sending the receipts to the heiress.
Mrs Morson was a favourite matron among the girls who wept when the girls finally graduated from the Home. The women they took in were desperate and had either fallen into prostitution or were thieving or simply starving and suicidal. However, no women were accepted if pregnant or had children out of wedlock. They were educated in reading, writing, domestic work, sewing, cooking and laundering. Basically, they were being trained to be respectable in the hope of going on to find husbands or decent work. Many were sent to the colonies - Australia, Canada or South Africa - to start a new life. They were interviewed by Dickens and once accepted were sworn to take their secret pasts to the grave with them. Dickens also kept their secrets, although sometimes confided in Mrs Morson.
Dickens was keen that the chaplains didn’t upset the women by making their sermons too heavy or moralistic, feeling that the inmates needed to be tempted to virtue. Miss Coutts and Dickens disagreed on a number of issues. His idea was that they spent a year there to learn skills to go off and make good marriages; Miss Coutts worried about the morality of fallen women taking husbands. They also disagreed on clothing: Dickens felt they should wear pretty things with bright colours that made them happy; Miss Coutts felt they should wear more sober garments.
Dickens expected some failures, but some of the success stories are delightful. Louisa Cooper for example, after spending two years in the home, was sent to the Cape where she ended up getting engaged to an English gardener. She returned looking very respectable and bearing an ostrich egg as a gift to Dickens. Dickens described it as “the most hideous ostrich’s egg ever laid”. It was painted with an image of Queen Victoria rather strangely perched on top of a church receiving adulation from a British seaman.
Sadly the home closed as Miss Coutts lost interest in it and was disturbed by her connection with Dickens as he had taken up with his actress mistress Ellen Ternan and separated from his wife. She herself was later to cause a scandal when at 67 she married 29-year-old American-born William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett, who became the MP for Westminster in 1881and sat in the Commons until 1921. He changed his name to Burdett-Coutts for all the good it did him, as there was a clause in Miss Coutts’s step-grandmother’s will that forbade her marrying a foreigner, thus she had to forfeit three-fifths of her income to her sister.
Urania Cottage was soon replaced by the Lime Grove Studios which opened in 1915 for the British film industry and was occupied by Gaumont Film Company owned by J Arthur Rank. Names such as Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and David Lean worked here. From 1949 the BBC moved in as it was creating its White City empire up the road, and produced programmes such as Hancock’s Half Hour, Andy Pandy, Blue Peter, Steptoe & Son and Panorama. The BBC also produced the first Doctor Who episode here, An Unearthly Child in 1963; the series became one of the most successful in television history. Finally the studios were demolished and turned into housing.
My husband would not be pleased if I didn’t mention QPR football team. I often think he only dated me to live near the grounds, as my second Shepherd’s Bush home was a stone’s throw away.
Ultimately I came to love my home, Shepherd’s Bush, and I’m extremely proud of my time as an urban lady on the edge of this story. They say you can take the girl out of Shepherd’s Bush, but you can’t get Shepherd’s Bush out of the girl…