Forgotten buildings: Earls Court House and Dr Hunter’s menagerie

The manor of Earl’s Court is one of the oldest parts of Kensington. The Manorial Rolls date back to the 16th century. Even as late as the 1820s our old friend Starling’s map of Kensington shows it as a separate settlement, like Little Chelsea, Old Brompton and the cluster of dwellings near St Mary Abbots Church and Kensington Palace.

Starling 1822 A3 - Earls Court - Copy

Earls Court Lane, as Earls Court Road was called then, runs left to right joining up with Brompton Lane (You can see the fish pond in the grounds of Coleherne Court on the right). The village is surrounded by fields. Another of our old friends, William Cowen depicts  this scene of rural life in the 1840s:

002 Near Earls Court Road C19

On one side of the lane is Earls Court Farm.

Earl's Court Farm

Farm workers obligingly pose for the photographer. The building in the background is the Manor House.

The date is round about the early 1860s. Urban influences were creeping down the lane from Kensington High Street although the men in the picture seem unconcerned. The Manor House and the farm were demolished in the mid-1860s when the first Earls Court Station was built.

Across the lane there was another example of the semi-rural past, Earls Court House, which survived until 1886.

GC2408 Earls Ct Hose A4

Snug behind its wall in its tree lined garden with extensive lawns it kept the encroaching city at bay in its final years. (Look back at the map – the grounds are the plot labelled 4.1.24.The house is the long building near the lane.)

The house was built about 1772 on land purchased by Dr John Hunter. There had been another house on the site whose ornamental gardens contained fountains and a luxurious bath house. Hunter had a town house in Leicester Square where he had his medical practice. He needed a country house for his collections.

John Hunter CPic0071

Dr Hunter was famous for his work as an early trauma surgeon (gunshot wounds), his interest in venereal disease (a clinic at the Chelsea Westminster Hospital was named after him), and as an anatomist with a vast collection of animal and human specimens. He also kept live specimens in a private menagerie.

Some of the later pictures of the house make it look quite innocuous.

Earls Court House CPic413

A conventional front, and at the rear:

Earls Court House1793 CPic415 Frederick Shepherd 1875

Some harmless cows, nothing like the host of creatures who used to make their homes there. According to one of Hunter’s biographers he kept “fowls, duchs, geese, pigeons, rabbits, pigs, oppossums, hedgehogs, a jackal, a zebra, an ostritch, buffaloes, leopards, dormice, bats, snakes and birds of prey, deer, fish, frogs, leeches, eels and mussels.” And a young bull, given to him by Queen Charlotte, which he used to wrestle.

The person we call the Artist of the Red Portfolio painted a more appropriate picture.

Earls Court House 1785 RP2534

She or he has written some notes on the back of the picture about Dr Hunter and his house . “On the right of the house is the conservatory for his bees. On the right & left artificial rocks on which live eagles were chained.” Quite a sight for passers by. As you look closely the eagles become apparent, and the heraldic beasts on the roof of the house.

When I first saw this photograph I assumed the mound was an ice house or some other storage space, which it may have been at the time the picture was taken.

GC2409 Earls Ct House A4

But in Dr Hunter’s day it served a different purpose.

Earls Court House lion's den CPic413

“In the meadow at the bottom of the garden Dr Hunter kept his lions”. This mound contained excavated vaults with at least two dens. A correspondent to the Times in 1886 says “..two leopards broke loose from their confinement and …engaged in a fierce encounter with the dogs when Hunter appeared on the scene and without a moment’s reflection, seized both animals and chained them up in their cages.”  (Although he was much agitated afterwards when he realised the risk he had taken.)

The same writer (a Dr Farquarson) describes another of Dr Hunter’s exploits concerning “Byrne or O’Brian the famous Irish giant”. 

“Hunter wished to secure O’Brian for dissection and the giant naturally wished to evade the scalpel. (He) arranged that after death his remains should be enclosed in a leaden coffin and buried at sea. In compliance with his directions the undertaker engaged some men to watch the body alternately, but a bribe of £500 removed all scruples, and Hunter, placing his ghastly burden in his own carriage, conveyed it immediately to Earls-Court. Fearing a discovery should take place Hunter did not chose to risk what the ordinary method of preparing a skeleton would require. Accordingly the body was cut to pieces and the flesh separated by boiling; hence has arisen  the brown colour of the bones.”

Hunter himself died in 1793 and left his collection to the Royal College of Surgeons. His widow Anne, a distinguished figure in society in her own right stayed on in the house. She was a friend of Elizabeth Montagu, Horace Walpole, the author of the Castle of Otranto and our old friend Madame D’Arblay (Fanny Burney)

John Hunter's house at Earl's Court

This view shows a gentleman escorting a lady into the house. If she is showing any reluctance that may be at the prospect of seeing the item in the insert, “the copper in which the body of the Irish Giant was boiled.” Or perhaps if this picture is depicting a scene after 1832 when the house was (according to another Times correspondent Benjamin Ward Richardson) turned into “an asylum for ladies under restraint for lunacy” she is reluctant to enter for another reason.

[It’s been pointed out to me -see comment below -that the couple are facing away from the house, not going in. Perhaps they’re quietly creeping out having seen the infamous copper. The door is open – are they strolling away casually? “Just act nonchalant, we’re almost at the gate.”)

Of course, it might not have been too bad in there. Look at Mrs Bradbury’s “Establishment for the reception of ladies nervously affected.”

Earls Court house -mrs Bradbury's 02

No more wild animals under the mound. Ladies stroll around the grounds. Is that archery?

Earls Court House - Mrs Bradbury 01

Bows and arrows for the inmates? Perhaps Mrs Bradbury was sitting inside the mound in one of the cages after a sensation novel type insurrection at the establishment? Is there a Victorian novel featuring the inmates taking over the asylum?

In any case the house as it was called was eventually taken over by a Dr Gardner Hill, a comparatively enlightened reformer “of the system of the treatment of the insane.”

This picture may come from that period. A couple of gardeners pause for the photographer on the tranquil lawn.

GC2411 Earls Ct House A4

Richardson and Farquarson both mourned the passing on Earls Court House and its “absorption” into a red brick street“. As along Old Brompton Road, the houses of the semi-rural  days in Earls Court disappeared, but Dr John Hunter is still remembered many years later.

GC2410 Earls Ct House A4

Postscript

In week five of the great scanning famine I began this post thinking I was going to do a general look at the way Earls Court changed in the 19th century using some of the many postcards we have of the area. Then I found out that what I thought looked like an ice house was in fact a lions’ den so I lingered over John Hunter. I’ve told a couple of sensational anecdotes but of course Hunter was a great doctor as well as a famous eccentric.

We’ll come back to those postcards quite soon though.


5 responses to “Forgotten buildings: Earls Court House and Dr Hunter’s menagerie

  • Chelseaharbouramateuroperaticsociety

    So “into the lions den” go the residents of Earl’s Court…another excellent post Mr Walker.

  • James Farndale

    Well done. I can’t get my head round Earl’s Court near London. (seemingly in the middle of nowhere?)

  • teresastokes

    You could have mentioned that Hunter’s collection of specimens and medical curiosities are at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, including O’Brien’s giant skeleton. Some campaigners, and I agree, say that it is time to give the poor giant his wish and give him a decent burial. If tribal people can do this, why not the Irish? I remember the Australian aborigines demanding and getting one of their skulls repatriated from an English museum. O’Brien’s bones could be scanned and re-created for display with 3-D printing now. I also note a slight mistake: the couple in front of the house are facing away from it, not going into it.

    • Dave Walker

      Teresa
      Thanks. I kept on finding more information about Hunter as I was writing and had to draw a line at some point. It is interesting that O’Brien should get his wishes after all these years. And the couple! I might have to rewrite that paragraph in the light of her desire to get away from the house.
      Dave

  • Chris

    Excellent article. Any details about John Bayne, the subsequent owner?

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