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’.
The story of a country house that almost became home to Winston Churchill. Instead it was ‘swallowed by suburbia’ and lost forever.
Little Grove, East Barnet, might have been famous had it not been for a change of mind by Winston Churchill. In June 1922 the then-Secretary of State for the Colonies was looking for a country estate to buy. It was widely rumoured that he had set his sights upon Little Grove, in Hertfordshire, with one newspaper stating that ‘it was highly likely that the deal will be carried through’. In the end, Churchill bought Chartwell in Kent, and Little Grove headed into obscurity instead.
This house came to my attention after coming across a sale advertisement in an August 1911 copy of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. It had been posted by Messrs. Trollope’s Register of Houses and listed an imposing mansion with extensive pleasure grounds and 112 acres of beautiful timbered parkland at East Barnet. That was about all it said about the house, other than it might be suitable for private occupation, or as an institution.
The identity of the house involved a painstaking search of images of old houses around East Barnet. It was eventually found to be Little Grove, built in 1719, by John Cotton of Middle Tempest and originally called New Place. Built of red-brick, later covered with stucco, it replaced a house dating from the reign of Philip and Mary. The first mansion (called Daneland) was the residence of Lady Fanshawe, the widow of Sir Robert Fanshawe, the Cavalier, whose heroic rescue of her husband from prison made her famous. It didn’t take long for John Cotton to change its name back to Little Grove.
After passing into the hands of Fane William Sharpe it was sold in 1767 to Sir Edward Willes (1723-1787), a barrister, politician and judge, who became Solicitor General for England and Wales. The following year he was reputed to have paid £700 to Capability Brown for work on its extensive parkland.
In the later years of the 18th century it was owned by David Murray (1727-1796), 7th Viscount Stormont, later 2nd Earl Mansfield. After his death it appears to have been occupied by John Tempest, a landowner, Tory Politician and MP of Wynyard in County Durham. His widow remained until 1817 and Little Grove was bought by Captain Colman Hickman.
By the 1830s the estate was home to Frederick Cass (1787-1861), Magistrate, Deputy Lieutenant of Hertfordshire and High-Sheriff in 1844-45. It is likely that Little Grove had been bought by his father, William Cass, and Frederick later moved here from Beaulieu Lodge. He died at the house in 1861.
It was occupied by Alexander Henry Campbell (1822-1918), JP for Hertfordshire, Deputy Lieutenant of Cornwall and elected MP for Launceston until 1868. His departure from politics also led to him leaving Little Grove. The estate failed to sell at auction and remained unoccupied until 1871.
It is possible that Campbell had rented Little Grove from Martha, the widow of Frederick Cass, as there is evidence to suggest that the family had links to the estate up until the 1890s. Their son, Frederick Charles Cass (1824-1896), Rector of Monken Hadley in North London, was often associated by name with Little Grove.
Sigismund James Stern (1807-1885) moved into the house in 1871. He was a German-born Manchester cotton merchant who later turned his hands to banking in London. William Cass had described him as a ‘merchant and banker of London’.
At the turn of the 20th century the house and its 112-acre estate was put on the market but once again struggled to sell. In 1910 Messrs. Trollope and Sons wrote to East Barnet Valley Urban District Council drawing their attention to the Little Grove estate for a public park or recreation ground. ‘The price we are now in a position to accept is likely to be more favourable to your Council than it would later on, when the neighbourhood will have developed to a still larger extent, with the consequent appreciable rise in the value of the land’. The council wasn’t convinced and rejected the idea.
From 1907 the house remained untenanted, save for the billeting of 500 soldiers during World War One. It was in a dilapidated condition with dry rot setting in. However, in 1919 it was bought by the well-known Miss Shirley Kellogg, an American actress and singer, who had found fame in the West End, most notably at the London Hippodrome. She was, in fact, married to Albert Pierre de Courville, a theatrical producer and later film director. She immediately proposed changing its name to Shirley’s Grove and set about restoring and renovating the house.
The newspapers reported that Shirley Kellogg had spent almost £10,000 on the house but whilst the work had been completed it appears that the de Courville’s hadn’t parted with much money. In November 1920, Messrs. Maple and Co sought to recover £8,000 it was owed for repairs and decoration of Shirley’s Grove. In a High Court hearing, in front of Mr Scott, the official referee, the defendants alleged defective workmanship and excessive charges. Judgement was given to the plaintiffs for £6,966 of which £3,000 had already been paid, and a further £3,000 was awarded to the plaintiff’s solicitors.
As you might expect there were cheery weekend parties at Shirley’s Grove and on one occasion there was a fire, during which Shirley appeared in a dressing-gown encouraging the efforts of those attempting to put the fire out.
It might not be theatrical coincidence that stories about Little Grove started to appear around this time. There were tales of a ghost, a moat and buried treasure. Column inches were filled with the ancient story of Geoffrey de Mandeville, who owed his power and wealth from being the Constable of the Tower, who levied war upon the King and was attained for treason. According to most historians, he was killed at Mildenhall in Suffolk in 1444, but others said he was concealed in the grounds of Little Grove and fell into a moat, where he was drowned. His ghost was said to walk the parkland, being apparently disturbed by the fact that in the deepest part of the old moat, there was a great chest of gold and gems, which no one could carry away because it was bound to the bottom by iron chains.
To add further mystery there were tales of a hidden chamber and secret passages in which a coat of arms of Oliver Cromwell, elaborately engraved in oak, was discovered. Other valuable works of art were said to have been found, and then the infamous moat was said to have figured in Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Fortune of Nigel’.
With such fanciful stories, we might be forgiven for questioning the integrity of Winston Churchill’s interest in Shirley’s Grove. The story emerged in 1922 when Shirley Kellogg was living the high-life at her restored mansion. However, the estate did adjoin Trent Park, Sir Philip Sassoon’s estate, so the attraction might have been there after all.
Shirley Kellogg’s eventful stay at Shirley’s Grove lasted just five years. In 1924 she was divorced from Albert and she travelled to Hollywood to try to break into pictures. The house remained unoccupied and was sold at auction in 1927. Its pleasure grounds had been reduced to 3-acres, the remaining grounds probably sold off to developers in the preceding years. Whilst the house may not have been an attractive proposition the auction notice made specific detail of ‘three exceptionally fine building sites’.
In 1931 it was sold on behalf of the executors of Mr J.J. O’Brian and, the following year, the mansion was demolished to make way for a housing estate. Its setting has been ‘swallowed by suburbia’ but those residents living at the top of Daneland, just off Cat Hill, in East Barnet, might want to look out for the wandering ghost of Geoffrey de Mandeville.
Note: East Barnet was in Hertfordshire until 1965 when it became part of the London Borough of Barnet.
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)