Melbourne House, John Lindley & St Michael’s Church by D W Budworth

From Journal 20 (2011)

Study of two hitherto-unexploited sources has revealed new information about the occupation of Melbourne House, Bedford Park, by the distinguished botanist John Lindley between 1823 and 1835, and about its period of ownership by the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Bedford Park, between 1931 and 1960.

Melbourne House – Number 1 South Parade, Bedford Park – is the only one of the three houses built by John Bedford in 1793 to be still in use as a single-family dwelling. Its virtual twin, Sydney House, which faced it across the front garden of the much larger Bedford House, was demolished in 1904-5 to make way for the present block of 20 flats, still carrying the same name. Bedford House itself was converted into 13 flats about 1925-26 after the shops of Bedford Corner had been built in its front garden. Only the centre three-bay block of the present Melbourne House is original, sandwiched between later extensions.

The most notable occupant of Melbourne House has been John Lindley (1799-1865) the distinguished botanist, who is commemorated by the only English Heritage Blue Plaque in Bedford Park, sited on Bedford House to which he later moved. The recent discovery of a Chancery case brought against him by his landlord arising from this move has provided new and more precise information about the construction of the western extension, most of which was added in 1827, while study of the records of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for England and of their successors the Church Commissioners, has thrown light on the history of the house during the period from 1931 to 1960, when it was in the ownership of the church of St Michael and All Angels, Bedford Park. Information from these two new sources has been combined with earlier findings to produce the history given below.

John Lindley soon after his move to Bedford House. From The Naturalist 4, 434, 1839.

Early history of the house
John Bedford appears to have occupied Melbourne House himself for a time, almost certainly, in view of the size of his family, as an annexe to his large house, Fairlawn, at the western end of Acton Green. This occupation may have been the source of the unsupported belief that Melbourne House was once called Fairlawn. John Bedford had left the house by 1799, and died in Reigate in 1805. After a Chancery case between various of his children, it was sold by auction on 8 May 1811 together with the rest of his estate. Melbourne and Sydney Houses, not named at the time, were bought as an investment by a lawyer, John Alexander Berrey. At that time, Melbourne House was occupied by the Misses Philadelphia and Jane Deane, who had signed a 14-year lease at a rent of 66 guineas per year from Lady Day (25 March) 1811, just before the auction. Unfortunately, the Misses Deane did not live to see out their lease, as Jane Deane died in 1822 and Philadelphia Deane in 1823.

John Lindley’s tenancy
In July 1823, an approach was made to J A Berrey on behalf of the executors of the Misses Deane, seeking to dispose of the remaining eighteen months or so of their tenancy, and also on behalf of John Lindley, who wanted to acquire the lease of the house, provided that it could be extended. Berrey agreed to an extension of four years, to Lady Day 1829, and John Lindley took the house from Michaelmas (29 September) 1823 on the basis of an exchange of letters, although he actually moved into the house in August 1823, from his former home at 5 Turnham Green Terrace nearby. Lindley and his wife had married in February 1823, after his move to the area on his appointment in 1822 to take charge of the (later Royal) Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick. At this time they were expecting their first child, and were no doubt anxious to move in good time before the birth, which took place on 7 December. Unfortunately, the child, a girl, lived for only a few hours.

In September 1826 John Lindley wrote to J A Berrey and told him that, although the house suited him well enough, he was finding it rather small for his needs. By this time, he and his wife had a son, George, born in late 1824, and were expecting another child, the future Lady Sarah Crease, who was born in November. John Lindley had obtained plans and estimates from the builder to the Horticultural Society for the addition of two rooms, one above the other, and he suggested that the landlord should pay for the construction of these additions in return for an additional 14 guineas per year in rent. Having had no reply, Lindley called on Berrey in February 1827 to discuss the matter, which was eventually agreed, with work on construction of the additions starting in mid-July 1827 and finishing by about the end of August of that year. Eight years later, at some point in 1835, Lindley gave notice to Berrey that he intended to quit the house, which he did in September 1835, moving to Bedford House, where he remained until his death in 1865.

Melbourne House seen from the south. The house is currently (March, 2011) undergoing a major restoration and renovation. The upper storey of the western extension is of later date than the Lindley-inspired lower two floors. Photo Snell David Architects.

J A Berrey, who had paid for the extension to the house on his understanding that Lindley would sign a 21-year lease from Lady Day 1829 at the increased rent, brought a Chancery action against Lindley over his move, but lost the case as Lindley had never signed the new lease. J A Berrey, apparently in consequence, is said never again to have come near the houses, and there is certainly no evidence of occupation of Melbourne House during the rest of his life, which ended in 1855. He left his two Acton Green houses to his son George James Berrey, also a lawyer, who appears to have given them the then-topical names which they have borne ever since. (A Melbourne gold rush started about 1851 and continued into the late 1850s.)

G J Berrey died in 1872, leaving the two houses jointly to his widow, Eliza, and his second son, Charles Edward Berrey, who became the sole owner on the death of his mother in 1887. C E Berrey was estranged from his own wife and had no children. He died in 1904, leaving Sydney House to Henry Purdue, and Melbourne House to Miss Harriett De Lessert, who is recorded as present in his house at Reigate in the 1901 Census as a visitor, and was still there at the time of his death.

The connection with St Michael and All Angels
Once established in Bedford Park, Harriett De Lessert became a significant member of the congregation of St Michael and All Angels, acting, no doubt amongst other things, as a church-watcher to deter vandalism, in which capacity she was portrayed in the photograph reproduced opposite. On her death on the last day of 1930 Miss De Lessert bequeathed Melbourne House for the benefit of that church. Her will stipulated that the then Vicar, the Rev Jacob Cartmel-Robinson, should have the first option of taking a lease on the house at a nominal rent. Should he decline the offer which, in the event, he did, the second option was to use the house as a home for the junior clergy and, failing that, the final option was to let the house, the income being used for parish purposes.

There was some discussion as to whether the income from letting the house was to be used for the benefit of the parish or of its clergy, but the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for England eventually settled the matter by deciding to accept the bequest of Melbourne House ‘as an addition to the endowment of the Living’. This decision was conveyed to the solicitors for the Executors, who asked, in a letter of early March 1931, if there was any chance that the Commissioners would be prepared to let the house on lease, as one of the Executors would like to make an offer. The reply was that, once the property had been transferred, it would become vested in the incumbent for the time being, and that the decision about what to do with it would be his.

In late March 1931, Cartmel-Robinson wrote to the Commissioners saying that he had

…seen Mr [William] Staunton, one of the Trustees for Melbourne House, and I agree with the principle as laid down by him, by which he would become tenant at a rent of £105 per year, and do his own repairs and improvements. He proposes a 21 year lease, terminable at 7 and 14 years by notice.

A lease along these lines was drawn up by Cluttons, the agents to the Commissioners, who described the house as very old, with its drains connected to the main sewer, and with companies’ water and gas laid on, but without electric light. The internal arrangements were said to be out of date in many respects and a considerable sum required to be spent upon improvements, repairs and renewals. With the condition that the lessee put the premises into a thorough state of repair to the satisfaction of the surveyor to the Commissioners, the lease was approved by Cartmel-Robinson on 11 May 1931, who reported that William Staunton wanted to start work at once, and agreed by the Estates Committee of the Commissioners three days later.

John Alexander Berrey, sketched by his son George James
Berrey, date unknown. Courtesy of Marcus Edwards.

Change of tenant
William Staunton had been a long-standing resident of Bedford Park, first in Flanders Road and then at Number 6, The Avenue, where he had continued to live with his two unmarried adult children after being widowed in 1925. He had remarried in 1930 and it was this event which presumably lent the urgency to his desire to move into Melbourne House as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the second Mrs William Staunton died early in 1934.

In June 1934, the newly established Vicar, the Rev Lewis C R Smith, wrote to the Commissioners to say that William Staunton was anxious to assign the lease of Melbourne House to another tenant, and that he was entitled to do so with the permission of the Vicar. He asked for the Commissioners’ comments, but received the reply that the matter was entirely in his own hands. The assignment of the tenancy of Melbourne House to Stanley Grantham-Hill, a dentist, was duly made, and Staunton moved back to The Avenue.

The progress of the lease
A few months later, in February 1935, a firm of surveyors wrote to the Commissioners saying that a client of theirs (unidentified, but probably the tenant) was desirous of purchasing the freehold of Melbourne House, and asking if they were prepared to sell. The Commissioners forwarded this letter to the Vicar, saying that the decision was his but that, with the current high price of long-dated Government securities into which the proceeds of a sale would be invested, it was unlikely that such a sale would benefit the income. In June 1935, one of the churchwardens of St Michael’s visited the Commissioners to discuss an offer of £2,600 received for the house. It was calculated that acceptance would involve a loss of income of around £30 per year, and the matter appears to have been let drop at this point.

The stresses of the War emphasised that the role of landlord was not merely one of collecting the rent, which contributed about a quarter of the Vicar’s total emoluments, and the Commissioners made several, largely unhelpful, replies to the Vicar’s appeals for help or advice about a number of problems. The first of these was in July 1941, about a demand for War Damage Contribution, of which the Commissioners agreed after about a year of haggling to pay the landlord’s share.

Just after the end of the European war, in early July 1945, Smith wrote again to the Commissioners saying that the tenant of Melbourne House had reported quite serious cracking in the walls, aggravated by bombing (the house had been damaged by blast), but present to some extent when he took over. There was a question as to who was to pay for the necessary repairs, and Smith went on to say:’I consider the whole matter of this property in relation to the Benefice Stipend somewhat unsatisfactory, since it is so precarious’. He continued by saying that he doubted whether a new tenant could be found at the same rent, or that the house could be sold at a price which would yield a similar income ‘though to sell it would be a good solution to my mind’.

Miss Harriett De Lessert as a church-watcher at St Michael and All Angels, Bedford Park, picture courtesy of David Beresford.

In November 1946, the Vicar reported that the front (presumably garden) wall of Melbourne House was about to collapse, possibly as a result of war damage, and needed to be rebuilt. Again, he asked who was to pay, and went on to repeat that the situation was not satisfactory, and that the house had never been used as intended for Parish purposes. Again, the Commissioners’ reply was that he was the freeholder.

In July 1948 the Vicar wrote to the Church Commissioners (the successors to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners), quoting the will of Miss De Lessert and suggesting that, on the expiration of the lease (in 1952), the rent, used since 1931 as part of the stipend of the Vicar, might be devoted instead to her second suggested use, since providing a residence for the Assistant Curate was a problem. The rent could be used to buy or rent a house for the Assistant Curate, and the Vicar’s stipend would not be affected, since the law required that it would have to be made up by the Diocesan Fund to £450 per year.

The reply said

It has previously been pointed out to you that the property is vested in you as incumbent of the benefice. The Commissioners are not concerned with any arrangement you may wish to make to apply the rent for the benefit of the Parish, but such an arrangement would not be binding on a later incumbent. You may find it helpful to know that the Commissioners would not be prepared to advance a loan for the purchase of a house, and a mortgage would not be binding on your successors.

The matter then seems to have been allowed to drop until the sale of the house in 1960.

The sale of Melbourne House
The next entries in the Church Commissioners’ file relate to the sale of Melbourne House to the sitting tenant on 19 April 1960. The sale price was £4,000, and the net receipts were £3,813 16s 6d which, when invested, gave a return of £171 13s per year compared with the rent of £105 per year (which must therefore have remained unchanged on the renewal of the lease).

The fundamental cause of the dispute between J A Berrey and John Lindley was the failure to agree and sign a formal lease, a lapse which recalls that of J A Berrey in 1811, when he similarly failed to obtain a formal conveyance of Melbourne and Sydney Houses from the Bedford Estate following his purchase of them at auction. His descendants, in consequence, were forced in 1873 to appeal to the Court of Chancery for a formal confirmation of their ownership of the properties.

Whatever may be thought now, in the light of the extraordinary and unpredictable rise in the fortunes of Bedford Park, the figures show that the church’s decision to sell Melbourne House was not unreasonable at the time. Indeed, the Church Commissioners had themselves sold off their Bedford Park freeholds about a decade earlier, as rent restrictions and inflation progressively reduced their attractions as investments.

Sources and acknowledgements
The principal new sources consulted in compiling this paper have been the pleadings in the Chancery case of Berrey v Lindley 1836, held at The National Archives; and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ and Church Commissioners’ files on St Michael and All Angels, Bedford Park, held at the Church of England Record Office and made available to readers at Lambeth Palace Library. The existence of the Chancery case, previously unknown to Bedford Park history, was mentioned in a brief summary of the main features of the history of Melbourne House, passed on by William Staunton, the grandson of the William Staunton of the text, and believed by him to be in the hand of Harriett De Lessert; and it was Shirley Seaton who drew my attention to the potential of the Church of England records.

Information about the Lindley family came mainly from Lawrence Duttson. David Beresford, the archivist of St Michael and All Angels church, went to some trouble to provide a good copy of the photograph of Harriett De Lessert, which came originally from Mr Smart, a former member of the congregation. Other TNA holdings, particularly wills and census returns, have also been consulted. My 2005 publication The Legacy of John Bedford: Bedford, Melbourne, and Sydney Houses, has also been drawn upon.

Dr David Budworth is a retired scientist who has lived in Sydney House, Bedford Park, for nearly 40 years.

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