Today (March 23) in London History – Jack Straw’s Castle

March 23, 1964 was the day Jack Straw’s Castle, the much-loved old Hampstead hostelry, reopened its doors. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


Writing this on March 17th. Wondering what March 23rd, when it goes to air, will be like. We going to be staggering around, dazed, rubbing our eyes, saying, “so this is what it’s like being off the leash of that Tourism Superstar Competition.” Staggering around feeling a bit low, a bit glum because try as we would – and goodness knows we flat out tried, for six weeks – we couldn’t get home, couldn’t get quite enough votes to win the thing. Or are we going to be feeling pretty good about things because we did it, we won it – all that effort paid off – and we can now fly that flag: Tourism Superstar Award Winners. Well, we’ll see.

Anyway, on we go. It’s March 23. It’s the final day of the Marcelle Hansellaar exhibition. I know, I hadn’t heard of her either. She’s a Dutch artist. The renowned art critic Laura Gascoigne spoke of the “darkly wondrous worlds” that pour forth from her “febrile, uncensored imagination.” What also sounds good is the exhibition is in the In and Out, the historic old house in St James’s Square once lived in by Nancy Astor, the first woman elected to Parliament who took her seat. You have to book.

Ok, Today in London History.

Well, this one was probably always going to be on the cards. March 23, 1964 was the opening day of the rebuilt Jack Straw’s Castle up in Hampstead. Was probably always going to be on the cards because Jack Straw’s has a cameo role on my favourite walk, Hampstead Heath and old Hampstead Village. 

In its day it was Hampstead’s best-loved hostelry. Trailed a meteor’s tail of history. Charles Dickens loved Jack Straw’s. Ditto Thackeray. It was Hampstead’s best-positioned pub – up there on the roof of London. Right on the edge of the West Heath. Over the way from the main part of the Heath. And just yards away from the Sandy Heath. You could say Jack Straw’s Castle is the linchpin that conjoins the three Heaths. And of course it’s hard by that extraordinary creation the Whitestone Pond. Well you might ask, what’s a pond doing up there on the summit, right at the top of the highest point in London. And that one I hold back for my walk and my walkers – the secrets of Whitestone Pond are for my walkers’ eyes only.

Constable loved it up there in London’s skybox because from up there he could see all the way down into London and beyond. Indeed could see all the way down to the Thames estuary. Could see the white sails of ships down on the estuary.

And of course Jack Straw’s had to be rebuilt because it was bombed in World War II. That point ties up with one of the first points I make on that walk – that Hampstead Tube Station was an important bomb shelter in World War II, not least because it’s the deepest station in the system. I’ve dredged up a couple of bomb mapping documents which I show my walkers. They make shocking viewing. Each location is marked with a red dot. All those red dots – it looks like a bad case of measles. And that’s just the area we’re exploring, Hampstead, which wasn’t much in the way of a target. So if that map showing where bombs fell on Hampstead looks like a very bad case of measles, you can imagine the density of the bombing on primary targets. Hardly bears thinking about. Showing them that map I say something along the lines of “the Luftwaffe flew at about 15,000 feet. On a clear moonlit night all they had to do was get across the English channel. The moonlight reflecting off the water, the Thames looked like a river of tinfoil. They knew it would lead them right up to London. London was full of good targets. They’d identify their targets. Make their run. Drop their bombs. And then bank into a turn, drop whatever was left in order to lighten their load, gain altitude and pick up speed and get back to occupied France. But that’s not the whole story. That sorry chapter in Hampstead’s – and indeed in London’s history – came into sharper focus for me thanks to Covid. Like everyone else, did with their neighbourhood, I got to know my West Hampstead neighbourhood much better compliments of Covid. Because I did far more walking in my neighbourhood in those two years than I had done in the previous 40 years of living up here. The Road to Damascus moment occurred on Sumatra Road. Our first property in West Hampstead was a flat in Dennington Park Road. Round the corner from where we lived was a tiny, pocket-handkerchief -size playground. I always took it for granted. Never thought about it. Then one day in Year One of Covid Season I looked at the house number of the house closest to the playground. It was 76. Walked past the playground and looked at the number of the first house on the other side of the playground. 92. The penny dropped. Sumatra Road is an endless stretch of late Victorian terraced houses. There were seven houses missing there – Numbers 78 through 90. It was suddenly, painfully, movingly obvious what had happened, why they weren’t there, why that tiny little playground is there. A bomb – or bombs – had smithereened those seven houses, killed or wounded those poor, ordinary Londoners who lived in those houses. 

And I thought, what in the world were they doing dropping bombs on Sumatra Road. And then the penny dropped. A railway line ran behind the houses on the other side of Sumatra Road. That’s what they were trying to hit. That was their secondary target. They missed. There’s a tiny playground there now, mute but eloquent testimony to what happened there that night nearly 80 years ago now.

So, yes, Jack Straw’s Castle, that much loved old pub up on the summit of London was also bombed. And finally rebuilt, some twenty years later. And reopened on this day, March 23, 1964.

Now it’s our turn with Jack Straws and we make of it what we will. But I’m always interested to know how those who went before us saw it. What they made of it.

And, well, I was delighted to find out that 60 years ago there was a pitched battle fought over the redesign of Jack Straw’s Castle. 

But first, let’s meet our architect. Raymond Erith. Quite a well-known architect in his day. Royal Academician. He was the architect who did the major overhaul of the interior No. 10 Downing Street back in the early 60s. What Raymond Erith designed for Jack Straw’s – and it’s what’s there today – was a wooden-fronted house with a false battlement and two turrets. The architect described it as Georgian-Gothic.

Well, as soon as he submitted his plan the fur began to fly.

Hampstead Council was appalled. It described the design as quite inappropriate to this charming and outstanding site. It was ostentatious and bogus. The council would prefer a modern design without false trimmings. 

Councillor Susan Ayliff, the Chair of the Council Planning Committee, summed up, “the whole committee is horrified by the plans it has seen. I have never known a committee to be so solidly against something. The style of the new building seems to be what you might call Scottish baronial with battlements, as if it were a castle. It is terribly bogus and very odd. We feel it would be overpowering and quite out of keeping with the surroundings. 

She said the committee had sent a further protest to the LCC – the London County Council – as a matter of urgency.

The plan also drew fire from an amenity society and several prominent, private individuals.

The architect fought his corner. 

He said, the building has the character of a pub and is well suited to the Georgian houses near the site in North End Way. He said he put on the wooden battlements because it was jack straw’s castle and castle public houses very often have crenellations and he also thought the thing looked rather dull without some ornament. 

Last word to the great architecture critic Ian Nairn. He described the building as “an enchanting folly.” He said the thumbs up from the Ministry of Housing was undoubtedly correct. Jack Straw’s spanking white weatherboarding and battlements would surely charm the dourest Puritan. Nairn gave the Ministry of Housing a pat on the back for having a sense of humour and overruling the LCC, which seemed here, as elsewhere, unable to enjoy a good joke. Modern architecture takes itself much too seriously and buildings like this do a much-needed job of deflation.


But seriously, from the vantage point of six decades on the Jack Straw’s design controversy seems like a tempest in a teapot. The building’s much loved. And most important of all, it doesn’t just fit its surroundings, it enhances them. It looks like it belongs there. 

And the next time you’re up there you’ll certainly look at it with a keener eye than you would have done before this podcast. 

One last point for any greenhorns listening, don’t go to Jack Straw’s in search of a pint. Its days as a pub are no more. Twenty years ago or so it was converted to a health club and apartments. And now that phase of its history is also bygone. We don’t know what the future holds for it. It’s like a big, friendly, much-loved, stray St. Bernard dog. We all hope it’ll find a good owner.

Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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