Just south of London lies a modest country house, once the childhood home of King Henry VIII.
Eltham Palace has recently become renowned for its beautiful Art Deco interiors, it’s halls still ringing with ghosts of extravagant dinner parties hosted throughout the 1930s. It’s history however, has not always been so glamorous.
The first recorded sign of Eltham Palace is found in the Doomsday Book of 1086, listing it as Eltham Manor, belonging to William the Conquerors half brother, Odo. The house changed hands many times over the next few centuries, with owners gradually adding to the architecture of the estate. By the 14th Century, Eltham Palace was one of King Edward III’s royal palaces. The palace was surrounded by a moat, complete with drawbridge and high walls.
The children of Henry VII were brought up at Eltham, which served as a Royal Nursery for future monarchs and royals, including Henry VIII. Henry VIII however preferred Hampton Court, and started building and decorating there instead of Eltham, whilst Greenwich Palace served as his London Palace, being closer to Westminster and more easily accessible.
Throughout the Civil War (1648) Eltham was used as a base for Cromwell’s troops, and subsequently fell into disrepair. By the turn of the 19th century the once regal palace was reduced to a farmstead, the Great Hall now a barn, the palace in ruins.
Stephen and Virginia Courtauld discovered the dilapidated Eltham Palace in 1933, and set about restoring it to glory. Having hired architects Seely and Paget to rebuild the estate they looked to Christopher Wren’s work for inspiration and decided on a brick and Clipsham stone exterior. The development was haulted by a battle with the Society of Antiquaries who were concerned with the loss of areas of historical interest. Once this had been pacified, and reassurances had been sought that several features, including the 15th century timber gables in the great Hall would be preserved, building work began.
Eltham Palace was a haven of modern technology; electricity powered many internal systems including the clocks, servants bells, lighting, they even had their own internal telephone exchange. Eltham also boasted a centralised vacuum cleaning system, only seen to this day in larger houses. It’s mechanism can be seen in the basement.
During the Second World War Eltham suffered badly; in 1940, during the Battle of Britain 4 bombs landed on the great Hall causing extensive damage, a further 100 bombs fell within the grounds. A year later a parachute mine damaged the great Hall again, and in 1944 a flying bomb severely damaged the greenhouses. Stephen Courtauld, an avid orchid collector, had thankfully evacuated his previous plants in 1939. Throughout the war the basement was turned into a dormitory, and the family welcomed anyone who needed shelter, having invited her relatives initially Ginie opened her house to those in need.
The war however left the Courtaulds scarred, and they eventually decided to move to their Scotland estate on Loch Etive in Argyll.
In its time, before the devastating effects of the War, Eltham was seen as the Gatsby mansion of London. Ginie enjoyed throwing lavish parties, as well as small dinner parties for selected few. Stephen designed cocktails for every occasion and they flourished as the elegant, affluent hosts. The great Hall frequently housed chamber orchestras, bands and singers whilst guests danced the night away in perfect luxury.
Upon arriving at Eltham you’re provided with an audio guide that takes you on a guided tour of the house and gardens, complete with interactive multimedia it gives you a sense of what the house would have been like in the 1930s. You can meet the family, and the beautiful lemur, experience the parties, even listen to some of the guests accounts!
There are special tours for children to enjoy, as well as activity packs for them to work through and a play area too. On site there’s a lovely cafe and beautiful gardens for everyone to enjoy, and just a short bus ride from Greenwich it’s easy to get to from central London too! Bristling with Tudor history and Art Deco architecture it’s the perfect day out for everyone!