Local writer uncovers the secrets of the art deco treasure
A History of Du Cane Court: Land, Architecture, People and Politics is a new book charting the history of one of Wandsworth's landmark buildings. Author Gregory Vincent, himself a resident of the apartment building, has been kind enough to share a synopsis of his story with Wandsworthsw18.com readers...
Du Cane Court is a popular art deco block of flats in Balham: one which, exceptionally, has become known both near by and far away. It has featured in property programmes on television; and has benefited from a wide compass of residents and visitors, who, in the fullness of time, have spread the news about what it is like to live there.
To compile the underlying data for the present work, the author visited various libraries, accessed the Register of Electors, examined the council records, and interviewed long-term residents – including several who arrived in ‘the Court’ before or during the war, and even one who provided an insight into what it was like to grow up there in the 1950s.
Du Cane Court was our whole world,’ he said. ‘I would play around the garages with my friends, but we got chased off. If we turned on a tap at the back of the building, we would be told off. The porters were like the Gestapo, screaming at us whenever we stepped out of line.’
‘We were not allowed in the boiler room, nor anywhere in the basement, on our own, but a certain Mr Philips took a liking to us, and under his kind patronage such places became accessible. Coal was used in the early days to heat the water for the building, with chimneys belching smoke into the atmosphere. The boiler room became known as The Dungeon, or Aladdin’s Cave. To us, it was a place of enchantment where strange old fellows pitched great piles of rubbish (probably from a skip, or from the dust chute collection areas) into the mouth of a huge furnace, whilst flaming tongues licked the sides of the walls. It was like entering a dragon’s lair.’
The house which Du Cane Court replaced was very similar to 222 Balham High Road. Robert Addington describes the wonderful landscaped grounds which his grandfather owned on a lease from the Du Cane family, and which were later sold to make way for the new block:
‘… the land at the back of the property was actually on three levels, and my mother told me that, because of the mist on her wedding day, she could not see to the bottom of the garden! And the house was no less incredible. It had a self-contained pharmacy, and was home to four children and eight staff: including the gardeners, three maids, a cook and a coachman named Mr Faithful.
The period of art deco was an ambivalent age for architecture. On the one hand, a series of imposing and memorable structures were erected, many of them blocks of flats, and all with the hallmarks of a new style. On the other hand architecture was not fully recognised as a profession. Reflecting this was a certain tongue in cheek humour. In response to an article in JRIBA, ‘The Case for a Learned Society’, one elderly member of the Royal Institute of British Architects said: ‘If you know of a learned society for architects, tell me, I’d like to join’; while another remarked that he knew of one good case for a learned society - a coffin! So this was the atmosphere that the builders were up against.
George Kay Green, the architect, was born in 1877. He was well-connected, being the son of Mr William Green, the founder of William Green and Sons, Law Publishers, which became the most reputable firm of its kind in Scotland. The middle name, Kay, was probably introduced by George’s mother as a social-climbing exercise; and George’s wife certainly thought she was greatly transcending her working-class background when she married him. Her son vividly described her feelings and her behaviour ...
‘Once she had stuck her talons into him, she wouldn’t let go,’ Charles told me, ‘but since the two of them hailed from different worlds, their respective families refused to speak to each other.’ And the problems did not end there. Her husband was very dedicated to his work and, one day, when he failed to return home for the anniversary of their wedding, she flew into a rage and chucked her wedding dress into the fire!
Mr Green was involved in the creation of a number of large blocks of flats, including Sloane Avenue Mansions and Nell Gwynn House. His employer, The Central London Property Trust, purchased the underlying land that to be used for the creation of a marvellous new property in Balham from one Charles Henry Copley Du Cane, whose family name was given to the building. The Du Canes were actually French Protestants, or ‘Huguenots’, who had fled from their homeland to escape persecution The Huguenot Soc. The Huguenots brought with them skills in banking and finance, and Wandsworth Museum itemizes a whole range of other trades which they practiced in the locality: dyeing, enamelling, and making wigs and hats.
The Construction of Du Cane Court was certainly not without its problems. Even in the mid-1970s, deaths in construction industry numbered just over one per day; and, apparently, there was a particular individual who worked on ‘the Court’ who came to a most unfortunate end. One day, he fell from the scaffolding into a cement pit – and I do not know whether his body was retrieved.
The scale of the whole enterprise was truly something to be reckoned with. It sits on about 4.5 acres of land, and has been variously estimated to contain four or six miles of corridor (although I feel that two miles would be nearer the mark), so it is hardly surprising that there are problems with the post. The place is so big, it has even been assigned different postcodes. Indeed, one lady was surprised to find that the cost of her contents insurance fell after moving to a different flat, but still within the building. This is in spite of her new home having two bedrooms, and her previous home having only one. Apparently she now has a better postcode!
The building was erected between 1935 and 1938, and has pleasing curves and a magnificent 84-foot-wide foyer. The design also included a stylish restaurant, and there were plans for squash courts and a children’s crèche area, as well as roof gardens. Indeed, people remember sunbathing on the roof. The building has changed a lot over the years, but it still has a beautiful foyer and attractive Japanese gardens, landscaped by Seyemon Kusumoto; and, when it was completed, it had the distinction of being probably the largest block of privately-owned flats under one roof in Europe. All of the companies involved in its construction were researched for the book, and an account is given as to how this edifice – encompassing around 676 flats – reflected a period of change in architectural history. The window frames, for instance, were created in the style of Crittall Manufacturing Co Ltd. They were metal rather than wood, which allowed the window to be broader (about eight feet wide in the case of our own building), and so admit plenty of light and make a room of moderate size seem quite voluminous.
One resident vividly describes the restaurant on the seventh floor:‘There was a piano played by Eddy Wheeler, and perhaps a violin and saxophone. The dais was near the window and could support a two-piece or three-piece band. The bar was the venue for wonderful new years’ parties. People would join hands and sing and dance in the corridors. And a barman called Jimmy made wonderful beverages (Tommy Trinder would simply have a light ale), but I never saw anyone drunk up there. Then one day Jimmy closed the bar down and made off with the money. I couldn’t believe it.’
Apart from the restaurant, the focus for social gatherings was a club of ample proportions on the seventh floor of H block – where there are now three apartments: H71, H72 and H73. The décor was green and black, and the facilities included a billiards room, a cards room, a reading and writing room, a bar, and lavatories; and there was the opportunity to play table-tennis or darts. In the architectural drawings, special provision was also made for the staff. A flat on the ground floor of block B was reserved for the use of the manager; and on the eighth floor, or the roof, there were (besides two tank rooms) a staff dining room, a kitchen and a scullery.
There are many famous individuals who were reputedly there – actresses Margaret Rutherford, Elizabeth Sellars and Hermione Gingold; comedians Tommy Trinder, Derek Roy, and Richard Hearne alias ‘Mr Pastry’; band leaders Harry Roy and Harry Leader, and also most of the Tiller Girls; cricketer Andy Sandham, and table-tennis ace, Ernest Bubley. Today, ‘the Court’ numbers Arthur Smith and Christopher Luscombe amongst its theatrical celebrities – both of whom were interviewed at length.
Some interesting stories are told about those associated with the block. Margaret Rutherford suffered from mental illness in her later years. Evidently, the problem ran in the family. In fact, she inherited her mother’s maiden name because her father, William Benn, murdered her paternal grandfather, the Reverend Julius Benn, by battering him to death with a chamber pot. William was later admitted to Broadmoor. Yet to her credit, she transcended this dark past, and became a Dame of the British Empire in 1967. Tommy Trinder, the comedian considered himself competition for Max Miller, but felt impregnable when it came life’s knocks, for, unlike Max, he could take a joke against himself. Nevertheless, he could not have liked it when the newspapers were full of news of his divorce after the war; and it is said that he was actually robbed so many times that he once put a notice on his door for forthcoming burglars: ‘Don’t bother – you’ve already taken everything!’
There are some wonderful legends about Du Cane Court. It is said, for instance, that Hitler intended to use it for his headquarters when he invaded Britain; and that the German Luftwaffe may have found it helpful as a navigational aid – for, in spite of its size, the estate appears to have survived World War 11 completely unscathed. It is also rumoured that the building was once a hotbed of spies.
In 1971 the Tenants’ Association was founded, and the ensuing decades saw a mixture of noble aspirations and conflicts of interest take root within it. The Association was involved, among other things, in the creation of a Pet’s Register. And so we hear of a portly old woman with a walking stick, who used to stand in one of the courtyards with a Burmese cat on her shoulder, whilst smoking a pipe of herbal tobacco. Another resident kept an iguana in the bath, and the bathroom was always hot and steamy like a sauna, in order to simulate the humid conditions of its natural habitat.
There are endearing stories of community spirit; and some sad exceptions, where residents cannot stomach each other’s company or each other’s noise. There have been battles with the landlords, or their representative managers, on account of the considerable service charge expenses – and the disturbing flat conversions which they have been responsible for. Certain disputes have even reached the courtroom.
Other events have included what was, perhaps, the first invasion of pharaoh ants in a London block of flats; and a dramatic boiler explosion in the basement, from which a visiting engineer sustained horrific injuries, even though the rest of the building was unaffected.
Many people have lived in Du Cane Court for so long that they have grown senile, or passed on. When one old lady’s flat was visited by relatives after she died, a remarkable discovery was made. A mummified baby was hidden away in one of the cupboards, which a certain pathologist, Rufus Crompton, later estimated to have been between 40 and 70 years old.
The book contains many illustrations: photographs of famous residents, pictures of the building taken recently and in the 1930s, original architectural plans, and interesting letters. A few cartoons have even been drawn to highlight the comical side of life at Du Cane Court. And, if they are not enough to raise a smile, the book has various quaint stories of eccentrics and elderly people making their mark.
Lastly, there are the pros and cons of attempting to gain the freehold, and of getting the building listed; and an assessment of what the future may hold, and of the measures which might be taken to further improve an environment which is already, most of the time at least, a pleasant place to call your home.
The whole book may be ordered from Waterstones and other bookstores ( ISBN: 97809541675-16) You can also buy it from Balham Library
The website for the book is ducanecourt.gkvfreshdesign.com
June 3, 2011