It is Bank Holiday Monday and, apart from Notting Hill where thousands of people have gathered for the carnival, London seems much quieter than usual. So I set off early to visit some of the addresses where Francis Douce lived between 1779 and 1834.
My first stop is High Street Kensington. Around the corner from the tube station, I find Kensington Square -between 1821 and 1825 , Douce lived in no. 34, a pretty four-storey house built in 1736-7 that had just been refronted.
According to William Jerdan, one of Douce’s neighbours at this address was the political writer and farmer William Cobbett (1763-1835). Cobbett’s experiments with Indian corn in his back garden were regarded by Douce as the cause of the invasion of his own vegetable patch by snails and a great quarrel ensued, as Jerdan recounts:
It was indeed a sight to behold the philosophic Dry-as-Dust, at early morn, in night-gown and slippers, gathering up the [snails] into arsenals of flower pots, to be hurled en masse, with malignant aim, into the very heart and interior of his enemy’s maize; and, at dewy eve, the stout bucolic reformer of governments and agriculture, collecting all he could find to re-discharge into the hostile territory.
This must surely be apocryphal. From Kensington Square I go to Gray’s Inn, where Douce lived since 1779 until his marriage to Isabella Price in 1791:
After visiting Gray’s Inn and its empty courtyards and gardens, I walk to buzzing Bloomsbury. In 1807, Douce lived at no. 32, Tavistock Place (next to the cheerfully painted hotel):
A very similar house in nearby Charlotte Street was occupied by Douce shortly after leaving his job -and his draughty rooms- in the British Museum (the ‘temple of the winds’, as he described it in a letter to George Ellis):
I was looking forward to seeing Douce’s favourite home -he loved the house at 13 Upper Gower Street (later 116 Gower Street) where he settled just after getting married and he returned to spend the last years of his life there. The designs for its garden have been published by R. Todd Longstaffe Gowan in his article ‘Proposal for a Georgian Town Garden in Gower Street: The Francis Douce Garden’ (Garden History, vol. 15, no. 2, 1987, if you are interested). But the house does not exist any more: it disappeared as UCL expanded towards the south side of Gower Street. This was Douce’s prediction regarding Henry Brougham’s plans for the university (from a letter to George Cumberland dated 3 December 1826):
The projectors of the London University have erected an immense barrier in my Northern neighbourhood, but I prognosticate that they will not effect their purpose & this will hereafter turn out another bubble & be called Brougham’s folly.