Not many have heard of Thomas Carlyle – I certainly hadn’t before embarking on my research into the Victorian period – but he was much admired by Charles Dickens, William Morris and many other well-known personalities of the era. He also founded the London Library which still boasts many a famous literary member today.
Thomas and his wife Jane moved to London from Scotland in the summer of 1834. They paid £35 a year for 5 Cheyne Row (now number 24) – and this never increased in the 47 years that he lived in the house! After Carlyle’s death in 1881 a commemorative plaque marked his tenure, but the house became neglected until the visit of one of Carlyle’s devotees, George Lumsden, in 1894. The dire state of the house inspired him to campaign for funds to buy it and he managed to acquire the property in May 1895. Many of the original contents were returned on loan or gifted to the Carlyle House Memorial Trust and the house opened to the public that July. It’s now owned by the National Trust.
When the Carlyles first moved to Chelsea it was not seen as a fashionable area but it was popular in literary and artistic circles. Mrs Gaskell was born at 93 Cheyne Walk in 1810 and George Eliot lived at number 4. Turner, Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rosetti were other residents of the area. Round the corner is 49 Glebe Place which is the only London building by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh.
There are several iconic homes of the Victorian period in London (Dickens’s house in Doughty Street and 18 Stafford Terrace, home of the Sambournes for example) but this is unique in that no alterations have been made other than for the upkeep of the property. The only toilet is still the outdoor privy and payment is cash only. All but the two rooms, occupied by the live-in custodian, are restored to their original purpose. To enter the property you have to pull the bell to be let in, just as the Carlyle’s visitors would have done.
On the ground floor are the parlour, at the front of the house, and the back dining room. Throughout the property are peppered cards bearing some of Thomas Carlyle’s quotations as well as information about the room, the furniture, or the famous visitors to the property. Jane was an aspiring writer herself, and was a keen letter writer. Interesting snippets of these are shared, filling in the life of this extraordinary couple. Also from the ground floor is the door to the garden (see below). Thomas grew beans and turnips here although the soil was poor, and liked to spend the early mornings and evenings out here while he smoked his pipe.
The first floor is home to the drawing room which was enlarged in 1852, the windows lengthened to create more light for entertaining their guests. I was most jealous of Thomas’s reading chair with its rotating book-rest. He spent much of his last few months reading and dozing here, and it was in this room that he died in February 1881. Next door to this room is Jane’s bedroom and dressing room. She suffered ill health as she grew older, a victim of insomnia, severe headaches, flu and neuralgia, and finally succumbed to illness in 1866. The Carlyles never experienced the luxury of a bathroom, despite advances in plumbing technology during their lives, and relied on the outdoor privy and hipbaths, the hot water being carried up from the kitchen in the basement.
The next floor up being the custodian’s rooms, in the Carlyle’s time Thomas’s bedroom and a guest room, the next port of call is the attic. This Carlyle had soundproofed to form a study where he could work. He couldn’t stand any noise and suffered through his neighbours’ cockerels, the playing of the organ grinders outside, and the noise from revellers, fireworks and music from the nearby Cremorne Gardens. Despite his efforts, the room kept out the original noises but instead let in the new irritant of train whistles and boat horns from the river. This room is very close to the original layout and is full of books, pictures as well as being home to Carlyle’s writing desk.
Back down the stairs, past the garden and into the basement is found the kitchen. The Carlyle’s only kept one servant to clean the entire house, cook and carry water up to the bedrooms. For a long time the poor woman also had to sleep in the kitchen on a fold-up bed. Since Thomas liked to end his evening with a smoke in the kitchen she had to wait up until he had gone to bed before she could turn in for the night. In addition to these already less than ideal circumstances Jane was a picky employer, finding fault continuously. In the 32 years she lived here she made her way through 34 servants!
Visiting Carlyle’s house is truly like stepping back in time. Authentic, informative and an intriguing look at how this couple really lived in Victorian England.
Carlyle’s House, 24 Cheyne Row, London SW3 5HL. Entry is £6 adults, £3 children (free for National Trust members).
Open Wednesday – Sunday 11.00-16.30. Also Bank Holidays (do check website for up to date info).