The Smith's Charity Estate: Development up to the early nineteenth century

Pages 87-91

Survey of London: Volume 41, Brompton. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1983.

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CHAPTER VI - The Smith's Charity Estate

The Smith's Charity estate, which was formed in the seventeenth century, originally consisted of eighty-five and a half acres of land in the parishes of Kensington, Chelsea and St. Margaret's, Westminster. In 1853 a further small plot of former manorial waste on the north side of Fulham Road was purchased, and in 1856 the part of the estate in St. Margaret's parish known as the Carpet Ground, which was detached from the rest, was conveyed to the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851 in exchange for a slightly larger parcel of ground in Kensington. (fn. 1) Since then, apart from the sale of some plots for ecclesiastical and institutional purposes or for railway construction and road widening, the estate has remained intact. The detailed account of building developments in this volume is confined to Kensington and excludes the fourteen and a half acres in the former parish of Chelsea, but in the calculations of total rental and income the estate is considered as a whole.

Henry Smith, a City merchant and alderman of a highly charitable disposition, was born at Wandsworth in 1548, acquired a considerable amount of property during his lifetime, and from 1620 onwards set up a succession of trusts to dispose of the rents and profits of his lands for charitable uses, making gifts to several towns in Surrey for the relief of the poor. (fn. 2) He died in 1628 and by his will decreed that £1,000 should be used to purchase land producing at least £60 per annum, which was to be applied for the relief and ransom of ‘the poore Captives being slaves under the Turkish pirates’, and that a further £1,000 was to be spent in purchasing more land of equivalent value, the income from which was to be used for the relief of the poorest of his kindred who were unable to work for their living. (fn. 3) The dangers to English seamen posed by the Barbary pirates were real enough in the early seventeenth century, but the need for this charity diminished and in 1772, when no claims had been made for many years, the income under this heading was merged with that providing relief to Smith's descendants. (fn. 4)

It has always been assumed that the estate in Kensington was acquired under these two dispositions of Henry Smith's will and the charity has been maintained on this basis ever since, although its scope has now been considerably widened to take in much more than payments to Smith's descendants. There is, however, no documentary evidence about the original purchase; no conveyance has come to light. The first reference to an estate in Kensington and adjacent parishes belonging to the charity occurs in a deed establishing new trustees in 1658, (fn. n1) when the estate was described as being in the tenure of Robert Sewell or Seywell, (fn. 6) and the first full description is in a lease of 1664. (fn. 7) At that time part of the land appears to have been copyhold of the manor of Earl's Court, but by 1675 it was described as entirely freehold. (fn. 8)

The lease of 1664 was to Christopher Blake for seventy years at a rent of £130 per annum in consideration of £500 to be laid out by Blake in new buildings and improvements and of the release by Blake of ‘his claim to several of the lands’. (fn. 7) This second stipulation perhaps indicates that the acquisition of the land by the Smith's Charity trustees had not been a straightforward affair. Blake was the grandson of Sir William Blake, who had amassed a very large estate in Kensington, Knightsbridge and Chelsea during the reign of James I, (fn. 9) and who was both a trustee appointed by Henry Smith and one of the executors of his will. The lands which make up the Smith's Charity estate had undoubtedly been part of Blake's holding and were probably conveyed to the trustees by Blake's descendants after his death in 1630.

At the time of the lease to Christopher Blake the estate consisted of a number of fields or closes, one substantial house which had been built by Robert Sewell, and about a dozen smaller houses and cottages. Blake died in 1672 and by his will his leasehold lands passed first to his sister Maria Dorney and then to her son by her first marriage, John Harris. (fn. 10) The latter assigned the lease to Richard Calloway of Knightsbridge, innkeeper, (fn. 11) and at the time of its expiry in 1734 the leaseholder was Francis Calloway. (fn. 12)

Calloway had reached an agreement with the trustees for a new lease at a rent of £250, but this contract was set aside and the trustees agreed to reduce the rent to £200 for a twenty-one-year term. No lease was actually executed even though Calloway remained in possession of the land, and he was soon owing the trustees arrears of rent. Eventually in 1749 he relinquished his interest to William Bucknall, a doctor, in return for an annuity of £30. (fn. 12) Bucknall had recently purchased Brompton Hall, a mansion which stood on the north side of Old Brompton Road at its eastern end, opposite the Smith's Charity lands. (fn. 13)

In 1750 the trustees granted Bucknall a twenty-one-year lease at an annual rent of £170 for ten years and £200 for the remainder. He, too, soon fell behind in his rent, however, and by 1759 owed over £800. In return for the payment of most these arrears, the trustees agreed to grant a new lease for the same length of time as that to Christopher Blake, namely seventy years, at a rent of £151 per annum. Accordingly in 1760 a new seventy-year lease at that rent was made out in the name of Samuel Bucknall, Dr Bucknall's son. (fn. 14)

Figure 23:

The Smith's Charity estate in Kensington Based on the Ordnance Survey

William Bucknall died in 1763 and Samuel Bucknall in 1770, when the benefit of the lease passed to the liner's two sisters and eventually to their husbands, the Reverend Joseph Griffith, who succeeded the Bucknall family in Brompton Hall, and Morgan Rice of Tooting. (fn. 15)

Novosielski and Michael's Place

Of the first building development on the estate, which took place on the south side of Brompton Road in the vicinity of the streets now called Egerton Gardens. Egerton Place and Egerton Terrace, not a house now remains, Here in I785 Morgan Rice and the Reverend Joseph Griffith let fourteen acres on building leases to Michael Novosielski, architect, for forty-five years plus another sixteen years if they could obtain a renewal of their lease from the Smith's Charity trustees. The ultimate rent, payable in full after five years, was £140 per annum. (fn. 16)

Novosielski, who was of Polish descent, was born in Rome in 1750 and came to London as a young man. He is reputed to have assisted James Wyatt at the Pantheon in 1770–2. but was working as a scene-painter when he was invited to remodel the King's Theatre in the Haymarket in 1782. He was later architect for the rebuilding of the theatre in 1790–1 after it had been destroyed by fire, and this was to be his most notable work. (fn. 17)

At Kensington he was heavily involved as a speculator from the start, apparently paying for the first houses to be erected and supplying mortgages to builders to whom he granted sub-leases of other houses. (fn. 18) To finance this and other smaller-scale speculations, primarily in Piccadilly and St. Marylebone, he had himself to borrow on a large scale, to the extent of £11,000 from the Honourable Mary Bridget Mostyn and at least £16,000 from the bankers Ransom, Morland and Hammersley of Pall Mall. (fn. 19)

Novosielski's enterprise was essentially a continuation of the kind of ribbon development which had spread along Brompton Road from Knightsbridge since the 1760's, and his major activities were concentrated on the frontage of that road (Plates 2a, 3). Here, immediately to the west of Yeoman's Row, which formed the eastern boundary of the Smith's Charity estate, he proposed to begin by erecting a uniform terrace of fifteen houses set back a little way from the road with a plantation in front. (fn. 20) A square was also projected for the hinterland behind the frontage to Brompton Road. (fn. 21) Neither the square nor the uniform terrace finally took shape as such, but the house which was intended to form the centre of the terrace was distinguished by a canted bay rising through three storeys. (fn. 22) (fn. n2)

Michael's Place, as Novosielski eponymously named the terrace along Brompton Road, eventually consisted of forty-four houses and was completed by about 1795. (fn. 23) There is little evidence of its general appearance, but a drawing depicting two of the houses shows that these had four storeys with relatively plain late-Georgian elevations embellished by simple mouldings with a hint of Greek severity. (fn. 24) After the initial range, which appears to have been built under contract, most of the houses were erected under sub-leases granted to Allen Burton of Brompton, bricklayer, and James Clark of Crutched Friars in the City, carpenter. (fn. 25) In 1790 Clark was declared bankrupt, the first of several builders on the estate to suffer this misfortune. (fn. 26) One of his assignees was James Turner of Whitechapel Road, a timber merchant and surveyor, who was also much involved in Burton's speculations. (fn. 27) Other builders who worked on the houses in Michael's Place were Henry Adams of Chelsea, carpenter; Thomas Justice of Brompton, carpenter; Benjamin Leathers of Finsbury, plasterer; and William Smart of St. James's, carpenter. (fn. 28)

Most of the houses had narrow frontages and cost about £350 to,£450 to buy, (fn. 29) but there were two ‘double ’ houses, Nos. 16 and 33, the latter ‘a very Urge handsome and well finished messuage’ which was built by Burton and briefly occupied by him. In 1792 both were purchased by James Billington and his wife Elizabeth, the celebrated singer. They lived at No. 16 in 1792– 3, before selling that house for 900 guineas, and Elizabeth Billington later lived at No. 33 from approximately 1804 to 1807. (fn. 30) (fn. n3)

Between Nos. 11 and 12 Michael's Place Novosielski laid out a new road called Michael's Grove (now Egerton Terrace), which originally extended only for some 135 yards south– eastwards from Brompton Road. On the north– east side of the new road a terrace was erected eventually consisting of ten houses although some were not built until after Novosielski's death in 1795. (fn. 23) The terrace stood approximately on the site of Egerton Place and the houses were set well back from the road with long front gardens. They also had gardens extending as far as Yeoman's Row at the rear.

At the south end of Yeoman's Row Novosielski built a large house with extensive grounds to the south– west for his own occupation. The house, which was called Brompton Grange, was completed by 1787 (fn. 23) but there is no record of its appearance.

The final item in Novosielski's enterprise was a shallow crescent of houses opposite to the site now occupied by Egerton Crescent. He planned to call it Novosielski Street, but after his death the name was changed to Brompton Crescent. The crescent was originally intended to consist of twenty– five houses, but the seven easternmost ones were never built, their place being taken by three larger houses erected in 1805– 7 and a group of coach-houses and stables. The original houses were thus rather confusingly known as Nos. 8– 25 (consec.) Brompton Crescent. They were built under sub– leases granted in 1792 to Thomas Hewson of St. George's, Bloomsbury, surveyor, but it was over ten years before the terrace was completed. (fn. 31) The quintessentially South Kensingtonian architect Charles James Richardson lived at No. 22 from 1842 to 1850. (fn. 23) At the western end of Brompton Crescent, where it joined Fulham Road, a larger house was built on the site now occupied by Mortimer House. Called Crescent House, it was completed in 1801. (fn. 32)

Novosielski died on 8 April 1795 at a time when the building industry in general was encountering severe difficulties. At Brompton he left a number of houses which remained unfinished for many years, (fn. 22) and at Sidmouth in Devon, where he had another speculation, there was also an uncompleted crescent which still exists today in truncated form as Fortfield Terrace. (fn. 33)

In his will, which was made very shortly before his death, Novosielski stated that his estate was subject to mortgages and other incumbrances and that ‘on account of the present times it is impossible to ascertain what the amount or surplus of the same may be after paying off such incumbrances’. (fn. 34) His debts proved to be very extensive and his widow had to sell Brompton Grange and move to No. 13 Michael's Place. (fn. 35) The leases to Novosielski from Rice and Griffith were assigned to Ransom, Morland and Hammersley's bank. (fn. 36)

The purchaser of Brompton Grange was John Willett Payne, a captain (later rear– admiral) in the navy and private secretary to the Prince of Wales. (fn. 37) Payne lived there until 1801 and two years later sold the house for £3,800. (fn. 38) In 1830 it reverted to the Smith's Charity trustees on the expiry of the original lease, and it was occupied from then until 1842 by the famous singer John Braham at a rent of £250 per annum. Braham invested his large fortune in two unsuccessful theatrical ventures at the Colosseum at Regent's Park and the St. James's Theatre. In 1842, when he was heavily in debt, his furniture was seized and the Smith's Charity trustees took possession of the Grange. (fn. 39) It was demolished in the following year and the houses in Egerton Crescent, Crescent Place and the southern end of Egerton Terrace, together with others now demolished at the south end of Yeoman's Row, were erected in its stead. This development is described in more detail below.

The Early Nineteenth Century

An important change in the disposition of the Smith's Charity estate took place at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the lease granted to Samuel Bucknall in 1760 was set aside. It had become increasingly clear that the rent of £151 which was payable under that lease represented only a fraction of the real value of the land now that building development had progressed so far westwards, and in 1801 the Attorney General, acting on behalf of the recipients of the charity, instituted a suit in Chancery against the current holders of the lease, the Reverend Joseph Griffith and John Morgan Rice, the grandson of Morgan Rice, and against the charity's trustees. The latter were probably friendly parties and offered no defence, merely agreeing to abide by the decision of the court. The Attorney General asked for the lease to be declared void, claiming that under the terms of the trusts set up by Henry Smith the trustees had not had the power in 1760 to grant a lease for such a long term, that the lease had only been executed by seven of the trustees, and that even in 1760 the rent had not been the best that could have been obtained for the land. (fn. 40)

The Reverend Joseph Griffith died in 1803, leaving his second wife Harriet as his legatee, and the suit had to be revived. (fn. 41) Eventually in 1807 the Lord Chancellor delivered his verdict and not only set aside the lease but ordered that the rents and profits received by the lessees since the inception of the case in 1801 should be forfeited and invested for the benefit of the recipients of the charity. The sub-leases which had been granted to Novosielski and others were, however, confirmed. (fn. 42) The income from them was thenceforth received by the trustees and amounted to £773 per annum in 1807. By 1825 the rental had been increased to £l,023. (fn. 42)

At around this time much of the undeveloped part of the estate was occupied by a number of nurseries. There had been nursery grounds at Brompton since the end of the seventeenth century, the most famous being the Brompton Park Nursery, founded in 1681. By 1825 the largest of those located on the Smith's Charity estate belonged to William Malcolm and Company. It consisted of seven and a half acres approximately on the site now occupied by Brompton Hospital and the western part of Onslow Square, and of the fourteen and a half acres of the estate in Chelsea. Malcolm also had another fifteen acres of nursery ground on the sites now occupied by De Vere Gardens and Queen's Gate Terrace and Elvaston Place. (fn. 43)

The site now covered by Pelham Crescent, Pelham Place and Pelham Street formed part of the nursery of Samuel Harrison, which comprised eight and a half acres on the Smith's Charity estate and a further thirteen and a hall acres on the Alexander estate immediately to the north. Harrison, who had acquired the ground on the Smith's Charity estate in 1815, was latterly in partnership with William Bristow. (fn. 44)

The nursery of Thomas Gibbs occupied five and a half acres immediately to the west of Harrison's ground. Gibbs, who had established his nursery on the estate in 1800, (fn. 47) used it both for horticultural purposes and for experiments to produce improved crop seed. He grew specimens of all known kinds of cereal and vegetables used in farming and several kinds of grasses. There were a number of buildings on the premises, including a substantial house which had been erected in 1792, and a small cottage built of pise, a form of dry-earth construction. Pisé had been popularized by a Frenchman, Francois Cointcreaux, who wrote a number of booklets on the subject and whose ideas enjoyed widespread currency in England. He came to London in 1815 and in the following year built the cottage on Gibbs's nursery at the invitation of the Board of Agriculture. The cottage was still in good condition when Faulkner wrote his History and Antiquities of Kensington in 1820. (fn. 46) All of the buildings on the nursery were grouped together at the northern end on part of the site now occupied by Melton Court; the last of them was demolished in 1850.

Eighteen and a half acres at the extreme western edge of the estate, known historically as Brompton Heath and at this time still detached from the main part of the estate, were occupied by a Mr. Street, who was also described as a nurseryman, but Starling's map of 1822 appears to show most of his land in use as market gardens. Street was succeeded in 1830 by William Joyce and, although the land was then called Joyce's nursery, it was described as market gardens in the tithe apportionment survey of 1843. (fn. 47)

Between Malcolm's and Gibbs's nurseries lay the grounds of Cowper House (Plate 52d). This large house, named after Henry Cowper, its occupant at the beginning of the nineteenth century, stood on the south side of Old Brompton Road on a site now occupied by the western part of Melton Court. It can be identified with the house built by Robert Sewell in the early seventeenth century and said to have been rebuilt by Samuel Bucknall in the eighteenth century. (fn. 48) From 1829 until its demolition in 1850 it was used as a private lunatic asylum. (fn. 49) A conspicuous feature of the grounds was a long avenue of elms stretching to the Fulham Road, the line of which is preserved in the double row of trees in the eastern part of Onslow Square gardens and the single row in Sydney Close; the present trees are, however, replantings. (fn. 50)

Another smaller house stood in an acre of grounds on the site of Sussex Mansions. To its east was a terrace of half a dozen very small houses which had been erected under a building lease granted by Griffith and Rice to Charles Bevan in 1793. (fn. 48) The occupants of the houses were invariably poor and the difficulty had great difficulty in collecting even the low rates assessed on them. (fn. 23) The terrace was demolished in 1852–3. (fn. 51)


  • n1. The trustees have generally been recruited from the aristocracy and landed gentry The Charity Commissioners' latest scheme for the Kensington estate (of 1971) provides that there should be not more than twenty-four or less than fifteen trustees. When necessary, future trustees are to be appointed on the nomination of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chancellor
  • n2. A later long-term resident of this house, originally No. 8 Michael's Place and later No. 223 Brompton Road, was the architect John Blore, who designed many houses hereabouts. He lived there from at least 1833 until his death in 1882
  • n3. The most notable occupant of Michael's Place was William Cobbett, who lodged at No 11 in 1820– 1. Inhabitants of these and other houses in Novosielski's development who were connected with the stage (possibly through Novosielski's own associations with the theatre) are listed on pages 253– 4. The names of some other residents of houses on the estate are given in Thomas Crofton Croker, A Walk From London to Fulham., 1860, and Dorothy Stroud,The South Kensington Estate of Henry Smith's Charity: Its History and Development,1975.
  • 1. Survey of London, vol. wwiii, 1975, pp. 15, 55–6.
  • 2. William Bray, Collections Relating to Henry Smith Esq. Some Time Alderman of London; The Estates by him given to charitable uses; and the Trustees appointed by him, 1800: Joseph Gwilt, Evidences relating to the Estate of Henry Smith Esquire, 1828: Charles Perkins Gwilt, .Notices relating to Thomas Smith of Campden, and to Henry Smith, sometime Alderman of London, 1836: Dorothy Stroud, The South Kensington Estate of Henry Smith's Charity: Its History and Development, 1975, pp. 5–12.
  • 3. P.R.O, PROB 11/153/1.
  • 4. 12 Geo. III, c. 90, private.
  • 5. Charity Commissioners, file 230102.
  • 6. P.R.O., C54/3995, nos. 3–4.
  • 7. E.C.R., 12 July 1664.
  • 8. Faulkner, p. 432.
  • 9. Inquisition post mortem in P.R.O., C142/480/114, transcribed in extra-illustrated Faulkner in B.L. (pressmark L.R.271.C.3), between pp. 440 and 441.
  • 10. P.R.O., PROB 11/338/43.
  • 11. Ibid., PROB 11/501/111.
  • 12. Ibid., C33/550, ff. 1151–5.
  • 13. M.D.R. 1749/3/348–9: Survey of London, vol. xxxvii, 1975, pp. 17–18.
  • 14. P.R.O., C33/55O, ff. 1151–5: M.D.R. 1760/4/464.
  • 15. P.R.O., C33/55O, ff. 1151–5: R.B.
  • 16. M.D.R. 1785/3/266; 1785/5/207.
  • 17. Colvin: Survey of London, vol. xxix, 1960, pp. 231–41.
  • 18. K.P.L., MS. 144: M.D.R. 1789/2/334–5; 1789/6/ 320–3; 1790/1 490–1; 1790/5/370–1.
  • 19. M.D.R. 1793/5 800; 1796/2/326.
  • 20. K.P.L., MS. 5023.
  • 21. M.D.R. 1796/3/400.
  • 22. T. C. Croker, A Walk From London to Fulham, 1860, p. 50.
  • 23. R.B.
  • 24. Croker, op. at., p. 67.
  • 25. M.D.R. 1789/2/333–4; 1789/6/320, 322; 1790/1/490; 1790/5/370.
  • 26. P.R.O., B4 23, C205.
  • 27. M.D.R. 1790/9/202; 1790/10/278; 1792/1/800.
  • 28. Ibid., 1790/10275; 1791/1/180; 1791/3/356; 1792/1/795; 1793/2/603–4.
  • 29. Ibid., 1787/5/65; 1790/2/141; 1805/4/233.
  • 30. Ibid., 1792/3/722; 1792/4/480: The World, 31 Jan., 7 Feb. 1793: R.B.
  • 31. M.D.R. 1793/5/749–66: R.B.
  • 32. M.D.R. 1802/5/564–6: R.B.
  • 33. Anna Sutton, A Story of Sidmouth, 1959, p. 23.
  • 34. P.R.O., PROB 11 1259/269.
  • 35. M.D.R. 1796/2/326: R.B.
  • 36. M.D.R. 1813/4/204.
  • 37. D.N.B.
  • 38. M.D.R. 1803/5/485.
  • 39. D.N.B.: R.B.: Surrey R.O., 367/7/35, 38, 54 (2 March 1831): Osbert Wyndham Hewett, Strawberry Fair: A Biography of Frances, Countess Waldegrair 1821–1879, 1956, p. 6: Bam Duncan, The St. James's Theatre. Its Strange and Complete History, 1964, p. 67.
  • 40. P.R.O., C13/2401, Atty. Gen. v. Griffith; C33/55O, ff. 1151–5.
  • 41. Ibid., PROB 11/403/25; C13/2406, Am. Gen. v. Griffith.
  • 42. Report appended to William Bray, Collections, ut supra (ref. 2) in G.L.C., Greater London History Library (pressmark 20.29 SMI), pp. 6–7.
  • 43. John H. Harvey, ‘ The Nurseries on Milne's Land–Use Map’ in Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, vol. 24, 1973, p. 185: Plan of…Kensington, published by Thomas Starling, 1822.
  • 44. Harvey, op. cit., p. 186.
  • 45. M.D.R. 1800 2 327–8: G.L.R.O., Ace 8 32f, bundle ofdeeds and papers relating to Gibbs's nursery.
  • 46. Faulkner, pp. 23–4: Harvey, op. cit., p. 187: information kindly supplied by Dr. J. M. Robinson from a forthcoming study of farm buildings.
  • 47. Surrey R.O., 367/7/35, 36: G.L.R.O., TA9.
  • 48. P.R.6., C13/2401, Am. Gen. v. Griffith.
  • 49. K.P.L., 362.209 COW: P.P., 1844, vol. xviii, no. 1, Statistical Appendix to Report of Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy, p. 88: Surrey R.O., 367/7/39 (May 1850).
  • 50. Stroud, op. at., p. 66, n. 17.
  • 51. Surrey R.O., 367/7/39.