When Whitehall was built, in around 1500, Cheam was a rural community of around 300 people, centred around Park Lane and Park Road. The only similar building to date from this time is the Old Cottage, which once stood near the junction of Ewell Road and the Broadway, beside the village brewery and inn. It is thought that a Tudor inn and brewery were located on the site of today’s Harrow Inn, while the blacksmith’s forge was at the corner of Park Lane and the Broadway. A medieval kiln producing the distinctive Cheamware pottery was situated on today’s High Street, and there were probably others in the village.
East Cheam Manor stood in Gander Green Lane, whilst the site of West Cheam Manor is now occupied by Cheam Library. The village church was close to where St. Dunstan’s Church now stands, the only remaining part of the original building being the Lumley Chapel, which dates from the 12th century, and contains several Tudor memorials.
Visitors coming to modern Cheam for the first time, particularly if they approach from The Broadway with its mixture of mock Tudor and stark modern buildings, are attracted by the striking appearance of the row of weatherboarded houses in Malden Road. The first and most imposing of these is Whitehall. With its projecting upper storey, sloping porch and long stretch of weatherboarding pierced by lattice windows, Whitehall is a landmark in Cheam Village Conservation Area. Since it was built in the early sixteenth century, Whitehall and its residents have played an important part in local life.
Tradition holds that Whitehall was built as a yeoman farmer’s house and farmers did live in Whitehall in later years, but some non-domestic use cannot be ruled out. A previous structure on the site had collapsed or had been demolished when Whitehall was built, and would have been served by the fifteenth-century well. Evidence for this came from the excavation of the rear garden area in 1978-1979.
Whitehall was constructed as a two-storey continuous jetty building with a deep overhang at the front and back. Alterations made by successive owners have contributed to its architectural interest. It is Grade II* Listed by the Department Communities and Local Government as a building of outstanding architectural and historic importance and is thus protected from unsuitable changes.
The fabric of the building with its timbers of local oak and elm, dating from c. 1500, is revealed inside. The wood was used unseasoned and untreated, often within a few months of felling. It was later blackened when the contrast of black and white became fashionable.
The frame of the house would have been prefabricated at a carpenters’ yard. Each timber was jointed, assembled into a frame and marked, before it was dismantled ready for removal to the building site.
Assembling the frame on site was a comparatively simple procedure, as the timbers already bore the carpenter’s marks (a form of adapted Roman numerals) and mortice and tenon joints. Such buildings could also be dismantled fairly easily. It is interesting to note that the Old Cottage in Cheam, which is of a similar date to Whitehall, was dismantled and moved to its present site in 1922.
Vertical studs were fixed into the horizontal base timbers. Straight or curved planks (cut from curved branches) were used to brace the angles. Wooden pegs, rather than expensive iron nails which would rust in the fresh, damp wood, were used to hold the timbers together, and many original pegs are evident, particularly in Whitehall’s roof.
The jetty was formed by the projecting joists of the upper floor, which were fixed across the horizontal timber at the top of the ground floor upright studs and posts. The process was repeated for the top storey, ending in the wall plates, or upper horizontal timbers. Thus the structure was like two boxes one on top of the other, rather than a building of full height sub-divided into floors.
A low wall of chalk blocks provided a foundation for Whitehall’s frame and protected it from rot. The land to the south of Cheam’s cross-roads is chalk, and the material was at one time used extensively in Cheam. Remnants may be seen in the walls of Lumley Chapel, and the wall which runs near it. Some later buildings near Whitehall also have chalk foundations, but Cheam’s chalk walls have mostly disappeared.
The roof is a crown-post construction. It is possible that this roof was thatched at one time, but a section of early hand-made tiles is visible. On the ground floor the width of timber to infill is roughly equal, while on the upper storey the timbers are more meagre and the infill wider. The spaces between the timbers were filled with split oak lath or woven wattle covered with daub, or rye-dough, a mixture of straw and clay. This was coated with lime plaster.
Whitehall’s windows consisted of wooden mullions set in a gap between upright timbers. These were unglazed, although sometimes such windows were filled in with beaten leather, oiled paper or thin strips of horn from cows or deer. The windows were covered by simple inside shutters, none of which remains in this building. The floor would probably have been made of beaten earth or crushed chalk, covered with straw.
From the time that Whitehall was first investigated as a house of great architectural interest, there has been conjecture about the arrangements for heating and cooking within the building. As Whitehall was a two-storey structure from the beginning, with no central hearth as in ‘Wealden’ houses, these arrangements must have been at one or both ends of the building. The earliest chimney at the north (Hall) end of the house may be a later insertion.
Extensive alterations were made during the sixteenth century. The attractive porch with a room above was added. Attics were created by inserting a floor in the upper storey. These were reached by means of a newel staircase housed in a timber staircase tower, which replaced the earlier internal ladderway.
A three storey extension with a cellar was made to the rear of the house in the following century. The ground floor of this addition is now Whitehall’s Refreshment Room. The Rev. George Aldrich, the founder of Cheam School, is reputed to have lived in Whitehall at that time.
John Killick leased Whitehall in 1741,and his son, James Killick, bought the property from Robert, ninth Earl of Petre, of East Cheam Manor, in 1785. On James’s death in 1807, Whitehall passed to his son, William, who had been born in 1775, married Lucy Noakes, and had eight daughters and three sons, Whitehall passed by entail in 1853 to William’s daughters, Charlotte and Harriet. Three of their sisters had died young, and Susan and Penelope had married, Harriet was governess to the children of Cheam’s Rector, Charlotte’s life was closely connected with the nearby Cheam School, where she was governess to the daughters of Robert Tabor, the headmaster, and taught music to some of the pupils there. Whitehall’s size, its proximity and Charlotte’s connections with the school made it an obvious location for boarding out pupils and staff. Several sons of the headmaster were lodged at Whitehall.
The 1881 census reveals that three masters from the school John Tancock, Walter Dayman and Montague Grignon, lodged in Whitehall at the time, with Charlotte and Harriet Killick and their servant, Ann Baker. When Harriet died in 1914, her great-nieces, Susan Mary and Harriet Maud Muller, inherited Whitehall. On the death of Harriet Maud Muller in 1959, the house passed to their niece, Doris Mills, until it was bought by the former Borough of Sutton and Cheam in 1963. When the Killick’s acquired Whitehall, it was already over 250 years old and the weatherboarding was added to protect the timber-framed structure. A nineteenth century kitchen and bathroom wing at the rear of the building completed the major alterations to Whitehall. The Killick family had lived in Whitehall for over 200 years.
The name ‘Whitehall’ was in use before the house took on its white weatherboarded appearance and the origins of its name are uncertain. An unlikely connection with Nonsuch Palace has sometimes been deduced from the name ‘Maids of Honour House’, which is thought to have been used for Whitehall at one time. Another traditional name, ‘The Council House’ links it to a local legend that Queen Elizabeth I held an impromptu council meeting in the house to sign important papers when she was on a hunting expedition from Nonsuch Palace. A much larger building, West Cheam Manor, which was in royal ownership until 1563, was also close and might have been more suitable for the purpose if the event took place at all. The ‘Council House’ name may give strength to the theory that Whitehall was not a private residence.
It is possible that the name ‘Whitehall’ derives from ‘Wight’s Hall’. The family of Wight is on record in Cheam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the boundary of the old sub-Manor of Wights was nearby. A connection between the family and Whitehall seems likely, although so far there is no evidence that Whitehall was the manor house.