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.
By the 1970s, Hazelwood House was empty and ready for demolition, perfect for film-makers wanting a miserable location. All these years later, and a change of name, this is a thriving country house hotel.
The 1970s were a bleak time for the English country house. Take, for example, Hazelwood House at Abbots Langley, in Hertfordshire. In 1970, the rambling mansion was empty, typical of many similar properties, but it caught the attention of film director Bryan Forbes who chose it as the principal location for ‘The Raging Moon’.
The British film starred Malcolm McDowell and Nanette Newman (Forbes’s wife) and based on a book by Peter Marshall. One critic described it as ‘romance in wheelchairs’, considered unusual because of the sexual nature of the relationship between its two lead characters in a church-run home for the disabled.
Hazelwood House was used as the care home. The photography was miserable. The snowy winter scenes complement the austere atmosphere within the house, but it was a true reflection of society back then. ‘The Raging Moon’ had a depressing ending, but it reflected the darkness and gloom permeating from the Edwardian mansion. Take out the actors and this would have been a big, cold and draughty house, with broken windows and leaky roof.
Sad times, but Hazelwood House’s depressing appearance had already made it functional as a film location for Sam Wanamaker’s ‘The Executioner’ (1970) and several Hammer House of Horror productions. Much later, it would feature in a different and much happier kind of creation, ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004).
It wasn’t an old house in the 1970s, built in 1908 on the site of an older property, but its history had been intriguing.
In 1810, Henry Botham (1749-1825), a wealthy Londoner, had bought 42-acres of land in the Hertfordshire countryside, subsequently acquiring a further 30-acres from the Earl of Essex, to create surrounding parkland in which to establish his country residence. Hazelwood House was most likely completed by 1812. Following his death in 1825, aged 76, it remained home to his widow, Lydia Payne, until her own demise in 1838.
The estate was bought by Sir Henry Robinson-Montagu (1798-1883), 6th Lord Rokeby, the second son of 4th Baron Rokeby. He had been commissioned into the 3rd Foot Guards in 1814 and fought at Battle of Quatre Bras and Battle of Waterloo as a 16-year-old Ensign in June 1815. At the outbreak of the Crimean War he was made a Major-General and commanded the 1st Division. He was married in 1826 to Magdalen Crofts, the young widow of Frederick Crofts and daughter of Lt-Col Thomas Huxley, and later took the title of 6th Baron Rokeby of Armagh on the death of his elder brother in April 1847. He also owned agricultural estates at Eryholme (North Yorkshire) and Denton (Northumberland), Cambridge and Kent.
Henry died at the age of 85 on 25th May 1883 at Stratford Place, London, and was buried in Clewer churchyard. The peerage became extinct on his death.
Hazelwood House was bought by Admiral Ralph (Peter) Cator (1829-1903), the son of Peter Cator of Beckenham, Kent, and nephew of Major-General William Cator, CB, former Director-General of Artillery and of Vice-Admiral B.C. Cator.
Ralph Cator had entered the Navy in 1843 and was present in the Rodney in the attack of the forts of Sebastopol, in October 1854, and for some time commanded her tender, the Danube steamer. In the latter vessel he served in the early part of June 1855, with the flotilla in the Sea of Azoff, where he assisted in destroying a vast accumulation of stores belonging to the Russian Government, and displayed merit which he was mentioned with praise in the dispatches of the senior officer. On the nights of 16 and 17 of June 1855, prior to the unsuccessful attack made by allied troops upon the Malakoff and Redan, the Danube was engaged in pouring a shower of rockets on the town and sea defences of Sebastopol.
As Senior of the Furious, Cator was attached to the Naval Brigade, at the storming of the city of Canton in December 1857, on which occasion he assisted in burning the houses in the vicinity of the North Gate, a service executed under a sharp fire and with considerable difficulty, the houses containing little inflammable matter. His conduct during the operations against Canton was brought to the notice of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Michael Seymour, by whom he was again mentioned for his services on shore while belonging to the Calcutta, at the destruction of the Chinese fortifications at the entrance of the Peiho River, in May 1858.
Cator received the Crimean medal and Azoff and Sebastopol clasps, the Turkish medal and the Medjidie. He was promoted Naval ADC to the Queen from 1879 to 1882, from which he was appointed Rear Admiral, and was the inventor of an ‘alarm buoy’, which was approved by the Admiralty and supplied to the fleet.
He left Hazelwood House in the 1890s and died at Chelsea Court, London, in 1903.
In 1896, Hazelwood House was acquired by Reverend Henry Steuart Gladstone (1856-1929), ‘a tall, spare distinguished-looking man of serious aspect, though his disposition and manners were pleasant enough’.
Gladstone had been the Curate of Fawley and was the Vicar of Great Barton, Suffolk, between 1886 and 1897, and the Vicar of Honingham, near Norwich. He was the husband of Mary Cecil Elizabeth Wilhelmina Gage, daughter of Lt-General Hon. Edward Thomas Gage, Governor of Woolwich, whom he married in December 1882. Most notably, he was the cousin of William Ewart Gladstone, the Prime Minister.
He first leased the house to various London gentlemen, amongst those being Lord Roberts, its proximity to Ascot being an attraction. However, in 1907, he decided to live in the house himself, spending over £1,000 on renovations only to see the house gutted by a large fire which occurred on the 8 March 1908.
The family pictures were saved but little remained of the house. Assisted by an insurance compensation of £10,500, Gladstone rebuilt Hazelwood House, using the architects Hubbard and Moore, similar in appearance to the first, but sited at a different angle to the ornamental grounds. The mansion that we eventually saw in ‘The Raging Moon’ was built in Queen Anne-style, in brown-red brick with lighter red brick, stone and white painted wood dressings, with a hipped tiled roof.
Henry Steuart Gladstone died in 1929 leaving unsettled property valued at £121,155 gross, with net personalty of £106,704.
Hazelwood House was sold to Andrew Barclay Walker, the son of Sir Andrew Barclay Walker, 1st Baronet, of Osmaston Manor in Derbyshire. However, his occupation of the house was cut short by his death in June 1930.
The house was almost immediately sold to Francis Edwin Fisher, a substantial landowner, farmer, meat wholesaler and businessman who frequently travelled the world with his wife, the explorer and journalist, Violet Cressy-Marcks.
During their absences the house was left empty or rented out, most notably to the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (1892-1975), an exile from his country after the invasion by Italy in 1936.
Back in England, Francis Fisher and his wife spent most time at their townhouse, in Princes Gate, South Kensington, London. The outbreak of World War Two provided a unique opportunity for Hazelwood House when it became the wartime offices for Illustrated News Ltd and Odhams Press. Bruce Ingram, the editor of The Illustrated London News (from 1905) and The Sketch, had run his company for years and realised that wartime bombing posed a threat to their offices at Inveresk House in Aldwych, London. Throughout the war years readers were instead encouraged to write to the Illustrated News’ temporary offices at Hazelwood House. His publications were regarded as the ‘Great Eight’ publications and also included The Sphere, The Tatler, The Graphic, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, The Bystander and Eve.
Part of the estate was taken over by the Ministry of Defence for production of Mosquito and Halifax aircraft.
Francis Fisher retained ownership of the estate until the late 1950s. Hazelwood House went through various uses, but stood empty for long periods, except for brief appearances on the big screen, until 1971.
Later, Paul Edwin Hember, the owner of several small businesses, bought the house and changed its name to Hunton Park, a name still associated with it today. The mansion’s fortunes changed for the better, eventually becoming the Hunton Park Hotel, part of the De Vere chain, until bought in 2017 by Ravi Ruparelia, a London-based hotel and catering businessman.
Before we leave Hunton Park, it is worth reminding ourselves of that piece of former parkland acquired by the Ministry of Defence during World War Two. It became Leavesden Aerodrome and the former aircraft factories were used by Rolls- Royce to manufacture helicopter engines until 1993. At its peak in 1990, the airfield handled some 60,000 aircraft movements and remained open until 1994.
In 1995, the site was purchased by Third Millennium Group and part of it used to create Leavesden Film Studios. The 80-hectare studio complex is better known now as Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, also home to the ‘Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter’.
In February 1918 the entire contents of Rickmansworth Park mansion were advertised for auction by the Public Trustees in the Estate of the late Mrs Julia Birch.
The long list of furniture and fine arts provided a clue as to the wealth associated with the house. However, her death cast a shadow on Rickmansworth Park and it is questionable as to whether it was fully occupied again.
Rickmansworth Park dated back to about 1805, built by Henry Fotherley Whitfield (d.1813) and built in the middle of Bury Park. It was described as a two-storey building with a five-bay front and dominated by a giant Ionic portico. After his death it passed to his widow, Mary, later wife of Thomas Deacon, who sold it in 1831 to Mrs Temperance Arden (1763-1843). It passed to her son Joseph Arden (1799-1879) and was sold, on his death, to his son-in-law, John William Birch (1825-1897). He had married Julia Arden (now Birch) (c.1830-1916), daughter of Joseph Arden and Mary Ann Munro, and was a partner of Messrs. Mildred, Gozenseche and Co, merchants, of St Helen’s Place, London. He was one of the directors at the Bank of England and became its Governor in 1878-90. ¹
Following his death in 1897 he left personal estate worth £65,330. Julia Birch received £1,000 as well as pictures, engravings, plate silver, jewellery, horses and carriages as well as live and dead stock on the estate. She was also left Rickmansworth Park for her ‘use and enjoyment’, and which, subject to her occupation of the house, was left in trust for sale, and the proceeds after her death split amongst his sons. ²
The oldest of these was John Arden Birch (1853-1896) but, seeing as he had died a year earlier, the house wasn’t sold after Julia Birch’s death in 1916. Instead, it appears to have passed to his wife, Charlotte Mary Leycester Arden (1858-1935).
Charlotte married a second time in 1905. Her new husband was Walter Bulkeley Barrington (1848-1933), 9th Viscount Barrington of Ardglass. His home was at Beckett, Shrivenham, in Berkshire, and the couple appear to have spent most of their time in residence here. As late as 1924 it was said that Rickmansworth Park was going to be their permanent home, as Lord Barrington had decided to give up Beckett, his fine Berkshire seat. It is not without reason that Rickmansworth was ‘entirely renovated and modernised’ in readiness for the move, but it appears that Beckett wasn’t given up after all. In 1925 Lady Barrington was said to be ‘desirous’ of letting Rickmansworth Park for the summer but they had already decided about the property. ³
In May 1927 a concert was held at the Albert Hall, London. It was chaired by the Prince of Wales and over £200,000 was contributed by masonic orders. Its purpose was to raise funds for the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls whose Clapham school was no longer large enough for its requirements. After the concert they had the funds necessary to buy the Rickmansworth Park estate and its 204 acres of land. (The mansion was said to be in a poor state of repair but, as we have seen, this probably wasn’t the case). ⁴
The first job at Rickmansworth was to demolish the grand old mansion, but it wasn’t until 1930 that the Duke of Connaught laid the foundation stone for the replacement building. Bizarrely, the ceremony involved the ‘scattering of corn, pouring wine and oil, and sprinkling salt on the stone’. The school still exists. ⁵
The Viscountess Barrington died at Beckett in October 1935 and was celebrated for being a member of the Shrivenham Settlement and Welfare Scheme, in which houses were built for ex-servicemen. Ironically, she died while her book ‘Through Eighty Years (1855-1935): The Reminiscences of Charlotte, Viscountess Barrington’ had just been sent to the printers. It was published by John Murray in 1936.
References:- ¹ Nicholas Kingsley (Landed Families) ² Morning Post (5 June 1897) ³ Dundee Courier (14 August 1925) ⁴ The Sphere (28 May 1927) ⁵ Gloucester Citizen (17 July 1930)
The Neo-Palladian country house, near Potters Bar and Barnet, was built in 1754 by Isaac Ware for Admiral John Byng. Unfortunately, he was court martialled and executed during the ‘Seven Year’s War’ and never got to live at Wrotham, named after the original family home, near Sevenoaks, in Kent. He’d never married, and the estate passed to the eldest son of his brother, Robert, who’d already died in Barbados. It was through him that the house descended to its present owner.
The house, which was in the Classical Italian Style was described in James Thorne’s Handbook to the Environs of London (1876) as “a spacious semi-classic structure, of the style which prevailed towards the middle of the last century; it consists of a centre and wings, with recessed tetrastyle portico, and a pediment, level with the second story, in the tympanum of which are the Byng arms.” The third storey was erected by the 2nd Earl of Strafford in the 19th century. It bore a strong resemblance to Southill in Bedfordshire, another seat of the Byngs during the 18th century. The principal front of the mansion looked to the west, commanding views across the park, towards Elstree and Watford.
It was during the tenure of George Stevens Byng, 2nd Earl of Strafford, that the house was nearly lost. In the early hours on 6th March 1883, a fire broke out in a box room over the central hall causing much alarm to the servants. The fire brigade from Barnet arrived at 2am, an hour after the fire started, and were soon joined by crews from New Barnet, Hendon and Finchley. However, strong winds and ‘massive woodwork’ caused the fire to take hold of the top floors. It did allow enough time for household staff to remove family deeds and plates to the stables, while valuable paintings were stored in adjoining buildings. A quantity of furniture and the contents of the library also managed to be saved. While the fire destroyed the bedrooms above, the Earl stayed in his library until 3am until he was reluctantly forced to leave. The greater part of the hall and the main ceiling collapsed soon afterwards. The interiors were rebuilt exactly as they were but using ‘new’ Victorian building practices. ¹
It may have been these building methods that saved Wrotham Park from a second blaze in 1938. A servant discovered that plush curtains in the first-floor bedroom of the 6th Earl and Countess had caught alight. She quickly raised the alarm and a ‘chain of buckets’ prevented the fire spreading before the fire brigade arrived. Nonetheless it was enough to destroy tapestries and wall panelling, as well as causing windows to break due to the intense heat. As one newspaper pointed out, “the mansion contained many priceless heirlooms saved from the fire 55 years ago.” ²
These days Wrotham Park is the property of William Robert Byng, 9th Earl of Strafford (b.1964) and is used as an events and wedding venue. Its distinguishing exterior has been used over 60 times as a filming location including Gosford Park, Vanity Fair, Great Expectations, Inspector Morse, The Line of Beauty, Jeeves and Wooster and Sense and Sensibility.
References:- ¹The Globe (7 March 1883) ²Gloucester Citizen (15 Dec 1938)
Built: 1871-1877 Architect: George Devey Private apartments Grade II* listed
“Red brick, English bond, with diaper patterns in blue headers, above a coursed rubble stone base, and with ashlar dressings and stone mullioned windows; Welsh slated roofs with multiple stone-coped parapeted gables, numerous multiple shafted moulded brick chimneystacks with moulded bands and oversailing caps.” (Historic England)
Goldings is a large country house built Elizabethan-style by architect George Devey between 1871 and 1877.
Devey (1820-86) was one of the major Victorian country house architects, designing in a picturesque style, with Elizabethan and Jacobean details, which merged with the evolution of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 19th century. A skilled water colourist, Devey’s picturesque massing was based on pictorial composition, but his plans were often rambling and haphazard as at Goldings.
One critic is Mark Girouard who said of Goldings:-
“Devey’s weakness is especially apparent in larger buildings; and his big country houses are very big indeed. However fascinating the plan of a house like Goldings may be as an example of capable planning combined with apparent haphazardness on an enormous scale, the actual house is depressingly shapeless: it seems to dribble on for ever.”¹
The earliest known Goldings mansion was built about 1700 for Thomas Hall, Squire of Bengeo. In 1813 the estate was sold to Samuel Smith and inherited by his grandson, the merchant banker Robert Smith, son of Abel Smith.
Robert Smith (1833-1894) took over the Goldings estate in 1861, and was Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1869. He was the head partner in the old-established banking firm of Smith, Payne and Smith, of Lombard Street, and a partner in Samuel Smith and Co, Nottingham, Smith Ellison and Co in Lincoln. He married a daughter of Henry John Adeane, of Babraham Hall, Cambridgeshire.
The old Goldings Hall of 1650-60 was demolished around 1875, by which time the new house by George Devey, his biggest country house, was nearing completion.
Following Robert Smith’s death the house passed to his son, Reginald Abel Smith, who died in 1902. His wife, Margaret Alice Smith, remained at Goldings and allowed it to be used as a Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital during World War One.
The estate came to market in 1920 and attracted the interest of the Council of Doctor Barnardo who were looking for premises in countryside surroundings with open fields for recreation.
“One day, sometime around 1920, Mr Ernie Walker was working in the engine room when three well-dressed men came along to see him. They wanted to know whether the house, which at that time was only occupied by an handful of people, was capable of supplying water and handling sewage etc. for up to 260 people. This was the beginning of the negotiations, which led to a very dramatic change for Goldings.”²
In 1921 the house was sold to Dr Barnado’s Homes for use as an orphanage and renamed the William Baker Technical School.
“A great change occurred in April 1922 when the first Barnardo’s boys arrived. Two hundred and sixty from Stepney, led by their own band, marched along the road from the railway station at Hertford and took up residence. Later that year the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) came for the official opening of the William Baker Technical School as it was called. The large stables of the mansion were ideal for workshops and in the fifty acres of grounds there was plenty of space for a swimming pool and other sports facilities.”³
In 1923 Goldings was modified and enlarged and a chapel added. A new wing was added north of the arched entry to the forecourt in 1960. In 1967 the orphanage closed and Goldings was purchased by Hertfordshire County Council for use by the County Surveyor’s Department.
In 1997 the council sold the property to London-based Harinbrook Properties to be converted into apartments.