Survey of London: Volume 6, Hammersmith. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1915.
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XXXI.—KELMSCOTT HOUSE, No. 26 UPPER MALL
Ground landlord, leaseholder, etc.
General description and date of structure.
We can fix the date of this very charming house of the late Georgian period to a few years before 1790, when Colonel Winwood was admitted, probably as its first occupant (vide infra). The building has a simple front of stock brick of three storeys, beside a lower ground floor and rooms in the roof lighted by dormers. Each storey has five sash-windows regularly spaced, excepting the ground floor, where the central space is occupied by a well-designed entrance with Ionic pilasters, horizontal entablature and semicircular fanlight. This entrance centres on the eastern of the two great bastions in the river wall, which give an added width to the Mall, and, with the tall elms that flank them, impart a generous and picturesque aspect to the front. In the centre of the bastion the parapet is lowered, and the opening occupied by some old ironwork which probably represents an early water-gate. (fn. 1) The windows on the ground and first floor of the south front of the house formerly possessed louvred shutters.
The plan is well arranged and represents the original design. The lofty dining-room facing the garden on the ground floor is 16 feet high, the levels of the first floor being adjusted to give this height, which is greater than that of the southern rooms. It preserves its original modelled frieze and finely carved wood mantelpiece. The latter has an enriched cornice, a frieze on which are figure panels, and triple reeded columns on either side, the opening being surrounded by a band of yellow Siena marble. The window is an exceptionally graceful design; slightly curved on plan, it is deeply recessed and has a segmental head filled with cobweb glazing; the reveals are panelled, with reeded columns on each side within the room, while outside, four panelled pilasters with moulded capitals divide the window into a central and two smaller side lights. This room is still hung with the original "pimpernel" wallpaper placed in it by William Morris in 1878.
The south-west room on the ground floor was connected with the upper floor of the stable by William Morris by means of the small staircase. The lower floor of the stable and coach-house has been altered by the present owner to allow of a side entrance. On the first-floor landing a small room or closet appears to have been fitted, either originally or early in the 19th century, with shelves for china supported by delicately turned pillars.
On the first floor is the drawing-room, 40 feet in length, fronting the river. The western fireplace, with its grate of iron and brass, was designed by Philip Webb, the distinguished architect, as a wedding gift for William Morris. The window at the west end was blocked up some years ago. The plaster ceiling (by Bankart) is modern. The upper bedrooms were to some extent remodelled in 1910, and the old windows reopened.
Condition of repair.
Historical and biographical notes.
It has been stated already (see p. 69) that the grounds of Kelmscott House were originally part of the land belonging to Nos. 22 and 24 Upper Mall, which were at first one building. The house is on the site of a warehouse, as appears from the entry in the Court Rolls of the admission of Colonel Ralph Winwood on 23rd June, 1790, where we read that Samuel Webb surrenders a messuage on the Upper Mall with coach-house, stables, etc., late built on ground occupied by a warehouse, and a walled garden late part of a grass field late in the occupation of Mrs. Nicholls, since of Edward Seales and now of Ralph Winwood. The entry of 1780 describes the "large warehouse facing the Thames" as then existing, so that we can date Kelmscott House to a few years before 1790. Colonel Winwood seems to have lived in the new house, and at his surrender in 1797 to James Smith it is still called "a newly erected messuage . . . in the occupation of Ralph Winwood." James Smith's name takes the place of Winwood's in the rate-books for 1797.
Early in the 19th century Sir Francis Ronalds lived in this house, and here, as is recorded on a tablet in the wall, he invented the electric telegraph, with the assistance of Sir Charles Wheatstone, (fn. 2) then a boy of fourteen. He laid in the garden eight miles of insulated cable, with synchronising discs at the ends, fragments of which were dug up in 1871, and are preserved in the Pavilion Museum at Brighton and at South Kensington. Ronalds communicated his invention to Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, on 16th July, 1816, and received a reply from his secretary on 5th August that "telegraphs are now [i.e. at the end of the French War] totally unnecessary, and no other than the one in use [i.e. semaphore] will be adopted"!
In 1878 it passed into the hands of William Morris, and from that year until he died it was intimately connected with his work. He renamed it after his beautiful old home in Oxfordshire, "and he liked to think that the water which ran under his window at Hammersmith had passed the meadows and grey gables" of the parent house. One of the first things that Morris did after settling here was to have a tapestry-loom built in his bedroom, where he practised weaving with his own hands. During Morris's later years most of his energy was absorbed in the printing of beautiful books. He founded the famous Kelmscott Press in 1890, and it was first set up in a cottage within a few yards of his Hammersmith dwelling. (fn. 3)
It would not be fitting here to dwell at length on the achievements of one of the most remarkable men of the 19th century. An artist who worked untiringly with his own hands and to whose genius we owe the revival of a dozen crafts which had either died out or become utterly degraded, what he did for each would have made the fame of any ordinary mortal. As poet and writer of prose romances he showed the same distinction and the same unity of purpose. In his strivings after social reform we can all of us at least appreciate the fact that he was inspired by the loftiest ideals. Of his lovable nature there can be no better proof than the unvarying affection of his disciples and friends.
It should not be forgotten that Morris was one of the original members of the London Survey Committee, and was enthusiastic in the task of preserving our ancient and historical buildings, being in this and in so much else a pioneer.
Morris wove the early "Hammersmith" carpets in the back part of the stables. The south-west room on the ground floor served as his library and designing-room. He died in the south-east room opposite, on 3rd October, 1896.
Old prints, drawings, etc.
(fn. 4) Photograph of the house from the river in the possession of Mrs. Chase.
In the Council's ms. collection are:
(fn. 4) View of the south front (photograph).
(fn. 4) Dining-room window, exterior (photograph).
(fn. 4) Dining-room window, interior (photograph).
(fn. 4) Dining-room, fireplace (photograph).