The church owes its additional name of Abbots to the fact of its having belonged to the Abbot and convent of Abingdon, as set forth in the history of the parish. Bowack says: “It does not appear that this church was ever dedicated to any saint, nor can we find, after a very strict search, by whom it was founded, though we have traced its vicars up to the year 1260.”
It has already been explained that Aubrey de Vere made a present to the Abbot of the slice of land on which the church stands, and that this formed a secondary manor in Kensington. This transfer had been made with the consent of Pope Alexander, but without the consent of the Bishop of London or the Archbishop. In consequence of this omission the title of the Abbey to the land was disputed, and it was at length settled that the patronage of the vicarage should be vested in the Bishop. This was in 1260. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries the Abbot’s portion became vested in the Crown, from which it passed to various persons ; and when Sir Walter Cope bought the manor a special arrangement had to be made with Robert Horseman, who was then in possession.
So much for the history. The actual fabric has been subject to much change, and has been rebuilt many times. It is known that a church was standing on this site in 1102, but how old it was then is only matter for conjecture; in 1370 it was wholly or partly rebuilt. And this church was pulled down about 1694, with the exception of the tower, and again rebuilt ; but in seven years the new building began to crack, and in 1704 the roof was taken off, and the north and south walls once more rebuilt. After this Bowack describes it as “of brick and handsomely finished; but what it was formerly may be guessed by the old tower now standing, which has some appearance of antiquity, and looks like the architecture of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.” In his encomium he probably spoke more in accordance with convention than with real approbation, for this church has been described by many other independent persons as an unsightly building, with no architectural beauty whatever; and as far as may be gathered from the prints still extant this is the true judgment. In 1811 it showed signs of decay, and underwent thorough restoration; and in 1869 it was entirely demolished, and the present church built from the designs of Sir Gilbert Scott. The spire, added a few years later, is only exceeded by two in England-namely, those of Salisbury and Norwich Cathedrals.
There are many parish charities, which it would be out of place to enumerate here, and among them are several bequests for the cleansing and repair of tombs.
The fine shops on the south side of the street inherit a more ancient title than might be supposed. Bowack, writing in 1705, speaks of the ((abundance of shopkeepers and all sorts of artificers ” along the high-road, “which makes it appear rather like a part of London than a country village.”
Leaving aside for the time Church Street and all the interesting district on the north, we turn to Kensington Square, which was begun about the end of James IL’s reign, and from the very first was a notably fashionable place, and more especially so after the Court was established at Kensington Palace. In Queen Anne’s reign, ‘ ” for beauty of buildings and worthy inhabitants,” it exceeds several noted squares in London.” The eminent inhabitants have indeed been so numerous that it is difficult to prevent any account of them from degenerating into a mere catalogue. ” In the time of George II. the demand for lodgings was so great that an Ambassador, a Bishop, and a physician were known to occupy apartments in the same house ” (Faulkner).
The two houses, Nos. 10 and 11, in the eastern corner on the south side are the two oldest that look on to the square. They were reserved for the maids of honour when the Court was at Kensington, and the wainscoted rooms and little powdering closets speak volumes as to their by gone days ; these two were originally one house, as the exterior shows. Next door is the women’s department of King’s College. J. R. Green, the historian, lived at No. 14 until his death, and in No. 18 John S. Mill was living in 1839. Three Bishops at least are known to have been domiciled in the square: Bishop Mawson of Ely, who died here in 1770; Bishop Herring of Bangor, a very notable prelate, who was afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury ; and in the south-western corner Bishop Hough of Oxford, Lichfield, and Worcester had a fine old house until 1732. The Convent of the Assumption now covers the same ground in Nos. 20 to 24. The original object of the convent was prayer for the conversion of England to the Roman Catholic faith, but the sisters now devote themselves to the work of teaching ; they have a pleasant garden, more than an acre in extent, stretching out at the back of the house. In the chapel there is a fresco painting by Westlake.
No. 26 is the Kensington Foundation Grammar School. Talleyrand lived in Nos. 36 and 37, formerly one house. He succeeded Bishop Herring in the occupancy, after a lapse of fifty years, and the man who had abandoned the vocation of the Church to follow diplomacy was thus sheltered by the same roof that had sheltered a Churchman by vocation, if ever there were one. Many foreign ambassadors patronized the square at various times. The Duchess of Mazarin, already mentioned in the volume on Chelsea, was here in 1692, and six years later moved to her Chelsea home, where she died; but her day was over many years before she came here. Joseph Addison lodged in the square for a time, four or five years before his marriage with the Countess of Warwick. At No. 41 Sir Edward Burne-Jones lived for three years, subsequently removing to West Kensington, but the association which has most glorified the square is its proximity to Young Street, so long the home of Thackeray. He came to No. 16, then 13, in 1846, aged only thirty-five, but with the romance of his life behind him. A tablet marks the window in which he used to work. Six years previously his wife, whom he had tenderly loved, had developed melancholia, and, soon becoming a confirmed invalid, had had to be placed permanently under medical care. Their married life had been very short, only four or five years, but Thackeray had three little daughters to remind him of it. He had passed through many vicissitudes, from the comparatively opulent days of youth and the University to the time when he had lost all his patrimony and been forced to support himself precariously by pen and pencil. Yearly he had become better known, and by the time he came to Young Street he was sufficiently removed from money troubles to be without that worst form of worry, anxiety for the future. He had contributed to the Times, Frazer’s Magazine, and Punch. It is rather odd to read that at the time when Punch was started one of Thackeray’s friends was rather sorry that he should become a contributor, fearing that it would lower his status in the literary world! It was in Punch, nevertheless, that his first real triumph was won. The ” Snob Papers ” attracted universal attention, and were still running when he moved to Young Street. Here he began more serious work, and scarcely a year later “Vanity Fair” was brought out in numbers, according to the fashion made popular by Dickens. It did not prove an instantaneous success, but by the time it had run its course its author’s position was assured. In spite of the sorrow that overshadowed his domestic life-and he had by this time for many years given up any hope of communicating with his wife-the time he spent in this house cannot have been unhappy. He had congenial work, many friends, among whom were numbered his fellow contributor Leech, also G. F. Watts, Herman Merivale, the Theodore Martins, Monckton Milnes, Kinglake, and others. He had also his daughters, and he was a loving and sympathetic father, realizing that children need brightness in their lives as well as mere care, and taking his little family about whenever he could to parties and shows ; and he had a growing reputation in the literary world. ” Pendennis ” was published in 1848, and before it had finished running Thackeray suffered from a severe illness, that left its mark on all his succeeding life. ,
It was after this that Miss Bronte came to dine with him in Young Street. She had admired ” Vanity Fair ” immensely, and was ready to offer hero-worship ; but the sensitive, dull little governess did not reveal in society the fire that had made her books live, and we are told that Thackeray, although her host, found the dinner so dull that he slipped away to his club before she left. He had now a good income from his books, and added to it by lecturing. ” Esmond ” appeared in 1852, and the references to my Lady Castlewood’s house in Kensington Square and the Greyhound tavern (the name of the inn opposite to Thackeray’s own house) will be remembered by everyone. The novelist visited America shortly after, and then went with his children to Switzerland, and it was in Switzerland that the idea for “The Newcomes” came to him. Young Street can only claim a part of that book, for in 1853 he moved to Onslow Square, and the last number of “The Newcomes” did not appear until 1855. However, this was not his last connection with this part of Kensington, for in 1861 he built himself a house in Palace Green, but he only occupied it for two years, when his death occurred at the early age of fifty-two.
The houses in Kensington Court, near by, are elaborately decorated with ornamental terra-cotta mouldings. They stand just about the place where once was Kensington House, which had something of a history. It was for a while the residence of the Duchess of Portsmouth (Louise de Querouaille), and later was the school of Dr. Elphinstone, referred to in Boswell’s °° Life of Johnson,” and supposed, on the very slightest grounds, to have been the original of one of Smollett’s brutal schoolmasters in °° Roderick Random”; though the driest of pedagogues, Elphinstone was the reverse of brutal. The house was subsequently a Roman Catholic seminary, and then a boarding-house, where Mrs. Inchbald lodged, and in which she died in 1821.
Close by was another old house, made notorious by its owner’s miserliness; this man, Sir Thomas Colby, died intestate, and his fortune of X200,000 was divided among six or seven day labourers, who were his next of kin. A new Kensington House was built on the site of these two, and is said to have cost £250,000, but its owner got into difficulties, and eventually the costly house was pulled down, and its fittings sold for a twentieth part of their value. Near at hand are De Vere Gardens, to which Robert Browning came in June, 1887, from Warwick Crescent. Further eastward we come to Palace Gate. Some of this property belongs to the local charities. It is known as Butts Field Estate, and was so called from the fact that the butts for archery practice were once set up here.
The Gardens are so intimately connected with the Palace that it is impossible to touch upon the one without the other, and though Leigh Hunt caustically remarked that a criticism might 1>e made on Kensington that it has ” a Palace which is no palace, Gardens which are no gardens, and a river called the Serpentine which is neither serpentine nor a river,” yet in spite of this the Palace, the Gardens, and the river annually give pleasure to thousands, and possess attractions of their own by no means despicable. The flowerbeds in the gardens nearest to Kensington Road are beautiful enough in themselves to justify the title of gardens. This is the quarter most patronized by nursemaids and their charges. There are shady narrow paths, also the Broad Walk, with its leafy overarching boughs resembling one of Nature’s aisles, and the Round Pond, pleasant in spite of its primness. The Gardens were not always open to the public, but partly belonged to the palace of time-soiled bricks to which the ‘ public is now also admitted.
The first house on this site of which we have any reliable detail is that built by Sir Heneage Finch, the second of the name, who was Lord Chancellor under Charles I. and was created Earl of Nottingham in 1681, though it is probable that there had been some building on or near the same place before, possibly the manor-house of the Abbot. The first Earl of Nottingham had bought the estate from his younger brother, Sir John, and it was from his successor, the second earl, that William III. bought Nottingham House, as it was then called.
William suffered much from asthma, and the gravel pits of Kensington were then considered very healthy, and combined the advantages of not being very far from town with the pure air of the country. Of course, the house had to be enlarged in order to be suitable for a royal residence, but it was not altogether demolished, and there are parts of the original Nottingham House still standing, probably the south side of the courtyard, where the brick is of a deeper shade than the rest. King William’s taste in the matter of architecture knew no deviation; his model was Versailles, and as he had commissioned Wren to transform the Tudor building of Hampton into a palace resembling Versailles, so he directed him to repeat the experiment here. The long, low red walls, with their neat exactitude, speak still of William’s orders; a building of heterogeneous growth, with a tower here and an angle there, would have disgusted him: his ideal would have found its fulfilment in a modern barrack. Wren’s taste, later aided by the lapse of time, softened down the hard angularity of the building, but it can in no sense be considered admirable. Thus Kensington Palace was built, and its walls and its park like gardens were to be as closely associated with the Hanoverian Sovereigns as the building and park of St. James’s had been associated with the Stuarts whom William had supplanted.
The Palace was not finished when Queen Mary was seized with small-pox and died within its walls, leaving a husband who, though narrow and austere, had really loved her. He himself died at Kensington eight years later. Good-hearted Queen Anne, whose last surviving child had died two years before, took up her residence at the Palace, of which she was always extremely fond. The death of her husband in 1708 left her to a lonely reign, and she seems to have solaced herself with her garden, superintending the laying out of the grounds. She had no taste, and everything she ordered was dull and formal ; yet she could not spoil the natural beauty of the situation, and she still had Wren to direct her in architectural matters. The great orangery which goes by her name, and now stands empty and forlorn, is seen on nearing the public entrance to the state apartments of the Palace, and is in itself a wonderful example of Wren’s genius for proportion. The private gardens of the Palace must not be confounded with the larger grounds, which stretched up to Hyde Park. The whole place had a very different aspect at that time: there were King William’s gardens, with formal flower-beds and walks in the Dutch style, and northward lay Queen Anne’s additional gardens, very much in the same style. The rest was comparatively uncared-for and waste. Queen Anne died at Kensington from apoplexy, brought on by over-eating, and was succeeded by the first George, who spent so much of his time in visiting his Hanoverian dominions that he had not much left for performing the merely necessary Court duties at St. James’s, and none to spare for any lengthy visits to Kensington. However, he admired the place, and caused alterations to be made. It was in his reign that the ugly annexe on the east side, hearing unmistakably a Georgian origin, was added, under the superintendence of William Kent, who had supplanted Wren. George’s daughter-in-law, “Caroline the Illustrious,” loved Kensington, and has left her impress on it more than any other occupant.
When her husband came to the throne, she spent much of her time, during his long absences abroad, at the Palace. She employed Kent to do away with William’s formal flower-beds, and she added much ground to the Gardens, taking for the purpose 100 acres from Hyde Park, and dividing the two parks by the Serpentine River, formed from the pools in the bed of the West bourne. There were eleven pools altogether, but in later days, when the Westbourne stream had become a mere sewer, in which form it still flows underground and empties itself into the Thames near Chelsea Bridge, the Chelsea waterworks supplied the running water. The elaborate terrace, with its fountains at the north end, is a favourite place with children. The statue of Sir William Jenner stands near; it was brought from Trafalgar Square. In winter, when frozen over, the Serpentine affords skating-room for hundreds of persons, and at other times bathing is permitted in the early morning.
In her gardens the fair Queen walked with her bevy of maids of honour, that bevy which has always been renowned for its beauty, herself the fairest of all. These fascinating, light-hearted girls grew up in an age of coarseness and vice, and were surrounded by temptation, which all, alas! did not resist, in spite of their royal mis tress’s example and courage. It was an age of meaningless gallantry and real brutality; the high-flown compliment and pretended adoration covered cynical intention and unabashed effrontery. Caroline herself preserved an untainted name, and her influence must have been a rock of salvation to the giddy, laughing girls. Leigh Hunt, quoting from the ” Suffolk Correspondence,” thus summarizes these maids: “There is Miss Hobart, the sweet tempered and sincere (now become Mrs. Howard, afterwards Lady Suffolk) ; Miss Howe, the giddiest of the giddy (which she lived to lament) ; Margaret Bellenden, who vied in height with her royal mistress; the beautiful Mary Bellenden, her sister, who became Duchess of Argyll; Mary Lepel, the lovely, who became Lady Hervey ; and Anne Pitt, sister of the future Lord Chatham, and as ° like him as two drops of fire.”‘
Caroline’s devotion to her insignificant little lord and master, and the eagerness with which she hastened on foot to meet him, running across the Gardens, on his return from the Continent, have been made the subject of satire. She was generally accompanied by her five daughters, a pathetic little band, cramped in the fetters of royalty, so stringent toward their sex. Portraits of two of them may be seen in the Palace. Caroline did not die at Kensington, though her husband did, after having survived her more than twenty years, and having in the meantime discovered her inestimable worth. At this time the Gardens were open to the public on Saturdays by Queen Caroline’s orders, and were a favourite parade, though, as everyone was requested to appear in “full dress,” the numbers must have been limited. The principal promenade was the Broad Walk, which Caroline herself had caused to be made. We can picture these ghosts of the past, with their gay silks and satins, the silverbuckled shoes with coloured heels, the men in their long waistcoats, heavily skirted coats, and three-cornered hats-very fine beaux, indeed ; and the women stiffly encased in the most uncomfortable garments that ever the wit of mortal devised, holding their heads erect, lest the marvellous pyramids, built up with such expenditure of time and money, should topple over, and, in spite of all disadvantages, looking pretty and piquant. It was a crowd not so far removed from us by time, so that we can attribute to the men and women who composed it the same feelings and sensibilities as our own. And yet they were very far removed from us in their surroundings, for many of the things that are to us commonplace would have been to them miraculous, so that they seem more different from us of a hundred years later than from those who preceded them by many hundreds of years. It is this mingling of a life we can understand, with circumstances so different, that gives the eighteenth century its predominant and never-dying charm.
In 1798 we hear of a man being accidentally shot while the keepers were hunting (presumably shooting) foxes in Kensington Gardens.