Above: A residential house with candles to be seen at the windows.
Campden Hill Square – whose spelling should not be confused with locations in Camden which is another part of London completely – is actually a rectangular piece of land and not a square. It is situated on a steep slope on the south side of Holland Park Avenue which is the western continuation of Bayswater Road, leading west eventually to Shepherd’s Bush Green. Putting it another way, it lies on the south side of the road that runs along the north side of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens and a short distance north of Holland Park. The square lies in an area of London known as Notting Hill, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
The square was once part of a large estate consisting of a large house which stood where the centre of the square is today, surrounded by a considerable amount of land. In 1612 the ancient house was enlarged when it was lived in by Sir Baptist Hicks, later Lord Campden. Campden is a town in the county of Gloucestershire. The house was gutted by fire in 1862 and, although it was rebuilt soon afterwards, it was demolished in 1900 and is today the communal garden at the centre of the square.
The square was laid out in 1827 by Joshua Flesher Hanson. Most of the early building was between 1827 and 1838. It was a convenient location because the houses stood beside the then turnpike road (now known as Holland Park Avenue). Until 1893 it was known as Notting Hill Square when the residents petitioned for a change of name.
Above: The bay-window of a grand house lit by lights Christmas tree with candles in the rooms above.
Each year – on Christmas Eve – an unusual tradition is enacted in the square when all the residents living in the large houses and blocks of apartments around the square turn out their electric lights which normally illuminate their front rooms, draw back their curtains and light candles which they place beside the windows of every pane facing the street. It gets dark quite early at that time of the year. The candles are lit between the hours of 5.30 pm and 8.00 pm.
The custom, unique in London, is believed to have been instituted in 1926 when lighted candles were placed in every window of each house in the square on Christmas Eve. New householders in the square are made aware of their responsibility when they take up residence. The story told by the residents is that one of the houses in the square was once a Jewish orphanage. Every Christmas candles were put in the window but vandals stoned the house. The other residents then placed candles in their windows so that the vandals could not tell which house had the Jewish connections. This story has not been verified.
Every householder in Campden Hill Square is required to light every window in each house with candles. Neighbours light candles in a neighbouring house if the residents are away. An official walks around the square to check that the rules are complied with. Who he is responsible to is not known. The only occasions when the windows have not been lit were due to the high risks of fire during the blackout of 1939-45 (during the Second World War) and the year of the Firemen’s strike for 14 weeks – from 14 November 1977 until 16 January 1978.
Because the event takes place on Christmas Eve, when public transport does not run as late as on normal evenings, few people visit the square to see the event or even know about the tradition. It is mainly the local residents who walk around the square to enjoy the unusual lighting in the windows.