Princes Gate and Princes Gardens: the Freake Estate

Page 191

Survey of London: Volume 45, Knightsbridge. Originally published by London County Council, London, 2000.

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Princes Gate and Princes Gardens: The Freake Estate

The streets and buildings discussed in this chapter were originally developed between the mid-1850s and the mid1870s by (Sir) Charles James Freake, one of the most successful speculative builders in Victorian London of the generation after Cubitt. (fn. 1) Building on land which was partly his own freehold and partly leasehold, Freake erected ninety-five houses here, comprising the western end of Princes Gate (Nos 26–31) and its long return to Exhibition Road (Nos 32–72), together with the square called Princes Gardens. In addition to the houses he also built the substantial complex of stables and coach-houses making up Princes Gate Mews.

Even by Freake's standards, these were large houses, intended for the top end of the market, and as usual Freake seems to have been a shrewd judge of what that market would bear. The cautious pace of development, spread over almost twenty years, and Freake's deserved reputation as a sound builder, ensured that the houses let readily.

Within a couple of generations, however, such big houses were in little demand for private occupation. Redevelopment pressures, first manifest in the late 1930s when five houses in Princes Gate were replaced by a block of flats, re-surfaced after the Second World War. A scheme for rebuilding Princes Gardens as a campus for Imperial College, begun in the late 1950s, has yet to be completed. Almost two-thirds of Freake's original houses have now been demolished, and those that remain are all either subdivided or in institutional use.

As is often the case, the mews properties have fared rather better than the houses they were built to serve, being transformed into attractive and sought-after dwellings.

The area before development

The ground on which Freake's houses were built (figs 86–7) had been part of the celebrated Brompton Park Nursery, founded in 1681. (fn. 2) By the mid-nineteenth century the greater part of this ground had come into the possession of Mary Plummer, through inheritance from a descendant of one of the nursery's proprietors. At that time it was occupied in two parts. The larger portion, covering 11 (fn. 1) 2 acres and still used as a nursery until 1851, was connected to the Kensington road by a long, narrow strip on its west side. The other piece, on the east side of this strip and with a much wider frontage to the road, had been occupied since 1753 by a substantial mansion, latterly called Park House, and its two-acre garden. Both pieces were copyhold of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, and enfranchised on the eve of development.

Park House was built in 1753 by John Swinhoe, who had taken over the nursery in the early 1740s. (fn. 1) Set back from the road, it was a two-storey building with an attic and side wings. At the rear, the garden was formally laid out with parterres and an ornamental lake (Plate 2a ). Swinhoe does not seem to have lived at the house. The ratepayer for about ten years was a Mrs Harrison, presumably the proprietress of the Brompton Park Boarding School, under which name the house appears on Rhodes's map of 1766. Between 1785 and 1822 it was the residence of James Vere, banker. The last occupant, from 1839 until 1855, was William Evans MP, of Allestree Hall near Derby. (fn. 4) Its final use, however, was as a site office for Freake's clerk of works. (fn. 5)


  • 1. For details of Freake's career, see Survey of London, vol. XXXVIII, 1975, pp.288–9; vol.XLI, 1983, pp. 103–4: Dictionary of Business Biography, vol.2, 1984, pp.427–30.
  • 2. Survey of London, vol. XXXVIII, 1975, p.4.
  • 3. RB: GL, MS 8674/81, p.237.
  • 4. Ibid: MDR 1856/9/175.
  • 5. BN, 2 Jan 1857, p.21; 17 April 1857, p.383.