Note: This article features Offley Holes House -not Offley Holes Farm (Link: Farm).
The House stood for less than thirty years; the Farm has existed for more than three
Offley Holes Farm was owned by the Curling family for most of the nineteenth century.
Robert Curling died on
4 March 1894. He left a gross estate of £34,504. In his will (which ran to eighteen
A4 pages) he issued instructions that ‘a sum not exceeding £4,000 should be spent
erecting a residence for the use of the tenant for life upon my estate in Hertfordshire’.
This was to be ‘the principal Mansion House on the settled land’.
He also directed that ‘a sum not exceeding £1,000 should be spent erecting any farm
buildings my trustees may think desirable’. A Curling relation recalled that this
wish was made in the full knowledge that the beneficiary, Robert’s nephew, Robert
Sumner Curling, had ‘no interest in the country or the estate and preferred to live
in London.’ Robert’s expressed wishes were implemented and so Offley Holes House
was designed by W A Lucas and built.
The house was built ‘so high up the hill that a pump house had to be built in the
farmyard at the foot. This is still standing’. (For photographs see link:Pump House)
On 25 March 1898, Percy St Clair Matthey signed a twenty-one-year lease for the newly-built
mansion at an annual rent of £300. Included in the package of fourteen acres were
the coachman’s lodge, stables, coach-house, well, pump engine and engine house as
well as exclusive hunting rights ( these were used - in 1899 the Preston School logbook
stated that ‘nine boys have gone beating for Mr Matthey’).
Maintenance of the estate was included in the terms of the lease – painting, waxing
as well as lawn and tree care. The lessee was also to insure the house for at least
£7,000 against fire damage (and make up any shortfall should the house need to be
rebuilt) and employ an effective gamekeeper. Ironically as it transpired, the mansion
was only to be used as a private dwelling house.
Percy was the son of George Matthey, a pioneer in metallurgy based at Hatton Garden,
London, who specialised in working, refining and finding applications for platinum.
(Link: George Matthey) When George died in 1913, his estate was worth £305,252.
Percy (1876 – 1928) shouldered his father’s mantle as an assayer and metallurgical
engineer and, at his death, his own estate was valued at £169,488.
In 1901, Percy and his wife, Laura, were noted as being in residence at Offley Holes
House, being served by five maids, a butler and a hall boy, Edward Peters from Preston.
Mrs Matthey’s contribution to life at Preston and St Martin’s Church in particular
was appreciated: ‘She has been a true friend and supporter of the Church at Preston.
To no single request for help and sympathy has she ever turned a deaf ear.... From
altar frontals down to dusters and tapers she has supplied many of the needs of the
Church (which included a beautiful festal frontal, and the handsome green and gold
cloth which was used at the Consecration of the Church) and many homes in the village
have been brightened by her kindly actions. Many good wishes will go with her when
she bids us farewell.’
She also was the Chapelwarden of the Church and maintained the Churchyard. ‘The untidy
plot round the Church has been put in thorough order and fresh grass sown, while
the many ragged spots in other places have been dealt with and made neat and tidy.’
Also, at the Coronation Tea of 1902, Mrs Matthey ‘had very kindly and thoughtfully
sent a present of a handsome Coronation mug for each child.’ (all references from
Hitchin Parish Magazine)
After six years, on 21 March 1904, Percy re-assigned the lease to (Sir) Joseph Child
Priestley. Perhaps this was inevitable as the Hitchin Parish Magazine noted that
Mrs Matthey was ‘frequently from home’. However, the Matthey’s didn’t cut all ties
with the area – in 1910, they were noted as living at The Cottage, Temple Dinsley.
This is of interest as Laura Matthey’s maiden name was Fenwick – she was distantly
related to Herbert George Fenwick who had bought Temple Dinsley two years earlier
in 1908. Did her tenure of the house at Preston have any influence on Herbert Fenwick’s
purchase of Temple Dinsley?
Sir Joseph, in turn, moved to Tatmore Place. He was buried at St Martin, Preston
on 12 June 1941 and his wife was also interred in the village churchyard on 29 July
The new tenant of Offley Holes House in 1908 was Major Robert B Mervyn Richardson.
He fought in several battles, notably the relief of Kimberley and the capture of
Bloemfontein during the South African campaign of 1900. Major Richardson retired
from the army in 1903 but between 1906 and 1908, he served as lieutenant colonel
of the Middlesex Imperial Yeomanry. He died at Offley Holes House on 6 March 1917
and his widow moved out of the mansion.
Percy St Clair and Laura Matthey
Then, on 28 January 1918, the War Office took possession of the mansion – it was
earmarked as a camp for German prisoners of war. It was Percy Matthey’s belief that
this was at the request of Mrs Richardson. In a letter to the War Office, the owner
of Offley Holes House, Robert Sumner Curling, railled against this decision, writing
a ‘most earnest protest’.
He noted that he House was ‘in the middle of a farm of 400 acres and thousands of
pounds of live and dead stock’. He had a trustworthy bailiff who was working the
farm for the national supply of food. But his bailiff had lost a son* in The War
and declined to stay if ‘a number of Germans are to be dumped down close to the farmhouse’.
Curling added, ‘The house is quite unsuitable. It is comparatively new and will inevitably
suffer serious dilapidations, the oak panelling and floors being ill-adapted for
rough usage. Moreover the water supply is precarious and quite inadequate for the
numbers (forty, I believe) and there is neither electric light nor telephone’. There
was also no need for labourers at this or any other nearby farm.
Percy’s protests fell on deaf ears. The mansion was converted into a POW camp. Information
about this has been kindly supplied by Colin Chapman. Offley Holes was a satellite
of a parent camp at Pattishall, about which Colin has co-written a book, Detained
in England, 1914 - 1920. In 1918, a further fifty-five prisoners were settled at
Offley Holes House. But there were problems with the water supply (as predicted)
and obtaining boots and clothing from Pattishall. The POWs helped with the local
J. H. Summerbee recalled in 1970 that the POWs were housed in the outbuildings and
in part of the mansion. The rest of it was occupied by the officers and men in charge
of the camp. One entrance to the mansion was near a small farm known as the Hovels
which was around 250 yards from Sootfield Green (to the south of Offley Holes).
He added, ‘As a small boy, I remember regularly seeing about twenty of the prisoners
escorted by two soldiers going to work at Mr A Davies farm, Stopsley Holes, Ley Green,
Kings Walden. They had a large round or square coloured patch on their jackets and
trousers.....I can well remember how we children used to be rather scared when passing
Boundaries to the camp were marked by barbed wire and latrines were erected in the
Mrs Ada Brown added (also in 1970), ‘One of the prisoners was a very large man named
Herman who before being taken prisoner, served on a U-boat.This man was taunted by
the boys of the village until he could take no more and threw a pitchfork at one
of the boys. He was going to be punished for this, but the farm labourers spoke up
The War Office takes possession of Offley Holes House
Offley Holes House was completely destroyed by fire on 12 February 1919.
The Hertfordshire Mercury carried this report of the blaze: ‘MANSION DESTROYED. The
country mansion known as Offley Holes in the parish of Preston was totally destroyed
by fire early on Thursday morning. The mansion had not been used for ordinary residence
since the death of Major Richardson and during the latter part of the war it was
used as a German prison camp. At the time of the fire there were 59 German prisoners
with their guards in the house. These were rescued with considerable difficulty,
the guards displaying great heroism in rescuing the Germans and their belongings.
The whole of the kit belonging to the guards was destroyed and one of their number,
Private Sims, was injured in an attempt to work a number of patent fire extinguishers.
He was conveyed to the Hitchin Military Hospital. The guards carried out the work
of rescue in a partially dressed state and suffered great privations. The Hitchin
Fire Brigade attended but were unable to save any of the mansion owing to the fact
that the engine and pumps in connection with the water supply had frozen the previous
day. The German prisoners were later marched to the RE camp at Hitchin. Before the
period of residence of Major Richardson, Offley Holes was the home of Mr J. C. Priestley,
Mrs Ada Brown added, ‘The night of the fire was very cold and the water that came
up the hill from the pump house was frozen so that although someone cycled into Hitchin
to alert the fire brigade, very little could be done to save the mansion.
Colin Chapman notes that The Times (14 February 1919) and Hertfordshire Record reported
that all the POWs escaped -The Times (re: Ossley Homes, sic), ‘....59 prisoners
were there, but all escaped’. Colin emphasizes that none of the POWs escaped, but
all obediently stood by until they were marched to the local barracks. Probably the
piece should have included the word ‘unhurt’!
Later, it appeared to be commonly believed by Preston villagers that the POWs caused
the fire. ThePreston Scrapbook (Anne Maybrick, 1953) states; ‘During the First World
War, it was used as a prison for German officers and, unfortunately, burnt down by
them. Nothing remains now but a few bits of masonry and sometimes among the brambles
the children find a few garden flowers’. However, George A Morgan, who was a boy
living at nearby Charlton (to the north of Offley Holes) at the time of the fire,
wrote that the POWs didn’t start the fire as they lost most of their possessions
in it and that local talk was that it was caused by a foul chimney.
He added that bricks from the house were used to build a house on a nearby estate
(probably at Kings Walden) and that all that was left were the stone steps that led
to the house which were covered by undergrowth and bracken.
There remained the thorny legal question of liability and compensation. This rumbled
on as the case of Matthey vs Curling in the High Court and was finally decided by
the House of Lords in 1921. When the lease was reassigned, the new lessees took out
fire insurance – thus, Mrs Richardson took out a policy where the total sum of the
estate assured was £7,225, the house itself was insured for £5,600. The total amount
claimed for rebuilding the mansion was £15,000. Percy Matthey had not renewed the
fire insurance. He said his liability ended anyway when the War Office seized the
house. This was repudiated by the War Office who said the fire was not due to any
negligence on its part. Percy’s case wasn’t helped as he continued to pay rent up
to the time of the fire. As a result, Robert Curling thought the lease was still
running and that Matthey should have insured the property according to the terms
of the lease. Initially, Percy Matthey was found to be liable for a quarter’s rent
– slightly less than £100 - but not for the cost of rebuilding the house. However,
on appeal in May 1921, this judgment was completely reversed and Matthey was excused
the arrears of rent but was found to be liable for the cost of reconstruction.
Offley Holes House burnt to the ground
* This comment sparked some detective work. The 1920 Preston electoral roll shows
two families living at Offley Holes - Albert and Eliza I’Anson and Frederick and
Rose Perry. The Hitchin War Memorial includes a W I’Anson among the dead of WW1,
but no further details were known about him. The 1911 census records Albert I’Anson
as a farm bailiff living at Chard, Somerset with his wife Eliza and son William Barker
I’Anson (18). The Commonwealth Graves Commission records the death of William Barker
I’Anson at Flanders on 7 October 1916. His residence was given as Offley. He was
a corporal (No 18850) in the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment).