Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1960.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
This site was agreed to be granted in June 1673 at a rent of £17 17s. 8d. per annum to Robert Warden, esquire, (fn. 1) in trust for Arabella Churchill, the Duke of York's mistress, who occupied the house from 1675 until her association with the Duke ended in 1678. (fn. 10) The adjacent house to the north, No. 20, was occupied by Sir Allen Apsley, the Duke's treasurer of the household. Sir Allen's daughter, old Lady Wentworth, writing one of her chatty, ill-spelt letters to her son in 1710, said with reference to No. 21 that her father 'had the building of it, and it cost ten thousand pound. . . . My father built it by the order of King Jaims for Lady Dorchester.' Lady Wentworth was presumably confused by the fact that the Countess of Dorchester, James II's mistress, occupied the house from 1685 or 1686 to 1696, but her faulty recollection may indicate that Sir Allen had been charged with the supervision of the building of the house to suit the demands of his master's earlier favourite. (fn. 2)
Lady Wentworth observed, perhaps significantly, that the property had walls 'of a great height, becaus none should over look them', with 'a prety little garden'. She thought it 'the strongist built of all the housis in the Squar . . . its the best in the squar', (fn. 11) a favourable opinion that others seem to have shared. The front to the square was one of the widest of any of the 'single-width' plots.
In September 1678 the recently widowed Lady O'Brien was reported to have bought Arabella Churchill's 'fine house' for £8000, (fn. 12) although in 1685 Arabella's husband seems still to have had an interest in the house. In February 1679 Lady O'Brien married Sir Joseph Williamson, and they lived here until 1684. (fn. 13) The Earl of Longford, writing to the Duke of Ormonde in March 1681/2, when the Duke was offered the hire of old St. Albans House, Sir Edward Villiers's house in St. James's Street or Sir Joseph's house, calls the last 'the finer finished and better furnished of the three'. (fn. 14)
In January 1684/5 the house was acquired on behalf of Catherine Sedley, apparently from Arabella Churchill's husband. (fn. 15) In April 1686 it was said that 'the house is furnishing very fine' for occupation by the Countess of Dorchester, as Catherine Sedley had then become, (fn. 16) and she lived here until 1696, when she vacated it on her marriage to Sir David Colyear, afterwards Earl of Portmore. A series of comparatively short tenancies followed, and in 1710 it was being offered for sale, according to Lady Wentworth, at £6000. (fn. 11) Evidently no sale was made, and the Countess returned to the house with the Earl of Portmore until her death in 1717. (fn. 13) The ownership of the house then presumably passed to her daughter, of supposed royal birth, the Duchess of Buckinghamshire, from whom the Earl of Portmore bought it in August 1723. (fn. 17) He lived here until his death in 1730 (fn. 3) when he was succeeded by his son, the second Earl, to whom he had conveyed the house in January 1725/6. (fn. 18) In 1732 the second Earl married the widow of the third Duke of Leeds. In July 1740 he sold the house to Lord Dupplin and Francis Godolphin, doubtless in trust for the Countess of Portmore's stepson, the fourth Duke of Leeds, who had very recently married. (fn. 19) On the Duke of Leeds's death in March 1789 the old house passed to his son, the fifth Duke, who determined to rebuild it.
This rebuilding was taking place from 1790 to 1793, (fn. 13) but the work evidently did not satisfy the Duke and Duchess, and the house was not finished until alterations had been carried out under Soane's direction in the years 1795–6.
The original architect for the rebuilding, who was responsible for the main features of the elevation to the square and of the plan, was Robert Furze Brettingham, a grandson of the builder of Norfolk House and No. 5 in the square, and an old acquaintance of Soane's. It is curious to note that his work at Buckingham House, Pall Mall, was probably also altered by Soane (see page 360), and that it was Soane who later gave an opinion adverse to Brettingham in a dispute of the latter with a client. (fn. 20) Soane's records of the alterations to No. 21 contain many references to consultations with Brettingham but do not reveal whether their relations were amicable or contentious.
Few details of the history of Brettingham's own work emerge from Soane's records. A reference to 'Mr. Brettingham's order and Mr. Novosielski's Receipt for £250' dating back to April 1792 (fn. 21) suggests that Michael Novosielski had some connexion with the building or decoration of the house.
On 12 March 1794 Soane met the Duchess of Leeds and three days later wrote to her to report that Brettingham was 'willing to meet any investigation that may be desired'. (fn. 22) In May Soane 'sent to Mr. Brettingham a statement of the business'. (fn. 23) Soane evidently thought the Leeds sufficiently dissatisfied with the house for it to be worth his while to produce in June plans and an elevation for a complete rebuilding of Brettingham's brand-new house. A model was made from these drawings (fn. 24) and the design was subsequently published in Soane's Designs for Public and Private Buildings of 1828. (fn. 25)
This unexecuted design (Plate 193) is for a house containing a semi-basement and four storeys, including the attic, and Soane's plans make no use of any part of Brettingham's structure although the disposition of the front rooms is similar in both designs. A three-bay portico provides a handsome approach to the front door, which opens to a square cross-vaulted hall, its floor being lower than the general level of the ground storey. (fn. 4) On its west side is the nightporter's cubicle, south of a short flight of stairs rising to a domed lobby off the principal staircase, a deep D-shaped compartment lying between the north-east and north-west rooms. The north-east room is the library, a deep oblong in plan with two windows overlooking the square, and the northwestern is the eating-room, a very large oblong with a segmental-bowed end wall containing three windows overlooking the garden. South of the principal staircase is the second stair and a court that gives light and air to the second stair, to the lobby and water-closet adjoining the south-east dressing-room, and to the lobby, south of the principal staircase, that serves the south-west drawing-room, a deep oblong with two windows towards the garden. The principal staircase is another of Soane's variations on Kent's masterpiece at No. 44 Berkeley Square, and it rises with a straight central flight, then branches in curves left and right, to return in straight parallel flights to the principal-storey landing. This is flanked by cross-vaulted lobbies, one serving the two drawingrooms on the east, overlooking the square, and the other leading south to the bed-chamber and dressing-room over the back drawing-room, and west into the large music-room above the eatingroom. The east lobby projects into the musicroom, where an organ recess is provided by forming a balancing lobby which leads to a screened gallery at the north end of the staircase, linking the music-room with the front drawing-rooms.
The front elevation is severe and neo-classical, with a three-bay portico of plain-shafted Ionic columns projecting from the rusticated ground storey. The plain upper face contains two tiers of five evenly spaced windows, all dressed with narrow architraves, and the attic, with five oblong windows, is finished with a simple cornice and blocking-course.
In the event, however, Soane only modified the existing house. In July 1794 he made plans of Brettingham's house, 'as built' (fn. 26) (Plate 192) and during the summer and winter was discussing the house; one topic talked over with Brettingham was 'warming the staircase'. In August 1794 there is mention of 'an action against Stoddart for dimensions', possibly for inadequate brickwork. (fn. 27) By the end of March 1795 the plans for the alterations were completed. The commencement of the work was delayed for a day or two by Brettingham's wish for 'some of his friends to see the House in the present state'. (fn. 28) The alterations were probably finished by the end of the following year. In September 1796 Soane read his report to Brettingham, afterwards having dinner with him at a coffee-house. The following month he was copying Brettingham's answer. (fn. 29)
The work for which Soane's workmen were paid amounted only to some £430, mainly for gilding ornaments in the ground-floor rooms. The library bookcases were reset, and the upper part of the portico enclosed by the mason. (fn. 30) T. J. Boileau painted a frieze of figures and pictures over doors and chimneys. (fn. 31) The redecoration of the library was perhaps influenced by the library of Spencer House which Soane viewed with the Duke of Leeds in January 1795. (fn. 28) These bills, however, were for work 'not in Mr. Brettingham's Abstract of Bills' and it seems likely that other work was done, perhaps by Brettingham at the suggestion of Soane, whose bill for directing the work, making drawings for the alterations and for the workmen's use, and settling the bills, amounted to the sum, comparatively large in relation to his workmen's bills, of £300. (fn. 30) Plans of the house in 1876 (fn. 32) show various alterations from Brettingham's plan. The most important of these structurally dates from the nineteenth century, but the alterations on the first floor, where small rooms within the dressing-room and chamber had been altered or abolished, and the chamber opened into the front drawing-room, were probably all the work of Soane, who in March 1795 made a drawing for the first-floor dressing-room door and showed the Duke and Duchess 'a general Section and perspective View of the effect of the Manner proposed to finish the Door from the Dressing Room to the Drawing Room I Pair', which they ordered to be carried out. The alteration of the library door on the ground floor, which is apparent in a comparison of the plans of 1794 and 1876, was also Soane's work, although it does not occur in his workmen's bills. (fn. 33) His alterations also seem to have involved the provision, by Brettingham, of three new designs for chimneypieces in August 1794. (fn. 34)
The 1794 plan of Brettingham's house before alteration (Plate 192) shows that the back wall of the old seventeenth-century house had been retained and that Brettingham's back rooms were built out beyond it, with a slight break at this point in the southern party-wall. The 1876 plan shows the back rooms reconstructed and the line of the party-wall straight. This reconstruction took place after 1836 (fn. 35) and may have been connected with the building of the Army and Navy club-house next door, but it possibly indicates a structural weakness that had already become partially apparent when Soane was called in. In August 1796, as his alterations were nearing completion, he examined 'cracks' somewhere in the house with Brettingham. (fn. 36)
The house designed by Brettingham, and modified by Soane, contained a semi-basement, three storeys, and roof-garrets. Brettingham's plans, though less ingenious than those prepared by Soane in June 1794, were by no means incompetent. On the ground storey, the centrally placed front door opened to a hall, roughly a square with rounded angles on its west side, where the other door led to the great staircase, contained in a large and almost square compartment, with doors serving all the ground-storey rooms. The north-east room was the library, a deep oblong with two windows overlooking the square, and the north-west room was a drawing-room, a larger deep oblong with a threelight window to the garden. The largest of the ground-storey rooms was the south-west, an eating-room that projected well beyond the northwest room and had a segmental bow with three windows overlooking the garden. South of the great staircase was the service stair, separated by two water-closets from the small south-east dressing-room. The ground-storey arrangement was more or less repeated on the principal storey, with an oblong music-room over the hall and dressing-room, having three windows overlooking the square; a drawing-room over the library; a bed-chamber, dressing-room and water-closet over the back drawing-room; and the lady's dressingroom, powdering-room and maid's room above the eating-room.
Brettingham's design for the front (fn. 37) (Plate 191a) has three well-defined storeys, the principal and chamber storeys each containing five evenly spaced windows. The ground storey, raised above the semi-basement, has five round-arched openings, two windows on each side of the doorway, all set with plain margins in an arcade formed by plain piers with moulded imposts, and moulded archivolts broken by plain keystones. The doorway is approached by steps within a porch formed by two columns, raised on plain pedestals and having moulded bases, plain shafts, and Corinthianesque capitals, supporting a simple entablature. A rich guilloche band underlines the principal-storey windows, each of which is dressed with a narrow moulded architrave and a cornice resting on scroll-consoles, the middle window being accented by the addition of plain jambs shaped at the feet, and a triangular pediment. A fluted bandcourse marks the chamber storey, where the square windows are uniformly dressed with narrow moulded architraves rising from plain sills. The front is finished with an entablature and a balustrade divided into bays by pedestals, the entablature being composed of a moulded architrave, an anthemion-ornamented frieze, and a modillioned cornice.
The front, which was built in 'white' bricks dressed with stone, was altered in detail by Soane (Plate 191b, fig. 34). The imposts of the ground-storey piers were simplified and the moulded archivolts were omitted. The porch was built with columns standing on moulded pedestals and having plain shafts and enriched Ionic capitals, and the sides were closed in. A balcony with a delicately designed iron railing was added to the principal storey, where the windows were all uniform, and the fluted bandcourse was omitted from the chamber storey. For Brettingham's entablature, Soane substituted one with its cornice resting on foliated scroll-brackets, these breaking the frieze into the square metopes each decorated with a flower-patera.
Whatever the Leeds may have thought of Brettingham's work they were very pleased with Soane's, and employed him also at North Mimms. When his bill was finally presented, the Duchess, with whom he seems mainly to have dealt and with whom his family became friendly, wrote that she was 'quite astonish'd to find . . . Mr. Soane's charge for St. James's Square so very inadequate to the immense trouble He has had, and the great good He has done the Duke of Leeds which She is sure will always be remembered by both the Duke and Duchess with the warmest Gratitude'. (fn. 38)
In January 1799 the Duke of Leeds died, and in the following year the house was put up for sale by Christie's who in their sale catalogue of May 1800 emphasized its 'simple elegance'. (fn. 39) In April 1802 the sixth Duke and the Dowager Duchess, together with a mortgagee of the late Duke, conveyed the house, perhaps in mortgage, to William Hobson of Stamford Hill, builder, (fn. 5) in trust for John Blades, a glass manufacturer of Ludgate Hill, (fn. 40) who later acquired an estate at Brixton. (fn. 41) The purchase price of the house in the square is said (fn. 42) to have been £11,500 compared with the £38,000 it supposedly cost the Duke. (fn. 6) From 1800 to 1806 inclusive the house stood empty (fn. 13) and then from 1807 to 1815 was occupied by George Raggett on behalf of the Union Club. (fn. 7) In 1816 the house was owned by the Earl of Bective, subject to a mortgage interest held by Blades; (fn. 43) during the years 1816–18 it stood empty. (fn. 13) In February-March 1818 the Earl of Bective and Blades sold the house to the eighth Duke of St. Albans. (fn. 44) The eighth and ninth Dukes occupied it until 1828. (fn. 13) During part of 1821 it was hired at 'the immense rent of £500 per month' by Lord and Lady Londonderry, whose furnishing of the house evidently fell short of the 'simple elegance' of the Leeds' day or rather went beyond it in demonstrative opulence. (fn. 45)
In May 1829 the Duke of St. Albans and trustees under his father's will sold the house for £21,750 to the Bishop of Winchester, (fn. 46) and another element was introduced into the curiously varied history of the site which now accommodated the town residence of the Bishops for some forty-six years, under the name of Winchester House.
In 1870 alterations were carried out for the incoming Bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, under the direction of Ewan Christian. The work, for which the final bill was presented in March 1872, totalled in all some £1495. The heating, lighting and sanitation of the house were modernized and a private chapel introduced into the upper storey of the back premises. (fn. 47)
A few years later, in 1875, the sale of the house by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners was agreed between them and the Bishop. The purpose of the sale was to provide funds towards the endowment of the new Bishopric of St. Albans, which was being constituted by a rearrangement of the sees of Winchester and Rochester. The Bishopric of St. Albans Act (fn. 48) received the Royal Assent on 29 June, and in July the house was offered for public auction. The Army and Navy Club had made tentative enquiries about the possibility of buying the house, and the Bishop reminded the Commissioners that 'provision should be made for removing the window glass full of the sacred monogram I H S if the house is sold for a club'. Subsequent to the auction, £45,000 was offered for the house, but this was less than the reserved price and no sale was made. (fn. 8) It was offered for sale a second time in May 1876. £48,000 was bid but again no sale was made. In August of the same year an offer of £45,000 from the Treasury on behalf of the Commissioners of Works was accepted and the conveyance from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners was made in March 1877. (fn. 49)
The plans in the particulars of sale of 1876 show, when compared with one of 1831–6, (fn. 35) that a major structural alteration had been made. The back wall of the southern part of the house had been rebuilt, shortening the back rooms by six or seven feet.
From 1877 to 1906 the house was occupied by the War Office and from 1908 to 1914 by the Board of Agriculture. After the war of 1914–18 it was occupied by various government offices until 1924 when it was taken by the Centaur Club until 1927. (fn. 50)
In 1926 and 1929 the house was for sale. In 1932 its rebuilding was considered, but in July 1933 a different proposal was submitted on behalf of the National Sporting Club by Messrs. Mewès and Davis for the building of new club premises. (fn. 51) This project had been initiated by LieutenantCommander E. W. B. Leake, a wealthy sportsman who wished to resuscitate the moribund club for the promotion of boxing tournaments. The proposed new premises, (fn. 9) the work of Mr. A. J. Davis, were said to be likely to cost over £300,000, and would include 'gymnasium, squash courts, card-room, banquetting room, ballroom, club-rooms, bedrooms with private bathrooms, etc. etc.' It was claimed that they would be 'the most luxurious and modern in the country'. The public were not to be admitted but the club was to act as 'official host' to visiting teams and promote 'private tournaments'. (fn. 52)
Permission to redevelop the site was given in July 1934 (fn. 51) by which time the old house had been demolished. (fn. 53) It was commemorated in an 'obituary' in The Architect and Building News of 6 July, which regretted the destruction of 'this dignified and admirable façade', and observed, 'but what passes comprehension is that it should be possible for a square so famous and distinguished as St. James' to be rebuilt in the way it is—piecemeal, without regard to unity or continuity'.
By October, however, the scheme to promote important boxing contests under the aegis of the club had been abandoned, and despite the money laid out on plans and demolition it was decided to sell the site. (fn. 54) On 27 February 1935 the club agreed to its sale to the Distillers Company, which by January 1936 had also acquired No. 20 (see page 165). In that month Mewès and Davis made a further application, this time on behalf of the company, for consent to two alternative schemes; one giving separate façades to the two adjacent sites and the other that actually carried out. By this scheme No. 20 was preserved and a new office block built on the site of No. 21 with a façade formed by the extension of that of No. 20 (Plate 171). A mansard roof was added. In July 1936 the London County Council consented to this scheme and the work was completed shortly afterwards. (fn. 55)