In 1843 the 2nd Earl of Kilmorey, Francis ‘Black Jack’ Needham, took in scandalous circumstances a mistress. She was Priscilla Hoste who was 35 years his junior and his legal ward. Some said that their relationship had been encouraged by her mother! When Priscilla died from ‘a disease of the heart’ in 1854 Black Jack was so distraught that he built for her an Egyptian style mausoleum, dedicated to the sun god Ra. As an aficionado of the occult Black Jack’s hope was that like Ra who travelled each night from darkness to a rebirth the following morning the mausoleum would act as a time machine enabling him to travel through time and space to rejoin his beloved Priscilla in the underworld.
In some unexpected ways the mausoleum did travel though time and space with Priscilla inside. Following her death in 1854 it was first erected in Brompton Cemetery in a central position approved by the future Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. In 1862 Black Jack moved to Woburn Park near Chertsey and for the cost of £700 had the mausoleum and Priscilla moved there too. In 1868 the Earl, the mistress and the mausoleum moved again to Gordon House in St Margarets. This time the move cost only £400. Like a Victorian flatpack the mausoleum was taken down and re-erected in an isolated corner of the Gordon House estate alongside the St Margarets Road opposite the Ailsa Tavern.
Although the much travelled Priscilla had been dead for over 15 years Black Jack still mourned her. His anguish was not eased by the presence of Kilmorey Road which ran across his estate and separated Gordon House from the mausoleum. In order to visit Priscilla without leaving his own property Jack had a secret tunnel dug that ran from Gordon House to the mausoleum in its distant triangle of land… or that was the gossip. Servants said that when Black Jack was ‘in the mood’ he would dress in a white robe and be wheeled down the tunnel – replicating god Ra’s nightly journey from darkness to light, from death to life. Once the cortege reached the mausoleum Jack would spend the night lying in a coffin next to his much loved Priscilla, in preparation perhaps for his own death in 1880.
The internment (of Francis Jack Needham) took place in the mausoleum… which already contained the body of a deceased friend. (a.k.a Priscilla!) To avoid the public highway, which divides from the house the portion of ground in which the mausoleum is erected the Earl had a tunnel specially made through which the coffin might pass with a tramway for its reception.
MIDDLESEX CHRONICLE – June 1880
Although the tunnel had been well reported in the local newspapers over the passing years knowledge of the tunnel had reverted to myth and rumour – that is until 1966 when the Water Board, digging a new sewer at the junction of Kilmorey Road and Kilmorey Gardens fell into it! Drawings taken at the time show the tunnel being about 6 feet wide and 10 feet high and running underneath Kilmorey Gardens southwards towards the mausoleum. The tunnel was plastered and decorated with a green trellis pattern. Although they were bricked up it looked as if there were ramps at both ends which had been filled in. The Environment Trust for Richmond asked local people with long memories to help solve the mystery of the tunnel…
“A short tunnel has been found passing under what is now Kilmorey Road. It was bricked off, possibly when a sewer was built… but is there more?”
One clue came from a woman who had been a student at Gordon House in the early 1970’s when it was part of the Maria Grey Teacher Training College. During the construction of a new Art Block in the college grounds the woman remembered that the builders had uncovered a ramp leading down to a tunnel entrance marked by two arches – “reminiscent of Brunel’s Rotherhythe Tunnel”. Was this Black Jack’s mystical bolt hole? Others mentioned a large mound of earth which can still be seen just off Isleworth Promenade and close to the site. Was this the spoil from the tunnel? Before the new Octagon Estate was developed about 15 years ago a similar mound of earth stood at the junction of Kilmorey Road and Kilmorey Gardens. After failing to find any evidence of tunnelling in the basements of Gordon House and around the foundations of the mausoleum investigators came to the conclusion that there was definitely a tunnel but it only went under Kilmorey Road. The idea that it stretched all the way from Gordon House to the mausoleum itself was just a dig too far!
Black Jack’s relationship with Priscilla Hoste was a national scandal as was his interest in the occult. Some gossips said that Priscilla’s heart condition and premature death had been exacerbated by Jack’s apparent fondness for bizarre magical sex rituals! There was however another side to his nature. He was a very considerate and generous man. Every Christmas he gave gifts to local people and would often treat his own staff to seats in the theatre. He once donated £100 for the construction of the railway station in St Margarets – originally to be called ‘Ailsa Bridge’. His solicitor was happy to remember the man…
“He had seen as much of life in its various phases, good and evil, as any man of his generation. But to a handsome man fascinating manners, appreciative nature, ready wit and retentive memory were untied, to say the truth, by strong passions and a determined will. These defects in his character had drawn him into errors which society does not easily forgive…”
…which is a shame as I believe that Francis Jack Needham did truly love Priscilla Hoste, enough to try to hold her spirit as close as he could with a magical mausoleum, the blessing of the god Ra and a tunnel, built not to escape but to bring her closer to him. It was a tunnel of love and it ran under Kilmorey Road.
— from Martyn Day