Bedford Square, the curse of the DIN plug and £12m

Once the office of Acorn User magazine – now the living room at 53 Bedford Square

Once the office of Acorn User magazine – now the living room at 53 Bedford Square

In the early 1980s, this room at 53 Bedford Square was the office from which I ran the computer magazine Acorn User. At one time, this part of Bloomsbury would have been crawling with publishers, but by 1982 most had gone, though my employers, the US group Addison-Wesley, and the Publishers Association, were still there. Both upped sticks within a couple of years. Though the Architectural Association has hung on at No 36.

So it was incredible to see this Grade 1 listed building turned back into what it once was – a house. But when I look at the room so much has changed – the marble fireplace has gone and it looks as even even the coving around the ceiling has changed.

53 Bedford Square in London's Bloomsbury. This Georgian building is up for sale at £12 million

53 Bedford Square in London’s Bloomsbury. This Georgian building is up for sale at £12 million

The coving  used to depict the skulls of cattle and was picked out in a Wedgewood blue.  The skulls were a rebus, referring to the fact that the Adams-brothers-style property developers had to battle to develop the land against farmers who used to fatten their cattle there before driving them on to market at Smithfields. Because of the loss of the pasture, they then had to graze them out by Marble Arch and bring them along Oxford Street (you can imagine the carriage-jams) At least that’s what I remember being told.

Acorn User magazine cover from December 1982. This issue would have been edited from the Bedford Square offices

Acorn User magazine cover from December 1982. This issue would have been edited from the Bedford Square offices

We had to be very circumspect in what we did in the main rooms – we couldn’t change the chandeliers, or the colours on the walls. And filing cabinets had to be kept to the edges of the rooms (they might have been too heavy for the floor beams in the middle). The floors were carpeted. The cellars, which stretched out under the road in front of the office, inspired the Acorn User Dungeon puzzles of two writers – MUD pioneer and Henry Root publisher Simon Dally and educational computing expert Joe Telford. They also led to the nickname ‘Mad Alex’ for Alex van Someren, one of the technical editors (he was some kind of belligerent gnome who skulked in the dungeon ‘with a glint in his earring’). Prolific computer book author Bruce Smith was technical editor and Mike Milne  – who would later found the computer graphics arm of Framestore – used to knock up filler programs for me and did the March 1983 Acorn User cover.

This room was the scene of one of the earlier embarrassing episodes of my career. The head honcho of Addison Wesley, Warren Stone, had come over from the US and my MD, Stanley Malcolm (a former IBM salesman who still shaved twice a day), had arranged for me to demonstrate the early email system I used. This was 1982, pre-internet, and the system was Dialcom and my address was ACN014 (Dialcom was later bought by BT to become Telecom Gold and the basis for The Times Network for Schools). I came in early to put the room – and the computer system – back together, because it had been used for a party the night before. Just as I finished, in they came. So, I booted up the BBC Micro and loaded the software from the 100K, single-sided 5.25in floppy disc. Then, I picked up the phone and dialled the Dialcom computer. I heard the computer screech and plugged the handset into the red, metal-clad, 300baud acoustic coupler. But the computer did not respond. No error messages. It just sat there, the white cursor blinking away on the black screen. Waiting. ‘Must be a bad line,’ I murmured. So I tried again. No response. And again. Still nothing. So Warren and Malcolm smiled and left.

I probably went out for an early lunch, cursing the BT Buzby bird that was the company’s ad mascot then and everything to do with email and computers. When I came back, I unplugged the acoustic coupler, put the DIN plug back in the other way up – and it worked fine! Never mind.

I did manage to work the telex machine a couple of times though.

The Acorn User office 53 Bedford Square as it looked in 1969 – no fireplace or chandeliers

The Acorn User office at 53 Bedford Square as it looked in 1969 – no fireplace or chandeliers

However, today’s beautiful room has not always been so grand, as this 1969 photograph shows. The Georgian developers would be turning in their graves. No marble fireplace in the Swinging Sixties, a false ceiling and no chandeliers either. It looks very cheap and functional postwar, the sort of institutional, ministry-furnished room frequented by the 1960s spooks of a Len Deighton book such as the Ipcress File.

The main part of the house was not that big, but there are three floors, an attic and basement, and the mews behind has been developed and linked to the main house. Asking price today for the 6 bathrooms, 8 bedrooms 4 receptions and 10,732 sq ft is just shy of £12 million. Oh, and there’s a gym and a lift too. But no telex machine any more and Addison Wesley is now just an imprint of Pearson (like most things in the book publishing world). Acorn User was bought up by the BBC and sold on, finally closing in 2005. Alex escaped from the dungeon a long time ago and is now a managing partner at Amadeus Capital (but does still have that glint in his earring).

In the end, 53 Bedford Square sold for £10.2m.

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4 Responses to “Bedford Square, the curse of the DIN plug and £12m”

  1. ondine Says:

    Dear Sir, Could you PM me as i would love to know if you have more images of that dress and if you have a higher res image of the room in 1969. Thanks in avdance. best regards

  2. magforum Says:

    Hello, There are several pictures of the building here:

    http://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/quick-search?q=53%20bedford%20square&WINID=1471105210068

    They will have the hi-res images,

    Tony

  3. ondine Says:

    Dear Tony
    A million thanks for the link. Am confused because in the text you say the crown in the drawing room was skulls (which is more beautiful) and in the photo it is swirls with 2 griffins in the middle. Was it skulls when you were there? what year was that?. Thanks a lot. best regards

  4. magforum Says:

    Hello Ondine, Now I’m confused too! What do you mean by the crown? In 1982, the cattle skulls (with horns) were in the coving of the AU office (and elsewhere in the building). In the 1962 pic, I can’t make out what’s depicted in the coving and the same in the recent pic. I can’t see griffins in any of the pics. In 1982, the skulls were picked out in white with a wedgewood blue background. I was told about the farming battle at the time. The fireplace had a marble column on each side. I worked in the building from about May 82 to May 84. Does this help? Tony

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