▪Footsteps in Fulham

To walk along Fulham Road in south-west London is to enter the world of Margaret Rope. In the early years of the twentieth century this whole area was an artists’ colony, which is presumably why Marga’s aunt, the sculptor Ellen Mary Rope, moved here around 1910.
When Marga decided she needed to move to London to further her career, it was only natural that she, as a lone young woman, would move in with her relative.

In fact, this part of Fulham Road was known as ‘Little Chelsea’ at the time to mark its bohemian character – successful artists, including writers, lived in many of the Victorian homes. Correspondingly, a fashion for ‘garden-studios’ soon developed – little buildings behind the house where the artist could retreat in order to work. (A survey revealed that there were 316 known studios in use in this Chelsea area in 1939).

At some point, the owners of 404 must have decided they no longer wanted their garden-studio building, and decided to split it into four, and put it up for rent. The studio flat that Ellen Mary took (404c) was one of these. Ellen’s neighbour was Thomas Paget the coin-designer (in 404b), and, in the main house (404) lived the painter William Palin.

The 404 garden-studios complex, which still exists. The flat roof/terrace is in evidence, as is the looming shape of Chelsea Football Club’s buildings on the skyline!

This garden-studio building still stands today, and is still divided into four flats (404a, 404b, etc). It’s charmingly higgledy-piggledy, being mostly on one floor, but with first-floor extensions. Sadly, 404 itself (the main house) has since been pulled down; an apartment block, called West London Studios, now stands in its place.

The flat must have been quite cramped for the women who shared it. Ellen Mary seems indeed to have been very generous with her space – three of her nieces (Dorothy Rope the sculptress, and Tor Rope and Marga) also lived at 404c, one way or another! Of course, the flat was not a workshop for them – they actually did their art elsewhere -, but, still, they must have had to have been all very respectful of each other.
The smallness of the flat partly gives rise to the suspicion that Marga slept on the outdoor terrace. This idea is reinforced by an entry in her brother Harry’s diary in 1923 (‘Brown’ was the family nickname for Marga):
…. Eventually I reached 404 Fulham Road at dusk. Brown was there and gave me a royal welcome, toiling hard over cooking and writing letters. It made my heart ache to see her writing letters hard till near 11.40 p.m., when she went out to post them at the pillar box just in time for the last post. The little place was very homely with its timber overmantel and wall cupboard and bureau; its beautiful pictures and books in just the right amount and distribution
. . . Brown slept out on the roof & told me she did so most nights winter and summer alike. Brown was always exceedingly hardy…

Curiously, Marga never made 404c her official address, even though she lived there for over ten years. In the censuses, electoral registers and even for official business, she would put either her mother’s Shrewsbury address or the address of her workshop-studio (at the nearby Glass House). Does this indicate that she felt slightly displaced, or was even at 404c on sufferance? One theory of this aspect is that she was never entirely satisfied with the life she’d chosen and chose not to see it as permanent – and, as we know, in 1923 she left London altogether, to become a Catholic nun.

Changing times

Although the neighbourhood of Little Chelsea was an artistic one, it was not entirely separated from London life. The houses 410 to 404 in Fulham Road are oddly squeezed in between the Chelsea Football Club stadium and the Brompton Cemetery (one of London’s ‘magnificent seven’ cemeteries). Chelsea FC was founded in 1905.
Of course, since the 1920s, the Chelsea FC estate has expanded exponentially and its giant stadium now dominates much of the Fulham Road skyline.

Number 410 Fulham Road still stands – the main house of 404 looked a lot like this

However, Ellen Mary, Dorothy and Tor did not stay to watch Chelsea FC’s ascendancy. Soon after Marga left 404c, so did they (though not far), to go south of the river to Deodar Road. A quaint little map, designed by Clare Dawson (a stained-glass artist friend to both Tor and Marga), shows their new addresses.

The Ropes at Putney – courtesy of Arthur Rope

One would love to know how Marga regarded her London life. Was she happy there?
Her talent must have driven her to want to excel in her profession, and only in London would that have been satisfied. What’s more, her peculiar character may also have found the confines of her home-town of Shrewsbury too stifling.
Yet, from hints dropped in letters, she may also have been working in order to support her mother – and it is only in 1920, when her mother receives an inheritance, that she is freed of that obligation and can look to her own happiness – in the convent. Perhaps.
Sadly, all her letters, bar a scanty few, have disappeared over time, so we will never know.

The footsteps of time are a strange & idiosyncratic thing. It’s odd to think that, back in the early 1920s, Marga must have passed the congregating football crowds on a Saturday afternoon, and that, nowadays, those same crowds are walking in her footsteps.

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