I have to apologize at the start – I wrote this post in bits and pieces, hopping around like a rabbit as I remembered details and sought to find a place in the post where they best fit. The result is that this post, like my experience of the property, moves through time without much rhyme or reason. I loved this grand hall, built to be a family home, and I hope you can bear with me as I try to share it with you!
Built for Captain John Harle and his wife Mary in 1729, Georgian Rainham Hall is quite unique in its grandeur, especially for its industrial East London location. Harle was a sea merchant and he wanted a home that overlooked his ships, moored nearby in the quay he had built. Which reminds me of a fun fact the lovely volunteer shared: wharf is an acronym! It stands for WareHouse At River Front. How neat is that?
Unlike many National Trust properties, Rainham Hall is sparsely furnished. This is because John and Mary both died quite young and their son, the younger John Harle, went to live with relatives. He did return briefly to live in the house later on, but he also died quite young and all of the family possessions were sold off. A lovely feature that remains to speak of the young family in the early stages of their lives together: the initials J and M, connected above by an H in beautiful scrolled lettering in the arch of the wrought-iron gateway. Can you spot the letters? For me, this simple reminder of the halls beginnings was the most touching, in spite of the many stunning features within.
The hall has had a wide range of owners, occupants, and purposes; perhaps most notably its requisition for the war efforts of the Second World War. It became the Rainham Hall Day Nursery from 1943 until 1954, caring for children while their mothers worked in local factories. When the most recent owner died late in the 1940s, the house was offered to the National Trust in lieu of death taxes, and the trust allowed the daycare to continue operating for 5 more years. This history holds special meaning for me, given that my grandparents lived in London during the war. Learning about this time in London’s history makes me feel a deeper connection to my own family history as I learn about rations, changing work environments and shifting gender roles, and about the alternating destruction and preservation of buildings across the city.
And so, you can imagine my delight at finding that the current exhibition is “Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall.” Told through the stories of 7 children who attended the nursery, and brought to life with photos, displays, and even a working wind-up gramophone (which I totally used to listen to songs for children!), the exhibit revisits a time when the men were away at war, and women were called to step out of the sphere of ‘home’ to contribute to the war effort.
As one sign notes: “Today it is hard to believe that bombs were dropped in Rainham; that homes were destroyed and lives lost… From August 1940 into early 1941, thousand of high explosive bombs, incendiaries and parachute mines dropped on the Rainham area almost every night as part of the London Blitz. Then, sporadically through 1941 to 1944.” In this community, hundreds of homes and buildings were destroyed and more than 200 people killed. It is quite a high number for such a small community, especially when you consider that 69 of those were children. What I find most tragic is that many of Rainham’s children were evacuated in 1939, but when no bombs came, it was dubbed the ‘Phoney War’ and children were brought home.
Today, after a £2.5 million restoration project, the hall is a rare surviving example of Queen Anne architecture, boasting original wood floors and simple but elegant interiors with some evidence of more modern updates. Glorious original features include carved mahogany staircases, the uncharacteristically massive reception hall with black and white marble tile in a checkerboard pattern, and a hidden wall panel that reveals a dumbwaiter.
Each of the fireplaces throughout the house feature varying styles and colours of beautiful Dutch delft tiles, which are possibly original but thought to have been added by an owner in the 1770s. These famous tiles are part of a much larger history of Delft pottery; traditionally blue and white tin-glazed pottery made in the Netherlands as far back as the 1500s. (You can learn more here if you’re interested). Given that Harle was a sea merchant, it is very possible that he brought the tiles to England to show his wares- but I haven’t been able to find confirmation either way. In the 1960s, tenant and Vogue photographer Anthony Denney painted the entrance hall with a marbled effect, and painted one of the bedrooms a bright blue. I’m not quite sure how he got away with it, given that he was a tenant OF the National Trust, but it does reflect the varied history of the house.
Outside, an intricate chevron-pattern stone walkway leads to lovingly restored gardens and grounds. This includes a replanted orchard (the original was quite overgrown and had been left for too many years to be productive again), a bug hotel (the boxes contain varying organic matter, meant to attract a variety of bugs), and a specially planted bee-friendly garden! Not only is it a vibrant and peaceful space, but I absolutely LOVE that they have created it with such intention! If you are interested in creating a bug and bee-friendly garden, you can find some tips and information here.
Next to the main house, the stables have been converted into a restaurant offering light lunch, desserts, and beverages (and a very tasty egg salad sandwich!). The exposed brick and beams keep the historical feeling of the building alive, while retro light fixtures and light wooden furniture lend to an organic and relaxing atmosphere. It’s a lovely space!
After spending some time exploring the house, enjoying lunch in the stables, knitting in the garden, and watching bees buzz happily around the globe thistle (thanks Diane for that information!), I ventured over to the church next door and walked through the small cemetery there. Walking a block or two down the road away from the hall I found some wild, ripe blackberries, and then was back at the train station just as high winds came up.
The next exhibition opens in January 2018 and will feature other inhabitants of Rainham Hall. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to go back and report on new findings!