Gregory Vincent, Thursday 08 September 2011
Du Cane Court is a popular art deco block of flats in Balham: one which, exceptionally, has become known both near by and far away.
It has featured in property programmes on television; and has benefited from a wide compass of residents and visitors, who, in the fullness of time, have spread the news about what it is like to live there.
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.
A History Of Du Cane Court: Land, Architecture, People And Politics 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.
Gregory Vincent is a resident at Du Cane Court, and author of A History Of Du Cane Court: Land, Architecture, People And Politics (ISBN 97809541675-16), which can be ordered from Waterstones and other bookstores.