Pinewood outrivals Hollywood. A home where history was made
Once there was a big country house that stood in 92-acres of beautiful parkland. However, in October 1936, The Sphere published photographs from Heatherden Hall, at Iver Heath, when it was about to change its existence forever. The house had been converted from a grand mansion into Britain’s newest and largest film studio. This Victorian house had been turned into a residential club for the stars and was about to enjoy an exciting and completely different future.
Heatherden, with its tree-lined driveway, was built about 1865 by Charles Frederick Reeks, who also designed St. Margaret’s Church at nearby Iver Heath. However, after the Canadian financier and later Conservative M.P. for Brentford and Chiswick) Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Grant Morden bought the property in 1914, he employed the architect Melville Seth-Ward to create the grand country house seen today.
These changes were made between 1914 and 1928 and included a huge ballroom, stone gallery, Turkish bath and a swimming pool, and were reputed to have cost £300,000. (Morden later claimed that the cost was actually between £20,000 and £25,000). The gardens to the south, with their serpentine paths, specimen trees, sunken garden, cascade and lake with ornamental bridge, were laid out at the same time.
Colonel Grant Morden was a Canadian, who came to England at the end of the 1890s with a big reputation, and combined business with politics after the war. He was born in Ontario in 1880, educated at the Collegiate Institute of Toronto, and in his business career he founded the British Commonwealth Union and Canada Steamship Lines Ltd. Before long he controlled over a hundred steamers and became interested in various timber and land companies. Morden also obtained the assets of all the cement companies in Canada, which resulted in the formation of the Canada Cement Company Ltd. He arrived in England to found a business for making office furniture and bookcases and became associated with no fewer than thirty-five companies, one of the biggest ventures being the flotation of the British Cellulose and Chemical Manufacturing Company, which eventually had a capital of £6 million. (It specialised in the manufacture of cloth dope used in aeroplane construction).
Morden had a distinguished career in World War One. He served as the personal staff officer to General Sam Hughes and operated in France as an airman, turning Heatherden Hall into a convalescent home for Canadian soldiers.
He combined his busy business life with a vigorous open-air life. Shooting and hunting were his favourite sports, and his hobbies included the breeding of horses and pedigree cattle. The magnificent grounds at Heatherden Hall contained tennis and squash courts and a golf course, which were threatened by a big forest fire in 1929. At one time he owned a yacht claimed to be the one of the best-equipped medium-sized yachts in existence. It had cost him £21,000 but was eventually sold by the bank for £4,000.
In 1931 Morden was declared bankrupt with total liabilities of £151,280. He told the London Bankruptcy Court how he had made and lost a fortune. He said he had been financially interested in over forty companies and in the big slump in securities in 1929 his shareholding greatly depreciated. At one time he had been reported as being a millionaire with household expenses in 1928 of £30,000 – by 1930 these had been reduced to £10,000. The bank seized his assets, including Heatherden Hall, and when Morden died, aged 52 in 1932, he was suffering from serious heart trouble and practically blind. He left just £10 in his will.
For a short time Heatherden Hall became a country club but in 1934 the estate was acquired by Charles Boot, head of the enormously successful Sheffield building firm of Henry Boot and Sons. He lived at Thornbridge Hall, Derbyshire, but the purchase of Heatherden had nothing to do with it becoming a family home.
Boot’s dream was to establish a film studio that would rival those in Hollywood and make Britain a big film producer. He went off to Hollywood on a fact-finding mission and returned within months with plans to establish Pinewood as the studios we know today. Those plans were to cost more than £1 million and the first chairman of the company was the millionaire flour-miller and film entrepreneur Mr J. Arthur Rank.
Boot and Rank employed the architects A.F.B. Anderson and H.S. Scroxton to develop the parkland to the north of the house, called Pinewood (in Rank’s words, ‘because of the number of trees which grow there and because it seemed to suggest something of the American film centre in its second syllable’). The mansion was used as a residential club and a large administration block was built alongside the house. The studios opened in September 1936 and grew to become a mainstay of the British film industry, home of the Rank Organisation and the birthplace of hundreds of films including The Red Shoes (1947), The Ipcress File (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and the James Bond and Carry On series. Heatherden Hall itself has frequently been used as a film location, as well as to accommodate visiting actors, directors and production staff.