London’s Holland House — Then & Now

This photo of Holland House was taken around 1900 -- before German bombs destroyed most of it.

Holland House in Victorian times

What Devonshire House was to the late eighteenth century, Holland House was to the early nineteenth century.  And then some. Holland House has been called the closest thing England ever had to a continental salon.  For Holland House, in the first 40 years of the nineteenth century, referred not only to the house built in 1605 but to a gathering place of the era’s movers and shakers.

Holland House was built in the seventeenth century by Sir Walter Cope and was originally called Cope Castle. The baronet’s gracious, turreted three-storey structure was placed upon a hill surveying his vast parkland in what is now Kensington.

Though only two miles from the present Marble Arch of central London’s Hyde Park, that part of Kensington was considered “country” even later in Regency times.  In fact, the 3rd Lord Holland (whose 40 plus years of dinners made Holland House internationally famous) always rented a house in the city during Parliamentary sessions. (Three miles through bustling London with its hundreds of toll gates was an arduous journey well into the nineteenth century.)

Sometime after Sir Walter Cope’s death, the house passed to the first Earl of Holland, whose title became extinct. However, the title was revived by eighteenth-century politician Henry Fox (1705-1774), who became the first Baron Holland after purchasing the house. Enormously wealthy (until his sons squandered his money gambling), Fox eloped in 1744 with the Duke of Richmond’s daughter, Lady Caroline Lennox, who was 18 years his junior.

The most famous of their three (spoiled) sons was Charles James Fox, who was elected to Parliament before he was 21 and led the Whig party until his 1806 death. After the early death of Charles James Fox’s older brother, Stephen, the Holland title passed to his young son, the 3rd Lord Holland (1773-1840). It is he who brought prominence to Holland House. He enjoyed an especially close relationship to his uncle, Charles James Fox, who had no legitimate children.

Having succeeded to the title while still a boy, the 3rd Lord Holland fell in love with Sir Godfrey Webster’s wife while traveling in Italy before his twenty-first birthday. After her divorce, she and Holland married in 1797—but not before the birth of their first child, Charles Fox, named for the uncle Holland idolized throughout his life. (Her first husband kept the children from that marriage.)

 Likely because as a divorced woman, Lady Elizabeth Holland (whose journal review can be found on my website) could not be received in polite society, she began presiding over dinners at her new home with other “Foxite” Whigs. These dinners grew to include the most interesting men of the era: important Tories, visiting Europeans of prominence—including heads of state—and some of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century.

The massive home was filled with portraits of nineteenth-century notables who exchanged portraits with the Hollands, which was a custom of the day. (The exchanged portraits were typically copies of portraits by more well known painters.)

Lady Holland kept “dinner books” for 40 years—virtually a People magazine of early nineteenth-century England.

Sadly, the Holland title went extinct when the 3rd Lord Holland’s son and heir died childless in 1859, nineteen years after succeeding his father. He left Holland House to his widow, urging her to keep the historical structure and its priceless contents intact. Upon his widow’s death 30 years later, she left Holland House to the 5th Earl of Ilchester, a member of the Fox family. She had turned down opportunities to sell it or its contents in respect of her late husband’s wishes.


Holland House, Summer 2013, Cheryl Bolen peers at the part currently in use as a youth hostel. Most of the house was destroyed in World War II.

The wealthy Lord Ilchester had previously worked out an agreement with the last Lady Holland to give her a generous annuity and to be responsible for the upkeep on the house until her death. Also, he agreed that when he took possession of the residence he would keep the house and its immediately surrounding property as she left it.

That Lord Ilchester’s son, the talented author of the two-volume history of Holland House, came into possession of Holland House on his mother’s death in 1935. Little did he know when writing the saga of Holland House that German bombs would destroy it in 1940, two years after his second volume was published.

Only one of the rambling mansion’s wings was not destroyed, and this is now a youth hostel. (There I am checking it out in the photo, above right, on my recent trip to England.) Also, an original arcade and orangery remain. These structures are surrounded by a beautifully landscaped 54-acre park which is maintained by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and which is now close to the center of bustling London.

The 6th Lord Ilchester sold the ruin and land to London City Council in 1952.

I have not been able to learn if he was able to save the house’s treasures or the dozens of  portraits it held.

One treasure that will always be preserved for posterity is Lord Ilchester’s painstaking research about Holland House.


What Lord & Lady Holland Gave up for Love

Lady Holland

The hostess who became known throughout Europe during the Regency and into the Victorian era for her Holland House dinners may have been forced to bring society to her because she could not enter society.

For Lady Holland was a divorced woman.

Born Elizabeth Vassall in 1771, the future Lady Holland was the only child of wealthy Richard Vassall (1732-1795) and heir to his three Jamaican sugar plantations. For reasons which are not understood more than two centuries later, at the age of fifteen she married Sir Godfrey Webster, who was twenty-three years older than she.

Between 1790 and 1795 she gave birth to five children, two of whom died as infants. Two sons and a daughter survived.

During those years, she had persuaded her husband to indulge her love of continental travel, and she kept a sketchy journal of these travels. In 1794, despite that she was heavily pregnant, young Lord Holland fell in love with her.

The nephew of the charismatic Whig leader Charles James Fox, Lord Holland was fresh from Oxford and traveling the continent with university friends. He had not quite reached his majority when he met his future wife, then known as Lady Webster. She was two years and eight months his senior, a gap she would later call “a horrid disparity.”

Though her journal is full of references to Lord Holland (referred to as Ld H) during her sojourn in Italy, nothing of a personal nature is conveyed. Those of us reading the journal cannot learn at what point they fell in love.

Few personal references are in her journal – unless she’s mentioning her detested husband. He is referred to as “my tormentor” or “the man I had the calamity to be united.”

Right about that time her father died, and his fortune came to her and Sir Godfrey, who had to take on the surname Vassall.

By then the wife who loathed Sir Godfrey was deeply in love with the good-natured Lord Holland, and he returned her affections. She refused to return to England with her husband.

Though Lord Holland was but one and twenty years old, he knew this was the woman with whom he wanted to spend his life.

She felt the same. She stayed on the continent with the man she loved.

But women at that time had no rights. Her husband, Sir Godfrey, was considered the sole possessor of her fortune, and he was to have custody of the couple’s three children.

Because of her love for Lord Holland, she gave up her fortune and her children. But it was too painful for her to send her small daughter back to England to live with her father. Therefore, Lady Holland concocted a plan whereby she would tell Sir Godfrey the child had died. She even went through a mock burial, and later would pretend to adopt a child to take her daughter’s place, with the adopted child being her true daughter. The scheme was eventually found out, and she had to give up the little girl three years later.

Three years after she met Lord Holland – and eight months after she give birth to their first son – Parliament annulled her marriage to Sir Godfrey. On July 6, 1797, two days after her marriage was dissolved, she married Lord Holland.

For all practical purposes, she was considered a divorced woman and would be scorned by polite society. However, she had the good fortune to be wed to a man who was beloved by all who knew him. Their little circle in Naples had dubbed the portly peer Sal Volatile because of his perpetual good humor. (Sal Volatile was the equivalent of today’s antidepressant.)

Lady Holland had a facility in assembling an interesting assortment of guests around the famed Holland House dinners, which became the closest thing England ever had to a French salon.

She and Lord Holland – whom she adored – would have six children of their own. One daughter died the day she was born, and another one died at the age of ten. Their first-born son would be prevented from inheriting his father’s title because he was born before his parents’ legal marriage took place. Their surviving daughter would not be able to be presented to society by her parents because of her mother’s “disgrace.”

The first husband Lady Holland detested committed suicide in 1800 (some reports say because of gambling losses), and her father’s fortune reverted to her children, both those fathered by Sir Godfrey and those fathered by Lord Holland. Lord Holland took on the Vassall surname.

Those interested in the Regency might enjoy reading Lady Holland’s Journals, the one volume of which is available free on Google Books. © 2011, Cheryl Bolen