The Old Court suburb

Survey of London: Volume 42, Kensington Square To Earl's Court. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1986.

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'The Old Court suburb', in Survey of London: Volume 42, Kensington Square To Earl's Court, (London, 1986) pp. 1-4. British History Online [accessed 2 March 2024]

CHAPTER I - The Old Court Suburb

Chronically asthmatic, William III cast about soon after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for a suburban palace which he might use in winter in preference to Whitehall, ‘where the king's health and the queen's spirits were affected’. (fn. 1) Lighting quickly upon Kensington, he first considered Holland House before buying the seat of the Earls of Nottingham, now Kensington Palace, in June 1689. Building work commenced there rapidly, and the court was in intermittent occupation from the spring of the following year. ‘At this Palace’, wrote Kensington's earliest historian, John Bowack, in 1705, ‘their late Majesties spent the greatest part of their leisure Hours, and were much pleas'd with its Airy Situation and Pleasant Prospects’. (fn. 2) From then until midway in the reign of George II, Kensington Palace was occupied for several months each year as a royal residence. Additions and embellishments were frequently in the making there to the house and grounds for the better accommodation of princes, courtiers and hangers-on. (fn. 3) But most of those, high or low, drawn in to the vortex of court life were obliged to find their own lodging in the neighbourhood.

This sudden accession of the suburban village of Kensington to favour and fashion caused great alteration in its circumstances. In the mid nineteenth century Kensington, then once again in high fashion, even acquired the sobriquet of ‘The Old Court Suburb’ — a name apparently coined by Leigh Hunt, as the book-title for a set of historical vignettes started seriatim in Household Words in 1853–4 and then finished and published together. (fn. 4) In 1852 another Kensingtonian, W. M. Thackeray, published Henry Esmond, an historical novel partly set in the parish during the reign of Queen Anne. These authors conjured up a picture of pre-Hanoverian Kensington, its palace, its gardens and its square, as peopled with courtiers, wits, poets and maids of honour. To some extent this romantic conception has persisted. The purpose of this opening chapter is to assess, briefly and soberly, the court's impact upon Kensington and its building history.

Kensington was not without ‘tone’ before 1688. Holland House, Campden House and Nottingham House, all sub-urban seats of some dignity and extent dating from between about 1590 and 1615, stood ranged above the village a little to the north of the high road from London to Brentford. Throughout the parish were dotted a growing number of good houses, some inhabited by London merchants perhaps increasingly attracted hither after the urban ordeals of plague and fire in the 1660s. The high road itself boasted inns and taverns in the ‘town’ of Kensington, among them the prosperous Red Lion and smaller, merrier hostelries at which Pepys and cronies caroused on escapades from London.

In this light must be seen Thomas Young's decision of 1685, three years before the deposition of James II, to build a square in Kensington. Nevertheless the eccentricity of so urban a building-form at a spot where the string of houses along the high road gave way quickly on the south to fields and market gardens cannot be gainsaid. Indeed the history of Young's venture, given in the next chapter, shows that in projecting Kensington Square he made a misjudgement from which even the unanticipated arrival of the court could not entirely rescue him.

Without doubt building activity in Kensington picked up dramatically in the 1690s, once the court was installed. Two-thirds of Kensington Square was in one stage or another of building in 1689, but completion and occupation of its houses were certainly speeded by the turn of events. Along the south side of Kensington High Street, the length of occupied frontage increased greatly at both ends between 1690 and 1705. Between the present Kensington Court and Derry Street, groups of small brick houses, shops and taverns grew up opposite the main entrance to the palace, while to their east Kensington House, one of several large houses to sprout up on the fringes of the ‘town’, appeared in about 1690. At the western end, around what is now the top of Wright's Lane, Scarsdale House and the first five dwellings of The Terrace, houses on a par with those of the square, were built in about 1690–5. North of the High Street the picture is not so clear, but some development took place along and off Kensington Church Street (then Church Lane) in these years.

This impression of a suburban village on the increase before 1689 and then accelerating in dignity and numbers is confirmed by the history of the parish church of St. Mary Abbots. Here the south aisle seems to have been rebuilt in 1683; then in 1695 the Vestry decided because of the ‘many dwelling houses being of late yeares erected and built in the said parish’ to reconstruct the north aisle and chancel as well. (fn. 5)

The surviving record cannot in the nature of things show how far this growth was due to the draw of the court. Tradesmen in Kensington High Street as much as placemen and gentlefolk in Kensington Square and The Terrace battened upon its presence, but their dependence cannot be quantified. At a higher rank, ratebooks and other sources name a smattering of inhabitants whose presence in Kensington can be attributed to the court, but many more good houses in the square were occupied by persons of no evidently exalted station and some certainly were locals with no courtly aspirations. The incentives to take a permanent house in Kensington were limited, as the court was always peripatetic. Its comings and goings were erratic, but even William III, Mary and Anne, with whom Kensington was the most popular, divided their time in complex ways between Whitehall, St. James's, Hampton Court, Windsor and Kensington, often visiting two or more of their seats on the same day. George I tended to arrive at Kensington in May and leave for Hampton Court in about July or August, residing here for a scant three months and taking with him much of the court's domestic staff.6 In these circumstances some courtiers chose to take permanent suburban houses at Richmond or Twickenham, others at Kensington; comparatively few perhaps chose to do both, except those whose everyday duties lay close to the throne.

Lodgings or shared houses were therefore a popular option. The best proof of their use comes from Treasury accounts for accommodating members of the royal house-hold and others for whom Kensington Palace afforded no space. Records of this kind commence in 1694 and continue until at least 1714. In 1698, for instance, Adam Lisney of No. 5 Kensington Square, a groom of the great chamber, petitioned the Treasury ‘shewing that he lodged several of the King's servants at his house in Kensington Square and has a certificate from Sir Fleetwood Shepherd for £54 14s. and another from the Earl of Sunderland for £80 3s. (fn. n1) therefore praying satisfaction as others have had who have been at the like charge.’ (fn. 7) Such petitions and payments refer most regularly to the cost of lodging chaplains, though pages of honour are mentioned on one occasion. (fn. 8)

Private residents who wished to be close to court also lodged in the square in the same way. A well-known entry from the parish registers in 1692 records the death of Claudine de Bragelone or Bragelongne, one of the Duchess of Mazarin's ‘women’, at the house of Henry Margetts, No. 15 Kensington Square. (fn. 9) As the celebrated Duchess lived in St. James's until 1693 and immediately thereafter at Chelsea, there have been doubts as to whether she was ever in the square herself, (fn. 10) but the transitory nature of court life means that a short visit need not be discounted. Later, General George Maccartney, notorious as one of the duellists involved in the death of the Duke of Hamilton in 1712, was reported in July 1730 to have died ‘at his lodgings’ in Kensington Square. (fn. 11) As no house was rated at the time to Maccartney, it is likely that he was intending to stay only for the period of the summer court at Kensington and therefore was in furnished lodgings by the week or month. (fn. n2) There are other cases of people known or reputed to have been in the square for whom no address can be identified, probably for the same reason.

Nevertheless the list of those who took up permanent residence in Kensington (or lived there long enough to be rated for a house) is impressive, especially for the reigns of William and Mary and of Anne. Among the earliest, several had a clear affiliation to the House of Orange. Lady Mary Kirke, the first resident of No. 9 Kensington Square (1693–7), was the widow of Percy Kirke, colonel of the ironically named ‘Kirke's Lambs’ who had butchered rebels after the Battle of Sedgemoor. Kirke had afterwards been prominent in the secession of the army to William III and in the subsequent Irish campaign, on the strength of which services Lady Mary received rental and bounty from the Crown during her time in the square. (fn. 12) Nearby, the German-born third Duke of Schomberg, lieutenant to his father, assistant commander during the same Irish conflict and a privy councillor, occupied the then No. 13 Kensington Square (since demolished) in 1696–7. (fn. 13) And at a large house in the south-west corner of the square, predecessor of the present No. 23, lived between 1696 and 1702 John, Lord Cutts, another of the conquerors of the Boyne. (fn. 13) Finally, Sir Humphrey Edwin, a rich noncon-forming City merchant and prominent upholder of William III at the time of his entry into London, retired prematurely to his house in Kensington because of ill health while Lord Mayor of London in 1697. Which this house was is unknown, but between 1701 and 1705 Edwin was tenant of the important Scarsdale House next to Wright's Lane. (fn. 14)

Health indeed may have been a not infrequent motive for residence at Kensington, as it was for William III himself. Another supporter of the House of Orange, the twelfth Earl and only Duke of Shrewsbury, moved from Whitehall to Kensington Square in 1697 (again exactly where is not known) in the hopes that a suburban house ‘will agree with him better’. (fn. 15) It was infirmity which persuaded Sir Isaac Newton to remove to Orbell's Buildings, Kensington, for the last two years of his long and august life, (fn. 16) while a ‘tourist guide’ of 1729 commented in passing reference to Kensington: ‘The Gravel-Pit on the West Side is much frequented on Account of the Air.’ (fn. 17)

Particular types of office-holders recur among the courtly inhabitants of Kensington with some regularity, no doubt because their immediate presence was needful for the transaction of royal business. Sir Humphrey Edwin (mentioned above), Sir Henry Ashhurst (near the site of No. 35 Kensington High Street, 1698–1700, and at No. 3 The Terrace, 1701–7) and Foot Onslow (at Kensington House, c. 1688–98) were all commissioners of excise. (fn. 13) (fn. n3) Judges and magistrates, handy for the execution of royal warrants and other instruments, also make their appearance. Among the more exalted ones were Sir Robert Atkyns, William III's Chief Baron, in Church Lane, 1692–3; Sir Thomas Parker, Lord Chief Justice and later first Earl of Macclesfield, at a large house close to the palace in Conduit Close off the same lane, 1712–15; Parker's successor as Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Pratt, successively at Nos. 18 (1714–19) and 13 (1719–21) Kensington Square; and Sir Robert Eyre, Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas, in the same house as Parker, c. 1732. (fn. 18) A prelate and divine or two were also generally withing easy reach, to stiffen the body of chaplains. Sir William Dawes, previously chaplain in ordinary to William III, in 1710 lived in the house in Conduit Close already mentioned while Bishop of Chester, just before his preferment to York. Later another future Archbishop of York, Thomas Herring, had a house just off the south-east corner of Kensington Square (where Thackeray Street now runs) in the early 1740s, while Bishop of Bangor. (fn. 19) John Hough, Bishop of Worcester, ‘resided in the Square several years, in the reigns of Queen Anne and George I’, according to Faulkner, (fn. 20) while Matthias Mawson, Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, lived first at No. 15 Kensington Square (1741) but then moved (by 1750) to No. 23 nearby, where he died in 1770. (fn. 21) Another learned divine, Samuel Clarke, the philosopher and rector of St. James's, Piccadilly, bought land including much of The Terrace in 1720. He is not thought to have lived hereabouts, but is known to have been in favour with the Princess of Wales (the future Queen Caroline) who was much at Kensington from 1714 onwards. (fn. 22)

Several army commanders have already been identified as living in Kensington Square, and others may be found there, notably in William III's reign. The King's temperament and experience certainly drew him to military companionship, but it must also be recalled that loyalty in these years was often doubtful and security of the greatest moment. Colonel Richard Leveson of No. 16 Kensington Square, indeed, was one of the principals to disclose Sir George Barclay's assassination plot of 1695–6. (fn. 23) Regimental colonels and lieutenant-colonels like Leveson were therefore frequently on hand, not merely for the sake of their own careers but for the sovereign's safety. Just to the west of the palace was a barracks, and soldiery must have been prominent in the streets of Kensington at this time. There were, of course, those who used their position shrewdly to profit from the hostilities of these years. Foremost among the locals already established in Kensington before the coming of the court to succeed in this was Philip Colby of the first Colby House, who between 1690 and his death in 1692 procured vast contracts for clothing regiments—doubtless a prime source of the Colby family's considerable fortune. (fn. 24)

Maids of honour, so frequently alluded to by courtromancers, make no evident showing, perhaps because they were housed in the palace itself. The one known female office-holder of note was the Dowager Lady Berkeley of Stratton, governess to the Prince of Wales's daughters from 1718 onwards, who occupied Kensington House for some years after 1716. (fn. 25) Wits and poets, equally emphasized by later writers, passed briefly through Kensington, but in general their presence was occasional and only indirectly connected with the court. The exception is Richard Steele, resident in the square as part of Lord Cutts's household in 1696–7 and later again in 1708 as a gentleman usher (when he attended upon the body of Prince George of Denmark, lying in state at Kensington Palace). (fn. 26)

To conclude this litany, holders of lesser offices scattered in and around Kensington Square in 1692–4 included a groom of the great chamber (Adam Lisney), an apothecary in ordinary (Abraham Rottermondt), a serjeant surgeon (Willem Van Loon), an officer of the yeomen of the guard (George Davenant), an advocate for the office of lord high admiral (William Oldys), a page of the back stairs (James Worthington), a laundress (Elizabeth Worthington) and a groom of the wardrobe (Benjamin Drake). (fn. 27) In Young Street resided in 1699–1700 Peter Guenon de Beaubuisson, gentleman of the guns, master of the King's setting dogs and keeper of the private armoury, (fn. 27) while at No. 25 Kensington Square between 1698 and 1704 was the King's barber, Richard Longbottom, whose allowance for ‘instruments, looking glasses, combs, razors, wash boulls and all other necessaries except linen for the King's use’ intimates that his job was no sinecure. (fn. 28)

On the strength of names in surviving ratebooks, Kensington after the accession of George I in 1714 was already not quite so prestigious as it had been around the turn of the century. But there is no really palpable evidence of decline. As far as new building is pertinent, there is little sign of vigour or expansion for a decade and more after 1710. But from 1724 onwards development was taking place on the Jones-Price estate north of the parish church, in and around Holland Street, (fn. 29) and in the 1730s there was activity on the west side of Kensington Square, in King (now Derry) Street, and on the south side of Kensington High Street (on the later Derry and Toms site). These new houses do not seem to have attracted court-oriented tenants, despite the canard that the row on the west side of King Street was lived in by maids of honour. Yet there were certainly those who continued to come to Kensington for the old reasons. In 1729 the St. James's Evening Post explicitly reported that James Pelham, then Secretary to the Prince of Wales and M.P. for Newark, ‘hath hired a House in Kensington-Square to be near the Court’. (fn. 30)

After the death of Queen Caroline in 1737, however, Kensington Palace fell into disfavour with George II, whose visits became very infrequent. It was equally neglected by Frederick, Prince of Wales, who lived for most of the year at Kew or Norfolk House. In 1749 Horace Walpole recounted news to Sir Horace Mann of a small fire at the palace, which occured because ‘my Lady Yarmouth has an ague, and is forced to keep a constant fire in her room against the damps. When my Lady Suffolk lived in that apartment, the floor produced a constant crop of mushrooms. Though there are so many vacant chambers, the King hoards all he can, and has locked up half the palace since the Queen's death’. (fn. 31) A month later, added Walpole,‘at Kensington they have scarce company enough to pay for lighting the candles’. (fn. 32)

Because of an unlucky loss of ratebooks for the period 1737–59, the immediate impact of this desertion is hard to judge. Some of those connected to the court may have moved away quickly, but a few certainly did not; as late as 1768 the Public Advertiser noticed the death at his house in Kensington of ‘Mr. Porter, yeoman to His Majesty's Wood Yard’. (fn. 33) The Russian Minister was living at Kensington House in 1754 and the Sardinian Envoy at a house in Earl's Court in 1758, (fn. 34) but these occupancies cannot be plausibly attributed to the court. By the time of Walpole's letters to Mann, the neglect of Kensington had dragged on long enough to make its mark, and when the accession of George III in 1760 failed to reverse the trend, the chance of any immediate revival in the village's fortunes was lost.

Many of the better houses must have proved hard to fill during this period. Of building there was very little in the parish until the encroachment of London at its eastern end caused a rash of ribbon development in Brompton during the 1760s. In Kensington proper, the most discernible growth of this period was in schools and academies. Bowack had noted in the Kensington of 1705 ‘several noted Boarding Schools, but mostly for Young Gentlemen’. (fn. 2) These were at first probably in small houses, like one known in Young Street in the 1690s. But by 1780 they had proliferated and taken over several larger houses. Scarsdale House had been turned into a school by 1755; Kensington House became one in 1756. In the following years many substantial houses in Kensington Square and around Wright's Lane succumbed to pedagogy, remaining in this use well into the nineteenth century.

Henceforward Kensington lacked the glamour which it could boast between 1690 and 1737. A faint echo of the ‘court suburb’ may be discerned after 1790, when a trickle of aristocratic - and other - French refugees temporarily ruffles the dull tranquillity of Kensington Square and its environs. A single letter from the great Talleyrand, dated from the square in October 1792, confirms his fleeting presence here, (fn. 35) but the house where he stayed has never been satisfactorily identified. This incursion had none of the show, substance or power of its predecessor and probably went unnoticed by many Kensingtonians. The palace remained, as it is to this day, a royal residence. With the birth and upbringing there of the Princess Victoria in the early nineteenth century, it enjoyed some revival of fortune and attention. In these same years Kensington began again to grow, at first in a small, suburban way. Not until well into the young queen's reign was it to regain the reputation for wealth and fashion that it had lost over a century before, and to spur romantic fascination and speculation about its royal past.


  • n1. Sir Fleetwood Sheppard (1634–98), courtier, poet and usher of the Black Rod; 2nd Earl of Sunderland (1640–1702), close political adviser to William III, 1691–7, Lord Chamberlain 1697.
  • n2. Maccartney also had several children baptised at Kensington in the years around 1700, again at a period when his name does not appear in the ratebooks.
  • n3. The younger Sir Philip Meadows, commissioner of excise between 1698 and 1700 and Knight Marshal of the King's (later Queen's) Household between 1700 and 1706, lived in the large house in Conduit Close for much of his tenure of the latter office.
  • 1. The History of the King's Works, ed. H.M. Colvin, vol. v (1660–1782), 1976, p. 183.
  • 2. [John Bowack], The Antiquities of Middlesex. . . Part I, 1705, p. 20.
  • 3. The History of the King's Works, ut supra, pp. 183–204.
  • 4. Household Words, 6 Aug. 1853 to 25 Feb. 1854: Leigh Hunt, The Old Court Suburb, 2 vols., 1855: Louis Landré, Leigh Hunt, 1936, vol. 1, pp. 283–4; vol. 2, pp. 422–4.
  • 5. K.P.L., MSS. 1784–5.
  • 6. John M. Beattie, The English Court in the Reign of George I, 1967, pp. 12, 46.
  • 7. Calendar of Treasury Books, vol. 12 (1697–8), 1933, p. 348.
  • 8. Ibid., vols. 10 (1693–6), 1935, p. 734; 13 (1697–8), 1933, p. 379; 14 (1698–9), 1934, p. 244; 15 (1699–1700), 1934, p. 244; 20 (1705–6), 1952, pp. 132–3, 146, 465; 21 (1706–7), 1952, p. 336; 22 (1708), 1950, p. 397.
  • 9. Faulkner, p. 372.
  • 10. Ponsonby, pp. 24–9.
  • 11. The St. James's Evening Post, 4–7 July 1730.
  • 12. Calendar of Treasury Books, vols. 10 (1693–6), 1935, passim; 12 (1697–8), 1933, p. 287.
  • 13. R.B.
  • 14. D.N.B.:R.B.
  • 15. Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs, vol. 4, 1857, p. 577.
  • 16. Richard Westfall, Never at Rest, 1980, pp. 866–7.
  • 17. The Foreigner's Guide… through the Cities of London and Westminster, 1729, p. 160 [B.L. pressmark 578 b.43].
  • 18. R.B.: D.N.B.: Survey of London, vol. XXXVII, 1973, p. 29.
  • 19. P.R.O., C38/473 (12th schedule): Faulkner, p. 400 (citing wrong house).
  • 20. Faulkner, p. 401.
  • 21. M.D.R. 1741/2/156: Guildhall Library, MS. 8674/76, p. 68: R.B.: D.N.B.
  • 22. M.D.R. 1720/2/56: D.N.B.
  • 23. English Army Lists and Commission Registers, 1661–1714, ed. Charles Dalton, vol. 2, 1894, pp. xxiii, 10, 11, 105, 127: R. B.
  • 24. Calendar of Treasury Books, vol. 9 (1690–2), 1931, pp. 389, 696, 774, 836, 978, 1660, 1793.
  • 25. G. E. C.: R. B.
  • 26. The Correspondence of Richard Steele, ed. Rae Blanchard, 1941, pp. 242–4, 44in.: R. B.
  • 27. Edward Chamberlayne, Angliae Notitia, 1692, pp. 125, 126, 134, 149, 167, 171; 1694, p. 236; 1700, p. 496: R. B.
  • 28. Calendar of Treasury Books, vol. 10 (1693–6), 1935, pp. 603, 1004: R. B.
  • 29. Survey of London, vol. XXXVII, 1973, p. 27.
  • 30. The St. James's Evening Post, 13–15 May 1729.
  • 31. Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Sir Horace Mann, edd. W. S. Lewis, Warren Hunting Smith and George L. Lam, vol. 4, 1960, p. 88.
  • 32. Ibid., p. 89.
  • 33. Public Advertiser, 31 March 1768.
  • 34. John Rocque, A Plan of the Palace Gardens and Town of Kensington, [c. 1754]: R. B.
  • 35. Correspondance Diplomatique de Talleyrand: La Mission de Talleyrand a Londres en 1792, 1889, pp. XXVI–XXVII, 419.