Walthamstow’s residential streets are lined with Victorian and 20th century housing, making it difficult to imagine the area as the rural countryside it once was. From the 17th century this quiet corner of Essex became increasingly popular with wealthy city merchants and businessmen who built large mansions with spacious gardens as country retreats, away from hectic London living.
Many smaller but no less grand mansions were located on and around Marsh Street (now High Street), a notable group of fine 17th century houses on the north side were owned by the same merchant. Further north there were several mansions at and around Clay Street (now Forest Road), the best known being the Water House, rebuilt in the 18th century, and former home to William Morris and newspaper publisher Edward Lloyd. It is now the William Morris Gallery.
Several impressively grand houses were located at Hoe Street, where much land there south of Marsh Street was owned by the Conyers family. Grosvenor House, built c.1600 by Tristram Conyers had an avenue of elms leading from the house to Church Common. The house was rebuilt by the Grosvenor family who acquired it in the later 18th century. On nearby Shernhall Street several mansions from the 1700s and earlier included Shern Lodge whose estate boundary ran the length of what is now Vallentin Road, and Brookfield, home of royal mint monyers.
Areas close to the forest were popular locations and include Belle Vue House, an elegant Regency villa of c.1803 designed by architect and artist Edward Gyfford for book seller Charles Cooke .
With the exception of the Water House, all of the above have long since been demolished, in many cases to make way for new 19th century and early 20th century housing developments as urbanisation spread. Tragically, several survivors of this later 19th century development fell foul of 1960s and 1970s development schemes.
Happily there are several survivors amidst their now urban settings; some are still residences, albeit flat conversions, whilst others have been reutilised in different ways. These include Chestnuts in Bishops Close, a grand early 19th century building now divided into flats and surrounded by 1930s maisonettes built in its garden. Its namesake, the Grade II* listed Chestnuts House at Hoe Street remains perhaps the finest and least altered of Walthamstow’s earlier 18th century mansions, retaining several original features, although it is currently on Historic England’s Buildings At Risk Register, facing a somewhat uncertain future, although plans for its redevelopment are afoot.*
Of the Shernhall Street mansions, two 18th century examples survive: Walthamstow House and Thorpe Combe, which has been used as a hospital since the 1930s.
Orford House on Orford Road, another early 19th century survival, is now a social club, and its contemporary, The Clock House, survives on Pretoria Avenue, supposedly on the site of the earlier Black House, which gave its name to Blackhouse (later Blackhorse) Lane. Its namesake on Wood Street, one time home of a South Sea Company director, is an impressive albeit much altered survival from 1703 and is now divided into flats.
It is forever regrettable that so many of Walthamstow’s fine mansions are now lost, but there are a fair few historic houses of Walthamstow still standing- maybe you live or work in one?
[A version of this post was published in the November 2013 edition of East London magazine The EList].
*Thanks to historian Lissa Chapman of Clio’s Company and Queens Road Stories for highlighting Chestnut House’s redevelopment proposals.