IT AMAZES ME that one can walk along the same route many times and miss features that turn out to be fascinating. I do not know how many times we have walked past Leinster Square near Bayswater and missed seeing a small information plaque attached to the cast-iron railings that keep the public out of the lovely private Leinster Square Gardens. Today, the 1st of April 2021, we saw it for the first time. Apart from providing a short history of this London square, it also mentions a person, about whom I have been curious for a while, since seeing a memorial to him near Portobello Road during our first covid19 ‘lockdown’.
Leinster Square was laid out by a property developer, George Wyatt, between 1856 and 1864 on land that was once used for market gardening and plant nurseries (http://www.lsga.org.uk/LSGA_Histories.html#:~:text=Building%20began%20in%201856%20and,character%20soon%20grew%20rather%20mixed.) The first inhabitants of the square were wealthy but soon the square became surrounded by hotels, flats, and lodging houses. Since then, this has remained the case. The buildings surround a beautifully maintained private garden, accessible mainly to people living around the square.
An article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leinster_Square) lists the following ‘notable residents’ of the square: the suffragette Georgina Fanny Cheffins (1863-1932); the musician Sting; and the architect Sir Charles Locke Eastlake (1836-1906). The article does not mention the naturalist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), who lived at both numbers 11 and 16 Leinster Square.
Hudson was born in Quilmes, Argentina, son of parents of English and Irish origin, settlers from the USA. His father Daniel was son of a Devon man and an Irish mother. William’s mother was born in Maine (USA), a descendant of one of the Pilgrim Fathers. During his youth in Argentina, William made many observations about the local flora and fauna as well as human activity. Some of his findings, mainly ornithological, were published in the prestigious “Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society” and were communicated to the Smithsonian Institute in the USA. His life, his works, his travels, and his extensive writings, have been described in detail in “WH Hudson. A Biography” by Ruth Tomalin.
On the 1st of April 1874, William departed from Argentina on board the “Ebro”, bound for Southampton in England, a journey that lasted 33 days. One of the first places Hudson visited was Clyst Hydon in Devon, where his father had lived. By the 22nd of December 1875, he had received his ticket for the reading room at the British Museum. It gave his address as 40 St Lukes Road, Bayswater. Known as the Tower House, this was a boarding house run by Miss Wingrave. The house, which still stands is at the corner of St Luke’s Road and Tavistock Road, close to Portobello Road. It bears two plaques commemorating the life of Hudson. It was in this house that he died. However, in between first arriving at this address and his final days, he lived in Leinster Square for a while.
Hudson’s hopes of gaining recognition in the scientific circles in London were disappointed. His romantic and artistic approach to natural history did not chime well with the London’s scientific elite with its more purely objective approach and its disdain for amateurs, however diligent they might be. And also, as Tomalin explained, Hudson did not:
“…belong to the right public school and university background.”
Unable and unwilling to join London’s somewhat dry academic community, Hudson, often short of money, wrote and published a great deal: fiction, non-fiction, natural history, travel, and poetry. On the 18th of May 1876, he married his landlady Emily Wingrave, once a professional singer (a soprano). His wife gave ‘no profession’ on the wedding certificate. She and William moved into number 16 Leinster Square, where she let out some of its rooms to paying guests. Although she claimed to be two years older than her husband, it was not for many years that he learned that she was 11 years older than him.
By 1878, the couple had moved into number 16 Leinster Square. Tomalin wrote of Emily:
“She gave him [i.e. Hudson] a home, companionship…, and a chance to devote himself to the slow unfolding of his gifts; something of the security of the mother and child relationship which, as his writings show, was often in his thoughts.”
After the Tower House came into the possession of Emily when her sister died, the Hudsons moved back there from Leinster Square, where the letting business had failed. Hudson was a keen opponent of cruelty to animal life and killing birds for collections. He was in touch with some women in Manchester, who founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Birds (‘RSPB’) in 1889. From the start he was a keen supporter of the RSPB and became the Chairman of its Committee in 1894.
In the summer of 1911, Emily became seriously ill and increasingly dependent of William’s assistance. After this, she suffered more bouts of illness. She died in March 1921. After her death, William rewrote his will, leaving much to the RSPB. Hudson died a year later in bed at Tower House, having just put the finishing touches on his last book, “A Hind in Richmond Park”.
This brief essay hardly does justice to the life of a remarkable naturalist, who criticised Charles Darwin in 1870, claiming, in connection with the great man’s fleeting observations a particular type of bird:
“… so great a deviation from the truth in this instance might give opponents of his book a reason for considering other statements in it erroneous or exaggerated…
…The perusal of the passage I have quoted from, to one acquainted with the bird referred to, and its habitat, might induce him to believe that the author purposely wrested the truths of Nature to prove his theory…”
The book referred to was Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. Hudson’s letter evoked a long and detailed response from Darwin, which was published in the “Proceedings of the Zoological Society”, which had also published Hudson’s criticisms. Although Hudson exonerated Darwin of having “wrested the truths of Nature … etc”, Darwin wrote in response:
“… I should be loath to think that there are many naturalists who, without any evidence, would accuse a fellow worker of telling a deliberate falsehood to prove his theory.”
Tomalin points out that Hudson’s criticism of Darwin was not surprising because he was not a believer in evolution as formulated by Darwin. Hudson believed in the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Putting it extremely simply, Lamarck believed that, for example, giraffes developed long necks so that they could reach the highest of leaves, whereas as Darwin believed that variants of giraffes that grew long necks had a better chance of survival and propagation than variants which did not and were therefore less able to survive and multiply.
Hudson would have appreciated Leinster Square and its lovely garden, a haven for birds and plants, had he been able to see it today. He would have easily recognised Tower House in St Luke’s Road, which has apparently changed little since he lived there. Once again, keeping one’s eyes open even when walking somewhere familiar can often lead to exciting discoveries. It would take more than a lifetime of visiting the same place repeatedly to become familiar with each and every one of its varied aspects.