In 1844, Sir Henry and Alice Taylor moved into Leyden House on Thames Bank in Mortlake. Alice wrote to her cousin and poet Aubrey de Vere: Leyden House is really a very pleasant kind of house, large rambling passages, and out-of-the-way nooks and corners – large, delightful, sunny windows looking into the garden (no garden ever had such good pears).
The house was already very old by the time the Taylors came to live there. Its age was confirmed in 1924 when an early Tudor stone fireplace on the west wall of the west wing was uncovered. Red and white roses decorated the stonework. And in 1961, during restoration and demolition work to the house, red Tudor bricks were found behind the 18th century panelling on the wall behind the fireplace, along with a diaper pattern of black bricks similar to that at Hampton Court. There was also an early brick floor in the old dining room These discoveries confirmed that the house was built around 1485, making Leyden House the oldest surviving house in Mortlake.
Thames Bank was the focal point of the earliest settlement in Mortlake and several grand houses were in existence there in the 17th century. Alongside Leyden House, there was also Riverside House and Cromwell House. Ralph Treswell's 1617 Survey of the Manor of Mortlake describes Leyden House as one messuage and a cottage lying south of the river of Thames, north and west of the footway leading from Richmond to the landing place at Mortlake.
It is difficult to identify individual owners or tenants of Leyden House prior to the 17th century. However, in 1608 the house had been let to a man called Gibbons. In the early 1700s, Robert Jeffes owned much land in Mortlake including Leyden House. The Fitzgerald family later owned the property as well as several others in Mortlake. From the early 1780s, a William Pitt lived in the house until his death in 1806. He was a city merchant – a wealthy tobacco broker. In his will he left most of his fortune to his wife Mary, sister of Sir Brook Watson, but he also left £3000 to Miss Aynscombe his neighbour who lived in Cromwell House. Pitt left nothing to the rest of his family. After Mary Pitt's death in 1810, the lease of the house was left to her great nephew, William Kay, who lived there until 1840. Kay, who had been Deputy Commissary-General to the Army, succeeded to his great-uncle Watson's baronetcy in 1807.
The first view of Leyden House appears in 1830, thanks to Samuel Leigh's Panorama of the Thames. Leyden House is behind the trees with Thames Bank House to the left and the wall and gazebo of Cromwell House to the right.
In 1844, Sir Henry and Alice Taylor moved into Leyden House, and it was he who gave the house its name. Taylor explains in his autobiography: We took a house at Mortlake, on the banks of the Thames, and I called it Ladon House...It was far enough off from shepherds and lilies, but the lines: "Nymphs and shepherds trip no more by sandy Ladon's lilied banks" happened to be in my head when I went to see it; and so the name came to it, by a merely verbal and haphazard association.
Sir Henry Taylor was a colonial administrator for 48 years. Despite being very happy in the house, the family moved to East Sheen in 1853 as: We began to doubt whether the situation suited the children in point of health. His young son Aubrey was a sickly child and suffered bronchial attacks, and second child had died in the house. The family moved to Uplands, a house designed by his wife Alice: well out of the reach of father Thames.
But others were prepared to invest in Thames Bank and the new Cromwell House was built in 1858 by the brewer James Wigan. Ten years later he bought a 99-year lease on neighbouring Leyden House and Mrs Maria Harrison moved in. She was a 71-year-old widow with two servants, and was probably expecting to spend her retirement quietly by the river in Leyden House. However, things did not work out that simply. Mrs Harrison's son, the Reverend Lawrence Harrison, was a clergyman living in Cheltenham with his wife Harriet and their five children. Sometime before 1871, Lawrence died, and the census showed that Mrs Maria Harrison's household now consisted of her daughter-in-law Harriet, her five children and five servants. No longer a quiet retirement!
By 1891, Mrs Maria Harrison has died but Harriet was still living in Leyden House with two daughters and a son who was a brewer. Harriet's daughter Frances had also married a brewer in June 1886 – James Lewis Wigan, eldest son of James and Maria who lived next door in Cromwell House. Within the next few months, however, the whole Harrison family had moved away from the house they had lived in for almost 25 years.
Surgeon-Major James Aitchison, botanist, naturalist and plant collector moved into Leyden House in 1892. Aitchison had been born in India in 1835 and was in the Bengal Medical Service for 30 years. But it was as a botanical explorer that he rose to fame. From one expedition to Afghanistan alone, he bought back to Kew Botanical Gardens around 800 species of plants and 10,000 specimens. He had several plant species named after him, and he moved to Leyden House so he could be near to Kew. From 1892, he worked with the Botanical Gardens, intending to publish his copious notes on Indian plants, but he died in 1898, before this could be accomplished. After Aitchison's death, the aviation engineer Oscar Gnosspelius lived in Leyden House for 10 years. And following him, from 1909 until 1918 Sir Ernest Niemeyer lived here. He was financial controller at the Treasury and a director of the Bank of England. Such a wide variety of occupations in just one house!
It was in 1921 that Maurice Cockin came to live in Leyden House. Born in 1881, Cockin was a colonial administrator and collected primitive African art. Much of his collection is now at the British Museum. He was also a collector of children's toys and many local children remember the parties he gave in the 1950s. Maurice Cockin married Alice in 1914 and developed an interest in Mortlake's history, completing his book Mortlake and her Church in 1954. In 1955 he was the moving spirit in the founding of the Barnes and Mortlake History Society, and he became its first chairman. All committee meetings were then held at what Cockin described as his "beloved Leyden House".
Leyden House became a Grade Two listed building in October 1951. Its lease expired in 1957 and the freeholders, Watney Coombe Reid and Co retained ownership, although Cockin remained living there until he died in 1961. On Monday 4 December 1961, the Cockin family furniture was auctioned at Leyden House. However, the catalogue informed potential buyers that: "Due to inadequate light and the high tide of the Thames it will be impracticable to deliver any purchase made on Monday 4th December." There were some 350 lots in the catalogue of sale – furniture, china, glass, pictures, a library of books and, more specifically, a large hand mangle, three stag heads, a suit of armour and eight swords and rapiers.
The brewery embarked on a large-scale restoration of the building and in 1962 the east wing was demolished. It was then that the early Tudor brickwork was discovered. Christopher and Rachel Keeling bought Leyden House in 1983 and lived there until their deaths in the early 21st century.