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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Entering St James’s Park from the Whitehall side, it’s likely you will have come across Duck Island Cottage. Situated on the eastern end of the park’s lake stands a 19th century cottage – quite a contrast with the nearby neo-classical, imposing grey stone government buildings and Buckingham Palace. Situated by the lakeside with a small stream running under a bridge linking the cottage’s two sections, it also includes a sweet little garden. When I first saw it, it reminded me of Mr McGregor’s garden in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales.
As part a chain of royal parks (which are separated by roads), St James’s Park stands out from the others because of its birdlife. Established in 1603 under King James I (1566-1625), the park was named after a women’s leper hospital dedicated to St James the Less. After being landscaped, the park became home to exotic animals, including camels, crocodiles and an elephant! It wasn’t until 1664, the famous pelicans arrived as a gift by the Russian ambassador, and they still remain today. At the time, a long canal ran nearly the length of the whole park, with a duck decoy in the south-east corner to capture ducks for the royal dining table. The island in the middle of the decoy was given the name Duck Island, which was entrusted to the appointed Governor of Duck Island to oversee. The first cottage on the site wasn’t built until King William III’s (1650-1702) reign in the late 17th century, initially as a tea house. By the 18th century, Duck Island was removed due to the stench of stagnant ponds and replaced by grass.
Over the centuries, the park was re-landscaped many times, with the body of water changing shape between a stream, channels, smaller ponds and now the lake as we see today. The landscape of the park today is mostly down to the Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835), who remodelled the straight canal of water into a more natural looking curved lake in the late 1820s. He also reintroduced Duck Island, which had been missing for several decades at this point. With new trees and shrubs surrounding the cottage, birdlife returned to the park.
In 1837, the Ornithological Society of London was founded with the aim to protect the birds and three years later, work started on plans for a cottage to house a bird keeper. Architect John Burges Watson (1803-1881) designed the cottage comprising of two buildings – a dwelling for the bird keeper and a clubroom for the Society – which were completed in April 1841. The two buildings were connected by a small covered bridge, offering views across the lake and garden. The romantic design appears to be Swiss inspired and wouldn’t look out of place in the countryside.
From 1900 to 1953, Duck Island Cottage was home to bird keeper Thomas Hinton. The cottage was damaged during the Blitz in 1940 and by 1953, following Hinton’s death, the cottage was abandoned after it was considered unfit for habitation. Today, the cottage features water treatment facilities and pumps for the lake and fountain, while the garden is maintained by the Royal Parks. Duck Island is a nature reserve as a sanctuary and breeding ground for the park’s birds, including herons, mute swans and eastern or great white pelicans. If you want to see the pelicans being fed, head to the grassy bank adjacent to the cottage between 2.30pm-3pm every day.
- Duck Island Cottage, St James’s Park, Westminster, SW1A 2BJ. Nearest stations: Westminster or St James’s Park. Park is open daily from 5am-midnight. For more information, visit the Royal Parks website.
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Gaze at Ruben’s stunning ceiling at a 17th century survivor of the old Palace of Whitehall
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.
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 (1577-1640) 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.
For other blog posts on Open House London, read:
- Inside out: A rare chance to step inside the Lloyd’s Building at Open House
- Open House London 2013: Highlights gallery from Royal Courts of Justice, Foreign Office & City Hall
- Middle Temple Hall: Legal life, Twelfth Night and a rare survivor of Elizabethan architecture
- Derelict beauty: A visit to Caroline Gardens Chapel with Open House London
- Visit the ruins of an old Roman bath house with Open House London.
To read about the story behind nearby Great Scotland Yard, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.