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Charlton House: A Jacobean treasure in south-east London

The history of a striking 17th century palatial home.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Charlton House is London’s best preserved Jacobean building

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.

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The grand marble fireplace features sculptures of Venus and Vulcan

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.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The stunning long gallery runs the width of the house and features wood panelling

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.
© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The original oak staircase still exists in the building’s north east corner


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41-42 Cloth Fair: City of London’s oldest house which has survived the Great Fire and the Blitz

The Great Fire of London ravaged the City of London in 1666, altering the cityscape forever. However, despite the blaze ending around Giltspur Street just 300 metres away, one Smithfield home dating to before the fire still survives today.

41 42 Cloth Fair © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

41-42 Cloth Fair is believed to be the oldest surviving home in the City of London

Located opposite St Bartholomew The Great Church is what is said to be the oldest house in the City of London. The name Cloth Fair stems back to the annual cloth fair held in August in the churchyard of St Bartholomew, which has stood on the site since 1123 when it was an Augustinian Priory. The fair was originally a trading place for merchants, but its popularity meant other attractions became popping up, including freak shows, music and other stalls. It later became known as the Bartholomew Fair and ran until 1855. It was only after the dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII (1491–1547) that the priory was reduced and houses were allowed to be built in the area. Located in what is known as the Farringdon Without ward of the City, 41-42 Cloth Fair is the only home on the road surviving from that period. The building dates back to the late Tudor/Jacobean period, having been constructed between 1597 and 1614.

When the building of 41-42 Cloth Fair was completed in 1614, it was part of a scheme of 11 houses with a courtyard in the middle called ‘the Square in Launders Green’, named so because it was on the site of the priory’s laundry. Amazingly, the houses managed to survive the Great Fire when it struck 52 years later. Records show they were unscathed due to being enclosed with the large priory walls. The decades and centuries went by and the buildings remained – if a little ravaged by time – until the early 20th century. In 1929, 41-42 Cloth Fair was earmarked for demolition by the Corporation of London as part of its slum clearance programme on the grounds of public health. Fortunately it was saved when it was bought for £3,000 freehold, before being restored by Paul Paget (1901-1985) and John Seely (the 2nd Lord Mottistone) in 1930, who used the building as their home and an office for their architectural practice until 1978. It obviously survived The Blitz and was converted into offices in 1979 after it was sold by Paget and Seely. Over the 80s and early 90s it was rather neglected, but fortunately bought in 1995 and extensively renovated to the home you see today, with the co-operation of English Heritage, Royal Commission of Historic Monuments and the City of London Corporation.

The ground floor exterior is probably the most changed today and looks pretty modern. However, if you look up at the first and second floors, the rectangular timber bays with led glass windows and their pediment crowns are evidence of its history. Today the address is a Grade II-listed four-bedroom home with roof terrace worth several million pounds. In 2000, the building was honoured with the City Heritage Award for being an asset to the local area. Among the famous people to have visited the house include Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002). There are rumours that skeletons are buried in foundations of the building, which could be plausible given its location so close to the church.

Meanwhile, when you’re in the area check out 43 Cloth Fair next door – a Georgian house which was formerly home to Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), a writer and broadcaster who was a significant figure in the heritage movement and fought  to save many historical buildings from demolition. A blue plaque notes the former resident and today you can rent the house for a holiday let from the Landmark Trust. Also, around the corner on West Smithfield is St Bartolomew’s Gatehouse, another survivor from the Tudor period.

  • 41-42 Cloth Fair, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest station: Barbican or St PaulsPlease note this is a private residence and not open to the public.

To read about the St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse around the corner, click here

Or to find out about the nearby Golden Boy Of Pye Corner, to commemorate the end of the Great Fire, click here.

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Neo-classicism, masques and an execution site: The history and beauty of Banqueting House

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Inigo Jones’s Banqueting Hall and Ruben’s canvasses are accessible to the public

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The Southern End of Rubens’s ceiling depicts the ‘Peaceful Reign of James I’

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

The chandeliers are now lit by electricity rather than candles

Like many Londoners, I have walked or rode a bus past Banqueting House more times than I could count. I must confess I didn’t know much about it until I decided to visit during Open House London and was totally stunned by the beauty and history of the building. However, unlike many of the buildings open during the September weekend, Banqueting House is open to the public all year round (the only difference was Open House was free). Located halfway down Whitehall, at the junction with Horse Guards Avenue, it is just across the road from Horse Guards Parade.

Banqueting House is the only surviving building of the old Palace of Whitehall, which was mostly destroyed by fire in the late 17th century. A previous banqueting house on the same site was destroyed by a fire (yes, another one) in January 1619 when over-zealous workmen cleaning up after a New Year’s celebration decided to burn the rubbish inside the building (not exactly the most worldly of men I would say…). King James I of England (1566-1625) immediately ordered it to be rebuilt and commissioned architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) to design one. Jones had spent a lot of time studying the architecture of Italy and was a leading figure bringing the fashion for neo-classicism to London. His designs helped architecture move away from the largely timber-framed and Jacobean English Renaissance style in favour of simpler designs influenced by the classical world. The building was eventually finished in 1622 at a cost of £15,618 – a considerably large sum in Stuart England.

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Takes your breath away: This is the splendour which awaits when you enter through the main door

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The grand façade of Banqueting House – where Charles I met his maker outside

The building comprises of three floors – of which two are accessible on your visit. The ground floor was for store rooms and cellars, while the first floor and second floor encompassed the actual Banqueting Hall – with a gallery on the second floor where the less fortunate would watch the king and his chums having a raucous good time at their banquets, masques and royal receptions. Although built by King James I, it was really his son Charles I (1600-1649) who transformed the space into what we see today thanks to his commission of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens to create the ceiling canvasses around 1629-1630. The canvasses were painted by Rubens at his studio in Antwerp and were unveiled at Banqueting House in March 1636. Today, his canvasses remain the only of his ceiling paintings still in-situ. The central image is The Apotheosis of James I, which celebrates the Stuart belief of kings as an absolute monarchy and their God-like status. The two other main canvasses show the Union of the Crowns (England and Scotland) and Peaceful Reign of James I.

For two decades, the Banqueting Hall played host to many celebrations under Rubens’ masterpiece. However, as we all know,  the fun all stopped during the English civil war and subsequent revolution, when Oliver Cromwell took charge. King Charles I was executed on a temporary wooden scaffolding outside the windows of his beloved Banqueting House,  the scene of many happy evenings in his past. His last words on 30 January 1649 were ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be’.

Following the restoration, the Banqueting Hall was again used for royal parties, but this began to decline in the late 17th century. Throughout the 18th century, it was mostly used as a chapel to replace the Tudor one destroyed in the Palace of Whitehall fire in 1698. Throughout the 19th century, the building was being used as a place for entertainment once more as it hosted concerts, before being given as a museum to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) by Queen Victoria in 1893. It is now a Grade I-listed building and managed by the Historic Royal Palaces charity so the public can visit this important piece of history and architecture.

  • Banqueting House, Whitehall, SW1A 2ER. Nearest stations: Westminster , Charing Cross or Embankment. Tickets: £5 or £4 concessions, Under 16s: Free. For more information, visit the Banqueting House website.
© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Centrepiece: The Apotheosis of James I


For other blog posts on Open House London, read:

To read about the story behind nearby Great Scotland Yard, click here.

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