Contents of Wanstead House auction on display at Chatsworth

When Catherine Tylney Long celebrated her 21st birthday on October 2, 1810 it was well known that she was the wealthiest commoner in England and there were many suitors for her hand. She chose to marry William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley (nephew of the Duke of Wellington) which proved to be a disastrous mistake.

After ten years of married life, William had squandered all his wife’s vast fortune and run up such enormous debts that the contents of Wanstead House, their palatial home, had to be sold. Just as the courtship and marriage of the couple attracted a great deal of interest, so too, did the auction of the contents of their home.

The Literary Chronicle reported: “No public sale ever perhaps excited so much interest as this, not merely on account of its magnitude, the splendour of the furniture, or the grandeur of the mansion; but there was a sort of melancholy feeling attending it, in recollecting that this was part of the princely fortune of an English heiress, Miss Tylney Long, whose husband, a son of Lord Maryborough, has, in some half dozen years only, dissipated the accumulated riches of ages without dignity, and sunk into comparative poverty without pity.”

For three weeks before the sale the house was thrown open to the public who flocked to look around it and gawp. Fashionable society left Whitehall for Whitechapel and 20,000 copies of the auction catalogue were sold in three parts, at five shillings each part.

View of Wanstead House … the Seat of Earl of Tilney, “Engraved for the Complete English Traveller”, c1775. Several pleasure boats were included in the 1822 Wanstead Sale

The auction started on Monday, June 10, 1822 in a bedroom on the third floor – Lot 1 was “a steel fender, pair of tongs, a shovel, three bedside carpets, a 13-10 mahogany-frame hanging glass, and two black stained rush-seat chairs”. Other rooms on other floors were emptied later in the day, including the Green Damask Velvet Sitting Room on the Principal Grand Floor, and ending in the lamp room in the basement.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

A monumental carved marble Bust of Lucius Verus, attributed to Laurent Delvaux, was sold at Christie’s on June 9, 2005 for £120,000

The second, third and fourth days followed a similar pattern, working from room to room. The fifth, sixth and seventh days were devoted to china, glass and plate, and then the eighth, ninth and tenth days were spent selling off paintings and sculpture.

So far as I have been able to discover, the items which fetched the best price were two “matchless antique spiral columns of fine Egyptian marble, with cap and plinth” which had been “found among the ruins of Alexandria, and sent over-land through the deserts of Arabia to Calcutta, as a Present to the late Governor General of India, the Marquis Wellesley, [William’s uncle] who presented them to the present Proprietor.” The largest amount in one day was on Tuesday, June 18 when £6,921 13s 1d. was paid out for the gold and silverware etc.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

Louis XIV Ormolu-mounted ebony, blue-stained horn, brass, pewter, tortoiseshell, boulle and wood marquetry centre table, sold at Christies on November 2, 2000 for £3,950,940

And so the days wore on. The 26th day reaped a rich reward when the contents of the wine cellar were auctioned. The last few days were spent in out-buildings and the final item in the auction was a dog kennel. In all the auction lasted for 32 days, with over 5,000 lots sold for over £41,380.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

Chandelier from Wanstead House, now at Chatsworth

The Duke of Devonshire purchased a number of items which are on display at Chatsworth today. Full size antique statues of Domitian (£84) and Agrippina (£105) are in the North Front Hall. Two massive chandeliers costing a total of £593 are hanging in the Sculpture Gallery which also has a magnificent square Library Table which cost £92 8s. Many other items have been traced to various locations, including many of the paintings. Three at least are held by the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. Under the marriage settlement the land could not be sold, so the house was sold for demolition to Stannard and Athow of Norwich in 1823. The site is now a huge hollow on Wanstead Golf Course.

Georgina Green has been involved with local history in Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the Epping Forest area for 40 years and is the author of several local history books. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2021.

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