A History of Preston

in Hertfordshire

John Weeks -

Tenant of Temple Dinsley

The widow, Maria Elizabeth Darton, lived at Temple Dinsley in the 1860s. However, when she died in April 1869, her young son and heir, Thomas Harwood Darton (born 1848) chose not to live in the mansion – indeed he sold the estate four years later. Instead, the house was quickly rented to John and Lucy Weeks. He was described as a ‘retired builder’ in the census of 1871.

 

More details have emerged about John Weeks, ‘the builder’. More precisely, he was a ‘horticultural builder’. The Victoria County History in its section given over to ‘Farm Gardening and Market Gardening’ in Middlesex, devoted three out of twenty-five paragraphs to John under the heading, ‘Leading Nurseries and Nurserymen’.

 

                                                Of John’s parents - Edward and Catherine Weeks

 

John’s parents were Edward and Catherine Weeks and he was born at Chelsea in about 1808. By 1818, Edward had established a nursery on the Kings Road, Chelsea.  He designed and developed a system of heating horticultural buildings.

 

In July 1821, Edward, after years of manufacturing horticultural buildings, announced that he could heat them ‘using STEAM’. He was able to supply plans for cherry houses, conservatories, graperies, green-houses, peacheries, pineries, melon-frames and hot wall lights. As Edward narrowly avoided bankruptcy in 1846, when it was ‘superseded’ or set aside and as later hot water, and not steam, was used to heat Weeks’ buildings, maybe it was found that steam was not the most effective means of warming structures.

 

By 1836, Edward had more fully developed the design and heating of horticultural buildings.This branch of gardening had become popular among the rich – to place a home-grown pineapple on the dining table or display rare plants from foreign climes was regarded as an impressive status symbol. At Heligan in Cornwall, exotic fruits were grown using heat from decomposing straw. To have a greenhouse heated by hot water pipes feeding from a boiler was a far more reliable option. And it wasn’t only tropical fruits that could be produced using this method - flowers that hitherto could only be seen in far-flung jungles could be coaxed into bloom by a combination of coal, glass and iron. New plants grown with new technology held a fascination for the Victorians.

 

                                                                               Under glass

 

In 1850, Joseph Paxton managed to persuade the giant water lily of the Amazon (with its six-foot-wide leaves) to flower at Chatsworth House. It was grown in a glasshouse over a warm water tank which had a paddle wheel to simulate the flow of the Amazon. The lily was christened Victoria Regia, such was the significance of his achievement.

 

The specialised industry of constructing hot houses was given a huge boost in July 1851, when the cripplingly heavy tax on glass (viewed as daylight robbery!) was abolished. Now, glasshouses need not be small and narrow and the property of only the super rich. The ‘green shoots’ of glasshouses and conservatories advertisements began to sprout in building supply catalogues and gardening magazines. Now, the year round cultivation of exotic and tender plants was within the grasp of amateur horticulturists.

 

Based on his lily, Paxton designed a huge glass and modular structure to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 – the Eden Project of the nineteenth century. Crystal Palace was opened by the Queen - and John Weeks had his own more modest, but still impressive exhibit there. He was trading as J Weeks and Company from the north side of Kings Road, Chelsea, at Nos. 124-126, and describing himself as a ‘Horticultural Builder and Hotwater Apparatus Manufacturer’ – he built hot-houses and heated them with boilers that he also produced.

 

 

Also, in 1860, the public were urged to view ‘pineapples in all stages of growth and other choice fruits’ at his premises.

 

In August 1861, Mr Glenny in his newspaper column, The Garden wrote that ‘stove plants’ might be taken out for a brief period now and suggested that then was a good time to sort out boilers and pipes particularly if gardeners were cursed with a boiler that needed constant attention. He suggested persuading owners to change boilers and noted that he had a boiler from Mr Weeks that would ‘heat Westminster Hall if necessary’ and if it was properly charged and damped it would keep water going for twelve hours. The water was heated in ‘an incredibly short time’ and in day time required less than three inches of bright fire.

 

Six years later, during the winter of January 1867, Mr Glenny described Weeks’ establishment at Chelsea. The large conservatory was ‘full of vines and choice trees in pots and it was a glorious sight when all the choice fruits were gathered. Miles of hot water pipes were heated from one boiler. The place is now changed to a receptacle for valuable ferns and flowering plants’ but the fashion of growing the richest of fruits in pots like ordinary greenhouse plants had taken root.

It might be thought that the first reference to horticulture and gardening at Temple Dinsley is the rose garden which was created by a Lutyens/Jekyll collaboration for the Fenwicks. (Link: Rose Garden) However, there was an earlier connection when the mansion was rented by John Weeks FRHS between 1869 and 1879. FRHS means Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society. This is the story of his life.

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The catalogue of the 1851 Exhibition includes ‘Weeks, J., and Co – Inventors and Manufacturers’. Their exhibit was described thus: ‘Cylindrical revolving furnace bars, consuming the smoke, and diminishing the consumption of fuel. A slow rotary movement is given to each of the cylinders, which presents cool bars to the heat of the fire about every fifteen minutes and equally distributes the fire throughout the furnace. Model of an ornamental conservatory with improvements in ventilation. Boiler for rapidly heating water. Glazed light, for a common forcing-house or pit of new construction, with improvements in ventilation. Pedestal; for warming buildings by hot water, exposing a heating area of 70 superficial feet. Stack of pipes for warming buildings by hot water, exposing a heating area of 50 superficial feet.’

 

From his newspaper advertisements, Weeks’ target audience is easily identified. He addressed, ‘the nobility, gentry and (oh yes!) the public’.

 

During the severe winter of February 1855, his prospective patrons were invited to inspect his 1,000-feet-long nursery, divided into forty compartments, which was heated by but one boiler. It cost no more than 3/8d in fuel and labour a day.

 

In the following month of March, he boasted a ‘brilliant show of plants in flower such as cannot be seen elsewhere. Fully showing the superiority of the houses and the hot water apparatus’.

 

Two years later, he had opened, ‘The Grand Winter Garden at Chelsea – the second Crystal Palace of the day’. Now, hot water heated the equivalent of 1,300 feet of hot-houses, circulating through 7,000 feet of cast iron pipes.

 

Determined not to limit his market to heating hot houses, in 1860 Weeks avowed that his company had ‘for upwards of 30 years’ been extensively engaged in warming churches, mansions, warehouses offices etc’ and could provide references in ‘any part of the kingdom’. (Indeed, a quick scan of documents in archives reveals there are surviving plans by J Weeks and Co for properties at Hereford; Suffolk; Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire and Tavistock, Devon.) Horticultural buildings could be erected ‘upon an incredibly short notice’.

 

He exhibited at the Chiswick Horticultural Exhibition in the summer of 1860. His contribution included ‘every form of pedestals and stacks of pipes, showing that a hot water apparatus can be made ornamental of various designs suitable for conservatories or entrance halls. Or even for a drawing room’. Drawings of conservatories, ‘some of very elegant design’ were also on display. Perhaps this wording hinted at some of the objections of the nobility to his products. At another exhibition two years later the same theme was emphasized as attention was again focused on ‘his tasteful grouping of pipes for heated buildings. There is a well-designed pedestus for a hall, formed of tubes, and what is termed a medieval stack for churches. Some twenty-six tubes are braced together in a double row, forming what looks like a Venetian screen’.

Retirement to Preston, Herts

John retired in 1869, but with his brother Alfred holding the reins, his company continued to trade. (It became a registered company in 1897, but ceased trading in 1908.) John reserved the groom’s cottage, coach-house and stables at the Kings Road to himself and his wife, Lucy for life but soon after his retirement, he leased Temple Dinsley from Thomas Harwood Darton in around the middle of 1869.

 

There is little information about John’s sojourn at Preston. In the census of 1871, his entourage at Preston included a footman and three maid servants, his married sisters, Sarah Doyle and Rose Gainsborough and a niece, Louisa Walker.  He appears to have fallen out with the Sharp family of Preston Green. In 1870, John Sharp, (who ‘has not got as much wit as most persons’) was charged by John with threatening to assault him. The case against him was dismissed, not for the first time, perhaps again due to his mental deficiency. Then three years later, John’s gardener, William Morrow was charged with assaulting John Sharp’s brother, William (aged 16) who had worked at Temple Dinsley for 4½ years.

 

As John and Lucy modified the mansion another case arose: LEGGATT (plaintiff) vs. WEEKS (defendant)

This was an action for assault and false imprisonment. There was also a count in trover for seizing the plaintiff’s property and another for services rendered. The defendant pleaded not guilty and, as to the assault, that the defendant was trespassing and he used no more violence in removing him than was necessary. He also paid 15/- into court.. The plaintiff was a painter and decorator living in Little George Street, Portman Square and the defendant formerly carried on business in Chelsea as a builder of conservatories and greenhouses, but had now retired. In September last the plaintiff was employed by the defendant as journeyman to assist in decorating a house at Temple Dinsley in Hertfordshire of which he had taken the lease of a residence for his family. It seemed that a misunderstanding arose between them and that the defendant gave the plaintiff into custody for stealing some stencil-paper patterns which the plaintiff alleged were his own property. Having been locked up for some time, he was brought before Mr Dashwood, a magistrate at Hitchin, by whom he was immediately discharged.

 

The defence was that the plaintiff refused to leave the house when told to do so and that a policeman was called in to remove him but that the defendant gave the policeman no authority to take him into custody. The defendant appeared before Mr Dashwood but said he made no charge for stealing or any charge at all against the plaintiff. The jury gave a verdict for the plaintiff – damages £50.

This indication that John had interior work carried out at Temple Dinsley is of interest because when the house was sold in 1873, it was noted that it had central heating installed. Was this by John? Do the photographs of the interior of Temple Dinsley circa 1913 show examples of his company’s work? (Link: Temple Dinsley)

 

John died at the mansion on 13 August 1879, leaving an estate of less than £10,000. The task of discovering how long Lucy remained at Temple Dinsley was muddied by a reference that on I November 1891 she also died at Temple Dinsley , though the Brands are shown in residence there in 1881 and Mrs Brand visited Preston School regularly between 1880 and 1886.

 

Closer inspection of the records showed that Lucy’s death was registered at Poole in Dorset and that she had indeed died at Temple Dinsley as she had so named her new home at Branksome Park, Bournmouth. Her estate was valued at £24,527. Evidently, John and Lucy were childless and their estate was administered by their niece, Louisa Doyle nee Walker who was also living on the Branksome Park estate. Louisa was at Temple Dinsley in 1871.