Marble Hill House – What happened to the house after the last private owners left?

Marble Hill House – What happened to the house after the last private owners left?

Last week I wrote about Marble Hill House, the beautiful Palladian villa built for Henrietta Howard in the first half of the 18th century. After her death, it passed to her nephew and then her great-niece before being rented out to a succession of tenants (including Mrs Fitzherbert, the mistress of George IV). I’m very pleased to be able to give you Penelope Williams’ (no relation) account of what happened after that.

Last Private Owners

The last private owners of the house were General Jonathan Peel and his wife Lady Alice Peel.  They lived there for 62 years – longer than anyone else.  General Jonathan Peel was the brother of Sir Robert Peel, a Prime Minister, and today famous as the founder of the Metropolitan Police Force. 

General Jonathan Peel was also a politician and was MP for Norwich and Huntingdonshire.  He served as a secretary of state in the war office and was famous for breeding race horses.  His horse Orlando won the Derby in 1844.1

The coach house built by General Peel

Failure to Sell the House and Plans for Redevelopment

When his widow Lady Alice died in 1887 her heirs were unable to sell the house and it was left empty for more than 14 years.  When the house could not be sold to a private individual it was marketed as a development opportunity. 

Why did no-one want to buy the house as a private home?  There were many reasons. The house may have been seen as at risk from flooding and the building up the embankment would have been a considerable expense.  The size of the house was also a problem.  It was too big for an ordinary family and too small for a grand house.  The landed gentry were gradually becoming poorer.  Agriculture which had supported the large country house was in decline because of competition from the United States.  Taxes were increasing.  Death duties were first introduced in 1894 along with other legislation. 

The house is on higher ground than it seems but the grounds still flood

Country Life Illustrated contained an article in July 1900 lamenting Marble Hill’s dilapidated air: –

“The gardens and groves are a very tangle, as the house has stood untenanted since the stable clock stopped one morning at half past nine, 14 years ago.”2

Unbeknown to them the house had actually been sold two years before in 1898 to William Cunard, a member of the famous shipping family, and his three sons for redevelopment.1 

In June 1901 the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser reported that: –

“Marble Hill at Twickenham is soon to pass to the hands of the builders, and the home of Pope’s Chloe will become a street of suburban villas.”3  [Chloe was Pope’s name for Henrietta Howard.]

By the summer of 1901 infrastructure works had begun.  Machinery and building materials were on site and roads and sewers under construction. 

This was a time of rapid urbanisation particularly in London.  St Margarets station was opened in 1876 and that meant substantial building in the area near Marble Hill, which was developing as a commuter suburb. Many estates were being bought up for housing.  The Cunard family had also purchased Lebanon House and Orleans House to the west of Marble Hill.  The nearby Cambridge Estate had recently been built upon. 

The view from Richmond Hill

There were however a lot of objections to the redevelopment proposals, both locally and nationally.  This was partly because Marble Hill was a key part of the famous view from Richmond Hill.4   Richmond at the time was a place where many Londoners would to go for day trips and excursions on the river.  Marble Hill would have been well known as the home of Henrietta Howard, Lady Suffolk who also had a role in Sir Walter Scott’s popular novel – The Heart of Midlothian.  He describes the splendid avenue of trees leading to the river walk. 5

The view from the top of Richmond Hill had been much admired for many years and had been an inspiration to many well-known writers and artists:  artists such as JWM Turner who had lived nearby in Sandycoombe Road and Joshua Reynolds who had lived in Wick House at the top of the hill in 1788.7 

There is a memorable description by Sir Walter Scott in The Heart of Midlothian and a well-known sonnet by Wordsworth written in praise of the nightingales which used to sing there.   This is from Sir Walter Scott. 

“A huge sea of verdure with crossing and interesting promontories of massive and tufted groves, tenanted by numberless flocks and herds, which seem to wander unrestrained, and unbounded, through rich pastures. The Thames, here turreted with villas and there garlanded with forests, moved on slowly and placidly, like the mighty monarch of the scene, to whom all its other beauties were accessories, and bore on his bosom a hundred barks and skiffs, whose white sails and gaily fluttering pennons gave life to the whole.”

There are three pictures of the view in the house today – in the Tetrastyle Hall and the Breakfast Parlour. 

A View from Richmond Hill by Thomas Christopher Hofland (1777–1843) hanging in the Tetrasyle Hall

Although the house itself was no longer visible from the top of the hill, the woodlands on the estate were a key feature situated as they were on the bend of the river.  The debates were centred on protecting the Middlesex side of the river as Lord Dysart, of Ham House, had agreed to protect the property on the Surrey bank in return for an agreement on use of Lammas lands at Ham.5

After a long campaign, Parliament in 1902 passed the Richmond, Petersham and Ham Open Spaces Act. 9   This still protects the view to this day. 

View from Richmond Hill

On 19 July 1901 a conference was organised to discuss what could be done about the Marble Hill Estate.  The conference was attended by representatives of local authorities and preservation societies including London, Surrey and Middlesex councils, the Richmond Corporation, the Teddington Urban District Council and other charities and individuals.  Following the conference these organisations got together a total sum of £72,000 to buy the estate from the Cunard family.  The Cunards would have made more money if they had developed the estate but the huge public opposition would have influenced their decision to sell.  The London County Council put up half the money and agreed to take on the future care and maintenance of the estate.10

Marble Hill Park opens in 1903

The park was first opened to the public in 1903.  Before the opening, the LCC carried out some remedial works to the grounds and cleared away all signs of the infrastructure works. But the house remained closed, apart from the ground floor where there was a tea room.  You can still see signs of the original counter on the floor in the Tetrastyle Hall.  The housekeeper’s room which is now the entrance and shop was used as a changing room for the teams playing cricket or football in the park.  It was approached from the outside by way of the toilet block.  A service wing including Henrietta’s china room was demolished in 1909 as it was in poor repair. 

The first floor was turned into a flat for the Park Superintendent.  The dressing room and Miss Hotham’s bedchamber were partitioned creating an extra bedroom and a bathroom leading off the kitchen which occupied the ante chamber. 1

In 1916 during the first world war Marble Hill was a recruiting station.

Sheep were grazed on the lawn until the 1930s. 

The opening ceremony took place during a prolonged thunderstorm according to the Surrey Comet and had to be delayed by an hour and half.11

House first opens to the Public 1966

The whole house was not opened to the general public until 1966.  This was as a historic house museum opened by the GLC which replaced the LCC in 1965.12   Why was it not open to the public before? 

When the house came into the ownership of the council in the early Twentieth Century there was very little interest in historic houses.  A wave of destruction began in the early 1900s but most people were not that concerned at the losses because many saw the houses merely as a symbol of the old order which was then in decline. During the first half of the 20th century many historic houses were lost.  It was not until later, after the second world war, that more people began to recognise their value.13   Evelyn Waugh, whose Brideshead Revisited has been seen as a lament for the lost age of the country house, writing in his introduction to the 1959 second edition of the novel said:

“It was impossible to foresee in the Spring of 1944 the present cult of the English Country House.  It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and despoliation like the monasteries in the Sixteenth Century.  So, I piled it on rather with passionate sincerity.  Brideshead today would be open to trippers, its treasures re-arranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain.” 

The National Trust was formed in 1898 as a charity primarily for the preservation of landscapes of outstanding beauty or interest.  It was only later that this included historic houses.  After the war many country house owners were struggling.  The Marquess of Bath had a big success when, in 1947, he became one of the first to open up his house at Longleat to the public.  He did this to help pay death duties on his estate.  The resurgence in interest could have led the GLC to decide to open up Marble Hill.14

The Daily Telegraph Architectural Correspondent writing in the Daily Telegraph on the day of the house opening 14 July 1966 stated that “The survival of the house at that time probably a result more of chance than policy.”  12

The very first guide to the house was put together by the newly formed Georgian Group in 1939, just before the second world war.  Then they recommended:

“submitting it to a thorough and careful restoration so as to render every part of it available for the use, enjoyment and instruction both of the general public, and of the student of architecture and interior decoration”. 

In 1951 the whole of the second floor had to be gutted because of dry rot.  Some of the architectural features were moved to the lower floors at that time. 

When the GLC first took over, they carried out a major restoration with the aim of bringing the house back to the original Eighteenth century design.  The most significant alterations to the appearance of the house outside were to the South Front including reducing the length of the windows back to their original on the first floor and removing the cast iron balconies, which were thought to have been put in sometime early in the Nineteenth century.  The restoration took two years and cost £48,830.  The aim at this time was that the house would be used for lectures and meetings of cultural societies.  Appropriate antique furnishings and paintings were acquired.  The first exhibition was entitled The Countess of Suffolk and Friends, an exhibition of paintings. 

The Daily Telegraph architectural correspondent writing about the opening compared the restoration to that of the Grand Trianon at Versailles.  But the correspondent in the Glasgow Herald 15 wrote that the only drawback was the difficulty of imagining Lady Suffolk’s daily life there – while praising the restoration of the Great Room on the first floor “all white and gold with its cube of 24 feet lamented the cool blank rooms which resisted habitation”. 

In 1986, with the abolition of the GLC, the house passed into the ownership of English Heritage, who look after it today.  Over time the house has been filled with eighteenth century paintings and furniture so that today we can really imagine Henrietta Howard living here and entertaining her wide literary, political and social circle in its rooms. 


1 Marble Hill House and Its Owners – Marie Draper and WA Eden

2 Country Life Illustrated – 24 February 1900

3 Wigan Observer and District Advertiser – 19 June 1901

4 Gentlewoman – Saturday 9 August 1890

5 Marble Hill – The Heart of the View from Marble Hill – Julius Bryant

6 London Evening Standard – Monday 1 June 1903

7 Richmond Hill and Marble Hill – DS Macoll – The Architectural Review 1901-07 Volume 10

Issue 56

8 The Architectural Review Volume 34 (July – December 1913)

9 Hansard – Richmond, Petersham and Ham and Open Spaces Act 1902

10 Opening of Marble Hill Twickenham – 30 May 1903 – London County Council

11 Surrey Comet – 3 June 1903

12 Daily Telegraph – Peter Fleetwood- Hesketh -17 July 1966

13 Wikipedia – Destruction of Country Houses in Twentieth Century Britain

14 How to Fund Stately Homes in the Twenty-first Century – CNN Style

15 Glasgow Herald – 15 August 1966

Marble Hill House

Marble Hill House

I’ve just realised that I’ve hardly ever written about Marble Hill House. I’ve written a lot about the park, but hardly anything about the house itself. This is a peculiar omission, especially as I’ve started doing some volunteer work over there so I’ll be spending a lot of time in the house and may well want to write about it in the future. So here’s an instant introduction to the place.

Marble Hill House sits by the river at Twickenham – a stretch known in the 18th century as ‘the Arcadian Thames’ where a string of great houses were built along the water highway from Westminster to Hampton Court. Most are now gone, but the wonderful Jacobean Ham House on the Surrey bank still faces Marble Hill and the one remaining wing of the once splendid Orleans House is a few hundred yards further along the river on the Middlesex side.

Marble Hill House was started in 1724. It was built for Henrietta Howard, the mistress of George II. She was no passing floozy, but a professional courtier who was a Woman of the Bedchamber to Queen Caroline and was highly regarded by many of those at court as a discreet and intelligent member of the innermost royal circle.

Henrietta Howard

Although she had made a successful career as a courtier, she did not particularly enjoy the life and planned to retire to Marble Hill and live quietly there. For years she was intimately involved with the design of the house and gardens.

The building is small. She did not intend to keep a large household and wanted to live in a very different style from the splendours of the Georgian court. In any case, she was short of money and building work was frequently delayed while she raised funds.

The house was built in the Palladian style, which was just becoming fashionable. Although it is small, it is exquisitely proportioned.

Building was completed in 1729 but Henrietta was not able to leave the court until 1734.

One factor that had kept her in the security of court life was her determination to avoid the attentions of her husband. She had married very young to a man who had abused and beaten her and she had sometimes had to rely on the king and queen to protect her from him. In 1733, though, he died and by 1735, free from both her husband and her royal lover, she married George Berkely, the youngest son of the Earl of Berkely and MP for Hedon in Yorkshire. She was too old to have children by then, but the couple were devoted to each other and she moved nieces and nephews into Marble Hill where they lived very happily as a family (albeit it one with a degree of coming and going among the younger family members).

George Berkely died in 1746 but Henrietta continued to live at Marble Hill until her own death in 1767. She had not only been involved in court and political life, but was the centre of an intellectual circle that included the playwright, Gay; the poet, Pope; and the novelist, Swift. Her private memoirs are regarded as one of the best guides to life in the early Georgian courts and the house at Marble Hill (the designing of which had been one of her main pleasures in her later years at court) still stands as one of the finest Palladian villas in England. (A quick Google search suggests several other contenders for this title but it is certainly a fine example.)

King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman

King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman

My home is very close to Marble Hill House in Twickenham, where Henrietta Howard lived. The house is owned by English Heritage and has recently undergone major work. English Heritage are restoring the place to how it was when Henrietta Howard lived there and this has meant a lot of discussion about who she was and the life she lived.

Tracy Borman’s book was written before this sudden flurry of interest in Henrietta, but it remains the standard book for people wanting to know more about her.

The instant summary of her life (as used to appear on posters advertising the house) is that she was the mistress of George II and she was given Marble Hill as a retirement gift on leaving the court.

Tracy Borman’s book shows that she was much more interesting than this (inaccurate) summary suggests.

Henrietta had an unfortunate life. Orphaned at an early age (her father was killed in a duel), she had made an unfortunate marriage in 1706 to a man who robbed her, beat her and essentially made her life hell. Reduced to living in lodgings in “an unsavoury part of the capital” and often skipping meals because her husband took all her money, Henrietta moved into a single room shared with her son and a husband she by now loathed, sold her furniture and saved whatever money she could from an allowance from her father’s will until she had gathered enough to pay to travel to Hanover. Her plan, almost incredibly bold, was to ingratiate herself with the Hanoverian court so that when Queen Anne died and the Hanoverians inherited the English throne, she would be well placed for a position in their London court. (I know it’s complicated but just trust me on this. We love to tell ourselves that the monarchy traces a single line back to Alfred the Great, but that line has an awful lot of kinks in it.)

Despite the fact that she arrived impoverished and with her drunken, loutish husband in tow, and that she was only on the very fringes of the English aristocracy, her desperate gamble succeeded. She made such a favourable impression on Sophia, the Hanoverian monarch who was tipped to inherit the English throne that Sophia promised that she would make her a Woman of the Bedchamber if she became Queen of England.

Queen Anne inconsiderately refused to die. Henrietta, though now a fixture in the Hanoverian court, had no official status. In 1714, Sophia was the first of the two royal ladies to shuffle off this mortal coil. Weeks later, Anne followed.

In the absence of his mother, George drew the lucky ticket that made him king of England. He took his time travelling to his new realm. (He never liked the country and almost resented being king.) Eventually, though, a date was fixed for his coronation and Henrietta and her husband returned to London ready to welcome their Hanoverian friends to their new home. It was a tense time. With Sophia dead, there were no firm promises of any position in George’s court.

Henrietta hitched her wagon to the rising star of George’s daughter-in-law, Caroline. Caroline’s husband (also George, because Hanoverians were unimaginative with names) would become king on his father’s death. Fortunately, Caroline had become very friendly with Henrietta in Hanover and honoured her mother-in-law’s promise that Mrs Howard should become a Woman of the Bedchamber.

Henrietta, then, was a professional courtier. Intelligent, charming and diplomatic, she naturally rose through the ranks of the court. By 1718, she had become George’s mistress, whilst continuing to serve with his wife, who she would spend hours with almost every day.

There is no suggestion that this was a grand passion. George was unfashionably devoted to his wife. In fact, one reason for taking a mistress may well have been to counter the impression, widely held in court, that it was Caroline who made all the decisions in their household. George was not a particularly sensuous man and his lovemaking took place to a strict timetable. A mistress was customary and convenient and Henrietta, subtle enough to serve both George and his wife, was ideally suited to the position.

She remained George’s mistress until 1734 by which time George was king. During that time her links with Caroline and George made her a key figure in the intrigues of the court, although she did her best not to become identified with the various factions. Eventually, though, she was inevitably drawn into politics and championed the Tory cause, to the intense irritation of Queen Caroline, who was a supporter of Walpole. The political divisions in court and her own fading charms (she was 45) led her to find life in royal circles increasingly difficult and she was relieved when the break with George was finally official.

She had known a break was coming for years and had prepared her house in Marble Hill as an escape from court life. She loved the place and spent as much time in it as possible. It’s not true that it was a retirement present from the king: she had bought it with her own money while she was still serving at court. However, the king did make her generous settlement when she left which enabled her to finish the building (work was constantly being delayed because of cost overruns) and live there comfortably.

Her appalling husband had died, leaving her free to marry again. She wed George Berkeley in 1735. She was too old to have children by then, but the couple were devoted to each other and she moved nieces and nephews into Marble Hill where they lived very happily as a family (albeit it one with a degree of coming and going among the younger family members).

Henrietta’s terrible experience of her first marriage and the helplessness of her position as a woman made her what we might well think of as an early feminist. She helped women friends and relatives to protect themselves against the predations of their menfolk and her will, when she finally died, tied up bequests to women in a way that ensured that they maintained control of their money in an age where most women were entirely dependent on husbands or fathers.

She had not only been involved in court and political life, but was the centre of an intellectual circle that included the playwright, Gay; the poet, Pope; and the novelist, Swift. Her private memoirs are regarded as one of the best guides to life in the early Georgian courts and the house at Marble Hill (the designing of which had been one of her main pleasures in her later years at court) still stands as one of the finest Palladian villas in England. (A quick Google search suggests several other contenders for this title but it is certainly a fine example.)

Even this whistle-stop tour of Henrietta’s life has run well past my usual word-count and Tracy Borman’s book is an impressive 350 pages. Sadly, though, she is distracted by the splendours of the Georgian court and the eccentricities of the courtiers and we can lose sight of Mrs Howard for extended periods. Pages are dedicated to details of the procession in which George I entered London, though Henrietta was not involved. There are rambling asides on Swift’s career and the social rituals of Bath (although, in fairness, these were rituals that Henrietta definitely joined in). But, although there is an awful lot about Marble Hill there are huge gaps in what we are told about the house. As it stands today, it is unliveable in. (There are, most obviously, no cooking facilities.) In fact, it has been described in the past as really just a ‘party house’ rather than a proper home. Borman makes it clear that it was definitely ‘a proper home’ and one which was lived in by young people as well as Henrietta who was in her mid-forties before she could spend much time there. I’m biased, knowing the place as I do, but a little more about the domestic arrangements would have been appreciated, given how much of the book is devoted to discussing the house.

Much the same is true of Hampton Court. A visit there makes it clear that the physical position of Mrs Howard’s rooms put her geographically close to the centre of power and this is important in understanding why she was (as Borman says) known as ‘the Swiss cantons’ (connected to everywhere but independent of all). This is not at all obvious from her account.

Sometimes Borman seems overwhelmed by the volume of material she has to hand. Why so much irrelevant discussion of details of the peccadillos of the young maids-in-waiting while Henrietta’s London house in Savile Street gets only a couple of pages? The Hanoverians were expert in distracting attention from things that mattered with glorious public displays (like the coronation, which is described at length) and riveting private feuds. Borman seems no less distracted than the citizenry of the time. There are also one or two occasions where I think some of her details is questionable. I would doubt, for example, if Twickenham is really only a couple of hours from London by river. (On a favourable tide and with a following wind, maybe, but other historians of the period would differ.)

Is it worth reading? Emphatically yes. Henrietta Howard is a fascinating figure and hers is a wonderful story to tell. Tracy Borman’s book is a good place to start, but I hope it is far from the last word we will read on this remarkable woman.