It’s an oft-told tale that London’s piano industry was based in Kentish Town, but not so many folk know about this claim to fame: it was once home to the most famous taxidermists in the world. Rhinos, aardvarks, tigers, monkeys, elephant waste paper baskets, musical boxes made from tortoise shells – they were all stuffed and constructed in workshops in an unassuming backwater, Leighton Place.
Tucked behind the Grade II listed houses on Leighton Road, it’s worth a diversion anyway, its former warehouses surprising architectural gems, weirdly juxtaposed with slightly-out-of kilter 1930s terraces.
Many of the buildings do indeed have piano roots. Built in 1900 and the first on your left, our main pic was occupied by ‘organ key’ manufacturers Richard William Cork and subsequently piano-string makers Dettmer & Sons. In later years Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy moved here, and it’s recently had a spruce up to become Leighton Space, a rather lovely gallery and artist studios which hosts regular exhibitions. We like the Mediterranean plants too; a pleasant sense of oasis with the sixties blocks looming behind it.
Opposite stands the first warehouse to be built on the street (in 1898). More piano manufacturers resided here too until 1912 before it became the premises of a mapmaking firm in World War 1, an ‘air raid precautions base’ in the Second World War and, since 1986, Camden ITEC, which trains young people in computing.
But it’s the next line of warehouses that we’re interested in.
Some of these were also associated with pianos, but from 1920 Nos. 13-15 were the workshops of Rowland Ward, once the most famous taxidermists in the world.
Their vast showroom in Picadilly was even nicknamed The Jungle after a tableau called Jungle Life built for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886.
The company specialized in work on big game ‘trophies’, but their output covered all aspects of the trade. Rowland Ward was trained by his father Henry, himself a very well known taxidermist in his day, to whom he dedicated his bible on the subject, The Sportsman’s Handbook.
Think of a type of taxidermy and the chances are Ward invented it – especially ‘animal furniture’ like Bird of Paradise lamps, stag antler cutlery, that kind of thing.
‘Elephants’, said Ward memorably,’ do not at first glance seem to lend themselves as articles for household decoration, and yet I have found them most adaptable for that purpose.’ The hide would be used for table tops, and the feet for waste paper baskets or stools.
So successful was the business that they even were awarded a royal warrant as taxidermists to the King. But of course by the late Sixties fashions had moved on: it was ‘game’ over for Rowland Ward Taxidermists and their connection to Kentish Town.
Words & pics: Stephen Emms
Sources: Rowland Ward, Camden History Society’s Streets Of Kentish Town (£8.50)