What was here before? Many people ask that question about their house or their street and sometimes the answer is just some other houses that people lived in for a while which got demolished when the time was right. Sometimes the answer is it was fields or farmland or just unoccupied open space. Rarely the answer is that something remarkable and unique stood on this spot. Something which has now vanished so completely that you might never have known about it.
The Abbey, although it was sufficiently gothic in style to look like an actual abbey, was not a religious establishment. It was more like a latter day version of Strawberry Hill, the gothic dwelling built by Horace Walpole author of the first gothic novel the Castle of Otranto. Or a film set for a novel by Mrs Radcliffe or one of those other popular novelists which Jane Austen gently satirised in Northanger Abbey. Most bizarrely of all it was just yards from Kensington High Street which was then a classic Victorian high street of terraced houses and small shops. It was built in 1879 by William Abbott, a successful stockbroker. According to the Survey of London it was his “humorous caprice” to call it the Abbey. But the idea fits in with other medieval style creations of the time such as William Burges’s Tower House in nearby Melbury Road. He carved out a small estate from his property and the gardens of some other houses to the north.
Abbott unfortunately died of apoplexy in 1888 so he didn’t have much time to enjoy his creation. But we can see something of the sumptuous interiors in a set of photographs taken in 1924.
This is the entrance hall. It looks ready for some of the party goers we saw in fancy dress in the post about the Duchess of Devonshire’s Costume Ball (see link opposite) There was a great interest in Arthurian stories and imagery in the second half of the 19th century. The Pre-Raphaelites loved medieval themes, William Morris was writing poetry in that vein, and Tennyson was writing Idylls of the King.
But these photos were taken years after Abbott’s death and the owners were clearly more concerned with making the Abbey into a comfortable home. The pre-occupation with myths and legends was probably irrelevant to these inhabitants. The ball room:
The boudoir with its over-stuffed armchair and sofa. No shortage of light on a sunny afternoon to dispel the gothic overtones of the arched window.
A bedroom, looking a bit bare. Maybe a guest room. Ready for occupation if you fancy a country house weekend without leaving London.
The day nursery. Look at the soft toy – a dog I think, the large tin car, the ship and is that an airship between them? Surely not.
Another bedroom. This one looks a bit more lived in, with the rug by the fire, the statuette of a dancer on the fireplace and the weird looking cushion on the sofa.
The Abbey retained its forbidding exterior and continued to look a bit like a castle or a medieval town house but inside there were probably no ghosts of women in black or men in armour to disturb the affluent inhabitants. The interior looks more suitable for a P G Wodehouse comedy. Or if you had to have something supernatural a ghost story written by Noel Coward.
Who knows what might have happened to the Abbey in later years had it survived. What did happen was what the North Kensington diarist Vere Hodgson called “a fiendish raid” in April 1941. Considerable damage was done in Campden Hill Road. A German bomber was brought down and crashed into a roof. The crew bailed out and were captured. The next day troops were guarding the pieces of the aircraft.
And that was it for the Abbey. It entered another stage of its gothic existence. It became a picturesque ruin with an overgrown and ruined garden.
From William Morris (romantic medieval socialism) to William Hope Hodgson (the horror of desolate places) in one swift move.
The comfortable rooms are emptied except for shadows, broken glass and shattered masonry.
The site was cleared in the late forties and remained derelict. The grounds Abbott had created became a muddy car park for a while. The Council acquired the site and eventually owned the whole block between Phillimore Walk, Holland Street, Campden Hill Road and Hornton Street. In 1959 they built the Kensington Central Library, a distinctly 20thcentury building, where I now sit writing this post on the first floor. If I projected myself back eighty something years would I be in this room, sinking into the sofa and looking over at the statuette?
So it’s always worth asking that question, what was here before? Sometimes the answer is surprising.