My great-grandfather, a Victorian den of poverty – and the new slums
After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Jeremy Corbyn said: “Kensington is a tale of two cities. The south part of Kensington is incredibly wealthy; it’s the wealthiest part of the whole country. The ward [north Kensington] where this fire took place is the poorest ward in the whole country.”
How did these two nations develop, cheek by jowl, alongside each other?
The divide goes right back to the mid-19th century. In 1851, the fashionable Great Exhibition came to Hyde Park. With Albertopolis – the museums, Imperial College and the Albert Hall, inspired by Prince Albert – South Kensington became almost as grand as Mayfair. Its popularity was boosted by the proximity of Kensington Palace.
The picture was much grimmer in the north of the borough, where Grenfell Tower stands. This was where the local industry and warehouses were squeezed beside the Great Western Railway and the Grand Union Canal. Here lay the low-lying, marshy land of Notting Dale, unlike the higher, richer neighbourhood, perched on Notting Hill, further south. The area around Grenfell Tower was then given over to pig farms, brickmakers and potteries. In 1849, cholera, diarrhoea and typhus killed so many people here that the mortality rate was two and a half times the level of the rest of London. In 1893, the Daily News referred to the area around Grenfell Tower as “A West-end Avernus [Hell]”. In 1902, the social reformer Charles Booth found extensive poverty “as of deep and dark a type as anywhere in London”.
Grenfell Tower, built in 1974, was named after Grenfell Road – a 19thcentury street, named after Field Marshal Francis Grenfell, right, the first Lord Grenfell (1841-1925), my great-grandfather.
Lord Grenfell fought in the Anglo-zulu War of 1879, the Anglo-egyptian War of 1882 and in Sudan in 1888; became governor of Malta, commanderin-chief in Ireland and the Sirdar (commanderin-chief ) of the Egyptian Army. Sirdar Road is also named in his honour. Today, there is a world of difference between the handsome, terraced houses of Grenfell Road and the bleak silhouette of Grenfell Tower. The terraced houses go for £1.6million. In Grenfell Tower, before the fire, you could buy a flat for £161,000.
As part of the disastrous slum clearances, from the 1930s onwards, hundreds of those north Kensington terraced houses were obliterated and replaced with tower blocks.
The misguided thinking was that these new, magical “streets in the sky” would prove to be visionary, comfortable homes. Instead, they became dumping grounds for the poor: for the old working class and the new immigrants.
The tower blocks were a terrible mistake.
While the owners of terraced houses could decide how they decorated and protected their homes, the tower block inhabitants were ruled en masse by remote council decisions – such as the one to wrap Grenfell Tower in its potentially fatal cladding. Unlike the streets on the ground, those doomed streets in the sky have no way out.
The tower was named after the first Lord Grenfell, rightHarry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Viking)