Wanstead Park is providing respite for the residents of east London during the coronavirus lockdown. But how many visitors know about its fascinating history?

The Duke of Wellington’s nephew has plenty to answer for. Were it not for William Wellesley-Pole’s rakish ways, east London might have a stately home – perhaps even a royal palace – to rival Versailles.

Few Londoners, let alone tourists, make it to Wanstead. The leafy district in the borough of Redbridge offers a relatively affordable option for first-time buyers. There’s a “village”, according to the sales patter of local estate agents and a sign near the High Street proclaiming the “Wanstead Village Conservation Zone”.

Winston Churchill was the MP (his local boozer was The Eagle at Snaresbrook, now a Toby Carvery). Beyond that, there’s not much to entice visitors from foreign lands. Two hundred years ago, however, it was home to one of the country’s most remarkable mansions, a Palladian masterpiece whose extravagant gardens stretched for more than a mile.

Had Wellesley-Pole not elbowed his way through the front door, maybe unpretentious Wanstead would now be mentioned in the same breath as Kensington or Hampton Court.

A fine house existed in this corner of London from at least the 15th century. Wanstead Hall was acquired by Henry VII in 1499 and it served as his hunting lodge and general refuge from the stressful business of running a country. According to the historian David Starkey, it was here the king collected his “slush fund” of off-the-books taxations and fines – away from prying eyes.

The young Henry VIII lived in Wanstead Hall, perhaps bagging his first deer in its grounds, and it was during the charismatic king’s reign that the surrounding area was enclosed and became a royal manor, Wanstead Park.

Thereafter a succession of favoured courtiers were handed the keys, including Sir John Heron, who left his own faintly amusing imprint by introducing a colony of herons to the area, and Lord Richard Rich, High Chancellor of England.  

Rich’s son Robert sold Wanstead to Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, in 1577. Later owners included Sir Henry Mildmay, whose family moniker still lingers in the street names of Newington Green, and Josiah Child, the vastly wealthy governor of the East India Company.

It was Child and his sons who escorted the property towards its golden age. Josiah, at prodigious cost, planted walnut trees and created a string of ornamental lakes, before Richard Child, head of the estate from 1704, commissioned Wanstead Hall’s replacement, Wanstead House.

The facade of Wanstead House

The facade of Wanstead House

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Designed by Scottish architect Colen Campbell, and completed in 1722 at an estimated cost of £360,000 (around £78m today), it could hardly have been more fashionable, adopting the emerging Palladian style. Campbell sought to “introduce the temple beauties to architecture” and the 260-foot white Portland stone facade, with its portico and Corinthian columns, was like nothing seen before on English shores.

Two flights of stairs led to the entrance, beyond which was the Great Hall. Beyond that was another 70-odd rooms, including grand state apartments, a library, an oak dining room, a billiard room, a grand saloon and a purpose-built ballroom.

Fine art, chandeliers and tapestries were scattered liberally within. “Fit to entertain a Prince,” wrote Daniel Defoe of the house in 1722. Hogarth depicted the richly-furnished interior in his painting The Wanstead House Assembly.

The Wanstead House Assembly, by Hogarth

The Wanstead House Assembly, by Hogarth

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The gardens were expanded and improved, with the goal of creating a mini Versailles. Avenues of trees darted off in every direction, and an enormous octagonal lake called the “Basin” was dug to the mansion’s west (arriving guests would skirt its north side).

Fruit and vegetable gardens were planted, a bowling green added, and further buildings, including a Temple and lakeside Grotto, were constructed around 1760. Statues were scattered throughout, there were mock fortifications, a giant greenhouse, mounts and an amphitheatre. 

Pehr Kalm, a visitor in 1748, described “manifold allées, promenades, trees clipped and hewn in all sorts of ways, several summer houses, orangeries, and arches of bent trees. In a word, all that can be required and produced by art in a garden.”

He added: “But that which principally excites the admiration of the spectator is the magnificent large building, which is all of hewn stone, and more resembles a royal palace than a private man’s property, without as well as within.”

Philip Morant, the author and clergyman, wrote in 1768: “Wanstead House… for situation, building, waters, gardens and the hereditary command of the forest, may be said to exceed any in England.”

Plans for the house and its extensive gardens

Plans for the house and its extensive gardens. The extra wings were never realised

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So where did it all go?

By 1784, the house had passed to Sir James Tylney-Long, MP for Marlborough. After his death in 1794, it went to his infant son. But he too died in 1805, aged just 11, and Wanstead was given to Catherine Tylney-Long, Sir James’s daughter, who thereby became the richest heiress in the country.

It didn’t take long for the suitors to come calling. They included the ageing Duke of Clarence, heir to the English throne (and the future William IV), and a certain William Wellesley-Pole, who counted the Duke of Wellington as an uncle, but was already renowned for being an utter rogue, and saddled with debt. With grim inevitability, in 1812, Catherine married Wellesley-Pole, who quickly changed the family name to the interminable Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley and set about squandering his wife’s wealth. 

After a decade of parties, philandering and profligacy, the cash was all gone, and Catherine’s husband had even resorted to chopping down the estate’s trees to sell for timber. With creditors circling, William did what all good rakes do best: he fled abroad. In his absence, the contents of Wanstead House were auctioned off over the course of 32 days – all for a paltry £10,000. In 1825, the house was demolished, and months later a broken Catherine died, aged just 36.

A Punch cartoon depicting Catherine's dilemma

A Punch cartoon depicting Catherine’s dilemma

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William, who by this time had begun a relationship with another woman, returned to Parliament in 1830, but continued to play a cat-and-mouse game with debt collectors, moving briefly to Brussels.

He died in modest lodgings in Thayer Street, Manchester Square, London, in 1857. An obituary described him thus: “A spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became debauched in his manhood… redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life gone out even without a flicker of repentance”. Hear hear. Why didn’t she choose Clarence?

Visitors to Wanstead today will find no grand stately home, but there are relics. The Basin sits in the midst of Wanstead Golf Club (a slice off the tee on the 16th and 17th holes could see your ball consigned to its watery depths) and the clubhouse is the remnants of an 18th-century timber stable-court. Part of the great house’s front lawn is now a cricket ground. Two stone piers, which once marked the entrance to the property, survive on what is now Overton Drive. They are marked with the monogram of Sir Richard Child.

Many of the ornamental lakes – now part of Wanstead Park, administered as part of Epping Forest – remain, in a chain that runs from Shoulder of Mutton Pond, through Heronry Pond, Perch Pond, the Dell and into Ornamental Waters. Others have been lost, however. The ruined Grotto, destroyed by fire in 1884, is the most evocative scrap; the best view of it is from the footpath that runs between the lakes and the River Roding. Wanstead Park’s Chalet Wood, not far from the Grotto and filled with bluebells right now, is cut in half by an arrow-straight lawn which would have once extended to the grand house’s back door.  

The Temple remains

The Temple remains

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The Temple is now a visitor centre (currently closed), and occasionally a venue for outdoor theatre. From the Temple, walk west and you’ll find yourself striding down one of the few remaining avenues of trees – a romantic gauntlet where one can imagine Wellesley-Pole wooing Catherine more than two centuries ago, putting this once great mansion on its road to destruction. Had Catherine chosen another path, and married the future king, this might now be a royal palace – and this would be a world famous tourist attraction, rather than a lesser-visited London secret. 

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