Story Of London

Westminster in 1731: Part 4

“London in 1731” is a wonderful guide book to the city which was penned sometime in the early 18th century and subsequently brought up to date. The author is supposed to be a Portuguese merchant named Don Manoel Gonzales but the internal evidence demonstrates that this is almost certainly a nom de plume. It is more likely that our author was an accomplished native of London. The guide was edited by Professor Henry Morley and published by Cassell as part of their wonderful little National Library series in 1888. Here is his description of Westminster. In part 4 we take a walking tour of Charing Cross, Whitehall, the Banqueting House and St. James’ palace.

Westminster in 1765The open place usually called Charing Cross, from a fine cross which stood there before the grand rebellion, is of a triangular form, having the Pall Mall and the Haymarket on the north-west, the Strand on the east, and the street before Whitehall on the south. In the middle of this space is erected a brazen equestrian statue of King Charles I., looking towards the place where that prince was murdered by the rebels, who had erected a scaffold for that purpose before the gates of his own palace. This statue is erected on a stone pedestal seventeen feet high, enriched with his Majesty’s arms, trophy-work, palm-branches, &c., enclosed with an iron palisade, and was erected by King Charles II. after his restoration. The brick buildings south-east of Charing Cross are mostly beautiful and uniform, and the King’s stables in the Mews, which lie north of it, and are now magnificently rebuilding of hewn stone, will probably make Charing Cross as fine a place as any we have in town; especially as it stands upon an eminence overlooking Whitehall.The Banqueting-house stands on the east side of the street adjoining to the great gate of Whitehall on the south. This edifice is built of hewn stone, and consists of one stately room, of an oblong form, upwards of forty feet in height, the length and breadth proportionable, having galleries round it on the inside, the ceiling beautifully painted by that celebrated history-painter, Sir Peter Paul Rubens: it is adorned on the outside with a lower and upper range of columns of the Ionic and Composite orders, their capitals enriched with fruit, foliage, &c., the intercolumns of the upper and lower range being handsome sashed windows. It is surrounded on the top with stone rails or banisters, and covered with lead.St. James’s Palace, where the Royal Family now resides in the winter season, stands pleasantly upon the north side of the Park, and has several noble rooms in it, but is an irregular building, by no means suitable to the grandeur of the British monarch its master. In the front next St. James’s Street there appears little more than an old gate-house, by which we enter a little square court, with a piazza on the west side of it leading to the grand staircase; and there are two other courts beyond, which have not much the air of a prince’s palace. This palace was a hospital, suppressed by Henry VIII., who built this edifice in the room of it.But the house most admired for its situation is that of the Duke of Buckingham at the west end of the Park; in the front of which, towards the Mall and the grand canal, is a spacious court, the offices on each side having a communication with the house by two little bending piazzas and galleries that form the wings. This front is adorned with two ranges of pilasters of the Corinthian and Tuscan orders, and over them is an acroteria of figures, representing Mercury, Secrecy, Equity, and Liberty, and under them this inscription in large golden characters, viz., SIC SITI LAETANTVR LARES (Thus situated, may the household gods rejoice).Charing Cross and the statue of Charles I in 1828.Behind the house is a fine garden and terrace, from whence there is prospect adjacent on the house on that side, viz., RVS IN VRBE, intimating that it has the advantages both of city and country; above which are figures representing the four seasons: The hall is paved with marble, and adorned with pilasters, the intercolumns exquisite paintings in great variety; and on a pedestal, near the foot of the grand staircase, is a marble figure of Cain killing his brother Abel; the whole structure exceeding magnificent, rich, and beautiful, but especially in the finishing and furniture.Grosvenor or Gravenor Square is bounded on the north by Oxford Road, on the east by Hanover Square, by Mayfair on the south, and by Hyde Park on the west; the area whereof contains about five acres of ground, in which is a large garden laid out into walks, and adorned with an equestrian statue of King George I. gilded with gold, and standing on a pedestal, in the centre of the garden, the whole surrounded with palisades placed upon a dwarf wall. The buildings generally are the most magnificent we meet with in this great town; though the fronts of the houses are not all alike, for some of them are entirely of stone, others of brick and stone, and others of rubbed brick, with only their quoins, fascias, windows, and door- cases of stone; some of them are adorned with stone columns of the several orders, while others have only plain fronts; but they are so far uniform as to be all sashed, and of pretty near an equal height. To the kitchens and offices, which have little paved yards with vaults before them, they descend by twelve or fifteen steps, and these yards are defended by a high palisade of iron. Every house has a garden behind it, and many of them coach-houses and stables adjoining; and others have stables near the square, in a place that has obtained the name of Grosvenor Mews. The finishing of the houses within is equal to the figure they make without; the staircases of some of them I saw were inlaid, and perfect cabinet- work, and the paintings on the roof and sides by the best hands. The apartments usually consist of a long range of fine rooms, equally commodious and beautiful; none of the houses are without two or three staircases for the convenience of the family. The grand staircase is generally in the hall or saloon at the entrance. In short, this square may well be looked upon as the beauty of the town, and those who have not seen it cannot have an adequate idea of the place.