Saturday, August 8, 2020

Page Street, London

Fit for service

In the years before World War I, few people could afford to run a car. Most car owners were rich, and many were rich enough to employ their own chauffeur, who’d usually double as mechanic – which was important, since motor vehicles were nowhere near as reliable as they are today. If you didn’t have a chauffeur, it was as well to have at least basic maintenance skills, but, in larger towns especially, there was enough demand for the first garages to start in business. Many mechanics worked in a large shed – maybe a wooden or corrugated iron structure – with enough space to work on a car and to store tools. But some garage owners went for something bigger.

One such firm was Charles Jarrott & Letts, who built their garage in London’s Page Street in 1913. Amazingly, the building is still there and traces of the owners’ names are still visible on the front. I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it, but the open door provoked my interest and I did wonder if it was a place where cars were once repaired. It seemed to have what was needed – plenty of space inside without columns getting in the way, so that you could drive cars in and turn them around; good headroom to accommodate larger vehicles and to allow air to circulate and fumes to find their way out; decent lighting (although this was provided by modern strip lights when I passed by).

Browsing through the excellent English Heritage book Carscapes,* I found a little more out about the building and its owners. Charles Jarrott was one of Britain’s first racing drivers, and one of the most successful of the period. Sir William Letts was chairman of Crossley Motors of Manchester, a company that had begun by making engines and industrial machinery, branching into car manufacturing in 1903. They had showrooms in the heart of London, in Great Marlborough Street. The Page Street premises were where vehicles were repaired and serviced.

Like many a garage, it’s not a beautiful building. A substantial cornice and pediment are the main architectural ornament. The rest of the visual interest would have come from the signage – the owners’ names above the double doors and in the pediment above, the single word ‘GARAGE’ in large, widely spaced capitals. Just a little more than the basics, then, but enough to ensure that the building paid its way long after Crossley Motors ceased to be an independent company in the 1940s. Above all, this not quite basic building shows how even such a structure can embody interesting history, reminding us that the early development of the motor car involved a variety of personalities – not just a prominent industrialist and a successful racing driver, but also the many anonymous mechanics who got the cars on the road and kept them there.

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* Kathryn A. Morrison and John Minns, Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England, Yale University Press, 2012


Michelle Ann said...

Any idea of what the current usage is? It looks like it is still for vehicles. It is interesting to see how usages change.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Michelle Ann: I'm not sure of the precise use – it did look like something automotive. There were mostly vans in there and no one about to ask.