History comes home

Wanstead-House-1715Wanstead House, 1715. © Redbridge Heritage Centre

Redbridge Museum will open a new permanent exhibition later this year exploring 200,000 years of local history. In the third of a series of articles, Museum Officer Nishat Alam looks at some of the items on show

For centuries, much of what is Wanstead Park today formed the grounds of a large manor house. Wanstead House was built to display the wealth of its owners, and in 1673 was purchased by Sir Josiah Child, who turned it into one of the grandest buildings in the country. But how did Child make his money? This article looks at the opulence of Wanstead House and the story behind its wealth.

Josiah Child focused his attention on the gardens of Wanstead House, which he saw as an important feature to be viewed and talked about for miles around. He employed the most famous garden designer of the time to achieve this. Great avenues of trees were planted and the River Roding was diverted to form beautiful ornamental ponds. After his death, Josiah’s son Richard rebuilt the house in a fashionable neoclassical style. It was 260 feet long and three storeys high; it boasted over 50 rooms, including a ballroom, library and billiard room. Keeping with the latest styles, Richard moved away from the formal gardens his father had laid out to a more natural-looking landscape with lakes, woodland areas and a grotto.

The wealth of money Richard spent on Wanstead House was inherited from his father, which is a common enough story with grand estates. But Josiah Child had made his own fortune and not in the most honourable ways.

Josiah came from humble beginnings as a merchant’s apprentice and first grew rich supplying the Royal Navy with food. He later invested in the transatlantic slave trade, buying sugar plantations worked by enslaved Africans in Jamaica. In 1677, he became a director of the East India Company, and within a few years, was running the entire Company. This was a hugely powerful position he maintained through bribery, corruption and aggression. Child even led one of the first wars against the Mughal Empire, eventually resulting in British colonial rule in India. It was via colonial ventures and with disreputable tactics that he became one of England’s richest men and by which Wanstead House became the estate we see in the painting above, which illustrates how the estate looked in 1715 just before Richard Child began transforming it.

Wanstead House was not the only grand house built with colonial wealth in what is now the London Borough of Redbridge. These places and themes will be explored in new displays in Redbridge Museum, reopening later this year.

Redbridge Museum is located inside Redbridge Central Library on Clements Road, Ilford. Visit wnstd.com/rm

To complete a survey about what else should go on display, visit wnstd.com/rms