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Hylands Estate is almost 300 years old, and has a fascinating and rich history. This illustrious history accounts for nine owners including Chelmsford City Council and a landscape architect who put the Estate on the map, two world wars, and a restoration to its former glory. Each owner has stamped their mark on the estate, extending and remodeling according to their tastes and fashion of the day.

1728 to 1740 – Sir John Comyns

Around 1726, a local and well-respected lawyer, Sir John Comyns, purchased the manor of Shaxstones in Writtle, and commissioned the construction of a new family home on the estate, suitable for a man of his standing. Completed in 1730, Hylands House was an elegant, two-story red brick building in the Queen Anne style of architecture. The grounds were set out in the formal geometric style fashionable at the time, with a pleasure garden and small kitchen garden to the north of the house.

1740 to 1760 – John Comyns &

1760 to 1797 – John Richard Comyns

Sir John Comyns died in 1740, without surviving children, and left the estate to his nephew, John Comyns of Romford. In 1759, John Comyns commissioned a monument to the life of his beloved uncle, which can be seen at the family vault in Writtle Church. John in turn left Hylands to his son, John Richard Comyns in 1760.

An illustration of Hylands House as two-story red brick building in the Queen Anne style of architecture.
Black and white illustration of Hylands House with farm animals in the foreground.

1797 to 1814 – Cornelius Hendrickson Kortright

Cornelius Kortright was a Danish merchant with a fortune founded on the sugar trade in the West Indies, and he purchased Hylands for £14,500 at auction. Kortright’s plans for Hylands reflected his social ambitions, and he engaged renowned architect Humphry Repton to redesign the parkland and enlarge the house in line with the Romantic Movement fashionable at the time.

The Influence of Humphry Repton

When the Romantic Movement swept through Western Europe in the late eighteenth century, those with land and money became enamoured of the landscape gardening and neo-classical architecture favoured by the Romantics.

Kortright purchased a further 150 acres of land to create Repton’s vision for Hylands. Hylands House became a winged, neo-classical villa, covered in white stucco. With its portico and Ionic pillars, Hylands was considered the height of Georgian elegance. An Estate map of 1814 also shows extensive changes to the Estate, including changes to the approach roads, servants’ quarters to the west, a new site for the Kitchen Garden, Ice House and Pleasure Gardens, the Serpentine Lake and a lodge to the entrance near Widford.

Humphry Repton is now generally regarded as one of three outstanding designers who dominated the English Landscape movement from about 1720 to 1820, as the successor of William Kent and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

During the Napoleonic Wars, a large military contingent was based nearby in Galleywood, and the Essex Herald in January 1810 reported Kortright’s hospitality: “an elegant ball and supper at his beautiful seat Highlands… at which all the fashionables in the neighbourhood were present, including many military gentlemen”. However, as Cornelius’ family grew he chose to leave Hylands for a larger estate in Fryerning, and Hylands was again offered for sale

1814 to 1839 – Pierre Caesar Labouchère

A Dutch born merchant banker, Labouchère purchased the estate in 1814 and set about completing Repton’s design for expansion and improvement of the house and parkland, resulting in the symmetrical neo-classic facade that can be seen today. He was a keen horticulturalist, and had a 280 ft long conservatory built, with innovative heating techniques that enabled him to grow award winning forced exotic fruit and vegetables. He also collected neo-classical sculptures, including works by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, replicas of which are on display in the house today.

1839 to 1858 – John Attwood

After Labouchère’s death, his son Henri sold Hylands House and Estate to Mr John Attwood, former owner of an ironworks in Birmingham. Attwood was an ambitious entrepreneur who wanted a property to befit his new status and promote his quest for a peerage.  As MP for Harwich, he decided that Hylands was insufficiently grand to reflect his position in society, and had the house considerably enlarged and fully redecorated. He purchased over 3,500 acres of additional land surrounding Hylands and privatised the road from Writtle to Margaretting that ran through the estate.

However, he spent such a large proportion of his fortune on Hylands that when problems in his political career heralded financial difficulties, debts of £300,000 forced him to sell the house and estate. John Attwood eventually moved to France, where he died a pauper, never having realised his dream to become a peer.

1858 to 1904 – Arthur Pryor

Arthur Pryor was a partner in the Truman, Hanbury and Buxton Brewery and purchased a much reduced Hylands Estate in 1858. He did little to the house other than some redecoration, although some of the exuberant decoration in the Banqueting Room is credited to him.

Pryor served as a Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant of the County and High Sherriff of Essex, and became a patriarchal figure in the community. He purchased the living of Widford Church, and had it rebuilt, as well as commissioning an entirely new church for the community in Galleywood, the only church in the country built on a racecourse. Arthur’s eldest son inherited the estate but let Hylands House rather than living in it himself.

1905 to 1920 – Sir Daniel Gooch

Having initially rented the house and estate in 1905, Sir Gooch purchased Hylands in 1907, and modernised the house, with the installation of electricity and telephones. The Gooch family entertained regularly, with shooting parties and fetes, including a memorable celebration for the coronation of Kind George V.

In 1912 the Gooch family hosted a society wedding that made national headlines, as the groom (Mr Claude Graham-White, a well known aviator) and his friends flew in and landed their aeroplanes in the estate.

World War I

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the Gooch family, who were the current owners and residents of Hylands House, learned that Hylands was to be used as a hospital. Sir Daniel Gooch insisted that the most modern medical equipment be provided and had it installed at his own expense. Over 1,500 patients were treated at Hylands during the war, and both King George V and Lord Kitchener inspected troops here, in 1914 and 1915 respectively.

The Gooch family held fêtes to raise funds for the Essex Regiment’s prisoners of war. Lady Gooch and her daughter served tea in the marquee, while games and sporting events took place. The hospital closed in 1919 and an ‘Armistice and Demobilisation Dance’ was held at Hylands to celebrate.

Sir Daniel was also a keen explorer and accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton on the first leg of his bid to reach the South Pole, but returned home early, suffering from severe frostbite.

1922 to 1962 – Mr John and Mrs Christine Hanbury

In 1920, Hylands was sold to a syndicate of local gentlemen, but only two years later it was purchased by John Hanbury. Like Arthur Pryor, John was chairman of the brewers Truman’s. However, John Hanbury died suddenly in 1923 before taking occupation of Hylands, leaving the estate to his wife Christine and their son Jock. Christine was later left alone when Jock became one of the first pilots to die in the Second World War in a flying accident.

Christine Hanbury made great changes to the grounds, including a lawn tennis court, rhododendron borders and a private area in the gardens dedicated to the memory of her husband and son.

World War II

As the Gooch family had done during World War I, Christine Hanbury opened the Estate to local residents and organisations, in particular the Red Cross. During the War, Hylands Estate was the site for a German Prisoner of War camp and a wireless command post for the 6th Anti-Aircraft Division.

In 1944, the newly formed SAS (Special Air Services) used Hylands House as their Headquarters. Mrs Hanbury cheerfully accepted their presence and was regularly invited to dine in the Officers’ Mess. On one memorable occasion, Captain Paddy Blair Mayne (who went on to become this country’s most decorated soldier) attempted to drive a Jeep up the Grand Staircase for a bet. The incident caused much commotion and Christine Hanbury dispatched the men to bed with instructions to remove the Jeep in the morning when they had clearer heads. The Jeep had to be dismantled before it could be removed.

Christine Hanbury died in 1962, aged 89, leaving the house and estate to her trustees, and for the final time in its history Hylands was again offered for sale.

Chelmsford City Council

Chelmsford City Council (was Chelmsford Borough Council) purchased the entire estate in 1966 and within a month the park was officially open to the public. Hylands House was in a state of progressive deterioration, infected throughout with both wet and dry rot. Despite its dilapidated state Hylands became a Grade II* listed building. However in the Summer of 1971 the servant’s quarter was demolished. A move to demolish the whole house was narrowly defeated by 15 votes to 9. Once establishment of the Hylands Restoration Fund was created the external restoration started in 1987 and phases of following restoration followed over the next 20 years. For more information of the Restoration please click here.