Saturday, November 9, 2013

St Giles High Street, London

In a name

Tucked between Charing Cross Road and Centre Point are a couple of rather dusty-looking blocks of presumably Victorian flats with shops below. They are called Clifton Mansions and York Mansions, and, although I must have passed them scores of times I'd not noticed much about them except to register a general impression of rows of windows and classical details. When we were passing by again the other day, the Resident Wise Woman looked up and pointed at this interesting bit of signage. 'Look at the two kinds of lettering,' she said, and I got out my camera and snapped, holding the thing as steadily as I could in the gloaming. We commented on changing fashions, how someone had felt the need to replace high Victorian curvaceous carved lettering with plainer, blockier, more grotesque capitals to satisfy some late-Victorian taste. And then we continued our journey in the direction of Covent Garden.

I thought nothing more of this until I picked out my picture to post on the blog, took a closer look, and realised that there are in fact three generations of lettering not two. One is, indeed, curvaceous and carved, and part of it, saying 'SIONS' (presumably part of the word 'Mansions') is clearly visible where the later plaster has peeled away. Another is, indeed, in bold capitals, painted on the plaster that has partly peeled, and enough of it survives that we can read 'CLIFTON MAN'. But look closely to the right of 'CLIFTON' and a ghostly 'Y' can be seen. Look closer still (you'll have to click on the image to make it display larger) and there is clearly another word in bold capitals beneath 'CLIFTON'. I think it's 'SALISBURY' but the first 'S' has vanished. And what is that under the bottom line? 'HO'? Could this building have begun as Clifton Mansions, changed its name to Salisbury House, then changed back to Clifton Mansions?

So what was going to be a post about two styles of lettering has developed into a puzzle about naming that has left me mystified. Does anyone know anything about these buildings and their names?

* * *

In the comments section there is now an incredibly detailed and interesting note from Shui-Long (for which many thanks), the conclusion of which is that the building had three successive names:
'Some time between 1895 and 1899 flats were created on the upper floors as no.54 High St, with the name "Dover Mansions"; between 1899 and 1910 this was changed, with no.54 becoming "Salisbury House" and no.57 becoming "Winchester House"; and some time after 1915, the names were changed again to "Clifton Mansions" (54) and "York Mansions" (57).'
The part of the building in my photograph is No.54, so it was successively Dover Mansions, Salisbury House, and Clifton Mansions. Please see the Comments section for more detail.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if it started out as Clifton Mansions. The only carved portion visible is the 'sions'. Could have been anything, maybe Salisbury Mansions? The painted Salisbury is older than the painted Clifton.

Anonymous said...

A little research indicates that this block was built on part of the site of the pre-Reformation St Giles Hospital, on land that had been heavily developed since the C16.

The Post Office Directories for the late C19 list individual occupiers for the street numbers in this block - in 1882, they were:
52 - Barwell Robert, builder
53 - Browne Wm, alamode beef shop
54 - Lebeau Francis, dining rooms
55 - Morrell Henry, tobacconist
56 - Peck Mrs Martha, ham dealer
57 - Disley Henry William, printer
58 - Fowke Wm David, tobacco mfr

In 1899, the directory shows:
53 - Tyeas Edward, dining rooms
55 - Cooke John Rbt, stick mounter is Denmark Place...
58 - Maynard Richard, music seller

And in the 1910 directory:
52 - Maynard Richard, music seller
53 - Rolls Ernest C & Co, theatrical revue producers
55 - Standard Feature Film Co. Ltd is Denmark Place...
58 - Atlas Electrical Co. Ltd

(the same in 1915).

As far as I can see from such OS street plans as I can find online, 52-58 High St doesn't appear to be a single building, at least at ground level. It looks as if a common facade, probably including additional upper floors, was applied to several existing houses to create a block of mansion flats, also bridging over the alleyway entrance to Denmark Place (which is still there, to left of centre in the block, with an iron gate). From the style, a date of the end of the C19 would fit, as would the rather art deco lettering of "sions". The facade would appear to be all of a piece, with no indication that no.57 is later than no.54, though the absence of no.57 from the 1899 directory could be because it was then unfinished.

So some time between 1895 and 1899 flats were created on the upper floors as no.54 High St, with the name "Dover Mansions"; between 1899 and 1910 this was changed, with no.54 becoming "Salisbury House" and no.57 becoming "Winchester House"; and some time after 1915, the names were changed again to "Clifton Mansions" (54) and "York Mansions" (57).

Philip Wilkinson said...

Shui-Long: Thanks for that incredibly informative comment - I've added the conclusion to the end of my post, with an acknowledgement.

What you've written is an object lesson in the use of the Post Office directories and old OS Maps: thank you again.

Stephen Barker said...

But that still leaves the question, why did presumably different owners want to keep changing the name of the same buildings. It makes one wonder if they had a rather dubious reputation.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Indeed. And such rapid changes. It does seem odd.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Interesting also looking at the occupiers, how the jobs and professions change from mainly purveyors of food and hospitality to people linked to entertainment (tin pan alley round the corner).

Anonymous said...

Tin Pan Alley round the corner, indeed, and also the location of a horrible fire that killed 37 people in 1980.

Interestingly, you can see the same names (and those for the adjacent block, now York Mansions) on the Google Streetview.

Stephen Barker said...

Yes I had noticed the change of trades over the years. I particularly liked the 1882 entry for No. 53 Brown Wm. alamode steak shop.

The fact that someone had the carved name covered in plaster shows a real determination to rename the building.

Terri said...

#55 High Street, was the home of my great grandmother Jane Jessie Martin Robinson, (born in 1863) in 1871. She was living with her mother Mary Ann Robinson and Herbert Robinson.

I was just there in May 2015 and they had it boarded up for demolition.


Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Terri. It's always interesting to hear from people with family links to the buildings in my posts. I'm sorry to hear about the demolition. There's such a lot of building work going on around there right now.