Buckingham Palace Road takes its name from nearby Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II and the only royal home named after a subject. The Rubens Hotel forms part of the grounds and stabling of a much earlier house on this site, once owned by John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, whose haughty manner earned him the nickname ‘Lord Allpride’. Queen Anne was well-disposed to ‘Lord Allpride’, perhaps because of the mild flirtation in which the pair had indulged when she was a plain and relatively insignificant princess of fifteen. In 1703, a year after coming to the throne, Queen Anne created him Duke of Buckingham. He at once began work on a new house to match his new station in life. Unfortunately, his reluctance to pay his bills meant that progress was very slow; and the architect was only able to extract his fees by tricking Buckingham on to the roof and threatening to throw the pair of them into the courtyard below unless his account was settled immediately - in cash.
When the Duke died his widow lived on in Buckingham House. As haughty and proud as her husband she remarked, after listening to a sermon, that it ‘is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth’. When she lay on her deathbed she exacted a promise from her ladies-in-waiting that none would sit in her presence until her surgeon had pronounced all life extinct. In 1762 her former home was purchased by a young George III who renamed it Buckingham Palace.
By this date, houses had begun to spring up over part of the site of what is now Buckingham Palace Road. It was called Chelsea Road because it led to the then very rural village of Chelsea. This was a dangerous place at night and in 1752 the local residents offered a reward of £10 for the capture of a particularly troublesome highwayman. The shops which originally stood on the site of the Rubens Hotel were numbered in Queen’s Row until the present street name and numbering were adopted. Most of the tradesmen set up here for the specific purpose of serving the Palace and its occupants. They frequently let the rooms above their shops to middle-ranking Palace servants such as housekeepers and footmen.
At the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 one of the shops on this site belonged to an apothecary named William Johnson, who would have both prescribed and administered medicines. Like the surgeon, he would have been disdained by the physician. He in turn found someone to disdain in the grocer, from whose ranks he sprang. If it was typical of its kind, William Johnson’s shop in Queen’s Row would have been ornamented with stuffed tortoises, alligators and ‘ill-shaped fishes’. These hypnotic pieces of bric-a-brac not only lent their owners credence, they served to distract the gaze of the simple while the apothecary cheated them at the scales. One suspects William Johnson would have been kept very busy. Unlike their master, George III, Palace domestics could never have afforded the fees of a physician. They had the choice of apothecary, local wise woman or quack.
By about 1850 another of the shops on this site belonged to a maker of artificial flowers named Elizabeth Dowe. Artificial flower-making was a Victorian ‘home’ industry in which hundreds of girls and women were engaged. The highest branch made flowers to adorn ladies’ bonnets. These were frequently made from linen or silk. The middle branch made artificial flowers out of paper. There were also those who made artificial flowers out of raw vegetables - carrots and turnips. These were surprisingly realistic and had a very fair sale, people finding they were cheaper and lasted longer than natural flowers. During the summer months a good many of the makers of artificial flowers switched to making fire-stove ornaments. These were made out of coloured paper and gold shavings and fashioned into rosettes. They were then hawked around the streets.
One of Mrs Dowe’s neighbours in Queen’s Row was ‘Madame Excalier’ [real name Rose Buck] who ran from here a Court dressmaker’s establishment. Madame Excalier’s stock in trade would have included fashionable hats and bonnets, costumes and mantles, Court robes, ball gowns, dinner and tea dresses, walking costumes and bridal wear. Court clothes had to adhere to very strict regulations, particularly in the Edwardian era, when the loose moral behaviour of the King was in some way compensated for by the strictest Court dress codes. Ladies’ gloves, trains and feathers had to be of an exact length, to the inch. By 1841 the site of the present hotel was accommodating the shops of a druggist and a ham and tongue dealer named Thomas Murley.
The firm of Thomas Murley & Son continued here until the mid-1880s. Their premises then passed into use as a law stationer’s shop with a gentleman named Polwarth. Charles Dickens described just such a shop in Bleak House. It ‘dealt in all sorts of blank forms of legal process; in skins and rolls of parchment; in paper - foolscap, brief, white, whitey-brown, and blotting. In stamps; in quills, pens, ink, India-rubber pounce (a fine powder used to prepare the surface of parchment before writing) pins, pencils, sealing-wax and wafers; in red tape and green ferret (stout tape); in pocket-books, almanacs, diaries and law lists; in string boxes, rulers, inkstands - glass and leaden; in pen-knives, scissors, bodkins and other small office cutlery; in short in articles too numerous to mention ...’
When Mr. Polworth died in 1885 the following advertisement appeared in The Times on 1 March of that year:
Messrs. Oxenham and Sons will sell by auction on the premises on Wednesday March 14 at 12 by order of the Executors of Mr. Polwarth the lease of the excellent business premises with immediate possession, 5 Queen’s Row, Pimlico, facing the entrance to the Queen’s-mews, and close to Buckingham Palace; held for a long term at a low ground rent, offering a most desirable opportunity for occupation or investment. On the same day will be sold the neat household furniture, remaining stock of stationery and effects.
Shortly after this, the site may have been redeveloped. From 1890 until about 1906 it was occupied by the Aerated Bread Company, which had been founded by John Pearce in the 1870s. Aerated bread differed from the ordinary variety in that carbon dioxide was introduced into the dough, a process which is said to have rendered it more digestible. Pearce started his business by vending hot drinks and snacks from a mobile stall known as ‘the Gutter Hotel’. He next opened a cafe which he named ‘the Pearce and Plenty’. In time the one cafe became a chain and the Aerated Bread Company had at its peak two hundred and fifty tea-shops throughout London capable of providing twenty thousand cheap and filling meals a day.
The Rubens at the Palace, originally called the Hotel Rubens, came here in 1912 - the year which saw the sinking of the Titanic, the year Captain Scott reached the South Pole [only to find that Amundsen had beaten him by thirty-five days], and the year suffragettes started a new window-smashing campaign and ninety-six of their supporters were arrested after they stormed the House of Commons. The hotel immediately became popular with debutantes and others attending functions at Buckingham Palace. During the Second World War it was taken over by General Sikorski’s Free State Polish Army, which used it as its headquarters. Another statesman in exile, General Charles De Gaulle, the leader of the Free French army in exile, also stayed here during the war.
In 1953 the hotel was purchased by Grand Metropolitan Hotels. In the late 1970s it was sold to Sarova Hotels who in turn sold it in 1997 to Red Carnation Hotels which has totally refurbished it to elevate its status from a three- to a four-star establishment. It is very proud to be rated one of the highest four-star hotels in London by the Automobile Association.