Houses Through Time

Added about 5 years ago by Robert Shepherd

GUEST BLOG: Enjoying A House Through Time on BBC 2? Then this might just be the book for you...

Fans of David Olusoga’s BBC2 series will know that it explores the histories of the inhabitants of a single house from the day it was built to the present. The series currently running takes a late Georgian house in Newcastle, 5 Ravensworth Terrace, built in the 1820s. His philosophy is that the lives of the inhabitants are interesting for themselves but also because they are impacted by and shed light on the wider history of the town and of Britain.

Captain Gray’s Houses visits similar territory. No doubt David Olusoga’s researchers can ferret out a house where the inhabitants’ stories are particularly vivid and relevant to the issues that interest him. With a specific house chosen because of its location or architecture one is a prisoner of the sources that survive but having a whole row of twelve houses to play with which was built a hundred years earlier than Olusoga’s Newcastle house widens the scope enormously. There is no shortage of captivating lives in Sion Row. The most striking feature is their extraordinary variety. Their status ranged from those who played on the national stage to those who struggled to make a living and at least one who ended in the workhouse. That forgotten species, those who lived on a modest private income, is well represented. Even then there is a world of difference between the feisty widow Mrs Molesworth drafting her own will, casting judgment on her relatives, and poor blind Lydia Julian eking out a living with her daughter, having been abandoned by her husband, who might serve as the epitome of the old-fashioned cad and who did not shrink from bigamy.

Inevitably there are naval men, but the active career of a Captain Raymond or Commander Robertson is a world apart from Petty Officer Skewes in the technologically changing but sleepy Victorian navy. Among the military men there are fighting soldiers such as Willoughby Cotton who fought in the peninsula and sought out action even as late as the Crimean War, Walton Rogers who won the MC at Anzio and became a staff officer, logistics specialists like Edmund Viner-Brady, and dilettantes like Captain Antrobus, who liked a fine cavalry uniform and dodged overseas service, in contrast to Alan Hingston, who served with the Gurkhas and became a prisoner of the Japanese. Mention of the Gurkhas is a reminder of all those who were affected by the Empire in some way, and there are many of them, from Edward Ironside and Robartes Carr serving with the East India Company in the eighteenth century to the ambassador Sir Stanley Fingland in the twentieth. Three families, remarkably, were connected to the tiny island of Tobago, two as planters and slave owners, the other as governor. On the other hand, Captain Raymond was involved in the suppression of the slave trade and the abolition of flogging in the services. Others, including Captain Gray and Willoughby Cotton, had Jamaica connections. Two families who appear to have been struggling to make a living in England emigrated to New Zealand. There are Canadian, Australian and South African connections too. Even the Farmers, mother and daughters who were not very well off, were born in Chile and had connections in Australia. On the other hand, many made their lives purely in the UK. Their occupations range from the professional—lawyers and clergymen are particularly common—to the commercial and clerkly. William Hickey’s older brother and lawyer, Joseph, indulged in some quite disreputable behaviour as well as restraining his wilder brother William. There is a set of writers and publishers, and, until the second half of the twentieth century, some rather undistinguished artists. A small thread of colour printing emerges. Dutch merchant Sir Gerard Roeters patronised Huguenot artist Jacob Le Blon who pioneered a process for three colour printing in the eighteenth century and, in the nineteenth, the Vizetelly brothers specialised in printing illustrated books in colour. A film director achieved cult fame with Hammer. Many had local businesses, from butchers and grocers to a carriage builder, a photographer, and a pioneer of electric boats and there is a surprising number who were connected with the pub trade. An element of Victorian low farce is injected by an attempt to welcome the Comte de Paris and his new bride to their home in York House and by a local businessman who drunkenly wooed the proprietor of the Alma Tavern and ended on the wrong end of a breach of promise suit. Some were successful, others were not, and a handful became bankrupt. Some were uxorious, but there are divorces and desertions, there are spinsters and bachelors, large families and the childless. There are even one or two who tangled with the law.

For two centuries the residents were firmly of the middle orders but at the end of the nineteenth century the houses were old-fashioned and fell into decline and in some cases disrepair. Multiple occupancy was common and it took until after the Second World War for a recovery in fortunes to set in.

Captain Gray’s Houses does not only deal with the stories of its residents, however. It sets out to be an architectural history that records the building of the houses and the changes that have been made to the fabric and their amenities over 300 years and fully illustrates their remarkable state of preservation. It locates them in a Twickenham that evolves from agricultural village and river port to an eighteenth-century vision of Arcadia and to a modern commuter suburb.

Captain Gray's Houses tells the fascinating story of the eighteenth-century houses of Sion Row, Twickenham. In telling the story 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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