Friday, October 11, 2013

William Gaitskell House, 1814

The house as it is today
This simple but lovely Regency house now known as William Gaitskell House, named after its first owner, is at 23 Paradise Street, on the corner of Cathay Street.   As well as being a really handsome building, it has a great, if slightly ghoulish, story associated with it.

The house was built in 1814.  It is also sometimes referred to as the Old Police Station, which it became in 1836.  Its symmetrically organized features and the use of stock brick are very similar to Georgian buildings all over London but this is one of the few classic late Georgian buildings to survive in Rotherhithe, and therefore offers a particular value to the area. When it was built it was one of a number of other similar houses that flanked this stretch of Paradise Street. It is nice to see that following its restoration it is being so well maintained.

Although he was known as Sir William Gaitskell, he may have been a self-styled knight, because there do not appear to be any records of him actually being knighted.  Whether or not he was a knight of the realm, he was certainly  a surgeon and a local story says that a tunnel led from the house down to the Thames, where local children were paid to retrieve corpses from the river for him to work on.  Examination of corpses was a standard way of learning and teaching about human anatomy at that period, and hospitals paid for bodies to be delivered to them, leading to the criminal activity of body snatching (and was one of the reasons that the 1821 watch house was established next to the churchyard of St Mary's). There actually was a tunnel, but this has now been blocked off, which is probably just as well.  There is no way of telling whether the story is true, but it's rather good.

Detail of the brick work
Gaitskell was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and Society of Apothecaries, London, and in 1830 he was President of the Metropolitan Society of General Practitioners in Medicine and Surgery.  Judging from his publications he had a wide range of interests.   His papers include: History of a Case of Pemphigus (Memoirs of the Medical Society of London October 1789), Three Cases of Hernia (London Medical Repository 1819), A Case of Ovarian Dropsy and Observations on the Deleterious Effects of London Porter (both published in The London Medical Repository and Review January 1816).  An excerpt from the latter paper is as follows (p.112):
To a late report (vide Repository vol. iv. p.85) on the deleterious influence of London Porter, by producing apoplexy, I am sorry to add, ten more fatal cases have come to my knowledge, and most of them in the labouring classes.  Two happened in Bermondsey parish;  they were hearty-looking men, one 50, the other 60 years of age, and great porter drinkers.  They dropped dead in the street.  Two others happened in Lambeth parish.  Four more took place in Newgate-street; and two more in the Parish of Rotherhithe.  One of these was a fine young man of 28, the other a coal meter about 56.
According to research conducted on the Rootschat website, Sir William Gaitskell married Mary Sophia Poussett in 1785, and seems to have had two children, William Gaitskell the younger, Harriet Eliza Gaitskell and Edward Howe. There is no mention of why Edward had a different surname from his siblings. Mary Sophia died in February 1828 at the age of 68.  Sir William died in June 1833 at the age of 70.

London Gazette 21st February1832
Sir William, his son William and Charles Ventris Field were apparently in a partnership as surgeons and apothecaries.  The London Gazette has a notice that the partnership between the three men was dissolved in May 1831, and that the partnership between Gaitskell and his son was dissolved in February 1832.  In the same month, his estate was conveyed by indenture to Thomas Gaitskell. 

Somewhat ironically, given Gaitskell's alleged body snatching activities, 23 Paradise Street became a police station in 1836 and was the base of M Division.  The Watch House on St Mary Church Street, which had been established in 1821, was in operation until 1829 when the Metropolitan police force was established, and it is unclear where the watchmen who operated in the area between 1829 and 1836 were based.  In 1850 an extension to the west was added in order to house cells.  By 1864 there were 117 officers working from there. A 1917 photograph shows it with bars over the ground floor windows, and only three windows on the eastern wall, where now there are seven. During the Second World Ware an air raid shelter was placed on the roof.   The police moved in 1965 to new, typically 1960s premises on Lower Road.  Although it stood empty for some years afterwards it was restored and is now used as offices.

The front door with fanlight, railings
and the gaslight arch
Today the building, now used as offices, is completely isolated from any contemporary structures in the immediate vicinity.  Many others were either destroyed following Second World War bombing or demolished during the 1960s and 70s.   It covers three main floors, with an attic and a basement.  The ground floor semi-circular and first floor flat segmental arches are made of a much higher quality brick, reflecting their more important structural role. The building is topped with a mansard roof, which encloses the attic, and is slate-covered. Beneath it is a stone cornice, which protrudes from the front of the building to protect the brickwork from rain. There are two chimney stacks. It has a white stucco string course (the band of white) extending between the windows and the front door on the ground floor, and a white stone blocking course under the first floor windows.  A stone staircase leads to red double doors, which are panelled.  The door frame is lightly decorated and the fanlight has attractive curvilinear leading.

The description of the house on the Listed British Buildings website says that the interior also retains some traditionally Georgian feature, including pilasters supporting a groin-vaulted ceiling in the hall, fluted and carved timber door architraves, carved doors and decorative friezes in the main rooms.

The house, together with the railings, handrail and the lampholder are all Grade II listed.

My thanks to Geoff Fairbairn for pointing out that Sir William was probably never knighted, even though he adopted the title.


Ramsey said...

Hi! I work in this building, great article, I have lots more info and pics.. by the way there is a tunnel of some sort, it however leads towards Jamaica road not the thames, our rumour picked up on it being a tunnel to an air raid shelter is southwark park!

Andie said...

I would absolutely love to know more if you would like to share what you have! I would of course credit you in full with anything I published on the blog - or you could write a piece yourself if you preferred? It would be great to provide more information about such a lovely building.

Growly said...

I currently live in this building as a property guardian. It has nice energy and very thick walls!