Saturday, 24 October 2015

Omni House, Belsize Road

On the corner of Belsize Road and Kilburn Vale, opposite the Priory Tavern, is a large building which has been refurbished to house modern offices. If you look up at the roof you can see on the two parapets signs for ‘LGOC’ and ‘1892’. This is the date when the London General Omnibus Company stables were built.

Omni House today

Today the building is numbered as 252 Belsize Road but it was previously called Priory Mews. In 1866 Thomas M’Craken had a small livery stables called Priory Yard in the road. The 1871 census showed Alfred Richards in Priory Mews as an omnibus proprietor employing four men. The stables and yard were run by several owners until the LGOC took it over in 1890. It was a good site for horse cabs and omnibuses as it was opposite Kilburn Station, which at this time had its main entrance in Belsize Road. The first railway passed through Kilburn in 1838 en route from the Midlands to Euston, but a station was only opened in 1852, with the entrance in Belsize Road. Today’s entrance on the High Road was added in 1879.

The London General Omnibus Company
Horse-drawn omnibuses began in France. Englishman George Shillibeer was living in Paris in 1828 and making coaches for the French companies. He decided to start his own business in London and his buses began running on 4 January 1829 between Paddington and the Bank of England. Buses were not for everyone – initially the service ran every three hours and the fare was one shilling, equivalent to about £4 today. At the time 75p was considered a good weekly wage.

Shillibeer's Omnibus, 1829

As omnibus travel gained in popularity, so the number of bus companies grew. They were competing with one another, often running over the same routes, and the coaches were painted a different colour to distinguish each company. In the early stages it was difficult to make a profit and Shillibeer went bankrupt (twice). He later turned from transporting the living to carrying the dead as an undertaker, inventing a combined bus/hearse.

The London General Omnibus Company was actually formed in Paris in December 1855. Having bought up existing London companies, the LGOC began running buses with its own livery in January 1856. The ‘General’ as it was familiarly called, became the largest company in London and was incorporated as an English limited company in 1858, although it still had both French and English directors.

LGOC Omnibus about 1890

In the 1890s it was estimated that the LGOC had 10,000 horses working a thousand buses, and carrying one hundred and ten million passengers a year. To keep a single bus on the road for 12 hours a day required a team of 12 horses, each one harnessed for three to four hours and travelling about 15 miles. The horses needed to be fed, watered, stabled and groomed, and tended by blacksmiths and vets. They also produced a huge amount of waste that had to be removed daily. The LGOC had several stables in Kilburn as the Edgware Road was a major bus route. 204 horses were stabled in the building in Priory Mews. The 18 omnibuses were housed on the ground floor. At the back of the building there is still a ramp which was used to lead the horses up to their stables on the floors above. The last LGOC horse bus ran in October 1911, which probably explains why the company had left the building by 1913 when it became ‘Priory Works’.

After the LGOC
The building was first taken over by the Dunlop Rubber Company who was there from 1913 to 1920. They advertised regularly in the Times to replace tyres and produced very patriotic wartime adverts. Today, there is a Dunlop painted advertising sign just visible on the outside wall of Omni House facing the Council flats.

Dunlop Advert, 1916

For ten years from 1926 to 1936, it became the Kodak Camera Repair Centre. When Kodak left several smaller manufacturing companies occupied space in the building. A number of them supplied the aircraft industry. One was the Lisson Aircraft and Precision Engineering Co. Ltd, who made nuts and bolts for aircraft components. They were only there briefly from 1937 to 1938.

Lisson Advert, 1938

Henry Righton and Co. Ltd, metal manufacturers were in the building from 1938 to about 1955. They were a large company based in the Pentonville Road making copper tubing and sheet metal. They may have rented the Priory Works because they also supplied aircraft components.

INVI Ltd, who made zip fasteners, were on the top floor from 1938. Their machines produced thousands of zips a day. The company was wound up in 1986.

From the 1950s to at least 1970, part of the building was occupied by L.A. Rumbold and Co. Ltd, making seats and interiors for aircrafts. Their main works and office were in Kingsgate Place, behind the large B.B. Evans department store. My friend Dan Shackell’s mother worked there for many years. She made seats for the RAF during the War. It was hard work and she often came home with her thumb damaged by the machine needle. Louis Rumbold had started the company in 1933 and Dan’s mum said he was a very good boss who looked after his staff.

By 1960 Hamilton Motors Ltd had taken over the ground floor as a garage. They also had a large car showroom at 466-490 Edgware Road in the 1970s. By 1986 Dovercourt Motor Co. Ltd who were part of the Vauxhall group, were using the Belsize Road site.

Vacmobile Ltd, who made a portable vacuum cleaner for cars and glass fibre products for garages, were there from 1962 to 1966.

Russell Gay and Patti Gay Kluge
From 1974 and into the 1980s Galaxy Publications, run by Russell Gay, was on the first floor, he was the publisher of popular soft-porn magazines, such as ‘Knave’. Several photographers had studios in the building. Some worked for adult magazines such as Knave and Fiesta, others produced adverts for companies such as Marks and Spencer. In the early 1980s, Russell Gay’s ‘Mistral Films’ who produced adult films was also in the building.

Russell’s second wife Patti had an interesting life. Patricia Rose, who was born in Baghdad, came to London in the 60s and after various jobs, worked as a belly dancer in the Labyrinth Club in Bayswater where she was spotted by Russell Gay. Looking back, she said what an exciting time it was for her. There is a film clip of Patti as a belly dancer on You Tube:

Patti and Russell were married in 1973. She modelled for ‘Knave’ and also wrote the advice column in the magazine. She wanted to settle down and have children but Russell did not and they divorced in 1976. Patti went to America where she met and married John Kluge in 1981. She was 33 years old and he was 67. Kluge was a TV mogul named as the richest man in America in 1986, with an estimated worth of $5 billion. The couple moved from Palm Beach and built a luxurious mansion called ‘Albemarle House’ with a 6,000 acre estate in Charlottesville Virginia, near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home. They built up a fashionable and successful winery. Patti moved in very high social circles, her contacts including Frank Sinatra, Prince Charles and Lady Diana. After meeting Prince Philip she became interested in his passion of carriage driving, and funded a carriage driving centre at Sandringham. Her six magnificent horses were stabled there at a cost of £50,000 per year.

Patti divorced John Kluge in 1990 and received a settlement estimated at about $100 million as well as the Albemarle estate. In 2001 she married Bill Moses, a lawyer and an ex-IBM executive and they borrowed $65 million to expand the winery. But they were hit by the recession of 2008 and had to sell off their assets. In 2009 Patti put the 45-room Albemarle House on the market at $100 million but couldn’t find a buyer. In 2011 the main creditor in foreclosure, the Bank of America, bought the house for $15m. Patti’s friend Donald Trump, bought the winery for $8.5m and left her as the general manager.

In 1981 Decca left their recording studios in Broadhurst Gardens, today occupied by the ENO (See our book Decca Studios and Klooks Kleek for more details). They moved their tape copying facilities to 254 Belsize Road. This had previously been the Theatre Royal, but was now offices. Decca then rented space next door in Omni House and built a bridge or walkway on the first floor level to join their offices in the two buildings.

Omni House today
The owners completely refurbished the building when Dovercourt moved out. They discovered it had been the stables of the LGOC and decided to call the offices ‘Omni House’. Today the building houses a firm of solicitors, and also Decca which is now part of the Universal Music Group. There are currently plans to explore if the building insulation will permit the establishment of a Universal Music sound engineer training school at Omni House.

We would like to thank Philip Silvert for providing very helpful information.

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