History of the Amersham Area

40 & 42 (Elmodesham House) High St

 Listen to Jean Archer explaining in 1991 where Elmodesham House’s name came from

Track 1

 

No. 40 is a listed building grade II and has an 18th century re-fronting on an earlier building.  The tiled roof is continuous with no. 38.  More information about the people who lived here are shown below the photo gallery.

No. 42, Elmodesham House (formerly Woodville House) was built in about 1715 for a merchant Mr Charles Eeles. There are wall and ceiling paintings by Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734) (see below).  Charles Eeles died in 1727 and the Eeles family owned the house until it was sold to James Rumsey, a surgeon, in the late 1700s.  After Rumsey’s death in 1824, it was used for a school.

In 1821 Reverend Ebenezer West, a nonconformist minister, opened a small boarding school in Chenies.  He was the father of two sons: Dr Charles West (a successful London physician who founded the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children with only 10 beds) and Mr Ebenezer West, who continued the school in Elmodesham House from 1829 as The Academy, to “educate the sons of Liberal Gentlemen”.  He moved the school to Caversham, Reading in 1861 where it was known as Amersham Hall and had room for 100 boys.  Mr Ebenezer West handed over the school to his son in 1876 and died in 1894, aged 81.

In the 1866 it became a private house again (see drawing below showing what it would have looked like in 1862 before it was enlarged), initially owned by Mr T H Morten, a chemist, then sold in 1873 to John Cheese, a solicitor, who built a new west wing.  His son sold it to Major J Y Stephen in 1907 who put on the west part of the facade and the new portico and renamed the house Elmodesham House. In 1911, Brigadier General David Henderson was living there with his family, equerry and seven servants. David Henderson led the Royal Flying Corps across the Channel to France in 1914 and has been described as the “father of the Royal Air Force”. One of his sons was a doctor in Amersham for many years and was awarded the Military Cross in WWI.

It was bought by Arthur Cochrane in 1912, then sold to Ernest Matthews in 1925 who died in 1930 (see death notice below).  It was bought in 1931 for Council Offices for the Rural District Council for £3,300. The murals had been covered over, but rediscovered in 1986 when the Council sold the house and moved to modern offices in Amersham-on-the-Hill. After the press reported the finding of the Thornhill murals, some of the panels were stolen a few days later. The house was converted into houses and flats.

Matthews 1931A more detailed article is shown below.

Click on any of the photographs below to enlarge it and to see the description.  Then click on forward or back arrows at the foot of each photograph.  To close the pictures, just click on one.

People and dates for no. 40                

1738 Joshua Parsons and Henry Hobbs rented “a house called Struckells late Thomas Charsleys”
1765 Window Tax: Widow Parsons
1783 Land Tax:   Mary Parsons
1799 Part of the sale by William Morton of Amersham lace merchant and Mary his wife to Thomas Drake Tyrwhitt Drake of Shardeloes Esq, Rev John Drake rector of Amersham and Charles Drake Garrard of Lamer Herts Esq was “all that messuage or tenement situate and being in Amersham aforesaid heretofore in the occupation of Richard Webb afterwards in the tenure or occupation of Joshua Parsons since of Mary Parsons and now of William Shrimpton tailor”
1816 Rental “for a house in the High Street formerly Mary Parsons afterwards William Morten and late the said T D T Drake in occ William Shrimpton tailor”
1839 Tithe Award:T T Drake: Louisa Warner House & Garden
1851 Census: Louisa Warner (46), Milliner
1881 Census: Charles Andrew (70), tailor
1891 Census: George Birch (58), bricklayer
1910 Valuation: WWT Drake: Mrs E Scott, cottage
1928 Sale Catalogue Lot 102: Cottage & garden let to Mrs Emily Scott
1931-1952 Directories:  Miss Maud Johnson, photographer

Maud and Dorothy Johnson (1896-1985) lived at 40 High Street for many years.  This note is based on Dorothy’s obituary written by Ann Hardman for the Amersham Society newsletter in September 1985.  Three of Maud’s photographs of no. 40 are in the gallery above.

Dorothy came to Amersham in 1929 with her elder sister Maud. She had been brought up at South Raynham in Norfolk where her father was in charge of three parishes. The cottage which is now 40 High Street was intended to be a retirement home for her parents but only her mother was to take advantage of this. Her parents were forward-looking and did not want their daughters to become ‘unpaid curates’ so the girls were sent to London to make their own lives. Maud became a photographer and Dorothy went to the Royal College of Music to study singing, piano and elocution, where she gained her A.R.C.M. in 1923.

At the beginning of broadcasting Dorothy joined the BBC Singers. She had some amusing stories about the General Strike. One day she went from Kensington to Savoy Hill in a hearse! Armed soldiers guarded the microphone whilst the programmes were transmitted to prevent strikers making announcements. She also sang at St. Luke’s, Redcliffe Square, in what must have been one of the earliest church choirs with women in place of boys.

Dorothy’s cottage, next to the Council Offices, was full of interesting treasures arid she loved to talk about them. Most had been acquired from members of the family and there were many photographs taken by Maud of friends and relations; some dead, but you felt they were all very much alive. Browsing through some of Dorothy’s treasured papers I have found a copy of ‘Picture Post’, dated 12th January, 1946. Apart from current topics such as the rehabilitation of Channel Islanders, there was an article about Amersham Playhouse. One picture shows the stage manager looking for an authentic ‘prop’ in Mr. Templeton’s antique shop and the shop assistant is Dorothy. She told me it was working in the shop that sparked off her interest in porcelain and her knowledge was considerable.

With the formation of the Amersham Society, Dorothy realised here was the chance to help keep the conservation area as it should be, as well as helping the residents’ amenities. After the death of Maud and her mother, Dorothy worked at ‘Rushymead ‘ and did not have much time for her music and other interests but on retirement at 70 she involved herself in a whirlwind of activities. She said that if she had time between an afternoon and evening activity she would pop over to the alms-houses to see if anyone wanted anything.

Dorothy found herself on the Amersham Society Committee and when a separate Planning Committee was formed she was all obvious choice. Some of us will remember the lengthy meetings round her dining room table discussing planning applications. She was into her 80’s and still forward-looking in her views, having given us younger members a brief historical background of the building in question.

A History of Elmodesham House

Written by Michael Brooks in 2009 and reproduced with his permission

Elmodesham House, originally 42 High Street, was built by Charles Eeles, “A Citizen and Cook of the City of London”, probably in 1715.  Charles was the sixth son of James and Sarah Eeles and he was born in 1667. He never married, but prospered with interests in catering and as a timber merchant in London.   He built the house in Amersham High Street to show the new level in society to which he had risen, though it is not known whether he actually lived in the house.  There is wall plaque recording his death in St Mary’s Church.

The original house was L-shaped with a frontage of about two thirds of what we now see from the High Street, being of five bays with a carriage entrance to access stables at the rear.  In London Charles had befriended James Thornhill who was a great gourmand.  Probably before 1720, Charles persuaded him to paint a very beautiful decorative ceiling of “The meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne on Naxos” in his new house.  Thornhill was to become Sergeant-Painter to the Sovereign and was knighted that year He was also responsible for supervising the painting of wooden panels of mythological scenes on the staircase and in the first floor rooms.

On Charles’s death in 1727, the house passed to his nephew Isaac, who made alterations, moving the kitchen which projected further to the South.  The original kitchen is now the drawing-room of flat 11 and this second kitchen is now their dining room and kitchen.  Further to the South was a brewhouse.  In 1747 Isaac acquired more land to the West which enabled him to convert the carriage way into a Hall and form a new driveway to the rear premises, stables and a coach house.  Isaac moved into the house in 1750 and a letter from there by him is in Amersham Museum.  Isaac had by then remodelled the staircase so that the Bacchus ceiling originally thought to have been above the upstairs dining room, was now above the staircase.

Isaac Eeles (senr) died in 1763 and his son Isaac lived in the house until 1786.  In that year he and his wife, Sabrina, leased the house to Dr. James Rumsey, a surgeon, who practised from the house.  He had two apprentices, also named Rumsey, though not his sons.  (One, Henry, later became a medical practitioner in Chesham.)  James built a lean-to surgery at the West end of the house.  By the turn of the century he had purchased the house.  The earliest known documents relating to the house are the lease and title deeds related to the purchase. Dr James Rumsey willed the house to his son, James, on his death in 1824.  James never lived in the house and for five years it remained empty.

In 1829 the house was leased to the Rev Ebenezer West of Chenies who had started a school there at the Manse and required larger premises to expand the school.   Under his direction it became ‘The Academy for the Sons of Liberal Gentlemen’ – later known as ‘Amersham Hall’.  West catered for dissenters and non-conformists.  The school was highly successful, attracting pupils from all over the country and abroad as well as locally, so much so that by 1862 Dr Challoner’s School had been reduced to one teacher and one pupil – though in later years it was to recover and continues to this day as Dr Challoner’s Grammar School.  His elder son, also Ebenezer, took over the running of the school in 1830.  Rev Ebenezer died at Chenies in 1836.  The Wests carried out many structural changes, turning the old surgery into a kitchen and adding a southward range of classrooms to form a courtyard.  By 1858, the school had 54 boarders, as well as local day-boys and the pupils overflowed into the small houses in Chapel Yard, leading up to the Baptist Chapel.  Academically of a high standard, three of the pupils became in later life Privy Councillors and one became a Cabinet Minister.  Due to its popularity, Ebenezer wished to further expand the Academy, but when Squire Drake refused to permit the Metropolitan Railway to come through the valley (as originally planned by George Stephenson in 1834), he decided to move the school to Caversham in Berkshire in 1861, where it flourished until 1896 when it closed following an outbreak of scarlet fever.  Alfred F. West (grandson of the Rev Ebenezer) had taken over the school after the Caversham removal.

James Rumsey had died in 1852 leaving the house in trust to a number of beneficiaries and a life interest to his wife, Mary.  In 1862, after the Academy had moved, the family decided to sell the house, subject to Mary Rumsey’s life interest, to a local chemist Thomas Honor Morten.  There was doubt as to title and one Thomas Brickwell swore an affidavit that James Rumsey had indeed owned the property at the time of his death.   Mary Rumsey died in 1865, and on 30 August 1866, the house was then leased to John Cheese for ten years for the sum of £100 per annum.  On 29 September 1873, John Cheese purchased the house for £1,900 carrying out further alterations, including the addition of another storey above the old kitchen which was very ugly.   Around 1890 the windows around the front door were re-modelled.  He renamed the house ‘Woodville House’ and he lived there until his death in 1906.

During his years at Woodville House he converted the four houses to the west of the site in the High Street and had planned to move to St James’s House on his retirement.  He had sold Woodville House to his son, Clement Macmichael, a solicitor and entrepreneur on 11 October 1905 for the sum of £2,000.  In November 1905 Messrs Phillips Son and Neale of London conducted a large sale in the house of objets d’art collected by John Cheese and Rev Richard Lane Free, Archdeacon of Hereford.

On 1st February 1907, the house was sold to Major James Young Stephen for £2,800.  He employed Keen Brothers (local builders) to carry out major alterations.  Old outhouses were demolished, the house was extended to the West and the whole of the front facing the High Street re-modelled to provide a unified appearance of 11 bays, as we see today.  He renamed the house ‘Elmodesham House’ at that time, the name used for the town in the Domesday Survey of 1085.

Major Stephen died on 15th August 1909 at the age of 66.  The house then passed to his son, Captain Douglas Clinton Leslie Stephen of the Grenadier Guards.  On 30th July 1912, the house was offered for sale by Hampton & Son for £2,500.  The sale catalogue gives a full description of the house as that date but it remained unsold until four months later when it was purchased by Sir Arthur William Steward Cochrane, Rouge Croix Pursuivant of Arms, for the sum of £1,900.  After his death the house was purchased on 1st June 1925 by Ernest Matthews, then living at Little Shardeloes.  Ernest was married to Squire Drake’s daughter, Florence Georgiana, and they had three children.  After her death in 1927 Ernest continued to live in the house until his death in November 1930.  They were the last family to occupy the whole house.

In 1931 the house was up sale again at an asking price of £4,000 and on 20th July it was purchased by Amersham Rural District Council for £3,000.  They opened their offices in the house on 8th October.  During the next 55 years further alterations were made.  A new Council chamber, two committee rooms and new cloakrooms were built and dedicated by the Reverend South in September 1951.  In 1952, the Council Chamber began to be used as the Amersham Petty Sessional Court.  Amersham Rural District Council joined with Chesham Urban District Council in 1974 to become the Chiltern District Council.  Following the construction of new council offices in King George V Road, Amersham on the Hill, Chiltern District Council offices and services moved there in July 1986.

On 8th September 1986, Elmodesham House, now Grade 2* listed, was sold to Harman (Chesham) Ltd. for £1,651,000 with planning permission for conversion to private living accommodation as flats or mews houses and for the erection of 19 (later 21) housing units in the 2½  acre mainly-walled garden.  Half an acre was to be retained and landscaped to become a communal garden. This conversion was carried out with great sympathy and as many of the original features of the house as possible were retained.

PHO1142The ceiling painting by Sir James Thornhill over the main staircase was restored, as were also the wall panels on the staircase and in the first floor rooms in the old part of the house.  These depicted Greek mythological scenes, which had been ‘rediscovered’ during the refurbishment.  They had been covered over when the house was the Academy.  They had been exposed again before 1912 as they are mentioned in the auction catalogue of that year.  Sir Arthur Cochrane had them papered over, but the Matthews family revealed again during a redecoration.  They were covered again when the house was Council offices. (Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734) was Sergeant-Painter and History-Painter to George I.  His daughter Jane was Hogarth’s wife.  He painted murals in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, Greenwich Hospital (9 years work), Chatsworth House, Moor Park Mansion and many other buildings.)

Sir Oliver Millar, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, considered the ceiling painting to be the work of Sir John Thornhill himself but thought that the panels were largely the work of his students (School of Thornhill).  Andrew Harman originally proposed and hoped that the panel paintings could go to a museum but the County Historic Buildings Office and the Amersham Society argued that they were an integral part of a Grade II*house.  The matter was referred to the Secretary of State for the Environment who ruled in July 1988 that they must remain in situ.  Unfortunately, thieves had other ideas after reading reports of the panels in the local press and only four of the least attractive panels remain  after a robbery soon after the Minister’s ruling.  The four remaining panels are proving difficult for recent owners to live with – especially as one of the subjects shows someone being flayed alive!  They have been covered up and exposed again several more times since.  The ceiling survives as a tribute to Thornhill’s expertise.  It is likely that he painted it whilst he was carrying out extensive work on Moor Park Mansion