by Gillian Clegg
Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 9 (2000)
Of the many charming old structures (buildings, walls, railings etc) still to be seen in Chiswick, one of the earliest and most attractive is the gateway that can be spied through the back windows of Chiswick House conservatory – a pair of wrought iron gates between brick piers with stone cappings, balls and bases, set in an old wall.
This gateway, though, is nothing to do with the two mansions known as Chiswick House belonging to the Earls of Burlington and Dukes of Devonshire. It belonged to an unassociated house built in 1682-4 which, in the later 18th century, became known as Moreton Hall. In 1812 the Moreton Hall estate was acquired by the 6th Duke of Devonshire who demolished the house and incorporated its land into the grounds of Chiswick House.
When Moreton Hall was built, it was one of four substantial country mansions in the loop of the river between Chiswick and Brentford. The other three mansions – Sutton Court, Grove House and Chiswick House – are well documented so this article attempts to set the record straight on Moreton Hall.
The House Sir Stephen Built
In 1663, Sir Stephen Fox, a politician and civil servant based in Whitehall, acquired a country retreat in Chiswick with two acres of land for £1,797 13s. This house, assessed as having 18 hearths in 1664, was probably a Tudor or Jacobean building of middling size situated next door to the large Jacobean Chiswick House which was to become the property of the 1st Earl of Burlington in 1682.
Sir Stephen was a financial entrepreneur who, in his position of Paymaster to the Armed Forces and Lord of the Treasury, almost single handedly propped up the impoverished Restoration government by borrowing money on his own credit and re-lending it to the Crown. He became immensely wealthy and used his money to acquire a great deal of property around the country.
In 1682 Sir Stephen commissioned Hugh May, architect and Comptroller of the King’s Works, to design him a new modern house in Chiswick. The old house was pulled down and two years later Sir Stephen’s new mansion was completed at a total cost of £7,117 4s 3d.
The agreement Fox made with carpenter John Hayward on 30 May 1682 ‘concerning the taking down of the old house and the building and setting up of a new mansion brick house upon or neere the place where the old house doth now stand’ still survives, as do the accounts for the building labour and materials. John Hayward was paid £1290 17s 9p – less than Henry Margotts, ‘Plasterar’ who was paid £2,000. Grinling Gibbons ‘carver’ was paid a mere £93.
Fox’s new house is shown in the right hand corner of Leonard Knyff’s c.1700 engraving of the Jacobean Chiswick House where it appears as a three-storey house with garrets and basements and a separate building to the west containing offices. Walled gardens were laid out behind the house and a large pedimented glass house built to its north. A tree-lined avenue was planted in a field across Burlington Lane at the front of the house.
In September 1682, with construction under way, Lady Fox took diarist John Evelyn to ‘survey her new building and give some direction for the garden at Chiswick’. Evelyn was not impressed ‘… the garden much too narrow; the place without water; neere a high way and another greate house of my Lord Burlingtons; little land about it, so I wonder at the expence; but Women will have their Will…’
However, work obviously continued apace as J Gibson who viewed the garden in 1691 commented:
‘Sir Stephen Fox’s garden at Chiswick being but five years standing, is brought to great perfection for the time. It excells for a fair gravel walk betwixt two hedges, with rounds and spires of the same, and under smooth tonsure. At the far end of the garden are two myrtle hedges that cross the garden they are about three feet high and covered in winter with painted board cases. The other gardens are full of flowers and salleting [salad], and the walls well clad. The greenhouse is well built, well set and well furnished.’
John Bowack, writing in 1705, considered the gardens ‘extraordinarily fine, and the collection very curious and costly’.
The house itself received some plaudits. Bowack describes it as ‘a very beautiful seat…built after the modern manner, the model being altogether new. This house is large and extraordinarily well finished, nor does it stoop for fine furniture, curious paintings etc. to many in England.’ When William III visited in 1691, he is reputed to have paid what was for him a very great compliment: ‘This place is perfectly fine. I could live here for five days.’
Sir Stephen Fox had been gradually acquiring more land to go with his mansion (in 1666 he had bought a piece of ground for his stables from the Duke of Monmouth, the then owner of Chiswick House) and in 1685 he bought the lease on the Chiswick Prebendal Manor, containing about 140 acres.
By all accounts this eminent Chiswick resident was a pleasant fellow, ‘a very fine gentleman’ according to his friend Samuel Pepys but ‘as humble and as ready to do a courtesy as ever he was’ said John Evelyn. Fox rose to the highest rank of Restoration society and was dubbed the richest commoner in three kingdoms, but he put his money to good use, building churches, schools and almshouses. He was also the guiding light behind the establishment of the Chelsea Hospital, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, on land purchased by Sir Stephen. Fox left £40 in his will for the poor of Chiswick parish.
Fox’s life, though, was dogged with sadness. Nine of the 10 children by his first marriage pre-deceased him. Unwilling that so plentiful an estate should go out of his name and being of a ‘vegete and hail constitution’, Sir Stephen married for the second time at the age of 77 and sired four more children. Stephen, the eldest of this second family, became the first Lord Ilchester; Henry, the first Lord Holland and the father of Charles James Fox, the eminent whig politician who coincidently died at Chiswick House next door to his father’s birthplace. Sir Stephen himself died in 1716 in his 90th year.
The Mansion of the Northamp[tons
Sir Stephen Fox’s daughter, Jane, had married George Compton, 4th Earl of Northampton in 1686. After Sir Stephen’s death his executors sold the mansion to Jane’s mother-in-law, Mary, Dowager Countess of Northampton. She died in 1719 and left the house to her youngest son, Spencer Compton, an MP and Speaker of the House of Commons. Compton was created Baron Wilmington in 1728 and died unmarried in 1743. His estate passed to his nephew, James Compton, 5th Earl of Northampton, and it was during the 5th Earl’s tenure that Hogarth executed his only known sketch of Chiswick which shows the Earl of Northampton’s mansion and the house next door which then belonged to physician John Ranby.
The 5th Earl died in 1754 ‘at his seat in Chiswick’ and was succeeded by his daughter Baroness Ferrers, the wife of George Townshend, later Marquis Townshend. In 1756 and 1757 rates on the mansion were paid by the Duke of Norfolk so presumably the Townshends were renting out the house.
In 1758 the estate was sold to Sir John Heathcote, Bart, probably as a home for his daughter, Bridget, who had married James Douglas, the 14th Earl of Morton in 1755. The earls and countesses of Morton paid the rates on the house from 1758 to 1780 when the family actually acquired the property and it was during their tenure that the house became known as Moreton Hall.
In 1783 the mansion was conveyed to a Robert Stevenson. The illustration was executed during Stevenson’s ownership and shows the house as having seven bays and a central pediment. In 1807 the mansion with its seven acres of walled gardens became the property of the formidable Lady Mary Coke, famous as an indefatigable diarist of Regency society. She died in 1811 and the mansion was put up for sale.
The Moreton Hall estate was to be auctioned by Peter Coxe ‘at his establishment in Maddox Street, Hanover Square on Friday the 12th of June 1812 ‘at one o’clock precisely’. Even allowing for estate agents’ hype, the Particulars of Sale give an insight into how grand the mansion built by Sir Stephen Fox must have been.
The estate, comprising an estimated total of Eighteen Acres, One Rood and Nine Perches consisted of the ‘Capital Mansion’ with ‘numerous Domestic Offices, Pleasure-Grounds, Paddocks, Flower-Garden, Conservatory, extensive Walled Kitchen-Gardens, Melon-Ground, Hot-House, Stable Yard, Double Coach-Houses, stabling for Fourteen horses’. There was also ‘an Ice House, Piggery and Drying Ground, detached Farm-Yard, Cow-Shed and other Conveniences’, and, lying south of Burlington Lane, ‘Two Fields or Closes of rich and productive Meadow Land’.
Inside, the downstairs apartments included a ‘capital dining parlour’, 33ft in length by 27ft broad, with the ‘most exquisitely wrought Plaster and Carved Ceiling and richly gilded doorways’ and a private chapel ‘wainscotted with Oak and paved with Marble.’ A magnificent oak staircase led to a 30ft square gallery, its’ floor inlaid with variegated Oak in chequered Compartments of curious workmanship’ and ‘the whole space of the Ceiling, painted in Allegory’. The Gallery led to a ‘withdrawing room’ 25ft long by 22ft broad with carved Marble Chimney-Piece and a ‘costly tapestry’ on the walls. There were five morning rooms and bedchambers and another 10 bedrooms in the attics. The basement contained ‘an extensive range of accommodation of every description placed beneath massive and groined arches’. The domestic offices were connected to the mansion by a vestibule.
The person most interested in purchasing Moreton Hall would almost certainly have been the Marquess of Hartington, who had recently become the 6th Duke of Devonshire. The Dukes of Devonshire had been gobbling up all the mansions and land around their house at Chiswick for many years.
Prior to the auction, the 6th Duke commissioned Samuel Ware (later to design Chiswick House conservatory) to draw up a plan and carry out a survey of the Moreton Hall estate. Ware considered that ‘the house, offices, stables and coach house were substantial brick buildings, though requiring general repair’ and worth £5,200. He thought they could be let on a repairing lease for £270 per annum. If, though, the buildings were pulled down and sold they would produce the sum of £2,200; the gardens and paddock…if let in the most advantageous manner would produce the annual rent of £100 and were worth the sum of £2,500.
Ware went on to observe that ‘at the present time, country houses, generally in the neighbourhood of London, are reduced in value, and do not find an easy sale, and that the above described erections being out of repair and in a style of building not suited to the common opinions of the superior beauty of modern architecture… it is not likely there will be many competitors in the purchase…
The 6th Duke of Devonshire bought the estate for £7,050. He promptly pulled the house down and laid out the Italian Gardens on its site and the Chiswick House conservatory to its north.
On 1st June 1813, Miss Berry (a friend of Horace Walpole) wrote in her diary: ‘Drove with the 6th Duke of Devonshire in his curricle to Chiswick where he showed me all the alterations he was about to make in adding the gardens of Lady Mary Coke’s house to his own. The house is down and in the gardens he has constructed a magnificent hot-house, with a conservatory for flowers, the middle under a cupola. Altogether it is 300ft long.’
In recent years an archaeological excavation has taken place on the supposed site of the Moreton Hall mansion, but nothing was recovered. The extant gateposts and wall, which mark the entrance to Stephen Fox’s kitchen gardens (the iron gates have probably been replaced since Sir Stephen’s time) are all that is left to remind us of what must have been one of the most stunning houses ever to be built in Chiswick.
Sources used: Public Finance and Private Wealth: the Career of Sir Stephen Fox 1627-1716 by Christopher Clay; Chiswick Rate Books; the Victoria County History of Middlesex; documents from Chatsworth and Dorchester Archives.
Gillian Clegg is author of Chiswick Past, 1995, editor of this Journal and the production editor of LAMAS Transactions.