Where in Upminster parish was a building erected as a gentleman’s house, that became a children’s home, a “lunatic asylum”, TB sanatorium, local hospital, education college and now flats? Give up? It’s Harold Court, close to the northern extremity of the parish by the main Greater Anglia railway line.
By the time that an annex of the County Lunatic Asylum at Warley opened at Harold Court on 8 February 1892 the premises had already had an eventful history since it had been built just over 20 years earlier.
The house of white stock brick was built in an Italianate style for William Richard Preston, a Brentwood solicitor, farmer, and speculative land developer. In 1866 Preston was one of a group of developers including Hugh Campbell M.D. of Margaretting and A.G Robinson of Warley Place, Great Warley who had bought the 300 acre Gubbins Farm and formed the Harold Wood Estate Company with the aim of building a new town there. They also contracted with the Great Eastern Railway Company in February 1868 to build a station in Gubbins Lane on the main line from London to Colchester, which took the name Harold Wood. Their speculative development was not however a successful venture and few houses were built there.
Preston had been born in Boulogne, France in 1824, the son of Christopher Richard Preston, and he married Louisa Lloyd-Williams at St Pancras in 1849. From the late 1850s he seems to have assumed the surname Richard-Preston, calling himself the slightly ludicrous William Richard Richard-Preston and bestowing this double-barreled surname on his offspring. Initially they lived in Ilford but the family soon moved to Brentwood and by the time they came to occupy the newly built Harold Court in 1870 their family had grown to ten children in a household that also included a governess, a nurse and her assistant, and four domestic servants.
Preston’s new home of Harold Court was a replacement for the former Good House Farm which comprised some 87 acres, owned by William Roper and his successor George Slack, and which had been farmed in the early 1830s and 1840s by North Biggs. Wilson noted that Preston had “erected extensive vineries…principally built on Helliwell’s patent system, which dispenses with putty and outside woodwork in connection with the glazing” – one such building was 300 feet in length.
Despite the initial lack of success of the Harold Wood development Preston seems to have continued to live in some style, as his household retinue in 1871 shows, but his fortunes took a turn for the worse from that year onwards. After a main drainage system had been laid in nearby Brentwood, Preston contracted with the local authority to dispose of the town’s sewage. His simple solution to this was to spread the sewage on 30 acres of land which he leased in Nag’s Head Lane, adjoining Harold Court!. Not only did his operations cause an unpleasant stench for miles around, but they also proved financially disastrous for him. Preston absconded, bankrupt in 1881 and seems to have fled the country, talking his family to Australia. He did however return late in life dying in Bath in 1908.
Preston had been the tenant of John Crompton, who had taken over the development of Harold Wood in 1877 and lived like the lord of the manor in his house The Grange, later part of Harold Wood Hospital, who had become the owner of the Harold Court estate and other lands occupied by Preston. When Preston absconded Crompton refused to take over Preston’s sewage disposal contract, and ordered the Billericay Rural Sanitary Authority to remove the sewers from his land. After legal actions the authority agreed in 1882 to buy part of the Nag’s Head Lane site. Their new sewage works were completed there in 1884 and extended at regular future intervals, where they still remain.
The Shoreditch Board of Guardians had been in partnership with Hackney in running joint schools under the Brentwood School District and they needed a premises to house and educate their pauper children. Harold Court was temporarily pressed into use in September 1882 as a children’s home when an initial 84 children, 37 belonging to Hackney and 47 from Shoreditch, transferred there. After the partnership between the two Boards dissolved in May 1885 Harold Court continued in use as the home for 120 children in the sole care of Shoreditch Union. The Shoreditch Board of Guardians’ then developed plans for a purpose built Cottage Homes and they bought Harrow Farm, Hornchurch and built St Leonard’s Cottage Homes there. The children from Harold Court moved to the new cottage homes at when they opened in August 1889.
Harold Court stood vacant for the next year. The Essex County Lunatic Asylum’s Committee needed a suitable premises to replace their Lee Hall annexe which was nearing the end of its lease. The committee’s medical officer Dr George Amsden reported favourably on Harold Court in August 1890 saying that it “has already accommodated 100 children for some years who were always healthy, only four deaths occurring while they were there.” He considered that the premises could house 70 adults and that “few structural alterations would be required but considerable repairs, alteration of locks and windows are needed”. A few weeks later on 29 August 1890 one of the Commissioners in Lunacy, who had to give approval for any premises to be used as lunatic asylums, surveyed Harold Court reporting that “The house is in very bad repair – it has been unoccupied for a year and much money will have to be spent to render it comfortable and fit for persons of unsound mind”. In contrast to Amsden’s report he felt that there was ample room for 50 lunatics with three attendants. He said there was a bathroom on the first floor and a W.C. on every floor but there was no gas supply and no gas pipes ran near the house. Despite reservations about the lack of sewage disposal, which was still spread over local fields, and the need for a telephone or telegraph to connect with the main asylum at Warley three miles away he concluded that “there are no insuperable objections”
The Essex County Lunatic Asylum’s committee decided to go ahead with the purchase of the vacant Harold Court which they bought in early 1891 for £3,100. Dr Amsden managed the works, initially connecting the house to the water supply before conversion work on the house itself started in August 1891 to provide more suitable secure accommodation for the inmates. As recommended the annex was connected by telephone to Warley along the Great Eastern Railway lines. On 8 February 1892 some 44 male inmates transferred from Lee Hall.
The number of inmates gradually rose and the 1901 census shows a Head Attendant, Edward Thompson, his wife Emma, who was the cook and one attendant plus 67 male inmates. In 1911 there was similarly a husband and wife couple in charge, supported by two attendants looking after 72 male lunatics.
Harold Court continued to be used as an annex to the main Warley asylum until 1918 when it became the county’s tuberculosis sanatorium. When the National Health Service came into being after World War Two the sanatorium became a hospital in the Brentwood Group.
There was a further change of use when in 1960 it was sold to the Education committee of the Essex county council, and from 1963 it housed a branch of Brentwood College of Education.
After the College moved out it was later converted into flats and now stands in splendid isolation in the countryside, not far from Wyevale Garden centre, with few passing by on the fast train aware of its unusual history.