Is this London’s thinnest house? The story behind 5 Thurloe Square
The history of the ‘Thin House’ in South Kensington.
Standing in a quiet square sandwiched between South Kensington tube station and the Victoria & Albert Museum is a rather unusual block of flats. No.5 Thurloe Square, nicknamed ‘the Thin House’, is thought to be one of the narrowest homes in the capital. Looking at the block from the south-west corner of the square, the house looks ridiculously narrow. However, it’s somewhat of an optical illusion as the building is actually triangular, which widens as you move further east.
Thurloe Square was built in 1840-1846 on land belonging to the Alexander Estate. The square was named after the Thurloe family – from which brothers John and James Alexander inherited the land following the death of their great-grandmother Anna Maria Harris’ son from her second marriage. Anna Maria, who inherited the estate in the early 18th century, was left widowed from her first marriage to John Browne (the Alexanders’ great-grandfather), and remarried John Thurloe Brace – grandson of the Puritan statesman John Thurloe (1616-1668). Their son Harris Thurloe Brace died without an heir in 1799, so the estate passed on to his mother’s family from her first marriage.
Most of the houses in Thurloe Square were designed by London-born architect George Basevi (1794-1845), a student of Sir John Soane and a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli. The terraces were designed in his signature neo-classical style with Doric columned porches at the front doors. This entrance feature is now a signature design of mid-Victorian terraces in the area.
Just two decades later, 23 houses in Thurloe Square were designated to be handed over to the Metropolitan District Railway, who were working on a new transport advancement, now known affectionately as ‘the tube‘. Landowner at the time, H.B. Alexander was thoroughly unimpressed and fought against the plans, but the Government overruled him. Mr Alexander could only be grateful that the Government banned the railways from erecting an entrance to South Kensington station in Thurloe Square as it would have ruined its amenities and character. The railways bought Nos. 1-11 Thurloe Square for £3,000, but in the end, only five houses (Nos. 1-5) on Thurloe Square were demolished in 1867. The company had bought a total of 42 houses from the Alexander Estate over various roads, but only destroyed 19. Some of the surviving buildings had their back gardens dramatically reduced. In 1868, South Kensington station opened, providing services on the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District Railway lines.
Who built the ‘Thin House’?
By the late 19th century, Kensington and Chelsea were world-renowned as a hub for art. Flocks of artists built studios in the area, many of which still exist today. Two Victorian artists’ homes Leighton House Museum and 18 Stafford Terrace are currently open as museums. With the railway lines just a few feet away from the south side of Thurloe Square, the triangular site of former Nos.1-5, remained vacant for many years.
Eventually, prolific local builder William Douglas saw its potential for seven artists’ studios. The wedge-shaped red brick block was built between 1885-1887. The large north-facing windows are perfect for letting in lots of light for the artists to work in. Building plans were submitted to the Metropolitan Board of Works by surveyor C.W. Stephenson on behalf of Douglas, suggesting he may have been the architect. At its narrowest point, the building is said to be 6ft wide, spanning to 34ft at its largest. The building proved popular with artists. The 1911 census showed a landscape painter named Arthur Johnson Ryle (1857-1915) was living in studio 3 until his death. By the 1970s, a fashion designer named Mandy Garrett was living in the studios.
In 1899, Thurloe Square was surveyed by Charles Booth for his poverty map. Notably, the houses on the south of the Square overlooking the railway were labelled ‘middle class’, while the remaining residences were ‘upper middle and upper class, wealthy’. Today, Kensington remains an area with some of the most expensive houses in the country. Most of the original Basevi terraces are Grade II listed, as is South Kensington station. While not listed, the artists’ studios are an impressive piece of real estate today. In 2021, a two-bedroom studio apartment covering just 580 square foot at 5 Thurloe Square went up for sale for £795,000.
- ‘The Thin House’, 5 Thurloe Square, Kensington, SW7. Nearest station: South Kensington. NB: This building contains private residences and are not open to the public.
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Posted on 28 Jan 2018, in Architecture, History, London and tagged 19th century, Kensington, tube, Victorian. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is this London’s thinnest house? The story behind 5 Thurloe Square.