Richmond has a long and rich history. Originally called ‘Shene’, it was the site of two mediaeval royal palaces built by Edward III and Henry V. When the second of these was severely damaged by fire in 1497, Henry VII erected a magnificent new palace in its place and in 1501 renamed the palace (and the village) ‘Richmond’, after his earldom in Yorkshire. Though this palace was largely destroyed during the Commonwealth (1649-60), the gateway onto Richmond Green still survives together with the buildings immediately adjacent to it (Old Gate House and the Wardrobe).
Royalty returned in the early 18th Century to Richmond Lodge (since demolished) in the Old Deer Park. In 1772, the royal home was moved a mile north to Kew. The gardens of Richmond Lodge and of the palace at Kew form today’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Richmond Park was created as a royal hunting ground by Charles I in 1635-37 and it covers some four square miles. It is still a ‘Royal Park’ with herds of red and fallow deer.
The royal court attracted noblemen and rich Londoners to the area and in the 18th century Richmond became a favourite summer resort for the London gentry and for leading figures in art and the letters. Many of them bought or built houses in the town and although most of the largest mansions have now disappeared, there are still many elegant houses of the late 17th and 18th centuries remaining, especially around Richmond Green, on the top of the Hill, and in some streets (such as Ormond Road and the Vineyard) off the lower part of the Hill. There are some other fine groups of houses of this period in Petersham Village, around Kew Green and around Ham Common (just beyond Petersham).
Catering for visitors is a long-standing local industry and Richmond was well supplied with inns and taverns. By the first half of the 19th century two large hotels dominated this trade: the Star and Garter at the top of the hill and the Castle in the town between Hill Street and the riverside. In the 1860’s, as the Star and Garter expanded, a new purpose built hotel (now The Petersham) joined the competition.
The site of the hotel
The Petersham Hotel stands between what remains of Richmond Hill’s Common and Petersham Common. These were originally contiguous and grazing animals would stray across the manor boundaries. So in 1639, a strip of land on the Richmond side of the boundary was granted to one Francis Barnard on condition that he made and maintained ‘a sufficient fence… with a gate and stile’ between the two commons.
This strip of land was later split into three sections. At the top end the villa called ‘The Wick’ replaced the Bull’s Head tavern in 1775. At the bottom end were stables (now the Rose of York pub). In the centre a cottage, first built about 1650, was rebuilt as a substantial house in the 1770’s. It got the name of Nightingale Cottage from the nightingales on Richmond Hill; famous for their singing (Wordsworth wrote a sonnet about them). Nightingale Lane, originally a straight path down the hillside, acquired its present alignment in 1810 when the Richmond Vestry leased the lower part of the Hill Common to the then owner of Nightingale Cottage to extend his garden. This leased land, which cannot be built on, is now the hotel car park.
The Building of the hotel
In 1863, Nightingale Cottage (by then renamed Ashburnham Lodge) was acquired by the Richmond Hill Hotel Company as a site for a new hotel. As their architect, they employed John Giles who had just designed London’s first ‘grand hotel’; the recently renovated Langham Hotel in Portland Place. Giles (died 1900) was a prolific architect who mainly concentrated on schools, commercial and hospital buildings. Little of his work in the London area remains, but another important surviving building is Christ Church in Gypsy Hill, Lambeth.
The new hotel building in Richmond was completed in 1865 – the same year as E M Barry’s new ‘French Chateau’ wing of the Star and Garter above it on the hill. Though somewhat less ambitious than Barry’s building, let alone the Langham, the Richmond Hill Hotel with its tower, high pitched roofs and many balconies was itself an imposing structure. Its architectural style was described at the time as ‘florid Italian Gothic’.
The description and plans in a sale brochure of 1866 show a dining room and a ballroom (both on the second floor), a bar (just inside the entrance), many bedrooms and a surprising number of separate ‘sitting rooms’ as well as several suites of sitting rooms, bedrooms and dressing rooms. Every room had, of course, its own fireplace with a coal fire and although the hotel was, by the standards of the time, well provided with w.c.’s, it only had two bathrooms!
The staircase and its paintings
The most notable feature of the interior is its magnificent Portland stone staircase; reported to be the tallest unsupported stone staircase in the country. The paintings on its ceiling were executed by Ferdinando Galli (1816-97), an Italian painter then briefly working in England (he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1866).
These depict Italian renaissance artists: Raphael (1483-1520), based on a self portrait in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence; Michelangelo (1475-1564), a typical portrait showing his ‘broken nose’; Titian (1485-1576), based on a self portrait in the Staatliche Museum, Berlin and Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), renowned for his decoration of the Farnese Gallery, Rome
Changes of name
In 1877, following a change of ownership, the hotel’s name was changed to ‘The Mansion’ (which left Richmond Hill Hotel free to be assumed by another hotel on the hill in 1913). In 1889 it became ‘The Mansion Hotel’. Then in 1922, when the famous old Star and Garter had been demolished to be replaced by the Royal Star and Garter Home for disabled servicemen, it took on the name of ‘New Star and Garter Hotel’. The ‘New’ was dropped a few years later and the hotel continued as ‘Star and Garter’ until 1945, when the Bank of England bought it for use as a staff hostel under the name of ‘Nightingale Hall’. It was sold in 1951 and reopened as ‘The Star and Garter Hotel’. In 1978 it was purchased by the Dare family and renamed ‘The Petersham Hotel’.
Of the many alterations made to the hotel since its early days, the most visible externally is the building-out (in 1957) of the ground floor on the side facing the river, to form a large new restaurant (now appropriately called ‘Restaurant at The Petersham’. Discreetly hidden by the trees of Petersham Common is an extension built in 1971-2, mainly containing bedrooms. In the 1950s and 60s various proposals for enlargement were put forward by the then owners, culminating in a project to replace the Victorian building completely by an 18 storey tower block. Planning permission was very firmly refused! Internally, the hotel has been largely remodelled, especially in the last decade, to bring it fully up to ‘four star’ standard as Richmond’s leading hotel. (The old second floor ballroom is now four bedrooms with splendid river views.) At the same time the exterior was completely renovated.
The view from richmond hill
The hotel looks out across Petersham Meadows to the bend in the Thames. The meadows are protected from development by an Act of Parliament passed in 1902, and renewed in 2002, to safeguard the famous view from Richmond Hill; best seen from the Terrace Walk at the top of Nightingale Lane. This view has been painted by many famous artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds (for whom Wick House, next door to the Wick, was built) and J M W Turner (who lived across the river in Twickenham for many years). In the mid-17th century there was already a seat on the hill from which to admire the view. The Terrace walk was first laid out in about 1700. William Byrd gave the name of Richmond to the city he founded in Virginia in 1733 because the view there of the James River reminded him so much of the view from Richmond Hill, which he knew well. Captain Vancouver, the explorer of the Pacific coast to North America, was so taken by the view that he lived the remaining few years of his life in Petersham – where he lies buried in the churchyard, just a third of a mile from the hotel, by the path across the meadows. St Peter’s church, with its early 19th century interior, with box pews and galleries, is worth a visit. (A note of the key holders is posted on the church door.)
The text of these notes was partly written by John Cloake, President of the Richmond Local History Society.