Map of Parson's Green, showing Peterborough House and its surrounding gardens.

Parson’s Green, Fulham: seclusion, secrets and novels

Parson’s Green in Fulham still has two green, open spaces in the heart of its residential area. Back in the eighteenth-century, Fulham was a pleasant rural village outside the bustle of London complete with farms and market gardens that supplied the capital with fruit and vegetables, and Parson’s Green was a hamlet within the manor of Fulham where several fine villas were located.

Parson's Green, Fulham by William Pengree Sherlock, early 19th century.
Parson’s Green, Fulham by William Pengree Sherlock, early 19th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Named after the village green and the parsonage where the rectors of St Anne’s, the Fulham parish church lived, it is perhaps best remembered today as the home of the novelist, Samuel Richardson.

Samuel Richardson's House at Parson's Green.
Samuel Richardson’s House at Parson’s Green. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Nearby was Peterborough House, a grand mansion set within large – and once immaculately designed – gardens. The house (originally called Brightwells, or Rightwells) was a large square building with a gallery around the rooftop, many large rooms and furnished with taste; rich frescos decorated the walls and a collection of fine paintings also hung there. Originally a fourteenth-century building, it had been remodelled and rebuilt in the early Stuart style.

Passing through several owners, eventually, it was inherited by Margaret (née Smith), wife of Thomas Carey, second son of Robert, Earl of Monmouth who refurbished the building and renamed it, Villa Carey. By descent, it passed to Charles, the celebrated 3rd Earl of Peterborough and Monmouth, and it was under his watch that the house enjoyed its heyday. Alexander Pope was a frequent visitor and a musical academy was instituted by the earl’s second – but secret – wife, the singer, Anastasia Robinson. Although Anastasia and her mother discreetly lived nearby rather than under the earl’s roof, she presided at his side as mistress of the house during entertainments.

Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough (1658-1735) by Charles Jervas (c.1675-1739). Burghley House Collections.
Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough (1658-1735) by Charles Jervas (c.1675-1739). Burghley House Collections.

Peterborough House passed to the 4th Earl of Peterborough and after his death, his widow Robinaiana (Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s maternal aunt) leased it to Richard Heaviside, a rich Lambeth timber merchant who was climbing the social ladder.

Map of Parson's Green, showing Peterborough House and its surrounding gardens.
Map of Parson’s Green, showing Peterborough House and its surrounding gardens.

Although now fading into disrepair, the real beauty of Peterborough House, the impressive pleasure grounds which surrounded it, were still largely intact. By the 1780s, some of the land had been leased to market gardeners but there remained much of the former glory of this garden, a pleasant wilderness with shady cypress trees, inset with statues and fountains. Beyond the high brick walls on three sides of the mansion, market gardens dominated down to the riverbank while the front of the mansion faced the green with its picturesque pond. It was perfectly secluded and that was perfect for Heaviside’s nefarious activities. As we relate in our latest book, A Georgian Heroine, he abducted – for the second time! – a young girl who was a neighbour of his in Lambeth, Charlotte Williams and had her brought by boat to Peterborough House. You can discover more about Charlotte’s ordeal by clicking here.

Suffice to say, it was akin to the plot of Clarissa, one of Samuel Richardson’s novels, the irony in the situation was that Richardson had lived, and written many of his works, in a villa which stood close by Peterborough House in Parson’s Green.

View of Parson's Green, Fulham, 1795. The walls are those surrounding Peterborough House, around the time that Meyrick pulled down the original mansion.
View of Parson’s Green, Fulham, 1795. The walls are those surrounding Peterborough House, around the time that Meyrick pulled down the original mansion. © The British Library

In time, and with the house and estate in ruins (part of the house had been torn down) Heaviside sold Peterborough House to John Meyrick who razed what was still standing to the ground and had a new mansion constructed in its stead.

Peterborough House, Parson's Green, Fulham, after 1797.
Peterborough House, Parson’s Green, Fulham, after 1797.

The parsonage from which the hamlet took its name stood on the west side of the green until it was demolished around 1740 and replaced with two new houses. Writing of it in 1705, Bowack said, “the house in which the rectors of Fulham used to reside, is now very old, and much decayed. There is, adjoining to it, an old stonebuilding, which seems to be of about three hundred or four hundred years standing, and designed for religious use; in all probability, a chapel for the rectors and their domestics. Before the said house is a large common, which, within the memory of several ancient inhabitants now living, was used for a bowling-green”.

Cricket matches were also held on the green; two notable matches between teams from Fulham and Chelsea were contested there in 1731 and 1733.

A game of cricket, unknown artist after Francis Hayman, 18th century.
A game of cricket, unknown artist after Francis Hayman, 18th century. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In later years, Maria Fitzherbert, George IV’s ‘clandestine’ wife lived in East End House on the east side of Parson’s Green

Fair at Parson's Green by Thomas Rowlandson.
Fair at Parson’s Green by Thomas Rowlandson. Sotheby’s

Sources:

Fulham, pp.344-424, The Environs of London: Volume 2, County of Middlesex. Originally published by T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1795

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, Pen and Sword, 2015

A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, Pen and Sword, 2017