Way out in deepest east London, in the southernmost reaches of Epping Forest, lies Wanstead Park. It’s basically fine, as parks go. There are all the normal things you could ask from a park: some grass, some trees, a shortcut to the supermarket if you’re me. Like a lot of parks ultimately the history is broadly speaking, quite simple: “A load of rich bastards owned it until they couldn’t be bothered to anymore and flogged it off to a municipal authority.”
But had a single decision gone the other way, a walk across Wanstead Park could have been a walk through the grounds of a royal palace. Oh, and the last 200 years of British history might have run a very different course.
For several centuries the park formed the grounds of various different buildings known as Wanstead House – one of which was even a Royal pad for a bit – Henry VII bought it for the convenient hunting opportunities (possibly also as a nice quiet place to fiddle some finances), and apparently the ghost of Elizabeth I haunts the grounds pining after another owner, Robert Dudley (when she isn’t in one of the seven million other places she’s supposed to haunt, I guess).
Eventually, the house passed on to New Money, namely Sir Josiah Child, a humble merchant’s son who had made ‘mad bank’ by ‘doing imperialism’ with the East India Company - and then to his son, Richard, aka the Early Tylney, who knocked the house down and built a massive, massive replacement. Built in the then fashionable Palladian style (i.e. lots of columns and triangley bits to give the impression of a Greek temple), it was extravagant in the extreme, a palace in all but name - it was likely the first private house in the UK to include a purpose-built ballroom. The gardens were completely remade around the same time - the park’s extensive series of ponds are in fact the remains of ornamental lakes.
Wanstead House as completed in 1722. I'll take 3! Image: public domain.
So where is it? Well, by the 1800s the ‘family line’ had zigged and zagged a bit due reasons such as ‘inheritor of house not interested in sexy times with ladies’ and ‘inheritor of house dies as child’ and in 1805 it and the associated fortune passed to teenage heiress Catherine Tylney-Long, who for totally unrelated reasons immediately became the most marriageable woman in all of England.
The front-runners for her hand were a) the Duke of Clarence - cons: quite old and fat, had spent the last 20 years living with (and had had 10 kids with) his mistress, pros: the future William IV, king of the United Kingdom or b) William Wellesley-Pole - pros: dashing Mr Darcy prototype, relative of top war hero the Duke of Wellington, cons: total wanker. For inevitable swooning related reasons, Wellesley-Pole won, and they became the Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesleys. Inevitable jokes about William’s Long Pole were promptly born.
The Grotto - the remains of a folly in which Wellesley-Pole was reputed (hopefully falsely) to have kept his wife locked up. (mage: author's own.
And he truly was a dick of the highest order: not only was he a philandering shitbag, within a decade he'd managed to burn through as much of Catherine’s money as he could get his hands on living the highest life he could afford. With cash exhausted and debts mounting up, he was left with no choice other than flogging the contents of Wanstead House, and then, because he was not legally allowed to sell to the house itself, the component parts. He literally had it smashed it up and sold it for scrap.
His wife died shortly afterwards, at the least miserably but plausibly of actual misery, and the line ended with their kids, neither of whom ever married (perhaps after seeing what it had done to their mother). Catherine’s ghost supposedly haunts the park, presumably on some kind of timeshare deal with Elizabeth I.
The Temple - originally home to Wanstead House's collection of exotic birds, now intermittently open as a visitor centre. Image: author's own.
What was left of the estate passed to a cousin, who in turn ended up flogging the chunk that’s now Wanstead Park to the City of London Corporation which by that point had taken up the cause of ‘Hey guys what if we didn’t chop down all of Epping Forest?’.
But what if a butterfly had flapped its wings, William Wellesley-Pole had crashed his horse into a tree, the future William IV and Catherine had fallen in love at the Under The Sea dance, and she’d become his queen?
In an alternate 2019, Wanstead House still stands but as a palace in name as well as affect. William IV’s niece, Victoria, got nowhere near the throne and instead his son William V led Britain into the glorious era historians refer to as ‘Big Willy Time’. But due to Civil War 2.0, today his descendants only rule over the small kingdom of Wanstead, which the Republic allowed them to keep in return for a cut of tourist revenue. I work in one of the kingdom’s factories, gluing Beefeater uniforms onto teddy bears for 16 hours a day, but my television has recently been picking up signals from a better world, where the palace gardens are open to all and I can get to the shops 20 minutes faster. The revolution starts here.
Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.