Survey of London Monograph 4, the Great House, Leyton. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1903.
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THE GREAT HOUSE, LEYTON.
Calamity, and the hand of the modern "improver" have dealt hardly with Leyton, & but little now remains to recall its former character. A map of the Parish published in 1777 shows the village to contain a goodly number of important seats. Dilapidation has accounted for some, fire has destroyed one at least, and the scanty survivals become yearly reduced by the steady flow of London's millions. The latter end of the last century saw the disappearance of Leyton Grange (1861), Leyton Manor House (1884) and Phillibrook House (1889), the estates in each case being cut up into building plots and the houses demolished. More fortunate in this respect, the Great House yet stands, although its grounds have been already blotted out and its fate hangs in the balance.
The History of the House
Eighteenth century works describe the village of Low Leyton as "a pretty retiring place from London" "furnished with divers fair, & some of them magnificent houses inhabited by divers wealthy Citizens and other Gentlemen."
Of these was "Nathaniel Tenche, Esq., (fn. 1) a very grave, intelligent and worthy Citizen and Merchant," an Alderman of London and one of the first directors of the then newly constituted Bank of England, which he ably defended by like means against the attacks of numerous pamphleteers. He traded with the Baltic, being a member of the Eastland Company, formerly known as the Merchants of Elbing, and "was for many years their Governor and so remained to his death." He is buried with his wife, the daughter of Alderman Fisher, in Leyton Parish Church, to which, during his lifetime, he had repeatedly been a benefactor.
It is to the son of these worthies, (fn. 2) Sir Fisher Tench, Bart., member in several Parliaments for the Borough of Southwark, that the Great House owes its origin. Sir Fisher's name occurs with great frequency in the Leyton parochial records. The ministry of the Rev. John Strype at Leyton was a time of great local activity and with most of the work of organisation undertaken by him the name of Fisher Tench is associated —as trustee of the Almshouses, of the National Schools, and of the Bread Fund,—the two latter new foundations. He was also a Justice of the Peace and, in 1712, Sheriff for the County of Essex, the wild legends locally current of highwaymen imprisoned in the cellars and hanged from a tree in the gardens of the Great House probably being an elaborated traditional version descriptive of his shrieval duties.
So far as can be discovered he did not so actively engage in commercial life as his father; he may indeed have found little time to spare from his public duties. He was created a Baronet in the second year of King George I., August 8th, 1715, presumably as a matter of policy on the part of the none too firmly seated monarch, in conciliating men of influence.
The exact date when his fine mansion was completed is not certain. Strype writing in 1720 describes it as "modern," and its characteristics of style serve to place it with some degree of accuracy within the early years of the eighteenth century.
Little more than passing mention is accorded the house by contemporary chroniclers dealing with the topography of London and Essex, but from their allusions one fact at least is clear—that shorn as it is of its extensive gardens, it loses what was regarded by them as its principal charm. The Rev. John Strype, Vicar of Leyton and a personal friend of Sir Fisher Tench and his father, gives the following description in his well known edition of Stowe's Survey published in 1720: "of more modern erection is the magnificent and beautiful seat of Sir Fisher Tench, Bart., adorned with large and most delightful gardens, plantations, walks, groves, mounts, summerhouses, and pleasant canals, stored with fish and fowl, and curious vistoes for prospect." Other writers echoing Strype are similarly appreciative, but it would seem that Sir Fisher himself derived little satisfaction from his work, for at his death on October 31st, 1736, at the age of 63, a funeral sermon for which he by his will ordered 10 guineas, was preached from the following text, taken by his direction from Ecclesiastes II. 4, 5, 6, 10, 11: "I made me great works, I builded me houses, I planted me vineyards, I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruits ; I made me pools of water to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees, And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy, for my heart rejoiced in all my labour. Then I looked on all the work that my hands had wrought and on the labour that I had laboured to do, and behold all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun." The following quaintly worded comments are from the 'London Magazine' of November, 1736, from which the above is taken: "Words exceedingly applicable to the house and gardens of that gentleman at Low Layton, which are reckoned among the most elegant in the country; & at the same time most beautifully set forth the vanity of all sublunary enjoyments."
Sir Fisher Tench left two daughters & one son, Nathaniel, to whom the baronetcy and estate passed. He however died a bachelor in less than a year, when the title became extinct and the property descended to the only surviving sister, Jane, who upon the death of Lady Tench on March 3rd 1738, became sole heiress to £50,000. She married, on Dec., 16th, 1740, Adam Sowerby of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, and lived until May 18th 1752, the Great House having meanwhile been purchased by Mr. John Stanniland of London, Haberdasher. About 1750 it again changed hands, being bought by Major Richard Oliver, a West Indian Merchant and Planter. As previous accounts have been in several ways defective and confused, the following genealogy of this family is given (upon the authority of its present representative, Mr. Vere L. Oliver) to explain more fully the relationship of the various persons taking part in the important events related below:—
Richard Oliver of the Island of Antigua in the West Indies, Speaker of the Assembly & J.P. 1704, Colonel of Militia 1715, Member of H.M. Council 1708 until his death May 1716, left with other issue by his first wife Margaret, who d. Aug. 1701:—
I. Richard, b. 1694, Merchant & Planter, Member of Assembly 1721-1738, Major of Militia 1723, Member of H. M. Council 1739, removed to London about 1744, resided at Greenwich 1746-7, purchased the Great House, Low Leyton, about 1750, where he d. 10 June 1763, aged 69. By Mary his wife, daughter of Jonas Langford, Esq., of Antigua, marrd. 9 May 1724, d. at Bath 7 July 1773, he had issue
1. Thomas, only s. and h. of the Great House, Leyton, and of Mark Lane, West India Merchant, b. at Antigua 24 Nov. 1740, d. at Leyton 29 Jan. 1803, aged 62. By Isabella his wife and first cousin, 5th dau. and coh. of Jonas Langford, Esq. of Antigua and Theobalds, co. Herts., b. 12 June 1741 at Antigua, d. in Wigmore Street, July 1813, aged 72; he left issue three sons and three daus.
2. Mary, marrd. at Leyton 2 Feb. 1758 her cousin Richard Oliver junr. M.P. She d. in Welbeck Street, Nov. 1788 s.p.
II. Robert b. 1700. Member of Assembly 1725, removed to Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1738, Colonel of Militia, d. 16 Dec. 1762, aged 62, leaving by Anne Brown his wife, marrd. 3 Feb. 1721-2, with other issue
Thomas 1st s. & h. of Cambridge, Mass. b. 5 Jan. 1733-4 at Antigua, B.A., Harvard, 1753, Lieut. Governor of Massachusetts, 1774-6. His estates were confiscated for his loyalty; d. s. p. m. at Bristol, 29 Nov. 1815, aged 83.
Col. Richard Oliver left (with other issue) by his 2nd wife Sarah, d. Dec. 1726, a third son.
III. Rowland, b. 1704, Colonel of Militia, Member of H. M. Council 1753, d. at Bath 16 July 1767, aged 64, and by Sarah his wife, d. Nov. 1758, left an only surviving s. and h.
Richard, bap. at Antigua 7 Jan. 1734-5, West India Merchant of Fenchurch Street, sometime a partner with his uncle Richard Oliver, senr., of Leyton, Alderman and M. P. for London 1770-80, Sheriff of London and Middlesex 1772, marrd. his cousin Mary Oliver as above and d. s.p. at sea on the voyage home from Nevis 16 Ap. 1784.
In 1768, Richard Oliver, junr. and his cousin and brother-in-law Thos. Oliver of Leyton, became active supporters of John Wilkes, and with their friends formed the "Society for the Support of the Bill of Rights," of which Richard Oliver acted as Treasurer. In June 1770, on the death of Lord Mayor Beckford, M.P. for the City, Thos. Oliver of Leyton was selected to succeed him, but being seized with a dangerous fever, Richard Oliver took his place and was returned without opposition as M.P. on 11 July, and as Alderman of Billingsgate Ward on 14 July. He first made himself obnoxious to the Ministry by refusing to back press-warrants in the City. In 1771 the Speaker having issued a warrant for the arrest of a printer & citizen who had printed Parliamentary debates, the printer was discharged by Alderman Oliver, who also signed the commitment of the messenger for assault. Lord Mayor Brass Crosby, M.P., and Alderman John Wilkes, M.P., acted in like manner. The House of Commons by a majority considered this an infringement of its rights, and the Lord Mayor & Alderman Oliver were committed to the Tower where they remained from March 26th to May 8th. On April 9th 1771, at a meeting of the supporters of the Bill of Rights, Thos. Oliver and his friends objecting to subscribe any more for the payment of Wilkes' debts, seceded from the Society and proceeded to form a new one called the "Constitutional Society," whose chief aim was to effect the shortening of Parliaments, and they elected Alderman Oliver as their Treasurer. It was stated in the newspapers that Thomas and Richard Oliver had themselves contributed one-tenth of all the public subscriptions for Mr. Wilkes. On 24th June 1771 a silver cup of £100 in value was voted by the City to Alderman Oliver. This cup now forms part of the Corporation plate at the Mansion House. It is silver-gilt, about 1 foot 10 inches in height, and weighs 162 oz. Its two handles are surmounted with the City supporters. The cover is fluted & surmounted by a figure of Liberty. On the front are two shields with the arms of the City and of Richard Oliver (Ermine on a chief Sable, three lions rampant Argent) with this inscription:
This Cup Presented by the City
to Aldn Oliver,
for joining with Other Magistrates
in the release of a Freeman
who was arrested by Order of the House of Commons;
and in a Warrant for imprisoning
the Messenger who had arrested the Citizen,
and refused to give Bail.
Is by him deposited in the Mansion House,
to remain there a publick Memorial
of the Honour which his fellow Citizens have done him
and the Claim they have upon him
to persevere in his Duty
Willm Nash. Mayor
After these events there was no hindrance to the tree publication of Parliamentary debates.
On July 3rd 1772, Richard Oliver, M.P., headed the poll for Sheriffs for London and Middlesex. In August 1774 he was elected General of the Hon. Artillery Company. On 15th October 1774 he was re-elected one of the four M.P.s for the City. On 25th November 1778 he resigned his gown and went out to Antigua to attend to his plantations in that and adjoining islands. After the dissolution of Parliament in 1780 he did not offer himself for re-election. Returning from the Island of Nevis, he died on board ship 16th April 1784.
During the period he sat in Parliament he upheld the rights & liberties of the citizens on every occasion. A loyal Colonial himself he repeatedly protested against the fatal policy of the Ministry forcing the New England Colonies into rebellion and civil war. He often spoke against the corruption of the House and advocated short parliaments.
In 1803-5 John Theophilus Daubuz bought the house and lands from the heirs of Thomas Oliver for £5800, and it is probable that about this date the extensive alterations carried out in the style of the Brothers Adam, were made. (fn. 3) Mr. Daubuz was of French extraction, his ancestors having come to this country at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). Apparently something of a Philistine he (among other alterations) converted the two tine panelled rooms for use as domestic offices, had much of the panelling in other rooms stripped from the walls, which were canvassed and papered, and the remainder of the woodwork including the staircase and hall, painted stone colour! He is also credited in the Parish Records with blocking church improvements which threatened encroachment on his family pew. At his death in 1831 the greater part of his property, including the Great House, passed to his daughter Ann Hand Mary Daubuz, who however lived only until 1836, when the estate was inherited by her married brother Lewis Charles Daubuz, of Truro, who lived for three years at the Great House with his daughter. His two sons, Charles Lewis and William to whom it next descended, let the house in 1840 to Stephen Cattley, a Russia merchant, who lived in it till 1845. It was then let to Mr. Kennard, and after him as a school to Mr. Arnold, a relative of Dr. Arnold of Rugby. In 1855 the Great House was a Boarding House, managed by Mr. Dovey. From 1858 to 1860 it was again inhabited by a member of the Daubuz family, Mr. James Daubuz, and soon after this date was rented by Mrs. Davey (then Woods) who a few years afterwards purchased it. The house now became a Private Lunatic Asylum (a fate which has helped to preserve many a fine mansion in districts which have seen better days) and as such it continued to be used until 1896.
After remaining in the market for some time it has now been acquired by Mr. Miles and seems likely to share the fate of the Manor House, Leyton Grange, and other fine houses destroyed long since to furnish accommodation for the housing of the ever-increasing population of London. Should a purchaser be found there is a chance of reprieve, as although the greater part of the extensive grounds are already built over, having in fact furnished space for the formation of several new roads, the house still stands and is offered for sale as a club or institution, for which purpose it is well adapted. It is to be hoped that it may yet be spared— Greater London can ill afford to lose such relics of times that are past.
The Authorship of the House
In common with most other buildings of the period not assigned by direct documentary evidence to other authorship, the design of the Great House has been attributed to Sir Christopher Wren. In this connection it should be borne in mind that, in the words of a recent writer on the English Renaissance, "it is not necessary to assign directly to his (Wren's) design all the charming brick & stone houses built between the Restoration and 1700 .... on the other hand .... if not by Wren, they were certainly inspired by his work." In the present instance, moreover, while many admirable points are displayed in the treatment, a certain lack of the dominant "idea" with which Wren was able to infuse even the least important of his works, militates strongly against the assumption of direct connection between that great designer and the building as executed. It is of course possible that a sketch by Wren may have been materialised by some less able hand, perhaps that of Dickinson, Clerk of Works under him at Greenwich, who having been married in the parish church in 1701, appears to have been in some way connected with Leyton. Whether this be so or not there is nothing to show, but it is abundantly evident that the influence of the Wren School is responsible for the distinction of the detail, which though mainly of simple character is exceedingly well designed. The broad and ample treatment of the panelling, refined moulding, & (though the latter is but sparingly introduced) vigorous carving, are surely the work of some of that numerous band of craftsmen whose familiarity with his methods did much to establish the influence of Wren far beyond his own immediate sphere of action.
Tradition has been very active in relation to the Great House. It is useless to repeat all the idle stories in local circulation, most of which are too absurd to need refutation, as for example one which jointly attributes the authorship to Inigo Jones and the ownership to Queen Elizabeth's Earl of Essex." A statement, however, detailed by the Rev. John Kennedy in his 'History of the Parish of Leyton,' requires some explanation. He writes: "This house originally had two wings, from one of which the cupola now on the tower of the Parish Church was taken. The present front of the house was originally the back, the present High Road and the County Cricket Ground being fields attached thereto. The High Road then followed nearly the line of the present Scotts Road, the estate on that side extending as far as the Phillibrook, which divided it from the Phillibrook Estate."
Whilst hesitating to cast doubt upon conclusions accepted by so eminent an authority on local history, & admitting that the statement has a basis of fact, its accuracy in detail one must be allowed to question. It is difficult to see in what direction any extension of the Ground plan can have existed; it is in its main lines obviously complete as it stands and the original plan, notwithstanding extensive remodelling during the Adam period, is still fairly well discernible. A type quite usual at the date of erection is followed—that of a centre block with wings, the principal floor being raised upon a low basement & approached by external steps. The wings project axially, which fact has apparently given rise to the evident misunderstanding, Mr. Kennedy having probably been led to assume that an E shaped plan was intended by the description upon which his statement is based. Probably the mutilation which the north wing of the stable buildings has suffered is the origin of the story. The cupola now on the Church Tower which is said to have been removed hence, may indeed well have come from the Great House, since it is unusual to find a house of this type without some feature of the kind. By the Churchwardens' accounts it appears that the date of its erection on the tower was 1806, which would coincide with the probable date of the extensive alterations made here. The turret itself bears internal evidences of adaptation to its present position, and it is not of such a character as might be looked for in an original work of 1806, while within the roof of the Great House indications are visible of provision for the support of a central feature. In the view on Plate 1 it is restored to the position which it probably occupied.
As to the transposition of front and back, granting some alteration in line of road, the detail of the present entrance front is such as to lead one to the conclusion that it was always intended as the principal façade, & the map of Leyton dated 1777 before referred to clearly indicates it as such, and moreover shows the site of the present cricket ground forming part of the Grange Park.
The disposition of the plan requires little explanation. The main block is divided into three approximately equal areas, the centre of which forms the hall and contains the main staircase. On either side ranged two square rooms, between which short passages gave access to the wings. This arrangement has been disturbed on the east side by the creation of the large Drawing Room and consequent recasting of the plan, but the original disposition is evidenced by the correspondence of the basement on this side with that under the west wing, which latter preserves more nearly the original plan. The rooms fronting the terrace were formerly entered directly from the hall, beneath the half-landing of stairs, but the doorways are now blocked and the space under stairs enclosed.
The cellars, absurdly named dungeons by local tradition, are raised so that the windows are above the general level of the ground as favoured in the works of Inigo Jones. The cellars beneath the hall and wings are vaulted in brick with semi-elliptical barrel vaults, the door and window openings having semicircular vaults intersecting these. Below the rooms on either side of the hall are unvaulted apartments, apparently devised as offices, the vaulting being omitted to get light through to stairs and passages. Blue & white Dutch picture-tiles line the walls of one of these. The ever-recurring tradition as to a subterranean passage appears in this case to be even less warranted by facts than usual.
The hall extends from front to back of the house. The portion containing the stairs runs up through two stories and is surmounted by a shallow internal dome. The front portion, one story only in height, has a ceiling painted upon canvas with columns and balustrading in perspective. The dome & ceiling over first floor landing are also painted, with allegorical figures attributed to Thornhill. The floor of the hall is laid with squares of black and white marble arranged in a simple pattern. The walls are panelled from front to foot of stairs, which ascend on either side to a half-landing from whence a single central flight continues to first floor level. A semi-elliptical arch beneath the half-landing gives access to the terrace door. Since the design and detail of hall & stairs are fully illustrated, a more precise description is unnecessary.
The two rooms on the west side of the Hall are lined with simple panelling of bold design, the panels standing out in advance of the stiles, a feature shared by all the panelling coeval with the original design. Both these rooms retain their old marble chimney-pieces, which were surmounted until quite recently (1901) by carved overmantels with mirrors & paintings. The details of the North room which is panelled in oak are illustrated on Plate 17 & the South room on Plate 18. The resemblance both in proportion & detail to Wren's work at Hampton Court Palace is very striking. Particulars of the overmantels have been obtained from drawings made before their removal by Mrs. Davey.
The Dining Room
The Dining Room took its present form at the time of the Adam remodelling. The design is not ineffective, but the detail, by contrast with the bold treatment of the original work, is perhaps a little tame and mechanical.
A small ante-room connects the Hall with the Drawing Room, which is a large room in the manner of the Brothers Adam. It has a fine plaster ceiling and a delicately carved marble mantelpiece of almost Greek refinement of design. (fn. 4) Rigid adherence to symmetry has produced the comical result that a door of apparently equal importance to the entrance, is found to open upon a small and quite unnecessary cupboard, being provided solely for balance owing to the exigencies of planning having precluded a central entry.
The Kitchen & Long Room—serving as a business room during the late tenant's occupation—are fine spacious rooms, the former stone-paved, but contain no features that call for remark.
The laundry and outbuildings are additions of comparatively modern date.
The approach to the first floor by the principal stairs has considerable dignity of effect and is quite the best contrived device exhibited in the internal planning of the house. The central flight conducts to a broad landing, having its walls panelled in a large manner. Facing the stairs is a wide doorway with Corinthian pilasters and pediment; narrower doorways similarly embellished flank the landing to right and left. It is however somewhat disappointing to discover that this fine spacious approach is not terminated in a more worthy manner. So powerful is its effect that a stranger ascending the stairs forms expectant visions of a fine "state apartment" as a culmination, but the central double door opens upon quite a small chamber, presumably original, there being no apparent disturbance of the architectural detail, which is here similar in character to the rest of the work.
The rooms on this floor present few details calling for note. One room is fitted as a library with solid & rather cumbrous bookshelves in the taste of the Greek revival. Where not affected by the Adam remodelling, there are bold wood cornices, that in the chamber over the Long Room being especially fine and of different design to any other in the house. A well-proportioned marble mantelpiece in this room is illustrated on plate 19. The radical inconsistencies which appear inseparable from the style of the period are well exemplified in several instances on this floor. The design of the Terrace front depends largely for its effect upon a rather steeply pitched central pediment. This is here discovered to have no legitimate raison d'etre, consisting in fact of naught else but 9 in. brickwork, overlooked in the rear at a distance of but few inches by dormer windows. If this pediment, which is partially justified on the score of effect, had been carried back by a roof intersecting with that of the main building—the window openings being formed in its tympanum—the purist would have been satisfied.
The device by which the shallow dome over the upper part of staircase hall is obtained, is also laid bare. It results in the formation of three rooms (store rooms only, be it said) in which a moderately tall man cannot stand upright. In justice to the original design it may be noted that, with these exceptions, the more glaring instances of architectural falsehood evidently arose at the time of the Adam remodelling.
Very interesting is the peculiar, though not unusual roof construction, which is accessible so far as the main roof is concerned, by means of a trap-door on the landing. The timbers are of heavy scantling and very roughly wrought, while quarter-split larch poles, entirely unsquared, form the ceiling joists. The internal slopes of roofs are slated with small thick green slates of delightfully varied colour.
The brickwork of which the bulk of the walling is composed differs greatly in colour from the familiar dingy greyish yellow of the modern London 'Stock.' The prevailing tone is deep red brown with a distinct purple tinge. It is perhaps in the skilful and harmonious use of colour in material that the beauty of the Wren School finds its best and most characteristic expression, and in this case the effect so produced is fine and must have been yet finer before the modern sashes disturbed the "texture" of the front; the fact that the stone-work has been heavily painted is also prejudicial. Nevertheless the mellow and rich tint of the walling, relieved by dark red dressings round openings and angles, having bands and arches of excellent gauged work in bright red rubbers, the whole surmounted by the bold wooden modillion cornice, achieves a result which is of noteworthy interest and quiet beauty. The entrance front is further embellished with gauged brick pilasters having stone capitals & bases to the main block, and central projecting features of similar gauged work to each wing. The angles of this front have also stone quoins, and above the cornice rises a parapet with panels and dies of gauged brick surmounted by a stone coping, with stone urns of good design above the pilasters and quoined angles. The fact that the members of the main cornice are here alone enriched is strong evidence that this front has always been the principal one. The unusual spacing of the pilasters is hardly to be commended, going further than anything else to render it improbable that the design is Wren's. They are, it will be noticed, centrally placed between the openings. The more usual and rational disposition (if the pilasters are to be recognised as an organic part of the design) and one which Wren would almost certainly have followed, is to set them out first, placing the windows symmetrically in relation to the interspaces. The pilasters are, however, without diminution or entasis, following Wren's frequent practice in this respect.
The entrance doorways on both fronts with their porticos are not the original ones, dating probably from the Adam remodelling, though they may be even later. The sashes also have been renewed with the exceedingly slender bars characteristic of the early nineteenth century. The windows overlooking the terrace, however, with the exception of those to the large drawing-room, retain their frames fixed flush with the external face of the walls, and from these it may be judged how much the entrance front has suffered by the recessing of its sash frames behind brick reveals and the consequent enlargement of glass area with its disturbance of scale.
At the date of writing, the grass terrace is the only vestige remaining of the extensive gardens so enthusiastically described by Strype. A plan of the gardens as existing in 1896 is in the possession of the Survey Committee, but it seems hardly likely that this represents at all closely the lines of the original laying-out, which would probably be much more formal in character.
The simple stable buildings with their effective stall divisions & fittings, have suffered mutilation as before-mentioned, the North wing being curtailed to allow of the High Road being widened. They are internally very dilapidated. The yard gates and walling have been destroyed.
It must not be supposed that the slight criticisms made as to the structure or design of the whole fabric are intended to be taken in any absolute sense. They are merely offered as personal opinion based upon a careful study of the building and to assist in determining its authorship.
Whether the Great House be by Wren or not matters very little after all; it matters little also whether some of the details conform to those more refined & subtle standards of criticism which the expert sometimes sets before him & which the vandal as often uses as an excuse for the destruction of a beautiful thing.
In the Great House we have a beautiful thing, comprehensible in its unity, which in these days & in this part of Greater London it would be quite impossible to reproduce, and except at a cost far beyond the means of a poverty-stricken district, to rival. All we can do is to preserve what we have got, & the purpose of this monograph is to bring home to those who may have the necessary influence, intelligence, or public spirit, the possibilities and the need of so doing.