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!
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The history of Hotham Hall in Putney is one of my favourites as it strongly illustrates that no matter what a house looks like – or even how old it is – you can uncover a fascinating history! This former community hall in the quiet streets of Putney is linked with a number of famous names, including Winston Churchill and The Rolling Stones!
I first researched the history of Hotham Hall while working with Chestertons in 2007. Snippets of the history were known, but I was so excited to discover a long list of famous names associated with this former community hall in the streets of Putney.
Hotham Hall was first built as St Mary’s Hall shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, in 1913. The freehold of the land was donated to St John’s Church by two sisters, Blanche and Elma Grace Miles, in 1911, specifically for the building of a public hall for the growing Putney community.
The hall was designed by Douglas Wells and constructed by builders, William Brown & Sons and officially opened by local magistrate Mr Samuel Samuel in 1913.
During the early history of the hall it was the location for local lectures and community and political events, and it was in May 1933 that future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill addressed a meeting of the Primrose League. He spoke on the future of India and declared ‘that the nations in their perplexity leaned upon England and found here a strong prop’.
The following year, in November 1934, St Mary’s Hall was the location for another political meeting. This time for the National Conservative candidate, Mr Marcus Samuel (nephew of Mr Samuel Samuel who had opened the hall 20 years earlier) for the Putney By-Election. Guest speaker supporting Mr Samuel was another future Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, who at that time was Lord Privy Seal and Minister for the League of Nations.
Along with political meetings, St Mary’s Hall was the location for lectures and music events, including local Christmas carol concerts. In particular, during the 1960s, it was used as a venue for upcoming British bands and on 22 December 1963 was the location for a performance of The Rolling Stones as part of their first UK tour.
The Rolling Stones were supported by rising band, who were still performing by the name, The Detours, and came to be known as The Who. It has been said that it was here Pete Townsend noticed Keith Richards warm up by swinging his arm before going on stage which inspired Townsend to create his famous ‘windmill’ strum.
The Who actually played at St Mary’s Hall several times during the early 60s and in 1964 they were supported by The Tremeloes. A local resident remembers this concert where the Tremeloes gave out sweets to promote their new song, Candy Man, which later rose to No.6 in the UK charts.
St Mary’s Hall continued to be used as a local hall and event venue, but by the 1980s it had fallen into disrepair and it closed in 1986. It was purchased for redevelopment in the 1990s at which time it was renamed Hotham Hall. It was transformed into luxury ‘loft-style’ apartments by The Raven Group, which first went on sale in 1997.
Behind the seemingly simple Edwardian façade of a former community hall, an extraordinary history is uncovered at Hotham Hall.
In thinking about the next blog post I was inspired by the upcoming 90th birthday celebrations for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and I set my mind back through my earlier house histories searching for something with a royal link. However, sadly, I’ve never had the opportunity to research Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, but I have researched a farm house in Nottinghamshire with a surprising link with King Edward VIII!
The Beeches is situated down a quiet country lane on the outskirts of Nottingham and was first built as a small cottage called Home Farm Cottage attached to the estate of the Manvers family of Holme Pierrepont. One of the earliest occupants was farmer, William Richards, recorded in the house at the time of a survey of the estate in 1803. His son, George, took over the cottage and farm during the 1820s, where he continued with his family through to the 1850s. The 1851 census reveals George Richards in the house, 69 years old, ‘cottager for 8 & 1/2 acres of land’, along with his wife Margaret and their granddaughter, 13 year old Ann.
George continued at The Beeches until he died at the age of 89 in 1871 when it passed to his son William and his wife Elizabeth. However, during the 1870s the Richards family left The Beeches, still known as Home Farm Cottage, and it became the home of dairy farmer, William Slack.
The map below shows Home Farm Cottage, today’s The Beeches, to the right of the lodge to Holme Pierrepont Hall as it was at the turn of the 20th century.
During the late 19th century, the 4th Earl Manvers set about renovating the small Home Farm Cottage, as well as adding additional farm buildings to house his herd of pedigree Shorthorn Cattle. In the early 1900s the house became the home of ‘cowman’, Christopher Dobson, along with his wife Hannah and their three children. The Dobson family continued at the house through the years of the First World War to 1918-19, but by the 1920s the house had become the home of William Shelton. Shelton became known as the gentleman farmer and is believed to have apparently worked in white gloves! It was at this time, during the 1920s, that the house was extended and its name changed from Home Farm Cottage to The Beeches.
It was also at this time that it is believed, the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VIII would pop in and visit The Beeches for a cup of tea. He would often visit Lamcote House (also owned by Earl Manvers) when he was visiting his mistress, Freda Dudley Ward.
He would also visit Holme Pierrepont and it was during these visits that an old farmer recalls the prince visiting The Beeches!
At the onset of the Second World War, the Manvers Estate, which had been in financial trouble for some time, was placed on the market, including the ‘very attractive farm, formerly the Home Farm of the 4th Earl…and used by him for his world-renowned herd of Shorthorns…Together with a delightful house and model farm buildings’.
Still today, the house is situated in a quiet area on the outskirts of Nottingham, but despite its seemingly ‘simple’ history as a farmhouse, it is a fantastic example of a house that can have an unexpected history. It is uncertain how many times the Prince of Wales would pop into the kitchen of The Beeches and sit down for a cup of tea, but it is certainly a great story!
I am often asked – what is the oldest house you’ve ever researched? – and along with some amazing cottages in Somerset, I think back to this extraordinary 15th century Grade I listed home in Devonshire. The Chantry, built c.1490, is situated in the quiet village of Combe Raleigh, but has former links to royal physicians, as well as the family of Lady Jane Grey, and the Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector during the reign of young Edward VI.
Tracing the history of a house back 500 years is always going to have its challenges, but it has been established that a chantry was first founded at Combe Raleigh during the mid 15th century. A chantry was an endowment established for a priest or priests to celebrate specific masses or ‘chants’ for the soul of the founder to ease the founders journey to heaven (paying your way for a shortcut to heaven). It was a little later, in 1498, that a perpetual chantry was established at Combe Raleigh by the lord of the manor, John Bonville (connected to the Grey family and the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for 9 days) and it was at this time that this house was provided for the chanter priest.
Records reveal that during the 1520s and 30s The Chantry was the home of priest, John Adams, but a few years later everything was about to change. The Chantry survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII, but a short time later, in 1547, during the reign of the young King Edward VI, The Chantry Act dissolved the chantries and all their associated practices.
After the dissolution of the chantries, the lands and property attached to The Chantry in Combe Raleigh were granted to someone rather close to the young king – his uncle, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset. He was the elder brother of Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, and in 1547-49 he served as Lord Protector during King Edward VI’s minority. However, soon afterwards Seymour was granted the property he passed it to Sir Thomas Pomeroy.
Meanwhile, after the change from a religious house, The Chantry had become a gentleman’s residence. Later in the 16th century it was purchased by John Peter Esq., who, in 1603, sold it to Hugh Crossinge, a merchant of Exeter. But, by the late 17th century it was in the hands of Benedictus Marwood, a grocer of Exeter, whose ancestors had been royal physicians to Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, and also King Charles I.
The property in Combe Raleigh, along with The Chantry, passed through generations of the Marwood family through the 18th century until it was in the hands of James Thomas Benedictus Marwood in the 1780s. A map of ‘The Estates of the parishes of Beer & Seaton, Honiton & Combrawley [sic]…belonging to James Thomas Benedictus Marwood, 1783″ is retained in the Devonshire County Record Office and shows an extensive estate, including The Chantry.
By the late 18th century the occupiers of The Chantry had become local farmers, with tax records revealing it was the home of Joan Saunders who was paying an annual land tax of 12 shillings. Joan continued in the house through to the early 1800s, but by 1806 it was the home of another woman, Susan Sydenham, and by 1808 it was the home of Samuel Dimond.
Later in life James Thomas Benedictus Marwood was recorded as a ‘lunatic’ and after his death (without children) in 1811 his estates passed to his sisters, with Mary Marwood inheriting the Combe Raleigh property. Mary married Reverend George Notley and the estate later passed to their son, James Thomas Benedictus Notley. By this time, in the 1830s, The Chantry was the home of the Pring family, and by the time of the 1841 census it was the home of 30 year old Daniel Pring, an agricultural labourer, along with 70 year old, Mary Pring.
Throughout the 19th century the former priest house was the home of farming and labouring families. The image to the right shows The Chantry during the 1890s by which time it appeared as a rather run-down farmhouse.
In the early 1900s the house was home to the Carnell family, with Richard Carnell and his son Jesse working as bricklayers, along with Richard’s wife, Emma, and their three daughters, all laundresses.
However, the 20th century brought about some significant changes as by the 1930s new owners added a new wing, which included new bathrooms, as well as replacing the thatch with tiles, and it was the beginning of a new life for the house as a comfortable family home.
One of the most significant elements of The Chantry is the survival of so many historic features. With very few changes or renovations made to the house over the centuries it retains extraordinary historic features, contributing to its status as Grade I listed. This includes a newell staircase, described as a ‘remarkable staircase of heart of oak’, along with a garderobe at the rear and original door frames, timbers, and fireplaces. The hall features intersecting moulded beams with carved bosses, as well as ‘plank and muntin’ screen. The roof has been described as ‘an outstanding survival’ featuring three arch braced trusses along with many other details, including moulded braces and purlins. The house also features a traditional bread oven, and although more recent the 1930s bathroom fittings are also a notable feature.
This sweeping history of The Chantry only gives a glimpse of this extraordinary home and I’m sure there are many more stories to discover by delving into the history of a house that has stood in this quiet village for over 500 years!
While researching the history of a house for a magazine column, I stumbled across a fascinating piece of history. It was the 1911 census return for No.93 Oakley Street in Chelsea, but instead of the usual list of former occupants, the enumerator was forced to note that ‘Suffragettes refused all information’.
The enumerator further notes that the lady of the house had written across the original census return ‘no vote no census’. This one document (found by accident) brought to life a period of history from 100 years ago, which has had an extraordinary affect on history, but also on our lives today – the right for women to vote! It also raised a number of questions about who were these women of Oakley Street and what was their story?
You’ll also notice that the enumerator has stated that information was gained from the neighbour. This included the name of the woman of the house ‘Mrs Monck Mason’, along with her daughter and sister, as well as an ‘elderly domestic servant’ and a ‘younger domestic servant’.
With the help of Naomi Paxton, I discovered the lady of the house was Mrs Alice Monck Mason and her daughter, Winifred Alice Monck Mason, an actress who went by the name of Winifred Mayo (the image to the left courtesy of thesuffragettes.org). Mrs Monck Mason (nee Alice Portia Wolley) was actively involved in the Suffragette movement, but it was her daughter, Winifred Mayo, who took on a key role in the political and militant fight for ‘Votes for Women’. Delving into the story of Winifred Mayo it became clear that she played an extraordinary role in the right for women to vote, as well as other organisations that fought for equal rights for women and men.
Winifred Monck Mason (Mayo) was born in India in c.1869, but returned to England for her Education. In the late 19th and early 20th century, she was performing on the stage in a variety of plays and productions, including as Elizabeth Bennett in The Bennetts at the Court Theatre in 1901. But, it was a few years later she took on a more important role in the suffragette movement.
Winifred Mayo first became involved in the women’s suffrage movement in 1907 when she and her mother joined the Kensington branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Winifred became actively involved in the militant side of the Suffragette movement and was first sentenced to imprisonment in 1908 for taking part in a demonstration at the House of Commons. She was arrested again in 1909 and 1910, but on these occasions was released without charge.
In 1908 Winifred Mayo founded the Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL) with other actresses, including Adeline Bourne. The AFL put on several performances to raise awareness of the women’s suffrage movement, and Winifred Mayo also assisted in training women in public speaking and performance. The AFL included a number of famous names, including Ellen Terry, Sybil Thorndike, Lilly Langtry, and many others. The AFL also advised fellow suffragettes in make-up and dressing-up “which enabled many women ‘on the run’ from the police to successfully disguise themselves and elude recapture.”
Her involvement in the suffrage movement brought Winifred Mayo in direct contact with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel, along with a number of noted women. She later described her ‘tremendous admiration and affection for [Mrs Pankhurst]’.
Winifred Mayo was also involved in the window-smashing campaign and in November 1911 was imprisoned for three weeks for smashing the windows of the Guards Club in Pall Mall. She tells the story of the event in a radio interview with BBC many years later – it’s a short snippet but fantastic to hear the story in her own words! Listen here – ‘A smashing time in Pall Mall’
By the time the census was being taken on 2 April 1911, the campaign for ‘Votes for Women’ was growing and there was a specific campaign to boycott the census by many Suffragettes (although, interestingly there were many who disagreed with the boycott). Across the country there were a great many who planned events and parties to avoid completing the census return.
In London, there were a number of events, but the most well-known was a large gathering, estimated at around 500 women and 70 men. The event began with music in Trafalgar Square, but later the group spent the evening at the Aldwych ice skating rink (near to where London School of Economics is situated today). Winifred Mayo was known to be part of the Aldwych group and even provided some of the entertainment with members of the Actresses’ Franchise League performing recitals of Suffragist poems. At around 3.30am the group relocated to a restaurant towards Covent Garden for refreshment.
There is far more to the story of the ‘avoiders’ and ‘boycotters’ of the 1911 census, so if you want to know more, check the book ‘Vanishing for the Vote’ by Jill Liddington. More can be found from the blog by Elizabeth Crawford – Women and her sphere(including a fascinating lecture given at the House of Commons (although it is an hour long – House of Commons lecture) – as well as the website of Professor Jill Liddington – here.
Winifred Mayo went on to have an extraordinary life, involved in many campaigns for supporting women, as well as equal rights for all. She passed away at the age of 97 in February 1967.
This one discovery of an entry in the 1911 census reveals the extraordinary history, not only personal but national and international history, that can be uncovered when researching the history of houses.
UPDATE: Since writing the post on the artist Peter Laszlo Peri and his former home in Willow Road, Hampstead, I have been contacted by Peter Peri’s grandson, also an artist and also named Peter Peri like his grandfather. I was delighted to receive feedback from the Peri family and their admiration of my blog post. But, alongside this, Peter Peri (the younger) was kind enough to offer some samples of his grandfather’s Constructivism artworks, including this one of the man himself in Berlin in c.1921!
So, next time you’re wandering around Hampstead or heading to Hampstead Heath on the weekend, you can think of the lesser-known Hungarian artist, Peter Lazslo Peri, a few doors away from the more famous Goldfinger.
Happy new year! As it has been a month since my last blog post, I haven’t had the chance to wish everyone a happy new year :-) I have been a little distracted by having a holiday, but also working on the proposal for my next book, as well as further research into an 18th century house in the Cotswolds. However, it is now time for another blog post!
Willow Road in Hampstead is most known for the Grade II* listed home of Hungarian architect, Ernö Goldfinger, who was made famous by Ian Fleming in the James Bond book, Goldfinger, in 1959. The real Goldfinger built his home at Nos.1-3 Willow Road in 1937-9 and it was much criticised when first completed. However, today, it is praised as a ‘Unique and influential modernist home’. No.2 Willow Road is now in the hands of The National Trust and can be visited at set times – No.2 Willow Road.
Willow Road in Hampstead was formerly a track way running adjacent to the Fleet River and was officially named Willow Road in 1845, which is believed to have been inspired by Willow trees planted at that time. It was developed with houses later in the 19th century, which included No.10 (originally No.3) constructed during the early 1880s. The first resident to move in was a school master, Mr. William Adams.
William Adams and his wife, Mary, also a school mistress, lived at the house in Willow Road through to the early 1900s. During this time, William and Mary rented out rooms in the house, which in 1891 included a fellow school mistress, Ellen Whelan, and in 1901 two brothers who were both clerks for the East India Company. Also in 1901 they had a visitor in the house, a singer, 27 year old Elizabeth Davies.
After the first world war, No.10 Willow Road became the home of a writer and essayist, Wilkinson Sherren, most remembered today for his Thomas Hardy guide to Wessex, The Wessex of Romance, published in 1902.
However, it was late in the 1930s, as war was about to break out again that the house became the home of Hungarian artist and sculptor, Peter Laszlo Peri. Born Ladislas Weisz in Hungary, he changed his name to Laszlo Peri when he moved to Germany in the 1920s, and then again, to Peter Peri, when he moved to England.
Peter Peri appears to have been a man of many talents, having previously been a bricklayer, as well as studying drama and architecture, before becoming an artist after moving to Berlin in the 1920s. He became a leading artist in the style of Constructivism, but it was also while in Germany that he became actively involved in politics with strong links to socialism and communism. Peri left Germany with his wife in 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor.
Peri moved from paintings to sculpture in the late 1920s, but in particular it was after his move to England that he soon gained a name for his work in figurative sculpture.
Peter Peri and his wife Mary continued at No.10 Willow Road throughout the years of the Second World War, and after the war Peter continued his work in sculpture, particularly with concrete. He was also noted for his ‘horizontal reliefs’ which featured on the sides of buildings or strategically placed to accompany architectural features. After the war, he had several solo exhibitions, as well as working on many private and municipal commissions. These included a solo exhibition at AIA Gallery in London in 1948, as well as the Whitechapel Gallery in 1953 and the Tate Gallery in 1958.
Peri completed a number of sculptures for schools, including several in Leicestershire and Warwickshire, but also completed projects for London County Council, and also the Ministry of Information. However, he is often most remembered for his sculpture, Sunbathers, for the Festival of Britain at Southbank in 1951. The sculpture is remembered for its aesthetic quality, but it is also remembered today because it is listed amongst the post-war sculptures that have gone missing!
Historic England is currently promoting a call to ‘Help Find Our Missing Art’, with a long list of public works of art that have either been destroyed or gone missing. Recognising that most of the art may never be seen again, they are putting out a call for photographs, stories, and memories of the art from members of the public. If you’re interested you can follow the link highlighted above for more details. Historic England will also hold an exhibition at Somerset House, Out There: Our Post-War Public Artthat will ‘follow the fates and fortunes’ of post-war public art, from February to April 2016.
Peter Laszlo Peri continued to exhibit his works and complete sculpture commissions throughout the 1950s and 60s, until he died in January 1967. Today, his works are held by a number of galleries across the country, including The Tate Gallery, The British Museum, Leeds City Art Collections, as well as the Hungarian National Gallery and The Arts Council.
Peter Peri may not have been made famous by being named as an evil character in a James Bond novel, but he certainly left an artistic legacy across Britain during the post-war period and is remembered as the other Hungarian of Willow Road, Hampstead.
With just a few days to go before Christmas, it seems appropriate that I post a blog with a Christmas connection. However, sadly, I don’t have a house history directly related to Christmas, so instead I’ve looked to a man who is often synonymous with Christmas, the author of A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens!
A few years ago, while working with Chestertons, I was asked to research the history of Bleak House in Broadstairs. It is well known as a house connected to the renowned Victorian author, for which, it is believed he said, it was ‘the residence he most desired.’
Today, Bleak House is noted for its crenelated appearance with a long row of windows looking out towards the sea, but when Charles Dickens stayed in the house it was known as Fort House and appeared much like a typical Georgian house. It was built around the turn of the 19th century and acquired the name ‘Fort House’ as it is believed it was the home of the Fort Captain. This was at a time when the Napoleonic wars were raging in Europe and like many coastal locations there was a genuine fear of invasion from across the seas. The house was built here for its ideal location as a look-out, but also the height meant it was also ideal for a telegraph station.
Dickens first came to the house in the early years of Victoria’s reign, around 1837, when Broadstairs had become a popular seaside resort and the house had become a lodging house. He visited regularly, and it was while staying at Fort House that he completed parts of some of his most well-known novels, including Nicholas Nickleby (1839), Dombey and Son (1848) and David Copperfield (1850). It was also while staying here that Dickens began working on the novel that would later give the house its name – Bleak House – published in 1853.
Dickens visited Fort House with his family many times, but he also hosted several other famous names of the 19th century, including former prime minister, William Gladstone, as well as another Victorian novelist, Wilkie Collins, and his biographer and friend, John Forster. It is also thought it may have been visited by the Danish fairy tale author, Hans Christian Anderson. Dickens is believed to have much favoured Fort House (although he stayed in other houses in Broadstairs) and is believed to have said it was the one ‘on which he had always set his affections’.
It was in the early years of the 1900s that Fort House was extended and re-fronted to what we recognise today. It was also at this time that the house was given the name ‘Bleak House’ and was recorded as such in the 1901 census. There are some theories that the house was used as inspiration for the Bleak House in his novel, although others have disagreed and suggested it is more likely the former residence of the author that inspired the creation of the name many years later.
During the 20th century, the house has had a number of extensions and renovations, although it is believed it still retains the original mahogany staircase and fireplaces. For much of the 20th century it has had a variety of uses and was both a residential home and also the Thanet smuggling museum and Dickens memorial museum. Since 2012 it has been reopened as a guest house and wedding venue, and accepts short term visitors to Broadstairs, much as it did in the 19th century when Charles Dickens came to stay.
This unique house tucked away in Belgravia was nicknamed The Baby Grand by none other than playwright, singer, and composer, Noel Coward.
A baby grand in both the sense of a baby grand house surrounded by its much larger Victorian stuccoed neighbours, as well as an affectionate name for a piano from a man noted for his wit and comedic song.
It was a short time ago, while working with Chestertons estate agents, that I was asked to research the former home of actress and great friend of Noel Coward’s, Joyce Carey. She was noted for a long acting career, but particularly remembered for her appearances in many of Coward’s films, including Brief Encounter (1945), In Which We Serve (1942), and Blithe Spirit (1945).
The house is situated along Chesham Street on the southern tip of Belgravia and was first laid out for new houses during the 1830s. Located on the Lowndes Estate, the name ‘Chesham’ originated from the home of the Lowndes family in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. However, this house, with an appearance distinctly unusual next to the tall early Victorian terraced houses, was built much later, during the 1920s.
The first residents were William and Beryl Riley-Smith, who moved into the house in 1922-23. Mr Riley-Smith later became High Sheriff of Yorkshire, but was particularly noted as an avid polo player. The couple lived in the house until 1925, the same year Beryl sat for a painting by the celebrated artist, Alfred Munnings, most known for his paintings of horses. In fact, the painting, which became known simply as ‘Beryl Riley-Smith riding Snowflake’, features Beryl riding side-saddle on the horse, Snowflake. The painting was sold at Christie’s in 2002 for £1.35 million.
Several years later, in 1954, after the turmoil of the Second World War, the actress, Joyce Carey moved into the house in Chesham Street.
Joyce Carey was born into an acting family, the daughter of actor, Gerald Lawrence, described as a ‘Matinee Idol’, and Lilian Braithwaite, successful star of stage and screen. With such parenting it was no surprise that Joyce followed in her parents footsteps and became an actress, first appearing on stage in 1916 at 18 years old.
Joyce Carey met Noel Coward in 1924, when her mother was starring in Coward’s play, The Vortex, and from that time they became firm friends. Joyce appeared in several of Coward’s plays and films, perhaps the most noted was her role as the manageress, Myrtle, in the film Brief Encounter with Celia Johnson and Trever Howard.
Joyce Carey became one of Noel Coward’s close friends and at the centre of Coward’s coterie, known as ‘the family’. After moving to ‘The Baby Grand’ in 1954, Joyce hosted many parties and gatherings with Noel Coward and their circle of friends. Joyce continued to live at No.12 Chesham Street until the late 1970s, while she continued to appear on stage and screen. She went on to appear in London Belongs to Me (1948) with Richard Attenborough and Alastair Sim and The End of The Affair (1955) with Deborah Kerr and John Mills. Her last stage appearance was alongside Peter O’Toole as Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion in 1984, but she was still acting at the age of 90 when she appeared in Michael Palin’s, No.27, in 1988.
With Remembrance Sunday yesterday and Remembrance Day approaching on Wednesday, I am reminded of a project I completed a short time ago in Somerset. I was asked to research the historic and architectural significance of a row of 15th century cottages in the small village of Mells, but along side this, I was asked to research a number of links to the village with one of the countries greatest architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Firstly, my research involved delving into the story of the medieval cottages in New Street, believed to have been built by John Selwood, Abbot of Glastonbury between 1456 and 1493. Today, they are recognised as the first example of what we know as town planning.
The history of Mells is also believed to have been the inspiration for the famous nursery rhyme ‘Little Jack Horner’! In 1543 the manor of Mells was acquired by Thomas Horner, but it is at this point that the old tale becomes mixed with the truth and apparently John ‘Jack’ Horner stole the deeds to the manor – from a pie! The deeds had supposedly been hidden in the pie and sent from the Abbot of Glastonbury to Henry VIII. This rumour led to the story that it was the inspiration for the nursery rhyme ‘Little Jack Horner’, who put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum. Although a good story, it is without foundation as the document recording the purchase of the manor by Thomas (not John) Horner is still retained in the manorial records of Mells.
However, along with the early history in Mells, my research also involved the historic links with Mells Manor during the early 20th century.
By the turn of the 20th century, Mells manor had passed to Sir John Francis Horner with his wife Lady Frances Horner. Prior to this, the family had been living in the Georgian ‘Mells Park House’ but in around 1900 Sir John and Lady Horner moved back to the old manor house and set about restoring it back into a family home. Lady Frances decided to engage her good friend Edwin Lutyens to undertake the alterations.
Lutyens added a Loggia with Tuscan columns and an outdoor sleeping area, as well as updating the interior of the 16th century manor house (where Charles I had stayed in 1644) with new bathrooms and kitchens, along with heating and electric light.
Amongst the surroundings of a newly updated manor house and the improvements to the gardens, Sir John and Lady Horner welcomed many family and friends to Mells at this time. Lady Horner was particularly known for her hospitality and with her connections to the artistic world, plus the family links to notable families of the age, Mells Manor is often highlighted as one of the country houses representing the golden Edwardian age before the horrors of the First World War. This is particularly poignant as Lady Francis Horner wrote of that time at Mells ‘…as if the sun always shone’, which contrasts sadly with the great loss they suffered in the First World War.
The designs of Sir Edwin Lutyens feature across Mells, and this is particularly noted in the war memorials in the parish church, St Andrews. In 1916, Lutyens completed a bronze wreath (with lettering by Eric Gill) to Raymond Asquith, eldest son of Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith (and husband to Katharine Horner, daughter of Sir John and Lady Horner) who died fighting in September 1916 at the beginning of the Somme offensive.
Sadly, the following year Lutyens was asked to complete another memorial, this time to Edward Horner, son of Sir John and Lady Horner, who died during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. Lutyens completed the base of the memorial, which was then topped with an equestrian statue of Edward Horner by Alfred Munnings. Significantly, the base by Lutyens much resembles his most famous war memorial, The Cenotaph in London, appearing as a miniature version of the world-famous landmark in Whitehall.
Lutyens completed a number of other projects in Mells, including a public shelter, in honour of Mark Horner, youngest son of Lord and Lady Horner, who died at the age of 16 in 1908, but given Lutyens’s reputation for war memorials, it is not a surprise to learn that he was also responsible for the Grade II* listed Mells village war memorial. It was completed in 1921 and features a tall column topped by a figure of St George slaying the dragon, surrounded by a curved wall with a yew hedge behind. On the central panel is an inscription to the lost of Mells:
“We died in a strange land facing the dark cloud of war and this stone is raised to us in the home of our delight”
The names of the fallen soldiers were then inscribed on panels to the side. Additional plaques were added in 1945 for those lost during the Second World War.
The contribution by Lutyens in Mells was significant, and in 1933 Lady Horner expressed her sentiment about him by saying: ‘Both in London and in the country he has beautified every house I had anything to do with, and the village of Mells owes a great deal to his skill.’