A Universally Acknowledged Londonist Truth: Any cellar, anywhere, must be worth a peek. How about a cellar containing a vault that’s been locked for 40 years?
“We knew there were documents in there,” says Edward Schofield, manager at Charlton House. “There’s a tiny iron grille I shone my iPhone into and I could just make out some books. But we’d lost the key.”
One of the few remaining Jacobean Mansions in London, Charlton House was built between 1607 and 1612 by Sir Adam Newton, tutor to Prince Henry, older brother of Charles I.
It was what estate agents now term ‘ideally situated’— deep in the countryside yet close to Greenwich Palace, on top of a hill, looking out across London and the Thames. Giant blocks of flats now enjoy that particular vista, but the house remains pretty impressive.
It was bombed in the second world war, and the affected parts rebuilt with non-matching bricks give it a slightly ‘modern’ look but don’t be fooled. This place is old, and it carries secrets, some of which still haven’t been investigated. Edward Schofield needs to put that right.
Schofield eventually took the decision to have the lock of the enormous iron vault door drilled out. It took two days.
The building’s been in the ownership of Greenwich Council since 1925, but has recently been placed in the trust of a charity, Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust, which also cares for Greenwich Heritage Centre , Tudor Barn and sundry memorials in the borough.
RGHT has commissioned a survey of the building, which means, key or no key, every nook must be investigated. The vault had clearly housed something important. The door was impenetrable, impervious to lock-pickery. Inside iron rails and rings for long-lost curtains hinted this must have at least been built for valuables.
Schofield eventually took the decision to have the lock of the enormous iron vault door drilled out. “It took two days,” he remembers, “eventually the chap was so intrigued he came back to finish the job the next day for nothing just so he could find out what was inside."
The door finally heaved open and, if not quite a Howard-Carter-Tutankhamu’s Tomb moment, it certainly did reveal ‘wonderful things’.
A Bakelite switch flicked the 50-year-old lightbulb from its slumber, shining across shelves stacked with records, documents, pictures and newspapers, mainly from the first world war.
Dusty copies of the Daily Mail and Evening Standard from 1916, a book of services from next-door St Luke’s church, rolls-of-honour and a giant paper sack of used milk bottle tops jostled with rate books, registers and a random chair flung inside as an afterthought.
“It looks as though someone just thought 'I’ll bring all this stuff in here and deal with it tomorrow,' says Schofield. “Then they lost the key.”
Cardboard boxes and newspaper shelf-linings, now part of history themselves, give a clue to the date when the materials were deposited: 1965.
The discovery will add to the house’s archives housed behind bars in a room next door. “It all needs to be conserved,” says Schofield, “but it will take time and money.”
Back in the main house, there’s much to be enjoyed. “We’re keen to open it up to visitors on a more regular basis,” says Edward Schofield pointing out a little exhibition of Greenwich postcards showing in the Long Gallery just now.
James I was desperate to start an English silk industry but the project was doomed to failure; he imported the wrong kind of mulberries.
Since its rooms are used for meetings, groups and functions, there is little furniture in the house, but a glance upwards at the fancy plasterwork ceilings, across at pretty tiled fireplaces and around at the original Jacobean staircase, yields plenty to conjure past splendours.
“They believed evil spirits got worse the higher up you went,” says Schofield, “so the carved faces on the bannister get uglier as you go upstairs.”
Even further up and into the attic rooms, the stairs become plain again. From here small servants’ rooms look out across the lead roof.
Yet another door is unlocked to allow us out there. Sadly the large apartment blocks still block our view across London, but we can get a much better look at the clock tower, and its original, teeny-tiny Jacobean bricks.
Back down and into the grounds, Charlton House has a couple more secrets to reveal. An ancient Mulberry tree, said to have been planted in 1607 at the behest of James I who was desperate to start an English silk industry still sprawls to one side (the project was doomed to failure; James imported the wrong kind of mulberries; white-berry-loving silkworms turned up their mandibles at the yukky red fruits).
The once-delightful ‘Inigo Jones’ summer house was, in 1937, subjected to the worst kind of indignity by being turned into a public toilet. It’s been closed for years but we were able to get a peep inside at grubby 1930s civic tiling, rows of defunct urinals and web-bound window catches.
The ladies’ loo is pretty straightforward but the gents’ has steps leading up to it and a tiny caretaker’s parlour, full of broken lavatory seats, the remains of a built-in cupboard and an old galvanised bucket.
Outside again, and underneath both loos, on a blank wall, lies a boarded up doorway. The entrance to a secret passage, perhaps?
Sadly no. “It’s just a little space under the summerhouse,” says Edward Schofield. “But,” he adds as he sees Londonist faces drop, “we do have a secret passage.”
WHAAAAAAAT? “But we’ve lost the key to that, too.” Surely that has to be the next project? “Well, we need to get there for the survey.”
Londonist has hinted more than it is seemly to be present at the next Howard Carter Moment. In the meanwhile view the last HC moment here as Tracy Stringfellow, chief executive of Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust, opens that great iron door into history:
If you’d like to visit Charlton House, email in advance and, if there are staff members available and the rooms aren’t being used, they’ll do their best to show you round the main house. Sadly it’s not possible to open the basement, roof or summerhouse to visitors.
Don’t miss the delightful Mulberry Tea Rooms, open Monday-Friday 9am-4pm. Light lunches, teas and splendid cake are on offer at sensible prices.