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Last Updated: Monday, 17 May, 2004, 05:45 GMT 06:45 UK
Streets of London: Pottery Lane
By Ian Youngs
BBC News Online

As one of west London's most picturesque and desirable streets, Pottery Lane today belies little of the horror and squalor that once infested the area which used to be known as the Piggeries and Potteries.

Picture from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Pottery Lane and the area became a notorious slum in the mid-1800s
Today, Robbie Williams and Liz Hurley live around the corner, it is appealingly close to Notting Hill and Holland Park, and the street's small, gentrified mews-type terraces are in demand.

Life has changed radically from 150 years ago, when it was known as "Cut-throat Lane" and was the main route into one of London's worst slums.

Pottery Lane took its name from the brickfields at its northern end, where high-quality clay was dug from about 1818. The resulting bricks and tiles were stored in sheds along the lane and fired in a kiln, which is still standing.

Around the same time, pig-keepers who were forced from Tottenham Court Road and Marble Arch moved to take advantage of the area's relative space and isolation.

The community expanded, but there was little sanitation or fresh water, and pig-keeping families shared their haphazard hovels with their animals.

Pottery Lane was once nicknamed

The brick-makers were "notorious types" known for "riotous living", according to Shaaron Whetlor, author of The Story of Notting Dale: From Potteries and Piggeries to Present Times.

The rubbish and effluent ended up in holes where the clay had been dug, and one such stinking, stagnant pool was so big it was known as "the ocean".

"By the 1850s, the area had become notorious for the unsanitary nature of its housing, which was in a very, very poor condition, but also other sanitary conditions," Ms Whetlor says. "You start to get this area with a reputation - but a justified reputation - for its unsavoury nature."

In 1859, one long-time resident recalled life there and remarked that "pig-keepers is respectable" but brick-workers were "no wiser than the clay they works on".

On Sundays, there was cock-fighting, bull-baiting and the killing of rats by dogs to amuse the residents, she said. Everybody was afraid of the dogs - but the roads were another danger. "We called 'em roads, but... it was just a lot of ups and downs, and when you had put one foot down, you didn't know how to pull the other one up," she said.

An original kiln, which has been extended and converted into a three-bedroom house, dates from at least 1824
A kiln, which has been converted into a house, dates from at least 1824
"Once, mind, I happened to be out late in the evening and had to go through Cut-throat Lane just as it was getting dark (they calls that Pottery Lane now). I heard some people coming along, fighting and swearing, and I was so frightened I got down into the bottom of one of the ruts and there I stopped 'till they had gone."

A Poor Law Commissioners' report of 1838 talked of houses whose floors had sunk and rested "at one end of the room in the stagnant pool, while at the other end, being still dry, contains the bed or straw mattress on which the family sleep".

From 1846-8, life expectancy in the area was just 11 years 7 months - compared with the London average of 37.

In 1849, another report said most houses were "merely hovels in a ruinous condition" and "filthy in the extreme". Seven years later, a medical officer described it as "one of the most deplorable spots, not only in Kensington, but in the whole metropolis".

Charles Dickens drew further attention to the conditions in 1850 when he wrote of "a plague spot scarcely equalled for its insalubrity by any other in London".

Old stable entrances are still visible on many houses on the lane
Old stable entrances are still visible on many houses on the lane
"Many hundreds of pigs, ducks and fowls are kept in an incredible state of filth," he wrote in his magazine Household Words. "The atmosphere is still further polluted by the process of fat-boiling. In these hovels, discontent, dirt, filth and misery are unsurpassed by anything known even in Ireland."

Progress was made - but it was slow. Pigs gradually disappeared and waves of building improved the housing. With little local authority support, churches and public schools provided the best practical and moral assistance, and both Harrow and Rugby schools established missions to help the poor.

At the end of the 19th Century, sociologist Charles Booth noted people were living above stables on Pottery Lane - and it is possible to see how this arrangement worked in surviving terraces, many of which still have the stable entrances on show.

Today, the terraces sell for about 400,000 each - and the kiln, once surrounded by hovels, has been extended and converted into a three-bedroom house and was recently up for rent for 1,100 per week.

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