How Agatha Christie spent the war in Hampstead

Isokon Flats

Isokon Flats - Credit: Savills

Agatha Christie's wartime stay at the Isokon flats - with fur coat, hot water bottle, and pillow over her head to drown out the blitz - is explored in a new exhibition.

Despite having homes in west London, Oxford and Devon, the famous crime writer and her Sealyham terrier James spent 1941 to 1947 living in a 25 metre square flat in what was advertised as the "safest building in London."

An exhibition opening on May 22 reveals how she enjoyed a prolific stage of her career, writing novels, stage plays, a memoir and radio play for Queen Mary's 80th birthday - which later became The Mousetrap - while living in Britain's first apartment block made from steel reinforced concrete.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie lived in the Isokon flats in Hampstead from 1941-1947 - Credit: The Christie Archive Trust.

By day she did her bit for the war with a part time job in University College Hospital's dispensary, then returned to her flat to write, often on two books simultaneously. At night she put a pillow over her head to block out the falling bombs and clutched her "two most treasured possessions" her water bottle and fur coat.

Christie's Devon home Greenway had been requisitioned by the American Navy, her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan posted to Egypt, and in the first week of the blitz, her Holland Park home was bombed.

Jack Pritchard, who commissioned Wells Coates to build the Lawn Road flats in 1934, promised residents a new, modern way of life. With a celebrated restaurant and bar, run by Philip Harben, it attracted an extraordinary community of intellectuals, artists and writers, and newly arrived exiles fleeing Nazi Germany.

"Pritchard took out an ad in The Times claiming he had the safest building in Britain - it wasn't true, if a bomb had landed on it it wouldn't have stood it," says Magnus Englund, Chair of the Isokon Gallery Trust.

An advert for the new modern way of living in the Isokon flats

An advert for the new modern way of living in the Isokon flats - Credit: Courtesy of The Isokon Gallery Trust

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He visited Christie's only grandson Mathew Prichard to sift through the family archive for references to the Isokon.

"I have a bomb map of Belsize Park and there were quite a few,  a big one fell on the tennis courts at the back of the flats. During raids, residents gathered in the Isobar which had sandbags, but Christie stayed in her flat and continued to write in her fur coat with a pillow over her head. Extraordinary!"

In letters Christie wrote: “Coming up the street the flats looked just like a giant liner which ought to have had a couple of funnels, and then you went up the stairs and through the door of one’s flat and there were the trees tapping on the window.”

She also wrote: “I never found any difficulty writing during the War, as some people did; I suppose because I cut myself off into a different compartment of my mind. I could live in the book amongst the people I was writing about, and mutter their conversations and see them striding about the room I had invented for them."

Over six years Christie moved three times to bigger flats eventually knocking 16 and 17 together. She was also the only resident allowed a dog.

"I think Jack Pritchard gave her special dispensation because she was famous."

Sadly a claim that Christie's only spy novel N or M was inspired by Soviet spy recruiters who were residents is untrue. "It's the most common misunderstanding, but she wrote more than one book about spies, they were published in America just before she moved in, and the spies had all moved out by then."

Magnus Englund - director of the Isokon Gallery Trust. Picture: Polly Hancock

Magnus Englund - director of the Isokon Gallery Trust. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Englund adds: "It was a revelation that she had written what became The Mousetrap at Lawn Road. On his seventh birthday Mathew asked for a bicycle and his grandmother gave him what he thought a very dull bit of paper - it was the rights to The Mousetrap.

"She is the most sold author in the world and lived there for six years, but no-one had ever looked at this period much before. Now we are telling the whole story."

The Agatha Christie exhibition runs May 22 until October 2022 at The Isokon Gallery in Lawn Road. Entry is free no booking required. The museum is dedicated to the story of the Grade I listed building and its famous former residents. Opening times 11-4pm every weekend.