An occasional series about London locations with a connection to Bram Stroker’s Dracula…
For this latest chapter in my quest to learn about Dracula’s London, I’m not focusing on a place used in the 1897 novel (like I did when I visited a Hampstead churchyard). Instead, this article looks at a location with an important link to author Bram Stoker. ln 1911, 14 years after his novel Dracula had been published, Bram (below) and his family moved to 26 St George’s Square in Pimlico, south-west London. This was the house in which he died the following year…
St George’s Square is a strange place today. The moneyed grandeur of Victorian Britain is still there in the townhouses and the genteel central garden (pictured below). But this is unlike the reassuringly calm spaces you find in some other London squares. For one thing, there’s much more bustle and through-traffic. And for another, St George’s Square isn’t a square: the two long sides are approximately 300 metres, yet the width is only about 60 metres. This oddity comes from the fact the development began as two parallel roads, only being converted into a ‘square’ a few years later. The plan was initially laid out in 1839 by Thomas Cubitt, a builder who was responsible for the layout and appearance of huge swathes of London. His work still defines much of Pimlico, Bloomsbury, Belgravia and the Embankment; he also designed the east front of Buckingham Palace.
When I arrive in St George’s Square one Sunday lunchtime, however, I’m disappointed to discover that the Stokers’ final home has gone. A row of houses on the west side of St George’s Square was demolished in the 1960s, taking No.26 with it, and the site is now home to some sunken basketball courts associated with a nearby school.
This is a great shame for Stoker buffs, because the great man died here on Saturday 20 April 1912 – aged just 64. The world was still reeling from the sinking of the Titanic five days before, but we don’t know to what extent Stoker was aware of the tragedy. He may have been unconscious or in a coma, because the cause and details of his death are minor mysteries. Bram had suffered more than one stroke in recent years, which had impaired his movement, eyesight and general health, while ‘exhaustion’ was euphemistically mentioned as the reason for his demise. The writer’s grandnephew and biographer Daniel Farson caused uproar by revealing in the 1970s that the death certificate had cited tertiary syphilis – though this may have been Farson misunderstanding some scientific jargon. Stoker’s modern-day relative Dacre Stoker, meanwhile, has argued that maybe asthma was the killer. Bram had also been a very sickly child, confined to bed for several years, and there is confusion over what was wrong with him then too. With no medical records available, historians have mooted theories such as rheumatic fever, a heart condition, a weak immune system, a respiratory issue, or even that it was all psychosomatic.
But if the building where Stoker died has long gone, at least this slice of Pimlico has lots of other interesting aspects. For example, St George’s Square has had several noteworthy residents. The crime writer Dorothy L Sayers once lived here briefly in 1920. Stephen Potter, who found success writing spoof self-help books, lived at No.56 in 1924; the same address belonged to Francis Crick, who helped decipher the DNA molecule, in the 1940s. And Lady Anne Ritchie, the writer and eldest daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, lived at No.109. Ritchie was a friend of the Stokers’ as well as their neighbour. Bram’s wife, Florence, appealed to her for financial help in 1911, now that Bram was in poor health and unable to earn money.
Meanwhile, opposite where No.26 used to be is St Saviour’s Pimlico, a small and attractive 19th-century church… which has a wonderful and *purely coincidental* connection to Dracula! The building was designed in a Gothic style by Thomas Cundy Jr, the son of the revered architect Sir Thomas Cundy, and consecrated in 1864. The writers Sir Compton and Faith Mackenzie married here in 1905. In the 1970s, Lady Diana Spencer – later Diana, Princess of Wales – worked at the kindergarten in the church hall.
In 1912, a new curate called Rev Gerard Olivier took over. Descended from French Huguenots, he was a High Church advocate who had moved his family from the countryside to London and taken residence at 22 Lupus Street, just around the corner from St Saviour’s. And he had a young son called Laurence, who soon became a choirboy at the church.
Much later in life, after a glittering career as one of Britain’s leading thespians, Laurence Olivier played Professor Van Helsing in a 1979 film adaptation of Dracula. The acting giant had not been enamoured with the project (‘God, the shame of it,’ he wrote to his son, Tarquin), though it earned him $750,000 for 10 weeks work. It is an unanswerable question, of course, but did Olivier know that in childhood he had been Bram Stoker’s near neighbour? Olivier’s father became curate at St Saviour’s in 1912 – the year of Bram’s death – so perhaps a five-year-old Laurence and an ailing Stoker even passed each other in the street. In another eerie link, the two men also both lived on Cheyne Walk and St Leonard’s Terrace in Chelsea… and in the case of the latter address, it was actually the same house! (Olivier lived there decades after Stoker had breathed his last, of course.)
The actor’s connections with Bram Stoker do not end there. In 1917, Stoker’s friend the actress Dame Ellen Terry saw a young Olivier in one of his earliest theatrical roles and wrote in her diary, ‘Already a great actor.’ And when Olivier died in 1989, his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, right next to the remains of Bram Stoker’s long-time friend and mentor Sir Henry Irving. At the funeral, the actor Frank Finlay – who, to keep the thread of Dracula connections going, had played Van Helsing for the BBC two years before Olivier’s go at the character – carried a sword that had been used on stage by Irving when playing Richard III in 1877.
As I walk back to Pimlico tube station, sad that I was unable to see the building where Bram Stoker died, I spot a blue plaque on the front of No.33, a house on the north edge of St George’s Square. Walking over, I see that it’s marking where Major Walter Clopton Wingfield lived. After a career in the 1st Dragoon Guards, serving in India and China, he codified the modern sport of lawn tennis, patenting the format in 1874 and publishing two books on the rules. He died on 18 April 1912 – just two days before his fellow St George’s Square resident Bram Stoker. But while he gets a heritage plaque, as does DNA discoverer Francis Crick, sadly there’s no mention anywhere in the vicinity that the creator of Dracula expired here. I can see no plaque or tourist information board. Like his house, Stoker has left Pimlico for good.
Sources and notes:
My visit to St George’s Square, Pimlico, was on Sunday 7 November 2021.
Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker; I used both my paperback copy (Oxford World Classics, 1998, with an introduction by Maud Ellman) and this online version.
The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker (2012) edited by Elizabeth Miller and Dacre Stoker
Olivier: The Authorised Biography (2005) by Terry Coleman
Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula (2016)) by David J Skal
Walking Literary London (2001) by Roger Tagholm