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.