Introducing Welcombe - some of its inhabitants

1800s to 2020s - a talk to the Society on 25 February 2020

There are few references to owners and none to who built the house, known since 1868 as Welcombe. The 1799 Westminster Abbey survey of Harpenden listed John Munn as the owner of the property, which was occupied by John Baptist Mercier, schoolmaster. Mercier was there in 1790 as Munn insured the property in that year, noting that it was occupied by said Mercier, schoolmaster. Munn died in 1806 and Mercier probably vacated the property as he was about 63 at that date. (Mrs Grace Mercier, John’s wife, ran a Ladies Academy in Kinsbourne Green – later known as Verona House – from the 1780’s until financial difficulties forced her to vacate it in 1834. With her daughter Elizabeth, she then ran a small school for girls in a building facing on to Church Green. The school closed in 1841 after Grace died at the grand old age of 91. Elizabeth vacated the premises and left Harpenden,)

The 1843 tithe award schedule indicates that the mansion was empty at that time, having lately been occupied by Mr Fogg and that the house, along with the great meadow and the gravel pit fields alongside the Common (along Wheathampstead, later Southdown Road) then belonged to Richard Oakley.

Lawrence End House

Richard Oakley (c.1800-1871) lived at Lawrence End, Hertfordshire. He was a substantial landowner and a progressive farmer. In 1835 he had inherited the estate of his uncle, William Oakley, at Wandon End, a few miles north of Lawrence End, now on the outskirts of Luton.

William Oakley, who died in 1835, left £1,000 to his son-in-law John Isaac House. A new brewery, which became known as the Peacock Brewery, was set up in Harpenden in 1836 by William Kingston. Kingston died soon afterwards and the Brewery ‘set up by the late Mr. Kingston a year earlier’ was put up for auction in 1837. It appears that the House family bought the brewery at the auction as both the 1841 census and the 1842 Tithe Awards show John Isaac House as the owner. He evidently put his legacy to good use.

In 1840 Richard Oakley also inherited the proceeds of an extensive business from his uncle Richard, estimated at the time to be “worth £30,000”. In 1839 he had bought Limbrick Hall Farm (also known as Bamville Wood Farm or Wystock) from the Bacon family of St Albans.

As one of the Trustees of his friend William Manson, on William Manson’s death in 1852 he became joint-owner with William Houghton, Edward Manson and his widow Adelaide Manson of land in Harpenden, which included the ‘Welcombe’ lands.

Land which subsequently became the upper gardens were still part of Topstreet Farm owned by Charles Packe and occupied by Joshua Jennings. Richard Oakley also owned the land and cottages described in the Indenture of 1868, which we believe to be on the site later redeveloped by Henry Tylston Hodgson as a row of cottages between the Institute (Friends Meeting House) and Harpenden Hall.

In the 1851 census the house was still empty, though William Green, a gardener and groom, lived in the Gardener’s cottage south of the main house, and five cottages north of The Cedars and The Dene were evidently leased to occupants who included a Chelsea Pensioner and Joseph Henry Gilbert – described as “a scientific and agricultural chemist” – with his wife and a servant.

From the 1861 census it would appear that the house, still un-named, was occupied by two spinsters, Anne Sanders Wilson and her sister Mary Wilson, both described as “fundholders”. They employed a cook, parlourmaid and a housemaid. The ‘Gardener’s cottage’ and the five cottages to the north were occupied by farm labourers and straw-plaiters.

The Hodgson family

The estate map of Welcombe, property of Henry Tylston Hodgson, 1868


A plan of the Welcombe estate dated 1868 confirms the change of ownership to Henry Tylston Hodgson, and the naming of the house. This derives from the childhood home near Stratford on Avon of his wife Charlotte Purefoy Lloyd Warde, as detailed in the full account of the Hodgson family.


Henry Tylston Hodgson JP, in formal dress. His ceremonial sword in the LHS archives. LHS ref. EM 34/24

By the 1871 Census, Welcombe had become the family home of Henry Tylston Hodgson (1843-1918), and his wife Charlotte, with their three eldest children, Aubrey aged 4, Eustace aged 1 and three-month old Gerald. They employed a Housekeeper, an Upper housemaid, a Cook, a Nurse, an Under nurse, a Kitchen maid and a Footman. Henry was described as a ‘railway director’ having been elected as a Director of the Midland Railway, with its headquarters in Derby and offices in St Pancras station. In 1904 he became deputy chairman. Later censuses show the family growing, with sons Charles (known as Victor), twins Oswald and Hubert, a daughter, Mabel and the youngest son Nigel (Linnhie).

The Hodgson family outside Welcombe, c.1890

Henry and his wife became active in Harpenden cultural life, particularly in the provision of land for, and building of The Institute (Harpenden Lecture Institution – now Friends Meeting House) in 1887, and of Hodgson’s cottages alongside to the north, rebuilt in 1870.

He served as a JP from 1874, as Harpenden’s first County Councillor from 1889 and was appointed High Sherriff of Hertfordshire in 1907. He served on the management committee of the British School (now Park Hall) and later of the School Board responsible for building the Victoria Road schools in 1897. He chaired the elaborate celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, for which James Wright Salisbury of Limbrick Hall was Secretary and Treasurer.

In 1908 he built Rosemary (28 Milton Road, designed by his son Victor) for his wife, but she died the following year and the house remained empty. When the First World War broke out Mr Hodgson made ‘Rosemary’ available to serve as a military hospital, which it did at various periods during the war. In 1914 he erected at his own expense the Rifle range on land at the southern end of the Welcombe gardens – later to become the hut for the 3rd Scout troop.

Mrs Hodgson founded the Harpenden Nursing Association, of which her husband was President. In July 1907 she laid the foundation stone of the new St John’s Church which opened in March 1908, replacing the ‘paper church’ at the bottom of Crabtree Lane, which burnt down spectacularly on New Year’s Day 1906 – highly visible from Welcombe. Mrs Hodgson also hosted many groups at Welcombe, including, as reported in the parish magazine in 1888, “members of the Mothers’ Union for Cravells Road and Bowling Alley [who] were entertained with tea and music at Mrs Hodgson’s own house. The large party was amused by Mrs Hodgson, her children and friends, with songs and dramatic performances to their great delight.”

The Hodgson family of eight boys and one girl were also known for their Saturday hockey matches at Welcombe, about 30 people joining in, with Mr Hodgson keeping the goal at one end. Tea was “bounteous” – hot scones, potato cakes, chocolate cake etc.  The family entertained generously, according to reminiscences in the Free Press (1964) by Philip Bentley, son of Harry Bentley, the Hodgson’s butler from 1890 to 1918. Philip’s mother had been a housemaid, and the Bentleys appear to have lived in one of the Hodgson cottages (Kelly’s directories from 1901-1922).

Henry Tylston Hodgson’s death on 22 May 1918 was sudden and tragic – clearly a shock to all the family, but especially to his daughter Mabel Paine, who had been caring for him during a painful bout of sciatica.

Charles Victor Tylston Hogdson

Gerald Hodgson continued his father’s interest in public works for the benefit of Harpenden. He and his wife lived first at Blantyre in Arden Grove and then at Bennetts in Leyton Road (now Royal British Legion). Theodora Wilson thanked Mr Hodgson for the planting of Scotch pines and larches around the newly refurbished ‘run-off’ ponds in Southdown Road in 1929. His brother Victor Hodgson, who moved to Scotland on his marriage in 1922 and founded the West Highland Museum, had collected many artefacts and paintings ‘for a future museum for Harpenden’. These were later lodged with Harpenden Urban District Council and now form the core of the Society’s archives.

Leslie Walton, restorer of the eighteenth century facade

Walgrove, 7 Rothamsted Avenue – home of the Waltons from 1911-1919

Leslie Walton was appointed Managing Director of Vauxhall Motor in 1914. He and his family had moved to Walgrove, 7 Rothamsted Avenue by 1911 and presumably established connections in the community.

Henry Hodgson had died in May 1918. It would seem that his sons Victor, Eustace and Gerald acting as executors, had no interest or means to maintain the family home. There are no documents concerning the sale to Leslie Walton, but his application for planning permission for ‘alterations’ was approved by Harpenden Urban District Council (minutes dated 26 August 1919, following permission in June for the re-drainage of Welcombe and its stables, and connection to the sewer). Theodora Wilson makes no mention of the impact of the building works, which must have been considerable. It is not inconceivable that Victor Tylston Hodgson, who had been involved with Sir Charles Lawes-Wittewronge’s refurbishment of Rothamsted Manor in 1900-01 (involving sourcing C17 fireplaces from other houses) might have helped source the handsome C18 doorway for the restored facade. The immaculate gardens became the scene of many fund-raising events during the 1920s.

Theodora Wilson described the new owners as “rich and generous people who are this year [1920] doing their best to popularise their wealth by various fetes for charities and politics in the Welcombe grounds. There was a fete for Dr Barnardo’s Homes in June, and another for the Unionist cause in July and there is to be yet another for the resuscitated Horticultural Show in August.” (Theodora’s Journals, p.173)

The house, as restored by Leslie Walton

Harpenden Village Fayre, June 1927

It seems that the Waltons left Harpenden in 1931 shortly after the broken engagement of their only daughter Phyllis to one ‘Leslie Wyndham Williams’ which had been reported in several papers.

There are few traces of the Waltons in press coverage, though Leslie Walton, still Chairman of Vauxhall Motors, is reported in the Luton News and Bedfordshire Chronicle society column as attending a dinner at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders in 1936.

In 1949, the sudden death in British Columbia of Leslie Walton, ‘formerly of Welcombe, Harpenden’ was announced, with a short obituary in The Times (not yet accessed).  He left £26,000, with bequests to former employees and the bulk in trust to his widow and daughter. He had retired as Chairman of Vauxhalls in 1947,

It would appear that land alongside Southdown Road south of the rifle range was sold for housing as numbers 36 to 40 were built during the 1930s. The rifle range had become headquarters for 3rd Scouts – a movement strongly supported by both Henry Hodgson and subsequently by Leslie Walton. In 1931 a new scout hut was built on the land between the railway and the old rifle-range premises, whose land had been sold as part of the housing development.

The Convent

The infants class at the Convent, c,1960

The Dominican Sisters ran their school in Welcombe from 1932 – 1964, converting the top floor to dormitories for boarders, and adding a hall for sports behind the main house and a kindergarten. The Gardeners’ cottages were used as additional classrooms, and the lawns became playing fields. Lourdes Hall, serving the Catholic community, was built in 1936.

A news cutting from 1950 featured a photo of the wrought iron gates, with the date 1850 spaced across the top panel, dating to the time when William Manson owned the house – though he is not listed as resident in the 1851 census.

Gates showing 1850 in the wrought iron

In September 1964 the school moved to purpose built premises south of Lourdes Hall, but the Sisters remained in Welcombe – then to be known as the Convent of Our Lady of Lourdes, where they lived for several years, before selling the house to Moat House hotels in the late 1960s.

Moat House Hotel to Fairview Homes

The opening ceremony

Harpenden Moat House Hotel opened in 1970, having built an accommodation suite on the lower lawn, and decorated the interior in Georgian style. The Sisters were invited to the opening ceremony.

The staff of The Moat House, before opening in 1970

Moat House Hotel staff c.1973

The Harpenden Moat House flourished during the 1970s and 1980s, but the parent company was over-stretched and sold to Corus Hotels.  Harpenden House Hotel took over in xx.  The sudden closure of the hotel in April 2014 was a shock to the staff and the community.

A new era

Fairview Homes bought the site in September 2014, with a view to refurbishing the house, demolishing the accommodation block and building flats and houses on the surrounding site. After a long process of planning applications to which there were numerous objections, planning permission with conditions was granted in 2016. Building work started in 2017 and completed in 2019, when the first houses were marketed, followed by marketing of the five apartments in Welcombe House.

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