Pix & notes: South Kensington

My Professor and Mrs. Moriarty live in an end terrace in South Kensington, on a street I invented: Bellenden Crescent. It’s roughly in the location of the real world Pelham Crescent. 


I spent a lot of time walking around in that neighborhood on my last trip to London, partly because I got a little lost, but also because I get into these moods where I can’t stop walking. One more block, I say to myself; I’ll just walk up to that corner and then I’ll stop for a coffee. But no, I walk on by. I don’t know what that’s about.


A very Victorian view, if you mentally change the cars to horse-drawn cabs.

I tend to think of the whole stretch between Hyde Park and the Thames as South Kensington, but that’s not really right. London is more finely-grained than that. Google Maps says “South Kensington is an affluent district of West London in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is the most expensive district in London and one of the most expensive districts in the world.” No wonder it’s so clean and quiet! Rich people don’t hang out in public.

It looks like I cheerfully absorb Chelsea into my notion of Kensington. There’s no apparent seam; it’s not like you cross a street and find yourself in a less deliriously affluent neighborhood. I don’t have characters in Chelsea or much interest in the place, apart from the delightful Chelsea Physic Garden which I’ve blogged about and which you must try to visit if you ever can.

Looks like the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea runs from the Chelsea Physic Garden on the Thames in the southeast, north to Hyde Park and the big museum area, on along the south side of the park and then loop up to snag Notting Hill and then straight back down to the river roughly along the A3220.

Begin at the beginning

Arden farm
Affluent Kensington cow

British History Online tells us “In Doomsday-book this place is called Chenisitun; in other ancient records, Kenesitune and Kensintune. Chenesi was a proper name; a person of that name held the manor of Huish in Somersetshire, in the reign of Edward the Confessor.”

Back in William the Conqueror’s day, the manor of Kensington was taxed at 10 hides. “on the demesnes are four ploughs, the villans have five, and might employ six. There are 12 villans, holding each a virgate, and six who hold three virgates jointly. The priest has half a virgate, and there are seven slaves; meadow equal to two plough-lands; pasture for the cattle of the town; pannage for 200 hogs, and three acres of vineyards”

This was still farmland in Francis Bacon’s time. With the expansion of titled courtiers in the London metro area under James I, a prestige house was built in 1607 by the father-in-law of Henry Rich, Earl of Holland. Baron Rich got himself earlified in 1624, by Charles I, then. He’s the son of Bacon’s contemporaries, Penelope Rich (sister of the Earl of Essex) and Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick.

Holland House, from British History Online


Building booms

Although less than half of the Kensington area was under cultivation by 1840s, it was still mostly green: parks and paddocks and that sort of thing. But by mid-century, the Victorian building boom had spread into that district and the landscape changed rapidly. “Despite a severe hiccup following a financial crisis in April 1847, the transformation of a rural parish into a city suburb was well under way before the siting of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park…” (British History Online.)

“…throughout the years 1862–78 over 200 new buildings (the vast majority of them dwelling houses) were erected each year in southern Kensington…”

Professor Moriarty’s Bellenden Crescent
Mark Twain lived here 1896-7


One of the major attractions of the area from the mid-Victorian period are the amazing enormous museums and exhibition halls. My Prof. Moriarty and Angelina meet at the International Exhibition Hall here in Moriarty Meets His Match. That’s gone, but the Victoria & Albert Museum, a place you can never get tired of, was established in Exhibition Road in 1852. Enormous, endlessly fascinating, and with possibly the most amazing museum cafeteria in the world. When you go there, have lunch!


Who lived here, back in the day?

I’ve mentioned London’s Blue Plaques before, right? They’re granted by English Heritage to identify buildings of note, meaning buildings in which a notable person spent some time. Kensington and Chelsea are thick with them, since the borough was favored by the creative class: theater people, like my Angelina Moriarty; scientists who might have worked at one of the big museums; writers galore.

Go here to see the full list of blue plaques for the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

I choose neighborhoods – and sometimes houses – for my Victorian characters from this list. They tend to be a bit far from the sidewalk to photograph well, alas. Not all the plaques you see in London are official English Heritage blue plaques, although I’ve never seen one that might qualify as a form of sedate fake news. Many entities issue plaques, most notably borough governments.

Sir Nigel Playfair wrote plays you’ve never heard of. Great name, though.


Pix & Notes: Beards

I got all tangled up in the beards of my red herrings while writing my last book, which was exactly as messy and confusing as it sounds. You can’t just pick beards out of a hat, you know; not if you’re writing historical fiction. If you’re a woman, you can’t experiment with your own chin and then go look in the mirror either.

Men have restrictions on how much they want to alter their features for experimental purposes too, of course. Try asking a guy with a long-established beard to shave it off so you can watch it grow back and take notes! Better to get out there and do your homework.

Prehistoric beards

These are poorly documented. Cave painters didn’t do self-portraits. The Short History of Beards stone_knivesmakes this rather disingenuous claim: “Prehistoric men grew beards for warmth, intimidation and protection. Facial hair kept prehistoric men warm and it also protected their mouths from sand, dirt, the sun and many other different elements. A beard on a man’s face creates the look of a stronger looking jaw line; this exaggeration helped them appear more intimidating.”

Hm. Perhaps. I’m curious about those “many other different elements.” Lips, perhaps? It also may have had something do with the discomfort experienced after shaving with a stone knife. Obsidian rash can be so uncomfortable.

Ancient beards

You’d expect Egyptian royalty to be extreme in all matters of fashion and King Tut does not disappoint. Of course this is a false beard made of metal and tied on with ribbons, but it’s still very manly!
Assyrians were serious about their beards. They used curling irons and oils to achieve architectural effects.
Bust of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher (341–270 BC.) For a guy who advocated peace and happiness, he sure looks cranky.
Roman emperor Augustus, beardless and, unrelatedly, noseless. Sophisticated Romans who were not philosophers preferred a clean chin.

A Potpourri of Beards

A Chinese emperor with a mighty bristle! Might be Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Bound to be a stressful job. Those beads dangling from his hat-platform would drive me batty. Maybe that’s why he looks so cross.
Here’s an assortment of chin styles from 1315. Miniature from Rashid-al-Din Hamadani’s Jami al-Tawarikh, c. 1315, illustrating the story of Muhammad’s role in re-setting the Black Stone in 605.
Three images of Charles I, sporting a van dyck beard, by Anthony Van Dyck, presumably wearing a matching beard whilst painting, in 1635-36.


Elizabethan beards

My problem was that the beard was a clue to my murderer’s identity. I wanted a notable style, therefore; something fashionable. I started out thinking about a sharply pointed beard like Sir Walter Raleigh’s in the dishy miniature shown below, but I doubeted they were stylish yet in 1589. It’s mainly a 90’s style, or so I thought, at least until the Earl of Essex returned victorious from the Battle of Cadiz with a long, square-cut beard.

I had to observe the rules about beards and other elements of fashion at Gray’s Inn. According to Wilfred Prest in his indispensable The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts (1972, Longman), gentlemen in residence were expected to shave, at least on a semi-monthly basis. “That none of the said companies, under the degree of a knight, being in commons, do wear any beard above three weeks growing, upon pain of xl s. and so double for every week after monition.”

That’s a fine of 40 shillings, which seems incredibly steep. I must have mis-read and mis-typed that note. You only had to pay 3 shillings and 3 pence for wearing “breeches of any light color nor coifs of English lawn, velvet caps, scarfs, or wings on their study gowns,” double cuffs on your shirt, or feathers or ribbons in your caps. Of course, you also had to forfeit your finery and could be expelled for a second offense.

But these rules come from the 1570s. I also have a note saying that long hair and beards became increasingly fashionable in the 1590s. Maybe the governors of Gray’s Inn just finally gave up? To be on the safe side, I gave both Francis Bacon and his sidekick, Thomas Clarady, a nice brushy rill of two-week’s growth. You wouldn’t want the constant itch of a brand new beard, nor would you want to visit the barber every day, although I’ll bet there were several barbers in Holborn who specialized in the Inns of Court regulation style, whatever it was at the time. (And now I’m thinking about a barber shop scene…. why haven’t I done that?)

Bacon in 1617. He’s Lord Chancellor now; he can grow whatever he likes on his chin. And although he looks stiff and uncomfortable, I’m pretty sure that’s personality, not costume. Ruffs are not unpleasant to wear, even with a super-stylish pointed beard.
The Earl of Essex, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger ca. 1596, with his trend-setting long square beard.
Sir Walter Raleigh, miniature by Nicholas Hilliard ca. 1585. Hey, so those pointed beards were in style for my 1589 book! I know I looked at this portrait, but I clearly failed to note the date. That’s the kind of tangle I was in. And look — he has flowers in his hair. You have to be very secure in your masculinity to deck yourself out like this.
Unknown Man Clasping A Hand From A Cloud, Nicholas Hilliard, 1588 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This guy looks a lot like Tom, but his beard is clearly more than 3 weeks’ long. Love the hat!