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An Incomplete History

of Whitewebbs Park

Whitewebbs Park and the people who owned it have a fascinating history. 

 

At one level that's as the simple story of a tract of land and mansion house not too distant from London. But what makes it unique is the way Whitewebbs's tale has brushed with much bigger, more famous events in English history.

 

Early records show Agnes and Stephen Wilford as acquiring a tenement at Whitewebbs in 1543. 

By 1570, Whitewebbs was owned by one Dr Robert Huicke, physician to both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, to whom Elizabeth granted a conduit with pipes to supply water to the mansion. The origins of the Conduit house in the Park date from this time.

 

Henry had certainly spent time in the area from the 1540s, pursuing his favourite pastime in the Chase and basing himself at Elsyng Palace a little under half a mile away.

 

Elizabeth, too, was a regular visitor at Elsyng, spending part of her childhood there, and visiting on at least four occasions as Queen.

Dr Huicke, a successful medic, held many exalted positions in the College of Physicians throughout the latter 16th century. But it seems he was no more maritally happy than his most famous patient.

 

He sued for divorced before judge Dr John Croke, who sided with his wife Elizabeth in the matter.

 

Dr Huicke appealed, and the Lords of the Privy Council interviewed both man and (ex)wife, leading them to write: "We never in all our liefes harde matier that more pitied us: so much crueltie and circumvencion appered in the man, so little cause minstred by the woman."  

In 1605, it's said that the Gunpowder Plot was hatched at Whitewebbs. To understand why a group of politico-religious terrorists would choose Whitewebbs as their safe-house, one has to imagine not the easily accessible, well-signposted place we know today, but a darkened house deep within a vast woodland. No-one would witness any coming and goings here.

 

In fact, the confession extracted from Thomas Wintour, one of the plotters, included the following:

“Then was the parliament anew prorogued until the fifth of November, so as we all went down until some ten days before, when Mr. Catesby came up with Mr. Fawkes to an house by Enfield Chase called White Webbs, whither I came to them, and Mr. Catesby willed me to inquire whether the young prince came to the parliament: I tolde him I heard that his grace thought not to be there. ‘Then must we have our horses...’ said Mr. Catesby.

In 1611, the land to the North of Whitewebbs Lane became part of Theobalds Park and was cleared for farming.

However, the big news of 1613, locally at least, was the completion of the New River. At this time, the course made a huge loop through Whitewebbs Park, carefully following the contours, turning almost 180 degrees at Flash Lane Aquaduct.

(This loop was only abandoned in 1859 when the the route was drastically altered. But you can still see the original cutting in the woods, here and in the Gough Park Estate, with the somewhat oxymoronic signs that read "New River - Old Course".) 

The year 1653 saw the property in the ownership of one Dr Bockenham from Bury St Edmunds whose wife had property locally. From Bockenham, the farm, its buildings and conduits were purchased by Michael Garnault Esq.

In May 1787, Whitewebbs Farm was put up for auction by Eliab Breton, but failed to sell. Later that year, in December - after Mr Breton had died, it was put up for auction once more.

This time, Dr Abraham Wilkinson bought the whole 134 acre lot for an estimated £4,200 (equivalent to around £750,000 now). Wilkinson was a noted soil improver, and must have succeeded at Whitewebbs; he could afford to demolish the old mansion in 1790 and rebuild a larger more prestigious edifice in 1791.

Whitewebbs Park was still owned by the Wilkinson family in 1873, by then Abraham's grandson, Henry, a noted collector of paintings and objet d'art.

This appreciation of the all things aesthetic probably led Henry to employ Charles Stuart Robertson to carry out various alterations, adding wings and a large curved pediment to the west front, central bays and balustraded balconies to the east front so that it resembled 'a French chateau'. Essentially creating the building that remains to this day.

In 1904, there is a reference to say Whitewebbs was owned by Lady Meux. As wife of Sir Henry Meux, brewery chief and owner of neighbouring Theobalds Park one might wonder why she would buy Whitewebbs - but that would be to severely underestimate Valerie Langdon.

 

She worked as a banjo-playing barmaid and 'actress' at the Casino de Venise in Holborn which is where she met Henry. Besotted, he married her in secret, and her dubious past meant she was never accepted by the Meux family or polite society.  

 

That didn't bother Lady Meux overly... she drove herself round London in a high phaeton carriage, pulled by a pair of zebras; upset portraitist James Whistler so much during a sitting that he destroyed the canvas he was working on; bred race horses; and supplied armaments to the army in the Boer war, despite having be asked not to by the War Office.

So owning Whitewebbs for a time - and possibly giving name to the Meux Cottages on Whitewebbs Lane would be the least shocking of her adventures.

Following Lady Meux, the next owners were the Orr-Lewis family.

 

Frederick Orr-Lewis was Canadian businessman, mainly involved in armaments and shipbuilding. He was aboard the RMS Lusitania on its ill-fated voyage from New York in 1915 when it was sunk by a German U-boat 11 miles off Southern Ireland. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew perished, and while Orr-Lewis survived, his health never recovered.

The Baronetcy of Whitewebbs Park in the parish of Enfield in the County of Middlesexwas created for him on 12 February 1920, a year and a half before he died.

It was passed down to Duncan Orr-Lewis, Frederick's son, diplomat and friend of the Prince of Wales, who was no stranger to drama himself.

Arriving in New York in 1930 on The Majestic, Orr-Lewis found a rogue trunk amongst his luggage.  On investigation, customs officer found it to contain around $200,000 worth of heroin - almost $2.9 million today.  When the mystery 'owner' of the trunk came forward to claim his property, he was promptly arrested.

Later still, Orr-Lewis's wife, Lady Ann had a long-term affair with serially-unfaithful Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, while Sir Duncan was stationed in Burma.

Sir Duncan sold Whitewebbs to Enfield council, for the benefit of the people of the borough, in 1931.

Since then, the Park provided space for both a municipal golf course and the ancient woodland, while the house was an orphanage, then for many years home for old gentlemen, and is now the Toby Carvery.

The Golf Course

The course was originally constructed by Messrs Hawtree and JH Taylor Ltd, was opened in July 1932. The Hawtree family have a long and illustrious connection with golf course design.

 

Frederick George Hawtree founded his company in 1912. In 1922, Fred started working with John Henry Taylor, a five times winner of the Open (1894, '95, 1900, '03 and '13), which is the turn-of-the-century equivalent of getting Seve Ballesteros or Nick Faldo to design courses. Together, they designed around 50 courses.  

The Hawtree company is still designing golf courses, under the direction of the founding family's third generation, Martin Hawtree. The company has been involved with the design of over 500 courses, worldwide, including work on St Andrews, Royal Birkdale, Royal Liverpool, Carnoustie, Muirfield, Royal Aberdeen and Sunningdale.

So Whitewebbs Golf Course, far from a run-of-the-mill municipal course, has been meticulously designed from the very start.

Ranger's Grave

 

Some say Ranger was Dick Turpin's dog, the highwayman being connected by an uncle to the Rose & Crown at the Beggar's Hollow end of Whitewebbs Park. But that's not true.

Ranger was indeed a much-loved hound, belonging to a gamekeeper in the late 19th century.

And very much-loved he must have been: his monument is a stone urn, maybe 2ft high, name carved deeply into it, set upon a big block, taking the whole thing to about five-and-a-half feet. 

This is all in a 6 foot square area, with cast iron railings, and a wooden board, into which is carved the following poetic 

instructions for visitors:

Tread lightly round this mossy stone

For Ranger sleeps whose bright eye

Once roamed this tangled glade

World-wide Whitewebbs

 

I'm indebted to Mr Roger Davies who added some facts - and a romantically happy ending - all the way from the Southern Hemisphere.

 

Roger grew up in the 1940s and 50s on Hillside Crescent, so much of his boyhood was spent adventuring in the Woods of Whitewebbs and beyond.

 

He notes that a V2 rocket fell near the King & Tinker pub, and that the resulting crater later filled with water. Roger tried his luck fishing there, but caught nothing.

As anyone who's walked that part of the woods will know, there is a pond that fills and empties, suggesting there's no natural water feed and the pond is simply rainfall. Perhaps this is the V2 crater still in evidence.

Roger let me know of Whitewebbs House's time as an orphanage, most likely in the 1930s.  Staff would process with babies in prams through the woods at that time.

He also tells of a pair of Mute Swans on Whitewebbs lake in the 1940s and 50s.  Sadly, one died - and while a new potential partner was introduced for the remaining lonely bird, swans mate for life; the newcomer was never accepted.

 

On a happier note Roger chose Whitewebbs as the backdrop to a romantic moment of his own in the 1960s.  He took a young lady there on a first date and she must have been sufficiently impressed: almost 54 years later, they're still married!

 

And finally, the global element. Roger and his wife moved to Plettenberg Bay in South Africa in 1993 to become farmers.  The farm they bought had no name at the time of purchase, so with happy memories in mind, and perfect symmetry for this tale, they chose to call it Whitewebbs.