‘Reshaping Lubetkin’: a hit in the Rags

Bevin Court Restoration Project hits print again. Amy Smith form the Islington Tribune introduces our latest exhibition – Reshaping Lubetkin.

article on reshaping lubetkin, an art exhibition at Islington Museum

As part of the Bevin Court Community Restoration project the Peel Centre Art Club was invited to create artworks and curate an exhibition in response to the rich social, architectural and artistic heritage of Bevin Court and Peter Yates’ mural: Day and Night, Winged Bulls.


After a tour of Bevin Court, a site on the doorstep of the Peel Centre, the club began to isolate and examine the different symbols, architecture, and histories within the building and mural. These were then reinterpreted and brought back together to show snapshots of Bevin Court and all of its combined histories. This lead the club members to explore places and people they felt were important to their local communities, shown here in the collaborative piece Ebb and Flow.

Reshaping Lubetkin: Phoebe SmithThese works were on show at Islington Museum, 245 St John Street, until Saturday 29 August. Take a look at the gallery for more artwork produced by the group.

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The Lenin in Bevin

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin might not be the first name that pops into your head when you think about the area now home to Bevin Court, but in fact Lenin made this area his base on two of his visits to London during the early 1900s. This page can not tell the full story of these visits, but we’ve got some interesting articles, so click through and  explore the links between Lenin and Bevin Court.

Iskra or 'The Spark'In 1902 and 1903 Lenin and his wife, Krupskaya, lived in 30 Holford Square.  They had left Germany due to police hostility and, being exiled from Russia, came to London.

With them moved the editing and printing of Iskra, translated as ‘The Spark’, the newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Lenin found a base for printing Iskra with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and their printing press, the Twentieth Century Press, located on Clerkenwell Green (now the Marx Memorial Library).

Harry Queltch, editor of the SDF’s journal Justice, shared his first floor office with Lenin so that he could work on Iskra. The tiny office accommodated both men and it was said to be a squeeze by Queltch. Visit the Marx Memorial Library and you can see the office in which they worked, it is a tiny space! In 1903 Iskra was moved for publishing to Geneva and Lenin moved with it.

Lenin was to return to this area during his third visit to London for the Third Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1905. During this visit the couple stayed around the corner from Holford Square in 16 Percy Circus. Later Krupskaya reminisced of their time in the capital: “Ilyich studied living London. He liked taking long rides through the town on top of the bus. He liked the busy traffic of that vast commercial city. There were other places too – mean little streets tenanted by London’s work people, with clothes lines stretched across the road and anaemic children playing on the doorsteps… Ilyich would mutter in English through clenched teeth: ‘Two nations!”

Lenin’s British Museum reader’s card, under his nom-de-plume Jacob Richter.

Although the New River development, of which Percy Circus and Holford Square were a part, had in the past century enjoyed a high status and been a desirable area to live by the time Lenin visited many of the houses were multi occupancy and the character has a slightly less polished veneer. However, it was by no means the mean little streets that Krupshaya mentions, though you would not have to walk far to reach these slum areas.

During all his 6 visits to London he stayed in and on the borders of the Bloomsbury area. The main reason for this would appear to be his commitment to visiting the reading room at the British Museum. One of the first things that Lenin did upon arriving in London on his 1902-3 trip was to be issued with a reading ticket under the name Dr Jacob Richter, to avoid arousing suspicion. He visited most days, arriving shortly after opening time and working calmly until lunch.

You can read about the history of both Percy Circus and Holford Square by clicking through to the links. Both of the sites that Lenin lived in around Bevin Court have inspired memorials. There is the intriguing story of the two plaques to Lenin on the site of 16 Percy Circus and the two memorials to Lenin in Holford Square. For more about Clerkenwell’s radical roots take a look at Islington Heritage’s Radical Clerkenwell.

A Short History of Percy Circus

Below is a brief history of Percy Circus, we will be adding more detail to this page, so do visit again.

The development of Percy Circus, much like that of Holford Square, took place as part of the New River Companies development of its estates during the first half of the 19th century. Much like Holford Square both Percy Circus and Great Percy Street take their name from Robert Percy Smith, a Governor of the New River Company: 1827 until his death in 1845.

Percy Circus was built between 1841 and 1853. It interrupts Great Percy Street and had five entrances to it, all at odd spacings. It is on quite a steep hill (this point can be confirmed by anyone who has tried to take a ‘shortcut’ via Percy Circus on a bike!) Despite its difficulties it is widely admired as one of the most pleasing circuses in London, perhaps its lack of symmetry and angle help in this.

The Survey of London for North Clerkenwell says of Percy Circus “success was achieved through picturesque variation in the house elevations, deftly enlivened by recession and projection, adding up to what Christopher Hussey, in 1939, called a ‘monumental conception’ and ‘one of the most delightful bits of town planning in London’. ”

Upon completion in 1853, Percy Circus had (clockwise from north)  Holford Place, Great Percy Street (east), Upper Vernon Street, Great Percy Street (west) and Vernon Street. All the streets apart from the eastern side of Great Percy Street are short link streets. An irregular crossing at this point in the New River estate was inevitable as the new metal water pipes laid down in the 1820s had a junction at what would become Great Percy Street and Vernon Street. The laying out of the New River estate’s roads along the water pipes will be covered in a different article.

Only fifteen of the original twenty-seven houses survive today. During the Blitz the three sections of the circus to the north suffered along with Holford Square. After the war the New River Company who still owned the freehold on the Circus decided that unlike Holford Square, the circus should be preserved.

More history of Percy Circus will be added soon, but for now take a look at the Survey of London’s section on the Percy Circus Area.

3D printing Bevin

There are lots of stories about Bevin Court and its environs and as part of our Bevin Court Restoration Project we are reproducing a bust of Ernest Bevin. The Building used to house a bronze bust of Bevin housed in the aperture across from Yates’ mural.

John McCann / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

John McCann / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Like most of the stories concerning Bevin Court and busts, the how, why and when of the disappearance of Bevin’s bust is not clear cut. Residents remember that the bust went some time in the 90s, but stories of Bevin’s bust become intertwined with the happenings of the bust of Lenin and the two tales often intertwine (if any one has any other info on Bevin’s bust then do get in contact).

Bevin in 3D lime green

Mini Bevin!

As part of the Bevin Court Community Restoration project we are reproducing a bust of Bevin to go into the space left by the old bust. iMakr, a 3D printing company in Clerkenwell, are working with us to create an exact replica of the bust owned by the Unite union. Why have we chosen this bust to copy? We will be publishing a blog on just this topic very soon!

This lime green version is a mini Bevin produced for us by iMakr to demonstrate the level of detail captured during the scan. We will be organising a visit to the studio at iMakr during the production of the full size bust, if you’d like to join us on this visit then drop alex.smith@islignton.gov.uk an email.

Once the bust is printed it will go on display in Islington museum before being installed in Bevin court.

The short history of Holford Square

Below is a brief history of Holford Square, we will be adding more detail to this page, so do visit again.

In the early 18th century the whole area around Bevin Court was owned by the New River Company who leased the land as pasture. By the 1820s, the New River Company began to develop its land holdings around New River Head. This site was one of the last areas to be developed. In 1841-48 a formal square was laid out and named Holford Square.

Most of the New River estate development in Clerkenwell was named in association with the company’s history.  The origin of some names are obvious, such as Amwell Street (named for the river’s source) and Myddelton Square (after Sir Hugh Myddelton). Holford Square’s naming seems a little more ambiguous to us today having being named after Charles Holford, governor of the New River Company 1815-27.

The architecture of the square was conventional for its time, however, its east and west sides were an architectural departure from the rest of New River estate’s developments, being grouped behind palace fronts flanked with pediments. In 1934, the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury took over the square’s garden as the lease had expired, and created a public bowling green.

Copyright Islington Local History Centre

Opening of the Bowling Green at Holford Square, 1935 (Copyright Islington Local History Centre)

During the Second World War, all four sides of Holford Square were severely damaged. The New River Company rebuilt some damaged sites, including Percy Circus. However, in 1946 Holford Square was deemed beyond repair and it was condemned. In 1948, Finsbury Borough Council compulsorily purchased the site and decided to build blocks of fats around its edges, to retain the square’s layout in keeping with the local architecture. Berthold Lubetkin (1901-90) was to be the architect. Lubetkin had already designed three buildings for Finsbury Council – Finsbury Health Centre (1935-38), Spa Green Estate (1943-50) and Priory Green Estate (1943-57). Bevin Court (1946-54) was to be Lubetkin’s last work in Finsbury.

Lubetkin knew Holford Square. In 1942, he designed and installed a memorial to Vladimir Lenin opposite the bomb-damaged 30 Holford Square, which had been home to Lenin and his wife in 1902-03. Bevin Court was developed in several stages. The final design was not a replacement square with housing around the edges as the council had envisaged, but a bold statement block in the centre of the old square. The block referenced one of Lubetkin’s first designs – collective housing for railway workers (Allan, 2012). Three branches of flats radiate from a drum staircase. This layout leaves no flat with north only aspect. Light and views, along with the spectacular staircase, are what Bevin Court is known for.

More history of Holford Square will be added soon, but for now take a look at the Survey of London’s section on the Percy Circus Area.