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This post, first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of July 2014, was written by the late Helen Szamuely.


Not far from St John’s Wood underground station there is a street of fine houses, called Woronzow Road with a big plaque at one end of it. Under the portrait of a refined looking eighteenth century gentleman we find the following:

The road was named after Count Simon Woronzow Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1784 to 1806.

He lived in Marylebone and on his death in 1832 left a bequest to the poor of the parish. The money was used to build the St Marylebone Almshouses at the south-west corner of this road.

Though the road was named after the ambassador in 1843 the Russians took longer to erect a memorial to him:

Plaque unveiled 26 November 2002 by H. E. Grigori Karasin [Russian Ambassador to the UK] and the Mayor of Camden, Councillor Judy Pattison.

Gift of Peter the Great Company of St Petersburg to the citizens of Camden.

One can only hope that the citizens of Camden appreciated the gift and took some trouble to find out the story behind the brief summary.

Count Semyon Vorontsov came from a distinguished Russian family who had been involved in Russian politics and government for at least a couple of generations. His brother, Alexander, was ambassador in London from 1762 to 1764 and lived in Clifford Street, as at that time there was no permanent ambassadorial residence. He was merely 21 at the time of his appointment, which he owed partly to his uncle, Mikhail Vorontsov, the Grand Chancellor and partly to the fact that his sister, Elizabeth, was Peter III’s mistress. On his return to Russia he was created a senator and the President of the Board of Trade but he lost Catherine II’s favour and was retired, to return to state office in 1802 when Alexander I appointed him Imperial Chancellor. The Vorontsovs were supporters of Russian alliance with Britain and fervent opponents of Napoleon.

Their other sister, Ekaterina, whose married name was Dashkova, was a close friend of Catherine II’s and is sometimes referred to as Catherine the Little. Dashkova was by her friend’s side throughout the day of her coup in 1762 though her actual role has been disputed both by Catherine and by her various favourites, the Orlovs and, especially, Prince Potemkin whose enmity towards the Vorontsovs prevented the family’s advancement. Dashkova, though consistently loyal to the Empress, found it prudent to go on an extended European journey in 1768. Unlike many educated Russians she had a strong partiality for Britain over France and spent time in various parts of it, including two years in Edinburgh, where her son was educated. Some sort of reconciliation between her and Potemkin was arranged when her son became the prince’s adjutant and Dashkova herself returned to St Petersburg to become the Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1782 and the first President of the Russian Academy in 1784 where she initiated the 6-volume dictionary of the Russian language and even wrote part of it. Her subsequent relationship with the Empress remained stormy though not unfriendly but she was much hated (as were all Catherine’s favourites) by the Emperor Paul.

Semyon himself resigned from the elite guards regiment in 1773 because of his dislike of Potemkin, by now a Lieutenant-General, who then ensured his “exile” to London, where he became ambassador in 1784 and remained in the post with brief interruption till 1806, staying in London even after his retirement.

By this time the Russian ambassador had a permanent residence in 36 Harley Street, acquired by the Russian Treasury in 1779 for £6,000 and, it seems, a separate embassy was also functioning at 32 Welbeck Street, which also had a Russian chapel. The staff of the embassy consisted of 6 people, one Counsellor, 2 Titular Counsellors, 1 translator and two students or actuaries, which makes one wonder whether the concept of interns had not been started by the Russian diplomatic service. There were constant arguments about payment. Under Peter, Secretaries had been paid 300 roubles and this was increased under Elizabeth to 400 – 600 roubles, with Catherine keeping to that rate till 1790s when it was increased to 2,500 roubles for Secretary and 1,000 roubles for other employees. (In 1773 the exchange was 4.5 roubles to £1.)

The ambassador also had a country house, though this was rented, in Richmond and various Russian visitors to London, such as the great Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin, described staying there as well as visiting the Harley Street residence. Another man who stayed at the Richmond house was Vasily Malinovsky (1765 – 1814) who had been appointed to the embassy, astonishingly enough, because of his good knowledge of English and who imbibed many English political ideas while here. In the Richmond house he wrote the first part of his book, Thoughts on War and Peace, eventually published in Russia in 1802.

Vorontsov managed to build up a large network of political and social friends and allies. He cultivated journalists and his social skills came in very useful in 1791 when he was instrumental in preventing Pitt from arming a naval squadron to compel Russia to return the Ochakov fortress to Turkey. Vorontsov was close to Fox and the Whigs and, with the help of his Chargé d’Affaires and interpreter, Vasili Lizakevich, rallied support in the City, as ever, not much in favour of a war with Russia. Realizing that even his own people were divided on the subject, Pitt backed down in the House of Commons and Vorontsov could proudly explain that:

“Ink and paper proved mightier than Prussian steel and British gunpowder.”

To be fair, the fact that the navy was not in favour of the proposed expedition helped.

In April of that year Pitt despatched William Fawkener as a secret emissary to St Petersburg but both he and the envoy, Charles Whitworth, had a difficult time with the Empress who preferred to deal with Robert Adair, Fox’s secret emissary who had been recommended by Vorontsov but whose mission could well be interpreted as being near-treasonous.

As countries changed sides during the prolonged war, Vorontsov signed a trading convention between Russia and Britain as well as an alliance against revolutionary France despite which Russia and Britain found themselves at war some years and as allies in others in the space of two decades. In 1800, for example only the priest of the Russian Embassy Church, Jakov Smirnov, was in residence as a chargé d’affaires, as the two countries were nominally at war.

Vorontsov remained ambassador for some of Paul’s reign, was dismissed when Paul drew closer to France, had his estates confiscated as he refused to return and was reappointed by Alexander I. In 1806 he retired but remained in England till his death in 1832. Letters from him in the Lilly Library Manuscript Collection are addressed from Harley Street, Welbeck Street, Berners Street as well as Richmond and Southampton.

Both Vorontsov’s children were brought up in England and his son, Mikhail (1782 – 1856), who went back to Russia to a glittering military and political career, becoming Viceroy of New Russia and the Caucasus, a prince and a field-marshal, was usually described as “a dry phlegmatic milord”. Curiously enough, he married Elisabeth (Lise) Branicka, the daughter of Potemkin’s favourite niece and reported mistress, Sashenka Branicka. Mikhail Vorontsov was also one of the many important men in Russia to be cuckolded by the great poet and ladies’ man, Alexander Pushkin, quite possibly the real father of one of the Vorontsov daughters.

Semyon’s daughter, Catherine (1784 – 1856), stayed in England and became the second wife of George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke, with whom she had six children, including a son, Sidney, who became the Secretary at War during the Crimean War. His mother and uncle died in 1856 but there is no record of their feelings on such a curious turn of affairs.

Vorontsov died in Mansfield Street, leaving in his will £500 to the poor of St Marylebone parish, which was used to build the Almshouses in St John’s Wood Terrace in 1836 (they were rebuilt at the same address in 1965 and are still used for sheltered housing). He was buried in the Pembroke vault in the crypt of St Marylebone Church. The entrance to the crypt was bricked up in 1853 but in 1980 a decision was taken to reuse it. In 1983 all the bodies were removed to Brookwood cemetery as the crypt was turned into a healing centre. The memorial in the cemetery records the date of the removal but not the individual names, which are listed in the parish office of St Marylebone. The Russian topographical historian, Sergei Romanyuk, waxes indignant in his book Russian London about the Pembroke family not removing Vorontsov’s remains before the removal to Brookwood. The likelihood is that they did not know this was going to happen. Others have not forgotten. The road named after him is still there and now there is a memorial presented by the Peter the Great Company to the citizens of Camden and erected jointly by the Russian Ambassador and the Mayor of Camden.


Helen Szamuely, who passed away in April 2017, was a Founder Member of London Historians.

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A guest post by LH Member Jill Browne, who runs the blog, London Heritage Hotspots.

imagesBook Review: Indigenous London, Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, by Coll Thrush. (Yale University Press, 2016)

Indigenous London is a readable scholarly examination of a two-way street that for centuries has been treated as one-way only.

The book is based on the stories of individuals who were taken to London from their homelands over the past 500 years or so. Typically what we read in history books is, “Mr. Great Explorer brought three Natives back with him and he went on to do great and wonderful things.” Nothing more about the three.

Coll Thrush, associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, takes us with the three (actually, more like 50), instead of with Mr. Great Explorer.

His operating definition of “Indigenous” and the finite number of people Thrush has been able to feature limit what would otherwise be an unmanageable scope of work. The book deals with people from Canada, the United States, Hawaii (before becoming part of the USA), Australia, and New Zealand.

This book has three parts.

The main text is academic, examining the cross-pollination of cultures, one person at a time. Indigenous people travel to London. They observe and are observed. While they are being studied, they learn. Their preconceptions of how English people live are wiped away and they try to understand what’s really going on. They may be the cream of London society, or be ignored and sidelined. Finally, if they’re lucky enough to survive, they might get to go home and tell their stories, just like Marco Polo told his.

In the meantime, bit by bit, the Londoners form an impression of what Hawaiians are like, or Inuit, or any visitors. It’s an imperfect impression, based on close study of a few individuals, but it’s more enlightening than a second- or third-hand account.

Eventually, the Indigenous people and the English might come to a common understanding of each other’s culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a happy outcome for everybody.

The English want to take over and sooner or later the Indigenous people recognize the threat and want to stop it.

Some of the Indigenous travelers are diplomats. Thrush makes the point that often, historically and today, Indigenous people want to deal directly with the person with whom they have a treaty: the Queen. They do not want irrelevant colonial offices and provincial administrations set up to subordinate them.

The book has been praised for taking a new approach to Indigenous history, and it probably has already inspired more scholars to carry on with close examinations of individual lives. Where will it lead? Are we about to see new angles on old legends about the Old World meeting the New?

The two non-academic parts to the book are shorter and quite different from each other.

Between the academic chapters, Thrush includes interludes of free-form poems, which I quite enjoyed. My brain had to work hard in the academic parts (and by no means am I equipped to fully understand them). Then, the author flipped things around and let his and my creativity have a turn. It was an interesting technique and the more I think about it, the more I think it adds to the overall reading experience.

Finally, the third part, which is by far the shortest, may be the only part some readers will want to look at. This is the Appendix of self-guided walking tours of parts of London relevant to the stories and examples used in the academic text. It would be interesting to start there and use the index to pull out as much information as you might want about one of the tours. It’s definitely worth a look for people who like London history.

Bottom line: This book has earned accolades from academics. As a general reader I fear that much of the author’s argument was lost on me but I was able to appreciate the facts and evidence he has compiled and indexed. The creative interludes were a nice sizzle on the steak. For the non-specialist like I am, I would say, don’t ignore this book. Start with the walking tours and from there, use the index to choose excerpts that attract you. The book is rich in information that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.


Indigenous London, Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, 310pp, by Coll Thrush is published by Yale University Press. Available for £22.50.


A signed copy of this book is London Historians member book prize for March 2017. 

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