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Du Cane Court is a popular art deco block of flats in Balham, one which, has become known both near and far. It has featured in property programmes and crime dramas on television and has had a variety of residents and visitors.
To compile the book, the author visited various libraries, accessed the Register of Electors, examined the council records, and interviewed long-term residents – including several who arrived in ‘the Court’ before or during the war, and even one who provided an insight into what it was like to grow up there in the 1950s. Furthermore, a whole host of articles and books were referenced, which served to authenticate the narrative. Time has even been spent studying the entire microfiche history of the company responsible for the block, the Central London Property Trust; and in recording an intimate portrait of the architect himself, Mr George Kay Green, through conversations with his affable son, Charles, who has since passed away.
The building was erected between 1935 and 1938, and has pleasing curves and metal window-frames, similar to those designed by Walter Crittall to replace the wooden sash variety, – although the old frames are now being slowly replaced. The design also included a stylish restaurant, a bar, and a club with extensive facilities. Originally, there were also plans for squash courts and a children’s crèche area, as well as roof gardens. Indeed, people remember sunbathing on the roof. The building has changed a lot over the years, but it still has a beautiful foyer and attractive Japanese gardens, landscaped by Seyemon Kusumoto; and, at the time of its completion, it had the distinction of being probably the largest block of privately-owned flats under one roof in Europe. All of the companies involved in its construction were researched for the book, and an account is given as to how this edifice – encompassing around 676 flats – reflected a period of architectural history.
There are many famous individuals who were reputedly there – actresses Margaret Rutherford, Elizabeth Sellars and Hermione Gingold; comedians Tommy Trinder, Derek Roy, and Richard Hearne alias ‘Mr Pastry’; band leaders Harry Roy and Harry Leader, and also most of the Tiller Girls; cricketer Andy Sandham, and table-tennis ace, Ernest Bubley. Today, ‘the Court’ numbers Arthur Smith and Christopher Luscombe amongst its theatrical celebrities – both of whom were interviewed at length.
The history documents how the building derived its name, tracing the history of a family of Huguenots called the Du Canes, who left France and became successful landowners in England; and readers will also discover what was on the estate before the arrival of Du Cane Court. This included several buildings. Of special interest was a doctor’s family home, complete with extensive grounds containing tennis courts. Indeed, one of the doctor’s descendents vividly describes a bygone way of life.
There are some wonderful legends about Du Cane Court. It is said, for instance, that Hitler intended to use it for his headquarters when he invaded Britain; and that the German Luftwaffe may have found it helpful as a navigational aid – for, in spite of its size, the estate appears to have survived World War 11 completely unscathed. It is also rumoured that the building was once a hotbed of spies.
In 1971 the Tenants’ Association was founded, and the ensuing decades saw a mixture of noble aspirations and conflicts of interest take root within it. There are endearing stories of community spirit; and some sad exceptions, where residents cannot stomach each other’s company or each other’s noise. There have been battles with the landlords, or their representative managers, on account of the considerable service charge expenses – and the disturbing flat conversions which they have been responsible for. Certain disputes have even reached the courtroom.
Other events have included what was, perhaps, the first invasion of pharaoh ants in a London block of flats; and a dramatic boiler explosion in the basement, from which a visiting engineer sustained horrific injuries, even though the rest of the building was unaffected.
‘The Court’ and its people continue to evolve. The faces at the desk have changed over the years; and our celebrated resident, Arthur Smith, has opened the Balham festival on at least two occasions. This history shows how the life within these walls relates to that of the community at large.
There are innumerable illustrations: photographs of famous residents, pictures of the building taken recently and in the 1930s, original architectural plans, and interesting letters. A few cartoons have even been drawn to highlight the comical side of life at Du Cane Court. And, if they are not enough to raise a smile, the book has various quaint stories of eccentrics and elderly people making their mark.
Lastly, there are the pros and cons of attempting to gain the freehold, and of getting the building listed; and an assessment of what the future may hold, and of the measures which might be taken to further improve an environment which is already, most of the time at least, a pleasant place to call your home.
Available to purchase in paperback or download to an iPad or a Kindle e-reader, the e-book is also available on Amazon.
A book is available on an imposing ‘art deco’ building in Balham, Wandsworth, – which was alleged to be the largest block of privately owned flats under one roof in Europe when it was built. The book has a colourful cover composed of variegated ‘windows’ into the life and characters of the estate. It is 279 pages long, and includes 104 pages of black and white illustrations.
Buy it on Amazon, in Balham Library or any bookstore (by quoting ISBN 978095416751-6). The author may be contacted at [email protected]
Download to an iPad or a Kindle e-reader, the e-book is also available on Amazon.