The Chelsea mansion block with ‘More’

The Chelsea mansion block with ‘More’

When driving, cycling, walking, and even passing by in a boat, it’s difficult not to spot the mansion block, More’s Garden, in prime position on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Situated by Battersea Bridge with views over the River Thames, More’s Garden was constructed in 1904 on the site of the former gardens belonging to Sir Thomas More. Flats were advertised for More’s Garden from 1903, but unusually by 1908 it was being used for student rooms for the University of London.

More's Garden, Chelsea [image courtesy of Chestertons]
More’s Garden, Chelsea [image courtesy of Chestertons]
Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, moved to riverside Chelsea during the 1520s when he had a large house in open fields with extensive gardens a short distance from the river. The house later became known as Beaufort House (and where the name Beaufort Street originates). Many years later the riverside had been transformed into a busy dock, but with the development of Chelsea Embankment from the 1870s, large sections of the eastern stretch of Cheyne Walk opened up for redevelopment. However, despite the highly prized riverside position we admire today, by the turn of the 20th century, the corner site of Beaufort Street still lay vacant.

More's Garde sales particulars, 1903 [image courtesy of Kensington and Chelsea archives]
More’s Garden sales particulars, 1903 [image courtesy of Kensington and Chelsea archives]
Original plans for the new mansion block were submitted in October 1902 under the name of ‘Cheyne Towers’, but by the time construction was under way in 1903 the new residential block had been renamed ‘More’s Garden’ – an acknowledgement to the site of the gardens of Sir Thomas More.

Original sales particulars from 1903 reveal the block was planned as residential apartments, with the most up-to-date conveniences for modern Edwardian living. These included, ‘hot water from a supply boiler in the basement…tenants will thus be saved the expense and trouble involved by kitchen fires at all seasons of the year and throughout the day…’ There was also hot water radiators in the entrance hall to each house, along with electric lighting (when many people still relied on gas) along with an electric passenger lift. An optional extra was the connection of a telephone allowing tenants ‘to communicate with any part of town, and could instantly speak with the caretaker’. By July 1905 an advertisement in The Times reveals the flats were ready for new tenants at an annual cost of £180-£200.

However, by 1907 things took a different turn when Nos. 2-5 More’s Garden were acquired by ‘The University and City Association of London’, who were closely linked with plans for the neighbouring Crosby Hall.

A study bedroom_brochure_cropped

They officially opened More’s Garden as a University Hall of Residence in December 1907, starting with an initial 10 students, and increasing to 25 by 1910.

At the same time, the University and City Association were campaigning for the relocation and preservation of the medieval Crosby Hall, which had formerly been located in Bishopgate. The aims of the association were to save the historic hall, originally built in 1466 and has been called, ‘the most important surviving domestic Medieval building in London’, but also to create a collegiate environment, similar to those in Oxford and Cambridge, for students in London. Crosby Hall was to be the centrepiece of this new academic environment by the banks of the Thames, with More’s Garden one of the associated buildings. The campaign to relocate Crosby Hall was a success and it was moved piece by piece from the City to Chelsea in 1910. However, the plans of the University and City Association to create an college environment did not eventuate. Part of the reason for this was the onset of the First World War in 1914, which took away much of the funding. In fact, Crosby Hall was used as temporary accommodation for Belgian refugees during the war. Today, Crosby Hall is a private residence, the home of businessman and entrepreneur, Christopher Moran.

Plans for college buildings, including Crosby Hall and More's Garden
Plans for college buildings, including Crosby Hall and More’s Garden
Brochure for planned new University Hall of Residence
Brochure for planned new University Hall of Residence

It was also during the war that the students left More’s Garden and it once again became available as residential flats for private tenants. The flats were empty in 1915, but the parish rate book reveals new tenants moved in during late 1915 and early 1916. By this time, the annual rent was £175.

Since the early 1900s, More’s Garden has continued as residential flats and has been home to many notable residents, including novelist and playwright, Charles Langbridge Morgan, along with his wife, also a writer, Hilda Vaughan. The block has also been the home of Olympian rower, Stephen Ian Fairbairn; photographer and astronomer, Margaret Lindsay Huggins; Captain Edward George Hastings of the Royal Navy, OBE; and British Ambassador, Sir Owen St Clair O’Malley.

Today, More’s Garden continues as a highly sought after residential mansion block in an historic corner of Chelsea with beautiful views over the River Thames.

More's Garden - Chelsea

‘Artisan’ houses by the creator of Oxford’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’

Tucked away behind the busy London Road in Sevenoaks is Lime Tree Walk, designed as ‘artisan-style’ housing by prominent Victorian architect, Sir Thomas Graham Jackson. Jackson is most often remembered for his work in Oxford, including Hertford College and the famous Bridge of Sighs over New College Lane.

‘Sevenoaks – A street of Workmens’ Cottages with a Coffee-house’


Hertford Bridge, Oxford – popularly known as the ‘Bridge of Sighs’

Twenty four houses were built along Lime Tree Walk in 1878-79 as ‘a housing experiment for working class people in a high class residential area’. The houses were designed and built by Sir Thomas Graham Jackson, along with his father, Hugh Jackson, to provide ‘model dwellings’ for Sevenoaks. When the houses were almost complete, in 1879, Jackson said he ‘had tried to make them beautiful within the proper limits of cottage building…with a kind simple grace which comes from plain sensible construction.

Architect - Thomas Graham Jackson
Architect – Thomas Graham Jackson

Thomas Graham Jackson is known for his works in Oxford, completing several designs across the city, including the Examination Schools along the High Street, along with Trinity College quadrangle, Brasenose College, Hertford College, including the Bridge of Sighs, and many others. He completed so many buildings in Oxford, it was said that ‘no other architect has altered the face of Oxford so greatly.’ He was first articled to Sir George Gilbert Scott and later went on to work with another famous name, Richard Norman Shaw. He also wrote several books and was responsible for several designs, as well as restorations and additions, across the country, including Eton, Inner Temple in London, others in Sevenoaks, and Winchester Cathedral.

Residents had moved into the new houses along Lime Tree Walk in Sevenoaks by the time the census was taken in the spring of 1881 and this reveals many of the first residents were craftsmen and women and working-class families. Amongst these early residents were carpenters, grocers, gardeners, labourers, bricklayers, dressmakers, shoemakers, as well as sewing machine operators, journeyman bakers, and telegraph messengers.

The residents along Lime Tree Walk continued from similar walks of life throughout the late 19th into the early 20th century, and meanwhile Sir Thomas Graham Jackson continued as the owner until his death in 1924.

Lime Tree Walk completed and shown on Ordnance Survey map, 1909
Lime Tree Walk completed and shown on Ordnance Survey map, 1909

Alongside the houses by Thomas Jackson, Lime Tree Walk also featured a Coffee House, built in 1882, which later became the ‘Lime Tree Temperance Hotel’. It was also used as the headquarters of the local cycling club during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when cycling had become the newest and latest craze. It even features a cycle themed weathervane!

Today, this row of ‘workmen’s dwellings’ are Grade II listed and have become a popular residential area in the centre of Sevenoaks.

Example of 'Artisan' houses in Lime Tree Walk, Sevenoaks
Example of ‘Artisan’ house in Lime Tree Walk, Sevenoaks (courtesy of Chestertons)

Spring adventures of a house historian

It has been an exciting few months in the life of this house historian! The spring months have largely involved speaking engagements and interviews, including the Ideal Home Show and a television programme on the history of household inventions! It is certainly the fun side in the life of a house historian.

One of the most exciting events was speaking at the Ideal Home Show at Olympia London!


Speaking over several days, I told audiences stories I had uncovered researching the history of houses, which included houses with links to Jane Austen, Winston Churchill, and Lord Byron, as well as stories of houses linked with murder, spies, and scandal!


I have also recently been taking part in more filming and television, which included a new programme – ‘Wicked Inventions’ [Definition Media]! Now in its second series, it was broadcast in parts of Europe, but sadly has not been shown in the UK (yet!). However, a short clip of my sections featured throughout the series have been put together here:

In April this year, I was also privileged to be guest speaker at the glorious Peterborough Cathedral for the Peterborough Local History Society [visit their new website]! In the surroundings of the recently restored 13th century Knights’ Chamber, I spoke about my work researching the history of houses, plus stories I’d uncovered, and tips for the audience about researching the history of their own home.



Most recently, I have also taken part in an interview for GlamUK discussing the unique aspects of my role as a house historian, as well as one of my favourite houses in London – 18 Stafford Terrace, the former home of Edward Linley Sambourne. The full story can be seen on the GlamUK website: “Discovering London with House Historian Melanie Backe-Hansen” and the full filmed interview is also online here:

It is always fun speaking at events and taking part in interviews, but it has also been fantastic to get back to the research. Following all this, I can largely be found going through rolls of microfilm or transcribing pages of deeds and documents for the latest house history project! :-)

The real heroes of ‘A Bridge Too Far’ at Millfield

It was a few years ago that I was asked to research a house in a small village in Lincolnshire which turned out to have an extraordinary connection to the heroic parachute regiment made famous by the film, A Bridge Too Far.

Millfield, Colsterworth [image courtesy of Chestertons]
Millfield, Colsterworth [image courtesy of Chestertons]
I recently had the privilege of speaking about researching the history of houses at Peterborough Cathedral for Peterborough Local History Society, and in preparing my presentation I was reminded of the history of a nearby house – Millfield in Colsterworth, Lincolnshire.

The house isn’t particularly old, having been built during the early 1900s, and for much of its early history it was the home of a local farmer, Robert Doubleday. The name of the house, Millfield, simply originated from the name of the field on which it was built.

1911 census - the Doubleday family
1911 census – the Doubleday family

The 1911 census reveals Robert was a ‘farmer and grazier’ and was living in the house with his wife, Elizabeth, and two of their children, 20 year old Martha, and 19 year old Robert, who was ‘working on the farm’. The Doubleday family also had two servants, George Tomlin, ‘wagoner on farm’, and Edith Bass, a general domestic servant.

The Doubleday family continued at Millfield until the 1920s, but by the late 1930s it had become the home of Wing Commander Gerard Stephen Oddie. Gerard Oddie was part of the Royal Air Force when only in its infancy during the First World War. He took part in some of the first campaigns on the Western Front and went on to receive numerous awards and honours, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, and in 1927 he received the Air Force Cross from King George V.

A Bridge Too Far

Millfield continued to have a military link during the Second World War, as in 1943-44 it was used to billet soldiers and officers from the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, who are often remembered for their heroic efforts in Operation Market Garden, now known as the Battle of Arnhem in the Netherlands. The Battle of Arnhem is also remembered through the book and film, A Bridge Too Far, which featured a long list of famous actors, including Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Anthony Hopkins, and more!

The connection between the real heroes of the Battle of Arnhem and Millfield in Colsterworth continued when one of the soldiers, Private Vincent Goodwin, returned to the house many years later.

Drawing of Millfield by Vincent Goodwin, 1944
Drawing of Millfield by Vincent Goodwin, 1944

Vincent Goodwin was also an amateur artist and completed several drawings during the war, including one of Millfield (above). It was drawn on the very eve of Operation Market Garden, on 16 September 1944.

Vince Goodwin with penny that saved his life
Vince Goodwin with penny that saved his life

Private Goodwin’s story is worthy of a film in its own right, as he revealed his real wartime experience. Firstly, out of the 10,000 soldiers who took part, he was one of the 700 or so soldiers who made it to Arnhem Bridge and continued to hold it against German forces for much longer than was originally expected. However, after surviving for so long when many others had fallen, he was shot and taken prisoner. He later told the story that after being captured he thought he was going to be shot by an SS officer, but instead, another German officer intervened and he survived.

On his return, Vincent Goodwin also revealed the story of an old penny that saved his life. His Commanding Officer had suggested he sew pennies into his uniform as extra protection and here he is with a flattened penny that helped to save his life when he was shot during the Battle of Arnhem.

So, once again, an extraordinary story is revealed by delving into the history of a house!

Military heroes in Rosary Gardens

A short time ago, I was asked to research the history of a small family estate – The Day Estate – in South Kensington in London, which covers a number of streets, including Rosary Gardens. However, I never would have guessed that over several years Rosary Gardens was home to such an extraordinary collection of former residents from the military.

Rosary Gardens, London
Rosary Gardens, London

Rosary Gardens was named after Rosary Lodge, an 18th century house that was situated on the site prior to the building of the street and new houses in 1882. Situated off Old Brompton Road, tucked away behind Hereford Square, the houses were built by famous London builder, William Willett.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree (image courtesy of Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea archives)
Herbert Beerbohm Tree (image courtesy of Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea archives)

By 1885 almost all the houses were occupied, which included Anne Thackeray, daughter of author, William  Makepeace Thackeray, and her husband, Richard Thackeray Ritchie (second cousin of William Makepeace Thackeray). It was also the home of celebrated actor-manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who had a long and successful career in theatre, and was the founder of the now world-renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Amongst these early residents, Rosary Gardens was also home to many high-ranking military men. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were a great many serving and retired members of the Navy and Army, including Lieutenant-Colonel John Dremel, who fought in the Zulu War and in India, as well as Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Lindsay and Lieutenant-Colonel Warren Hastings, both from the Indian Army.

Colonel Ernest Harrold Fenn
Colonel Ernest Harrold Fenn

Another early resident was Colonel Ernest Harold Fenn, army surgeon who served in the Afghan War in 1878-80, as well as the Sudan in 1885, and later served with the Governor General of India, Lord Lansdowne, and the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. He received many awards for his service, including the Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) in 1893.

Sir James Digby Legard by Walter Stoneman, 1917 (courtesy of National Portrait Gallery Collection)
Sir James Digby Legard by Walter Stoneman, 1917 (courtesy of National Portrait Gallery Collection)

There were many others, including Colonel Whalley Wickham, Colonel Granville William Vernon, and Major William Boyd Shannon, who fought at Gallipoli in 1915 and whose memoirs of the fighting have become an important historical source of the events of the Gallipoli campaign.

During the early 1900s Rosary Gardens continued as a popular address for military men. This included Colonel Sir James Digby Legard, who served in the Royal Artillery in the Zulu War, when he was mentioned in Despatches. He became an Honorary Colonel in the Yorkshire (Duke of York’s Own) Royal Garrison Artillery and became a Companion of the Order of the Bath in the King’s Birthday Honours list in 1905.

Konstantine Dessino
Konstantine Dessino

At the same time, former Russian General, Constantine (also spelt Konstantine) Dessino, was living in Rosary Gardens. Dessino had a distinguished career in the Imperial Russian Forces prior to the Revolution in 1917, including the Russo-Japanese War and the early years of the First World War. In 1917 he was visiting Britain as a member of a Russian military delegation, which included a long audience with King George V. However, after his return to Russia everything changed as he was forced to flee his home after the outbreak of the Revolution. He managed to escape with his family and sought refuge in England.

One of the most distinguished military residents (although there were many!) in Rosary Gardens was Admiral Sir William Frederic Wake-Walker.

Admiral Sir William Frederic Wake-Walker
Admiral Sir William Frederic Wake-Walker

He served during both the First and Second World Wars, and in particular played a vital role in the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940. He was placed in charge of directing the evacuation from ships and boats at Dunkirk, where he was under almost constant attack. He “was chiefly responsible for the control of the ‘little ships'”, and for which service he was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB). Admiral Wake-Walker continued to distinguish himself during the Second World War and he was directly involved in the sinking of the Bismark in May 1941. He was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and was promoted to Vice Admiral and Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy in 1942. He was also responsible for creating the huge fleet of landing craft that were used in North Africa and later in the D-Day landings. He was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1943 and promoted to Admiral and Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean in May 1945. Sadly, despite this exceptional serving record, he did not live beyond the war as he died unexpectedly, at age 57, in September 1945.

This is just a glimpse into some of the fascinating stories I discovered by delving into the history of former residents of Rosary Gardens!

Hester Thrale and Admiral Nelson’s physician in Bath

I have recently been looking over notes for a house in Bath which was formerly the home of socialite and friend of Samuel Johnson, Mrs Hester Thrale. I first researched the house for my book, House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door, and along with Mrs Thrale, it has also been the home of celebrated artists and the physician who treated Admiral Nelson!

Gay Street - Bath
Gay Street – Bath

The house is situated half way up Gay Street in central Bath, a key part of the development of John Wood the Elder, leading from Queen Square to The Circus. Gay Street was first named Barton Street, but was later renamed to honour former landowner and MP for Bath, Robert Gay.

No.8 Gay Street was completed in 1753 and has been known as ‘The Carved House’ due to its additional ornate decoration. The first leaseholder of the house was artist, Prince (yes, that was his first name) Hoare, a noted sculptor, who completed commissions for many famous names of the time, including Alexander Pope and Beau Nash. By 1770, the lease for No.8 Gay Street had passed to Prince’s brother, William Hoare, who was also a successful artist, who excelled in portrait painting. He painted a number of 18th century celebrities, including Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, and composer, George Frederic Handel. And, along with Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, William Hoare was one of the founders of The Royal Academy.

William Hoare
William Hoare

The records reveal that in 1775 the house had become the home of Dr Woodward, one of the many doctors practicing in Bath at this time. This was during the Georgian period when it was extremely fashionable to visit Bath for the healing spa waters. However, amongst all the doctors practicing in Bath at the time, Dr Woodward was recorded as the personal physician to naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, in 1781. Horatio Nelson was in Bath during 1780-81, when he was only Captain Nelson, and was suffering with a fever or tropical disease (possibly malaria) but by the August of 1781 he had recovered and was appointed Captain of the Albermarle.

After the departure of Dr Woodward, perhaps the most famous occupant of No.8 Gay Street, Hester Thrale, took up residence. However, by this time Mrs Thrale had lost her first husband and had remarried and become Mrs Piozzi, but she is most often remembered as Hester Thrale or simply ‘Mrs Thrale’ and for her close connection to writer, Samuel Johnson.

Mrs Piozzi by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Mrs Piozzi by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Prior to her marriage to her daughter’s music teacher, Gabriel Piozzi, in 1784, she had enjoyed a fashionable social circle, and along with Samuel Johnson, was friends with Fanny Burney, Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell, and Sarah Siddons.

After the death of her husband, the brewer, Henry Thrale, it was suspected Hester would marry Samuel Johnson, but instead she shocked society by marrying the poor Italian musician, Mr Piozzi. She was immediately shunned by her former friends and associates and not accepted into fashionable society. It was during this time that she spent the winter months at the house in Gay Street.

Mrs Piozzi was a writer in her own right and published several works. After the death of Samuel Johnson (with whom she was reconciled before his death) in 1784 she published Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, in 1786, along with her letters in 1788. Mrs Piozzi later died in Bristol in 1821.

Plaque on No.8 Gay Street
Plaque on No.8 Gay Street

After the departure of Mrs Piozzi, No.8 Gay Street became the home of a variety of different occupants. These included spinster sisters, Elizabeth and Jane Severs, who occupied the house for many years from the early 1800s through to the 1860s. By the late 19th century, the house returned to being the home of a doctor, when surgeon, Dr Samuel Budd, moved in. He was appointed surgeon of the Eastern Dispensary, but his position in Bath also brought him many high class clients. He continued in the house in Gay Street until he passed away in 1899.

The 20th century brought many changes to the house in Gay Street. It continued as the home of a doctor through to the 1920s. However, after the Second World War, the large Georgian house suffered the fate of many homes across the country and was simply too expensive to maintain as a single family home and was converted into office space.

A skeleton in the priest hole

Yes, it’s true, I have researched a house where a skeleton was uncovered in an old priest hole! Certainly, one of the most unusual stories I’ve heard in researching the history of houses!

I was recently asked by a journalist to tell her the story of priest holes and secret tunnels found in houses. It is a fascinating element in the history of some 16th and 17th century houses when the need for hiding or a quick escape from authorities was a genuine consideration in house design. In speaking to the journalist, I recalled a house I researched in the past which involved the discovery of an old priest hole – and the priest was still in it! The story was mentioned in the article – read it here in The Sun – but it inspired me to write more of the story in a new blog post!

Roof line

Sadly, I’m not able to divulge the name and location of the house, but it is situated in a small village in Wiltshire and has been dated back to the early 1600s, at the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and when James I came to the throne. By this time, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics had been a fact of life in England for almost 70 years, from the time of Henry VIII, accelerating during the reign of his children, Edward VI and ‘Bloody’ Mary.

Priest hole in Boscobel House, Shropshire (Wikimedia/Nilfanion)
Priest hole in Boscobel House, Shropshire (Wikimedia/Nilfanion)

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the persecution of Catholics was extreme and practicing the Catholic rites or holding Mass was seen as an act treason and resulted in imprisonment, torture, and in some cases death. It was these extreme circumstances that provoked the creation of priest holes.

Priest holes were built in many places within a house – under staircases, behind fireplaces, between walls, under floorboards – anywhere where there was enough space to create a secret hiding place for a priest.

There were several Catholic plots to assassinate the queen, so the need to hunt down and quash any catholic support was much bigger than just a personal choice of worship – not to mention the threats from Catholic Spain and rebellions with the support from the Pope in Rome.

‘Priest-hunters’ might suddenly appear on the doorstep and a quick hiding place was a matter of life or death! However, one of the most serious problems with priest holes was the lack of space, but also the lack or air or access to food or a place to go to the toilet. So, hiding in a priest hole could be just as dangerous if forced to remain there for an extended period of time.

This is clearly what happened in the case of the Wiltshire house where the priest was still hiding in the priest hole 300 years later! The story of the poor priest was passed on from the former owner and a little more investigation would be necessary to uncover the full story of what happened, but it all started when former owners began renovations on the house in the late 1940s.

Roof and trees

The Grade II listed house was first constructed in the early 17th century and features exposed timbers with brick infilling, but it has also been altered several times, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries. The first family connected to the house were recorded with Catholic connections, and given the date of construction, it seems likely it was constructed with a priest hole, or one was added soon after. This is understood further when considering the date of another Catholic plot against the reigning monarch, this time James I, with the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605.

Priest hole in Havrington Hall, Worcestershire (Wikimedia/Quodvultdeus)
Priest hole in Havrington Hall, Worcestershire (Wikimedia/Quodvultdeus)

Despite an understanding of the times and the need for a priest hole in the house, the true story of how a priest came to be stuck in the priest hole for 300 years is a bit of a mystery. One speculation is that the family had time to hide the priest away, but they were arrested and there was no way of getting back to the house to release the priest. Whatever the circumstances, it was over 300 years later, in the late 1940s when new owners were renovating the house that they pulled away a internal panel to find the hidden priest hole and the skeleton of the priest – what a discovery!

The gruesome discovery is certainly unusual, but once again it reveals the extraordinary stories that can be found in researching the history of a house.

Theatrical links and war heroes in Bedford Park, Chiswick

I have been a little quiet on my blog in the last few months as the second half of 2016 was packed with exciting projects, which made blogging my adventures a little tricky! However, one of the projects in west London has inspired this first of my blog posts for 2017! 

Bedford Park, Chiswick
Bedford Park, Chiswick

Late last year, I was working with the Bedford Park Residents Association on a new house history project, engaging with the residents and local people in promoting the social history of this unique enclave in west London. For more details, you can read the announcement here – BPRA Launch House History Initiative. To launch the project, I spoke at an event in Chiswick talking about the fascinating historic stories you can uncover by researching the history of houses. This included a fabulous story about the residents of a house in Bath Road that I discovered in preparing for my talk at the event.

1891 census - Bath Road
1891 census – Marie Saker

In looking through the 1891 census for Bath Road, which runs along the boundary of Bedford Park, I found the widowed, Marie Saker, recorded as an actress. She was living in the house with her grandmother and four children, along with a governess and two live-in servants. Her eldest son, George, was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, while her middle son, only thirteen years old, was recorded as an ‘actor’. I admit, I had not heard of Marie Saker, but I was intrigued by the reference to her being an actress and began to delve a bit further.

Mrs Saker (left) in The Masqueraders, 1894 [image courtesy of]
Mrs Saker (left) in The Masqueraders, 1894 [image courtesy of]
It turns out, Marie Saker was a renowned actress of the time and before her marriage she performed as Marie O’Burne (also appeared as O’Beirne and O’Brien). In 1874, she married a theatre manager, Edward Saker, after they met at Alexandra Theatre in Liverpool, where he was manager, and she was performing. Edward Saker had many connections to celebrated names of the time, including being a close friend of Sir Henry Irving. However, Edward died after the couple had been married less than 10 years, in 1883.

In an unusual move (or perhaps more likely forced due to financial need) Marie Saker continued the management of the Alexandra Theatre in the footsteps of her husband. She continued to manage the theatre for several years, certainly an unusual position for a woman in those times, but by 1888 she had moved on and by 1891 we find her living in Bedford Park in Chiswick.

Mrs Edward Saker
Mrs Edward Saker

I also found a fabulous piece of theatrical history previously owned by Mrs Edward Saker, which has survived and is now held in The National Archives [Ref: 920 MD 411]. It is the former autograph book of Marie Saker. It is inscribed with a note “This book belonged to Mrs. Saker of Liverpool and came into my possession in February 1895”; signed by Edgar Pemberton [playwright and theatrical historian]. The book is a ‘Who’s Who’ of the late 19th century theatre and includes notes and signatures from many famous names, including Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and former Prime Minister, William Gladstone.

In delving further into the story of Marie Saker and her children, I found a very sad turn of events with two of her sons dying during the First World War.

Frank Harrison Saker
Frank Harrison Saker




Marie and Edward’s youngest son, Frank, had first joined the military in 1901 so was one of the first to be fighting at the outbreak of the war. He was promoted to Captain in September 1914, but died the following month, on 30 October, on Flanders Fields.

Major Richard Saker
Major Richard Saker

Edward and Marie’s second son, Richard (who had been recorded as an actor in 1891) also joined the military early and served with distinction during the Boer War in South Africa and was awarded the Queen’s Medal with five clasps. At the outbreak of the First World War he was attached to the Australian Infantry as Major and took part in the landings at Gallipoli in 1915. He was wounded several times on the landing, but continued to fight until he was fatally wounded and died on 20 April 1915.

This is just one part of the life of one house and just goes to show the extraordinary stories that can be discovered by researching the history of a house!

Note: if you live in Chiswick and want to know more about the Bedford Park House History Initiative, get in touch with the BPRA – here.

You can also hear some more about the project by watching some recent films made by The Chiswick Calendar – Discover the history of your house with Melanie Backe-Hansen

The house historian’s summer

While many of you have been on summer holidays to far flung destinations (or in sunny Blighty!) the summer months have been rather busy for me (which explains the time since my last blog post)!

I have been completing a large project on the history of a house in the Cotswolds, which I was delighted to have traced back to Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 (which is currently being designed in preparation for being bound into a book), while also researching the fascinating stories in the history of a house in Soho in London – connected to a group of notorious gangsters during the 1930s and 40s!

Historic house in the Cotswolds
Historic house in the Cotswolds

I have been continuing work on the history of a house in a Hertfordshire, while also working on a new article for the Chelsea Society annual report. During August, I spoke to the Bromley branch of the North West Kent Family History Society about how to research the history of houses, and in October I will be speaking to the Dartford branch on the same subject!

I have also been branching out with a little television work and will soon feature on a programme (coming soon!) talking about the history of household objects and inventions!

Amongst all the reading and writing, I am also working with the Bedford Park Residents Association in Chiswick on an exciting new house history project. Here is the official announcement:

The BPRA commissions house-historian Melanie Backe-Hansen to help Residents discover the hidden stories of Bedford Park”

Bedford Park terraced cottages
Bedford Park terraced cottages

I will be speaking at the official project launch at High Road House in Chiswick on 8 September, which will feature details of a unique online resource for homeowners and researchers. Tickets for the free event can be booked here – Bedford Park House History launch event

To promote the new house history project, I spent a day with the team from The Chiswick Calendar to produce a couple of short films talking about house histories!

‘Discover the history of your house with Melanie Backe-Hansen’

Know the stories of the people who lived in your house before you?  
“Does it change your attitude towards a house to know the stories of the people who have lived there before you? Francis Cherry says it does.”

So, you see, it has been rather a busy summer for the house historian! More updates and stories uncovered researching the history of houses will be on the way soon!

Shelley and Churchill and the 17th century house

West Wantley in Sussex is a beautiful historic house with many retained architectural features, but most notably it was linked to the family of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and later in the 19th century it was also visited by Clementine Hozier, the future wife of Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

West Wantley
West Wantley

This extraordinary Grade II* listed house in Sussex is believed to include features dating back to the 14th century, but much of the house was extended and rebuilt in 1656 for Richard Haines.

The earliest reference to the land and estate of West Wantley has been traced back to the year 1199 when the land was sold by Philip de Wantele for 100 shillings. The precise date of construction is uncertain, but is believed the earliest portion of the house dates back to the 14th century, and records reveal a ‘house and yardland’ were transferred from Philip of Wantley to John of Wantely in 1327.


By 1560 when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne, West Wantley was recorded as Crown land and was granted to a Robert Mitchell, but by 1633 West Wantley had been purchased by George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury. However, Abbot died later that year and the property passed to his nephew, Richard Abbot. In 1641, Richard Abbot sold West Wantley to Gregory Haines.

Drain head with date 1656
Drain head with date 1656

When Gregory Haines died in 1645 an inventory of the house was compiled, which provides a fantastic insight into life at West Wantley at this time. This included his ‘feether beeds’ (feather beds) and ‘brase pootes’ (brass pots). When Gregory’s son, Richard, came of age in 1654 he inherited the house, but set about extending and largely rebuilding the house. A date plaque above the entrance porch shows the date 1656, along with the initials ‘R H M’ for Richard and Mary Haines, and as can be seen to the left, the date features elsewhere, including this drain head.

Richard Haines is remembered as a philanthropist, social reformer, and writer. He published several books including ‘The Prevention of Povery’ in 1674. He was also a noted inventor and he submitted a number of patents, including a spinning engine in 1678.

Richard and Mary Haines continued to live in their large new home until 1684 when they both passed away. The house passed to their son, Gregory, but in 1691 Gregory Haines sold West Wantley to Edward Shelley.

By 1748 West Wantley had passed to Timothy Shelley, but by this time the house was occupied by yeoman farmers from the Harraden family. This situation continued throughout the 18th century and by 1795 it was owned by Sir Bysshe Shelley, 1st Baronet of Castle Goring, grandfather of celebrated romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

West Wantley
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Curran, 1819
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, 1819

In 1815 the ownership of the house and land passed to Sir Timothy Shelley, 2nd Baronet, father of the poet Shelley. At this time, his son was 25 years old and was already a renowned writer and poet. He had also been sent down from Oxford, fallen out with his father, eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbroook, and then in 1814, run off to Switzerland with Mary Wollstonecraft.

Due to the falling out with his father, Shelley had no direct connection with West Wantley, and sadly within a few years the beloved poet died in a boating accident in 1822, shortly before his 30th birthday.

When Sir Timothy Shelley died in 1844, the baronetcy and estate passed to the eldest son of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Florence Shelley. Throughout this period, the house continued as the home of various tenant farmers and by the time it was in the hands of Percy Shelley, it was occupied by the Skinner family.

Winston Churchill and his fiancée, Clementine Hozier, 1908
Winston Churchill and his fiancée, Clementine Hozier, 1908

Throughout the 19th century, the house, now known as West Wantley Farm, was occupied by the Skinner family, but by the 1890s it had become the home of Cecil and Mary Paget. It was at this time that Mary Paget invited the young Clementine Hozier to stay. Clementine was the daughter of Sir Henry and Lady Henrietta Hozier and it is understood she visited the Paget family at West Wantley several times when she was a child. The young visitor grew up to become Clementine Churchill, the wife of Winston Churchill. The couple married in 1908 and had a long and happy marriage lasting 57 years until the death of Churchill in 1965.

West Wantley was placed on the market in 1921 when it was described as ‘an extremely interesting ancient farmhouse chiefly contructed of stone…very pleasantly situate in rural surroundings’.

Today, the house not only has associations with a world renowned poet and the wife of one of the countries greatest Prime Ministers, but tucked away in the Sussex countryside, it retains many historic architectural features including an inglenook fireplace (including the cupboard for salt and a recess for curing bacon large enough for a person to lie in), as well as oak front door, exposed oak beams, and casement windows.