The ‘Little Venice’ facts that are ignored

As most people will know, Little Venice is that well known area tucked away in W2 between Paddington and Maida Vale with its white stuccoed Victorian mansions and numerous celebrities. But it wasnt always seen as a ‘pretty’ part of London. In Robert Browning’s time Little Venice was not so salubrious. Despite popular opinion, Browning never coined the name Little Venice, and this myth is constantly perpetuated to this day.

The arrival of the canal in 1801 at Paddington, then just a village on the outskirts of London, soon saw it become an important waterways hub. But it was still just a dirty, run down surburb of London. For the first 150 years prior to becoming Little Venice, many houses were built around the canal, and many new roads laid down. The Church Commissioners owned many properties and they saw that the clientele were either middle or upper class. The exclusive Nash houses built along the Regents canal at North/South Bank and Park Villages East/West, and many of the other houses and mansions along the canal were built to similar style. These greatly elevated the status of the whole area.

Many people think Little Venice is a lovely oasis in the middle of the city. Actually it was considerably more prettier in the past! Splendid italinate houses that stood on the east side of Brownings Pool and the Georgian terraces to the south have been lost, whilst the amount of waterspace has been considerably reduced. Little Venice is clearly somewhat less of a ‘Venice’ nowadays than back in the 1930’s.

The area suffered nick names which clearly illustrated what the true working class locals and working boatmen thought of the area. There was a considerable social divide between the top hat tailed Victorian gentry, and the boatmen and their families who lived in the back cabins of their boats. A description of a journey through London by canal in 1885 reveals this division, and the account describes the entry into Little Venice with some apparent trepidation:

“Passing under Harrow Road bridge, we burst into a silent sea of shabby gentility, drearier in its assumption than all that has gone before. A pretentious terrace stretches away on either hand, faced with a make-believe massive balustrade, cracked and broken; the heavy houses fronting upon it are stuccoed shams, seamed and shabby; its few disconsolate trees seem tired of trying to keep up appearances…” The boaters show their relief as they escaped this “region of high walls and stuccoed gentility” and entered the more normal “world of warehouses, of saw-mills and of foundries” which made up Camden.

A view of Delamere Terrace before WW2. The Toll House can be seen on the extreme left, whilst behind it are the old houses on Warwick Crescent. This stretch of canal is now the Little Venice visitor moorings.

The name ‘Little Venice’ is one of those mechanisms that seems designed purely to entice tourists. As long ago as 1853 it was clear that it was recognised Lord Byron was responsible for the term of ‘Venice’ but the locale was clearly Paddington which wasn’t anywhere as salubrious as Venice. Somewhere along the line history has been distorted so that it is Robert Browning instead of Byron who is given the credit (see next paragraph) for the new name. It was not until after the second world war that the name Little Venice began to come into use. Lord Byron compared this part of Paddington to Venice and wished it was so much more like its Italian counterpart. But it was to be years before Byron’s thoughts became reality.

After the senseless destruction many parts of London during the second world, newspapers discovered the largely untouched area around the canals. Many accounts described this area as looking like something from Bruges, but then gently remined their readers that “despite its continental atmosphere” it was actually Maida Vale! Eventually someone remembered Byron and suggested Little Venice. Nowadays purists try to argue that Little Venice and Maida Vale are entirely separate areas, which is also something of a punter’s choice again depending on which roads one lives in, and what side of those roads one lives on – as well as being another ploy for tourism.

Browning’s Pool is another popular gentrification of the area, in an attempt to up the area’s class. The isle in the middle of the Little Venice pool was christened Brownings Island. The name replacing a far more cruder name that revealed the class divisions of the area. Anyhow, Robert Browning did live here at Paddington opposite the pool itself from years 1861-68 at 19 Warwick Crescent. The buildings have now been replaced by those no so grand council flats and a truly appalling monument that claims a stake in Browning’s history.

In terms of tourism it is a popular area, but tourism is something that is kept deliberately muted. Tourism has not been allowed to flourish to the extent that it becomes the area’s main industry. However with the new development round the corner at Paddington, there are more commercial ventures leaning on the area than ever before. Despite this, the area has somewhat managed to retain a charm that most other parts of London have sadly lost.

This ‘Venice’ of London began to garner more influence after the second world wat, and it soon became known as ‘Little’ Venice. This apparently was a result of a council decision to save Beauchamp Lodge, and it recalled Byron’s labelling of the area as ‘Venice.’ Not until the 1950’s was the area was officially recognised as Little Venice and thus gained wide acceptance.

This letter to the Telegraph (below) by Lord Kinross from 1966 makes it absolutely clear Browning never called the locale Little Venice. Kinross clearly shows his annoyance at this constantly perpetuated myth. It is clearly time the waterways authority and the tourist agencies stopped these gross distortions of history.

Letter from Lord Kinross regarding the Robert Browning myth.

A Tour around Little Venice Part 1