I must admit I don’t know Chelsea very well, it’s on my “to do” list to get more familiar with it.
Recently I visited the Saatchi Gallery just off Sloane Square and was vaguely aware that some of the buildings that the gallery inhabits used to be the Duke of Yorks Royal Military School.
The Saatchi Gallery
The building was completed in 1801 and was originally known as the Royal Military Asylum, which wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds, as it was a school for the children of soldiers’ widows. During the Second World War, the trials of German spies, Josef Jakobs and Theodore Schurch were both conducted in the building. Jakobs was a German who was captured after parachuting into England in 1941 and executed by firing squad at the Tower of London. The other man Schurch I had never heard of and so I did a little digging and came up with one of those strange coincidences.
After finding out that the Saatchi Gallery had been a barracks, I went to my old favourite the 1893 Ordinance Survey map to look at the original footprint of the buildings. I found that next to the barracks was a building known as Whitelands College and as the map makers helpfully annotated “For Schoolmistresses“
On my short visit to the Kings Road I had wandered past the Saatchi and remembered that on the corner of of Walpole Street there had been a rather pleasing 1930s residential block and no sign of any college type building, so I looked into the college for Schoolmistresses.
It had originally existed as a large Georgian building known as Whitelands House, it was demolished and rebuilt in 1890, but due to the expanding number of students was forced to move away to Putney in 1930.
And here’s where the connection comes in. It turns out that Schurch the second man to be tried at the nearby barracks was actually a British Soldier, who had been working with both German and Italian intelligence services after his unit was captured at Tobruk in North Africa. His modus operandi was to pose as a Prisoner of War and gain the trust and obtain information from fellow prisoners. Before Schurch had joined the army he had been an early member of Oswald Mosley’s “British Union of Fascists”, or “Blackshirts” as they were known.
When Whitelands College had been relocated, the next incumbents of the building were Mosley’s Fascist, who quickly turned it into their Headquarters, which was known as “The Black House”. Schurch would have definitely visited the premises and may have even been billeted there, only a few yards away from where he would be tried as a spy eighteen years later and subsequently executed.
Blackshirts guarding the entrance to the Black House in 1933