Tag Archives: Knightsbridge

Just How Romantic Were Highwaymen?

I have a vested interest in that question because two of my ancestors were hanged at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire for highway robbery in the first half of the 18th century – fortunately for me, they had married and left children by then. Not so fortunate for their families. So, were these two handsome masked men on flashy black stallions, setting ladies’ hearts a flutter as they relieved the gentlemen of their coin? I very much doubt it – from what I can establish of these two, and their circumstances, they were probably an unpleasant pair of muggers out for what they could get and unscrupulous about how they got it.

But the highwayman was a popular figure (at least, if you weren’t one of his victims). The crowd loved a villain, especially one who robbed those better off than themselves, carried out daring raids and escapes and, when almost inevitably brought to justice, “died game” on the gallows. Reality was less romantic – even the famous Dick Turpin, shown here on Black Bess, was a violent thug who tortured victims and inn keepers. The dashing Frenchman, Claude du Vall was hanged at Tyburn January 1670 despite (according to legend) gallantly sparing the possessions of any pretty lady who was prepared to dance with him. Presumably the plain ones just got robbed. The Victorians loved him and he was immortalized in a painting by Frith.

So, what was the risk of encountering a highwayman? Up until the third quarter of the 18th century the danger was significant. Roads were bad, so travel was slow and out-running a mounted attack virtually impossible. There was no effective policing of highways and the response of the law was to react to incidents, not to prevent them. The London Gazette in 1684 carried an advertisement offering a reward after the Northampton stage was, ‘set upon by four Theeves, plain in habit but well-horsed,’ and in one week in 1720 every stagecoach into London from Surrey was robbed by highwaymen.

However, as I discovered when I was researching  Stagecoach Travel, although rapid improvements to roads in the later 18th century meant that there were far more vehicles moving over them it also meant that the coaches – increasingly better designed – became faster. Stage and mail coaches were now major businesses with a lot to lose and the guards were better armed and trained. The authorities put mounted patrols on the roads and eventually made the whole business too risky to be worthwhile.It took a while, though – the last incident of highway robbery on Knightsbridge, the road between Hyde Park Corner tollgate and the village of Kensington, was in 1799.

Today as you travel along that route, perhaps on the top of a London bus, look north as you pass the Royal Albert Hall, built on the site of Gore House. Opposite Gore House was the infamous Halfway House Inn (below). There the spies for the highwaymen of Hounslow Heath would congregate to see who was travelling and pass the word on to alert the highwaymen about fine carriages or vulnerable riders.  The wall behind the inn is the boundary of Hyde Park.

Highwaymen did persist longer in Ireland where the roads were less good and the slower coaches made easier pickings. In 1808 a coach lined with copper and advertised as bulletproof was tried on the Dublin to Cork road, an indication that highwaymen were not afraid to shoot into the body of the vehicle at the passengers as well as threaten the guard and coachman.

The highwayman and his less glamorous compatriots were sufficiently significant in Georgian society to have left their mark on the slang of the time as I discovered when I was researching Regency Slang Revealed: Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.   The mounted highwayman was “on the High Toby” the footpads were on the “Low Pad” or “Low Toby”. I found eleven general terms for a highwayman – a Gentleman’s Master being one that perhaps gives a clue as to why they were popular with the common people. A Bully Ruffian was a very violent highwayman whereas a Royal Scamp preyed on the rich in a most gentlemanly fashion. It seems that equipment was important – a Rum Padder was particularly well-armed and well-mounted and a Chosen Pell was a highwayman operating inside a town, riding a horse with leather covers on its feet to muffle the sound of hoof-beats.

A highwayman’s mistress was his Bloss or Blowen and she may have waited for him at inns like the Halfway House when he went “on the pad” advised by his Carriers or Cruisers – the informants. They would all have hoped for a Catching Harvest – a time when the roads were thronged with travellers going to some event or another. Fairs, boxing matches and races gave particularly good pickings.

Just remember, when you are held up by a highwayman – mention the Music. That’s the universal password that will see you safe.

I’ll leave you with a watercolour portrait that I own. I have no idea of date, artist or subject, but he haunts me. I just have the feeling that he’s a highwayman, no longer in his prime. Should he mount up and take to the High Toby tonight? Or would that be one time too many…

 

 

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Crossing the Knight’s Bridge

Today if you want to travel from the middle of London to visit the smart shops of Kensington and Chelsea, or the museums of South Kensington, or go to a concert at the Albert Hall, you will travel along Knightsbridge, the road that stretches for a mile from Hyde Park Corner to the east to the Royal Albert Hall in the west (becoming, these days, Kensington Road and the beginnings of Kensington Gore in the process). Are you in London? Of course you are.

When Jane Austen was staying with her brother Henry in his homes in Sloane Street and Hans Place, she was just as clear that Knightsbridge (or Knights Bridge, as it was known almost until the 19th century), was not London. ‘If the Weather permits, Eliza & I walk into London this morng.’ she wrote in April 1809 from 64, Sloane Street.

Roque 1741

(Above: Detail of Roque’s map of London 1741 showing Knight’s Bridge and the beginning of Kensington)

Although the tentacles of development were reaching out from the new Sloane Street, down the Brompton Road and along towards Kensington, London still began at the Hyde Park Turnpike, situated until 1825 just about where Grosvenor Place meets Knightsbridge today. Apsley House, which became the home of the Duke of Wellington, was the first dwelling you came to entering through the gates – Number One, London, in fact.

Knights Bridge was never a parish or a manor, only a locality, known from Saxon times as Kyngesburig, or Knightsbrigg. There are many legends about the origins of the name, but none appear to have any basis in fact. The bridge in question crossed the Westbourne River, one of London’s “lost rivers”, as it left Hyde Park, where it had been turned into the Serpentine. The Westbourne ran on south along a meandering course which marks the boundary of Chelsea and St George’s parishes to meet the Thames in the grounds of Chelsea Hospital. It was finally covered over in 1856/7 and became the unromantically-named Ranelagh Sewer and its outfall can still be seen at low tide. The Albert Gate of Hyde Park marks the point where it went under the road and William Street follows its line southwards.Hyde Park pike0001

If you had ventured this far in the time of the Tudors you would have encountered an appalling road, the “Waye to Reading”, mired so deep in mud that it contributed to the defeat of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebel army. They marched against Queen Mary, but arrived so exhausted by the state of the ‘road’ that they were easy prey for the royal troops. Things did not greatly improve for hundreds of years and even as late as 1842 reports were made of pavements ankle-deep in mud.

Worse than the mud were the highwaymen and footpads who infested this road. The last highway robbery on Knightsbridge was as late as 1799, after which a light horse patrol was sent out from the barracks to patrol the road and it was one of the earliest to have street lighting. Mr Davis in his “History of Knightsbridge” (1854) records that even after the armed patrols were instituted, “pedestrians walked to and from Kensington in bands sufficient to ensure mutual protection, starting their journey only at known intervals, of which a bell gave due warning.”

If we are feeling brave we can set out along this perilous mile, guided by the charming little map from Cecil Aldin’s The Romance of the Road (1928). East is at the top and we begin with the Hyde Park Corner tollgate and just before it, at the junction with Grosvenor Place, is St George’s Hospital. That is still there, but is now the Lanesborough Hotel. Behind it was Tattersall’s sale ring until it moved in 1865.

Aldin map 1

Going east we would have passed the White Hart Inn on the north side and a barracks for foot soldiers (demolished 1836) on the south. The narrow entrance to Old Barrack Yard still marks the spot. We cross the Westbourne as we pass William Street and can see today the unlovely round tower of the Sheraton Hotel. Once this was the site of a house owned by a Mr Lowndes and behind it, where Lowndes Square is now, was a rural pleasure garden, Spring Garden (not to be confused with the one of the same name next to what is now Trafalgar Square) at the sign of the “World’s End”. It is referred to in Pepys’s diaries several times, including in the final entry, May 31st 1669: “To the Park, Mary Botelier and a Dutch gentleman, a friend of hers being with us. Thence to the ‘World’s End’ a drinking house by the Park, and there merry, and so home late.”

(Below: Spring Gardens from a Victorian engraving of an earlier drawing.)

Spring Gardens

More or less opposite was Trinity Chapel which was probably medieval in origin and functioned as a hospital, or lazar house, for the poor. Traditionally it was said to have taken in plague victims in 1665 and the dead were buried opposite under Knightsbridge Green at the present junction of Knightsbridge, Sloane Street and Brompton Road. Eventually the chapel fell into total disrepair and was rebuilt. Its present incarnation is further along the road in Kensington.
For a long time before the passing of Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act in 1753 it was the location for irregular, clandestine or runaway marriages and the registers for the chapel contain entries with notes such as “secrecy for life” or “secret for fourteen years” added to them. Possibly the most famous person married there was Sir Robert Walpole who wed a daughter of the Lord Mayor of London. (The chapel is shown below in a view of part of the north side of Knightsbridge in 1820)

cahpel

Now we reach the Albert Gate into Hyde Park, the point where the Westbourne still runs under our feet. On the park side of the bridge was the Fox and Bull Inn (shown as the Fox on Aldin’s map), patronised by artists such as George Morland and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted its sign. Less pleasantly it was a receiving house for the Humane Society, founded to assist drowning persons, or deal with their bodies. It was to this inn that the body of Harriet Shelley, the poet’s first wife, was brought after she drowned herself in the Serpentine in 1816. Immediately after the Fox and Bull was the Cannon Brewery, so called from the cannon mounted on its roof. That was surrounded by “low and filthy courts with open cellars” – a far cry from the elegant Kuwaiti and French Embassy buildings which occupy the site now.

Almost opposite is the junction with Sloane Street, developed after 1780 along the old track from the King’s Road in Chelsea. Another old road, the Brompton Road, comes in at an angle at the same point and led to the village of Brompton and on to Fulham. At this junction was Knightsbridge Green with a watch house for the constable, a pound for straying livestock, and possibly the site of Trinity Chapel’s plague pit. This was the point where the granite sets that made up the road surface ceased and the mud really began. It is also close to this point that Tattersall’s moved in 1865.

Just past the brewery were the barracks for the Horse Guards, giving them direct access into Hyde Park, just as they have today. Originally built in 1794/5 the barracks were rebuilt in 1878/9 and then again in the 20th century, slightly further west on Knightsbridge. From here on there were virtually no buildings on the north side, only the brick wall of Hyde Park. The road now becomes Kensington Road.

On the south side of Knightsbridge, following the Brompton Road turning, were the Rose and Crown (the oldest of Knightsbridge’s inns, shown below) and the Old King’s Head and then the floor-cloth manufactory of Messrs. Smith and Barber. It had been established in 1754 and lasted well into the Victorian era.

Rose and Crown
Then came three mansions that were, when they were built, true “country houses”. The first was Rutland House, the next Kent House, home for a while of the Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria’s father, and then Kingston House. Kingston House was built in 1769 for the scandalous Elizabeth Chudleigh whose story is so amazing that I will save it for another post. She died in 1796 and it later became the home of the Marquis of Wellesley who died there in 1842. He was the elder brother of the Duke of Wellington.

Half Way House

An area of nursery gardens followed on the south side of the road, part of the great expanse of fruit and vegetable-producing land that surrounded London. Somewhere along this stretch we enter what is now known as Kensington Gore – nothing to do with blood, but named after Gore House which stood on the site of the Royal Albert Hall. It was built in the 1750s, decorated by Robert Adam and was the home in the 1780s of Admiral Lord Rodney. It was acquired in 1808 by William Wilberforce, the great campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade, who lived there until 1821.
Opposite Gore House, a most insalubrious neighbour for a fine mansion, was the Halfway House Inn (shown above). This was where the spies for the highwaymen of Hounslow Heath would congregate to see who was travelling and pass the word on to alert the highwaymen about fine carriages or vulnerable riders. Just beyond it on the park side was the first milestone from the Hyde Park turnpike, the point where we can leave the dangers of Knightsbridge behind us and enter the village of Kensington with a sigh of relief for our arrival safe from the mud and the footpads.

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Eliza and I Walk Into London This Morning…

In a long letter dated Thursday 18th – Saturday 20th April 1811 Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra about her activities in London. She was staying with her brother Henry and his wife Eliza in their house at 64, Sloane Street in Knightsbridge, which at the time was a separate village from London. From the way Jane writes about walkiSONY DSCng ‘into’ London it was clear that this separation was felt by residents.

The house in Sloane Street is still there, although at first glance it is unrecognisable as the one where Jane stayed.  In 1897 another floor was added and the whole house refaced, but embedded inside is the original house, built in 1780. It is even possible to see the outer bay of the octagonal room where Eliza held a party on 25 April 1811 – all you need to do is walk a little way down Hans Street and look back at the rear of the house. In the photograph the house is covered in scaffolding and undergoing yet more changes.

Knightsbridge village, and that section of the Bath road, are named for the medieval bridge over the Westbourne River, one of the ‘lost’ rivers of London which is not lost at all, but still runs under the streets to the Thames. It descends from Hampstead Heath and crossed the area that is now Kensington Palace Gardens and Hyde Park before meeting the Bath road. In 1730 it was dammed to form the Serpentine in Hyde Park and the Long Water in Kensington Palace Gardens.

The village straggled along the highway with Hyde Park and the palace grounds to the north, and market gardens to the south. Brompton Road cut notheastwards from the little village of Brompton and the new, planned, Sloane Street meets the older, more irregular road at Knightsbridge at the point where there was a watch house and the village pound for straying livestock. All along Knightsbridge was a scatter of substantial houses, inns and cottages. There was a cavalry barracks on the northern edge, with access to the park, and an infantry barracks on the southern side.

In her letter Jane describes two expeditions on foot into London. To begin she would have had a stroll of about three quarters of a mile from Henry’s house to Knightsbridge. Sloane Street was built up with houses all along the western edge with the remains of market gardens to the east, although Cadogan Place was being laid out and a few terraces were beginning to appear on the eastern edge. Once she reached Knightsbridge she would then have turned right to ‘walk into London’ which she reached at the Hyde Park turnpike gate, another three quarters of a mile. There is nothing she would have recognised in the scene today. Sloane Street was rebuilt, or, in many cases, refaced, in the late 19th century and the inns have all either disappeared or have been replaced by Victorian buildings on the same sites. The cavalry barracks is still there, but rebuilt twice, most recently to a design by Sir Basil Spence that includes a tower block regularly voted one of the eyesores of London.

Hyde Park pike0001

Her sister-in-law Eliza seems to have been a rather nervous carriage passenger, so she would probably have been terrified by the volume of traffic at Hyde Park Corner today. On the 25th April Jane wrote home about an incident at the turnpike: ‘The Horses actually gibbed on this side of Hyde Park Gate – a load of fresh gravel made it a formidable Hill to them, & they refused the collar; – I believe there was a sore shoulder to irritate. – Eliza was fightened, & we got out – & were detained in the Even[ing] air several minutes.” She blames this for the cold that Eliza had contracted, not realising that Eliza probably caught the same cold Jane was complaining about suffering earlier. The print above shows the turnpike gate looking towards Piccadilly. On the right is a watch house and on the left, just out of the picture, was a weighing house.

These dTatts0001ays the Lanesborough Hotel occupies the old St George’s Hospital on the corner of Knightsbridge and Grosvenor Place and just behind that was the location of the famous Tattersall’s auction ring (1766-1865 when it moved to Newmarket). The print shows the central yard with an auction for a horse in progress. Carriages were also sold and some can be seen at the back.

Now Hyde Park Corner is dominated by Apsley House, known as Number One London because it is the first house you came to once you were through the gates. The print from Ackermann’s Repository  below shows it before the work on the houses to the left created Wellington’s impressive residence. On the right is the wall surrounding Green Park and Piccadilly stretches ahead of us.

Jane wrote that on Wednesday 17th April, ‘Manon [Eliza’s maid] & I took our walk to Grafton House…I liked my walk very much; it was shorter than I expected, & the weather was delightful. We set off immediatel007y after breakfast & must have reached Grafton House by 1/2 past 11.’  Grafton House was the premises of Wilding & Kent, a very superior draper and haberdashers, on the corner of Grafton Street and New Bond Street. The most logical route for them to have taken was along Piccadilly to Old Bond Street and then  up that to New Bond Street and the shop, a distance of another 3/4 of a mile, so a distance of two and a quarter miles in all. It is clear from her letter that they walked back, after a wait in the crowded shop of half an hour to be served. Jane was obviously quite happy to make a walk of four and a half miles, simply to purchase bugle [bead] trimming and three pairs of silk stockings. The next day, ‘If the Weather permits, Eliza & I walk into London this morn[ing]. – She is in want of chimney lights for Tuesday [the day of her party]; – & I, of an ounce of darning cotton.’ Unfortunately she doesn’t say where they shopped. These walks were in addition to several trips by carriage to visit friends and attend the theatre, yet Jane still had time to work on Sense and Sensibility. On Thursday 15 April she wrote to Cassandra who must have commented on her activities, ‘No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child…I have two sheets to correct, but the last only brings us to W.s first appearance.’

003You can follow Jane’s walks into London in Walking Jane Austen’s London. Walk One takes you to Henry’s two houses in the area, then up to Hyde Park Corner and across the park to Kensington Palace. The site of Grafton House is visited in Walk Two.

The Walking Dress is from a plate in Ackermann’s Repository for November 1811. It is just right for fashion-conscious Eliza, but probably rather smart for Jane!

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Jane Austen Travels by Stagecoach

Advert header for the Regent coach 1822
In 1796 20 year old Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, “As to our mode of travelling to Town, I want to go in a Stage Coach, but Frank [their brother] will not let me.” In her book Journey by Stages Stella Margetson states that Jane did not get her wish until August 1814 and I have been unable to find anything to the contrary in her letters.
As I am researching for a book on stagecoach travel at the moment I was glad of another excuse to dig into the Letters and remind myself what Jane wrote to her sister after arriving by stagecoach to stay with brother Henry in Hans Place on the 22nd August 1814.
“I had a very good Journey, not crouded [sic], two of the three taken up at Bentley [a village 7.5 miles form Chawton] being Children, the others of a reasonable size; & they were all very quiet & civil.”
This was a very important point for a lady travelling alone in the tight confines of the inside of the coach. With three passengers each side on a seat that was only 41 inches wide, knee to knee with those opposite, large or offensive fellow travellers would be exceedingly unpleasant.
“We were late in London, from being a great Load & changing Coaches at Farnham, it was nearly 4 I believe when we reached Sloane St, Henry himself met me, & soon as my Trunk & Basket would be routed out from all the other Trunks & Baskets in the World, we were on our way to Hans Place in the Luxury of a nice cool dirty Hackney Coach.”
From this it sounds as though Jane was dropped off at the top of Sloane Street where it meets Knightsbridge, before the stage continued on its way past the Hyde Park Corner turnpike and into London. The Hackney coach journey down to Hans Place would not have been a long one and she managed to retrieve all her luggage: an important consideration, especially when the journey involves a change of coach, as travellers’ guide books of the period warn.
stage crop
The next part of her description of the journey is not easy to interpret: “There were 4 in the Kitchen part of Yalden – & I was told 15 at top, among them Percy Benn…We took up a young Gibson at Holybourn; & in short everybody either did come up by Yalden yesterday, or wanted to come up.”
According to Deirdre le Faye, editor of the Letters, Mr Yalden was the owner of a private stage coach which he drove from Alton in Hampshire on one day and then back to Hampshire the next, although this does not quite accord with them having to change stages at Farnham. But what does Jane mean by the “Kitchen”? I wonder if she is making an “upstairs downstairs” joke with the inside passengers “downstairs” being in the “kitchen”. Or did the inside passengers gather in the kitchen of whichever establishment Yalden’s coach started from?
Fifteen passengers on top was a very large number and must have contributed to the chaos sorting out the luggage. Normally three of the outside passengers sat facing forward, three facing backwards and one next to the driver – seven in total. To have squeezed on another eight, they must have been jammed together in the luggage space between the front and rear facing passengers. This was potentially dangerous, for it could unbalance the coach, but Mr Yalden’s appears to have been quite a slow one, so perhaps there was not much risk.
The route after Bentley and Farnham is not given, but I would suspect the coach would have continued to Kingston upon Thames, crossed the Thames at Kew and then turned east for Knightsbridge. These days it is a journey of about fifty five miles. A fast coach would average ten miles an hour, Mr Yaldon’s probably six or seven, so Jane would have had to set out by at least seven in the morning. No wonder she was pleased to see Henry and his nice cool Hackney carriage, however dirty!
If anyone has an alternative explanation for what Jane meant by “the Kitchen part” I’d be fascinated to hear it.

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