Something Rotten…

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…)

Sir Nick, as seen by Thomas Lawrence. More about him another day...

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?


the attachments to this post:

Sir Nick, as seen by Thomas Lawrence. More about him another day...
BMX198994

rotten borough
rotten borough

rose 4
rose 4


7 Comments to “Something Rotten…”

  1. Franklin says:

    According to Defoe’s “A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain” (published in instalments between 1724-1727), Old Sarum had two rotten MPs – and just one old farmhouse. In the great man’s own words:

    “Near [the mount of Old Sarum], there is one farm house, which is all the remains I could see of any town in or near the place, for the encampment has no resemblance of a-town; and yet this is called the borough of Old Sarum, and sends two members to Parliament, who, those members can justly say, they represent, would be hard for them to answer.”

    I wonder when the third rotter was added?

  2. OOps – yes – it does look like it’s only two – but that’s still three and a half voters each.

  3. Mary says:

    In the back of my mind I know something about him – land holdings on the Peninsula?? Government gunpowder contracts?
    I would look it up but I’ve trying to sort out emails since 4 this morning and I am only up to the start of August and haven’t even looked at the other email address. why do i go on holiday moan moan moan

  4. Ebspig says:

    Yes,wasn’t it Nicholas’s brother Henry who bought the gunpowder works, which was demolished to build the Enderbys’ wharf? Does anybody know of any depictions of the house the Vansittarts lived in at the bottom of Maze Hill?

  5. valley_girl says:

    I think this might be a 1937 photo of Vansittart Terrace to be found on the very useful Ideal Homes website:

    http://www.ideal-homes.org.uk/greenwich/assets/galleries/central-greenwich/greenwich-high-road-1937

  6. I think I’ve sent you the photo of West Greenwich House in it’s bomed state. Let me know if you haven’t got it and I’ll send it to you.

  7. C WATKINS says:

    A later Vansittart owned an estate in Bexly. On that estate there were several farms leased out to tenants. One of my ancestors was a farmer there between 1840 and 1931. My ancestor, Edward W, apparently used to take a short-cut across Captain Vansittart’s land to go to market. One day he was stopped by 2 men who informed him he was trespassing. “I’ve been crossing this land for 50 years as my father and grandfather before me.” He protested. This resulted in a series of letters between solicitors and eventually a case was brought against Edward AND Captain Vansittart by Oxford University, the copy-holders in the High Court in London. You may ask ‘why did a simple case of trespass end up in the high court?’ Probably because if a right of way had been granted the value of the land would have plummeted. Edward ended up paying £6000 in damages to Captain Vansittart which in 1898 was not a small sum.