Hidden London – Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter

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The last of 180 steps leading into Clapham South deep-level shelter

Last Sunday was a nice warm summer day, Clapham Common was packed with picnickers, families and people playing football. What better to do than head eleven stories underground for a tour of Clapham South deep-level shelter??

The excellent London Transport Museum operate several tours as Hidden London: 55 Broadway (London’s first skyscraper) and Euston station’s lost tunnels are now sold out for the foreseeable future but there are still tickets for Down Street (Churchill’s secret station) and for Clapham South.

It was in 1940 as the German bombing campaign intensified that the British government made the decision to look into building the deep-level shelters. The public had taken to using tube stations as substitute shelters of their own volition, and it wasn’t really safe to have so many people sleeping on platforms etc. As well as Clapham South there were another nine shelters planned, though a couple were shelved due to flooding. The other shelters were built at Belsize Park, Camden Town, Goodge Street, Stockwell, Clapham North and Clapham Common. Basically, all along the Northern Line as the original plan was to use them after the war as part of a Crossrail type project of high-speed rail (the post-war depression put paid to this). Each was designed to hold 12,000 people, though this was decreased to 8,000 per shelter before they opened, and in reality they never housed anywhere near this number.

Although the shelters were ready by the end of 1942 they did not see real use until the summer of 1944 when the V1 and V2 flying bombs were unleashed on the city. The Clapham South shelter opened that July, yes with the aim of saving lives, but this was also propaganda. The London public was terrified and the government had to be seen to be acting in the best interests of the population. There are cheery photos that went into papers: happy mothers and children setting up their bunks; volunteers serving in the canteen; even people dancing underground!

Our group was assembled outside the tube station(group size is max 22) before walking from the main entrance to a nondescript door two minutes walk along Balham Hill. It may look a lot different these days but this is one of the original entrances, now redeveloped so it looks just like a normal part of the street. From here it is 180 steps down a spiral staircase into the shelter. Back in 1944 if you needed to shelter from the air raids you would make your way to one of the two concrete ‘pillbox’ entrances, one of which we used. We also saw an exit leading up to the station which wasn’t in official use but there is anecodotal evidence that mentions parents using it to leave the shelter for work.

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There are signs everywhere to make sure people didn’t get lost.

Once in the shelter the scale of the project is striking. There are two levels with connecting stairs at either end. On arrival each temporary guest would have been allocated a bunk in a particular section – these sections were named after naval officers at Clapham South. Our first stop was at the medical post. The tiles from the sink splash-back  are still visible which help indicate the room’s use. People with medical conditions had priority and there was no charge for treatment which, in this pre-NHS era, was a big draws. We then moved into one of the tunnel sections, the lights turned off until we were all gathered at one end. When the lights were turned on we saw the view below (more impressive when you’re suddenly confronted with it from darkness).

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One of the sections with the bunks removed to show the scale of the tunnels

The bunks were pretty crammed in and bedding was not provided. People had to carry everything they needed overnight down into the shelter and then be back up 180 steps by 7am the next morning, most of them with kids in tow as families were given priority.

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One of the bunks made up as it may have looked during the war

So people had beds and medical supplies but what about food and drink? What about the basic necessity of a toilet? Well, there were canteens set up, mainly by volunteers. The canteens were outside of rationing so you could buy as many sandwiches or cakes as you wanted as long as you had the money to pay for them. Generally prices were around twice those of above ground but once in the shelter people had little choice if they had not brought their own supplies. For the loos the situation was considerably sophisticated. We went into one of the gents’ and could see where the urinals were by marks left on the walls. Behind those would have been stalls. Human waste was emptied into a hopper at the end of the room and then  hydraulically pumped up to a sewer near the surface.

The shelter was only open for a brief period during the war but that was not the end of its use. After the war when Jamaicans came over on the Windrush, enticed by the promise of guaranteed jobs, many had nowhere to stay when they first arrived. A labour exchange was set up at on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton and so it was fairly convenient for men to stay in the deep-level shelter for a few days until they found proper lodging. Conditions were not ideal and jobs were plentiful so the longest tenant was a week, most only staying a night or two.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 marks the last occasion that people stayed overnight in the shelter. On the centenary of the hugely successful Great Exhibition of 1851, a moral boost to a country that had survived years of war and depression, the Festival was a huge event with millions of visitors arriving from all over. There weren’t enough hotel beds in London, and with austerity still in full force many people couldn’t afford such luxuries. At Clapham South one could stay underground for a low price.

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The disused exit up to Clapham South tube station

There was a fire in the Goodge Street deep-level shelter in the 1950s and it was decided then that the tunnels were not safe enough to house people overnight. For a long time Clapham South was used as an archive, but after the contract ran out a few years ago it has been possible for the public to go down and explore. This is a fascinating tour and there are still available dates for this summer.

Check out the London Transport Museum website for more details.

Clapham South tours  operate five days a week until 21 August, then 2-26 March 2017 and cost £35 per person (ticket also gives you half price admission to the museum if presented within one month of taking the tour).

Black History Walks in London

Benin bronzes

The Benin Bronzes, British Museum

Last weekend I went on a guided walk with Black History Walks. These guys run several tours around London, from Elephant and Castle to St Paul’s, each taking around two hours. I did the Secrets of Soho walk (though most of it is actually in Bloomsbury, finishing at Soho Square). There is so much forgotten and hidden black history around this area which neither I nor anyone in our group knew about. I don’t want to give a minute by minute account of the tour, as if this subject you I would highly recommend you do one of these tours yourself, but I’ve picked out a couple of my highlights. I have done some extra research around the topics we discussed on the tour so some extra information is included below.

In the photo above you can see the Benin Bronzes which are on display at the British Museum. Like many other exhibits, the method in which these bronzes were acquired is characteristic of many controversial trophies housed within the walls of the museum. In 1897 British forces were sent on a punitive mission to Benin City. What began as an argument over customs duties (British traders did not want to pay them) ended in the sacking and destruction of Benin.

As our guide described it to us, imagine showing up at Buckingham Palace unannounced and demanding to see the Queen. Then, if you were asked to come back the following week, attacking the palace. In this situation, the vice consul general James Philips took some British officials and translators from the port of Sapele and set off for Benin. They sent word of their intended visit but were asked to delay their journey as their timing was poor: there were sacred rituals taking place in the city, during which time no foreigner was allowed to set foot within its walls. In typical British imperial style, this warning was ignored and as they reached the south of the city they met an Oba warrior ambush, only two men surviving the massacre. The subsequent ‘naval punitive expedition’ led to the destruction of the city and the exile of its king.

The Benin Bronzes are comprised of over a thousand metal plaques and originally decorated the royal palace of Benin. They date back to the thirteenth century but now are held by various institutions around Europe and the US, most famously over two hundred pieces within the walls of the British Museum. Many of them pre-date contact with European traders and so are regarded as high quality examples of the expertise of an indigenous culture. The Benin Expedition brought back these treasures and changed the European perception of African art as being primitive and pagan.

Today there is a collection of bronzes Nigeria again, though still controversial. Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has asked on several occasions for the return of these priceless artefacts (in a debate similar to that better known over the Parthenon marbles). Between 1950 and 1872 the British Museum sold back to Nigeria a small number of the bronzes.

Imperial htl

Imperial Hotel, Russell Square

While there was never a legal colour bar in the UK, the truth is that many non-whites were discriminated against in the past. Back in 1943 the West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine (1901-1971) was due to play in a charity cricket match at Lord’s. He booked rooms for his family to stay at the Imperial Hotel, London for four nights. After previous bad experiences, he made sure to mention when booking that he was black. Nevertheless, when he arrived he was told that his family could only stay for the one night as there had been a complaint by some white US servicemen who were staying at the hotel. Constantine was furious and, since there was no legal recourse against racial discrimination at the time, he took the hotel to court for breach of contract, since they had no just cause to refuse him accommodation.

The hotel claimed that since they had found an alternative hotel for the Constantines that they had fulfilled their duty. This was rejected by the court and, although the damages awarded were only five guineas, the moral victory had been won. This case did not end the colour bar that existed in many establishments, but it was seen as a milestone on the way to the Race Relations Act which was finally passed in 1965.

Constantine didn’t stop there. In 1947 he became chairman of the League of Coloured Peoples, and he wrote a book, Colour Bar, which was published in 1954. This book was taken all the more seriously as its author was not a militant campaigner, but rather a man who fitted in with British society and its values. It wasn’t as hard-hitting as other books on black oppression but he had aimed it more at a white audience, as an educational tool.

In 1954 he also returned to his home country of Trinidad and became involved in paving the way for independence from Britain. He returned to London in 1961 as High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago. The following year he was knighted and in 1969 was awarded a life peerage and became the first black man to sit in the House of Lords.

I have picked out the Benin Bronzes and Laurie Constantine as particular highlights as I was completely ignorant of their existence before doing this tour. It was shocking to learn so much about a city that I have lived in for a decade. We also talked about famous black women, Mary Prince and Mary Seacole in particular, but these Victorian women are better known than many of those who fought for justice in the twentieth century.

Another point of interest from the tour group came when our guide asked a couple of younger members what their schools did for Black History Month. One girl, American, listed off organised activities, competitions etc, Both British girls said that their schools did nothing, even one with a black head teacher. Black history is barely taught in schools these days as it is not really on the curriculum (apart from Mary Seacole I believe). While it is fantastic that organisations like Black History Walks exist, we should not have to rely on them for our own history. I for one intend to get more involved in BHM this year (October).


Black History Walks – £8 adults, £3 child.  http://www.blackhistorywalks.co.uk

London, Sugar and Slavery

Museum of London Docklands

Museum of London Docklands

I’ve been to the main Museum of London site several times but this was my first trip out to Docklands. It’s well worth a visit – entrance is free and it’s great for families (I went on a Sunday afternoon and there were lots of family friendly activities taking place). For adults, many of these activities take place away from the main galleries so there aren’t too many kids under your feet!

The ten free galleries begin from the third floor taking you through in a sequential order from 1600 to the present day (like a less stressful version of Ikea). I specifically went to visit the London, Sugar and Slavery gallery but spent time in all of the galleries. For anyone who like the Victorian Walk at the London Wall site, Sailortown is similar, a recreation of the area around the docks in the mid nineteenth century.

The museum is housed in No.1 Warehouse at West India Quay which was built during the period of the slave trade and would have stored the sugar from the plantations who prospered from slave labour. As well as looking at the slave trade, black presence in Britain generally is examined, contradicting the common perception that there was no black community in the UK until the 1940s. There was a known community in Seven Dials, and the port area was a key entry point for merchants, traders etc. The painting May Morning by John Collett which shows a street scene. Here a black servant is shown joining in a traditional London festival in the 1770s. No one looks surprised to see him there, despite this being at the height of the slave trade, showing that he wasn’t as unusual a sight as many might suppose.

At the entrance to this section is a large black board, names and figures inscribed in stark white. These are the names, captains, owners and destination of the slave ships that set sail from London. I noticed that a lot of people stopped here for a while, I suppose just to think about the numbers of people transported on those ships in shocking conditions. There is a diagram of a slave ship showing how 609 men, women and children were crammed in and transported in horrific squalor. They were seen and talked about as goods, not people, and so their living conditions were not a concern.

From my own research I know that slavery existed in Africa long before the Europeans got involved. Slaves were often traded to settle debts or captured during wars. Crucially these slaves had rights and could even rise to positions of power and wealth. It was the European influence that resulted in the dehumanisation of slaves.

The slave trade was nicknames the ‘Triangular Trade’ after the route the ships took. First they would sail from Europe to Africa laden with goods such as guns, iron bars, alcohol and copper and bronze bracelets known as manillas). Enslaved people would be marched to the coast, those who survived what could be hundreds of miles of walking would be stored like goods in a warehouse while they waited to be sold. Once purchased they would be transferred to the ships, but even then they could face a wait of up to several months in the ship’s hold whilst waiting for the captain to purchase the numbers he wanted. To pay for the food and water needed to keep the slaves alive the ships also loaded gold, ivory and cloth to sell in the Caribbean or back in Europe.

Conditions on the ships were as awful as the warehouses, and it was said that a slave ship could be smelt from as far away as five miles. Some captains looked after their cargo, protecting the slaves from abuse and letting them have exercise (this could be for moral reasons, or for the purely financial aim of selling healthy slaves on arrival). Others played a numbers game and just crammed as many as possible into the ships. Revolts were violently stopped, and there were many cases of suicide and infanticide by mothers desperate to save their young children from the life ahead.

The third side of the triangle was the return journey. The revenue from the slaves purchased goods such as sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton and tobacco which could then be sold back in Europe.

It was the Quakers who first began the British movement towards emancipation, forming the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. This society was supported by leading African abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano who bought himself out of slavery. It is worth noting that many of the factors which led to the ending of slavery arose from the actions of the slaves themselves. They were not a passive and helpless people relying on the help of wealthy whites. After the successful slave revolt in Hispaniola, Haiti in 1791, and several failed attempts in Jamaica, it became clear that relying on enslaved labour could be unstable and expensive, and that paid labour could be more profitable.

Freetown in Sierra Leone was founded by British abolitionists in 1787 and populated by both rescued Africans, and also black Londoners who wanted to escape poverty. The British public came on board and in 1792 the West Indian sugar boycott began, with up to 300,000 people giving up sugar leading to the decimation of sales. In 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was passed but this was only the first step as it only banned the trade of slaves and so slave owners were free to continue on with those they already owned.

The belief had been that the abolition of the trade would lead to a gradual decline in slavery. This did not happen though and so the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823. They weren’t keen on women though and so the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves was established in 1825. On the 1st August 1834 slavery in British territories became illegal, slave owners receiving £20 million in compensation for the loss of property. Many slaves were left without housing or clothing and had to leave their homes in order to find work.

This is a great gallery giving an objective view of the facts surrounding British involvement in the slave trade and its legacy. There is also an exhibit commemorating the Caribbean voluntary service in World War I, showing the names of the fallen. The museum as a whole represents all of the docklands communities well, and I would highly recommend it.


Museum of London Docklands, No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, London, E14 4AL. Free entry. Open 10am – 6pm daily. http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds

Sunken cities

Sunken Cities – on now until 27th November

The first day of this exhibition was rather eventful, the British Museum having to close for several hours after Greenpeace activists climbed the columns to hang banners in protest at BP’s sponsorship. Since then, all has been peaceful and, whether you agree with the source of funding or not, the exhibition is definitely worth a look.

We’ve all heard the tale of the mystical city of Atlantis, but such cities did exist. In the eighth century two ancient cities, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, sank beneath the Mediterranean Sea. Their demise was caused by natural disaster: an earthquake and tidal wave. Back in 2000 the French marine archaeologist, Franck Goddio, discovered the two cities in Abukir Bay near Alexandria, and has been excavating the vast site ever since. The scale of the find is incredible. Even after this many years it is estimated that only 1-2% of the site has been excavated.

These cities illustrate the relationship that existed between ancient Egypt and Greece, shown in the dual named city Thonis (Egyptian name) – Heracleion (Greek name). The Egyptian deities were matched to their Greek counterparts so that all were comfortable existing side by side. The cities grew up as they sat at the mouth of the western branch of the Nile, a main artery for trade down to the cities of Naukratis (the first Greek settlement in Egypt) and Memphis, the ancient capital. Sixty nine ships have been found that would have been anchored in the Thonis-Heracleion harbour. Canopus were more of a religious centre and so there are many artefacts related to deities, in particular Osiris, god of the afterlife.

One important note on this exhibition: not all of the exhibits are from these cities. Many are, and these are all marked with a wave-like symbol. Those that don’t are used to better illustrate (and bulk out) the stories. For example, there is a section relaying the story of Osiris and Isis which uses lots of artefacts already discovered in other locations in Egypt. A short version of this myth is below. To me it didn’t matter that not everything had come from the sunken cities as the pieces were used to good effect and illustrated the importance of these deities to the people who lived in the cities at that time.

The most impressive sights include a 5.4 metre tall granite sculpture of the god Hapy that would have stood in Thonis-Heracleion (watching the video of divers beneath the sea, preparing to lift this from the silt give an idea of the scale of the project and how incredible it must be for the archaeologists), a sphinx, and colossal statues of Isis and Osiris. Apparently the gallery ceiling had to be heightened to accommodate the statue of Hapy. Overall, I think it works although there is a LOT to take in. You could easily spend a couple of hours in here and when I went (4pm on a Tuesday) it wasn’t too busy.


The British Museum is open daily. General entrance is free but this exhibition has a fee of £16.50 per person (booking fee £1). Members go free. Pre-booking is advisable at peak times and is available at http://www.britishmuseum.org.


The myth of Osiris (short version)

Geb, the sky god, and Nut, the earth goddess had four children: Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys. Since gods cannot marry outside their own kind, Osiris married his sister Isis, while Set married Nephthys (this pattern was then continued through the Egyptian pharaohs so that brother would usually marry sister). For whatever reason (there are many versions of this myth) Set killed Osiris and dismembered the body, scattering the pieces far and wide. The sisters joined together and reunited the body using embalming and funerary rites, hence Osiris becomes the very first mummy. When he is whole again Isis conceives their son Horus (again, the details here are a bit hazy as he is still a mummy!). Osiris cannot come back to the land of the living so rules the realm of the dead, said to be reborn through Horus who then became one of the most revered gods.

West End Treasure Hunt


A Conversation with Oscar Wilde, Adelaide St nr Charing Cross

I’m always on the lookout for cheap stuff to do in London (especially since returning home from travelling with a pretty decimated savings account!). Meetup.com is a great source for all kinds of groups and societies, and I had done a walking tour with Hazel of Walks, Talks and Treasure Hunts before. The West End is an area that I always think I know quite well – not so much I found out on this treasure hunt!!

For £5 each this was a bargain. I went with my friend Jane but there were plenty of people on their own. We all matched up into groups of 4 anyway (there were 30-odd of us in total). Hazel is always super-organised and professional. If you’ve ever done a tour before with her she’ll recognise you. We were handed maps (vaguely plotted to show the spots where we should look for answers to the clues) and a question sheet. There were three photo questions which we had to take along the way and send back to Hazel for marking.

We met at Charing Cross station at 2pm and had until 4pm to make our way back to the Silver Cross pub on Whitehall for the awards. Having the time frame definitely helped/panicked us as there were a couple of times when we could easily have wasted twenty minutes trying to solve one clue.

Matilda pose

Recreating the Matilda poster in Leicester Square

Running around the area it became apparent that I am incredibly unobservant most of the time! Answers to clues could be found on the buildings, looking at plaques on the walls and on statues. I had no idea just how much history could be learned in such a short space of time just by reading plaques on walls. I had never noticed the Globe Head Ballerina on the side of the Royal Opera House, or the Roman frieze on the Odeon cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue (dating back to its time as the Saville Theatre and representing drama through the ages). It did help that all four of us in our group had a decent knowledge of the area so at least we didn’t have any navigation issues – all our unanswered questions were a matter of simple lack of deduction.



The Young Dancer by Enzo Plazzotta, Covent Garden


Two hours was the perfect amount of time, though we had to rush at the end and missed a couple of questions out in order to get back on time. Our feet knew about it by the end but not so much that we weren’t able to power walk back to the pub for a well deserved drink. We didn’t place but came fourth which I was quite happy with.

If this sounds like your kind of thing then there are further treasure hunts scheduled on 24th July (City of London) and 14th August (Greenwich) plus loads of interesting walks (and of course talks!). Check out Walks, Talks and Treasure Hunts on meetup.com.

Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862 – 1948


A member of the African Choir who toured the Britain and performed for Queen Victoria in 1891


Apologies for the pictures on this review – these were the best I could take on my phone and besides, you should really go and check them out yourself if you can get to London (several photographs are shown on the National Portrait Gallery and Autograph ABP websites).

When I began writing my novel a number of people seemed surprised that, not only were there people of colour living in Victorian London, but that they weren’t all servants or struggling to survive in the slums. A number of people recommended Dickens and Gissing to read to get a picture of living in poverty in the nineteenth century. But I’m writing about a middle class class black family, I said. Cue dubious looks. So many in fact that I undertook a great deal of research to find a real-life family to base my fictional family on.

Black Chronicles showcases nineteenth and early-twentieth century photographs taken in Britain. The display forms part of Autograph ABP’s The Missing Chapter, a research project to research and present photographic images of black presence in Britain before 1945. It occupies three rooms at the National Portrait Gallery, the main Mezzanine room and then there are photos in two other rooms (though these contain other unrelated works as well).

I went to see the display last week (19th May) as part of the gallery’s Lates programme (art, music, drinks, talks). This runs every Thursday and Friday – instead of closing at 6pm there is a programme of events and the gallery is open until 9pm. To celebrate the display opening there was a talk by Renee Mussai from Autograph ABP which was very well attended and gave a lot more insight into the personalities and the history behind the photos. There is a great programme of events linked to the display including a weekend workshop in the Autumn, stories of cultural diversity on 25th August and a lecture on slavery in commemoration of Slavery Remembrance Day on the 26th August.

There are stories behind a lot of the photos. These are two of the most compelling:

Sara Forbes Bonetta was an orphan from West Africa who was sold into slavery. Captain Frederick E Forbes persuaded her captors to let him take her as a present to Queen Victoria and she took her name from him and his ship, the HMS Bonetta. He did indeed take her to Victoria who took a shine to her and raised her as a goddaughter. The display features photographs taken in celebration of her later marriage to Nigerian businessman Capt James Pinson Labulo Davies, taken by Camille Silvy, photographer to the rich and famous at the time. Sara’s eldest daughter Victoria also had the Queen as her godmother, and later attended Cheltenham Ladies College.



Peter Jackson, aka ‘The Black Prince’

Peter Jackson was born in 1861 on the island of St Croix (now part of the US Virgin Islands) which was then part of the Danish West Indies. Born a Danish citizen, Jackson moved to Australia as a child and fell into boxing whilst living in Brisbane. His early success was later hampered as he struggled to secure fights with white boxers, with many commentators claiming that he could have become a heavyweight champion if it weren’t for racial prejudice. He did travel to fight in the US and in England. After his career stalled, Jackson returned to Australia where he died of TB at the age of 40.


Black Chronicles runs until 11 December 2016. Free entry. Check website for events (some payable).

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London

Carlyle’s House, London

Carlyle house exterior

Exterior of 24 Cheyne Row (brown door)

Not many have  heard of Thomas Carlyle – I certainly hadn’t before embarking on my research into the Victorian period – but he was much admired by Charles Dickens, William Morris and many other well-known personalities of the era. He also founded the London Library which still boasts many a famous literary member today.

Thomas and his wife Jane moved to London from Scotland in the summer of 1834. They paid £35 a year for 5 Cheyne Row (now number 24) – and this never increased in the 47 years that he lived in the house! After Carlyle’s death in 1881 a commemorative plaque marked his tenure, but the house became neglected until the visit of one of Carlyle’s devotees, George Lumsden, in 1894. The dire state of the house inspired him to campaign for funds to buy it and he managed to acquire the property in May 1895. Many of the original contents were returned on loan or gifted to the Carlyle House Memorial Trust and the house opened to the public that July. It’s now owned by the National Trust.

When the Carlyles first moved to Chelsea it was not seen as a fashionable area but it was popular in literary and artistic circles. Mrs Gaskell was born at 93 Cheyne Walk in 1810 and George Eliot lived at number 4. Turner, Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rosetti were other residents of the area. Round the corner is 49 Glebe Place which is the only London building by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh.

There are several iconic homes of the Victorian period in London (Dickens’s house in Doughty Street and 18 Stafford Terrace, home of the Sambournes for example) but this is unique in that no alterations have been made other than for the upkeep of the property. The only toilet is still the outdoor privy and payment is cash only. All but the two rooms, occupied by the live-in custodian, are restored to their original purpose. To enter the property you have to pull the bell to be let in, just as the Carlyle’s visitors would have done.

On the ground floor are the parlour, at the front of the house, and the back dining room. Throughout the property are peppered cards bearing some of Thomas Carlyle’s quotations as well as information about the room, the furniture, or the famous visitors to the property. Jane was an aspiring writer herself, and was a keen letter writer. Interesting snippets of these are shared, filling in the life of this extraordinary couple. Also from the ground floor is the door to the garden (see below). Thomas grew beans and turnips here although the soil was poor, and liked to spend the early mornings and evenings out here while he smoked his pipe.

Carlyle Garden

The Carlyle’s garden

The first floor is home to the drawing room which was enlarged in 1852, the windows lengthened to create more light for entertaining their guests. I was most jealous of Thomas’s reading chair with its rotating book-rest. He spent much of his last few months reading and dozing here, and it was in this room that he died in February 1881. Next door to this room is Jane’s bedroom and dressing room. She suffered ill health as she grew older, a victim of insomnia, severe headaches, flu and neuralgia, and finally succumbed to illness in 1866. The Carlyles never experienced the luxury of a bathroom, despite advances in plumbing technology during their lives, and relied on the outdoor privy and hipbaths, the hot water being carried up from the kitchen in the basement.

The next floor up being the custodian’s rooms, in the Carlyle’s time Thomas’s bedroom and a guest room, the next port of call is the attic. This Carlyle had soundproofed to form a study where he could work. He couldn’t stand any noise and suffered through his neighbours’ cockerels, the playing of the organ grinders outside, and the noise from revellers, fireworks and music from the nearby Cremorne Gardens. Despite his efforts, the room kept out the original noises but instead let in the new irritant of train whistles and boat horns from the river. This room is very close to the original layout and is full of books, pictures as well as being home to Carlyle’s writing desk.

Back down the stairs, past the garden and into the basement is found the kitchen. The Carlyle’s only kept one servant to clean the entire house, cook and carry water up to the bedrooms. For a long time the poor woman also had to sleep in the kitchen on a fold-up bed. Since Thomas liked to end his evening with a smoke in the kitchen she had to wait up until he had gone to bed before she could turn in for the night. In addition to these already less than ideal circumstances Jane was a picky employer, finding fault continuously. In the 32 years she lived here she made her way through 34 servants!

Visiting Carlyle’s house is truly like stepping back in time. Authentic, informative and an intriguing look at how this couple really lived in Victorian England.

Carlyle’s House, 24 Cheyne Row, London SW3 5HL. Entry is £6 adults, £3 children (free for National Trust members).

Open Wednesday – Sunday 11.00-16.30. Also Bank Holidays (do check website for up to date info).