On a recent trip to London, like many visitors to the city, I could not help but admire the historical buildings of the capital, especially the Georgian architecture. In contrast with the vast network of streets, traffic and pedestrians, is the large open, green space of Hyde Park. Within the park there are many lodges and small cottages, which were built for the park keepers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This article will focus on the history of just one of these little buildings, Serpentine Lodge.
Hyde Park is one of the Royal Parks, consisting of around 450 acres in the borough of Westminster in London. It is surrounded by the affluent areas of Belgravia, Kensington and Mayfair and it even adjoins the land of Kensington Gardens and Kensington Palace.
The manor of Hyde, as it was known historically, had belonged to the monks of Westminster Abbey since the Norman conquest. However, in 1536 the manor was acquired by King Henry VIII as a deer hunting ground. It remained the private land of the monarchy until the reign of James I, who allowed restricted access to the wealthier population. Later in the seventeenth century, in 1637 Charles I opened up the park to the public. During the plague epidemic of 1665, many Londoners fled to the Hyde Park, hoping the open space would protect them from illness and disease.
In 1733 Queen Caroline (queen consort of George II) had the park landscaped. She also had the Westbourne River damned, which in turn created The Serpentine. This large lake was made up of eleven smaller ponds. The Serpentine was popular with local wildlife and also with people seeking recreational activities such as swimming and ice skating.
During the nineteenth century Hyde Park was used for many civic activities. The Great Exhibition was held there in 1851. In 1857, the park was the setting of the first Victoria Cross award ceremony. More recently, Hyde Park has been the venue for several music concerts including: The Proms in the Park, Live 8, Queen, Madonna, The Rolling Stones and Taylor Swift. The park is also home to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain and monuments to the victims of the Holocaust and the July 7th attacks.
Serpentine Lodge stands on the edge of the Serpentine. It is a Grade II listed structure, built in the mid-to-late 1830s. It was built by 1839 and occupied by 1841. At the time of the census in 1911, the lodge consisted of five rooms, although it may have been enlarged since.
The first occupants of Serpentine Lodge recorded in the 1841 census were the Henbery family. James Henbery (1788-1864) was a park keeper, originally born in Sussex. His wife, Elizabeth (b.1785), was born in Surrey. The Henberys lived at Serpentine Lodge until the mid-1860s. From 1851, James’s cousin, Maria Henbery was living with the couple at the lodge, as was a maid, Ann Collins. Collins was born in County Limerick in 1829. James Henbery passed away in 1864, at the age of 76.
By 1871, a new family were living at Serpentine Lodge. They were three generations of the Smith family. Head of the family was Joseph Smith born in 1811 in Stafford, Derbyshire. His wife was Elizabeth (b.1801) and they had a daughter; Ruth Sophia Kempster (b.1830). Also living at Serpentine Lodge was Ruth’s husband, Richard Kempster (b.1832), a carpenter and their children Edwin (b.1865) and Elizabeth (b.1867). To complete this rather cramped household was 13 year old Amelia C. Lally, the Smith;s maid.
Joseph’s occupation was listed on the census as “head park constable” and this coincides with the 1872 Parks Regulation Act which bestowed park keepers with the same power as police constables in all Royal Parks. A few years before this, in 1867, the policing of Hyde Park had been entrusted to the Metropolitan Police due to the unrest caused by demonstrations at ‘Speaker’s Corner’, a part of Hyde Park where anyone can use their liberty of free speech to give an oration on any topic. There was also a military barracks located a short distance from Serpentine Lodge during the nineteenth century. In 1900 ‘The Old Police House’ was built a few yards away from Serpentine Lodge as the headquarters of the Royal Parks police force.
Joseph Smith continued to be recorded at Serpentine Lodge until his death in the late 1880s. His daughter, Ruth and her children continued to live at the lodge with him, along with his second wife, Emily. Joseph Smith was also custodian of the swans of Hyde Park which were, and still are, the property of the Crown. In 1884 he noticed one swan was missing. The swan had strayed some distance from Hyde Park and was handed in at a police station. Smith eventually managed to track down the missing swan by identifying it by a mark on its feet.
The Royal Humane Society’s Receiving House
In 1880 the London Evening Standard reported that an Edward Kempster, boat superintendent of Serpentine Lodge made the unfortunate discovery of a suicide victim under the Kensington Bridge. It is likely that Edward Kempster was actually Edwin, the grandson of Joseph. Edwin was still living at Serpentine Lodge in 1891. As a large open body of water, the Serpentine, was the scene of several deaths. In 1816, twenty-one year old Harriet Shelley drowned herself in the Serpentine, apparently because her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, had left her.
However, there was also a drive the help prevent any such incidents from taking place. In 1774 two London doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, formed the ‘Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned’ which later grew into The Royal Humane Society. The society was founded based on the doctors’ fears that people could be mistakenly taken for dead and thereby accidentally buried alive.
To combat this, a number of Receiving Houses were built along waterways in Westminster in the early nineteenth century. The Receiving Houses were designed as places where people could be taken into if they had gotten into difficulty in the water. A Receiving House was built in 1794 on the edge of the Serpentine adjacent to Serpentine Lodge. The site was originally farmland originally donated by King George III. It was rebuilt in 1834 and it stood until 1956 when it was demolished.
Below is a description of the Receiving House as it appeared after it was rebuilt in the 1830s:
The interior of the receiving-house consists of an entrance-hall, with a room for medical attendants on the left, and waiting-room on the right; parallel with which are two separate wards for the reception of male and female patients. Each contains beds warmed with hot water, a bath, and a hot-water, metal-topped table for heating flannels, bricks, &c.; the supply of water being by pipes around the walls and beneath the floor of the rooms. Next are a kitchen and two sleeping-rooms, for the residence of the superintendent and his family.
Serpentine Lodge: The 20th Century
By 1901 Thomas Fish, a park keeper and constable, was living at Serpentine Lodge with his wife Ann, daughter, Louisa and grandson, Alfred. By 1911, the Kent family were residing at Serpentine Lodge. Albert Edward Kent (b.1877), his wife Ellen Louisa Kent nee Green (b.1876) and their two children; Francis Albert (b.1904) and Elsie Ellen (b.1907). The couple later had a third child, Henry Victor Kent (b.1915). The 1911 census also revealed Albert E. Kent’s job was a “propagator raising and growing plants” and his employer was His Majesty Office of Works.
The Kent family lived at Serpentine Lodge for decades, through both the First World War and the Second World War. Elsie and Henry continued to live there throughout the 1930s. In 1950 Albert, Ellen and Henry Kent were still recorded on electoral registers at the lodge but by 1956, Mary and Walter Vickers were recorded there. Serpentine Lodge remains a private residence.
Today, Serpentine Lodge sits peacefully in Hyde Park. It is a picturesque property with wisteria growing around the door and it it still continues to captivate visitors to the park.
Researched and Written by Thomas McGrath
- http://www.ancestry.co.uk – census information, BMD records, electoral registers
- http://www.royalhumanesociety.org.uk/html/history.html – Royal Humane Society
- http://www.londonancestor.com/iln/humane-society.htm – Royal Humane Society
- http://www.discovertravelandtours.com/uploads/hp_self_guided_walk.pdf – the history of Hyde Park
- https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/about-hyde-park/history-and-architecture – the history of Hyde Park
- http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/roam/historic – historic maps
- http://www.oldukphotos.com/london-hyde-park.htm – old photograph of Hyde Park
- Lucy Inglis, Georgian London: Into the Streets, (London: Viking Penguin Books Ltd, 2013) pp.121-123
- The Bell’s New Weekly Messenger, 20 January 1839, p.7
- London Evening Standard, 15 December 1880
- Daily News, 17 November 1884