A community site for the residents, neighbours and friends of Warwick Square, London SW1

Blood on the pavement: colourful stories of Warwick Square

By Brian Eastman

I came to work in Warwick Square in 1960 and still have premises there. I was the on a training year half way through my architectural training and worked for Philip Goodhew, who occupied the ground floor of 54. I eventually ended up with a share in the freehold.

The most important thing is to realise about the square is that the roads are a storey above the ground. This applies to a lot of London. To appreciate this look at the garden of 60 Warwick Square, which is the largest garden in the square, and note that this is at the level you speak of as basement. The central garden was raised using earth dug out to form the London docks.

The area had been drained before the square was built as a market garden. With Jim, a builder friend of mine, we went on lots of escapades around London getting covered with plaster and things but everywhere he went he found dry rot. I sent him down to the basement vault of No 64, saying: “You won’t be able to find dry rot there.” He was soon back to say he had found a manhole. It was in perfect condition but it was from the period before the building of the square because the walls of the vault had cut through the drain.

The roads, pavements and vaults were built first. Although Cubitt was the developer, the square was built in small lengths by different builders. An example of the various stages of building is between 58 and 59 where the render kept cracking. When we cut back the crack we could see why. The two properties were built with different bricks. The courses did not line up and one building was simply leaning against the other.

The width of the properties varied considerably. However because the “bottles” at the front of the first floor were all the same you could not detect this. Thus the buildings did not tie up with the vaults. Often the dividing wall between properties failed to line up with the vaults, resulting in some very odd boundaries between buildings. The wall at the back of the pavement was built at the same time as the buildings after the vaults had been completed so there is a straight joint between the pavement and the wall – this proved difficult when later people tried to turn the vaults into habitable rooms and it was difficult to keep the water out from this straight joint.

As well as the bottles it appears that Cubitt also supplied each property with a few iron bars. These can be found in every property but they are used in different ways in every building

Originally the lower floors at the back were open. This was for the mangle and other domestic reasons. They were walled in at a later date.

No 45-47 was built on a grander scale with its own garden. You can see this when you look at the building. Although it’s the same height as the other properties in the square, it reached this height with one fewer storey. There seem to be various versions of whom this property was built for.

During the war the vaults were designated as shelters. Up until the last few years there was a sign on the garden wall of 47 saying “To shelters” and pointing to the vaults. To make these into shelters a crawl hole was cut between all the vaults. This was staggered between vaults to prevent blast along the length of the square.

Most of the alterations were made in about the 1950s, before I arrived. This included a series of small flats which all had their kitchens overlooking the gardens and needed a waste pipe down the front of the building, which was not attractive (most of these have now gone). It also involved a number of lateral conversions.

By the time I arrived in 1960 much of the square had been sold by Cubitt. However, 54 Warwick Square had remained in the hands of the Cubitt family and most of the occupiers were related to them. On the first floor was Site Improvements Ltd, the investment arm of Cubitts. The previous leaseholders had been Alfie Beer who was an engineer working with Cubitts, and Nuclear Civil Contractors, a subsidiary of Cubitts. Lord Ashcombe’s (head of the Cubitt family) secretary had a flat on the top floor and Philip Goodhew has worked with Cubitts on the construction of Gordon’s Gin Distillery in Goswell Road and then worked for them on hangers at Heathrow.

He wasn’t the only one who was in the square with a similar connection. Hamish Sim met a member of the Cubitt family in Dorking when he wanted to move to London and was offered a flat which had been built into a ballroom in 61 Warwick Square.

The legal situation was a bit confused in that the ownership was simply a freehold and leased to the head leaseholder, which was Warwick Square Management Ltd. Probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s the freeholder and Warwick Square Management were combined. However, the documentation was not clear. When it came to buying up the properties in the 1990s one of the solicitors working for the new owners spent ages trying to sort this out before he found out that this was actually one company.

By the 1990s the freeholds (including the head lease) were owned by the Behbehani brothers. They were typical of companies I experienced in being capital rich but cash short. The condition of the buildings had deteriorated with broken mouldings up the front and plants growing out of cracks in the render. Because of concerns about the square a Warwick Square committee sprang up. On the south side this was John Lansdale (No 59) and Hamish Sim (61). I joined them because I had been working on repairing similar buildings in Paddington.

The leases required the freeholder to do the external refurbishment and THEN claim it back from the leaseholder. The next stage was to decorate the north side but they had no cash. So they arranged with the leaseholders to pay upfront and put it into a separate account. But when they came to do it the money had gone missing.

By 1992 the Behbehani brothers had decided to put the square up for sale. In accordance with legislation it had first to be offered to the existing leaseholders.

The valuation of the freeholds was very fair, there was a rider. Whoever bought the buildings would have to pay not only he whole cost, but also any debts owing to Behbehani. This wasn’t too bad on the south side but it involved paying for the second time for the lost money on the north side. I do not know how this was resolved. Not everyone took up the offer of buying and in a few cases the whole of the freehold was bought by just one person.

Where the flats were not on long lease they were sold to a company that may have been Behbehani or one of his colleagues wearing a different hat.

The costly muddle of 52-53 Warwick Square

This had so many specific points during the sale that I was asked several times to write a book about it – so now is the chance.

At the time of the sale both the basement of 52 and the basement and ground floor of 53 were not on long leases. No 52 had boiler room, lift machine room and the rooms occupied by the porters, Joe and Mary Alves. The lower two floors of 53 were occupied by a distant relation of the Cubitt family.

More significant was that the fourth floor of 52 and 53 and the air space over 50, 51, 52, 53 and 54 had been sold for the construction of a penthouse. The lease for this sale provided that the penthouse would contribute to the service charge only when it was completed. At the time of the purchase it was virtually complete.  However, during the construction the builder had let water into the flat below owned by Tony Prendergast. Tony sought compensation and the licence to build the penthouse, included payment of “reasonable” damages.

Tony and the developer could not agree the value of “reasonable” so the process ended up in law. After that no one could agree between the vendor’s agents and the new agents (me) that the penthouse had been built in accordance with the licence. Thus it was not legally complete and it went on for some time. This meant that both 52/53 Warwick Square Ltd and 54 Warwick Square Ltd were short in receipts to the service charge. There were insufficient funds to pay the insurance premium and loans had to be sought (these loans were eventually cleared only in 2018). Also there was no money to make plans to refurbish the outside, which was delayed.

The builder retained ownership of the flat on the fourth floor and let it out. Rainwater got into that flat and also the top of No 54. Research indicated that it was caused by incorrect building of the penthouse, but the builder had covered his tracks and said that it wasn’t him who built it. The company was registered in Jersey and then had gone into liquidation. So the freeholders had to pay out to repair the damage caused by the builder to a flat he still owned.

At the time of the sale Joe Alves was made redundant and received an eviction order. He had been in the job and the flat for 17 years. However he was actually employed by the managing agent. The managing agent had been changed a year or so before the sale. As such Joe did not have along enough job and tenancy to protect him. It went to court and the judge gave a delay so something could be sorted out. Jo and Mary Alves both put in money, so did several of the residents of 52 Warwick Square and a few from other parts of the square. His position was saved with a complex financial arrangement which I managed for years. Joe became self-employed and I often had to remind people he was no longer a salaried porter and they must pay for everything he did.

At a time when 53 was empty letters were delivered there which should have gone to 52. As a result the company was closed down and the notice posted in the London Gazette. It was a costly business to get it restored.

Rich and poor of No 55-57

The leaseholders in this building were not always cooperative. Board meetings were difficult because at the start of each meeting there were the richer retired persons who went out to dinner half way through the meeting. At this stage the poorer directors who were working came in. So what happened was that the first half of the meeting would decide something should be done (eg redecorate the stairs) and then the second half of the meeting would set a budget so it was not possible!

Trouble at No 61

In some ways the less said about this property the better.  If you could think of anything to fight over this was where it happened.

It is a double fronted property because it was built with a doctor’s surgery on one side of the ground floor and a ballroom on the other.

I do not know what the argument was about but it ended up with the pavement in front of the building being covered with the blood of two leaseholders.

One of the disputes was about the time delay button on the staircase light. This was on the partition to one of the flats and another resident would deliberately bang the button on his way out to annoy the other resident.

There was a fight on one of the upper floors involving one of the fire extinguishers. The police were called and confiscated the extinguisher. The fight was not my responsibility but I had to go to the police station and retrieve the fire extinguisher. Unfortunately they had lost it.

One of the residents refused to pay for the external refurbishment. His own legal costs built up. In court (but before the hearing started) he agreed to pay, on condition that the freeholder paid his personal legal costs. While this was outrageous, the barrister advised that it would end up being less costly than actually going through the court case. Eventually the freeholder agreed and the barristers had to prepare the order to go before the judge after lunch. I was called into the barristers’ conference and advised them that, as the freeholder could only pay when he got the money from the leaseholders, we would all be back in court while he tried to get it. The order was worded so that the freeholder would pay the legal costs as and when he received the money from the leaseholders. Not surprisingly, despite being invoiced, the leaseholders never paid the freeholder and so the defendant never got his money.

The leases required all floors except bathroom and kitchens to be close carpeted. The main room on the first floor had a circular carpet. However, to get to the rear bedroom one had to leave the carpet and walk on the floorboards. So 61 Warwick Square Ltd took the tenant of the first floor to court. By way of definition I had to swear in court that close carpet and fitted carpet were the same thing. After the hearing I put in my fee invoice. I was told that the chairman of the company who had instructed me had done so against the wishes of the other directors but had gone off on his own. I never got paid.

Conversely, the chairman also did not have a fitted carpet in his bedroom. It stopped a few inches from the wall. That would not normally matter as you cannot walk that close the wall. However, if you roll over in bed during the night and knock the alarm clock onto the floor it lands on the boards where there is no carpet.

The hole in the roof at No 62

The lower two floors were not on a long lease but were sold to a company in Switzerland.  The front half of this area was let to a widow. This meant that the rear part was land-locked. Most people probably did not know that there was a derelict wing in the square, which remained so until after I retired. At the back on this area was a magnificent, complete Victorian cooking range.

The first and second floors were let to a company which I will refer to below and then the top two floors were entered from No 63.

Before the purchase of the square the leaseholders of the first and second floor had done alterations. In particular they had removed the roof light which formed the roof of the flat below and erected a conservatory above this. The conservatory only covered part of the roof, so rain landed on the remainder of the roof and flowed under the conservatory and down into the flat below where they had removed the roof. It was a terrible building error. I have no idea how the surveyor of the managing agent allowed this to go unchecked.

The result was a large amount of dry rot. Attempts to contact the leaseholder who has done this failed, as the company as registered in Panama. The freeholders were advised that this line would bring no satisfaction and so the other leaseholders had to club together to repair the whole of the rear wing.

This work proved difficult because the tenant insisted on living in the flat with the works going on around her. The carpet that had been in the rear wing probably since before the Second World War was completely rotten and was rolled up. The contractor, noting its condition, threw it away without realising it belonged not to the building but the tenant. The tenant was annoyed because “it was in good condition when it was new.”

This was not the only dispute around this maisonette. When the building work above had been done the cold water supply had been disconnected from the lower property. From the tenant’s point of view she would not pay the rent because she had no cold water (who would blame her?). Conversely, the landlord did not see why he should connect her cold water when she did not pay the rent (that again has logic). The stalemate continued for years until eventually resolved.

A flying freehold

Going round into Belgrave Road there is a lower building that was built to contain Cubitt’s drawing office. It was divided into two dwellings. The lower floor extended under the air space of 62-64 Warwick Square. The tenant raised a roof light which was obviously within the air space belonging to 62-64 Warwick Square. Linkshere Property Management, the owners of 62-64 Warwick Square, sold the space to the leaseholder of the lower floors of 66. I thought that the land registry would not accept this but they did. That means that there is a totally isolated flying freehold about 2 meters long and 1.5 meters wide but only 0.75 meters high half way up the building.

Snippets

A few small items from my time as managing agent

The owner of one of the penthouses got married. It didn’t last long but his ex-wife moved into the adjoining penthouse with her front door opposite his.

One lady decided she was a lesbian and divorced her husband. She retained the large lateral conversion flat on the upper floor and her ex-husband lived in a small bedroom flat in the basement.

One lady on the first floor had been very active in her youth. For example, she had climbed the Matterhorn. Her old age was less positive, however. It didn’t matter what happened in the building containing her flat but she was always the recipient of disturbance and debris. I spent several afternoons sitting with her doing jigsaw puzzles.

The same lady often had become under the influence of drink and my staff would find her near Victoria Station on their way home from work and have to escort her back to her flat.

One rather difficult lady never seemed to understand why every time she had a barbecue on the front balcony, the flat above over-watered their flower boxes so it poured down on her.

One of the leaseholders went out and somebody painted an obscene message on the pavement. My staff went out to clean the path before he came back and saw it.

There was a pipe on the front of one of the buildings which kept getting blocked. Someone would send a plumber round to clear it. My staff waited in anticipation as we knew what was going to happen next. When the plumber released the pipe he would get a load of old wet coffee granules over his head.

The Garden

After various suggestions (including an underground car park) all the properties that were the Warwick Square part of the Behbehani holding put together a sum of £1,000 per property. That was not quite as simple as you might think. No 65-66 are leasehold and 7-10 were two properties at the time of the  purchase so got two shares. Not all properties around Warwick Square were part of the Behbehani holding and so were not part the purchase of the square.

The outcome was 20 shareholdesr each with a director and paying an annual amount, probably the best financial arrangement of any square in London. Some of the London squares have a lump sum per property fixed back in Victorian days.

 I attended several meeting as representative of 54. There had been an incident at a meeting when I was not present when two people turned up to represent one of the blocks and then took different sides in a vote. Tony Hudson (see Tony’s own history elsewhere on this website) thought it needed sorting out and proposed that I should become company secretary. This did happen but Mr Street remained the managing agent.

As a result of this the money from the various properties was controlled by me but the distribution of the keys each year was dealt with by Mr Street. I am not sure what happened one day but Mr Street phoned me and I could hear a riot involving tenants in the background. It may have been the same incident that moved to my office later. One of the tenants, who was connected to one of the richest families in the country, failed to pay his service charge. In consequence the managing agent of his property ran out of money so did not renew the garden subscription.  I remember his wife in the office creating something rotten because no one would give her a new key.

Eventually I took over the management of the square as well as being company secretary. Thus my office had to reconcile payment with access. Not a problem with the companies around the square but you would be surprised at the number of people outside the square who had their bank details different from the name they used as members.

In the 1990s there was virtually no architectural work and so I was hands on in the garden. The gardeners knew little about gardening so I had to take on teaching how to use a spade or prune roses.

The lady who was then advising the garden committee (not Sarah) did not agree with pruning whereas Justin the gardener and I did. Every day we did a little bit of pruning so she never realised it was being done.

The main problem was getting rid of the waste. My son Andrew used to drive up with my estate car and trailer and fill up with garden waste which he took to Battersea tip, then a load to Wandsworth tip and finally drove home to Crawley with the car and trailer full of rotting waste. By the time he got there the dump was closed so it stayed rotting in my car until I could take it to the tip at the weekend. Not a pleasant smell.

There was a tree near 65 that had to come down. Andrew and I drove my car around the paths in the garden, tied a rope to the tow bar and the tree and literally pulled it down with the car.

The most significant action to the square was the railings. At the beginning of the Second World War the railings and the stone plinths were removed allegedly for the war effort. The cast iron was not suitable for making armaments and it is understood they were dumped in the sea off Southend.

It was very slow raising the money to reinstate them – the cost was increasing as fast as the money was received. Eventually tenders were obtained but there was only one within the amount of money available. The whole contract and work became the most difficult I have ever worked on. One complete set of railings had to be removed from the square as they would not have succeeded as a stage set let alone railings.

There were forged documents and one barrister advised that all contractors lie, it’s just a matter of how big a lie it was.

There was a blocked manhole in Chelsea and I offered Tony German, my colleague, to go to the blocked sewage if he would sit in the railings meeting. He preferred the smelly sewage to sitting in the railings meeting.

While to the specialist eye the detailing of the railings did not come up to the standard one should expect, the railings made such an improvement to the square that the value of the surrounding properties increased more than the amount contributed to the railings.

GARDEN SQUARE MEMBERSHIP

For inquiries about external membership of the Warwick Square Gardens (very limited) contact Fry & Co, 52 Moreton Street, London SW1V 2PB. Tel: Lara Swycher on 020 7821 2241.