Inferno at Campden House in Kensington



Front view of Campden House in Kensington. Edward Walford Old and New London volume 5 1878.

In the early hours of Sunday March 23 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.

A tongue of flame

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, Vizetelly 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’; 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.

Augustus Leopold Egg. Maull & Polyblank c.1863. National Portrait Gallery.

An astonishing escape

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. By the time the fire engines arrived, it was completely gutted and its contents destroyed.

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

Early history

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. Then in 1854 he took out a ninety-nine-year lease, which cost a mere £6,000 together with a peppercorn rent of 5s. a year.

Inside Feering House in Essex. Frederick William Fairholt /Frederick William Hulme 1846. British Museum.

To glory restored

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 bought furniture, textiles, paintings, and Venetian and Bohemian glass, a spending spree that would cost £2 million pounds in today’s money. His extravagance included purchasing a manor house in Essex — ‘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 £10,000 — which would be £500,000 in today’s currency — was 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 built a miniature theatre in the grounds, where on 10 July 1855 the stage was graced by the presence of Mr Charles Dickens and Mr Wilkie Collins in Collins’s play The Lighthouse.

Urged by his sister-in law and brother-in law, Wolley had insured Campden House and its contents for almost £30,000 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 £30,000 and shore up his precarious position.

Rear view of Campden House in Kensington. Mary Banks / Robert Banks late 18th / early 19th century. 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 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.

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 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’.

Emblem design for the Sun Insurance Company. Thomas Bewick late 18th / early 19th century. British Museum.

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, 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 £25,000 and £30,000.

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 Jane, the older of the two sisters, 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 always lived with them.

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 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 Castle — now Tonbridge Castle — in Kent and leased Campden House to a Colonel Waugh for a weekly rent of 20 guineas, a sum which would now be worth in the region of £60,000 a year.

But even now tragedy was lying in wait, and on September 20 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.

Tunbridge Castle in Kent. Paul Sandby 1782. British Museum.

Slow to pay

William and Julia moved back to Campden House, where their household consisted of Colonel Capel Coape, who was Julia’s brother and 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 £13,000 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.

Fraud and arson

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 2 March to 23 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.

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

A number of suspicions

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 50 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 Brighton, and some were not even worth as much as Wolley claimed.

Getting away with it

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.

Entrance to Brompton Cemetery. Edward Walford Old and New London volume 5 1878.

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 — £13,000 — 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 £7,000, 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 £54, 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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