Powis Square

Powis Square west side Talbot Road 1900s. The area surrounding All Saints church was sold by Rev Walker in 1860 to the builder George Tippett and consequently became known as Tippett's Brick Fields. The Powis and Colville squares were built by Tippett in the 1860s as upper-middle class residences, but are said to have gone into an immediate social decline. By the 1880s some were already sub-divided into flats. Tippett went bankrupt and the estate was acquired by Edward Strutt and Hickman Bacon, who formed the Colville Estate Limited. However, on Charles Booth’s 1900s poverty map the Colville squares are still solidly well-to-do orange. The ward on the whole is a pretty even mix of wealthy, well-to-do, fairly comfortable, poverty and comfort mixed, moderate poverty and very poor.

'In Powis Square in the 1920s the first black members of the community settled. But principally the people were Russian Polish and Jewish immigrants, as well as Irish, sometimes 'immigrants' from different parts of England – the depressed areas, Lancashire and others. Many of the people who lived there became legends, people who made their names into real folk myths. Eccentrics, madmen, political radicals, poets and artists: Chicago Kate (who lived in Basing Road), the Englisher (a British born Jew), the Presser (the quiet communist theoretician), Schmooser, the best dancer in Notting Hill. Stallholders in Portobello Road for generations, many of them still represented; Rosie, an Irish woman who kept a vegetable stall and who spoke fluent Yiddish.' Dave Robins, Interzone IT 1968. 

Powis Square's multicultural reputation was established at the turn of the 20th century by 'the Wren College' for the Indian civil service, and the accompanying boarding houses 'occupied by men of Oriental birth', which acquired the square the nickname 'Little India'. Princess Clemence Bonaparte, the widow of Napoleon's nephew Louis Lucien, resided at number 2, and Horace George Raynor, the murderer of the store boss William Whiteley (who inspired 'Gosford Park'), lived at 43. By then 13 of the 48 houses had been sub-divided.

In the 20s and 30s the Powis and Colville squares were described as 'rapidly becoming poorer and more Jewish', 'largely a slum area, and partly large houses turned into one-room tenements and small flats' – some time before the arrival on the scene of Peter Rachman.

In the 50s and 60s Powis Square became the heart of Rachman's slum empire, the West Indian blues club and prostitutes scene depicted in Majbritt Morrison's 'Jungle West 11' book, the Profumo affair political sex scandal, Michael de Freitas aka Michael X's Black Power movement and hippy community action. (Powis Square in the 1950s and 60s features in the Rachman, Profumo Affair, Michael de Freitas, Community Action, 25 Powis Square, Tabernacle, Powis Terrace and Talbot Road pages.)

The most famous Powis Square resident of the late 20th century is Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who lived on the west side in 1962, before Mick Jagger became an honorary resident up the road in the 'Performance' film in 1968. The local hippy counter-culture began with the arrival on the square in the early 60s of the photographer John 'Hoppy' Hopkins and the beat poet Michael Horovitz, who is still in residence on the Colville Terrace side. 

Nancy Sinatra was photographed in 1966, at the time of 'These Boots Are Made For Walkin', next to a Powis Square street sign with some local kids. Sally Moore’s early 70s Powis Square memoirs include Peter Gabriel borrowing her red Ossie Clark dress to glam up Genesis’s stage show. Status Quo were filmed in 1977 headbanging on the back of a truck in the square for their ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’ video. Powis Square went on to host the Carnival world music stage and the debut gig of All Saints during the 1994 Carnival.

Powis Terrace aka Hedgegate Court from Powis Square, Talbot Road 1900s My Beautiful Laundrette corner. Powis Terrace/Hedgegate Court was originally down as Aston Road on the 1871 Ordnance Survey map (really depicting the area in 1863-5), on which there are only buildings at the Cornwall (Westbourne Park) Road end and Hedgegate Court is yet to appear. At the turn of the century, on Charles Booth’s colour-coded social survey map it’s still down as Aston Road and rated well-to-do orange. The Hedgegate Court buildings were originally known as Colville Buildings.

In the 1950s Hedgegate Court became the most notorious Rachman slum street. Towards the end of the decade, as Rachman was distancing himself from his slum empire, the street came under the control of Vernon Hunte, a former Trinidadian policeman, and an African known as Edwards. Several of the houses hosted basement clubs and most had prostitutes sitting in the windows. In the 1958 riots Powis Terrace was in the eye of the storm. The Rachman tenant Ivan Weekes (who went on to be a Council alderman) recalls a pitched battle and burning cars along the street. 

After the riots, the Powis and Colville Residents' Association was set up by New Left student activists at Vernon Hunte's house, number 22 Powis Terrace. The chance discovery of keys to Rachman properties in the association’s office, the room of Vernon's son Lloyd, gave the students their first real insight into the slum housing underworld; explaining 'the fear on the faces of tenants visited by members of the association when they realised Lloyd Hunte and Michael de Freitas were involved', and their Alsatian dogs. The New Left Club’s Rachel Powell deduced that Michael and the Huntes were on the third level of the ghetto power pyramid, with Peter Davis and Edwards above them, and Rachman at the top.

After their links with Rachman were exposed, Lloyd Hunte and Michael were expelled from the residents' association, and then the student activists excluded themselves, 'feeling impotent in the face of the Rachman organisation.' Powis Terrace was then acquired by the property dealer Robert Jacobs and John Michell on behalf of the Elmstead Trust. Michael de Freitas is said to have been bought off by Rachman with a house on Powis Terrace, which he managed to sell on to an estate agent. Robert Jacobs bought out the nominee landlords and the tenants, in order to convert the warren of seedy rooms into flats for predominantly white tenants, with Michael acting as the letting agent.

Michael first met the new age hippy author/landlord John Michell as he was selling a Rachman house on Colville Terrace. Michael and Michell were partners in various swinging 60s ventures including a headshop in Islington and a ‘West Side Story’ fashion show. John Michell has been described as the archetypal eccentric/esoteric Bohemian Notting Hill writer. He was the underground press ‘X-files’ expert on leylines, Stonehenge, the holy grail, UFOs, etc, and published numerous esoteric/arcane books including ‘The Flying Saucer Vision: The Holy Grail Restored’ and ‘The View Over Atlantis’.

Through the 60s Powis Terrace gained further renown from David Hockney’s studio, the cafe in ‘The L-Shaped Room’ (now the dog boutique), 'Jungle West 11', residences of the hippy fashion designer Ossie Clark, the occult rhythm’n’bluesman Graham Bond, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger (of the Trinity ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ fame), a ‘Performance’ influence Great Train Robber hideout, hells angels, heroin dealers, Rastafarians, the jazz record shop and the London Free School.

The original hip Notting Hill record store was Dave Langley’s jazz record/book shop at number 26, which specialised in the avant-garde Impulse label featuring Gil Evans, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Miles Davis. The premises were simultaneously used as a brothel and then in 1966 became the adult education pioneering London Free School.

But, by all accounts, not much happened there apart from band practices in the psychedelic basement of Dave Tomlin of the Third Ear Band. The Free School is described by Pete Jenner as either the first “public manifestation of the underground in England”, or little more than “a couple of sessions in some terribly seamy rooming house of Michael X’s.” 

The first issue of the Free School newsletter ‘The Gate’ reported that ‘the teenage group have been playing folk music and listening to Dylan records.’ Neil Oram’s ‘The Warp’ play includes scenes in which a hippy guru character addresses his commune in the basement of 26; another hippy talks about opening Colville Square Gardens, so that the kids can generate more positive energy, and a psychedelic pied piper leads processions of street kids. Across the road, David Hockney's studio at number 17 featured in his docu-drama film ‘A Bigger Splash’ and an experimental film featuring Marsha Hunt, the star of the hippy musical ‘Hair’.

The conversion of Hedgegate Court, from the most notorious Rachman slum into furnished self-contained flats, received the Milner Holland report’s seal of approval, but the Elmstead Trust described it as a ‘ghastly experience.’ With the new fair rents set so low, they found it 'impossible to maintain the flats without making a loss', and announced 'it's back to a slum now.' By 1977 the slum housing cycle had gone full circle and the street was bought up by Kensington Housing Trust.

On the day of the arrest of the local serial killer John Christie of 10 Rillington Place in 1953, police descended on Powis Mews, alongside Powis Terrace, after a reported sighting of him sleeping in the back of a van. In the early 60s the police investigation into the ‘Jack the Stripper’ serial killings encompassed the Westbourne Park Road underworld haunts, the Rio café at 127 (also in the Profumo affair), the Jazz club at 207, Wraggs café on All Saints Road, Roy Stewart’s gym at 32a Powis Square, and the Warwick Castle pub on Portobello. Along Westbourne Park Road in the late 60s, the Third Ear Band performed ‘cosmic ragas’ in the Safari Tent Caribbean store at 207 and the International Times hippy advice centre BIT at 141 was frequented by Richard Branson at the time of his ‘Student’ mag. On Booth's 1900s map Powis (then Boundary) Mews is very poor dark blue. The most notable late 20th century resident of the mews was the actor/playwright/graffiti artist Heathcote Williams.

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