Serendipity and Portobello Road

August 4, 2016

A few weeks ago I published an article on photowalks, giving some examples from a trip to Portobello Market in London. Fairly soon after this, I was in the local library looking for books to read and came across the title Portobello by Ruth Rendell (crime fiction).

I thought it unlikely that there would be much mention of the area, except for passing references and general backdrop. Also, not being sure if it was the sort of book I was in the mood for reading, I used the ‘first page rule’ – just read it and see if it has an immediate impact!

Consequently I was quite surprised to find this on page one (see here):

“It is called the Portobello Road because a long time ago a sea captain called Robert Jenkins stood in front of a committee of the House of Commons and held up his amputated ear. Spanish coast guards, he said, had boarded his ship in the Caribbean, cut off his ear, pillaged the vessel, then set it adrift. Public opinion had already been aroused by other Spanish outrages, and the Jenkins episode was the last straw to those elements in Parliament which opposed Walpole’s government. They demanded British vengeance and so began the War of Jenkins’s Ear.

In the following year, 1739, Admiral Vernon captured the city of Puerto Bello in the Caribbean. It was one of those successes that are popular with patriotic Englishmen, though many hardly knew what the point of it was. In the words of a poet writing about another battle and another war: “That I cannot tell, said he, but ’twas a famous victory.” Vernon’s triumph put Puerto Bello on the map and gave rise to a number of commemorative names. Notting Hill and Kensal were open country then where sheep and cattle grazed, and one landowner called his fields Portobello Farm. In time the lane that led to it became the Portobello Road. But for Jenkins’s ear it would have been called something else…

Street markets abounded in the area, in Kenley Street, Sirdar Road, Norland Road, Crescent Street, and Golborne Road. The one to survive was the Portobello, and from 1927 onwards a daily market was held there from eight in the morning to eight in the evening and 8 a.m. till 9 p.m. on Saturdays. It still is, and in a much reduced state on Sundays too.”

I was not expecting to be educated! It made me realise how superficial my knowledge of London really was and how intricate and surprising some of the historical stories are.

Moral – it’s worth dabbling, you never know what you might find!