The Shell House Visitors Book

David Simmonds, Visitor Experience Volunteer David Simmonds Visitor Experience Volunteer

The Houblon family used the Shell House to entertain their visitors. They kept a Visitors Book to record who had been there - from the Prince of Wales to a party of local school children.

The Shell House

One of the unexpected delights of Hatfield Forest is the Shell House, the picnic room built for the Houblon family in 1757 and wonderfully decorated with shells from around the world by the 17-year old member of the family, Laetitia Houblon.

Within the House is the Visitors’ Book, started in 1892 and filled with the names of visitors over the period to 1923 when the Forest was sold and eventually passed to the National Trust.  The book is large (530 x 380 x 50mm) and contains a great mix of visitors. 

A Royal Visitor

The most famous was a party from nearby Easton Lodge on 1 April 1893.  The party included Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (who became Edward VII in 1901), Frances Evelyn Brooke (later better known as Daisy, Countess of Warwick), her husband (Lord) Brooke, two of their children (Guy and Marjorie Greville) and three friends.

A composer

A visitor in 1895 was the composer, John Ireland, then a student at the Royal College of Music.

A school trip 

In many ways, it is the more ordinary visits that are of greater social history interest.  On 7 October 1892 there was a visit, described as a School Feast, by Charlotte E Brown, the Certified Mistress of Great Hallingbury School, and 80 school children.  

The School Log records that, on 6 October 1892, Colonel & Lady Archer Houblon had awarded the children a treat on the following day, thus confirming the entry in the Visitors’ Book.  Unfortunately, we know nothing more of the treat, which is not recorded as taking place in further years. 

Visitors from the Workhouse

Another set of fascinating visits are those of the Bishop’s Stortford Guardians Union Workhouse on 28 August 1896, 24 September 1898 and 8 September 1899.  These were led by Harry Traill, the Master of the Workhouse, with his wife Emily and their three children.  

The visit in 1898 saw 121 inmates come to The Forest.  What it does not say is how they travelled the three or four miles from the Workhouse in Haymeads Lane or what they did at The Forest.  Another area for further research!

Clubs and Church Groups

There were many visits by Church groups and by various clubs. A good example is the Saffron Walden Abbey Lane Cycling Club on Thursday 11 July 1901.   Fourteen members travelled on cycles and ‘these friends spent a most enjoyable time, leaving Saffron Walden at 2pm and arriving back at 9pm’.  

Just after this visit, there was a visit from a Jewish Charity Holiday Fund with 30 children from London.  Unusually, all their names are recorded, together with ‘helpers’ from Takeley.  It is good to think that well over 100 years later, children are still coming to The Forest on school visits.  

A poigniant historical note

Intriguingly, there is an entry from 12 Sep 1899, along side names of a party from Great Easton, commenting on the great scandal then rocking France, the Dreyfus Affair

" Vive Dreyfus!!! A bas General Mercier!!! Vive les rois!"
- Shell House Visitors Book

The date is particularly poigniant as it came three days after Dreyfus had been found guilty of treason for a second time by a military court and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour.  He was to accept a pardon on 19 Sep.

Alfred Dreyfus was a young French army officer who was Jewish.  He had originally been found guilty in 1894 of passing military secrets to the military attache at the German Embassy in Paris and sentenced to life imprisonmet.  He was incarerated on Devils Island, off the coast of French Guinea for nearly five years.

After much public protest, including a famous article "J'accuse..." by Emile Zola, the original conviction was found to be unsafe and a second trial ordered.  Dreyfus was eventually exonerated of all charges in 1906 and re-instated into the army.  Information had been passed to Germany but the military establishment had framed the wrong man.   

View the Book

In February 2020, the book was taken from the Shell House for conservation.

Gently does it with a hogshair brush, removing loose mould
Delicately brushing loose mould from the leather cover
Gently does it with a hogshair brush, removing loose mould

A copy of the pages can still be seen in the Shell House and it is also available on microfilm at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford.