‘Secret Histories’ of London’s Streets in the 1930s: Voices from the Notting Dale ‘slums’

A review of a book – I lived in a Slum – written in 1936 by the journalist Ada Chesterton is in progress, which will discuss the use of slum rhetoric as reported and used within this text; previous articles and posts overview other works of Chesterton, and have briefly considered their reliability and value as historic sources. However, due to the recent showing of ‘Secret Streets’ by the BBC, it seems timely to present some of the contents of this book, considering their relevance. The book discusses housing conditions in Notting Dale, in Kensington and Chelsea (Notting Hill), and some of the people that inhabited them in 1935. It also mentions the process of gentrification– a focus of last week’s The Secret History of Our Streets.

It is a useful source with regard to the interiors of working-class housing and domestic material culture, social relationships and identities, the effects of low incomes and unemployment, social inequality, and social housing and welfare, during the early 20th century. As the book is full of valuable information, excerpts will be reproduced in a number of posts; the following is from the first chapter – more will be posted if and when time can be found to transcribe the text, and if this post generates sufficient interest.

Ladbroke Grove: Chesterton’s entry into Notting Dale

“I went direct to the Royal Borough of Kensington, one of the capital’s richest districts, where huge mansions, big rooms, and luxurious gardens exist cheek by jowl with the densest human rabbit-warrens…

I entered the slum town of Notting Dale by way of Ladbroke Grove, at this point one of the loveliest parts of the Royal Borough…I must, I felt, have mistaken the way. Dirt, noise, smells and overcrowding could not exist within the shadow of these lovely homes…I discovered the Portobello Road, a long thorough-fare which, stretching for miles – now rich, now poor- fences off squalor from security. At one point a terrible physical degeneracy marks the shops, mean-fronted and tumble-down…To the left and right branched long streets and terraces of high-built, crumbling houses, scarred and weather-beaten. Originally the homes of professionals and middle-class Victorians with comfortable incomes, the outgoing tide of prosperity had left them derelict until they became what is known as “tenements,” let out floor by floor, room by room, permanently overcrowded.

Meanwhile the encircling ring of wealth seemed to have remained intact…The dividing-line at Ladbroke Grove seemed impossibly abrupt. Impossible, because I could not understand how men and women live in such satisfying conditions could for so long have remain unmoved by the tainted hovels at their gates…

…I asked my acquaintance if she knew where I could rent a room. She shook her head.

“It’s dreadfully difficult to get in anywhere…We’re all full up.” She herself was one of six girls and boys-mostly unemployed, like dad-they managed in two rooms and a scullery…’

Chesterton then mentions a tobacconist and bakers – both places where she sought lodgings.

“I haven’t a corner anywhere…My houses are packed tight!”…in Notting Dale rack-renters are not confined to any one social caste, and slum property owners include the most unexpected types…He winked at my companion [19-year-old Nora] as we walked away…

…Left alone, I redoubled my efforts to find a bed in one of those grim places reached by precipitous flights of broken steps. Street after street I traversed them all, but nowhere could I find a room to let; even half a room was beyond hope. The local Press did not help me. The places advertised all seemed to be in Kensal Rise. I inquired at innumerable shops, but there was nothing doing…

…Mrs. Upton [who ‘looked forty-five, but was probably younger. A short, tubby woman, down-at-heel about the head and feet’] was my lucky find…[she] invited me to step down. A narrow passage dissected the basement. The plastered walls were peeling; damp rose from the floor…”I’ve a room upstairs, ducks, I might let you have…but if the girl who rents it comes back to-night you’ll have to share the bed with her…”’

Chesterton then mentions a daughter of Mrs. Upton, who was approx. 4-years-old and fair-haired, Molly, who ‘passed most of her life in the damp smelly basement…Mrs. Upton, her husband, two boys, and the baby occupied the front and back kitchen and tumbledown scullery attached. In two upstairs rooms which she also rented she took lodgers…The rest of the house was let in floors by the landlord.

I followed my landlady up the kitchen stairs, dark and dingy, along the passage covered in clean but shabby oilcloth, and up again to the first floor. The room she showed me was clean but terribly depressing. There was linoleum on the floor and a couple of cheap rugs. The faded curtains strained across the window were suspended from the inevitable piece of string. A marble washstand, badly chipped, with an enamel jug and basin, and old leather and two caned chairs, and a double bed covered with a washed-out blue-and-white counterpane, were the highlights of the apartment. Later I realized that there was a cupboard with teapot and china, a table with an old green cloth, and that the wall was papered in dull red and decorated with family photographs: Mrs. Upton and, presumably, her husband in khaki, and an old lady in a cap with a venerable bearded man.

“There’s a gas ring fixed, and you’ll find the kettle in the grate, and if you want milk or anything else, one of my boys will fetch it for you. I’ll put clean sheets on the bed…It’s lovely and soft.” She thumped the rather lumpy wool mattress ingratiatingly…’

On asking the cost of the rent, she was told “Twelve and six a week…the other lodger will pay half…I’ll see you have water”’

‘…The main water supply was in the basement, and though there was a tap on the third floor, the lodgers on the first, midway between the two, had to carry what they wanted up and down ten, twenty times a day. There was no bath-room in the place; indeed, bathing in any fashion was extremely difficult. There was no boiler, which meant that every drop of water had to be heated on the gas stove or on the kitchen grate, which, originally designed for a large and well-provided Victorian family, simply ate up the coal. Moreover, as the second floor lavatory was out of action-this seemed to be its perennial state-having carted the water upstairs, it all had to be brought down again to the closet in the back yard, a primitive affair reminiscent of a cottage in the wilds of Wales.

An what a yard! Mud and broken paving-stones, empty crates, potato-peelings, cabbage-stalks, refuse of every kind overflowing from a broken dustbin, and all the strong smell of stale fish.

The amount of unnecessary labour entailed by this lack of the most ordinary conveniences…what could she or any other slum-dweller do? Complaints to the authorities might at the worst lead to the premises being condemned, in which case the family would be de-housed, while at the best, if the landlord were induced to effect minor alterations, the rent be raised and the money for food further reduced, with the ultimate prospect of an appeal to the Public Assistance Committee, whose contributions would go into the pockets of the landlord.

I had a glimpse of the front and back kitchens. A big fire burnt in the broken grate, and the large double bed was stacked with musty clothing, which overflowed on to an old mahogany table and chairs. The back kitchen was piled with pots and pans, crockery, bits of cheap furniture, and highly coloured vases.

Mr Upton, I learnt, had a barrow, and peddled these things and their like except on Fridays and Saturdays, when he had a stall in the Portobello market.

“He’s been doing very badly,” sighed the tubby little woman. “He can’t draw the dole, being a master man, you see, and sometimes it’s that hard to find the rent, let alone coal and food.”[i]

The boys, twelve and thirteen, earned a few pence running odd errands, and except for the lodgers the family would have had a cruelly thin time. The rent of the upper floor was 12s. 6d., and the basement, both unfurnished, was another 10s. one pound, two and sixpence for a rambling place without the most elementary convenience! There was a loaf of bread and a huge lump of margarine on the table, and some cold meat.[ii] Food, heat, and a roof Mrs. Upton managed to provide, but there was not much left for clothes or shoe-leather.

“Here’s your key, ducks, and you’ll have to go into the back room to put the penny in the meter-there’s a young woman in there. She comes home so tired from her work that she goes to bed early. But she won’t mind your going in.”

I went down the battered steps, green with age and dirt, past the forlorn patch with the bicycle and its trailer-known as the front garden-and out into the Portobello Road…

Portobello Road, London

…The next day I discovered the “Venture,” the centre of activities of the Kensington Council of Social Service. Originally a public-house, the building has been adapted to the requirements of a club with a restaurant attached. A good and palatable meal may be had at midday at a very cheap rate…The “Venture” is the one bright spot in Portobello road…’

In exploring the area, Chesterton encountered ‘A narrow street of tiny houses, it stretched a long way into the distance. Under the shadow of that congery of riches, literature, and art, Campden Hill-wide, well kept, adequately lit-the dim obscurity of the little street was in dismal contrast. The lamps, few and very wide apart, kept the place in shadow. It is not often you meet so concrete an example of civic differentiation between rich and poor. But all through Notting Dale I found the same phenomenon-the more squalid the quarter the less the light…The tiny tumbledown dwellings are in the hands of families who have inherited the tenancies from an older generation. They cling to their decrepit dwellings, from which, however, there is a movement to eject them. Not that it is proposed to put up reasonable working-class accommodation on the condemned area: the speculative builder has his eye on it. The tenants are to be bought out, and, in place of their homes attractively reconstructed and artistic cottages at expensive rents are to be erected, thus driving a wedge from the encircling ring of wealth into the heart of the slum, further constricting its inhabitants, and increasing over-crowding.

Farther afield I struck Pottery Lane-a sombre spot, it includes old workshops, dark noisome houses, behind high walls…’

On returning back to her lodging house, Chesterton went to the room of another lodger, to put 2d. in the gas meter. ‘I knocked softly on the door of the bedroom and heard a muffled “Come in.” Whew! I never experienced so drastic a change of temperature. The room palpitated with heat. A huge fire blazed in the grate half-way up the chimney. The atmosphere was choking. I felt absolutely dizzy, almost suffocating.

“Turn on the gas, said a sleepy voice. The light disclosed a young woman in a double bed, heaped with clothes-garments of all descriptions, inside and out. Curled up in her arm was a baby of about a year old…A perambulator stood at the foot of the bed, close to a broken-down wardrobe. The inevitable marble washstand-all the Victorian household survivals seemed to go to Notting Dale-a food cupboard, a looking-glass, completed the furniture, with a coarse rug on the floor…’got gingerly between the sheets of greyish yellow tint with the paraffin smell of cheap soap. The mattress was lumpy, the clothing sparse…

…I awakened suddenly with a thumping heart. Something had quite obviously disturbed me and sent a warning message to my nerves. Slowly and fearfully I sat up and listened. And then it came! In the far corner of the room to the left of the fireplace-the boards were badly broken-came a scratching and a fumbling and sudden thud as though something and leapt on the floor.

It was a rat!

I cowered beneath the clothes, literally trembling…the creature or creatures-the noise was terrific-were close to my bed. They might run over it, get under the clothes…

Thud! Thud! They leapt like greyhounds, higher and higher, coming down with an awful precision…I dared not move: I hardly dared to breathe…A sudden bound was followed by silence. The scratching stopped, and the scuttling grew farther away…


As noted at the beginning of the post, further extracts from this book will be posted, if feedback indicates that this would be of interest to readers. In the mean time, further resources relating to Notting Dale history can be found here, here, here, and here. More information on The Secret History of Our Streets can be found here, with oral history contributions from members of the public here.


[i] ‘Master man’ usually indicates self-employment.

[ii] See the previous post https://notesofanantiquary.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/1930s-slum-and-council-estate-conditions-diet-and-expenditure/ that provides a break-down of weekly costs and diet within un- and low-income households.


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