PRESTED HALL – HISTORY
When we came to Prested in 1994, we found a near-derelict house, which had been empty for seven years and was last enjoyed as a family home in 1939. We were told by the little girl who grew up here, that she and her brother were convinced that whoever bought The Hall would have no choice but to pull it down.
We are very pleased that we took another route – despite the years of seemingly non-stop toil.
What We Have been Able to Find out
Prested Hall has had many different names in the past. When the site was mentioned in The Domesday Book (in 1086), it was known as Peresteda, and was occupied by someone called Ranulf Peverel, who is listed as having 2 beehives, a mare and a foal.
By looking at Philip Morant’s huge and impressive work, The History and the Antiquities of the County of Essex (2 vols), published in the latter half of the 18th century, we know the names of all the occupants of Prested from Domesday till 1785, but we know less about what the house looked like in past years.
In the very early times Prested Hall was referred to as one of Feering’s “two capital manors”, and by the late 18th century it had become a “mansion-house”, so we do know that it was always a house of some size and standing.
We had assumed that the oldest existing part of the Hall was 16th century, as suggested by the painted date above the porch at the side of the house, but, following an examination by English Heritage a few years ago, we were told that the roof timbers were earlier, dating from the 15th century – only viewable by crawling into the roof space!
Since we came here we have heard from and been visited by several people with connections to Prested. One of these wrote to tell us that the first member of his family to live at Prested was his 4 times Great Grandfather, Francis Hill (born 1808), (who married Hannah Harrison). He had a son, John H Hills, in 1841, who was named as the head of the house at Prested in the 1881 census. He lived here with his wife Lucy and their six children at the time of the census (including our correspondent’s Great Great Grandfather Ralph Hills). At the time they employed two maids, eleven labourers and one boy at Prested.
From 1890 until our arrival just over a hundred years later, Prested was owned by the Sherwood family – David is still a local landowner. The first of the Prested Sherwoods, Nathaniel Newman Sherwood, was a partner of the seed company Hurst & Son, based in Houndsditch in east London, and came upon Prested when his company opened trial grounds in Feering. (From the 1800s, Feering and, later, Kelvedon was one of the premier seed-growing areas in the country.)
After he had bought Prested, Nathaniel Newman and his family kept their Streatham Hill family home, and used The Hall as a shooting lodge for weekend parties. The family eventually made The Hall their permanent home.
To be able to invite your friends and colleagues to your country house was a sign of prosperity for an up and coming business man, and visitors to Prested would have enjoyed lots of shooting, tennis, good meals, laughter and musical evenings. Edward, the younger of Nathaniel’s two sons, was a talented musician, who wrote and conducted for Hurst’s Music Society. Cricket on the lawn at Prested would also have been a summer weekend activity as the staff at Hurst’s had formed a cricket team (famously defeating a team from Sutton Seeds in 1895).
In 1912, Nathaniel celebrated the 50th anniversary of his association with Hurst’s with a large garden party at Prested. The staff from the Feering trial grounds gathered with the London staff, who were collected from the station in farm wagons. We have a delightful copy of a photograph of this gathering on display in the lobby of The Hall (along with many others).
In 1934, great works started to extend the Hall. The present front hall was added, as were The Garden Room, a conservatory and outbuildings. At this time, The Garden Room was used as the family drawing room, with the rug rolled back for dances and social gatherings.
Although the family continued to own the Hall, the Sherwoods actually moved out of Prested at the beginning of World War II, when it was requisitioned by the army. Sadly, they never returned.
At the time of Edward Sherwood’s death, the staff at Prested consisted of six women in the house, six gardeners, a groom, a chauffeur and three gamekeepers.
During the intervening 50 or so years before our arrival, Prested Hall was put to many uses. It has been a maternity hospital and nursing home, a home for the elderly, a guest house, and, in the 1950s, a centre for The Spastics Society (now SCOPE), who opened some radical rehabilitation workshops on the site of the current gym.
When we arrived, the Hall was a desolate place, its beautiful period features and architectural ironmongery hardly visible through the grime. As we worked, we had a real sense of the renaissance of a house. The oldest part is the Drawing Room/Library and room 1 above. The Oak Room is 18th century, although the fireplace is more modern -we think it may have been added when the new 1930s’ grand alterations and extensions were created). So, it is, like many houses today, one which has been extended and changed over the years.
Sybil Llewelyn, the little girl who grew up here, became a good friend, and we had a lot of fun sharing our adventures and memories of Prested. She was very enthusiastic about our project at Prested, which was lovely for us. (Sadly, Sybil died in the summer of 2008.)
A while ago, Elsie, a former parlour maid, in her 90th year, came to tea. She worked at The Hall with her sister, Mildred, in the 1930s. With Elsie’s help, Mildred used to escape down a rope from the staff quarters at the top of the Hall to visit her young man late at night … and Elsie was required to be the dutiful sister, waiting with a candle at the appointed hour, to lower the rope for Mildred’s safe return.
We have also enjoyed visits from the great nephew of the head matron and her sister, who both worked at Prested when it was a maternity and nursing home and, by sheer coincidence, a hotel guest was staying at The Hall at the same time, to celebrate his 60th birthday in his birth home. Many old photographs were shared and enjoyed.
In the gallery of pictures on this page, you will see a photograph of Sybil Sherwood on her wedding day, and, in 2011, we were visited by two of her bridesmaids who recounted wonderful and amusing stories of their visits to The Hall as children. They had much fun working out where key rooms like the nursery had been, and really brought to life how grand and daunting such an impressive country house had seemed to them at the time.
When someone from Prested’s past pops by, this is always a pleasure. Apart from being so interesting, it makes Prested’s history so alive, and confirms, again and again, that it was and is a special house.