The controversies and scandals that beset Cannizaro House during its first two centuries will feature in this week’s free Wimbledon Society illustrated lecture at the Mansel Road Centre (Saturday 7 March, starting 8.15pm) when writer Tony Matthews will talk about the subject of his book “Cannizaro Beyond the Gates”.

Known originally as Warren House, it was the country home of many rich, high profile figures with interests in the City and politics.

William Browne, the merchant who built it around 1705, was sued for defaming the local vicar and excommunicated from the church. His successor, Thomas Walker, was said to be a notorious usurer who used political links with Prime Minister Robert Walpole and others to amass a vast fortune.

Lyde Browne, director of the Bank of England, established a huge collection of classical sculptures there but was cheated of half the value when he sold it to Catherine the Great of Russia and her agent went bust.

Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, was a top government minister under William Pitt and the place became known for their lengthy drinking sessions. Dundas won plaudits from King George III during royal visits to Wimbledon but he later became embroiled in a corruption scandal which destroyed his career. His private life was disastrous too.

But most scandalous of all were the Duke and Duchess of Cannizzaro whose residence there between 1817 and 1841 was marked by many years of critical and satirical press coverage of their various infidelities and financial peccadilloes.

Both had scandal-ridden backgrounds but were constantly in the public eye as they mixed in the highest echelons of society.

Even though they separated in 1826, she continued to bankroll him until her death when he casually returned to claim her fortune, sold her treasured library, and died himself shortly afterwards.

Subsequent residents of Cannizaro House included the highly controversial Maharajah Duleep Singh, just deposed as ruler of the Punjab, and later Mrs Mary Schuster, whose massive garden parties and musical soirees were famed for including royalty and literary giants such as Lord Tennyson and Oscar Wilde among the guests.

The last of the great controversies happened in 1900 when Cannizaro House was largely destroyed by fire because an inadequate water supply hampered efforts by the fire brigade to put the flames out quickly.

The damage was catastrophic but it heralded a new era 20 years later when the rebuilt house would became famous for its magnificent gardens, the forerunner of today’s Cannizaro Park.

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