Stephen Selby tells a heartbreaking story of one of London’s lost houses
When Wanstead House was built in 1722, it stood on the second largest parkland property in London, with only Hampton Court having more acres.
It was to be home to Viscount Castlemain and cost £360,000, but its opulent beginnings were to be cruelly torn down.
The history of this forested expanse, a mile wide and nearly two miles north to south, dates back to Roman times.
It was used for hunting by Henry VII. Henry VIII lived there for a while and later it was occupied by, amongst others, Sir John Heron and Lord Richard Rich, who subsequently sold it to Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester.
Viscount Castlemain had inherited the property from his half brother, Sir Josiah Child, second baronet and governor of the East India Company.
The family were also descended from the banking business of Child and Co.
The house was commissioned in 1715 by Sir Richard Child, who by the time it was completed had been created 1st Viscount Castlemain.
However, despite its sumptuous trappings, it survived precisely 100 years, no more. Simply because without male issue, the English law of primogeniture meant that when the title passed to his daughter Catherine, she would relinquish all on marriage.
Refusing the offer of her hand by George the Prince Regent, instead she married a high society gambler and womaniser.
The fine neo-Palladian mansion and surrounding estate with its fabulous trees had been designed and laid out by two of the most successful authorities of their era, Scottish architect Colen Campbell, who designed Blenheim Palace, and garden designer George London, who laid out the Hampton Court and Castle Howard gardens among others.
Catherine Tylney-Long inherited Wanstead House in 1805, making her, after royalty, the richest person in England with an annual income of £80,000.
In 1812, aged 23, she married the notorious rake William Wellesley-Pole, nephew of the Duke of Wellington, thus relinquishing her entire entitlement to the estate.
He secured a mortgage for £250,000 with the marriage settlement and proceeded to gamble away the entire estate within just ten years.
His main creditor was a building company which sold off every single item within the property. The house was demolished and the contents sold for just £10,000.
It was said that Catherine died aged only 35, perhaps of a broken heart. She was penniless.
Her story is told in a book by Geraldine Roberts, The Angel and the Cad – Love, Loss and Scandal in Regency England.
Nearly a century after it was laid out by London, Wellesley-Pole engaged landscaper Humphry Repton to relook at the gardens and some of his work can still be seen today.
After Catherine’s death, Wellesley-Pole sought control over his children, especially the oldest, William, who was in the care of her two sisters.
Catherine’s fortune had now devolved to William and The Duke of Wellington intervened to keep him from his father’s clutches.
When found in contempt of court, Wellesley-Pole Snr was, as a result, committed to the Fleet prison by Lord Brougham in July, 1831.
For some time later he was in and out of court on charges of libel, and various other matters relating to his quest for custody of his children.
He lived for a time in Brussels to avoid creditors, and later back in England on a small pension of ₤10 a week. From 1842 he was styled Viscount Wellesley, and succeeded his father as Earl of Mornington in 1845.
He died from heart disease in his London lodgings in 1857.
His obituary read: “A spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became debauched in his manhood… redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life gone out even without a flicker of repentance”.