Estates and houses before 1851: Introduction

Pages 1-3

Survey of London: Volume 38, South Kensington Museums Area. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1975.

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CHAPTER I - Estates and Houses before 1851

The Chief subject of this volume is the complex of museums, colleges and display buildings in the vicinity of Exhibition Road and Queen's Gate that for many people are the usual objects of a visit to what is generally called 'South Kensington'. Some of the best-known parts of this neighbourhood, however, lie not in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea but in Westminster. The main body of the area is the estate that was assembled by purchase after 1851 by the Royal Commissioners who had conducted the Great Exhibition of that year, this estate being intended to accommodate institutions that would encourage the application of science and art to industry in conformity with the ideals of the Commissioners' president, Prince Albert. In modern terms, their land extended south from Kensington Gore in Westminster to near Harrington Road in Kensington, and from the eastern boundary of the Victoria and Albert Museum to Gloucester Road. To help finance the pursuit of their public aims the Commissioners had private houses built on the outer parts of their estate, by men and methods that are also found on the adjacent properties of other owners. To make more intelligible and complete, therefore, the story of this part of 'South Kensington' as an area both of great institutional monuments and long porticoed terraces, the borough boundary has been ignored and the irregular shape of the Commissioners' estate supplemented by the inclusion of some surrounding streets and buildings. By its subject-matter and history the Albert Memorial also demanded inclusion. Except for this, the boundary of the area is formed by Kensington Gore, Exhibition Road, the north side of Princes Gate Mews and east side of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Thurloe Place, Old Brompton Road, Gloucester Road, and the west side of the Palace Gate properties. Its limits are shown on Plan B in the end pocket. For the most part the story of the buildings in this area begins in the 1850's. But somewhat earlier developments are also included, and it is with an account of these and of the history of the whole area before 1851 that the volume is now concerned.

When the Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park in 1851 the area which lay to the southwest of the exhibition site was still predominantly rural in character, and most of the ground was under cultivation, much of it as nurseries and market gardens. A few short terraces on the south side of Kensington Road, a number of cottages alongside the ancient lanes, and some half dozen villas or small country houses were almost the only buildings apart from the sheds and greenhouses of the nurserymen, who had begun to settle here by the end of the seventeenth century. Only at the periphery of the area, around Clareville Grove, in Bute Street and in the streets called Hyde Park Gate, had any new suburban development taken place before the middle of the nineteenth century.

The modern homogeneity of the district, reflected in the widely used name 'South Kensington', obscures the fact that for centuries the area lay not only in two ancient parishes, those of St. Mary Abbots, Kensington, and St. Margaret, Westminster, but also in two manors, those of Earl's Court in Kensington, and Knightsbridge with Westbourne Green in Westminster. Earl's Court had been bought by Sir Walter Cope in 1610, (fn. 1) and in 1851 the lord of the manor was one of Cope's descendants, William Edwardes, second Baron Kensington. At the beginning of the seventeenth century most of the acreage of the manor within the area described in this volume had been held in copyhold tenure, but after Cope's purchase enfranchisement appears to have proceeded rapidly, and by the mid nineteenth century there was little, if any, copyhold land left. The manor of Knightsbridge with Westbourne Green had belonged to Westminster Abbey during the Middle Ages and was restored to the Dean and Chapter by Henry VIII when he converted the abbey into a cathedral church. (fn. 2) Here copyhold tenure tended to survive for much longer, and it was not until 1870 that the site now occupied by Lowther Lodge and Lowther Gardens was enfranchised. (fn. 3)

Figure 1:

Estates and houses before 1851. Present main roads stippled

Originally the manorial and parish boundaries had probably coincided, but by the mid nineteenth century some anomalies had arisen. In the vicinity of Gore Lane, which was an area where a settlement had existed for some considerable time, a small piece of land within the parish of Kensington belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, while corresponding property within St. Margaret's parish belonged to Lord Kensington. (fn. 4) Some land which later formed part of the Harrington-Villars estate was at one time described as being in Kensington and St. Margaret's, Westminster, 'or one of them', (fn. 5) and nineteenth-century maps show a small part of the estate lying in St. Margaret's parish. With these minor exceptions a separate pattern of land ownership survived in each parish until the extensive purchases made by the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the boundary bore no relationship to the new street layout, and substantial revision took place when the new Borough of Kensington and City of Westminster were incorporated in 1900.


  • 1. P.R.O., C66/1851, no. 19.
  • 2. Calendar of Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, vol. XVI, p. 174, vol. XVII, p. 392.
  • 3. C.C., document no. 29208, pp. 336–9.
  • 4. G.L.R.O.(M), MR/UP/435.
  • 5. P.R.O., C54/3338, no. 42.