1239 - 1746
1760 - 1921
When it comes to a rich and varied history, Brocket Hall has one of the most intriguing of any of the great houses of Britain. Indeed the scent of scandal can be found in the fabric of the building back to its roots in the 13th Century right up to the present day.
Brocket Hall as it is known today, was built by renowned architect James Paine for the owner, Sir Mathew Lamb in 1760. However, the Hall stands on the site of two predecessors, the original of which was built in 1239.
Sir Matthew's son became the first Lord Melbourne, largely through the efforts of his wife who was a mistress of the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was a frequent visitor to Brocket Hall. The Prince gave his mistress a gift of a Reynolds painting which hangs in the ballroom and created the Chinese suite of rooms - known as the Prince Regent Suite - which are still used by residential guests today.
Romantic liaisons were abundant at Brocket Hall. The wife of the second Lord Melbourne had a great passion for the poet Lord Byron and is said to have fallen from her horse at the shock of seeing his funeral cortege passing the Brocket estate; she had by all accounts, not known of his death until that moment.
The second Lord Melbourne proved to be more of an individual, going on to become Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister, with whom he struck up a close friendship. Victoria herself was another monarch who often stayed at the Hall. On the death of Melbourne in 1848, the Hall passed to his sister who was to marry Lord Palmerston. Palmerston went on to become Prime Minister and was to die in somewhat bizarre circumstances at Brocket Hall, allegedly involved with a chambermaid at the time. More recently Baroness Thatcher spent time at the Hall where she wrote her memoirs.
One thing that hasn't changed over the centuries is the warm welcome that Brocket Hall has always extended to its visitors. In the 18th Century, the concept of hotels didn't really exist and large houses were built not only for the family to live in, but also to give them facilities for meeting and entertaining.
It is fitting that Brocket Hall today should once again be used for this original purpose, and a pleasure to offer such a remarkable venue to its visitors.
The earliest evidence of a house dates back to 1239, though it was then called 'Watershyppes' and owned by a Simon Fitz Ade. The first Brocket to arrive here was Sir Thomas Brocket who married one of Fitz Ade's daughters. The Brockets originated from Yorkshire and quickly made Hertfordshire their permanent home.
In 1440 the house was rebuilt and renamed. The Brockets established themselves as one of Hertfordshire's leading families.
In 1507, a Sir John Brocket was sheriff of his own county and of Essex. Sir John had a son, another Sir John, who married an heiress, Elizabeth More from Oxfordshire, and their portraits hang above the main stairs, and date from 1568. The elder Sir John was a close ally of Queen Elizabeth 1st. Her sister, Mary Tudor sat on the throne and saw Elizabeth as a threat, so Mary put Elizabeth under house arrest at nearby Hatfield House, which was owned by the Cecil family. Mary clung to the throne for five years and then died. The news that Elizabeth was now Queen was told to the 25 year old princess as she sat reading under her favourite oak tree in the grounds of Brocket Hall.
1600s - 1746
During the 17th Century another Sir John managed to survive the turbulence of the Civil War by frequently changing his allegiance. He died in 1694 and his son, James, inherited the Estate. Sir James was a serious young man who went to Rome to follow his interest in religion and politics only to get smallpox and die in 1712. He left only sisters and no male Brocket heir and so the estate passed to one of the sisters who owned it until her death in 1746. The house was then put up for sale and Matthew Lamb, eager for a country seat and full of plans for a grand new house, bought the estate.
The Golden Age
The era that began with the purchase of Brocket Hall by Matthew Lamb is an illustrious and eventful one. Brocket Hall was bought to provide the family with its country seat. All good families had one, and the Lamb's were not going to be left out. Matthew engaged one of the leading architects of the age, Sir James Paine, and asked him to design a new Brocket Hall, a house that would use all the technology and style of the age to bestow glory on the newly emergent Lamb dynasty. Paine did just that, and Brocket is one of the few houses wholly designed and completed by him.
Matthew left his son, Peniston, a huge fortune on his death and Peniston, instead of working for a living, went into politics. At 21 he took a seat in the House of Commons and began to spend his fortune liberally. Had he not made a good marriage he might have lost everything, but he managed to woo and wed Elizabeth Millbanke from Yorkshire. Elizabeth did not have money but she had brains and ambition instead. She was delighted when Peniston, through no great efforts of his own, was granted an Irish Baroney and made Lord Melbourne. Elizabeth was widely known as a formidable woman, beautiful and artistic, well read and highly intelligent; it was no wonder that she caught the eye of the Prince Regent and became his mistress.
Peniston and Elizabeth had four children, they were a very close set of children and were known for their high spirits. The eldest son unfortunately developed consumption and died in 1804 and William, the next son, found himself the heir to the fortune and the title. He would also be handed the seat Peniston had in the House of Commons. That turned out to be the most telling part of the legacy. Whether William would have ever gone into politics had his older brother survived is debatable, but now that the seat was available William took it, and eventually rose to be Prime Minister. However, (unless you're a political historian) this was not the most noteworthy aspect of his life, the most significant thing William ever did was marry a young woman called Caroline Ponsonby; Lady Caroline Lamb.
1800s – Byron and Lady Lamb
Lady Caroline Lamb, daughter of the Third Earl of Bessborough, was considered both wild and brilliant. William and Caroline were married in June 1805. They spent their honeymoon at Brocket, and Caroline showed all the signs of her wayward character, but William proved very patient.
Caroline fell in love with Brocket Hall and would spend much of her married life here. Both William and Caroline had their affairs however, Caroline's brief tryst with Byron was the most high profile and was known to everyone in society. The affair was wild and tempestuous and Caroline described Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Byron enjoyed the whirlwind while it lasted but soon tired of Caroline’s temperament and as the affair began to lose momentum Caroline became increasingly more unstable and eventually Byron ended the affair. Caroline bombarded him with letters, but he did not respond. Caroline became increasingly obsessed until on one famous occasion the pain of Byron's loss prompted Caroline to build a bonfire outside Brocket Hall and to burn all the poet's gifts and anything that reminded her of the poet. The climax of the event was the burning of an effigy of Byron and the chanting of an incantation that Caroline had specially written for the occasion:
Burn, fire, burn, while wondering boys exclaim,
And gold and trinkets glitter in the flame.
Ah, look not thus on me, so grave, so sad,
Shake not your heads, nor say the lady's mad
Byron died in Greece in 1824 and his body was brought back to England for burial. A solemn procession accompanied the coffin from London to Nottinghamshire to Byron's country seat. As the procession passed the Brocket Estate, Caroline witnessed the funeral procession and was distraught.
William's political career was now on a trajectory that would end at 10 Downing Street, and he could not afford any more scandal and so in 1825 a final settlement was negotiated and Caroline was told to vacate the house. She begged William to allow her to stay at Brocket and he relented. She agreed to avoid London and any chance of embarrassing William so that she could remain at Brocket. Caroline tried to enjoy the house and its park quietly, but she began to decline and by the end of 1827 she had become gravely ill. William moved her to London so that she could be attended to by the best doctors, but she died on January 26th 1828.
1800s – William Lamb
William Lamb, Second Viscount Melbourne, became Prime Minister for the first time in 1834, was briefly interrupted by his dismissal by King William IV, returned to 10 Downing Street in 1835 and stayed there until 1841. He was very close to Queen Victoria, who ascended the throne in 1837. The young queen relied on Melbourne for advice. When William gave up politics he retreated to his beloved Brocket. He would send flowers grown in the park to Queen Victoria every week, and she was a frequent visitor to Brocket.
William died in November 1848 and the house then passed to his sister, Lady Palmerston and thus the house then became a retreat of another Prime Minister, Henry John Temple, 3rd 1800s - Viscount Palmerston.
In 1865 Palmerston was 80 years old and had been Liberal Prime Minister twice. His doctors had been worried about him for some time and urged him to avoid chills. Palmerston was a very active man and enjoyed the individual pursuit of vaulting over railings. At Brocket he indulged his passion throughout the park. Everyone thought Palmerston the picture of health. In October of 1865 Palmerston came to Brocket from London and, despite dire warnings from his doctors, decided to vault some railings to see whether he could still do it. He did, and there were no ill-effects.
Then again contrary to medical advice, he took his carriage from Brocket and went for a drive. He returned with what the doctor’s thought was a chill. He ignored their pleas for care and took a long, hot bath. This, it seems, encouraged a fever and he was consigned to bed. The doctors thought he would be dead by morning. He survived for two days, until becoming delirious, and dying on the 18th of November at Brocket, just two days before his 81st birthday.
There has long been a tradition at Brocket that Palmerston's death was precipitated by a fumbled liaison with a maid on the billiard table. He had a reputation for vigorous exercise, but none of his biographers mention the episode and the story might be the last remnant of below-stairs gossip to survive into the modern era, no-one knows.
Between 1893 and 1921 the house was rented and one of its residents was Lord Mount Stephen who was part of the consortium which built the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Brocket’s tradition for excellent entertainment, and ample opportunities for shooting attracted him.
In 1925 history turned full-circle, the owner of Brocket Hall was again Sheriff of Hertfordshire just as he had been 400 years before. Sir Charles Nall-Cain bought the house in 1923. He was the son of Robert Cain the founder of a brewing dynasty in Liverpool which eventually formed the foundation for Allied Breweries. Sir Charles was a man with a mission: he wanted to establish himself, and his family, as part of the English aristocracy. Like many 19th century businessmen who had managed to hold onto their fortunes, he suffered the snobbery of the landed gentry and resented it. The best way to prove that you could hold your own with families who had the pedigree as well as the wealth to sustain an aristocratic life-style was to make your money work hard. Sir Charles inherited the fortune and, though he decided to work within the company, spent most of his later years turning his clan into a noble one. A lot of retrospective work to prove that their blood was blue. In the Silver Room an elaborate family tree traces the Cains back to a King of Ulster. It's not known how accurate the genealogy is, but its bold presentation proves the family's eagerness to claim ancient validation. The Cain's family crest includes three salmon, which denotes the fishing rights of three Irish rivers (the Bann, the Boyle and the Roe) and the 'bloody hand' of Ulster. The Nall-Cains attached the crest to gate posts at the side of the house and placed it above the front door.
Sir Charles was very careful to make his mark in Hertfordshire and was quickly accepted as the master at Brocket Hall. He also spent a lot of money on philanthropic activities and made a lot of good connections within the British Conservative Party. His son, Arthur Ronald, was sent to Oxford where he became a top class golfer. He turned his attention to the law once he left university, and in 1927 married Angela Pennyman, a well connected clergyman's daughter.
Florence Nall-Cain, his mother, died in 1927, a few days before the wedding, at which David Bowes Lyon, the late Queen Mother's brother, was best man.
Within a year Sir Charles married again. A clandestine wedding was conducted in London and the new Lady Nall-Cain, an MP's sister - Annie Page Croft from Ware - took up residence at Brocket. The wedding was so secret that the church was kept locked until half an hour before the service to keep out reporters. Sir Charles used his considerable shooting prowess to woo both royalty and important members of the aristocracy. The Duke of York was invited to shoot at Brocket in 1925, and Sir Charles often took shooting parties to his estate in Scotland.
Arthur Ronald did not practice law for long, and became Conservative MP for Wavertree in Liverpool in 1931 via a by-election. He achieved a record majority for the Tories as the Labour Party suffered from the confusion of its first terms in government.
In 1933 Sir Charles was, at last, made a peer. He chose to be known as Lord Brocket, using the house he had bought, with all its history, to boost his own claim to aristocratic pedigree. He didn't enjoy the title for very long. He died in 1935 and Arthur Ronald became the second Lord Brocket.
The 2nd Lord Brocket was a keen member of the House of Lords and championed the rights of landowners. In the Second World War, as a member of the British Parliament, Lord Brocket had to do his duty for the war effort in some form. His contribution was to turn Brocket over to the War Office for use as a hospital. Brocket was one of many that became a maternity hospital run by the Red Cross. Mothers from the East End were evacuated to the safety of Hertfordshire to have their babies.
Over 8,000 were born at Brocket Hall. Lord Melbourne's room was the centre of the birthing, and the Prince Regent's Chinese Room was used for recovering mothers. Mothers remember being startled as the anaesthetic wore off by the Chinese style wallpaper. The 'Brocket Babies' became famous and many still attend organised reunions of both mothers and children at Brocket Hall.
The current Lord Brocket, Charles Ronald Nall-Cain, inherited the house and title in 1967 when he was 15 and still at Eton. As his father had pre-deceased the 2nd Lord Brocket, Charles inherited direct from his grandfather. Charles promoted the Hall as a conference venue for high profile corporate events and senior government meetings. In 1992 he built the first golf course and named it after the second Lord Melbourne.
In the early 1990’s he encountered major problems in his business of trading vintage Ferrari’s. As a result of these problems the Trustees of the Estate decided to sell a 60-year leasehold interest of the Estate.
The rich and colourful story of Brocket Hall continues. Today Brocket Hall is a breath-taking country estate which offers luxurious accommodation, two championship golf courses and exceptional meeting facilities.
Main Reception Rooms
The Morning Room - this was, originally, used as Brocket's Dining Room. The ceiling depicts urns and grapes and was meant to inspire guests to eat, drink and be riotous. Many of Brocket's ceilings are fine examples of plaster-work, and many visitors find them rewarding to look at.
The fireplace is original to the house, as are most of the others. This makes Brocket quite unusual as most other houses have suffered from a restless urge to rip out original fireplaces and replace them with either more modern, or more ornate ones. Brocket is known, amongst fireplace experts, as one of the few houses where the majority of the original fireplaces remain.
Entrance Hall & Main Staircase
The main painting of note here is a view of Brocket Hall by Tomkins painted just after it was constructed. You can see the Chinese style bridge designed by Richard Woods to complement his work on the landscaping of the park. James Paine replaced it with his Palladian version not long after this picture was completed. A plaque hangs in the Entrance Hall to commemorate the fact that Brocket was used as a maternity hospital during the Second World War. Over 8,000 babies were brought into the world here, and are known around the world as the Brocket Babies.
The Drawing Room
The Drawing Room's ceiling is original to the Hall, and has been restored to reflect its former glory. It was designed by Giovanni Battista Cipriani (1727-1785). He was best known as a historical painter and engraver from Florence, Italy. He came to London in 1755 after establishing himself in Rome. He taught drawing to make a living and worked as a book illustrator. He became a member of the Royal Academy and was exhibited there on many occasions. The room is dominated by paintings of the Nall-Cain family by Philip Alexius De Laszlo.
One of De Laszlo's last works is the painting hanging in the Drawing Room. He was commissioned to immortalise Ronald and David Nall-Cain at Brocket in 1937. The painting shows the boys with their pony and pet Pekinese dog. Though De Laszlo signed and dated the painting he did not finish it. If you look closely at the boy's hands you'll see that they are not quite finished.
De Laszlo painted the boys' mother, Angela in 1936. She liked it so much that she commissioned Royal Doulton to make figurines of the pose and she distributed them amongst her friends. Her husband, the second Lord Brocket, was painted by Oswald Birley in 1926.
The Ballroom is 60 feet long and is adorned by a beautiful ceiling painted by Sir Francis Wheatley. The ceiling at Brocket shows the whole Zodiac, and is the most expensive example of decoration in the whole house. It cost a staggering £1,500 to complete, a sum that represented around half of the total cost of the Hall's structure.
The State Banqueting Table was made in 1832 for the first Lord Melbourne who used it very regularly to entertain lavishly. It is the second longest table in Great Britain. A copy of Sir Joshua Reynold's famous painting of the Prince of Wales hangs at one end of the ballroom. The original was sold during the transitional period between the third Lord Brocket and the present owners.
The large chandelier was made by Perrys of Whitefriars. They delivered the magnificent chandelier as the house was being completed, and Perry's promptly went out of business. It's not known whether the chandelier was ever paid for.
Brocket Hall is not the classic haunted house. In fact, few people believe it to be possessed, but some do. In Lady Caroline Lamb's novel, Glenarvon, the heroine comes back to haunt the exiled poet modelled on Byron: could it be she has fulfilled that fictional fantasy and actually returned to haunt Brocket? The stories of a Brocket ghost persist to the present day (during works carried out in the summer of 1997 workmen claimed to have seen an 'apparition' and to have felt a presence), and perhaps Lady Caroline Lamb's spirit does still reside at Brocket. She loved it here, and found some respite from her turbulent life within its walls and in its grounds. If her spirit is here, it might not be a restless one.