St Johns Wood and the Crimea

THROUGHOUT MY LIFE, I have been visiting or passing through St Johns Wood in north London. I have often noticed a street called Woronzow Road. It lies between Primrose Hill and St Johns Wood Underground Station. Whenever I have seen this road, I have wondered about the name ‘Woronzow’, but uncharacteristically I have always been too lazy to find out anything about it.

Recently, we visited Wilton House in Wiltshire, not far from the city of Salisbury. Home to the Herberts, the Earls of Pembroke, for many centuries, this is a wonderful place to visit, to see its gardens, the house itself and the outstanding collection of old master paintings within it. The decoration of the rooms that we saw is superb and is kept in good condition by the house’s present occupants, the family of the current, the 17th, Earl of Pembroke. It was whilst visiting this splendid country seat that my ears pricked up hearing the guide mention the name ‘Worontzow’.

In 1808, the widowed George Herbert (born 1759) remarried. His second wife was Catherine Woronzow (1783-1856). Her father was Semyon Romanovich Woronzow (1744-1832), Russian Ambassador to England from 1796-1806, who died in London and was buried in the Pembroke’s family vault. Catharine, who became Countess of Pembroke, did a great deal to improve Wilton House to create much of what we can see today. She is buried in the nearby church of St Mary and St Nicholas, which was built in a neo-Romanesque style between 1841 and 1844. It was built at the instigation of Catharine and her son Sidney Herbert, the 14th Earl of Pembroke (1810-1861).

Between October 1853 and February 1856, the last years of Catharine’s life, Britain was at war with Russia in what is known as The Crimean War. Between June 1859 and July 1861, Sidney Herbert was the Secretary for War in the British government. During the campaign, a supply route called the ‘Woronzow Road’, no doubt named in honour of Catherine’s noble Russian family, ran along the Crimean coast past Sebastopol. Thus, there was once a Woronzow Road in The Crimea. This was an important supply route for the British forces bringing much-needed material south from Alma and Calamita Bay towards Sebastopol. In the winter of 1854, the British lost control of this vital supply route and had to rely on goods reaching them by a far more difficult track,

One of Sidney Herbert’s great contributions to the war effort in the Crimea was his asking Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) to travel to Scutari (now, Üsküdar in Istanbul) with 38 volunteer nurses. She and her team helped to dramatically improve the treatment of the many soldiers who contracted diseases such as cholera and typhus whilst in the Crimea. Incidentally, Florence never visited the Crimea, but remained working in the Turkish city. Herbert and his wife had first met and become friendly with Florence Nightingale in Rome in about 1847.

Now let us return to St Johns Wood in London. Catherine’s father, Semyon Worontzow, lived in the district. The road, where he lived and whose name has intrigued me for decades, is now called ‘Woronzow Road’. It was named after him in 1843. It was not until 2002 that the Russians erected a monument to him on the thoroughfare named after him.

Lady with the lamp

ROMSEY IN HAMPSHIRE is a delightful small town with a spectacular parish church, Romsey Abbey, with many Norman and gothic architectural features. The edifice that stands today was originally part of a Benedictine nunnery and dates to the 10th century, but much of its structure is a bit younger. It rivals some of the best churches of this era that we have seen during travels in France. That it still stands today, is a testament to the good sense of former citizens of the town.

During Henry VIII’s Dissolution of The Monasteries in the 16th century, much of the nunnery was demolished. However, the establishment’s church was not solely for the use of the monastic order but also served as a parish church for the townsfolk. As Henry VIII was not against religion per se, and the need for a parish church was recognised, the townsfolk were offered the church for sale. In 1544, the town managed to collect the £100 needed to purchase the church and what remained of the abbey from The Crown. Thus, this precious example of church architecture was saved from the miserable fate that befell many other abbey churches all over England. However, what you see today was heavily restored in the 19th century, but this does not detract from its original glory.

The town of Romsey is 3.4 miles northeast of East Wellow, the burial place of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the social reformer and statistician as well as a founder of modern nursing. I had no idea that Florence was famous in the field of statistics. Her biographer Cecil Woodham Smith wrote:

“In 1859 each hospital followed its own method of naming and classifying diseases. Miss Nightingale embarked on a campaign for uniform hospital statistics … which would ‘enable us to ascertain the relevant mortality of different hospitals, as well as different diseases and injuries at the same and at different ages, the relative frequency of different diseases and injuries among the classes which enter hospitals in different countries, and in different districts of the same countries.’”

In 1858, she was elected a member of the recently formed Statistical Society. So, there was much more to Florence than the commonly held image of ‘the lady with the lamp’ during the Crimean War.

Florence was christened with the name of the Italian city, where she was born. Part of her childhood was spent at the family home of Embley Park, which is 1.8 miles west of Romsey Abbey church and close to East Wellow. Now a school, it remained her home from 1825 until her death.

Broadlands, which was built on lands once owned by the nuns of Romsey Abbey, is a Georgian house on the southern edge of Romsey. It was home to Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), who was Prime Minister in 1856 when the Crimean War came to an end. Broadlands was Palmerston’s country estate. It is maybe coincidental that both Palmerston and Nightingale were associated with both Romsey and the Crimean War.

Palmerston is celebrated in Romsey by a statue standing in front of the former Corn Exchange. Florence has a more discreet memorial in the town. It is a stained-glass window within the Abbey church. Placed in the church in 2020, it was formally dedicated in May 2020. It depicts a young lady seated by a tree, her face turned away from the onlooker. Created by Sophie Hacker, the image depicts Florence seated on bench beside a tree in Embley Park. The tree in the window, a cedar, still stands in Embley Park’s grounds. The image is supposed to recall the moment when, as a young girl, she received her calling. Woodham Smith wrote:

“Her experience was similar to that which came to Joan of Arc. In a private note she wrote: ‘On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to His service’”.

The window includes the following words above her head:

“Lo, it is I.”

And beneath her:

“Here am I Lord. Send me.”

There are a few other words on the window, some in English and others in Italian.

A visit to Romsey Abbey church is highly recommendable. We thought that we had visited it many years before 2021 and arrived expecting to see an abbey in ruins. We were delightfully surprised to realise that we had mistaken Romsey with some other place, whose name we have forgotten, and instead we had discovered a church that was new to us and unexpectedly wonderful both architecturally and otherwise. Anyone visiting nearby Winchester with its fine cathedral should save some time to come to see the magnificent ecclesiastical edifice in Romsey.