Montague House and the Pagoda
I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for ages. The Pagoda is one of the most fascinating, secret buildings around, but up ’til now there’s been precious little written about it. Most people (if they know about it at all) assume it’s a Victorian pastiche of a Chinese pagoda. In fact it’s much older – though of course, it’s still a pastiche – or perhaps we should say ‘ homage…’
In case there’s anyone who doesn’t know what or where it is (unlikely on this blog…) it’s just across the heath more or less in line with Ranger’s House, down a little residential road called these days, unsurprisingly, Pagoda Gardens. It’s a private house, so you can’t see much of it, but even from the road is quite a curious sight. My favourite picture of it ever is by Benedict and I make no apology for using it again – not least because around this time of year it actually looks like this:
There’s rather less left of Montague House. In fact, the only thing you can actually see of Princess Caroline of Brunswick’s old gaff is her bath up in the South West corner of Greenwich Park. But these two relics of a right royal ding-dong are inextricably linked, and historian Neil Rhind, together with the current incumbent of the Pagoda, architect Philip Cooper have created a history of them both.
With the colourful Caroline as a previous occupant, it’s natural that a good part of the book is devoted to her, but what pleases me more is that Rhind and Cooper have realised that that’s the bit that, if we know anything at all about these two places, we already know and have chosen to focus on the other residents – right up to present day – who have shaped one of the most fascinating buildings in the area. After all, Caroline neither built the place nor lived in it that long in the grand scheme of things.
Anyone who’s familiar with Neil Rhind’s other works – Blackheath & Environs I & II and The Heath being the two most people know, though there are others – will have an inkling of how this book’s going to be – though thanks to modern printing and layout techniques it’s more colourful and illustrated than any of his other volumes.
It’s the usual meticulous, heavily-researched and detailed history in chronological order (something I find myself incapable of being) and, whether or not it’s actually true, you get the feeling that absolutely every detail of merit has been included – that this is definitive.
A whole bunch of the usual Greenwich suspects are involved in the houses’ early days – the dastardly John Snape, the wealthy Earl of Montague, the mysterious ‘Mrs Elizabeth Lawson’ (which sent me off on a wild goose chase through the Phantom archives for what turned out to be another Elizabeth Lawson but then Greenwich names reoccur over and over again…)
Maps, both ancient and modern, plus CAD reconstructions of layouts, are joined by a short account of the way the 18th Century craze for Chinoiserie led to a small sporting lodge being built in the Chinese style for Montague House, across the heath. It looks as though the Pagoda was used as a place for the Society of Toxopholites (no, I didn’t know, either – it’s archers, apparently) to have tea after twanging on the Heath. Neil Rhind has even fetched up a fabulous quote about ’the elegant and beauteous assemblage of Lady Archers‘, who called themselves the British Amazons. Cool.
I don’t even want to think how long it took to work out a timeline for the Pagoda – it’s been changed so many times and gradually changed from being an entertaining folly to a family home. In some ways at least Montague House has a distinct ‘end’ – it was demolished in 1815, the assumption being it was on the grounds of a queenie fit on the part of the Prince of Wales who, by that time, had irrevocably fallen out with his wife.
Therefore the second part of the book deals with how the Pagoda changed physically from the 19th Century onwards and, my favourite bit, the people who lived in it, including some from the time when it was taken over by the local authority as a children’s home, housing association accommodation and refuge for Tamil families. The picture here, by Stephen, gives you a closer-up view (the other one, of the roof, is also by Stephen – thanks!)
If I could have asked for any more, it would have been an expansion to this section – I would have liked to know more of their experiences. Not least the Tamils – I can’t begin to think what they thought of it. I could have also taken a little more about the recent restoration and how the house is now, though I guess that might be a bit invasive on the family. But these are tiny thoughts – this book is not really about that and is complete without such ornaments.
If you’re at all into local history, this book is a bit of a must. It’s a slim volume, but dense (thankfully not visually) and I highly recommend it. In Greenwich, find it in Warwick Leadlay or Waterstones; in Blackheath the Bookshop on the Heath will sell you a copy at around the £10 mark.
Oh – BTW – the Chinese characters mean ‘the Pagoda’ or the equivalent of ‘House of Family Love,’ taken from
the style of the dynasty that was in power in China in 1767. Just in case you were wondering.
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