William Cubbitt & Co
- Original design
- Unknown, 1755
- William Cubbitt & Co, 1890
The 2017 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2018 programme on 21st August.
Since 1926 Dartmouth House has been the home of the English-Speaking Union, an educational charity that equips young people with the oracy – speaking and listening – skills and confidence they need to thrive.
The English-Speaking Union was founded 100 years ago, after the devastation of World War I, out of an abiding belief in the power of communication to bolster international understanding and, ultimately, peace. Dartmouth House functioned both as its headquarters and as a meeting place and clubhouse for its members, something it continues to do today. Recognised as a charity in 1977, the English-Speaking Union now work to put oracy skills at the centre of the school curriculum. Our debating and public speaking programmes and competitions help young people to express themselves, to think for themselves, and to consider other people’s point of view. In short, we give children a voice and help them to be heard.
Find out more about our history and what we do at 100.esu.org.
What is now known as Dartmouth House is actually two houses: nos. 37 & 38 Charles Street. Both were built in around 1755, when Berkeley Square was the haunt of violent thieves and when the open Tybourne brook at its south end was so evil-smelling that it was described at the time as ‘a common sewer’.
The two buildings were combined between 1890 and 1891 by banker Edward Baring, who had been raised to the peerage as Baron Revelstoke in 1885. One of the most conspicuous consumers of the decade, he wanted a home equal to his vast collection of French antique furniture and art and he employed builders William Cubitt & Co and the firm of William Turner Lord for the interior design. The Barings Bank crisis of the 1890s (which necessitated a Bank of England bail-out and led to Lord Revelstoke’s bankruptcy) drew the works to a sharp halt.
The next owner, conservative politician Lord Dartmouth, carried out further improvements to the house, creating the Long and Small drawing rooms on the first floor out of what had been three reception rooms, and inscribing his name on the Doric porch outside in 1900.
The English-Speaking Union bought Dartmouth House in 1926, and Clough Williams Ellis (of Portmeirion fame), was brought in to transform what was by then a somewhat outmoded house into the organisation’s headquarters and a ‘home from home’ for its growing membership. When Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin officially opened the house in February 1927, it had 83 rooms, including 38 bedrooms for members (American ESU members donated money for the fixtures and fittings), 26 with their own bathroom. Appropriately, given our name, all rooms had their own telephone. Other rooms included a wood-panelled library, two restaurants, a drawing room, a ladies’ private drawing room, a ballroom, a tea room, a reading and writing room, and a travel bureau through which steamship and railway tickets and theatre and concert tickets could be booked. The house was a popular venue for lectures, parties, concerts and dances, many of which were open to non-members.
The house had served as a military hospital for the British Red Cross in World War I. In World War II during the Blitz, the English-Speaking Union set up a department here to distribute US donations to the areas of greatest need. By 1942 it focused on offering talks, visits and dances to entertain the thousands of American troops in Britain.
Today, the English-Speaking Union has use of only the basement, ground and first floors – the upper stories are now leased to the Chesterfield Hotel at no. 35. Many of the heats of our competitions such as the Schools’ Mace debating competition and the ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition take place in the splendid first-floor rooms. These rooms, and indeed the whole house, are available to hire for weddings, private dining functions and events including conferences, product launches and lectures. Over thirty percent of all profits from Dartmouth House events go towards supporting the English-Speaking Union in its charitable work, equipping young people with the oracy skills and confidence they need to thrive.
Standing outside, you can see from its size that Dartmouth House used to consist of two houses: nos. 37 & 38 Charles Street. While the other houses in the street are brick, Dartmouth House is faced in stone and decorated with exuberant mouldings – the work of building firm William Cubitt & Co which combined the two houses into one magnificent residence for Edward Baring, Lord Revelstoke, between 1890 and 1891. The marble courtyard and stylish mews house at the rear were also added at this time; as was the central Doric porch (with its polished granite columns reputed to be from St Petersburg), created as the entrance to the enlarged house. Revelstoke paid over £26,000 to Cubbitt & Co. The rococo wrought-iron railings alone cost £6,000 – look for the stylised ‘R’ for Revelstoke in the design.
Lord Revelstoke’s eighth child, Maurice Baring (1874-1945), wrote of his memories of the nursery, which was on the third floor of the house overlooking the street.
‘I can remember the peculiar roar of London in those days; the four-wheelers and hansoms rattling on the macadam pavement through the fog, except when there was straw down in the street for some sick person; and the various denizens of the streets, the lamplighter and the muffin-man; often a barrel-organ, constantly in summer a band, and sometimes a Punch and Judy.’ (The Puppet Show of Memory)
The 6th Earl of Dartmouth, conservative politician William Heneage Legge, was the next owner of the house and it was he who named it, carving his moniker onto the portico.
Dartmouth House was described in The Illustrated London News in 1970 as ‘by far the grandest building in Charles street’. It is Grade II*-listed (a building of national importance) and is included in Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Houses.
The front and rear reception halls are the work of interior decorators William Turner Lord for Lord Revelstoke when nos. 37 and 38 were combined in the early 1890s. The wood panelling to the rear was installed at this time, while the white panelling at the front is a later copy in plaster. Unfortunately, a damaged section of wood panelling was chosen from which to make the master – if you look closely you’ll see that each of the plaster panels is missing a decorative moulding.
The bust on the left of the doorway is of Sir Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister and Chairman of the English-Speaking Union from 1921-1926. You can see his name, along with those of our other chairmen and presidents, on the board to the left of the door to the courtyard. Note also the pink marble fireplace and its carving of Hestia, Greek goddess of the hearth.
This room has only ever been three colours. In Lord Revelstoke’s time, William Turner Lord painted it in gold, commissioning the acclaimed muralist Pierre Victor Galland to add the panels on the themes of literature, travel, astronomy, music and art, and embellishing the walls with elaborate stucco work incorporating their patron’s initials (EB – Edward Baring).
During World War II, the room was painted pink and it was here where Eleanor Roosevelt took tea with the American troops who then frequented Dartmouth House when she visited England in October 1942.
Since the 1990s, it has been blue and now serves as a restaurant. The display cases on the rear wall house three mace – decorated staffs – awarded to winners of our debating competitions.
Today a drawing room for members of the English-Speaking Union, this has few original features from Lord Revelstoke’s days apart from the eighteenth-century Italian fireplace which features inlays of coral and lapis lazuli. Note too, the portraits of Evelyn Wrench, the ESU’s founder [by the door], and former US President Abraham Lincoln, by Margaret Lindsay Williams and J. Hudson respectively.
Lord Revelstoke was also responsible for installing this courtyard and the unusually grand mews house behind. Originally this housed the stable block and the kitchens for the house (five chefs – and around 45 other staff – worked here for Lord Dartmouth in c. 1900). In World War II these rooms became the headquarters of the English-Speaking Union’s war relief programme which organised and distributed clothing, toys, blankets and ambulances and mobile canteens, many of them donated by its American members, to British servicemen, charities and families. Today the mews is home to the offices of the English-Speaking Union.
Looking up at the main house from the courtyard it is possible to see the original brickwork, and the stonework added later by Lord Revelstoke.
Lord Revelstoke’s London home was an amalgamation of styles, so expertly designed by William Allwright, William Turner Lord’s designer, that it is often difficult to identify what is old and new. This room, like several others in the house, is clad in very high-quality French mid-eighteenth-century panelling thought to have come from Parisian hotels and then cleaned, re-gilded and cut to size.
In 1926, when the English-Speaking Union bought Dartmouth House, architect Clough Williams-Ellis turned this room into a library of British-American literature. It was named in honour of Walter Hines Page, United States Ambassador to the UK during World War I and, like his friend Sir Evelyn Wrench, the founder of the ESU, a firm believer in the importance of Anglo-American relations. In the 1930s, the library was moved and the space became a card room. There is a portrait of Walter Hines Page in the Revelstoke Room and since 1923 we have run a scholarship programme named in his honour, allowing teachers to undertake research in the US.
Perhaps Lord Revelstoke’s most flamboyant intervention was this elaborate full-height staircase hall, constructed in 1890 and lined with Belgian marble. The rococo balustrade incorporates Revelstoke’s monogram and took a father-and-son-team two years to make. The ceiling painting is by Pierre Victor Galland (1822-1892) who was also responsible for the painted panels in the Wedgwood Room.
In World War I the then owner, the Earl of Dartmouth, returned to his country home and the house was used as a military hospital by the British Red Cross. It is reported that officers’ beds were moved to the space under the stairs (the strongest part of the house) during the Zeppelin raids, so it is ironic that when Prime Minister, Sir Stanley Baldwin, opened Dartmouth House for the English-Speaking Union on 22 February 1927, there were concerns about whether the staircase would bear the weight of the crowd. (It did and is entirely safe).
Pictures of Her Majesty The Queen, Patron of the ESU, and Prince Philip; and Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, President of the English-Speaking Union, hang at the bottom of the stairs. The portrait of Sir Winston Churchill by John Wilson Jowsey which hangs on the staircase was loaned to the ESU by Churchill College, Cambridge, to coincide with the inauguration of the Churchill Room in 2003. Note too, the private postbox, installed in 1926 ‘By arrangement with the Postmaster-General’ and still in use today.
Lord Dartmouth placed his stamp on the house in 1900 when he created the Long and Small Drawing Rooms from what had been three smaller rooms. These rooms have ornate ceilings incorporating the crest of the Dartmouth Family and the year of their decoration.
The fine Robert Adam fireplace in the Long Drawing Room was installed earlier by Lord Revelstoke and was originally at Derby House, Grosvenor Square. The original watercolours can be seen at Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s inn Fields. The French eighteenth-century painted doors between the two rooms also date to Lord Revelstoke’s time.
Landscapes in the Long Drawing Room include works by S.H. Baker, Sir Alfred East, and the charming Love and the West Wind by Edward Reginald Frampton, last publicly on display at the Royal Academy in 1921.
The English-Speaking Union was unusual for its time in that it has welcomed women as members since its foundation in 1918. The Small Drawing Room, featuring dado panelling from c.1740 and a handsome French marble fireplace was originally the ladies’ private sitting room, and was decorated with a striped green silk tapestry. During World War I this room was used as St George’s Ward of the military hospital operated here by the British Red Cross.
Today both rooms, along with the Churchill Room next door, are used to host the heats and finals for some of our speaking and debate competitions for primary and secondary school students. They also serve as function rooms for private events, weddings, conferences and filming (Sherlock, Mr Selfridge and House of Cards), with thirty per cent of profits going towards funding our educational programmes in areas of social need.
The panelling in this, the former ballroom, again installed by Lord Revelstoke in the early 1890s, was once thought to be walnut but is in fact oak. Traces of gilding can still be seen in parts. The room is named after our former Chairman, Winston Churchill, who once said ‘If you can speak in this country, you can do anything’. Look out for the delightful lion’s head doorknobs, also part of Lord Revelstoke’s furnishings.