R S Brown, 1976
pages 37, 38, 39
Because the theme of our series is concerned with the history of local highways, this narrative has begun under the heading of 'Canons Drive' but our main intention is to talk about 'Chandos Country' - which Canons Drive still penetrates.
The immediate district is known as Canons Park and in the 18th century it provided a background for one of the most extraordinary characters in Harrow history - the Duke of Chandos.
There can be few established residents in this part of the Borough who have not heard or read something about this incredible Duke; it will therefore be difficult for the author to reveal any new aspects of the Chandos story but in any event the main theme will not tarnish because we choose to recapitulate.
Canons Park formally comprised an estate called Canons (or Cannons, according to 'The Placenames of Middlesex') situated in the Manor of Little Stanmore, which has existed since Saxon times. The estate derived its name from the Cannon family when it was a head tenement throughout the Middle Ages. In 1331 the estate was granted to the Prior and Canons of St Bartholomew in Smithfield but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Manor (which was referred to in an old document of that time as 'Canons of Wimborough or Wimborowe in Whitchurch') passed to Hugh Losse.
Later, Robert Losse drew up a 1500 years lease (which is still effective) when a local benefactor named John Burnell, described as 'citizen and clothworker of London', bought the estate which included 'gardens, orchardes, yardes, backsides buildings, easements, commodities'. The property is described as being "near the Queene's highwaye leadinge throughe Edgware and latelie occupied and helde as customarie landes of the saide Robert Losse of his Manner of Stanmer The Lesse" (Little Stanmore). There is a monument to John Burnell in St Johns Church.
In 1604 the Secretary of State to James I, Sir Thomas Lake, bought the property and the Manor remained in his family until the early part of the 18th century. Mary Lake, great-grand-daughter of Sir Thomas, married James Brydges (later, the first Duke of Chandos) who purchased Canons when his wife died in 1712, from her uncle, Warwick Lake.
Brydges held the office of Paymaster to Marlborough's armies in the time of Queen Anne when he is reputed to have amassed a fortune. In 1715 he began a project which proved to be the highlight of an incredible career. This was 'Cannons' (invariably spelt with two 'n's) a Mansion of unbelievable splendour which is said to have cost over a quarter of a million pounds. No expense was spared on the lavish furnishings, decor, rare art collections and beautiful gardens. The building was situated in the area of what is now the Canons Park recreation ground.
Four architects worked on the main structure - John James, William Talman (who designed 'Chatsworth'), James Gibbs and John Price. Sir John Vanburgh is also thought to have submitted plans which proved to be unacceptable: Sir James Thornhill painted the ornate ceiling.
The Duke's own life-style matched these ostentatious surroundings and he was attended by over 100 servants. After the death of his first wife who bore him 9 children he married Cassandra Willoughby but she too died in 1735. Chandos now owned several other properties around the country and was involved in a variety of speculative investments, both at home and in the colonies. The most notorious of these was the South Sea Company (which became known as the South Sea Bubble) which proved to be a financial disaster for the Duke involving him in an estimated loss of £300,000.
One admirable role adopted by Chandos was that of governor to Harrow School; thanks to his exceptional administrative ability he was able to secure a more satisfactory financial future for the school.
The Duke was married to his third wife the wealthy widow, Lydia Vanhatten, when he died in 1744 and his son and heir, the second Duke Henry, inherited a much reduced fortune: the following year the young Duke petitioned the House of Lords for permission to sell some of his property - including the magnificent Cannons - since he was unable to adequately maintain so costly an establishment.
To our eternal loss, it appears there was no one with sufficient wealth interested in purchasing this palace. First, the contents of the mansion were put up for sale following an announcement which said, "A catalogue of all the genuine household furniture etc of His Grace James Duke of Chandos, deceased at his late seat called Cannons, near Edgware in Middlesex, which will be sold by Mr Cook on Monday 1st June 1747 and the 10 following days at Canons above mentioned".
The building itself was then put up for auction and systematically dismantled almost brick by brick. The beautiful staircase now leads up to the circle of a South coast cinema; decorative railings went to a London church and an Oxford college; a fireplace is installed in a City of London business house, and portico, pulpits and windows are among sections of the Mansion which now form parts of buildings scattered around the country. The sale raised the miserable sum of £11,000 since most of the treasures went for bargain prices. One example was a Persian Carpet measuring 21 feet by 11 feet,which fetched only fifteen guineas.
Henry, the Second Duke, was also married three times: his second wife Ann was formerly his mistress and had been bought from her husband, an ostler, by the Duke. Henry could spend money easily but lacked his father's ability to accumulate it and thus the remaining family fortune was gradually dissipated. His son, James the last Duke, died in 1789 but, not having a son, the titles became extinct.
The Cannons site was bought by William Hallet, whose grandson later conveyed it to Dennis O'Kelley, owner of the famous racehorse. Eclipse. Hallet re-used the masonry from Cannons to build a house in the Park which, since 1929, has been known as the North London Collegiate School.
In 1936, Harrow Urban District Council purchased the land, amounting to 50 acres, when gardens were laid out as a memorial to King George the Fifth, since when the public has been admitted.
A farm, which was set back from the junction of Marsh Lane and Whitchurch Lane,formed part of the estate from the middle ages until it was obliterated by suburban development between the wars.
We have yet to reveal the significance of the highway named in the heading of this narrative - Canons Drive. It was in fact once one of three imposing main drives which provided a firm gravelled surface for the elegant carriages which drove through the gates (long since removed) the posts of which still flank the entrance to the Mansion of Cannons.
Now, almost a quarter of a mile long, it is a cul-de-sac for traffic but a track for ramblers forms a rear entrance to the Canons Park recreation ground. On several occasions in this series, we have mentioned the existence of numerous attractive highways in Harrow but Canons Drive would probably take first prize in this respect. As one leaves the busy' Stonegrove' highway and passes between the aforementioned gateposts into this magnificent drive, it is difficult to be unaware of the supremely superior atmosphere which the passing years have failed to diminish. It is easy to visualise the Duke of Chandos and his retinue of carriages proceeding up this drive in equine elegance.
After passing a modern block of flats on the right, an avenue of wonderful trees meets the eye and handsome detached residences stand back from the road; well-kept open plan lawns sweep down to the pavements. On the left is a picturesque lake, while through the trees to the right can be seen the imposing facade of the North London Collegiate School. A modern extension is less impressive than the solid, grey mass of the old school building, which once, in different form, was the home of the indomitable Duke. On the right, behind the houses, is another larger lake called 'Seven Acre Pond', now fenced off and inaccessible to the public.
While a far-seeing council has done much to retain some vestige of the former glory of Canons Park the intricate pattern of 20th century civilisation, which now surrounds the estate, would probably amaze even James Brydges, should he arise from the grave.