The History of Hylands

Hylands House is now owned by Chelmsford Borough Council. Grade II listed Hylands House has been extensively altered since it was originally built about 1730 by lawyer Sir John Comyns. For many years Sir John was an MP representing nearby Maldon and the Queen Ann style mansion he built forms the nucleus of the house as it is today.

The Comyns family remained owners of the house until 1797 when it was sold to Cornelius Hendrickson Kortright, a Danish born merchant who owned estates in the West Indies. The first thing he did was to enlarge the house and called on renowned landscape gardener and architect Humphrey Repton from Romford to come up with the ideas.

Among the proposals were a winged villa in a "Grecian" style and a tetrastyle portico in the Corinthian Order. Some of Repton's suggestions were followed with curves introduced into the approach roads and a serpentine artificial lake introduced.

The house was to change hands again in 1815 when it was sold to Pierre Caesar Labouchere, partner of banking firm Hope & Co as well as being a collector and secret envoy to Britain for Napoleonic France and Holland.

By 1818 he had seen Repton's designs and added a matching west wing to the building, creating a servants' hall and quarters. During the time the park and gardens were also remodelled. Walled kitchen gardens, pleasure gardens and a 300-foot conservatory were introduced along with a boat house, ice house and staff cottages.

When John Attwood took ownership of the property he re-built the east wing and the back of the west wing to create a suite of reception rooms. Despite trying to expand the grounds even further his possessions were seized by creditors after his political career floundered. In 1858 the grounds and house were split up for sale after remaining unoccupied for four years.The three owners following Pryor made few changes to the home and after the deaof Mrs Hanbury, wifckenize Hanbury, in 1962 the house was left vacant.
A further four year period passed with no occupier during which time a fire dama
ged decorations in the west wing of the building. Since being purchased by the borough council in 1966 the house has had its exterior restored during the 1980s with the help of English Heritage. As part of the process the additional storeys introduced by Victorian entrepreneur John Attwood were removed.
The council then set about restoring the interior on a phased basis. A Friends of Hylands House was also introduced to help fund raise for the restoration of the building. More recently the borough council agreed further funding to carry out restoration to the building.

The work at a cost of £2.6 million will complete the restoration of the ground floor and refurbish the whole basement and mezzanine.
It will see the useable public area increase from just under 4,500 square feet to just under 12,000.

Hylands House through the ages

A hectic schedule at Hylands

THIRTY years ago Hylands House was an archetypal example of how badly a local council could treat a fine country house. Today it is the very opposite — a model of enterprising use and painstaking restoration of almost vanished interiors.

Hylands is open to visitors on Sundays and Mondays, and from Tuesdays to Thursdays it bustles with corporate events, from business breakfasts to seminars and evening receptions. On Fridays and Saturdays the house is redesignated as a venue for civil marriages, and offers wedding breakfasts or banquets, depending on the time of day.


Add to this a series of absorbing workshops and soirées, including Murder Mystery Evenings (meet the suspects over a two-course meal), a Masked Ball, a Dickensian Christmas Market, Christmas Soirées with the Chelmsford Theatre Workshop and Boxing Day drinks, and it is clear that this is the least stuffy of publicly owned country houses.

The 550-acre landscaped park is the setting for many events, including the popular V Festival in August, which attracts 100,000 over two days. It will welcome a worldwide gathering in 2007 to celebrate the centenary of the Scouts, and is being talked of as a venue for equestrian events if London wins the Olympic Games.

The Hylands House estate was bought by Chelmsford Borough Council in 1966 to create a public park outside the town. However, the house stood empty and decaying while Conservative councillors decided that it was a burden on the rates and should become a golfclub, and Labour rejected any private use on public land.

The only proposal to attract a majority was for demolition, in what just happened to be European Architectural Heritage Year, 1975. Happily, after fierce opposition at a public inquiry from Essex County Council and preservation groups, demolition was rejected.

Hylands is a classic example of the way in which many English country houses have been adapted and extended over the centuries. A Baroque house built for Sir John Comyns, an MP and judge, was remodelled in 1810 for Cornelius Kortright, a Danish merchant with large estates in the West Indies. Kortright brought in Sir Humphry Repton to make proposals for the park.

Hylands was then bought in 1815 by Pierre Caesar Labouchere, a partner in the leading Amsterdam bank Hope & Co, a Dutch-born Huguenot and secret envoy for Napoleonic France. Labouchere was a patron of Bertel Thorvaldsen, the Danish sculptor, and commissioned the architect William Atkinson to design new greenhouses and a large netted cage for a cherry garden. After Labouchere’s death, Hylands was acquired by a Birmingham ironmaster, John Attwood, who had ambitions for a peerage and commissioned J. B. Papworth to add an extra storey for bedrooms and a nursery.

The preservation of Hylands mattered the more because Essex has lost so many fine houses. As Sir Howard Colvin has pointed out, the grand Jacobean house Audley End was partly demolished in the 18th century and the Palladian Wanstead House was demolished in 1824. Fifteen more houses went in the 19th century, including Leoni-designed Moulsham Hall, and 40 more in the 20th century, including Gothic-style Belhus, the Baroque Weald Hall and the Rococo Rolls Park.

The last private owner of Hylands, Christine Hanbury (of the Truman Hanbury brewing family), wanted the house to become the centre of the new University of Essex, but Chelmsford was deemed too near the fleshpots of London for the good of students, and Wivenhoe Park outside Colchester (famously painted by Constable) was chosen instead.

In the 1980s Esmond Abraham, the borough architect, removed the Victorian upper floors and restored the Regency appearance of the house. Yet, for all the gleaming stucco, the house remained empty, surrounded by a wire fence. It featured as “Heap of the Week” in The Times in 1991.

But now the interior is largely complete. A long-derelict west wing was opened this year. Original hand-painted oak graining and gilding has been reinstated, with mirrors creating multiple reflections in all directions. Composite and papier-mâché ornaments, where missing, have been replaced using latex moulds.

Nick Whittington, the curator, now hopes to win Heritage Lottery Fund support for the restoration of Repton’s park and serpentine lake, plantations and a rustic flint cottage. This next phase will include restoration of the grand staircase — which is presently displayed with bare brick walls to show just how decayed the house once was.

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