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Kilburn House: The King’s Mistress and WH Smith

Kilburn House was a large house in its own grounds facing the main road, a short distance north of today’s Victoria Road. For most of its history it was leased by the various owners to a series of wealthy and upper-class tenants.
Kilburn House, 1874
Lady Elizabeth Conyngham
In 1838 Lady Elizabeth Conyngham was living at Kilburn House. Born in 1769, she was the daughter of Joseph Denison, who from humble beginnings had worked his way up to become a very wealthy banker and landowner. In 1794 she married Henry the 1st Marquis of Conyngham, who lived at Slane Castle in County Meath, Ireland. The young Elizabeth was very beautiful and she had a number of affairs, including one with the young Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. In 1820 she became the last mistress of George, the Prince of Wales, known as ‘Prinny’.
Lady Conyngham, by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1801)
In 1795 Prinny was in huge debt. His father only agreed to pay his creditors if George married Princess Caroline of Brunswick. George was horrified when he met her; she was short, fat, coarse and unattractive, while her toilet habits left a lot to be desired as she didn’t believe in regular washing or changing her clothes. 

The marriage was a total disaster. At the wedding ceremony George was so drunk that he had to be supported by his friend George ‘Beau’ Brummel, and Caroline said he collapsed and spent the night in the fireplace. They only slept together once on the following day, but Caroline got pregnant and they had a daughter Princess Charlotte (who died while giving birth in 1817). George and Caroline had separate lives and both had a succession of lovers. In 1814 Caroline left England to live on the Continent.

George and Elizabeth Conyngham were regularly seen in public as a couple. She maintained they were just good friends and her husband simply turned a blind eye to the relationship. About 300 unflattering cartoons were drawn of them during the couple’s 10-year affair.
George and Elizabeth and his Camelopard (a girafee). Cartoon by Heath, 1827
On the 29 January 1820 George III died and Prinny succeeded to the throne as George IV. He had been collecting evidence of Caroline’s affairs for several years and had made plans for his divorce. She was offered a huge annuity of £50,000 (worth about £4M today) for life if she relinquished the title of Queen. But Caroline refused.

She returned to England in June 1820 and was cheered by the large crowds who knew she was going to be tried for divorce in the House of Lords on 17 August. The public were disgusted at George’s treatment of Caroline and his open affair with Lady Conyngham, so much so that they booed him in the street.

The trial lasted three months as dozens of witnesses were called to give evidence against Caroline. Then Lord Brougham made the dramatic announcement that he proposed to call a new witness, none other than the Marchioness Conyngham. But placed under enormous pressure, he did not go through with it. Finally, on 6 November the Lords voted with such a small majority for the Divorce Bill that the Government dropped it. 

George was furious with the way his ministers had handled the situation and he stayed in seclusion with Elizabeth and her family, at the Conyngham home next to his Brighton Pavilion.

George eventually decided to go ahead with his postponed coronation in July 1821 and spent a fortune on the extravaganza. Elizabeth was there and during the ceremony George constantly winked and smiled at her. He was very relieved when Caroline died the following month.

George and Elizabeth lived happily in Windsor until the 26 June 1830, when almost blind and seriously ill, George died. It was reported that she left Windsor almost immediately, along with two wagonloads of booty. The Duke of Wellington who was the Prime Minister at the time, searched through the King’s private rooms for incriminating letters from George’s lovers. He was shocked by the explicit content of Elizabeth’s and burned them.

Surprisingly, after the King’s funeral Elizabeth offered to return much of the jewellery that George had given her. In a letter to Wellington, she expressed doubts whether George should have given it away in the first place. When the parcel was opened at Buckingham Palace inside were over 400 pearls and diamonds and the famous Stuart sapphire that Elizabeth had worn as a brooch. But a few days later Wellington received another letter, this time from the new King, William IV. He was not convinced that the sapphire was crown property and that George had every right to give it to his mistress as a present. The sapphire was restored to Elizabeth who was now living at 5 Hamilton Place, Piccadilly. But after her death it was returned to the royal family and today forms part of the Crown jewels.

It seems that Lady Conyngham lived at Kilburn House when she was ill and suffering from depression. A newspaper report of December 1838 said she was being kept under restraint. Seeking solitude, she paid little attention to her friends and if she became excited, she nervously picked at her dress and her skin. Elizabeth lived in Kilburn for about a year before recovering and returning to her Piccadilly home. She died at her country house in Bifrons, near Canterbury in October 1861, aged 92. The obituaries do not mention her royal liaison.

WH Smith and Son
In 1839 William Henry Smith senior, the newspaper proprietor, bought Kilburn House, and instead of living above their office at 192 Strand, the mansion became the family home. Smith made his fortune by high speed distribution of newspapers all over the country, beating his rivals. When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1839, Smith’s coaches spread the news faster than the Royal Mail. He fell ill through overwork and the family hoped that the move to Kilburn would help him to relax. But at 4-o-clock every morning, a carriage took father and son back to their Strand office to oversee the dispatch of the papers.
Kilburn House
The peace and tranquillity the family wanted was progressively eroded by building development which eventually ended the seclusion of Kilburn House. As WH Smith junior said, ‘I can’t even kiss my sister without being seen from a dozen windows’. So, in 1856 the family moved out to Hertfordshire.

William Henry Smith junior was born in Duke Street, Grosvenor Square, London, on 24 June 1825. His parents were strict Methodists and the boy was educated at home. At sixteen he wanted to go to Oxford and prepare for holy orders, but in deference to his father’s wishes, he entered the family newspaper company and became a partner in 1846, when he was 21 and the firm became WH Smith & Son.

The development of the railway network afforded an opportunity which the young man was quick to seize. He opened negotiations with the different rail companies for the right to erect bookstalls at their stations, and in 1851 secured a monopoly of those on the London and North-Western system. 

Smith was quickly nicknamed ‘the North-Western Missionary’ because he excluded all questionable literature, the sale of which had made railway newsvendors notorious. By 1862 the company’s reputation earned it the exclusive right to sell books and newspapers on all the important railways in England. Smith senior died in 1865, leaving his son at the head of a very large and lucrative company.

Smith junior entered parliament in 1868 and devoted himself to social issues, making his maiden speech on a motion relating to pauperism and vagrancy. He was not an eloquent or fluent speaker, but his philanthropic reputation and business-like qualities meant he was well respected. Smith was instrumental in persuading the government to abandon their project of creating twenty-three school boards for the metropolis and instead, under the 1870 Education Bill, to substitute a single large one. Smith was elected a member of the first London School Board in 1871.
William Henry Smith, junior
When Disraeli formed his administration in 1874, Smith was offered and accepted the post of Secretary to the Treasury. In 1877 he joined the cabinet as first Lord of the Admiralty. This office had generally been held by persons of high rank, and Disraeli was criticised by his own party for appointing a London tradesman. The unusual choice found popular expression in the comic opera of ‘H.M.S. Pinafore,’ by Gilbert and Sullivan (1878), who referred to him as ‘the ruler of the Queen’s Nav-ee’. Despite the ridicule, Smith was very successful.

In 1885 he became Secretary of State for War and in December 1886, First Lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons. But Smith like his father before him, was a workaholic, and during 1891 it was obvious that his health was giving way under the strain. On 20 August he moved to Walmer Castle, his official residence as Warden of the Cinque ports, to which he had been appointed the previous May. He died there on 6 October 1891.

The last occupier of Kilburn House was John Farmer, of the Kilburn railway signal firm of Saxby and Farmer, who lived there from 1866. He moved to Heath Lodge, Hampstead, on the road leading towards North End, beyond Jack Straw’s Castle. Kilburn House was demolished in 1882 and the estate was sold for the development of Glengall Road and Priory Park Road.
Part of the Kilburn House Estate (1884)
WH Smith & Son Shops
There has been a WH Smith shop in Kilburn since the early 1900s, when three opened in close succession. This was a period of rapid expansion for the company; in response to greatly increased rents imposed by the rail companies, WH Smith opened shops outside but often close to railway stations. The first was at No.3 Cambridge Avenue, a few doors from the High Road, described in an advert of December 1905 as a ‘new branch’; (it appears to have closed by 1912). 

Their Brondesbury customers were served by small shop at No.352 Kilburn High Road, a bookshop business which WH Smith took over. Opened by 1906, it had a short life, last appearing in the 1915 directory.

In 1906, the company took over the shop owned by bookseller and stationer John Ludwig Jelpke, who had moved his business to No.103 Kilburn High Road ten years earlier. Located in a prime position on the corner of Brondesbury Road, it became WH Smith and Son’s main Kilburn store. On 14 June 1907 the local paper reported Jelpke’s premises had been pulled down and rebuilt at great speed, describing the new WH Smith shop front as marking ‘an epoch in shop-fitting’. It had a bookstall at the entrance, recalling the company’s retailing at railway stations and called, ‘quite an innovation and novelty’. All interior fittings were made of fumed oak. Cards, diaries, books for all ages, leather goods, and photo frames were among the hundreds of items stocked. The shop continued to provide a lending library (established by the previous owner), with an ‘express dispatch’ department in the basement, dealing with newspaper deliveries and running a corps of bicycle messengers to deliver local parcels. 
WH Smith & Son at 103 Kiburn High Road
WH Smith & Sons traded there until 1964, when Kilburn Market was rebuilt. At this point, they moved into the newly built No.113 where they remain today.


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