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A guest post by London Historians member David Brown. This article was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2014.

I live close to Belsize Park, a largely Victorian residential suburb in North London with a tube station on the Northern Line. Walk around today and it is a rather pleasant place to live and visit – but you will also find the footprint of the earlier and rather grander history of the area, based around what was the grandest house in Hampstead. The street layout today echoes the grand gardens that were visited by
Sam Pepys and John Evelyn. It’s an area really worth visiting.

The name of the area comes from the old French “Bel Assis” or beautifully situated, referring to its geographical position on Haverstock Hill with views out over the City of London. It has had a long association with Westminster Abbey who received fifty-seven acres of Hampstead land in 1317 from Sir Roger le Brabazon, who was Lord Chief Justice for King Edward II. Westminster Abbey leased the land to a stream of different landowners, and the first grand house is thought to have been built in 1496, and became the home of the Waad family (the most famous member is probably Armigell Waad who thought to have been an early visitor to North American, travelling to Newfoundland in 1536) . The house was rebuilt several times – in 1663 by Colonel Daniel O’Neil. His son Lord Wotton improved the house by adding a large park possibly employing John Tradescant the younger to do so – it certain impressed Sam Pepys who visited on 17th August 1668 reporting the gardens “too good for the house … the most noble that ever I saw, and brave Orange and Lemon trees”, although John Evelyn by contrast was unimpressed – he found the gardens ill-kept and the soil “a cold weeping clay”. The gardens also boasted lakes made from a tributary of the River Tyburn that rises in the area.

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Belsize Park on Roque’s map of 1746.

New life to the house and park came in 1704 when they were leased by entrepreneur Charles Povey. He turned the house into a public attraction, with music, dancing and gambling. The gardens were used for deer-hunting, horse racing, and even footman racing. Belsize Park became well known as a Pleasure Garden well before Ranelagh and Vauxhall Gardens opened. The Prince and Princess of Wales visited in 1721, and this stamp of approval led to huge attendances – with over 300 coaches a day visiting the gardens. The management also provided a dozen sturdy armed guards to protect visitors as they travelled between Belsize Park and London. The resort faced the same difficulties as other resorts and became known as a “scandalous and lew’d house” leading to its closure by local magistrate in the 1740s. Early maps of the area show the house and the boundary of the old house – and a painting exists showing the original estate.

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View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex 1690, b, Jan Siberechts – Tate Britain.

The house was rebuilt in 1745 as a private house. The only Prime Minister to have the misfortune to be assassinated, Spencer Perceval lived here with his family from 1798 to 1807 – he is remembered in the modern street Perceval Avenue close to this spot. The house was rebuilt again in 1812, and survived until it was demolished in 1853. It was incidentally on the route of one of Charles Dicken’s regular walks – and he wrote about a murder that took place on Cut-Throat lane – a path that skirted the park on the east.

Today there are two small remainders of the park – an old mulberry tree in the garden on the site of the house, and a part of the brick wall of the original estate (not easily visible from the public road).

Belsize Park is famous for the rather grand houses built by builder and speculator Daniel Tidey. He started building in this area in 1856, and finally overstretched himself in 1869 when he was bankrupted. Tidey houses are large (6 to 8 bedrooms), typically semi-detached villas and were built for well-off people such as merchants, and professionals. They were built to a fairly standard design with white stucco, and many have a large bay at the back in the main reception rooms – a Tidey introduction intended to be used for the grand pianos that were become widely used in this period.

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Typical Daniel Tidey “Belsize Park” houses.

The House and Park became Belsize Square – a large rectangular space, surrounded by Tidey Houses, with the local church at the north end . The church St Peter’s Belsize Square (architects J P St Aubyn and W Mumford) was completed in 1859. The name of the church is linked to Westminster Abbey – as it provided the land. The church was largely paid for by the first Vicar – Rev Dr Francis Tremlett, who also paid for the building of a massive vicarage (now demolished) at the southern end of the Square. Tremlett is an interesting character – travelling to the US when young to preach to the poor, he met his wife who provided his money, returned to the UK to become Vicar of St Peter’s, and remained Vicar for overr over 50 years. He was quite a character, being one of the strongest supporters of the South in the US Civil War. He was a key player lobbying the government to support the South, and the vicarage became known as “The Rebel Roost” as many Confederate Officers spent time staying with him in Belsize Park – including the Admiral and Officers of the CSS Alabama when it was sunk off the coast of Cherbourg in 1864. After the war he was visited by Andrew Davis the Confederate President.

To learn more about the local area, it is very well documented, and you can read about the details in the Streets of Belsize edited by Peter Woodford and revised by Christopher Wade, Camden History Society, 2009. The area also benefits from two local history DVDs, The Belsize Story Volume 1 and Volume 2 both with commentary by Fiona Bruce, and produced by film producer David Percy.



David Brown is a historian, genealogist and London Walking Guide. David is also available to provide customised tours of many parts of London including the Belsize Park area. Camden Tour Guides Association runs regular tour guiding courses, and the next one will start in September – we welcome any historians who are interested in the London Borough of Camden, and would like to learn guiding techniques. You can find out more and apply at camdenguides.com.

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