Survey of London: Volume 45, Knightsbridge. Originally published by London County Council, London, 2000.
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Knightsbridge South Side: East of Sloane Street
This chapter describes the strip of development between the Lanesborough Hotel (the former St George's Hospital) and Harvey Nichols store at the corner of Sloane Street. The Lanesborough itself, part of Hyde Park Corner, is excluded. Two demolished buildings of historic interest have been dealt with which did not strictly speaking front the road: the Knightsbridge foot-guards barracks and the Chinese Collection exhibition hall on part of the barracks site. Old Barrack Yard generally, however, is not included in this account.
Before 1903 the buildings along this side of Knightsbridge (then generally called Knightsbridge Road) were numbered under the names St George's Place and Lowndes Terrace. St George's Place extended from St George's Hospital as far as William Street, Lowndes Terrace occupying the remainder of the frontage up to Sloane Street. (A small part of St George's Place at its west end was known until 1860 as Knightsbridge Terrace.) In 1903 both these names were abolished and the buildings renumbered as part of Knightsbridge.
Summary of development
There was very little building here before the end of the seventeenth century. At that time a narrow roadside belt of manorial 'waste' belonging to Westminster Abbey extended, unbroken by any turning and almost entirely unbuilt upon, from Hyde Park Corner to the site of present-day William Street. By the late 1660s almost all of this ground — the future St George's Place — had come into the hands of one man, Sir William Poultney. The only part of the road frontage not held by him was an enclosure immediately to the east of William Street — later occupied by Knightsbridge Terrace — which had for very many years been let by the Abbey with a hospital or lazar-house on the north side of the road (where the French Embassy now stands). Poultney was also the lessee of two fields — the Great and Little Spittlefields — eastwards of the line of present-day Sloane Street; the northern field fronted the Knightsbridge road, where Lowndes Terrace was later built. These fields, their name suggesting that they once belonged to the lazarhouse, had become separated from the rest of the Abbey estate and passed into the ownership of the Crown. A house and pleasure ground called Spring Gardens was established here in or soon after 1670. (fn. 1)
After Poultney's death his estate was broken up. The Crown land was assigned in 1692 to William Lowndes, whose family subsequently obtained the freehold. The strip of waste was surrendered by Poultney's son in 1699, and was leased successively by the Dean and Chapter to Henry Guy, esquire, of Tring, and Joseph Shayle, gentleman, of St James's. A small portion at the east end was leased in 1718 to John Clark(e) of St James's, baker, who soon afterwards acquired much of the frontage on the north side of the road (roughly the area now occupied by Bowater House and the properties eastwards as far as Albert Gate). (fn. 2)
These changes in ownership were accompanied or soon followed by changes on the ground. In 1691 there had been only two houses on the Poultneys' Abbey land (both near Hyde Park Corner), but within thirty years it had been more or less completely built up. William Penn is said to have lived in a house here (later No. 8 St George's Place) for a time until 1706. (fn. 3) Lanesborough House was built about 1718, and houses and a brewhouse were built on the enclosure belonging to the lazar-house at about the same time. (fn. 4) The ribbon of new building eventually acquired the name St George's Place, presumably after St George's Hospital, founded in 1733 at Lanesborough House (but also reflecting the fact that it lay in the parish of St George, Hanover Square). Further building and some rebuilding occurred throughout the rest of the eighteenth century, and continued in the nineteenth.
The buildings between St George's Hospital and the entrance to Old Barrack Yard were rebuilt in the late 1820s with substantial houses, which attracted high-class residents. The road was at its widest here, the houses were set well back, and there were no buildings opposite, where the park wall ran along the roadside with no intervening verge or waste. This redevelopment followed further changes in landownership, with the sale by the Dean and Chapter in 1800 of the freeholds of the small estate leased by Clark in 1718 (to the then lessee, John Warner), and of much of the adjoining ground (to the lessee, Francis Burton). (fn. 5) In the early years of Queen Victoria's reign the occupants of the houses here included several noblemen and MPs, and this part of the road remained a good residential address well into the twentieth century.
West of the entrance to Old Barrack Yard, by contrast, the street developed a commercial character. The building of the Knightsbridge foot-guards barracks c. 1760, on ground belonging to the Grosvenor family immediately south of the former waste, may have been a factor, perhaps reducing the desirability of the houses there as residences. Further along, the road narrowed sharply and there was continuous building on both sides of the road as the centre of Knightsbridge 'town' was reached, a situation perhaps conducive to a lower class of development than that nearer Hyde Park Corner.
When the brewhouse on the lazar-house property here was pulled down and redeveloped by John Mayor, in 1773– 4, the new houses attracted just two 'esquires', and, for a short time only, the Countess of Salisbury in the largest house, at the west end of the row of eight. Her house was subsequently occupied as a 'College for the Deaf and Dumb' run by James Telfair (d.1796) and his son Cortez (d.1816). By 1830 all but two houses in Knightsbridge Terrace, as 'Mayor's Row' became known, were being used as shops or other business premises, and the countess's former house had been divided into two by 1841. In 1860 Knightsbridge Terrace was subsumed in St George's Place (Nos 45–53). (fn. 6)
Immediately east of Wilton Place, a row of houses with shops, Nos 28–32 St George's Place, was probably built for Francis Burton in the mid-1820s. (fn. 7)
Also in the 1820s, pressure from development on the estates to the south led to the creation of streets opening into the main road: Wilton Place, running north from Wilton Crescent on the Grosvenor estate, and William Street and Charles (now Seville) Street on the Lowndes estate (the Spring Gardens site), as the northern approaches to Lowndes Square. Even so, there was a general disjunction between the development of the ground alongside the main road and that of the backland, which remains obvious today, notably in the way Kinnerton Street stops short where it joins Duplex Ride, and in the absence of any street turnings (other than Old Barrack Yard) between Hyde Park Corner and Wilton Place (figs 4, 6).
With the building up of the Lowndes estate Spring Gardens finally disappeared; with them, too, went the floorcloth factory established here in the middle of the eighteenth century by the wallpaper makers Crompton and Spinnage. The new buildings on the estate fronting Knightsbridge, comprising Lowndes Terrace, were again all shops.
The closure in the mid–1830s of the foot-guards barracks (latterly a depot only) did not lead immediately to any great redevelopment, largely, no doubt, because the site had no frontage to the main road. It did, however, provide an opportunity for the erection of a gallery for displaying the celebrated Chinese Collection. This was the first of several exhibition venues in Knightsbridge (among which may be included the Crystal Palace itself).
More shops were built on Burton's property (by then in the ownership of O. B. Cole) in the later 1840s and '50s, and the White Horse inn, on the corner of the entrance to Old Barrack Yard, was rebuilt as an up-market hotel.
The businesses in this part of Knightsbridge included hatters, tailors, dressmakers, upholsterers and jewellers. Drapery emerged as the predominant trade. Many, perhaps most, of these shops were of good class, and between William Street and Sloane Street there ultimately grew up two of the great London emporia, Woollands and Harvey Nichols, both originally small drapery shops.
No. 32 St George's Place (later No. 53 Knightsbridge), with a columned shop–front on the corner of Wilton Place, was a chemist's throughout its existence; the business itself dated back to the 1830s. Another long-lasting business was the English and Foreign Library, run here from 1849 by Charles Westerton, previously of Park Side, at No. 20 (later renumbered 27) St George's Place. This was set up to supply 'all classes of Readers . . . and at such a Low Subscription as to make it thoroughly a popular Establishment'. The annual fee was one guinea and by the late 1850s some 125,000 volumes were available. Later Bolton's Library was established further west at Nos 39–40 St George's Place. Both businesses survived well into the twentieth century, Bolton's latterly at No. 81 Knightsbridge. (fn. 8)
None of the houses built along the south side in the early nineteenth century was of special architectural interest. Nos 7–13 Knightsbridge (formerly Nos 4–7 St George's Place), built by William Cubitt in 1828–9 for Matthew Kinsey of Oxford Street, calico-printer, were much taller than their neighbours but of conventional design, with stuccoed ground-floor fronts and Doric porches (Plates 9b, 9c, 12a). (fn. 9) Lowndes Terrace, again of the 1820s, was also unexceptional. The most ambitious redevelopment architecturally took place in the 1850s, on the Cole estate (at the site now largely occupied by No. 27 Knightsbridge). This was a terrace with a splendid palace façade, designed by Frederick Robert Beeston senior (described below).
None of this, or any earlier building fabric, remains. Most of the old buildings which survived the piecemeal redevelopment of the nineteenth century were destroyed early in the twentieth, when all the houses and shops between Wilton Place and William Street were pulled down for road-widening (and replaced by the present shops, offices and flats). Beeston's terrace was wrecked by bombing in the Second World War. Since the war many houses have been pulled down for redevelopment: the last of the 1820s houses near St George's Hospital was demolished in 1991. A pair of large houses erected in 1870–1, Nos 15 and 17 Knightsbridge, are the oldest surviving buildings.
The decline of this part of Knightsbridge as a residential street did not begin until the First World War, but the arrival of the underground railway in the 1900s and the growth of heavy motor traffic were already undermining its desirability. By the late 1920s several houses had passed into institutional or commercial use, and some were divided into flats and offices. Adams, Holden & Pearson, architects to St George's Hospital, had offices at No. 9 Knightsbridge in the 1920s and '30s, while No. 25 became a foreign legation and then the premises of the furniture makers Betty Joel Ltd. No. 1 Knightsbridge had always been in the occupation of the hospital, having been built about 1828 for the accommodation of the chaplain and other staff, and rebuilt on a much larger scale in the 1860s. In time Nos 3–9 were all occupied by departments of the hospital, and by the end of the Second World War only one house between the hospital and Old Barrack Yard remained a private residence: No. 19, occupied by Brig—Gen. Sir George Cockerill. (fn. 10)
Today, the south side of Knightsbridge as far west as Wilton Place is dominated by commercial blocks built since the Second World War, few of them of more than passing architectural interest. With the exception of the 1930s block at Nos 37–39 Knightsbridge, all the buildings between Old Barrack Yard and Wilton Place were cleared for redevelopment in the 1960s. Further west, Knightsbridge retains much of its early-twentieth-century character, both architecturally and as a high-class shopping street.