An extract from The Belsize Story Volume 1
The first Belsize House was a manor with a generous courtyard and extensive, walled grounds and gardens that once occupied the area of today’s central Belsize for hundreds of years. The house and grounds were bounded by 1,400 yards of walls, and the grand carriageway to the house is today’s Belsize Avenue.
The Manor was a long-established country retreat within reasonable reach of London. So how far back can we trace the Manor House? At least to 1496, the dawn of the Tudor Period, when the Abbey in Westminster ordered a large number of building bricks locally in Belsize.
The property was rebuilt and improved upon many times during the centuries that followed. There were at least four successive manors, all called Belsize House. Tenants came and tenants went. It was probably in 1663 that one of the richest men in England, Colonel Daniel O'Neil, began building a mansion for his wife, Katherine, the Countess of Chesterfield – by a previous marriage.
With projecting wings, and added central tower, the manor now spanned about 120 feet – as depicted in this wood engraving.
The diarists Sir John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys both recorded visits to the estate. Pepys called upon Lord Wotton in 1668, and this is what his diary for the 17th of August says:
“…Went and saw the Lord Wotton's house and garden, which is wonderfull fine: too good for the house the gardens are, being, indeed, the most noble that ever I saw... ”
The gardens were said to be on a par with other great gardens in London such as New Spring Garden – later called Vauxhall Gardens.
Deer hunting was introduced to the park – all part of the pleasure activities of Belsize House. The Daily Post of 1720 (founded by Daniel Defoe) stated that: The "ancient and noble house" had been fitted up for entertainment during the summer season, and to be opened with "dancing and music."
Visitors could fish or hunt in the grounds, dine on the best food, enjoy fine wines, and dance in the lavish ballroom. The following August, the Daily Post reported: “One hundred coaches will stand in the square of the house”, and "Twelve men will continue to guard the road every night ‘till the last of the company are gone."
In 1721, the Prince and Princess of Wales dined at Belsize House. It became the place to be seen, prompting large numbers of visitors to sample the delights of Belsize.
But within a year, the voraciousness and the goings on got completely out of hand, with deteriorating, unseemly behaviour – vice trumped virtue at Belsize House! There was public outrage over these totally unacceptable activities. And the large numbers of visitors caused frequent traffic jams on the main carriageway from Haverstock Hill! So the house was closed down in 1745.
But after a year or so, Belsize House, seen here around 1800, had been rebuilt and became a residence again. Now a Georgian mansion, with an added extension to the right, was positioned facing London.
Belsize returned to normality and slowly regained its respectability.
Just over 50 years later, the house was occupied by Spencer Perceval until he became British Prime Minister. But, in 1812, Perceval was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons – the only British Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated. Perceval Avenue nearby is named after him.
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