Having had an extended May Bank Holiday, Exploring London returns with our usual coverage this week…

The subject of the new film Belle, the life of Georgian-era Dido Elizabeth Belle was nothing short of extraordinary.

Belle2Born in 1761, Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and Maria Belle, an African woman who had apparently been captured from a Spanish ship when Havana was captured from the Spanish in 1762 (Lindsay had captained a ship in the fight).

Baptised at St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, in 1766, Lindsay subsequently sent Dido to live with his uncle William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield – Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Initially residing at the family house in Bloomsbury Square and later at Kenwood House in Hampstead, she was raised alongside her orphaned cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray who was also in the earl’s care.

She spent some 30 years living at the property and while her status remains something of a mystery, it is thought she was treated more as a companion to Lady Murray than a servant – indeed her familiarity with Lady Murray did prove somewhat shocking to some. Her presence in the house also led to some criticism of Lord Mansfield’s judgements in cases related to slavery.

Following the Earl of Mansfield’s death in 1793, Belle – who has acted as his secretary later in his life – was awarded £500 outright and a £100 annuity and had her freedom confirmed in Mansfield’s will. In December that year she married a Frenchman and gentleman’s steward (possibly at Kenwood House), John Davinier, at St George’s Hanover Square, London. The couple are believed to have had at least three sons and lived in Pimlico before Belle’s death in 1804. She was buried in St George’s Fields and her remains were later moved when the area was redeveloped in the mid-20th century.

A turbaned Belle is famously depicted in a portrait with Lady Murray which now hangs in Scone Palace at Perth in Scotland (property of the current Earl of Mansfield). The portrait was formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany but it’s now generally accepted it was not created by him.

Belle, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, opens in the UK next month.

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Eccleston-Square

Thousands turned out for the Open Garden Squares Weekend in London earlier this month when more than 200 of London’s private, hidden, unusual or little known gardens – including those at Eccleston Square in Pimlico, pictured above – threw open their gates to the curious public. Among the highlights of this year’s weekend was the chance to see the gardens at 10 Downing Street (more than 40,000 people applied for the 40 places) which also included a tour of the house. Next year’s event will be held on 14th and 15th June. For more, see www.opensquares.org.

PICTURE: Courtesy of Open Garden Squares Weekend.

What’s in a name?…Pimlico

September 10, 2012

Tradition holds that this small triangular area, wedged between Westminster and Chelsea on the north bank of the Thames, takes its name from Ben Pimlico, said to be the 17th century owner of an famous alehouse or tea garden in Hoxton, on the north side of the City, and brewer of a particularly sought-after “nut brown” ale.

The story goes that so popular was his brew that Hoxton Street was then known as the “Pimlico Path”  due to the numbers making their way to his alehouse and that the area of Pimlico somehow adopted this name (although to be fair we should note that it’s also been suggested that the name comes from the Pamlico tribe of American Indians who exported timber to London around the same period).

While references to Pimlico go back to the 17th century, the area was largely uninhabited until the 19th century when it was developed by Victorian planner Thomas Cubitt under contract to the land owner, the Grosvenor family.

Initially in demand among the well-to-do, the fortunes of the area had declined by the end of the nineteenth century before a resurgence of interest took place in the early 20th century.

Among the projects constructed at that time was Dolphin Square (pictured) – with more than 1,200 apartments, it was the largest apartment complex in Europe at the time and has since proved particularly popular among politicians keen to be close to the action in Westminster and Whitehall.

Famous residents of Pimlico have included Winston Churchill, who lived briefly at 33 Eccleston Square between 1908-11.

Worth noting is that there is a racecourse in Maryland in the US known as the Pimlico Race Course which is also named for Ben Pimlico’s tavern.

For a photographic essay of Pimlico, check out Brian Girling’s Pimlico Through Time.