The Shell House, Hatfield Forest, decorated by Laetitia Houblon, circa 1759. National Trust Picture Library Image 695461
The Shell House in Hatfield Forest, near Bishops Stortford, Essex features in the report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery, published in September 2020. This was built for Jacob Houblon (1710–70) an MP and a member of the Cocoa-Tree Club chocolate house, who purchased Hatfield Forest (NT), part of the Hallingbury Place estate, in 1729, using funds amassed by his large family of bankers and traders. His uncle, Sir John Houblon (1632–1712), was a founding member of the Bank of England in 1694 and its first Governor. Readers will be familiar with Sir John’s appearance as recently featured on the £50 note. The Houblon family formed a partnership with the Hankeys, plantation owners, and together they traded with Jamaica, Antigua and the Leeward Islands.
According to Houblon family tradition, the Shell House was decorated by Jacob’s fifteen-year-old daughter Laetitia (1742-1828) with shells from the West Indies, West Africa and the Indo-Pacific combined with split flints, blue glass and a variety of sands. Laetitia was a talented artist, a work bag she embroidered remains in family ownership. The Shell House replaced a small structure, built in 1746, where Jacob Houblon could entertain his friends to tea, and enjoy the little garden, with its seven walks in the adjoining coppice. The woman who kept Mrs Houblon’s poultry and peacocks lived in the adjoining house. Hatfield Forest became an extension of the Hallingbury Place estate; the main house, just two kilometres away, was rebuilt in the early 1770s. Payments to Capability Brown in the family archives demonstrate that the landscape was transformed between 1758 and 1762. Brown was responsible for planting a range of fine trees including yew, cedar, black pine, horse chestnut, copper beech and stone pine.
Whilst these changes were taking place, Laetitia’s brother Jacob Houblon (1736-1783) was in Italy on the Grand Tour with his tutor, the Reverend John Lipyeatt, son of the Hallingbury local vicar, with whom he was captured for posterity with other companions by the British artist Thomas Patch.
Despite spectacular processions witnessed at the Piedmontese court, Jacob, now aged 23, wrote to his mother from Turin asking for progress reports on the home improvements, remembering childhood picnics in this picturesque lake side shelter.
‘I should be much more pleased to see the procession of the Coach drawn by the blacks, filled full, followed by the little cart conducted by my brother Jack in the old fustian frock in charge of the provisions, and with Phillis and Fanny at his heels – down from the old Place and wended their way across the Forest to the Cottage Pond.`
The designer of the classically formed Shell House is not recorded, although Capability Brown who also practised as an architect is a possible candidate. The exterior is embellished with a peacock whose breast is made of a fossil Inoceramus, a bi-valved mollusc from the Cretacious period (145 to 65 million years ago). On either side of the exterior there is a sunburst motif. In 1907, the interior still housed two pictures with shell covered frames, solid mahogany tables and a cabinet containing natural history specimens.
A dedicated visitors’ book documents the range of family guests entertained there by later generations of the family between 1892 and 1923, when the Houblons sold the property. The original is in the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford. On 1 April 1893, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, visited from nearby Great Easton, the family home of his mistress, Frances Evelyn Maynard, later Daisy, Countess of Warwick. In addition to her royal lover, the party included her husband, Lord Brooke and their two children Guy and Marjorie Greville. The Shell House became a destination for bicycle outings from Saffron Walden and local school parties, and in 1901, 30 children from a London-based Jewish Charity holiday fund. On 12 September 1899 one visitor added the comment ‘Vive Dreyfus’, a reference to the recent sentence in which this Jewish officer in the French army was accused of treason – of passing military secrets to the military attaché at the German Embassy in Paris and sentenced to ten years imprisonment and hard labour on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guinea. He was finally exonerated in 1906.
After the family sold the estate in 1923, Hallingbury Place was demolished, but the Buxtons of Horsey Hall, Norfolk bought Hatfield Forest and presented it to the National Trust. The Shell House normally attracts parties of school children and family groups. In August 1998, the distinguished Cambridge-based architectural historian Jeremy Musson, himself of Huguenot descent, published an article on the Houblon Shell House in Country Life. The Huguenot Society hopes to invite Mr Musson and Houblon family descendants to join us for a family picnic at the Shell House as and when circumstances permit, an opportunity perhaps for members to introduce their children and grandchildren to the remarkable decoration made by a Huguenot teenager in the mid-18th century.
The Shell House was restored by the National Trust with the assistance of Diana Reynell who also restored the Shell House at Goodwood, West Sussex, similarly decorated by the daughters of the 2nd Duke of Richmond and Gordon.
Jeremy Musson, ‘The Shell House, Hatfield Forest, Essex’, Country Life, 27 August 1998, vol.192, pp. 48-50.
Lady Alice Archer Houblon, The Houblon Family: Its Story and Times, 2 vols, London, 1907