*above: Frognal End, seen from Frognal Gardens. The house bears a plaque in memory of Sir Walter Besant, erected in 1925 by London County Council. It is one in a series of seven L.C.C. plaques produced in 1925–6 in the ‘Della Robbia’ style, featuring a colourful raised wreath border. Five plaques of this type, manufactured by Doulton, survive.
From: A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9, Hampstead, Paddington. Originally published by Victoria County History, London (1989):
“…Alexander Gray bought the Old Mansion on the east side of old Frognal c. 1889, laid out an L-shaped road, Frognal Gardens, through the grounds, and commissioned James Neale, a former pupil of Street. He added a wing to the old house, and designed no. 100 Frognal and five houses in Frognal Gardens, built by the local firm Allison & Foskett from 1890 to 1896. They included no. 18 (Frognal End), built in 1892 for the novelist and antiquary Sir Walter Besant (1836-1901).”
Dr Andrzej Diniejko writes at The Victorian Web:
“Sir Walter Besant (1836-1901) was one of the most prolific and widely-read novelists, popular historians and social critics of the late Victorian era. He was also a philanthropist, antiquary, secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund, originator of the People’s Palace in East London, and a vigorous campaigner for authors’ rights.
Besant was born in Portsea, an area of Portsmouth, located on Portsea Island, as the third son in a family of six sons and four daughters…
While at Cambridge, Besant made friends with the poet and university wit C. S. Calverley and the future historian John Seeley…He finally rejected holy orders and spent the next six years as professor of mathematics at the Royal College, Mauritius, in 1861-67, but ill health compelled him to resign. In 1862, Besant became a freemason, having been initiated into the Lodge of Harmony in Mauritius and after his return to England he joined the Marquis of Dalhousie Lodge in London as Master Mason from 1873. In 1884, together with eight brethren he conceived the idea of a Masonic research lodge, the Quatuor Coronati Lodge (meaning Four Crowned Ones), of which he became first treasurer from 1886. He was also treasurer of the ‘Atlantic Union’, an association which sought to improve social relations between Britons and Americans. In 1867, he began to write articles on social topics for the Daily News, Macmillan Magazine and the British Quarterly Review. In 1871, he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn.
In the next year he published a collection of highly erudite literary essays, Studies in French Poetry...Besant vigorously popularised François Rabelais in England. In 1879, he founded the Rabelais Club for the discussion of the French writer’s work. The club lasted ten years, and Besant was a major contributor to its journal Recreations (three volumes from 1881 to 1888).
In 1874, Besant married Mary Garat Foster Barham, daughter of Eustace Foster-Barham, of Bridgwater, with whom he had four children. For some time he took care of his sister-in-law Annie Besant, a prominent women’s rights activist, socialist, and theosophist. She separated from her clergyman husband, Frank Besant, Walter’s younger brother, owing to difference of views over religion and politics. Walter Besant felt intimidated by the emerging New Woman movement and distanced himself from his sister-in-law’s controversial feminist views. However, like many late Victorians, he was concerned with the Woman Question…
Besant had a great passion for organising. In 1884, he founded the Society of Authors, the first successful organisation for writers in the United Kingdom, established for the protection of literary property. He called for the amendment of the laws of domestic copyright and the promotion of international copyright. He was its chairman until 1892 and the editor of its journal The Author. The Society, which functioned primarily as a professional association, with offices in Portugal Street, rendered great assistance to young authors by explaining the intricacies of the principles of copyright law and literary profit. It helped protect the interests of writers in their dealings with publishers and to establish the ownership of an author in his productions.
Besant was also a famous antiquarian. He served as the first President of the Hampstead Antiquarian Historical Society and Vice-President of the Hampstead Scientific Society and the Hampstead Arts Society. In 1884, together with the American folklorist Charles Leland he contributed to the foundation of the Home Arts Association, which established evening schools to promote handicrafts, such as woodcarving, leatherwork, fretwork, weaving, and embroidery. In 1887, Besant was admitted to the prestigious Athenaeum Club in London, and in 1894, he became Fellow of the Society of Antiquities.
Besant was knighted in 1895 for his literary and humanitarian achievement, as well as his widely recognised intellectual authority. When he died after a fortnight’s illness from influenza at his home at Frognal End, Hampstead, on June 9, 1901, his popularity in the English-speaking world reached its peak. He was buried in the burial ground in Church Row attached to the Hampstead parish church. Besant’s Autobiography, published posthumously in 1902, is an informative source of his life and literary achievement.
Walter Besant was a versatile and wide-ranging man of letters in late-Victorian England with diverse scholarly and literary interests and enduring social commitment. His popular novels written in partnership with James Rice and later alone brought him a great recognition and financial stability. Besant was also an important social critic whose two East End novels pioneered slum fiction in English literature. Although Besant’s slum novels were largely paternalistic and melodramatic, they triggered a discourse about slum reform. Besides this, Besant also significantly contributed to the improvement of the status of a writer in Britain. As a scholar he popularised early French literature and the history and topography of London.”