Urban landscape — 04 July 2017
Site Unseen: Queen Victoria’s Elephant House

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

On the western side of Duke Street in Brown Hart Gardens, this peculiar structure is referred to as the Elephant House; its title suggests a place where huge mammals once resided.

The story is that Queen Victoria kept her elephants here; apparently, Victoria acquired the elephants when she was appointed Empress of India, having received a herd of elephants as a gift from loyal Maharajas. These unfortunate animals were then shipped back to London and the Elephant House was built to provide the animals with some kind of comfortable habitat. The design has huge gates where an elephant could access entry and exit and has entrance doors that have an eastern looking appearance. Unfortunately, there is no evidence as to the authenticity of this story and it would appear that the Victorian architects who designed this unusual structure, were overindulging their creative minds.

This building has a more prosaic history; it was developed as an electricity substation in the late 1800s and so remains to this present day, generating electricity to the local Mayfair area.

Before being redesigned in 1903, the site had a communal garden with trees, benches and a fountain but had become a hangout for ‘undesirables’. The new structure, therefore, continued to provide residents with a communal garden while accommodating transformers below. But one other curious fact remains why is the ‘garden’ the only place in London where quarrelling is specifically forbidden by law?

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