Kensal House, W10

Block in/near Kensal Town, existing between 1936 and now

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Block · Kensal Town · W10 ·

Kensal House (1936), was designed to show off the power of gas and originally had no electricity at all.

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Built next to Kensal Green Gas Works, it was designed by architect Maxwell Fry in collaboration with Elizabeth Denby to set new standards.

Originally, the building was intended for the housing of the employees of the Gas Light and Coke Company and was situated on the company site. Until the Second World War, blocks of flats were often designed to include communal amenities. For the wealthy, these were an added luxury or convenience paid for by a service charge, while for the less well-off in state housing they were a way of sharing basic facilities. In this progressive modernist housing scheme there were communal workshops and other shared facilities, including a community centre, crèche, communal laundry and canteen facilities.

The original design of the Kensal House flats was intended to act as a competitor to the advance of electricity as both as lighting and power source. As originally designed, in Kensal House, there was no electricity supply at all.

There was an electrical battery used to ignite the centre ceiling room lights. The wall switch, when pushed downwards activated a cable which opened thr gas flow to the centre room light. This also sent a supply from the battery to a heating element which ignited the gas to the gas mantle, which then lit the room.

Cooking was done on a gas oven, and gas hob, and the heating of the hot water was by way of a gas geyser. (A geyser by the way was a device which was fixed to the wall in the kitchen; it was about 24 inches high and about 6 inches diameter. It had a water supply connection, and a gas supply connection, and was designed to supply instant hot water whenever it was needed. It worked by way of a water valve, which operated as soon as water flowed through it, because the water also open the gas valve which was then ignited by a small pilot light, which then heated the water to the water tap in both the kitchen and bathroom. Therefore only the required amount of hot water was used, as the water heating only worked when the water flowed through it.)

Room heating was by way of a open coke fire in the sitting room and a gas fire in the main bedroom.

The amenities were: a bathroom and toilet, a fitted kitchen, a gas-heated boiler for clothes washing, a larder cupboard, clothes drying balcony, a further balcony adjoining the living room and bedrooms (two or three in number).

Each flat had a loudspeaker fixed to the wall. There was also a switch which gave a limited choice of programmes. This was all controlled from a radio room on the roof of Kensal House, and the caretaker was the only person with control over what was listened to. While obviously there was an electrical supply to the radio room, there was no control, other than the loudspeaker in the flat.

Communal living facilities weres a great step forward from the norm, with two large green lawn areas, a workshop for the men tenants, and classes for dressmaking and similar activities for the women tenants. The club activities encompassed acting, cooking, and various instructional classes for both sexes. There was a full time caretaker who kept the estate clean and tidy, and who had the additional responsibility of ensuring all children were sent home to their parents at 9 o’clock every evening.

There were two club areas on the ground floor, one for adults and one for young children, in addition there was as purpose-built nursery at the rear of the flats, which also housed a childrens’ playground.

For some unknown reason, the Gas Light and Coke Company workers were never actually housed in the flats once built - the property was acquired by a housing trust and let out to the poorer families of the area.

At the start of World War Two, it was decided to provide an air raid shelter for the occupants of Kensal House..

A decision was made to dig up the (beautiful) lawn between the front and rear block of the building (between the two club houses), and consequently a very large hole was dug out in the lawn. When the hole was some 20 to 30 feet deep, someone observed that if a German bomb hit the building, the buildings would collapse over the air raid shelter, and bury those sheltering in them. A panic-stricken authority immediately filled in the costly hole, and began to dig up the rear children’s playground where the shelters were finally constructed. While the entrances to the two shelters were filled in at the end of W.W.2., the actual shelters still exist under the playground.

Contribution by Frank Hatton

Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Licence


Kensal House in the 1990s
User unknown/public domain


Kensal Town

Soapsuds Island

Kensal New Town was built between the Grand Central Canal (which opened in 1801) and the Great Western Railway line (opening in 1837) in the 1840s.

Single-storey cottages with gardens suitable for drying clothes were the first buildings and Kensal Road, Middle Row, West Row, East Row and Southern Row all appeared between 1841 and 1851. The rows of cottages quickly degenerated into a slum, mainly due to overcrowding, industrialisation and pollution.

The area was dominated by the Western Gas Company and Kensal Cemetery, which provided work but did little to improve the environment. Women were primarily involved in laundry work giving the area its nickname of ‘Soapsuds Island’.

The area was isolated from the rest of London at a time when Portobello Lane (now Portobello Road) was a muddy track sometimes impassable in bad weather.

Cut off from the municipal authorities it was left to charities to attempt to alleviate the social and health problems.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the cottage laundry industry began to be replaced by larger mechanized concerns.

In 1902 Charles Booth described it as, “Just as full of children and poverty as was the old woman’s dwelling in the nursery rhyme.” By this date the area had been transferred to the newly formed Royal Borough of Kensington. When the Piggeries and Potteries in Notting Dale were finally cleared in the early 20th century most of the displaced residents moved north into Golborne ward and Kensal.

By 1923 in the Southam Street area 140 houses contained some 2500 inhabitants. A series of evocative photographs by Roger Mayne in the 1950s showed that little had changed. It was only from the 1960s that the overcrowded and dilapidated terraces were cleared and replaced by social housing including Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower.
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