The Electric Cinema is a Portobello landmark. Building work for it started in 1910 and it opened on 27th February 1911. It was built on the site of a Saw Mill and Timber Yard, which the Trade directories of the period describe as Thomas Saunders Timber Merchants. But at some point – we cannot say exactly when, it was taken over and run by William James & Henry Horsman – their West London Saw Mills And Joinery Works was a substantial company of master joiners, carpenters and timber merchants. They were also involved in the construction of quite a few buildings and rides for the 1908 White City Exhibition.
Until recently facts about the family and the business were quite sparse. Hopefully more information will eventually come out.
The development of the Ladbroke Estate was like the Wild West, a tangled web of frontier capitalism with developers going bankrupt, buying land off each other and my favourite – lending someone the money to buy the land off you. The owner/developer of the block between Elgin Crescent and Blenheim Crescent was a solicitor Thomas Pocock who was active elsewhere in the Ladbroke Estate. It seems he did not have any money of his own, but operated as an intermediary. He had sold (and bought back) land to the other big developer in the area – Blake.
Pocock sold the south side of Blenheim Crescent to a Charles Chambers, who is described as a Timber Merchant and Engineer. Chambers probably built the first saw mill and timber yard on the site as shown in the 1862 map. In 1862 there was only Finch’s pub, the Chapel, and shops north up to the saw mill on the block. Just past and next to the saw mill were a stables and a garage for Hansom Cabs. By 1896 the whole block was filled up with buildings.
A 1909 booklet called The Interesting History of Portobello Road by Ernest P. Woolf suggests that the Horsmans were related to Charles Chambers and that Chambers’ saw mill/timber yard had been constructed in 1853. At that time house construction was going up all around the area at a very rapid rate. The builders would have needed timber and at that time it was all pretty locally sourced.
In 1890 William James Horsman had moved to London from Beirton, Buckinghamshire where his family were woodworkers and carpenters. The 1891 census has him living at 19 Montgomery Rd, Acton, the home of another carpenter. William James brother Henry and his partner in the business followed him along with other brothers. WJ and H obviously established themselves with their trade and the family must have built a reputation as quality woodworkers and created a thriving business. Big and good enough to create the newel post, supposedly carved by WJ himself, for the staircase at the very swanky Piccadilly Hotel which opened in 1908.
The Horsmans were also busy working on three or four of the buildings and at least one rollercoaster ride at the 1908 White City Exhibition
191 Portobello Road must have been a busy little yard, factory and business. They had a rough lumber storage shed along the southern side, a steam engine to power the saws, A workshop for the joiners and a cut timber storage space, then a office back on the street. Seasoned wood for them would arrive in logs or rough cut standard lengths and sizes which would have been delivered by horse and cart. Cut and planed to size and shape then worked on. Or sold. Whatever you wanted made in wood Horsmans could make it.
At their peak, when building for the White City Exhibition, Horsmans had up to 100 (sub) employees and shared 191 Portobello Rd with a company of plasterers’ Mortlemans, who were doing the fibrous plaster work at the 1908 Exhibition. We can assume that Horsmans and Mortlemans had worked together on other jobs as well.
The White City Exhibition
The 1908 White City buildings the Horsmans were involved in were –
The Scenic Alpine Railway – the Great Divide.
The Palace of Fine Art
Palace Of Women’s Work
The Congress Hall
The 1911 Census finds WJ and his family living very near work, at 151 Portobello above the City and Midland Bank on the corner of Portobello and Colville Terrace. So they probably had been doing well, as the White City contract was pretty substantial and it must have taken them a few years to finish
However in 1910, the plot of land on which their West London Saw Mills And Joinery Makers sat was sold. The freehold was bought by the London And Provincial Electric Theatre Ltd to build the Electric Theatre. It was the end of an era for them and the Horsmans filed for bankruptcy. Then they seemed to concentrate on building wooden rides in Ghent in Belgium and France and invented a ride called the Snake Wiggle. We assume that European enterprise was curtailed by WW1. There is no information about any WW1 war work they did and in England during the war nobody seemed to be spending money on fairground rides. After the war part of the family moved to Grays in Essex to start a Building and Decorating business.
WJ married twice, after becoming a widower went and lived in Abergavenny Wales with his daughter. Of the descendants of the family, a few are in England and one branch went out to Australia in 1964. I am in contact with Sam Horsman in Adelaide who is carrying on the family tradition and is a carpenter!
People talk about the history of the Electric Cinema as being a significant development in the history of Portobello Road. Yes but it is also on plot of land that has had a prior claim to fame that is only now being discovered. I think you could make an argument for putting Chambers original Saw Mill & Timber Yard as the first building on that block?
This has been a voyage of discovery for the Horsmans family as well as for me. I worked at the Electric Cinema in the 1970’s and wondered about when the saw mill/timber yard was actually built, then seeing pictures of it made me realise it had always been there.
Dave Hucker, 2017