A house with a retail history. This house was bought twice from the fortunes of shopping empires
One hundred years ago today, the picturesque and well-placed residence, known as Hill House, went to auction at the Mart, Tokenhouse Yard, in London.
Grade II listed Hill House at Great Stanmore, then in the county of Middlesex, was built in the early 1700s by John Boys, Vicar of Redbourn, Hertfordshire, who also owned nearby Aylwards and Broomhill. It was originally called the Great House, probably due to its imposing appearance on the top of rural Stanmore Hill.
It was sold in 1771 to Reverend Samuel Parr, a master at Harrow School, who after the disappointment of missing out on becoming headmaster, set up a rival establishment at the Great House, taking many of the pupils with him.
The school was short-lived but was used as a schoolhouse again when it was bought by John Sharpe.
One of its greatest occupants was Charles Drury Edward Fortnum (1820-1899), who had moved to South Australia in 1840 where he bought a cattle ranch. Five years later he left for Europe with the objective of putting together a collection of art, especially minor arts of the Italian renaissance. He married Fanny Matilda Keats, a cousin, that provided access to the wealth of the grocery store Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. With an advance of £4,000 from his wife’s fortunes, Fortnum chose Stanmore to settle – buying and repairing Great House in 1852 and later renaming it the Hill House. Fortnum also become an alderman of the Middlesex county council, and eventually also a deputy-lieutenant of the county too.
Together they travelled the world and gathered a large collection of ceramics, bronzes and other objects most of which were later donated to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The collection was so large they had to build a separate wing to the newly-named Hill House, now called the Fortnum Gallery. Fanny died in 1890 and Charles died nine years later, leaving the remainder of his collection to the British Museum.
After Charles Fortnum’s death in 1899 it became the residence of Mr and Mrs Charles Waterlow. In 1904, they were honoured to receive Princess Louise Augusta of Schleswig-Holstein, who opened a bazaar in aid of the ‘Church of England Waifs and Strays Society’.
The house was later the home of Sir Matthew Wilson but appears to have been let to several tenants. The most notable of these were the Count and Countess Benckendorff who stayed in 1914-1915. They were in good company. Close neighbours were the Earl and Countess of Essex, who had Cassiobury Park and the Earl and Countess of Clarendon at The Grove, Watford.
We don’t know who purchased the house at the 1918 auction. The most likely candidate is Frank Charles Bearman (1870-1956), who was resident at Hill House during the 1920s and 1930s. A draper by trade, Bearman had opened a shop in Leytonstone High Street in 1898 that became a thriving family business for the next 64 years.
Bearmans Department Store was a success, and in 1910 he built Bearmans Arcade, which led to the popular Rialto Cinema. Frank Bearman copied the style of successful London shopping arcades, with a glass roof and the highest quality goods on display. Between 1908-1921, Bearman was also the co-owner of Allders, the Croydon department store, building it into a 50-store business.
After Frank Bearman’s death in 1956, Bearmans suffered increasing competition and it was eventually sold to the London Co-Operative Society. It finally closed in 1982.
His son, John Garland Bearman, later married the Hon. Gloria Mary Curzon, daughter of Richard Nathaniel Curzon, 2nd Viscount Scarsdale, of Kedleston Hall.
The Second World War had an impact at Hill House. In common with many large houses it was requisitioned as a secret RAF establishment, a satellite of RAF Bentley Priory.
The RAF remained until the 1950s but Hill House itself became home to Air Chief Marshal Sir John Nelson Boothman (1901-1957), who was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Coastal Command from 1953 until his retirement in 1956. Sir John had piloted a Supermarine S-6B plane in 1931 which had won the Schneider Trophy outright for Britain at a speed of more than 342 mph.
The house and stables have now been converted into flats.
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.