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.

The dragons return

WHEN I FIRST VISITED Kew Gardens, I was a teenager, the entrance fee was sixpence (2.5 pence), and you entered via a metal turnstile. I did not visit Kew often in those days because it was a long way from my family home in northwest London. Recently, we have been exploring the delights of Kew Gardens occasionally with our friends who live in the heart of nearby Richmond town. During our most recent visit, whilst drinking coffee outside the former Orangery, now café, I stared at the nearby red brick building, Kew Palace, and began wondering about the history of the site, where the botanical gardens now stand, before Kew Gardens were opened to the public in 1840.

Kew Palace, which is also known as the ‘Dutch House’, now within the botanical gardens, was built on the site of a 16th century house, the ‘Dairy House’, in 1631. It is one of the oldest of the buildings standing by the Thames and was built for Samuel Forterie (1567-1643), a merchant of Dutch descent. After King George II (reigned 1727-1760) came to the throne, the building was used as a residence by various members of the royal family including King George III during some of his periods of illness.

For a long time, Kew Palace was not the only royal residence in what is now Kew Gardens. Before the Dutch House, now Kew Palace, was built by Forterie, a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley (1532-1588), 1st Earl of Leicester, lived in its predecessor. His house was close to one owned by the Keeper of the Privy Seal, Sir John Puckering (1544-1596), which Elizabeth visited both in 1594 and 1595.

Kew Palace was opposite a much larger building, Kew House, also known as the ‘White House’. Originally built in the Tudor era, it was first owned by Richard Bennet, son of the Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Bennet (1543-1627).  Richard’s daughter and heir, Dorothy, married Sir Henry Capel (1638-1696) and they lived in Kew House. After Dorothy was widowed, she continued living at Kew House until her death in 1721. The next owner of the house was the astronomer and politician Samuel Molyneux (1689-1728), who married a grandniece of Lord Capel.

Two years after Molyneux died, Frederick (1707-1751), Prince of Wales, father of King George III, leased Kew House from the Capel family. He and his wife, Princess Augusta (1719-1772) lived at Kew House, and employed the great designer William Kent (1685-1748) to decorate the house and to lay out the grounds. After Frederick died, Augusta began the creation of the ‘Exotic Garden’, the forerunner of the present Kew Gardens. The architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796) was put in charge of the works. In addition to the well-known pagoda (erected 1761-62) and still in existence, he oversaw the building of at least twenty structures in the garden. Many of these have been demolished, but amongst those still standing are The Orangery (1757-61), The Ruined Arch (1759), The Temple of Bellona (1760), and The Temple of Aeolus (1763).

After Augusta died, King George III (reigned 1760-1820) used Kew House and then bought its freehold in 1799. The King enjoyed improving the grounds of the property and ploughed up some of the neighbouring Richmond Deer Park to create an enlarged garden. Some of the work was entrusted to the garden designer ‘Capability’ Brown. The King received visits from the botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who brought him seeds and plants for his gardens.  By 1802, Kew House was falling to pieces, and was demolished in preparation for a new palace, which was never built.  A sundial in Kew Gardens marks the site of the house. On a map drawn by John Roque in 1754, the former Kew House is labelled ‘The Princess of Wales House at Kew’ and the Dutch House (Kew Palace) is labelled ‘His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales House at Kew’. The map also includes drawings of three follies: ‘The Hermitage’, ‘Dairy House’, and ‘Merlin’s Cave’.

When George III was in residence at Kew House, he led an unsophisticated existence as described by Madame D’Arblay (aka Frances [‘Fanny’] Burney; 1752-1840). She wrote in Volume 3 of her published diary that the King lived there in:

“… a very easy, unreserved way, running about from one end of the house to the other without precaution or care … There is no form or ceremony here of any sort …They live as the simplest country gentlefolks. The King has not even an equerry with him; nor the Queen any lady to attend her when she goes her airings.”

This suggests to me that the King was careless about how he dressed (if at all) at his country retreat.

Kew Palace (the Dutch House) was separated from Kew House by a public road. Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), George III’s wife, took over its lease and then bought its freehold in 1781, and eventually died there. As mentioned already, her husband spent time at Kew Palace during his periods of illness.

In 1840, the botanical gardens, the ancestor of what we now enjoy, were opened to the public. Had it not been for the enthusiasms of the area’s earlier owners, some of whom I have described above, the location of this establishment might have been at another site. The main attractions of Kew Gardens today are the plants and some of the magnificent houses built for them during this century and the two preceding it. However, it is of interest to see Kew Palace and the few remaining garden follies created by Sir William Chambers several decades before the foundation of the present botanical gardens.

The Pagoda, which is tall enough to be seen from outside the confines of Kew Gardens is an attractive feature of the place. Writing in 1876 in his guidebook, James Thorne remarked that:

“… It is in 10 storeys, each storey diminishing a foot in diameter and height, and each having a balcony and projecting roof. Originally a Chinese dragon crawled over every angle of each roof, but these have all taken flight.”

The Pagoda remained without dragons until 2018, when its restoration was completed. It was then that these creatures, looking extremely well groomed, returned to their original perches.