A Brief History of the Althorpe Grove Estate
The names Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer play a surprising part in the history of the estate and the large manor house that used to stand near St Mary’s Church.
Oliver St John was granted the manor by Prince Charles, although the transaction was not completed until Charles had inherited the throne to become King Charles I in 1625.
Sir Henry St John one of Oliver’s descendants, became 1st Viscount Bolingbroke in the reign of Queen Anne in 1712, after a successful political career which he ended as her first Minister. Born in the manor in 1678, he spent most of the latter part of his life here until his death from cancer in 1751. Ambitious, ruthless and a brilliant orator, in his youth he was seen as one of the greatest men of his age. His stables and kitchen gardens stretched over the northern part of the estate. Pottery and old pipes from these times can be seen on a plaque in the nursery school. The brick floors of the stables were uncovered while digging foundations for the estate. Some bricks were saved and inserted around the stone portrait of Bolingbroke built into the wall on No 1 Sunbury Lane, facing the Church.
On his death, his nephew, Frederick, inherited the manor and the title. In 1757, he married the popular and artistic Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of 3rd Duke of Marlborough. “Bully,” as he was correctly called by his contemporaries, ran up huge debts by his extravagant lifestyle, string of mistresses, gambling and breeding of racehorses. To relieve his tight finances, he sponsoredchanges in law that allowed inheritors to sell off family properties. Then he set about selling his inheritance. In 1763 he sold the Battersea estate to Lady Diana’s cousin, John Spencer. In 1761 John Spencer had been created “Baron Spencer of Althorp and Viscount Spencer”, and in 1765, became “Viscount Althorp and Earl Spencer”. Hence the estate name – misspelt two hundred years later.
Earl Spencer was a very different man from his predecessor. With the manor, he acquired ownership of the ferry service between Chelsea and Battersea. In 1766 he formed the Battersea Bridge Company and obtained Parliamentary consent to build “a fine stone bridge” across the Thames. The money raised, however, was only sufficient for a wooden one. The toll bridge was opened to all traffic in 1772. St Mary’s Church (seen here in a watercolour by J M W Turner made in 1796) was completely rebuilt between 1775 and 1777, and has changed relatively little since then.
An excavation by the Surrey Archaeological Society from 1975-1978 prior to construction of Althorpe Grove (full report here) unearthed nearly 2,500 pottery sherds dating from prehistoric to Late-Medieval times. In addition they found 25kg of animal bone from cattle, sheep, goat, pig, horse, cat, chicken – and even one vertebra from a pilot whale, considered a high status food in Saxon times. Traces of post holes and beam slots have now been interpreted as fence structures, and one theory is that in the Saxon period the site may have been a manorial farm serving a village clustering nearer the church.
The Raven pub, now Melanzana Trattoria, was built in 1680 and the Royal Laundry in about 1830. William Blake was married in St Mary’s Church, and as shown above, Turner certainly painted it even if there is no direct evidence of views he painted from it.
Part of the estate falls within the Battersea Square Conservation area and the design is intended to form a ‘village green’, incorporating the old and the new buildings. A model of the estate was exhibited in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1976.
The decorative bas reliefs built into the walls include the faces of Nelson, Sarah Bernhardt, Vanessa Redgrave, Lord Denning, Demeter (the Greek Goddess of grain and bountiful harvests), and Tommy Boyd, presenter of the TV children’s programme ‘Magpie’, which featured the story of their creation. Even some of the contractors were immortalised in this way.
These plaques are the work of Nicholas Wood, a member of the GLC architects team in the 1970s when the GLC finally decided to use land bought in preparation to build a motorway through Battersea for house building.
The overall design of the estate and its water features owe a great deal to the skill and imagination of Nicholas Wood, the Job Architect for the scheme, who designed and saw the project to its completion. He wanted to capture the idyllic townscape shown in the illustrations in the series of Babar books, particularly ‘Babar in Celesteville’: “All the windows look out over the big lake”.
In 2018 Nicolas was honoured by having his own plaque, sculpted by resident artist Christine Fremantle, installed on the wall at the end of Granfield Street which overlooks the Sunbury Lane garden.