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Aspley House

Aspley House 1961
Aspley House in 1961 [Z53/3a/1]

Aspley House is by far the largest dwelling in the village. It was Grade II* listed by the Department of Environment in 1952 (the star meaning the building is of particular importance). The Department’s architect considered it a “small country house” and noted that it was built about 1690 for William Norcliffe on the site of an earlier structure and was reworked in the 1740s.

In 1996 a scientific examination of the bricks of the original building concluded that the clay was so similar to that naturally occurring around the pond in the grounds that it was probable that it was excavated from here and made into bricks on site. This report is included in CRT130Asp3 as is a brief history of the house and its owners by former Bedfordshire County Archivist Chris Pickford.

William Norcliffe came, originally, from Malton in North Yorkshire and gained property in Aspley Guise as a result of marrying widow Frances Snagge about the time Aspley House was built. She was the daughter of William Jole, Rector of Aspley from 1655 to 1660, when he was displaced, being considered to have intruded illegally. He was then Vicar of Sarratt [Hertfordshire] from 1661 until his death in 1702. Norcliffe died between 1717 and 1720, leaving the house to his eldest son William, who died around the same time, his younger brother Marmaduke also dying in 1720. Thomas Norcliffe, another son of William the elder inherited the house and he had a suite of red walnut chairs made for the house (this did not leave the house until sold in 1985).

By 1747 Thomas Norcliffe had moved to Bedford where he died in 1762. The house seems to have been sold at some point to a James Reynolds of Clerkenwell who sold it in 1749 to Walter Scott, a merchant of Madras [X364/78]. He moved to the property on 3 Jun 1749, by which time substantial alterations had been made. Scott himself concentrated on developing the grounds, buying cottages behind the house and pulling them down, for example, in the year that he bought the house – giving today’s view as shown in the photograph below.

Rear of Aspley House September 2007
Rear of Aspley House September 2007

Scott died in 1776, aged 75, and was buried in Aspley Guise, the house passing to his brother Robert, of Blackheath [Kent]. His son Robert moved to Aspley House soon after inheriting it from his father. He put the property up for sale in 1785, the following advertisement appearing in the Northampton Mercury:

To be SOLD, A FREEHOLD ESTATE, situated as ASPLEY, in the County of Bedford: Consisting of a good House of five Rooms on a floor, with all necessary and convenient Offices, excellent Pleasure and Kitchen Gardens walled in; together with 27 acres of very good Land, well wooded, and lying very prettily about the House. The Whole forming a very agreeable Residence for a moderate sized Family. Aspley is a healthy and pleasant Village, two miles distant from Woburn, six from Ampthill, eight from Leighton and one mile from the great Northampton Road. For particulars, enquire of Mr.Thornton, at Woburn; Mr.Randall, at the Bell, at Aspley; or Messrs. Palmer and Searle, Attornies, Philpot Lane, London.

Rev.Edward Hervey of Hulcote, a retired clergyman, bought the house at the end of 1786, agreeing to pay Scott £800 per annum for life and £250 per annum to his widow for her life as the price for the property. The house was to remain in the possession of Harvey’s descendants for just over 150 years until 1939. On Hervey’s death in 1796 the house passed to his son-in-law Rev.Edward Orlebar Smith, rector of Hulcote & Salford since 1790. He died in 1819 and the house was occupied by his widow Charlotte until her death, aged 92, in 1844 at which time it passed to their son Lt.Col.Charles Hervey Smith, who died in 1857.

Smith's eldest son, Captain Charles Hervey Smith owned Aspley House until his death in 1869, although he did not live in the house for any length of time, leasing it to Charles L.Grimshawe of Northamptonshire for five years in 1862. Smith moved back into the house for the last two years of his life and, on his death his heir, Rev.Villiers Shallot Chernocke Smith, Vicar of Husborne Crawley and formerly a fine batsman with the All England XI, re-let the house to Grimshawe.

Aspley House January 2008
Aspley House January 2008

In their tenure the Grimshawes set out to be the social hub of the village, numerous events taking place at the house including flower shows and fetes; in 1876, however, Grimshawe moved to Goldington House. Meanwhile, on the death of V.S.C.Smith in 1871 the house passed to his sister Maria Dale Smith. When the Grimshawes left she let the house to William Selby Lowndes until 1884, previously of Shenley [Buckinghamshire]. The Lowndes family followed in the Grimshawes' footsteps hosting such events as tennis parties and balls.

Maria Dale Smith died in 1887 at Salford Manor. She had let the house to Charles Morden Smith, then the Misses Anne Marie Carter Smith and Elizabeth Harriet Carter Smith from 1884. Both women were born in Kentish Town [Middlesex], the first was described in the 1891 census as an authoress. It was whilst they were altering the panelling in the drawing room in 1884 that they found a stone describing alterations to the house in 1711.

In 1891 both ladies moved to The Hoo in the village when Lt.Col.Charles Villiers Somerville Downes took up residence, moving from The Avenue. He had been born at Aspley House in 1846 when rented by his father Rev.Richard Downes. Downes had a new wing added to the house, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield in 1902; it was demolished later in the century. Further work was carried out in 1910. He died at Aspley House in 1909, aged 62. His widow, Catherine Elizabeth Anne continued to life at the house until her death in 1938. Hers was not an easy widowhood as she lost her two sons in action within just over a month of one another in 1914. From 1927 she let the house to her daughter's family and only visited three times a year.

Unveiling the war memorial 1922 
Unveiling the war memorial in the grounds of Aspley House in 1922 [Z818/24]

In 1927 this part of Bedfordshire was valued under the terms of the Rating Valuation Act 1925; every piece of land and property was inspected to determine the rates to be paid on it. The valuer noted that it stood in 2.222 acres, that the owner was Mrs.Downes and the occupier H.C.Acheson. He also noted the following layout: a hall measuring 19.5ft by 16ft ("slabbed floor"), a study 18ft by 15ft, a gents' cloak room with a basin, a pantry ("dark") and 7 steps to a kitchen 22.5ft by 16.5ft ("v. old type") and a scullery ("poor"); then up 4 steps to the servants' hall ("small Billiard Room over"), then a dining room measuring 22.5ft by 19ft with an oak floor, a drawing room 27ft by 18ft and a morning room 23ft by 13.5ft. Upstairs were a dressing room ("panelled") and bedroom measuring 18.75ft by 18,5ft, another dressing room and a bedroom 18ft by 15.5ft with another bedroom 19ft by 13ft; then came a store room and 2 wcs. Next came another dressing room and a bedroom measuring 24.5ft by 16ft, a bathroom with a basin ("poor") and two bedrooms measuring 12.5ft by 11ft and 18ft by 16ft respectively; next came another dressing room ("now B[at]h[room]"). In the roof were 3 maids' rooms and 2 box rooms. Outside were a stable for four horses, a double coach house, a timber shed, a heated glasshouse 9ft by 19ft, a timber potting shed, a large heated glasshouse 10ft by 71ft, two grass tennis courts and garden. The house had gas lighting and mains water and drainage. Overall he pointed out that there was only one bathroom, no heating and no electric light and it was "very old ?built by Christopher Wren" the latter referring to the local story for which there is absolutely no evidence.

The house was sold by auction in March 1939 and was used for a while during World War Two as a school until reverting to use as a private home by 1951.