Close Up | Bevin Court Housing Estate
We home in on three more secrets from our ‘hood…
1. A RED UNDER THE BEDS
The Bevin Court housing estate in north Clerkenwell was recently the focus of the Design Museum’s Lesser Known Architecture exhibition (see Post, issue 14). It’s easy to see why: it’s strikingly Modernist; it’s Grade II Listed; and it was built by the famous Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin (known for the London Zoo penguin pool, as well as the Spa Green estate and Finsbury Health Centre in EC1). It also has a story behind it.
Bevin Court was built in the Fifties on the site of Holford Square, which was so war damaged it had to be cleared. Number 30 Holford Square was where Lenin lived for a year, in 1902, when he came to London to publish his Communist newspaper Iskra, which was banned in Russia. To commemorate this, the square’s gardens boasted a memorial to Lenin, created by Lubetkin, in fact, and erected by the left-wing Finsbury Borough Council.
This memorial was a hulking concrete slab with a recess, in which stood a marble bust of Lenin. There was a glass panel above his head, designed to bathe him in red light, and a set of broken chains below. Not the most subtle or sophisticated of designs. Perhaps Lubetkin agreed with this verdict on his work, which had been so regularly vandalised since its installation that at one point it had a police guard. When clearance of the square began, to make way for his Y-shaped housing blocks, he decided to throw the memorial in among the foundations.
By the time the first block was completed in 1953, the Cold War was well underway and it was decided that the original plan of naming the estate after Lenin was a flawed one – hence it was named after the (fiercely anti- Communist) Labour politician Ernest Bevin instead. Luckily, this last-minute rethink didn’t cause too much of a headache for Lubetkin and his team. They only needed to change two letters in the sign for the entrance way…
2. A STEAL
2013 marks 50 years since The Great Train Robbery. The anniversary gives every newspaper, magazine and website the chance to wheel out the key facts of the heist again: most of the £2.6m taken was never recovered, the thieves forgot to clean their fingerprints off a Monopoly board at their hideout. However, here are a handful of facts you may not have heard before. And they link “the crime of the century” to… you’ve guessed it, Clerkenwell.
When ringleader Bruce Reynolds died this February, his funeral was held at St Bartholomew the Great church in Smithfield. Two members of the gang, Ronnie Biggs and Bob Welsh, were in attendance. Biggs gave the press a two- fingered salute from his wheelchair. The funeral was arranged by Reynolds’s son Nick. He’s a former Royal Navy diver who belongs to the band Alabama 3 – their song Woke up this Morning was used as The Sopranos theme tune. In the band, he plays the harmonica and goes by the name of Harpo Strangelove.
But that’s not all. Reynolds is also a sculptor (he makes memorial death masks, of all things). He was a key figure in the colourful life of The Tardis, the idiosyncratic artist studios-cum-celebrity hangout that used to be next to the railway tracks at Farringdon (see Post, issue 6).
In a recent interview, Nick said his dad was an artist at heart: “He referred to the train robbery as his Sistine Chapel.” Clerkenwell’s British Postal Museum & Archive has put together an online exhibition about the robbery – visit www.google.com/culturalinstitute.
3. TIME HONOURED
Clerkenwell is known for its clockmaking tradition (see Post, issue 1) so it’s fitting that one of our local heroes is John Harrison, of longitude fame. Though he was born 320 years ago in Yorkshire and grew up in Lincolnshire, he spent the key part of his working life in London. He lived first in Leather Lane, before moving to Red Lion Square, near Holborn.
Harrison had a huge appetite for innovation. Before he’d even started tackling the longitude problem, he’d already invented a wooden clock with a wooden mechanism, a metal clock that required no oil for lubrication and a clock so accurate it lost just one second per month. All extraordinary feats at the time. At home in Red Lion Square he would have spent day and night working on his five marine chronometers, battling the Board of Longitude in Greenwich every step of the way. The site where it stood is now occupied by Summit House, a Modernist building housing law firm Mishcon de Reya (famous for doing Princess Diana’s divorce).
There’s a blue plaque dedicated to Harrison on the wall. It states he “lived and died” there. In fact, he died on his own birthday (his 83rd). How’s that for timing?