Regency architecture and scandalous nuns in Camden

The exterior architecture is a unique design, realised in a romantic Gothic style

The exterior architecture is a unique design, realised in a romantic Gothic style - Credit: Archant

Buy into the fascinating history of No. 17 Park Village, a Gothic villa on the border of Regent’s Park

Tucked away on a leafy crescent by Regent’s Park is a little villa that looks like something out of a Gothic fairytale.

Surrounded by trees, its steep gabled roofs are peppered with sugar-white turrets and parapets with decorative finials and pendants. But the story of some of its first occupants is perhaps even more curious than princesses locked away in towers.

No17 Park Village West was one of the final projects of John Nash, the opinion-dividing architect who transformed Regency-era London under the profligate patronage of George IV.

The ‘villas’ of Park Villages East and West are considered significant examples of the romantic style Nash brought to his domestic architecture, although it was up to his apprentice James Pennethorne to carry out his final plans after the architect’s death in 1834.

Leading British architectural historian John Summerson describes No17 and its fellow villas as highly significant highlights of Nash’s work. He calls these final examples of the architect’s work as “essays in the picturesque,” and declares them “in a sense, ancestors of all picturesque suburbia.”

The romantic style is a high octane mash-up of architectural eras, from the vaulted gothic points, to the neo-classical conceits of post-Georgian Regency style, to stylistic elements that recall Tudor architecture. The octagonal chimney stacks in particular are reminiscent of those found at Hampton Court Palace.

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It is perhaps fitting then that just a few years after its completion in 1837 the house became a home to the first religious sisterhood in the Church of England since the reformation of 1540.

More than 300 years after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in his relentless pursuit of an heir for the Tudor dynasty, an eligible young Victorian lady was having her own qualms about marriage. In 1843 Jane Ellacombe, the daughter of a cleric, broke off her three-year engagement and swore to dedicate her life to God.

A year later, she wrote to her father declaring her intention to start a religious community and imploring him to allow her to proceed with her plan unhindered by paternal concern:

“The hour is come now. I must act out my part. My dearest Father, you will not, you must not forbid it now. I do not ask you consent exactly... I only entreat you to let me act as a woman... you know I have long since been desirous of earning my own living.”

For a young Victorian woman to forsake a life of matrimony was something close to sacrilege. Under the ideology of the wider Anglican Church, marriage and motherhood were held up as the ideal and only course for a woman’s life. But as the Oxford Movement began to break away from the church and formed its own vision of Anglo-Catholism, the concept of single, monastic life for women was revived.

In 1845 Miss Ellacombe took up residence at No17 and became one of the founding members of the Park Village Sisterhood. The sisterhood was financed by a committee of wealthy and powerful men, including William Gladstone, and was under the direction of Dr Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement.

Peter Anson, in his book The Call of the Cloister: Religious Communities and Kindred Bodies in the Anglican Communion describes how the neighbourhood was somewhat scandalised upon discovering that the “innocent-looking villa was nothing else but a ‘Puseyite Nunnery.’”

Public attitudes were frequently hostile towards these all-female sisterhoods and their life choices, and rumours of inappropriate relations between Dr Pusey and the unmarried women of the sisterhood abounded.

“That young ladies [of good families] should shrink from society and entertain thoughts of a vow of celibacy in the face of an eligible marriage was almost inconceivable,” wrote Pusey’s biographer, Henry P. Liddon.

In reality, the daily lives of the Park Village Sisterhood, also known as the Sisterhood of the Holy Cross, were much more mundane.

Their work took them in to the slums of Camden and Somers Town, where they visited the poor, the sick in hospitals, and took responsibility for feeding, clothing and teaching destitute children.

For young women of a certain social class who did not wish to marry, coventual life provided an alternative mode of existence, allowing them to devote their lives to a cause and gain a rare level of autonomy by devoting their lives to God.

The community at No17 was, however, to be short lived. Formed by committee, it lacked strong leadership. Moreover, its members could not come to an agreement as to their purpose. Should their duty be first and foremost to the ministration of the poor? Or should they sequester themselves away and commit to a life of devotion and worship through extreme asceticism?

The debate soon became irrelevant, as in 1956 the sisterhood was dissolved and most of its members absorbed into Priscilla Lydia Sellon’s Devonport Society, under the new name of The Congregation of Religious of the Society of the Most Holy Trinity.

The blue plaque remains on the side of this historic building, serving as a reminder of the rich and interesting history of this particular home in Regent’s Park. Although the nuns are long gone, the house has been home to a number of notable figures, including a wealthy East India Merchant, a paint manufacturer, and a Harley Street doctor.

If you like the idea of living in the old home of scandalous nuns you could be in luck. A rare opportunity to own this slice of fascinating London history has just come up, and the property is available for £4.75 million through Savills.

The Grade II-listed property is now a charming family home that includes spacious double drawing room, a grand dining room, four bedrooms, a wine cellar, and a large garden.