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.