London’s lost rivers: The Who, Lillie Langtry, and Pont Street

Langtry plaque
Pont Street plaque; photo courtesy of Open Plaques

The Who song ‘Pictures of Lily’ was being played on the radio the other day, so naturally I thought of Lily (or Lillie) Langtry as I have always assumed the song was about her. Both real and fictional Lily died in 1929.

When I researched it, I was a bit taken aback to find on Wikipedia a quote from Pete Townshend about what the meaning of the song was. Many of my friends (the same ones who accuse me on occasion of being cynical) say that I have a mind that can descend rather often and far down into the gutter but that was an interpretation that never occurred to me.

Be that as it may, I also researched Lillie Langtry and London connections. Yes, there are some, notably Pont Street in Knightsbridge, and Inverness Terrace.

Lillie lived at number 21 Pont Street, now the Cadogan Hotel, for five years from 1892 to 1897. The building became a hotel in 1895 but she always stayed in her former bedroom. The hotel was also where, shortly after it opened, Oscar Wilde was arrested. Pont Street features in John Betjeman’s poem, ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’:

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

Pont Street takes its name from the word pont, the French for bridge; the street was built to bridge the river Westbourne. This river formed the Serpentine in Hyde Park after Queen Caroline (George II’s wife) suggested it be dammed up to form a 40-acre lake.

People have offered up the theory that Bridge Street might not have sounded upmarket enough to properly developers. At least they didn’t decide to change the Knightsbridge name, street or area, to Knightspont; Knightsbridge the street was also a bridge over the Westbourne. (No, I promise after my earlier post on blood sport street names, I’m not going to bang on about name changes. Well, not today, anyway.)

Westbourne, apparently, takes its name from an old village, ‘Westburne’; this was west of the river and Paddington was east. The river also gave its name to Bayswater, once known as ‘Baynard’s watering-place’, where animals were taken to drink.

Which brings us nicely back to Lillie Langtry – there is a hotel in Inverness Terrace, off Bayswater Road, where she is supposed to have performed in a theatre when she was the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. However, the Theatres Trust, a National Advisory Public Body for Theatres in the UK, declares icily that:

“There is a persistent tradition that the theatre was created for Lillie Langtry by her Royal patron. Their affair was notorious twenty years earlier when he was Prince of Wales but by 1905 he was king. No evidence has been found to support the story but without positive disproof it is likely to go on running.”

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5 thoughts on “London’s lost rivers: The Who, Lillie Langtry, and Pont Street

  1. Nice connections Elizabeth. I knew Bayswater and Paddington well, at least until 2001, when I stopped working in the area. The manager of the hotel in Inverness Terrace used to tell anyone who would listen that it used to be Lillie Langtry’s house, and she would be visited there by the Prince. Looks like everyone got it wrong…
    Best wishes, Pete.

      1. Not East End, God forbid! South London, across the river. I’m like an English Confederate, heart always in the south. I know Bayswater and Paddington well, due to being based in Notting Hill gate, when I was in the Ambulance Service. But truth be told, I know most of London well, until it gets ‘too far’ north, around Barnet and Finchley.

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