‘Ching of Ching’s Yard… ‘ by Edward Bottoms, January 2016
The AA has its own strange internal toponymy: the Front Members’ Room (a reminder of the student / member segregation up to the 50s), the Soft Room (originally a 2nd floor den populated with smoke and cushions in the 70s), and of course Ching’s Yard, the name we all unthinkingly apply to that rather odd, awkward space at the heart of the school. Hemmed in between the Georgian frontage and the Inter-war back block, Ching’s Yard is infamous as the site many ‘happenings’ – it has seen a demonstration of Gustav Metzger’s ‘Auto Destructive Art’, it has been bridged, helter-skeltered into (1960s Carnival), and had gigantic Coke cans and parts of buses craned out of. Yet who on earth was Ching??
The name clearly has a long pedigree. Historic plans of the AA reveal that Ching’s Yard emerges out of an earlier incarnation – the ‘Ching’s Head’, a student bar created in 1926 and located in the basement of No. 34, in what is now the AA Photo Studio. Further digging reveals Ching himself emerging, somewhat enigmatically, from the pages of Harlequinade, the AA student journal of the early 1920s, photographed sitting gazing contemplatively into an AA cup of tea. Further archival research unveils a rather fascinating and tragic story…
Born in Remeura, New Zealand, in 1888, William Thorne Wilmot Ching attended King’s College, Auckland and embarked on a promising architectural career in the offices of A.B. Wilson before setting sail for the UK, where he is first recorded as an AA member in 1909. From 1911-13 he attended the AA’s Evening School, followed by a final year at the Day School in 1913/14, from which he graduated, winning the prize for best Studio Work.
On the outbreak of war, Ching volunteered for the King Edward’s Horse, received a Lieutenant’s commission in the Royal Field Artillery and was sent to the front in early 1915. He saw action at the infamous battle of ‘Hill 60’, near Ypres, where he gained the Military Cross for heroism, rescuing two injured colleagues trapped with burning ammunition in a gunpit under severe enemy shelling. He himself was the victim of a poison gas attack and, remarkably enough, was seriously injured three times within the space of two years.
After recuperation, Ching returned to the AA and in 1919 he was appointed ‘House Master’, his duties including overseeing the administrative and logistical arrangements for the AA studios and atelier within the newly acquired Bedford Square premises. He appears to have had an exceedingly calm, self-possessed demeanour, a “kindly presence which… loomed broadly and pleasantly in studio and coffee room.” His character was such that he could “quieten the most boisterous disturbances… with the perfect manners of a courtier” and possessed “such a comforting way of listening to peoples’ troubles that many were drawn to him for advice, and none ever regretted making him their confidant.” Surprisingly enough, Ching’s stint as House Master stretched only for four years and in 1923 he resigned in order to set up a firm of heating engineers with F. Broadhurst Craig. However, his status was such that that Howard Robertson, writing an appreciation of his work acknowledged that “Everyone who knew the AA in recent years knew Ching. Ching ever immaculate, unruffled and kindly.”
If the 1923 Harlequinade photograph of Ching, published on his resignation, was meant to depict him contemplating a radiant future in the heating industry, this was not to be. He married later that year but in the summer of 1924 went into hospital for an operation to mitigate the side-effects of the war-time poison gassing, only to die on the 21st July, 1924 after a second, unsuccessful operation.
Originally published in AArchitecture, 27.
AA Council Minutes 1920-27, AA Archives.
National Probate Calendar, 1858-1966.
British Army WW1 Medal Rolls index 1914-20.
AA Journal, December 1916, p75; August 1916, p 33; October 1924, p89.
Harlequinade, Vol.1, No. 3, October, 1923, p2.
New Zealand Herald, 17 March 1915, p9; 5 October 1916, p.9; 25 July 1924, p8.
Poverty Bay Herald, 9 October 1916, p8.