Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1960.
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No. 79 Pall Mall: Nell Gwynne's house
The site of the house now numbered 79 Pall Mall is the only ground on the south side of Pall Mall which does not belong to the Crown; the freehold has been in private hands since 1676. (fn. 4)
The first house on this site was built in or shortly before 1665. On 1 April of that year this house, and that which adjoined it to the west, were assigned by the Earl of St. Albans's trustees (who then held the Crown lease) to Sir Thomas Clarges. They were then described as 'Two Faire bricke messuages' and together they had a frontage to Pall Mall of 67 feet. (fn. 5)
In 1667 Clarges sold the easterly of these two leasehold houses to Sir William Coventry (fn. 5) (? 1628–86) the politician, (fn. 6) whom Evelyn described as 'a wise and witty Gentleman'. (fn. 7) Henry Savile, in a letter to his brother, reported that Coventry had paid £1400 for the house, which he described as 'one of those four pretty handsome ones in Pall Mall by my Lady Ranelagh's'. (fn. 8) (fn. 1) In October 1667 Coventry was visited there by Pepys, who wrote that the house 'is fitting up for him' and was being made 'very fine'. (fn. 9)
Nell Gwynne had been living since at least 1670 in another house on the south side of Pall Mall, that previously occupied by Dr. Thomas Sydenham; she moved into her new house in 1671. (fn. 10) She may have been angry at not being immediately granted the freehold, for two years later Sir Joseph Williamson was told that 'Madam Gwinn complains she has no house yett.' (fn. 11) There is also the story, repeated by Dr. Heberden who occupied a house on this site in the late eighteenth century, that the house 'was given by a long lease by Charles II to Nell Gwynn, and upon her discovering it to be only a lease under the Crown, she returned him (the King) the lease and conveyances saying she had always conveyed free under the Crown, and always would; and would not accept it till it was conveyed free to her by an Act of Parliament'. (fn. 12)
Whatever the truth of this story may be, it is an indubitable fact that on 1 December 1676 Charles II granted the freehold of the house to William Chiffinch, one of his confidential servants, and Martin Folkes, a trustee of the Earl of St. Albans's estate, (fn. 4) and they in turn conveyed it to Nell Gwynne's trustees on the following 6 April. By the deed of conveyance the property was settled on Nell Gwynne for life, then upon her younger son, James, Lord Beaclaire (Beauclerk), and his heirs, with remainder to her eldest son Charles, Earl of Burford. (fn. 13) On the previous day the Earl of St. Albans had released to Nell Gwynne's trustees all his leasehold rights over her house, (fn. 5) and in compensation he received from the Crown a grant of the freehold of three and a half acres of ground on the west side of Hedge Lane (now Whitcomb Street). (fn. 4)
Nell Gwynne continued to live in this house until her death in 1687. (fn. 10) Her elder son Charles, now Duke of St. Albans, (fn. 3) succeeded to the property, her younger son James having died in 1680. (fn. 14) The Duke lived there until 1694; (fn. 10) in 1693 he had been forced to assign the house to his creditors. (fn. 15)
From 1696 to 1698 the house was occupied by Meinhard, third Duke of Schomberg, whilst Schomberg House was being rebuilt; amongst later occupants were Robert, first Earl Ferrers (1700–16), and Maria, Dowager Countess Waldegrave (1766–9), who secretly married George III's younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, on 6 September 1766 in the drawingroom of her house in Pall Mall. (fn. 16)
In March 1769 the house was purchased by Dr. William Heberden for £5105, (fn. 17) and shortly afterwards (probably in 1770) (fn. 10) a new house was erected from designs of James Paine. (fn. 18) The occupation of the house by the two Doctor William Heberdens, father and son, who were both noted physicians, lasted from 1771 to 1814. The house was subsequently occupied for many years by Sir Thomas Acland, politician and philanthropist. (fn. 19)
Paine's plans and elevation (Plate 222) show that Dr. Heberden's house belonged to his early, Palladian manner. The plan was well arranged but quite simple in layout, with large rectangular rooms placed north and east of the two staircases, and a dressing-room with a closet on the south. The principal stairs wound round an oval well in a top-lit compartment of the same form, with niches recessed into the spandrel spaces. At the end of the garden was a concave-fronted feature, containing a two-bay loggia flanked by a stair leading to a loft, and a water-closet or bog-house.
The front, which was four storeys high and had three windows widely spaced in each upper storey, was most austere in expression, only the doorcase, west of the centre, being dressed with a moulded architrave, plain frieze, and a cornice-hood on consoles. A pedestal underlined the second-storey windows, a narrow band enriched with fluting and paterae formed a sill to the third-storey windows, and a plain sill continued beneath the attic, where each side light was a squat oblong and the middle one was arched, rising into the open triangular pediment which finished the front.
The house was demolished in 1866 and the present building, whose history is described on page 417, was erected shortly afterwards.