Yesterday, Sunday the 15th of August 2021, we noticed an attractive wall painting not far from the large Liberty shop on Great Marlborough Street. It is the Soho Mural in Noel Street, the eastern continuation of Great Marlborough Street. With the title “Ode to the West Wind”, it was created in 1989 by Louise Vines and The London wall Mural Group, whose telephone number (on the circular blue patch) was then 01 737 4948 (now, the number would begin with 0207 instead of 01).
GERRARD STREET IS THE HEART of London’s Chinatown. We often visit it to eat delicious dim-sum and other dishes at our favourite restaurant, The Golden Dragon, which has both indoor and covered outdoor dining spaces. One of our favourite dishes, which was introduced to us many years ago by my sister, is steamed tripe with chilli and ginger. It might sound off-putting, but, believe me, it tastes wonderful. Our visits to Gerrard Street always include a visit to Loon Fung, a Chinese supermarket. This well-stocked establishment bears a commemorative plaque that I only noticed for the first time today (12th August 2021). Partially hidden by a string of Chinese lanterns, it informs the passerby that the poet John Dryden (1631-1700) lived on the spot where we purchase pak-choi, chilli sauce, black bean paste, and a host of other ingredients for preparing Chinese-style dishes at home. I suspect that Dryden was unlikely to have ever come across any of these exotic ingredients back in the 17th century.
“Dryden lived at 44 Gerrard Street with his wife Elizabeth (c. 1638–1714) from about 1687 until his death in 1700. His years there were difficult: his conversion to Catholicism in about 1685 meant that he was unable to take the oath of allegiance after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. As a result he lost his position as Poet Laureate, one he had held for 20 years. He found himself in financial difficulties but remained highly active in London’s literary world.Dryden usually worked in the front ground-floor room of the house, and it was here that he completed his last play, Love Triumphant (1694), the poem Alexander’s Feast, or, The Power of Musique (1697) and translations such as The Works of Virgil (1697). In the preface to the latter, Dryden likened himself to Virgil in his ‘Declining Years, struggling with Wants, oppress’d with Sickness’…
… Number 44 was built in about 1681 and re-fronted in 1793, before being redeveloped in about 1901. At the same time number 43 was demolished, a deed described in the press as ‘a hideous and wonton act of vandalism’ …
… The plaque, though damaged, was immediately re-erected on the new structure. It is unique among surviving Society of Arts plaques in its colour – white, with blue lettering.”
Well, I can add nothing to that informative quote. So, ext time you wander along Gerrard Street do look for this and other reminders of the area’s history. It was a place where several other well-known writers and artists resided several centuries ago.
MANY PEOPLE KNOW, but I did not, that the words of the hymn “”Faith’s Review and Expectation”, now better known as “Amazing Grace”, were written by John Newton (1725-1807), an Anglican clergyman. What fewer people know is that John Newton had once been the captain of ships that transported slaves across the Atlantic, but also a slave himself. In 1745, having fallen out with the crew on the ship he was sailing, he left his ship in what is now Sierra Leone. He was captured and enslaved and became the property of a princess of the Sherbro People, who lived in that part of Africa. He remained enslaved until 1748, when he was rescued by a sea captain, whom his father had sent to rescue him. On the voyage back to England, he received his spiritual calling.
Cutting a long story short, Newton was ordained as a priest in 1764. Soon after, he became the curate of a church in the small town of Olney in the north of Buckinghamshire. He remained in Olney until about 1779. While living in Olney, Newton struck up a friendship with the poet William Cowper (1731-1800; pronounced ‘koo-per’), who moved to the town in 1767. They collaborated on several literary projects.
From 1779 until his death, Newton was Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London. In 1788, Newton published his “Thoughts upon the Slave Trade”, a pamphlet that described to horrors on board the slave ships crossing the Atlantic. It was also a confession of his error of having been involved in such an inhumane business. He became an ally of William Wilberforce in the campaign to abolish the slave trade.
Olney is a charming little town, which we visited recently. Close to the market square, there is a large building in which William Cowper lived between 1768 and 1786. It now houses a museum dedicated to commemorating both Cowper and Newton. Behind the house, there is an attractive garden, which leads to another equally lovely garden. In the further garden, there is a small hut with white plastered walls and a tiled roof. It is just large enough for one person to sit inside it. It was here that Cowper’s friend John Newton used to sit and write. It is said that one of the hymns he wrote here in this tiny edifice was the hymn, now known by the words of its first line, “Amazing Grace”. This hymn was probably written in 1773.
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792-1822), the poet, was a friend of the literary critic and essayist James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who lived at various times in Hampstead, north London. Shelley’s poetry and other writing attracted the attention of radical thinkers including, for example, Karl Marx, who wrote:
“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand them and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois. They grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/1888/04/shelley-socialism.htm)
Hunt, who knew him well, wrote of the poet:
“Shelley was not only anxious for the good of mankind in general. We have seen what he proposed on the subject of Reform in Parliament, and he was always very desirous of the national welfare.”
I mention this about Shelley because it chimes with what is to follow.
A few months ago, I acquired a copy of Leigh Hunt’s wordy but fascinating autobiography. After being released from a spell in prison in 1815 having libelled the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, Hunt moved to the Vale of Health in Hampstead. Shelley often used to visit Hunt there, sometimes staying at his home for several days. Hunt wrote that Shelley:
“… delighted in the natural broken ground, and in the fresh air of the place … Here also he swam his paper boats on the ponds, and delighted to play with my children…”
Hunt was returning to his home in the Vale of Health one evening after having been to the opera when he heard a woman shrieking and a man’s voice coming from within his house. The woman’s voice was that of a lady, whom Shelley had found lying:
“… near the top of the hill, in fits. It was a fierce winter night, with snow upon the ground; and winter loses nothing of its fierceness in Hampstead. My friend, always the promptest and the most pitying on these occasions, knocked on the first house he could reach, in order to have the woman taken in.”
Shelley’s request was turned down. Hunt continued:
“The poor woman was in convulsions; her son, a young man, lamenting over her. At last my friend sees a carriage driving up to a house at a little distance. The knock is given; the warm door opens; servants and lights pour forth…”
And Shelley asks for help employing the voice:
“… which anybody might recognise for that of the highest gentleman as well as of an interesting individual …”
He relates his story to the elderly gentleman emerging from his carriage and asks whether he will go and see the distressed female. The passenger replies:
“No, sir; there’s no necessity for that sort of thing, depend on it. Impostors swarm everywhere: the thing cannot be done; sir, your conduct is extraordinary.”
To which Shelley replied to the astonishment of the man who refused to provide assistance:
“Sir, I am very sorry to say that your conduct is not extraordinary; and if my own seems to amaze you, I will tell you something that will amaze you a little more, and I hope will frighten you. It is such men as you who madden the spirits and the patience of the poor and wretched; and if ever a convulsion comes in this country (which is very probable), recollect what I tell you: – you will have your house, that you refuse to put the miserable woman into, burnt over your head.”
By ‘convulsion’ Shelley meant revolution, something that England did not suffer as had France or later Russia and elsewhere. Leigh’s reporting of what Shelley said may help to show that whatever Marx saw in his writings was in harmony with his own ideas.
As for the poor woman, she was:
“… brought to our house, which was at some distance, and down a bleak path (it was in the Vale of Health); and Shelley and her son were obliged to hold her till the doctor could arrive.”
In case you are wondering how the woman got into such a sad state, Hunt informs us:
“It appeared that she had been attending this son in London, on a criminal charge made against him, the agitation of which had thrown her into fits on her return. The doctor said that she would have perished, had she laid there a short time longer.”
Now, I am no reader of poetry. I find that I enjoy it more if it is read to me. Further, I must confess that I am unfamiliar with Shelley’s works, but this story related by Hunt, has begun to endear the poet to me. Shelley not only met Hunt in Hampstead but also in Italy on the 1st of July 1822, where they, along with Lord Byron, made plans to start a new journal “The Liberal”. On the 8th of July, Shelley died at sea when the boat he was travelling in sunk.
AT THE FOOT OF PRIMROSE Hill, there is a lovely street called Regents Park Road, which we have visited many times before, but it was only today in late January 2020 that we spotted the former residences of two famous people and one less well-known in this country, but very important in his own country.
The highly regarded American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) lived briefly in picturesque Chalcot Square, which is a few yards south of Regents Park Road. There is a plaque on number three that records that the poet lived there between 1960 and 1961. Married to the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), the couple moved in to the top floor flat, somewhat cramped accommodation, in January 1960. It was here that their daughter Frieda was born a few months later. Plath described the square as:
“…overlooking a little green with benches and fences for mothers and children … five minutes’ walking distance from Primrose Hill and beautiful Regent’s Park”
It is still an attractive square, made even more appealing by the variety of colours of the 19th century houses surrounding it. The Hughes’s moved to larger accommodation in nearby Fitzroy Road where she took her own life. Although Sylvia lived longer at Fitzroy Road than in Chalcot Square, her children decided it would be best to commemorate her time in the square. When the plaque was placed on the house on Chalcot Square in 2000, her daughter Frieda was asked why it was not placed on the house in Fitzroy Road. She replied:
Plath lived for about a year in Chalcot Square, but the Filipino national hero Dr Jose Rizal (1861-1896) spent even less time in the neighbourhood in number 37 Chalcot Crescent, a sinuous thoroughfare. He stayed in London from May 1888 to March 1889. He came to the metropolis to improve his English; to study and annotate a work by Antonia de Morga (1559-1636) about the early Spanish colonisation of the Philippines; and because London was a safe place to carry out his struggle against the Spanish, who were occupying his country (www.slideshare.net/superekaa/rizal-in-london-52133406). At Chalcott Crescent, he was a guest of the Beckett family. While lodging with the Becketts, Jose had a brief romantic affair with Gertrude, the oldest of the three Beckett daughters. When her love for him became serious, Jose left London for Paris. Before he left, he gave the Beckett girls three sculptures he had made in London.
Rizal was a remarkable man with many skills. Born in the Philippines, he was an ophthalmologist by profession and fought vigorously for reform of Spanish rule in the Philippines. Amongst his other abilities were novel and poetry writing; philosophy; law; art including drawing, painting, and sculpting; ethnology and anthropology; architecture and cartography; history; martial arts; and magic tricks. Apart from his brief fling with Miss Beckett, he had numerous other affairs all over the world. After staying in many places in different continents, he returned to the Philippines, where his involvement in activities against the Spanish rulers caused him to be arrested and executed by Filippino soldiers in the Spanish army on the 30th of December 1896.
Well, if you, like me, have never heard of the remarkable Jose Rizal, it is likely that the German born Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) is familiar. This father of Marxism and socialism came to Britain in 1842 to work in his father’s textile business in Salford. Friedrich’s father had hoped that by sending him to England, his son might abandon some of his radical political views. The opposite happened. With his partner, Mary Burns (1821-1863), with whom he lived until she died, he completed his research for his work “The Condition of the Working Class in England.”
After spells in Prussia, Paris, and Brussels, Engels arrived in London in November 1849. He re-joined his father’s company near Manchester in order to make money to help finance Karl Marx whilst he laboured in London on his important work “Das Kapital”. Engels in Manchester corresponded daily with Marx in London. By early 1853, Engels was already predicting that there would be revolution and civil war in Russia. He did not live long enough to see his predictions fulfilled. In 1869, Engels retired from his father’s firm and moved to London in the following year.
Unlike his friend and colleague Marx, who lived in modest accommodation in London, Engels, who was well able to afford it, lived in a lovely house facing Primrose Hill. He moved into 122 Regents Park Road in 1870 with Mary Burn’s sister Lizzie, with whom he lived until she died in 1878. Marx lived not far away, in Kentish Town (at Grafton Terrace) until 1875, then even closer in Belsize Park (at Maitland Road) until his death in 1883. With the Marx family living close by:
I find it ironic that two men, Marx and Engels, whose ideas were to bring about the downfall of the bourgeoisie and plutocracy in many countries of the world, lived in an area that was and is, even more now than before, prized by members of those classes, who seem to ignore the examples of history by continuing to espouse these ideas whilst simultaneously enjoying the rewards that money and privilege bring. I wonder what Engels would be thinking if he were to tread the pavements of Regents Park Road today.
Politics aside, there is no escaping the fact that Primrose Hill and its surroundings are fine examples of what makes London such a wonderful place to live and enjoy.
I ENJOY THE OBSCURE, or, at least, what is new and unknown to me. I am also interested in Hungary and the Hungarians. So, recently, when we were walking along Branch Hill, a road beneath and west of Hampstead’s Whitestone Pond, I spotted a circular blue commemorative plaque that I had not noticed before. Close to a house where the singer Paul Robeson lived for one year, it commemorates a celebrated Hungarian, whom I had never come across before. The plaque reads: “Alfred Reynolds, Hungarian poet and philosopher lived here 1980-1993”
Sadly, the two most knowledgeable Hungarians I knew, who could have told me something about him, the philosopher Imre Lakatos (1922-1974) and one of my father’s co-authors, the economist Peter Bauer (1915-2002), are no longer in the land of the living. So, I have had to resort to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, for information about Reynolds, a name that hardly sounds Hungarian to me. Searches of the internet reveal little other biographical information in English apart from what is noted on Wikipedia.
Alfred Reynolds (1907-1993) was born Reinhold Alfréd in Budapest, Hungary (the Hungarians put their surnames before their first names). His mother was Jewish and his father Roman Catholic. After graduating from the University of Leipzig in 1931, he founded a magazine called ‘Haladás’ (‘Progress’), which published the works of various Hungarian poets and was closed by the police soon after it began. Next, he founded another journal, a monthly with leftish tendencies called ‘Névtelen Jegyző’ (‘Anonymous Chronicler’), which was also soon closed by the police. After a brief spell as a member of the Communist Party of Hungary and a spell of imprisonment in Hungary, Alfred moved to the UK, to London, in 1936.
During WW2, Alfred served in the British Army, joining the Intelligence Corps in 1944. When the war was over, he became a leading light in the Bridge Circle, a group of libertarians. The group produced a journal called “London Letter”, some of whose articles were published in a book called “Pilate’s question: Articles from ‘The London Letter’,1948-1963”, which was released in 1964 and contains articles by Reynolds. In 1988, he published another book in English, “Jesus Versus Christianity”. The aim of this book was:
Prior to his arrival in England, Reynolds published his writings in Hungarian and those of other Hungarian poets, mostly in the journals he founded. Many of his papers, publications, and other memorabilia are currently on display at the Petőfi Literary Museum in Budapest.
And that is about all I can tell you about Reynolds who spent the last years of his life in a fine house that affords good views over Hampstead Heath. I wonder whether he ever frequented Louis on Hampstead’s Heath Street. Louis was opened as a Hungarian patisserie and café in 1963 by the Hungarian Louis Permayer (died 2017), who fled from Communist Hungary during the Uprising in 1956 (http://budapesttimes-archiv.bzt.hu/2014/10/04/louis-patisserie-a-hungarian-tea-temple-in-the-heart-of-north-london/). Louis still exists and has maintained its original wood-panelled interior décor that owes a lot to traditional Central European taste. It was where my wife and I had our first ‘date’. Today, the café is under different management from what it was when Reynolds moved to Hampstead.
Yet again, whilst walking for pleasure and exercise, I have spotted something that intrigued me because it seemed so unfamiliar and made me want to investigate it. Having discovered that there is not much information easily available about Alfred Reynolds, I am not surprised that I had never heard of him. The plaque commemorating his residence is unusual in that it does not state the name of the organisation or whoever it was that placed it. That adds to the mystery that partially shrouds this Hungarian refugee’s life and his relative obscurity that appeals to me.
I MUST CONFESS THAT I knew nothing about Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) until I became interested in the history of Hampstead in North London. What triggered my interest in Hunt was seeing a house named Vale Lodge in a part of Hampstead called The Vale of Health. Vale Lodge, a late Georgian (early 19th century, pre-1831) house modernised in the 20th century, is difficult to see from the lane by which it stands because it is surrounded by a high wall.
“… home of Edgar Wallace, writer, and probably also the residence of Leigh Hunt, poet.”
Well, that got me interested because I had read that Leigh Hunt lived in the Vale of Health from 1816 onwards for a few years.
Hunt, a radical, was a critic, essayist, and poet. He was a co-founder and/or collaborator of several periodicals including “The Examiner”, “The Reflector”, “The Indicator”, and “The Companion”. In about 1812/13, Hunt and his two brothers, also involved with “The Examiner”, were imprisoned for libelling the Prince Regent (the future King George IV). Whilst incarcerated in the Surrey County Jail, Hunt was visited by his eminent friends including:
Hunt’s home in the Vale of Health not only inspired him to write some poetry extolling the virtues of Hampstead, but also attracted several of his contemporaries who were notable literary figures. These included the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Bryan Waller Procter (1787-1874) and John Keats (1795-1821) as well as the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) and the essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830). When I was studying at University College, I read some of Hazlitt’s essays. Some words he wrote about the fear of death made a great impression on me:
“Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne: why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom?” (from “Table Talk”, published in 1821).
The poet Keats, who had slept in Leigh Hunt’s home in the Vale of Health, took a great liking to Hampstead and settled there in 1817. He lived in Wentworth House, which was later renamed ‘Keats House’. The house was built in about 1815 (https://keatsfoundation.com/keats-house-hampstead/) and divided in two as is common with modern semi-detached houses. One half was occupied by Charles Armitage Brown (1787-1842), a poet and friend of Leigh Hunt and the other half by Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789–1864), a literary associate of Hunt and a visitor to his home in the Vale of Health. Keats became Brown’s lodger. Keats had first visited the house when the poet and playwright John Hamilton Reynolds (1784-1852), who was part of Leigh Hunt’s circle of friends, introduced him to Dilke, Brown’s friend and neighbour.
While living in Hampstead, Keats wrote much poetry including “Ode to a Nightingale” (and other “Odes”), “Isabella”, Hyperion”, “St Agnes”, “La Belle dame sans Merci”, and began working on “Endymion”. It has been suggested that Keat’s poem “I Stood Tiptoe Upon a Little Hill” was inspired by his experience of Hampstead (www.hamhigh.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/rare-keats-handwritten-poem-inspired-by-hampstead-heath-goes-up-3438636). Another of his works, “Dedication. To Leigh Hunt esq” relates directly to his friend Hunt (words: www.bartleby.com/126/1.html). His poem “Sleep and Poetry”, according to Leigh Hunt (http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?textsid=36069):
“… originated in sleeping in a room adorned with busts and pictures … ‘On Sleep and Poetry,’ was occasioned by his sleeping in one of the cottages in the Vale of Health, the first one that fronts the valley, beginning from the same quarter.”
There is no doubt that many now famous literary and artistic people congregated around Leigh Hunt while he has living in the Vale of Health, but there appears to be some uncertainty as where exactly he resided. One suggestion, already mentioned, is Vale Lodge. However, a 19th century writer, William Howitt, wrote of Hunt’s residence in his “The Northern Heights of London” (published in 1869):
“The house, which he occupied … was pulled down to make way for the great hotel just mentioned.”
The site of the hotel, which has also been pulled down, is now occupied by a block of flats called Spencer House. If that is the case, then Vale Lodge can be remembered for at least one literary figure, Edgar Wallace, if not also Leigh Hunt.
NOW THAT THE GRAND FINALE of Brexit is nail-bitingly close, maybe our thoughts will turn to patriotism as it is hoped by many, but certainly not all, that Britannia will once again rule the waves, or, at least, the fish that surround our ‘sceptred isle’. Some hope, if you ask me!
Yesterday, the 16th of December 2020, we joined our friends on a walk from their home in Richmond to Kew Gardens. On the way, we walked along a quiet back street, Kew Foot Road, and passed a former, now disused, hospital, ‘The Royal Hospital’, which opened in 1868 (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/royalrichmond.html) and closed recently. In its last reincarnation, it served as a psychiatric day hospital and a mental health resource centre. A plaque on one of its buildings facing Kew Foot Road commemorates that James Thomson (1700-1748) lived and died here. Observant readers will note that his residence in this location antedates the establishment of the former hospital. The hospital was opened as ‘The Richmond Infirmary’ in the pre-existing Rosedale House on Kew Foot Road. According to James Thorne in “Handbook to the Environs of London” published in 1876, this was the building in which Thomson lived.
Thorne wrote of Rosedale House:
“The present house is a large brick house of three floors, – a centre with a small portico reached by a flight of steps, and two irregular wings. The house Thomson occupied was a mere cottage of two rooms on the ground floor, which now, united by an arch, form a sort of entrance hall… It has since suffered many changes, and is by now (1876) the Richmond Infirmary. The garden has suffered as much as the house. Thomson was fond of his garden, added largely to it, and spent as much time in improving it as his indolent temperament allowed.”
Thomson’s cottage became incorporated into the building that served as the first part of what was to become the Royal Hospital.
One room was where Thomson died on the 22nd of August 1748. The other room was where he wrote his last published poem, “The Castle of Indolence” (text available at : http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?textsid=34286) during the last year of his life. This poem, written in Spencerian stanzas, had a great influence on the poetry written by Byron, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. This kind of stanza, employed by Edmund Spencer (1552-1599) in his poem “Faerie Queen”, consists of nine lines, eight of which are iambic pentameters and the remaining an iambic hexameter, with the ABABBCBCC rhyming scheme (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spenserian_stanza).
Thomson was, as you might begin to realise, a poet. Born in Scotland, and educated at The College Edinburgh, he was planning to become a Presbyterian cleric. At Edinburgh, he joined the Grotesque Club, a literary group. He made friends with a fellow member, the Scottish poet and dramatist David Mallett (c1705-1765) and followed him to London in early 1725. Thomson had a busy life in London, tutoring, teaching in a school, and writing.
In 1740, Thomson collaborated with Mallett on the masque “Alfred”, which was first performed that year at Cliveden, the country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), father of King George III. Five years later, the British composer Thomas Arne (1710-1778) modified their work to create an oratorio and then a few years later an opera. The finale of this work by Arne uses Thomson’s words in the now well-known patriotic song “Rule Britannia”.
Thomson wrote the words to “Rule Britannia” whilst living at Rosedale in Kew Foot Road. He moved to the area from his room above the Lancaster Coffee House at Lancaster Court in London’s Strand in 1836, but not immediately to Rosedale. It was in 1839 that he moved along the road to Rosedale (www.richmond.gov.uk/james_thomson).
“The last piece that he lived to publish was The Castle of Indolence, which was many years under his hand, but was at last finished with great accuracy. The first canto opens a scene of lazy luxury, that fills the imagination.
He was now at ease, but was not long to enjoy it; for, by taking cold on the water between London and Kew, he caught a disorder, which, with some careless exasperation, ended in a fever that put an end to his life.”
Thomson was buried in St Mary Magdalene, Richmond, near the font.
I had no idea when we set out for our walk that I would walk past the former home of the creator of the patriotic song, “Rule Britannia” on our way to Kew Gardens, which we entered via the Lion Gate and enjoyed greatly. Each time I visit these fine botanical gardens, my enjoyment of this place increases.
A WIDE FOOTPATH runs south from Piccadilly along the eastern edge of Green Park. We have walked along this many times, but it was not until a few days ago that we noticed a small alleyway leading east from the footpath about 190 yards south of Piccadilly. This unmarked footway, which is barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, passes under a building and emerges opposite the Stafford Hotel on St James Place, a short cul-de-sac with a dogleg, which leads off St James Street. St James Place, whose construction began in 1694, is an attractive short street lined with many fine buildings, some of which I propose to describe. What made this lovely quiet road interesting for me was that several fascinating people have been associated with it. I will begin with a relatively recent inhabitant.
Number 9 was home to Sir Francis Chichester (1901-1972), who circumnavigated the world single-handedly in 1966/67. He lived here from 1944 to 1972. He sailed in his boat named Gypsy Moth IV. In 1929, Sir Francis attempted another exploit, to fly from New Zealand to Australia in his ‘plane, a de Havilland Gypsy Moth. He made the first ever flight from New Zealand to Australia. He was also the first person to land a ‘plane on both Norfolk and Lord Howe islands. If you want to see his historic boat, then you need to get down to Greenwich, where it is on display close to the much larger Cutty Sark.
There is another building in St James Place, which associated with water transport. The elegant number 20, an 18th century building, has been the London Club House of the Royal Ocean Racing Club since 1942. The Club was founded in 1925. Between 1822 and 1857, the building housed the servants who worked in number 21, which was demolished during WW2 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp511-541#h3-0019).
Not far from Chichester’s house is number 4. This is the house from which the short-lived Polish born pianist and composer, Frederick Chopin (1810-1849), departed to give his last public performance at the Guildhall on the 16th of November 1848 (www.chopin-society.org.uk/articles/chopin-britain.htm). It was held:
“… in aid of a Polish charity, came at the end of a difficult six-month British sojourn, which had included concerts in Manchester (one of the largest audiences he ever faced), Glasgow and Edinburgh… Finally back in London, the composer-pianist spent three weeks preparing for what turned out to be his final recital by sitting wrapped in his coat in front of the fire at St James’s Place, attended by London’s leading homeopath and the Royal Physician, a specialist in tuberculosis. A week after the concert, he was on his way home to Parisian exile and death the following year.” (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/frederic-chopin-st-james-s-place).
Before discussing the most curious inhabitant of St James Place, I will discuss one of its famous residents, the writer and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who founded “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. According to Peter Cunningham in his “Handbook of London” (published in 1850), Addison was living in St James Place by 1710. I am sure that we did not see any memorial celebrating this on any of the buildings in the street. Cunningham wrote, quoting from another source:
“Addison’s chief companions before he married Lady Warwick (in 1716) were Steele, Budgell, Philips, Carey, Davenant, and Colonel Brett. He used to breakfast with one or other of them at his lodgings in St James Place …”
His companions listed above were probably sympathetic to Addison’s Whig politics. However, Cunningham gives no indication of Addison’s address. He frequented the St James Coffee House in nearby St James Street, as he recorded in issue number 104 of his “Spectator”:
“That I might begin as near the fountain head as possible I first of all called in at St. James’s, where I found the whole outwardroom in a Buzz of Politics. The Speculations were but very indifferent towards the Door, but grew finer as you advanced to the upper end of the room, and were so very much improved by a knot of Theorists who sate in the inner Room, within the steam of the Coffee Pot, that I there heard the whole Spanish Monarchy disposed of; and all the line of Bourbons provided for in less than a Quarter of an Hour.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp459-471#h3-0014)
The coffee house was at number 87 St James Street. It was demolished to make way for a new building, erected 1904/05.
Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_James%27s_Place) lists many other notable residents of St James Place, including Oscar Wilde and Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, but omits one very interesting person, William Huskisson (1770-1830), whose residence at number 28 is commemorated by a plaque. This records him as having been a ‘statesman’. He was that as well as a financier and several times a Member of Parliament. He lived in Paris between 1783 and 1792 and witnessed the French Revolution. Although he had an active political life, what makes him remarkable was the manner of his death.
Against the better judgement of his physician, Huskisson attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on the 15th of September 1830. Thomas Creevey (1768-1838) related the story in a letter written to a Miss Ord on the 19th of September 1830:
“Jack Calcraft has been at the opening of the Liverpool railroad, and was an eye-witness of Huskisson’s horrible death. About nine or ten of the passengers in the Duke’s car had got out to look about them whilst the car stopt. Calcraft was one, Huskisson another, Esterhazy, Billy Holmes, Birch and others. When the other locomotive was seen coming up to pass them, there was a general shout from those within the Duke’s car to those without it, to get in. Both Holmes and Birch were unable to get up in time, but they stuck fast to its sides, and the other engine did not touch them. Esterhazy, being light, was pulled in by force. Huskisson was feeble in his legs, and appears to have lost his head, as he did his life. Calcraft tells me that Huskisson’s long confinement in St. George’s Chapel at the King’s funeral brought on a complaint that Taylor is so afraid of, and that made some severe surgical operation necessary, the effect of which had been, according to what he told Calcraft, to paralyse, as it were, one leg and thigh. This, no doubt, must have increased, if it did not create, his danger and [caused him to] lose his life.”
(quoted from “The Creevey papers; a selection from the correspondence & diaries of the late Thomas Creevey, M.P., born 1768 – died 1838. Edited by Sir Herbert Maxwell”)
Thus, Huskisson achieved the dubious distinction of becoming one of the first widely reported casualties in a railway accident. The ‘Duke’ mentioned above was the Duke of Wellington and the engine that caused Huskisson’s death was the “Rocket”, a pioneering locomotive designed by Robert Stephenson in 1829. I wonder why his demise was not noted on the commemorative plaque.
Huskisson’s former home has a superb front door flanked by iron lampstands each with its own conical torch flame snuffer. St James Place has plenty of fine 18th century buildings as well as some newer ones. These include the Stafford and Dukes Hotels, which are late 19th and early 20th century in appearance. Number 26 St James Place, a mid-twentieth century building, bears a Civic Trust Award. It is a block of flats built 1959/60 to the designs of the architect Denys Lasdun (1914-2001), who also designed the National Theatre on the South Bank. It replaced an 18th century house that was destroyed by bombing in WW2. Although not unpleasing, it stands in stark contrast to the far more elegant older buildings near it.
Even greater contrast to its surroundings is the building on the northern corner of St James Place and St James Street. This avant-garde metal-clad structure, the Target Building, designed by Rodney Gordon (1933-2008) and completed in 1984, is opposite William Evans gun shop and houses the Stern Pisarro art gallery on its ground floor. One of the galleries owners, Lélia Pissarro, is a great-granddaughter of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). The gallery specialises in Impressionist art amongst other things. While on the subject of art galleries, it would be easy to walk past number 6 St James Place without noticing a small plate on its front door that says ‘Agnews Est 1817’. Between 1877 and 2013, this gallery, which deals in the highest quality works of fine art (e,g. Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velasquez) was on Old Bond Street. Then, it relocated to number 6.
St James Place is only 180 yards in length, but as can be seen from the small selection of buildings I have chosen to describe, it is choc-full of historical associations. I am pleased that we discovered the tiny alley that led from Green Park to this fascinating cul-de-sac. And, finally, if you find that you are getting tired of staying at the Ritz Hotel, you would do well to book into one of the two hotels discreetly located in St James Place.
[PS I have not dealt with Spencer House because I hope to write about it in the future]