When people speak of Kensington they generally mean a very small area lying north and south of the High Street; to this some might add South Kensington, the district bordering on the Cromwell and Brompton Roads, and possibly a few would remember to mention West Kensington as a far-away place, where there is an entrance to the Earl’s Court Exhibition. But Kensington as a borough is both more and less than the above. It does not include all West Kensington, nor even the whole of Kensington Gardens, but it stretches up to Kensal Green on the north, taking in the cemetery, which is its extreme northerly limit.
If we draw a somewhat wavering line from the west side of the cemetery, leaving outside the Roman Catholic cemetery, and continue from here to Uxbridge Road Station, thence to Addison Road Station, and thence again through West Brompton to Chelsea Station, we shall have traced roughly the western boundary of the borough. It covers an immense area, and it begins and ends in a cemetery, for at the south-western corner is the West London, locally known as the Brompton, Cemetery. In shape the borough is strikingly like a man’s leg and foot in a top-boot. The western line already traced is the back of the leg, the Brompton Cemetery is the heel, the sole extends from here up Fulham Road and Walton Street, and ends at Hooper’s Court, west of Sloane Street. This, it is true, makes a very much more pointed toe than is usual in a man’s boot, for the line turns back immediately down the Brompton Road. It cuts across the back of Brompton Square and the Oratory, runs along Imperial Institute Road, and up Queen’s Gate to Kensington Gore. Thence it goes westward to the Broad Walk, and follows it northward to the Bayswater Road. Thus we leave outside Kensington those essentially Kensington buildings the Imperial Institute and Albert Hall, and nearly all of Kensington Gardens. But we shall not omit an account of these places in our perambulation, which is guided by sense-limits rather than by arbitrary lines.
The part left outside the borough, which is of Kensington, but not in it, has belonged from time immemorial to Westminster.
If we continue the boundary-line we find it after the Bayswater Road very irregular, traversing Ossington Street, Chepstow Place, a bit of Westbourne Grove, Ledbnry Road, St. Luke’s Road, and then curving round on the south side of the canal for some distance before crossing it at Ladbroke Grove, and continuing in the Harrow Road to the western end of the cemetery from whence we started.
The borough is surrounded on the west, south, and east respectively by Hammersmith, Chelsea, and Paddington, and the above boundaries, roughly given as they are, will probably be detailed enough for the purpose.
The heart and core of Kensington is the district gathered around Kensington Square ; this is the most redolent of interesting memories, from the days when the maids of honour lived in it to the present time, and in itself has furnished material for many a book. Close by in Young Street lived Thackeray, and the Square figures many times in his works. Further northward the Palace and Gardens are closely associated with the lives of our kings, from William III. onward. Northward above Notting Hill is a very poor district, poor enough to rival many an East-End parish. Associations cluster around Campden and Little Campden Houses, and the still existing Holland House, where gathered many who were notable for ability as well as high birth. To Campden House Queen Anne, then Princess, brought her sickly little son as to a country house at the “Gravel Pits,” but the child never lived to inherit the throne, Not far off lived Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest philosopher the world has ever known, who also came to seek health in the fresh air of Kensington.
The southern part of the borough is comparatively new. Within the last sixty years long lines of houses have sprung up, concealing beneath unpromising exteriors, such as only London houses can show, comfort enough and to spare. This is a favourite residential quarter, though we now consider it in, not “conveniently near,” town. Snipe were shot in the marshes of Brompton, and nursery gardens spread themselves over the area now devoted to the museums and institute. It is rather interesting to read the summary of John Timbs, F.S.A., writing so late as 1867: “Kensington, a mile and a half west of Hyde Park Corner, contains the hamlets of Brompton, Earl’s Court, the Gravel Pits, and part of Little Chelsea, now West Brompton, but the Royal Palace and about twenty other houses north of the road are in the parish of St. Margaret’s, Westminster.” He adds that Brompton has long been frequented by invalids on account of its genial air. Faulkner, the local historian of all South-West London, speaks of the “delightful fruit-gardens of Brompton and Earl’s Court.”
The origin of the name Kensington is obscure. In Domesday Book it is called Chenesitum, and in other ancient records Kenesitune and Kensintune, on which Lysons comments: ” Cheneesi was a proper name. A person of that name held the Manor of Huish in Somersetshire in the reign of Edward the Confessor.” This is apparently entirely without foundation. Other writers have attempted to connect the name with Kings-town, with equal ill-success. The true derivation seems to be from the Saxon tribe of the Kensings or Kemsings, whose name also remains in the little village of Kemsing in Kent.
From Domesday Book we learn that the Manor of Kensington had belonged to a certain Edward or Edwin, a thane, during the reign of Edward the Confessor. It was granted by William I. to Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, under whom it was held by Alberic or Aubrey de Ver or Vere. The Bishop died in 1093, and Aubrey then held it directly from the Crown.
Aubrey’s son Godefrid or Geoffrey, being under obligations to the Abbot of Abingdon, persuaded his father to grant a strip of Kensington to the Abbot. This was done with the consent of the next heir. The strip thus granted became a sub ordinate manor ; it is described ‘as containing hides and a virgate ” of land, or about 270 acres. This estate was cut right out of the original manor, and formed a detached piece or island lying within it.
The second Aubrey de Vere was made Great Chamberlain of England by King Henry I. This office was made hereditary. The third Aubrey was created Earl of Oxford by Queen Matilda, a purely honorary title, as he held no possessions in Oxfordshire. The third Earl, Robert, was one of the guardians of the Magna Charta. The fifth of the same name granted lands, in 1284, to one Simon Downham, chaplain, and his heirs, at a rent of one penny. This formed another manor in Kensington. This Robert and the three succeeding Earls held high commands. The ninth Earl was one of the favourites of Richard IL, under whom he held many offices. He was made Knight of the Garter, Marquis of Dublin (the first Marquis created in England), and later on Duke of Ireland. His honours were forfeited at Richard’s fall. However, as he died without issue, this can have been no great punishment. Eventually his uncle Aubrey was restored by Act of Parliament to the earldom, and became the tenth Earl. Kensington had, however, been settled on the widowed Duchess of Ireland, and at her death in 1411 it went to the King. By a special gift in 1420 it was restored to the twelfth Earl. In 1462 he was beheaded by King Edward IV., and his eldest son with him. The thirteenth Earl was restored to the family honours and estates under King Henry VII., but he was forced to part with ” Knotting Barnes or Knotting barnes, sometimes written Notting or Nutting barns.” This is said to have been more valuable than the original manor itself. It formed the third subordinate manor in Kensington. The thirteenth Earl was succeeded by his nephew, who died young. The titles went to a collateral branch, and the Manor of Kensington was settled on the two widowed Countesses, and later upon three sisters, coheiresses of the fourteenth Earl.
We have now to trace the histories of the secondary manors after their severance from the main estate. The Abbot’s manor still survives in the name of St. Mary Abbots Church. About 1260 it was discovered that Aubrey de Vere had not obtained the consent of the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of London before granting the manor to the Abbot. Thereupon a great dispute arose as to the Abbot’s rights over the land in question, and it was finally decided that the Abbot was to retain half the great tithes, but that the vicarage was to be in the gift of the Bishop of London. The Abbot’s manor was leased to William Walwyn in the beginning of the sixteenth century. It afterwards was held by the Grenvilles, who had obtained the reversion. In 1564 the tithes and demesne lands were separated from the manor and rectory, which were still held by the Grenvilles. The tithes passed through the hands of many people in succession, as did also the manor. In 1595 one Robert Horseman was the lessee under the Crown. The Queen sold the estate to Walter (afterwards Sir Walter) Cope, and a special agreement was made by which Robert Horseman still retained his right to live in the manor house. This is important, as it led to the foundation of Holland House by Cope, who had no suitable residence as lord of the manor.
West Town, created out of lands known as the Groves, was granted by the fifth Earl, as we have seen, to his chaplain Simon Downham. This grant is described by Mr. Loftie thus: “It appears to have been that piece of land which was intercepted between the Abbot’s manor and the western border of the parish, and would answer to Addison Road and the land on either side of it.” Robins, in his “History of Paddington,” mentions an inquisition taken in 1481, in which ” The Groves, formerly only three fields, had extended themselves out of Kensington into Brompton, Chelsea, Tybourn, and Westbourne.”
The manor passed later to William Essex. It was bought from him in 1570 by the Marquis of Winchester, Lord High Treasurer of England.
He sold it to William Dodiugton, who resold it to Christopher Barker, printer to Queen Elizabeth, who was responsible for the -Breeches ” Bible. It was bought from him by Walter Cope for £1,300.