Sod’s Law, Hotwash & Kensington’s Exquisite Conservation Area

David recently had an “oops” moment on his Kensington Walk. He hotwashed what happened. Did some “primary documents” research. Unearthed some fascinating stuff that “put right” the “oops” moment. Parts of which will “inform” that walk in the future. This podcast talks about what happened and divulges what David’s researches uncovered.


London calling. David here.

Sod’s Law. And hotwash. Two of my favourite idiomatic expressions. Sod’s Law is British. Hotwash is American. American military in fact.

Sod’s Law – also known as Murphy’s Law (that may be the Irish version) – can be defined as “if something can go wrong, it will go wrong.”

Hot wash – well, it’s an “immediately after the action debriefing,” Especially if something went wrong. A detailed look – involving all the participants – at what happened and why. What lessons can we learn from this? How do we put it right? How do we make sure an action like this doesn’t go tits up again. Oops, there’s another idiom. Also, military in origin. Means “broken”, “didn’t work”, something went wrong, malfunctioned.

And, sure enough, those terms are in play here at London Walks. Sod’s Law rears its ugly, gnomic little head from time to time on our walks and virtual tours. And when something goes wrong, we always hotwash.

Recent case in point, the magnificent Anna Targett gave her Richmond on Thames Virtual Tour the other night for 28 people. Talked brilliantly about Richmond for 70 minutes. Only to find out afterward that she was the only person seeing the visuals. Yup, a technical gremlin. Easy enough to remedy, to make amends. Anna rescheduled it and will do it again. And offered a refund to anyone who wanted one.

And what did we get out of the hotwash? Something really valuable for us as an organisation going forward. Normally Mary and I attend every virtual tour. Mary in effect co-pilots. I deadhead as it were. (That’s another nice idiom, look it up if you don’t know it.) But what that means is that having the two of us along is a fail-safe measure against what happened to Anna. Needless to say, we would have twigged instantly that we weren’t seeing the pictures. And we would have been across that messages that were pouring in on the Chat function from the walkers, “Anna, we’re not seeing anything.” We would have flagged Anna down and the whole thing would have been put right in a matter of ten seconds. But – Sod’s Law – that was the one night neither of us could be there. 

Now that lesson learned – compliments of the hotwash – responds to the fact that the guide on a Virtual Tour always “Mutes” her audience. That’s done to put less strain on the bandwidth that’s carrying virtual tour to, in this case, nearly 30 people. 

Next time around there’ll only be 27 walkers “muted”. One member of the 28 won’t be muted. He or she will be the live, open, hotwire link to and from our audience. And because she won’t be muted she’ll be able to chime in immediately to the London Walks guide, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Which brings me to the main act of this podcast. My Kensington Walk last week. One of the “rooms” – I like to think of Kensington as an art gallery – one of the rooms we go to on that walk is a very beautiful and fascinating conservation area. It’s visually very appealing. And it’s not just eye candy, it’s also brain candy. You know where to look and what you’re looking for you can learn a great deal about Kensington and, for that matter, a lot about London by going through there and not just looking, but seeing. There’s a row of very beautiful houses – all related to one another in subtle, very pleasing ways – that are the swan song of the so-called Restoration Idiom – the style of London housing that came in in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. 220 years earlier. That in itself is a measure of just how fine a creation the Restoration Idiom was. And going through there, fine-tooth combing it the way we do – gets into perspective the oldest houses in Kensington – some of them built two centuries earlier – that we look at elsewhere on that walk.

Anyway, the two finest houses in the conservation area are Nos. 1 and 2. And sure enough, that’s where we enter the conservation area, that’s where we start.

Now as it happens, last week someone in the group asked me, “who lived in that house back then?” She was asking about No. 1. Ouch. I didn’t know. I wasn’t able to answer that question. And then, five minutes later, she asked me about the very fancy initials high up on the wall of No. 2. Ouch again. I didn’t know. 

Something like that happens on a London Walk, that’s got hot wash written all over it. I’m going to find out so next time I can answer those questions.

Actually, this time – as well as next time. Because I came home, did the research – had to head down some fairly arcane, untrodden paths to get to where I needed to dig to find the nuggets she (and I) were after – anyway, came home, did the research, got those questions answered and fired off an email to everybody on that walk. “Hello everybody, it’s David of London Walks here. You might remember I was stumped by Elizabeth’s question about who lived in No. 1, that masterpiece of a house at the beginning of the Conservation area that I took you into. Well, I’m no longer stumped. I found out. And you know something, I’m really glad Elizabeth asked, because the dig I did as a consequence unearthed some really good stuff. Stuff that’s going to figure in that walk from here on out. So, going forward I’ll think of your group every time we get there on that walk. Thanks to that moment you folks have left a permanent, perfectly formed, attractive, interesting fingerprint on my Kensington Walk.”

And then I set out for them the fruits the research yielded.

Those fruits – and yes I’m also going to set them out here on the table of this podcast – those fruits are whither this piece has been heading from the very first. 

         So here they are – the fruits of the hot wash of last week’s Kensington Walk. Here’s your still life to close out this, the 455th London Walks podcast. 

Turns out that No. 1’s illustrious occupant was Lord Redesdale. The census return I looked at asked the occupants of every given house in the land to spell out what their occupation was. Loved what Lord Redesdale told the census official: Peer of the realm. 

Now let’s get over the threshold of No. 1. It’s a 25-room house. And for an outbuilding, just there, through the arch – it’s still there today – a converted 6-room stables. It housed the chauffeur, his wife, and their three daughters. They lived over the shop, as it were. But now let’s meet the residents of the big house, No. 1 itself. Lord Redesdale and his wife were a fertile couple. Nine children born, nine children survived. In poverty-stricken Whitechapel, just five or so east of the Redesdale mansion, a family that large in all probability would have lost more than half of their children. Anyway, most of Lord and Lady Redesdale’s offspring have grown up and flown the coop. Still at home a 32-year-old daughter and the 15-year-old twins Daphne and Rupert. (I guarantee you twins born in Whitechapel would not have been named Daphne and Rupert.)

Now to look after the Redesdales, a governess for the twins. And ten servants. So, add ‘em up: A 25-room house, a six-room stables, a chauffeur, a governess, and ten servants. And that’s just counting their townhouse in Kensington. Batsford Park, their country estate – it’s in Gloucestershire, in the Cotswolds – well, too many rooms to count. And as for staff, well, you can start with the game-keeper, and the head gardener, and the dairyman and just go on from there. But you get the picture. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “the rich are different.” I don’t know about that. But I do know they live different. They don’t live the way the rest of us live. 

Now as for Baron Redesdale himself, well, his life story is so dazzling you almost have to shield your eyes. He was, quite simply, the most cosmopolitan Englishman of his time. Distinguished ancestry – Burke of Burke’s peerage told Redesdale he was descended from the two oldest Saxon families in England. He Eton-educated – how predictable is that. He lived in Paris and Frankfurt as a youngster, went to Christ Church, Oxford, moved in the very best circles – boon companion of the Prince of Wales, for example. Joined the Foreign Service. His diplomatic career took him to the most interesting places in the world – the forges where world history was being fashioned: Constantinople, St. Petersburg, Kyoto and Tokyo, Beijing, Damascus. He numbered Algernon Charles Swinburne the dissolute poet, Whistler and Millais and Lord Leighton the painters, Carlyle the historian, Garibaldi the world-famous Italian revolutionary, Burton the explorer and Arabist among his friends. He visited Brigham Young in Salt Lake City.  For good measure he explored Ceylon (Sri Lanka we’d call it today), laid out the most celebrated tropical garden in England and directed the restorations at the Tower of London.

Yes, dazzling, isn’t it. But all of it takes a back seat to what sprung from his loins. Lord Redesdale was the grandfather of the celebrated Mitford sisters: Nancy the novelist, Jessica the communist, Diana the fascist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur.

Good god. That’s what that simple little question – who lived here? – led me to.

And we’re not done. Remember, I was also asked about the initials high up on the wall of the only slightly more restrained mansion next door, Number 2.  

The initials are a very fancy A R, so fancy they’re conspicuous on what has to be one of the most extravagantly beautiful house frontages you’ll ever set eyes on. The first owner of No. 2  was John Athelston Laurie Riley. His French-born wife’s name was Andalucia Riley. So there you have it, both their names – Athelstan and Andalucia Riley – are conjoined, as it were, in those two initials, A & R. 

Athelstan himself was a figure of some note, as a hymn writer and hymn translator. A very wealthy hymn writer and translator.

Now as to the house. Well, this one was only 20 rooms. And the Rileys made do with just eight servants: nurse, footman, butler, lady’s maid, cook, kitchenmaid, and two housemaids.

Now those are the two houses on the corner of the Conservation area we explore. The next 27 houses along are also architectural masterpieces. These are the ones that are really the final flowering – the swan song – of the Restoration idiom style of house. The houses are eye-catching individually. But also in concert. If you look closely you can see how taken together they work as an ensemble. It’s visually very appealing. And it’s very satisfying to suddenly see it, have one of those “oh, yes, got it” moments. 

And for sure, we’ve been visually appraising that – seeing it and understanding it – as long as I’ve been guiding that conservation area.

But now, thanks to last week’s hot wash – I’m going to be able to add another element, a particularly enriching element to our passagiata along that terrace. A social history element.

From the street you can see clearly that Nos. 1 and 2 are the grandest, the finest houses in the terrace. And not that any of us would cock a snook at any of the houses that follow on from those two mightiest pieces on the architectural chessboard. They’re all big, handsome, well-appointed houses. But now I know how big they are. And I know who lived in them. What their occupations were. How many servants they had.

And interesting and telling it is indeed. No. 6 for example is a 17 room house. So, for sure, grand but appreciably smaller than Lord Redesdale’s 25 room spread. No. 6 was lived in by a barrister. He had a son at Cambridge. He had to make do with a mere five servants. No. 16, an 18-room house, was occupied by a shipowner. He had six servants under his roof. The householder at No. 14, a sixteen room house, was an iron merchant. He had 7 servants.

But there’s something else going on in the documentary record on that street. Three or four of the houses – and they’re all of that 15, 16, 17 room size – only had one or two servants at home the day the census official came calling. What’s that telling us, of course, is that the principals – the big man and his family – were away when the census man came. Either abroad or on a cruise or at their country home. So again, that also proclaims wealth, substantial wealth – just not the sort of wealth that Lord Redesdale, the Mitford sisters’ grandfather, could take comfort in. 

Now is all of this going to come out on that walk? No chance. There’s not time. Maybe just one or two particulars to flavour that stretch of the walk. But, it is there in the bank – should I need to draw on it.

Well, here endeth the tale. Primary documents. They’re fascinating. They give us an invaluable core sample of the past, of the life and times of those whose day was yesteryear. Later this month I’ll be doing a podcast on the 1921 census return which is hoving into view. It’s so close now – just 60 days away – you can almost smell the ink and parchment. Can’t wait. That 1921 census return is going to be the most important census return of the first half of the 21st century. For reasons that’ll be made clear in the podcast. See you then, 

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