Interview with Fiona Rule, author of Streets of Sin
Congratulations on the publication of Streets of Sin: A Dark Biography of Notting Hill. What drew you to the subject?
Back in the early 1990s, I went to a party in a beautiful house in Notting Hill. It was one of the most opulent homes I’d ever been in but while I was there, people started talking about the Christie murders, which happened “down the road”. I knew the setting for those murders because I’d seen the film 10 Rillington Place (shot on location) and I wondered how one small district could have changed so much. It got me thinking and I began to research the story of Notting Hill.
The Daily Mirror once dubbed it “Rotting Hill”. It’s now one of the most coveted and astronomically expensive areas in the capital. What was the turning point in the Notting Hill’s fortunes?
The gentrification of Notting Hill began in the 1970s in response to demand from young professionals working in the West End. These people liked the fact that Notting Hill was close to central London and were prepared to pay good money for a place to live. Consequently, landlords began to convert dilapidated properties into self-contained flats. However, house prices really began to reach crazy levels during the London property boom of the 1980s.
The book covers the murders at Rillington Place, Rachman the notorious landlord, the Profumo Affair and the race riots. How did you decide where to start your account?
Streets of Sin begins in the early 1800s when the landowner, James Weller Ladbroke decided to develop his rural estate into West London’s answer to Regents Park. Unfortunately, economic recession put paid to that idea and the houses on the lower slopes of the hill fell prey to multiple-occupancy as soon as they were built. By the end of the 1800s, “Notting Dale” was one of the worst slums in London and this paved the way for the horrors that occurred there in the following century.
What was the most extraordinary story that you unearthed in your research?
I was really surprised to learn about Notting Hill’s racecourse – The Hippodrome. Opened in 1837, the course ran around the bottom of the hill, with a grandstand at the top (where St John’s Church stands today). The Hippodrome’s existence was brief and controversial. Local residents launched protests outside the gates every time there was a race meeting because the owner had stopped up their busy footpath to Kensal Green. The Hippodrome finally closed in 1841 after jockeys boycotted the course, claiming it was too dangerous.
And the funniest?
I found the attitudes of the “old guard” to young newcomers in Notting Hill during the 60s and 70s very amusing. In 1971, the publishers of Oz Magazine (based in Notting Hill,) found themselves in court accused of corrupting the nation’s youth. They were found guilty of obscenity despite defence witness Marty Feldman noting, “There is more obscenity in the Bible than there is in this issue of Oz”. In his summing up, the ancient judge patronisingly informed Oz’s business manager, Felix Dennis that “you are very much less intelligent than your co-defendants.” In the event, the “less intelligent” Felix Dennis went on to become a hugely successful publisher, producing some of the country’s most popular magazines including Maxim, The Week and Viz.
And your favourite?
I really admired the people of The Potteries – a terrible 19th century slum at the bottom of the hill. These people lived in the most appalling conditions, where death and disease were rife, yet still managed to survive. Back then, there was no Welfare State and so anyone who couldn’t work faced destitution. It was a hard life of grinding poverty but these people still found a way to battle through.
How did you conduct your research? How central to it was talking to long-standing residents?
I began my research by talking to people who remembered Notting Hill before gentrification. Their memories were invaluable as it allowed me to glimpse a lost world that would be unrecognisable to us today. It was also interesting to see how Notting Hill’s rise was chronicled on film. Early 1960s movies such as The L-Shaped Room and West 11 show the area in its gritty, rundown state. Performance, starring Mick Jagger, depicts the district’s Bohemian decadence in the late 1960s and of course Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill shows what the most sought-after part of Notting Hill looks like today. I try to confine my research to primary and secondary sources as they’re more reliable. Therefore, diaries (like Vere Hodgson’s wartime accounts,) newspaper articles and surveys were also very important.
How would you sum up Notting Hill in three words now?
Diverse, vibrant and historic.
And before its gentrification?
Deprived, derelict and grey.
Do you think that area has lost something during the course of its gentrification? A lot of people are worried about the fate of the market…
I think that Notting Hill has lost its young, creative edge. Back in the 1960s and 70s, it was a haven for new artists, musicians and designers whose innovative ideas went on to make a real impact. For instance, David Bowie, Zandra Rhodes and Ossie Clark all lived in Notting Hill at the start of their careers. Today, its simply too expensive for young people to live or set up businesses in the area.
What do you think is the future for Notting Hill?
While I think the future of the area is bright, it would be great if better affordable housing were created. There are a few associations that give working people the opportunity to either rent or part-buy flats in some of the amazing, old houses but the rest of the “social” housing is unimaginative and at worst, depressing. Despite its troubles, Notting Hill has a reputation for inspiring people to do many creative things. This should be encouraged by making the surroundings more stimulating, not stifled in pursuit of profit.
Streets of Sin: A Dark Biography of Notting Hill by Fiona Rule (published by History Press 8th August RRP £17.99 hardback) is available to purchase online and at all good book retailers. For more information please visit www.fionarule.com or follow her @Fiona_Rule