The recreation of Jimi Hendrix’s flat at 23 Brook Street, London was done using evidence from the photo shoots and films captured here, but also through invaluable discussion with Kathy Etchingham. Her recollections of the time she spent living under the same roof as Jimi Hendrix informed much of what is seen on display today.
Hendrix met Kathy Etchingham on his first day in London in September 1966, and they embarked on what was to be a two and half year relationship. Kathy was the inspiration behind Hendrix’s classic songs ‘Gypsy Eyes‘, ‘The Wind Cries Mary‘ & perhaps even ‘Foxy Lady.
Much of the information below is taken from Kathy Etchingham’s autobiography Through Gypsy Eyes: My Life, The Sixties and Jimi Hendrix, which is available exclusively from our online shop.
- Born: Kathleen Mary Etchingham, 18th June 1946, Derby
- Moved to London: 1962, Aged 16
- Met Jimi: 24 September 1966
- Relationship with Jimi Ended: 9th April 1969
Kathleen (Kathy) Etchingham was born at number 7 Raven Street, Derby on the 18th June 1946. She had an older brother, John, and grew up in a house in the centre of Derby with him, her mother Lil and father Charles. It was a typical city-centre terraced house, with a typical post-war routine (an outside toilet, a tin bath to be placed in front of the fire on bath days), the sort of existence that the BBC makes “genteel” drama series out of, according to Kathy, but not one of poverty. It was the norm for much of the British population following the war’s economic toll, and with her father holding down an engineering job at Rolls Royce, it was relatively secure – on paper, at least. What was less secure were the relationships within it, especially that of her parents, who were much older than the average parent, especially at the time – her mother was approaching fifty when Kathy started school – and they were not perhaps cut out for the demands of two young children.
Lil and Charles held it together whilst Kathy and John were small, holding family lunches on a Sunday where Lil’s mother, known by all as ‘Black Nana’, would come and read tea-leaves. Nana’s parents had moved to Britain from Hungary, and were Roma. The spiritual practices of her ancestors were continued by Nana and Lil; both were “forever poring over the tea-leaves together”, and regular consulters of mediums and clairvoyants. Kathy was not so convinced, and even as a child found it all “transparently ridiculous” as she was ferried along to yet another mystic with a stick of liquorice to keep her quiet.
Kathy was, however, absorbed by the stories of her Nana’s second husband: Jim Clarkin. Jim had been a vaudeville actor in his younger years and claimed to have walked the streets of New York with Charlie Chaplin in search of work; a story he was fond of retelling. Kathy was fascinated by the prospect of such distant places, hopeful that she would one day be able to travel further afield than Ireland – the farthest her elders would ever travel.
As Kathy got older, her parent’s relationship began to fragment, culminating in Lil leaving them for a lodger who had been living in the house with them. Her father began to drink heavily and lost his job, and Kathy and her brother were left to effectively fend for themselves at the age of 11. Eventually, after a period in which Kathy was almost certainly malnourished – her hair was falling out and her gums were bleeding – and their house was lost after a family had forcibly taken over the lease from her father. At this point the family stepped in, and Kathy and John were sent to live with an aunt in Dublin – a place from which they promptly escaped and caught a ferry back to England.
After a period of being passed around various family members, Nana and the family scraped together the finances to send Kathy to a convent boarding school in Skerries, just north of Dublin. The constant movement of places and schools meant that Kathy could never make a group of firm friends as a child, and naturally became more introverted and independent as a result. The convent school’s regime, unsurprisingly, did little to change this – but as “bleak and depressing” as it was, it was “no worse” than any of the other households she had been forced to live in.
After less than a year, however, Kathy’s mother Lil miraculously reappeared and she was taken from the convent back to England, this time to Chester, to live in another house in another city with another set of adults who had never really been there for her.
It was this combination of constant movement juxtaposed with periods of stifling confinement that set the tone for Kathy to make her own way in the world. Escaping a life in which her decisions were made for her was what drove Kathy to make her way to London, aged just 16, and it is here where our story begins (in fact we’ll be skipping ahead four years but you get the idea).
Meeting Jimi and the journey to 23 Brook Street:
Jimi Hendrix did not know London without Kathy Etchingham. They met on the first day he arrived, and he sought her out from the crowd with some “corny” line or other, but, coming from Jimi Hendrix, it worked. The world may not have known Jimi at all had Kathy not been with him that night: following their night together Jimi looked the wrong way before stepping out into oncoming traffic, Kathy dragging him back by his jacket in the nick of time.
They became a couple soon after, and lived with Chas Chandler, Jimi’s manager, and his girlfriend, first in Montagu Square, then in Berkeley Place. They lived the lives of those in the London music scene at the time – late nights, late mornings – and spent time in the flats and houses of the biggest names of the era. Their first flat in Montagu Square was owned by none other than Ringo Starr, and was rented to them when he heard that they had been living in a cheap hotel filled with dry-rot; the money from Jimi’s early work yet to materialise.
It was not long before they were required to move, though, after Ringo had received multiple complaints from the neighbours – Kathy concedes that they often “rolled home in the small hours”, and, being in a residential area, were bound to wake up the neighbours. Chas Chandler maintained that they had been forcibly removed as there was a clause in the lease which said “no blacks”, and it was actually this that the neighbours complained about. Kathy thinks it likely that if that was the case, it was a pretext used to rid themselves of the noisy neighbours. It is likely that one fed into the other, and the combination of Hendrix’s blackness, the successful rock-star lifestyle and his white girlfriend was something the residents of Montague Square were unable to stomach. One only has to look at the discriminatory Commonwealth Immigrant Acts of 1962 and ‘68 to gauge the general distrust felt toward non-white immigrants during Jimi’s time in Britain.
Their next home was a more settled affair, again sharing with Chas Chandler and his girlfriend, this time in Berkeley Square. The reason for moving on from this flat was an internal one: Chas and Jimi had fallen out on tour, and been told that they were no longer welcome. Finding a place for them to live alone proved more difficult than anticipated, given their more than healthy bank balance. It was the general suspicion that this was down to what the “fuddy-duddy” estate agents of London’s wealthy districts thought of Jimi, both his fast-living reputation and his ethnicity. Once the couple were not allowed into Claridge’s when they tried to get in. Kathy is reticent to give a reason for this in an interview, but it is clearly not that they were unable to afford a meal there.
There was hope, however, in the form of the landlord of 23 Brook Street in Mayfair, who also owned the Mr. Love restaurant on the ground floor. The rent was thirty pounds a week and he had no hang-ups with them as tenants, so long as the rent was paid. It was perfect for them. Its central location made it a short journey to the clubs they socialised in, and it was surrounded only by offices, so there were no neighbours. Useful for Jimi to able to play as loud as he liked to his heart’s content, and have musicians over to jam through the night.
A who’s who of musicians ascended those creaking stairs and stumbled across those sloping floors – something anybody who’s visited the museum will empathise with! One interviewer of Kathy said that “every picture of Jimi is iconic”, and that “no-one associates normality with him”. 23 Brook Street, however, represented exactly that. It was “a proper home… one where you got up in the morning and had a cup of tea”. It was the antithesis to every buzzword of excess associated with the life of Jimi; they spent much of their time playing board games like Twister, watching Coronation Street (he had a particular soft spot for the character of Ena Sharples, being “nothing like anybody he’d seen in America”) and living a life as close to that of an average young couple as they could manage.
Jimi was involved in the interior decorating, too, and insisted that the carpets be replaced within a week of his return from touring in late 1968. He and Kathy went to John Lewis to pick out the material, to bemused stares from onlookers.
The flat was very private and didn’t even have a doorbell, so many would-be visitors’ knocks simply weren’t heard over the music. Even when they did have visitors they would usually only have four or five over at a time; if they “wanted to be in a crowd” they would head to one of the nearby clubs. Clearly, it has to be said, there was some excess in terms of certain recreational activities (Jimi’s famous vision of Handel in full regalia appearing to him in a mirror has more than a hint of psychedelic origins), but this was definitely not the flat’s primary purpose. In essence, it represented calm. A sanctuary from the relentless storm of Hendrix’s meteoric rise to fame, and one which they both cherished. Jimi could not be a performer 24/7 and it was here that he was able to shed his showman’s “persona” and be himself, which is consistently described as quiet, easy company; nothing like the centre of attention he was when he picked up a guitar.
The musical heritage of the place was not lost on Jimi, and he certainly believed that Handel’s musical spirit lived on within the walls; his subsequent purchase of Messiah and Belshazzar helped him tap into this musical heritage. Now that combined heritage lives on through Handel & Hendrix in London, and much thanks must be given to Kathy that it became a reality.
In the late 1990s Kathy successfully campaigned to have Jimi recognised alongside Handel as an equal with his own blue plaque, and the Handel House Museum’s opening in 2001 was the first step to bringing the musical heritage of the building back to life. As the Hendrix Flat was beginning to take shape, Kathy made sure that their old bedroom was restored to its former glory. The photos taken from the time were a good start, but they were largely black and white; as we all know, Jimi would not have lived in a room without vibrancy and colour, and Kathy was on hand to get it just right. The room is the same as it was; the architecture outside the window, the wooden beams in the room and the décor that hangs. Kathy says it is akin to time travel when you step into their old room, and it really does feel like something frozen in time. It took 15 years for the concept, support and funding to come together, but I think we can all agree that it was well worth the wait.