The 1936 houses on Old Church Street I wrote about last November were built (along with two other neo-Regency houses in Chelsea Square) on the grounds of a single house with a large garden. Bath Lodge, as it was originally called, was a late 18th century or early 19th century building, constructed according to the Survey of London of 1913 to house a staircase which came from Bath House in Piccadilly, acquired as payment for a gambling debt. The same book goes on to describe as rumour the suggestion that the new Bath Lodge was used for gambling and that it was frequented by the Prince Regent.
The detail below, from Thompson’s 1836 map shows Bath Lodge as one of several detached houses in the still semi-rural area north of the King’s Road.
(You can see that Carlyle Square appears under its original name, Oakley Square.)
We can choose to believe those unsubstantiated rumours if we wish and the story about the staircase. And we can see the staircase as several photographs of it survive from the period when the house was a private residence.
There it is looking up from the ground floor hall.
And there’s the second flight of stairs with a handy chair on the half landing in case the owner wanted to contemplate the feature around which the house was designed.
But let’s not get too far ahead of the story. In the 1850s the name of the house was changed to Catherine Lodge. And whatever scandalous purposes it had served were set aside by the new occupants.
Trafalgar Square (now Chelsea Square – the name was changed in the 1930s as part of a general elimination of duplicate street names in London) was growing around the house. But note the term Brompton used in the address with its slightly more respectable connotations than Chelsea. It was just the right area for the exclusive girl’s school Mrs Field and Miss Lowman had set up .
The new name was given to the house by Mrs Field, whose grand-daughter was called Catharine Jones. The school prospered for forty years or so, even boasting a school magazine inexplicably called the Katherine Wheel. (One issue repeated those Prince Regent stories.)
The school closed in 1895. For a while there was a sporting club in the house, the Trafalgar Cycling Club which was a good fit with the tennis courts in the Square but its final incarnation was as a private house.
In the 1920s the house was the home of Sir Albert Gray, his wife and their staff. These photographs show what the interior looked like, a far cry from the ultra modern decor which would come to the Church Street side of the site in the 30s.
[The library, a comfortable study for an educated well-read man, who would become Mayor of Chelsea during his time in the house. The pictures are all of Nelson's commanders].
But as well as the photographs we also have a memoir of life in Catharine Lodge written by one of Sir Albert’s kitchen maids, Edna Wheway.
Edna, aged 19 when she came to Chelsea worked at the house for two and a half years mainly as a kitchen maid but also learning how to be a cook.
The white marble chimney piece, which the Survey admired. Cleaning it was probably not one of Edna’s duties although her work was not entirely confined to the kitchen. Her first encounter with Sir Albert was when she was scrubbing the front door step and a tall aristocratic gentleman suddenly spoke to her: “We’ve not met before have we?”. Edna was embarrassed to be found wearing “a coarse hessian apron over my dress”. To avoid being seen again in what she called “a badge of poverty” she made herself some white aprons out of material from sugar sacks. Despite this parsimony over uniforms, Edna describes the Grays as good employers. She made friends in the house such as Tommy the cat whom she once rescued from the oven in the range where he had fallen asleep. Among the other staff, her particular friend was Emily the under-housemaid.
Emily would have been familiar with this sculpture in the hall. It took me a while to work out that it was as captioned, Leda and the Swan. At one time it was believed to be by Michaelangelo, but in the end the “adverse views” of experts prevailed and it was attributed to a less significant artist.
One day when the Grays were out of the country and the servants were living communally like modern housemates, Edna, Emily and John the footman decided to explore the cellars of the house looking for a secret passage which was supposed to lead down to the river. (Chelsea was riddled with such passages if all the rumours were true). They found a passage behind the coal cellar which “went a fair way” but were eventually deterred from entering a doorway obscured either by curtains or an accumulation of cobwebs and dust when a gust of wind blew their candles out. They cleaned up their clothes and claimed to have been out for a walk.
In this watercolour by W E Fox you can see the pillar box near the house where Edna and Emily put odd objects such as a sprig of mistletoe to surprise the “miserable-looking” postman. They watched from the window. Edna notes that the mistletoe got a smile out of him before they ducked back out of sight.
Edna moved out of London to take up a position as a cook and was married in 1927. Sir Albert Gray died the following year and Catharine Lodge was demolished in 1931 as part of a general development in what was still called Trafalgar Square. I don’t know if anyone preserved the staircase.
Edna’s book was called “Edna’s Story: memories of life in a children’s home and in service, in Dorset and London” and was published in 1984.
The photographs of the interior are from an article called “A relic of Old Chelsea”.
Both watercolours are by W E Fox.