Basil Street in Knightsbridge is the northern boundary of Chelsea and a kind of frontier to Kensington and the City of Westminster.
At one time it was indeed called North Street. It connects Sloane Street with Hans Crescent and runs parallel to the back entrances of the famous Harrods department store to the junction of Hans Road and Walton Place.
Last century my father used to walk this road after getting off the 19 or 22 bus to go to Harrods for his haircut or weekly ritual on a Saturday afternoon of buying seed cake.
Near the junction of Hans Crescent it was the scene of two dreadful atrocities of the twentieth century.
During the Second World War the German Luftwaffe killed 14 people in and around a block of mansion flats by dropping a parachute land mine.
Three Special Operations Executive (SOE) French agents preparing to be flown by Lysander aircraft into occupied France were among the victims.
As they each had cover identities as British Army officers they have the remarkable distinction of each being commemorated two times by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
In 1983 the Provisional IRA murdered three police officers, a journalist and two more Saturday shoppers with a car bomb parked just by the junction of Basil Street and Hans Crescent.
As I was living in Central London at the time, I remember hearing the sickening blast which had the percussion and nausea I had become used to associating with terrorist explosions which killed people. This will be covered in more detail in the posting for Hans Crescent.
Firefighters from the London Fire Brigade station in Basil Street were the first on the scene for both events. The station would be closed in 2014 and the building is now a property development.
The redeveloped London Fire Brigade station in Basil Street in 2023. Seen from junction with Pavilion Road. Google Street view.
The Chelsea Official guide for 1951 gives some space to discussing ‘The Northern Boundary’ concluding ‘the surmise that Basil Street and Walton Street mark the line of a part of the Fulham Road that was effaced in early times is at least a logical one. However, to be exact, the boundary begins at Hopton’s Court in Basil Street (the buildings on the east of the court were formerly in Kensington), and carries on past Harrod’s, to make Walton Street with a kink.’
The architecture is late Victorian and mainly red brick with tall multi-storied mansion flat buildings built on Cadogan estate land. The fire station at number 16 Basil Street was completed in 1907. In August 1941 Station-Officer Albert Ernest Bills was awarded the British Empire Medal for his leadership and bravery fighting fierce Blitz fires in the City of London which had left his men practically smoke-blind. He would be the last to leave evacuated streets where buildings were about to collapse to the ground.
Basil street is well known for its hotels. At the time of writing the five star Capital Hotel along with its restaurant is at numbers 22 to 24.
The writer Michael Holroyd somewhat immortalised The Basil Street Hotel at number 8 in his autobiography Basil Street Blues, based on his belief that he may have been conceived there in the early 1930s:
‘I have been conceived, my mother once remarked as we were travelling by bus through Knightsbridge, at the Hyde Park Hotel where King Gustav of Sweden (calling himself Colonel Gustaveson) often stayed. I remember her laughing as we swayed into Sloane Street and travelled on. At another time, in a taxi, she pointed to the Basil Street Hotel with a similar laugh before turning into Sloane Street.’
Basil Street Blues- a memoir by Michael Holroyd
The hotel promoted itself as: ‘a traditional Edwardian-style hotel built in 1910 and reflecting the charm of an English country house. The hotel serves you in the style of England’s most gracious Age. A treasure trove of fine paintings, tapestries, antiques and objects d’art have been discreetly adapted to provide contemporary comforts in the heart of fashionable Knightsbridge.’
With its spacious rear gardens, eighty bedrooms and generously priced English and Continental breakfasts and afternoon cream teas, the Basil Hotel was hugely popular with people living and working in the area as well as tourists who appreciated the charms of a more traditional English hotel they would associate with Agathe Christie’s Mrs Marple and Hercule Poirot detective novels.
The film star James Stewart was a habitué when flying bombing missions for the US Army Air Force during the Second World War. It was during WW2 that its success and popularity with service couples (married and unmarried) led to it being fined for breaching black-out regulations.
How do you control eighty romantic couples jumping into bed each night at a time when they needed to keep two sets of curtains drawn?
In January 1940. P.C. Young 408B told the Westminster Police Court that at 10 p.m. on Wednesday night 10th January he found a light from a window on the first floor, a light in the hall was showing through a glass partition and out of window which was unscreened, and the black out curtains had not been drawn.
The hotel’s managing director Charles Taylor complained ‘I cannot see how I can be responsible for about 400 windows?’ But the magistrate was not impressed; particularly when told Mr Taylor had been fined two times previously for black-out offences.
In the 1960s the Basil Street hotel would enthusiastically recruit local school-leavers ‘Why not make a career in the Hotel industry?’ Many would go onto run famous hotels in London and around the world. Sloane 3411 was the number to ring to book a table for high tea after an exhausting shopping trip to Harrods or Harvey Nichols.
When the hotel closed in 2005 there was much lamentation over its passing.
Did John Cleese give Mr Fawlty his forename Basil after the street?
In the late 1960s and early 70s John Cleese lived with his then wife and Fawlty Towers collaborator Connie Booth in a flat in the Grade II listed mansion block Lincoln House.
It could be said that Monty Python’s Flying Circus was another Basil Street conception. Cleese was known to practise his silly walks there.
An account of how the flat in Lincoln House, Basil Street was a creative hub for originating and developing Monty Python was published in the Observer’s colour supplement in 1999:
‘Terry Gilliam John and Graham wrote contained pieces; they tended to be very confrontational – bam, bam, bam! Eric wrote tight things; wordplay was his speciality. Mike and Terry tended to be more conceptual in the way they approached things, and I fit in more with that group with what I was doing. The first meetings were in John’s flat in Basil Street, Knightsbridge. I just remember sitting up there in John’s room a lot and talking and arguing. I think by loosening it up as we did, it then freed us up so we could have everybody write what they wanted to do, and then we started filtering it through the group’s reaction to the stuff.’
At number 31 the fashion designer Charles Creed collected Napoleonic toy soldiers and painted them, which became the subject of two British Pathé films in his home in 1952 (black and white) and 1955 (colour).
Charles Creed wikipedia profile. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Creed
The Embassy of Colombia is situated at the corner of Basil Crescent and Hans Crescent.
Second World War
On 24th September 1940 an incendiary bomb struck Basil Mansions which was dealt with by fire wardens. On 8th March 1941 a much more powerful and devastating high explosive bomb exploded in a direct hit at the rear of the Mansion blocks causing extensive damage to numbers one to twelve.
There were two slight casualties. Pavilion Road was blocked by debris.
The detonation of a parachute mine towards the end of the notorious London Blitz air-raid on 11th May 1941 would claim fourteen lives.
At the time such bombs were catagorised as a ‘Non-Contact, Parachute Ground (Land) Mine Type GC’Non-Contact, Parachute Ground (Land) Mine Type GC © IWM (MUN 3509)
The blast demolished numbers to 15 to 17 Basil Street, with most of the residents of number 15 being killed instantly or dying from their injuries in hospital afterwards.
An 18 year old member of the WVS (Women’s Volunteer Service) about to go on duty to work at the Ebury Street mobile canteen depot was killed by the blast in a doorway of one of the Basil Street buildings.
Also killed were three trainee SOE agents from France who appeared to have cover names and identities as second lieutenants in the British army.
A fourth Frenchman, an officer in the Free French Forces, was also killed, but apart from his details being recorded in the archives of Chelsea borough casualties of the Blitz, there are no records matching anyone listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission or SOE.
It is not certain whether this man was outside in the street or inside number 15 at the time the parachute mine detonated.
The site of the 11th May 1941 parachute bomb on Basil and Rysbrack Streets- now replaced by a modern glass facing block of apartments (15 Basil Street). (Google street view 2023)
The damage extended to numbers 17 and 18 Rysbrack Street to Basil Street at the junction with Hans Crescent and impacted on nearby Harrods (department) and Gooch’s (outfitters) stores.
Number 15 Basil Street appears to have been an up market boarding house or block of besits where people rented rooms and were all attended to by a flats manageress with a cadre of four servants. Occupancy seems to have been somewhat itinerant. An examination of the 1939 register recording residency on 29th September of that year reveals a cosmopolitan mix of people including an insurance inspector serving in the Auxiliary Fire Service, retired trained nurse, company director, Captain in the Royal Navy on the retired list, the Vice Consul of Colombia, a student, news journalist, Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps, company director from Greece and his wife, and an export representative also working in the Auxiliary Fire Service.
The following people died in this incident and are commemorated by the Commonswealth War Graves Commission as being among the civilian war dead and listed in Chelsea borough records as casualties of the blitz during WWII:
The trainee agents with the Special Operations Executive (SOE)
35 year old John Gilbert Garner. Chelsea Borough records show that he died in Basil Street. Commonwealth War Graves Commission records indicate he was eventually buried at Brookwood Military cemetery in his English alias of Garner and real name of Garnier and he had been seconded to the Special Operations Executive SOE.
His SOE agent’s file (HS 9/565/4) has been released to the National Archives.
This means he has two commemorative entries with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. To further compound the mystery these records state, perhaps erroneously, that he was killed in Basil Street on 10th May rather than 11th May 1941.
His body was actually recovered from the debris at 8.55 p.m. on 12th May.
Garnier was in uniform carrying his army pay book (Second Lieutenant 183048) and a personal diary in the name of John Gilbert Garner. He was initially buried at the Catholic St Mary’s cemetery in Harrow north-west London and at some stage must have been disinterred and moved to Brookwood.
Jacques Edwin Fresco otherwise known as Forrester was a second lieutenant in the British Army with the service number of 183030 and 29 years of age. His body was recovered from the debris and destruction in Basil Street at 8.20 a.m. on 11th May 1941.
He was originally buried in the Catholic St Mary’s cemetery in Harrow on 17th May and then moved to the Free French Forces section of Brookwood cemetery in Surrey before being repatriated by his family at the end of the Second World War. He has a second record in the Commonwealth War Graves Commision database as James Edwin Forrester. His Special Operations Executive File has also been released to the National Archives at Kew.
Lieutenant Richard Goff of the Free French forces, who was 43 years old, was another casualty of this air-raid. That was the name given to the body recovered at 8.45 p.m. on 11th May whose cause of death was ‘burns and bomb blast.’
Chelsea borough records show that he was buried at Brookwood military cemetery in plot 203160 on 16th May 1941. It is recorded that he was married, identified by a Lieutenant P Ladon of Free French Forces, was ‘about 43’ and wore a waistband marked ‘Richard Goff’ and possibly with his date of birth ‘2/11/1898’ on the reverse.
But again ‘Goff’ may have been the cover name for some secret role in the intelligence services.
The speculation that he was outside in the street is based on the fact the Chelsea borough records show he was wearing the remains of a blue Mackintosh when his body was recovered.
However, there is no record of Goff’s existence in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission online database either in the name of his Free French Forces alias Goff or his real French name. Similarly his name is not currently registered in SOE files released to the National Archives at Kew.
The records of SOE trainee agent Nicolas B Popoff, who was being trained with Garnier by the SOE to be infiltrated back into occupied France for operations are filed as HS 9/1205/10 in the National Archives under the name Peter Nicholas Powell.
His cover name of Peter Nicholas Powell, with the service number 146525 in the Royal Berkshire Regiment, gives his date of death as 10th May 1941, age of 27, but no location of death.
Like Garnier and Fresco he also has an entry with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission under this second name- Second Lieutenant Peter Nicholas Powell though this is designated as an ‘alias’ with Nicolas B Popoff identified as the ‘true family name.’
The Chelsea borough records indicate his body was recovered at 1 p.m. on 11th May. He was in full battledress uniform and also wearing his overcoat suggesting he may have been in the street at the time of the air-raid.
His identity card was in the name of ‘Nicholas Popoff’ giving the address of 14 Hertford Street W.1. He also had army papers in the name of Peter Nicholas Powell and was initially buried at St Mary’s cemetery in Harrow on 17th May 1941.
The Secret WW2 Learning Network website discloses that ‘Popoff and Garnier were trainee SOE agents who’d been killed during the Blitz, while in a holding house in central London.’
The website refers further on another page to Garnier and Popoff being ‘buried at Brookwood (a third trainee’s body was repatriated to France at the end of the war) in the Free French plot – despite the fact that they had both served in the British Army before joining SOE – Popoff in the Royal Berkshire Regiment and Garnier in The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment.)’
It is likely the third trainee referred to as having been repatriated to France was Jacques Edwin Fresco.
Was 15 Basil Street the SOE ‘holding house’ in central London and were any of the other casualties connected to SOE? None of their names match the personnel SOE files currently released to the National Archives.
The civilian deaths at Basil Street
60 year-old Ronald Marryat. He was a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Field Artillery with a Distinguished Service Order, and the son of Admiral Joseph Marryat, and Frances Marryat, of Downe Hall, Downe, Kent. He was a widower and resident of number 15 Basil Street and died from the bomb blast and falling masonry while in his dressing gown, pyjamas and slippers. He was identified by his ‘old friend’ Cynthia Stafford. Marryat was a decorated veteran of the Boer War. In addition to receiving the DSO during the Great War, he was mentioned in dispatches two times.
20 year old Annie Parkes– daughter of John and Mary Parkes, of Baragher, Fivemilebourne P.O., Co. Leitrim, in the Irish Republic and was working as a domestic maid at number 15 Basil Street.
28 year old May Murray– daughter of John and Catherine Murray, of Cuilnakillen, Lahardane, Ballina, Co. Mayo, Irish Republic. May was working as a domestic cook in number 15 Basil Street.
28 year old Diana Sichel daughter of Adrian and Geraldine Dingh; wife of Sub-Lieut. Gerald Theodore S. Sichel, R.N.V.R. She was recovered from the debris at around the same time as Ivy Davis on 15th May with cause of death given as bomb blast and falling debris. She had been in uniform and carried an ARGT identity card.
55 year old Ivy Linda Davis of Remuera, Auckland, New Zealand. Daughter of the late Herbert and Emma Smith; widow of Adolphus Davis.
The Hon. June Mary Forbes-Sempill, aged 18. Daughter of Col. the Rt. Hon. Lord Sempill, A.F.C., of Craigievar Castle, Aberdeenshire, and of the late Lady Eileen Sempill. Lord Sempill was a Scottish peer and record-breaking air pioneer, who was later revealed to have passed secret information to the Imperial Japanese military before the Second World War. June was serving in the WVS and about to go to work at its Ebury Street mobile canteen depot when the landmine descended to wreck its destruction. See: https://www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/media/fmbiyhy5/wvs_roll_of_honour_2021.pdf
Maurice Freedman, aged 50. A distinguished Belgian subject and described as a diamond merchant in the Chelsea Borough records of Blitz casualties. He was buried in the United Synagogue Burial Society section of Willesdon cemetery. His Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry discloses he had been awarded the Ordre de Leopold; Croix de Guerre and Ordre de la Couronne of Belgium and he was the husband of Suzanne H. Freedman, of The Kingsway Hotel, Minehead, Somerset.
Amalia Huizinga-De Groot, aged 53. A Dutch national of Amsterdam. Daughter of M. and S. De Groot, of Leeuwarden; widow of W. J. C. Huizinga. Mrs Huizinga-De Groot was a Jewish refugee from Holland and had been a resident of number 15 Basil Street.
38 year old Christina Marthe Johnson. A.R.P.warden and Nurse; of Croydon Wilds, Bladen, Oxfordshire. Wife of Capt. D. M. I. Johnson, Royal Army Medical Corps.
69 year old Edith Night, aged 69. Daughter of William and Martha Hammond, of Newbridge House, Bollington, Cheshire; widow of Samuel Knight.
Google satellite map view of 15 to 17 Basil Street
Images used in slideshow at the top of posting
1.London Fire Brigade fire station building (decommissioned 2014) at number 16 Basil Street. Google street view
2.Modern apartment block on site of 15 to 17 Basil Street. Tim Crook June 2022
3.15 Basil Street looking up Basil Street towards Sloane Street and opposite the Capital Hotel. Tim Crook June 2022
4.Harrods Department Store- view from entrance to Basil Street and junction with Hans Crescent. Tim Crook June 2022
5.Memorial to victims of IRA car bomb explosion in Hans Crescent 1983
7.Site of 15 to 17 Basil Street now replaced by modern and glass-faced apartment block. Google Street view 2023
Special thanks to Karen White and Chris Pain whose families lived in Chelsea during World War Two and Malachy John McCauley, also brought up in Chelsea, who have very kindly encouraged and assisted my research. Special thanks to Marja Giejgo for editorial assistance. Research and archive facilities from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council library services, The Imperial War Museum and National Archives at Kew.