Orford House Social Club on Orford Road celebrates its centenary this year. The building was once one of Walthamstow’s grand domestic residences, one of the few remaining from an era of mansions built by wealthy city merchants when the area was a welcome rural Essex retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Set back from the road, with a car park in front, it is now relatively unassuming in the streetscape, but its past is an important part of local history - not least as the road it sits on takes its name from the house.

It was built c1802 in a neo-Classical style, possibly the third house to stand on the site. Its exterior remains relatively unchanged, with the exception of a sympathetically designed extension to the east. But inside, only perhaps the elegant cantilevered staircase remains as a reminder of its former grand domestic life.

The house fronted Church Common Lane (now Orford Road) on the edge of what was once Berry Field, or Church Common, and was set within extensive grounds which included a large ornamental pond and an avenue of trees to the north along what is now East and West Avenues, reaching almost to the present Aubrey Road. It was built as a family home by Scottish city merchant Patrick Chalmers, and he and his wife Frances raised their six children there. Although Patrick Senior returned to Scotland in 1819, the house remained with the family until 1834.

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Extract from the 1842 Tithe map of Walthamstow

Wealthy sisters Elizabeth and Phebe Cass were the next residents of the house, although for only a very short time as Elizabeth died in 1838. She was a generous benefactor, and in her will she bequeathed £4000 to the vicar and churchwardens of Walthamstow; they received £30 from the annual interest and the remainder was distributed amongst church-going “poor persons of good character”.

The Woodley family took up residence at the house in 1838, and named it Orford House. Sarah Woodley and her corn-trader husband John made it their home with three of their surviving children. Dramatic changes in the area began during their time here, especially the enclosure of Church Common c1842, and the increasingly importance of Church Common Lane as a thoroughfare, which effectively cut off the house’s lands to the north. In a pragmatic move, John had the ornamental pond drained and developed with eight homes known as Orford Villas, which provided a substantial rental income. The villas were demolished in 1962 and 1966, and the site was briefly used as a children’s playground before new buildings were built there in 1970-1.

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An 1851 census return. The entry for Orford House and the Woodley family is at the centre of the page

When the Woodleys left Orford House in 1853-4 it was bought by the City of London Building Society, and land belonging to the house was sold and became part of the area’s wider urban development, including the laying out of adjacent building plots facing what is now Wingfield Road. During this period the house was briefly occupied by a Mrs Burgess who used it as a private school.

In 1857 the house was bought by silk manufacturer Thomas Kemp of Spitalfields, possibly for his retirement, perhaps due to his encroaching blindness. He and his wife Ann were initially joined at Orford House by two of their children, Mary and Robert, a fateful decision on the part of the latter, who was almost killed when he fell from a horse on Beulah Road in 1863. He fractured his skull and was not expected to survive, but he made a miraculous recovery; almost exactly a year later he married and he and his wife Eliza made their home at No. 8 Orford Villas where they raised their family of at least six children.

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The club celebrates its centenary this year. Picture: David Anstiss

The last family to live at Orford House were the Gowers, who moved in in 1890. Sarah and William Gower and their nine children soon became part of the local community, especially Frederick Gower, who was apparently especially well-loved as a Sunday school teacher and choir member at St Mary’s Church. Tragically, he died suddenly in 1896 aged just 25, and as a sign of respect a wreath was hung over his choir place at the Sunday church service.

William Gower was a successful fish merchant with premises at Billingsgate Market, and when he died in 1908 he left a small fortune of just over £13,978 to Sarah, who remained at Orford House with four of her children still at home. Sarah’s death in 1920 heralded the end of an era for Orford House, and within a year her children sold the entire contents of the house by auction, and the house itself was sold and transformed into the social club which opened on September 17, 1921.

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A 2017 gig at the social club. Picture: Karen Averby

Writing in 1924, an historian regarded Orford House as having been “a suitable residence for prosperous city men…but as a domestic residence it has outlived its usefulness”. Certainly, as a social club it has successfully played host to a breadth of social events, which have been enjoyed by the local community for a hundred years.

Karen Averby is a seaside-loving historian and research consultant specialising in researching histories and stories of buildings, people and places. She researches house histories for private clients and collaborates in community heritage projects (karenaverby.co.uk). She is also director of Archangel Heritage Ltd, an historical research consultancy providing research services for the commercial heritage sector (archangelheritage.co.uk). Also found on Twitter @karenaverby and @archaheritage