Who is Sir Charles James Freake? Inside the Life of the Man Who Built Cromwell Place


Patron of the arts, self-trained property developer, public benefactor and baronet – Sir Charles James Freake (1814–1884) remains relevant centuries after his passing.  He's responsible for a number of West London's 19th century facades, changed South Kensington from "a neglected suburb to a Second Belgravia", and his creation of Cromwell Place marked the infancy of artist studio design. Here, we look into the life and legacy of Sir Charles James Freake.

Interior of Sir John and Lady Lavery's home ('The Drawing Room') in Cromwell Place, 28 October 1919. Image courtesy of Bassano & Vandyk Studios, 1974 Photographs Collection, NPG x22164

Early Life and Career

Born on April 7, 1814, Sir Charles James Freake was son to a coal merchant turned publicant and wine trader, Charles Freake. The latter ran the Royal Oak Pub in Elizabeth Street, Belgravia, where Sir Charles James Freake spent most of his early life. It was in this neighbourhood where he began his career. At the Grosvenor Estate in 1839, Freake became the London property developer Seth Smith’s nominee for leases of houses in Chester Terrace. 

While documents show that Freake listed himself as an architect, he was self-taught and had no professional training as such. A survey on Knightsbridge by the London City Council notes that “there is no reason to suppose that [Freake] had the time to involve himself very deeply in architectural design and planning,” and that it was likely “these matters devolved upon his various professional assistants.” 

Freake soon became one of the most important property developers of the 19th century. He was responsible for a great deal of West London’s facades, such as Eaton Square, Onslow Square and Exhibition Road. He was described by surveyor Henry Hunt as “the cleverest of all speculating builders,” who, “never departed from his word.” Freake made a large fortune from property development, leaving on his death an estate worth £781,000. 


Building For London’s Elite

The same survey attributes Freake’s success as a developer to “the single-mindedness with which he kept to just one section of the property market, and that largely within one locality,” that locality being domestic architecture for wealthy clients. The grand facades of his large-scale houses, like Eaton Square and Onslow Square, reflect the conservative taste of their day. The Building News described the quality of the double-framed floors in Princes Gardens, one of Freake’s developments, to be “without flaw, blemish or shrinkage, forming as a whole one of the best specimens of the sort we have seen.”


Raising South Kensington from ‘a neglected suburb to a Second Belgravia’

It was in South Kensington where Freake truly made his mark, with his most notable properties being Exhibition Road, Cromwell Road and our very own Cromwell Place. An obituary at the time of his death claimed that Freake “made the neighbourhood of South Kensington, raising it from a neglected suburb to the rank of a second Belgravia.”

The previously mentioned London City Council survey notes that many of his South Kensington houses, like Princes Gate and Princes Gardens, conform to a repeated “pattern” with variations. Similar to the design of Cromwell Place, this format appears to be a fully stuccoed house three windows wide, with columned porticoes, rising five storeys over a basement. The survey states that “within each range, the identity of each house is clearly expressed, but within a unified architectural treatment.”


Sir Charles James Freake, 1st Bt ('Men of the Day. No. 279.') by Théobald Chartran, published in Vanity Fair 31 March 1883, Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery's Reference Collection

Building Cromwell Place

These basic features were closely linked to those Freake was building at the same time on Cromwell Road and Cromwell Place. This style was developed the 1840’s by master builder John Elger and served as an inspiration for Freake who put his own twist on the style with richer ornamentation and placement of the main cornice between the two top floors. 

For Cromwell Place, built from 1858-1859, Freake opted for a more subdued facade than of previous developments such as Princes Gate and Exhibition Road. He built the Georgian houses on the east side of the terrace numbered 1 to 5. The buildings marked the infancy of studio design, with numbers 4 and 5 created specifically for artists. Studio-building did not become a feature of Kensington developments until the late nineteenth century, signalling Freake’s perceptiveness. 

His creation of Cromwell Place came as South Kensington’s cultural scene was beginning to develop. The Great Exhibition of 1851 boosted the economic value of the area, which became home to The Royal College of Art, then known as the National Art Training School, who relocated from Somerset House to South Kensington in the same year. In 1857, a year before Cromwell Place’s inception, the Victoria and Albert,  formerly the Museum of Manufactures, relocated to Exhibition Road. From 1870-1885, South Kensington was also home to The National Portrait Gallery. 

Cromwell Place and its surrounding area quickly became the home, social hub and workspace of many cultural greats. The road of Cromwell Place was home to artists such as John Everett Millas, Sir John Lavery, Sir Coutts Lindsay, Francis Bacon and Emil Otto Hoppé. 

Sir Charles James Freake's Personal Life and Late Career 

In 1860 Freake occupied 21 Cromwell Road, a grand townhouse of his own making, with his wife and daughter, three female relations, a butler, two footmen and seven other servants. His home became a social hub where he hosted cultural events and performances by his family. 

He joined the circle of British civil servant and inventor Sir Henry Cole, whose diary recorded Freake’s cultural events. The diary noted guests of a high social standing to Freake’s home, such as the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh. 

He was recorded to own and occupy several London properties, such as one in Twickenham, where he built Twickenham Town Hall in 1877 on a site he owned. In 1868, Freake attempted an unsuccessful run as a Conservative candidate for the parliamentary constituency of Chealsea, which included most of his South Kensington properties.

Alongside his domestic property, Freake had a philanthropic nature and a great interest for London’s cultural sector. It was this which led to his construction of the National Training School for Music in 1874-1875, which he paid for at his own expense. It was this, in part, which cultivated his barontency in 1882. After a hugely successful career, he died on October 6, 1884.

Find out more about Cromwell Place’s unique history, architecture and facilities on Our Spaces.


Cromwell Place uses cookies to make the site simpler. Find out more about cookies. Got it