A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Offley Holes House
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 hundred years.
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)
Percy St Clair and Laura Matthey
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. 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 Chapel-warden 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 1946. 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.
The War Office takes possession of Offley Holes House
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 harvest. 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 the camp’. Boundaries to the camp were marked by barbed wire and latrines were erected in the mansion’s gardens. 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 for him.’
Offley Holes House burnt to the ground
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, KC’ 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. The Preston 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.