Saturday, 15 May 2021

Wargrave Local History Society

Wargrave Local History Society

THE Wargrave Local History Society embarked on its 2021-22 programme of talks in April, again making use of Zoom.

The presentation was given by Reading library’s local history specialist, Katie Amos, on Prospect Park mansion in west Reading.

Katie was born nearby, so had a special interest in the area.

Her thorough research covered both the house and grounds and its occupants over more than 300 years.

The house is Grade II listed, while the present park is about 43 acres, smaller than it was originally.

Apart from the house itself, there used to be various outbuildings, including a stable block, coach house and glass houses.

There were also lodges — those on Tilehurst Road and Honey End Lane have disappeared but one survives near the present-day Parkside Hotel.

Although now known as the Mansion House, it was previously known as Prospect Hill House or as Prospect Hill Park.

Nowadays the grounds are home to Prospect Park Bowls Club, which has been there since 1913, and the Reading Society of Model Engineers, who have run their miniature railway in the park for more than 40 years.

Katie traced the history of the people who owned or occupied the property, starting at a period before the house was built.

The first were Benjamin Child and Frances Kendrick. He was a lawyer and she was a member of the family who lived at Calcot Park.

They met at a society wedding and seemingly liked the look of each other but nothing happened, somewhat to Frances’s disappointment.

She decided to engineer a meeting and sent an unsigned note inviting Benjamin to meet at a specific time and place.

He arrived to find a masked lady, who challenged him to a duel, saying: “Fight me or marry me”.

She refused to remove the mask but he decided that marriage was the better option (they were married at St Mary’s Church in Wargrave in 1706).

Returning to her house, she disappeared and Benjamin wondered what he had let himself in for. Then she reappeared as an attractive young lady. This event was the basis for the ballad A Berkshire Lady.

They lived at Calcot Park and had six daughters.

Benjamin became High Sheriff of Berkshire.

Sadly, Frances died just 15 years later and in due course Benjamin decided to sell most of the Calcot Park estate, retaining the Prospect Park portion, where he moved into the house there, the forerunner of the present Mansion House.

After Benjamin died, the park was inherited by his grandson, James Hill, in 1767.

James died soon afterwards but his widow, Elizabeth, lived there with their daughter, Elizabeth Goldwyre Hill. When Elizabeth remarried, her second husband also lived at Prospect Hill House with their seven daughters.

In due course, the property was inherited by Elizabeth Goldwyre Hill as the sole heiress of James Hill but following her marriage in 1790 to Charles Blagrave, the house was put up for sale.

The property did not sell but the next known occupier was a Mary Mestayer, who took a lease on it in 1792. A book dedication published in 1794 shows her as “of Prospect Hill, Berkshire”.

By 1797, another family name becomes associated with Prospect Hill House — Liebenrood.

John George Liebenrood had come from Saxony, married Ann Allen and lived at Purley.

He left his property to his great nephew, John Engelberts Ziegenbein, who changed his surname to Liebenrood as a condition of the inheritance, which enabled him to buy Prospect Hill House.

In 1800, John employed an architect, James Wright Sanderson, to alter and extend the house into the form it is now.

John married Lucy Hancock in 1795 and they had three children, Lucy, George, and John. the latter dying in infancy.

The property was to pass on to the surviving children and then the grandchildren, if any.

This plan, however, did not work out as intended. George started to exhibit strange behaviour, running out of the house with no clothes on, or thinking he was royalty.

A commission of lunacy was convened in 1831 as the family were concerned at what might happen.

George’s sister Lucy was also committed for lunacy and both were cared for separately by doctors in St John’s Wood in London. The house then entered a lengthy period when it was rented out. From 1829 to 30 it was to General Christopher Chowne.

He moved in with his new wife but it was not a happy time for them as she had a still-born child.

Next was William Stephens, who was from a banking family from near Aldermaston. He later became mayor of Reading and then high sheriff.

Sadly, both he and his wife died within a few days of each other in 1856.

The next tenant was Angela Burdett Coutts, who was said to be the richest woman in the country after Queen Victoria, with her companion Hannah Brown.

They only lived there for six months (possibly as a place for Hannah to grieve following the death of her husband).

Even so, during that time, Angela proposed marriage to the Duke of Wellington. He was much older than her but kindly turned her down. Angela wanted to extend the lease but was beaten by Matthew Higgins, who lived there for abut two years.

He was followed by another banker, William Bradbury, and his wife and children, who stayed until 1880.

Some of his estate workers had clubbed together to buy one of the cattle for their Christmas dinner.

William told them he could not accept that and he gave it to them together with a large quantity of beef to others of his workforce and the poor of Tilehurst.

In the early 1880s, the house accommodated a school, which had been in nearby Parkside Road but those premises went up in flames. The stay was temporaray while the school was rebuilt. There were strict rules on what the pupils were allowed to do or ot.

Members of the Liebenrood family, who still owned Prospect Hill House, offered it for sale several times towards the end of the 19th century without success.

In 1901 it was bought by Joseph Fidler, who had a business as a seedsman.

He then offered it to Reading Council “for the public benefit” in much the way the Palmer family had provided Palmer Park to the east of Reading.

The council decided that it was unlikely to have a similar opportunity again, so bought it for £14,000.

After that, the house had various uses, such as for agricultural shows and as part of an infectious disease’s hospital.

During the Great War, it was taken over by the Board of Guardians to re-house the elderly from the Battle Hospital site when that was required to treat injured men from the military.

In the Second World War, the National Fire Service made use of it.

The mansion then fell into a poor state of repair, especially after three arson attacks.

Since them it has restored and made into a restaurant with the surrounding ground a public open space.

Katie has written a small book, The Mansion House — Its History and its Occupants (published by Scallop Shell Press) that includes more.

For more information about the society, email info@wargravehistory.org.uk for its programme, visit www.wargravehistory.org.uk

Peter Delaney

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