The white house by the river

WE ASKED FIVE PEOPLE within less than five minutes and not one of them could supply an answer. Like us, the people whom we asked were walking along a stretch of path beside the River Thames at Isleworth in west London. We were all passing a large white painted building set in its own extensive grounds. Clearly 19th century in architectural style and a building of some significance, not one of the locals we met had the slightest idea what the building is or was once upon a time. The edifice is located a few yards upstream from Isleworth’s London Apprentice pub and The Church of All Saints with its mediaeval tower. Returning home, I consulted an old map and discovered that the house that nobody could tell us about was once Nazareth House, which was home to a convent.

The former Nazareth House at Isleworth

Nazareth House, the former Isleworth House, was largely rebuilt to the designs of Edward Blore (1787-1879) in 1832 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1261093). The work was commissioned by Sir William Cooper, Chaplain to King George III. Sir William had married into the Anglo-Jewish Franks family, who had previously (during the 18th Century) owned the estate on which the house stands. Aaron Franks purchased it in 1748 (www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/richmond-and-south-west-london/places-of-interest#). The land owned by the Franks in Isleworth was next to that owned by another Jewish family, that of Moses Hart. Sir William married Isabella, daughter of Moses Franks (from America), who was closely related to his father-in-law, Aaron Franks, who had acquired the estate at Isleworth (see: Transactions [Jewish Historical Society of England] , 1953-55, Vol. 18 [1953-55],pp. 143-169). Aaron was son of Abraham Franks, a wealthy broker in the City of London and one of the first wardens of The Great Synagogue, founded in the late 1720s.

The presence of Jewish people in Isleworth during the early 19th century was not universally appreciated. James Picciotto in his “Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History” noted:

“We have read a letter written by a gentleman at Isleworth to a friend in town, in which he says that he would have found the country very pleasant had he not had the mortification of seeing the finest seats in possession of the Jews. Since the last Act – the Naturalization Bill – they had grown very familiar. The Jews had become between the wind and his nobility, and he did not like it. Let us give the concluding paragraph of his missive in his own words – ‘M-s H-t (Moses Hart) and A-n F-s (Aaron Franks) at the last vestry held here, mingled with the rest without opposition, though two clergymen and Justice B- were present. No less than a coachload of them (Jews) last Thursday assembled at a clergyman’s house near us to play cards.’”

The above-mentioned Act became law in 1753.

In contrast, the writer Sir Horace Walpole (1717-1797), who had enjoyed the family’s renowned hospitality, wrote:

“This morning I was at a very fine concert at old Franks’ at Isleworth, and heard Leoni, who pleased me more than anything I have heard these hundred years.”

Sir William (or the previous owner of his house) had had Isleworth’s Richmond Road diverted to its present location in order that it did not run between his grounds and the river. I have not yet been able to trace the story of Isleworth House between 1832 and 1892, except that it was in the possession of the Franks/Cooper family until 1862 (www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/richmond-and-south-west-london/places-of-interest#). In 1892, its name was changed to Nazareth House when it was acquired by the Poor Sisters of Nazareth and it became a convent. The Order of The Poor Sisters of Nazareth was founded in Hammersmith in the mid-19th century to care for the poor and infirm (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=HOU036&sitename=Nazareth+House+Convent+and+Grounds). In 1899, they built the Nazareth House Industrial School for Roman Catholic Girls and added a large red brick gothic revival chapel in 1901. The school closed in 1922 and was then used as a home for disadvantaged children, which closed in 1985. Between that year and 2002, the estate, still owned by the nuns, housed a home for elderly people.

In 2013, the disused Nazareth House estate was sold to a property developing firm, St James (https://www.mylondon.news/news/west-london-news/work-begins-homes-site-former-8887358). The house, the chapel, and several new buildings form a private gated residential community. The new development was called ‘Fitzroy Gate’ (www.berkeleygroup.co.uk/developments/london/isleworth/fitzroy-gate).  

So, there you have it. I have gone some way to answering the question we asked several locals taking their daily exercise outside the large building that was formerly Nazareth House and before that Isleworth House. It might be a good thing if the local council or local history group put up an information board to describe the impressive house’s history in addition to the one, already present and close to the house that describes the former Isleworth Pottery.

Portobello Farm

THE BATTLE OF PORTOBELLO (or ‘Porto Bello’) was fought between the forces of Britain and Spain on the 20th of November 1739. The British were aiming to capture the settlement of Porto Bello in Panama during the early stages of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). The victorious British naval force of only six heavily armed vessels was commanded by Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757). This gentleman has been accredited for coining the word ‘grog’, meaning rum diluted with water.

Rail bridge over Portobello Road

A map of Kensington drawn in about 1810 marks a ‘Portobello Farm’ next to what is now Portobello Road. The owner of the farm is said to have named his farm thus to honour Admiral Vernon’s capture of the Panamanian town of Porto Bello. The road or track running past the farm was called ‘Portobello Lane’. In the early 19th century, the farm stood alone amongst open fields where cows, pigs, and sheep grazed.

A detailed map surveyed in 1865 shows the farm located near a slight bend in Portobello Lane, about 270 yards north of a bridge carrying the railway across the lane, 280 yards east of ‘Notting Hill Station’ (now Ladbroke Grove Station). Almost across the road from the farm, there is marked ‘Notting Barn Lodge’. A lane led west from there to a larger building marked ‘Notting Barn’.

Notting Barn was the manor house of the Manor of Knotting Barns. Writing in 1820, Thomas Faulkner, author of “History and Antiquities of Kensington”, noted:

“In the midst of these meadows stands the Manor House of Knotting Barns, now occupied by William Smith esq. of Hammersmith, it is an ancient brick building, surrounded by spacious barns, and outhouses; the road to Kensal Green passes through the farmyard.”

The manor was part of the property of the De Veres, as is evidenced by a document dated 1476. In that year, it was seized by the Crown. In 1543, when the manor was owned by Robert Wright, it was sold to King Henry VIII. Then, through the centuries the manor changed hands frequently. The manor gave its name to the area now known as ‘Notting Hill’. The name of the manor and the present district might well have Saxon origins.  Florence Gladstone, writing in 1924 (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=56157&annum=3000), suggested that a:

“…Saxon family, the Cnot-tingas, or ” sons of Cnotta,” may have made a clearing for themselves in the denser wood to the north. No less an authority than Dr. Walter W. Skeat suggests this Saxon solution for the name of Notting Hill. Other writers have thought that the encamp-ment was founded by followers of King Knut. Whether Saxon or Danish in its origin the little colony seems to have been entirely wiped out before the Norman Conquest; nothing but the name remaining to testify to its former existence. The popular belief that Notting Hill owes its name to the nut bushes which grew upon its slopes is a pleasant, but untenable, tradition. The name occurs in the Patent Rolls for A.D. 1361. There it is  ‘Knottynghull’, proving that the ‘k’ is original as is also the double ‘t’ .”

By 1897, both Notting Barn and Portobello Farm no longer appeared on the map and Portobello Lane had been renamed ‘Portobello Road’. Notting Barn Manor House stood approximately where today St Marks Road and Bassett Road meet. Where the farm had once stood, there were residential streets that still exist, including Bevington, Blagrove and Raddington Roads. Across Portobello Road almost opposite the site of the farm there was a large building labelled ‘Franciscan Convent’ and opposite it just north of the former farm there was another large building, which is unlabelled on the map but was ‘St Joseph’s Home for the Elderly’.

St Josephs was founded by a Roman Catholic order, The Little Sisters of the Poor (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/stjosephshome.html). They bought Portobello Farm on the 7th of June 1865. They resided nearby whilst the farm buildings were demolished and their new convent and home for the elderly was being built. The home for the elderly opened in 1869. The home was finally closed in 1978. After being demolished in the early 1980s, a new housing estate, St Josephs Close, was built in 1986 with its entrance on Bevington Road. The old convent wall that runs along the east side of Portobello Road has become an open-air public art gallery.

Across the road and almost opposite the former farm and its successor, St Josephs, stands a formidable looking building that currently houses a Spanish school, the Vicente Cañada Blanch Spanish School. This was originally occupied by nuns of the Third Order of St. Francis, whose convent had been founded in 1857. The building was designed by Henry Clutton (1819-1893) and built in 1862, but it was modified and enlarged later.

Nothing remains of either the manor house or Portobello Farm. However, the slight bend in Portobello Road near the Spanish school is as it was when the farm existed as can be seen on detailed maps that marked the farm. The entrance to the farm was on a stretch of Portobello Road north of the elevated Westway (the M40 motorway). On Fridays and Saturdays, this section of the road becomes an open-air ‘flea market’, a scruffy extension of the main Portobello Road market south of the motorway and railway bridges that have been built close to each other where they traverse the busy market precinct.  

I worked in Golborne Road for several years, near the streets that now cover the former Portobello Farm. Many of my patients lived in those streets. Most of them are probably unaware of the erstwhile existence of the farm, as was I until I researched this short essay.

Stitched

PONDICHERRY IS RICH in wonderful attractions, many of them souvenirs of its French colonial past. One of the most delightful of these is the Cluny Embroidery Centre on Rue Romain Rolland, a street named after a French writer and Nobel Prize winner who met Gandhi and was sympathetic to India and its philosophies.The Embroidery Centre is housed in an 18th century French Colonial building (a former residence, which was built by 1774) that forms part of a religious centre under the aegis of the Order of Cluny. It is believed that one of the former owners of the house donated it to help poor women in need. This must have been before 1829, when the Embroidery Centre was established. Every day except Monday and Sunday, at least twenty women of various ages arrive at the centre and take their places at tables in a large room with tall windows that open out into a verandah supported by neoclassical pillars and decorated with elaborate stucco bas-reliefs. The verandah looks out onto a courtyard surrounded on three sides by other buildings, parts of the convent, and the outer wall with a decorative entrance gate.This ensemble of buildings forms only part of a much larger complex of buildings, some of which surround another courtyard filled with a garden.After singing what sounds like a hymn, the women begin working on their elaborate embroideries. They stitch according to patterns designed by artists who work at the centre. While they work away silently with needle and thread, a simple sound system provides background music at a low volume.Dressed in white habit, Sister Agatha, who runs the convent, watches over the ladies at work and organises the sales of their labours to visitors who step into this peaceful sanctuary a few feet away from the noisy outside world.The resulting products are exquisitely beautiful. They embroider everything from coasters to handkerchiefs to napkins to pillowcases to table cloths and bedcovers. Visitors to the centre can purchase these treasures of fine needlework. Or, customers can place orders for specific items they need. The women who embroider at the centre get paid on a piecework basis. Some of them have had a history of mistreatment before joining the centre. Visiting the Cluny Embroidery Centre is a moving experience. It provides a very good example of how a religious order can work for the benefit of the ‘common’ folk.