by Alan Wood, Volunteer Guide
Thomas Hudson (attributed), Portrait of Richard Peckham, c.1740 © Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK
300 years ago, in 1712, inhabitants of Chichester must have been very surprised to see an elegant townhouse being built in North Pallant which had been the preserve of leather workers and tanners for generations. The aroma associated with their crafts, together with brewing and malting, would have made the air unpleasant, to say the least. Nevertheless this was the site chosen by newly-weds Henry and Elizabeth Peckham to set up home. Elizabeth, a widow in her early 40s, brought £10,000 to the marriage, inherited from her brother, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Henry, an ambitious 27-year-old businessman, came from a well-established, though financially troubled, local family. At 16, he had inherited his father's debts but by 1711 had managed to pay them off. Nevertheless his proposal was viewed with suspicion and a pre-marital contract was agreed which paid Elizabeth an annual sum of £50 and £2,000 for her to leave to whoever she wished in her will. Henry had many relations and Richard Peckham, is a distant cousin who reportedly stayed at Pallant House in the 1730s. The painting is attributed to Thomas Hudson (1701-1779), a leading fashionable portraitist in London.
Henry and Elizabeth's marriage lasted for just over five years and ended acrimoniously with a lawsuit that dragged on until 1720. Much of the dispute concerned the final cost of the building, which at £3000 was just under double the original estimate. Built over the cellars of a 17th century malting house with an external wall incorporated in the structure the house was one of the first in Chichester to have sash windows. The front door is approached by a flight of steps between gate piers surmounted by stone ostriches, the adopted crest of the Peckham family. Together these would have formed a very impressive entrance for visitors. The door case, with pediment and classical pilasters served to create an image of an important resident. That is how Henry saw himself. He wanted to become mayor, something he never achieved despite several attempts.
In the absence of an architect, it fell to a local master builder, Henry Smart, to interpret his client's wishes. He was responsible for the entire project and with his team of skilled craftsmen provided special features, including the staircase, with inlays and parquetry, the panelling and, externally, the wrought iron railings. Ironically it was he who became mayor.