Inferno at Campden House in Kensington

Front view of Campden House in Kensington.  Image in Edward Walford Old and New London volume 5 (1878) page 132.

In the early hours of Sunday March the 23rd 1862 Kensington was quiet.  Good folk, who were waiting for the sabbath, were in bed, and not so good folk, who were not waiting for the sabbath, were kept indoors by a heavy rain storm and fierce winds.  But this peace was not to last.

North of the High Street, and surrounded by brick walls, stood a splendid Jacobean mansion called Campden House.  The two-storey building had some thirty rooms, including a ballroom one hundred feet in length and decked out with Venetian glass chandeliers.  It had a custom built theatre, and it had an interesting history.

Campden House was neighboured by Little Campden House, where the painter Augustus Egg lived, and the two Campden Houses were overlooked by a third house, where the writer and publisher Henry Vizetelly lived.  Now on the Sunday in question, at about three o’clock in the morning, Vizitelly was wide awake, suffering from a bout of rheumatism.  From his window he noticed with wry amusement that even at this late hour a room in one of the Campden Houses was brightly lit.  At first he assumed that Egg’s servants were “holding high jinks”, as their master was abroad at the time.  But he soon realised that what he was looking at was not Little Campden House but Campden House, and that the light had nothing to do with servants and everything to do the enormous tongue of flame leaping from one of the ground-floor rooms.  Unable to raise the alarm—he was too ill—he quickly woke his sons.

Mrs Temple falls from a window of the burning Campden House.  Image in The Penny Illustrated Paper 5 April 1862.

A policeman who was new to the locality was on duty, and spotting smoke he rushed into the grounds of Campden House, where he found two men clad only in shirts shouting for help.  They were the owner of the house, forty-five-year-old William Frederick Wolley, and his personal manservant, Thomas Crozier.  Wolley was distraught as his carpenter, Temple, and Temple’s wife and fifteen-year-old son were still in their apartments, above what appeared to be the locus of the inferno.  But he was relieved to see Mrs Temple at a first-floor window, and, as the constable had hurried off to raise the alarm and call for a fire engine, he instructed her to stay where she was and wait for a ladder to arrive.  Then all of a sudden she tipped forward—her son, obviously terrified, tried to push past her—and fell from the window.  Astonishingly she survived the fall.  She was taken in by one of the neighbours, while her son waited to be rescued.

But where was the carpenter?  Wolley feared the worst, for it would not be like Temple to desert his wife and child in order to save himself, even though he was better equipped than anyone to escape from the fire, knowing as he did the physical layout of the house.   In due course, though, he was found, badly burnt but still alive.  However, the centuries-old house was not so fortunate, and by the time the fire engines arrived it was completely gutted, and its contents destroyed.

TO GLORY RESTORED
The house was built in about 1612 for Sir Baptist Hicks, a London silk mercer who lent money to the crown and had been knighted in 1603 by James I, and who would be ennobled in the 1620s as Viscount Campden.  After passing through various hands, including those of the future Queen Anne and the Dowager Countess of Burlington, it served as a boarding school for girls.  At this time, that is to say in the middle of the eighteenth century, Campden House was the property of the Pitt family, who were London merchants, but by the 1840s the building had become dilapidated, and surrounding land had been transformed into streets of middle-class dwellings.  Even so in 1847 the newly married William Frederick Wolley rented the property, and then in 1854 he took out a ninety-nine-year lease, which cost a mere six thousand pounds, together with a peppercorn rent of five shillings a year.

Scene inside Feering House in Essex by Frederick William Fairholt.  Image in Charles Holmes Old English Mansions (1915) plate 10.

William Wolley loved the house, and he spent a fortune restoring it to its former glory.  He employed Temple to work on the structure, and he bought furniture, textiles, paintings, and Venetian and Bohemian glass, a spending spree that would cost two million pounds in today’s money.  His extravagance included purchasing a manor house in Essex called Feering, and stripping the original seventeenth-century carvings to be transported to Campden House.  In addition to Temple—and assorted casual builders—he employed a man by the name of Timbrell to gild the extensive carvings.  Timbrell claimed that ten thousand pounds—half a million in today’s currency—were spent on the gilding and carvings alone.  Nor did Wolley keep his house just to himself.  He allowed it to be used by acquaintances for charitable purposes, and he built a miniature theatre in the grounds, where on the 10th of July 1855 the stage was graced by the presence of Mr Charles Dickens and Mr Wilkie Collins in Collins’s play The Lighthouse.

Now at the urging of his sister-in law and brother-in law Wolley had insured Campden House and its contents for almost thirty thousand pounds with three insurance companies, namely the Sun, the Atlas and the Hand-in Hand.  But following almost a year of investigation the insurers refused to pay up, as they suspected that the fire had been caused by the “wilful act, means and contrivance” of the claimant.  The financially challenged Wolley, they suspected, aided and abetted by his manservant and sidekick, Thomas Crozier, had burned the house down in order to pocket the thirty thousand pounds and shore up his precarious position.

Emblem design for the Sun Insurance Company by Thomas Bewick.  © British Museum

BEHIND THE MASK
So who was William Frederick Wolley?  His early years are shrouded in mystery.  He was supposedly born in London in about 1817 or 1818 to another William Frederick Wolley and a mother whose name is unknown.  Most of the information we have about his background was wrung out of him when he took the Sun Insurance Office to court.  He was unwilling to admit to a paid occupation, perhaps thinking that such an admission would make him seem less of a gentleman.  But he did acknowledge, albeit reluctantly, that he had been a clerk in Mr Mitchell’s Regent Street counting office, and that he had been a translator for a French gentleman, and that on another occasion he had been offered a job by the financier Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard.  It also emerged that he was connected in some way with the ill-fated Raggett’s Hotel in Dover Street, but he angrily denied that he had ever been a waiter there, insisting that the connection was through young Mr Raggett himself, and that he sometimes helped the hotel with the books.  Bizarrely, Raggett’s Hotel had been the site of a terrible fire in 1845, although there is no suggestion that Wolley was involved.

Rear view of Campden House in Kensington by Mary Banks.  Etching by Robert Banks.  © British Museum

But whatever his origins he was popular, and a Mrs Smythies, who was called as a witness, testified that as a very young man he had been seen in good society.  Wolley himself put this down to being musical and an accomplished singer.  But the insurers’ counsel countered by proposing that he had once been a member of a travelling theatre company, which was tantamount to claiming that he was not respectable, and that he had a flexible relationship with the truth.  After some prevarication Wolley admitted that he had indeed been in a theatre company, but was not to be judged harshly for this, as he was never paid.  A further assault on his character was that at some point he had lived in Curzon Street in Mayfair, even though he had no source of income at the time other than “remittances” from “friends”.

THE MISSES COAPE
But, as he went on to relate, in about 1846 his life had changed.  And that change had come about thanks to Miss Jane Coape, and Miss Julia Coape, and a steamboat.

In that year Jane Coape was thirty-five and Julia Coape was thirty-two.  Given that women in the nineteenth century typically married in their mid-twenties, both the Misses Coape would have been regarded as being on the shelf.  Why they had remained unmarried is unclear, as they were rich and well-connected.  Their father, Henry Coape, had been a wealthy sugar refiner with property in both London and Essex.  When he died in 1841 he left his daughters considerable fortunes.  Each was said to be worth between twenty-five and thirty thousand pounds.

Now the steamboat was steaming to the Continent, and among its passengers were not only the Misses Coape but also the mysterious and charming Mr Wolley.  He was seven years younger than the older of the two sisters, Jane, but by the summer of 1847 he had been accepted by the Coape family as her suitor, and in due course he married her in Niton on the Isle of Wight.  Returning to London the couple rented Campden House.  And so began the costly renovations, and the heady shopping for contents, in which they were joined by Julia Coape, who was their constant companion, and who always lived with them.

Distant view of Tunbridge Castle in Kent by Paul Sandby.  Aquatint dated 1782.  © British Museum

LYING IN WAIT
But the Wolleys’ good fortune was not to last, for their only child, Florence Elizabeth Susannah, died in infancy.  She had been born in Florence in 1848, and she was buried three years later in 1851 in Kensal Green Cemetery.  And possibly it was to escape the pain of Florence’s passing that Wolley rented Tunbridge (now Tonbridge) Castle in Kent, and leased Campden House to a Colonel Waugh for a weekly rent of twenty guineas, a sum which would now be worth in the region of sixty thousand pounds a year.  But even now tragedy was lying in wait, and on September the 20th 1855, while Wolley was away from home in Windsor, his wife Jane died.  She had stayed behind at Tunbridge Castle, and after a morning playing the piano with Julia she had decided to go out on her own to walk beside the River Medway, as she often did, and feed the swans.  By lunchtime she had not returned: a search party found only her straw hay floating on the surface of the river.  She had somehow fallen in and drowned.

The inquest made much of the fact that Julia had been happy before her death, concluding that the drowning was a tragic accident.  But darker minds might well wonder if the woman bereft of her only child had killed herself.  And the very darkest minds—and imaginations of a Gothic colouring—might even toy with the notion that Jane was pushed into the Medway by her younger sister.  After all, Julia was obviously devoted to Wolley.  Whatever the truth of his wife’s death, Wolley was ill for some time after the tragedy.  As a consequence his eyesight failed, and he needed a personal servant to care for him.

View of Tunbridge Castle in Kent by Paul Sandby.  Aquatint dated 1787.  © British Museum

William and Julia moved back to Campden House, where their household consisted of Colonel Capel Coape, who was Julia’s brother, and who visited occasionally, a Mrs Ellen Perry, who was at first a maid and later their housekeeper, the valet and butler Thomas Crozier, the carpenter Temple and his family, and various maids.  Both took an active part in improving the house, varnishing the extensive wooden surfaces, for example.  But by this time the late Jane’s fortune had been entirely dissipated.  The devoted Julia had lent Wolley thirteen thousand pounds of her own money against the value of the house, and Colonel Capel Coape was also persuaded to contribute.  As for Wolley, he was not quick to pay his bills.  His butcher hounded him for money owing for all of twelve months, and, although the problem may have been high-handedness rather than lack of funds, it did not look good.  Certainly it was rumours of financial straits that aroused the suspicions of the Sun Insurance Office when Wolley filed his claim in the wake of the fire.

The ruins of Campden House in Kensington after the fire of 1862.  Image in The Penny Illustrated Weekly News 12 September 1863.

A NUMBER OF SUSPICIONS
At the Croydon Assizes in August 1863 Wolley took the insurance company to court for what he believed he was owed.  In its defence the company presented what it took to be evidence of fraud and arson, starting with the fact that Wolley and his sister-in-law had moved to a house in Brighton, taking most of the staff with them.  In the months leading up to the fire Wolley and Crozier would regularly travel up to Campden House, presumably to monitor the progress of the work.  Then from the 2nd to the 23rd of March they stayed in the house—this was in 1862—where with Temple’s assistance they spent their time varnishing woodwork with several coats of varnish.

At this point in the evidence the defence expressed a number of suspicions.  First, sheets of wallpaper had been hung in front of the woodwork, and thick fabrics and tapestries had been nailed up in windows.  Wolley explained that this was a way of keeping dust off the newly varnished wood.  Second, books were open flat on the floor.  Wolley accounted for this too, by pointing out that the library was damp, and the books had been laid out to dry.  Third, a hundredweight of tallow candles—over fifty kilos!—was stored in the room where the fire started.  This was put down to misinformation over the order.  But it was also suggested that certain items that Wolley had claimed for had not been in Campden House on the night of the fire.  They had in fact been moved down to Bright, and some were not even worth as much as Wolley claimed.

The ruins of Campden House in Kensington after the fire of 1862.  Image in The Illustrated London News 5 April 1862.

Other evidence against Wolley was that when he was found in the garden he was clad in a day shirt rather than a nightshirt, but for this too he had an explanation, namely that he wore his day shirts in bed.  Nothing said against him could be made to stick, and in the end the jury found in his favour even before leaving the jury box.  The insurance companies duly coughed up, very grudgingly, although they avoided handing cash directly to the plaintiff by paying only for the house to be rebuilt and refurnished.  If it had been Wolley’s intention to pocket the money he would have been disappointed.  But he obviously loved the house, and we must guard against judging him unfairly.

AND AFTERWARDS
The ever devoted Julia carried on living with William, and, when he moved to a house in Fulham called Pryor’s Bank, she went as well.  She died in 1887, and was buried in Brompton Cemetery.  She left a tidy sum in her will—thirteen thousand pounds—and her sole executor was William.  Thomas Crozier, the loyal valet, also lived with William to the very end, even though he had a wife, Elizabeth, and a large family living in Fulham.  When William died in April 1896 he left almost seven thousand pounds, and Crozier, by then a “gentleman”, was his executor.  Not that the Crozier connection ended there, for Colonel Capel Coape is known to have lodged with Elizabeth.  When he died in 1904 he left a paltry fifty-four pounds, and one wonders if he regretted lending money to William.

As for Campden House, it was rebuilt after the fire.  In 1872 William sold the lease to the Metropolitan Railway Company, who built on a portion of the land.  And in about 1900 the house was demolished.

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  1. I am so pleased to come across your blog. I look forward to more stories. Thank you

    1. Author

      Welcome on board, Kim. We are pleased you enjoy our stories.

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