Learn about the history of Somerset House on a free tour.
Somerset House is one of my favourite London buildings. It’s so versatile, full of history, is beautiful to look at and has a wealth of entertainment and art options. The current building we see today dates back to the 18th and 19th century, but its history goes way back to the 16th century. With over 450 years of history on the site, there’s a lot to take in. However, the Historical Highlights Tour, which takes place every week is a good place to start.
The first large house on the site was a two-storey property, which started to be built in 1547. It was a home for the Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset (1500-1552), who was given the land by his brother-in-law King Henry VIII. He served as Lord Protector of England for the first two years of his nephew King Edward VI’s (1537-1553) reign from 1547-1549, who was only nine when he came to the Throne. However, Somerset was overthrown in October 1549 and was executed on Tower Hill in 1552. His house, known as Somerset Place, was taken into the crown’s possession, with the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) living there during her half-sister Queen Mary’s (1516-1558) reign. However, the house hadn’t been completed decades later, with 16th century historian John Stow (1524/25-1605) referring to Somerset Place as still ‘yet unfinished’ in 1598 – over 50 years after building work started.
By 1603, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort to King James I of England (or James VI of Scotland) was given Somerset Place for her London residence, with it renamed Denmark House in her honour. Anne enrolled architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), among others, to make some improvements and additions to the long neglected house. Following Anne’s death, Jones designed a chapel in 1636 where her daughter-in-law, Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), wife of King Charles I, could quietly worship as a Roman Catholic, when Protestant was the dominant religion of the time. A small cemetery was established outside the chapel, with some of the 17th century gravestones being shown during the tour. Read the rest of this entry
The history of this tiny square in St James.
Walking down St James’s Street to the Tudor landmark St James’s Palace, it’s likely you may not have even noticed Pickering Place. Located next to the 17th century wine shop Berry Bros. & Rudd is an unassuming courtyard leading east. Pickering Place is thought to be the smallest public square in London. Entering the square, it’s like stepping back in time. The small space includes Georgian terraces, original gas lamps and wrought iron railings. The only obvious bit of modernity is the alfresco tables and seating spilling out from the Boulestin French restaurant (No.5 St James’s Street) on the north side.
Prior to the establishment of Pickering Place in the Georgian era, there was a court roughly on the same site, called Stroud’s Court. This Court, featuring four small tenements, was built in the back garden of No.3 St James’s Street in around 1690. In 1698, Widow Bourne established a grocery shop and coffee mill at No.3 St James’s Street. The family business appeared to be going so well by the 1730s, her son-in-law William Pickering did a deal with the landlords and agreed to demolish the existing buildings of Stroud Court and rebuild. Pickering obtained a new lease and by 1734 it was renamed Pickering Court and contained the five current dwellings, with his family living at No.5. Pickering’s son William Jnr continued to run the grocers with a relative John Clarke in the 1750s, with the latter’s grandson George Berry joining the business in the early 19th century. The shop has focused on selling wine for over 200 years and continues to trade under the name Berry Bros & Rudd, as you see today. While the Pickering name was lost from the business frontage, the name continued with the square being renamed Pickering Place in 1810.
Meanwhile, on the floor above Berry Bros at No.4 St James’s Street was the Embassy for the Republic of Texas. The Southern state was briefly an independent country from 1836-1845 before it joined the United States. Today, a plaque in the passage entrance commemorates the embassy: “Texas Legation in this building was the legation for the ministers from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St. James 1842 – 1845.” When Texas joined the USA, it abandoned its London embassy and left an unpaid rent bill of £160 to its landlords at Berry Bros. However, over 100 years later, a group of Texans travelled to London to repay the debt of their forefathers in 1986.
Wine shops and embassies aside, Pickering Place is also said to be the last place in London where a duel was fought. In the 18th and 19th century, the area hosted some rather dodgy goings on, including gambling, bear-baiting and brothels… we can all assume that those activities could frequently create a duelling situation! Regency dandy and friend to King George IV, Beau Brummell (1778-1840) – who is commemorated with a sculpture outside the Piccadilly Arcade – is among those reported to have fought here. Brummell appears as a character in Georgette Heyer’s 1935 novel Regency Buck, which describes No.5 Pickering Place as a ‘gambling hell’ in Regency London.
Today No.1-5 Pickering Place are all Grade II listed buildings, while the courtyard is used by Boulestin restaurant. Meanwhile, Berry Bros continues to sell hundreds of different wines, as well as hosting special events, wine school and tastings.
- Pickering Place, off St James Street, St James, SW1A. Nearest station: Green Park.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Charles Dickens Museum | Discover the man behind the books at the author’s only surviving London home
Review: A visit to Charles Dickens’ former home, which is now a museum.
Charles Dickens is without a doubt one of our greatest authors. Although he was born in Portsmouth and died in Kent, he spent an awful lot of his life in London. During his decades in the capital, the writer lived in many residences, most of which no longer exist.
Today, the only remaining home is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. The author and his wife Catherine (1815-1879) moved to 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury in March 1837 – just a few months before Queen Victoria came to the throne. Previously they had been living in rented rooms at Furnival’s Inn in Holborn, but the birth of their first son Charles Jnr (1837-1896) meant they required more space. He signed a three-year lease on the five-floor Georgian terrace, costing around £80 a year. Built in 1807-9, the building is now Grade I-listed.
During the Dickens family’s three years in Doughty Street, Catherine gave birth to their eldest daughters Mary (1838-1896) and Kate (1839-1929), as well as raising their son Charles Jnr. Mrs Dickens’ 17-year-old sister Mary Hogarth also lived with the couple to help them with their expanding brood. Charles became very attached to his sister-in-law and she died in his arms following a short illness in May 1837. She is believed to have inspired several of his characters, including Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist and Little Nell Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop, among others.
While living at the Bloomsbury terrace, Dickens completed The Pickwick Papers (1836), wrote Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39) and started on Barnaby Rudge (1840–41). As he became more successful in his career and his family expanded, Dickens and the family left Doughty Street in December 1839 and moved to the grander 1 Devonshire Terrace in Marylebone. They lived at Devonshire Terrace until 1851 before moving on to Tavistock House, where the family remained for a further nine years. One Devonshire Terrace was demolished in the late 1950s and now an office block called Ferguson House stands on the site on Marylebone Road.
While most of Dickens’ London residences are long gone, the Doughty Street premises nearly ended up consigned to the history books as well. By the 1920s and 1930s, demolition of Georgian properties was becoming popular with the government, the majority of those being part of the ‘slum clearance’ programme. Many homes from this period had not been maintained well over the decades, providing unsanitary and unsafe living quarters for predominantly poor Londoners. Forty-eight Doughty Street was ear-marked for demolition in 1923, but was fortunately saved by the Dickens Fellowship, founded 21 years earlier. They managed to buy the property and renovate it, opening the Dickens’ House Museum in 1925. In 2012, the museum was re-opened following a £3.1million restoration project and now encompasses neighbouring No.49.
After having it on my ‘to do’ list for some time, I finally paid a visit recently and really enjoyed it. Upon entry you are given an audio tour which guides you around the five floors, including the kitchen and the attic. The museum really brings to life the man behind the books – his complicated private life, his feelings about his tough childhood and his many inspirations. The rooms have been decorated as the author may have known it, in a typical Victorian style and often with his actual furniture – many of which had been bought from Gad’s Hill Place – the Kent home where the author died in 1870. If you’re a fan of Dickens or history, I highly recommend a visit.
- Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, WC1N 2LX. Nearest station: Russell Square or Chancery Lane. Open Tues-Sun 10am-5pm. Tickets: Adult £9, Child 6-16 years £4. For more information, visit the museum website.
For a guide to London’s Dickens landmarks, click here.
Read about the history of, Marshalsea Prison, where Charles’ father John was imprisoned for debt.
The history of London’s first ever shopping arcade in St James.
Decades before the likes of Westfield and Brent Cross came to London, those who wanted to shop in comfort headed to one of the capital’s arcades. Like the mega malls of today, these arcades featured numerous shops under one roof, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the weather. However, as well laid out as these modern fashion meccas are, they just can’t compare to the historic and upmarket designs of the late Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods. As part of Metro Girl’s series on the six historic arcades of Mayfair and St James, Part 2 will be focusing on where it all began; the Royal Opera Arcade – the oldest arcade in the world.
Now you could well be confused wondering why the Royal Opera Arcade is over a kilometre away from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Well the current opera house has only been in its current location since 1847. The current Her Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket is the fourth theatre to stand on the site and has experienced numerous name changes throughout history. Throughout the 18th and early 19th century, the theatre was renowned as the place in London to see opera and ballet. However, in 1846, Michael Costa (1808-1884), conductor at Her Majesty’s, had a dispute with the owners and switched allegiance to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, bringing most of the company with him. Theatre Royal, Covent Garden was then renamed the Italian Opera House, eventually becoming the Royal Opera House in 1892.
The Royal Opera Arcade was conceived as an add-on to the second theatre to stand on the site – the King’s Theatre. The original King’s Theatre burned down in 1789 and replaced by a new building in 1791, designed by Michael Novosielski (1747–1795), an architect and former scene painter. When it opened, it was the largest theatre in the country. However, as the 19th century progressed, the theatre was in need of improvement. Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835) and his assistant George Stanley Repton (d.1858) altered the façade of the theatre and increased the capacity of the auditorium to 2,500 in 1816-1818. To the west of the theatre, they added the Royal Opera Arcade. Nash is also famous for designing Buckingham Palace, Clarence House, Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, Carlton House Terrace and many others.
Delve into the history of London’s longest shopping arcade on Piccadilly.
Decades before the likes of Westfield came to London, those who wanted to shop in comfort headed to one of the capital’s arcades. Like the mega malls of today, these arcades featured numerous shops under one roof, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the weather. However, as well laid out as these modern fashion meccas are, they just can’t compare to the historic and upmarket designs of the late Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian period. As part of Metro Girl’s series on the six historic arcades of Mayfair and St James, we will be starting with the Burlington Arcade – the longest and the 2nd oldest of the arcades.
In the early 19th century, the site of the arcade was owned by the wealthy aristocratic Cavendish family. The family had inherited neighbouring Burlington House through marriage when Richard, 3rd Earl of Burlington’s (1694-1753) daughter Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Boyle (1731-1754) wed William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720-1764), who briefly served as Prime Minister. The couple’s son Lord George Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire, (1754-1834) inherited Burlington House in 1815 and ended up using some of the side garden to erect the arcade. His apparent reasoning for building the mini mall was to prevent the passing public from lobbing oyster shells – a common and affordable food at the time – over the wall into his home. As well as give him more privacy, it would also be a tidy earner for the estate.
Lord George enlisted architect Samuel Ware (1781-1860) to design the arcade with building starting in February 1818. While it was being constructed, the world’s oldest existing shopping arcade, the Royal Opera Arcade opened on Pall Mall in 1818. While the Royal Opera only had shops on one side, the Burlington was a double-sided arcade. Opening on 20 March 1819, the Regency-style building featured a 196 yard long walkway lined by 72 two-storey shop units. The high ceiling covered the walkway featured windows letting in lots of light, with Palladian-style, Ionic columns bringing in some style from the classical world. The arcade cost £29,329, with all shops being occupied by the end of the year. Originally, there were 47 leaseholders, including some females, with tenants and their families residing in the cramped living quarters above their shops.
By 1828, it appeared the arcade was certainly prospering, with milliners, hosiers, linen shops, shoemakers, hairdressers, jewellers, watchmakers, tobacconists, umbrella sellers and florists among the many businesses on site. In 1830, Burlington retailer James Drew was the first in the arcade to receive the Royal Warrant. He made the famous high collars for Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-1898) and invented the soft collar. Read the rest of this entry
The history behind Horace Walpole’s unique 18th century home.
Without a doubt, Strawberry Hill is one of the most unique houses in the capital. I was first introduced to it when I saw an Instagram photo of the building’s stunning Gallery and wanted to find out more. Built as a private home, it stands in Twickenham, south-west London, a short walk from the Thames and is now open to the public as a museum.
Strawberry Hill was built in stages from 1749 to 1776 as a home for Horace Walpole (1717-1797), a politician and the son of the first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Horace was under pressure to find himself a country seat (18th century Twickenham was countryside) and found one of the last sites available in the very fashionable area. The original house on the site was called Chopp’d Straw Hall, which Horace wasn’t too impressed with and renamed his new build Strawberry Hill after finding the name on an old lease.
Work on the house started in 1749 with Horace conceiving a vision of a Gothic castle. His inspiration from Medieval architecture predated the Victorian architectural fashion for Gothic revival many decades later. Horace and his team of amateur architectures looked at the Henry VII chapel and tombs at Westminster Abbey, as well as tombs from Canterbury Cathedral for ideas. The resulting building looks like a cross between castles and Gothic cathedrals. The first stage of construction was complete by 1753, with a second stage of alterations taking place in 1760, a third in 1772, with work finally being completed in 1776, costing £20,720 – a rather hefty sum in the 18th century. Read the rest of this entry
Now I don’t like to make assumptions about my readers, but I reckon I could make a fairly good guess that most of you haven’t visited No.10 Downing Street. Located behind iron gates and a wall of police, it’s one of the most heavily guarded addresses in the United Kingdom. It’s pretty unlikely that many of us will get close to the iconic address.
However, during a quiet side street off the Strand is a building that is a bit of a doppelgänger to the Prime Minister’s residence. Walking past No.10 Adam Street you could be forgiven for looking twice. The entrance to the Georgian building features a familiar black door. Both have the fan window above the door, white stucco frame and a brass door knob. While Downing Street has a black lion door knocker, Adam Street has a simple brass one.
No.10 Adam Street was designed by architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) – part of the Adam architectural dynasty. The surrounding area is known as Adelphi – named after the former Adelphi Terrace which was built between 1768-1792 and designed by Robert, James and William Adam. The Adelphi was London’s first neoclassical building and featured 11 large houses and a vaulted terrace with fine views over the Thames.
Although the Adelphi Terrace was demolished in the 1930s, the name lives on with the nearby Adelphi Theatre and the new Adelphi building, a striking Art Deco creation. The surrounding roads – Adam Street, John Adam Street and Robert Street – are named after the architects.
- 10 Adam Street, Westminster, WC2N 6AA. Nearest station: Charing Cross, Embankment or Temple.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
The history and attractions of St Katharine Docks by the Tower of London.
Situated on the east side of Tower Bridge is a little oasis of calm. Where the boat and pedestrian is king and cars are firmly out of sight and mind. Many tourists don’t even know there’s a relaxing place to eat, shop and drink just moments from the Tower Of London. Over 180 years after it was opened, St Katharine Docks is still hosting boats, as well as being a place to live and be entertained.
The River Thames has always been of huge importance to trade and business in London. After all it is the river that helped the Romans decide where to set up camp and found Londonium. The access to the sea via the Thames estuary made it an attractive prospect. Although we don’t use the river half as much as generations of Londoners before us, the waterways of the capital remain a big draw with tourists and locals for scenic reasons to escape the frenetic city.
The name St Katharine dates back to a Medieval church and hospital, which was founded on the site in the 12th century. Over the years, the population swelled with around 3,000 people living in St Katharine’s, which had its own court, school and almshouses by the late 18th century. However, with the country’s world trade booming, there was growing demand for more docks to add to the ever-expanding Pool of London. In 1825, the 23 acre site was earmarked for development, with the church, hospital and slum houses all cleared to make way for the new dock. Around 1,250 houses and tenements were pulled down, leaving 11,300 inhabitants seeking new accommodation elsewhere.
Scottish engineer Thomas Telford (1757–1834) worked with architect Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) on the docks. Telford created the docks themselves in two basins with a lock to the Thames, while Hardwick designed the buildings and warehouses. At the time, theft was a huge problem for trade companies due to the pattern of workers manually lifting cargo from the boat and transferring it on land to the warehouses a short walk away. The new purpose-built docks meant the boats could be brought right up to the buildings with the cargo lifted straight from the vessels to storage. Out of the 23 acre site, just over 11 acres were used as wet docks. The first stone was laid in May 1827 with 2,500 men building the Docks, which officially opened on 25 October 1828. Also on site was the Dockmasters’ House by the lock, which still stands today.
St Katharine Docks soon became popular for sugar, rum, tea, spices, perfumes, ivory, shells, marble, indigo, wine and brandy, arriving from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Today, one of the only existing warehouses is named Ivory House – a nod to the former docks’ trading history. Despite bringing in a speedy new way to unload ships, it wasn’t long before St Kats found itself being outdated by the Industrial Revolution. Cargo ships were getting larger and simply couldn’t be accommodated at St Kats. In September 1921, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) set off from St Katharine’s in his steamship Quest for his last Antarctic voyage. Read the rest of this entry
The history of the house and grounds at the end of the Northern Line.
Situated in London’s outer zones, are remnants of former country life. Now enclosed within the capital’s borders, there’s a host of manor houses and country estates which have amazingly managed to survive the frantic building and population boom of the ever-expanding city since the Victorian times. One such ‘leftover’ is Morden Hall Park, an 18th century estate in south-west London. Situated a short walk from Morden tube station, is 120 acres of parkland and historic buildings, enclosed by a 12-foot wall. Once you step inside, the city feels far away as you’re suddenly in a little country oasis.
Previously located in Surrey, Morden was owned by Westminster Abbey before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. It was bought by Sir Richard Garth in 1553, who became Lord of the Manor. The Garth family owned the land for several centuries, with much of the estate being used as a deer park. The 5th Richard Garth built Morden Hall in 1770, with the building being used as a boy’s school from 1830-1873. Around this time, the two-storey Hall was stuccoed. Also in the 18th century, the East Mill was built, with the West Mill added in 1830. Meanwhile, Morden Cottage is a late 18th/early 19th century building featuring weatherboarding, with a Gothic façade linking it to the adjacent Mill Building.
In 1872, the Garth family sold the land to the tobacco merchant Gilliant Hatfeild (1827–1906), who had been brought up on the estate at Morden Cottage. He removed some of the field boundaries and demolished some of the cottages, while creating a tree-lined driveway linking the Hall to new South Lodge. The two mills on site were used to ground down tobacco into snuff until 1922, when a strike convinced Hatfeild’s son to quit the business. One of the original waterwheels that powered the mill still exists today. The family planted many of the trees that still exist, while one of the oldest yew trees in England is outside the cottage. In 1879, the Stable Yard was constructed opposite the cottage, with a distinctive clock tower and weather vane in the shape of a trout. In 1892, the park was described as containing around 100 deer.
The last private owner of the estate, Gilliat Edward Hatfeild (1864-1941) moved out of the grand Hall into the Cottage following the outbreak of World War I so it could be converted to a military hospital. As a confirmed bachelor, Gilliat preferred a simpler lifestyle and remained living at the cottage until his death. He enjoyed country life, with many of existing buildings today reflecting his interests. He was a keen hunter and fisherman, even converting the dairy for trout breeding. In 1930, he created the Rose Garden, which has been restored by the National Trust and now has over 2,000 roses across the 2.5 acres.
Gilliat was very popular with Morden locals and often invited local schoolchildren to visit the grounds. Following his death during World War II, he bequeathed the estate to the National Trust, saying ‘a fee shall not be charged so that my Morden estate shall be open to the public’. He is buried in nearby St Lawrence Church on London Road, which was built in 1636.
Meanwhile, as for the house itself, following the National Trust purchase, it was used as offices until the early 1990s. The NT discovered the house had fallen into disrepair and teamed up with Whitbread to convert the building, while remaining sympathetic to its history, into a Beefeater restaurant and function room in 1996. Today, Morden Hall, is generally off-limits to the public, but is available for weddings following an extensive renovation in 2015. It is Grade-II listed.
Today, the estate contains the historic buildings and the expansive grounds, with the River Wandle running through. Among the features include a rose garden, wetlands, children’s playground, garden centre, city farm, gift shop and café. During the summer months, a pop-up cinema often take places during the evenings. During 2010, the Stable Yard was renovated to be the most energy-efficient historic building in the country. It now offers new visitor facilities, including an exhibition space.
- Morden Hall Park, Morden Hall Road, Morden, SM4 5JD. Nearest station: Morden or Phipps Bridge (Tramlink). For more information and opening times, visit the National Trust website.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Have you spotted the old lettering reading ‘Exchange and Bullion Office’ on this Georgian terrace?
Without a doubt, Wardour Street is one of the busiest roads in the West End. Stretching the length of Soho and bordered by Chinatown, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, it means the street attracts a lot of traffic – both vehicle and pedestrian. Most Londoners and tourists will have passed down Wardour Street at some point in their commute to work, sightsee or socialise. However, with the road so busy, how often do you have time to stop and look up at the buildings around you?
Wardour Street is home to a wide range of architecture from the 1700s to present day – such as the W Hotel. The road itself has been named various things over the centuries and has been visible on maps since the Elizabethan times. In the late 16th century, it was named Colmanhedge Lane, which was then a popular route across the fields of the Burton Saint Lazar lands. The lane linked the Charing Cross area to the main road we now know as Oxford Street, which was simply described as ‘the Way from Vxbridge to London’. Old maps of what is now known as Soho shows the lane follows the current Wardour Street nearly exactly, including the slight bends at Old Compton Street and Brewer Street.
Following the Restoration in 1660, the land at the southern end of Wardour Street was leased by Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1699) to Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans (1605-1684). By 1676, her son King Charles II (1630-1685) granted the freehold of the three and half acre plot to the Earl, who swiftly disposed of the land to builders, who erected buildings by 1681-2. On a 1682 map, what we now know as Wardour Street were actually three different roads – So Ho in the north, Whitcomb Street in the middle and the abbreviated Hedge Lane had remained for the southern end. However, within three years, the portion of the road between Coventry Street and Brewer Street was renamed again as Princes Street after Prince Rupert (1619-1682), while the upper part near Oxford Street was renamed Wardour Street after the landowner at the time Sir Edward Wardour (d.1694). It was during the 17th century that Soho was really transformed from fields into a residential and business district. By 1687, the properties on Princes St were owned by Sir Anthony Deane, who sold them to Richard Bourne. By the 1720s and 1730s, many of the buildings on Princes Street were of poor quality and were torn down and rebuilt by Bourne’s family.