- Original design
- Richard Jupp, 1784
The 2018 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2019 programme mid-August.
The Castle was built to honour Sir William James and his great naval victory at the Battle of Severndroog in 1755.
The Bombay Fleet was engaged to keep pirates off ships belonging to the East India Company. Piracy was regarded as a very serious crime world-wide and the pirates were very well organised, a sort of former-day mafia. They used to kill or enslave the crews and launder the booty. If pirates captured ships with ammunition and troops, this would give them resources for the future.
The East India Company made its money by exporting spices and silks from India, and taking to India treasures, men and ammunition. Pirates could therefore get rich pickings! Thus piracy was a way of making a great deal of money quickly with very little risk.
At the time, India was in turmoil. It was difficult for any body of people, even any government, to deal with the pirates. So the East India Company decided that it would have to do something itself. It recruited Sir William James to lead the Bombay Fleet, and it decided to target a particular pirate king, Tology Angrier.
Angrier’s pirates were based on the island fort of Severn Droog, off the coast of Mallabar, India. They were seen as the greatest pirate menace in the Eastern seas. Sir William James’ naval forces ultimately won by bombardment, forcing the fortress to capitulate.
After his victory, Sir William went on to fight the French. He thereafter became Member of Parliament for West Looe, in Cornwall. This enabled him to help further the business interests of the East India Company in the House of Commons. He eventually became Chairman of the East India Company. At the same time, he bought Park Land Place, Barn House, and other land in Eltham, as well as a house in Gerrard Street, Soho, which became the principal residence of his family.
Sir William died at his daughter’s wedding in 1783. His wealthy widow remained in Eltham and Gerrard Street. She decided to build a solid and public memorial to her husband, since seemingly neither the East India Company nor the country were interested in commemorating him!
She paid £500 to the Parish of Eltham for the land on which to build the Castle as a tribute to Sir William (the interest of which went to pay for coal for the poor). The Castle was built in 1784, and was originally known as Lady James’ Folly. She kept it full of momentoes to her late husband. Subsequently, it was taken over by the army in 1848, to be used as an ordinance survey point, and subsequently vested in the London County Council. It remains a unique memorial, although it is no longer the original landmark it was because of the trees growing around it.
With abolition of the London County Council, the Castle became the property of the Greater London Council. The GLC ran a café on the ground floor, operated the viewing platform and financed the restoration of, among other things, the very fine ceiling of the first floor room. When the GLC in turn was abolished in the mid-1980s, the Castle was transferred to Greenwich Council who lacked the funds to continue running the café.
A few years ago, the Council said that it wanted to sell the building to an architectural company to use as their head office. This would have meant a permanent end to public access to the building and would also have involved the sale of public parkland around the building. The Council’s proposal caused furore, and local residents formed the Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust with the aim of developing an alternative plan for the Castle built on the principle of public access. Proposals include a café, viewing platform, woodland interpretation centre and wedding venue.
The Castle’s appearance on the BBC2 programme “Restoration” was a tremendous boost even though it did not win. Since then, the Trust secured grants from two grant-giving bodies to fund studies to investigate the feasibility of the use of building, and prepared a bid for the Castle’s full restoration from the Heritage Lottery Fund, resulting in a grant of £595,000 towards the restoration of Severndroog Castle in 2010.