20 East St Helen Street, Twickenham House
This early Georgian building was built in 1756-7 for Joseph Tomkins. The Tomkins were among the leading families of the town; they were prominent members of the local Baptist Church and successful businessmen in the malt trade and, later, banking.
The house is noted for its splendid brickwork. It has two storeys plus attics with dormer windows, as well as cellars. The front door, framed by an elaborate doorcase, is approached up five stone steps under an iron lamp holder.
Next door to the east are the original stables with a cobbled yard.
The back of the house is if anything more impressive than the front. At the level of the attics there is a large domed lantern with three windows.
The building has retained many original internal features, notably the main staircase, doors, doorcases and fire surrounds.
The architect of the house itself is thought to have been Sir Robert Taylor, although it is possible that the stables were built to the design of a local architect.
Stables and cobbled yard, and railings and lamp holder separately listed at grade II* (stables reference no. 1199451; railings reference no. 1048904).
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.
© AAAHS and contributors 2013 updated 2014
There is archaeological evidence for human activity on the site of Twickenham House and the surrounding areas but there is no reliable written record until the mid-eighteenth century. The archaeology indicates considerable activity on the site from an early period. In 1987 and 1989 excavations in the garden by members of the Abingdon Area Archaeological and Historical Society disclosed Iron Age finds, including pottery, which dated from approximately the sixth century BC. Roman remains comprised buildings of the first century AD and the foundations of roads or courtyards of the same period, together with well preserved floors from a later Romano-British building and some human burials. Included in the finds were also animal bones which suggested that the inhabitants at that time lived mainly on mutton.
There was fresh evidence of occupation in the twelfth century in the form of more pottery. Copious medieval finds varied from local Abingdon ware to horns from cattle and there were also traces of a medieval building on the site. Animal remains indicated local commercial activities such as tanning and skin-processing, lasting from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. A fragment of stone carving was also found; this may have come from the seventeenth century demolition of the Abingdon Cross, which had stood in the Market Place since 1441.
In the middle of the eighteenth century a property on the site was owned by Matthew Anderson, who was three times the mayor of Abingdon. When Joseph Tomkins came to buy the site in 1755 he was able to enlarge it by including the garden from a nearby property, the leasehold of which had previously been held by a Mrs. Green. She was possibly the descendant of Richard Greene who lived in the seventeenth century in a property to the north east of Twickenham House. The record of rates paid suggests that the present house was being built in 1757.
The architectural history of the building has long been a matter of debate. Arthur Oswald, writing in the Country Life magazine in 1929, saw it as one of a number of houses with similar brickwork, which he attributed to a local builder working in the period from 1700 to 1735. He noted that Twickenham House had no datestone. This was unlike, for example, Stratton House (1722) and No.57 East St Helen Street (1732) – both built in Abingdon by the same person, he assumed, who built Twickenham House. He put this down to a rebuilding of the façade and a refitting of the interior in about 1760. His assertion that the house was built in the first half of the century rested on the somewhat antiquated dormers and the seventeenth century-style windows in the stable block. Nikolaus Pevsner, writing in 1966, did not refer to a rebuilding. It is possible that he had not read Oswald’s article but this is unlikely; his The Buildings of England was meticulously researched. The 2010 revision of his Berkshire volume, on the other hand, benefited from a wealth of later scholarship and the authors were firmly of the view that Twickenham House was the work of Robert Taylor. Unfortunately, Taylor’s papers do not survive but he was one of the most prolific architects of his time, receiving a knighthood and amassing sufficient wealth to endow the Taylor Institution for modern languages at Oxford University.
Richard Garnier, the leading Taylor scholar, has shown that the puzzling clash of styles noted by Oswald was typical of Taylor’s architecture in the 1750s. He writes: ‘As for Taylor’s style in the 1750s, it has a characteristic combination of the rather old-fashioned and bang up-to-date with William Kent-inspired architectural fittings combined with Rococo decoration. The fittings comprise door and window frames and their mouldings which look at first more like 1740s or even 1730s work, the 1750s-looking Rococo decoration being applied to doorhead and chimney-piece friezes and in plaster motifs on walls and ceilings. This is another reason why Taylor’s hand has so often lain unrecognised: it being assumed that such features must date from two building campaigns and not due to one man all at the same time. Indeed, I have by now shown in several buildings how work assumed to date from before his time is really due to Taylor.’
This analysis fits Twickenham House almost exactly – the Chinese Chippendale staircase, Rococo fire- and door-surrounds in the main rooms and a Gothick (see glossary) bookcase are typical of his eclectic style. In the back garden there was also a little Gothick summerhouse. No doubt this was the style demanded by the new rich who were his main clients.
The Chinese Chippendale staircase
© Michael Harrison 2011
The stable block, although large, is not exceptional, as a man of Joseph Tomkins’ status would have had at least two carriages and a number of horses, with grooms and stable lads in attendance. By the nineteenth century there were five loose-boxes and two carriage houses in a range of buildings along the north of the plot. There is a wall and gate with piers to give access to the stables; the wall is stone-capped and the piers are surmounted with stone balls.
The garden elevation of Twickenham House, with its brickwork of glazed headers and a full-height architectural centrepiece taking in the rear door, the window above and a strip of balustrading to a glazed octagonal lantern at roof level, suggest that Tomkins wanted his house to be seen from the garden and vice versa.
The Tomkins family were successful businessmen in the malting trade and, later, in banking. It is possible that parts of the property were used for business purposes. It has river access to the rear – perhaps wider before the gaol was built adjoining the garden in 1811 – and the small ground floor room next to the stable courtyard had a safe enclosed in the overmantel and a built-in cupboard with pigeon-holes, suggesting use as an office. This room was accessible from both the entrance hall and the stable courtyard; however, none of its features has been dated and they may relate to later owners.
Expansion of the property in the early nineteenth century seems to have involved the building of a square rear wing to provide additional service accommodation, including a new kitchen to replace one within the main house. A corridor connected it with the main building. The rear wing of No. 22 also wraps around the rear wall of Twickenham House in the same way as this extension, suggesting common ownership and construction at the same date. The ground floor rear windows seem also to have been lengthened around this time and made into French doors. Further additions were made to the north gable of the house, providing a tradesmen’s entrance from the stable courtyard. By this time the coach-house carriageway led to a large stable yard, divided from the garden by a substantial wall. Behind this was a kitchen garden that extended eastwards to Turn Again Lane.
The Tomkins family was succeeded in the nineteenth century by John Box, a surgeon. He was recorded at Twickenham House in the 1841, 1851 and 1861 censuses. The twentieth century excavation unearthed human bones from the mid-nineteenth century, whose condition suggested that they had been medical specimens used by him. John Box also rented from the Borough the land and stables next to the house. By 1871 Kate Richmond was running a ‘ladies’ school’ in the house; Miss Richmond was possibly a tenant. By 1876 John Box had died and his executors sold the property to William Badcock, a partner in the local High Street firm of drapers Badcock & Hedges. .
By the turn of the century the house had been bought by George Saxby, who lived there until his death in 1930. When he came to live in Abingdon George Saxby bought a brewery in Stert Street which he later sold to Morland’s Brewery Ltd. He was a Freemason and also a very active governor of Christ’s Hospital, the leading local charity.
By 1935 the outbuildings had been converted into flats and there was an unattached property belonging to the house called Twickenham Cottage at the rear of the site, backing onto Turnagain Lane. The top floor of the house had also become a flat. Major Griggs lived in the main house from 1936 until 1942. He is remembered by a neighbour as riding out from the stables. He was followed by Mr and Mrs Alex, who came from London and were well known hatters. In the 1980s John Lightfoot purchased the property and in about 1990 the main house was used as offices. By 2010 it had been sold to a property developer.
The origin of the name Twickenham House is not known for certain nor when that name was first given to it. Twickenham itself – now a suburb of London - became fashionable in the early eighteenth century and contained an actual Twickenham House, which had a pedimented garden front and a stable block for six horses, together with a number of service buildings. Comparisons have also been drawn with Marble Hill in the same area, which had a similar front elevation. Horace Walpole’s well known property Strawberry Hill, also in Twickenham, gave its name to a style of Gothick detail that can be seen in the bookcases in Twickenham House. It would seem safe, therefore, to ascribe the name to the architectural fashions of Twickenham at the time when the Abingdon property was built.
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.
© AAAHS and contributors 2014
 Bob Wilson and Jeff Wallis, ‘Prehistoric Activity, Early Roman Building, Tenement Yards and Gardens behind Twickenham House, Abingdon’, Oxoniensia, 56 (1991), pp. 1-15.
 Wilson and Wallis, ‘Twickenham House’, pp. 4-8.
 WJH Liversidge and MJH Liversidge, Abingdon Essays, Studies in Local History (Abingdon 1989), pp. 116-7.
 Wilson and Wallis, ‘Twickenham House’, pp. 13-14.
 Liversidge and Liversidge, Abingdon Essays, pp. 116-7.
 Arthur Oswald, ‘A Provincial Town House of the XVIIIth Century – Twickenham House, Abingdon’, Country Life, 28 September 1929.
 Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Berkshire, (Harmondsworth, 1966), p. 58
 Geoffrey Tyack, Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Berkshire, (New Haven and London, 2010), p. 111.
 Information from Mrs Alex, a previous owner, in a leaflet for a charity Open Day on a 14 July 14 1979.
 Mrs Jackie Smith, ‘The history of East St Helen Street’, Aspects of Abingdon’s Past, (Abingdon, 2004), pp. 31-32.
 Copy of a plan of the property dated 1876, provided by Mrs E Drury (Abingdon).
 Wilson and Wallis, ‘Twickenham House’ p.12.
 Abingdon Town Council archives, Abingdon Corporation report and valuation for 1861, item 16.
 1871 census
 Conveyance for the sale in the possession of Mr John Lightfoot and seen by Mrs Jackie Smith.
 Obituary of George Saxby, North Berkshire Herald, 15 August 1930.
 W.H.Hooke’s Abingdon Almanack and Directory (Abingdon 1935).
 Personal communication from Mr Cox via Mrs E Drury (both of Abingdon).
 Personal communication, Mr Cox via Mrs Drury.
 Personal communication from Mrs S Lightfoot.
 Caroline Knight, London’s Country Houses, (Chichester, 2009).