R S Brown, 1976
pages 7, 8
At the commencement of our enthralling journey we approach Stanmore by the Watford Road which connects with the town of that name before passing through Bushey Heath.
With Stanmore Hill less than half a mile away we pass between two areas steeped in history; on the north side of Watford Road is Stanmore Common and, to the South, Bentley Priory Park.
We have mentioned more than once in this series how fortunate the residents of Harrow are to be bordering on protected Green Belt land and Stanmore Common is one of those gems which has survived the onslaught of 20th century developers. The residents of Stanmore can lazily enjoy its cool, green undulations in summer or ramble briskly through the surrounding woods during inclement weather.
Across this region, medieval hunters pursued game and highwaymen lurked in the shadows to rob unsuspecting travellers. Nearby residents drew water from the ponds on the Common while the woods provided wild fruit for the table. Sand and gravel could be dug for road-making and there was wood for tools and furniture: it was in these surroundings that the term "by hook or-by crook" originated, when the peasants were permitted to pull down wood from the trees and bushes to light the fires in their hovels. This legal privilege, originally formulated by medieval Courts, was known as 'Estovers', one of the six basic rights enabling commoners to use waste land. The other five were, 'Common of pasture' - grazing of animals; 'Turbay' - extraction of peat and turf for fuel; 'Piscary' - the fishing of lakes and streams; 'Pannage' - which enables pig-owners to feed their animals on fallen tree growth; 'Common in the soil' - the removal of minerals and stones from the ground.
The history of Stanmore Common can be traced back to a period before the birth of Christ when the Romans crossed this territory to destroy the forces of Cassivellaunus, Chief of the Cassi tribe. Subsequently the Romans built the town of Sullonicae on the slopes of Brockley Hill and settlers drew water from Stanmore Common; one such supply is still aptly named 'Ceasar's Pond'.
As Roman supremacy diminished, the Saxons arrived and totally destroyed Sullonicae, strewing debri and rubble over acres of land: it is believed that Stanmore derives its name from this destructive action which became known as 'the stones by the mere'. A new use for the Common was found in the 19th Century, when it became a rendezvous for sport; the working classes played football on its green sward while the gentry enjoyed cricket. Charles Keyser, resident of Warren House, spent a great deal of money on the improvement and maintenance of the cricket ground. Until 1939, a picturesque wooden pavilion with thatched roof and verandah provided a pleasing haven for the players until it was burnt down. The replacement, a more modern building, provides better amenities, but is less suited aesthetically to its surroundings.
Situated some distance away from the other side of Watford Road is the stately edifice of Bentley Priory. The 'Gordon Avenue' narrative on page 8 of volume 1 did in fact contain information about the Priory but our current route presents a further opportunity to mention some additional aspects relating to this historical old building.
Like the Cannons Mansion, owned by the Duke of Chandos (which is described further on in this volume) Bentley Priory enjoyed a period of great social eminence when it was purchased in 1788 by John James Hamilton, the 9th Earl and First Marquis of Abercorn. He commissioned Sir John Soane to rebuild the house which became a sumptuous venue for celebrities of that age including famous statesmen, writers and members of the nobility.
The Priory was now resplendent with a Portland stone staircase and numerous valuable paintings and statues, all of which provided an ideal setting for the distinguished figure of the Marquis of Abercorn, described by an acquaintance as "tall, erect and muscular with an air of grace and dignity, and with a dark complexion more like a Spaniard than an Englishman". He is reputed to have been an extremely fastidious man; his family were expected to stand when he entered and left the room and he wore the full regalia of the Garter when out shooting. His private rooms were frequently fumigated and housemaids were expected to wear gloves when they handled his bed-linen.
Abercorn liked handsome men and beautiful women around him for whom he provided a generous table and every comfort. They could indulge in hunting or riding but, somewhat strangely, he would converse with them only at mealtimes.
Lady Morgan, a well known novelist of the early 19th century, reported that .... "the house looks like a little town ...... and 120 people slept under the roof during the Christmas holidays without including the under servants".
Facing the Common is the RAF entrance to Bentley Priory Park: between that entrance and the top of Stanmore Hill the old road was once bordered by woods but large villas now line the highway.
The RAF has occupied Bentley Priory for some 50 years but the future of the two hundred-year-old building is now very much in the balance; recent surveys have revealed that considerable renovation will be necessary if the life of the property is to be extended. Work on the building is in fact in progress. As with other similar estates, in olden times income was derived from agriculture and Priory Farm provided the necessary facilities. Lower Priory Farm is still operating and at the turn of the 19th century, Archie Loudon was the resident farmer.
When the pernicious land enclosure acts were nibbling away at the countryside in the 19th century, many tenants became dispossessed of their land by the Lord of the Manor without any form of compensation: in 1813 there were drastic territorial changes when a law was enforced to enclose 216 acres in Great Stanmore. But Stanmore Common escaped the provisions of this act and the land is now preserved in perpetuity under the control of Harrow Council. When next you motor past these ancient acres, stop a moment to gaze upon this pleasant scene - and remember the efforts of Britons long deceased to save this space for you ...