Secluded Mansion, Hidden History
By Samantha Maisey
University of Hertfordshire History undergraduate
For the Welwyn Garden Heritage Trust Project, ‘Where Do You Think You Live?’
(Images and copies of documents, referred to in the text can be viewed alongside the article)
Sherrards: Secluded mansion, hidden history
As Lewis Stockwell identified in his article, The Old Cottage, Welwyn Garden City’s Oldest Residence, ‘There are only a handful of residences that predate the building of WGC’.[i] Sherrards, situated in Rectory Road, off Digswell Hill, is one such residence, and records suggest that it was built circa 1861. Sherrards Mansion, as it is now called, was extended and converted into five houses in 1997 and it has an interesting 150 year history. It has been the home to numerous wealthy families, including the journalist/writer William Henry Wills, who was a friend and colleague of Charles Dickens. During the Second World War, it became a facility for the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School, and from 1956 to 1989, was a training school for The Spastics Society (now SCOPE).
This article will provide a short history of Sherrards from 1861 to 2011, based on evidence from documents, newspapers, census information and maps. The research into the history of Sherrards was undertaken for the Welwyn Garden Heritage Trust project, ‘Where Do You Think You Live?’, following a donation of Sherrards Training Centre literature, to the trust’s archive.
Surprisingly, considering the size and changing use of Sherrards over the past 150 years, very little has been written about the house or its residents. Numerous sources indicate that it is a victorian house, however the lack of documentation makes the establishment of a building date for Sherrards extremely difficult.
In 1861, John Dunkin Lee Esq of Welwyn bought land and dwellings from James Waller of Welwyn at Digswell Hill.[ii] The 1861 census confirms that the Waller family lived in various properties along Digswell Hill, none of which were named as ‘Sherrards’.[iii] Unfortunately, there was insufficient evidence to confirm the exact location of the Waller properties or the land purchased by John Dunkin Lee Esq. However, in 1865, John Dunkin Lee Esq, as a director of The Animal Charcoal Company, reported his address as ‘Sherrards, Welwyn, Herts’.[iv] (fig. 4). Therefore, it could be argued that Sherrards was built between 1861 and 1865, on the land purchased by John Dunkin Lee in 1861. (Continuing research is being conducted to either confirm or dispute this). (For a map of Sherrards House in 1870, see fig. 3).
Sherrards House: A private residence
For the first eighty years, Sherrards was a private family residence and was reached via the gatehouse on Digswell Hill. In 1867 William Henry Wills and his wife Janet (sister of William and Robert Chambers, the Edinburgh publishers), moved to Sherrards. William Henry Wills (1810-1880), a journalist and writer, was a friend and colleague of Charles Dickens. As a journalist, Wills contributed to a number of journals and periodicals. He was one of the original literary staff of Punch, and was a contributor and sub-editor of the Daily News. From 1849, Wills was sub-editor to Charles Dickens on Household words and later All The Year Round. Following a riding accident in Welwyn, Wills retired and he became involved in local life. He was appointed as Justice of the Peace and elected as Chairman of the Welwyn Poor Law Union Board of Guardians.[v] Wills died at Sherrards in 1880 and by 1883 his widow had left Sherrards and moved to London. (For photograph of W.H Wills, census details and W.H. Wills obituary, see fig. 5, 6 and 7).
During the early 1880s, Sherrards became home to the Balfour family. Robert Drummond Balfour (1844-1915), a stockbroker, had returned to England from Argentina in 1875/76, where he had been Director of the Alexandra Colony.[vi] Balfour is also remembered as a cricketer playing for numerous teams, most notably Cambridge University and Marylebone Cricket Club.[vii] As can be seen from the two adverts and census (see fig. 8, 9 and 10), the Balfour family employed many staff at Sherrards, however none of the servants were locally born. Balfour died in 1915 and his family vacated the property sometime over the next five years. By 1920 a Mr. Reginald Janvrin Dickson and his wife Margaret had moved into Sherrards. By 1925, the Gray Hill family moved to Sherrards. Mrs. Christina Gray Hill died in 1930 and her husband James Gray Hill, an East India Shipping Merchant, remained resident at Sherrards until his death in 1933.
de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School (DHAeTS)
In 1935, boundary changes resulted in Sherrards coming under Welwyn Garden City. At some time between 1934 and 1940, Sherrards became a woodwork instruction centre, for the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School. DHAeTS, established in Hatfield in 1934, transferred to Welwyn Garden City in 1940, following the destruction of premises by a German bombing raid.[viii]
The technical school trained engineers in aircraft design, manufacture and operation and in 1941 Sherrards became a hostel for DHAeTS students. (For photographs of Sherrards during the DHAeTS era, see fig, 12, 14 and 15). The gatehouse was no longer in use and the mansion was reached via Rectory Road. In the same year, the school moved to Salisbury Hall, and the Mosquito was designed and assembled there in secret, during the war. Ian Harwood, a DHAeTS student between 1948 and 1953, recollected cycling the twenty miles round-trip between Sherrards and Salisbury Hall, daily.[ix] John Radford, a student from 1941 to 1944, wrote about his time at Sherrards, and he mentioned that students at Sherrards did their bit for the war effort.
‘The home Guard was taken very seriously, with Sherrards complement… [forming] something of an elite company…During the time of the D-Day landings… the Welwyn company was called upon for several days to guard the railway viaducts at Digswell.’[x]
From 1948, the school was progressively transferred to Astwick Manor in Hatfield. Photographs confirm that DHAeTS students were still at Sherrards in 1948/49, and sources suggest that DHAeTS ceased to use Sherrards circa 1953. However, the exact date that DHAeTS students vacated Sherrards is unknown. Ex-DHAeTS students, fondly remembered Sherrards and there have been several comments and articles published in the DHAeTS Association Pylon magazine.[xi] (For extracts from the article written by John Radford, about his time living at Sherrards, see fig. 13).
A New Era
Sherrards Training Centre
In December 1956, Sherrards Training Centre opened and sources suggest that Sherrards was ‘given’ to the Spastics Society (now SCOPE) for the sum of £5,000. The centre, organised and staffed by the Spastics Society, aimed to prepare young people with cerebral palsy, for employment in industry, commerce and in the domestic field. The centre was pioneering, and initially accommodated thirty-two trainees. In 1963, the centre was extended to accommodate sixty-six trainees.[xii] The extension, a new wing, is visible on maps from the 1970s, however, following the closure of the training centre in 1989, it was demolished. It was following review of its services, that the Spastics Society decided to close Sherrards Training Centre and it formally closed on 31 March1989.[xiii] (For photographs of the extension under construction and trainees at Sherrards, see fig. 16, 17 and 18).
Sherrards Mansion: All Change
In 1997, Sherrards was extended and converted into five houses, and it was renamed Sherrards Mansion. Despite the conversion the original house is still recognisable today. (For comparison photographs, see fig. 19 and 20). The gatehouse, no longer forms part of Sherrards Mansion, it was extended and converted in 2009 from a two room building to a three bedroom villa.[xiv]
Sherrards, the Victorian mansion, sheltered from view by the trees that line Digswell Hill, has a fascinating and rich history. As one of the few properties that predate the new town, Sherrards tells the story of a changing society. From grand family home, to training centre, and finally conversion into smaller homes, Sherrards has continually been adapted to meet the changing needs of local people. The history of Sherrards, like its location, may have been hidden from the general public domain, but it is quite clear, Sherrards was not forgotten and is fondly remembered by the people that lived, trained or worked there.
Researching Sherrards has been very interesting and insightful and it was fascinating to read the accounts of people who remembered Sherrards. Should anyone have any further information or memories of Sherrards, please contact the ‘Where Do You Think You Live?’ project at firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Lewis Stockwell, ‘The Old Cottage, Welwyn Garden City’s Oldest Residence (Hertfordshire, 2011)’, Our Welwyn Garden City ; consulted 25 July 2011, p. 1.
[ii] Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Digswell Hill, D/EL 5689,5689/1.
[iii] ‘1861 Census’, Ancestry.com 1861 England Census [database on-line], http://search.ancestry.co.uk/cgi-bin/sse.dll?h=8556058&db=uki1861 ; consulted 19 June 2011.
[iv] ‘The Standard, (London, England), Wednesday, May 17 1865; pg. X; Issue X’, 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II, http://find.galegroup.com/bncn/ ; consulted 19 June 2011.
[v] R.C Lehmann, Charles Dickens As Editor, Being letters written by him to William Henry Wills his sub-editor (London, 1912), p. xiv.
[vi] Michael Hendry, ‘ Cheswardine Manor in the County of Shropshire’, http://sites.google.com/site/cheswardinemanor/cheswardinemanorpage2 ; consulted 01 July 2011.
[vii] ‘Cricket Online: Robert Balfour’, http://cricket-online.org/player.php?player_id=33543 ; consulted 19 June 2011.
[viii] ‘de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association’, http://www.dhaetsa.org.uk/ ; consulted 29 July 2011.
[ix] Ian Harwood, ‘DHAeTS 1948-1953’, DHAeTSA Pylon Magazine, courtesy of Roger de Mercado, de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association (2011). p.18
[x] John Radford, ‘Sherrards in its Heyday 1941-44’, DHAeTS Pylon Magazine courtesy of Roger de Mercado, DHAeTSA (2011). p. 14.
[xi] Roger de Mercado, de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association (2011).
[xii] The Spastics Society, Sherrards Training Centre (London, 1963). p. 2.
[xiii] ‘ Commons, Written Answers to Questions, 21 April 1989 , Employment, Sherrards Training Centre’, New Statesman, http://yourdemocracy.newstatesman.com/parliament/employment/HAN12671332 ; consulted 19 June 2011.
xiv Finial Developments Ltd, ‘Gallery of Previous Projects’, http://finialdevelopments.co.uk/FinialLandProertyDevelopersGal.html ; consulted 01 July 2011.
Fig, 1. Sherrards Training Centre, The Spastics Society, Sherrards Training Centre (London, 1963).
Fig. 2. Sherrards Mansion, Bryan Bishop and Partners, 5 Sherrards Mansion, Rectory Road, Welwyn Garden City (London, 2011).
Fig. 3. ‘The Standard, (London, England), Wednesday, May 17 1865; pg. X; Issue X’, 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II, http://find.galegroup.com/bncn/ ; consulted 19 June 2011.
Fig. 4. Sherrards House 1880, ‘Digimaps’, Landmark Information Group Limited (2011), http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/main/services.jsp?collection=historic ; consulted 19 June 2011.
Fig. 5. William Henry Wills, ‘Photography by William Henry Wills’, http://www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/Victorian_Photography.htm ; consulted 19June 2011.
Fig. 6. 1871 Census, William Henry Wills, Ancestry.com 1871 England Census [database on-line], http://search.ancestry.co.uk/cgi-bin/sse.dll? h=10485499&db=uki1871&indiv=try; consulted 16 June 2011.
Fig. 7. William Henry Wills Obituary, ‘ Daily News (London, England), Friday, September 3, 1880; Issue 10727’, 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II, http://find.galegroup.com/bncn/ ; consulted 19 June 2011.
Fig. 8. Mrs. Balfour advertises for Laundress, ‘ Multiple Advertisements and Notices, The Morning Post (London, England), Saturday, April 07, 1883; pg. ; Issue 34566’,19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II,http://find.galegroup.com/bncn/ ; consulted 19 June 2011.
Fig. 9. Mrs. Balfour recommends Housemaid, ‘ Multiple Advertisements and Notices, The Morning Post (London, England), Thursday, June 20, 1895; pg. 9; Issue 38386’,19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II,http://find.galegroup.com/bncn/ ; consulted 19 June 2011.
Fig. 10. 1901 Census, Robert Drummond Balfour, Ancestry,com 1901 England Census [database on-line], http://search.ancestry.co.uk/cgi-bin/sse.dll? h=7635400&db=uki1901&indiv=try; consulted 19 June 2011.
Fig. 11. 1934 Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), James Gray Hill, Ancestry.com, England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1861-1941 [database on-line], http://search.ancestry.co.uk/cgi-bin/sse.dll? h=1882891&db=UKProbateCal&indiv=try; consulted 19 June 2011.
Fig. 12. Sherrards House in war-time 1945, Ian Hardwood, ‘DHAeTS 1948-1953’, DHAeTS Pylon Magazine courtesy of Roger de Mercado, de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association (2011).
Fig. 13. Extracts, John Radford, ‘Sherrards in its Heyday 1941-44’, DHAeTS Pylon Magazine courtesy of Roger de Mercado, DHAeTSA (2011).
Fig. 14 and 15. DHAeTS students at Sherrards House 1948/49, de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association (2011), ‘The de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Group Photographs’, http://dhaetsa.org.uk ; consulted 22 June 2011.
Fig. 16. Sherrards Training Centre extension, The Spastics Society, Sherrards Training Centre, Official Opening of New Extensions, (London, 1963).
Fig. 17 and 18. Trainees at Sherrards Training Centre, The Spastics Society, Sherrards Training Centre, Welwyn, Hertfordshire, (London,).
Fig. 19. Sherrards House in war-time 1945, Ian Hardwood, ‘DHAeTS 1948-1953’, DHAeTS Pylon Magazine courtesy of Roger de Mercado, de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association (2011).
Fig. 20. Sherrards Mansion, Bryan Bishop and Partners, 5 Sherrards Mansion, Rectory Road, Welwyn Garden City (London, 2011).