Kensington is a neighbourhood of two halves: the well-heeled south and the down-at-heel north.
Like most places ending with “-ington”, Kensington’s name is Anglo-Saxon. In the Domesday Book, it’s down as Chenisitun, originally meaning the settlement at a piece of land belonging to someone spelt Chenesi or Cynesige, but probably pronounced more like “Kensi”.
Whoever it may previously have belonged to in Anglo-Saxon times, the new Norman king William the Conqueror gave it to one of his mates, Geoffrey de Montbray. But Geoffrey’s nephew and heir Robert de Mowbray rebelled against William’s son and heir, William Rufus, so that ruddy king seized it and gave it to one of his mates, whose family eventually became the Earls of Oxford, and their Kensington manor was known as Earl’s Court (with an apostrophe, you greengocers will be pleased to know).
Kensington Gardens was originally the grounds of Kensington Palace, which started out as a seventeenth-century mansion called Nottingham House. When William of Orange took the throne in 1688, he took a liking to it, moved in and made it a royal palace. Queen Victoria was born there in 1819, and that’s why Kensington is a royal borough.
The “gore” in Kensington Gore has nothing to do with blood and guts (well, not until recently), but comes from an Anglo-Saxon word gāra, meaning a triangular wedge of land, in this case the one from Queen’s Gate east towards Knightsbridge. At one time it had a Gore House, where the Albert Hall now is, whose past residents included the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.
South Kensington was originally called Brompton. The name survives in things like the Brompton Oratory, West Brompton tube station, and what was once known in certain medical circles as a Brompton cocktail. Exhibition Road became London’s museum central after the Victoria and Albert Museum opened there in 1852, followed by the Science Museum in 1857, and the Natural History Museum in 1881. There used to be a separate Geological Museum too. With the V&A, the Albert Hall and Albert Memorial all close together in it, that little area was dubbed “Albertopolis”. In recent years, South Kensington has become the centre of London’s French community, although how they will fare after Brexit remains to be seen.
Away up Church Street and past Notting Hill Gate, North Kensington has always been Kensington’s poor relation. It’s often referred to as Ladbroke Grove, although that’s really just the main street that runs through it, splitting it into gentrified Notting Hill to its east, and working-class Notting Dale to its west. After the Second World War, the whole neighbourhood was run-down. The notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman, who gave us the term “Rachmanism”, owned most of his properties round here, although it’s been argued that he wasn’t really as bad as he’s been painted. Local residents included serial killer John Christie, who lived at 10 Rillington Place (as in the book and the film). The 1953 discovery of Christie’s crimes made it apparent that Timothy Evans, the husband of one of the victims, had been wrongfully hung for her murder three years earlier, a horrifying miscarriage of justice that fuelled opposition to the death penalty.
The neighbourhood was rescued from this decay by an influx of immigrants from the Caribbean. They brought new life to the area, but were resented by groups of racists, who attacked them in the 1958 Notting Hill riots. The Caribbean community responded by creating the famous annual Notting Hill Carnival, which has long now been the focus of objections by racists and conservatives wanting to close it down. The 1958 riots form the backdrop to Colin MacInnes’s novel Absolute Beginners.
Also attracted to the area in the 1960s were hippies and bohemians (as in the film Perfomance), and North Kensington became a focus for the squatters’ movement. When the GLC tried to evict a group of squatters from Freston Road in 1977, they declared independence as the Republic of Frestonia. Their national cinema regularly showed Passport to Pimlico, but their national pub, the Bramley Arms (now closed), doesn’t appear in the film – it’s in The Lavender Hill Mob instead. Earl’s Court meanwhile, the epicentre of London’s 1970s bedsitland, became a home from home for Antipodeans from Down Under (and we don’t mean south London), giving it the nickname “Kangaroo Valley”.
In 1965, the metropolitan borough of Kensington was merged with neighbouring Chelsea. Kensington continued to have its own MP, however, and from being a safe Tory seat, has become London’s most marginal constituency. In the 2017 general election, it was the last place in Great Britain to declare its result, going to five recounts before Labour’s Emma Dent Coad swiped it from the Tories by just 20 votes. In 2019 the Tories regained Kensington, by 150 votes, giving it the smallest margin of any constituency in London for two elections in a row.
Between the two general elections fell what is unfortunately the area’s most important piece of recent history, the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed the lives of 72 local people, and continues to cast a dark shadow over the community.