Aldenham House garden


Hidden within the school grounds lie the decaying remains of one of the finest English gardens, which at one time was said to boast the largest privately owned collection of trees and shrubs in the world.

Until the early years of this century, Aldenham House was the country seat of Henry Hucks Gibbs (Lord Aldenham), a former governor of the Bank of England. He was reputedly one of the four richest men in the country, with a fortune built upon the importation of guano from the beaches of South America. He inherited Aldenham House in the year 1843, but only moved in upon the completion of Elstree railway station in 1868. His first task was to shorten the journey to the station by the construction of a new carriage drive. This was lined by no less than 400 horse chestnuts, making it highly popular amongst the village children during the conker season. About halfway along the drive was placed a new eight-acre ornamental lake, a laborious task at a time when such lakes had to be hand dug.

Henry Hucks Gibbs next turned his attention to the house which he found in a "neglected and somewhat dilapidated state". The former Drawing Room, now masquerading as the school office, had deteriorated under its period of use as a storeroom for the farm produce, while the gilded 1640s panelling in the entrance hall had been obscured behind layers of thick white paint. The overall effect was made worse by the location of the kitchen in what is now the new chapel, throwing cooking smells right into the heart of the house. Such were hardly fit surroundings for a man of Henry Hucks Gibbs' esteemed position. With characteristic determination, he embarked upon a 30-year programme of restoration. This included moving entire staircases, opening new doorways, repanelling all the bedrooms and replacing rotting timbers - indeed, he practically rebuilt the entire house, throwing in a new 1,000 square foot library (the old refectory), the court room, new enlarged servants' quarters and, as Pevsner most aptly described it, the "incongruous clocktower".

Meanwhile, outside the house, the 58 gardeners were transforming the 150 acres of flat, water-logged Hertfordshire countryside into one of our greatest English gardens. Little remained of the original 17th Century garden, apart from a short avenue of elms on the lawn in front of the house. The avenue, thought to be the oldest in England, was tragically uprooted in 1961, to make way for the main cricket square. The formal gardens immediately behind the house have changed little in the past 80 years, though one can sadly no longer remark: "Aldenham has many rare plants but after a tour of the garden one always felt that a weed was the rarest". In contrast to the formal flower gardens, was the "Wilderness", an area of about 40 acres entered via the tennis court gates and interwoven by three miles of wide grassy walks and rides. Despite memories of those first-year biology department escapades into the overgrown woods, one should realise that this "wilderness" was originally an open area of trees and shrubs set in long meadow grass. To the north it merged into the older Aldenham Wood, which contained some 150 different varieties of oak and 700 types of hawthorn. Both collections were said to be the largest in the country.

Aldenham was undoubtedly most famous for its kitchen garden, which under the watchful eye of head gardener Edwin Beckett, dominated the horticultural shows. The short stretch of red brick wall next to the assembly hall, pitted by the cherries which were once trained against it, is all that remains of a kitchen garden which produced such exotic fruits as peaches and nectarines, grapes, figs, melons, bananas and pineapples. The reed-walled canoe but was in fact a fruit room, insulated against the winter frosts by a fine roof of Norfolk thatch. It is in fact an exact copy of the fruit room at Chilton featured in a recent BBC television series "The Victorian Kitchen Garden", where Beckett's brother was head gardener.

With the introduction of death duties, the family found it increasingly difficult to afford the upkeep of the estate. In September 1932, all the rare shrubs were sold off in an auction lasting seven days and attended by eminent horticulturalists from throughout Europe. The house was turned into a country club, catering for the wealthy actors working at Elstree film studios. With the onset of war, Aldenham was requisitioned by the BBC and equipped as an overseas broadcasting station, sending out allied propaganda to the Middle East and Latin America. After the war, the house remained empty until purchased by the school in 1959.

Andrew Lawrence

1892-97  -  Aldenham House, Elstree, Hertfordshire

(copied from the Pulham Legacy website)

George Henry Gibbs inherited Aldenham House from his cousin, Sarah Noyes – a descendent of Robert Hucks – when she died in 1842.   He never actually lived in it, however – partly because his family home was at Tyntesfield, near Bristol, and also because Aldenham House was let to other tenants at the time.[i] 


When George Henry died – in the same year as his cousin Sarah – the inheritance passed to his wife, who died in 1850.   The ownership of Aldenham House then passed to her son, Henry Hucks Gibbs, who, at that time, owned a house called St Dunstan’s, in Regent’s Park.   He continued to live there until 1868, when he decided to move to Aldenham House.

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 Fig 1  -  The ‘large’ Pulhamite bridge over the ‘Big Pool,’ showing Mrs Pulham on the left, and Mr Beckett, the Head Gardener, on the right.   (Photo from Aldenham Archives)

 Henry Hucks Gibbs succeeded his uncle, William Gibbs, as a Senior Partner of the City banking house, Antony Gibbs & Sons, in 1872 – William was the last surviving son of Antony, and the then owner of Tyntesfield.   Henry Hucks was elected MP for the City of London; became Chairman of the Conservative Association, and was appointed Governor of the Bank of England in 1875.  

He was also a JP, and was appointed as High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, by which time he was reputed to be one of the four richest men in England, and Queen Victoria conferred on him the title of the first Lord Aldenham in 1896.    He was much involved in Church affairs, and was President of Guys Hospital for many years.   He was also responsible – with others both within and without the Gibbs family – for rebuilding the Screen at St Albans Abbey, and for building Butterfield’s Chapel at Keble College, Oxford, as well as other churches and parish schools.   In short, according to the present Lord Aldenham;  ‘he was a man of very diverse interests and activities, and, in his eighties, could often be seen at the latest Gilbert and Sullivan opera at the Savoy, or riding round Aldenham Reservoir on his new tricycle!’

When he moved into Aldenham House, he immediately set to work transforming the house and estate into a country residence befitting a man of his position – his first task being to renovate, improve and extend the rather ‘neglected and somewhat dilapidated’ house, which was a mammoth job in itself.

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 Fig 2  -  The ‘Small Bridge,’ showing Mr Becket and Lord Aldenham (Photo from Aldenham Archives)

 With the help of his younger son, Vicary, and his Head Gardener Edwin Becket, he then turned his attention to the gardens, and established a collection of trees and shrubs on the estate that rivalled those at Kew.   He specially prepared the soil to enable him to grow the rare and exotic plants sent back to England by the great Victorian explorers and, in 1907, his gardens were chosen from those throughout Europe to raise the seeds sent back from China by the horticulturalist, Ernest Wilson.   Within two years, specimens of over 600 species and varieties of plants were being sent to botanic gardens all over the world.   The Aldenham House Gardens were also reputed to contain a specimen of every tree growing in the western hemisphere, and, although this may have been a somewhat exaggerated claim, its collections of Yews, Oaks, Bamboos and Thorns were widely envied.

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 Fig 3  -  Lord Aldenham inspects the rocky stream  (Photo from Aldenham Archives)

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 Fig 4  -  Looking upstream from the ‘Large Bridge,’ over the ‘Big Pool,’ small cascade and rocky stream towards the ‘Small Bridge’  c1900  (Photo from Aldenham Archives)

 Henry Hucks was an extremely organised and methodical man, and began keeping a yearbook in 1871 in which he meticulously documented the alterations and developments that he made to both the house and the estate.   He maintained this yearbook for 31 years, and, in 1892, for example, he recorded that:

‘ . . Pulham is now making a filterer for the reservoir, under the great Chestnut where the pipes end.   Also a bridge over the stream, continuing the Back Road (from the Aldenham Road) into the Garden Yard.’[ii]

In 1897, he noted that:

‘The old Rustic Bridge is rotten, and a new bridge of ‘Pulhamite’ and Stone is to take its place.’

These notes are very helpful, because they enable one to establish that James 2 and/or 3 worked on the Aldenham estate in both 1892 and 1897.   There are two Pulhamite bridges here – one ‘large,’ and the other ‘small’ – and Lord Aldenham’s book makes it clear that one was constructed during the first visit, and the other during the second visit – probably in the order suggested.  

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 Fig 5  -  The ‘large bridge’ in 2001

 Figs 1 and 2 are of the two bridges soon after their completion (c1900), and provide an opportunity to identify some people.   The group on the ‘large bridge’ (Fig 1) consist of Mrs Pulham, a Miss Girton, a Mrs Girton, and Mr Edwin Beckett, the Head Gardener, while Mr Beckett can also be seen in Fig 2 greeting (presumably) Lord Aldenham on the ‘small bridge.’   Both bridges are excellent examples of the romantic ‘rusticated’ style of brickwork that is so typically ‘Pulham’ to everyone who admires their work.

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 Fig 6  -  Along the banks of the rocky stream between the two bridges in 2001

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 Fig 7  -  The boathouse on the far side of the lake in 2001

 Fig 3 is another picture of Lord Aldenham – this time admiring his new rockwork along the banks of his ‘rocky stream’ – and Fig 4 shows a small cascade that falls into the ‘big pool,’ just below the ‘large bridge.’   The rocky stream can be seen leading towards the ‘small bridge’ in the distance.  

Both bridges are still in very good order, and Fig 5 shows what the ‘large bridge’ looked like during my visit in 2001 – not quite as pleasing to the eye as it was originally, due to the extra concrete support that was added beneath the arch in order to cater for the passage of heavy vehicles.   Fig 6 is taken from along the side of the nearby rocky stream, and one can just see the ‘small bridge’ in the distance.

The section of the stream that flows beneath the two bridges is effectively the centrepiece of Pulham’s work here, but he also did considerably more on either side.   The water actually flows from a very large artificial lake near the entrance to the estate, through the stream and under the bridges, and into a swimming pool on its way over a number of weirs into a sump at the bottom level of the grounds.

Fig 7 shows the old boathouse on the shore of the big lake – it is still there, but is now considerably overgrown – and Fig 8 is of the swimming pool.   This was converted from an old fishpond, and is concrete lined, with a changing room that can be seen on the far bank.   During the Second World War, this was reinforced, and used as an air-raid shelter, but its roof is now missing.  

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 Fig 8  -  The old swimming pool, with changing room on far bank in 2001

Lord Aldenham’s son, Vicary, inherited the estate when his father died, but, after his own death in 1932, the family were unable to keep on the house and its estate staff of more than 100 people.   The estate consequently fell into decline, but was taken over by the BBC as an overseas broadcasting station during the War.   They stayed there for twenty years, by which time the grounds had been neglected for more than twenty years, and had deteriorated almost beyond recognition.   The Haberdashers’ Company purchased the house and estate in 1959, with the intention of moving their Boys’ School from Hampstead.   A great deal of very intensive work was done to clear the overgrowth, and restore as much as possible of the original gardens, as well as convert the house and some of the old buildings, and build a series of new school buildings until they were finally able to open the new Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Boys on 11thOctober, 1961.   It still thrives today, and, thanks to them, the gardens look a picture!

[i]    The Aldenham Hose Gardens – A Brief History of the School Grounds by Andrew Lawrence, published by the Haberdashers’ Aske’s School c1997

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