Paradise Row, south side: Walpole House

Pages 3-7

Survey of London: Volume 2, Chelsea, Pt I. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1909.

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In this section


Ground landlord, etc.

The Crown.

General description and date of structure.

Walpole House was the first residence west of the Royal Hospital, on the south side of Paradise Row. The whole of the external appearance of the present building is from the design of Sir John Soane, and dates from 1810, with the exception of the south-west extension, which has been made since. Sir John Soane, as resident architect or, as he was called, "clerk of the works" to the Royal Hospital, converted Walpole House into a new Infirmary for the pensioners, and he has left in his museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields several interesting plans and sketches showing how this was done. The plan of the house, then known as Lord Yarborough's, shows a long rambling building without any very coherent arrangement. The front entrance was in the court of the Hospital stable yard, which extended further west than the present stables, rebuilt by Soane, and was approached through a gateway, not in Paradise Row itself but in an extension of Smith Street, now within the gates of the Hospital. At that time Paradise Row stopped short at the great court of the Hospital (Burton's Court) and carriages had to turn to the left along Smith Street and so by the King's Road to Westminster. It is curious that a house of the importance of Walpole House should have had its principal entrance in the stable yard; the fact, however, is quite clear from the Soane drawings, and we read in Lysons that "Sir Robert Walpole became possessed of a house and garden in the stable yard, Chelsea." The principal part of the building probably dated back to 1690 when the site was first leased from the Crown, but it is almost certain that Walpole made alterations or additions to it. Lysons says that "he improved and added to the house, considerably enlarged the gardens by a purchase of some land from the Gough family, built the octagon summer-house at the end of the terras and a large greenhouse where he had a fine collection of exotics." Faulkner prints a letter from Sir John Vanbrugh to Walpole at Chelsea in which he signs himself "your most humble architect." The letter is dated October 27, 1725, and contains the following sentence: "I have made an estimate of your fabrick, which comes to £270; but I have allowed for doing some things in it in a better manner than perhaps you will think necessary; so that I believe it may be done to your mind for £200." The letter does not describe the work in hand, but it establishes the fact that Walpole employed Vanbrugh as architect, and it is possible that he designed both the additions to the house and the garden buildings. Of the latter nothing now remains. The beautiful summer-houses on the river wall were destroyed when the embankmentwas made in 1876,and Lysons himself recorded the loss of the greenhouse which adjoined the west end of the house "some years ago." The octagonal summer-house which, with its quaint little pillared porch, figures in so many views of the Royal Hospital, held at one time Bernini's statue of Neptune which Sir Joshua Reynolds brought from the Villa Negroni at Rome and which had passed into the hands of Mr. George Aufrere, the father-in-law of the Earl of Yarborough, both of whom occupied Walpole House. There was another building in Walpole's garden which should be mentioned, that marked "Pavilion" on the plan (Plate 2) next to the "Whitster." The garden adjoined the laundry and airing grounds of the Hospital, and these two buildings once formed the residence of the "Whitster" or laundress. (fn. 2) But since the western portion projected into Walpole's garden it appears that it was granted to him for his own use, and further accommodation was provided for the laundry on the Hospital side. (fn. 3) When the southernmost portion of the garden was leased in 1810 to Colonel Gordon for the building of the present Gordon House he pulled down Walpole's pavilion, and Sir John Soane had several sketches made in water-colour of the remaining part of the building, which are preserved in the Soane Museum. From these it appears that the Whitster's house was quite an attractive little building with all the characteristics of Wren's design. It had a covered verandah with twin columns and being so near to the river must have formed a delightful summer-house, probably much in use owing to the fact that Walpole House itself was quite hidden away, and could scarcely have boasted any prospect of the Thames. It seems that the original drawing in the Guildhall copy of Lysons, which purports to be of Walpole House (Plate 6) is really of this building, which from its important position might easily be mistaken for the house, but if so it had undergone some alteration, or the drawing may not be altogether accurate.

Figure 1:

Walpole House, Plan.

Drawn by Walter H. Godfrey from Sir John Soane's plans in the Soane Museum

Of the house as inhabited by Walpole, we have no views. Soane's sketches of the Clerk of Works' house which stood between it and Paradise Row do not throw any light upon it, although there are drawings of that part of the stable yard which faced Walpole's front door. There is, however, in the Soane collection, an interesting album of sketches, made by the architect's pupils, of the new Infirmary buildings in course of erection, and it is there that we have to look for any sign of the old house. It is evident from the drawings that in order to make way for the new building it was at first dismantled, with the exception of the extreme southern wing, which was left untouched until the work was approaching completion. This is the wing that Soane incorporated in his Infirmary and which tradition has called Sir Robert Walpole's Drawingroom—now known as Ward 7. From the sketches we can see that the wing was two storeys in height and was roofed with a gable, treated as a pediment, and turned towards the garden to face south-west, having on this side six windows, three on each floor. The chimney stack was in the position of the present fireplace on the south-east wall, and there were no windows on that side, since it overlooks the "drying ground" of the Hospital laundry. From the general appearance it seems almost certain that this wing was an addition of Sir Robert Walpole's, and that it was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh; the evidence of the interior of the present ward confirms this view. It is a large and lofty room, measuring about 32 by 24 feet, of thoroughly Georgian character, except for the windows which introduce a somewhat unwelcome feeling of modernity. The sketch on Plate 3 shows it in use as part of the Infirmary. The heavily-moulded plaster ceiling and the marble mantelpiece, with its well-proportioned mouldings, indicate an earlier hand than that of Soane, and are not inconsistent with Vanbrugh's design, and they were evidently preserved with some care during the alterations. It is not certain that the chimney-piece was originally in this room, as the plans show that the fireplace opening was rebuilt; but there would have been no object in inserting a mantel of earlier and different character if it were not already in the house. Soane, of course, cased the outside walls in new brickwork and altered the windows to match his general design, but in other respects he left the room as he found it.

A glance at the plan on page 3 will show how far the new building covered the site of the old, and wherever feasible Soane has incorporated the old brickwork in the walls of the Infirmary. The basement, indeed, was largely unaltered, and in this portion some 17th century brickwork may still be traced. Here is perhaps one of the most interesting relics of Walpole's tenancy, in the shape of a fine lead cistern (Plate 5) bearing his initials "R.W." and the date "1721," the year when the house was being prepared for him. The cistern is still in use and may possibly be in its original position. In the Soane collection of views already cited there is one showing a fine lead tank in use for supplying the bricklayers with water for their work, but this does not seem to have been the one which is left as it is shown with three moulded panels instead of two. But the Royal Hospital is very rich in lead cisterns, and it is possible the one used by the builders did not belong to the house.

Condition of repair.

The building is in the care of H.M. Office of Works and is in excellent repair.

Historical notes.

When the Royal Hospital was built at Chelsea certain portions of land acquired for the new institution were leased, in the east to the Earl of Ranelagh and in the west to William Jephson, Secretary to the Treasury. The latter obtained about 4½ acres, which extended from Paradise Row to the River Thames. Towards the road, however, the frontage was much reduced by the Hospital stable yard, which took up most of the width. The plot was irregularly shaped, being very narrow for about half its depth, owing to the intrusion of the Hospital laundry and drying grounds on the north-east. It had its greatest width upon the river and adjoined the land sold later to the Earl of Carbery on the south-west. Here was built the house which later became the home of Sir Robert Walpole, and portions of which still exist in the Hospital Infirmary.

It is presumed that William Jephson built the house when he acquired a lease of the land for 61 years, in or about the year 1690. His widow married Sir John Aubrey, Bart., and transferred the lease to Charles Hopson, who in his turn passed it to Edward Russell, Earl of Orford, July 10th, 1696. His tenancy continued (according to the rate-books) until 1711. From 1714 to 1719 Sir Richard Gough lived here, having already, perhaps, acquired the adjoining property of the Earl of Carbery, who had died in 1713 (see Gough House). He is assessed for the poor rate at £80, a figure which would more than cover that of the two houses.


According to Lysons Sir Robert Walpole came to the house "about the year 1722," and, considering the date on the lead cistern (1721), it is probable that he resided here quite as early as this, although other writers have made it later. Walpole lived in Chelsea during the summer months until 1745, and both Lysons and Faulkner agree that he added to the gardens by a purchase of land from his neighbours the Gough family. It seems that Walpole was only a tenant up to the year 1730 when he purchased the lease from Thomas Ripley, to whom it had been granted for 50 years a few days previously. The history of Walpole's residence here, of the visitors he had, of the entertainment of Queen Caroline, who dined in the celebrated greenhouse, of Lady Walpole's grotto, and of Horace Walpole's allusions to "my poor favourite Chelsea" in his writings, has been told by such Chelsea historians as Mr. Alfred Beaver and Mr. Reginald Blunt with much careful detail. In his retirement, as Earl of Orford, Walpole lived here till his death, March 18th, 1745. John Ranby, the surgeon to the Hospital, attended him during his illness, writing afterwards an account of it, which was published.

From a letter of Horace Walpole's in 1746 it appears that the Duke of Newcastle was living here, but we find in 1748 that the Earl of Orford is still rated for the house, from which we gather that he had not yet parted with the property, although he had just acquired his celebrated residence at Strawberry Hill. However this may be, it is known that on October 13th, 1749, Walpole House was leased to John, second Earl of Dunmore, Governor of Plymouth, whose name appears in the rate-books from 1749 to 1751. He seems to have let the house to Henry Temple, first Viscount Palmerstone (1754–1757), and to the Duke of Norfolk in 1758. In the following year Mr. George Aufrere, of Brocklesby Hall, Lincoln, took over the property (May, 1759), and obtained an extension of the lease to the year 1825. During his tenancy the house became again celebrated for its wonderful collection of paintings and other works of art: Walpole's collection, it will be remembered, forms part of the Imperial Gallery at St. Petersburg (vide "Ædes Walpoliana"). Mr. Aufrere's name continues in the rate-lists till 1800, and in 1801 it is replaced by Arabella Aufrere. "Upon the decease of Mrs. Aufrere," writes Faulkner "(September 1st, 1804) the house came into the possession of the Earl of Yarborough, who married in 1770 Sophia, daughter and sole heir of the late George Aufrere, Esq." Lord Yarborough lived here till 1808, when the Crown resumed possession, paying him £4,775 15s. as compensation for the unexpired term of the lease.

On the resumption of the lease by the Crown Sir John Soane was asked to prepare plans for converting Walpole House into a new infirmary of the Royal Hospital. Against his advice the best portion of the garden, towards the river, was granted on an 80 years' building lease to Lt.-Colonel (afterwards General) Sir Willoughby Gordon, Bart., who at once built Gordon House. Since the expiration of the lease this building has been appropriated to the use of the Infirmary nursing staff, and the further history of the whole property lies within that of the Royal Hospital.

It may be worth noting that the river-wall and two summer-houses were destroyed when the Embankment was made in 1876. The official plans, copies of which are in the Chelsea Miscellany at the Chelsea Public Library, show their exact position. The last encroachment on the site of Walpole's garden took place when the buildings of Chelsea Embankment gardens were erected a few years ago.

Bibliographical references.

Rev. Daniel Lysons, Environs of London (1795).
Thomas Faulkner, Chelsea and its Environs (2nd edition, 1829).
Rev. A. G. L'Estrange, The Village of Palaces (1880).
Benjamin Ellis Martin, Old Chelsea (1889).
Alfred Beaver, Memorials of Old Chelsea (1892).
Reginald Blunt, Paradise Row (1906).
Gentleman's Magazine, Dec. 1734, Sept. 1804.
Monthly Chronicle, re Royal Visit, 27 Aug. 1729.
Horace Walpole, Letters (Ed. Cunningham, 9 vols.), 1891. Letter to Montagu, Aug. 5, 1746.
Soane Museum, Plans, MSS. and copies of Parliamentary Papers.

Old prints, views, etc.

(fn. 4) Water-colour view of Summer-house in the graingerised edition of Lysons' Environs (Guildhall Library, London), entitled "Mrs. Aufren's [Aufrere's] House in the Stable Yard, taken from the opposite shore."

In The Committee's Ms. Collection Are—

3125. (fn. 4) Plan of Lord Yarborough's house—traced from one in the Soane Museum.
3126. (fn. 4) Plan of Lord Yarborough's house and garden.
3127. Infirmary Ward No. 7, Walpole's drawing-room. (Photograph.)
3128. (fn. 4) Infirmary Ward No. 7, Walpole's drawing-room. (Drawing.)
3129. (fn. 4) Fireplace in Ward No. 7 (photograph).
3130. N.E. wing of Infirmary (photograph).
3131. Vaulted corridor under covered walk (photograph).
3132. (fn. 4) Lead cistern (photograph).


  • 1. Note.—The Royal Hospital is numbered I. in the Survey of Chelsea, and will be treated in a separate volume.
  • 2. The office seems to have pertained to the male sex, for we find Mr. Rhodolphus Huguenin as whitster in 1748.—Vide Chelsea rate-books.
  • 3. Vide Papers laid before the House of Commons regarding the New Infirmary, 1810.
  • 4. Reproduced here.