South Kensington: How the zeal of Prince Albert and the Victorians transformed one of London’s biggest neighborhoods


On the occasion of the 160th anniversary of Prince Albert’s death, Carla Passino looks back on the London neighborhood he helped forge and defend.

South Kensington defies geography. No amount of compass and ordinate manipulation can explain why the majestic Queen’s Gate or the museum-lined expanse of Exhibition Road are labeled as south, while Young Street, at the same latitude, is clustered with the rest of Kensington. But while the geography is confusing, the identity of this stoated slice of London is clear: this is where the Victorians made their mark.

Of course, a village stood here long before Victoria’s coronation; indeed, more than one – the hamlets of Brompton, clustered around present-day Old Brompton Road, and Little Chelsea, now the handful of streets between Thistle Grove and Redcliffe Gardens. But neither is populated, nurseries and market gardens occupy most of the land.

It was here that Baroque master George London opened his Brompton Park nursery in 1689, after “helping the Revolution to transport then Princess Anne to Nottingham, out of the fury of the papists”, and here that, 100 years later, the Quaker apothecary William Curtis moved his botanical garden, having lamented that “the smoke of London … constantly shrouded [his] plants’.

In the 19th century, however, trees and shrubs were increasingly replaced by streets, homes, and even hospitals. A flagship of the Victorian charitable spirit, the Royal Brompton Hospital owes its existence to the determination of lawyer Philip Rose, who campaigned tirelessly for one of his employees to contract tuberculosis and be denied treatment. admission everywhere else in London.

Opened in 1846, after Victoria herself sponsored a fundraising event, the hospital remains a specialist in lung disease, although it has long moved to nearby Chelsea. The original South Kensington building is now a luxury development, towering in red and with a turret over Fulham Road and still drawing attention 175 years after its construction.

It was around this time that the Victorian zest for development really changed South Kensington, dotting it with pretty brick terraces and larger houses with stucco facades. A mark of the region’s growth was the dedication on October 22, 1850 of the almond-shaped St Mary’s Church, The Boltons, which became the first parish outside the old (and uglier) Holy Trinity Brompton.

“This stuccoed slice of London is where the Victorians made their mark”

The building, by architect George Godwin, raised eyebrows for its interior layout (unfortunately, long changed), with The ecclesiologist writes: “We were, we admit, quite scandalized to see a central block of lower vacant seats in the middle of the nave.”

The district – which now tops the list of London’s most expensive addresses – also had strong literary connections: Beatrix Potter, who lived until 1913 in Bolton Gardens; Agatha Christie, who in the 1920s moved to the incredibly pretty 22, Cresswell Gardens, which might have inspired her to write Murder in the Mews; Dame Paddy Ridsdale, Ian Fleming’s secretary during WWII and the likely inspiration of Miss Moneypenny.

Another luminary, Carlo Marochetti, lived further east at 32 Onslow Square. The French sculptor, with a penchant for gigantic equestrian statues (his Richard the Lionheart is in the courtyard of the Old Palace of Westminster), was a favorite of Queen Victoria and was commissioned to create the main sculpture of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, but his first attempt was rejected by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and the French artist died before he had a chance to complete a revision.

John Henry Foley took over the commission and, barely £ 130,000 later, the statue was unveiled on March 9, 1876, a gilded and gaudy tribute to the man who shaped South Kensington in death as well as life. Prince Albert first brought the area to light with the Great Exhibition and the money from this event was used to purchase the land that now forms the cultural district of Exhibition Road.

Natural History Museum.  London, England, United Kingdom, Europe.

One of the first institutions to open there, in 1857, was the South Kensington Museum, the forerunner of both the V&A and the Science Museum.

Almost 25 years later, it was joined by the Natural History Museum, whose monumental scale, combined with neo-Gothic and Romanesque elements, gave it the appearance of the “cathedral of nature” envisaged by the the institution’s greatest supporter, Sir Richard Owen. .

Originally the British Museum’s natural history department, it opened to the public in 1881 and was (exceptionally) free to visitors. “Part of the reason for the move was to give the public much greater access to new galleries, with exhibits that reflect contemporary scientific understanding,” says Science Policy and Communications Officer John Jackson.

Albert would have been delighted to see the success of his mass education project, not only through the museums, but also through the central hall that he envisioned as a means of promoting technology, science and the Arts: the Royal Albert Hall.

The institution’s original goal, says archivist Liz Harper, was to stage everything from opera to concerts to conversations about horticulture, but over time, “it got bigger. what they could have imagined: now there are more events than there are days in the year ‘. Indoor marathons (in 1909), mass baptisms (in the 1920s and 1930s), sessions (notably the one organized by the family of Arthur Conan Doyle in 1930) and even sumo bouts have all been held in the room.

“It’s like there is a special energy here and everyone is trying to explore the world”

“Sumo was pretty funny: a lot of guests came in their best outfits to find that the seats were blue cushions surrounding the ring; in addition, because of the size [of the competitors], they had to test the weight of all the fixtures, including the toilet seats, ”recalls Miss Harper.

Such a rich history has propelled the cultural district of South Kensington to fame, but the area still plays a key role in local life: the garden of the Natural History Museum is a quiet place to get away with the family, the Science Museum serves Also an indoor playground, the V&A is as popular for afternoon tea as it is for its collections, and the Royal Albert Hall hosts the Graduation Ceremony for Imperial College students.

The institutions of Exhibition Road also organize an annual festival, one of the many occasions where they join forces. “There is a lot of collaborative work,” says Miss Harper. “It feels like there is a special energy here and everyone is trying to explore and understand the world.” This, 160 years after his death, is perhaps Prince Albert’s greatest legacy – and South Kensington’s greatest charm.

Home in South Kensington

Courtfield Gardens, £ 3.195million

Courtfield Gardens Apartment
This side apartment is on the first floor of a period building opening onto a private garden space (to which the new owners will have access). It has a large living room and a magnificent kitchen and dining room, with panoramic balconies. Two double bedrooms occupy the rear of the property, which spans 1,574 square feet.

Queen’s Gate, £ 3.95million

Queen's Gate Apartment
Located on the first and second floors of an imposing building, this immaculate 1,949 square foot apartment features four bedrooms (three on the second floor, one of which is particularly large), a contemporary kitchen with Gaggenau appliances, and an impressive reception room. with an 11 foot 9 inch ceiling and full height patio doors that open onto a lovely balcony.

Roland Gardens, £ 2.6million

roland gardens apartment
On the last two floors of a period building, this 1504 m² apartment has three bedrooms on the third floor (one of which opens onto a lovely private balcony) and a large open kitchen and living room upstairs, as well as an office that can double as a fourth bedroom. There is also a south-west facing terrace which overlooks the rooftops.
Marshes and Parsons

Little black book

The weapons of Anglesea
Perfect for people-watching, according to Henry Synge of Winkworth (15, Selwood Terrace, SW7)
A favorite of Jack Osmond of Chestertons, this Spanish restaurant is a local institution (163, Old Brompton Road, SW5)
Cambio de Tercio
A favorite of Jack Osmond of Chestertons, this Spanish restaurant is a local institution (163, Old Brompton Road, SW5)
The Science Museum shop
The place to find gifts for curious children (Exhibition Road, SW7)
Master Choux
The éclairs of this pastry rival the best in France (15, Harrington Road, SW7)
Edward Bensted of Marsh & Parsons loves this butcher’s “gargantuan, rustic steaks” (84, Old Brompton Road, SW7)

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