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Saturday, 20 March 2010

There's no place like home


I previously mentioned my keen interest in local history. As a result of my researches, I discovered that there had once been a sizeable mansion known as Church House close by. I was miffed that it was yet another mansion which I can now only visit in my imagination. Apparently, there was a house on the site as early as the 16th century, which is hardly surprising given that the nearby church, from which it derived its name, dates from the 11th century. Initially, I was rather envious of the ability of the 19th century occupants of my house to look out on to a vista of Tudor roof and chimney tops. In reality, the original Elizabethan mansion was rebuilt in the 18th century and on a more modest scale. The only description I have hitherto found of the Georgian house dates from 1912, where it is described in “A History of the County of Surrey” as being a large early 18th century building of two stories, in a very dilapidated condition, the upper part being used as workshops. “The external walls are covered with plaster, the roof is of tiles. The house faces north and south, the south being the principal front, and is approached through a fine wrought-iron gateway standing between brick piers surmounted by stone vases. The house is E-shaped and has at the back two semi-hexagonal bay windows. The hall is a fine panelled room, but unless immediately repaired will soon be in decay.” The warning proved prophetic and the whole house was demolished in the 1920s. Only the high boundary walls and the ornate gateway bear witness to the site’s former splendour. It is now used as a recreation ground and firework displays are held annually on Bonfire Night. It was a number of years before I realised that the impressive fireworks emanating from the site were a public display and not provided by a wealthy and philanthropic neighbour for my personal delight, having as I do a veritable grandstand view. During its chequered history, Church House had been a children’s home. It seems appropriate that the grounds should once again echo to the sound of countless children’s voices on Bonfire Night.

During the 18th century, Church House was lived in for a while by the celebrated actor, playwright and theatre manager David Garrick. The equally famous 18th century playwright and poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan also happened to live at Church House for a time, where he was said to have entertained the Prince Regent, the wayward eldest son of King George III, on a number of occasions.

Church House was in too decrepit a state to be saved. Thankfully its fate was not shared by Eagle House, only a mile or so away from where I live. In the Victorian era attempts were made to demolish this fine Jacobean building but a determined campaign by my spiritual ancestors ensured its survival. Eagle House was built for Robert Bell and his wife Alice Colston in 1613. Three centuries later the same “A History of the County of Surrey” described Eagle House as being of “of an unusual plan, for England, with a large room reaching from the front to the back of the house on each of the three floors, with smaller rooms and a staircase on each side of them. It is gabled, with ten gables, built of brick with stone quoins and much oak timber in the upper part. One of the staircases has been replaced, and some slight alterations have been made, chiefly owing to the addition of a wing. There are four remarkably fine fretwork ceilings of Bell's time.”

In common with the Tudor Sutton House in Hackney, Eagle House was turned into a school at one stage in its convoluted history. Its most famous pupil was the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who boarded there for a number of months in 1803. As with the Victorian novelists Bulwer-Lytton at Sutton House and Edgar Allan Poe at the Manor School in Hackney, the short time young Arthur spent at an English school did not prove to be the happiest days of his life. All three schoolboys took a distinct dislike to their respective headmasters. Nevertheless, in the 20th century Arthur’s brief stint as an English schoolboy was commemorated by a blue plaque on the wall of Eagle House. Having read Arthur’s essay on women, my sympathies lie wholly with his schoolmasters. The poisonous adult was no doubt equally obnoxious as a child. In his essay he describes the Hindu practise of suttee or sati, whereby the widow immolates hersef on the funeral pyre of her husband, as being repulsive. The tenor of Arthur’s hatred of the female sex is demonstrated when he compares his revulsion to suttee as being on par with his revulsion at the idea of widows spending their late husband’s money on the successor to her affections. In many ways Arthur is a Freudian analyst’s dream patient. His opinions about womankind seem to have been coloured in part by his fraught relationship with his mother Joanna. It seems she was more than happy to dump him at Eagle House so that she and Arthur’s father could enjoy an extended tour of Europe together without being saddled with the little wretch. And in the light of his later rampant misogyny, what self-respecting woman could blame her? Unsurprisingly, Arthur was never a hit with the ladies. When she was 17 and he was 43, a young woman named Flora Weiss was so disgusted by Arthur’s advances and his offering of a bunch of grapes that she let them slip, as if by accident, into the water. She later wrote in her diary: “I didn’t want the grapes because old Schopenhauer had touched them.” On behalf of women everywhere I raise a glass to toast the spirited Flora Weiss.The original owner of Eagle House, Robert Bell had been a founder member of the East India Company. I previously related how Captain Milward’s experiences working for the same company influenced his decision to decorate Sutton House with the opulent colours of the Orient as well as silk carpets.(keep the homes fires burning) Eagle House underwent extensive renovation at the behest of the Islamic Al-Furqan Foundation in the late 20th century. The last time I wandered around Eagle House, I was impressed by the way the ornate Jacobean panelling and ceilings were complimented by the elegant sofas covered in brightly coloured Middle Eastern silks.

In my own small way, I have been instrumental in helping to preserve a building from the area’s colourful past. After my impassioned speech at the Town Hall early last year in support of the redevelopment of the site next door, building work began a few months later. (Voice of the people )There was a worrying hiatus of months on end after the initial start. To my relief, they are now redeveloping the site in earnest again, although the clouds of dust from the gutted interiors have played havoc with my plants emerging from their winter slumbers.

Once the building is in a more acceptable state I intend to send photographs to the May Gibbs museum  in Sydney Australia. May Gibbs was the English born artist who found fame in Australia for her charming illustrations in her books for children. During the reign of King Edward VII she spent a Christmas with her relatives in the house next door and produced a series of amusing sketches of her stay, some of which can be seen at the museum dedicated to her work. I have also stated my belief that the renowned English novelist, poet and critic Ford Madox-Ford was born in the same house. Another snippet of knowledge I have garnered is that Ford Madox Ford was the maternal grandson of one of the most pre-eminent Victorian artists, Ford Madox Brown. One of the latter’s most famous works “The last of England” was inspired by the emigration of a Pre-Raphaelite sculptor to Australia. Two decades later, May Gibbs, then a child of 4, set out for a new life in Australia with her parents. Unlike the anxious couple in Madox-Brown’s painting, it was by no means the last of England for May as she returned several times to her native country, including that memorable Edwardian Christmas  in 1904 spent in the house now being renovated next door.

Sadly no attempt was made to save the greatest prize of all in terms of local and national history: Horatio Nelson’s and Emma Hamilton’s last home together at Merton Place.

It was demolished in the 1820s. Even though Queen Victoria did not come to the throne for another 17 years, there was already a move away from the licentiousness and excesses of her uncle, King George IV’s reign. No one was interested in saving what had been the scene of a notorious ménage à trois between the Hamiltons and Horatio Nelson, even if the latter died one of Britain’s greatest heroes. After Nelson died Emma Hamilton, whose own husband Sir William had died some years before, found herself mired in debt. She was declared bankrupt in 1813 and there was a forced sale of her possessions. One of the most poignant reminders of her ill-fated affair with Admiral Nelson can still be found in Wimbledon today. On first entering Southside House to begin the tour of the building, visitors can see the rocking horse claimed to have been owned by Emma and Nelson’s daughter Horatia standing in the corner. Until his dying day Nelson was wont to carry around with him a drawing of Horatia as a small child, standing next to her beloved rocking horse.