Standing in Kensington High Street amidst the bustle of shoppers and the queuing traffic, it is difficult to imagine that Kensington was once just a small, rural village three miles to the west of London. As part of my job as co-author of HRP’s new forthcoming book on Kensington Palace, I’ve been attempting to do just that. Over the past year, I’ve been researching the history of Kensington during the early 1600s, almost a century before the royal palace was built for William III and Mary II. This has involved spending a lot of time at the National Archives, digging through their collections in search of old maps, manorial records, parish books, letters, wills and deeds for land and property sales. It’s the kind of research that I love because it’s like a treasure hunt!
So far, the most interesting discoveries that I have made relate to Kensington’s emergence as a fashionable residence for wealthy Jacobean families. Between 1605 and 1620 three great houses were built in Kensington: Cope Castle built by Sir Walter Cope; Campden House remodeled by Sir Baptist Hicks; and Nottingham House, as it was later named, for Sir George Coppin. All three men had made their fortunes in the city, in government and in trade, and saw Kensington as the perfect rural retreat. At this time the village was just a small cluster of houses, gardens and orchards centered on the church of St Mary Abbots. To the north, the land rose upwards to the village and farm of Notting Barns and the 120 acre Notting wood (now the chic streets of Notting Hill!). To the south there were the villages of Chelsea, Brompton and Earls Court, all surrounded by acres of pasture and arable land, while to the east lay the royal hunting ground Hyde Park and the village of Knightsbridge. In contrast to London, with its pollution, noise and overcrowding, Kensington offered space to build, land to cultivate, quiet living and clean air.
So when did Kensington become the busy urban borough that we know today? Certainly the arrival of royalty in the late seventeenth century made Kensington an increasingly popular place to live and promoted new house building. Yet, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the surrounding countryside began to be swallowed up by the grand mansion houses, for which the area is now renowned. Remarkably, two of Kensington’s Jacobean houses survived this development. From the late eighteenth century Campden House was used as a girls boarding school until it was sadly burnt down in 1867, while Cope Castle (later known as Holland House) remained a family home until it was destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1940. The remains of the house and its estate now form Holland Park. For me, however, it’s George Coppin’s house that has the most important story to tell. In 1689 the house, which was then owned by the Earl of Nottingham, was bought by William and Mary and transformed into Kensington Palace. The old Jacobean house survived as part of the royal apartments until the 1720s when it was found to be unstable and in need of rebuilding. The rooms that replaced it now form the core of the magnificent King’s state apartments decorated by William Kent.
So, next time you take a trip to Kensington, have a go at imagining the village in the early 1600s, its woodlands, fields and Sir George Coppin’s very important house.
Olivia Fryman – Assistant Curator, Kensington Monograph Project.