On my travels so far, I have come across several properties that, although owned by the Trust for some time, have only recently been opened more widely having been brought back into the public domain from the hands of tenants. Having already visited ‘works in progress’ such as Allan Bank in Cumbria and Leith Hill Place in Surrey, I can now add Rainham Hall to this list.
Rainham Hall was actually taken on by the National Trust in 1949 during its time as a children’s day nursery and was later home to a steady stream of tenants between 1954 and 2013. It was then that a Heritage Lottery Fund grant allowed a restoration project to be undertaken and the Hall was reopened on a more public platform in 2015.
Like Allan Bank and Leith Hill Place, Rainham Hall has sadly lost all contents related to its early owners so it is simply using its empty rooms to display information and exhibits about their lives and times. Where its approach differs somewhat from similar properties is in its decision to concentrate on one specific owner or era at a time. For the first two years, this has been John Harle, the merchant and trader who was responsible for the building of Rainham Hall on land close to a shipping wharf he had acquired. There is, therefore, a very maritime feel to the exhibits at present, with some interesting displays, including maps to highlight the state of the world and the Thames in Harle’s time, and some information about the types of cargoes his ships may have carried. Although the rooms still seem fairly bare, each one has an individual focus for its display and there is even one room in which you can sit and imagine you are sailing the ocean wave, with sound and lighting effects to give this impression (be warned, those susceptible to motion sickness should follow my lead and not linger for long!)
Not an awful lot is known about John Harle himself and he is even represented on his family tree as a faceless 18th century wig as we do not even know what he looked like. In fact, the only real piece of John Harle on display today is his last will and testament. As a result of this, the exhibits tend to give more general background on life for such a man at such a time. Along with the maritime displays, there is a room laid out as if it were a Lloyds Coffee House, with many tradesmen doing business in such establishments, while another couple of rooms hold a set of Hogarth’s Industry & Idleness prints, which are presented in order with details of what each picture is showing. I really liked this as I have come across these prints before but have never really understood them so it was nice to have the accompanying explanations. This is one particular advantage of a property that has a lot of empty space like this: a little can go a long way.
I had a chat with one of the friendly volunteers on the way out and she told me that the displays will be changing next year to focus on the house’s time as a day nursery, during and after the Second World War. This time, there will be personal stories included as some of the children from the time are still alive to tell their tales. And Rainham has further scope for future exhibits, with its tenants having also included a Vogue photographer, various musicians and artists, plus a Victorian bicycling vicar with a penchant for natural history. I imagine anyone who waits for that particular display to open will be in for an interesting visit!
As you have probably gathered, Rainham Hall is another property that veers a long way from the stereotypical National Trust stately home, so perhaps it is not one for those who want ornate furnishings, expensive art and stories of nobility. Instead, it is an interesting museum space, with scope for changing exhibitions and a role to play in history learning and education. I came away a little more informed… and thankfully not too seasick!
Highlights: The detail given on the Industry & Idleness Hogarth prints; the maps and displays about mercantile life in John Harle’s time
Refreshments: Cheese and ham ploughmans and a glass of apple juice