Kensington Gardens in the 1700 and 1800s

Map of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. Public domain.

Kensington Gardens sits west of Hyde Park, which it once adjoined. Kensington Gardens were created when they were cut off from Hyde Park by George II’s wife, Queen Caroline, in 1728. Henry Wise and Charles Bridgeman were tasked with the job of creating the gardens. Bridgeman created the recreational lake known as the Serpentine between 1726 and 1731 by damning Hyde Park’s River Westbourne on the eastern outflow. Queen Caroline enclosed Kensington Gardens by using the West Carriage Drive (The Ring) and the Serpentine Bridge to form a boundary between the two. Kensington Gardens consists of 270 acres, but at one time, Kensington Palace was surrounded by 30 acres of private gardens and shaded by fine old trees.

Swans in the Round Pond. Imag-9501 © C.L. Weber.

Besides the Serpentine, Bridgeman also created an ornamental lake called the Round Pond that is situated in front of Kensington Palace. Despite its name, Round Pond is not round. Rather it is rectangular with stepped and rounded corners. The pond is approximately 660 by 490 feet and 16 feet deep.

Ducks, swans, and Canada Geese enjoy the pond, and many other birds were spotted in or around Kensington Gardens in the 1800s. Among some of those seen were the Nightingale, Redstart, Wheater, Song Thrush, Redwing, Blackbird, Robin Redbreast, Hedge Sparrow, Great Titmouse, Cole Titmouse, Blue Titmouse, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, House Sparrow, Starling, Rook, Jackdaw, House Martine, Swallow, Woodcock, Sandpiper, Herring Gull, Moon Hen, Common Tern, Woodpecker, and Common Gull. Near dusk, bats also appeared in the gardens.

Kensington Gardens was also full of insects and plants. Some of the insects found were bees, the Peacock butterfly, cinnabar moth, and yellow-legged clearwing moth. In 1871, John Byrne Leicester Warren, an English poet, numismatist, and botanist, wrote about the flora of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. He reported at that time that there were no less than 181 species of flowering plant and ferns found within the area. Among the plants Warren reported finding were oxeye daisy, grey field-speedwell, wormseed mustard, hawthorn, erect chickweed, gorse, trefoil, red dead-nettle, sweet vernal grass, and mugwort.

Queen Caroline’s Temple. Imag-9473 © C.L. Weber.

Between 1734 and 1735, a temple to Queen Caroline was also built in the gardens. It is a classical summer house created by the eminent English architect, landscape architect, and furniture designer William Kent. The temple was placed to overlook another recreational lake created at the behest of Queen Caroline called Long Water. Long Water refers to the long and narrow western half of the lake that is now known as the Serpentine. According to the Royal Parks Kensington Gardens website, trees were arranged “like spokes on a wheel … [and] each avenue gave a different view of the palace. As the vista changed, you could catch a glimpse of classical-style buildings like the Queen’s Temple.”[1] Interestingly, some of the graffiti found inside the temple today dates back to 1821.

Orangerie. IMG-9580 © C.L. Weber.

Before Kensington Gardens was created, an orangery or orangerie existed. The Kensington orangerie is located near the palace, and, according to the Kensington Gardens website, the orangerie “was built in 1704-05 for Mary’s younger sister, Anne, who became Queen when William died. Anne used Kensington for entertaining and she held parties in the Orangery.”[2]

The orangerie is a Baroque structure of brick with a Portland Stone terrace and decorative cornices, and like most orangeries is long and narrow. A stone terrace was also added to facilitate easy movement of the fruit in and out of the building. Kensington’s orangerie is also one of the oldest surviving orangeries in the British Isles as condensation can result in dry rot and cause other structural issues that ruin such buildings.

Kensington Palace was originally a two-story Jacobean mansion built by Sir George Coppin in 1605. It became a residence for the British Royal Family in the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth century, it held special meaning for Queen Victoria. It was the spot where she was born on 24 May 1819. Her birth happened in the north-east corner of the main building in a room with three large windows that overlooked the gardens towards Round Pond. A month or so later, on 24 June 1819, she was christened in the Grand Saloon. The gardens of Kensington Palace were also the spot where she took her airings.

Kensington Palace was important to her in another way. When Victoria ascended the throne, Kensington Palace was where the bishop announced her accession early in the morning on 20 June 1837, and Kensington is also where Queen Victoria held her first council. However, promptly after her accession in June, Queen Victoria moved to Buckingham Palace, but she still allowed her family and others to stay at Kensington Palace.

Pathway in Kensington Gardens. IMG-9581 © C.L. Weber.

In 1851, an international exhibition known as “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”* or “The Great Exhibition” was held next to Kensington Gardens in Hyde Park. The exhibition ran from 1 May to 15 October 1851. It was the first exhibition of manufactured products and an exhibition in a series of World’s Fairs that became popular in the nineteenth century. Thousands attended the Great Exhibition. They enjoyed every modern convenience such as first-class rooms in the center transept, light refreshments for a fair price, and water closets and waiting rooms adjacent to refreshment centers for a moderate charge. At the time of the Great Exhibition, Kensington Gardens were considered rural and remained largely undeveloped until the exhibition. Nevertheless, despite development many of the original features still survive today.

The ornamental water gardens known as the Italian Gardens were added to Kensington Gardens in 1860. They are believed to have been a gift to Queen Victoria from her husband Prince Albert, who was an avid gardener. The Italian gardens have four main basins and the gardens are located next to Lancaster gate. The gardens have a layout like the Osborne House on the Isle of Wright, which is where the royal family spent holidays. In the Italian gardens, besides five recurring urn designs – a woman’s head, swan’s breast, dolphin, oval, and ram’s head – there is also a statue of English physician and scientist who was the pioneer of smallpox vaccine, Edward Jenner. The sculpture was created in 1858 by William Calder Marshall and initially unveiled at Trafalgar Square but moved to the Italian garden in 1862. You can also find Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s initials on a wall of the Pump House.

Albert Memorial. IMG-9626 © C.L. Weber.

In 1861, Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid, and within days of his death, talk began about creating a suitable memorial to the popular Prince. The memorial that Queen Victoria commissioned to be erected in Kensington Gardens across from the Royal Albert Hall was not the first memorial to honor him. However, it was one of the most ornate memorials in London, and it took more than ten years to complete. It also cost £120,000 (the equivalent of over £11,500,000 in 2018) and was raised by public subscriptions. The Queen opened the memorial in July 1872 with the statue of Albert ceremonially “seated” three years later in 1875. The memorial shows Prince Albert holding the catalogue of the Great Exhibition, which he inspired and helped to organize.

In the late 1800s, although Kensington Garden was fenced and considered more formal than Hyde Park, Hyde Park was considered more “fashionable” because it was located nearer to Park Lane and Knightsbridge. Part of Kensington was also considerably elevated, and its layout was “intersected by noble roads and lawns with luxuriant trees, planted singly and in groups, and presenting beautiful examples of diversified prospects.”[3] In fact, the broad avenue through the park, known as Rotten Row, a corruption of the Route du Roi, French for King’s Road, served as a fashionable route for equestrians and upper-class Londoners. They could be seen riding there during the 1700 and 1800s. One newspaper noted of Rotten Row in 1861:

“It seems all to lovely to be real; but real it is, for the highest and most beautiful ladies in the land make this their favourite resort, and take Rotten Row as a sort of tonic before dinner. … Upon the wooden rails which extend the whole length of Rotten Row, lean ‘swells’ of every size, shape, condition, and age. This is their afternoon club. … Members of Parliament, lords and commoners, professional men of high standing, ambassadors, foreign visitors, all ride up and down in this mile in the serious steady way people generally go about their pleasure in England. Gentlemen draw up their horses by the sides of carriages, and laugh and talk with the ladies, who are reclining luxuriously within, nursing, perhaps, some pet dog worth more than its weight in gold. … Now and then there rides by a lady, beplumed and jewelled, very beautiful and fair to look upon.”[4]

Queen Victoria statue unveiled by the Queen herself. IMG-9512 © C.L. Weber.

One of the last additions in the 1800s to Kensington Gardens occurred in June of 1893. It was then that Queen Victoria unveiled a marble statue of herself designed by her sixth child and fourth daughter, the Princess Louise. The route to the unveiling was filled with cheering crowds and “gaily decorated.” One newspaper reported that “parts of the thoroughfare the tradesmen and residents have clubbed together in order to give a character of unity to the scheme of decoration.”[5] The statue was designed with Queen Victoria dressed in her coronation robes from 1837 at the age of 18. At the unveiling, Princess Louise handed her mother a bouquet that contained orchids from Burma. 

Just as Kensington Gardens were popular in the 1800s, they remain popular today. Moreover, today, a playground, a child’s wonderland, honors Diana, Princess of Wales. The playground was inspired by stories of Peter Pan and embraces the Peter Pan statue by George Frampton that honors J.M. Barrie’s book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Thomas Tickell’s 1772 poem Kensington Gardens. The Diana Memorial Playground opened on 30 June 2000 in honor of the Princess and is dedicated to all children, even those that are less able-bodied. Its centerpiece is a huge wooden pirate ship with a sensory trail, play sculptures, and a beach. The playground allows children to not just have fun but to also have a physical, imaginative, social, educational, and creative experience.

References:

  • [1] “Kensington Gardens,” The Royal Parks Kensington Gardens, https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington-gardens
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] London (illustrated): A Complete Guide to the Places of Amusement, Objects of Interest, Parks, Clubs, Markets, Docks, Principal Railway Routes, Leading Hotels, and Also a Directory, in a Concise Form, of First Class Reliable Houses in the Various Branches of Trade (London: H. Herbert & Company, 1880), p. 65.
  • [4] Wicklow News-Letter and County Advertiser, “Sketches in London,” February 23, 1861, p. 4.
  • [5] St James’s Gazette, “The Queen’s Statue in Kensington Gardens,” June 28, 1893, p. 8.

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