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

St George's, Hanover Square by T. Malton, 1787

Reverend William Dodd – ‘The Macaroni Parson’

One of our books, ‘A Georgian Heroine‘ has taken us on many circuitous journeys and along the way we have come across some fascinating characters including a link to Freemasonry in the 1780s. One of our main characters, Richard Heaviside, was closely involved in Freemasonry in London and belonged to the same Lodges as this gentleman – The Reverend William Dodd (1729 – 1777).  Brother Dodd was initiated into the St Alban’s Lodge No. 29 in 1775.

Dodd led an extravagant life spending far more than he was earning and as such gained the nickname ‘The Macaroni Parson’ due to his extravagant taste in clothes. Born in Bourne, Lincolnshire he attended Cambridge, after which he moved to London and married the daughter of a domestic servant which left him in a precarious financial position.  He was a well-respected man and known for his charitable work,  Among other things he instituted an unmarried mothers home ( The Magdalen ) for ‘reclaiming young women who had swerved from the path of virtue’; The Humane Society ( for the recovery of persons apparently drowned )  and the Society for the Relief of Poor Debtors.

William Dodd by John Russell, 1769. © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Dodd by John Russell, 1769. © National Portrait Gallery, London

There was, however, another, more sinister side to his character and in 1774 he decided it was time to improve his financial situation and attempted to gain the lucrative position of rector of St Georges, Hanover Square. In order to attempt to secure this post, he tried to bribe the wife of the Lord Chancellor, Lady Apsley, by offering her £3,000. The letter offering this bribe was traced back to him and he was dismissed from his existing post. He then decided that life wasn’t so good in England so disappeared to Geneva and France until the dust settled. He finally decided it was safe to return two years later.

In February of 1777, Dodd forged a bond for £4,200 in the name of his former pupil, The Earl of Chesterfield to help clear his debts. The bond was accepted in good faith by the bankers who lent him money on the strength of it. It was only later that the banker realized it was a forgery. Dodd confessed immediately and pleaded for time to rectify this.  This was to no avail – off to prison he went. He was later tried and sentenced to death, despite Samuel Johnson writing papers defending him and a petition signed by 23,000 people.

He was publicly hanged at Tyburn on 27th June 1777. The story, however, didn’t end there.

Dr Dodd and Joseph Harris at the place of execution. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Dr Dodd and Joseph Harris at the place of execution. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

As was usual practice for the time, those who could afford it would pay for the executioner to steady the body from swaying while suspended from the gibbet – and to cut the body down pretty quickly.  Then the body would be placed in a coach and rushed to an undertaker nearby.  There a surgeon and a hot bath would be waiting in an attempt to revive the body.  It didn’t always work, but it was better than nothing.

The executioner kept his part of the bargain and Dodd hoped to be resurrected by Dr John Hunter.  Hunter knew that death by hanging prisoners died a slow death from asphyxiation rather than a broken neck and he believed that if the body arrived with him soon after the hanging that he could revive the prisoner. Ironically, Dodd’s was so popular, and the crowd so incensed at his death, that they mobbed the coach, with his body still in it and held it up for two hours, making any attempt at resuscitation impossible.

Dodd was apparently taken for burial at Cowley, Middlesex. Having checked the parish records there is no entry recording his burial.  Rumours continued for several years that Hunter had in fact succeeded in bringing him back to life. Claims were made by people that they had actually met Dodd well after his supposed death – in France and in Scotland. Did he come back from the dead? Who knows, we can but speculate.

Even more ironic, is the fact that Dodd had written a sermon a few years previously titled “The frequency of Capital Punishment inconsistent with Justice, sound policy and religion”, in which he attacked the haphazard application of the death penalty.

The writer Wendy Moore has written a book that tells the whole story, The Knife Man.