Strawberry Hill forever

£9m scheme to restore the 'little Gothic castle' built by Horace Walpole with riches left to him by his father – Britain's first Prime Minister, Sir Robert
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Strawberry Hill, the mock Gothic home built for the son of Britain's first prime minister, has been saved from dereliction.

The Strawberry Hill Trust, which has been raising money to restore Horace Walpole's London home for seven years, is close to its £8.9m target, and work has begun.

Horace Walpole acquired the lease of a little house in Twickenham, on a hillock called Strawberry Hill Shot, in 1747, when he was 30, and announced: "I am going to build a little Gothic castle on Strawberry Hill."

He could afford to, because his father, Sir Robert, had been Prime Minister for more than 20 years, under George I and George II. These were corrupt times, and the older Walpole left office a very rich man.

Horace, his youngest child, was an art lover, who wrote several thousand letters to friends, packed with gossip, and wrote one Gothic novel. But his major life's work was his home.

He spent 50 years expanding and improving his property, into which he sank more than £20,000 – a vast sum in those days.

He was one of the most well-known figures in London society, and Strawberry Hill became one of the capital's most famous addresses. It inspired the 19th-century Gothic revival in architecture and literature. For a long time afterwards, schoolchildren were told during history lessons about Sir Robert Walpole's literary son and his famous house.

But the two were frequently mixed up, giving rise to the mistaken idea that Robert Walpole was like Benjamin Disraeli, both a statesman and a writer. This confusion was used to comic effect in 1066 and All That, the classic pastiche of the school history curriculum written by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman in 1930. "Walpole ought never to be confused with Walpole, who was quite different," they explained. "It was Walpole who lived in a house with the unusual name of Strawberry Jam and spent his time writing letters to famous men (such as the Prime Minister, Walpole, etc)."

Horace Walpole was probably gay, and certainly had no immediate family, so he bequeathed Strawberry Hill to a female friend, who could not afford the upkeep, and handed it over to the Countess of Waldegrave.

Her grandson, the 7th Earl, was a wild character, who in 1842, when he was heavily in debt, sold off all the treasures Walpole had left in the house in a sale that lasted 32 days, and abandoned the building.

Fortunately his widow – who got through four husbands in all – had more taste. She moved back into the house and used it to throw parties for the political elite.

After she died, it was bought by the Catholic Education Council to use as a teacher training college. Most of the surrounding estate was sold for housing.