Danesbury House and the Danesbury Park estate is to the North of Welwyn Village in Hertfordshire, UK, about 40 kms North of London.
A definitive account of the history of Danesbury has been researched by local historian Gordon Longmead in his book: The History of Danesbury, the House and its Lands¹ which should be required reading for any student of the history of Danesbury.
Gordon’s book provides a fascinating and detailed account of the peoples who lived in and around Danesbury in the pre-Roman period, long before the House was built in 1776, and chronicles its subsequent transitions of ownership and family residency, its use through two World Wars, its ultimate use as a long stay Hospital in the grounds of which Welwyn village used to hold annual Summer Fetes, to the present time when after a period of dereliction, it has been restored and converted to apartments, with Mews Houses at the rear where hospital wards used to be sited.
Danesbury House was originally named St Johns Lodge, and was built in 1776 by Mary St John wife of Captain the Hon. Henry St John. He was killed in action against the French in 1780, and Mary died in 1784.
William and Mary Blake rented the house in 1819 for their out of town residence (they lived in Portland Place when in London) and finally bought St John’s Lodge at Christmas 1824, renaming it Danesbury House. William Blake was a banker and water colourist.
At that time the estate comprised some 500 acres of countryside.
The House itself suffered a catastrophic fire in 1916 requiring a major structural rebuild ² but has remained largely unaltered since then.
In 1964 some of Danesbury Park land was sold to developers who built the Danesbury Housing Estate, which was further extended in 1985. At this later time, in 1985, the remaining land on Danesbury Park, (some 32 acres) was acquired by the (then) Welwyn Hatfield District Council for agricultural purposes.
In 1993, facing the costs of major buildings repair, Danesbury Hospital moved out to new premises on the land of the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital in School Lane, Welwyn. Danesbury House then became derelict until 1998, when it was restored and developed into apartments, with mews houses at the rear where the Hospital wards had once been sited.
In 1998 the land which had been acquired by the (now) Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council was designated a Local Nature Reserve, comprising two main fields: the ‘Park Field’ in the West from the B656 Codicote Road, to the (North Ride) entrance to Danesbury House, and the ‘Fernery Field’, or simply ‘The Motorway Field’, to the East from Danesbury House and Danesbury Park Road to the A1(M) Motorway.
The Blakes were the third owners of Danesbury, and it was William John Blake, son of William Blake, who in 1859 directed their Head Gardener, Anthony Parsons, to build a Fernery. It was completed in 1860 and later gained wide acclaim.
The Blakes moved out of Danesbury in 1902 and after renting it out, eventually sold the house in 1919 to the Dewar family, of the Scotch Whisky connection. The Dewars were destined to be the last family to live there.
The Dewars moved out in 1937 and in 1939 the House became a TB Hospital. Danesbury Park itself was requisitioned by the Army in 1943 and operated as a Command Bakery run by the Royal Army Service Corps.
In 1944 the Dewars, the last family to live in Danesbury, sold the estate to the Barnet (Hospital) Management Group and the House became home for long stay hospital patients.
In 1851 William Blake employed a highly-regarded Head Gardener Anthony Parsons. His obituary published in The Gardeners Chronicle of 1881 ³ confirmed his gardening expertise and sound judgement: he was “successful in originating some fine new varieties of British and other Ferns, one being named in his honour Gymnogramma chrysophylla Parsoni.
When Wiliam Blake (senior) died in 1852 his son William John Blake inherited the house. He asked Head Gardener Anthony Parsons to build a Fernery in an old chalk pit about 500 metres to the East of the House, incorporating Pulhamite artificial rock work.
No papers exist to describe how the Fernery was constructed and then planted, but Pulham’s promotional catalogue of the time confirmed the construction of a ‘cave, dropping well, pass for ferns and other rockplants in an old chalk pit but in artificial stone’.
After the death of Anthony Parsons on Christmas Day 1880, and although still receiving praise in The Gardeners Chronicle of 1881, it is doubted that the Fernery will have continued to be managed on anything like the same scale for the following reasons:
- The Fernery was not very close to the House,
- There was a succession of new owners after 1902,
- Constructed in a pit, it was hidden from casual sight,
- Maintenance of the Fernery will have been labour intensive,
- The Victorian ‘fad’ of ”Ferning’ declined with the loss of men in the Great War
- Suitable labour will have become scarce,
¹ Published in 1999 by New Concept Publishing, Welwyn
² The History of Danesbury, the House and its Lands, p. 17.
³ The Gardeners’ Chronicle 1881, January 1st, p.22