Just over a year ago we reported the 31st anniversary of the first public opening of Wimbledon’s most curious visitor attraction - Southside House at No 3 Woodhayes Road (see Heritage 18 January 2013).
Home of war veteran Major Malcolm Munthe (1910-1995), the house’s extraordinary collection of paintings by old masters and amazing historic memorabilia has drawn countless visitors ever since.
But after the opening in January 1982, the truth about the house’s history and contents was challenged by Richard Milward (1924-2006), the Wimbledon Society’s professional historian.
This turned into what Richard Surman, Southside House’s current curator, has described as a ‘clash of Titans’. Major Munthe’s reaction was volatile to say the least.
This was not surprising as he was defending what was actually a fantasy landscape like an agent whose cover had been blown.
What’s more, it has now turned that that is exactly what he was. When fire broke out in the roof of Southside House in November 2010, many artworks were rescued and it was months before visitors could return. But during the restoration, a secret room was discovered under the dining-room floorboards, the entrance perilously close to the hearth.
It contained a cache of arms, a sub machine gun and a service automatic pistol.
The truth about Major Munthe and the house has now emerged once and for all - every bit as exciting as all the old myths about the place he told during his lifetime, some of them unknowingly repeated in last year’s Heritage story for the Wimbledon Guardian.
Major Malcolm Munthe MC, was the son of the Swedish court physician and writer Axel Munthe (1857-1949) and a wealthy British heiress, Hilda Pennington. His father wrote the international bestselling book of medical memoirs The Story of San Michele. His mother’s family had made their fortune in cotton and shipping.
Brought up in several countries, Malcolm spoke a number of languages and on joining the Gordon Highlanders at the outbreak of World War 2, was recruited into Britain’s Special Operations Executive. Sent to help ferry arms to Finland in its defensive war against Stalin’s Russia, in l940 he returned to Britain for a parachute and guerrilla warfare course before being dropped into Nazi-occupied Norway. He slipped in disguise through German checkpoints until, wounded in both legs, he was captured and hospitalised.
After nine days he escaped and on reaching neutral Sweden became military attaché at the British Legation. He later served with distinction in Sicily and mainland Italy but suffered severe injuries at Anzio and was left with shrapnel lodged in his head.
Southside House has a fascinating history
Major Munthe was traumatised in 1941
His Wimbledon links dated back to his boyhood when his mother – then divorced from Axel Munthe - occupied a property on Spencer Hill and he and his elder brother Peter attended King’s College School. In 1931, Hilda bought two semi-detached 18th century houses known as Holm Lodge and Carfrae Lodge on Southside, Wimbledon Common, and transformed them into what is now Southside House.
The building suffered severe bomb damage during World War 2 but afterwards the Munthes received a grant for restoration and, still recovering from his injuries and scarred psychologically by his experiences, Malcolm set about creating a fantasy hideaway there. His brother Peter was a gifted painter who produced ceiling and wall paintings, while Malcolm added to the collection of contents.
Southside House became a depository for many possessions from the family’s pre-war home in the south of France, including a portion of the historic Wharton Art Collection, Waterford glass chandeliers, statuary, a Pleyel piano, furniture, a host of objets d’art, and historic family photos..
When it opened to the visiting public in 1982, it had restricted opening hours but these were later expanded. Now run by the Pennington-Mellor-Munthe Charity Trust, the house remains partly residential but continues to host tour groups as well as cultural events such as lectures, concerts, and literary talks.
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.