A brief history of South Kensington

Written on 7 October 2019 by Giles Cook in London


Affectionately known as ‘South Ken’ or London’s museum quarter, South Kensington is home to some of the world’s most famous and prestigious museums – and a lovely collection of garden squares and elegant stucco terraces.

You’ll find South Kensington in west London, lying to the east of Belgravia, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Stretching to Knightsbridge, it takes in Exhibition Road and the area around Gloucester Road tube station.

A brief history of South Kensington

South Kensington attracts millions of visitors and tourists per year. Its many cultural attractions include the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Royal Albert Hall.

It’s handy for Hyde Park with the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens and Kensington Palace as well as High Street Kensington’s great choice of shops and the Design Museum.

Renowned university, Imperial College London, specialising in science, engineering and medicine, is also close-by, as is the Royal College of Art’s Kensington Campus and the Royal College of Music.

History

Before 1850, the South Kensington area was mainly agricultural, supplying fruit and vegetables to the rest of London. All of that changed in the years following the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, organised by Prince Albert to showcase the might of the British Empire’s design and manufacturing.

One legacy of the Great Exhibition would be a new cultural centre, planned as a home for the arts and sciences on what is now Exhibition Road.

Roads were constructed and residential properties built, as local landowners took advantage of the area’s boom. The opening of the underground stations at South Kensington and Gloucester Road, in 1868, provided a link to the political, cultural and commercial centres of Westminster, the West End and the City, sealing South Ken’s fate as a prominent area in the heart of the city.

The museums

The V&A was launched in 1857 as the South Kensington Museum – the first in London to have its own restaurant. It was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899 when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of new buildings along Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road.

The Science Museum was initially part of the South Kensington Museum. Construction of its own building began in 1913 but due to the First World War wasn’t completed until 1928.

The Natural History Museum first opened its doors in 1881, although its origins are in the 18th century when naturalist Sir Hans Sloane’s vast collection of specimens and artefacts was bought by parliament.

South Ken today

While South Kensington is a magnet for tourists it still retains a quiet, relaxed feel. Every Saturday a farmer’s market comes to Bute Street. And locals and visitors alike can enjoy dining at the range of restaurants and cafes – many with pavement tables. The area is also a great spot for afternoon tea – including in the V&A itself.

Shoppers can choose from small quirky boutiques or high street names, not to mention the legendary department stores Harvey Nichols and Harrods, both located in nearby Knightsbridge.

Transport

The two main underground stations within the South Kensington area are Gloucester Road and South Kensington (both stations are on the Circle, District and Piccadilly Lines), which provide easy access to the city, the West End and the rest of London.

Find out more

With its many cultural connections South Kensington is as much a centre for the appreciation of the arts and sciences, as was in 1860s. To find out more about living in this amazing part of London, contact us today.

Giles Cook

Giles recently joined Best Gapp in 2017 as Partner Designate and Head of Residential Agency, bringing over 20 years’ experience to the firm. Following a three-year stint as an Area Director for Foxtons, he went on to head up Chestertons’ sales and lettings operations in central London, before becoming a Partner at top Knightsbridge boutique WA Ellis.

All articles by Giles Cook

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