Empress Eugenie Camden Place

Camden Place

This magnificent building was once the home of historian and topographer, William Camden, scholar and one-time headmaster of Westminster School, who arrived at Chislehurst in 1609. Appointed Clarencieux King of Arms in 1597, Camden spent every summer at Chislehurst where he is said to have composed his Annals of Queen Elizabeth I. Though often in ill health, he continued to work and in 1622 founded an endowed lectureship in History at Oxford, the first in the world, which continues to this day as the Camden Chair in Ancient History. He was struck with paralysis in the same year and died at Chislehurst on 9 November 1623. His wish to be buried “in that place where it shall please God to call me to His Mercye” was not complied with for he was later buried in Westminster Abbey. He is remembered today in several of the road names, Camden Close, Camden Grove, Camden Park Road and Lower Camden.

Over the decades Camden Place was re-built and refurbished a number of times by its various owners. And so it was again in the 1860′s when new owner Nathaniel William Strode introduced a French flavour to the design. Its transformation into a minor French chateau was helped by the use of 18th century oak panelling from the Chateau de Bercy in France which Strode had bought. It is still very much in evidence today gracing the dining room. The fine wrought iron gates with its lamps topped with golden crowns at the entrance to the property were originally the gates of the Paris Exposition of 1867. Sadly, these were demolished during 1940, as with Buckingham Palace’s railings they were salvaged as scrap iron for the war effort. Strode went to great trouble to obtain French furniture and fittings for the interior of Camden Place. He also erected a well-head in the park, an exact copy of the one in St Cloud. Some might say Strode had a possible inkling that Louis Napoleon was to be a future tenant.

Emperor Napoleon with Empress Eugenie and Prince Imperial at Camden Place Chislehurst 1872

At that time the two-storey red-bricked house with its imposing clock above the entrance and large wings with open balustrade parapets comprised of over twenty rooms, a private chapel, and two kitchens and located in its own grounds, Camden Park, west of the small common. Beyond lay Camden Wood, a wild area equal in size to the private grounds. Nearby St Mary’s Catholic church had been built in the French decorated style by a local family, with Father Isaac Goddard in the adjoining Priest’s House.

And so it was, a decade later in1870, that, at the commencement of the Franco Prussian War, The Empress Eugénie and her young son the Prince Imperial fled from Paris and sought refuge in Chislehurst, renting Camden Place from Nathaniel Strode for £300 per year. It was here that Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte came after his release in 1871. Hardly the idyllic English cottage Louis had been anticipating, however, since the Imperial family’s entourage consisted of 39 permanent residents, it would hardly have been adequate. Louis’s bedroom was a small chamber on the top floor at the back, tucked away in the corner next to one of the semicircular projecting wings.

The Emperor and Empress soon established a varied social life at Camden Place entertaining much royalty and nobility. Louis, Prince Imperial, their only child also resided at Chislehurst, although in 1872 he was stationed at the Royal Woolwich Military Academy as an officer cadet. On January 9th 1873, Louis Napoleon, who had been ill for some time, died. After a lavish and spectacular funeral, the procession stretching from Camden Place across the common to St Nicholas Church, he was buried at St Mary’s Church.

In 1879 the young Prince Imperial volunteered to serve Queen Victoria and went to fight in the Zulu War. Ambushed by Zulu warriors at the Umbanzi River, young Louis at the age of 26 was killed. His body was taken back to Chislehurst in state where his funeral cortege was even more grander than that of his father’s. Empress Eugenie had the Mortuary Chapel built as an addition to St Mary’s Church specifically to house the remains of both her husband and son. Later, in 1888 the Empress decided on a larger memorial to her husband and son than could be provided in Chislehurst, and so their remains were taken to St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, Hampshire, where they remain to this day. The Empress died in 1921.

A marble memorial slab set into the floor of St Mary’s Church reminds visitors of its royal and illustrious past. A stone memorial cross located in Prince Imperial Road commemorates Louis’ death. The connection with the French Royal Family is indelibly marked in the village by the naming of roads, Empress Drive, Imperial Way, Royal Parade, the Imperial Arms Hotel, and of course Prince Imperial Road.

After the Empress had left Camden Place Nathaniel Strode resumed his occupancy. He died in 1890 after which the house and its estate were sold. Builder William Willett purchased part of the grounds and built a house called ‘The Cedars’ designed by architect Ernest Newton. He lived there between 1894 and 1915. Willett’s passion was `daylight saving,’ an idea which apparently came to him whilst riding his horse on Chislehurst Common one summer morning in 1905. He wrote a pamphlet ‘The Waste of Daylight’ and campaigned strongly for daylight saving measures to be introduced. The idea caused a great deal of controversy at the time, however, it became law one year after Willett’s death in the Summertime Act of 1916.

Camden Place was established as Chislehurst Golf Club on Saturday 26 May 1894. The Club made no distinction between playing and non-playing members and many ladies joined for the social side alone. Much bridge was played and Napoleon III’s billiard room was in frequent use. More than a century later the bridge meetings are still popular, snooker is now preferred to billiards and there are a variety of evening functions.