York Street Chambers – in York Street, Marylebone – was the second venture undertaken by the Ladies’ Residential Chambers Company, of which Agnes Garrett was a driving force. Its purpose was to provide purpose-built accommodation for ‘educated working women’.
The company had successfully launched the Ladies’ Residential Chambers in Chenies Street in 1889 – to a design by J.M. Brydon – and lost no time in commissioning Thackeray Turner, brother-in-law of Christiana Herringham, one of the company’s directors, to plan for another set of chambers, to be erected in York Street, just south of the Marylebone Road. Turner worked in partnership with Eustace Balfour, whose sister, Eleanor Sidgwick, was involved with Millicent Fawcett (Agnes Garrett’s sister) in the founding of Newnham College, Cambridge.
The York Street Chambers were twice as expensive to build as those in Chenies Street – and have not suffered the indignity of the Second World War bombing that destroyed much of the latter’s original detail. Today York Street Chambers still looks handsome – both outside and inside.
Although it is unlikely that Agnes Garrett was responsible for the internal decoration (while, of course, assiduously attending committee meetings and doubtless supervising such matters) the green tiles that still line the corridors of York Street Chambers appear identical to the blue tiles commissioned from Powells of Whitefriars by Agnes for the corridors of the New Hospital for Women, her sister Elizabeth’s contemporary venture. Alas, we cannot compare them with those selected for Chenies St for it appears that, c 1990, Camden Council removed the corridor tiles before spraying the walls with a purple-fleck paint (they have since been given a rather less aggressive treatment).
As in Chenies Street, so in York Street, the basement of the chambers housed a communal dining room. While this was supposed to make life easier for the residents by relieving them of the burden of cooking, committee minutes show that in both sets of chambers the dining room was the focus of a variety of bitter resentments. It makes quite entertaining reading when minuted (if you are that way inclined), but must have been very wearing on the patience of the Company’s directors. When I visited York Street Chambers – probably c 2000 – the basement was in the process of being renovated in order to house a School of Massage and I do not know whether the tiles with which the room was lined were retained. I was, however, very taken by the vigour and panache of the decoration and cannot believe that they would have been ripped out.
When, in Enterprising Women, I described the similar space – by then divided into two flats – that had originally constituted the Chenies Street communal dining room I had no idea that underneath the bland decoration lay a similar riot of ‘Persian’ tiles. It was only a year or so after the book was published that the elderly owner (who had been so helpful in giving me access – and allowing me to photograph Ellen Rope’s ‘Hope’ hovering over his mantlepiece) sold the flat to a young couple who undertook a full-scale renovation. Knowing that I had written about the Chambers – indeed ‘Hope’ was on its cover -they were kind enough to invite me round to see what they had uncovered. And, behold, the room was transformed – the light reflecting off the colourful tiles with which the original dining room had been lined. This was closer to the effect experienced by the chambers’ earlier tenants as they dined – with Ellen Rope’s ‘Hope, Faith, Charity and Heavenly Wisdom’ for inspiration along the wall above them – than the rather claustrophobic gloom of the room as I had first encountered it.