Front cover of “The Strange House” (1961): © Raymond Briggs, all rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of The Agency (London) Ltd
At a recent Local History Group meeting, member Sheila Dunman brought with her three early books written and illustrated by the late Raymond Briggs. Briggs, who died in August 2022, was born in 1935 in Wimbledon, in a house in Ashen Grove, Wimbledon Park. His first work as a professional illustrator was in 1958. He is perhaps best known for “Father Christmas” (1973) and “The Snowman” (1978), the latter adapted into the hugely successful 1982 film of the same name. However, his first books, where he both wrote and illustrated the content, were written during the early 1960s. “The Strange House ” and “Midnight Adventure ” were both published in 1961, followed by “Sledges to the Rescue ” in 1963. These charming children’s books feature the landscape of Briggs’ youth, and while the name Wimbledon is not mentioned, they feature identifiable streets and features.
In “Sledges to the Rescue”, a group of children help a snowbound milkman, Ernie, who is clearly modelled on Briggs’ father.
In the “The Strange House”, two young boys are trespassing on a golf course, and discover a hidden brick tunnel leading to a mysterious large house. While the details of the house are embellished for the purposes of storytelling, the golf course still exists (at time of writing) and both the tunnel and the house, are identifiable as historical features of Wimbledon Park.
The former still exists below ground and was the service tunnel between the Marlborough manor house (destroyed by fire in 1785) and the separate service wing.
The latter was the Spencer manor house, completed in 1802 by Henry Holland. It was a sophisticated, Portland stone clad, 2-storey villa, with its main rooms arranged behind a south facing, Tuscan colonnade. At about the time that Briggs was 10 years old, Wimbledon Park House was in a sorry state of repair, having been neglected but also affected by blast damage during WW2. It is quite possible therefore that a young Raymond Briggs and friends did venture into some of these places in the typical spirit of innocent childhood adventure.
So, what of the latter history of Wimbledon Park House? Along with the southern half of the Wimbledon Park estate, it had been sold by the Spencer family to John Augustus Beaumont in February 1846, and had passed through various owners, including the White Russian refugee de Bolotoff family in the 1920s and 30s. Detail on its final private ownership is still a matter of research, but by April 1946 Wimbledon Borough Council were debating its demolition and replacement with 450 houses and flats. At a time of great housing shortage, national debt and austerity in post war Britain, there was little appetite, or resource, for the preservation of elderly, reduced stately homes, whatever their provenance. In the event, the house was acquired by the Council, found to be beyond economic repair, and demolished in 1949. Only at a much later date in 1972 was Park House School built on the site, opening in September 1974. On breaking ground for the school, the contractor was surprised to discover a huge mass of cellar construction, work stopped, and investigations once again uncovered the tunnel, along with subsidiary drainage tunnels leading down into the golf course.
Raymond’s story linking the golf course to the house was therefore indeed based on fact. Extensive additional foundation work was required, and the irony of the story is that the £25,000 cost of the additional foundation work required, was precisely the sum that was needed in 1949 to cover the cost of repair of the original building. Park House Middle School itself ended up being closed in 2002 and demolished. Today, the site of Wimbledon Park House is open space, lying under the playing fields of Ricards Lodge School.
Notes and further reading:
- Wimbledon’s Manor Houses (1982) by Richard Millward
- The Spencers in Wimbledon: 1744-1994 (1996) by Richard Millward
- Wimbledon Manor House under the Cecils (1962) by C.S.S.Higham
- Henry Holland – His Life and Architecture (1966) by Dorothy Stroud
- News article on public meeting: Daily Herald, 16th April 1946