The many lives of an intriguing Grade II Listed building
This page was first published in April 2014, following the announcement of the closure of Harpenden House Hotel, and was modified in October 2014. A report commissioned from Turley Heritage was submitted to St Albans City and District Planning Department in February 2016 (revised June 2016), which adds considerable detail to understanding this complex building – appended as a document below,.
The page has been further revised following the marketing of five apartments in Welcombe House in September 2019. Information about earlier inhabitants has been transferred to a separate page.
The sequence of photographs at the foot of the page (nos. 1-16) starts with scans from the Hodgson family album of the house which is thought to date from c.1900, This is followed by photos showing adaptations during the twentieth century drawn from catalogue photos. Finally photos taken during the renovation of Welcombe House and development its grounds for addional dwellings and apartments from 2017 to 2019.
Very little is known about the origins and early owners of Welcombe, with its imposing, but oddly asymmetrical early eighteenth century three-storey façade facing south-west across the Common. However it is likely that this wing, with its handsome doorway and ‘broken segmented pediment’ of 1710-20, (Pevsner: Hertfordshire 1953/2018), and imposing central entry hall and staircase, was added to a seventeenth century timber-frame house. Some timber beams and walling, suggesting a hall and cross-wing of an earlier structure were still evident in the kitchen quarters and above them when the building was refurbished in the mid 1970s. However there is little sign of this now, and beams at attic and cellar levels offer conflicting evidence. The massive chimney, with four flues, at the junction of the three wings of the building has not been adequately examined.
At this early period the house probably faced south-east, maybe with a courtyard overlooking the gardens, and a lane running from the Common to the north of the old wing. Possibly it was contemporaneous with the earlier parts of Bennetts (The Royal British Legion), Leyton Road.
Puzzling architectural features
Later in the eighteenth century a new wing was added on the south-east corner behind the 1720s frontage (see view from the garden, showing the join in the brickwork). Possibly this enclosed the courtyard of which a small section remains. No paintings, sketches or plans have survived showing the house at this stage in its development,
The plan of the estate in 1868 when Henry Tylston Hodgson bought Welcombe indicates a building of similar dimensions to the two-storey wing, in ‘cottage’ style at right-angles to the main façade. It appears to have been refurbished possibly in the 1870s/80s. This may initially have been accessed through the loggia and entry lobby, which had been added to the south-west main façade, and with later (and current) access through the massive chimney, thought to be part of the seventeenth century wing.
The entry lobby masked the main doorway during the late nineteenth century, when the drawing room was extended south-westwards on the SE corner of the main façade, piercing the front wall at ground-floor level. An extensive wing on the south-east/north-east corner was also added in the late 1880s. A photo thought to be dated 1890/1900 shows only the C18 wing facing southwards to the formal gardens – see Thurston album 2, 3 and 4 below.
Restoration of the Eighteenth century frontage – 1920s
Following the death of Henry Tylston Hodgson in 1918, the property was sold to Mr and Mrs Leslie Walton, who were granted planning permission to makes alterations (HUDC minutes 15 August 1919. It would be very interesting to see the details of the application).
It appears that the front of the house was restored both externally and internally to match its eighteenth century origins, of which there is no original image.
The hall entrance and dining room for which photos in 1930 survive, show simple panelling and an archway to the staircase, with the removal of the Victorian-style furnishings seen in Frederick Thurston’s photos of pre-1918.
The dining room is one feature which we can trace from the Hodgsons, through the Waltons and the Convent to the Hotel:
The south-west and south-east façades also appear to have been restored to a symmetrical arrangements of windows and roofing, linking the late eighteenth century wing to the late nineteenth-century additions.
The gardens remained largely unchanged and were the scene of many fund-raising events during the 1920s.
These features survived through the occupation by the Dominican Convent school from 1930-1964 when the lawns became playing fields.
The Convent School – St Dominics
In 1936 Lourdes Hall was built in the grounds, and dedicated by Canon Longstaff. Extensions for the expanding school, which also had boarders, were built.
By 1955 numbers had grown, so land belonging to the estate along Southdown Road beyond Lourdes Hall was sold for housing (numbers 31-36) to fund the building of the purpose-designed school which was opened as St Dominic’s Roman Catholic School in 1964.
Conversion to a hotel – 1970s
Moat House Hotels were responsible for many internal alternations, moving walls and doorways on the ground floor, inserting mock Adam-style ionic columns in the eighteenth century ranges, and re-configuring late nineteenth century rooms to form a long “Georgian” dining room with three archways along each side, those on the east side giving access to a new single-storey extension on the north-east side.
The allegorical scene decorating the ceiling of the dining room was painted on paper and set within a circular papier-mâché moulded frame. Its installation was almost complete when the WEA group visited in 1971-72. On the upper floors facing the Common, plaster-board false ceilings and partitions were inserted to create bedrooms and passage-ways, concealing any possible remains of C18 features.
The former gardeners’ houses fronting Southdown Road and glasshouses behind were demolished to make way for the car park. Suites of rooms spread over the former gardens and tennis courts. Management changed a number of times, from Harpenden Moat House, to Corus to Harpenden House Hotel.
Transformed by Fairview Homes
The announcement of the sudden closure of the hotel at the beginning of April 2014 raised serious questions over the future of this Grade II* listed building.
The application for the redevelopment of the grounds of Welcombe and refurbishment of Welcombe House by Fairview Homes was controversial with objections from those in neighbouring properties and many others concerned about the impact on views from the Common and the scale and heights of the proposed blocks of flats and houses on the former gardens.
The photos below show how planners allowed increased roof-height for the buildings fronting Southdown Road, compared with copies of photos taken by Jim Jarvis in the 1950s in the Local History Society’s archives, which had been loaned to Fairview for display during the consultation processes.
In the spring of 2019 apartments in the courtyard behind the house, and the mews and cottages were put on the market, followed by the marketing of the five apartments in Welcombe House. The design of these apartments was determined by internal walls and features which had to remain, since we understand that the project was being monitored by St Albans District Planning Department. Members of the Society, who had had access to the house in the 1970s and early 2000s, were able to view the interior of the house in April 2018, by which time the C18 wing had been stripped back to bare brickwork, and some exposed timber-framing on the back wall of this wing, but leaving no trace of plaster or panelled walls. We have not been able to view all the apartments, to see what features from the original building have survived.
The few photos we were able to take when the house was open to the public in October 2019 are from part
The Herts Advertiser Property supplement of 30 January 2020 describes the transformation of Welcombe House into five two and three bedroomed apartments, keeping “quirky layouts and uneven floors”, as stipulated by St Albans District Council planners – to ensure that no period features were lost. So certain (mainly unspecified) features have been boxed in, including the painted ceiling in the former hotel’s dining room.
GALLERY OF PHOTOS
The pictures below show features of the interior from photographs by Frederick Thurston during the 1890s for albums owned by members of the Hodgson family. These are numbered 1 -18 (Thurston Album 1-17). Some were reproduced in subsequent sales brochures in 1918.
Numbers 19 complements photos above of the 1920s restoration of house and gardens by the Waltons, the last period when the house was a family home.
The building was adapted by the Dominican Sisters between 1932 and 1964, where relevant photos can be found on the page about the convent school .
This is followed a sequence showing various phases of the hotel from 1970 to 2014 and concludes with photos taken during the period of redevelopment from 2017-2019 (nos.21 to x) and