A Royal Courtesan and a Flying Scotsman.             

A short history of Salisbury Hall, London Colney

St Albans Historical fact 11As they whizz along the M25 past London Colney, few travellers will know of the existence of Salisbury Hall, a Tudor house hidden from view by an embankment and woods. Now home to a property consultancy business, this 16th century moated manor house has a fascinating story and a varied mix of past residents, with a history dating back to before the Norman Conquest in 1066.

First mentioned in the early 9th century as part of the Manor of Shenleybury, the land was passed down until in 1380 it became the property of Sir John Montague. Montague later became the Earl of Salisbury and it is likely that the Manor adopted the name of Salisbury Hall around this time. His descendent Richard Neville, as the 16th Earl of Warwick , was to become a major force in the politics of the time. Warwick became known as “the Kingmaker” for his role in bringing first the Yorkist Edward IV to the throne in 1461, only to be instrumental in deposing him in favour of the Lancastrian Henry IV in 1470. Edward got his revenge at the Battle of Barnet a year later, when Warwick and his brother were killed and their forces routed.

The oldest parts of the current manor house date from around 1507, when a new house was built by Sir John Cutte, who served as Treasurer to both King Henry VII and Henry VIII. In 1668 a London banker, James Hoare, bought the property and re-modelled the house to its present layout, before letting the property to Sir Jeremy Snow. Snow was a friend and supporter of Charles II and was regularly visited at the Hall by the King. It is said that the young prince Charles was already familiar with Salisbury Hall, having hidden there in a priest hole after fleeing the Battle of Worcester in 1651, before escaping to France.

So regular were Charles II’s visits to Salisbury Hall that he decided to install his mistress, Nell Gwynne, in a cottage in the grounds. Nell Gwynne’s rags-to-riches rise from slum life as a servant in a brothel, a street-hawker of turnips, and possibly even child prostitute eventually saw her catch the attention of the King, while she worked as an orange-seller in a London theatre. Nell subsequently bore two illegitimate children to King Charles, the eldest of which, also named Charles, was granted the title Duke of St Albans by the King in 1684. It is claimed that many years later a silk worm farm existed at Nell Gwynne’s former cottage, and that the silk it produced was used for Elizabeth II’s wedding and coronation robes.

Salisbury Hall passed through a succession of hands through the following decades until 1905 when the next resident of note arrived, Lady Randolph Churchill. Now called Jennie Cornwallis-West after re-marrying following the death of her first husband, she occupied the Hall for the next 5 years. Jennie was frequently visited at the Hall by her devoted son, Winston, as he progressed through the corridors of power at Westminster from a junior minister at the Colonial Office, to President of the Board of Trade, and to Home Secretary in early 1910.

The period from 1930 to 1939 found Sir Nigel Gresley in residence at Salisbury Hall. Gresley was one of Britain’s foremost steam locomotive engineers in the early years of the 20th century, responsible for designing the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) Class A1, A3 and A4 engines. Named after the London to Edinburgh route on which it operated, the most famous of these engines was the Flying Scotsman, and the locomotive achieved world-wide fame when it became the first steam engine to officially reach a speed of 100 mph in November, 1934. Another of Gresley’s designs, named Mallard, then achieved a speed of 126 mph in July, 1936, still acknowledged as the world record for a steam locomotive. It is said that Gresley adopted the name Mallard for the engine after watching ducks paddling in the moat at Salisbury Hall.

In September, 1939 a design team from the de Havilland aircraft company, based nearby at Hatfield, moved into Salisbury Hall, to continue work developing a high-speed un-armed bomber for the Air Ministry. Fearing that the government would scrap the project, the de Havilland team worked in secret at Salisbury Hall to design and build the first prototypes of what was to become the Mosquito, the world’s first multi-role combat aircraft.

By the early 1950s the Hall had fallen into disrepair until it was taken over by Walter Goldsmith, an ex-Royal Marine Major, who set about restoring the house to its’ former glory. Goldsmith recognised the significance of the Hall and the connection to the de Havilland Mosquito, and rescued Prototype W4050 from imminent destruction at Hatfield airfield. The prototype was housed in a hangar built next to Salisbury Hall, and was the first exhibit in the collection of aeroplanes which became the Mosquito Aircraft Museum in 1974. Now called the de Havilland Aircraft Museum, the collection is open to the public and is undergoing major expansion work.

Sadly, Salisbury Hall itself remains in private hands and is not open to the public.

This article is part of our Celebrating St Albans History series. You can view all our historical facts on our Celebrating St Albans History page. If you have a historical fact you would like to add please let us know by using the contact form below or by emailing info@brethertonlaw.co.uk