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Aldenham House Gardens


Hidden within the school grounds lie the decaying remains of one of the finest English gardens, which at one time was said to boast the largest privately owned collection of trees and shrubs in the world.

Until the early years of this century, Aldenham House was the country seat of Henry Hucks Gibbs (Lord Aldenham), a former governor of the Bank of England. He was reputedly one of the four richest men in the country, with a fortune built upon the importation of guano from the beaches of South America. He inherited Aldenham House in the year 1843, but only moved in upon the completion of Elstree railway station in 1868. His first task was to shorten the journey to the station by the construction of a new carriage drive. This was lined by no less than 400 horse chestnuts, making it highly popular amongst the village children during the conker season. About halfway along the drive was placed a new eight-acre ornamental lake, a laborious task at a time when such lakes had to be hand dug.

Henry Hucks Gibbs next turned his attention to the house which he found in a "neglected and somewhat dilapidated state". The former Drawing Room, now masquerading as the school office, had deteriorated under its period of use as a storeroom for the farm produce, while the gilded 1640s panelling in the entrance hall had been obscured behind layers of thick white paint. The overall effect was made worse by the location of the kitchen in what is now the new chapel, throwing cooking smells right into the heart of the house. Such were hardly fit surroundings for a man of Henry Hucks Gibbs' esteemed position. With characteristic determination, he embarked upon a 30-year programme of restoration. This included moving entire staircases, opening new doorways, repanelling all the bedrooms and replacing rotting timbers - indeed, he practically rebuilt the entire house, throwing in a new 1,000 square foot library (the old refectory), the court room, new enlarged servants' quarters and, as Pevsner most aptly described it, the "incongruous clocktower".

Meanwhile, outside the house, the 58 gardeners were transforming the 150 acres of flat, water-logged Hertfordshire countryside into one of our greatest English gardens. Little remained of the original 17th Century garden, apart from a short avenue of elms on the lawn in front of the house. The avenue, thought to be the oldest in England, was tragically uprooted in 1961, to make way for the main cricket square. The formal gardens immediately behind the house have changed little in the past 80 years, though one can sadly no longer remark: "Aldenham has many rare plants but after a tour of the garden one always felt that a weed was the rarest". In contrast to the formal flower gardens, was the "Wilderness", an area of about 40 acres entered via the tennis court gates and interwoven by three miles of wide grassy walks and rides. Despite memories of those first-year biology department escapades into the overgrown woods, one should realise that this "wilderness" was originally an open area of trees and shrubs set in long meadow grass. To the north it merged into the older Aldenham Wood, which contained some 150 different varieties of oak and 700 types of hawthorn. Both collections were said to be the largest in the country.

Aldenham was undoubtedly most famous for its kitchen garden, which under the watchful eye of head gardener Edwin Beckett, dominated the horticultural shows. The short stretch of red brick wall next to the assembly hall, pitted by the cherries which were once trained against it, is all that remains of a kitchen garden which produced such exotic fruits as peaches and nectarines, grapes, figs, melons, bananas and pineapples. The reed-walled canoe but was in fact a fruit room, insulated against the winter frosts by a fine roof of Norfolk thatch. It is in fact an exact copy of the fruit room at Chilton featured in a recent BBC television series "The Victorian Kitchen Garden", where Beckett's brother was head gardener.

With the introduction of death duties, the family found it increasingly difficult to afford the upkeep of the estate. In September 1932, all the rare shrubs were sold off in an auction lasting seven days and attended by eminent horticulturalists from throughout Europe. The house was turned into a country club, catering for the wealthy actors working at Elstree film studios. With the onset of war, Aldenham was requisitioned by the BBC and equipped as an overseas broadcasting station, sending out allied propaganda to the Middle East and Latin America. After the war, the house remained empty until purchased by the school in 1959.

Andrew Lawrence

He did everything possible to prevent the use of force: only one man was killed during the Pilgrimage. He did not want to overthrow Henry VIII, but to present him with the Pilgrims' views, persuade him to reverse his religious policies, and to dismiss evil councillors such as Cranmer and Cromwell.

Aske was a younger son of Sir Robert Aske of Aughton near Selby. The family was well-connected. One of Aske's cousins was the earl of Cumberland (whose eldest son, lord Clifford, had married the earl of Suffolk's daughter, the king's niece ), and he had served the sixth earl of Northumberland as secretary. The gentry with whom he cooperated had a mixture of economic, financial, legal, political and religious grievances against Henry VIII's regime, but may have associated with the rebellion in order to control it and prevent bloodshed and disorder, for they were certainly reluctant to fight. 

On 27th October four of their leaders met the Duke of Norfolk on Doncaster bridge. He commanded the royal army and knew that he was outnumbered by about 30,000 to 10,000 so agreed to a truce and to allow two of the four (Robert Bowes and Sir Ralph Ellerker, another of Aske's cousins) to travel to Windsor to put there case to the king. After their return without any concessions the rebels lost confidence. On 6th December Aske and his fellow leaders' met Norfolk in Doncaster, fell to their knees and begged for a free Parliament to discuss their views. Norfolk saw his chance, accepted their request, invited Aske to persuade the rebels to disperse, and kept the royal army ready for further trouble. By 8th December the Pilgrimage of Grace was over.

Whether out of curiosity thanks for his part in ending the rebellion, or a cynical desire to detach him from the rebels, Henry VIII invited Aske to spend Christmas with the court at Windsor: but after further outbreaks in the north had him arrested in April, tried in May and executed on a specially built scaffold at Clifford's Tower in York on 12th July 1537.

Henry VIII would probably have been content with an English version of Catholicism, but neither he nor his successors could control the religious changes which he had initiated. England became a self-consciously Protestant nation. The defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and the failure of the Gunpowder Plot (1605) convinced the English that Catholicism threatened their political and religious independence, and that they had a special relationship with God, for as Milton wrote in 1644 "God is decreeing to begin some new and great period. What does he do then but reveal himself, as his manner is, first to his Englishmen?"

Yet there was a serpent in Eden: intolerance. Protestant churches and sects hated one another, and were united only by their mutual fear of Catholicism. Non-Anglican worship was severely restricted, and unless Protestant Dissenters and Catholic Recusants took Holy Communion in an Anglican church, they were banned from most forms of political and public life, a system of legally enforced discrimination which reached its apogee in the 1660s and 1670s.

However, Charles I (1660-1685) had married a Catholic, tried to promote Catholicism in England, accepted secret subsidies from Louis XIV, the despotic ruler of Catholic France, and declared himself a Catholic as he died. His brother James, who followed him as James II, had married an Anglican who had brought up their daughter, Princess Mary, as an Anglican, but he had become a Catholic and his second wife was a Catholic. It seemed that he would use his new-found power to strengthen Catholicism and to make himself an absolute monarch.

During 1685 he attended Mass in public, ordered that the Gunpowder Plot should no longer be commemorated on its anniversary (5th November), and rejoiced when Louis XIV expelled the Protestant Huguenots from France. During 1686 he claimed the right to dispense with and suspend existing laws, and in April 1687 and 1688 issued his First and Second Declarations of Indulgence, using the Royal Prerogative to override Acts of Parliament and give freedom of worship to Protestant Dissenters and Catholic Recusants. 

On 4th May 1688 he ordered the Second Declaration to be read from the pulpit in all Anglican churches, but on the 18th the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops told him they would not read it. James flew into a rage: "This is a great surprise to me. Here are strange words. I did not expect this from you. This is a standard of rebellion."

The bishops had been advised by Dr. John Tillotson, Dean of Canterbury, one of Robert Aske II's two executors. Robert Aske II was born on 24th February 1619, the son of a well-to-do draper. In 1634 he was apprenticed to John Trott, a Haberdasher and East India Company merchant, in 1643 became a Freeman of the Haberdashers' Company, and in 1666 an Alderman of the City of London. He may have been related to the John Aske who framed the charges for the trial of Charles I in 1649. His membership of the Haberdashers' Company certainly linked him to the crises of his time.

Haberdashers had been prominent amongst City opponents of Charles I, but had not united behind Parliament in the Civil War, and in 1660 had welcomed the Restoration of the monarchy, although their goodwill towards Charles Il had lessened as his pro-Catholic leanings had emerged. In the 1670s leading members of the Company had supported attempts to exclude James from the succession to the throne. Henry Cornish, Master in 1680, had been executed for his involvement in the Rye House Plot of 1683, an attempt to assassinate Charles and James.

During November 1684 the Company had been forced to surrender its charter to Charles II, and within weeks of succeeding him in 1685 James had issued a revised charter intended to place the Company under the control of "men of known loyalty" and make it subservient to his wishes.

The new Master, Robert Aske, known to be an Anglican and a loyalist, and the four new Wardens, were required to take the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy, and the oath contained in the 1661 Corporation Act, "That it is not lawful upon any pretence whatsoever to take arms against the king." Commonly called the Non-Resistance Act, it reinforced the Anglican belief that no one had the right to resist an anointed monarch. That was the very point of dispute between James II and the bishops, who had believed in and acted on the doctrine until confronted by James's order to read the Second Declaration of Indulgence. As it became clear to James II that he could not rely on hitherto obedient Anglicans to consent to his pro-Catholic policies, he reversed his previous appointments and nominations and in September 1687 removed Robert Aske and two of the four Wardens from their positions in the Company.

Aske was therefore in a position of obscurity and safety when, emboldened by the birth of James's son on 10th June 1688, and thus the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, seven of his most determined opponents invited William of Orange (Princess Mary's Protestant husband) to defend English liberty. William and his army landed on the very day on which the nation was accustomed to celebrate its deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot. On 24th. December James II fled to exile in France. His infant son would never be king of England. 

Robert Aske made his will on 18th January 1689, added a clarificatory codicil two days later, and died on the 27th. Although he had been married twice he had no children, so after various bequests he left £20,000 and the residue of his estate in trust to the Haberdashers' Company to build and endow an Almshouse or Hospital. His wishes were embodied in a private Act of Parliament which on 20th December 1690 declared "That for ever hereafter there shall be in the town of Hoxton in the Parish of St. Leonard Shoreditch, One Hospital of Twenty poor Decayed Freemen of the said Company of Haberdashers, and the Maintenance of Twenty poor Decayed Freemens sons with Meat, Drink, Clothing and Schooling; which shall be called, The Hospital at Hoxton, of the Foundation of Robert Aske Esquire."

In other words, the Act established a "Hospital" consisting of Almshouse for twenty resident old men and a School for twenty boy boarders. At its head was to be a "learned and Discreet Schoolmaster to read Prayers and Preach, and Teach ... Learning and Good Manners" - that is, a clergyman who would be Chaplain to the old men and Master to the boys. The school has changed a lot since then. 


(First published in the OHA Magazine 2001-02)

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