When Dolphin Square opened in 1936, it was the height of modernity, say Simon Danczuk and Daniel Smith in The Daily Telegraph. The seven-and-a-half-acre site, slap bang in the middle of Pimlico, was the largest self-contained apartment complex in Europe. Its 1,200 flats were kitted out with soundproofed walls, and in the communal areas there was a swimming pool and a beauty parlour. Today, the building remains much the same – grand and a little odd. In the basement laundry, the washing machines still have a setting for capes.
Back in the 1930s, getting a flat at Dolphin Square demanded a “certain standing”, great references, and “the swagger to get through a rigorous interview with the Square’s general manager” – traditionally a “retired military type”. Princess Anne was accepted, as was Shirley Bassey. Barbara Windsor liked the place so much she conducted an affair with her Carry On co-star Sid James there. Dolphin Square was, in Windsor’s words, “the perfect love nest”.
Because they’re so near Westminster, the flats have also been a hit with politicians. At one point more than 100 MPs and Lords were living there. Harold Wilson rented a room, and so did William Hague, Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage. In 1939 the leader of Britain’s fascist party, Oswald Mosley, moved in with his wife Diana (of the Mitford clan). What Mosley didn’t know was that underneath him lived Maxwell Knight. To his neighbours, Knight “seemed nothing more than an old-fashioned English eccentric”. He wore scruffy suits, played the drums and populated his living quarters with wild animals like bears, lion cubs and monkeys. He was also in MI5, running a secretive department concerned with political subversion from his base in Dolphin Square. Moseley was arrested – in the square’s courtyard – within a year. “Presumably, Knight watched the whole unfolding drama from his apartment window.”