Portobello Road

Portobello Farm on the site of the Portobello/Golborne Road junction and All Saints Church along the farm lane 1864. 'Carnival time was on Saturday nights in the winter, when it was thronged like a fair from Cornwall Road (Westbourne Park Road) to Bolton Road (Westbourne Grove). The people overflowed from the pavement so that the roadway was quite impassable for horse traffic which, to do it justice, never appeared. On the left-hand side (the east side) were costers' barrows, lighted by flaming naphtha lamps, in the side-streets were side-shows, vendors of patent medicine, conjurors and itinerant musicians.' William Bull, recalling the early years of the market in the 1870s.

'Imagination starts with raffish Portobello Road... In those early days when we ran down for a packet of sherbet, or walked in kilts and tams to the grocers, it was still literally a flea market. All along the gutter rickety stalls and barrows were piled high with rags, torn jerseys, mismatched shoes, chipped china, bent tin trays, three-legged furniture and malfunctioning appliances from the early days of electricity.' Monica Dickens, the novelist great-granddaughter of Charles, who lived on the corner of Chepstow Villas, recalling the 1920s market.

'Portobello Road, Portobello Road, street where the riches of ages are stowed, anything and everything a chap can unload is sold off the barrow in Portobello Road, you'll find what you want in the Porto Bello Road. Rare alabaster, genuine plaster, a filigreed samovar owned by the czars, a pen used by Shelley, a new Botticelli, the snipper that clipped old King Edward's cigars, Waterford crystals, Napoleon's pistols, society heirlooms with genuine gems, Rembrandts, El Grecos, Toulouse-Lautrecos, painted last week on the banks of the Thames.' 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks' 1971 Hollywood W11 Disneyland scene set in 1940. 

The Portobello Road antiques market was established after the Second World War between Chepstow Villas and Elgin Crescent/Colville Terrace. In the early 20th century, after the Chepstow Villas Dickens house there was the Cricketers pub and then the Lord Nelson on the corner of Denbigh Terrace. Tom Courtenay walks through the antiques market at the beginning of the 1968 film 'Otley', and Alice's antiques shop at number 86 appears in the classic swinging 60s Portobello scene in 'The Italian Job'. The Beatles police capes were sold at Annie's shop on the other corner of Denbigh Close (formerly Mews). In the 70s, 19 Denbigh Terrace was occupied by Peter Cook, Keith Moon and Richard Branson, and the Portobello Gold bar at 95 was the Princess Alexandra, known as the Alex bikers pub, the local of Lemmy of Motorhead. The Earl of Lonsdale on Westbourne Grove was Henekey's, the music scene hang out from beatnik to punk rock. Charles Dickens himself is said to have appeared at the 20th Century Theatre on the other corner of Westbourne Grove (when it was the Victoria Hall Bijou Theatre on Archer Street).

Vernon Yard mews at 119 Portobello Road (across Westbourne Grove) is named after Admiral Edward Vernon, who took Porto Belo in central America (now in Panama) from the Spanish in the 1739 'War of Jenkins' Ear', causing the naming of the farm and lane. In the 1970s and 80s Richard Branson's Virgin record company offices were at 2-4 Vernon Yard, when the label featured Mike Oldfield, the Sex Pistols and Culture Club. Admiral Vernon's victory also inspired the song 'Rule Britannia' and the naming of Mount Vernon in Virginia.

The site of the Portobello Court estate was occupied by the lost Portobello Street and Portobello Mews (originally the Bolton Road and Mews slum area), which survived the Luftwaffe more or less intact but succumbed to the LCC's post-war slum clearance programme. The windows of Colville School on Lonsdale Road (originally Buckingham Terrace) were smashed by the blast of a bomb falling nearby, and the school had its own air-raid shelter under the laundry block in the playground. The corner of Lonsdale Road, which now hosts the office of the 'Notting Hill' filmmaker Richard Curtis, was the Portobello Tavern. Hugh Grant's market walk starts from the film set bookshop round the corner at number 142. The Portobello Star bar at 171, after the Admiral Vernon antiques arcade, was named in allusion to his flagship.

The Duke of Wellington pub at number 179, on the corner of Elgin Crescent, was the main Portobello HH Finch bar. The chain of pubs, which was taken over by Young's in 1991, included several branches in Notting Hill. The Earl of Lonsdale/Henekey's on Westbourne Grove was known as 'top Finch's' in the early 20th century. The first Portobello film from the late 1920s by John Phibbs features his father setting up his gramophone record stall outside Finch's at the Colville Terrace/Elgin Crescent junction.

Ed Vulliamy's 60s teenage memoirs include 'all those 'Sergeant Pepper' jackets outside Finch's' and 'soon it was legal to buy a beer in Finch's, but not some of the other substances available there.' In 'Alternative London' it's down as 'one of the liveliest pubs – rough enough to keep out Americans. You can play, sing or anything else provided you don't need room to move.'

In the 70s, as Dave Brock of Hawkwind busked outside, the sci-fantasy author Michael Moorcock featured Finch's in his Hendrix ghost story 'A Dead Singer', and Dire Straits' 'Portobello Belle' song is said to have been inspired by the landlady. Through the 80s and 90s the bar was propped up by the Lords of the New Church, Killing Joke, Transvision Vamp and S-Express.

Portobello Road junction of Talbot Road and Blenheim Crescent facing south 1900s. This was before the arrival of the Electric Cinema at 191 when the site was occupied by a woodyard. In 'The Interesting History of Portobello Road' guidebook by Ernest Woolf from 1909 advertising from 191 were WJ & H Horsman saw mills and joinery works, and Louis Mortelmans, Barr & Co, who did the plaster work at the 1908 White City Exhibition. The Electric opened in 1911, three years later at the outbreak of World War 1, the building was attacked in anti-German riots because it was owned by a German company. After the war it became the Imperial for 50 years and then reverted to the Electric.

In the early 20th century the Talbot Road/Blenheim Crescent junction was the main venue of street entertainment and political demos; a barrel-organ played the tune of the day, the hurdy-gurdy man appeared with a monkey, and men dressed as women started 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks'-style knees-ups. In 1936 there were communist v fascist clashes when the latter held a pro-Mussolini rally. 

The Colville Hotel at 186 Portobello Road on the corner of Talbot Road (now the First Floor bar/restaurant) was the Irish/West Indian local, known affectionately by the latter as 'the Pisshouse', frequented by the 'Absolute Beginners' author Colin MacInnes and photographed by Charlie Phillips. After being a bikers' pub and the venue of the first Class War conference in the 80s, the Colville was revamped as the Colville Rose and then the First Floor bar restaurant. In the 90s it appeared in the acid-house film 'London Kills Me', and in 2007 reconverted into a 60s pub in 'Hippie Hippie Shake'.

In the 1958 Notting Hill race riots Totobag's Caribbean cafe at 9 Blenheim Crescent was the scene of West Indian resistance to an attack by Teddy boys. Totobag's also acted as an Afro-Caribbean community centre, a gambling den, and slumming attraction/cool hangout to Bohemian aristocrats and beatniks. The house looks like it's preserved in its 50s condition. The start of Blenheim Crescent (between Portobello and Kensington Park Road) also hosts the site of the hippy headshop, the Dog Shop at number 2, which became Plastic Passion/Minus Zero record shop, now Jasmine Guinness's Honey Jam toyshop; the long-running Mike's cafe at 12, frequented over the rock'n'roll years by Tom Jones, Marc Bolan, the Clash and Damon Albarn; and the Notting Hill Bookshop, on the site of the Travel Bookshop at 13/15 (recreated by Richard Curtis at 142 Portobello Road in the 1998 film), which now rivals Buckingham Palace as London's premier tourist attraction.

Around the corner is the site of the first Rough Trade punk and reggae record shop at 202 Kensington Park Road, founded by Geoff Travis in 1976, now Shabby Chic couture boutique, previously a hippy headshop and an S&M club. On the premises in the late 70s and early 80s, the Raincoats and Alternative TV formed, the Rough Trade independent label and various other labels including Mute were launched, and punk fanzines (including Vague) were distributed. At the height of the local Jewish community in the 20s, the area around the Kensington Park Road synagogue was known as 'Little Israel' and 'Jews' Island'. In the late 50s/early 60s, when Oswald Mosley's fascist election campaign office/bookshop was over the road, the synagogue was daubed with swastikas.

Kensington Park Road also featured the Star Apple shebeen on the southwest corner of Blenheim Crescent, the Karakata Caribbean store at 194 that appears in the 1975 film ‘Pressure’, and the 192 bar featured in the original ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ column. Colville is once more the centre of the music business world with the XL label of Adele, Dizzee Rascal and the Prodigy in Codrington Mews down Blenheim Crescent, which previously hosted the Police manager Miles Copeland’s punk indie record labels. Arundel Gardens is renowned for the late 50s residence of Joe Meek, the legendary producer of ‘Telstar’ and ‘Johnny Remember Me’, at number 20. Stanley Gardens hosts the Portobello Hotel, where the guests have included Alice Cooper and his snake, Tina Turner, Van Morrison, the Sex Pistols, the Spice Girls, Johnny Depp and Kate Moss, and Damon Albarn worked behind the bar.

'The Warwick Castle at the corner of Cornwall Road (now Westbourne Park Road) is the successor of a small inn of the same name; and opposite the inn, across Portobello Lane, was a cattle pond at the edge of a field. In the early 60s there was also a two-storied country inn called the Ben Jonson.' Florence Gladstone, 'Notting Hill in Bygone Days'.

The Warwick (now just the Castle) at 225 Portobello Road used to consist of several bars, recalled by the 30s barman Ernest Bell: "The saloon had lino on the floor and beer was a halfpenny more expensive, the public, darts and busman's were used almost exclusively by men and had sawdust on the floor." In the early 60s prostitutes are said to have had a sweepstake at the bar on which of them would be the next victim of the serial killer known as 'Jack the Stripper'.

The Clash frequented the Warwick in 1978 when they were recording their second album 'Give 'Em Enough Rope' round the corner in Basing Street studios. Joe Strummer reappeared there in the 80s and 90s when the pub acted as the office of Welsh Ray Jones's Roughler magazine (started at Rough Trade). At the time of the 'Notting Hill' film, featuring 'the blue door' scenes across Westbourne Park Road, a Roughler ad described the Warwick as: 'still kicking against the grain, still a real pub, specialising in traditional ales and beers, cryptic crosswords, and extremely weird dancing. Mingle with the intelligentsia, spot the loonies, witness for youself the only bar in Portobello Road with permanent and irreparable full moon syndrome.'

In the ‘Portobello Road: Images of a Street Market’ sketchbook, Audrey Counsell pays tribute to the vegetable stallholder Linda Price, who was across Westbourne Park Road, and the longstanding market trader families, the Cains, Glasgows and Spencers, for giving Portobello ‘its sense of history and a continuity of tradition’, as opposed to clinical supermarkets. But she cites the market Tesco store at 224/6 as an exception to the rule, ‘as the character of Portobello has spread inside its doors, giving it that personal friendly atmosphere of a village store.’ The Tesco site was occupied by the Alderney Dairy of John Jones and Fred Davis & Sons road haulage firm in Roseland Place. Alba Place was previously known as Albion Place.

The 253 hippy corner shop at the junction of Lancaster Road, where Lee Harris's Alchemy headshop (now at 261) began. The longest running hippy counter-culture enterprise on the market was named after the 1968 Alchemical Wedding hippy happening at the Albert Hall, featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In the 90s the premises had a rave headshop revival as Wong Singh Jones and the site of the rock t-shirt stall was occupied by Red's Rasta stall. The old hippy market between Lancaster Road and Oxford Gardens, as described in the 1977 Portobello guide by Craig Sams (of Ceres healthfood shop at 269), consisted of 'reggae music, soul food, underground newspapers, wholewheat bread, Bedouin dresses, art deco objects, natural shoes, herbal medicines...'

The Golden Cross pub at 240 Portobello Road, on the northeast corner of the Lancaster junction, was the scene of a fire in 1927 in which four people died. The funeral procession features in the first Portobello film by John Phibbs. The Golden Cross appears as the Black Cross in the 1989 Martin Amis novel 'London Fields', which inspired Blur's 'Parklife' album, as the old pub was converted into the Market Bar, known as London's first 'new Bohemian bar'.

In the early 21st century it went back to a traditional pub as Shannon's Market Bar, and the Earl of Warwick/Portobello in Kensal became Martin Amis's Black Cross in the (yet to be released) 'London Fields' film. In breaking pub history news, the Golden Cross sign and tiles have reappeared in the latest refurbishment. The reggae groups Aswad and the Heptones were photographed here by Adrian Boot, the former posing outside the Golden Cross and the latter (Earl Morgan, Barry Llewellyn and Leroy Sibbles) on the southeast corner in the Portobello pop classic below. The Mau Mau Bar at 265 started out in the early 90s as the Motown Soul Bar on the site of the 70s Motor City jeans store. In 1974 Hawkwind named their 5th album 'The Hall of the Mountain Grill' in honour of the greasy spoon cafe at 275, also frequented by Marc Bolan and David Bowie, the last house before the train line and Westway. 

Disaster struck this stretch of Portobello again when it was bombed during the war. The bomb report for the night of February 18/19 1944 reads: 'Incident number 5 post 8: Corner Portobello Road and Lancaster Road 1.19 Type of bomb: UXB and incendiaries. Casualties: 30 people sent to Rest Centre, Lancaster Road. Details of damage: Portobello Road Schools (which became Isaac Newton School/Centre/Chepstow School) damaged by fire, also 228, 246, 258 and 260 Portobello Road (east side).' The most famous pupil of the notorious Isaac Newton School was Paul Simonon of the Clash.

In punk rock legend, if not in reality, the Clash formed in Portobello market in 1976, when Joe Strummer ran into Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, as recounted in 'All The Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)' on their second album (recorded on Basing Street): 'I was hanging about down the market street, I spent a lot of time on my feet, when I met some passing yobbos and we did chance to speak, I knew how to sing and they knew how to pose...' The group are said to have survived on discarded veg from the market and their early gigs incorporated a 'Portobello junk stall radio'.

The Portobello pop market opened for business in 1966 with Cat Stevens’ ‘Portobello Road’ song, on the b-side of his debut single ‘I Love My Dog’: ‘Getting hung up all day on smiles, walking down Portobello Road for miles, greeting strangers in Indian boots, yellow ties and old brown suits, growing old’s my only danger, cuckoo clocks and plastic socks, lampshades of old antique leather, nothing looks weird, not even a beard, or the boots made out of feathers, I’ll keep walking miles till I feel a broom beneath my feet, or the hawking eyes of an old stuffed bull across the street, nothing’s the same, if you see it again it’ll be broken down to litter, oh and the clothes, everyone knows that dress will never fit her.’ The track is cited by Rob Finnis as ‘one of the few songs to capture, unaffectedly, the essence of London in the so called swinging 60s.’ The lyrics are by the maverick American producer Kim Fowley, who went on to manage the punk girl group the Runaways. 

Donovan came north to Portobello in ‘Sunny South Kensington’ and ‘met a fellow with a cane umbrella he must have used as a sieve.’ Still in the year of the Cat ‘Portobello Road’ song there was another by Billy Nicholls (recorded in 1968 with the Small Faces for his Immediate album 'Would You Believe?'), in which there are: ‘people raising hands to bid, taking off the lid and seeing what’s been hid, wrapping paper on the ground, screaming children showing off the things they’ve found… you can buy most anything, paperclips or even eastern wedding rings, tell you something that I found, 20 Turkish cigarettes that fetched a pound.’

In 1967 the Cat Stevens/Kim Fowley track was re-released covered by the American singer Ellie Janov, and Spectrum came up with another Portobello song. In this one 'you can spend or stand stare, it's better than the Chelsea fair, antiques, bric-a-brac, pretty Georgiana... memories, great Victoriana, customers, American, treated just like long lost friends, when business stops the friendship ends in Portobello Road, do you remember Portobello Road? They'll pick your pockets clean there... you won't forget you've been there.' The most famous one in the 1971 film ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ seems like the oldest as it’s set in 1940, but is at least the 4th.

© 2017   Created by James Hamill.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service