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1785 - Commissioners House (Admiralty House)

Work started on The Commissioner’s Residence, later known as Admiralty House. Designed by Samuel Wyatt. The Admiralty Clerk of Works was Thomas Telford. The house was used by Emperor Alexander of Russia in 1814 and Grand Duke Nicholas, who became Emperor of Russia in 1838. Original cost £8,661 which including water closets designed by Joseph Bramah and fire-places carved by John Bacon RA.

Bombing c1940/41 destroyed the main staircase and Victorian ballroom. C-in-C transferred to HMS “Victory” for the rest of World War II. (Original drawings exist).

One of the early interesting stories concerning the house concerns the Commissioner’s Daughter. Commissioner Martin was a close friend of the Royal Family and at the time of the building the Commissioner’s House the frigate Hebe was in Portsmouth Dockyard. Aboard that frigate was a Lieutenant RN with the title of Prince William Henry, the third son of the King, who had embarked on a naval career in 1779 and was later to become King William IV. No doubt through his visits to the Commissioner a fondness developed for his lovely daughter Sarah, which was equally returned. Such passion matured into a proposal of marriage from the young Prince. The Commissioner on hearing of the news acted swiftly and decisively in packing the lovely Sarah off to relations in London and writing to his friend the King, who lost no time in instructing the Admiralty to post the ardent lieutenant off to the North American Station. The date of this liaison is still uncertain.

The Hebe was originally the French frigate L’H’ebe and was captured by the British frigate Rainbow on the 4th September 1782 and brought to Portsmouth to be coppered and fitted for British service. She remained in the Channel squadrons for a number of years and having successive refits in the Dockyard.

Prince William became a firm friend of Nelson. In fact it was the Prince who acted as Nelson’s best man at his wedding and gave away his future wife Fanny Nesbit on 11th March 1787. (A year and a day after the opening of the new Commissioners House.) Prince William Henry would not succeed to the throne until 26th June 1830 by which time he was nearly 65. He would be known as The Sailor King or the Royal Tar and sometimes as Silly Billy. As the Duke of Clarence (from 1789) he won a reputation as a womaniser. He later married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in 1818 and had two daughters who both died in infancy. Better remembered are his ten illegitimate children by the actress Mrs Dorothea Jordan (1762-1816). He married Princess Adelaide to gain a government settlement to pay off his debts and hopefully to give England an heir. Poor Adelaide spent her honeymoon at St. James’s nursing William’s oldest son George who had broken his leg. The couple lived quietly at Bushey near Hampton Court. She allowed William to keep part of the Victory’s foremast in the dining-room. It was Adelaide who gathered the younger members of the Fitzclarences around her, one of whom is well remembered in Portsmouth as the Lieutenant Governor of Portsmouth, Lord Frederick Fitzclarence GCB. The man who made Clarence Esplanade possible. One can only wonder, did William, in his old age still think of the lovely Sarah?

As for poor Sarah, who was dispatched with haste to London, she settled down with her relatives and a broken heart, for she never married. But history would not forget her; she was destined to achieve a modest fame in literary history as an author and illustrator of a book of Nursery Rhymes, the best known of which is “Old Mother Hubbard” based say some on the housekeeper of her future brother-in-law; others say it was based on the housekeeper of the Commissioner’s House. If it is indeed the Commissioner’s House, then the mystery is, which house, the old one built at the time of Pepys or Martin’s new residence? We will only know when we know the date Prince William Henry was posted to the North American Station.

1785 - Commissioners House (Admiralty House)