Henfold, in 1800—and for centuries before—was rather a lost place. Access was achieved by green ways or woodland paths or a single road in poor condition. Henfold’s isolation would have precluded the sale of most of the fruits of its lands: timber could not be delivered for sale, and it would have been difficult to transport wool, corn, or poultry any farther than the market town of Darking, five miles distant. Before the nineteenth century, the property’s value would have lain mostly in the subsistence it could provide to those who worked the land.
In medieval times it was probably first used as summer pasturage for swine, which would later in the season be allowed to roam the adjacent woods to fatten on acorns. By the reign of Henry VIII it had risen in status and was designated a manor, but before long its fortunes declined again and it was generally described as a farm in the manor of West Betchworth. Though located close to the village of Newdigate, it lay by tradition within Capel parish.
A handful of Henfold’s owners before the nineteenth century are known, but it is not clear who owned or tenanted the property in 1800. I have chosen to place there a Steer family of yeomen with aspirations to gentleman status, but there is no evidence that any Steer ever occupied the house. There was a John Steer who inhabited nearby Newdigate Place in the 1770s and 1780s, and this person lived until 1806. (Newdigate Place had been a fine house with an estate but in the 1780s the lord of the manor, John Smith-Budgen, tore down most of the house and rented the property as a farm.)
Based on these shreds of information, in writing Coldharbour Gentlemen I imagined a Henfold House that had once been a substantial home for gentlemen, but by 1800 it had become a more modest and utilitarian abode. As far as I know, there is no visual record of its appearance before the early twentieth century, by which time it had been repeatedly transformed.
As for the land, I have based my ideas of the property’s extent and character on details gleaned from its history in the early nineteenth century. It is mentioned in Coldharbour Gentlemen that the Duke of Norfolk had bought property close by to the eastward, around Ewood Pond, and was planning to build a large house there. Between 1806 and 1812 he indeed purchased—through land exchange and other transactions—a number of properties including Henfold. He caused the house to be expanded and turned into what John Timbs, in his book A Picturesque Promenade Round Dorking (1822), styled a ‘neat cottage and sporting box’. The land attached to it at that time included 305 acres in Capel parish and 352 acres of coppices in Darking parish, used principally for shooting game (though farm revenues are also mentioned). A glance at maps of Surrey from 1768, 1793, and 1811 shows no habitations to the west between the house and the hamlet of Beare Green, so I have located the 305 acres of Capel farmland there, allowing my imaginary John Steer to be a fairly prosperous farmer. The land immediately around the house was best suited to raising fowl, so I gave Mrs Steer a fine poultry-yard. To the east of the house, across the lane, was an extensive wood, parts of it still wild today, that was to form part of the Ewood estate envisioned by the Duke of Norfolk.
There is a salacious tale attached to the years when the Duke of Norfolk owned Henfold, and as it has some connection to the story of Coldharbour Gentlemen, I venture to recount it here. By 1820 the 12th Duke—the successor to the duke of the story—was renting Henfold House to a young man, Frederick Arnaud Clarke, the son of a considerable landowner in Capel parish. Clarke employed among his servants one Elizabeth Tilt, probably the daughter born in 1803 to our smuggler’s third son, Thomas. (James Tilt, who figures so prominently in Coldharbour Gentlemen, also had a daughter named Elizabeth, but as she was born in 1813 it is impossible for her to take part in this drama.) Clarke was excessively taken with Elizabeth’s charms, and in 1823 she gave birth outside wedlock to twin boys whom she named Thomas and Frederick Arnaud Clarke Tilt. The following year, Mr Clarke was obliged to flee Henfold with the tipstaffs on his heels, having failed to pay the Poor Rates for both Capel and Darking, and the contents of Henfold House were sold at auction. However, Mr Clarke was perhaps not completely irredeemable, for he did support his son Frederick, who eventually became a miniature painter of some note. (Of Thomas’s fate I know nothing.)
The neighbourhood had long enjoyed a reputation for hunting as well as shooting, with red deer frequenting the Holmwood as recently as the seventeenth century. The Surrey Union hunt was formed in 1798 and continues to this day, its Master of recent years residing at Henfold.
12 April 2019
Kathy Atherton, The Lost Villages: A History of the Holmwoods (self-published, 2008).
Capel Local History Group, ‘Aldhurst and Henfold; Contrasting Capel Farms,’ About Capel (2011), online.
Mary Day and Vivien Ettlinger, Capel, the Chapel by the Spring: A Surrey Parish in the Weald to the Year 2000 (Ammonite Books, 2015).
Joan Harding and Joyce Banks, Newdigate: Its History and Houses (self-published, 1993).
The Victoria History of the County of Surrey, edited by H. E. Malden, vol. III (University of London, repr. 1967).