A place of tall stories

Want to buy a swanky flat at a former orphanage? Nigel Summerley warns about strange goings-on
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The Independent Online

The Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, a vast Gothic palace of an edifice with an array of romantic-looking towers, stands at the edge of Wandsworth Common, in south London, like a visitor from another time.

The Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, a vast Gothic palace of an edifice with an array of romantic-looking towers, stands at the edge of Wandsworth Common, in south London, like a visitor from another time.

It is as eccentric as it is historic, and a £1.1m apartment there - once owned by Andy Taylor of Duran Duran - has just come onto the market. There are 29 apartments in the RVPB, as well as several studios and workshops, a drama school and even its own French restaurant.

The sale of the four- or five-bedroom, top-floor apartment, which also has extensive roof-space, is a rare chance to live in this building, whose origins go back to the Crimean War. Robert Stewart, the manager of Hamptons International in Fulham, says that one bedroom is set in a turret, as is one of the three bathrooms: "You can see right up inside the towers, and it feels like you're at the top of a castle."

The RVPB is a place of tall storeys - and a few tall stories, too. "The rooms in the apartment have very, very high ceilings - about 20ft," says Stewart. There are also a couple of minstrels' galleries, which he thinks Andy Taylor, who lived here in the mid-1980s, may have had a hand in.

The apartment has a total of more than 3,000sq ft of floor-space, including two spacious reception rooms. The present owner has given the place a contemporary feel, with wooden floors and exotic bathroom tiles from Morocco. A "boys' room" is equipped with a pool table and TV.

"It's not really child-friendly," says Stewart. "It will probably appeal more to a bachelor than to a family - someone who likes to entertain on a grand scale, and have people to stay."

Or perhaps to a history lover. The RVPB was built in the 19th century to house 300 servicemen's daughters orphaned by the Crimean War. Originally called the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum, it was paid for out of a public appeal fund overseen by Prince Albert. He and Queen Victoria attended the laying of the foundation-stone in 1857 and the building was completed within two years.

Although the orphans lived in a grand building, their lives were far from privileged. In the early years, their education was geared to sending them into domestic service - which meant they spent much of their time washing, cleaning and cooking. One story says that, in the interests of personal hygiene, they had to begin the day by going outside to be hosed down with cold water. Disciplinary measures included the use of solitary confinement; and in 1862, one of the girls, Charlotte Jane Bennett, was accidentally burned to death while deliberately locked up in a bathroom.

During the First World War, the building was requisitioned as a hospital to care for thousands of wounded servicemen; a temporary railway station was built next door to bring the troops straight here from the south coast. The girls were sent out to local houses until the war was over.

The building returned to being an orphanage until 1938, when the children were evacuated at the approach of another war. They never returned; the school moved to Hertfordshire, where it continued until closure in 1972.

During the Second World War, the building was used by MI6 as a clearing, detention and interrogation centre. It is said that Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, who flew to Britain in 1941 on a "peace mission", was held and questioned here, before eventually being sent back to Germany for the trials taking place at Nuremberg.

After the war, the RVPB became a teacher-training college and, in the 1950s, a school. But it began to fall into disrepair and ceased to be used as a school in the 1970s. It was then badly vandalised and at one point it was suggested that it should be demolished; but pressure from conservation groups led to the building being Grade II listed.

The Greater London Council put the building up for sale in 1980, but the £4m estimate for restoration work put off prospective buyers. Eventually it was sold for £1 to a property company (now called South of the Border Holdings), on condition that the fabric was fully restored. Restoration and conversion took six years - three times as long as the original building project.

The result was today's mixed-use development, which includes studios and workshops used by designers, artists and craftsmen, and the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) drama school. The icing on the RVPB cake is a French bar and restaurant, called, appropriately, Le Gothique, which is entered via a courtyard at the rear of the building. Popular with locals, the restaurant apparently doesn't mind sending up food to residents in the apartments.

But prospective buyers should be warned of odd goings-on. One local resident told me about seeing strange figures engaging in sword fights outside the building - who turned out to be students from the drama school. And peculiar noises and rattlings are sometimes heard from somewhere inside the building. That, some people say, is the ghost of poor Charlotte Jane Bennett.

www.hamptons.co.uk; 020-7384 1001

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