The studio of fallen women

The Gaumont studios in Lime Grove in 1915, with the former Urania Cottage to the left

OK, it’s a bit of a catchpenny title for a post, but here’s an intriguing bit of history. I’ve been reading Jenny Hartley’s Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women. It tells the story of Urania Cottage, which was established in 1847 by the novelist Charles Dickens and the banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts. It was designed as an alternative refuge to the workshouse and usual reformatories for homeless young women whose lives were being ruined through poverty, imprisonment and prostitution. The intention was to show kindness where most regimes stressed guilt and punishment, inculcating its inhabitants with domestic virtues before shipping them off to the colonies in the hope that they would settle down happily in new lands.

Urania Cottage was located in the Shepherd’s Bush area, then farmland to the north-west of London. It operated as a women’s home for around fifteen years before changing hands, and Hartley tells us that just a single photograph exists of the building, taken in 1915. And there next door to the house is a huge building with glass walls and roof, which is instantly recognisable as the Gaumont film studios at Lime Grove, founded in 1915.

One is thrilled at the discovery and eager to demonstrate connections between the two. Did Gaumont produce any Dickens-based films at this time? Sadly no. The studio (which stayed glass-roofed only until 1917) went on to play a notable part in British cinema and television history. It was home to Gaumont and some Gainsborough productions (when Gainsborough wasn’t using its Islington studio), where Hitchcock filmed The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, and where Gainsborough ladies like Patricia Roc, Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert formed a curious echo (“a new set of inmates” as Hartley puts it) of Urania’s inhabitants. There don’t seem to have been any Dickens-related films ever made at Lime Grove, though David Lean, future director of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, did start out at Lime Grove as a tea boy and then cutter. Then the BBC took over the studios and made programmes there from 1950 to 1991, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, Steptoe and Son, Dr Who, Tonight, Top of the Pops and The Late Show.

Producer George Pearson in his office at Gaumont’s Lime Grove studios around 1915, very probably in one of the bedrooms used by the inhabitants of Urania Cottage, from his autobiography Flashback

Urania Cottage wasn’t just next door to the studios: it was a part of them. George Pearson, the first director to work at the studios in 1915, writes in his autobiography:

Offices and dressing-rooms were available in an adjacent house attached to the main building.

This was Urania Cottage. It was used as studio offices, dressing-rooms and apparently even bedrooms for performers staying over at the studio during the Blitz, though the original cottage was soon converted (it is unclear when) and replaced by a new house on the same site. Despite what Hartley says, there is at least one other photograph of the studios in 1915 (reproduced at which shows Urania Cottage, though at such a sharp angle and so obscured you would have to know it was there to recognise it tucked behind the building in front of it. Judging from the large Gaumont logo, this probably dates from a few months later, with the photograph at the top of this post depicting the studios still under construction.

The building that now fills the space where Urania once stood can be seen in photographs of the studio in its BBC days, as in this one from The studio was demolished in 1993, and the space is now filled by housing. Urania Cottage was a well-intentioned initiative albeit with rather fixed ideas about what was good for its inmates (those who signed up had to agree to the emigration plans, which put off many would-be applicants who found it hard to see the difference between emigration and transportation). Those who lasted what was usually a year at Urania were then shipped out to Australia, South Africa and Canada, with mixed results it would appear from the available evidence.

Rather appropriately, on the site where Urania Cottage once stood there is now a hostel for the homeless, run by the St Christopher’s Fellowship. Thus film production comes and goes, but charity lives on.

2 responses

  1. A fascinating discovery, Luke. This brought back memories for me — although of a later era. I remember the Lime Grove studio building in the 1980s. At that time I was working as a freelance editor for the BBC, sometimes based at Woodstock Grove (near Kensington House) along Shepherd’s Bush Green from Lime Grove. Many technical facilities were in LG, and I went there a couple of times to dub films — i.e. re-record tracks to a final mixed track. I and my assistant would finish tracklaying in our cutting room, and then take the cans of 16mm film and mag tracks to the dubbing theatre. LG had such theatres in those days with all the associated paraphernalia, operated by so-called ‘dubbing mixers’. I have a strong recollection that one of the programmes we dubbed at LG was a ‘Horizon’, the commentary voice being recorded by the great Paul Vaughan. (The commentary was often done just before mixing all the tracks together.) Vaughan’s mellifluous, educated-sounding voice gave an identity and personality to ‘Horizon’ for many years. Plus… he was a real pro. While some other commentary ‘artistes’ would spend the time before recording in earnestly rehearsing the script to themselves, Vaughan would sit nonchalantly reading the TLS. Then when it came time to record, he’d get it right first time, with all the intonations and stresses on the right words. Or sometimes he’d make suggestions for script changes, which were almost always improvements. Those were the days when ‘Horizon’ was edited by Graham Massey, one of the smartest people I ever met. Some time after that, the popularists at BBC Science and Features’ dropped Vaughan — for sounding too ‘posh’ I believe – and introduced a plethora of other commentators, thereby losing the authoritative, unifying voice-personality that Vaughan had brought to the BBC’s flagship science programme. So this is my small tribute to the BBC of old, and great artistes like Vaughan and Massey who used to work there. To refer back to your 1915 story, Luke, I think that George Pearson (an ex-teacher if I recall correctly) would have admired people like Vaughan and Massey, though I suspect that Pearson too would have demolished the LG building itself– it really was awfully ugly!

  2. Can I add to my list of requests from your pen that we one day see the Stephen Bottomore memoirs? That’s a lovely vignette of life in Lime Grove, and I’m entirely with you in your praise of the voice of Paul Vaughan. It had/has a quality of accessible intelligence now seldom heard on British TV, where every presenter is a little too eager to be your friend. And I like the suggested connection between him and George Pearson (a teacher, yes). Fellow spirits, certainly.

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