Rear Window: From Westminster slum to Politician Row: Lord North Street

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The Independent Online
THE LONDON street where Teresa Gorman lives, and which is at the centre of her libel case against the Sun (over allegations about the freehold purchase), has been in the news before. Indeed Lord North Street has some claim to be the most political row of houses in the country, after Downing Street.

Here Harold Wilson plotted his comeback in 1974, and here he continued to live even as Prime Minister, spurning the official residence. Here in the 1930s gathered one of the most important anti-appeasement groups, allies to Churchill and critics of Baldwin and Chamberlain. And here, years before that, Hilaire Belloc edited a precursor of Private Eye.

For the best part of a century this cosy terrace of a dozen houses has been home to MPs, peers and other political figures. It is not grand, although it is a gem of early Georgian domestic architecture. And it is not big - Queen Alexandra, visiting a friend there, exclaimed: 'A real doll's house]' and demanded to see every room.

It is handy. Step out at a brisk pace, cross the patch of grass where all those television interviews are done, and you are in the Palace of Westminster in four minutes. Head south, and you can be in Conservative Central Office in two.

It is so close to Parliament that estate agents selling the houses invariably mention that it is within the 'division-bell area'. By this they mean that, if you have a special telephone connection to notify you that a vote has been called, you can get there inside the eight minutes between the sounding of the division bell and the casting of the votes. (And be back at your dinner table without missing a course.)

The street was built around 1725 and called plain North Street because it was the northerly exit from Smith Square. Among its earliest residents were craftsmen working on Thomas Archer's church of St John the Evangelist, which dominates the square. A century ago it was a slum, with a family lodged in every room.

Queen Alexandra's friend, Lady Ripon, must have been one of the earliest gentrifiers. Belloc, the writer and MP, was another. In 1910, with a couple of friends, he edited the short-lived gossip sheet North Street Gazette here. But it was Brendan Bracken, the Irish journalist and social climber, who brought real elan to the street from 1928 onwards.

Installed at No 11 by his employer, the publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode (another publisher, Graham C Greene, lives there today), Bracken set about creating a home that would flatter him and serve his political ambitions. Antique furniture and silver soon filled the rooms and fine paintings adorned the walls. The truth was rarely an obstacle when it came to impressing: a Romney portrait of Edmund Burke was claimed, outrageously, as a 'family portrait', and servants were trained to interrupt dinner parties with a breathless: 'The Prime Minister would like to speak to you, Sir.'

Bracken went on to become Churchill's Minister of Information, by which time he had bought No 8 (now lived in by Jonathan Aitken MP) and furnished it even more grandly. An outsize door-knocker was fitted but an outsize bed, made in Venice, could not be got through the door and had to be taken away again. The flow of grand visitors, however, never slowed.

At No 4, meanwhile, there was another political salon. Ralph Wigram, a diplomat and also a friend of Churchill, gathered together leading personalities who favoured a more vigorous opposition to Nazism than was offered by the 1930s governments. When Wigram died, his wife Ava remained the centre of a busy political circle, including the young Harold Macmillan, Rab Butler and Walter Elliot.

(Elliot, a government minister, lived across the road at No 17 with his wife, Katharine. She later became the first woman life peer, as Baroness Elliot of Harwood, and died, still a resident of the street, only three weeks ago.)

Back at No 4, Ava Wigram remarried, this time to Sir John Anderson, who became wartime Chancellor of the Exchequer but who is best remembered for giving his name to the Anderson shelter. With Elliot, Bracken and Anderson as residents, the street was now a nexus of British political life.

It had also changed its name, being raised to the nobility by London County Council, as Lord North Street. One version says that this was to distinguish it from other North Streets, but another has it that Bracken arranged the change because he fancied a grander address. Either way it was an unhappy choice, since Lord North, the man who lost the American colonies, was among Britain's most disastrous prime ministers.

Since the war, Lord North Street has never ceased to be a home for politicians, famous and obscure. When Harold Wilson moved into No 5 in 1970 after his election defeat, he was taking over from Sir Edward du Cann. Sir Edward moved to No 19, once occupied by the socialite Lady Colefax (friend to Edward VIII) and today home to Alastair Goodlad MP. Next door to the Wilsons, at No 7 (once home to Compton Mackenzie), was Diana Spearman, widow of a Tory MP and herself a right-wing thinker and lifelong pillar of Conservative Central Office.

The Wilsons introduced the first breath of Labour politics to the street, and the first armed police guards. Sir Harold, in his second term, was given to late- night sessions there discussing policy and tactics with his closest advisers, notably Joe Haines, Bernard Donoghue and Marcia Williams.

This may have been unwise, for the story has been told - but never confirmed - that when he moved out in 1977, electronic bugs were found lining the walls.

Today, with just three MPs in residence (Ms Gorman is at No 14), Lord North Street is politically quieter than for many years. The explanation may be money: the 'doll's houses' once admired by Queen Alexandra now change hands at pounds 400,000 and more.

(Photographs omitted)