Now is possibly the best time in history to visit Rangers House. It’s been somewhat neglected right up until recent times – and only now, with a new collection of truly intriguing oddities, another previously “unloved” treasure imported from somewhere else, is it beginning to show just how fantastic a building it is.
It looks imposing enough. If you drive across the Blackheath part of the A2 it rises out of the lush greenery like a majestic dowager, dressed in the finery and lacework that only age-mellowed red brick, serious high-hedging and ironwork tracery can bestow. By night it is grander still, its rust-coloured bricks and cream stonework glowing healthily against a navy sky bespeckled with stars. You can almost hear the clip-clop of carriages delivering guests to a ball and its lofty grandeur has survived Time’s onslaught seemingly unscathed. It is just far away enough from the road to instil a feeling of mystery, and nestled against the high walls and lush greenery of Greenwich Park a serious fear begins to lurk on the part of the casual beholder that it may still be a private building – unavailable for general consumption.
Happily for the curious, it is currently in the hands of English Heritage and, in exchange for money, visitors can see pretty much all of it.
Right from the start, Ranger’s House was a bone of contention. It was built illegally on land seized in Greenwich Park and made semi-legal by a dodgy 60-year lease jiggery-pokered by a sergeant-at-arms from the Palace who’d pinched the land – one Andrew Snape. One of five naughty erections (oo-err, missus) in the park, Rangers House was first built for Admiral Francis Hosier between 1700 and 1720, but before he could move in the poor devil died of yellow fever in the Caribbean alongside most of his crew, whilst trying to fight the Spanish. Heaven knows which brave soul brought his body back to lie in the ultra-creepy church of St Nicholas in Deptford, but a chirpy ballad, Admiral Hosier’s Ghost, could be heard in the taverns along the river for many a year after, when a later victory over the Spanish in the same Caribbean area was attributed to the intervention of Hosier’s phantom crew …
Over the years, Rangers House has suffered its share of bad luck with owners. After Hosier’s death, all kinds of unbecoming legal wrangles of the variety one still sees today amongst the least likely of relatives ensured that the place was left in limbo.
Eventually it passed on – only for the new owner, the Rt Hon John Stanhope to promptly up and die himself. He left it to his brother, Philip, 4th Earl of Chesterfield. Chesterfield didn’t care for the place – so although he fiddled around enlarging it, the house remained virtually empty, until deafness and a new-born love of gardening finally brought him to the countryside at last. Then, of course he died, and the poor old place – still called “Chesterfield House” – was up for sale again.
A wealthy businessman (Richard Hulse, of the Hudson Bay Company, if you’re interested) bought it, built another wing, and died.Things hotted up a bit with the next owner, Augusta, Duchess of Brunswick. She moved-in in 1807, held some parties, then died. Her daughter Caroline lived next door at the time in Montague House and as a result of the right-royal shenanigans held at that particular little den of iniquity, Montague House got itself razed by a furious Prince Regent and Chesterfield House next door was finally taken back into the hands of the crown.
It was rented out as a grace-and-favour residence to the Ranger of the Park – more an honorary post than one involving any real work. Various titled gentlefolk, minor royals and military bigwigs used it on what seems to be more an ad-hoc business than a family home, and one of Greenwich’s most beautiful buildings gradually fell into disrepair.
It was only in the mid 20th Century that London County Council finally took matters into its firm civic hands and performed a thorough restoration job on the place. There’s a lovely picture in the archives of the place being used as a changing area for sports clubs and tearooms, complete with shiny counter and covered buns, but it was only when English Heritage finally acquired the place that it really began to gain any serious dignity.
For a while, it temporarily housed a perfunctory collection of paintings not auctioned off over the years, but sad little Ranger’s House still seemed like the eternal bridesmaid. A couple of years ago, however, after so many years of being unloved and without contents to call its very own, the house finally found a suitor – a collection that had no home.
And what a collection. Heir to an enormous diamond fortune, Sir Julius Wernher was a strange oddball millionaire. But he was a strange oddball millionaire who knew what he liked. While others bought antiques and curiosities that would impress their friends, Wernher bought only for himself. Some of the collection is bizarre, some beautiful, some downright ugly. All of it is worth seeing – even the bits that make you go “yeuch,” like the medieval memento mori or the vulgar serving plates complete with glazed pottery “offal.” Definitely a must – whether for a rainy afternoon or a sunny day.