My great-grand­fa­ther, a Vic­to­rian den of poverty – and the new slums

The Daily Telegraph - - Tower block in­ferno - By Harry Mount

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)

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