The history of the Queen's House: From 1689

Pages 47-58

Survey of London Monograph 14, the Queen's House, Greenwich. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1937.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.


In this section

The Ranger's Lodge


William and Mary

1689; 1690–92

Sackville, Earl of Dorset

The first item of any interest in the reign of William and Mary is a payment in February 1689 to a labourer "to make up the wharfe that was thrown down when the Dutch horses was put into the bardges." (fn. 1) In October and November the floor of the loggia was giving trouble, and was shored up, but little more was done, and the house was still left empty. In the following year, however, a new chapter in its history was opened. Charles, Earl of Dorset and Middlesex, was appointed Ranger of Greenwich Park, and by virtue of his office the Queen's House became his official residence. It is unlikely that he occupied it at once, but in January 1691 a "ginn" was made "to take down the old flower [i.e., of the loggia] and to Rais the new," and, strangely, carpenters and labourers were paid "to tend ye king when he dined their." (fn. 2) In July and August 1693 the old picture frame in the hall was taken down and a new one made. (fn. 3) As the whole hall was scaffolded for the purpose this must have been one of the frames of the ceiling pictures. A new hearth was laid "in my Ladyes bed Chambr," and all "the freeze work against the Walls & all the Eggs Anchors & beads in ye Cantilevers & girders" in the hall were made good. (fn. 4)


In 1694 Robert Streeter was paid £149 2s. 6d. for work on the ceiling of the hall. The smith, William Beach, repaired the balustrade of the round stairs with "10 new Scrowles," "21 Single Scrowles wth. new tulips" and "5 new tulips for 5 of ye double Scrowles" ; the two iron balconies on the north front were taken down and new ones set up in their place ; all the marble chimney-pieces were cleaned, and several rooms were whitewashed. (fn. 5) In 1695 the ironwork of the staircases and balconies was painted with "fine Smalte," and wainscot was "grained three times in oyle." (fn. 6)


Sidney, Earl of Romney

In 1697 Henry Earl of Romney bought the office of Ranger of Greenwich Park, and all interest in the house and gardens, from the Earl of Dorset. The gallery of the hall was thoroughly repaired, 32 cantilevers being taken down, fitted and replaced. (fn. 7) In November William III was again a visitor: "the king arrived at Greenwich at 10 p.m. 15 Nov. and slept there, journeying to London on the 16th. . . ." (fn. 8) He was returning from Holland after the conclusion of the peace of Ryswyk, and made a very pompous entry into London, in the words of Evelyn. (fn. 9)

During Lord Romney's occupation of the house an important alteration in the building and the grounds was carried out: the closing of the roadway. In December 1697 a reference to the "2 Aryes" suggests that the building of the "middle salon" (which did create two areas on the ground floor) under Inigo Jones's bridge may have been carried out, but there is no mention of it in the accounts for this year. (fn. 10) This room, which was shown on every plan published before 1929 (fn. 11) has given rise to much unjustified adverse criticism. Webb's additions had modified the design, but this finally obliterated the determining factor of the planning—the roadway which the house had bridged. The grant of the site of the old palace by the river, with part of the Queen's Garden, for the building of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich in 1695, provided the opportunity which Lord Romney seized: the DeptfordWoolwich road was diverted to run between the grounds of the new hospital and the remaining part of the gardens of the Queen's House. Gates were put up to block the old road, and the subsequent building of a room under the middle bridge provided direct access on the ground floor from the northern to the southern part of the house (Plates 24 and 25).

The Governor's House

1705–8 Sir William Gifford; 1708; 1709-10; 1710

south Front, c. 1710

The building of Greenwich Hospital, which was sufficiently advanced in 1705 for Sir William Gifford, the first Governor, to admit the first pensioners, intimately affected the destiny of the Queen's House. The boundary line between the two properties was arbitrary. Even the making of Romney road did not prevent the feeling that the division of ownership was unnatural. Prince George, husband of Queen Anne and Chief Commissioner of Greenwich Hospital, purchased the lease of the house from Lord Romney. His intention undoubtedly was to settle it upon the Hospital, and the Governors "were induced to lay out a considerable Sume of money upon the said house to fit the same up for the reception of a Governour of the Hospll: then Nominated by his Highnesse . . ." (fn. 12) The prince died in 1708 before giving effect to his intention, but the Commissioners of the Hospital carried out an important alteration in the house—once more to the detriment of its design—in the spring of that year. This consisted in cutting down the sills of the ground-floor windows and substituting "shass frames" (i.e., sliding sashes) for the casement windows (cf. Plates 15 and 34). The effect, architecturally, was to divert the emphasis from the first floor, the piano nobile, to the ground floor. Sixteen window-sills were cut lower, and the "stools" of two windows in the hall were raised. Sash windows were still unusual features, and Charles Hopson, the joiner, was paid extra for his "extraordinary trouble" in hanging them. The Governors' "Bufett" was fitted up with a water supply and "a Dolphin headd. Cock and bosse," white-veined marble slabs at the back and sides, and a marble table cut to a semicircle in the front. Wooden door-frames were fixed in the stone door-cases; new rain-water pipes were fixed and the string-course on the north front was cut that they might "lye close to the wall" ; more than a thousand square feet of "new Sweeds Marble paving" was laid, at a cost of £89 10s. od., beside the repair of old marble flooring. An old house on the east side of the Queen's House was pulled down, and stables, coach-house, and hay-barn were built; (fn. 13) but it was not until 1710 that Sir William Gifford, the first Governor of Greenwich Hospital, took possession. In that year he was appointed Ranger of Greenwich Park, and granted the use of the Queen's House, but whether as Ranger or as Governor of the Hospital was not specified. For the two preceding years the cost of repairs and upkeep had been borne by the Hospital. In August 1709 joiners were preparing mouldings for hangings, and in the spring of 1710 work was charged "for the Service of the Governour." Repairs were continued through the summer, and "several necessary works for ye: Govr: at his coming into ye: Qu: house" were charged for in November; but payments of 5s. a month to Samuel Clark, the watchman, "for keeping the great dog" had ceased. Several fireplace openings were reduced in size, in an effort to prevent the chimneys from smoking: (fn. 14) a "fflourished Branch or Scroll to bear a lamp" was made by the smith for the hall at a cost of £1 2s. 6d.; and in the December accounts are items for curtain-rods, curtain-hooks and fire-irons; fixing up bell-lines, fitting up beds; "taking down a Bedstead and puting it up in another place"; stopping up the crevices of a door and making a bracketshelf for a clock to stand on; fitting boards behind hangings in my Lady's Dressing-room; piecing the cornice of a window for fixing the valance, and digging the foundations of a hen-house. (fn. 15)


Among the many odd jobs in 1711, the bedstead for my Lady's woman was cut shorter and set up again; the Sentinel was given a "Cabbin"; and a wig-block on a leg was fixed up for the Governor. Another item may be quoted for the little shock of a familiar word in an unfamiliar context:

April To Thos. Robinson Smith (fn. 16) . . . For ye. Iron work of an Umbrella confisting of Braces, hooks, Staples, Screws & other fastenings all wt. 2qr. 8½li fixt Over ye. little Parlour window in ye. West Front of the Qu: House at 5d. p' lib 1 6 10
For 2 Ferules & 4 Gudgeons plain & Screw'd to Ditto Umbrella in toto 0 3 0
For 2 large wooden Rolls 7fot. long & 2½ins. Diameter to Ditto at 18d. each 3 0

Hawksmoor and James reported to the Directors at their meeting on the 5th of April concerning the "refreshing" of some paintings at the Queen's House.

1711; 1712

Wall-paper is mentioned for the first time in connection with the house in this year, and there is a foreshadowing of the National Maritime Museum in the provision of a model-case for a ship; while John James, one of the Clerks of the Works, includes in the moneys due to him in February 1712: (fn. 17)

his salary @ 3/4d. per diem for 29 days 4 16 8
Paid for 6½ dozen of candles for the office for 12 mos. 2 1 4
6 dozen of black lead pencils @ 4/- a dozen 1 4 0
a piece of Red Tape 0 1 0


In this year Romney road was called for the first time by its present name, when work was done on the brick boundary wall. (fn. 18) The Governor and his wife continued to take advantage of the presence of a large body of skilled workmen to make the house more comfortable, ". . . taking down window and bed curtains . . .: moving pictures . . . : for a bird-cage . . .: for altering a pigeon hutch and mending a Chest of Drawrs. . . .: for hanging a Bird cage wth. a Line and pully in the Sd. Ladys Dressing Room . . . "; but when the accounts were examined in 1713 these and many like items were disallowed, and whoever paid the tradesmen for the work done, it was not the Treasurer of Greenwich Hospital. (fn. 19)


Aylmer, Lord Aylmer

In 1714 George Lewis, Elector of Hanover, succeeded to the throne. John Gilham's account, not submitted until four years later, opens with the ambiguous preamble: "Joiners Work done by him in the House Commonly call'd ye Qu: house in Greenwich park to fit it for Receiving his Majesty K. George upon his happy Landing at Greenwich by order of Sr. Wm. Gifford then Governour of the Royal Hospital." (fn. 20) The work consisted chiefly in repairing wainscot and putting up rails to carry curtains and valances. The carpenter's share in the King's "Inauguration" was to provide "a Large Lantern . . . 9 foot high & 6 foot Square. Fitting ye. wire & Jron work to the same, & Setting it up upon a mast wth. a Roof of Eight foot Square over it." (fn. 21) The new king landed at Greenwich at 6 p.m. on the 18th of September. On the 19th he held his first reception in the Queen's House, and on the 20th he made his state entry into London. (fn. 22)

1715; 1718-20

In November Admiral Matthew Lord Aylmer was appointed Governor of the Hospital in the place of Sir William Gifford. He was less exigent than his predecessor: the chief alteration made for him was the installation of something like modern sanitation. (fn. 23) Six fireplace openings were reduced in size and set with Dutch tiles, (fn. 24) and £45 was spent in the purchase of tapestry hangings. (fn. 25) But the great fault in the building, the dampness of the walls, was increasing, and in 1718 it was decided that nothing would cure it but the hacking off of the old external plaster and refacing the whole building with a coat of stonelime and sharp sand. (fn. 26) John Cleave, the smith, was kept busy "sharping," mending or "new steeling" the tools for the labourers. (fn. 27) The house was thoroughly repaired, a total sum of £838 17s. 8d. being spent during the year. (fn. 28) In 1719-20 new stables were built.

1721 Sir John Jennings; 1723-26

Lord Aylmer died in August 1720, and in November Admiral Sir John Jennings was appointed Governor. By 1723 an important alteration had been carried out in the house. The original kitchen had been in the south-east corner room on the ground floor. The Governor complained of the smell of cooking, and a new kitchen was contrived, outside and to the east of the main building, by a partial reconstruction of the Brewhouse. (fn. 29) A marble chimney-piece from the north-east room was moved into the old kitchen in 1723, two of the doorways were blocked up, and the room was wainscotted with old panelling. Elsewhere a lead "bathing cistern" was installed, with a ring washer, weighing ½ lb., and a brick drain. (fn. 30) The ceiling of the old kitchen was probably reconstructed during these alterations, with a plaster cove above the wood cornice. In May 1726 a marble figure was moved from the Parlour to the south-east corner room.

The Ranger's Lodge



In 1729 the governing body of the Royal Hospital, despairing of obtaining permanent possession of the Queen's House, and weary of spending money on its upkeep, decided to provide accommodation for the Governor in the King Charles block of the Hospital, and to hand over the house to the Commissioners of the King's Works. (fn. 31) Sir John Jennings retained the office of Ranger of Greenwich Park until his death in 1743, when Lady Catherine Pelham, the daughter of John, second Duke of Rutland, and wife of the Rt. Hon. Henry Pelham, was appointed to the office. The lease of the House and Park was granted to Caroline, Queen of George II, on the 24th of March 1730. (fn. 32)


Caroline of Brandenburgh-Anspach

The accounts of H.M. Office of Works during the eighteenth century have only been preserved in abstract. The sum of £440 was spent in repairs in September 1730. In December 1731 and June 1732 payments are noted to Sir James Thornhill of £5 17s. 10½d. and £25 11s. 6½d. (fn. 33) It is much to be regretted that the detailed accounts for these years have not been preserved, for these two items suggest a possible solution of a difficult problem—the provenance of the "Aurora" panel in the so-called Gentileschi ceiling of the Queen's Bedroom. This panel is later in date than the decoration of the cove. It measures some ten square yards, and the rate paid to Thornhill for his work on the walls of the upper part of the Painted Hall was £3 a yard. (fn. 34) The painting is in the style of the eighteenth century, and the composition and colouring are not unlike Thornhill's work; but the drawing is more delicate, the conception more imaginative, the whole feeling of the work more French.


On the 25th of April 1736 the Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha arrived at Greenwich, two days before her marriage to Frederick Prince of Wales, and was conducted to the Queen's House, where the Prince visited her in the evening. (fn. 35)

Lady Catherine Pelham

Between 1733 and 1745 three men, whose names were to become more or less famous in the history of English architecture, successively held the position of Clerk of the Works at Greenwich: Isaac Ware, remembered for his publication of Designs of Inigo Jones and Others, was succeeded in May 1736 by John Vardy, and in 1745 James Paine was appointed. It may have been in 1745 that Lady Catherine Pelham decided to make use of her official residence, for in that year £3,000 was spent on the house, and during the next two years a further sum of £1,700 was spent, over and above the official salaries. (fn. 36)


In 1761 the house was got ready for the reception of the Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on her arrival from Cuxhaven for her wedding with George III; but the voyage was so stormy that the boat made for Harwich, missing the official reception.

1795; 1805 The Princess of Wales; 1806

Caroline of Brunswick

Lady Catherine Pelham died in 1780, and for a time no Ranger was appointed; but in 1795 another royal bride was welcomed at the Queen's House. This was the unhappy Princess Caroline of Brunswick, who landed at Greenwich on the 5th of April, and was received by Lady Jersey, among others—at that time the reigning mistress of the bridegroom, the Prince of Wales. Caroline's follies, her miseries and her wrongs do not touch the history of the Queen's House, although it became her official residence, for she was appointed Ranger of Greenwich Park in 1805. (fn. 37) She had by then left her husband and was living in Montagu House on Blackheath. The Queen's House was in the charge of caretakers; the lodge and outbuildings to the east of the house (now the Rectory) were occupied by the Princess's maître d'hôtel; while a second lodge, standing on ground between Maze Hill and the Park, was occupied by Sir John Douglas. On the 3rd of October 1806 an agreement was entered into between H.R.H. Caroline Amelia Elizabeth, Princess of Wales, Ranger and Keeper of His Majesty's Royal Park at Greenwich . . . and H.R.H. Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, Knight of the most noble order of the Garter and President of the Royal Naval Asylum, for the conveyance of the whole property to the Commissioners of the Royal Naval Asylum. The sum fixed by the Treasury for the purchase was £7,875, and Montagu House then became the Ranger's Lodge. The Queen's House entered on a period of drastic change.

The Royal Naval Asylum and Greenwich Hospital School


The Royal Naval Asylum was founded in 1798, under the name of The British Endeavour, as an orphanage. Its beginning was unfortunate, but it was speedily reorganised as The Naval Asylum, in imitation of The Military Asylum (popularly known as The Duke of York's School), for the children of seamen who had lost their lives in the King's service. The premises, at Paddington, were inadequate, and in 1805 Parliament approved a grant of £20,000 "for purchasing ground and erecting buildings for a Naval Asylum, and towards the maintenance of the said Institution." Commissioners were appointed, with the Duke of Cumberland as President, among whom was Vice–Admiral Viscount Nelson. The first meeting of the Commissioners was held at the Admiralty on the 7th of November 1805, one day after the receipt of the news of the battle of Trafalgar. On the 23rd the President reported that, "accompanied by Lord Hood (at that time Governor of the Royal Hospital) and Sir Evan Nepean, he had inspected the house of the Ranger of Greenwich Park and that it appeared to them a most suitable situation for the purposes of the Royal Naval Asylum." In November 1807 some seventy children were moved from Paddington to Greenwich.

1818-25; 1865; 1869

The additional buildings provided for the school do not come within the scope of the history of the Queen's House. Between 1807 and 1815 a total sum of £157,467 5s. 3d. had been spent on the alterations and additions. In January 1818 the Royal Naval Asylum was placed by Royal Warrant under the care and control of the Board of Admiralty. In 1821 a fresh Warrant was issued revoking this, and appointing the Commissioners and Governors of Greenwich Hospital to be Commissioners and Governors of the Royal Naval Asylum. The Greenwich Hospital School was united with that of the Naval Asylum, and the whole of the buildings and funds of the Asylum were transferred to the Commissioners of the Hospital by Act of Parliament in 1825 (6 Geo. IV, 10 June). In 1865 a further Act abolished the Commissioners for Greenwich Hospital, and the government of both Hospital and School and all the lands and funds were vested exclusively in the Board of Admiralty. Finally, the Greenwich Hospital Act of 1869 laid down the conditions under which the Hospital buildings might be used for the purposes of the naval service. In 1925 the Hospital buildings and the Queen's House were taken over as Historic Buildings for maintenance and repair by H.M. Office of Works. In 1933 the Greenwich Hospital School vacated the buildings it had occupied for a century and took possession of the new building at Holbrook. A complete survey of the Queen's House was made for the Commissioners of H.M. Works, who took over the building under a Deed of Guardianship, and the repair of the house was begun in the following year.

During the nineteenth century the Queen's House had been divided into five residences for the officers of the school. The initial alterations were carried out by contract, and no details of them are available. The only rooms in the house which did not suffer drastic mutilation were the hall, the Queen's drawing-room, and the east bridge room. For the rest, partitions were built, floors were inserted, doorways were cut through walls, flues were built or excavated in the old brickwork. Even the Queen's bedroom was divided into two rooms, and a fireplace built in one corner. A dormitory was built above the middle bridge room, which shows conspicuously in many prints made early in the nineteenth century. In April 1822 it was decided to remove this attic, and the work was carried out in May and June. (fn. 38) In 1830 the middle bridge room was fitted up as a "washing room" for the girls. (fn. 39) In 1836 a recurrent trouble should have been dealt with but was shelved—the "re-instatement of Ceiling & Cornice to Loggier" [sic]. (fn. 40) In 1840 it was stated that no general repairs had been undertaken for eighteen years, and £360 was spent in February. The excavation of cellars under the southern part of the house was suggested, to increase the accommodation, and though nothing was done at that time the suggestion was carried out later. More fireplaces and more water-closets were provided.

The two courts, which were all that remained of the open roadway, were vaulted over with brickwork. The inner piers and arches of the east and west bridges, facing the two courts, were demolished, and in their stead a single segmental arch, copied from Inigo Jones's middle bridge, was built to carry the superstructure of each. The walls of the Earl of Romney's "middle salon" were demolished. Later, a staircase was built in the eastern court, cutting through the brick vault, connecting with a corridor built against the north side of the court at firstfloor level. The survey plan of 1933 shows the condition of the building better than any description can convey it (Plate 27). The last alteration took place in 1911, when the lower part of the walls of the great hall was lined with plywood (Plate 38).

The National Maritime Museum

As soon as the building was vacated and the survey made in 1933, preliminary investigations were undertaken to see to what extent it was possible to reveal the original planning of the house. In this the researches already made by Professor Geoffrey Callender were of great assistance. He had identified two plans of the house in the Wren Collection in Oxford, and published an outline of its history in the Annual Report of the Society for Nautical Research, 1929. As the work of repair progressed, it became evident that far more of the internal features had remained buried in the later alterations than could have been suspected. The work of the artists who saved the painted ceiling in the Queen's bedroom, and later disinterred the painted and gilded decoration in the great hall, is described on page 75; but the skill of the foreman in charge of the repairs and the interest with which he and the men under him co-operated in the solution of the innumerable constructional problems which arose in the course of the work must not be allowed to pass unacknowledged. Three hundred years after its completion the Queen's House was finally freed from the alterations and additions necessitated by the varied uses to which it had been put. Its past splendours cannot be given back to it in full, but at least hints of them have been revealed. Its rooms once more show the dignity of their planning and the beauty of their proportion, and once more their walls are hung with pictures.

As an historic monument, the preservation of the Queen's House is assured, but its destiny is not that of an empty shrine. Its story began in the reign of James Stuart, whose son completed and transformed it into a treasure-house of beauty for his loved consort, and whose grandson gave it the aspect it has to-day. With the opening of the National Maritime Museum the Queen's House enters on a new phase of its history. The Caird Galleries of the Museum will preserve the memories of Cook, of Rodney, and of Nelson, and the roll is not yet ended: the Queen's House becomes the casket for the safe custody of records of men and ships which have been preserved from the earlier days of Tudors and of Stuarts, the days of the Golden Hind, and of that most noble ship, the Sovereign of the Seas.


  • 1. Ibid., 5/43.
  • 2. Ibid., 5/44.
  • 3. Ibid., 5/46.
  • 4. Ibid., 5/46.
  • 5. P.R.O., Works, 5/46.
  • 6. Ibid., 5/47.
  • 7. Ibid., 5/48.
  • 8. C.S.P.D., Wm. III, 1697.
  • 9. Evelyn, "Diary."
  • 10. P.R.O., Works, 5/49.
  • 11. In 1929 two plans, hitherto unidentified, in the Wren Collection at All Souls' College, Oxford, were published in Professor Callender's account of the Queen's House in the Annual Report of the Society for Nautical Research, and also in the sixth volume of the Wren Society. They show the house as it was altered by Webb in 1661–2.
  • 12. P.R.O., Ad., 66/28. Letters from the Governors of Greenwich Hospital to the Admiralty. Letter dated 29th September 1712.
  • 13. P.R.O., Ad., 68/685.
  • 14. During the recent repairs it was quite usual to find three successive reductions in the size of one opening.
  • 15. P.R.O., Ad., 68/685.
  • 16. Ibid., 68/686.
  • 17. P.R.O., Ad., 68/687.
  • 18. Ibid., 68/687.
  • 19. Ibid., 68/688.
  • 20. Ibid., 68/696.
  • 21. Ibid., 68/696.
  • 22. D.N.B.
  • 23. P.R.O., Ad., 68/874.
  • 24. Ibid., 68/690.
  • 25. Ibid., 67/2.
  • 28. Ibid., 68/874.
  • 26. Ibid., e.g., "New Steeling Two Iron Tools Several 8 Times for the Labourers use in breaking off the old finishing 0 8 0"
  • 27. P.R.O., Ad.
  • 29. Ibid., 68/699.
  • 30. Ibid. Sir John Vanbrugh was Surveyor of the Works of the Royal Hospital until his death in 1726, and this chimney-piece may well be from his design.
  • 31. P.R.O., Ad., 67/7.
  • 32. "Gentleman's Magazine," VI, 230. The Queen died in 1737.
  • 33. P.R.O., Works, 5/58.
  • 34. "To Sr: James Thornhill Knt: In the Upper Hall — Painting 810½ Yds: of History on the Sides of the Upper Hall, much richer than that of the Ceiling of the Gt: Hall atli: O: o p' Yard 2431 10 0" P.R.O., Ad., 68/706, 1st January to 30th June 1727.
  • 35. "Gentleman's Magazine," VI, 230.
  • 36. P.R.O., Works, 5/60.
  • 37. "London Gazette," No. 15848, 1st and 5th October, 1805, p. 1245.
  • 38. P.R.O., Ad., 68/866.
  • 39. Ibid., 80/114.
  • 40. Ibid.