A historic house with a difference
There is no stopping Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please); he has got his taste for adventure and is determined to explore. Simeon has now experienced his first National Trust property and is eager to tell everybody about it. Situated in Rainham, Essex, next to St Helen and St Giles Church, is a three storey brown and red-bricked Grade II listed building. Built in the 18th century, Rainham Hall has been open to the public for three years and Simeon thought it was about time he visited it for himself.
With 3-acres of public garden and the cosy Stables Cafe, located in the old stable and coach house, Rainham Hall is a pleasant, quiet place for individuals and families to visit. The house, which had fallen into disrepair shortly after the Second World War, has been refurbished and is safe for all to enter. Sadly, a lot of the house’s history and records have been lost, however, Simeon managed to discover many interesting things.
Rainham Hall was built in 1729 by the merchant Captain John Harle (1688-1742) who wished to settle down on land after years at sea. Originally hailing from South Shields, near Newcastle, Harle married a wealthy widow from Stepney, London, Mary Tibbington. Although retiring from the sea, Harle wanted to continue trading, meaning he needed to settle somewhere on the coast or by a river. Rainham, on the River Ingreborne, was the ideal place for the man.
Originally consisting of 11-acres of land, Harle purchased Rainham Wharf, where he dredged the river to clear a trade route to London. He built a house for himself and his wife next to the parish church but close enough to the river so that he could use his outbuildings for his trading company. The house was built in the Dutch domestic Queen Anne style, which was still popular at the time, despite the monarch’s death in 1714.
During the 18th-century, it was typical to use oak for wooden features in buildings, however, the staircase in the Hall is built out of the reddish-brown timber, mahogany. This may have been a cheaper option but the most likely reason for Harle’s choice was its connection with merchant ships. Mahogany was the wood used on the ships and it is thought that Harle may have taken the wood from those that had fallen into disuse.
It is thought that when Captain Harle lived in the house the colours of the walls were a mix of blueish grey, blue and dark olive green, however, the house has since had over 50 tenants and has been decorated several times. Today, the walls of the main staircase are painted a pale blue and feature a trompe-l’œil painting – a deceptive painting that appears three-dimensional. This painting dates to at least 1780, when Sarah Chambers, John Harle’s daughter-in-law, lived at the Hall. It features a Vitruvian scroll surrounded by a decorative floral pattern.
Most of the fireplaces are made from blue-grey marble and some, such as those of the upper floors, are decorated with Delft-blue tiles. This fits in well with the “blue room”, which was apparently once green. The rest of the rooms are now a mix of the different variety of paint schemes that the house has seen over the past couple of centuries.
In the entrance hall, an old dumbwaiter is hidden behind a false wall panel, which visitors can open and peer in. This would have helped staff transfer items from the cellar to the rooms above without having to struggle with the narrow staircases.
Rainham Hall remained in the Harle family until 1895, when it lay abandoned for a couple of decades. In 1917, the Hall was purchased by the property developer and art historian Colonel Herbert Hall Mulliner (1861-1924) who, although never lived there himself, made the building habitable. With knowledge of interior design, Mulliner modernised many of the rooms, moved the kitchen to the cellar and modified the stables so that they could accommodate motor cars. Today, the kitchen has been moved back to its original location, mostly due to the unsafe conditions of the cellar.
Outside the property, Colonel Mulliner installed wrought iron gates and railings, which, amazingly, were never requisitioned during the war years like most other railings in the area. In fact, it is the war years that gave Rainham Hall a significant purpose.
Unfortunately, due to the number of people who have lived in Rainham Hall, there is a lack of original furniture and the purpose of each room can only be speculated. Fortunately, there is a lot more evidence of the building’s use in the 20th century, as shown in Rainham Hall’s 2018 exhibition Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall. In 1942, the building was requisitioned by the Essex County Council to be set up as a nursery. This allowed mothers the time to go out to work while their husbands were away at war. From 1943 to 1954, the Hall became the daytime home of dozens of young children.
“There cannot be many buildings of such historical value that can boast of having hundreds of tiny feet trotting through their grand hall!”
– Nurse Dorothy, Havering Echo, 12 January 1971
The exhibition focuses on the memories of seven former nursery attendees, including quotes and photographs that they were able to provide. The house itself has been set out to resemble what it may have looked like to these children. Old toys are dotted about on window sills and examples of games and other playthings are located in display cabinets in various rooms.
Children of the war years would not have had much access to toys at home, therefore, coming to the nursery every day was a great treat for many. A questionnaire in one room offers visitors the chance to reminisce about the toys they remember from their own nursery. Some people may even recognise a few of the items on show.
Historic photographs show the children enjoying the gardens and going for long walks in the sunshine. The nursery could have up to 45 children at a time and it must have been difficult for the nurses to keep everyone satisfied and in check, however, the young faces all look happy and well cared for. In one of the rooms downstairs, possibly the matron’s office, a continuous film shows the children playing together in the house, dancing, acting and getting up to all sorts of mischief that only children are able to find themselves in.
The nursery’s first matron has been identified as Miss Rhoda Violet Carter (d. 1954). She was 40 years old when she took up the post, which was advertised in the Chelmsford Chronicle. She came all the way from Teesside to take up the post that paid £200 a year. The trained nursery assistants, of which there were two at a time, were given an annual salary of £135.
Matron Carter left her position in 1944 after getting married. It is not certain who took over her post but nursery attendants and local sources have been able to name a few other women involved with the running of the place. It is believed a Mrs Hart was the Matron in the late 1940s and a Mrs E. Walker in the 1950s. During the latter’s time, a Nurse Dorothy was present at the nursery. Photographs provided by the children who once attended the nursery have helped to identify another helper, Miss Esme Withers.
One room of the Hall contains photographs belonging to Roger and Janice Cunningham who both attended the nursery. This was something they discovered when they first began dating; they had been too young during the war to remember each other, however, they each have many memories of the nursery,
Roger and Janice married at the church of St Helen and St Giles, right next to Rainham Hall. A brief video shows the couple walking through the graveyard and exploring the newly opened Hall, reminiscing about their childhood. Photographs from between 1946 and 1950 show the blond-haired Janice and the boisterous Roger playing with the other children in the large garden.
The majority of the rooms in Rainham Hall have been decked out with items similar to those that may have been there during the nursery’s time. These are based on the memories of the seven nursery attendees who had been interviewed for this purpose. On the ground floor, the exhibition explains the purpose of the nursery and why it was set up. It also introduces the members of staff that are known to have worked there.
At the back of the house is the reconstructed kitchen. This, of course, was not where it would have been during the war, since Colonel Mulliner had moved it to the basement, however, it has been set out to resemble a typical kitchen from the war era. On the table are examples of magazines containing recipes, for example, Woolton Pie, and rationing instructions.
“Potatoes new, potatoes old
Potato in a salad cold
Potatoes baked or mashed or fried
Potatoes whole, potato pied
Enjoy them all, including chips,
Remembering spuds don’t come in ships.”
– The Song of Potato Pete
In one of the magazines is the children’s song The Song of Potato Pete, which was written to encourage people to eat what they could grow in their own gardens. This song is no longer known by children, or adults for that matter, but many well-known nursery rhymes were adapted to add references to life during the Second World War. Old Mother Hubbard, for example, is worried about food shortages and the woman in There was an Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe is busy looking after the masses of children who have been evacuated to the countryside.
Items that were obtainable during the war fill the wooden shelves on one side of the kitchen. On the counter sits a bottle of malt extract that visitors are welcome to taste; Simeon had his first, and hopefully last, morsel of the stuff.
Upstairs, more examples of items that may have been available to the children of the nursery are on display. Visitors are also introduced to clothes rationing with a list of what each child was allowed to have. It was rare for them to have more than a couple of outfits and, of course, there were no disposable nappies. These had to be boil washed and used again.
An audio device allows visitors to listen to parts of the interviews with the old nursery attendees. This can be listened to by holding an old-fashioned telephone up to your ear. For those hard of hearing, some of the words have been printed next to the phones and additional quotes can be found dotted around the building.
Whilst the exhibition mostly focuses on the function of the building as a nursery, the dangers and horrors of war cannot be overlooked. Being on the edge of London, Rainham had its share of bomb attacks. Sadly, many people lost their lives during this time, including children. A wall containing an old map of the area, plotted with the places bombs landed, remembers the names and families of these children. In some instances, entire families were wiped out in one blast, which goes to show how lucky many people were to survive the war.
Although children enjoyed attending and felt safe at Rainham Hall, there was always the risk of an air raid. Nonetheless, life had to go on as normally as possible, which for children included education, games and naps. Tiny camp beds can be found in one of the rooms on the second floor. They do not look all that comfortable – Simeon can confirm they are not – however, they sufficed for the children at the time.
Just as they are today, children were educated through play and songs, learning the alphabet with pictures, chanting “A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for carrot …” Before televisions were around, the radio provided children with stories on programmes such as Listen with Mother; “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” An old record player gives visitors the opportunity to listen to a few of these episodes.
Simeon enjoyed discovering the Rainham Hall nursery and learning a little about childhood during the war years. Unfortunately, the National Trust, who owns the property, relies on old records, of which there are very few, and the memories of people associated with the place. As a result, the exhibition lacks a concise history of the Hall and the nursery, which is a great shame because it was such an integral part of the lives of women and children during the war.
The staff at Rainham Hall encourage anyone with memories or knowledge about Rainham Hall to contact them with details. Any small piece of information is useful to help build up the history of the building and its inhabitants and, perhaps, inspire future exhibitions.
If you wish to visit the exhibition Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall, which Simeon highly recommends, you do not have much time left. The exhibition will finish on 31st December 2018 to make way for their next display in the new year. Entry to the house costs £6, although National Trust members can visit for free. The garden and cafe are accessible on days that the house is open (Wednesday – Sunday).
Simeon wishes you all a good visit.