Gimme Shelters – South Kensington

Updated: Oct 31, 2018

SI SPENCER, JULY 2017

A short series exploring the surrounds of London’s surviving Cab Shelters, established in 1875 to provide sober and secure resting places for London’s hansom cab drivers and still in use by cabbies today.
Part 3 –Thurloe Place to Kensington Road

The cab shelters on Kensington Road and Thurloe Place are pretty much linked directly by Exhibition Row, possibly the greatest concentration of different museums in one block anywhere in the world – The Natural History, the Science and the Victoria and Albert Museums, not to mention the Royal Geographical Society and the Imperial College of Science.


The official guidebooks have more than enough to say about these revered institutions and my brief is to bring you the more arcane history of the city, so I’ll just mention this before moving on – there are over 18,000 spiders in the Natural History Museum (yeah, I know they’re dead but so what?) and the V and A was once home to a pair of Queen Victoria’s underpants with a 52 inch waist.

Image credit: aroundaboutbritain

And if that isn’t horrifying enough, you’re also slap bang in the middle of sites connecting the first and last killings of John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer. Haigh was convicted of six killings (though confessed to nine) committed between 1944 and 1948. Slaughtering purely for financial gain, stealing his victims’ identities to plunder their fortunes, his first three murders took place at his workshop on Gloucester Road. The same workshop where he dissolved their bodies almost completely in acid.


It was at the Onslow Court Hotel on Queensgate that Haigh put his final plan into operation. While the murder actually took place in Crawley, it was at Onslow Court that the suave and persuasive Haigh convinced fellow guest Olive Durand-Deacon to invest in his scheme to manufacture artificial stick-on nails. Ironic that if he’d been sixty years or so later he could have made a legitimate fortune based on the ubiquity of nail bars blossoming like weeds all over the capital.


In stark contrast to Haigh’s extravagance and simplistic hedonism, at the same time these streets were also the stomping grounds of one of London’s most innovative artists and enigmatic denizens, Francis Bacon (not to be confused with Francis Bacon). Bacon had two successive studios in South Kensington, spending the bulk of his later career in almost monastic simplicity on Reese Mews, where he once claimed a dog turd on the pavement had gifted him an epiphany into the nature of the universe.


It seems that Bacon was not always so clean-living however. His earlier studio on Cromwell Road had originally been occupied some seventy years earlier by the great Pre-Raphaelite John Millais. Millais’s friends in the brotherhood were renowned hell-raisers but probably paled into comparison with Bacon, who painted the windows black and converted the house into an illegal gambling den where he also ‘entertained’ a steady stream of male ‘bits of rough’ from the area. Rumour has it that most of them misunderstood Bacon’s self-confessed job description and often called in to offer him various decorating jobs in the area.

Image credit: bmorera

At the top of Exhibition Row of course are the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall. The revered halls of the RAH have witnessed many unusual moments; the building was never originally meant for concerts so its acoustic problems are legendary. On the opening night, the audience’s ‘Amens’ after a prayer were apparently louder than the orchestra and these days the ceiling is festooned with giant hanging mushrooms to try and prevent the sound disappearing into the roof.


An outsider might watch the Last Night of the Proms and marvel at the strange sight of champagne and Pimms-sozzled Home Counties’ reactionaries linking hankies and singing the Sailor’s Hornpipe but nothing beats the weirdness of the 1965 Poets of the World festival. There was some great stuff there – Adrian Mitchell reading ‘Tell Me Lies About Vietnam’ was electric and still strikes a shiver today – but this was the sixties and if L.P. Hartley’s comment about the past being a different country is true, then London in the sixties was a different universe.


In the spirit of the new age, the front rows were entirely reserved for heavily medicated schizophrenics from a local institution but the chaos they caused was nothing compared to the performers. The great Allen Ginsberg was so drunk he could barely remember his magnum opus ‘Howl’, while backstage, eminent sociologist Jeff Nuttall and avant-garde artist John Latham had tarred and feathered themselves with shredded book pages and wandered around naked. Latham had gone one step further and painted his entire body blue but forgetting to leave his airways clear, passed out. Nuttall manoeuvred him into a dressing room bath and attempted to scrub him clean when both were discovered by a security guard and almost arrested for the then-still illegal crime of homosexuality. I’m sure Bacon would have approved.


And speaking of bacon, the cab shelter at Kensington Road does an excellent sandwich.

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