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  • Bayswater
  • Todd Kuchta (bio)

The London district of Bayswater is not an obvious choice to represent the Victorian suburbs. Located just north of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, and now part of the metropolis, Bayswater arose on the outskirts of the West End in the 1840s. Too late to number among the first suburbs, it was also too close to London—and too reputable—to warrant the epithet “suburbia,” applied to Britain’s fastest-growing and most ridiculed areas by the eighties. If Bayswater’s status fell near the turn of the century, it remained smart enough that a 1905 book attacking the suburbs actually prescribed curing their ills with “a twelve-month’s residence in Bayswater” (Crosland 13). As Donald Olsen suggests, the area was “never ‘suburban’ in the way Clapham or Highgate or Norwood were” (163), which may explain its virtual absence from the classic histories of Victorian suburbs by H.J. Dyos and F.M.L. Thompson. Nevertheless, Bayswater offered a surprisingly rich, if overlooked, environment for nurturing some of the most fundamental elements of an emerging suburban landscape, and later writers like Galsworthy [End Page 30] and Woolf would look back on the area as a geographical correlative of the Victorian era itself.

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John Claudius Loudon’s double detached villa at Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, by E. B. Lamb (1837). From John Claudius Loudon, The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion (London: Longman, 1838).

The year 1863 marked a turning point for Bayswater, also known as Tyburnia. With construction on its main squares and colonnaded mansions virtually complete, and its genteel reputation secure, a new era was about to begin. In January, the world’s first underground line opened, using nearby Paddington Station, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as its western terminus. Months later, draper William Whiteley opened a modest fancy goods shop, which he rapidly expanded into London’s first department store. The following decades saw Bayswater grow into a thriving residential suburb and fashionable commercial district, thanks largely to the arrival of both Whiteley’s store and the Paddington Station underground.

But if we go back forty years, we can discover an unappreciated source for both institutions. In 1823, the landscape gardener and horticultural writer John Claudius Loudon, an early champion of suburban living, and longtime Bayswater resident, designed his own “double detached” villa on Porchester Terrace. In his Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion (1838), an encyclopedic guide to building a quasi-aristocratic estate on a middle-class budget, Loudon included illustrations and a lengthy description of the Bayswater villa (fig. 1). His goal, he wrote, “was to build two small houses, which should appear as one” (325). The result, though not the first of its kind, was a prototype of Britain’s quintessential suburban dwelling, the semi-detached home. Joining two separate residences under one roof, Loudon’s villa also featured a unique glass-domed conservatory, a small example of the building method he invented for constructing large glasshouses using curved iron bars with ridge-and-furrow glazing. Loudon’s friend Joseph Paxton would apply the same method to more grandiose effect years later when designing the Crystal Palace.1

Situated just south of Bayswater in Hyde Park during the Great Exhibition, [End Page 31] the Crystal Palace would in turn shape the major forces behind Bayswater’s development. Inspired by Paxton’s designs, Brunel’s Paddington Station drew heavily on the combination of iron arches and glass roofing pioneered by Loudon (Weinreb et al. 616). Likewise, Whiteley’s visit to the Great Exhibition led him to imagine a retail emporium that would rival the spectacular display of goods at the Crystal Palace.2 When Whiteley first opened his shop in Westbourne Grove, the Bayswater thoroughfare was nicknamed “Bankruptcy Avenue.” But thanks to increased railway traffic and his own initiative, Whiteley bought up nearly twenty adjoining properties by the 1880s. Unlike traditional specialty-shop owners, Whiteley proclaimed himself the “Universal Provider,” willing and able to sell anything to anyone. From conventional draper’s wares, he expanded to include jewellery, furs, umbrellas, flowers, stationery, ironmongery, furniture, an estate agency, a hairdresser’s, a banking service, and tea rooms. Boasting...


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