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Apsley House


The Grade I listed Apsley House or Number One, London, is the former home of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (Born 1 May 1769 – Died 14 September 1852) and is now a museum managed by English Heritage. There is a ghost story associated with Apsley House and the Duke of Wellington dating from around the time of The Reform Act 1832 to which Wellesley, who had been Prime Minister in 1830, was opposed. The story, as with many old ghost accounts has a ‘spirit’ coming and imparting knowledge or advice. In this case Wellington was supposedly visited by Oliver Cromwell (Born 25 April 1599 – Died 3 September 1658) Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, who warned the Wellington to allow the Act through Parliament.

Apsley House itself is an interesting building. The following description, including the riots outside the building concerning the above mention Reform Act, was published in Old and New London: Volume 4 (1878) by Edward Walford. ‘This house, so many years the residence of the late, and still the residence of the present Duke of Wellington, forms a conspicuous object on entering London from the west, occupying as it does the corner of Hyde Park and Piccadilly. Its situation is one of the finest in the metropolis, standing upon the rising ground overlooking the parks, and commanding views of the Kent and Surrey hills in the far distance. Its site is said to have been a present from George II to a discharged soldier, named Allen, who had fought under that king at Dettingen. His wife here kept an apple-stall, which by the thrifty couple was turned by degrees into a small cottage. The story of this present has been often told, but it will bear telling yet once again:—When London did not exist so far as Knightsbridge, George II., as he was riding out one morning, met Allen, who doubtless showed by his garments that he had once belonged to the army; the king accosted him, and found that he made his living by selling apples in a small hut. "What can I do for you?" said the king. "Please your majesty to give me a grant of the bit of ground my hut stands on, and I shall be happy." "Be happy," said the king, and ordered him his request. Years rolled on; the apple-man died, and left a son, who from dint of industry became a respectable attorney. The then Chancellor gave a lease of the ground to a nobleman, as the apple-stall had fallen to the ground. It being conceived the ground had fallen to the Crown, a stately mansion was soon raised, when the young attorney put in claims; a small sum was offered as a compromise, and refused; finally, the sum of £450 per annum, ground rent, was settled upon.

In 1784, Allen's son or other kin sold the ground to Henry, Lord Apsley, Lord Chancellor, afterwards second Lord Bathurst, who gave to the house which he built upon it the name by which it is still known. The mansion was originally of red brick, and though solid and substantial, it had no great architectural pretensions.

The father of Lord Chancellor Apsley, the first Earl Bathurst, was one of the most genial and agreeable of the friends of Pope, who has referred to him in the often quoted lines in terms of respect and affection:—

"Oh! teach us, Bathurst, yet unspoiled by wealth,
That secret rare, between th' extremes to move
Of mad good-nature and of mean self-love."

His lordship appears to have been of a particularly lively and cheerful disposition, and to have preserved his natural vivacity to the very last. To within a month of his death, which happened on the 16th of September, 1775, at the age of ninetyone, he constantly rode out on horseback for two hours before dinner, and regularly drank his bottle of claret or madeira after dinner. Some amusing anecdotes have been told of this old Lord Bathurst, which will bear telling over again. He used to repeat often, with a smile, that Dr. Cheyne had assured him, fifty years before, that he would not live seven years longer, unless he abridged himself of his wine. About two years before his death, he invited several of his friends to spend a few cheerful days with him at his seat, near Cirencester; and being, one evening, very loth to part with them, his son (then Lord Chancellor) objected to their sitting up any longer, adding, that health and long life were best secured by regularity. The earl suffered his son to retire, but as soon as he left the room, exclaimed, "Come, my good friends, since the old gentleman is gone to bed, I think we may venture to crack another bottle!"

In 1820 the mansion was purchased by the nation, and settled as an heirloom on the illustrious dukedom of Wellington. It was then leasehold only. Mr. Peter Cunningham tells us that "the Crown's interest in Apsley House was sold to the duke by indenture, dated the 15th of June, 1830, for the sum of £9,530, the Crown reserving, however, a right to forbid the erection of any other house or houses on the same site." The principal front, next Piccadilly, consists of a centre with two wings, having a portico of the Corinthian order, raised upon a rusticated arcade of three apertures, leading to the entrance hall. The west front consists of two wings; the centre slightly recedes, and has four windows with a balcony. The front is enclosed by a rich bronzed palisade, corresponding with the gates to the grand entrance to the Park. In the saloon is a colossal statue of Napoleon, by Canova.

In 1828 the mansion was enlarged, and the original exterior of red brick was faced with a casing of Bath stone, designed by Mr. B. Wyatt. At this time the front portico and the west wing were added; but, says Mr. Peter Cunningham, "the old house still remains intact, so much so, indeed, that the hall door and knocker belonged to the original Apsley House." In the upper part of the west wing is the Waterloo Gallery, nearly a hundred feet in length. This noble apartment is splendidly decorated, and richly gilt. The ballroom extending the whole depth of the mansion, and the small picture gallery, which together form a suite, are both superb rooms. On the ground floor, at the north-west angle, looking into the little garden which divides the house from Hyde Park, is the modest chamber used by the great Duke as a bedroom to the last year of his life. It is plainly furnished, with a small iron bedstead and a plain writing table; a few books, which were the duke's favourite companions, still remain where their great master left them. This room was shown to the public, along with the rest of the house, for a few days in 1852, the year of the duke's death, and a striking proof it gave of his simplicity and studied avoidance of all that savoured of luxury.

In the tumults which broke out in London in 1831 on account of the opposition of the duke and the Tory party to the first Reform Bill, the windows of Apsley House were broken by the mob. In consequence of this, the duke had all his windows cased with iron shutters, like those of shop-fronts in our leading thoroughfares, and made bullet-proof; and though often entreated to have them removed when his popularity returned, he steadily refused to allow the change to be made, as he had no confidence in the smiles of popular favour, and would often say that they were a standing proof of the vanity of the world's applause. With reference to the manner in which the fury of the multitude in the above-mentioned year vented itself on the duke, we glean a little intelligence in the following extract from Mr. Raikes' "Journal:"—"I can remember well," he writes, "the time when the duke returned to England, after his brilliant campaigns, crowned with the battle of Waterloo; at that time he was cheered by the people wherever he went, and lauded to the skies. Afterwards, at the period of the Reform Bill, the fickle people forgot all his services, and constantly hooted him in the streets. One morning, as he was coming from the Tower on horseback, the rascally mob attacked him with so much virulence and malice, that he was exposed to considerable personal danger in the street. I was in that year at a ball given by him at Apsley House to King William IV. and his Queen, when the mob were very unruly and indecent in their conduct at the gates; and on the following days they proceeded to such excesses, that they broke the windows of Apsley House, and did much injury to his property. It was then that he caused to be put up those iron blinds to his windows, which remain to this day as a record of the people's ingratitude. Some time afterwards, when he had regained all his popularity, and began to enjoy that great and high reputation which he now, it is to be hoped, will carry to the grave, he was riding up Constitution Hill, in the Park, followed by an immense mob, who were cheering him in every direction; he heard it all with the most stoical indifference, never putting his horse out of a walk, or seeming to regard them, till he leisurely arrived at Apsley House, when he stopped at the gate, turned round to the rabble, and then pointing with his finger to the iron blinds which still closed the windows, he made them a sarcastic bow, and entered the court without saying a word."

The shutters remained outside the windows of the house down to the death of the duke in 1852, after which they were removed by his son and successor.

On every 18th of June to the last, the duke celebrated his Waterloo dinner in the large gallery. Mr. Rush, in his "Court of London," mentions dining here in the summer of 1821, when the king (George IV.) was a guest, with most of the royal dukes, the foreign ambassadors, and the duke's old companions in arms. He thus describes the after-dinner scene:—"The king sat on the right hand of the duke. Just before the dessert courses, the duke rose and gave as a toast, 'His Majesty.' The guests all rose and drank it in silence, the king also rising and bowing to the company. A few minutes afterwards the king gave 'The Duke of Wellington,' introducing his toast with a few remarks. The purport of these was, that had it not been for the exertions of 'his friend upon his left' (it was so that he spoke of the duke), he, the king, might not have had the happiness of meeting those whom he now saw around him at that table; it was, therefore, with peculiar pleasure that he proposed his health. The king spoke with great emphasis and great apparent pleasure. The duke made no reply, but took in respectful silence what was said. The king himself continued sitting whilst he spoke, as did the company in profound stillness under his words."

These banquets were continued from year to year down to the duke's death. As years rolled on, the familiar faces gradually fell off, and the number of chairs for his guests—his old comrades in arms—grew smaller and smaller.

On the 14th of September, 1852, the "great Duke" died at Walmer Castle, his official residence as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. On that morning his valet called him as usual at six o'clock. Half an hour afterwards he entered the room and found his master ill. At four o'clock in the afternoon, after an epileptic fit, the great soldier breathed his last. Of all his crowd of illustrious friends, only two were near him—Lord and Lady Charles Wellesley, who were staying on a visit. So little did he anticipate death that he had appointed that day to meet the Countess of Westmoreland at Dover to see her off by packet to Ostend. The chamber in which he died had much the appearance of that at Apsley House described above; it was a little room with a single window, which served as his library and study, and an iron bedstead three feet wide, with a three-inch mattress.

Apsley House and it scontents was given to the nation in 1947 by Gerald Wellesley, 7th Duke of Wellington, (Born 21 August 1885 – Died 4 January 1972). The Wellington Museum Act 1947 gives the family the right to occupy half the house so long as there is a Duke of Wellington.


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