A stroll through Holland Park, with its colourful flower displays took me onto Kensington High Street by the former Commonwealth Institute
The Commonwealth Institute was designed by Robert Matthew, Sir Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, architects, and engineered by AJ & JD Harris, of Harris & Sutherland. Construction was started at the end of 1960 and completed in 1962. The project was funded by the UK government, with contributions of materials from Commonwealth countries.
Regarded by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London, after the Royal Festival Hall, the building had a low brickwork plinth clad in blue-grey glazing. Above this swoops the most striking feature of the building, the complex hyperbolic paraboloid roof, originally made with 25 tonnes of copper donated by the Northern Rhodesia Chamber of Mines. The shape of the roof reflected the architects’ desire to create a “tent in the park”. The gardens featured a large water feature, grass lawns, and a flagpole for each member of the Commonwealth. The interior of the building consists of a dramatic open space, covered in a tent-like concrete shell, with tiered exhibition spaces linked by walkways. Despite its iconic status the building fell into disuse and began to deteriorate. As it was a listed building plans to demolish it were always resisted. Now the garden is a building site, but the ‘tent in the Park’ has retained its original shape without the copper. Still I thought it was looking good and hopefully will provide an exciting new home for the Design Museum.
Kensington High Street is not the fashion centre it used to be – most of that has, I suspect, moved to Westfield just over a mile away. Would it be too much to hope that more independent shops will start of open up along this important thoroughfare. Certainly one has, and an unusual one at that. The shop is an old fashioned hardware store called Skillman and sons. The original Skillman and sons was opened by Alfred Daniel Skillman in 1900. What a super name for someone selling tools. The store was famous for selling everything from watering cans to musical instruments. Today at Skillmans, you will find some of the best hand tools from around the world, together with top quality hardware and ironmongery from the U.K, as well as the most functional cleaning products made from all over Europe and the rest of the world. Would it be too much to hope that more independent shops might open along this important thoroughfare. Certainly one has, and an unusual one at that. The shop is an old fashioned hardware store called Skillman and sons. The original Skillman and sons was opened by Alfred Daniel Skillman in 1900. What a super name for someone selling tools. The store was famous for selling everything from watering cans to musical instruments. Today at Skillmans, you will find some of the best hand tools from around the world, together with top quality hardware and ironmongery from the U.K, as well as the most functional cleaning products made from all over Europe and the rest of the world. See http://www.skillmanandsons.co.uk
When I was still employed as a solicitor, West London Magistrates’ Court was in Southcombe Street W14; a redbrick building with an impressive entrance in white stone. On the floor, as you entered was a mosaic of the Metropolitan Police crest, a reminder that this had been called a police court when it first opened. The name may have been changed, but the court was still run by police officers. They organised the list of defendants and had an office where they collected the fines imposed by the magistrates. Solicitors were allowed into the cell area to take instructions from their clients and that also gave access to the small room at the back of a waiting area where the matron dispensed cups of tea for a small sum. It was here that, if you had made friends with the local CID you would be given a brief outline of the evidence against a client. There was no practice of serving statements in cases that were to be heard by the magistrates. Only if the case was being committed to the Crown Court would a lawyer get to see the evidence against the defendant.
One of the warrant officers, a man known as Jock, was a caricature of a Scotsman, quite tall, balding with a fringe of red hair and a ferocious temper. His role was to run the list for the court. When a defendant arrived at the courthouse, whether on bail or brought by the prison van, they were ticked off on the sheets kept by the warrant officer. A defendant’s lawyer would, after seeing his client, tell the officer what application he would be making to the Magistrate. The policeman would then decide the order in which cases would be called, usually depending on the kind of application. Adjournments where there were no applications usually went first, then applications for bail and pleas in mitigation were left to the end. The solicitors appearing in the case before the magistrate were always keen to get their cases on as soon as possible; there was always more work to be done in the office, or another court to attend.
Jock tended to favour local solicitors when deciding on what order to call cases into court, barristers and out of area solicitors were usually put to the back. However, if for some reason you offended him, your case would be put down the list. It was often difficult to know what you had done to upset him. Not being deferential enough was perhaps the most common offence, but there were others. I soon learnt that the best way of getting my cases on first was to make sure I upset him as early as possible. My cases would go to the bottom of the list, but by the time the hearing began, I could guarantee that other lawyers would also have committed some error and their cases too would be transferred to the bottom and as they did so, my clients would get nearer the top. Just a question of tactics.
I am not referring to the journalist, Martin Bell, who stood for Parliament some years ago but to a solicitor who had an office close to West London Magistrates Court. This was before it moved to being in the shadow of the Hammersmith Flyover. I had only just started working for another local solicitor’s practice as the second string advocate, when the outdoor clerk, a Welsh lady who liked a drink or two or may be three, told me I needed to meet Bob.
‘He’s really good looking, and single,’ she said acknowledging my own status. And so he was, six feet tall, a mop of dark hair and a sonorous voice with just a trace of an accent I recognised as being like my own. He was one of the many Lancastrians who had moved to London hoping to make their fortune in the big city.
When the court doors opened in the morning, the outdoor clerk would dash across the road to see if any of our regular clients were in the cells, and to try and get our share of the unrepresented prisoners. She would then come back into the office and prepare a list of the cases we had to cover. There were two courtrooms in the building and I was meant to do the shorter list, usually with the less serious cases and the man who was the main advocate would do the more important ones. It never seemed to work out that way and I found myself covering most of the work in both courts, which brought me into contact with the ‘man in the white suit.’
Actually it wasn’t his usual choice of dress, he normally wore a grey or navy blue pinstripe, but sometimes in the summer and when he wanted to make a dramatic entrance into court, he wore white. I liked Bob, but quickly worked out that he was not the man for me; far too eccentric.
However we worked well together in the courtroom even though we were competitors for business. A long list of clients meant there was too little time to see them all before the stipendiary magistrate came into court. Bob and I learnt to work the list officer so that our cases were not listed consecutively and so allowing a little time to see a client who had not yet appeared.
Cases in the magistrates’ court can be very amusing, and West London had its quota of fun, often provided by the homeless men who lived on and around Shepherds Bush Green. They were usually brought before the court for being drunk and disorderly, and although we wouldn’t be paid both Bob and I often addressed the court on their behalf. One man, it was impossible to tell his age from his appearance, he was so unkempt in a dirty mac, torn green sweater and a once white shirt was before the court for stealing a tin of salmon. He was one of Bob’s clients and this was one of his white suit days. The contrast could not have been more striking.
The defendant pleaded guilty to the theft and Bob stood up to mitigate on his behalf. He was immediately interrupted by the Magistrate, ‘Your client has been in prison too many times. What am I going to do with him? Send him back for a tin of salmon?’
‘That’s exactly what I am asking you to do. The last time he was in custody, he got his teeth seen to. The upper jaw. He’d like to go back to get his lower ones sorted out. That’s why he stole the tin of salmon. He needs a sentence of a least three months for the prison service to sort that out,’ said Bob.
He got his three months. Whether he got his teeth sorted out, I don’t know because that winter he died of exposure, and it was me and Bob together with the list officer who organised a whip round to pay for his funeral.
During my time in Blackpool I had only appeared in front of lay magistrates. Those upstanding members of the local community who the Lord Chancellor’s Department thought were fit and proper persons to dispense justice to their fellow citizens. They often lacked any real understanding of the law and sometimes struggled to assimilate the facts of a case, but I am sure they did their best. Often they had unqualified staff as court clerks who didn’t know the law either. That has all changed now and court clerks have to be qualified lawyers if they are advising the bench of magistrates on legal matters, and the justices of the peace are given much more thorough training.
My move to live in London, driven by the sexist behaviour in my home county and by my love of the theatre, brought me into contact with a different kind of JP, the stipendiary magistrate. They were a fearsome bunch and, at first, I was a little in awe of them. Over ninety per cent of all criminal cases are dealt with in the magistrates’ courts and the stipendiary magistrates, whether a solicitor or a barrister were much quicker at dealing with cases and expected those appearing in front of them to be brief.
St. John Harmsworth sat at the court in Marlborough Street, in the heart of the West End, next to the London Palladium and just across the road from Liberty’s. He was extremely punctual, walking briskly into court dressed in a pinstripe suit, a military tie of navy blue and dark red stripes and a fresh rose in his button hole. If he was strict in his interpretation of the law, he was also humane.
One morning I was sitting in court waiting for my case to be called on, when a fifty year old was brought into the dock. He had been charged with being drunk and disorderly. The arresting officer (they went to court then) stood in the witness box and said he had stopped the defendant as he been staggering on his feet on Oxford Street at about eight o’ clock that very morning.
‘I spoke to him to ask his name, Sir, and noticed his breath smelt of alcohol, his speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet, Sir,’ the policeman said. This was a formula all officers used when describing somebody as drunk.
The warrant officer, the man who controls the order the cases are called before the bench, moved forward and said, ‘He was only released from Pentonville this morning, Sir.’
‘What time were you released from custody?’ said St. John Harmsworth, addressing the man in the dock.
‘How did you manage to get drunk between six and eight?’
‘Well, your honour.’ (Defendants in the magistrates’ court frequently get the form of address wrong. Only Crown Court Judges are addressed as Your Honour.) ‘It’s my birthday and the lads in the kitchen at Pentonville brewed some hooch and we spent the night drinking.’
St. John Harmsworth looked at the charge sheet in front of him. ‘So it is. Well as it’s your birthday I’ll fine you five pounds or one day,’ he said. There was no need to explain to the defendant that t one day meant he was to stay in custody for the remainder of the court day. It was a common way of dealing with those whose offences were minor and means were limited.
As the prisoner was being led away the learned magistrate said to the warrant officer, ‘Release him as soon as he’s sobered up.’
In these changing times I was a little sad to see the court I had been to so often is now a boutique hotel.
If you have ever wondered on why a book is the size it is, other than something you can hold easily in your hand then you are not alone. When I first qualified as a lawyer, long before the days of the computer and A4 sized sheets of paper, we used a paper size we called ‘brief size’. The secretaries had typewriters, (remember those ) with elongated carriages to take the paper. When is was folded in half it was roughly the same as the current A4. Instead of typing along the short side, briefs to counsel were typed along the other longer side and then they were folded in four and tied with pink tape. When a solicitor was preparing the bill for a case in which they had instructed a barrister, one of the items on the account was the number of folio’s in the brief and that was arrived at by counting a certain number of words, I think it was 72. Of course, the word is used to define a piece of paper folded in two giving four pages in total. But why is a book clearly made up of many folio’s the physical size it is? The answer lies with the size of a medieval sheep.
Paper was first invented in China, but it was the Egyptians that brought it to the west and they used papyrus to make it, which is where the word paper comes from. There wasn’t any papyrus plants in the UK so they used something medieval Britain did have plenty of – sheepskins. Once the skin has been treated and cut into a rectangle, and then folded in half, the ‘pages’ are the size of a modern atlas and that is called a folio. Folded in half again; this is the size of a modern encyclopaedia and is called a quarto. Another fold gives the size of most hardback books and is an octavo. One more fold would give you the size of a mass market paperback. But it does depend on the size of your sheep.
I am grateful to Mark Forsyth for his explanation in his wonderful book The Etymologicon of how and why books are the size they are and where the words to describe them came from.