Work was completed in early 2017 on the transformation of the former convent of the Sacred Heart of Mary on Upminster Hill to form seven apartments, with the addition of two five-bedroom houses to the south – collectively known as Numbers 1-9 Convent Close, St Mary’s Lane. It’s timely to explore the story of this little-known property, which for much of its history was a family home.
Few Upminster people had recently been inside this fine Grade II listed building, nor had they had a clear view of its frontage which for many years had been hidden by bushes & trees masking a clear view from St Mary’s Lane. The trees were removed as part of the development, and once the developer’s site hoardings were removed late in the process, the exterior of the beautifully restored buildings could be seen. Fortunately nine years ago I was lucky enough to be allowed inside and take photographs of the interior, some of which appear below.
On the crest of Upminster Hill fronting the main road, an estate of eleven acres was created from lands adjacent to the main highway, together with a field of six acres, transferred in 1820 from the northern part of Hoppy Hall Farm, owned by the Esdaile family. A house, appropriately named Hill House, was built there, replacing an earlier property on the site.
Peter Esdaile, son and heir of the great Sir James Esdaile (c.1714-1793), had bought the property and four acres of land in February 1780 from Edward Keeling Reynolds, a Romford cordwainer. who had a few years earlier inherited the property from his aunt Sarah Waylett, widow of William Waylett. This copyhold premises was originally called Dowmans, held of the manor of Gaynes and had been owned in the early 18th century by John Everett (d. 1728), farmer of the adjacent Bridge House Farm.
When Peter Esdaile bought the property it was occupied by Slade Bowler and after Bowler’s death in 1781 by Thomas Leach Esq., who lived there until 1802. In January 1803 Esdaile extended the site northwards by adding the adjacent roadside waste, and the tenant then and until early 1809 was Mr Lewis (or James Lewis) Desormeaux. In 1813 Peter Esdaile leased Hill House to William Nokes, whose uncle William Nokes was the farmer of the adjacent Bridge House Farm and in 1820 William Nokes the younger purchased the premises from Peter Esdaile.
The younger William Nokes (1791-1871) was the son of James Nokes (1754-1838) of Hunts Farm, who had built Upminster Windmill in 1805. Like his parents, who were among the original founders of Upminster’s Chapel, William Nokes was a non-conformist whose children were christened at the chapel. His occupation was given in the baptism registers as a miller, while his brother Thomas, often described as taking over the mill from his father James, was described as a farmer of Hornchurch. According to Wilson, Hill Place served as the William Nokes’ office from which bookings & other clerical work for the mill business was carried out.
William Nokes spent a large sum of money in decorating the house, and improving the grounds “by planting an immense number of shrubs and evergreens”. This remodelling was performed by John Adey Repton (1775-1860), eldest son of the famous landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1751-1818) who lived only a few miles away at Hare Street, Romford (what we now call Gidea Park). Wilson wrote that Repton “revelled there in his father’s art of developing beauties, and rendering every point effective; conducting you over lawns, through green alleys, and round secluded shrubberies”.
As with many of the historic properties in Upminster owned by the Esdailes in the late 18th century majestic cedar trees were planted within the grounds. An article from 1935 claimed that the three specimens in the gardens to the south of the house were “said to be the oldest in England” and “at least 300 hundred years old” (i.e. as early as the 1630s) but this claim seems wide of the mark.
Nokes moved out of Upminster and when Hill House was offered for sale by auction in February 1827 it was described as “an excellent family residence … in good repair”. On the ground floor was a dining room “elegantly papered” and “finished with gilt moulding” and a “handsome profile Marble chimney-piece”. There was also a “cheerful good-sized Breakfast room, kitchens, scullery and larder. Upstairs a drawing room also boasted a marble chimney slab and a bow window “commanding the most delightful prospects” which were said to “embrace the truly fertile Kentish Hills and the constantly varying scenery of the Thames.” There were also two “best bed chambers” and three other bedrooms and an ante room “hitherto used as library”. The whole was said to be “especially calculated for the residence of a gentleman fond of field sports”.
It isn’t known whether this fondness for field sports applied to the purchaser Wasey Sterry, a 26 year-old Romford solicitor, but what is certain is that he was a gentleman from a distinguished family, whose father Benjamin Wasey Sterry was an Attorney of the Kings Bench Court at Westminster.
Wasey Sterry married in 1831 a Sussex heiress, Frances Tourle, and the couple soon produced four children, until Wasey’s untimely death in 1842 left Frances to bring up her four young children all aged under 10. Her late husband’s sister, also named Frances Sterry (and known as Fanny), in 1851 married Luther Holden, nephew of the Upminster Rector, John Rose Holden, and elder brother of his successor Philip Melancthon Holden. After the death of Frances Sterry in 1856 her younger daughter Frances became the ward of her aunt, now Frances Holden.
Wilson described Hill House in 1856 as a “villa, enclosed by handsome palisades, and partially screened by Acassias“. It was described as having three fronts, and as having been much enlarged by Wasey Sterry. Hill House was soon afterwards let to Osgood Hanbury, a banker, initially furnished, but unfurnished from 1860 after Mrs Sterry’s effects were removed and auctioned. Hanbury was living there in 1861 but that year he sub-let the property to William Kettlewell the owner of New Place and then to the recently-married Temple Soanes, a banker and merchant in the Russian trade. The delightfully named Temple Hillyard Hicks Soanes, soon put forward plans for alterations to Hill House to the executors of Mrs Sterry. They were initially unwilling to agree these changes but instead sought to sell the property to Soanes. However, the sale to Soanes was only completed in April 1867, when he agreed to pay £3,700 for Hill House and lands.
Soanes’ plans for his newly purchased home were ambitious and he let nothing stand in the way of their execution. He bought the Congregational Minister’s house which stood between Hill House and the Congregational Chapel and transferred part of an ornamental well-wooded paddock which he owned opposite to the Chapel Trustees as a site for a new Manse, which allowed the old Manse to be pulled down in order to extend Hill House to meet his plans.
Soanes’ designs to almost entirely rebuild Hill House in 1871-72 were prepared by William Gibbs Bartleet of South Weald (1829-1906), a prominent architect with a London practice who specialised in church architecture and who had redesigned Upminster’s St Laurence Church ten years previously.
The most impressive remaining features of Bartleet’s remodelling are the entrance hall, paved with black and white marble, and lined with carved oak panelling. From this rises a carved-oak staircase lit by impressive stained-glass windows made by the workshops of William Morris to designs by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). The windows to the side depict Lancelot and Elaine, whose story from the Arthurian legends inspired Tennyson’s poems, and may have originally been produced in 1870 for a house in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria. The windows to the front, facing St Mary’s Lane, showing five minstrels from Chaucerian stories and both windows are topped by five roundels of Penelope and other heroines from designs by Burne-Jones dating to 1864.
The works were completed in 1872 and the property, by now renamed Hill Place, was in Wilson’s words “a pleasing and important addition to the architecture of the village”. Despite the considerable expense laid out by Soanes on his new property it was put up for sale by auction in July 1873. The sale catalogue said that Hill Place had been erected “regardless of cost” and “fitted throughout in the most perfect manner with every comfort and convenience that consummate taste could suggest and lavish expenditure procure”. Downstairs the main rooms were a drawing room, a “lofty” dining room and a library or morning room, while upstairs were 15 bedrooms and dressing rooms
Soanes’ efforts to sell the property were unsuccessful so it was let to tenants and in 1878 it was occupied by John Ulrich-Truninger, a Swiss-born merchant. Finally in October 1881 Countess Helen Tasker, a prominent Roman Catholic benefactress of Middleton Hall, Shenfield, bought Hill Place for £8,000 and the 1882 Trade Directory says that she lived there occasionally. From 1883 meetings of the local branch of the newly formed Primrose League, an organisation for promoting Tory Principles, were held at Hill Place.
The 1886 and 1890 Directories show Hill Place to be unoccupied and after Countess Tasker’s death in 1888 her estates passed to the surviving daughters of Frederick & Ellen Willmott of Warley Place. The elder of these daughters (and Countess Tasker’s god-daughter) Ellen Willmott, the renowned horticultualist, bought her younger sister Rose’s share to become Hill Place’s sole owner. The 1891 Census shows the tenant as Henry Ferrers Ferrers, who was living on his own means.
Hill Place was now about to experience the most colourful period of its history after Edwin Sydney Woodiwiss took over the tenancy of Hill Place in December 1892 . He was about to celebrate his twenty first birthday and was already a gentleman of leisure, thanks to an inheritance of well over £30,000 (around two million pounds at current values) under the will of his father Sir Abraham Woodiwiss, railway contractor and Mayor of Derby, who had died in 1884.
Educated at Harrow School, where Winston Churchill was three years below him, Woodiwiss was a true Victorian eccentric. The month after coming to Hill Place he married Constance Wigg, daughter of Dr Carter Wigg MD of Hampstead and two children, a daughter who died in infancy and a son, were born in the next few years during which time Woodiwiss set about putting Hill Place well and truly on the map.
Within months of moving there Woodiwiss had by June 1893 established a private zoo in the grounds. Three paddocks at the rear of the premises were given over to a selection of cattle: two Jersey heifers, a large zebu bull and a pair of pygmy zebus. He also became a celebrated owner and breeder of prize-winning pedigree Dachshund and Schipperke dogs and was said to have the largest kennels in England. By September 1893 Woodiwiss’ animal collection had expanded to include a Malayan Bear, an agouti (a goat-like creature), guinea pigs, a herd of alpaca (a type of llama), and bush-tailed kangaroos. Birds in his aviaries included a golden eagle, sparrow hawks, eagle owls & barn owls while a large collection of waterfowl– four flamingos, storks, herons, plus a flock of geese – occupied an artificial pond at the rear of the kennels. All were said to be housed due to the “local enterprise of Messrs Wilson and Hook, builders.” Locals recall that the ruins of Woodiwiss’s zoo and other buildings could still be seen behind the convent over 50 years later in the 1950s.
Woodiwiss later established a herd of over 20 prize Dexter cattle and also took to breeding Manx cats. In February 1895 he travelled to United States with his brother Samuel of Sedgemoor, Somerset, who was a breeder of greyhounds and collies, to exhibit dogs in the annual New York show, winning numerous prizes.
Woodiwiss also owned a 300 acre dairy farm at Westbury Farm, Cranham, in partnership with Mr George Seaton de Winton, sending milk to London and growing wheat and oats. It was through his partnership and friendship with Captain de Winton that a legendary episode in Upminster’s history arose. Not only was De Winton a gentleman cricketer for Gloucestershire CC, usually batting left hand in the middle of the order while the famous Dr W G Grace was then the county’s opening batsman, but he also played for the Upminster Cricket Club, which Woodiwiss was a keen member of.
On 21 May 1896 Dr Grace came to stay at Hill Place after playing for Gloucestershire against Kent at Gravesend, before going on to the Oval to play Surrey the next day. On the Saturday Upminster Cricket Club were playing Upminster Friars, a gentleman-farmers’ eleven at their ground opposite where Upminster Court was later built. “WG” took some batting practice and Charles Lazell of Upminster gained local notoriety when he demolished the legend’s wicket. WG later became the Friars’ President and presented them with a portrait of himself, which was later given to Upminster CC.
Woodiwiss brief but eventful stay in Upminster ended in January 1900 when he enlisted with the newly formed Imperial Yeomanry and departed for South Africa, serving in the Second Boer War. His herd of prize Dexter cattle was put up for sale two months later, raising £1,144. Initially a sergeant, Woodiwiss was eventually promoted to Captain, and for a while was a prisoner of war, eventually returning to Britain in July 1902 after the war ended.
Woodiwiss’ colourful history was far from complete. Emigrating to Canada in 1903, he initially farmed there but later became a real-estate agent and JP in Winnipeg. He returned to England, divorcing his estranged wife, remarrying in 1922 and raising a new family in Chelmsford, where he gained a reputation for breeding Abyssinian cats! Despite only living at Upminster for a few years he was buried in the same grave as his infant daughter Angela at St Laurence’s churchyard after he died in north London in 1940.
Edward Payton Wills (later Sir Edward), of the well-known Bristol tobacco firm, became the owner of Hill Place in June 1899, as well as the nearby Bridge House Farm, which Woodiwiss moved to before leaving Upminster.
Hill Place was offered for sale in September 1902 and Dr John Storrs Brookfield MD JP bought the property in 1903 or shortly afterwards for around £5,500 and spent over £500 on improvements. The Irish-born eminent doctor (1845-1927) also had a residence at Brondesbury, where he was consulting physician to the Passmore Edwards Hospital, Willesden so may not have lived permanently at Hill Place. Educated at the University of New Brunswick, Canada he obtained his MA from Edinburgh University and was member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was a Harley Street specialist and after his retirement to Upminster his skills were put to good use during World War 1 when he worked at the convalescent hospital set up at St Laurence Hall. His name may be all but forgotten in Upminster but it is still remembered further afield for on his death in July 1927 he left a bequest of £2,000 to the University of New Brunswick Canada for a scholarship in natural sciences, which is still awarded to this day.
When Dr Brookfield moved away from Upminster a few months before his death the Hill Place Estate was put up for sale and in May 1927 the Roman Catholic nuns of the order of the Institute of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, bought the estate and established a convent and private boarding and day school there.
Reverend Mother Leonard was its first Headmistress of this school which initially catered for around 150 pupils, girls of all ages and boys up to the age of 8. Most teaching was secular but one or other of the 16 members of the teaching order taught religious education.
New school buildings were planned in 1930, but had still not been completed when war broke out; a Georgian-style red brick chapel was built against the east end of Hill Place in 1935, but this had to be demolished in 1965 due to structural problems following subsidence.
During the war the school was evacuated complete to Chilton House in Buckinghamshire, reopening in Upminster in September 1946. The school ceased to be a private boarding school at the end of the Summer Term 1949, after which it was granted voluntary aided status receiving funding from Essex County Council as the education authority.
The Convent buildings were listed Grade II on 5 May 1999. The full listing is HERE
Although the planned redevelopment of Hill Place has severed the links between the convent and the school, at the same time they have breathed new life into the historic buildings which have survived largely intact due to their religious and educational uses since 1927. The plans aimed to retain, celebrate and enhance the significance of the building, removing later additions which were out of character with the original Victorian designs and adding new elements that aim to preserve the building’s character. By pruning the trees and shrubs fronting St Mary’s Lane, which were perhaps needed to preserve the privacy of the religious order, Hill Place has for the first time in several decades become a visible part of Upminster’s history.
The London Borough of Havering planning application reference is P.1084.14 and can be viewed HERE. There was public exhibition of the plans at the Convent by the Architects & agents on Tuesday 11th November 2014. Havering Council’s Regulatory Services Committee on 19th February 2015 agreed that the proposals would be acceptable subject to the applicants entering into a suitable (Section 106) legal agreement; listed building consent was granted in April 2015 subject to certain conditions.
Interior of Sacred Heart Convent (Hill Place) – October 2008