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South Kensington: How the zeal of Prince Albert and the Victorians transformed one of London’s greatest areas

On the 160th anniversary of Prince Albert’s death, Carla Passino takes a look back at the area of London he famously helped forge and champion.

South Kensington defies geography. No amount of fiddling with compass and northings can explain why stately Queen’s Gate or the museum-lined expanse of Exhibition Road are labelled as South, yet Young Street, at the same latitude, is bundled with the rest of Kensington. But if the geography is muddled, the identity of this stuccoed slice of London is clear: this is where the Victorians made their mark.

Of course, a village stood here long before Victoria’s Coronation; indeed, more than one — the hamlets of Brompton, clustered around today’s Old Brompton Road, and Little Chelsea, now the handful of streets between Thistle Grove and Redcliffe Gardens. But neither was populous, so nurseries and market gardens took up most of the land.

It’s here that Baroque master George London opened his Brompton Park Nursery in 1689, after having ‘assisted at the Revolution in carrying the then Princess Anne to Nottingham, from the fury of the Papists’, and here that, 100 years later, Quaker apothecary William Curtis moved his botanic garden, after lamenting that ‘the smoke of London… constantly enveloped [his] plants’.

The Albert Memorial with the Royal Albert Hall behind, Kensington Gardens, London.

In the 19th century, however, trees and shrubs were increasingly replaced by streets, houses — and even hospitals. A beacon to Victorian charitable spirit, the Royal Brompton Hospital owes its existence to the determination of solicitor Philip Rose, who campaigned tirelessly for it after one of his clerks caught tuberculosis and was denied admission everywhere else in London.

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Opened in 1846, after Victoria herself sponsored a fundraising event, the hospital remains a specialist in lung disease, although it’s long moved to nearby Chelsea. The original South Kensington building is now a luxury development, soaring red and turreted above Fulham Road and still catching the eye 175 years after being built.

It’s at the time that the Victorian zest for development really changed South Kensington, peppering it with pretty brick terraces and larger stucco-fronted houses. A mark of the area’s growth was the consecration, on October 22, 1850, of the Church of St Mary, in almond-shaped The Boltons, which became the first parish outside the older (and uglier) Holy Trinity Brompton.

“This stuccoed slice of London is where the Victorians made their mark”

The building, by architect George Godwin, raised eyebrows for its interior arrangement (sadly, long since changed), with The Ecclesiologist writing: ‘We were, we own, not a little scandalised to see a central block of inferior free seats up the middle of the nave.’

The area — which now tops the chart of London’s most expensive addresses — also had strong literary connections: Beatrix Potter, who lived until 1913 in Bolton Gardens; Agatha Christie, who in the 1920s moved to the impossibly pretty 22, Cresswell Gardens, which might have inspired her to write Murder in the Mews; Dame Paddy Ridsdale, Ian Fleming’s secretary during the Second World War and the likely inspiration for Miss Moneypenny.

Another luminary, Carlo Marochetti, lived further east at 32, Onslow Square. The French sculptor, with a penchant for gigantic equestrian statues (his Richard the Lionheart stands in Westminster’s Old Palace Yard), was a favourite of Queen Victoria’s and commissioned to create the main sculpture for the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, but his first attempt was rejected by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and the French artist died before he had a chance to complete a revision.

John Henry Foley took over the commission and, a mere £130,000 later, the statue was unveiled on March 9, 1876, a gilded, showy tribute to the man who shaped South Kensington in death as much as he did in life. Prince Albert had first put the spotlight on the area with the Great Exhibition and money from that event was used to buy the land that today forms the Exhibition Road’s cultural quarter.

Natural History Museum. London, England, United kingdom, Europe.

One of the first institutions to open there, in 1857, was the South Kensington Museum, the precursor of both the V&A and the Science Museum.

Almost 25 years later, it was joined by the Natural History Museum, the monumental scale of which, combined with Gothic Revival and Romanesque features, ensured it looked the part of the ‘Cathedral to Nature’ envisaged by the institution’s greatest supporter, Sir Richard Owen.

Originally the natural-history department of the British Museum, it opened to the public in 1881 and was (unusually) free to visitors. ‘Part of the reason for a move was to give far greater access to the public in new galleries, with displays that reflected contemporary scientific understanding,’ explains head of science policy and communication John Jackson.

Albert would have been delighted to see how successful his plan to educate the masses turned out to be, not only thanks to the museums, but also through the central hall he had envisioned as a means to promote technology, science and the Arts: the Royal Albert Hall.

The original aim for the institution, explains archivist Liz Harper, had been to stage everything from opera and concerts to conversations about horticulture, but over time, ‘it surpassed anything they could have imagined: now, there are more events than there are days in the year’. Indoor marathons (in 1909), mass baptisms (in the 1920s and 1930s), séances (not least the one held by Arthur Conan Doyle’s family in 1930) and even sumo wrestling have all been staged at the hall.

“It feels as if there’s a special energy here and everyone is trying to explore the world”

‘The sumo was quite funny: lots of guests turned out in their finest outfits to find the seats were blue cushions surrounding the ring; plus, because of the sheer size [of the competitors], they had to weight-test all the facilities, including the loo seats,’ recalls Miss Harper.

Such a rich history has propelled South Kensington’s culture quarter to fame, but the area still plays a key part in local life: the Natural History Museum’s garden is a quiet place for families to escape, the Science Museum doubles up as indoor playground, the V&A is as valued for afternoon tea as for its collections and the Royal Albert Hall hosts the graduation ceremony for students of Imperial College.

The Exhibition Road institutions also put on an annual festival — one of the many occasions in which they join forces. ‘There’s lots of collaborative work,’ says Miss Harper. ‘It feels as if there’s a special energy here and everyone is trying to explore and understand the world.’ This, 160 years after his death, is perhaps Prince Albert’s greatest legacy — and South Kensington’s greatest charm.

At home in South Kensington

Courtfield Gardens, £3.195 million

Courtfield Gardens flat
This lateral apartment sits on the first floor of a period building overlooking a private garden square (to which the new owners will gain access). It has a large living room and a magnificent kitchen and dining area, complete with panoramic balconies. Two double bedrooms occupy the rear of the property, which spans 1,574sq ft.

Queen’s Gate, £3.95 million

Queen's Gate flat
Set on the first and second floor of an imposing building, this pristine 1,949sq ft apartment has four bedrooms (three of which are on the second floor, including an especially large one), a contemporary kitchen with Gaggenau appliances and an impressive reception room with an 11ft 9in ceiling and full-height French windows that open onto a pretty balcony.

Roland Gardens, £2.6 million

roland gardens flat
Spanning the top two floors of a period building, this 1,504sq ft apartment has three bedrooms on the third floor (one opening onto a delightful private balcony) and a vast open-plan kitchen and living room upstairs, plus a study that could double up as fourth bedroom. There’s also a south-west-facing terrace that looks out across the rooftops.
Marsh & Parsons

Little black book

The Anglesea Arms
Perfect for people watching, according to Henry Synge of Winkworth (15, Selwood Terrace, SW7)
A favourite of Chestertons’ Jack Osmond, this Spanish restaurant is a local institution (163, Old Brompton Road, SW5)
Cambio de Tercio
A favourite of Chestertons’ Jack Osmond, this Spanish restaurant is a local institution (163, Old Brompton Road, SW5)
The Science Museum’s shop
The place to source gifts for curious children (Exhibition Road, SW7)
Maitre Choux
This patisserie’s éclairs rival France’s best (15, Harrington Road, SW7)
Edward Bensted of Marsh & Parsons loves this butcher’s ‘rustic, gargantuan steaks’ (84, Old Brompton Road, SW7)