The Round House

Although roughly half of the London Borough of Havering is open countryside there are hardly any recognisable villages left. Upminster, Hornchurch, Rainham and Romford, which are the four main centres of population, have all expanded into dormitory towns with tracts of 20th century housing. Only Havering-Atte-Bower and Wennington have retained the appearance of small rural communities and, of these, Wennington is more of a hamlet than a village despite its ancient parish church. Havering-Atte-Bower does much to compensate for the tack of other villages. It is happily sited on the ridge which runs along the North of the Borough and commands a dramatic view southwards across the Thames, a fact which obviously commended the place to the builders of the 18th century houses which dot the southern slope. Most of the other buildings, however, are grouped round the Green but the houses continue for a short distance along both Orange Tree Hill and North Road.

On the east side of the Green a high brick wall encloses the grounds of a substantial mid 19th century house, previously known as The Hall now as St. Francis Hospice, which is entered from Broxhill Road. The next entrance on this road leads to The Round House, an elegant oval stuccoed house of the late 18th century. For a while. the grounds of The Round House formed part of The Hall’s estate, but the very fine cast iron gates and gate-piers at the entrance to the drive up to the older building indicate that this was not always the case. Sadly, these gates are permanently closed and the approach to the house is by a farm road. 

In its original condition the Round House provided all the conveniences of a country seat in miniature: a house with comfortable accommodation set on a slight rise in the ground with a fine prospect North and South, stabling for a carriage and a pair of horses and in the place of a home farm a small dairy with a classical frontispiece. This kind of arrangement is typical of the late 18th century, when the country villa in England as well as in the rest of Europe was brought to a high level of sophistication.

Unlike the grander and more expensive country houses, villas were within the reach of anyone with moderate financial resources and the popularity of the type is shown by the large number of architectural bocks dealing with the subject which were published during the forty years after 1780. Charles Middleton’s “Country Villas” published in 1795 gives a summary of the villa idea:

Country villa

‘Villas may be considered under three different descriptions – first as the occasional and temporary retreats of the nobility and persons of fortune from what may be called their own town residence and must, of course, be in the vicinity of the metropolis – secondly as the country houses of wealthy citizens and persons in official stations which also cannot be far removed from the capital: and thirdly the smaller kind of provincial edifices, considered either as hunting seats or the habitations of country gentlemen of moderate fortune. Elegance, compactness and convenience are the characteristics of such buildings, either separate or combined.”

The Round House falls into Middleton’s second category and combines all of the three characteristics which he mentions. The plan is an oval with the entrance on one of the longer sides. Most villas are small buildings of no more than two storeys, but here are three full storeys, giving the building a more imposing appearance than was usual. The height is balanced by the shallow-pitched conical roof whose eaves project almost three feet beyond the wall face, casting a strong shadow over the heads of the attic windows. Such Italianate roofs, which became commonplace of residential buildings after 1800, are very unusual for the 1790s when the house was built. During the 19th century the house was nicknamed « the tea-canister » and the unusually deep eaves certainly do give the roof the appearance of a lid. At the apex of the roof is a copper parapet encircling the two substantial chimney stacks. It is the general shape of the building which makes the biggest impact, not the arrangement of the openings nor the architectural elements applied to the outside.
One disadvantage facing the designer of an oval or circular house Is that the sides run into one another without a visual break. At Havering the divisions are marked by pairs of astylar giant pilasters rising through two storeys to a section of moulded cornice and continued above the cornice to the eaves. The line of the cornice is carried round the outside of the house by a double string and there is a single string at first floor cill-level. Such an arrangement is logical, but it does not conceal an uncomfortable difference between the fenestration of adjacent sides. The larger sides are both three windows wide with small-paned Georgian sashes set in completely plain openings which diminish in size with each successive storey, but the shorter sides at each end of the house have a single large window on ground and first floors and a regular sash in the attic. The difference in window size is emphasised by the first floor cill-course which has to drop about two feet to accommodate this larger opening. It is possible that the large windows are a later insertion; certainly wide windows of this kind and the curving iron balconies under them are more typical of the early 19th than of the late 18th century, but in a villa with such splendid prospect north and south, large windows on these sides are an obvious choice.
The Round House

Indoor & outdoor

Inside the house all the inconveniences which might be thought the inevitable result of an oval plan are overcome. A central stair gives access to all the rooms on the upper floors and the rooms themselves are of a convenient size, despite their necessarily unusual shapes. But perhaps the most ingenious feature of the whole house is the arrangement of the service accommodation which is wholly in the basement and almost totally concealed from outside. A sunken path runs from the small dairy behind the house into a covered passageway encircling it. The roof of the passageway is grassed over and forms a natural podium for the rest of the villa; illumination is provided by a series of top-lights and by a larger opening on the north side opposite the kitchen window. Besides providing a back entrance which is concealed from the rest of the house this arrangement isolates the walls of the house from rising damp.
The remainder of the house is so arranged that the principal rooms are on the ground and first floor while the second floor is divided into a number of smaller rooms. There are eight of these at present, although this may not have been the original number. On the lower floors there are two rooms on either side of the staircase and a smaller one behind it. Before the 1981 restoration all of the larger rooms had vestibules or closets at one or both end but this may not have been the original arrangement. The cornices and doors of most of these vestibules are of a 19th century pattern and must be the result of later alterations to the house and the same is presumably true of the vestibules themselves. It is quite possible that the ground floor north room and both the first floor rooms stretched the full width of the building. Even with vestibules or closets, the rooms are a good size ( 19′ x 17′ ) but with the removal of the partitions the appearance of spaciousness is greatly increased. The rooms are of a generous width, not long and narrow as one might expect. This is because the stair compartment lies across the shorter east-west axis of the building leaving the more compact spaces to north and south for the living accommodation. The rooms behind the stair on the west side of the house have had many different functions and have served as garden room, pantry and bedroom; but there are so many doors opening into the rooms that their usefulness as living rooms must always have been limited.
One of the best features of the house is the curving central staircase, compact and elegant, which rises from the ground level to the top floor. It has virtually no added ornament apart from the moulded cut string of the steps, even the oval top-light is glazed in the simplest fashion. The walls of the staircase compartment carry the chimney-flues up to the roof and the concentration of services in this central core is an instance of the careful planning which is evident throughout. The top floor of the building is presently divided into eight rooms which are very plainly fitted. Presumably they were intended to be occupied by servants and children. It is difficult to determine the original layout of this floor since the walls are stud partitions, and some of them are later insertions. There is no separate access to this floor from the basement offices; the lack of a back stair being the only serious omission from the plan.

Otherwise, the ingenuity of the plan leads one to suspect that the house was designed by a fairly accomplished architect, but concrete information on this point is sadly lacking. There is however a very close parallel between The Round House and another villa, or rather a small country mansion, built twenty years before in the Lake District. ‘Belle Isle’ which stands on an island in the centre of Lake Windermere was built in 1774/5 to a design by John Plaw. It is an altogether larger house, five storeys high with a circular plan fifty-five feet in diameter, and much grander, with a tetrastyle Ionic portico. But the position of the staircase and of the main rooms is identical with the Havering arrangement. Even more telling is the similarity in the treatment of the service area; in Belle Isle, as at Havering. it is hidden in the basement though not as completely covered. Round or oval houses are not a common phenomenon in England. Beside Belle Isle the only other well known example is Ickworth House in Suffolk built for the Earl Bishop of Derry in 1794. It is reasonable to expect parallels between them, but those between The Round House and Belle Isle seem particularly close. At first sight there is nothing to connect John Plaw, the architect of Belle Isle, with The Round House. Although he was living in London in the early 1790s and built several houses there he had no traceable connection with Essex. But in 1785 Plaw published a book entitled “Rural Architecture’ in which Belle Isle was fully described and illustrated and among the subscribers to the book was William Sheldon of Gray’s Inn, the builder and first owner of The Round House.

The Sheldon family made its first appearance in South East Essex in the middle of the 18th century when William Sheldon I purchased the house and manor of Gooshays near Romford from Sir Richard Mead. The rambling house has since disappeared but the name is perpetuated in Gooshays Drive. The new Lord of the Manor was a city merchant with premises in Lime Street, City. The directories of the period describe him as a merchant in the Italian trade but the exact nature of his business is obscure. At the time of the purchase of Gooshays. William Sheldon was in his fifties and obviously prosperous. One might have expected that he would retire to the country after a few years, leaving his business to the care of others but in fact he never left London. During the 1760s and 1770s he lived at various addresses, each one further west than the last, until in 1779 he moved to No. 27 Southampton Street, off the Strand, where he remained until his death in 1798 at the age of 84. Sheldon was married, but we know nothing of his wife. He had one child, a son, born in 1743 and also called William.

The younger Sheldon did not follow his father into trade; instead he became a bencher of Gray’s Inn. He appears to have been a successful lawyer and evidently moved in polite circles. He was deeply involved in the Italian Opera controversy which divided London Society in the 1790s and was the principle mediator between the two factions. It is a mark of his ability that he was spoken well of by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chamberlain and almost all the protagonists in this bitter struggle. This was all the more remarkable because Sheldon was personally committed to one side. In 1791 he had entered a partnership with R. B. O’Reilly and took a four year lease of the Pantheon in Oxford Street with the intention of staging Italian Opera there. The arrangement proved a disaster for Sheldon; most of the performances ran at a loss and O’Reilly left the country to escape his creditors. Then on 14th January 1792 the Pantheon was totally gutted by fire and Sheldon was sued by the craftsmen who had been employed to refurbish the building for its new use and never paid for their work. James Wyatt, the superintending architect, sued Sheldon successfully for £5,700 and lesser men obtained lesser sums. Apparently Sheldon was able to find the money required, but it must have been a costly business.

An interesting view of Sheldon is given in the account of the court hearing in The Times where he is described by James Wyatt as a man of fortune, who was always in the Pantheon directing the workmen. There is other evidence which suggests that William Sheldon was very interested in architectural matters at this period. His name appears in the lists of subscribers to two books on domestic architecture; John Plaw’s Rural Architecture first published in 1785 and re-issued in 1794 and James Lewis’ Original designs in Architecture of 1797. Both these works were of a similar type and contained a number of suggested designs for smaller houses and country mansions. Lewis’ book is rather pedantic and reactionary in outlook, but Plaw’s was more original and contained complete plans of “Belle Isle”. There is unfortunately no proof that Sheldon knew Plaw personally but it is certainly a possibility, and in the absence of other evidence it seems reasonable to attribute the design of The Round House to John Plaw.

There is some uncertainty about the exact date of the building but it was probably erected in 1792 or 1793. It was certainly in existence by 1794 when it appears in the Land Tax returns for Havering-atte-Bower.

Whether or not Sheldon had originally intended the house for his own use he seems to have let it at once to Edward Howe, possibly the owner of Pyrgo Park Estate. Howe continued to live at The Round House until 1807 when Sheldon sold the building. The family links with Essex were not completely cut until 1829 when the Gooshays property was sold to Sir Thomas Neave but it is clear that William Sheldon never himself lived in the house which he had built.

The subsequent history of the building has been uneventful. In 1807 it was sold to William Jacobs, Esq., who dying in 1815 devised it to his wife’s niece, Mary, the wife of William Whitehurst, Esq. The Whitehurst family held the property until 1830 when it was sold to William Barnes. From thenceforward the house was bound up with Barnes and subsequently the Pemberton-Barnes family until after the Second World War. During this period the most interesting tenant was the Rev. Joseph Pemberton, vicar of the Church of The Ascension at Romford, who was a rose breeder of some note and used the gardens of The Round House to grow his roses. After the war the vacant house with its extensive grounds was sold to E.M.Heap the then owner of The Hall, but the building was not occupied until 1982 when it had been restored by his son, Michael, and daughter-in-law, Mary Anne.

A total lack of any early illustrations of The Round House makes it difficult to give a definite answer to the question of whether the external appearance has been altered, but it seems unlikely. Several alterations have been made to the interior, reflecting the different patterns of habitation for which the building was required. Perhaps the most striking of these alterations was the improvement of the ground floor south room. The room itself which was rectangular to begin with was not greatly changed apart from the closing up of the original door in the east wall, and the making of a new opening in the fireplace wall, but the original decoration was replaced by a very fine edition of a French Panoramic Wallpaper.

All four walls were covered with paper depicting a number of different landscapes with buildings, fountains and monuments, as well as figures dressed in early 19th century costume. Such Panoramic Wallpapers were very popular in the early 19th century particularly in France and in the United States of America which enjoyed close relations with France at this time. They are less commonly found in this country, probably as a result of the unsettled relations between England and the Continent during the first thirty years of the century. Paris was the main centre of production and by 1810 there were several firms specialising in the manufacture of such wallpapers, including Jourdan Villars, Delicourt, Cler et Margeridon and Joseph Dufour. Outside Paris the only maker of any note was Jean Zuber who was in charge of the firm of Hartmann Rissler et Cie, at Rixheim in Alsace, but even Zuber sold most of his output through his Paris agent.

Zuber and Dufour were the two largest and oldest manufacturers and their papers were more varied and of better quality than those of their rivals. Dufour set up first in Macon, but in 1807 he established himself in Paris at 10 Rue Beauvau. He began his career by making drapery papers, dividing the walls of a room into long narrow vertical panels of paper imitating folds of silk separated by lances, garlands or architectural ornaments. Drapery paper had only a short vogue however, and Dufour soon turned to scenic papers which offered a greater variety of subject. The first scenic paper which he produced while still living in Macon was Sauvage de la Mer Pacifique, *composed upon discoveries made by Captain Cook, La Pérouse and other travellers* which appeared in 1805; but his best known work dates from after 1814 when perhaps the end of the Napoleonic War made marketing and distribution less difficult. The subjects are about equally divided between mythological scenes like La Galerie Mythologique or the famous Cupid and Psyche series, subjects from history, panoramic views of wetl-known cities such as London, Paris or Lyon, or more general views of idealised landscapes. One of the most popular of the latter class was Le Petit Décor. Unlike the majority of Dufour’s productions this paper is not securely dated, but it almost certainly made its first appearance circa 1815. The costumes of the small figures support such a date. In 1830 a new edition of the paper was brought out in which the costumes were altered to the style of the day. The manufacture of the printing blocks was a laborious process and it was not uncommon to re-use existing blocks for a new paper. The blocks of the Petit Décor were used in this way to make the background for the series known as Le Cid in which Spanish scenes and figures replace the French.

The Havering paper is an example of the first state of the design and probably the only such example in the country. By the 1970’s it was in a sorry condition but still had considerable charm. The colours were bright, where they had not peeled off and one could gain an impression of what such rooms were originally like; the total effect was re-inforced by the ceiling painted to resemble clouds and the dado which was covered with painted illusionist panelling. It is probably worthwhile to give a brief account of the method by which such decorations were manufactured. All very early papers were printed on small sheets of paper ( roughly 20″ x 20′ ) pasted together to form strips of the requisite length. Although continuous rolls were made from 1800 onwards some of the papers of later date were still printed on strips composed of small sheets. Paper was an expensive commodity and presumably the manufacturers were unwilling to waste their existing stocks. The glue-impregnated paper was prepared with an earth-coloured ground and size and it was then ready for the printer. Wooden blocks were used like those employed today for the production of hand-blocked linen and it was necessary to have as many different blocks as there were colours or shades. One colour was printed at a time and left to dry before proceeding with another. Tempera colours mixed with hot glue were used for the printing. The durability of the papers was a direct result of the high quality of the materials used. Almost all the paper was made from pure linen rags and was more resistant to the attack of moderate damp than any modern production. The fashion for panoramic papers tailed off after 1820, and by 1840 they were seldom used. There are very few examples of this kind of decoration still surviving in England, and The Round House paper is a valuable relic, although it was in the 1970’s past the possibility of economic repair. It was probably put up in the1820s, that is about five years after its first appearance in Paris, but nothing is known of the Whitehurst family which could make a more precise dating possible. Before restoration of the house, the paper was removed carefully and taken to the Passmore Edwards Museum to be stored under controlled conditions until restoration could be undertaken. A part, only, of the dado remains. Information is also lacking about the other alterations made to the interior of the building. Some of the principle rooms have fire-surrounds and plaster cornices which appear to date from 1870 and it is possible that the curiously large doors with their massive reeded architraves are part of the same scheme of improvement. In 1930 an exact survey of the building was made by the architect W. G. Newton, the son of Ernest Newton, in connection with the installation of a system of central heating and it was under Newton’s direction that the position of the basement stair was changed to its present location at the base of the main stair. It had previously been in the lobby to the left of the main entrance. After the death of the Reverend Joseph Pemberton and his sister, the house was briefly tenanted before being requisitioned during the 1940-5 period. It was used by the army for the holding of its own miscreants and as a store for furniture from bombed homes. Unfortunately the placing of sandbags around the house encouraged the penetration of damp leading to severe wet and dry rot and wood worm infestation. The house, now in a bad state of repair, was acquired in 1952 together with its surrounding land by E.M.Heap, then living at The Hall. Shortly after, he arranged the removal of the diseased timbers, treated those remaining and made the house again weatherproof. Although remaining inhabitable following this holding operation it did not substantially decay further.

His son Michael was given the house in 1977 and together with his wife Mary-Anne determined to restore it as their home. Julian Harrap was employed as architect and supervised the re- establishment of the house to what can be seen today. The principal room on the Northem side had the partitions removed but no other fundamental changes were made. A space was found for a kitchen on the ground floor, it no longer being appropriate for food to be prepared in the cellar and brought to table by dumb-waiter. Bathrooms were introduced in the upper two storeys and efficient central heating installed throughout the house, together making the house a pleasant residence whilst not losing the original concepts and architectural quality.

In several respects The Round House is an important building and it is surprising that it is not more widely known. The unusual oval shape and the ingenious plan make it an object of considerable interest in England where architectural oddities of this kind have seldom achieved concrete form on a large scale. In some of its features, particularly in the form of the roof, elements of Regency architecture make an early appearance, anticipating villas like Nash’s Cronkhill by a decade. If the design was indeed provided by John Plaw his stature as an architect is considerably increased.

From research by Neil Burton, architectural historian at the GLC, 1977.
Updated by Michael Heap, 1997.

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