Life and death in Dolphin Square
Michael Streeter on the block of flats that has been home to the famous, infamous and notorious
According to an official history of the site, Dolphin Square, a vast block of flats in Pimlico, central London, has been home to the “famous, infamous and the notorious”.
To that list can be added the tragic, after the death of the Conservative MP Iain Mills at his flat there and the inquest verdict this week that he died from acute alcohol poisoning.
Outsiders may wonder at the revelation that the MP’s death went unnoticed for two days in a block of 1,200 apartments, with around 3,000 tenants and residents, all within a short taxi ride of the House of Commons.
But for those who live in the 1930s block, the largest of its kind in Europe, the lonely fate of the MP came as no surprise. One tenant told The Independent: “It comes as no shock, you can lead a very solitary, almost reclusive, life here. The corridors are very private.” He added: “I only see one of my neighbours about once every four months.”
The former Liberal leader Sir David Steel, a long-time tenant, and one of 50 MPs who take advantage of the Square’s proximity to Parliament, is also un- shocked. “It’s very much a place where you keep yourself to yourself. I can quite understand how it happens that no one noticed he was missing for a couple of days.”
The Square, which is run by a trust, has a rather faded air; with its dolphin statue fountain in the central gardens, Keep Quiet signs and park benches, it reminds visitors of a slightly run-down council park and buildings. One almost expects to hear a brass band striking up on summer afternoons.
Part of its fame comes simply from its ability to attract the famous and influential. Apart from MPs – who include Labour’s heritage spokesman, Jack Cunningham – there are numerous Lords, generals and senior civil servants who relish its location. Among the more notorious former guests are Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies and the spy John Vassall. Charles de Gaulle stayed there during the last war as leader of the Free French, while many entertainers, most of the Crazy Gang, for example, have lived there.
Another attraction for residents has been the relatively low rents, especially for those who have stayed long-term. One resident told The Independent he pays pounds 4,000 a year for a large one-bedroom flat, well below the normal market rates for Pimlico. However, he claims the old ethos of giving flats to those who worked in the Westminster area, had important jobs and were desperate for accommodation has been replaced by the a quest for higher income.
“If a new tenant had my flat now it would cost them pounds 9,500 a year. It’s all about who pays the most.”
But the biggest menace, said one male resident, is the prevalence of elderly female residents who monopolise the garden benches.
“If you say hello to them, that’s it, you’ll never get away, God bless them,” he said.