William Shakespeare – More about Bill (7)

Here’s a little more about Bill…

William Shakespeare - fountain in Leicester SquareThis fountain in the middle of Leicester Square features a statue of William Shakespeare.William Shakespeare on fountain in Leicester SquareLove the inscription on the scroll – “There is no darkness but ignorance”.
I’m not sure the drunken hoards that fill Leicester Square at night take any heed of his warning about ignorance.  BUT the fountain has a VERY interesting history. This fountain was donated by the infamous “Baron Grant” – more about him in a minute.
By coincidence, when my daughter Amy and I went to Wilton House I saw this statue of Shakespeare in the hall.

"This photo is taken from the internet.  Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside Wilton House.)

“This photo is taken from the internet. Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside Wilton House.)

it looks familiar and it turns out that both of these statues are copies of the original in Westminster Abbey:

 Shakespeare’s memorial in Westminster Abbey was designed by William Kent and sculpted by Peter Scheemakers.

The reverse side of the Shakespeare memorial in Leicester Square has this inscriptionShakespeare fountain, Leicester Square - inscriptionSo – WHO was Albert Grant, Esq. who donated the land for the public square and memorial at Leicester Square?
To learn about “Baron” Grant, we have to look some history in Kensington.

The story links Leicester Square and the Milestone Hotel.  It is TOO strange.Milestone Hotel, KensingtonLook familiar? It’s the Milestone Hotel.
The building actually has a VERY interesting history – but I can’t go into LOTS of detail right now
(If you are REALLY interested – here is the Survey of London history
http://www.british-history.ac.uk/image.aspx?compid=50309&filename=fig25.gif&pubid=366
You want to read the part about “The Second Kensington House”)

Before Albert Grant purchased the site, there was a lot of history –
In the 1830s the site where the Milestone Hotel stands now was occupied by a building called “Kensington House” which was built in 1689 by the Commissioner of Excise (The TAX MAN) under King William III, who lived across the street in Kensington Palace.

  • By 1698 the house was leased to “A boaster and a braggart, Davenant claimed to be the grandson of William Shakespeare, his father, he said, having been the product of a dalliance with the Bard which his grandmother had enjoyed whenever the great man stopped at an inn that she and her husband ran on the London to Stratford Road. “ (interesting connection with William Shakespeare!)
  • Then it was leased to a woman who had been the mistress of King James II,
  • Then it was leased by a Russian noble who was the Ambassador to Britain,
  • Then it was run as a private school for young gentlemen. It was run by James Elphinston who was a friend of Benjamin Franklin. By one of those quirks of history, one of the young students wasAlexander James Dallas, who became US Secretary of the Treasury in 1814, and for whom Dallas County, Alabama was named (that’s where I was born – the connections are all so weird! But you can see why I love it!)
  • By 1839 Kensington House was run as a private lunatic asylum.
  • Finally in 1872 it was purchased by “Baron” Albert Grant and pulled down. He built his enormous “Kensington House” on the site.

(A lot of this information came from http://www.cosmopolis.ch/travel/london/the_milestone.htm)

Grant was a fabulous “promoter” of schemes that made HIM a lot of money, and lost other people their money. One scheme was the California Mining Company that bought and sold worthless silver mines in Nevada.

He was eventually sued over his fraudulent sale of the Emma Silver Mine in Alta, Utah.

Kensington House in Graphic Mag cropped

Kensington House in The Graphic magazine, June 30, 1877

The house he built in Kensington was MASSIVE. It had a domed entrance hall that was 90’ long hall with Sicilian marble staircases at each end, “a top-lit picture gallery and the ballroom or music-room, beyond those on the west, representing Autumn and Winter, a lobby led to a library, a billiard-room, and a pair of dining-rooms which could be joined together as a single banqueting”, seven bedrooms and eight bath. He didn’t ignore the outside – there was a skating rink, an ornamental lake, an ‘American bowling alley’, an orangery, glasshouses and other attractions. “Sinuous paths wound about the grounds, and there was thick planting to block out views from neighbouring Prince of Wales Terrace.”

Unfortunately, by the time this new Kensington House was finished, Albert Grant’s financial world was falling apart. He was being sued and ended up bankrupt and penniless. The house wasn’t finished until 1876 and reportedly Grant only ever spent one night in it. There were several ideas proposed to use the huge house as a private club, or even as a government-owned residence for important international visitors. Nothing came of this. For years the house stood empty and abandoned. Then in 1882 the house was taken apart, everything that could be sold was, and it was demolished. Parts of the marble staircase were sold to be used in Madame Tussaud’s new Waxworks Museum.

That’s when the red brick building that is now the Milestone Hotel was built, as well as all the area behind it –    the houses and apartment blocks of Kensington Court.

It’s hard to imagine that enormous ghostly mansion – it was really an exercise in fantasy and waste.

The next time you go past the Milestone Hotel, you really need to think about all that history!!

Milestone Hotel, Kensington - mottoInterestingly, on the Kensington Court side of the Milestone Hotel, there’s a plaque with the motto

Maybe Baron Grant should have had a bit more fear in his effort to be prosperous!

It is really amazing how “researching” one story about William Shakespeare

can lead to such surprising discoveries.

That’s part of the fun of London!!

@Cathey Leitch, 2015