39 Brunswick Square

Unlike some of the properties in Brunswick Square, we do not know much about the construction of the house, its interior plan or its early ownership. One thing we do know is that, unlike many of the houses in the Square, number 39 never had a dedicated coach house or stabling area built behind it.

However, it was described as “that excellent freehold family residence” when put up for sale in 1858. The purchaser had the option of buying the furniture as well but evidently did not, because there is a wonderful description of it a short time later, when it was auctioned. This gives us some clues about the house, as the furniture and effects comprised “the requirements of ten bedchambers”, a drawing room and dining room. In addition, the basement comprised “the necessary furniture and appointments of housekeeper’s room, pantry and kitchen”. Much of the furniture is made of exotic materials such as mahogany and rosewood, and there are also carpets, chandeliers, china and glass. There was also a “rosewood loo”, which isn’t what you think it is. It is in fact a supper table.

Image of a rosewood supper table or loo
A rosewood supper table

In 1842 we believe that the house was owned by Miss Benyon. Unfortunately I cannot find out anything about her. From 1846 to 1848 the house was occupied by the Hon Archibald Macdonald and again I cannot find out anything about him.

Portrait of Sir Ralph Darling
Sir Ralph Darling

The next known occupants, in 1851, were the Darling family. It is fair to say that Sir Ralph Darling had lived an extraordinary life, involving military and civil service around the world.

Born in Ireland in the 1770s, he had spent most of his life in the military. In his earliest days in the Army (in the 1790s), Darling served in the West Indies. He then saw action during the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Corunna. His next major posting was to Mauritius, as commander of British troops there. He subsequently became acting governor; this marked a change from pure military to more administrative command. The family left Mauritius in 1823, after nearly five years.

In 1825 they moved to Australia, where Lieutenant-General Darling (as he now was) had been appointed the governor of New South Wales. It is fair to say that Darling’s time in Australia was a turning point in his career. Although it is generally accepted that he did some good, the overall picture is negative. This is mostly due to his inflexible military-style approach to governing and, in particular, the death of a soldier called Joseph Sudds after being sentenced to work in a chain gang in specially designed heavy shackles.  Darling and the rest of the establishment played the incident down but there was much local anger and outrage which eventually proved to be Darling’s undoing.

His term as governor ended in 1831 and was not extended, so he returned to England with his family. And in case you were wondering the Darling River, Darling mountains and Darling Harbour were all named after him, ensuring a lasting legacy. Unfortunately for Darling, the Sudds story would not go away and followed him back to England. Eventually, in 1835, a parliamentary committee was set up. This cleared Darling of wrongdoing and, in an extraordinary finale, he was knighted the very next day. But this was not necessarily the exoneration it seems because Sir Ralph never again held any active political or military roles, although he was promoted to colonel in 1837.

By the time he was living in Brunswick Square he was 79 years old and enjoying a quieter life in Hove with his wife, three daughters and two grandchildren. They had six servants, including three female members of the Philpott family. It was after Sir Ralph’s death in 1858 that the house was put up for sale, as described above.

We do not know who bought the house, but by the time of the next census in 1861 the head of household was Eliza Vale, a 46 year-old widow. This was the start of a period of unbroken residency by the same family which did not end until the death of Eliza’s daughter Florence in 1915.

Sadly, as women in the Victorian era, there are very few digital records available about Eliza or Florence. This is a pity because I am sure there is a very interesting story to be told, if only we could find out more about it.

Here is what we do know. Eliza’s husband (and Florence’s father) Charles Patten Vale died in 1854, aged 71. He and Eliza had married in 1834 and Florence was born in 1853. Eliza died in 1872, leaving around £1.5 million (in today’s money) and Florence became the head of household. She never married and seemingly had a good relationship with her servants, many of whom were with her for many years. The most interesting of these was Job Avery.

He was Florence’s butler for many years (in the census from 1871 onwards). Born in Bickenhall, Somerset he had been tried in 1856 for stealing 10 shillings’ worth of potatoes (with another man, they were both found not guilty). He died in 1912, leaving just over £4000 (The National Archive converter says the 2017 equivalent value of this is over £312,000). This seems an extraordinarily large sum for a butler and it was split between Florence and Lois Pfrangley (Job’s married sister).

Florence Vale died in 1915, aged 62, leaving over £44,000 (equivalent to about £2.6 million today). At least she had lived to see women get the vote; for the last six years of her life she was on the electoral register, by virtue of being a homeowner.

Florence’s death marked the end of an era and the demise of number 39 as a family home. The house was converted into three maisonettes and a caretaker’s quarters. In a final sign of the changing times, in 1921 a motor garage was built on the land behind the house; the very place where a coach house and stables would have been built in earlier days.


Research by Teresa Preece, 2022

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