History of the Amersham Area

J H Kennard 1883-1926

       John Harold Kennard FRIBA

Written by Alison Bailey with thanks to Guy Morris, Christopher Collier and Julian Hunt

The arrival of the railway to Amersham in the late 19th Century heralded widespread social change and brought many new people to the area, particularly from London. The railway meant fresh opportunities, particularly for landowners, builders and architects as farmland was parceled off for development and a new town, with new homes, shops and facilities was planned around Amersham station as the existing town was a mile distant at the bottom of the valley.  [Read more about the development of Metro-land.]

One young, ambitious architect from London was John Harold Kennard who recognised the opportunities and went on to design, build and develop a great deal of the new town and the nearby village of Chesham Bois in the distinctive Arts and Crafts style. He deserves to be better known and is credited by Julian Hunt in his book “A History of Amersham” with building one quarter of all the local Arts and Crafts buildings although I suspect the true figure is even higher. Julian Hunt goes on to say that whilst “not a famous architect” Kennard “made a far greater contribution to the local landscape than any other builder or architect.”

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Oakfield Corner built by Kennard in 1912 is a local landmark

The influential Arts and Crafts Movement was one of the most important and far-reaching design movements of modern times. It began in Britain around 1880 but quickly spread across Europe and America.  The Movement attempted to re-establish the skills of craftsmanship threatened by mass production and industrialisation. The architect-designer William Morris, inspired by the writings of the art critic John Ruskin, was its central figure. When building a house for his new wife Janey in Bexleyheath, Morris used the architect Philip Webb. Webb rejected the predominant classical style based on formulated designs from ancient Greece and Rome and found inspiration in the vernacular or domestic traditions of the British countryside. ‘The Red House’, with its well-proportioned solid shape, deep porches, steep roof, pointed window arches, brick fireplaces and wooden fittings, is a fine example of the early Arts and Crafts style.

As the Arts and Crafts movement developed the most prestigious company in the design and marketing of Arts and Crafts furniture and decorative arts was Liberty & Co, founded by Arthur Lasenby Liberty who lived locally at the Lee, and had invested a lot of money in land in Chesham Bois.

Other famous architect-designers associated with the movement were Edwin Lutyens, Norman Shaw, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Charles Robert Ashbee, Richard Lethaby, Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott and Charles Voysey.  In 1899, when he built his family home ‘The Orchard’ in Shires Lane, Chorleywood, Voysey designed every detail, the furniture, the wallpaper, light fittings, door furniture, window latches, doorbells and even the clocks. With its sparse decoration, plain and simple furnishings, ‘The Orchard’ was very different from the usual dark and cluttered Victorian interior.

Whilst the Arts and Crafts Movement flourished in large cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh it endured far longer in the countryside than in the city and its impact on rural areas was significant and far-reaching. Many Arts and Crafts buildings in the country were designed on a modest scale, in styles reminiscent of the half-timbered cottages of Tudor England. These domestic buildings used local materials, such as artisan produced bricks and tiles, English oak, and often featured cosy inglenook fireplaces in the interior design.

Many less well known architects introduced the style across Britain with Arts and Crafts developments in the Cotswolds, the Lake District, Surrey and Cornwall. In common with Buckinghamshire, all these locations offered picturesque landscapes, existing craft skills and, importantly, rail links for access to patrons and the London market. By the end of the 19th century, just as the development of Amersham-on-the-Hill was starting, creating an original home became a major preoccupation for the newly prosperous middle-classes.  Art magazines of the day such as The Studio provided illustrated guidance and glimpses into celebrity homes to show how it was done. The Movement which started through the influence of a small group of affluent artists and architects percolated down through the social classes, pioneering the concept of designer homes at a wide range of prices. The incredible range of Kennard’s houses in the Amersham area, from small artisan cottages to large country retreats illustrates this particularly well.

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‘The Gables’ 27 The High Street Old Amersham

The known Kennard buildings locally have many of the key features of the Arts and Crafts Movement. They are mainly asymmetrical, use local building materials and craftsmanship, often feature steep roofs and echo the local vernacular such as the white render, wooden frames and Tudor gables of the Old Town. Even the elaborate Dutch-style gables of 27 The High Street, Old Amersham are echoed in some of his houses in Amersham-on-the-Hill.

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Kennard houses on South Road with Dutch-style gables

John Harold Kennard was known as Harold Kennard professionally but was Jack to his family according to the obituary in the Bucks Examiner after his early death in February 1926 at the age of 42. Kennard was born around April 1883 in Lambeth to John Moir Kennard, an architect from London and the marvelously named Blanche Dessimere Betiah Blow who had been born in Sydney Australia in 1859 but was also living in Lambeth by 1871.

After marrying in Lambeth in 1881 The Kennards had a daughter, Helen and 5 sons. All the boys, except Arthur, who became a pharmacist, followed their father into property and became architects (Harold and Cecil), a surveyor (Lawrence) and a builder (Oliver).

Harold met his wife Bessie Rosina Snewing in Lambeth and they married in 1909 but by 1911 they had moved to ‘Rosemarie’, (now called ‘Blackdown’) Chiltern Road, Chesham Bois. They had three children, Joan in 1914, Yvonne Margaret in 1919 and a third as yet untraced. ‘Rosemarie’ was a modest bungalow that Harold had designed and built for his new wife but his success as an architect and developer in his early 20s meant that they could afford a live-in servant.

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John Harold Kennard obituary, Bucks Examiner 26.2.1926

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Kennard drawing of ‘Swansea house’ in The Building News March 2nd 1906

Kennard had established a practice in London, based at 12 Grays Inn Road and designed houses nationwide from 20 cottages in Lydney, Gloucester (according to the Gloucester Citizen 29 January 1924) to a beautiful seaside villa for Dr. Blagdon Richards in Swansea.

In addition to the office in London, from about 1906, he also had an office in Station Road Amersham after forming a partnership with an Amersham architect and businessman, William Sumner. The firm Sumner and Kennard was responsible for some of the earliest developments in Amersham-on-the-Hill, including the first new shops, known as ‘Station Parade’ just below the railway bridge on Station Road and the neighbouring, distinctive landmark, ‘Turret House’. Here Kennard used local red brick and the turret itself echoes architectural details on St Mary’s Church, Badminton Court and the Market Hall in the Old Town.  One of his first housing developments, ‘The Avenue’ is a row of five small houses just south of the railway station, built to look like a single country house.

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1911 terrace of cottages in Lexham Gardens built by Kennard and Kennard

Together with William Sumner, then working alone, and later with his brother, Lawrence, trading as the firm Kennard and Kennard, Harold built an incredible variety of private houses in Amersham-on-the-Hill and Chesham Bois. These range from modest cottages and terraces such as the ‘Woodlands’, off Long Park built in 1915, and the terrace in Lexham Gardens built in 1911, to fine country houses built as weekend retreats for wealthy London families.

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Kennard designed ‘Killaspy’ for Thomas Alcock Cambridge Grubbe in 1910/1911

His larger houses in the area include ‘Killaspy’ on North Road, ‘El Ezbah’ and several others on Copperkins Lane, most of the houses on Bois Avenue, ‘The Gables’ and others on Hervines Road, Devonshire Road, Chiltern Road, Clifton Road and most of Oakway. Many were built for wealthy clients such as Thomas Alcock Cambridge Grubbe who built ‘Killaspy’ but Kennard also speculated on land himself, sometimes persuading his family to join him. Electoral records from 1914 and 1915 show that his father, John Moir Kennard, living in Redhill, Surrey had a share of a house in Hervines Road and his brother Oliver Kennard, living in London Bridge owned ‘Romney Cottage’, Amersham Common.

‘El Ezbah’ and ‘Killaspy’ are two very different but equally fine examples of Kennard’s Art and Crafts country houses. ‘Killaspy’ has a lovely ‘living-room hall’, a key design feature of the Movement with its original oak paneling, parquet flooring and a cosy inglenook. ‘El Ezbah’ has a stunning galleried entrance hall, original decorative iron window latches and beautifully crafted fireplaces, including a particular fine example in the dining room with wooden beams and panels. Interestingly ‘El Ezbah’ was commissioned by Ernest Gladstone Halton, the then editor of the Studio, the influential Art magazine of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Studio promoted all the well-known architects of the time such as Rennie Mackintosh and Voysey so that the choice of Kennard as the architect of his weekend retreat shows how highly regarded he was by Halton.

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The original Amersham Free Church built by Kennard in 1911

In 1911 Kennard designed the first Amersham Free Church (demolished in 1963 and replaced by the present building on Woodside Road) for his friend and colleague Alfred Ellis, a London solicitor who moved out to Amersham in 1906 and lived at ‘Fulbeck’, The Avenue. Alfred Ellis, who was also a major contributor to the development of Amersham-on-the-Hill, was a strong supporter of the Baptist faith and a regular preacher at the Free Church.

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Kennard designed shops on Sycamore Road

‘Oakfield Corner’, designed by Kennard in 1912, is an important landmark in Amersham-on-the-Hill, and his brother Arthur had a chemists shop there for many years. He then designed further shops around the corner in Chesham Road and Sycamore Road.

The outbreak of WWI interrupted Kennard’s career and the development of Amersham-on-the-Hill. Kennard served as a second lieutenant and lieutenant with the Royal Engineers in France, receiving the Victory and British War campaign medals.

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Elm Close

Returning to Amersham after the war Kennard built 30 semi-detached houses on Elm Close for the Amersham Public Utility Company. This company had Kennard as the architect, Alfred Ellis as the solicitor and Pretty, Ellis (Harvey Ellis) and Alderson as the estate agents.

Public Utility Societies were an early Government initiative to subsidize housebuilding in order to provide ‘affordable housing’ and grants were available under the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act. Kennard’s “most interesting experiment” according to Julian Hunt the houses were built out of concrete blocks cast on site and had other innovative features such as windows of ‘stove enameled steel’. A shortage of more traditional building materials after the war meant new techniques needed to be tried. Arthur Kennard, Harold’s brother moved into 15 Elm Close and brought his family up here.  Elm Close is a conservation area today.  Plans were drawn up for a similar development in Chesham Bois and a Chesham Bois Public Utility Society formed but the houses were never built.

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The Chesham Bois War Memorial was listed in 2016

According to Julian Hunt, Kennard was also associated with John Willliam Falkner and Sons, the developer of Hill Avenue and William Lemming, the developer of the Oakfield Estate. He was a director of the Chesham Bois Development Company and Rural Homes Ltd. Perhaps surprisingly the only listed Kennard property is the Chesham Bois War Memorial which he was commissioned to design and build in 1920.

Kennard’s untimely death at the age of 42, at his new home in Hervines Road, which he also called ‘Rosemarie’, meant that his prolific career was cut short. He was recognised as a successful architect by his peers as he was already a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA) at the time of his death. However we will never know what other houses he might have built and how his style would have evolved. Would he have built more innovative houses such as Elm Close? What would he have made of Amyas D Connell’s Modernist house ‘High and Over’ completed just 5 years after his death?

However the enduring appeal of his Arts and Crafts houses, the quality of their construction, the craftsmanship of their details, and their adaptability to modern life mean that they should be valued and protected for future generations. Harold Kennard’s legacy is that each house, whether a modest cottage or a comfortable country house is an individual work of art.

This article is very much a work in progress and we would really welcome any further information about the Kennard family or Kennard houses in this area and elsewhere.

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