Last week ‘London Shoes’ ventured out south west to a specific area of the ‘smoke’ that has one of the weirdest of names…..”Pimlico”!!!
The name Pimlico had always intrigued me as its always sounded a bit weird and mystical to me and so different from other place names.
And I guess Pimlico is a bit unique in its way, and it is certainly a place steeped in its own interesting history.
Pimlico is probably best described as a sort of extension of its wealthy neighbour Belgravia and is located to the south of Victoria, and down to the River Thames.
Centuries ago, as with most of the districts just outside of the City, Pimlico was a completely rural area.
Its terrain was noted for being a boggy marshy area, probably because of its close locality to the River Thames – and the district used to be known as ‘Neat House Gardens’ – a place where vast volumes of herbs and vegetables were grown by market gardeners.
There are no official historic records that clarify how Pimlico got its name – but it is thought that it could quite possibly be named after a brewer by the name of ‘Ben Pimlico’ who – back in the 1600’s, was famous for the production of his very popular nut-brown ale.
This old rural area of Pimlico was basically made up of 5 large fields – which, over the centuries, were owned by extremely wealthy and well to do London families.
The area was not at all fashionable – and certainly not urban or residential – quite simply because of the state of its marshy soil – which meant that houses or buildings couldn’t really be built there, as the land was not suitable to support building foundations.
However – by the early 1800’s, there was such a high demand for residential housing in London – the authorities and planners started to look at this barren land south-west of the City, to see what could be done about it.
One of the area’s biggest land owners Sir Thomas Grosvenor sold a big chunk of his estate to the renowned architect and Master Builder ‘Thomas Cubitt’, who had already gained a reputation for transforming some of the streets and buildings in the City and also east and north east London.
Cubitt saw this as an excellent opportunity to showcase his architectural talents further afield.
Firstly he compensated the market gardeners who had worked the land in the Pimlico area, and then set about designing streets and houses that would attract London’s wealthy and well to do to the area.
To solve the problem of the boggy terrain, Cubitt transported thousands of tons of earth and rubble from the recently excavated St. Katherine’s Dock and Shadwell Basin in east London – and had it shipped down the Thames to the Pimlico shores – and used this soil to firm-up the land to make it strong enough to support building foundations – and also elevate the land above the Thames flood levels.
Cubitt built the Belgravia area first, and then in 1843, ventured his building works southwards into Pimlico.
He designed a grid-system of wide streets and in the middle of them he plonked parkland squares, namely Warwick Square / Ecclestone Square & St. Georges Square – around which would be build large lavish residential mansions.
The very first houses that Thomas Cubitt constructed in the Pimlico district were no’s 1, 2 & 3 Ecclestone Square – houses that are still there to this very day.
Sadly Thomas Cubitt died in 1855, but his building vision continued, with the proviso that the architectural designs should remain the same as his earlier buildings – and as a result it was noted as being one of the most architecturally consistent places in Britain and Europe.
Pimlico soon became one of the most desirable and exclusive areas of London for the rich and noble to live in.
However, by 1860 the construction of Victoria Station had been completed and was up and running – providing quick and easy access to surrounding urban areas like Brixton and Streatham, just across the River – which meant that the working classes could gain easy access to the exclusive Pimlico district.
This didn’t go down too well with the Pimlico gentry, who wanted to retain the area as being exclusive to only the wealthy and well to do, and didn’t want London’s riff-raff infiltrating their ‘manor’. As a result the area started to become a little less desirable and fashionable.
By the late 1800’s early 1900’s many of Pimlico’s large mansions and houses had become hotels and lodging houses, occupied by low-income residents – which brought its own social problems.
As a result of this massive demographical change, most of Pimlico’s houses were occupied by 4 or 5 families at a time, which caused the properties to become poorly maintained.
Following WW1 the need for housing in London was immense, and so many of Pimlico’s grand houses were converted into self-contained flats.
By 1935, records show that out of the 3000 residential homes in Pimlico, only 846 were actually single-family occupations.
1937 saw the opening of the massively impressive ‘Dolphin Square’ housing complex in Pimlico, down by the Thames.
At that time, Dolphin Square with its 1,250 flats, was the largest self-contained residential housing complex in Europe – and was seen as the benchmark for all large scale municipal housing developments that followed.
It cost £2M to build – an unheard of fortune for that time – and 12 million bricks – 125,000 tons of concrete – 6,700 windows were used in the construction of its 1 x bedroom suites to its 5 bedroom apartments – all circling a massive inner square garden complex.
The impressive Dolphin Square complex still stands today, and many well-to-do’s have resided in its flats and apartments over the years and still do – but it has also gained a certain amount of notoriety.
Its past residents have included the likes of Oswald Mosley – numerous Soviet spies – Christine Keeler & Mandy Rice-Davies of the Profumo scandal plus several MI5 agents.
Other famous Dolphin Square residents have included former PM Harold Wilson – James Bond creator Ian Fleming – the French WW2 President Charles De Gaulle – the music hall entertainer Bud Flanagan (the guy who sang the Dad’s Army theme tune) – Rod Laver the Wimbledon tennis champion & Princess Anne, to name just a few.
Because of its close proximity to the Houses of Parliament, many MPs & Lords have and still do reside there.
Even old Boy George filmed the video to his massive worldwide hit ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ in the central gardens of Dolphin Square.
After WW2, to provide much needed social housing, high rise flats and council estates were built amongst Pimlico’s grand houses and streets – making it a very mixed community of residents.
It’s not just Pimlico’s Dolphin Square that’s had/has its share of famous historic residents. The following have also all lived in Pimlico at one time or another: – legendary Politician Winston Churchill – designer Laura Ashley – cancer relief founder Douglas MacMillan – Kenyan president Jomo Kenyata – the founder of lawn tennis Walter Clopton Wingfield – dancer Isadora Duncan.
Even the legendary east-end mod band The Small Faces have a big connection to Pimlico. In the mid 60’s they were put up in a house in Westmoreland Terrace by their then manager Don Arden (Sharon Osbourne’s father), at the height of their early fame, to get them away from the distractions of their east-end haunts and influences. In fact, one of their biggest hits ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’ was inspired by their experiences in their Pimlico house – particularly where the lyric goes:-
“Wouldn’t it be nice to get on with me neighbours
But they make it very clear
They’ve got no room for ravers
They stop me from groovin’, they bang on me wall
They doing me crust in, it’s no good at all – ah”
Pimlico is also blessed with a fair number of landmarks of historical interest.
Along the tiled walls of the walkways inside Pimlico tube station, are replicas of works by famous artists such as Salvador Dali – L S Lowry – Degas plus many others.
There are 2 particularly magnificent old churches in Pimlico.
In Warwick Square there is “St. Gabriel’s” – built in 1853 as part of Thomas Cubitt’s initial development of the area – and “St. James-the-Less” built in 1861 in a Victorian gothic style, and famous for its wonderfully intricate brickwork and decorative embellishments.
There are also many interesting statues scattered around the streets of Pimlico.
Down by the Thames there stands a statue of William Huskisson (1770 –1830) who was a highly respected financier and MP of his time – but that’s not what he became well known for – William Huskisson goes down in history as being the world’s first widely reported railway passenger casualty – when he was run over and fatally wounded by Robert Stephenson’s pioneering locomotive engine the ‘Rocket’.
Just outside Pimlico tube station is the best looking Underground ‘ventilation shaft’ you will ever see. This structure was designed by the famous artist/designer Eduardo Paolozzi whose probably more famous artistic work are the colourful mosaic tiles that can be seen all over Tottenham Court Rd tube station.
In Denbigh Street there is a statue of Thomas Cubitt – the man who ‘built’ Pimlico & Belgravia. The statue commemorates the life and work of this iconic master builder, and it is located very near to where his original workshops were originally situated.
Pimlico has also been the main feature in a couple of old British film classics. The extremely popular 1949 Ealing Studio comedy film “Passport to Pimlico” is all about Pimlico declaring its independence from the rest of Britain, and becoming exempt from any form of post-war rationing. Also, the 1940 thriller ‘Gaslight’ is set in and around Pimlico.
For this particular ‘gig’ I was delighted to be accompanied once again by my old work mate Les, who I worked with at Barclays Bank’s Whitechapel branch back in the late 1980’s – and like me, old Les is a bit of an ‘all things London’ nutter.
So, after a long day trekking around the streets of Pimlico’s me & me old mate Les were in need of taking the weight off our ‘plates’ and a little liquid refreshment, before heading off back ‘east’ – and so we headed to the nearest pub, which happened to be “The Grosvenor” down near the Thames part of Pimlico.
The Grosvenor pub dates back to the 1920’s when it was called ‘The Spread Eagle’ (there always has to be a Barclays Bank connection for us bunch of old bankers). The pub is built on top of the old River Tyburn, one of London’s ‘lost’ rivers that flowed into the Thames.
Anyway – having sunk a few ‘cheeky ones’ and warmed our cockles by the pubs open fire – it was time to say goodbye to Pimlico and head off back for home.
So – there you have it, the weirdly named but fascinating ‘Pimlico’ – just a couple of mins walk from Victoria station and down towards the Thames, and you’re there – well worth a visit.
Summarised below are all the photographs accompanying my Pimlico blog