Sometimes the history of a house can throw up all sorts of intriguing information about the past, including how a home can have both a ‘national’ history and also an ‘international’ dimension, drawing together politics, art and culture at various points in time. The stately home of York House, in Twickenham, near London, is arguably one such house.
Dedicated scholar Joe Fautley, a History postgraduate student in the History department at Kingston University in Surrey, has recently conducted some research for a new film project on the House, and has dug up some fascinating facts and insights on the impressive-looking building (see photograph) and its colourful past.
Built in the 17th century, the House stands at the end of a drive which is entered at the junction of Richmond Road and Church Street. It was acquired by Twickenham Borough Council in 1924 and, since 1965, it has been the busy Municipal Offices of Richmond-on-Thames Borough Council. It was also made a Grade II listed building in 1952, and a walk around the very fine ornate gardens (which are open to the public) helps the visitor to see why.
According to Joe, York House dates back to the 1630s and derives its name from the Yorke family, who were owners of local farming land. It was built for Andrew Pitcarne, a courtier of King Charles I. It was sold in 1656 to Edward Montagu, a landowner and army officer who had served Oliver Cromwell loyally in the 1650s but went on to play an important role in the plots that led to the restoration of King Charles II. Montagu later served as the British Ambassador to Portugal and then Spain in the 1660s.
The House then passed through several owners, including a female sculptor and an Austrian Ambassador to Britain. Interestingly, Joe has also found that the House was later acquired in 1864 by Prince Philippe of Orleans, grandson of the French King Louise Philippe I. In fact, three of Prince Philippe’s children were born at the House before the family returned back to France in 1870. One of the children was obviously so fond of the House, and the childhood he had there, that he later acquired and lived at the House from 1896 to 1906.
Even more interestingly, the last private owner of York House was the famous Indian financier and philanthropist Sir Ratanji Tata (1871-1918), who gained his Knighthood in 1916. Tata (see painting), along with his brother Dorabji Tata, had been involved in numerous industrial enterprises for the improvement of life in India, including steel production and other large-scale projects. A notable connoisseur of the arts, Ratan Tata (as he was more commonly called in England) was responsible for the Italian-style gardens which can still be seen at York House today.
Well known for his generosity and appreciation of culture, paintings and education, Sir Ratanji also founded the Ratan Tata department of Social Science at the London School of Economics (LSE) and, in addition, established the Ratan Tata Fund at the University of London. He was especially keen to finance the study of the conditions of the poorer classes. He is buried at the famous Brookwood Cemetery at Woking, near London.
After it was acquired by Twickenham Council from Tata’s widow in 1924, the House continued to host all manner of activities. In August, 1926, Twickenham received its Charter of Incorporation, and in November the same year the new Borough held its first Council meeting at the House. The building was officially opened by the Duke of York (later George VI) on 16th November, 1926, and became the official Town Hall of the new Borough. During the interwar period, it was quite common for some of its large rooms to be hired out for major social, cultural or political functions and dances, and a number of national political campaigns and crusades were launched from large public meetings held at the House (local Municipal authorities were much more relaxed about hiring out their facilities for such activities back then).
Joe’s research has also dug out some other intriguing historical facts about York House’s connections to all things cultural during the 20th Century. Shortly after the House came under the control of Richmond Borough Council in 1965, for example, it was used as one of the shooting locations for the ground-breaking film Alfie (1966), directed by the award-winning Lewis Gilbert and featuring rising star Michael Caine in the lead role (pictured). Conveniently located not far from Twickenham Film Studios at St. Margarets in Twickenham (where the movie production was based), York House was used as a sanatorium in the movie. After a shadow is found on his lung, Alfie recovers at the sanatorium, where he also seduces a fellow patent’s wife, Lily (played by Viviene Merchant). The film was one of the big box-office cinema hits of the 1960s, brought much critical acclaim for Caine, and its gritty and moving portrayal of working-class life and the scandal of back-street abortion in Britain helped pave the way for the government to introduce legislation to legalise abortion.
York House undoubtedly has plenty of other fascinating connections to both the distant and more recent past waiting to be uncovered, and who knows what else this truly historic House might throw new light on?
Joe Fautley has just completed his MA in History at Kingston University, Surrey. His other projects have included volunteering for the ‘Fighting for our Rights’ oral history project on disability in Kingston.
(Images: WikiMedia Commons)