The Shell House at Hatfield Forest

The Shell House is an iconic feature of Hatfield Forest. It was built in the 1750's as a picnic shelter, by the edge of the newly created lake. The shell decorations were designed by a young Laetitia Houblon, daughter of the owner, Jacob Houblon III.

A new shelter by the new lake

The Houblon family acquired the Hallingbury estate, including Hatfield Forest, for the heir, Jacob Houblon III, in 1729.  He set about creating a detached pleasure ground in the central area of the forest, starting with a lake.

A cottage was built by the side of the lake, for a caretaker.

By 1757 a shelter was added to the end of the cottage. It was constructed of a timber frame, with laths and mortar render to the outside. The outer wall was mostly flint. 

The  shelter was used for picnics and summer parties for friends and family.  They would ride out from the main house, Hallingbury Place, about 2 km to the west, taking in the natural beauty of the forest.

The designer of the building is unknown but the classical temple-like form, at the edge of a lake, was a popular feature of mid-eighteenth century landscape gardens.  These buildings were commonly known as grotto(e)s.

The 1757 map by Hollingworth and Lander has a vignette of the shelter, in its original, undecorated form (see image above).

The 1923 sale catalogue (for the Hallingbury estate) shows the Shell House attached to the end of the cottage (see image above above).

Decorating the shelter

Jacob’s fifteen year old daughter Laetitia is thought to have designed the decoration of  the interior and exterior with exotic and colourful shells, split flints, blue glass, coral and sands.  These exotic shells are believed to have come from the West Indies and would have arrived in the UK mixed in with ballast in the holds of ships.  The ships were used to transport slaves from West Africa to the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and then to  carry sugar back to the UK (to ports such as London, Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow).

On the keystone above the door of the Shell House is a peacock, the breast of which is made from the fossil of an Inoceramus, a bi-valved mollusc from the Cretaceous period (145 to 65 million years ago). 

The peacock motif above the door
The peacock motif above the door
The peacock motif above the door

The exterior is mostly decorated with flint and blue iridescent glass. On either side is a sunburst design.

Sun burst motif on side of Shell House
Sun burst motif on side of Shell House
Sun burst motif on side of Shell House

The interior is resplendent with an ornate ceiling and fireplace decorated in shells and coral.  The two pictures with shell covered frames are thought to be original. 

The decorated fire place
The decorated fire place in the Shell House
The decorated fire place

The Shell House was extensively renovated in the recent past, and then reopened in 2005.

Shell Houses

Shell houses and grottoes were the height of fashion in the 1700's.  A further example can be found at Goodwood Park in Sussex, where the Duchess of Richmond and her daughters built a shell grotto along similar lines in the 1740's.  This fascination with Shell Houses continued into the 19th century with richly-decorated, small size houses as ornaments. 

For further information on Shell Houses, see "Shell Houses and Grottoes"; Shire Library 398; Jackson, Hazelle; Shire, 2001. 

The Shell House was also the subject of an article in Country Life, in 1997 (Jeremy Musson: "The Shell House Hatfield Forest", Country Life, 27 Aug 1998, p48-50).


The Ghost Path

Find out more about the unexpected discovery of a historic approach to the Shell House when a recent dry summer revealed its hidden presence.