Survey of London: Volume 2, Chelsea, Pt I. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1909.
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XLI.—SHREWSBURY HOUSE, called also ALSTON HOUSE, and Nos. 43–45 CHEYNE WALK.
The Artisans', Labourers' and General Dwellings Co., Ltd. The buildings are let to various tenants.
General description and date of structure.
The visitor to Chelsea will find no one to direct him if he asks for Shrewsbury House, the very memory of the old mansion of the Earls of Shrewsbury seems to have departed, and even those who are versed in the local history have disagreed regarding its exact site. In spite of this, however, we think there is sufficient evidence to prove not only that its position can be identified, but that some actual remains of the original house are still to be seen.
Anticipating a little our description of Nos. 46–48 Cheyne Walk, which stand just east of Cheyne Row, we find that in a lease of this property in 1711, it is described as adjoining Shrewsbury House upon the east. In fact the eastern wall of No. 46 does still adjoin a group of buildings that possess clear proof of having been on their present site long before the destruction of Shrewsbury House in 1813, as chronicled by Faulkner. These buildings may fairly claim, therefore, to be either part of the original house, or to have been incorporated with it at some early period. They consist at present of three distinct portions, the western part being of two stories, and having a gable both north and south. There is reason to suppose, as we shall see, that this was actually a part of the original house. It has been modernised in front, but at the back it has still some casement windows of the same appearance as those in the early views of Shrewsbury House. The eastern part consists of a house built in the first half of the 18th century, and recessed some distance from the road. This may occupy the site of a part of the old building and incorporates, possibly, some of the old walls. In early maps of the 19th century it seems that there was a row of houses in a line with this, stretching from the gable of No. 45 to "The Magpie and Stump" (No. 37, formerly "The Pye," which was an old freehold, having right of common), but they have since been pulled down. The third portion consists of two or three shops which have been built in front of the house, probably in the 19th century. We will return to these buildings later on.
The boundary wall between the garden of No. 46 and the land at the rear of the old buildings is a fine specimen of undoubted Tudor brickwork. This wall runs northward a considerable distance, and is to be traced at the back of the gardens in Cheyne Row, where it called forth some comments from Carlyle, who refers to its age and durability in Shooting Niagara and after. (fn. 1) Parallel with this wall at a distance of something over 100 feet to the east is another fine Tudor wall of the same long and narrow red bricks, bonded in the old English manner (see illustration). This latter wall was probably the limit of the Shrewsbury property where it adjoined that of Winchester House (fn. 2) (see p. 66). If this were so, the Earls of Shrewsbury seem to have possessed a slip of land about 40 yards in width, having a frontage on Cheyne Walk and extending at least as far back as Little Cheyne Row where the stables were situated. Faulkner tells us that the road called Cook's Grounds (now Glebe Place) was formerly a back way to the stable yard of Shrewsbury House, and he adds that "the stone framework of the gate is still visible in a garden in Upper Cheyne Row." But Dr. King shows this as glebe land in 1700, in his MS. notes and plans. It is possible that the Shrewsbury property included part of Dr. Phene's gardens on the north of Little Cheyne Row, and that the entrance to the latter from Glebe Place and the old cottage which stands beside it are on the site of a gateway that led to Shrewsbury House. We must bear in mind that it was not until 1719 that the King's (private) Road was made public, although it had been used by residents as a "back" way since the days of Charles II. Shrewsbury House, however, dates from before the year 1543, as will be noticed later, so that it is not improbable that there was another entrance from the direction of Cheyne Row, if the stables were in this position.
Regarding the character of the original building we have the interesting testimony of a wash-drawing of the courtyard in the extra illustrated edition of Lyson's Environs at the Guildhall Library (Plate 86), and of the engraving illustrated on Plate 87. (fn. 3) These drawings show a large Tudor or Elizabethan house of very picturesque appearance, but they give us no definite clue to its position in relation to Cheyne Walk and the adjacent property. In the engraving, however, on the left-hand (i.e., the west) side are shown some buildings, apparently of the 18th century, which bear a marked resemblance to part of the existing block, already mentioned. We have already referred to this house, which is now divided into Nos. 43 and 44, and still contains the relics of a fine stairway, some good panelling, and a carved chimney-piece on the second floor. Adjoining the east wall of No. 43 was an archway which led into the courtyard of Shrewsbury House, and although we have no direct evidence, it seems pretty certain that the mansion stood near enough to the roadside for the wings to reach Cheyne Walk itself. It this were so the gable of No. 45 (which is much of the same relative height as the gables in the old views) may well mark the original front of the west wing. Moreover, although Faulkner says that Shrewsbury House occupied in his day three sides of a quadrangle, yet there are many reasons for supposing that there was originally a fourth side which would have fronted the street, and from which the wings may have projected forward to form gables. Both the Manor House and Winchester House were built in quadrangular form; the south side being the most important with its river prospect was not likely to have been omitted here. The return for the hearth tax (fn. 4) in 1662 gives some indication of the size of Shrewsbury House which had 50 hearths as against 58 at Beaufort House, and only 31 at the manor. The curious persistence, too, of archways long after the original building has disappeared, which can be observed in every part of London, makes it probable that the archway, in existence here until the houses were destroyed in the last century, marked the original entrance to the courtyard of Shrewsbury House. Faulkner describes the building thus: "Shewsbury or Alston House, a capital mansion built about the latter end of the reign of Henry VIII., was situate in Cheyne Walk, adjoining the gardens of Winchester Palace … It was an irregular brick building forming three sides of a quadrangle. The principal room was 120 feet in length, and was originally wainscotted with carved oak. One of the rooms was painted in imitation of marble, and appeared to have been originally an oratory. Certain curious portraits on panel which had ornamented the large rooms were destroyed some few years since." He then goes on to describe the underground passage which was discovered to lead northwards from the house. On a later page, in his second edition (1829), he records the fact that the building "has been pulled down entirely." "In 1813," he continues, "the materials were sold piecemeal by a speculating builder, who had obtained possession, and now not a stone remains to show where it once stood—Seges ubi Troja fuit." The zealous author was clearly leading up to a cherished Latin quotation, for he seems somewhat to overstate the fact. The building was not of stone but of brick, and we have already shown that some portions are probably still in existence. But Faulkner's remarks no doubt refer to that range of buildings which lay to the north, and which is shown in the old views. This, almost certainly, contained the long gallery on the first floor, as it would measure in total length (between the old garden walls) about 120 feet. We have already said, however, that the original plan was most probably a complete quadrangle, and the most striking evidence of this has been the discovery on the ground floor of the later buildings, two sides of a room apparently in situ, with panelling and two doorways of the 17th century. The position of the room, which measures about 18 feet 6 inches by 13 feet 6 inches, is immediately within the open quadrangle mentioned by Faulkner, and adjoins the east wall of the west wing (No. 45), If it is in its original position, therefore, it would form part of the southern range, in which was the entrance archway. The panelling may not date back to before Sir Joseph Alston's tenancy, but may be part of alterations which he made c. 1650. A measured drawing of it is given on Plate 90, not only from its topographical interest, but because it belongs to a period of design which is transitional between the Jacobean work and that of the "later Renaissance."
Beyond the few facts and suggestions here set forth it is impossible to go, unless someone should chance to find an early plan of the house or the estate. The local maps do not help us. Faulkner's version of Hamilton's map is merely misleading, and Richardson's survey of the manor (1769) omits the property as being a freehold. The position of the house and gardens is, we think, determined in spite of the fragmentary character of the information, but it would be very interesting to know more of this home of the powerful Earls of Shrewsbury and of the ancestors of the Dukes of Devonshire.
Condition of repair.
The whole block of buildings is in a very poor condition. In most parts the brickwork is sound; but the woodwork, unless cared for, will soon perish: the 17th century panelling is falling to pieces.
Mr. Randall Davies has pointed out that Faulkner is not strictly accurate in placing the date of Shrewsbury House "about the latter end of the reign of Henry VIII." as there is a record (fn. 5) of the residence of George, fourth Earl of Shrewsbury, at Chelsea as early as 1519. He was a Privy Councillor to Henry VIII. and accompanied the King when he met Francis I. at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. His son Richard was born at Chelsea. Francis, the fifth Earl, is included in a court roll of the freehold tenants of the manor dated 1543, at the Record Office, and in the diary of Henry Machyn it is recorded of him, under date 1551:—"The v. day of June came to Chelsea the Earl of Shrewsbury with seven score horse, and after him forty velvet coats and chains, and in his own livery, to his place, and the residue of his servants." George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, succeeded to the title in 1560. The story of his custody of Mary Queen of Scots and the trouble he had with his wife, "Bess of Hardwick," whose fourth husband he was, is well known. When Queen Elizabeth relieved him from his charge she called forth his thanks for thus ridding him of "two she-devils." There are several letters extant which refer to his quarrel with his wife, mentioning Chelsea incidentally. In the Hatfield papers is a letter from the Earl to his Countess in which he says, "You still pressed her Majesty further that you might come to my house at Chelsey, which I granted, and at your coming I told you that you were welcome upon the Queen's commandment; but that though you were cleared in Her Majesty's sight of all offences yet I had not cleared you, nor could trust you till you did confess that you had offended me."
The Earl of Shrewsbury died in 1590. Mr. Beaver (fn. 6) tells us that "The house at Chelsea appears to have been bequeathed by him to his widow, Bess of Hardwick, who survived him seventeen years, and bequeathed all her estates to her son William by her second husband, Sir William Cavendish. This son was created Baron Cavendish and afterwards Earl of Devonshire by James I. He died at Hardwick in 1626. His widow appears to have constantly resided at Chelsea; the burials of several of her servants are recorded in the register, and among the Duke of Devonshire's MSS. are several Household Books for Chelsea." This was the Earl's second wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Edward Boughton, and widow of Sir Richard Wortley. She died in 1643, and, according to Dr. King's MSS., the house was purchased soon after by Sir Joseph Alston, created a baronet by Charles II. in 1682. He was the son of Edward Alston of Edwardston, Suffolk. His wife Mary, daughter and co-heiress of Mr. Crookenburg, a Dutch merchant, brought her husband a portion of £12,000. (fn. 7) She died in 1761 and was buried at Chelsea. The funeral sermon delivered on this occasion, together with that delivered upon Lady Jane Cheyne, is in a folio volume of sermons by Adam Littleton, D.D., Rector of Chelsea (1680), lately acquired by the Chelsea Public Library. "Sir Joseph Alston Knight" [Baronet] was buried at Chelsea on 31st May 1688, and entries relating to the family continue to appear in the Register until 1693–1694.
About this time the property changed hands, for we find from the rate-books that Mr. Robert Woodcock lived here, 1695–1709, and that his wife stayed here until 1714, when she moved into the Manor House. The Woodcocks were, however, only tenants, and from a note by the rector, Dr. King, it appears that they carried on a school, which was evidently transferred to the Manor House. The owner of the house was Robert Butler, whose will (1711) we have already noticed on p. 27. He mentions specifically "the house and gardens … wherein Mr. Woodcock now dwells, and the coachhouse, stables … rented of me by Mr. Bates, lately deceased, and the rooms rented of me by Captain Jenkins, being part of the said house of Mr. Woodcock's."
On Richardson's "Survey of the Manor" (1769) the property is marked "Mrs. State, late Dr. Butler." It is probable that the first name should be Tate, since Faulkner tells us that the house "came into the possession of Mr. Tate, and was occupied as a stained paper manufactory." Dr. Butler was the son of Robert Butler.
It is possible, by means of the rate-books, to give a list of the tenants during the 18th century, and although the names represent, in its later days, merely the occupants who were using the mansion for commercial purposes, yet their publication may not be without value, and might, perhaps, lead to the discovery of further information regarding the old building itself.
After Mrs. Woodcock's departure in 1714, there is the entry "Madame Butler's old house—empty," till 1715, and then follow:—
The house was destroyed, as already stated, in 1813.
Bibliographical references. (fn. 8)
Rutland and Hatfield MSS. re Earl of Shrewsbury.
Rev. Daniel Lysons, Environs of London (1795).
Thomas Faulkner, Chelsea and Environs (2nd edition, 1829).
Rev. A. G. L'Estrange, The Village of Palaces (1880).
Alfred Beaver, Memorials of Old Chelsea (1892).
Randall Davies, Chelsea Old Church (1904).
Chelsea Miscellany, Chelsea Public Library.
Old prints and drawings.
In the committee's ms. collection are—
|3282.||(fn. 8) View from Cheyne Walk, also showing Nos. 46 and 48 (photograph).|
|3283.||Another view of the same (photograph).|
|3284.||(fn. 8) View from back, also showing Nos. 46 and 48 (photograph).|
|3285.||(fn. 8) Panelled room, west side (measured drawing).|
|3286.||(fn. 8) Panelled room, east side (measured drawing).|
|3287.||Tudor brickwork in garden wall (photograph).|
|3288.||(fn. 8) Detail of same (photograph).|