A Fine House For A Ship’s Captain

Rainham Hall, in the London Borough of Havering may not be the largest house in London, but it is certainly one of the most charming. Now owned by the National Trust it was built for a ship’s captain. Captain John Harle, one of the traders and ship owners who made 18th Century London wealthy, showed off his fortune by building Rainham Hall in 1729.

Harle was born in South Shields , in the North East of England and began his career sailing on ships bringing coal from Newcastle to feed London’s ever-growing demand. Being a sailor at that time meant facing the peril of the press gang – a short journey to London could turn into a long journey into the Indian Ocean if you were forced to join the Royal Navy. To escape this, Harle’s father gave him exemption papers (which he presumably paid for) which allowed him to stay with his ship. Soon business expanded, trading with the Baltic, Amsterdam and the Mediterranean bringing caviar, Russian leather, dried fruit and wheat to London, among many other cargoes. It was time to bring his business to London, trading in the coffee houses around the Royal Exchange while he lived in Wapping.

Harle’s next business expansion came from his marriage to Mary Tibbington, a wealthy widow. They saw the value of having a shipping base further downriver from the crowded port of London. Harle paid for the tiny River Ingrebourne to be dredged so ships could sail up it to the centre of Rainham and load and unload cargoes there. To keep an eye on business they moved their home to Rainham too – and had the hall built in what was probably by then an unfashionable French style. There was a practicality to it though – from Harle’s bedroom he could see the quay where ships were supposed to be unloading.

The National Trust have done an excellent job with Rainham Hall, with many original features to enjoy. The entrance hall with its chequerboard floor and mahogany staircase could pass for a scene from a Dutch master painting, and the rooms feature some exquisite Delft tiles. My favourite detail is the wrought ironwork gateway which features John Harle’s initials entwined with those of Mary Tibbington – acknowledging her part in the building of the house. In one room a coffee house from the 18th century has been recreated – such places were the foundation of London’s finance industry so I am glad we can get to see what one was like. Of course, the house has had many owners over the years and there are exhibitions about them too, for instance fashion photographer Anthony Denney, but I think I shall let you discover those yourself.


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