When visitors come to Greenwich Park, they usually make a beeline for the Royal Observatory with its historic GMT line and stunning views. However, in the south-west corner of the park, there’s a fascinating piece of London’s royal history hidden behind a hedge. Situated just a metre from the park’s wall is the remains of Queen Caroline’s bathhouse.
Caroline Amelia Elizabeth, Princess of Brunswick (1768-1821), was born in Germany and was betrothed to her cousin, the future King George IV (1762-1830) in an arranged marriage. The pair wed at St James’s Palace in April 1795, with the heir-to-the-throne apparently drunk during the ceremony! Their coupling was a disaster and they separated shortly after the birth of their daughter Princess Charlotte (1796-1817). By the time their child was a year old, Princess Caroline was living in a separate house in Charlton, eventually moving a few miles away to Montagu House in Blackheath around 1797-1799.
Montagu House was built in the late 17th century for Ralph Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu (1638-1709). His son John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690-1749) employed Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) as a butler at the house for two years. Sancho was born on a slave ship, but gained his freedom and educated himself, partially with the books from the library at Montagu House. He went on to become an early prominent figure in the fight for the abolition of slavery and wrote many letters on the subject. Today, there is a plaque commemorating Sancho on what was the wall of Montagu House. The bathhouse is believed to be an addition added by Princess Caroline in the early 19th century. It was a structure of glass and light lattice, with an adjoining greenhouse. Bathhouses were trendy in Georgian times for improving health and entertaining guests. Surprisingly to us 21st century Brits, the Georgians usually wore their clothes while bathing.
Returning to Princess Caroline, by the time she moved into Montagu House she was being subjected to harsh custody arrangements over her daughter Charlotte. Under English law at the time, the father’s rights were considered more important than the mother’s, and partially out of hatred for his estranged wife, George made things incredibly difficult. Princess Caroline was only allowed to see her daughter in the presence of a nurse and governess, overnight stays were forbidden and she was banned from making any decisions about Charlotte’s care or education.
During her 15 years or so living at Montagu House, Princess Caroline was the target of some wild rumours. A sociable and confident woman, Charlotte hosted famously wild parties at Montagu House and was romantically linked to several men. She was accused of flirting with Naval heroes, Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith (1764-1840) and Captain Thomas Manby (1769-1834) and having a brief relationship with politician and future Prime Minister George Canning (1770 –1827). She wasn’t just a known for her social skills, but also her generosity with poor neighbours. In 1802, Caroline adopted a baby boy William Austin when his desperate mother brought him to the house. Read the rest of this entry
The Wellington Arch is one of London’s famous landmarks, being beamed to televisions around the world during ceremonial, historical events. However, to many Londoners, it is often dismissed as an ornament on a traffic island in the middle of one of the city’s busiest and stressful traffic junctions. Being one of a few ornate arches in the capital, it is often confused by tourists with Marble Arch just up the road. Although upon first look, you would assume the Wellington Arch has stood in its spot for centuries as the world changed around it. However, the structure has in fact gone through two major changes over the years – with its Quadriga statue on the top not actually being the original and the location in a different spot from where it used to stand.
In the early 19th century, Hyde Park Corner – where Kensington Road met Piccadilly – was widely thought of as the entrance to London. A tollgate stood in front of Hyde Park, to the west of Apsley House (the London residence of the Dukes of Wellington). Apsley House’s location just inside the tollgate lead to its nickname as being No.1 London, when in actual fact it is 149 Piccadilly. Following Britain’s success in the Napoleonic Wars, King George IV was keen to commemorate the victories with the Wellington Arch and Marble Arch. Young architect Decimus Burton (1800-1881) was commissioned to create a grand entrance to Green Park and the longer screen entrance to Hyde Park Corner. His initial design was considered too modest, so he submitted a second design with an arch that was deemed more triumphal featuring a more ornamental exterior and would be christened with a Quadriga – a car or chariot driven by four horses.
Building on the arch started in 1826 in the architecture style of the Corinthian Order, featuring elaborate capitals at the top of the columns. However, in 1828, the Government was unhappy when construction costs exceeded Burton’s original budget, along with the fact the rebuilding of Buckingham Palace at the same time was also hugely over budget. The Treasury declined to fund the rest of the project so Burton had to scale back his exterior ornamental features and the Quadriga never materialised.
After years of standing as an arch, the Wellington Memorial Committee thought it would be fitting to have an equestrian statue of the Duke Of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1769-1852) atop the arch. As well as commemorating his victory at the Battle of Waterloo, it was deemed a perfect location as it was outside his London residence. Eight years after it was commissioned, Matthew Cotes Wyatt’s bronze statue of Wellington was erected in 1846. At the time, it was the largest equestrian statue in the country, standing at 30 foot high and weighing 40 tons. While Britain was incredibly proud of the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, his bronze likeness was not so popular. Many thought the statue was disproportionate to the arch, Burton hated it and even Queen Victoria wasn’t a fan, believing it disturbed the view from Buckingham Palace. Despite its lack of popularity, it would have been seen as a huge insult to the Duke if it was moved, so it remained during his lifetime. The Duke actually said he would feel obliged to step down from all his public posts if it was removed, so the Government and Queen decided it should remain in situ.
By the 1870s, the traffic around Hyde Park Corner had reached chaotic proportions. In the 1880s, the Government proposed moving the arch 20 metres away so the road could be widened. From 1883 until 1885, the arch was dismantled and bit by bit, moved to its current location, facing south-east down Constitution Hill. Its new location meant the original relationship between the arch and the Hyde Park Corner screen was lost. After a brief stay in Green Park during the relocation, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) suggested Wyatt’s sculpture of Wellington should be moved to Aldershot, Berkshire, as a gift to the British Army, where it remains today.
At its new site, the arch was marooned on a traffic island on land which used to be the western part of Green Park. The southern pier of the arch was used as a residence for the park-keeper, while the northern pier was used as a police station (said to be the smallest in Britain) until the 1950s. After decades without a crowning glory, the Prince of Wales suggested sculptor Adrian Jones’s Quadriga, (of which he had seen a smaller version during a Royal Academy exhibition), would be a fitting topper. Although no funds were available at the time, thanks to a donation from banker Sir Herbert Stern, Jones’s full-size bronze ‘Triumph’ was finally created and placed upon the arch in 1912 – when the Prince was King Edward VII. The Angel of Peace riding the chariot was said to be modelled on Beatrice Stewart. The statue is the largest bronze sculpture in Europe.
After being acquired by English Heritage in 1999 and restored, the arch is now open to the public. As well as presenting a history of the arch and an exhibition area, visitors can also check out the vistas from the two balconies.
- Wellington Arch, Apsley Way, Hyde Park Corner, W1J 7JZ. Tickets: Adults: £4, Children: 2.40. Opening times vary depending on the season. Nearest tube: Hyde Park Corner. Check website for further details.
To find out about the Duke Of Wellington’s old mounting stone, click here.
For the history of another London ‘traffic island’, read More than just a traffic island: The history behind Parliament Square
For more of Metro Girl’s London history blog posts, click here.
If time travel were ever made possible, I would do everything in my power to get to the front of the queue to try it out. However, with the possibility of crossing space and time looking unlikely at the moment, I’ll have to make do with my imagination…
This is where the unique Dennis Severs’ House comes in. While not exactly a museum, this private house is opened on rare evenings as a ‘still-life drama’. Earlier this month, I booked tickets for an evening visit time slot with my mother after hearing the house was opening its doors. As we weren’t allowed to take photos – so as to not distract from the experience – I will attempt to give a best description as possible of this unusual visit.
The Dennis Severs’ House is located at 18 Folgate Street, standing amidst a neat row of early Georgian terraces, just a stone’s throw from Spitalfields Market. No. 18 was built in 1724 and had four storeys, including a basement – featuring 10 rooms which are all accessed on your visit.
The late American artist Dennis Severs bought the property in 1979 when it was dilapidated and spent 20 years restoring each room in different historical styles from the 18th and 19th centuries. Throughout each room are signs of the fictional inhabitants, the Jervis family, who are imagined to have lived in the house over several generations.
After being greeted at the front door, we were given a brief premise to turn off our phones, no cameras or talking and let the house draw us in. The motto of the house is, ‘You either see it, or you don’t.’ Starting on the ground floor, before working our way down to the basement, then up to the upper floors, each room was full with antique furniture, clothing and other remnants from yesteryear. However, in contrast to museums where visitors are kept at a distance from roped off interiors, you are invited to study the objects in furniture in great detail, up close and personal. If you looked close enough, you could see little notes written by the Jervis family.
Although no-one lives in the house now, lit candles, sound effects and crackling fires makes 18 Folgate Street feel very much alive. Discarded clothing, half-eaten food, unmade beds and broken cups on the floor give the impression the house is still being lived in – but as if the inhabitants have just popped out for a minute, or perhaps left in a rush. The creaky, original staircases and my barely-visible reflection in the aged glass mirrors added to the feeling I was in another time. Further fuelling the historic atmosphere, sound effects of ringing bells, clip-clop of horses and carriages and cannon shots helped drown out the 21st century sounds outside.
After 45 minutes, I left the Dennis Severs’ House very impressed. It is such a unique place and gives you plenty food for thought. When visiting for the first time, keep an open mind and embrace the quiet and olde world of the house. Although it is also open for some daytime visits, through personal experience I would believe the evening visits would be a lot more atmospheric.
To watch Dan Cruickshank’s BBC documentary on the house on YouTube, click here.
- Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, E1 6BX. Check the website for detailed opening times and how to book. Nearest tube: Liverpool Street or Shoreditch High Street (Overground). For more information, visit the Dennis Severs’ House website.
To read a blog post on another special Georgian building nearby, click 19 Princelet Street: Step back in history in this unique museum of immigration.
For more blog posts on London history, click here.