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.
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:
On one side of the lane is Earls 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.
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.
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.
A conventional front, and at the rear:
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.
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.
But in Dr Hunter’s day it served a different purpose.
“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)
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.”
No more wild animals under the mound. Ladies stroll around the grounds. Is that archery?
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.
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.
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.