It’s the people that make a place.
When searching for the heart and soul of any area you have to remember that it’s down to the folks who inhabit a locality to turn it into more than just somewhere they hang their hat.
Earls Court is not quite Kensington and not quite Chelsea and, correspondingly, its residents are neither too genteel nor too staid. A community that has always moved to the beat of its own drums, the cross-section of individuals who are drawn to the mish-mash of cobbled mewses and the wealth of garden squares is telling.
Artists, writers and thespians, icons of fashion – past and present, rock gods and people’s princesses; directors of groundbreaking film and composers of seminal song have all found their homes here, in vibrant yet unpretentious surrounds.
And so it has been for centuries. Since the Earls Court Road was a winding lane flanked by Saxon farmland, land that was part of the ancient Manor of Kensington, under the Earls of Oxford and descendants of Aubrey de Vere; since the Domesday Book.
It was transformed in the mid 19th Century, when the Metropolitan District Railway station was built. This turned out to be a spark that ignited huge development in the area. By 1880 a fully-fledged neighbourhood had been erected and Earls Court became a densely populated and lively suburb.
Today Earls Court comprises a heady mix of past and present. The rich history shouldn’t be ignored as it goes a long way in helping us understand why the area retained such distinct character in the face of the more expected gentrification of the surrounding borough, Kensington & Chelsea.
With steady expansion progressing through the turn of the century, and with the advent and influx of the new Victorian middle classes, Earls Court became an epicentre of entertainment and fun. Home to a recently created Pleasure Ground that offered a real-life Cowboys and Indians show, live music, food, open-air theatre and a big wheel to rival our present day London Eye, it was now a renowned destination.
But World War II began and the celebrations halted. Everyone was to play their part in the war effort and Earls Court became the official outpost for the Polish Government in Exile. The President, Prime Minister, Government and at least 20,000 soldiers transferred to London; becoming an integral part of the fabric of Earls Court life by the time the war was over.
Many of the soldiers were lawyers, judges and engineers, but it was only the doctors and pharmacists whose qualifications were eventually recognised. Taking up vocations such as cobbling and watch repair, a number of new Polish businesses emerged and flourished as a result, one or two of which remain to this day.
Nowadays, it is this type of traditional and family owned establishment that sets the mood in the village quarter. While larger chains dominate the main high street, offering convenience and consistency, there is a whole world of boutique businesses that line the side streets and present an astonishing variety of merchandise right on the doorstep.
Post war saw a more transient time for Earls Court with many properties being turned into hotels and hostels and the area itself becoming a gateway to the City of London, a landing platform from which to leap further into the capital.
However, another transformation began to occur throughout the district in the early seventies and continued all the way into the late nineties, one that would have a lasting effect on the area as a whole.
A large portion of London’s gay community took up residency in the region, purchasing multiple-occupancy properties and restoring them to their former glory. Hostels and bedsits became apartments and houses once more, and with the return of the more permanent resident local commerce thrived. Restaurants, bars and cafés quietly opened their doors to a growing crowd of loyal and regular patrons. Music venues, fringe theatre and art galleries also began to appear and prosper.
Like attracted like and fairly soon the fixed population of Earls Court had almost doubled. Now home to new families, young and ambitious city workers, an assortment of established artists, musicians, actors and entrepreneurs, the area was undergoing a gentrification of its very own. Residents were experiencing a truly unique slice of London city life mixed in seamlessly with a genuine village atmosphere; an experience that continues and evolves even now.
And once more the Earls Court landscape is set to undergo a change. A new development is underway, one that promises the creation of four new urban villages and a 21st century High Street. A potential for new growth, to further marry the past to the present and the future, and most importantly to welcome new people.
It’s the people that make a place.
By Caroline Lofts