Charlton House: A Jacobean treasure in south-east London
The history of a striking 17th century palatial home.
While London today spreads across 40 square miles, it’s easy to forget many parts of the capital were countryside until the past few centuries. Today, many palatial ‘country’ estates and palaces exist within the London borders, such as Strawberry Hill House and Eltham Palace. One such place is Charlton House in south-east London, widely considered as the best preserved Jacobean building in the capital.
Charlton House was built from 1607-12 for Sir Adam Newton, Dean of Durham (d.1630), who was tutor to Henry, Princes Of Wales (1594-1612) – son of King James I (1566-1625). It is believed Charlton House was designed by the architect John Thorpe (1560-1620) on the site of an older building. The site was conveniently located about two miles away from the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich so it would have been easy for the prince to travel between for lessons. However, the prince ended up dying of typhoid fever when he was just 18 just as the house was completed, leaving his younger brother, the future King Charles I (1600-1649) as the heir to the throne. Following the prince’s death, Newton continued to work for the royal court and resided in the house. He and his wife Kathleen are commemorated with marble monuments in St Luke’s Church just outside the grounds, which was built the same year as his death. Today, the house’s royal connection can be seen with the Prince of Wales feather above the east door to the hall and in further details in the Grand Salon.
Following Newton’s death, the house was passed on to his son Sir Henry Puckering Newton, before it was sold to Sir William Ducie in the mid 17th century, who made substantial improvements to the building. In 1680, the estate was bought by East India merchant Sir William Langhorne. He died without an heir in 1715 so the estate was passed to his nephew Sir John Conyers. The Maryon-Wilson family went on to own the house from 1767 to 1923. Under their ownership, the southern extension was built by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) in 1877. The original chimneys were replaced by mock Tudor ones in the late 19th century.
During World War I, the house was used as a hospital. A few years after, the house ceased to be used as a residential home when it was given to Greenwich Borough Council by the Maryon-Wilsons in 1925. Under the council’s management, a public library was established in the Victorian wing before it was closed in 1991 due to cost-cutting measures. In January 1945, the north-eastern wing of the building was destroyed by a V-2 bomb during World War II. Due to a shortage of building materials, the wrong colour bricks were used in the rebuilding, which can be clearly seen today.
Today the building is Grade-I listed. Made of red brick and white stone dressings, the house is set out in an E-plan layout. The original gateway to the estate is today marooned in the middle of the front lawn after the village green was enclosed by Charlton House’s owners, the Maryon-Wilson family in 1829. Meanwhile, in the back, the paved courtyard looks out over the Gardens, with some of the original estate forming Charlton Park behind. A part of a 19th century Ha-Ha remains today, while an ancient Mulberry tree in the front grounds is believed to date back to 1608. In the north-west corner of the grounds, overlooking the road, is a summer house or orangery, which was amazingly converted into public toilets in the 1930s. There is hope that the building will be restored in the future.
Charlton House is open today as a community centre, featuring a tea room, library, language school and a function venue for weddings, conferences and meetings. Although the whole of the building is not normally open to the public, I joined a tour of the building during Open House London. As well as learning about the history of the building, I got to see the stunning fireplaces, plasterwork ceilings and original oak staircase. The Grand Salon is particularly impressive with its marble fireplace flanked by sculptures of Venus and Vulcan, with the Stuart coat of arms and the initials JR (King James) in the west bay and the motto ‘Ich Dien’ (German for ‘I serve’) in the east bay.
- Charlton House, Charlton Road, Charlton, SE7 8RE. Nearest station: Charlton (trains from Charing Cross and Cannon Street). For more information, visit the Charlton House website.
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