The Book of Molesey
Rowland G. M. Baker, 1986
'A House with lawns enclosing it,|
A living river by the door'.
Robert Louis Stevenson|
In the year 1519 Sir Thomas Heneage, Cardinal Wolsey's gentleman usher, wishing to be within call of his eminence, acquired an estate in East Molesey and erected for himself a sumptuous mansion. Thus started a trend which was to continue for several centuries. The position of Molesey, within an easy ride of the metropolis, on the banks of the Thames, on the doorstep of Hampton Court, but in rural sequestration, provided a haven for those whose business required them to be close to the capital, but whose desires were to be free of its dismal smoke-wracked hurly-burly. Even before the accepted commutor age, various people who possessed the means purchased a piece of Molesey and located their country seat here. At the end of the last century the village of West Molesey was surrounded by no less than ten houses large enough to be called mansions. Not one now remains!
The mansion that Sir Thomas Heneage built was probably where Cedar Road is now. A large house remained on the site until 1930, and was said to have vaults of substantial masonry and wide arches of far greater extent than would have been required for the house as it then existed. In the early 19th century it was called Walnut Tree House. In 1853 it was bought by Frederick Lowton Spinks, this country's last serjeant-at-law, given a new classical facade, and renamed East Molesey Lodge. In the grounds stood a large cedar of Lebanon, after which the present roads are named.
When, c1780, the owners of the gunpowder mills became lords of the manors, the mill buildings were demolished, and the mill house, which probably dated from the 17th century (when it was the largest house in East Molesey), was renovated and turned into a country residence. All the land between the river Mole and Walton Road, from Bell Road westward to where Seymour Road now runs, was purchased and transformed into a vast park. Horace Walpole visited the estate in 1795 and wrote of it in one of his letters: 'The situation seems handsome, the house extremely pretty, there is a lovely little gallery painted in trelliage'. From 1821 to 1835 it was owned by Joseph Todd, a haberdasher from London. In true fairytale fashion he started life as an apprentice in a shop, married the owner's daughter, inherited the shop and, when he retired to live the life of a country gentleman at East Molesey, it was with a princely fortune of nearly one million sterling. Todd's descendants sold the estate around 1850 to the Dowager Lady Clinton, on whose death in 1876 the house was demolished and the park developed as a high-class residential estate. The site of the house is now occupied by East Molesey Court, a red brick house, built about 1880 in Jacobean style. In 1927 Molesey Council proposed to adapt it for offices and use the grounds for recreation. It would have cost £12,000, but was turned down. Two years later the house, together with the land on the other side of the Mole, was laid out as a sports ground, firstly for the Distillers Company, and then for the Trollope and Colls Group. On the night of 30 July 1983 a disastrous fire gutted the house; the burnt out hulk still remains a gaunt sight. Its future is unsure.
When East Molesey Park was split up for housing, one lot of some ten acres bordering on the Mole was sold, on condition that only one house was erected thereon and that to be of not less that £4,000 value. The house was designed by the architect Edward Salter for his brother Talford. Unfortunately, due to an error in measuring-out, the builder constructed the house much closer to Molesey Park Road than the original plans showed, and the Local Board seriously considered ordering him to demolish the building and re-erect it in the proper place. However, they let it stay and, when the house was enlarged in 1891, allowed the road to be diverted in a wide loop to permit a garden in front of it. As early as 1781 a part of this plot was known as The Wilderness, and this was adopted as the name of the house. The estate is now the sports ground of the Standard Chartered Bank.
The large 19th century house, now three separate apartments, known as 15, 17 and 19 Arnison Road, once stood in extensive grounds stretching back to Bridge Road, and faced what was then a delightful little footpath through the woods. At one time it was called Strawberry Villa, as no less than an eighth of an acre of the grounds was devoted to the cultivation of this fruit, described in 1870 as 'some of the finest strawberries that were ever put on table', and so prolific, that 382 fruits were picked from just six plants selected at random. The owner was then Mr Alfred Goodman, a successful lawyer, who was also the drum-major for the London Scottish. His kilted figure and dashing aplomb in this role, during the procession to mark the Queen's jubilee, so caught the public eye that it inspired one composer to write what became a one-time popular song Here comes the great Drum-major. The name was later changed to Araucaria, which derives from the botanical name for the Chile Pine or Monkey Puzzle tree which dominated the garden.
Of West Molesey's mansions the largest was undoubtedly Hurst House, a pleasant Georgian building, surrounded by grounds and pleasure gardens which covered all the land now occupied by that part of the Hurst Park development south of Hurst Road. The house was probably built at the end of the 18th century for Sir Robert Smyth, baronet, lord of the manor of West Molesey, a one-time Member of Parliament and staunch supporter of Thomas Paine. At the time of the French Revolution he renounced his title and went to live in Paris. During the 19th century it was occupied by a number of different people, most of whose names could be found among the pages of Burke and Debrett. In 1890 the house was purchased by the Hurst Park Racing Club and was for a time used as a clubhouse. It was demolished about 1900. Rows of stables were built on part of the grounds to house the racehorses and, during the last war, with the stalls removed, these were used by the Home Guard as a rifle range.
Next to Hurst House in New Road was what was once quite a large house. Probably also built in the 18th century, it too was owned by the Smyth family, maybe as a dower house to the larger mansion. Later it was occupied by Joseph Palmer, soldier, author, and donor of several West Molesey charities. Born Joseph Budworth, he served for a time in the army, rising to the rank of Captain. From action at the siege of Gibraltar he carried wounds to his dying day. He married a rich Irish lady, Elizabeth Palmer, and retired to live at West Molesey. When, through his wife, he inherited large estates in Ireland, he changed his name to Palmer. But in spite of his new found affluence he still preferred to live quietly in this small house in Molesey rather than in either of the massive mansions in the Emerald Isle which he possessed. One of his poems, On Simplicity, part of which is quoted as the prologue to this book, tells of rural life in 'Dear Peaceful Molesey'. He was a great campaigner for control of child labour, and one of his books, The Lancashire Collier Girl, tells of a little girl forced to go down the mines and dig coal in order to bring up her orphaned brothers and sisters. Palmer presented the village of West Molesey with the clock which still chimes the hours from the church tower, and gave money to provide Christmas cheer for the poor, which is still paid. He died in 1815 and lies buried in the churchyard. At that time the house was called Mole Cottage. It was purchased by Sir Robert Carden, Lord Mayor of London and Member of Parliament, considerably enlarged in battlemented Gothic style, and renamed Mole Lodge. Its later name, Mole Abbey, dates from the beginning of this century, and was probably inspired by the appearance of Carden's additions. As with all West Molesey's mansions it was pulled down for development.
Further along Hurst Road, standing in five acres of ground, now occupied by Wilton Gardens, was Hurstside. Its most distinguished resident was Sir Henry Thompson (1820-1909), a noted surgeon, who was one of the first to operate successfully for the removal of gall-stones. He operated on both the King of the Belgians and Napoleon III. His talents in other fields were many: he was an amateur astronomer of no mean ability and had an observatory at Hurstside which included a telescope twice the size of any then in use. He was an excellent artist, a writer of novels, a collector of china, and his interest in hygiene led him to become one of the first in this country to advocate and popularise cremation, culminating in the formation of the crematorium at Golders Green. He bitterly opposed the extension of the cemetery at West Molesey, which ironically brought graves almost to his back door.
Where Grange Road now runs there stood another Georgian mansion, The Grange, probably built for Sir Richard Sutton MP, Under-Secretary of State in Pitt's administration, who bought up several pieces of land around 1772. The estate of some 15 acres extended from Walton Road to Beauchamp Road. The house was originally called Elm Lodge, but in 1843 was bought by a barrister named Edmund Lionel Wells who gave it its later name. In 1903 the whole estate was taken over by the building firm of A. & F. Jury of Tooting, who commenced erecting houses. The development was halted by the First World War. In 1928 Molesey Council took some of the land for the erection of municipal housing (most of which has recently been demolished and rebuilt). The old house itself was turned into flats, and a large ornamental lake of over an acre in extent gradually filled in. At the end of the Second World War, the rest of the estate was bought by the Council, the mansion was pulled down, and the process of development continued. The site of the house is now occupied by Brende Gardens.
Immediately adjacent to The Grange, on the ground now occupied by Molesey Football Club and the surrounding roads, was The Priory. In May 1785 this estate was the venue for one of the earliest balloon flights in England. James Sadler, the first English-born aeronaut, went up with William Wyndharn MP, in a flight which they hoped would take them to France, but which the wind decreed would drop them in the mouth of the river Thames instead. It was acquired around 1845 by Messrs Field and the outbuildings used for the treatment of wax for candles. The house was demolished during the 1930s.
In High Street, where the present house-mother scheme for the elderly called Manor Court stands, was the oldest and most interesting of West Molesey's great houses. Probably dating from the late 16th century, although much altered and enlarged later, it was a rambling house, partly brick and partly weatherboard, of great character, full of attics, gables, and little extensions, and with a fine staircase curving around a central wooden pillar running right up to the top of the house like a great ship's mast. The house may have been West Molesey's original manor house; indeed during the latter part of its life it was called Old Manor House, although for decades prior to the 1930s its name was The Limes, and before that Ivy Cottage.
Two mansions about which little requires to be said were to be found on either side of Walton Road at the far western end of the parish — Ivy Lodge on the south side where Tonbridge Road is now; and Sutton Lodge (otherwise Sutton Villa) on the north side. Ivy Lodge was built about 1850 and demolished in the 1930s. The life of Sutton Lodge almost spanned the 19th century; its site is now covered by the waters of the Bessborough Reservoir.
An older and much more interesting house was The Lodge, formerly Moulsey Villa, which stood just to the south of Ivy Lodge, off what is now Molesey Road. A house stood on this site at least from the 18th century and probably well before that. Here lived an eminent distiller named Jenkin Jones, who insured part of the premises in 1781, but was killed four years later by a fall from his horse. Another early resident was Sir Stephen Shairp, who retired here after being British ambassador to Russia. His daughter married Captain Marryatt of Midshipman Easy fame. At one time the house served as a seminary, catering for 17 young ladies. It then became the home of Dr John Cockle, a noted Victorian physician, whose daughter presented the lych-gate to West Molesey Church in his memory. It was later re-named Monks' Pool. The coach-house and outbuildings stood as Rose Cottages until 1973, when they made way for the construction of The Dene housing estate.
The last mansion to fall to the demolition contractor's hammer was the Grove, in Walton Road. In the 18th and early 19th centuries it was owned by the Palmer family, lords of the manor of Walton, and occupied for a while by Colonel Hotham, son of one Lord Hotham and father of another. In 1829 the house was remodelled by the architect Decimus Burton for the Rt Hon John Wilson Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty, Member of Parliament, and Privy Counsellor. Croker was a noted politician and man of letters in the first half of the 19th century, and the man who is generally credited with suggesting the name Conservative for the old Tory Party. The house later devolved on the Barrow family. Around 1932 the estate was turned into a sports club for Faraday House Electrical College. During the last war it was used as a British Restaurant and afterwards reverted to a sports ground for Bentalls, the Kingston store. After this the place was sold to Elmbridge Council for housing purposes and, after considerable discussion bad taken place on whether it should be preserved or not, the problem was opportunely solved in May 1975 when yet another mysterious nocturnal conflagration engulfed the building. Before night fell again, bulldozers razed the last of Molesey's great houses to the ground.
ISBN 0 86023 251 4
The Book of Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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