A merchant’s house near the River Thames

THE FIRST DENTAL practice in which I worked was in the village of Rainham in north Kent. Although I practised there from 1982 until about 1994 and knew that there is another place called Rainham in east London, I never ever visited it. It was only in August 2022 that we drove to Rainham, formerly in Essex, and now in the London Borough of Havering. Situated between Dagenham and Tilbury, the former Essex village contains a few reminders of its past: several cottages; a fine old parish church; and Rainham Hall. It was to see the latter that we travelled through the industrial areas of east London to reach Rainham.

Rainham Hall, now beautifully maintained by the National Trust (‘NT’), was built in about 1729 by John Harle (1688-1742), who was buried in the nearby parish church. Son of a successful mariner of South Shields, who had made his fortune shipping coal from South Shields to London, John became a prosperous businessman in London. Harle came to Rainham (Essex) in 1728, and built the fine brick house, which we see today. As the NT’s guidebook pointed out:

“By aristocratic standards, the Hall is a modest house … The Hall is a rare survivor and a wonderful example of early 18th-century architecture. It was designed as a home, not for the super-rich, but for the ‘middling sort’ of successful marine merchant.”

Between Harle’s death and WW2, the Hall became the property of a series of different people, and occupied by many owners and tenants. During WW2 and until 1954, the Hall was requisitioned by Essex County Council, who used it for various purposes including as a nursery for the children of working women. The Hall was offered to the NT in 1945 and the organisation adopted it 4 years later.

Until the 1990s, the Hall had a series of tenants. Each of them had interests in arts and design. First, the place was leased to the architectural historian Walter Ison (died 1997) and his wife, the artist and architect Leonora Payne. In 1962, they left, and the Hall became home to Anthony Denney (1913-1990). Denney, who trained at the Royal College of Art in London was already an established fashionable fashion photographer and collector of modern art by the time he came to live in the Hall. He helped restore the house. After Denney left the house in 1969, it became home to the architect Adrian Sansom and his wife Marilyn, a cellist. In the 1980s, the Hall’s tenants were the viola player Paul Silverthorne and his wife Mary. They encouraged local residents to use the Hall’s extensive gardens and also did restoration work. Stefan Roman, the film-set designer and his family followed the Silverthornes, and the last tenants were the painter David Atack and his family.

The visitor to Rainham Hall can wander through rooms on the ground, first, and second floors. The various inhabitants of this large but intimate family dwelling have all made modifications to the building, but mostly in keeping with the age and character of the Hall. When we went around recently, many of the rooms were being used to house exhibits relating to the life and work of Anthony Denney. We entered the garden, which was in a sad state because of the lack of rain and the heatwaves affecting most of England. The recently restored stable block will be discussed in a future essay. I am glad that we visited Rainham in Havering. Although it cannot be described as being one of England’s most picturesque places, it is certainly more pleasing to the eye, and has more redeeming features, than Rainham in Kent.

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