A history of Orford House by Karen Averby
Built c. 1802, Orford House on Orford Road is one of the oldest historic buildings in the area, yet its unassuming set-back position means that it is not so prominent within the more familiar mid to later 19th century streetscape which it predates by decades.
It was one of many large, grand villas built in Walthamstow between the 17th and 19th centuries by wealthy City merchants and businessmen attracted by the area’s rural and scenic character and easy access to the City. In keeping with architectural fashion of the day, Orford House is a stuccoed neo-Classical building, with two storeys, wide bays and a centrally recessed entrance with Doric columns and entablature with wreaths.
Orford House is believed to be the third house to stand on the site, and at the time of construction it fronted Church Common Lane (now Orford Road), on the edge of what was once Berry Field, or Church Common. The house was set within extensive grounds which included a large ornamental pond and an avenue of trees to the north along where East and West Avenues now lie. Stabling and associated outbuildings were located to the rear of the house.
The house was built by Patrick Chalmers, a prosperous city merchant, although he and his family did not take up residence until 1806. Born in Aldbar, Scotland, he had inherited the imposing Aldbar Castle and family estate, but his career brought him to London where he met and married his wife Frances Inglis in 1801. Their first child, also Patrick, was born in the following year at Aldbar. Two daughters, Isabella and Frances were subsequently born in London in 1804 and 1806, and a further three children, Margaret Ann, John Inglis and Euphemia were born between 1806 and 1811 following the family’s move to Orford House. The children were home schooled, although the younger Patrick later attended school at nearby Higham, returning to Orford House at weekends.
The elder Patrick returned to Aldbar Castle in 1819, and died there in 1826. Orford House was bequeathed to his family, and it remained in their hands until 1834.
In 1835 the house became the residence of Elizabeth Cass, who lived there until her death in 1838. She was a renowned benefactor and left £4000 in consolidated annuities to the Vicar and Churchwardens of Walthamstow; £30 from the annual interest was to be divided amongst them and the remainder distributed amongst local “poor persons of good character.”
Between 1838 and 1853-4 Orford House was the home of the Woodley family, and it was during their residence that it was given its present name. John Woodley was a successful corn factor, or trader, from a family of corn merchants and associated businesses based in and around the City. He was born in Stansted, Hertfordshire, but had moved to Aldgate by the time of his marriage to his wife Sarah in 1816. They lived at Orford House with their three surviving children Eliza, John and Matthew, born between 1826 and 1833.
The enclosure of Church Common c.1842 irrevocably changed the environs of Orford House, not least with the increasing importance of Church Common Lane (renamed Orford Road after the house) as a thoroughfare which effectively cut off the house’s lands to the north. In a pragmatic move John had the ornamental pond drained, and the site was used for the construction of Orford Villas, being eight homes which provided a substantial rental income for Orford House. The villas were demolished in 1962 and 1966, and the site was used as a playground before being built upon in 1970-1.
When the Woodleys left Orford House the premises were bought by the City of London Building Society, and land belonging to the house became part of the area’s wider urban development, including the laying out of adjacent building plots facing what is now Wingfield Road. During this period the house was occupied by a Mrs Burgess who used it as a private school.
In 1857 the house was purchased for £1785 by 57 year old silk manufacturer Thomas Kemp of Spitalfields, possibly for retirement, which he had done so by 1861, perhaps due to encroaching blindness. Thomas and his wife Ann had at least six children born between c. 1823 and 1842, and they were initially joined at Orford House by two of them, Mary (b. 1825) and Robert (b. 1842). Robert also worked at Spitalfields, as did his elder brothers William and James.
Robert almost died in 1863 following a fall from his horse whilst riding along Beulah Road. He was not expected to live, but a miraculous recovery enabled him to marry almost exactly a year later. He and his wife Eliza made their home at 8 Orford Villas, opposite Orford House, where they had at least six children.
Ann Kemp died in 1867, and James, his wife Elizabeth and two young sons came to live with their father at Orford House, although they moved to Newbury, Middlesex in the 1870s.
By 1890 Orford House had passed into the ownership of William Gower, a highly successful fish merchant with premises at Billingsgate Market. He was also a member of Southchurch Masonic Study Circle. He lived at Orford House with his wife Sarah Delia and nine children who had been born between 1870 and 1888. Also living with them were Sarah’s two elder sisters.
The family soon became part of the community, and one of the sons, Frederick, was apparently especially well-loved as a Sunday School teacher and choir member at St Mary’s Church. Tragically he died suddenly aged just 25, and as a sign of respect a wreath was hung over his choir place at the Sunday church service.
When William died in 1908 he left a small fortune of just over £13,978 to Sarah. By this time, four of Sarah’s children were still living with her: Florence, an art student, Delia, Edgar, a decorator, who later became a builder, and Maurice, an engineering draughtsman. Sarah died on 15 August 1920, heralding the end of Orford House being a family residence. She had left effects of £6519 16s 6d, but the executors of her will, Florence and Edgar decided to sell the entire contents of the house, prior to the house being sold, and on 12 and 13 October 1920 an auction was held at the premises.
Within a year Orford House had been sold and was transformed into a social club which opened on 17 September 1921.
Architecturally, the exterior of Orford House remains relatively unchanged, with the exception of a sympathetically designed eastern extension. Internal alterations have been extensive however, although an elegant cantilevered staircase remains as a reminder of its former grand domestic life.
Writing in 1924, an historian regarded Orford House as having been “a suitable residence for prosperous city men…but as a domestic residence it has outlived its usefulness”. Certainly, as a social club it has successfully played host to a breadth of events which have been enjoyed by the local community for almost a hundred years.
This article first appeared in the November 2014 edition of “The Village” magazine.