Gunnersbury belonged to the Bishop of London from at least the 11th century until the 19th. He leased it to a succession of wealthy families, including, in the 1370s, Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III. In 1422, Gunnersbury passed to the Frowycks, a family of wealthy London mercers and traders, who retained it for over a century. The estate was then passed by marriage to a judge, Sir John Spelman, whose family owned it until the 1560s.
By 1656, Gunnersbury had been acquired by another judge, the wealthy Sir John Maynard. He employed architect John Webb, a pupil of Inigo Jones, to design a Palladian mansion. This was a courageous step at a time when Cromwell was in power – this architectural style was associated with the royal court. You can still find some of the garden walls from this period in the park today. After Maynard’s death in 1690, his widow married the Earl of Suffolk. Members of the family, including Henrietta Howard, for whom Marble Hill was later built, used Gunnersbury in the summer.
Gunnersbury’s royal connections
In 1739, Gunnersbury was sold to Henry Furnese MP, a wealthy merchant and art collector. He paid William Kent for garden designs in the 1740s and was patron of Handel, whom he entertained at Gunnersbury. From 1761, Gunnersbury was the country home of Princess Amelia, the favourite daughter of George II, until her death in 1786. She is said to have spent over £20,000 on improvements, probably softening the landscape of Maynard’s formal garden. The kitchen garden was walled and the grotto and plunge bath, now part of ‘Princess Amelia’s Bathhouse’, were probably built for her.
Subsequent owners did not stay long. In 1800 an entrepreneur bought and demolished the old mansion, laying out a number of plots to be sold. A wealthy Westminster timber merchant, Stephen Cosser, acquired the north-east corner plot. A building contractor, Alexander Copland, also from Westminster, bought the neighbouring plot. Their two homes – now the Small Mansion and the Large Mansion respectively – were built on the terrace where Maynard’s mansion had stood. Copland gradually acquired the other plots and reunited most of the estate.
The Rothschild era
Nathan Meyer Rothschild bought Copland’s estate in 1835 and began planning improvements. Unfortunately, he died soon afterwards. His widow and son invested huge amounts of money in the house and gardens and entertained lavishly. They added the kitchen wing, rebuilt the stables, erected the Orangery and created lavish hothouses for the cultivation of exotic fruits and flowers. They also bought a lot of additional land, including a clay pit which became the Potomac Lake. The Small Mansion remained in separate ownership until it was purchased by the Rothschilds in 1889. They kept on the gardener who had made a name through his improvements there, and he managed the grounds separately from those of the Large Mansion.
The threat of development
The construction of the Great West Road in the 1920s raised the value of the estate as development land. In 1925, Ealing and Acton Councils obtained loans to buy Gunnersbury for use as a public park. This action prevented Brentford Urban District Council (within whose boundary the estate lay) from building much needed municipal homes on the land. Plots along Popes Lane and Lionel Road were sold for suburban house building to raise funds to repay the loan. In 1926 Neville Chamberlain officially opened Gunnersbury Park to the public and in 1929 the Large Mansion became home to Gunnersbury museum.
Traces of Gunnersbury’s history can still be found in the landscape, the planting and the surviving buildings. This rich heritage makes Gunnersbury worth preserving today.