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 country house built from wealth accumulated through the proceeds of slavery. It was never restored after fire destroyed it a century ago, reduced to rubble more than a decade later.
One hundred years ago, fire had broken out at Orbiston House in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, occupied by Mr James Steel. The south wing of the mansion was practically destroyed, as had parts of the roof in the main house. The Bellshill and Larkhall divisions of the County Fire Brigade had rushed to the scene, but were hampered by the lack of water pressure, the supply having to be pumped from South Calder Water, some distance away.
It was thought that the fire had started in a defective chimney and spread at an alarming rate along the roof. Several rooms, along with their contents, were destroyed before the fire reached the main building. The damage was estimated to be several thousand pounds.
The fire was the end of Orbiston House, eventually reduced to rubble more than a decade later. It was a sad end to a fine house, one of the most prosperous of them all, built on the profits of slavery.
Gilbert Douglas (1749-1807) had acquired much wealth from being the owner of the Mount Pleasant sugar plantation and the Fairfield cotton estate in St. Vincent. In 1794, he married Cecilia Douglas (1772-1862), the only surviving daughter of John Douglas, a Glasgow linen merchant. Gilbert purchased land at Douglas Park in 1800, and a year later, a further 225-acres, known as Bogs, on the banks of South Calder Water, from General John Hamilton.
Gilbert immediately commissioned Robert Burn, father of architect William Burn, to build a ‘modern’ mansion on the site of Old Orbiston House. This was called Douglas Park and was to be the centrepiece for his Douglas Park and Bogs estate. (There are papers available suggesting that the design had been conceived as early as 1795).
Gilbert Douglas died in 1807, leaving his widow one-third of his estate and life tenancy at Douglas Park and Bogs. Unfortunately, he also left debts of £7,700, eventually cleared by Cecilia Douglas from her own personal fortune. The Scottish estate and the West Indian plantations were put in trust, his widow the principal trustee.
Cecilia Douglas turned out to be a formidable businesswoman.
She had watched with irritating fascination a frivolous scheme that had taken place nearby. In 1825, Archibald James Hamilton, the son of General John Hamilton, had gone into partnership with Abram Combe to form an experimental socialist co-operative movement. Combe had bought land off General Hamilton for £20,000, and between them, spent another £40,000 to create a self-sufficient community. Under the banner “Liberty, Security and Knowledge” they established this ‘New Babylon” with accommodation built around a school, theatre, foundry, forge, printing press and a small factory. It ended in failure. Combe died in 1827, the project burdened with debt, local antagonism (no doubt from Cecilia) and the inability to be self-sufficient at all.
In 1830, Cecilia Douglas paid £15,000 to the creditors of the co-operative and added the remaining 291 acres of the Orbiston estate to her own, the enlarged estate now known as the Orbiston estate.
She died in 1862, a wealthy woman of 90-years-old, her estate valued at £40,365. Cecilia’s income had derived from tenant farmers and the slave economy in St. Vincent. Even the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 had increased her fortune, obtaining compensation of £3,013 (about £3 million today) for the 231 slaves on the Mount Pleasant estate. In addition, she held stocks and bonds in banking, railway, navigation, gas and insurance companies – all contributing a handsome dividend. In 1861 she became the sole survivor of the subscribers to the Glasgow Tontine, and inherited the Tontine buildings on Trongate. This had been established in 1781 to build “a public coffee-house with suitable accommodation for brokers, and rooms for tobacco and sugar samples.” The building was sold by her trustees in 1864 for £17,000.
In her will, her collection of paintings, sculptures and artefacts collected during an extended stay in Italy in 1822-23, was to be left to “some public institution in Scotland.” This valuable assemblage containing Gabnelli’s “View of the Roman Forum” and Camuccini’s “The Death of Caesar” was bequeathed to Glasgow Corporation, known as “The Douglas Collection”, and now forming part of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum’s collected works. In 2012, it was questioned whether it was appropriate to display works of art acquired through wealth accumulated through the proceeds of slavery.
Orbiston was inherited by Robert Douglas, a grand-nephew of Gilbert Douglas. He died in 1866 and left half of the Orbiston estate to a relative, John Culcairn Munro, and the other half to his son, Robert Lushington Douglas, who died unmarried in 1888.
The house was leased from 1865 onwards and proved attractive to the Victorian iron and coal magnates in the area.
William Neilson (1810-1882) lived here from 1875. He had founded the Mossend Ironworks in 1840 which grew into the Mossend Iron and Steel Company, one of the largest iron producers in Scotland, and was owner of several coal works on the estates at Carnbroe and Orbiston.
Neilson died in 1882 and the tenancy was taken over by James Addie, a partner in Robert Addie and Sons of the Langloan Ironworks in Coatbridge and the Viewpark Colliery. He left Orbiston in 1896.
It was assumed by William Neilson’s son, Colonel James Neilson (1838-1903), managing director of the Summerlee and Mossend Iron and Steel Company, as well as a director of various railway companies. He died at Orbiston House in 1903.
It lay empty for a long period before being occupied by James Steel about 1914. It was during his tenancy that Orbiston House suffered the disastrous fire of February 1919, which left the left wing of the house destroyed.
The house was owned by the trustees of Lushington Douglas who chose not to restore the house, instead leaving it in the care of Mr and Mrs Drydale, before eventually being demolished in early 1931.
In the 1920s, several acres of land were sold to Bellshill Golf Club, adding to their existing nine-holes.
The site of Orbiston House now sits within Strathclyde Country Park.
Note: Gilbert Douglas was not the only Glaswegian profiting from Caribbean slave colonies in the early 1800s. Scotland itself benefited disproportionately from slavery compensation – Scots made up 10% of the British population, but 15% of the slave owners who got payments, with Glasgow getting much of the cash. The early 1800s have been called Glasgow’s “Golden Age of Sugar.”
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’.
“To all outward appearances the mansion had the appearance of being unoccupied, and the spacious garden was in the same neglected condition as it had been for many years.” One hundred years later, nothing has changed.
This week, one hundred years ago, the discovery of an illicit whisky still in an old mansion gave considerable food for gossip in a Leeds suburb.
The scene of the discovery was the century-old mansion known as Fernville House at Roundhay, which stood in rural splendour until it became overshadowed by what was known as the Fernville ‘Garden City’, a small colony of ‘modern’ residences.
The mansion house (also known as Fearneville) had been built about 1820 by a Leeds merchant, and Thomas Louis Oxley, a surgeon dentist, later lived here, letting about 100 acres of land as a farm. In the 1870s, the mansion with about 49-acres of pleasure grounds, had been occupied by William Middleton JP, and then Samuel Sykes, after which the estate was sold for development on garden city lines. The last tenant had been Alderman Alfred John Knowles (1836-1918), a well-known Leeds provisions merchant, and for the last ten years or so had been unoccupied.
In November 1918, negotiations had taken place which resulted in Fernville House being sold for £2,000 to a Jewish businessman, who, it was understood would turn the former country house into a business place. Those who had negotiated the sale had asked what the place was going to be used for, presuming that it would become a clothing factory. The reply had been a definite ‘no’.
The new owner had not been long in taking possession, and it had been understood by some people in the neighbourhood that the house was being used as a laundry. On Saturday 1 February 1919, two officers from the Leeds special police force had seen a large cask being driven away from the house on a cart. They weren’t satisfied with the explanation given as to the contents of the cask, and at midnight a raiding party of special and regular police had taken possession of the house.
The officers came across ample evidence that spirit distilling operations had been conducted here. An attempt had been made to wreck some of the plant, which was unmistakeably a whisky still, and several barrels were removed from the premises.
Neighbours at Fernville House told the Yorkshire Evening Post that no serious attempt had been made to put the mansion into a state fit for habitation. Joiners had been seen doing odd repairs, and to fix a new wooden gate to the entrance which led to outbuildings of the house. To all outward appearances the mansion had the appearance of being unoccupied, and the spacious garden was in the same neglected condition as it had been for many years.
In June 1919, writs were issued by the Commissioners of the Customs and Excise upon Joseph Levi, a wines and spirits merchant, in connection with the illicit whisky still. The total penalties imposed on Levi, his wife, Sarah, and two others amounted to £1,960. (Sarah Levi was again convicted for similar offences in 1930).
The events preceded what would turn out to be a torturous century ahead. One hundred years later, the condition of Fearnville House (as it is now known) is even more precarious than it was then.
During the early part of the twentieth century the Ralphes lived here. The land was sold in the 1950s and the house was converted into flats while still retaining the pillared porch and a fine staircase inside.
By the 1970s, the house was again derelict and seemingly abandoned entirely in 1993. The council had evicted its residents, boarded up the building and it has been left ever since. In 2008, it was sold on the instruction of Leeds City Council for £228,000. The following year it was sold again, reputedly to become a nursing home. The last planning application in 2012 was abandoned the following year after various objections, including opposition that the premises would need a long period of observation for bats, along with doubts from the coal board who stated previous mine workings might undermine the property. There was also a further rejection from the council’s Highways Department who said a nearby road would have to be made one-way and restrictions, due to the entrance width, meant the number of dwellings was unsustainable.
Fearnville House is now in perilous condition, its interiors collapsing, and the grounds open to vandals and fly-tippers. Now marooned within housing estates, it has been the subject of frequent visits from urban explorers, who, if nothing else, have at least highlighted the sad state that the once-grand house is now in.
A forgotten mansion, once rooted in the countryside, now standing quietly within a popular park surrounded by housing estates.
Morden Park House, in the London Borough of Merton, is a small Georgian country house, that once stood in a large swathe of parkland. This land was once owned by Westminster Abbey and later owned by the Garth family until the estate was split in two.
In 1768, Richard Garth, in partnership with the London merchant and distiller John Ewart, procured a private act of Parliament permitting the creation of the Morden Park estate. The double-fronted brown-brick Morden Park House was built in 1770 as a retreat for the Ewart family, who remained until 1788.
Morden Park House should not be confused with Morden Hall Park, a much larger property, built by Sir Richard Garth in the 1770s, and now a National Trust property. This was sold to Gilliat Hatfield (1827-1906) a member of the firm of James Taddy and Co, tobacco and snuff manufacturers, in the 1870s.
A sale notice of 1879 described Morden Park House as a “desirable mansion on high ground, commanding extensive and diversified views, with an ornamental entrance lodge and carriage approach through an avenue from the high road from London to Epsom, with stabling, coach-houses, extensive gardens, pleasure grounds, shrubberies, with cottages, orchard, and park-like meadow land containing about 60-acres.”
After this Morden Park passed through different owners. From the late 1780s the estate was in the hands of the Polhill family and between the 1880s and the 1910s, the house was occupied by the banker John Wormald. The entire estate was eventually purchased by Gilliat Hatfeild, the owner of Morden Hall Park, thus reuniting the two estates.
Morden Park House was tenanted and after Hatfeild’s death, it passed to his son, Gilliat Edward Hatfeild (1864-1941).
For a brief period following the Second World War, the building became the headquarters for the local golf club, and was later purchased from the Hatfeild family by Merton and Morden Urban District Council. The house and 90 acres were preserved as public open space, the house used as council offices for the Parks Department between 1965 and 1985.
Like many country houses, Morden Park House suffered years of neglect and from 1985 onwards stood vacant for lengthy periods. The Grade II* listed house was eventually restored and is now the local register office, subject of a £1.8 million restoration using money from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
However, its future has been the subject of speculation, after the Labour council announced plans to close it. It now appears that this decision has been reversed and the register office will remain open.
One hundred years ago, this week. A large part of Dalchenna House, two miles from Inverary, was destroyed by fire.
The greater part of Dalchenna House was destroyed by fire on the night of 30 January 1919. The house was built in 1891 as a hunting lodge and residence for the Sheriff-Substitute of Argyll, and the late Duke of Argyll had made it his residence while in Inverary.
John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll (1845-1914) had several costly additions made to the mansion in 1908-09, which eventually “assumed the appearance of a castle.”
This mansion occupied a beautiful position on the west shore of Loch Fyne, and commanded one of the finest views of the picturesque district. Since 1903, the Duke of Argyll had resided at the house for weeks at a stretch.
After his death, the entail on Dalchenna House was conferred to his wife, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Duchess of Argyll (1848-1939), the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who, according to the Pall Mall Gazette, had a great affection for the beauty of the surroundings and often stayed here.
At the time of the fire, the house was being occupied by members of the Women’s Land Army, who were engaged in woodcutting in the neighbourhood. The previous autumn, Princess Louise had visited the house and removed several valuable pieces of furniture.
The house was restored and occupied by tenants, but suffered a further fire, although less serious, in 1928.
In 1930, after being diagnosed with a chronic duodenal ulcer, the author A. J. Cronin was told he must take six months complete rest in the country on a milk diet. At Dalchenna House, he was finally able to indulge his lifelong desire to write a novel, ‘Hatter’s Castle’.
During World War 2, Dalchenna was requisitioned by the Admiralty but, according to Historic Environment Scotland, the house has since been demolished. Its location was probably north-east, but close to the surviving Dalchenna Farm.