Birthplace, Berkeley Square

Show on map

7 Berkeley Square, BS8 1HG

John Addington Symonds was born on the 5th of October, at No. 7 Berkeley Square, the son of Harriet Sykes and John Addington Symonds M.D.  Symonds was the third of four surviving children – the only one of four sons to live beyond infancy. In 1844, Harriet fell fatally ill with scarlet fever, leaving her young family in the care of their father and aunt.1

No.7 lies midway along the top of Berkeley Square – part of a Georgian terrace backing onto the steep slopes of Brandon Hill. During the 19th century, the square was peopled with families of local merchants and professionals: The Symonds’ near neighbours included the proprietor of the Bristol Mirror, one retired iron merchant, a young physician, and a local hop merchant. Dr Symonds was one of around five physicians in the small square.2

Berkeley Square with Brandon Hill behind. Credit: Peter Hughes

Berkeley Square with Brandon Hill behind. Credit: Peter Hughes

By comparison with his beloved Clifton Hill, the house at Berkeley Square left a gloomy image in Symonds’ recollections:

I had no love for my birthplace, 7 Berkeley Square. I am distinctly aware of the depressing effect produced upon me by the more sordid portions of this town house, especially by a dingy dining-room, and a little closet leading through glass doors into a dusty back garden. The garden had one miracle, however, to ennoble it. That was a cherry-tree, which clothed itself in silver beauty once a year, maugre the squalor which surrounded it. I ought also not to forget, that our back windows looked out on Brandon Hill, from which a glorious prospect over city, river, meadow, distant hills and wooded slopes, could then be gained.”3

In the 1840s, the family’s first-floor drawing room overlooked the square, allowing Symonds to watch visitors come and go from a vantage point above the front door. The room was furnished with a piano, over which hung a copy of a Van Dyke Madonna.4 The “dingy dining-room” was presumably at the rear of the house, where the incline of Brandon Hill shades the lower floors.

In October 1848, burglars plundered the house while the family were at dinner:

Daring Robbery at Bristol.
On Friday evening, about six o’clock, the house of Dr. Symonds, in Berkeley Square, was feloniously entered, by forcing an attic window with a small crowbar. Shortly before a party at the Doctor’s sat down to dinner the thieves contrived to enter one of the best bedrooms, and break open a jewel case, from which they abstracted a gold watch and chain, some rings, and other valuable jewellery. From the man-servant’s room they carried off a gold watch marked ” N.J.,”5 attached to which was a silver chain. From one of the female-servant’s rooms they obtained a purse, containing one pound fourteen shillings. The thieves entered the void house in the corner of the square, and passed over two other houses to reach that of Dr. Symonds.

Seven years old, and troubled by night-terrors, Symonds remembered the intrusion as less terrifying than his own imagination: “I then made the mental reflection that people who were afraid of robbers could never have seen visions or dreamed nightmares.  […] Neither then nor afterwards did I fear anything so much as my own self. What that contained was a terror to me. Things of flesh and blood, brutal and murderous as they might be, could always be taken by the hand and fraternised with. They were men, and from men I did not shrink. I always felt a man might be my comrade. Dreams and visions exercised a far more potent spell.”6

  1. H. F. Brown, John Addington Symonds: A Biography, Compiled from His Papers and Correspondence, 2nd edn (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1903) p. 1-3. Some of Symonds’ descriptions of 7 Berkeley Square seem at odds with the current appearance of the building, however census records, directories, and historic maps all accord with the present number 7. []
  2. According to the 1851 census, the family’s physician neighbours included Henry Clark (MRCSE), Frederick Granger (MRCSE, LAC), John Harrison (MRCSE), and Samuel Swayne (MRCSE, LAC.) []
  3. Brown, p.8 []
  4. John Addington Symonds, Phyllis Groskurth, The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, New York, Random House, 1984 p.47 []
  5. presumably Nicholas Johns []
  6. John Addington Symonds, Phyllis Groskurth, The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, New York, Random House, 1984 p.40 []