Brown Hart Gardens History | Electricity, Elephants and Giants
A slice of tranquility that sits – somewhat unbelievably – parallel to Oxford Street, Brown Hart Gardens has plenty of history hiding in plain sight.
Its unusual architecture has sparked a fantastic urban myth and its now home to perhaps the oddest bedrooms in all of London! But let’s start at the beginning…
Brown Hart Gardens History
The area now known as Brown Hart Gardens is part of a huge area of Mayfair owned and managed by the Grosvenor Estate.
In 1677 the 21 year old Thomas Grosvenor married Mary Davies, perhaps the wealthiest 12(!) year old in England who had inherited a huge chunk of West London. At this point it was rural but over the next few centuries of development it would become Mayfair and Belgravia, a savvy investment indeed.
For such a wealthy area today, it may come as a surprise that in the late 19th century a philanthropic housing project was underway in the streets just by Bond Street Station.
From the late 1860s, Richard Grosvenor and his son Hugh were inspired by some local developments to build a series of model homes (good quality housing for the working classes) and so they hired the ‘Improved Industrial Dwellings Company’ who set to work on the mansion blocks.
Above ‘Balderton Buildings’ you can see the initials of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company
As part of the design there was a shared public garden in the centre, seen on Goad map of 1887 below.
Image Credit: layersoflondon.org Leaflet | © Maptiler and OpenStreetMap contributors
But today the garden isn’t at ground level, in fact you have to climb 17 steep steps to reach it!
This is because it’s not the original.
In 1902 the Grosvenor Estate finally gave in to the Westminster Electric Supply Company who wanted to build on the garden. Their plan was to instal a transformer which would convert high voltage electricity to a level suitable for public use.
By this point the garden was receiving complaints of frequent ’disorderly boys’, ‘verminous women’ and ‘tramps’ so they relented. A compromise was to include a public, raised, garden instead.
The architect was Charles Stanley Peach and his OTT design means the result is probably the most beautiful electricity substation in London. It was given Grade II listed statues in 1987.
It’s still in use today and if you peer through the grilles, you can get a better look!
Given its eclectic appearance it’s maybe not a surprise that there’s a fantastic urban myth associated with Brown Hart Gardens.
It’s said that its great domed structure and tall doors were built as a house for Queen Victoria’s pet elephant.
Like all good myths, there is a grain of truth in the story. Queen Victoria did have a pet elephant. It was a gift in 1884 from the King of Abbyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) but aside from a short time at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight it was generally kept at what would become London Zoo.
Depending on your level of London geekiness, the reality is either very dull or far more interesting.
Fighting for attention in the gardens is the beautiful church by Alfred Waterhouse, completed in 1891.
Since the late 1960s it’s been home to the Ukranian Catholic Church, known as the Ukranian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family.
However the street name gives us a clue to its earlier history.
In 1697 a church was built on the King’s Weigh House in the City of London. A weigh house is just as it sounds, a place where goods were weighed to calculate import duty.
Here’s an image of the Weigh House Chapel as it looked in 1780.
Image Credit: Public Domain
In the 1830s the location was required for the widening of London Bridge and then in the 1880s their new building was compulsory purchased by the Metropolitan Railway. Finally leaving the City of London to establish a new church in Mayfair
One last thing to observe in Brown Hart Gardens is the figure watching over you on the left…
This crouching giant is part of the Beaumont Hotel.
Although it only opened in 2014, it looks far older. The hotel made the choice to keep the Art Deco design throughout after inheriting the facade of the 1926 luxury garage on the site previously.
But one room is unique. When you first enter, it seems like any other wonderful suite…
However the bedroom is rather special.
Designed by Antony Gormley, ‘ROOM’ is an intense theatrical experience. Gormley’s aim was to ‘sculpt darkness’ and although you can have a window open you’re meant to lie in pitch darkness to wait for your eyes to adjust.
The whole space is built of wood from the Black Forest and not a single nail was used in its construction.
Inside the room they had this book with a fabulous view back over Brown Hart Gardens. So hopefully you now have a load more things to spot for when you visit!
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