Foots Cray Place was easily one of the most elegant houses in England. It was also a rarity - one of only four built in England to designs inspired by Andrea Palladio's influential Villa Rotunda.
The manor of Foots Cray is mentioned in the Domesday book and eventually became the property of the Walsingham family who held it for six generations until they sold it c.1676. The most famous of the Walsinghams was Sir Francis (b. 1532 - d. 1590) who established an effective spy network which uncovered the Babington Plot in 1585. Spoiling that plan enabled Queen Elizabeth I to remain on the throne and led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.
A map dated 1683 shows Joseph Lem as the owner of an Elizabethan E-type house situated by the river behind the church. After his death it was inherited by his son who sold it to one George Smyth, whose heir sold it William Skinner in 1747. Skinner wasn't to hold it for long as he is recorded as selling it to William Boothby in 1751 who sold it to Bourchier Cleeve in 1752 for £5,450 (approx. £650,000 - 2006 value).
The original manor house (also known as Pike Place) remained largely unchanged until 1754 when Cleeve, commissioned the building of a new villa in the fashionable Palladian style. It should be noted that although 'Palladianism' as a movement and style led to a significant number of houses being built using the principles of Andrea Palladio (e.g. Syon Park, Stourhead, Stowe) few houses were actually built using his designs. This is mainly because Palladio was designing for the warmer, sunnier Italian climate which meant that the designs were inadequate for the cooler, wetter English weather. However, a number of architects did attempt to translate his designs - and Foots Cray was an elegant example of this.
Exactly who designed it though is somewhat unclear. Initially attributed to Issac Ware (an architect who was part of Lord Burlington's influential circle), further research has, however, produced a letter and drawings by Matthew Brettingham the Younger (b. 1725 - d. 1803) which suggests that, in fact, the design might be his. 1 It has also been suggested (Howard Colvin) that the house was designed by Daniel Garrett, a follower of Burlington, before he died with it being built posthumously.
Whoever the designer, it was certainly part of the set of four neo-Palladian villas built in England which sought to copy the Villa Rotunda: Mereworth Castle in Kent (built between 1721-25) by Colen Campbell; Chiswick House near London (built between 1723-1729) by Lord Burlington; Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire (built between 1754-1757), attributed to Thomas Wright; and Foots Cray Place (built in 1754).
So, who was Bourchier Cleeve? Born in 1715 he is described as a pewterer and a writer on finance who rose to enough prominence that by 1755 he was appointed to be sheriff but also wealthy enough that he could pay a fine to be excused the duty. The new house was built in 1754:
"...[Cleeve] pulled down the old seat, and erected, at some distance northward from it, an elegant mansion of freestone, after a design of Palladio, and enclosed a park round it, which he embellished with plantations of trees, an artificial canal, &c." 2
The house itself was described a few years after it was built as:
"... built by Bouchier (sic) Cleeve Esq after a design of Palladio of the Ionic order, and is peculiarly elegant. The original design had four porticoes, three of which are filled up to gain more room. The hall is octagonal, and has a gallery, ornamented with busts leading to the bed-chambers. It is enlightened from the top and is very beautiful. The edifice is built of stone, but the offices which are on each side at some distances, are of brick...
The disposition of the rooms within the home appears to be very convenient, and the several apartments are elegantly finished and well furnished. The gallery, which extends to the whole length of the north front of the house, is a very grand room, and was formerly decorated with a good collection of pictures by the most eminent masters..." 3
In fact, the Cleeve collection was to become regarded as one of the finest private collections in the country featuring paintings by Rembrandt, Reubens, Van Dyke, Canaletto and Hans Holbein.
Cleeve also saw that the estate buildings and grounds matched the standard set by the house with a fine set of service buildings built in warm red brick a little distance away from the main house. In the gardens, Cleeve arranged for some of the water from the river Cray to be diverted to feed a canal and a cascade in front of the house.
Unfortunately Bourchier Cleeve wasn't to enjoy the house and grounds for long as he died in 1760. His estate went to his only daughter, Ann, who married Sir George Yonge in 1767. Having an estate already, Sir George sold the house and estate to Benjamin Harenc on 14 April 1772 for £14,500 (approx. £1.33m - 2006 value). Little is known about the Harenc family - they were Huguenot refugees who became part of established society as evidenced by Benjamin Harenc being appointed High Sheriff of Kent in 1777. Harenc also enlarged the estate and passing it to his son, also Benjamin, on his death. It was the son who sold the house and estate to Nicholas Vansittart for £28,056-16s-0d (approx. £1.87m) in 1821.
Vansittart (b. 1766 - d. 1851) was the youngest son of a former Governor of Bengal. Educated privately, he attended Christ Church, Oxford in 1784 and was called to the Bar in 1792. Vansittart forged a successful political career, first becoming MP for Hastings in 1796 and subsequently holding various seats and offices. This culminated in him being made the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1812 and created Lord Bexley in 1823. Foots Cray Place and the estate was to remain in the Vansittart family for nearly 180 years - though it was often leased out.
The house was finally sold towards the end of the 19th century after having lain vacant and plans had been drawn up for the creation of building plots within the estate. Luckily, it was bought by Samuel J. Waring, chairman of the well-known building firm Waring and Gillow Ltd. During WWI, Waring organised the production of war materials including aircraft and was rewarded with a baronetcy in 1919 and later a peerage, becoming Lord Waring of Foots Cray Place, in 1922. Lord Waring spent a considerable amount of money on improving the gardens and estate, including new access routes, a new Lodge, terraces and an avenue of lime trees. He died on 9 January 1940 with the house passing to his wife, Baroness Waring.
However, she was not to live there again as from 1939 - 1945 the house and estate became 'HMS Worcester' - a naval training establishment. The significant alterations required internally and the inevitable hard use meant that many a house was in a poor condition when they were returned to their owners with inadequate compensation after the war. In 1946, Baroness Waring sold the house and grounds to Kent County Council for use as a museum - however, this was not to be.
On 18 October 1949 Foots Cray Place caught fire. It's not known what started it but there was a considerable delay between the fire starting and it being reported. The local paper reported that:
"For more than three hours firemen from eight stations fought the blaze, which had taken a firm grip of the building before being noticed, and which was fanned to great severity by a strong wind. When they brought it under control the mansion was a charred shell of stone and brick only the basement having escaped the havoc to any considerable extent." 4
By the time the fire was out little remained except the shell of this once elegant house. The ruins were demolished the following year with the grounds being renamed Foots Cray Meadows and made over as a public park. All that remains today are traces of the fine terraces and tree-lined avenues now leading nowhere.
1 - 'Matthew Brettingham the Younger, Foots Cray Place, and the Secularization of Palladio's Villa Rotonda in England' - Stanford Anderson (The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Dec., 1994), pp. 428-447)
2 - 'The history and topographical survey of the county of Kent, vol. 1' pp. 148, 303, 306 - E. Hasted
3 - Unattributed quote in 'Bexley Local History Guides - Foots Cray' pp. 2
4 - From an article in the Kentish Times dated 21 October 1949 (quoted in 'Bexley Local History Guides - Foots Cray' pp. 3)