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 Friars Lawn History
Friars Lawn History
Although until 1935 the property was known as Sunnyside, for the purposes of this report I propose to refer to it by its present name of Friar’s Lawn throughout. The name change appears to have been made by John Parkes, who acquired it in 1934.

Researching the history of Friar’s Lawn has been difficult and complex. There are many large and significant gaps in the records. There are almost no rate-books prior to 1952- one of the historian’s most basic tools for establishing a line of occupancy- because most of them were pulped during the Second World War to help relieve the chronic paper shortage. They do exist for the years 1952- 1956 but thereafter the local authority has made them unavailable to the public on the grounds that they contain ‘sensitive’ information relating to defaulters.

A second valuable source of information, local street directories, was also largely denied to me. Because Norwood Green falls between the twin stools of Ealing and Southall it somehow gained entry in the directory of neither. It may be that both considered it too ‘insignificant’ to qualify for entry.

A third essential recourse, the Voters’ Registers, has also been largely destroyed and registers exist only from 1964.

In spite of these three very serious lacks- and at one time I had a period of seventy years in the history of the house about which I knew nothing whatsoever- it has been possible to piece together a reasonably accurate picture of the history of this lovely old house, most notably in its earliest years. The latter ones still retain one or two gaps. For the reasons set out above, it is unlikely that they will ever be filled.

As one of the present occupants, Jane Boyer, has written:

Friar’s Lawn is built on what was church lands, and has a walled garden- which was originally quite large, now much reduced by the building of two houses, probably about fifty years ago, and the east wall bounds the furthest house. Between that house and Norwood Hall (now an Horticultural College) this wall bears a plaque which ways ‘1818- This wall was erected at the joint expense of John Robins and Michael Thackthwaite of Norwood Green’.

All this information is correct. Michael Thackthwaite was at this time the occupant of the Grange; while his collaborator in the wall-building, John Robins, lived at Friar’s Lawn. In all probability the wall was put up more or less at the same time as the house, although I have not been able to establish this for certain. In any event, Robins would have been its first tenant.

We know nothing of John Robins that can be firmly substantiated. But there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that he may have been a prosperous brick-maker. As such he probably built Friar’s Lawn if not with his own hands at least with his own bricks.

The rumour that the house, which is solidly Georgian in design, was work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a Victorian, raises a smile. It probably stems from the proximity of the Grand Junction Canal. In fact, the Canal was completed in 1796, ten years before Brunel was born. This was no doubt a great blow to Brunel, but it may have been, quite literally, the vehicle which helped John Robins to a fortune- by opening up the supply routes to London.

According to documents in the Middlesex Records Office, although a London tiler and bricklayer named Robert Browne had settled and worked in the area as early as 1697, the local brick-making industry only took off with opening of the Grand Junction Canal in 1796 and the Paddington Canal five years later.

The Victorian County History records that in 1826 the Prince Regent’s architect and builder, the great John Nash, was licensed by Lord Jersey- the largest single Norwood landowner- to dig brick clay in East Field. Nash also made bricks in Norwood. Although the quality of these was said to be ‘very coarse… too rough and uneven for anything but thick walls’, Nash ‘supplied a great number of them for Buckingham Palace’.

In 1859 a Holborn builder developed a brick-field of fourteen acres hereabouts. It was unquestionably prolific in its output because the lessee undertook to pay Lord Jersey:

A royalty of 1s.6d. on every thousand brick over 2,666,666 a year.

If John Robins, the master of Friar’s Lawn, was producing half this number, he would have been a very rich man indeed.

Exactly when and where he died it has been impossible to discover. But he was succeeded as owner of Friar’s Lawn by a widow-lady called Robertson. Mrs Robertson remained here until about 1833.

In that year he house passed to a family called Dickens- no relation to the author of The Pickwick Papers, but nonetheless very, very rich.

The head of this household was Thomas Dickens. Although he was then just thirty-one years of age he was already a local magistrate. As such he probably owned a substantial quantity of land.

1832, the year of the Reform Bill, was one of great political unrest in England. The ‘great unwashed’ were beginning to stir against the old restrictive practices of their ‘betters’; and there was a real prospect that England might suffer a revolution similar in scale and scope to that which had swept the anointed king of France from his throne half a century earlier.

In order to guard against this unthinkable possibility the government adopted a strictly unofficial policy of restricting power to landowners: that is those who had a substantial stake in the country… and therefore in maintaining the status quo.

Tom Dickens fitted the bill almost exactly. He was an archetypal pillar of the community and lived in as great a style at Friar’s Lawn, as some of his relatives at Norwood Hall.

When the Census enumerator called at Friar’s Lawn in 1841 he found Tom, now forty, sharing the house with his wife, Henrietta 35, ‘born in foreign parts’; his son Robert 4; and his daughter, Anna Sophia, aged eight.

Mrs Dickens retained a lady’s-maid named Virginia Durfors, who like herself had been ‘born in foreign parts’. (It was then all the fashion to have a foreign lady’s-maid, preferably French, and the Dickens family was nothing if not fashionable.)

The personal needs of her husband were attended to by his valet and groom, a man called Thomas Butler 25. The children also had the obligatory foreign retainer, Augustine Marck 30, who gives her occupation as ‘nurserymaid’.
The butler, Joseph Lebason 40, had control of the male household staff. This consisted of two footmen, Frederick Duke 20 and the very young John bachelor 15. There were also two ‘outside’ staff. The gardener was Thomas Hyde 40. Together with his wife, Anne, and the coachman, the unfortunately-named Joseph Death, he probably lived in some portion of the outbuildings.

The female staff was under the control of the housekeeper, Anna Fisher 25, whose charges included two housemaids- Leah Holloway 30 and Mary Tyler 20- as well as a tweeny (or between-stairs-maid), Elizabeth March 20, a general dogsbody at everyone’s beck and call.

Curiously the Census return lists no cook. As it would have been unthinkable for a household of this magnificence not to retain one we must assume that she ‘lived out’ and as such fell outside the Census enumerator’s sphere of reference.

When the Census enumerator called at Friar’s Lawn again, in 1851, the house had passed to another ‘landed proprietor’. William Charles Lake Bashford 38, a native of Hampshire Bashford lived here with his wife, Frances 37; his daughter, also called Frances 14; and their son, William Jr 7. (It was then very common to call the first-born children of either sex after their parents.)

Frances Bashford was a native of Barbados where in 1814, a year after Friar’s Lawn was built, she had been born into a family of well-known plantation owners named Brome.

In 1851 her mother, Elizabeth Brome 81, who describes herself as a ‘fundholder’ was living with the family at Friar’s Lawn; as was her son, Elizabeth’s brother, John Brome 42, yet another ‘landed proprietor’.

The Bashford children- Williams and Frances- were educated at home by a governess named Emily Sauderson 20. The rest of the household’s needs were catered to by a staff of five: an unmarried cook named Sarah Barnard 58, a native of Essex; a Heston-born housemaid of sixteen by the name of Ann Lidgould; another, of similar age called Marta Carter, also of Heston; a twenty-four-year-old footman called John Smith, born at Chelsea in 1827; and a ‘groom gardener’, Robert Munro 21, the only member of the household staff who was a native of Norwood.

None of the Bashford children appear to have achieved anything of note. However, I have found several references to a John Laidlay Bashford in the course of my researches. It has not been possible to establish his relationship to the owners of Friar’s Lawn exactly- he was certainly not the son of William and Frances Bashford- but Who Was Who makes a very curious reference to his having been ‘born at Norwood Green’. As there is clearly a close family connection- he may have been an uncle or a cousin and as such would have known the house well- something should be said of his career.

John Laidlay Bashford was a journalist and social historian. For eighteen years he served as the Berlin correspondent to the London Daily Telegraph. Rather ambiguously, Who Was Who states that he was also:

Frequently sent on special missions to Russia and elsewhere.

We must make of this what we will. But is it worth noting that at some point Bashford was made a Knight of the Prussian Order of the Red Eagle, a dignity in the gift of the Prussian emperor and usually bestowed for personal services either to the emperor himself or to his family. It was not the sort of decoration given away by the handful or to obscure foreign correspondents.

John Laidlay Bashford lived most of his adult life in Berlin- at 9 Hardenberg Strasses, Charlottenburg- and from 1903, when he severed his connection with the Daily Telegraph, wrote numerous despatches and articles from here. There were syndicated to a variety of English newspapers including the Manchester Guardian, the Daily Graphic, the Pall Mall Gazette, the Westminster Gazette and the Birmingham Daily Post.

Bashford also wrote a number of books, none of which appeal to modern tastes. They include: Elementary Education in Saxony; Life & Labour in Germany; Infirmity & Old Age Pensions in Germany; and the Hatzfeldt Letters. (Who Hatzfeldt was remains a mystery. He is recognised by no standard Germany work of biography, nor did his name strike a responsive chord with any of the present writer’s friends…)

John Laidlay Bashford enjoyed shooting, riding and gardening. He died at Berlin 22 December 1908, age unknown ‘but very advanced’.

By the time the Census enumerator came to log the occupants of Friar’s Lawn in 1861 there may have been a rift in the lute. Because whilst William Charles Lake Bashford is still in occupation both his wife and his two children, Williams and Frances, are conspicuous by their absence. As they would still have been too young to leave home and marry or to set up on their own- and as William describes himself as ‘married’ rather than ‘widower’, one of two things must have happened. Either his wife and children were away from home on the night the enumerator called, or the couple had separated. It is impossible to say which.

What is certain, however, is that William’s borther-in-law, John Brome was still in residence; and there is also a ‘visitor’ a young gentleman of twenty-two named John Fryer, a native of Wimborne in Doreset, who describes himself as a ‘Cornet in the Dragoon Guards’.

In the ensuing decade the Bashford family household had been severely reduced. This may have been due to financial problems. More likely, it merely reflected the decreased number of residents. The domestic household now consisted of just three: a coachman, a ‘general female domestic’ named Mary Leggett 38, ‘widow’- and a butler, Henry Rogers 31, born in Hampshire.

The owners of Friar’s Lawn seem to have had a charitable streak when it came to dependants. Because the next tenant, an elderly St. Pancras-born solicitor named Edward Jennings, not only provided a roof for his sister-in-law but adopted as his daughter a young girl of twelve called Mary P. Richard, ‘born at Kensington’. As Mary is described as ‘adopted, no relation’, she may have been the orphaned daughter of a friend or business acquaintance.

Although the Jennings family was still in occupation of Friar’s Lawn a decade later, in 1881, Mary Richard had by then disappeared, possibly having married.

The Jennings’ natural daughter, on the other hand, had not. Still very much at home, Christina was forty and facing the prospect of life ‘on the shelf’. It could not have been a pleasing one. One also doubts whether she relished the long winter evenings closeted with her parents, Edward and Margaret, both now well past seventy, and her grandmother, Mary, who had been born in Portman Square eighty-seven years previously. There must surely have been times when 1794 seemed a lifetime away to Christina. There is no record of what became of her, but one would be interested to know.

She certainly didn’t remain at Friar’s Lawn beyond 1894 because in that year the property is listed as belonging to John George Ford, who presumably purchased it after the death of Christina’s parents.

John Ford’s name continues to appear as occupier until 1899, when the property is shown as empty. There are then no records until 1914 and the outbreak of the Great War when the dwelling is shown as being in the hands of John Hughes. By 1917the house had passed to Edward Adams who in 1925 sold on to Oscar Sayers. Oscar was a partner in the Ealing Broadway firm of Sayers, Eldred & Son:

Family drapers, complete house furnishers, and undertakers.

Throughout Sayers’s occupancy the house is listed in the street directories under the heading ‘Norwood Green’, the title ‘Norwood Green Road’ not being adopted until 1935, the year Sayers sold on to John Parkes, possibly- but not certainly- a colleague of A.J. Ginger, the builder who then lived at The Grange.

At this point the records again let us down and nothing further is known of the house or its tenants until 1955, when we are able to prove the rather negative point that John Parkes was no longer the occupant because his name has disappeared from the local telephone directory. It may be that after he vacated the property it was taken ‘about 1939 by some Ialian people’, as Jane Boyer has written. It is also possible that it was occupied for a time by ‘the friend or sister of Gordon Selfridge’, but none of this can be proved.

What we do known, however, is that in 1968 the house was occupied by George and Charmian Whitby who lived here with their two sons, Mark and Richard.
George Whitby was an architect who is said to have been associated with the major overhaul of the Old Bailey in 1952. It is rumoured that at least some of the study panelling, and perhaps some of the floorboards, found their way to Friar’s Lawn as a result of his involvement. If so, they surely have a story to tell.

The Whitby family moved away from Friar’s Lawn about 1973 and George Whitby died shortly thereafter. His former home then passed to Jonathan and Anthea Taylor who shared it with a lady named Harkin. What Ann Harkin’s relationship to the Taylors may have been is not known.

From the Taylor’s, Friar’s Lawn was acquired by the actress, Hayley Mills. The Voters’ Register for 1980 shows her living here as ‘Hayley C. Lawson’ with her husband Allen Lawson. There is a third name on the register: ‘Vivian Lawson-Mills’. The identity of this person remains a mystery. The fact that her name appears on the register indicated that she must have been of an age to vote so she could hardly have been a child of Hayley’s as Hayley herself was only thirty-four at the time!

Haylay Mills is the daughter of Sir John Mills and Mary Hayley Bell. She achieved child stardom with the film Whistle Down The Wind in 1962 but, with the exception of The Flame Trees of Thika, for which in 1982-3 she won I.T.V’s Best Actress award, she has rather under-achieved since.

In the summer of 1980 Friar’s Lawn was purchased from Hayley Mills by the Boyer family.

The son of Albert and Gladys Boyer, John Leslie Boyer O.B.E was born 13 November 1926. Educated at Nantwich and Acton Grammer School, he served from 1944 to 1948 with the South…

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