Sunday 23 October 2016

What would a Victorian Gentleman think about Wembley now?

Guest blog by local historian Philip Grant
Wembley History Society recently received an enquiry. A lady from Surrey had a miniature painting of a Victorian gentleman, noted on the back as being “John Turton Woolley of Wembley House, Wembley. Great uncle of H Arnold Woolley.” She wanted to know where “Wembley House” was, as it did not appear to exist now. Luckily, past research by members of the Society provided the information.

John Turton Woolley of Wembley House, Wembley.

There was a “Wembley House” mentioned in documents as far back as 1510, the chief home of the Page family who created a grander mansion at Wembley Park in the 18th century. The Victorian Wembley House was on the south side of the Harrow Road, about halfway between the present day Park Lane and Wembley Hill Road (Wembley Triangle) junctions. In 1817, it was the home and business premises of a wheelwright, but the mainly agricultural district of Wembley began to become gentrified after a station (Sudbury and Wembley, now Wembley Central) was opened on the London and Birmingham Railway in 1844. Wealthy professional men could now live with their families in country homes, away from the grime and squalor of central London, but still commute easily to the City. 

In 1850, Wembley House was occupied by a doctor, and by the 1870’s John Woolley had made it his home. He was a stockbroker, and as well as the house he also owned the adjacent 27 acres, which were run for him by a farm manager as a dairy farm, with pigs and poultry. Either side of Wembley House, in large grounds, were Wembley Orchard to the west (with its own stables and coach house) and another former farmhouse to the east. This was renamed “Rhampore” in 1882, when it became the residence of His Highness Rajah Rampal Singh (one of the founder members of the Indian National Congress Party, who started “The Hindusthan” newspaper while living here, before returning to India as ruler of Kalakankar in 1885).  

It was probably John Woolley who added several Victorian “gothic” features to Wembley House, including a tower and turret looking out over extensive gardens, with a broad path running through them down to a duck pond.

Wembley House from
its grounds, c. 1900

When Woolley left, or died, in the 1890’s, Wembley House passed into the hands of Colonel George Topham. By the early 20th century Wembley was starting to be developed for housing, and Topham decided to lay out most of his farmland as the Wembley House Estate. Some homes in Cecil and Lonsdale Avenues had been built before the First World War, although most were built in the 1920’s. 

Wembley House itself was acquired in 1915 for use as a private school, with both “Boys” and “Ladies” sections. A Council school for both primary and secondary pupils was built next door in the 1920’s, and in the late 1930’s Wembley House was acquired by Middlesex County Council, and demolished, with a view to extending this. As it was, Wembley Hill School was badly damaged by a V1 flying bomb in 1944, so a brand new secondary school was built on both sites in the early 1950’s, opening as Copland School in 1952, on the corner of Wembley High Road and Cecil Avenue.

In 2014 the school became Ark Elvin Academy, which is in the process of erecting new buildings on part of its playing fields. The existing school, on the site of Wembley House, is due to become an informal landscaped area once demolished, but how long before this valuable High Road frontage is rebuilt again for more high-rise homes? 

Ark Elvin Academy, with new buildings under construction, from the diverted footpath across its fields, and with Brent House and the High Road in the background, October 2016.
If John Turton Woolley were to return, 120 years on, what would he think of the view from the bottom of his garden? Would he see the desecration of a beautiful country home, or (with his stockbroker hat on) a potential source of profits for his investor clients?


Philip Grant said...

John Turton Woolley - 'Great uncle of H. Arnold Woolley'?

In case anyone is wondering, H. Arnold Woolley was a successful solicitor, and author of the legal book "A Handbook on the Death Duties", published in 1930.


Jaine Lunn said...

I would imagine he would be horrified at how in almost 100 years Wembley has changed from a green leafy suburb with open fields and parks into the concrete urban jungle, with gridlocked roads and a high degree of air pollution

Anonymous said...

And I don't think he'd be too impressed by Ark Elvin's ever-declining exam results ........

Philip Grant said...

I have since discovered that H. Arnold Woolley also lived in Wembley, in a large house first occupied by his grandfather (John Turton Woolley's brother) in Victorian times.