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, small cottages, which were built for the park keepers during the 18th and 19th centuries. This post 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 it 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 and later in 1637 Charles I opened up the park to the public. During the plague epidemic of 1665, many Londoners fled to the park, hoping the open space would protect them from illness and disease.
In 1733 Queen Caroline (wife of George II) had the park landscaped and had the Westbourne River damned, which in turn created The Serpentine, a large lake, made up of eleven smaller ponds. The Serpentine was popular with local wildlife and also with recreational activities such as swimming and ice skating.
During the 19th century Hyde Park was used for many civic activities. The Great Exhibition was held there in 1851 and later the first Victoria Cross award ceremony was held by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at the park in 1857. 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, is a Grade II listed building and its name derives from its location, on the edge of the Serpentine facing across the lake. It was built in the mid to late 1830s; it is first mentioned in the press in 1839 and was certainly there by the time of the first census in 1841. We know from the 1911 census that at that time the house consisted of only five rooms, it may have been enlarged since.
The first occupants of Serpentine Lodge was James and Elizabeth Henbery. James (1788-1864) was a park keeper, originally born in Sussex. His wife Elizabeth (b.1785) was born in Surrey. Twenty years later in 1861 census, James and Elizabeth are still at Serpentine Lodge, however they are joined by cousins Thomas Henbery and Maria Henbery and a maid, Ann Collins born in Limerick, Ireland in 1829. By this time of the 1861 census, Maria and Ann had been living at Serpentine Lodge for at least a decade. In 1863, Maria died aged 57 and a year later James also passed away aged 76.
By 1871, a new family were living at Serpentine Lodge, three different 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 their daughter was Ruth Sophia Kempster (b.1830). Also living there 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, a servant.
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, including Hyde Park. A few years earlier 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 19th 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. Still living with him at Serpentine Lodge was his second wife, Emily Smith and his daughter Ruth Kempster. In 1880 the London Evening Standard reported that an Edward Kempster, boat superintendent of Serpentine Lodge (possibly Edwin or no doubt a close relation) made the unfortunate discovery of a suicide victim under the Kensington Bridge. 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 1891 census recorded the widowed Emily Smith “living on her own means” with her grandchildren, Edwin Kempster a “boat builder” and Amelia and Adeline Evans.
The Royal Humane Society’s Receiving House
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 buried alive.
During the 19th century a number of Receiving Houses were built along waterways in Westminster. These were buildings where those who got into difficulty in the water could be taken to, hopefully to recover. 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.
A Receiving Lodge was built in 1794 on the edge of the Serpentine adjacent to Serpentine Lodge, on farmland originally donated by King George III. It was rebuilt in 1834 and it stood there 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. The 1911 census shows the Fish family had left Serpentine Lodge after about a decade residing there. 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) were the new occupants of Serpentine Lodge. The couple later have 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 World Wars. Elsie and Henry continued to live there throughout the 1930s. In 1950 Albert, Ellen and Henry Kent are still recorded on electoral registers at the lodge. In 1956 Mary and Walter Vickers are recorded at Serpentine Lodge and no doubt there has been many other residents since, even today the lodge is still a private residence.
Today, Serpentine Lodge sits peacefully in Hyde Park, as the photograph above shows it is very picturesque, especially with the wisteria growing around the door and for that reason it continues to intrigue visitors to the park.
- 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