Dining in a church

A FRIEND INVITED us to dine one evening at the exclusive Mosimann’s Club in West Halkin Street in London’s elegant Belgravia district. As it was dark when we arrived and I was too busy chatting with our host, I failed to notice the exterior of the establishment. Years later, I noticed that the narrow façade of this fancy eatery, named ‘The Belfry’, is that of a Victorian gothic church with a slender spire.

The church was being used by the Presbyterians in 1866, so wrote Edward Walford in the 1880s. The website of The London Metropolitan Archives catalogue reveals more:

“…a chapel was built on Lower George Street, called the Ranelagh Chapel. In 1845, on the death of the Methodist minister, the church joined the English Presbyterian Church and was renamed Ranelagh Presbyterian Church. The lease on the Lower George Street chapel expired in 1866 and the church merged with a Presbyterian Mission in West Halkin Street, Belgrave Square. The name Belgrave Presbyterian Church was adopted. The church was rebuilt in 1881. In 1923 the church moved to premises in Emperor’s Gate, Kensington.”

The former church is an unusual structure in that the end facing the entrance is considerably wider than the façade. As to when it was originally built, I am uncertain. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, does not give it a mention in his extremely detailed guide to the buildings of the City of Westminster in which it is located. However, he does mention the chapel’s neighbour, to the left of it as you face the façade. Far more attractive than the chapel is the façade of its neighbour which is decorated in a neoclassical style. It has two porticos supported by pillars with Doric capitals. This building was built in about 1830.

Today, the Doric pillars flank entrances to a branch of Waitrose food stores. This shop also has an entrance on the street parallel to West Halkin Street, Motcombe Street. Thus, two temples of food stand side by side. If you cannot afford to dine in the former church, then you can console yourself and appease your appetite by acquiring something edible in Waitrose by stepping between the Doric pillars. In case you are wondering what we ate at Mosimann’s, I am afraid I cannot recall as it was so long ago, but I do remember enjoying it.

Friday the 13th is unlucky for some

MUCH OF MOTCOMB Street in London’s Belgravia is now pedestrianised. It is lined with nineteenth century buildings that house shops and food outlets, mostly aimed at wealthy customers. Here, you can find the shops of Christian Loubertin, Ottolenghi, Nicola Donati, Marie Chantal, Maison Corthay, to mention but a few you might know. It is probably safe to say that this is not much of a street for bargain hunters, but to be fair, it does boast a newsagent and a large branch of the Waitrose supermarket chain.

Motcomb Street first appears on a map in 1830, when it was briefly known as ‘Kinnerton Mews’. By 1854, many of the houses along it became shops and places where cows were kept. A publication (http://www.grosvenorlondon.com/GrosvenorLondon/media/GrosvenorLondon/WALKING-IN-BELGRAVIA.pdf) produced by the Grosvenor Estate details the shops:

“… a cow-keeper, a saddler, two tailors, a plumber, a wheelwright, a grocer and two sellers of asses’ milk (thought to be beneficial to health and used in nearby hospitals).”

The ‘Alfred Tennyson’ pub stands on the corner of Motcomb and Kinnerton Streets. It was formerly known as ‘The Pantechnicon’. The reason for its earlier name becomes obvious if you walk away from it westwards along Motcomb Street. Opposite Waitrose and by far the most imposing building in the street is a neo-classical façade supported by ten sturdy pillars with Doric capitals. As impressive as many of the great neoclassical façades in central London,  such as that of the National Gallery, these pillars support a slab on which the word ‘PANTECHNICON’ is boldly displayed.

The Pantechnicon was built as commercial premises in about 1830-34 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1223569) for the property developer Seth Smith (1791-1860), most probably designed by the architect and civil engineer Joseph Jopling (1788-1867; http://farnham.attfield.de/fam1012.html). The Pantechnicon was enormous. Covering two acres, it stretched backwards (north) from Motcomb street and was surrounded by the backs of many of the houses lining the east side of Lowndes Square and the west side of Kinnerton Street. When it was completed, it was originally:

“… a bazaar, and was established principally for the sale of carriages and household furniture. There was also a ‘wine department’, consisting of a range of dry vaults for the reception and display of wines; and the bazaar contained likewise a ‘toy department.’” (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp1-14).

By 1850, when Peter Cunningham published his “Handbook of London”, things had changed. It had become a repository, where you:

“… may send the whole contents of an extensive house – furniture, wine, pictures, even jewellery; and the utmost care will be taken of them, at a comparatively reasonable charge …”

Cunningham lists these charges in detail and later added reassuringly:

“The building is well ventilated, and considered fireproof; but the risk (if any) of accidents by fire, civil commotion, or otherwise, will attach to the owners of the property sent to the Pantechnicon to be warehoused.”

Incidentally, the owners of the Pantechnicon designed a new form of removal van. Its innovation was a movable rear ramp that aided the loading of heavy or bulky objects. Originally, horse-drawn, these became known as ‘Pantechnicons’, a word often applied to motorised removal trucks in use today. And just in case you are wondering, the word ‘pantechnicon’ is derived from two Greek words, ‘pan’ and ‘techne’, meaning ‘all arts’, and was coined to describe wide range of goods that were available to buy in the bazaar in Motcomb Street.

Disaster struck on Friday, the 13th of February 1874 at about 4 pm. The fireproof Pantechnicon burst into flames. By 7 pm, the roof had collapsed. Karen Odden, who has written an interesting article about this conflagration (https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2020/01/the-pantechnicon-fire-of-1874.html), noted:

“ …the event was perhaps the single largest episode of destruction of art and furnishings in the Victorian era … It is difficult to assess the value of the objects lost. Because people had such faith in the Pantechnicon, they under-insured their valuables—or found ways to avoid insuring them altogether. For example, one family hid their jewels in their furniture. The cost of insuring a headboard was significantly less than insuring jewels—but jewels hidden inside were (ostensibly) safe all the same. (Tricky!) However, it is known for certain that the fire destroyed the MP Sir Richard Wallace’s painting collection, worth £150,000; and the MP Sir Seymour Fitzgerald’s art collection, worth £200,000, which included many portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds and paintings by other masters including J.M.W. Turner. Contemporary accounts estimated the total value upon the destroyed items at £2,000,000 (approximately £220,000,000 or $280,000,000 today).”

Luckily for us, many of Wallace’s works were not involved in the fire as can be seen by visiting the Wallace Collection in his former home in Manchester Square.

Today, only the façade of the Pantechnicon remains standing. Located opposite a modern ‘bazaar’, Waitrose, it conceals a lovely public space behind it, which contains benches and a few artworks, and is lined by Halkins Arcade. A modern building attached to the old façade houses restaurants, bars and other businesses, some of which can be entered from the Arcade.

It worth making a visit to Motcomb Street not only to see the impressive remnant of the Pantechnicon but also because the short pedestrian-friendly street has become a particularly pleasant place to linger.

Gray’s Anatomy

ON OUR WAY FROM Hyde Park Corner to Lowndes Square (in London’s Belgravia), we wandered along a thoroughfare that was new to us, Kinnerton Street. This gently winding road is lined with mainly picturesque buildings and is punctuated by narrow cul-de-sacs, such as Capeners Close and Ann’s Close. At its southern end, the buildings along Kinnerton Street look newer than the others.

The street was originally built for dwellings of those who serviced the far grander buildings that line Wilton Crescent and Wilton Street on the Grosvenor Estate, that began to be built on in earnest during the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Kinnerton is the name of a village in Cheshire associated with the Grosvenor family who developed the Estate that includes large parts of Belgravia and Mayfair. Until well after the middle of the 19th century, the street, which was occupied by servants, shopkeepers, tradesmen, and animals, was rather a slum. In more recent years, the street, once the home of the poorer classes, has become gentrified.

Although we were unaware of it when we visited Kinnerton Street, it occupies an important place in the history of medicine. St George’s Hospital was founded in 1733 and later located in a building designed by the architect of London’s National Gallery, William Wilkins (1778-1839). It now houses the upmarket Lanesborough Hotel, which is a few yards from Kinnerton Street.

From the start of 19th century, medical education in England became more structured than before. Pupils at St George’s Hospital were:

“… required to learn anatomy at either Hunter’s, Lane’s, Carpue’s or Brookes’ schools of anatomy, which were private academies set up for this purpose.” (https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/4c9f3048-475c-3201-9c0b-8a593ec59dc6).

After a dispute between the surgeon and anatomist Samuel Armstrong Lane (1802-1892), who had graduated at St George’s and ran one of the anatomy schools (at 1, Grosvenor place; https://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/), and the authorities at St George’s Hospital, the latter decided to set up its own dedicated school of anatomy, whose activities it could control.  This led to the physiologist and surgeon Sir Benjamin Brodie (1783-1862) buying a house on Kinnerton Street.

Brodie leased the house to St George’s Hospital for use as an anatomy school. It housed an anatomy theatre, a lecture room, and a museum. Until Lane’s school closed in 1863, it was one of two rival anatomy schools serving the students of St George’s. Even though students were taught medicine at St Georges from its inception, a medical school was not formally established until 1834. It was housed in the house on Kinnerton Street and inaugurated in 1835. During the opening ceremony, an Ancient Egyptian mummy was dissected. The school remained in Kinnerton Street until it was moved nearer to Hyde Park Corner in 1868.

Where exactly was the school? Ruth Richardson wrote in her “The Making of Mr Gray’s Anatomy” (published in 2008):

“In addition to its unostentatious frontage on Kinnerton Street, the medical school seems to have had its own discreet rear entrance. Old maps show there to have been an access way bridging the Serpentine River at the back of the building, by which deliveries and collections could unobtrusively be made. It connected to Williams Mews which still joins William Street via an alley … Today, though, this way across the old river has disappeared, entirely blocked by a high wall … The Kinnerton Street Medical School was a large, austere, functional place. Renamed, it still stands, dark and private, enclosed within its own solid walls.”

Based on this information, I looked at a map surveyed in 1869 and found College Place, which was located between Kinnerton Street and the short William Street. It does not appear on current detailed maps. The northern end of William Mews lay close to College Place. A modern description of Kinnerton Street (https://issuu.com/chestertonhumberts/docs/low_res_grosvenor/66) includes the following:

“Studio Place, renamed in 1931, was built as College Place in 1844. It contains Bradbrook House, which until the 1890s, was a series of schools of anatomy.”

In case you were wondering, the Serpentine River, mentioned above, was another name for the now subterranean River Westbourne, a tributary of the Thames. From the eastern end of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, it flows south between William Street and William Mews.

All of this, interesting as it is, becomes more interesting to the general reader, who, even if not connected with medical science, will likely be aware of  the book, “Gray’s Anatomy”, whose title inspired that of a TV series. Written by Henry Gray (1827-1861), this famous textbook of anatomy, which is still used, was first published in 1858. The first edition was dedicated to Brodie, who established the anatomy school in Kinnerton Street. In 1842, Gray enrolled as a student at St George’s Hospital and it is highly likely that he honed his knowledge of anatomy at Kinnerton Street. By 1853, Gray had been appointed a lecturer of anatomy.

In a review of a book about Gray, Caroline Rance wrote that:

“Gray worked with Henry Vandyke Carter on ‘Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical’ for twenty months in 1855-7, dissecting cadavers at St George’s Dissecting Rooms in Kinnerton Street. Carter, struggling to finance his medical studies, was a talented artist who relied on commissions such as this to keep his own body and soul together.” (https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2009/03/12/the-making-of-mr-grays-anatomy-bodies-books-fortune-fame-by-ruth-richardson/).

By walking down Kinnerton Street, as we did recently, maybe we were walking where once the famous anatomist, Henry Gray, used to enjoy a spot of fresh air after hours of dissecting corpses or whilst walking to his home on nearby Wilton Street.