Tis wasn’t Robert Browning’s doing!

Tis wasn’t Robert Browning’s doing!

It is often claimed Robert Browning came up with the idea the area he lived in should be known as Little Venice. At no time did he ever claim any notion of this nor did he write anything that indicated this should be the case.

So who was it responsible for naming this part of Paddington ‘Little Venice?’ Any poet that needs credit should be none other than Lord Byron. But was it really him who named the place ‘Little Venice?’ Its a bit more complicated than that!

Canals were to say the least, smoky and polluted. They were filthy, they stank, and they also doubled as an exceedingly popular repository for dead animals and dead humans – and that often after meeting a most gruesome end. The clanging of metal chains and irons, and horses’ hooves clip clopping were a constant source of noise whilst the bargees shouted and swore endlessly as they loaded up their barges.

People just wanted to get rid of the damn canals. The Greater London Council had high hopes these dirty, smelly, waterways of London would eventually form the basis of a new and much needed high speed road network. Ultimately the only bits of this new roads system to be built was the A40 Westway and the Marylebone flyover, as well as the widening Marylebone and Euston Roads and a few other bits here and there as detailed in the Ringways website.

Robert Browning

Robert Browning. Source: Wikipedia.

Somehow people seem to have this romantic notion Browning dreamily sat back in his chair at number 19 Warwick Crescent, Paddington, in the mid 1800s, saying to himself, “How lovely are these canals of Paddington, I do wish it was a Little Venice.”

Well if anything, besides the noise and the pollution, boatmen shouting, swearing and quite full of beer I’m quite certain Browning found it at times quite difficult to resist the temptation to give these boatmen a bloody nose, and perhaps even going as far as throwing them the canal!

Fortunately there was a quite tall brick wall which prevented either side getting to blows with the other! Robert Browning HATED Venice! On a visit to Venice (in Italy of course) during 1851, as soon as he arrived he wanted to get out of the damn place as fast as possible! No doubt had Paddington/Upper Westbourne had been called ‘Venice’ in his time he would have hated it too.

That’s because Browning lived in an area known as “the dreary Mesopotamia of Paddington.” Yes! The dreary Paddington Mesopotamia! A land of developing industries stuck between two transport arteries. One was the Great Western Railway the other the Grand Union/Regent’s Canals.

Not one letter penned by Browning has ‘Little Venice’ as an address. They mostly say for example:

19 Warwick Crescent, London. W.

and in others…

19 Warwick Crescent, Upper Westbourne, W.


19 Warwick Crescent, Upper Westbourne Terrace.

Here’s an example similar to the first instance as shown below:

Letter to Tennyson. Source: Bonhams.

There’s this account of a visit to Browning’s London home quite late in the years he lived there. Here’s the text. Nowhere does it say Little Venice. It does mention Paddington and says the area was in fact ‘not particularly pleasant.’

Warwick Crescent “in a locality not particularly pleasant….” this was January 1884.

He died in the real Venice in 1889. Clearly by that time he would have preferred passing away in the famous Italian city with its splendid architecture – a fittingly poetic end rather than an unpoetic death next to a dingy industrial corridor in Paddington.

If Browning was that revered in the area as some claim, why did they call his house (and the others next to it) a ‘slum’ – then proceed to knock down the entire lot? No one was saying in the early sixties ‘Hey let’s keep this house that’s where the guy who invented Little Venice lived.’

Indeed Browning’s house had a plaque affixed to it sometime during 1925-28. It was one of those brown coloured London County Council plaques. Besides Browning’s name it mentioned him as a poet and lived there from 1861-1887. But that’s it! Nothing about Little Venice – because the place didn’t even exist then!

The plaque affixed to the front of Browning’s house in Paddington, London, W2.

They could have done that. Mentioned Browning and Little Venice in unison. They didn’t. Clearly Browning’s name didn’t count in terms of the area – had it in fact been he who had brought to the world London’s Little Venice

As Little Venice rose, Browning’s home was about to fall! Late fifties view before houses demolished. Source: Pinterest.

His home was a notable slum – excess numbers of people lived in squalid conditions in these most disreputable houses which were falling apart at the seams and the council wanted to get shot of them. Practically the entire lot that stood between the Harrow Road bridge and the Westbourne Green bridge (nearly a mile of canalside Victorian housing) was demolished.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron. Source: British Library.

Lord Byron’s the person to whom we should give thanks for the beginnings of London’s very own Venice. Remember the area’s repute meant it didn’t deserve being known as a Venice of any sort. He pointed out the Venetian canals were just as dirty as those found at Paddington. Byron was merely comparing a number of noted foreign destinations with allegedly similar places that were to be found in England…

This is what he said: “There would be nothing to make the canal of Venice more poetical than that of Paddington, were it not for its artificial adjuncts.” 

The whole Byron text re Venice/Paddington is shown below:

Lord Byron’s ‘artificial adjuncts.

London’s newspaper The Standard almost got it right below:

Hugh Vickers in the Evening Standard – almost – but not quite right!

Lord Byron was challenging peoples’ romantic notion of Venice by using Paddington’s own dreary waterways as an example. He was saying Venice’s canals were just as dirty as those found in Paddington. Basically he implies if these could be improved, cleaned up, the romantic notion so often chased by many could then be achieved.

Sadly it took almost a hundred and fifty years for Byron’s suggestion to become reality. It was not until the fifties and sixties that people began to appreciate the canals of Paddington a bit more (and it follows that the Italians too began to take more care of their fabled canals of Venice.) Efforts were made to ultimately ensure Paddington’s canals were cleaned up in order for these to be enjoyed by Londoners as well as the thousands of tourists who visit the area each year.

With an increased fondness for the local waterways, people began to fight those plans touted by the Greater London Council for a new road network in place of the canals. A motorway was in fact proposed from the Westway right through Little Venice and on the course of the Regent’s Canal (which was to be filled in of course.) This new road would go as far as Camden.

Other schemes too involved British Waterways Board’s desire to sell off its vast Paddington basin for development. Once filled in it would constitute a huge expanse of prime land. Clearly Londoners had by now decided those precious canals were not to be got rid of. Along with those efforts to keep the waterways out of the grasp of the canals hating GLC and its road building mentality and the British Waterways Board’s infill plans came a new name for the area too….

That name was…. Little Venice!

Paddington and the road map to Little Venice

The earliest indications of any notation that the area was likened to Venice were of course made by Lord Byron. In fact by the end of the 19th Century people were acknowledging Byron as the one who had made that very distinction. Browning of course had nothing to do with it.

One of the most noted properties in the area, Beauchamp Lodge, associated with a number of noted personalities, such as Katherine Mansfield (remember this is still the 1920s) and even Napoleon III never ever gave its address as ‘Little Venice.’ It was always 2, Warwick Crescent, Paddington. That’s because this alleged ‘Venice’ in London didn’t even exist!

In fact Little Venice was never thought of until the 1950s. That’s quite a long time after Browning had popped his clogs – thus to even claim that this guy was responsible for re-naming this part of Paddington is nothing more than sheer fantasy!

At no time BEFORE the 1950’s does anyone, or any article (news, letter, book or otherwise) or any photograph or painting say ‘The canal at Little Venice.’ Everyone says ‘The canals at Paddington’ – or – ‘Paddington’s canals.’

For example, Through London By Canal in 1885 is a book that does not mention Little Venice anywhere. It’s all known as Paddington. The canals described are as usual full of filth and muck and not so pleasant to navigate.

The book’s author, Benjamin Martin, clearly acknowledges Byron as a potential originator of London’s ‘Venice’ by way of his adjuncts. This is the earliest acknowledgement that Byron had some notion the canals of Paddington could be a ‘Venice’ if only a few things could change. The person who reviewed Martin’s book agrees that Lord Byron had a strong claim to being the originator of that so called ‘Venice.’

Early 20th Century view of the pool at Paddington (Kellys.)

As the 20th Century came in, the opening ceremonies of the Blue Lamp or Westbourne Terrace bridge in 1900 and Warwick Avenue bridge in 1907 made it clear the canals were in Paddington and nowhere else, not even Maida Vale. Invariably every single photograph/postcard/publicity of the time and right up to the late forties always alluded to the area as Paddington.

In the 1930’s noted painters like Algernon Newton and Elwin Hawthorne continued to call the area Paddington. Obviously the notion of this place being known as ‘Venice’ had not yet had time to reach the outer periphery of human consciousness. The fact Hawthorne calls it the Regent’s Canal is an example of that. Some called it the Regent Canal, Paddington whilst others called it the Grand Union Canal, Paddington. None of these artists ever used ‘Little Venice’ not ever in a million years.

By the time commercial boating starts to decline after the second world war, people begin to properly imagine the area being called something other than Paddington.

Some suggested it was like Bruges. There’s a reason. The Belgian city doesn’t have miles and miles of canal. Oh yes it has canals but its not a huge network like Amsterdam or Venice. Its mainly one main canal with some short branches – no complaints it’s very pretty and well worth a visit.

Where in Bruges? Sunday Times August 1945 on the canals of Maida Vale.

So the same for London’s own mini canal network – a bit like Bruges perhaps?

Few knew of Bruges so that didn’t work. It probably didn’t even hit international repute until Colin Farrell’s ‘When in Bruges’ hit the cinema screens. Prior to that Van der Valk had been a far bigger thing and that wasn’t even Bruges – or Venice!

Little Venice is born

In the 1950s The Metropolitan Borough of Westminster produced a series of publicity material for Beauchamp Lodge events and this is where the term Little Venice originated.

The council hit the nail right on the head. It wasn’t Amsterdam nor Bruges. It was a little sort of Venice. The publicity originally said Beauchamp Lodge was a ‘Little Venetian community centre.’

That slight joke is how Little Venice was born.

One notable local made it clear in a letter to the newspapers during 1966 that it was NOT Browning who had coined the area’s alleged name. This is Lord Kinross and his letter is shown below:

Letter written 1966 by Lord Kinross.

Little Venice soon made the grade and tourists came flooding in. Trip boats began running through the tunnels to the Zoo and Camden. Towpaths were improved and walking promoted. The area’s famous boat shows began here during the late fifties and ran every year until the early 1970s.

Lord Viscount St Davids was one of the early pioneers (aka ‘the canal peer’) who took advantage of this new breath of life into London’s canals. He started the area’s very first boat trips. Soon John James with ‘Jasons’ came onto the scene too and in due course the British Waterways Board too muscled in on this new found business venture with its distinctive blue and cream coloured waterbuses.

British Waterways’ waterbus ‘Water Nymph’ at Little Venice in 1959. Source: Youtube.

The area that was once Paddington had now developed it’s own identity. Some claim its part of Maida Vale. As Maida Vale was a secession of the area known as Kilburn Fields, so Little Venice’s a secession from Paddington. Little Venice has never been part of Maida Vale. Its an area in its own right and so should really not be attributed either to Maida Vale or Paddington. Ward boundaries were changed to reflect this.

Historically the only person who can be credited with attributing ‘Venice’ to the waterways of Paddington is Lord Byron and even that was not meant in the way Byron intended, eg, to say this area should be called Little Venice.

Evidently it is impossible for Browning to have ever used the name, Venice or Little Venice for the area because even in the latter half of the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century, there is absolutely nobody (not even Browning himself) who called the area by anything else other than Paddington or Upper Westbourne.

One very last word on this subject. The area’s wide expanse of water touted as Browning’s Pool is quite a strange choice. It was actually known as The Broad Water. The island (in those days much smaller) was called Paddington Island (or Rat’s Island by some.) Now these are quite ironically called Browning’s Pool and Browning’s Island!

People come to the area to see the boats, the water, the wildlife, to enjoy the trip boats and the many photographic opportunities. Browning barely gets a look in.

The poet contributed hardly anything of note to the area except perhaps a tree or two. His residency in this once dreary Mesopotamia is quite ironically recalled by way of a grotty memorial that was built in Warwick Crescent sometime after his house had been demolished. Few know that memorial even exists and at no time ever does one ever see hordes of visitors flocking around this memorial. In fact the total visitor count for that very memorial to the poet can be said to be zilch! Its indicative of the true sensibilities in regards to Browning’s presence within the area and that’s quite apt!