Tuesday 20 October 2009

Benjamin Disraeli, Sir John Soane…and the Lord who stole slippers:

House-historian, Melanie Backe-Hansen, explores the history of No.19 Curzon Street.

It is not surprising that when most people walk past this unassuming Georgian town house in Mayfair they miss the brown LCC plaque honouring the former residence of one Britain’s most popular Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli. The house, built in 1758, has also been the home of a number of prominent politicians of the 19th and 20th centuries, including Lord William Powlett, who also became embroiled in a scandal involving the theft of a pair of slippers from Burlington Arcade! If that is not enough to grab your attention, the house also features a rare example of an architectural addition made by Sir John Soane in 1802.

No.19 Curzon Street is an archetypal Georgian townhouse, built on the Curzon Estate and named after Sir Nathanial Curzon (1675/6-1758), who initiated the development of the estate in the 1720s. The first resident to move into the house was Hugh Campbell, third Earl of Marchmont, who made it his London home for almost 30 years. In 1786, however, the scientist Sir John Saunders Sebright (1767-1846) moved into the house. Sebright was such a noted scientist and in particular an expert on breeding chickens that he has a species named after him – the Sebright Bantam. His work notably inspired Charles Darwin who called him ‘the father of [breeding] science’.

It was Sebright who commissioned Sir John Soane to make alterations to the house at the turn of the 19th century. Soane designed a west-facing addition at the rear of the house, which Soane expert, Ptolemy Dean, called ‘a very rare and important example of a surviving Soane townhouse addition’.

By 1820, No.19 Curzon Street had become the home of Lord William Vane Powlett. In 1812, aged 20, Powlett became an MP and remained in parliament for 45 years. However, it is not for his time in parliament that the politician is remembered, but rather an unusual event in 1847, when on a shopping expedition in Burlington Arcade he was charged with stealing ‘two embroidered slippers worth 12 shillings’. The case was taken to court, but was eventually dismissed. It was reported by The Times and the judge was recorded as saying ‘it was rather singular for a nobleman to carry away slippers in his pocket’.

In 1880, former Prime Minister and writer, Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield, moved into No.19 Curzon Street. In fact, Disraeli bought the house with the proceeds of one of his most successful books, Endymion. Queen Victoria had invited Disraeli to become Prime Minister in 1868 and he later served a second term from 1874 to 1880. It was at this time that Disraeli moved from No.10 Downing Street to his new home in Curzon Street.

Disraeli’s was recorded in Curzon Street in the 1881 census as a widower, aged 75, with the occupation of ‘Ex- Prime Minister’. He had 13 live-in servants. A later note was added to the census returns, ‘died 19th April, 1881 – R.I.P.’ Newspaper reports later claimed that ‘in the closing weeks of his life increasing crowds gathered round his house and his passing was followed by a general burst of sorrow.’

By 1888 the house had become the home of a matriarch, the Dowager Countess of Stafford, daughter of Charles Cavendish and directly related to the Cavendishes of Chatsworth in Derbyshire. The Countess lived in great style and was recorded in the 1891 census with 14 live-in servants. She kept the house for her children, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Byng, Major Lionel Byng, Field Marshall Sir Julian Byng, Viscount Byng of Vimy, and her two daughters, Susan and Elizabeth. When the Countess passed away, in 1892, a sales advertisement in The Times for the contents of her home gave great insight into the life she led. Items for sale included, Louis XIV tortoiseshell clocks, coloured engravings and a collection of Havana cigars!

At the turn of the 20th century, No.19 Curzon Street had become the home of the Honourable Mrs Knatchbull-Hugessen, Lady Brabourne. Lady Brabourne became well-known for holding exclusive music concerts in her home at Curzon Street, bringing in celebrated musicians and performers.

By the mid 20th century, this grand house, once home to the Prime Minister, had become too large for one family to run and was converted into office space. It was even known as Disraeli House for a time. It was only in the 1990s that the home was brought back into residential use, and although not in the original Georgian form, this town house, formerly home to many from the nobility of England and Ireland and featuring a unique architectural addition by Sir John Soane, still keeps the spirit of a home graced by the great and the good.

Melanie Backe-Hansen is the first person to be employed as an in-house historian by a UK estate agent. For further information on her work with Chesterton Humberts, visit http://www.chestertonhumberts.com/about_us_history_historian
Articles about the histories many other houses in London and across in the UK are available on Melanie’s blog:

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