HENLEY-ON-THAMES is located at the Oxford end of a bridge across the River Thames, which separates the county of Oxfordshire from its neighbour Berkshire. Located on the old main road between London and Oxford, it retains much ‘olde-worlde’ charm. Its streets are lined with many buildings that were constructed in the 18th century and before. Some of these used to be coaching inns but are no longer. However, some of the hostelries that served wayfarers in times long ago are still serving thirsty and hungry customers today, for example: The Red Lion, where William III might have visited, now an upmarket restaurant; and The Catherine Wheel, now a branch of the Wetherspoons company. On a recent visit in April 2022, we enjoyed superb coffee at Pavilion on The Market Place, close to the Town Hall.
Beer lovers will not need reminding that Henley is the home of Brakspear & Sons, the brewery company. Founded in Henley in 1722, beer was brewed in the town since then, although some of the comapany’s products are now brewed elsewhere. Many of the brewery’s older buildings, now converted for new purposes, can be seen alongside New Street. The company’s offices are now located on Bull Courtyard off Bell Street.
The stone bridge across the river was built in 1788. It is the finishing place of the annual Henley Royal Regatta held in summer, ever since its inception in 1839. Near the bridge, stands Henley’s parish church of St Mary the Virgin, which has a 16th century tower. The exterior walls of the southeast corner of the church is an eye-catching chequerboard of alternating masonry and flint squares. The church’s interior has been much modified by the Victorians. The churchyard north of the church is surrounded mainly by almshouses. Immediately next to the north side of the church stands a two-storied, half-timbered building, the Chantry House, some of whose beams come from trees felled in 1461 (according to scientific dating methods). Between 1552 and 1778, this edifice housed a school. Since 1923, it has housed the Parish Rooms.
The churchyard is filled with many gravestones. One of them immediately attracts the visitor as it is surrounded by generous amounts of fresh flowers. It is a memorial to the singer Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), who died in Henley. In the 1990s, Dusty lived by the Thames at Hurley near Henley. While in the area, she suffered from several bouts of breast cancer, the cause of her demise. Her funeral at St Mary’s in Henley was attended by many of her fans and leading lights in the British popular music scene including Elvis Costello, Lulu and the Pet Shop Boys. According to her wishes, Dusty was cremated, and some of her ashes were scattered in Henley and the rest in Ireland.
Dusty was not the only music celebrity to have lived in Henley. A man we met outside his house in the town reminded us that the Beatle George Harrison (1943-2001) had also lived in the town. He also mentioned that Henley’s former MP, the present Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had attended meetings in his home, and that he could tell us a thing or two … but he did not!
Aubrey House, at first known as ‘Notting Hill House’, was completed by the end of the 17th century. It is at the western end of the street and was attached to some springs with medicinal properties: the Kensington Wells. In the mid-18th century, the house was enlarged by its then owner, Sir Edward Lloyd. The house and its extensive grounds passed through the hands of many different owners. Between 1767 and 1788, it was the home of the diarist and political observer Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811), the daughter of the second Duke of Argyll. By the mid-19th century, it acquired its present name, Aubrey House, to commemorate Aubrey de Vere, who owned the manor of Kensington at the time of the Domesday Book.
In 1863, the house became the property of a politician and Member of Parliament Peter Alfred Taylor (1819-1891). He was a radical, a supporter of the northern states in the American Civil War, and an anti-vaccinationist. A website, british-history.ac.uk, noted:
“Peter Alfred Taylor was M.P. for Leicester from 1862 until 1884 and was a noted champion of radical causes. His wife Clementia was also famous as a philanthropist and champion of women’s rights. They were closely involved in the movement for Italian liberation and Mazzini was a frequent visitor to Aubrey House. In 1873. Taylor sold the house to William Cleverley Alexander, an art collector and patron of Whistler.”
The Taylors opened the Aubrey Institute in the grounds of the house. This was to improve the education of poor youngsters. WC Alexander (1840-1916), who bought the property, employed the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) to decorate the walls of the reception rooms of the house. Sadly, today, all that the public can see of the house, which is now a private residential complex, are glimpses over the outer wall of the roof and the upper storey windows.
Aubrey House used to be neighboured by the now demolished Wycombe Lodge and its large garden. In its place, there is a set of recently built houses arranged around a rectangular open space. This is called Wycombe Square.
Walking east from the wall of Aubrey House, we pass several places of interest including Wycombe Square. On the south side of Aubrey Walk is the club house of Campden Hill Lawn Tennis Club. This was founded in 1884, only seven years after the first championship competition at Wimbledon. Its twelve courts, six outdoor and the others indoors, are not visible from Aubrey Walk. Almost opposite the club, numbers 38-40, a 20th century art deco style building, contains the former home of the singer Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), who resided there from 1968 to 1972.
At the eastern end of Aubrey Walk there is the distinctive Victorian gothic church of St George (Campden Hill). In the middle of the 19th century, the area between Kensington Church Street and Campden Hill Road, the area containing Uxbridge Street, Hillgate Street and Place, and other small lanes, was a slum. It was where labourers in the nearby gravel pits and brickfields lived, often with several families in one tall, narrow house. Many of the folk living in this locality were destitute, which is difficult to imagine when you look at the place today. It was decided to build a church nearby to cater for the poor people living in this deprived area. This became St George’s on Aubrey Walk. The first church was an iron building, a large hut, which had been used by soldiers as a chapel on the Crimean War battlefields.
In 1862, the Vicar of St Mary Abbots, the parish church of Kensington arranged to break up his huge parish into smaller units, one of which became the ecclesiastical district of St George. John Bennett, a local builder, financed the construction of a church to replace the iron structure. The first stone of the present church, which can accommodate 1500 people, was laid in 1864. Its architect was Enoch Keeling (1837-1886). The building he designed is a rare example of ‘continental gothic’, also known as ‘Eclectic Gothic’. This style makes use of brick and stonework of various colours, both externally and internally. Its exterior gives an Italianesque impression. This is especially the case when you look at the prominent bell tower at the southeast corner of the church.
St George’s was actively involved in providing education, and social work (including a soup kitchen on Edge Street) to its congregation who lived in the nearby slums. It also played a major role in the Temperance Society, which served Kensington, Notting Hill, and Shepherds Bush. Before WW1, services at St George’s were well-attended, and a wide range of music was played. Writing in a booklet about the church, its authors, Tom Stacey and Ivo Morshead, noted:
“Elaborate settings for the choir were juxtaposed with favourites from ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ … The repertoire consisted of works by Stanford, Goss, Barnby, and Handel … St George’s was hardly classy at this time but it sang the same music as its more fashionable contemporary churches … Perhaps the music was above the heads of some of the congregation; yet St George’s remained a full church until the outbreak of the 1914 War.”
By the 1890s, the people that attended services at St George’s were becoming more similar to those living in other parts of Kensington because slowly but surely housing conditions were being improved and what had been a ‘down and out’ part of Kensington was ‘coming up in the world’. Many of the former slum dwellings just east of St George’s are still standing, but instead of being the residences of the poor, they are the much sought-after homes of the wealthy.
In nearby Kensington Place, east of the church, stands the parish hall, St George’s Hall. In 1901, the Victorian building was, according to a plaque affixed above its main entrance:
“… acquired and altered to commemorate the glorious reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria born at Kensington Palace May 24: 1819”
It is now used for residential purposes.
Aubrey Walk, although short in length, has several interesting sights. In the 19th century, it linked two social extremes. At the western end was the fabulous Aubrey House and at the eastern end, the poor of Kensington flocked to attend services in St George’s Church.