One hundred years ago, fire claimed another country house, one that was barely twenty-five years old.
February 1919 was a bad month for country house fires. One hundred years ago, this week, Offley Holes House, near Hitchin, in North Hertfordshire, which had been used for some time as a German prisoner-of-war camp, was totally destroyed by fire. The fire started in the orderly room and spread quickly through the mansion. The Hitchin Fire Brigade quickly arrived but found no water available due to a heavy frost, and so could only watch the progress of the flames.
All the prisoners were safely evacuated and taken to other quarters in Hitchin, but one of the guards was overcome by smoke and was in a critical condition in Hitchin Hospital, to which he was taken by a fire engine.
Offley Holes House was built after the death of Robert Curling in 1894. His will stated that no more than £4,000 should be spent erecting a house for the use of his nephew, Robert Sumner Curling, for life. Unfortunately, Robert “had no interest in the country and preferred to live in London.”
The terms of the will were nevertheless followed and W.A. Lucas was engaged to build the house.
In 1898, the house was tenanted to Percy St Clair Matthey on a twenty-one-year lease. The lease was re-assigned to Joseph Childs Priestley in 1904 and then to Major Robert B. Mervyn Richardson four years later.
In January 1918, despite fierce opposition from Percy Matthey, the War Office took possession of Offley Holes House and converted it into a German POW camp. The house was never rebuilt, the result of inadequate fire insurance.
A comprehensive history of the house can be found at A History of Preston in Hertfordshire.