The renovation of Rainham Hall
PUBLISHED: 10:52 25 February 2016 | UPDATED: 11:22 25 February 2016
Rainham Hall, recently re-opened to the public by the National Trust, is something of an oasis of calm within the landscape of East London’s outer fringes. Holly Eells shares the story of this charming building and its colourful former residents
Rainham Hall is a beautiful 18th century house, which is considered to be one of the country’s finest surviving examples of an early Georgian merchant’s property in the UK. The hall stands proudly at the centre of Rainham village and, while by aristocratic standards the hall is a modest house, when it was built for merchant and captain John Harle in 1729, it must have been a building of some significance, in both size and architecture. Today it still retains a sense of grandeur as an elegant and remarkably intact building in the Dutch domestic style of architecture, characterised by red brick and decorative stonework. The spectacular wrought iron entrance gates are among the finest in London from that period and contain a romantic reference to the original.
The hall is nestled in the heart of Rainham village and is, perhaps surprisingly, set in three acres of orchard within the industrial estates and scrapyards of East London’s outer fringes, surrounded by a contrasting landscape of big skies, wild marshland and thriving industry. It was designed as a home, not for the super-rich, but for the ‘middling sort’ of a successful maritime merchant. It was built to be lived in and used, but after being requisitioned in World War II, the hall’s survival was uncertain. The National Trust took it over and Rainham Hall has been quietly biding its time for a re-opening to the public.
This wish came true on October 7, 2015, almost 70 years after the National Trust inherited the building, and Rainham Hall opened its doors to the public to showcase its beautiful Grade II* listed 18th century Queen Anne-style house. It has undergone a £2.5million, two-year programme of conservation and redevelopment, which involved a donation of £1.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the project.
Stuart Hobley, head of HLF London, said: ‘We are incredibly excited by the opening of the beautifully-restored Rainham Hall and of course to hear the fascinating stories that can now be told. It has played a pivotal part in Rainham village life for two centuries and now the hall can once again be at the heart of the local community.’
Rainham Hall now boasts an innovative visitor experience, developed by the National Trust along with award-winning architecture practice Studio Weave following a collaboration with the people of Rainham village, local groups and creative practitioners from across the borough, and students from Central Saint Martins and University of the Arts London who assisted with early concept development. Visitors will be able to immerse themselves in the lives and times of some of the hall’s colourful previous inhabitants through exhibitions, sound and video installations and events.
Sally James, creative programmes manager for Rainham Hall, has been excited to finally have the house opened to the public and believes it is a quirky experience for young and old to enjoy. She says: ‘It is a thriving hub at the heart of village life – a place for people to meet, for new art to be created and for families to learn together. The experience within the hall will be fresh, creative and regularly evolving. We’ll draw inspiration from the lives of our past residents to tell great stories. The National Trust has owned Rainham Hall estate since 1949 and it took it on following World War II because of its great architecture. It was also believed it would be good to have a tenant in the building so they would look after it, because the trust didn’t have enough funds to open its doors. However, the last tenant was in 2011 and after this it was clear there needed to be a project.’
Sally continues to explain how the stable block at Rainham Hall was once on the English Heritage at Risk Register. ‘The hall had become neglected over time, but boasted amazing space, brick layout and great features. Raising the funds became a triangle of forces, some would say. The English Heritage had The London Borough of Havering as a priority borough for funding, however this doesn’t necessarily mean you are guaranteed to receive any money. The local council had a strong desire to see a regeneration project in the village, but also wanted to maximise the hall as an overall attraction and as a benefit to the local community. The National Trust also wanted to help, so we had a compelling case for it.’
The project had several primary aims and since the building had been let out to tenants over the years, certain aspects needed improvement. There was a lot of work involved, including improving the systems and services, and making curatorial decisions about the building.
‘As it is a Grade II* listed building, the hall has 18th century floorboards and beautiful features, but we had to make decisions on how we would represent the building for the long term. We wanted to show the layers of history,’ says Sally.
Rainham Hall has been home to a richly diverse cast of characters and visitors, including an 18th century methodist preacher, a late 19th century cycling enthusiast and vicar/scientist, the fine art specialist and art historian Colonel Herbert Hall Mulliner, architect and illustrator couple Walter and Leonora Ison and society photographer and former decoration editor for Vogue, Anthony Denney, as well as various other architects, artists, designers and musicians.
Everything Harle Left Behind is the first exhibition at Rainham Hall, deconstructing the life of the first resident and founder. John Harle came from a family of sea-faring merchants in North East England which shipped coal, food and other domestic goods around the Baltic and Mediterranean. Harle designed and built the hall after buying land that extended to Rainham Creek, where he created a wharf for his shipping and trading business, striking deals in London’s Royal Exchange and coffee houses.
Nevertheless, Rainham Hall would not have been able to develop the building without the help of its 100 volunteers, who have all had a specific impact on the successful project.
Linda Vaughan, a volunteer at the house, has been described as a champion by her work colleagues because of her dedication and passion for Rainham Hall. Linda says: ‘I am so pleased to be part of this project. When my husband and I first visited the hall, we were so pleasantly surprised by this beautiful house. It is such a lovely property in the middle of Rainham village and it stands out. There is something for everyone because there is a formal and community garden, which features a woodland area, orchard and the main lawn with various beds. We have had community events in the past with so many visitors which shows the local community enjoys something just for them.’
Visit Rainham Hall
The Stable Café and Gardens are open daily, 10am to 5pm. The house is open on Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm. For more information, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/rainham-hall