The history of Wanstead House: 'The English Versailles'

Earl Tylney with members of his family by Josef Frans Nollekens

Earl Tylney with members of his family by Josef Frans Nollekens - Credit: Josef Frans Nollekens

Golfers visiting Wanstead Golf Course for the first time might be forgiven for thinking that the grassy bunker next to the first green is a somewhat extreme hazard to negotiate their way around.

No ordinary sand-filled bunker this; more of an 80m by 20m trench with trees growing in the bottom of it, it is probably unique in the golfing world. 

But then, it is not every golf course that has been built on the site of a classical palace.

Turn back the pages of Wanstead history by 199 years and you would find yourself standing not on a golf course, but on a wide stretch of lawn leading from the octagonal Basin Pond up to what was one of the grandest houses ever built in Britain.

Wanstead House was on a par with Blenheim, Castle Howard, Chatsworth and Holkham in Norfolk – the Palladian porticoed masterpiece designed by Scottish architect Colen Campbell, furnished by the interior designer of the day, William Kent, and lived in by the nouveau-riche Child family of East India Company merchants, recipients of the Tylney earldom, and the successor to the family fortune, the richest heiress in the kingdom, Catherine Tylney-Long. 

Perhaps we should insert ‘once’ in front of ‘richest heiress’ for 1822 was a less than happy year for those closely associated with the once princely mansion of Wanstead.

A string of unwise financial decisions – irresponsible spending such as £60,000 (translated to £6 million today) on carpets and hangings made of Genoa velvet with three borders of gold lace, for example - led with unseemly haste to the inevitable twin noose of debt and insolvency that would all too soon spell the end for the Child/Tylney dynasty. 

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And as we stand there, in 1822, looking maybe a little out of place in our 21st century garb, gazing up at the still opulent-looking façade, we look around us and see queues of people, people who have travelled along the Whitechapel Road from London eager to buy up whatever they can at the greatest sale of the century (19th century, that is).

June 1822 was to see a sale in which every single item under the expansive Wanstead House roof - from the velvet curtains to the dog kennels - was to be sold to the highest bidders. Slowly but surely, Wanstead House was poised to die in front of the excited jostling crowds before, two years later, being pulled down stone by stone, so that nothing remained. Just a hole in the ground, useless for anything, except as a feature on a golf course.

Wind the clock back a further 100 years and Wanstead’s prospects would have seemed so different. Richard Child, later the 1st Earl Tylney and Viscount Castlemaine, had inherited his father’s considerable fortune, made from highly dubious foreign expeditions.

Deciding to pull down his father’s old fashioned Tudor pile, he commissioned the up-and-coming Colen Campbell to design a house in the fashionable Classical style, George London to redesign the extensive but also rather old-fashioned gardens and Kent to bring his famously gaudy gilt and gold interior fashions into what was soon to become the most talked about house in the land.

For just over 100 years, Wanstead, in its enviable position just ten miles outside London, became known as ‘The English Versailles’, described as, ‘the noblest house not only in England but the whole of Europe’.

Looking back on those heady early 18th century days, it is not difficult to imagine why Wanstead was so talked about. But wait, Wanstead? Surely somewhere, something has gone wrong for, in 2021, who still talks about Wanstead House?

Stroll along the leafy avenues outside Wanstead Golf Club and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could tell you much about Wanstead House, let alone who lived there.

For Wanstead House has been effectively erased from the nation’s consciousness. It is as though the demolition of 1824 has been played out in the minds of the local and national populace as well.

Until now, that is. Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the fateful sale of the contents of Wanstead House and never has the time been more right to present the incredible Wanstead House story to the nation once again.

Accordingly, the Friends of Wanstead Parklands have commissioned historian Hannah Armstrong to write the first large scale illustrated history of Wanstead House to mark the anniversary and return this once opulent palace to the nation's consciousness. 

Hannah Armstrong's hardback book is available now to order online at a reduced pre-production price of £27 (RRP £45) and will be published in March 2022. Copies can be ordered from liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk using the discount code WANSTEAD40 in the Discount Offer box (disable autofill functions). 

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