diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 17, 2017

8 Willesden
Two former boroughs came together to make the London borough of Brent, namely Wembley and Willesden, with Wembley to the west of the river Brent, and Willesden to the east. For today's post I went along to Brent Museum at the new Willesden Library, and explored the exhibits looking for points of interest in the old borough of Willesden, selecting seven I hadn't visited before.

Here's what the museum had to say about each of the seven places, plus what I found when I got there.

7 secrets of the Municipal Borough of Willesden

Quainton Street and Verney Street, Neasden

These railway houses were built in the 1880s in what was then middle of the countryside. The Metropolitan Railway Company moved its workers into these homes, on streets simply called A and B. The streets still exist today and are called Quainton Street (A) and Verney Street (B). Neasden Power station was demolished in 1969.
I love the idea of a street called A and a street called B, and I'm also charmed by the workers' terraced cottages erected along each. The parallel pair were named Neasden Railway Village, home to platelayers, bodymakers and engine fitters, and very conveniently located for what's now Neasden Depot at the end of the road. In 1901 Willesden Council renamed the streets Quainton and Verney (after the stations at the end of the line), and a third road called Aylesbury Street was added in 1904. Additional houses have since been built at the southern end where the power station used to be, and they're nice too, but nothing quite beats the original As and Bs.

15 The Circle, Neasden

Claim to fame: Reggae legend Bob Marley lived at this house in 1972 when he and his band The Wailers were in the UK touring with Jimmy Cliff. They signed with Island Records, based in Kilburn. A blue plaque organised by the Federation of Reggae Music (FORM) commemorates Marley's residence.
The Circle is an odd name for a street that's merely semi-circular, a crescent of sub-prime Metroland semis curving off the North Circular Road just north of Neasden Parade. Number 15 seems less interesting than most, with its featureless paved front garden and exterior superfluously painted red to resemble the brickwork underneath. But yes, there is a plaque which hints at Rastafari glories past, or rather a group of devout dreadlocked men parachuted into the suburbs and striving to get their music noticed. The Wailers moved here from a tiny Bayswater flat, apparently, so were delighted to finally get a kitchen where they could prepare their own food rather than existing on fish and chips and Indian takeaways.

Post Office Research Station, Dollis Hill

The General Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill provided telecommunication services across the country. TIM the Speaking Clock began life at Dollis Hill in 1936, and in 1957 ERNIE (a machine that generated random numbers for the Premium Bond lottery) was built. Inside this top secret building during World War 2, engineers constructed and tested modules of the Colossus machine - the world's first programmable computer.
I've been here before, to head down into Churchill's secret wartime bunker, but not taken a proper look at the more important building alongside. PM Ramsay McDonald opened this cutting-edge facility on the ridgetop in 1925, and GPO work continued for precisely 50 years before being relocated to the outskirts of Ipswich. You'll not be surprised to hear that the building is now flats, and posh gated ones too, although the owner of Flat 11 has stuck his mobile number on the gate in case you need to gain access. Another cul-de-sac of less exclusive houses has been squeezed outside the fence, named Flowers Close after Tommy Flowers whose engineering expertise helped give birth to the Computer Age, right here.

Grunwick dispute, Dollis Hill

In 1976 Jayaben Desai walked out of her job at the Grunwick Photo Processing plant in Willesden. She led fellow workers in a strike to be represented by a trade union. On 7th November 1977 over 8000 people protested, and clashes with the police led to 243 of the protesters being injured. The strike lasted two years.
The Grunwick dispute typified industrial relations in the mid 1970s, an angry clash that grew louder, and brought the plight of immigrant women to the fore. Jayaben and two colleagues eventually resorted to a hunger strike, but failed to break the will of management, and subsequent laws on secondary picketing helped weaken the entire trade union movement. The Grunwick factory finally closed in 2011, overtaken by the rise of digital cameras, and three blocks of flats are now crammed into the site, in blocks named after photographers Addis, Arnaux and Belden. Jayaben Desai is remembered on a small plaque up Grunwick Close, close to the southern entrance to Dollis Hill station, and her GMB gold medal can be seen in Brent Museum.

Our Lady of Willesden, Harlesden

From 1475 to 1538, pilgrims travelled to Brent to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden; the church is now known as St Mary's Willesden. Pilgrimages were taken to visit a statue thought to be a Black Madonna and the Holy Well at the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden.
Willesden's Marian shrine became extremely popular with Londoners before the Reformation, it being a much easier trek than Canterbury, and Sir Thomas More was a regular visitor. The statue was removed, and reputedly burnt and the parent church (at the foot of Neasden Lane) duly became Anglican. As Willesden became more urbanised a Roman Catholic church was eventually built a mile to the south, in Harlesden, and a new statue of the Virgin Mary was installed (carved from oak from the original churchyard). This is now a National Shrine of Our Lady, as a large painted sign beside the west door attests, and every May the image is shouldered in procession around local streets.

McVities factory, Harlesden

McVities and Price built this biscuit factory on Waxlow Road in Harlesden in 1902. By 1919 they were the largest employer in Willesden with 1150 workers. Chocolate digestives, Jaffa Cakes and Penguins were on the production line at the factory, and still are today. The company later merged with Macfarlane Lang to become United Biscuits.
On a good day you can smell the whiff of digestives on the platforms at Harlesden station, although the blue McVities factory is best seen from the train on the West Coast Main Line. The main entrance is on Waxlow Road, the northernmost extent of the Park Royal industrial estate, where large lorries emblazoned with biscuits and Hula Hoops swing out bearing baked treats. I'd never walked down to the end of this commercial dead end before, where clipped hedges make way for faceless frontage and modern units, and the whiff of processed Chinese food now mingles. Heinz used to have a huge factory at the far end churning out 57 varieties, plus their own College of Food Technology, but that was demolished in 2000, and the Royal Mail's Western Delivery Office now occupies the site.

Gaumont State Cinema, Kilburn

Built in Art Deco style, the name State is said to have come from the huge 120ft tower, reminiscent of the Empire State Building in New York. It was the biggest cinema of its time in Britain, with 4004 seats. Gracie Fields, Larry Adler and George Formby played at the opening ceremony on 20th December 1937.
Visible for miles around, yet seemingly quite narrow when seen from the High Road, only the lofty tower gives a hint of the mega-auditorium which lies behind. As well as a cinematographic programme, the venue also hosted major music concerts (Louis Armstrong, the Beatles and Bowie all played here), but poor economies of scale led to closure of the main screen in 1980. Bingo took over, first Top Rank then Mecca, and for the last ten years the building has been owned by an evangelical church who pack out the seats every Sunday. Members of the public interested in local history are invited to drop in every Wednesday from noon.

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