Knightsbridge & the Duke of Wellington

Nigel Cox

Introduction

Olivia and I are lucky enough to live just 10 minutes’ walk from Apsley House, in Knightsbridge, the area stretching west from Hyde Park Corner to Queensgate and south to the Brompton Road. In my reading over the years, I have come across several references to Wellington’s associations with Knightsbridge, and I recently decided to try to pull them together as an article for our residents’ association annual report. I wondered if this might also be of interest to some other volunteers and staff at Apsley, so I have pasted it in below. It is aimed at “Wellington Beginners”, so it probably includes much information already familiar to you. I shall be grateful for any corrections or comments.

First, though a few words for “Knightsbridge Beginners”. The “Hamlet of Knightsbridge” in the 18th Century was quite a densely built-up village extending west along the turnpike road from the bridge over the river Westbourne (where Albert Gate now stands, framed by the French and Kuwaiti Embassies) and Knightsbridge Green (which originally extended to the apex of the Kensington and Brompton roads). Beyond it there were market gardens and nurseries, and along the south side of the Kensington Road, where there had previously just been sizeable fields, six large houses with spacious gardens had been built from the late 17th century onwards, facing Hyde Park. These included Kingston House and Powis House (see below). Inside Hyde Park, the first Cavalry Barracks was built between 1792 and about 1797.

Kingston House, Kensington Road

In the late 1770s, Wellington’s father, the 1st Earl of Mornington, an Irish landowner and talented amateur musician and composer, brought his family to live in London.

The First Earl of Mornington, Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

He took rooms at Kingston House, which stood on the Kensington Road, where the present large block of flats, Kingston House North, was built in 1937–38. Lord Mornington died in 1781, the same year that the future Duke was sent to Eton. He did not distinguish himself there and spent time with tutors in Brighton and Brussels before joining the Royal Academy of Equitation in Angers, France. He joined the Army in 1787, shortly before his 18th birthday.

Kingston House had been built on a three acre site in 1757–1758 by the Duke of Kingston for his friend, Miss Elizabeth Chudleigh. She was the rather racy daughter of a Governor of Chelsea Hospital. The Duke married her in 1769. However, after the Duke’s death in 1773, she was convicted of bigamy (having previously secretly married Augustus Hervey, later Earl of Bristol). She then fled the country, letting part of the house. She continued to enjoy the rents until her death a decade later. Later tenants included Wellington’s older brother, Marquess Wellesley, who died there in 1842, and Baron Lionel de Rothschild.

The original house was demolished in 1937. Redevelopment of the whole Kingston House estate (21 acres) continued until the 1960s, as leases fell in: the results are today’s Kingston House North, South and East, Bolney Gate and Moncorvo Close.

The Trevors

Powis House dated back to about 1689 and belonged to the Trevor family of Denbighshire (who continued to own the land until 1909).

Wellington’s mother was born Ann Hill-Trevor, daughter of the 1st Viscount Dungannon, whose Christian name, Arthur, he was given. In 1771 her nephew, Arthur Hill-Trevor, 2nd Viscount Dungannon, inherited Powis House and the Trevor Estate of which it was part.

After the Cavalry Barracks was built in Hyde Park in the 1790s, with a range of officers’ stables built alongside the Knightsbridge boundary wall in 1803, Powis House lost its view of the park, and in 1810 Lord Dungannon decided to demolish it and to lay out the ground for building. The result was today’s Trevor Street and Trevor Square, as well as the terrace of larger houses facing the park, now numbered 235–243 Knightsbridge.

16 Trevor Square

Wellington was fond of attractive women, and his lovers included the courtesan Harriette Wilson (1786–1845), who lived at 16 Trevor Square from 1828 to 1830 and probably wrote one of her novels there.

16 Trevor Square

A few years earlier she had written a sensational memoir. Before it was printed, in 1825, her publisher had offered the Duke the chance to pay to have his name removed; he is famously (but probably apocryphally) said to have responded “Publish and Be Damned”. The book opens with the striking sentence “I shall not say how, and why, I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.” It included a lurid account of her relationship with Wellington over nearly a decade, as well as an unflattering commentary on the Duke (for example she said that his evening coat made him look like a rat-catcher).

The book is still in print today. Its revelations did not prevent Wellington’s becoming Prime Minister in 1828.

38 Trevor Square

During the 1840s Wellington’s valet, James Kendall, lived at 38 Trevor Square (the house adjoining 9 Trevor Street at the top of the square — noted until recently for being painted pink). Kendall served the Duke for 25 years and was at Walmer Castle in Kent in September 1852 ,when he fell ill and died. At Queen Victoria’s request, he cut a lock of hair from the Duke’s head, which she then wore in a gold bracelet. He also made a bust of Wellington, which was recently on display at Apsley House.

Apsley House, credit Wikimedia Commons

Hyde Park

The Duke enjoyed riding on Rotten Row, including until the late 1820s on his famous charger, Copenhagen (1808–1836). Copenhagen had carried him for 17 hours at the Battle of Waterloo — and, when Wellington patted his flank after finally dismounting, tried to kick him in the head.

The Duke was Ranger of Hyde Park from 1850 to 1852. Among other duties he helped arrange the eviction, in preparation for the Great Exhibition of 1851, of “the Squatter of Hyde Park”, an old woman called Ann Hicks, who had run a fruit stall and contrived to build herself a low cottage on the mound between the Serpentine and Rotten Row. She claimed that her family had been granted the right to live in the Park after her grandfather rescued King George II from drowning in the Serpentine. The House of Commons heard but dismissed her case. However a public appeal raised the funds for her to emigrate to Australia, where she had family.

Apsley House and the Wellington Arch are home to outstanding works of art, and are cared for by an enthusiastic team of staff and volunteers.