The History of Captain Gray’s Houses

Added about 5 years ago by Robert Shepherd

/images/blog/Sion Row today.jpgGUEST BLOG: Robert Shepherd, author of Captain Gray's Houses, explains what drove him to write about the houses on Sion Row, Twickenham, and how he managed to discover such an interesting story behind them.

It is hard not to be interested in the history of a house that is almost 300 years old and, from the time we arrived in 1983, I tried to find out what I could. Naturally I joined the Georgian Group and SPAB. Very quickly the great Dr Dick Cashmore, doyen of the local history society, arrived on the doorstep with several pages of notes, mainly on the early owners and occupants. I gleaned what I could over the next two decades, always thinking that one day I might attempt a history, but a busy working life with nearly half my time spent overseas did not leave much room. I was particularly interested in the construction of the houses and the variations of details between them. There seemed to some chance of understanding what choices were offered to the first tenants by the builders as the row is so well preserved. There is nothing like living in the houses for gaining a feeling for how they are put together and I felt I was reasonably on top of that.

What really galvanised me into action was Tony Beckles Willson, local Pope scholar and moving spirit behind setting up the Twickenham Museum. Tony was producing what he called an “occasional paper” on Sion Row. At a fairly late stage I got a quick view of the manuscript and made some comments but did not manage to persuade Tony that no 2 was (obviously to me) part of the original build. There were various other lacunae in the paper but what really spurred me on was that there was obviously so much more to be discovered. Nothing was known of Captain Gray himself, not even whether he was naval or military. I determined to fill in the gaps and really get down to some serious research.

By the time the paper appeared in 2005 I was a self-employed consultant and better able to manage my time. The first task was to tie down the good captain. It was fairly easy to establish that he had been in the navy although it was not encouraging to find that Charnock’s Biographia Navalis says only:

John Gray – is to be noted only as having been on 26th January 1711 appointed Captain of the Folkestone. He is said in Mr Hardy’s list to have died in England in the year 1736; but every manuscript list we have seen is silent concerning him.

In fact, digging around in the National Archives unearthed quite a lot more information, including letters from him that allowed his naval career to be reasonably reconstructed, but it was only comparatively recently that firm evidence of his residence in Clerkenwell and his trading with Jamaica before he came to Twickenham surfaced in Chancery cases and parish records.

In the early stages much time was spent in the London Metropolitan Archives where the Sion Manor records are kept, as these had to be trawled to find all the owners and when the houses changed hands. Sometimes the price was recorded as well and some information on residents. Chasing down the residents became a major task as there were five or six hundred of them and a surprising number had left some biographical traces of themselves. The ever-growing amount of online data made this a possible task, which it would not have been even a decade earlier. A local history society paper of 1981, Twickenham 1600-1900 People and Places, comments that we know practically nothing about such people as Thomas Scurr, Mrs Molesworth, Thomas Lockwood, Mrs May and William Paine; we now know something of most of them.

Tussling with the Middlesex Deed Registry led to information about the buil ding of Montpelier Row, Captain Gray’s other venture in Twickenham.

Unscrambling the building history of the Sion Row houses was reasonably successful. It is sometimes hard to distinguish original features from later reinstatement of copies or architectural salvage, fire surrounds are particularly difficult. It is also hard to date changes made through the nineteenth century as they are not documented and it seems unlikely that they will ever all come to light.

In spite of the gaps and frustrations the chase has been fun and rewarding; a great deal has come to light. I only hope that the results are enlightening and entertaining.

Captain Gray's Houses tells the fascinating story of the eighteenth-century houses of Sion Row, Twickenham. Through the tale of these houses and their occupants, a remarkable insight into the entire nation's social history is revealed. Get your copy today.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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