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Thursday 27 February 2014

The White House, Kew - a Regency History guide

Sundial marking the site of the White House,
opposite to Kew Palace, Kew
Where was it?

The White House was a royal residence which used to stand opposite to Kew Palace in what is now the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London.


The origins of the White House are not known, but it is thought to have been built in Tudor times. Before becoming a royal residence, Kew House, as it was then known, belonged to Lady Elizabeth Capel. Lady Elizabeth’s husband, Samuel Molyneux, was George II’s secretary and a keen astronomer. He built an observatory in the attic of Kew House.

Prince Frederick of Wales, George III’s father, started renting the house in 1730 and it became known as His Royal Highness’ House at Kew and later, the White House.

The south prospect of HRH The Prince of Wales' House at Kew
- detail from John Rocque's map A New Plan of Richmond Garden (1748)
It was not until 1799, that George III acquired the freehold, but by this time the house was in a poor state of repair and in 1802, the process of demolition began.

The only evidence of the White House now is a sundial in the ground opposite Kew Palace that marks the site.

Georgian connections

Prince Frederick and Princess Augusta

Princess Augusta and Prince Frederick of Wales
from The Georgian Era (1832)
Frederick, Prince of Wales, arrived in England in December 1728 having spent his childhood in Hanover. Initially he got on well with his family and spent time at Richmond and Kew. He took a lease on Kew House, which stood opposite to Kew Palace where his sisters Anne, Caroline and Amelia were living. In 1730, he commissioned the architect William Kent to extend and remodel Kew House. The finished building was rendered and whitewashed and became known as the White House.

The north prospect of HRH The Prince of Wales' House at Kew
- detail from John Rocque's map A New Plan of Richmond Garden (1748)
After his estrangement from his father, Frederick lived the life of a country gentleman at Kew with his wife, Augusta, and a growing number of children: Augusta, George, Edward, Elizabeth, William, Henry, Louisa, Frederick and Caroline Matilda, who was born posthumously. They played cricket, rowed on the river, performed plays and celebrated birthdays with fun and fireworks. Frederick gave his family astronomy lessons in the attic observatory and promoted the development of the gardens aided by Lord Bute.

After Frederick’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1751, Augusta continued to live at Kew and under her auspices, the Royal Botanic Gardens were founded in 1759.

George III and Queen Charlotte

George III inherited the White House from his mother, Augusta, on her death in 1772. George III and Queen Charlotte used the White House as their country retreat, whilst their eldest sons, George and Frederick, moved into Kew Palace opposite.

At Kew, the King and Queen were able to live a much more informal life than in London. The princes learned about farming and played games of cricket and football, occasionally joined by their sisters, especially Princess Augusta. They visited the royal menagerie of exotic animals and took picnics in the gardens at Queen Charlotte’s Cottage. The King was frequently visited by the botanist Joseph Banks who fascinated him with tales of his travels, brought new seeds and plants for the gardens and in 1774, introduced him to the Tahitian warrior Omai.

Omai - mezzotint by J Jacobé after J Reynolds (1777)
published by J Boydell (1780) © British Museum
After 1776, George III developed a preference for Windsor and spent less time at Kew, until 1788, when a long visit was forced upon him.

George III’s illness

In 1788, George III became mentally incapacitated and it was necessary to move him to a quieter location than Windsor. Kew was the obvious answer. The King was restricted to apartments in the White House from November 1788 to March 1789 whilst he underwent treatment for his condition by Dr Willis.

When his illness returned in 1801, George III once again found himself a prisoner in the White House. Although it had largely fallen into disrepair and most of its furniture moved to Kew Palace, apartments had been prepared there for Prince Adolphus, and it was decided to use these to house the King.

Once more, the King recovered, and, perhaps anxious to ensure that he was never incarcerated there again, the following year, George III ordered the demolition of the White House.

What can you see today?

Not much!

• A sundial marking the site of the White House.

The sundial marking the site of the White House (indicated by the arrow)
from the first floor of Kew Palace
Last visited Kew Palace: June 2013.

To discover more about Kew, read my guides to Kew Palace and Queen Charlotte's Cottage.

Sources used include:
Groom, Susanne and Prosser, Lee, Kew Palace, the official illustrated history (2006)

Photographs ©


  1. Thanks- I'd never seen what the White House looked like. I have always found Kew Palace puzzling; it must have been comforting in its small size and seems so intimate in comparison to the great draughty White House, and with none of the rather chilling incarceration connotations for George III. Bt so very small for something names a palace.

    1. Actually, Kew Palace did have associations with George III's illness as well. The King was confined there during his illness in 1804 after the White House had been demolished.

      I am not sure how big a royal residence has to be to be officially designated a palace. I am inclined to call any permanent residence of a monarch a palace!