Merton Place

Merton Place [109kb]

Here was paradise

a description of Merton Place

by Peter Warwick

Reprinted from the Newsletter of the 1805 Club. Copyright Peter Warwick, the 1805 Club, 1995

1. Purchase
5. The remains of Paradise
2. Merton Place 6. Acknowledgements
3. Improvements
7. Select bibliography
4. Paradise lostr:
8. Back to Home Page

Merton Place and its immediate envorons, including St Mary's chaurch and Southside House

Merton Place and its immediate envorons, including St Mary's chaurch and Southside House [191kb]

If Merton Place was standing today, it would hold as much fascination for Nelson enthusiasts as the VICTORY. It was, after all, the only house that Nelson owned and actually lived in. This article seeks to describe concisely why and how he purchased Merton; what the house and estate were like and what became of it after his death. The fold-out plan shows the location of Merton Place and should help members, wishing to feel what Lawrence Durrell described as 'spirit of place', to pinpoint the boundaries and whereabouts of the key features.

Purchase

"I am very anxious for a house ...only do not have it too large, for the establishment of a large household would be ruinous".

Nelson penned these almost prophetic lines to Emma Hamilton in the summer of 1801. They highlight the fact that since his return to England with Lady Nelson, way back in 1787, he had never had a place he could really call his own [1]. His menage with the Hamiltons now made him crave for "a stake in the country" [2] where he could "live retired" with Emma and Sir William, and raise his daughter, Horatia, out of hiding [3].

His words tell us that although a peer, he was not a rich man: "I cannot afford a fine house and grounds". Instead he aspired to a "small neat" and "comfortable" house six to ten miles from London, "in a dry situation", close to the Admiralty and within easy reach of Portsmouth. He also fancied land suitable for farming, because it would be a source of income once he had left the Navy [4]

Primed with these criteria, Emma, accompanied by Nelson's sister-in-law, Mrs. William Nelson (Sarah Yonge), set out to find something suitable. Nelson was with the Channel Fleet in the important roadstead anchorage of the Downs, preparing for his ill-fated attack on Boulogne. This proximity allowed him to keep a close correspondence with Emma on their progress.

In July, the two women decided on a place in Turnham Green and Nelson urged its purchase. "Buy the house in Turnham Green", he wrote from the MEDUSA on 4th. August, 1801, but the deal fell through. They rejected a house in nearby Chiswick. Then they came across Merton Place; situated in a quiet little village close to Wimbledon and only eight miles, or a one hour carriage drive, from Westminster. Auspiciously the land had once belonged to Samuel Pepys' cousin, Toni, and the house had been owned by Sir Richard Hotham. Merton itself had connections with Captain Cook.

Nelson first heard of their discovery on the 20th. August. He did not hesitate in writing to Emma,

"I approve of the house at Merton and must beg and entreat you to work hard for me. Messrs. Booth & Haslewood will handle the law business. I have 3,000 ready to pay tomorrow therefore, my dear Emma, look to it for me".

The asking price was 9,000 for the house and 52 acres, with furniture at valuation (about another 1,000). Yet, even though there was a buyer's market and his capital at the time amounted to little more than about 10,000, Nelson did not haggle with the joint vendors -a widow called Anne Greaves, George Greaves, William Hodgson and James Greaves [5] - for the fear that he might lose the place altogether. According to Nelson,

"...a few pounds more or less is no object. I never knew much got by hard bargains. I approve of the Gentleman's plan that went to see an estate, bought it as it stood, dinner on the table, the former owner sat as his guest".
Consequently, it is hardly surprising that he was both thrilled and astonished when his friend and prize agent, Alexander Davison, offered to help him with the balance. He wrote,

"Can your offer be real? Can Davison be uncorrupted by the depravity of the world? I almost doubt what I read. I will answer, my dear friend, you are the only person living who could make such an offer".
Again on the 14th. September, from the AMAZON, he repeated his gratitude,

"I have to give you ten thousand thanks for your friendly offer of assisting me in purchasing the Farm (as he frequently referred to Merton Place). It is true it will take every farthing I have in the world" [6].
Nelson may have been mortgaged to the hilt, but, at last, his summer anxiety could give way to excitement and expectation. His dream had come true. He had a real home. The prospect of once more living at ease with Emma was intoxicating. It is fitting that the year and a half spent under Merton's roof was probably the happiest of his life [7].

Merton Place

The farmhouse that Emma had found, consisted of one wing and an annexe. It had two sizeable reception rooms, one good bedroom, a collection of lesser rooms and servants' quarters, kitchen and a cellar well stocked with wine. There are unfortunately no contemporary plans [8]. The two storey house had been built in 1699 for William Hubbald, an accountant in the Navy office. While not to the design of a famous architect, it was to most eyes, an elegant, warm red brick structure. The north front was Palladian in style and decorated with urns and a central pediment.

The surveyor's report, however, could find only defects. Apparently the house was not in a good state of repair and was "very slightly built". It was also in poor decorative order and the furniture he considered inferior. Although it lay in a modest 52 acres, most of the land was separated from the house by the old turnpike to the south (now Merton High Street) and had to be reached through a brick tunnel under it. The property was also described as

"surrounded by Public Roads possessing not the least privacy as a place for pleasure - on a dead flat and clay soil and the whole most scantily worn and out of condition..".

Moreover, the report described how the house itself stood only on one and a half acres, within twenty yards of which were other dwellings, so that it was

"liable to be annoyed by the meanest buildings or other nuisances which may be placed close to it; and that within the straightened boundary as circumscribed by a dirty black looking canal, or rather broad ditch, which kept the whole placedamp".

The surveyor concluded,

"it is altogether the worst place, under all circumstances, that I ever saw pretending to suit a gentleman's family".

Condemning? Yes, but it was Emma's choice and Nelson was in no mind to find fault with anything she had done. As far as he was concerned, even unseen, it was already Paradise.

He had been well primed, judging by the letter of congratulation sent by Sir William Hamilton on 16th. September;

"We have now inhabited your Lordp's premises some days, and I can now speak with some certainty. I have lived with our dear Emma several years. I know her merit, have a great opinion of her head and heart that God Almighty has been pleased to give her; but a seaman alone could have given a fine women full power to chuse & fit up a residence for him, without seeing it himself. You are in luck, for in my conscience I verily believe that a place so suitable to your views could not have been found, & at so cheap a rate... the bargain was fortunately struck 3 days before an idea of peace got abroad. Now every estate in the neighbourhood was increased in value and you might get a thousand pounds tomorrow for your bargain. The proximity to the capital, and the perfect retirement of this place, are, for your Lordship, two points beyond estimation; but the house is so comfortable, the furniture clean and good, and I never saw so many conveniences united in so small a compass. You have nothing but to come and enjoy immediately; you have a good mile of pleasant dry walk around your own farm. It would make you laugh to see Emma and her mother fitting up pig-sties and hen-coops, & already the canal is enlivened with ducks, and the cock is strutting with his hens about the walks. Yours Lp's plan as to stocking the canal with fish is exactly mine [9]. I will answer for it, that in a few months you may command a good dish of fish at a moments warning" [10].
Emma called this canal 'the Little Nile', which is why it has probably come down through history as the most familiar part of the estate. This was the water that Nelson wished fenced with three-foot-high strong netting so that Horatia would not "tumble in" and it amused him to imagine
"the beautiful Emma rowing a one-armed Admiral in a boat!" [11].

Merton Place, Rocque's May of 1746 which shows the canal and ornamental lake.

Rocque's May of 1746 which shows the canal and ornamental lake. [183kb]

Most writers overlook the surveyor's reference to 'a dirty black looking canal' and imply that the water was a natural tributary of the River Wandle. This is a possibility, particularly since the Wandle happens to be braided along this stretch. However, there is one piece of evidence that makes the tributary theory unlikely. In 1746 Rocque drew a map of the area which shows a man-made watercourse cut at right angles to the River Wandle. It runs across the south eastern part of the grounds, loops around the back and west sides of the house and meets an ornamental stretch of water set between the turnpike and the front of the building - the Palladian elevation. Here the water was spanned by an attractive Italianate bridge cased with stone and decorated with iron railings and gasoline lamps. Contemporary prints show that it added considerable charm to the north prospect. Sadly, the canal and small lake were filled in during the mid-nineteenth century and no trace is left. The River Wandle continues to flow we

ll to the east of Merton Place's former boundary.

Improvements

Nelson first set eyes on Merton Place in the early morning light of Friday, 23rd. October. As he approached the small lodge and main gates, he would have been aware of a lofty brick wall running alongside the road, the thickly-planted grounds around the entrance, and may have been a little surprised at the short length of the gravel drive leading up to the east front of the house.

Soon Emma was escorting him around the house and leaf-covered grounds. She showed him

"the Great Lawn and Coppices, the East Lawn, West Lords Leaze and East Lords Leaze" [12].

The tour included the detached dairy, the ice house, statuary [13], a greenhouse and an orchard surrounded by a plantation of Cedar and other trees. On the opposite side of the road, by way of the spacious brick tunnel; secluded walks through the 'shrubbery' leading to, stables, coachman's cottages, a paddock of rich pasture, a kitchen garden and an ancient man made mound which commanded views of Epsom Downs. Nelson is said to have reacted with boyish enthusiasm, exclaiming at each new sight, "Is this, too, mine?".

Nevertheless, within two days of his arrival, he was looking to buy more land. He paid 23 for Halfside's field and moved to purchase the Duck and Turnip fields, which would take the western boundary of the estate to the wall of Merton Abbey. Unfortunately, he had difficulty with these negotiations since William Axe's tenant blocked the deal. This forced Nelson to buy the whole farm of 115 acres for 8000. The deal was not completed until November, 1802 [14].

Meanwhile, Emma, dubbed by Nelson, "Lady Paramount of all territories and waters of Merton", was preparing to make the accommodation more spacious, modern and comfortable. She was enthusiastic about the possibilities and extravagant in realising them, at least in terms of Nelson's personal preference for simplicity. Another wing was built to create an imposing double, bay-windowed east elevation. Glass doors in each bay opened onto twin verandas. These 'Miradores', as they were referred to, were decorated with diamond trellises for clematis and hneysuckle. The ladies used the attractive verandas as shelter from summer sunshine and, as seen in one of Thomas Baxter's watercolours of Merton, Horatia rode her rocking horse here [15].

Other alterations involved improvements to the kitchen, including new stoves, bathrooms for each of the main bedrooms and an ample supply of lavatories. The entrance porch, which originally faced east, was moved to the north Palladian front. It comprised smooth columns with Corinthian style capitals supporting a plain entablature and a cornice with dentil decoration. The initial building work appears to have been carried out during the fine weather of their six week tour of the Midlands, Welsh borders and South Wales in July and August, 1802. The remainder was undertaken during Nelson's long absence some time between May, 1803 and August, 1805.

It is clear from Nelson's letters that he was still concerned for the expense:

"I would not have you lay out more than is necessary at Merton ...The rooms and the entrance will take a good deal of money ...a common white gate will do for the present".

More painfully, when discussing the new drawing room, he wrote,

"1 hardly know how to find the money; but if it is to be done this year ...it is too late to say a word".

Consequently, the "dear, dear Merton" that he left for the last time on the 13th. September, 1805 was far more extensive and impressive than the small farm he had bought four years earlier.

The physical alterations tell us little about the atmosphere of Merton Place. Some of the best clues we have, come from Saker, the general servant and carpenter, and Lord Minto, who first visited Merton in March, 1802. According to Saker, the interior alterations incorporated the extensive use of glass which gave the accommodation a light, roomy impression. He noted;

"glass doors in front, and a long passage with glass doors opening onto a lawn behind and even plate glass doors to some of the principal rooms threw an abundance of light about the interior".

Lord Minto was struck by the museum atmosphere.

"Not only rooms, but the whole house, staircase and all, are covered with nothing but pictures of her (Lady Hamilton) and him, of all sizes and sorts and representations of his naval actions, coats of arms, pieces of plate in his honour, the flagstaff of L'ORIENT etc. - an excess of vanity which counteracts its own purpose. If it were Lady H.'s there might be a pretence for it; to make his own a mere looking-glass to view himself all day, is bad taste" [16].

Minto also paid a brief visit during Nelson's last twenty five days at Merton in 1805, when his observations were more forgiving,

"Lady Hamilton has improved and added to the house - she is a clever being after all: thepassion is as hot as ever".

The plan shows the known size and shape of the estate and the fanciful names given to different parts of it. The area around the ancient mound became 'the Quarterdeck'. Its summit, which Emma crowned with a round, white, neo-classical summerhouse, was dubbed 'the poop'. The plan also shows the location of the brick tunnel and the carriage gate entrance. Using today's roads as a reference, it can be seen that the estate fell roughly into the areas bounded by Quick's Road to the north, Morden Road and Merton Road to the west and Haydons Road and Abbey Roads to the east. The southern boundary which is still uncertain, was south of High Path.

Paradise lost

Merton Place estate

Merton Place estate [134kb]

Nelson left Merton and its contents to Emma [17], but within three years, her mounting debts made its sale inevitable if she was to avoid arrest. In the Spring of 1808 Mr. Willcock of Golden Square, valued Merton with its furniture - exclusive of books and wine - at 12,930. Seven months later she asked her late husband's cousin, the very rich Duke of Queensberry, to buy the estate fat 15,000. 'Old Q', who was eighty, refused. She was at last forced to leave Merton and moved to Heron Court in Richmond.

However, she had not lost all her supporters. One well-off, generous and equally shrewd neighbour, Abram Goldsmid of Morden Lodge, gathered together some of her other friends, including Alexander Davison and Sir John Perring, to rescue her 'from destruction'. On the 25th. November, 1808, they met at Perring's house and agreed to take an assignment on the estate which Goldsmid bought for 13,000. They advanced Emma 3,700 to pay off her most pressing creditors [18 ]. Unfortunately, the arrangement fell apart when Goldmid's financial enterprise in the City was threatened with collapse. He shot himself in a part of the grounds known as the 'Wilderness'.

Goldsmid's brother, Ascher, acquired the estate in April 1809, and it was still possible to "stroll through the deserted rooms" as Nelson had known them, "and admire the beautiful furniture". This was a false reprieve, since he put it on the market again in March 1815, only two months after Emma had died in poverty in Calais. The advertisement that appeared in The Times on the 22nd . March is probably the best single description of Merton that exists:

"very desirable situate...7 miles from London, containing five spacious bedrooms, with dressing-rooms (and water closets) and eight servants' rooms; two large drawing-rooms, a dining-room, library, and gentleman's dressing-room; convenient servants' offices of every description, excellent cellars for wine and beer, detached dairy and ice-house, a spacious lawn and pleasureground, intersected with gravel walks and a sheet of water, a large kitchen garden and orchard, with greenhouse, a paddock of rich pasture-land skirted by extensive shrubbery; the whole contains upwards of 22 acres enclosed with lofty park palings; also two contiguous enclosures of arable land containing 17 acres".

It did not sell in 1815. The finale is a story of decay, destruction and disregard:

After standing empty for many years, the estate was eventually auctioned 'into lots adequate for detached villas' at the White Hart, Merton, at twelve o'clock on Tuesday, 16th. September, 1823. Some villas were built, but the house was left to deteriorate even further. According to most sources it was finally pulled down in 1846, since no attempt was made to save it for the nation [19]. J. K. Laughton, who lived in Raynes Park close to Merton, said that some of the rubble was still there in 1903.

The remains of Paradise

The site of Merton can no longer be described as Paradise. Nothing remains, not even a single tree. About half of the original estate is covered with mid-nineteenth century rows of terrace housing,the remainder is a miserable patchwork of post war low and high rise council housing and lockup garages ?known as High Path Estate, and retail warehouses. Writing on Christmas Eve 1863,James Hudson, a former gardening boy at Merton, recalled how "those beautiful pleasure grounds and gardens" were now

"covered with unsightly bricks and mortar; and if this is not sufficient to disfigure and transform the place, they are going to make a railroad through the centre of it" [20].

Only the local names suggest that it once had anything to do with Nelson. One of the blocks of flats, just to the south of where the new kitchen was built, is actually called Merton Place. It is not hard to imagine Nelson's surveyor being singularly unimpressed with this accommodation!

The Victorians drew on the Nelson connection when they christened the residential side roads that obliterated the Plantation, Quarterdeck and stables. They are called Hamilton Road, Hardy Road, Nelson Road, Trafalgar Road and Victory Road. The southern part of the estate, referred to on maps as Nelson's fields, has been lost to Wickes and Texas, but adjacent to their warehouses, and tucked into a corner next to High Path, there is still a small piece of ground enclosed by iron railings known as the Nelson Gardens. An inscription, on a granite block positioned between two 12 pounder guns, reads:

AS A MEMORIAL OF
LORD NELSON
AND THE SPLENDID SERVICES THAT HE RENDERED
TO HIS COUNTRY THIS LAND WHICH FORMED PART
OF HIS MERTON ESTATE WAS GIVEN ON THE
FIRST CENTENARY OF HIS DEATH TO
THE MERTON PARISH COUNCIL FOR
A PUBLIC RECREATION GROUND
BY A GREAT NEPHEW OF THE LATE REAR ADMIRAL
ISAAC SMITH OF MERTON ABBEY.

Probably the most impressive memento of Nelson is the Nelson Arms, a substantial Edwardian public house. It is decorated on the outside with attractive and unique tile murals of Nelson and VICTORY. They are signed, 'Garters, Poole 1910'. The building marks the approximate position of the lodge and carriage gates to Merton Place [21]. Another public house, on High Path, is called The Trafalgar.

The contents of Merton Place have either been lost to history or have found their way into various collections. The most well known is the magnificent Nelson-Ward collection at the National Maritime Museum. It includes furniture, china and glass, notably, a painted table, overmantle mirror with Nelson's arms, a wine cellarette, two twin wall sconces, two countrymade oak chairs; and parts of the Chamberlain-Worcester 'Botanical' and 'Baltic' sets. Other examples of china and glass used at Merton are on display at the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth.

When some of the furniture at Merton Place was sold, John Pennington of Southside House, Wimbledon Common, purchased a fine George Romney of Emma reputed to have been commissioned by Nelson to hang at Merton place [22]. It depicts a very young-looking Emma posing as Lady of the Manor. Pennington regarded it as a token of his friendship with the hero and hung it in the Musick Room where Emma had entertained him, Nelson and Sir William with her display of Attitudes. A rocking horse came into the family at the same time. Though unproven, it is very likely Horatia's. It closely resembles the horse in Thomas Baxter's print. These less well-known survivals can be seen at Southside House by appointment [23].

The deeds of Merton Place belong to the Wimbledon Society. They were purchased at Sotheby's for 300 in 1975, and are kept at Wimbledon Museum, The Ridgeway, London, SW 19. The first in this series of documents is dated 23rd. October, 1801. It bears the original signatures and seals of 'Emma Hamilton' and 'Nelson & Bronte' [24] Nelson relished his role of village squire and was a regular member of the congregation at Merton's twelfth century parish church, St. Mary the Virgin. Emma presented the rector with Nelson's painted wood hatchments. They had originally hung outside and above the porch to the Palladian front of Merton Place. They can just be made out in the print entitled, 'Merton Place, Surrey. The seat of the gallant Admiral Lord Nelson who died in battle Oct 21st. 1805'. They are now inside the church, left of the nave. The wooden pew which Nelson and the Hamiltons used, is also preserved there.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was not uncommon for parts of demolished buildings to be re-used in the construction of new houses. If local stories are accurate, this happened with Merton Place. The entrance door and frame may now be gracing 55, Murray Road, Wimbledon, SW19 and some of the windows, a staircase and internal doors and frames are believed to be built into 113/115 (Southleigh), South Street, Dorking [25]. (There are also various small items in the private collections of some 1805 Club members!)

One is left wondering what Nelson would have made of it all...

Acknowledgements

In preparing the maps for this article the author was very ably helped by Robin Kilpatrick at King's College, London., to whom he would like to offer his special thanks. Early drafts of the manuscript were improved through the advice and comments of Paul Birkbeck, Sally Birkbeck and Michael Nash. 1 am indebted to each of them.

Select bibliography

Bartlett, M. A. The history and antiquities of wimbledon, surrey (1865)
Denbigh, Kathleen. History and Heroes of old Merton (1975).
Fraser, Flora. Beloved Emma (1986).
Gerin, Winifred. Horatia Nelson (1970).
Hardwick, Mollie. Emma Lady Hamilton (1969).
Howarth, David and Stephen. Nelson the immortal memory (1989).
Jagger, Rev. I. E. Lord nelson's home at merton (1926).
Laughton, John Knox. Nelson at merton; wimbledon and merton annual, 1903.
Lawson, Geoffrey. Letters from Lord Nelson (1949).
Moorhouse, E. Hallam. Nelson in England (1913).
Oman, Carola. Nelson (1947).
Pocock, Tom. Horatio Nelson (1987).
Rathbone, Philip. Paradise merton the story of nelson and the hamilton at merton place (1973).
Russell, Jack. Nelson and the hamiltons (1969).
Sichel, Walter. Emma Lady Hamilton (1905).
The John Evelyn Society. Nelson's home at merton: a short account on how the (The wimbledon society deeds of merton place were acquired by the society and why they are important (1975).

This booklet is published by the Wandle Industrial Museum in honour of the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, and in memory of Admiral Lord Nelson's happy times in Merton. Our thanks to Peter Warwick, the author, and the 1805 Club, for the rights to do so.

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