Tag Archives: Earls Court Road

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


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.

Return of the Edwardian sartorialist – Sambourne’s Kensington street style

I have good reason to be grateful to Edward Linley Sambourne. My original post about his street photography (Street Style 1906) has been the most popular single item on this blog and has brought in many readers who might not otherwise have heard about the Library Time Machine. What is it about his street photography which is so compelling?

The first point is one I made on that first post. We are used to thinking of the Edwardian period as the last great period of formal dress for women and men, the last gasp of 19th century fashion and the ancien regime of costume before the revolution of the Great War and the 1920s. Sambourne’s pictures show another side to the early years of the 20th century, a casual attitude to dress demonstrated by the mostly young women in them. The roots of the dress revolution are apparent from the 1890s onwards in candid photographs and picture postcards. Sambourne’s pictures are one instance of this movement.

The other point is another one I have made on previous occasions. We shouldn’t think of these photographs as curious items from past times. These pictures are of the present. When Linley Sambourne roamed the streets of Kensington with his hidden camera between 1905 and 1908 he was catching images of the now.

Have I spent too long on opening remarks? Let’s look at some pictures.

LSL39 Notting Hill 20 Jul 1906

20th July 1906 in Notting Hill Gate – even in summer gloves are worn and one of these two women carries a muff. They’re in a hurry, striding along, oblivious to the photographer.

Back in May of the same year in nearby Kensington Church Street:

LSL43 Church St 2 May 1906

This woman is slightly more formally dressed than the first two. Perhaps she is on her way to work. Sambourne liked to record women at work as below:

LSL45 Cheniston Gdns 29 Jul 1906

This picture taken in Cheniston Gardens shows a young maid engaged in the perennial and tedious task of cleaning the steps. You might think this is another example of Sambourne’s secretive gaze, spying on her working life but to me it has the look of a posed picture. Sambourne had many contacts in the Kensington area across the social classes – people he used as models for his studio photography and the young maid may have been one of them. I think it’s more obvious in this image:

LSL46 Cheniston Gdns 26 Jun  1906

A different set of steps, and (I think) a different woman but she looks to me as though she is responding to a request from Sambourne to hold that pose for a moment.

There is probably a great deal to be said about the interest shown in maids by gentlemen of Sambourne’s age and class but in the absence of firm evidence we can probably acquit him of improper thoughts. As has also been discussed on the blog and in comments, the concept of privacy with regard to photographs taken in the street was underdeveloped in Sambourne’s time. It’s probably true that as an upper middle class man he thought that his right to pursue his art outweighed any violation of his subjects’ privacy. (Some photographers still believe that today.)

To complete a trio of servants here is a maid taking a break, no doubt well deserved:

LSL47 Cromwell Road 26 Jun 1906

The next subject is someone much closer to Sambourne’s own class, a distinctly middle class married woman.

LSL60 Cromwell Road 15 May 1907

In May 1907 she is escorting her two sons along a tree-lined Cromwell Road with just a few horse drawn vehicles in the background. Cromwell Road looks more like a prosperous wide street of upmarket houses as it was originally intended than the major transport artery of today.

LSL19 Kensington 26 Jun 1906

This is one of those pictures where the woman is looking right at the photographer as though she knows what he is doing.

LSL20 Kensington 26 Jun 1906

I think this may be a picture of the same woman from behind. They were both taken on the same day in the same place so that may be a reasonable assumption.

Perhaps you recognize this woman:

LSL04a  21 Jul 1905 720

I think it’s the same woman who featured in the first Sambourne post photographed in Earls Court Road in 1905. (I’ve looked back and forth comparing details of dress and features. I know that some of my readers are very eagle eyed so I won’t commit myself absolutely.) It’s a slightly less flattering image but that is a feature of candid photography. Everyone has seen poor pictures of people who normally look good in photographs. I would say she had been caught by the flash but I’m not sure if Sambourne’s camera had one. Actually the detail I like is the dog sniffing something out in the background so I hope she would forgive me for showing her not quite at her best.

This picture is another example of the big hat, still a common fashion item at the time:

LSL48 Church St 2 Aug 1906

This view is of Kensington Church Street, with some horse drawn buses in the background.

Another family group, from the front and the side:

LSL62 St Albans Road May 1907

LSL61 St Albans Road 10 May 1907

This was in St Albans Road, well off the main streets of Kensington and well out of Sambourne’s main patch.

Another of his pictures from the rear:

LSL21 Kensington 27 Jun 1906

Finally, I’ve been saving one of Sambourne’s best pictures till last. This picture is simply captioned Kensington. It looks a little like one of the streets running off Notting Hill Gate but really it could be any number of streets.

LSL24 Kensington 3 Jul 1906

Sambourne captures a young woman of the early twentieth century walking confidently forward looking straight into the eye of the camera. Forget the photographer. She is looking out at us.


Just as this time last year I’m about to start a month of posts related to this year’s CityRead campaign. The book is A week in December by Sebastian Faulks. The posts will all be transport related and the first will be A tale of two tube stations.

One of the many bloggers who wrote about Sambourne after my first post coined the phrase Edwardian Sartorialist to describe him. I can’t remember which one, but my thanks to her/him.

The Sambourne pictures belong to Leighton House Museum. If you would like to reproduce any of them in a book or magazine ask my colleagues there.

The other Linley Sambourne posts are here (Holland), here  (Paris)and here (at the beach).

The text is written by me so if you run a website based in Spain which likes to reprint vintage photographs why not write your own words?

Empty streets: Earls Court Road 1904 – part two

Just to get you orientated, this is part of the final picture from last week’s post.

Earls Court Road 172 1904 LTE285 - Copy (2)

There’s our friend and his horse and above him the office of Hugo’s Language School.

Earls Court Road 203-207 1904 LTE269

It’s the following day, April 22nd, and Ernest Milner is back on the Earls Court Road looking at the buildings on the odd-numbered side of the street. Hugo’s Language System is course still with us. So is the London and County Bank in a later incarnation.

Earls Court Road 195-197 1904 LTE268

In 1909 it merged with the London and Westminster Bank to form the Westminster Bank which later became the National Westminster Bank. If you take a look at the same building today you will see that it has grown slightly with a matching section being built into that empty site.

Earls Court Road 189-193 1904 LTE266

You can see in this picture that the empty site was quite narrow, that there were contractors in already and that the next building is another bank. The London and South Western was absorbed into Barclays in 1918. Barclays still have a branch in this spot in a completely new building. Banks are one of the great survivors of the high street. That is also true of the institution next door.

Earls Court Road 181 later 187 1904 LTE267

The Courtfield Hotel, public house and restaurant. It’s now known as the Courtfield but still offers fine dining on the first floor.

We’re at Earls Court Gardens now. Today there is a two storey Post Office building between this street and Hogarth Road right over the railway line but Milner ignored that. Perhaps the railway company already had it covered. On the other side of Hogarth Road was Ephraim B Goody, fancy drapers and milliner.

Earls Court Road 179 E B Goody 1904 LTE263

Just as at Edwards cross the road there is a man up a ladder making adjustments, possibly to the awnings. Upstairs Goody’s offered showrooms for baby linen and corsets.

Earls Court Road 175 1904 LTE260

On the other side of Hogarth Road Milner didn’t take a picture of Hardiman’s, a dressmaker’s shop and not much of Whitley and Sons, dyers. But he did cover Smith and sons the confectioners who offer lemonade and ginger beer by the glass and Cough No More lozenges. The man with the brush is from the shop next door and he also contrives to get into the next picture.

Earls Court Road 173 1904 LTE257

Here he takes up a proud pose outside Hurley’s Decorative Florist while another man pauses as the picture is taken.

Earls Court Road 171 1904 LTE258a

Next door is another growing chain of shops, the Home and Colonial who had over 500 stores by 1904 retailing tea and general groceries. The company was eventually absorbed into the Safeway group.

I said last week we would return to J Rugg and Son, the builders who were working down the road at number 168, and here they are ready to take on any building job.

Earls Court Road 165-167 1904 LTE256

The last shop Milner photographed that day was Blake and Everett’s grocers according to Kelly’s Directory.

Earls Court Road 163 1904 LTE255

But Mr Everett was not much in evidence if you look at the classic extravagant shop front depicted here. Perhaps he was the sleeping partner, or there’s some other story we’ll never know. Check out the massive milk urn – or is that for some other liquid?

Before we go let’s take a quick stroll back to Goody’s, seen here in a side view of Hogarth Road taken on April 21st.

Earls Court Road 179 1904 E B Goody LTE264

Mr Milner took the close up view below for some reason of his own.

Earls Court Road 179 1904 detail LTE262

Perhaps he liked the artist’s palette sign. I’m more interested in my own close up:

Earls Court Road 179 E B Goody detail 1904 LTE263

Two women stand in the doorway. One is too blurred to see properly. But I think Milner took care with the other lady, perhaps even asking her to stand still.

Earls Court Road 179 E B Goody detail 2 1904 LTE263

So her slight smile and enigmatic expression was captured for us to look at more than a hundred years later. I doubt if Milner knew that would happen but I expect he would have been pleased.

Finally on a technical note I should add that the numbering of Earls Court Road has changed a little since 1904 so those of you comparing these views with those of today will notice a few anomalies. many of the buildings are still there of course which will help.

Next week my Christmas present to you, some seasonal darkness.

Empty streets: Earls Court Road 1904 – part one

I just heard on the radio the writer John Banville say something to the effect (apologies for my paraphrase) that the fascinating past was once as dull as the present. So this week’s pictures should in theory be especially dull. The photographer Ernest Milner was up early in the morning again in April and May 1904 to get some accurate pictures of the way buildings looked without the distractions of people and traffic. The railway company which employed him wanted some evidence of the state of buildings near or above their lines in case of legal proceedings against them. So far so dull. But interesting details and interesting people have a way of creeping into photographs.

Earls Court Road 146 later 206 1904 LTE270

As the delivery wagon waits to be loaded its motive power has some breakfast.

Earls Court Road 146 later 206 1904 LTE271

Not the same day, although I wish it was, around the corner a man half way up a ladder at the West End Shoe Company notices Mr Milner. You can see those insistent big letters better in this picture announcing to the world the size and importance of the furniture warehouse.

Earls Court Road 148-152 later 210-213 1904 LTE273

Down the road are some more small businesses. The Earls Court Restaurant has an upstairs saloon which caters for large and small parties. As I enlarged the image to read the lettering I saw something I like to find but hadn’t previously spotted:

Earls Court Road 148-152 later 210-213 1904 LTE273 - Copy

From the saloon a curious waitress keeps an eye on Mr Milner. Messrs Lanzani, Dolcini and Peechi are the proprietors of the restaurant. Is one of those her surname?

Earls Court Road 148-152 later 210-213 1904 LTE273 - Copy (2)

The dog isn’t interested in photography. I don’t think he’s waiting for an appointment with the solicitor, unless the solicitor is bringing him some sausages.

Earls Court Road 238 1904 LTE278

Below the solicitors Hobbins and Co sells cheap stationery and run a circulating library. You can make out a boy in front of the door possibly looking at the vanished dog. A man and a woman watch him from the doorway. People are hiding in these photographs waiting to be found. At the left edge of the picture you can see Earls Court Station. But in the next picture:

Earls Court Road station 158 later 238 1904  LTE278 a

Milner hasn’t taken a picture of the whole station. But of course he didn’t have to – he was working for the railway company and they were not worried about their own property. He has given us a ghostly policeman and an odd looking ticket machine (I’d like it to be a “What the butler saw” peep show machine but that isn’t likely).

This is the station ten years later in 1915:

Earls Court station 1915 SoL - Copy

Redman the wine merchants and Thomas A King, coal merchants were still in business but there is a branch of Boots which wasn’t there in 1904.

Earls Court Road 162 later 242 1904 LTE280

Brunton’s was a dispensing chemist – the classic set of large dispensing jars are in the window, and next door are Watt and Sons, bakers. The alley is Old Manor Yard where J E Gentle, Job Master can be found.

Shall we go down there?

Earls Court Road 160-162 later 240-242 1904 LTE284

Milner must have come back a few weeks later to check the back of the building.

After this point the retail establishments give way to residential properties and professional consulting rooms.

Earls Court Road 164-166 -246-252 1904 LTE281

At 164 were Whitcomb and Percival, physicians, working next door to Gill and Pugh, solicitors who shared the house with a Mrs Gale. You can see that 168, unoccupied in 1904 has the builders in.

Earls Court Road 168-170 -254-256 1904 LTE282

The men at work are J Rugg and son who we will see again but I’m not entirely happy with that ladder lashed to the scaffolding at a precarious angle.

Next door at 170 (and 172) Mrs Beesley runs a boarding house. The woman in the doorway must be a maid.

Earls Court Road 170 detail 1904 LTE282

She’s working herself into a blur of motion and completely ignoring Mr Milner.

After exposing that plate he went round the corner into Penywern Road to take a side view of the house.

Earls Court Road 172 1904 LTE285

I took a close look at the picture to look at the state of the house and was quite impressed by the condition of the brickwork. I reminded myself that these buildings were still relatively new in 1904. I noticed another small detail:

Earls Court Road 172 1904 LTE285 - Copy

A young man and the back of another horse are just visible. And as we came in with a horse we’ll leave it there. I don’t know about you but I never tire of these photographs and the details you can find in them, so next week we’re crossing the Earls Court Road to take a look at the odd numbers.

The secret life of postcards

Picture postcards have been with us for more than a hundred years. People have been collecting them as well as sending them from the beginning. Before cameras became a common consumer item they were the only way many people could get a photograph of their street. Professional photographers it seemed roamed the streets of London taking pictures of any street they liked the look of, perhaps hoping to sell postcards to the residents. It’s possible anyway, all I know is that there are a lot of postcards of quite obscure streets taken from the 1890s to just before the First World War, Postcards like this one:

This is the view looking north down Pembridge Road from Notting Hill Gate. Most of these buildings are still there now, only the shops have changed. And the people of course.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I like a good close up. This is what I mean by the secret life of postcards. The photographer was trying to get a good picture of the street. The people in it were incidental for his purposes. But whether intentionally or by chance he captures the passers-by in unguarded moments. The girl waiting impatiently for her mother to finish taking to her friend. Or are they waiting to cross the road?

This is the Earls Court Road fully developed on the east side with a hoarding enclosing a vacant lot or building site on the other side.  There are plenty of people too.

In this case teenage girls hanging out by the shops? Two of them at least with sonewhere definite to go striding out of the picture.

A slightly less crowded scene. These mansion blocks on the western side of Elm Park Gardens have now been partially replaced by modern blocks of flats but the street is still recognizable.

In the close up the woman and her daughter are too blurred to see much detail but you can see her lifting up her skirt to protect it from the dirty surface of the road.

This is an excellent action view of Kensington Park Road looking north from the junction with Elgin Crescent. Look at the barely visible cyclist, the horses in motion and the woman leaning forward to start pushing the pram across the road. The close up adds a little information.

The woman in the foreground has noticed the camera, and maybe the man with the umbrella too. You can just about make out the child sitting up in the pram.

Maybe half a mile away, but possibly a few years apart, in Notting Hill Gate there is another bustling street scene.

You can see the Metropolitan underground station and another bus covered with adverts.

All the figures in this picture are interesting in some way, even the dog, but the two that catch my eye are the bearded man and his younger companion. Are they out for a leisurely stroll or pursuing some business venture?

Moving south here is a picture of the now demolished Kensington Crescent, an unsuccessful development in the Warwick Gardens area. The two children in the photograph are aware of the photographer perhaps even consciously posing for him.

I can’t tell if the expression is curious, resentful, bored or whether they’re just standing still as the photographer asked.

This picture shows numbers 1-14 Kensington Crescent. Normally I avoid fascinating facts but I cannot avoid telling you that Kenneth Grahame, author of the Wind in the Willows lived for five years at number 5, just before the photo was taken.

Finally a personal favourite, one of the first postcards I subjected to the scan and zoom process.

A good crisp view of Kensington Park Road showing St Peter’s Church. Try it on Google Maps street view for comparison. The pattern of the facade is still there exactly.

But naturally what I want to know is what the woman in the middle is doing with her left hand. Is she scratching her nose, and has this idle gesture been captured for posterity?

There are so many postcards full of compelling details and questions that we will probably be here again soon using the time machine to catch more of these details of everyday life.

Author’s message

From next week I’ll be tweeting a preview of the week’s post a couple of days before posting – assuming I know what I’ll be writing about before Wednesday. Follow me at @daveinlocal .

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