A pretty perambulation

LONDON’S KENSINGTON GARDENS is bounded to the north by Bayswater Road and to the south by Kensington Gore (overlooked by the Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial), which becomes Kensington Road.  Within the park and running almost parallel with its southern boundary is the South Flower Walk (also known as The Flower Walk). The Northern Flower Walk, which runs near and parallel to Bayswater Road was once used by royalty. According to a document published on the Royal Parks website, this was:

“… a delicious and appealing place to stroll for the monarch on the way to … the site of the Bayswater ‘Breakfasting House’…”

The breakfasting house no longer exists. I am not sure whether the South Flower Walk can boast of such an illustrious past. However, when it is in full bloom, it outdoes its northern counterpart in colourfulness and variety of its flora.

Although the whole of Kensington Gardens makes for a pleasant place to stroll, a walk along the South Flower Walk provides and exceedingly pretty perambulation.

On the wall

IT IS ODD how seeing a mundane object can stimulate less than mundane thoughts. Embedded into a wall in Salcombe (Devon), I saw an official post box for depositing mail. At first, I took little notice of it. Then, when I saw it a second time, I noticed that its red-painted front bears the letters “GR”. This refers to a King George. Because the first letter boxes were installed in the reign of Queen Victoria, the GR on the letter box in Salcombe must refer either to George V (reigned 1910-1936) or George VI (reigned 1936-1952) because the other King Georges all preceded Victoria.

Possibly the GR on the box in Salcombe refers to George V because he was the first George to follow Victoria, in whose reign the boxes bore the letters “VR” (Victoria Regina). Even though Edward VII was the first monarch to follow Victoria, boxes installed in his reign include the Roman numeral VII. Likewise, in the case of other monarchs who followed Victoria, their initials on post boxes include numerals identifying which king or queen they denoted (i.e., E VII R, G VI R and E II R). Not having ever looked out for it before, I am not sure whether any post boxes installed during the reign of George V bear the logo G V R or, as I saw in Salcombe, simply GR. A rapid search of the Internet revealed that most George V post boxes illustrated on websites dealing with post boxes bear the letters GR, as was the case with the example I noticed in Salcombe.

I suppose that when Charles or his son William come to the throne, letter boxes, if they still exist in the age of electronic mail, will bear the logos “C III R” and “W V R” respectively, rather than “CR” and “WR”. Why the V (meaning ‘5’) was not included on the post boxes issued during the reign of George V but the VII (meaning ‘7’) appears on those installed during his predecessor’s reign is not clear to me.

A pair of post boxes

WHILE WALKING IN CAMBRIDGE, I spotted a pair of pillar boxes. At first sight they looked identical but soon I realised that they were not. One had a wider orifice for inserting letters than the other. The wider one bears the ‘logo’ of Queen Elizabeth II and its neighbour with the narrower slit bears the logo of the Queen’s father, King George VI. Apart from these differences, there were much the same.

The two pillar boxes I saw in Cambridge are not particularly old. The first post box on the British mainland was placed in Carlisle in 1853. The idea of using such receptacles for collecting mail is connected with the author Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). An informative website (https://www.postalmuseum.org/collections/highlights/letter-boxes/#) related:

“Anthony Trollope, now more famed as a novelist, was, in the 1850s working as a Surveyor’s Clerk for the Post Office. Part of his duties involved him travelling to Europe where it is probable that he saw road-side letter boxes in use in France and Belgium.He proposed the introduction of such boxes to Britain and a trial on the Channel Islands was approved. Four cast-iron pillar boxes were installed on the island of Jersey and came into use on 23 November 1852. In 1853 the trial was extended to neighbouring Guernsey. None of the first boxes used on Jersey survive. It is possible that one still in use on Guernsey together with another in our collection, originally sited in Guernsey, date from the 1853 extension to the trial.”

Before the introduction of pillar boxes:

“… there was [sic] principally two ways of posting a letter. Senders would either have to take the letter in person to a Receiving House (effectively an early Post Office) or would have to await the Bellman. The Bellman wore a uniform and walked the streets collecting letters from the public, ringing a bell to attract attention.”

Well, all that history is news to me and I might not have bothered to find out about it had I not seen the father and daughter pillar boxes standing side=by-side in Cambridge’s Market Square.

Sir Anthony Blunt sat here often

HOME HOUSE IN London’s Portman Square was completed in 1777 for the wealthy Elizabeth Home, Countess of Home (c1703-1784). Born in Jamaica into a slave-owning family, her wealth was produced by the unpaid labour of slaves imported from Africa. The house is remarkable, especially for its intricately detailed interior décor designed by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).

In 1933, Home House became home to the Courtauld Institute of Art, now part of the University of London. A close friend of mine, now sadly deceased, studied at the Courtauld for both his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate. Whilst writing his doctoral thesis, my friend was supervised by Sir Anthony Blunt (1907-1983). Blunt was the director of the Courtauld from 1947 to 1974. He was also in charge of the Royal Collections of art from 1945 onwards. In addition, he carried out much important scholarly work in the field of history of art. Blunt, as director of the Courtauld, was given a flat in Home House.

Until 1979, few people knew, or even suspected, that Blunt had been involved with spying for the Soviet Union.  When this came out into the public domain, Blunt’s downfall commenced. He was stripped of his knighthood and his Honorary Fellowship at Cambridge’s Trinity College was rescinded. Also, Blunt resigned as a Fellow of the British Academy. Soon after his exposure as an espionage agent, who worked against his own country for the Soviet Union, Blunt ceased residing at Home House. In 1989, the Courtauld Institute shifted from Home House to larger premises in Somerset House in the Strand. Home House remained vacant until 1998, by which time it had been beautifully restored and adapted to become a private social club. During a recent visit to Home House when we were entertained by a friend, our host, a member, took us to see an interesting exhibit, which is housed in the wash basin area of one of the Club’s unisex toilets. We were shown a glass-fronted display case containing a wooden furniture item. It bears a label with the words: “From the bathroom of Sir Anthony Blunt”. The labelled object is the toilet seat on which Blunt must have sat numerous times, and its wooden lid. Another case in the room contains Blunt’s telephone. Although the loo seat and the ‘phone are unremarkable except for their provenance, the rest of Home House is a visual delight.

Royal remains

WE VISIT RICHMOND regularly to see a couple of friends, with whom we almost always take a stroll, usually somewhere reasonably near their home. They know that I love seeing places that I have never visited before and almost always they take us to see something that they feel might interest us. On our most recent walk with them, taken in October 2021, we began by walking across Richmond Green, taking a path that was new to us. At the western edge of the green, we crossed a road and immediately reached a Tudor gateway that leads into an open space surrounded by buildings. The open space is on the site of a now mostly demolished royal residence that was particularly liked by Queen Elizabeth I.

The royal residence was Richmond Palace. It was built by King Henry VII, when the 14th century Shene Palace, which used to stand on the site, was destroyed by fire in December 1497.  Henry VII built a new palace on the same ground plan of Shene Palace. Richmond Palace, as the new building was named, was used continuously a royal residence until the execution of King Charles I in January 1649.

On a wall facing a pathway leading from the old gatehouse to the River Thames, there is a commemorative plaque with the following carved on it:

“On this site extending eastwards to cloisters of the ancient friary of Shene formerly stood the river frontage of the Royal Palace first occupied by Henry I in 1125…”

It adds that Edward III, Henry VII, and Elizabeth I all died in the palaces that stood on this riverside site in Richmond.

After Charles I lost his head, the palace, like many other parts of the royal estate, was sold by the Commonwealth Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell. Much of its masonry was sold. According to an informative source (www.richmond.gov.uk/media/6334/local_history_richmond_palace.pdf):

“While the brick buildings of the outer ranges survived, the stone buildings of the Chapel, Hall and Privy Lodgings were demolished and the stones sold off. By the restoration of Charles II in 1660, only the brick buildings and the Middle Gate were left.”

The same source relates that after being owned by the Duke of York, who became King James II, and after he was deposed:

“The remains of the palace were leased out to various people and, in the early years of the 18th century new houses replaced many of the crumbling brick buildings. ‘Tudor Place’ had been built in the open tennis court as early as the 1650s, but now ‘Trumpeters’ House’ was built in 1702-3 to replace the Middle Gate, followed by ‘Old Court House’ and ‘Wentworth House’ (originally a matching pair) in 1705-7. The Wardrobe building had been joined up to the Gate House in 1688-9 and its garden front was rebuilt about 1710. The front facing the court still shows Tudor brickwork as does the Gate House. ‘Maids of Honour Row’ replaced most of the range of buildings facing the Green in 1724-5 and most of the house now called ‘Old Palace’ was rebuilt about 1740.”

During our recent perambulation with our friends, we saw most of the buildings listed in the quote above but not the Maids of Honour Row. They also pointed out that Richmond Green, across which we walked, was used for jousting tournaments in mediaeval times. Today, this pleasant green space close to Richmond’s main shopping street is used for more peaceful purposes including walking, both human beings and their canine companions.

Once again, a visit to our friends in Richmond has resulted in opening our eyes to new places of great interest, and for that we are most grateful.

Spectacles and Mahatma Gandhi

MANY PEOPLE REGRET having to wear spectacles. I am not a part of that crowd.

When I went to school and university, my eyesight was so good that I did not need to consider wearing glasses. However, many of my fellow pupils were not born with such satisfactory vision and were forced to wear spectacles. I felt that those who wore glasses looked far more intelligent than those who did not. I do not know when and from whom I got that rather ridiculous idea. My parents did not wear glasses until they were about 45 years old, by which time I was in my early teenage. Yet, I knew they were both intelligent long before they discovered that they were having to hold their newspapers and books ever increasingly further from their eyes before they finally resorted to wearing spectacles.

I qualified as a dentist in 1982 without needing to wear glasses apart from safety goggles whilst drilling teeth at the dental school. About three years later, I decided it would be a good idea to protect my eyes whilst treating my patients. Instead of goggles such as handymen (and handywomen) use, I decided to ask an optician to make me a pair of ‘specs’ with tough plain lenses. I was extremely pleased with my spectacles. Wearing them, I looked in the mirror and immediately felt more intelligent, however ridiculous this might sound.

As I approached my mid-forties, the plain lenses needed to be replaced with prescription lenses as my eyesight was no longer what it had been. After a year or so, I began noticing two things. First, at night I was seeing three red traffic lights where there was only one. Secondly, when sitting far away from the stage in a theatre, I could hear what was being said or sung but the performers on the stage were barely distinguishable from one another. Watching a play was a bit like watching from afar insects moving about. Enter my new pair of long-distance ‘specs’ and these problems were resolved. But now I had two carry around two pairs of glasses: one for reading and the other for seeing afar. The solution was to try bifocals, which I have grown to like.

My first pair of spectacles was made by an optician’s firm in Kent, near where I worked. Since then, I have had several pairs made extremely competently in Bangalore, India. Most of my Indian ‘specs’ have been made by a company called Lawrence and Mayo (‘L&M’), which has several branches in the city. We favour the branch that used to be on Mahatma Gandhi (‘MG’) Road, but has, since the construction of Bangalore’s metro train system, been located nearby in Barton Tower, which overlooks MG Road. This branch has supplied eye care for several generations of my wife’s family and at least one of the staff has known members of at least four generations.

L & M was founded in Calcutta in 1877 by two Jewish families, the Lawrence’s and the Mayo’s. According to Girish Bhagat (www.scribd.com/document/352875229/1-Case-Study-on-Lawrence-Mayo-2016-Only-Case-Study-Material), the two families:

“…set up optical businesses in two cities simultaneously: London and Kolkata. Later they went on extending their businesses all over the world … After Kolkata, they went ahead in setting up their branches over large cities of India. It soon gained the reputation as being known as authorised opticians to kings and viceroys alike …”

Apart from London and India, the company had branches in Cairo, Spain, Portugal, Colombo, Rangoon, and Singapore.

The families who established L&M were originally named ‘Lazrus’ and ‘Myers’. According to Vivek Mendonca, whose family took over the firm (www.brandyouyear.com/2020/06/dr-vivek-g-mendonsa-group-director-marketing-lawrence-and-mayo.html):

“They were Opticians, Watchmakers and Craftsmen of fine custom made Jewellery, which they used to embellish on customised spectacles for Royal Families, Prince and Princesses based on colour stones based on their coat of arms.”

Of the Lazrus family I found the following information (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/Community/exe/history/lazarus.htm):

“Frank Lazarus (s. of Mathilda Lyon and Lippa Lazarus of Plymouth), who married into a family who were among the founders of the Jewish community of Hartford Conn., USA, and who later returned to England. He was in the optical business and apparently had a business called Lawrence and Mayo, with a branch in India, and which is now one of the biggest and the oldest optical firms in India.”

Of the Myers, I have not yet managed to discover anything about them.

However, I have found that amongst their many customers, the Indian branches have served some well-known people including Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, and J.R.D. Tata.  As if that were not enough, they have supplied eyewear to:

“…queens, viceroys, barons and other people of high repute chose Lawrence & Mayo as their personal optician. During the Wimbledon Finals of 1923, Queen Mary was spotted styling the Amulet inspired glare protectors from Lawrence & Mayo.” (https://youandeyemag.com/optician/lawrence-mayo/)

Although the quality of the work they have done for me is more than satisfactory, learning about some of their former customers is additionally gratifying.

Today, the 5th of January 2021, about two years since I last obtained a new pair of specs from L&M in Bangalore’s Barton Tower, I picked up a new pair from a local optician, owned by an Indian optometrist in London. I am about to give them a ‘test drive’ and hope that they will be as satisfactory as those made by Gandhi’s erstwhile optician. They are certainly better looking than the glasses that appear in many portrayals of the Mahatma.

Henry the Eighth and Chelsea

CHEYNE WALK RUNS along the left bank of the River Thames from midway between the Battersea and Albert Bridges to 245 yards downstream of the Albert Bridge. Before 1866, Cheyne Walk ran along the shoreline, but after the construction of Chelsea Embankment it became separated from the waterfront. Today, while walking along this lane east from the Albert Bridge, we spotted the narrow Cheyne Mews. A sign at its entrance intrigued me. It reads:

“King Henry VIII’s manor house stood here until 1753 when it was demolished after the death of its last occupant, Sir Hans Sloane. Nos. 19 to 26 Cheyne Walk were built on its site in 1759-65. The old manor house garden still lies beyond the end wall of Cheyne Mews and contains some mulberry trees said to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth I.”

The manor and village of Chelsea was already in existence in the Anglo-Saxon era (between the departure of the Romans and 1066), when a document records it as ‘Cealchylle’. The 11th century Domesday book names it ‘Cercehede’ and ‘Chelched’. The manor was owned by the Abbey at Westminster until the reign of King Henry VII, when it was in the hands of Sir Reginald Bray (c1440-1503), a highly influential figure during the king’s reign. Next, it changed hands a couple of times before being possessed by William, Lord Sandys (1470-1540), a diplomat, Lord Chamberlain, and a favourite of King Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547). Sandys, who disapproved of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn (c 1501/07 – 1536), accompanied the unfortunate Anne to the Tower of London, where she was imprisoned.

In 1536, Sandys gave the manor to King Henry VIII. The much-married king gave it to his last spouse, Katherine Parr (1512-1548) as part of her dowry.  She lived in the manor house after the coronation of King Edward VI in January 1547 until she died. After her death, the manor was owned by the soldier and politician John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-1553). Then the manor passed through many owners until the physician and founder of the British Museum Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) bought it in 1712 from the Tory politician Lord William Cheyne (1657-1728).

There were two manor houses in Chelsea, an old one and a new one. The old one, which was given to the Lawrence family by Henry VIII was close to Chelsea Old Church that stands to the west of the Albert Bridge. The New Manor House stood on Cheyne Walk where we saw the sign. It stood near a coffee house that was flourishing when Sloane bought the manor, Don Saltero’s Coffee House, founded in 1695 by James Salter. Saltero’s was originally a barber’s shop until Sloane began donating unwanted specimens to his former servant and travelling companion, the owner of Saltero’s. Salter displayed these specimens (botanical, zoological, and other), collected on Sloane’s travels, in cabinets and gradually the barber shop was transformed into ‘Don Saltero’s Coffee House and Curiosity Museum’. This establishment attracted local men to become its customers, including Sir Isaac Newton.

Sloane’s purchase was a shrewd investment because at the time London was expanding westwards. His biographer James Delbourgo wrote:

“The manor cost the considerable sum of £17,800 and included a total of eleven houses and the Manor House itself … As a suburban equivalent of a country seat, the manor grounded Sloane’s gentlemanly identity. It also bought him about 90 acres of land … as a freeholder, and an unknown number of tenements, on which he began to collect his own rents.”

I have found an engraving of the appearance of the Chelsea manor house that stood on Cheyne Walk in a book published in the 1880s. The image resembles that included on a map of Chelsea surveyed in 1664 by James Hamilton and redrawn in 1717 (www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1880-1113-1221), but the exact location of the house is not marked on the map.

Apart from the commemorative sign at Cheyne Mews and the garden, to which we were unable to gain access, King Henry VIII’s manor house has completely disappeared. I wondered whether Chelsea’s Kings Road had any links to Henry VIII’s ownership of the manor, but it does not. It began as a private road used by King Charles II, who came to the throne long after Henry VIII, when travelling from London to Kew, and was only made a public thoroughfare in 1830. The site of the former manor house owned by Sloane is but a few minutes’ walk from the Chelsea Physic Garden, some of whose land was leased to the Society of Apothecaries for a small amount by Sloane when he acquired the manor.

Finding small things of great interest like the sign on Cheyne Mews is one of many things that increases my ever-growing fascination with London.

The dragons return

WHEN I FIRST VISITED Kew Gardens, I was a teenager, the entrance fee was sixpence (2.5 pence), and you entered via a metal turnstile. I did not visit Kew often in those days because it was a long way from my family home in northwest London. Recently, we have been exploring the delights of Kew Gardens occasionally with our friends who live in the heart of nearby Richmond town. During our most recent visit, whilst drinking coffee outside the former Orangery, now café, I stared at the nearby red brick building, Kew Palace, and began wondering about the history of the site, where the botanical gardens now stand, before Kew Gardens were opened to the public in 1840.

Kew Palace, which is also known as the ‘Dutch House’, now within the botanical gardens, was built on the site of a 16th century house, the ‘Dairy House’, in 1631. It is one of the oldest of the buildings standing by the Thames and was built for Samuel Forterie (1567-1643), a merchant of Dutch descent. After King George II (reigned 1727-1760) came to the throne, the building was used as a residence by various members of the royal family including King George III during some of his periods of illness.

For a long time, Kew Palace was not the only royal residence in what is now Kew Gardens. Before the Dutch House, now Kew Palace, was built by Forterie, a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley (1532-1588), 1st Earl of Leicester, lived in its predecessor. His house was close to one owned by the Keeper of the Privy Seal, Sir John Puckering (1544-1596), which Elizabeth visited both in 1594 and 1595.

Kew Palace was opposite a much larger building, Kew House, also known as the ‘White House’. Originally built in the Tudor era, it was first owned by Richard Bennet, son of the Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Bennet (1543-1627).  Richard’s daughter and heir, Dorothy, married Sir Henry Capel (1638-1696) and they lived in Kew House. After Dorothy was widowed, she continued living at Kew House until her death in 1721. The next owner of the house was the astronomer and politician Samuel Molyneux (1689-1728), who married a grandniece of Lord Capel.

Two years after Molyneux died, Frederick (1707-1751), Prince of Wales, father of King George III, leased Kew House from the Capel family. He and his wife, Princess Augusta (1719-1772) lived at Kew House, and employed the great designer William Kent (1685-1748) to decorate the house and to lay out the grounds. After Frederick died, Augusta began the creation of the ‘Exotic Garden’, the forerunner of the present Kew Gardens. The architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796) was put in charge of the works. In addition to the well-known pagoda (erected 1761-62) and still in existence, he oversaw the building of at least twenty structures in the garden. Many of these have been demolished, but amongst those still standing are The Orangery (1757-61), The Ruined Arch (1759), The Temple of Bellona (1760), and The Temple of Aeolus (1763).

After Augusta died, King George III (reigned 1760-1820) used Kew House and then bought its freehold in 1799. The King enjoyed improving the grounds of the property and ploughed up some of the neighbouring Richmond Deer Park to create an enlarged garden. Some of the work was entrusted to the garden designer ‘Capability’ Brown. The King received visits from the botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who brought him seeds and plants for his gardens.  By 1802, Kew House was falling to pieces, and was demolished in preparation for a new palace, which was never built.  A sundial in Kew Gardens marks the site of the house. On a map drawn by John Roque in 1754, the former Kew House is labelled ‘The Princess of Wales House at Kew’ and the Dutch House (Kew Palace) is labelled ‘His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales House at Kew’. The map also includes drawings of three follies: ‘The Hermitage’, ‘Dairy House’, and ‘Merlin’s Cave’.

When George III was in residence at Kew House, he led an unsophisticated existence as described by Madame D’Arblay (aka Frances [‘Fanny’] Burney; 1752-1840). She wrote in Volume 3 of her published diary that the King lived there in:

“… a very easy, unreserved way, running about from one end of the house to the other without precaution or care … There is no form or ceremony here of any sort …They live as the simplest country gentlefolks. The King has not even an equerry with him; nor the Queen any lady to attend her when she goes her airings.”

This suggests to me that the King was careless about how he dressed (if at all) at his country retreat.

Kew Palace (the Dutch House) was separated from Kew House by a public road. Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), George III’s wife, took over its lease and then bought its freehold in 1781, and eventually died there. As mentioned already, her husband spent time at Kew Palace during his periods of illness.

In 1840, the botanical gardens, the ancestor of what we now enjoy, were opened to the public. Had it not been for the enthusiasms of the area’s earlier owners, some of whom I have described above, the location of this establishment might have been at another site. The main attractions of Kew Gardens today are the plants and some of the magnificent houses built for them during this century and the two preceding it. However, it is of interest to see Kew Palace and the few remaining garden follies created by Sir William Chambers several decades before the foundation of the present botanical gardens.

The Pagoda, which is tall enough to be seen from outside the confines of Kew Gardens is an attractive feature of the place. Writing in 1876 in his guidebook, James Thorne remarked that:

“… It is in 10 storeys, each storey diminishing a foot in diameter and height, and each having a balcony and projecting roof. Originally a Chinese dragon crawled over every angle of each roof, but these have all taken flight.”

The Pagoda remained without dragons until 2018, when its restoration was completed. It was then that these creatures, looking extremely well groomed, returned to their original perches.