by James Wisdom
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 3 (1982)
In 1086, when William I ordered the Domesday Survey to be carried out, the Bishop of London held a large area of land in Middlesex – Ealing, Acton, Hammersmith and Fulham. If there was an estate at Gunnersbury at this time, it was within the Bishop’s manor and whoever held the land would have attended the manorial court at Fulham. As the place-name includes a Scandinavian woman’s name (it means ‘Gunnhild’s manor or fortified dwelling’) it is probable that there had been an estate in existence for some generations before the Norman Conquest.
The earliest references to the estate occur in the 14th century, and the first description we have of Gunnersbury is in 1378. It was said then to be a house with a hall (then the main room) and a chapel, with a kitchen and bakehouse, stables, a barn and gates. It had two gardens, 40 acres of arable, 60 acres of pasture, some meadowland and some woodland. Unfortunately this description may have become confused with a similar description of the manor of Pallenswick (now Ravenscourt Park in Hammersmith); both were said to be owned by Alice Perrers, the banished mistress of Edward III.
We do not know what the medieval house looked like, nor even where it was situated, though we can assume that it was a timber-framed building. It was completely demolished in the 1650s by its then owner, Sir John Maynard. Maynard was a successful and wealthy lawyer and MP who served under Cromwell, Charles II and James II. He commissioned John Webb to build the new Gunnersbury House.
Webb was the disciple of Inigo Jones, who had been Court Architect under James I and Charles I. Jones brought to England a style of building that was very new. It was a pure and simple revival of the principles of architecture used by the Romans some 1,600 years before, known to us as Palladian architecture (from one of its propagandists and popularizers, Andrea Palladio, d 1580). This formal, classical style was very popular with the Court; after the Civil War and the execution of the King, few people were prepared to build in it.
It is surprising and interesting, therefore, that Webb and Maynard should have started building in just this style before the Restoration of Charles II. How challenging this red-brick and stone building must have looked when it was new, prominent on a hill with its fine view of the Thames and Richmond beyond. Perhaps the nearest modern parallel would be the aggressive, prestigious office blocks of London’s businesses and bureaucracies.
Around this new house the formal gardens were laid out – rectangular lawns, the two short canals, avenues of trees, kitchen or possibly herb gardens – all surrounded by a wall. There is a view of this garden in Rocque’s map of 1745, just before it was radically altered. Roger White, of the GLC’s Historic Buildings Division, has recently shown that it was William Kent (employed by the then owner, Henry Furnese) who altered the grounds and probably added the Round Pond and Horseshoe Pond.
In 1762 the estate was bought by Princess Amelia, George II’s daughter. She lived there until her death in 1786, by which time it had been further enlarged and altered. The most prominent building remaining from her time is the Temple – originally an ornamental building with a half basement and two floors, but later enlarged and altered by the Rothschilds, apparently to accommodate a billiard table.
In 1800 the estate was bought for speculation and the house built for Maynard was demolished. The land was sold in 13 lots, of which 12 were bought by Alexander Copland. He built the house now known as the Large Mansion. On the 13th plot the Small Mansion was built at about the same time, and a wall between the two properties divided the Horseshoe Pond in half.
The Large Mansion was bought by the Rothschild family in 1836, and they employed Sidney Smirke to alter and enlarge the house, and to build the Orangery and was Stables. In 1889 the Rothschilds bought the Small Mansion (which, with its extensions, is as large as the Large Mansion) and the wall between the two was demolished. In 1925 the land was acquired by Acton and Ealing Councils for a public park; soon afterwards Brentford and Chiswick joined in the management. Today it is under the control of 6 Councillors from L B Ealing and 6 from L B Hounslow.
Recently there has been a public controversy over the future of the Park and its buildings. Unfortunately some of the buildings are in an advanced stages of decay and both Councils plead that they have no money to restore them. The Dairy was a listed building near to the Large Mansion which became derelict and was then demolished (in 1971) for reasons of safety. In the mid-1970s the Gunnersbury Park Joint Committee applied to the Department of the EEnvironment for permission to demolish the East Lodge, also derelict and also a listed building. This was refused, but time has done the demolition work for them. The Orangery is also derelict, as is the east Stable building; Princess Amelia’s Bath House is in a sorry state and the Folly beside the Potomac Lake is boarded up.
The solution proposed by the Joint Committee was to grant a long lease to a property developer to convert the it Stables into offices (with a mirrored glass linking building) and to use the cash for the rest of the Park. This was in flat contravention of the Covenants which restrict the Park and its buildings to leisure and recreational uses, and of promises given in 1971 to the Lands Tribunal (when considering the future of the Small Mansion) that there would be no more office development in the Park. It also meant that the Museum would be forever denied the use of the Stables to house its transport exhibits.
At this point the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society began the process of informing the public what was afoot (it had been until then a series of semi-secret decisions) and the resulting objections forced the GPJC to withdraw the scheme. A new society – the Friends of Gunnersbury Park and Museum – was formed to involve the public in the Park; but no solution to the problem of the derelict buildings has yet been found.