Elegy for the Red House

This week it’s time to tell the story of the Red House.

It was built about 1835 by the brick manufacturer and house builder Stephen Bird for his own family. He called it Hornton Villa and it lay at the top of a large site behind Kensington High Street between Campden Hill Road and Hornton Street. The Villa had the bulk of the site as its garden but shared the site with another stucco villa called Niddry Lodge and another house almost joined to the Villa called Hornton Cottage. Bird died in 1865. It is not clear exactly when Hornton Villa became known as the Red House. It may have been in the 1880s when the Peto brothers added a stable block and made some additions which the Kensington historian W J Loftie regarded as “incongruous” although it would still have looked innocuous when compared to William Abbott’s gothic fantasy the Abbey which was built in 1879 at the southern end of the plot. Abbott also acquired the bulk of the Red House’s garden although it was still left with enough to retain its secluded position.

The man I called the explorer took a lease on the Red House in 1896.

He was William Martin Conway later Baron Conway of Allington Castle – art historian, traveller, mountaineer, author and MP. He lived there with his wife Katrina and their daughter Agnes until 1907. Conway travelled in the Himalayas, Kashmir, the Alps, South America and the Arctic and had a parallel career as an academic . He was director general of the Imperial War Museum from 1917 until his death in 1937.

Katrina aged 16 in 1872

Katrina in 1885

Agnes seen below with her great grandmother particularly loved the house even though she suffered a severe injury there. When she was 14 she and a cousin were playing a particularly risky version of hide and seek on the roof of the house. Fleeing from discovery they crossed over from the Red House to Hornton Cottage. Agnes fell through a skylight into an empty studio. Among her injuries was nerve damage to one side of her face which caused her lifelong difficulty and lengthy medical treatment. Agnes too became a traveller and an archaeologist.

Martin Conway must also have had a strong emotional attachment to the place judging by the many pictures he painted of the interior which you saw last week. It’s hard to place his pictures inside the unremarkable exterior shown in these photographs taken in 1964 and 1972.

After the Conways departed the most notable residents were Herbert Clark Hoover and his wife Lou. Hoover was in his early thirties and was already a millionaire. He came to London as a successful mining engineer with interests in many parts of the world but became involved with organising food relief to Belgium during the Great War. But along with the globetrotting Herbert and Lou were bringing up two young boys and building a collection of books on scientific subjects at the Red House.

Hoover in 1916

Lou Henry Hoover

In his memoirs Hoover also has a roof related story. One night In 1916 Herbert and Lou heard the sounds of a Zeppelin raid. They went to see that their two sons were all right but found the bedroom empty. They scoured the house, even the attic, and found the boys on the roof watching the explosions in the sky. Like the parents you wish you had instead of hauling the boys downstairs Herbert and Lou sat with them and the whole family watched a Zeppelin being shot down. The following day Herbert took the two boys to the crash site to collect a few pieces of the airship.

The Hoovers left the Red House for good later that year but in 1938 after his other career as President was over, Hoover paid a sentimental visit to the Red House. Describing himself as an American gentleman and former resident rather than a former President he convinced the butler to let him in, tipping him with a 10 shilling note so he could stand again in the oak panelled library and remember himself, Lou and the boys together in it. To the discomfort of the butler he lingered over “revived emotional pictures” and “finished him” by shaking his hand.

After the Second World War the Abbey was badly damaged and the Council bought the whole of the site including the Red House, Niddry Lodge and Hornton Cottage. The remains of the Abbey were demolished and the Kensington Library was built in 1959. The Red House and Niddry Lodge were used for Council offices for more than twenty years.

Below,barely visible through the trees Kensington Library

By the early 70s the house was empty. Inside there were only traces of the Red House as it had been. Finally in 1972 the time came for the northern half of the site to be cleared to make way for a new Town Hall.

Here is the Red House in January 1972 still behind its walls and trees:

Now with the walls down and the trees felled, its companion Hornton Cottage already being demolished:

Now in its final weeks. First you see it:

Now you don’t.

These days if you go to the Customer Service Centre at the Town Hall to pay your council tax or get a parking permit you’re somewhere near the Red House. Perhaps it’s possible even now to make an imaginative connection with the man who took these photographs of the Indus Valley in Kashmir and the Matterhorn:

So was there a mystery in the Red House? Two remarkable families lived there and despite the fact that the house itself is utterly gone, through the paintings of one man and the words of another it lives on. That’s a kind of mystery.

Photos of the Hoovers from Volume 1 of Hoover’s Memoirs – The years of adventure 1952

Pictures of the Conways from Joan Evans – The Conways: a history of three generations 1966

Conway’s photos from Episodes in a varied life 1932

Other photos from Library collection

For more on the Abbey see Forgotten buildings: the Abbey in list of posts opposite.


2 responses to “Elegy for the Red House

  • Hasenschneck

    Thank you again for sharing an interesting piece of local history. I grew up living on the upper part of Hornton Street and my family was sad to see the Red House and Niddry Lodge pulled down in the seventies. Although not too sad about the large NCP car park that also went.

    One of your pictures brought back another memory for me – the one of the entrance to the Red House in Hornton Street marked 664, past which I made my first ever excursion alone – to the library, of course, when I was about six or seven.

  • The Commission for Relief in Belgium 2: The Anatomy of a Humanitarian Saviour | First World War Hidden History

    […] [1] John Hamill, The Strange Case of Mr Hoover Under Two Flags, pp. 48-9. [2] Walter W Liggett, The Rise of Herbert Hoover, pp. 68-70. [3] The Straits Times, 3 March 1903. [http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19030303.2.3.aspx ] [4] The Times, 19 January 1903, p. 3. [5] Liggett, The Rise of Herbert Hoover, pp. 111-12. [6] The Times, 2 March 1905, p. 9. [7] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 312. [8] George H Nash, Herbert Hoover The Humanitarian, 1914-1917, p. 148. [9] Grey to Hoover, 9 June 1914, cited in Nash, op. cit. p.148. [10] Gay & Fisher, Public Relations of The Commission for Relief in Belgium, document 190, Dec 1914. [11] Nash, Herbert Hoover The Humanitarian, p.127. [12] Ibid., p. 3. [13] https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/elegy-for-the-red-house/ […]

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