The Case of the Disappearing Villa
Holford House was the last villa to be built in the Regent’s Park, also the largest, and most expensive. It stood for 116 years on the high ground directly South of Macclesfield Bridge but has vanished without trace.
The owner was wine merchant James Holford (1788-1854). He has been described as living in solitary state attended by many servants, but he played a major role in a large and very successful family: some were in trade, some became “landed gentry”, several were barristers, and he also had important business connections. Holford’s father hailed from London, but lived in Manchester, where the family became cotton traders and manufacturers: at one time James Holford & Co. were the largest British cotton exporters to Russia, with branches in several countries. James was born in Rusholme, near Manchester, but his younger brother John was born in Sweden, suggesting another business outpost there. By the 1750s, the family had wine interests in London and Lisbon1, with family members in each place, and for some years they had a partnership with Crofts, handling the Lisbon end in exchange for a share of the profits. Their wine interests most likely predated their cotton businesses.
Around 1827, the Holford brothers dissolved their various partnerships, leaving James in control of the wine business in London and John retaining cotton enterprises in Manchester, then moving into railroad financing and banking. James then became a merchant banker, and was eventually known as “James Holford of Holford House Esq.” John built himself a mansion in Rusholme, and became “John Holford of Rusholme Hall Esq”; by the 1830s their status was underlined by both bearing arms, with the family crest depicting a greyhound passant sable and the motto, Toujours fidèle. These accoutrements eventually passed to John’s son, known as “Thomas Holford of Castle Hill, Dorset”. Other family members were still directly involved in both businesses in various countries until the 1840s, when they sold most of their interests in the various Holford enterprises to their partners. Some of the family lived in and around London: John’s son John James in Twickenham, and their older cousin, John Josiah, in York Place, Marylebone. There were also relatives in Hampstead.
Holford‘s villa was completed to Decimus Burton’s design in 1833 and the building was still much as the original design in the early 1840s. A few years later, Holford expanded the house to more than twice its original size. His architect was most likely Wyatt Papworth2, and the results were palatial. The central block was unchanged and the general compostion of the South facade was as before but the wings became two-storey with ,. extensions for a banqueting hall at the west end and a ballroom at the east end, both with curved bays on the garden side and domes above; additional stables, coach house and conservatory were added to the East end. By the 1851 census, Holford had doubled his staff to sixteen to manage this huge mansion.
He had always entertained lavishly, even before the alterations: there was a ball in April 1837 at Holford House with
“the central saloon appropriated for dancing (…) to the unrivalled strains of Weippert. The well-known effects of Mesdames Blasis, Antony, & Signor Puzzi, added to the evening’s entertainment”3.
He collected art, was a patron of the painter John Hilder, and filled his house with sculpture and fine furnishings. In 1833 he had become a member of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA)4, possibly through Decimus Burton, a member since 1829. Julia Pitt Byrne (Gossip of the Century, vol1, 1892) confirms that he continued to entertain on a large scale.
There was some excitement in October 1850, when Holford House was burgled by a notorious gang, and Mr Paul the butler peppered one burglar with birdshot. During the trial, the holes in his lost hat were matched to the pellet wounds in his head5.
Holford’s brother John died in April 1850, and his eldest son, John James, in June of the same year, (aged 29). In 1851, ten of John’s children, along with John James’s widow, were sued by the eleventh for not adhering to the terms of John’s will. When James died in 1854, he left his fortune equally to the same eleven children, and the previous court case was extended to include his possessions, with the litigation extending until 1857, as various children sued each other. One of the beneficiaries, Josiah, died in the Crimean War in 1854 aged just 22, thus missing out on this bounty.
After James’ death, the glittering contents of Holford House were sold by auction, which took 15 days. The sale included 11 carriages, vast quantities of silver, 300 dozen bottles of wine, two pianofortes, and all the furniture and art6. The 78-year lease was also offered for sale, and the sale adverts list 26 bedrooms, 9 dressing rooms and 1 ‘bath-room’.
Given its proximity to the zoo, the newspapers suggested that the building might then become a museum of Natural History, but the Baptist College in Stepney bought it with the help of Samuel Morton Peto, who had already bought the defunct Diorama in Park Square East in 1852 and converted it into a Baptist Chapel. Renamed “The Regent’s Park College”, the Baptists remained in Holford House until they moved to their current premises in St Giles, Oxford in 1927.
Holford House was badly damaged by the explosion of a ‘fly boat’ on the Regent’s Canal in 1874, when 2000 window panes were broken, and the strong room door was blown off its hinges, but the building was repaired. Perhaps it was becoming too expensive for the college by then, as they started leasing out the west wing to residential tenants, and in 1875, Alfred Elwes, “artist of Natural History”, moved in. In 1882, A.G. Hastings, cricketer and solicitor and his wife, the painter Kate Comyns Carr, lived there, but Hastings was repeatedly bankrupt, so the tenancy was of short duration7. From 1889 to c.1908, it was the home of Joseph Jennens of the Birmingham maker of “military accoutrements”. 1910 saw the arrival of Maud Allan, famous dancer and actress, who remained until 1942.
During WWI, the Baptist College moved out so that St Dunstan’s could have an annex for their work with blind servicemen8. The College eventually returned, but had always aspired to join Oxford University, and they moved there in 1927.
Maud Allan then acquired the residue of their lease, but the building needed major repairs which she could not afford. By 1932, there was significant water damage to the central section of the building and the huge chandeliers had to be cut down for safety.
Maud had had a very successful career and was famous for her exotic “Dance of the Seven Veils”. But in 1818, MP Noel Pemberton Billings published an article which accused her of being a “lesbian ally of German wartime conspirators”. Maud Allan sued for libel – and lost – which led to the end of her career in Europe, and the beginning of her financial struggles to maintain the house. With the help of Lloyd George, she was granted a new 16-year lease on the West Wing in 1934, and relinquished the remainder of the building. Crown Estate records chart much wrangling with her, and internal discussions about possibly demolishing the building to create more parkland9.
During WWII the rest of the building was commandeered for military use. Miss Allan stayed on in the West wing, but the house became uninhabitable when it was bombed in 1942. She was then 69 years old, but drove an ambulance in London for a year before returning to America, where she spent 13 years working as a draughtswoman at MacDonald Aircraft in Santa Monica. She died in a nursing home in LA, aged 83.
Demolished in 1948, all that remains of Holford House are traces in the grass, and an absence of mature trees in the area where it stood10. The gardens are fenced off from the public areas of the park, and now provide wild woodlands for bats and birds.