Know the National Tyres place? Next door to the West Greenwich Community Centre? Well, in 1944 a rather nice Regency terrace there was blown to smithereens by the usual method for those days.
It was called Vansittart Terrace and c’mon – when you read that don’t you wonder just how the hell it got a name like that? When I started poking, I discovered something splendid.
Far better than the entirely authentic claim that Greenwich was home to Shakespeare’s Dark Lady or the Bayeaux Tapestry was actually woven in Greenwich we are home to, choke, a real-life genuine Regency Rotten Borough MP.
And not just any old rotten borough – the daddy of ‘em all, Old Sarum, which every school kid hates by the time they’ve sat through several terms of Corn Laws, Spinning Jennies, Peterloo, the potato famine, Chartists and Ravelling Nancies (No? Okay, Just this kid then – which goes to prove that a teenager supremely uninterested in history at school can change their ways…)
Old Sarum returned two MPs. It had a population of seven. It was passed around sundry peers getting their dodgy sons on the first rung of the parliamentary ladder like the proverbial hot potato and between 1802 and 1807 the ‘honour’ went to Nicholas Vansittart (Tory). His wasn’t quite the classic route – he’d already been MP for Hastings but whether he saw this as a step up from the sea or he just plain lost his seat, history does not reveal (or not the kind of superficial history I do, anyway…)
Nicholas lived with his old mum at number 60 Crooms Hill. He wasn’t born in Greenwich but you know my criteria for interesting people – if they so much as took a day trip to the place, they’re fair game.
Actually Nick lived with Mum for some time – from the early 1770s to 1809 when he moved to Malvern and Torquay so his new and somewhat sickly wife cold take the waters. How Regency is that? (BTW anyone watching that series about the era on the BBC just now?) Actually, strictly speaking it isn’t Regency at all, since the Regency didn’t begin until 1811, but you know what I mean…
But I digress.
So. What did Vansittart ever do for us? Well, he was Mr Money in Chas Fox’s Government as Secretary to the Treasury in 1806. Sadly for Mr V., this was supremely bad timing, given the events of the year before. The Napoleonic Wars were bleeding the Treasury dry and Nelson may have had a famous victory in 1805, and the nation might be feeling all patriotic, waving flags and everything, but they weren’t up for big taxes. and Mr. V. was in charge of getting the cash.
He not only failed to abolish Income Tax as the ‘people’ were clamoring for (when I say ‘people’, bear in mind the sort of things the extra rates were for – male servants, carriages, horses, dogs, agricultural and trade horses etc.)
He also increased the hated Malt Tax, something the general beer loving populace felt rather more strongly about than income tax payers. When he finally ended the war malt tax, he paid for the shortfall by extra soap tax, which led to some revolting peasants.
All in all he was getting seriously unpopular and he finally resigned in 1822, taking the usual path for disgraced ex-MPs – a peerage. He became 1st (and indeed, only, he died childless) Baron Bexley, where he didn’t really do much except upset the Spitalfields weavers by introducing a bill aiming to repeal the Spitalfields Weavers Act of 1765 protecting them from malicious damage . I am sure this had nothing whatsoever to do with the facts that the weavers were all Hugenots and that his other activity in the Lords involved championing Catholic emancipation.
But hey – for the people of Greenwich he was one of their own. The town was going through a huge boom, and what better way to celebrate their very own Rotten MP than to build a trendy new housing estate and name it after him? I, for one, couldn’t be more proud.
A Raynsford Towers is well overdue, don’t you think?
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