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The History of The Chelmsford Club

Laurel Grove….  Staplegrove… the current home of The Chelmsford Club

James Fenton acquired this lot for himself and was plot 1 of the Goldlay estate

The chronological ownership of the property is as follows:

James Fenton                        1846 - 1857

Unknown                             1857 -1861

The May family                     1861 - 1895

The Gray family                    1895 - 1924

The Parish family                   1924 - 1939

The Chelmsford Club             1939 - to date

 

The true sense of grandeur of this house can be gained from the 1924 sales catalogue.

The property was advertised as a grand 9 bedroom Victorian mansion set in a four and a half acre plot. The grounds included 2 spacious lawn tennis courts, ornamental pond and fountain flower beds, orchards, vegetable gardens, a variety of outbuildings, a wheel house, stables, a forging pit and a gate house as part of the formal entrance to the house.

The cellars are a labyrinth of 9 rooms with food store, pantries, wine and beer cellars and even a dark room; little wonder that in 1939 the Ministry of Defence designated it an air raid shelter for 150 people.

The house benefits from the exquisite finishing of buildings of that era, (Victorian), the cornices, buttresses, the formally turned iron staircase leading the eye up to the lantern that floods natural light down the staircase. It was an ideal residency for a prominent business family and perfect for entertaining and grand dinners.

The formal entrance passes the gate house, which would have had a foot man at the door to help guests dismount from their carriages and staff on hand to greet the guests.  The horses would then have been taken to the stables and carriages to the coach house. A house of great style.

And now…. Fact or Fiction?

Part of the heritage of the building lies in the anecdotes handed down through time by the members. One of these anecdotes was about the “Chapel” .It is known that Fenton was a nonconformist, (someone who does not comply fully with the teachings and doctrine of the church of England), so Fenton built his own chapel enabling him to practice his religious beliefs in private.  He had his own internal entrance to the chapel and the congregation would mount the few steps outside to the side door, cleanse their hands in the secret sink and assemble to hear the sermons…. and so the story was told…and for three years this became part of the heritage talk and tour of the building…………… 

Delivered by the author of this piece…

 

After one of these tours a member of the audience approached the author saying that she thoroughly enjoyed the talk and tour and that with her husband had been undertaking some family research and had unearthed information that the author may find of use. Welcoming the kind invitation, the author visited their home where they had laid out maps and plans for Laurel Grove, (Fenton’s original  name for the  building), in chronological order:  in 1851 no chapel!! 1865 no chapel!!! 1875 No chapel. Even in 1891  (Fenton had been dead 16 years).. still no chapel!! Then they produced the detailed plans of 1899 for consent to build the billiard room, which was completed a few years later, (and remains to this day).

There was never a Chapel!!…

Rapid amendments were made to the author’s heritage tour speech….

 

The moral of the story is………… don’t believe everything you are told!!

 

The building experienced various additions and alterations over the years, illustrated by a plaque at the rear of the house bearing the date 1875 some 30 years after the original construction.

In 1928 Mr Parish changed the name from Laurel Grove to Staplegrove, the name of the town near Taunton where he was born.

In 1954 a compulsory purchase order was made for the majority of the land by Saville’s on behalf of  ECC who paid £1250 for the land and built a wall.

Another interesting aspect of the building is the strong room.

The strong room is fitted with a Hobbs and Heart plate safe, which we assume would have been for securing the family silver including valuable ornamental table centre pieces.

There is a fascinating side story about the Hobbs and Heart plate safe.

If a lock with 12 sliders has a 1 in 479 million chance of being opened without its dedicated key, and then by adding just one more slider raises that probability to 1 in 6.2 billion – how on earth does someone successfully pick a lock with 18 sliders? This is the story about a challenge that had remained unanswered for over 60 years, and the charismatic American who, seemingly, achieved the impossible. His actions would bring insecurity all the way up to the highest establishments of England. This unusual series of events that took place in 1851 became known as the Great Lock Controversy.

 

Bramah is London’s oldest security company established in 1784 and at the great exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace issued a challenge. So convinced of their locks’ security, they were prepared to offer a prize of 200 guineas to anyone who could break the famous Bramah lock.

Alfred Charles Hobbs, an American lock dealer came over for the exhibition and took up the challenge. He spent 51 hours over 16 days… and broke it. The Brahma company were understandably not happy and disputed the manner, means and spirit of his achievement. However, reluctantly, they had to pay up. The 200 guineas would have been a much welcome investment in his business  and the company went on to receive Royal Warrants to supply safes to the Bank of England. He then sold up and went back to America.

Please see the link for the full story

We have now reached 1884 in our story and still in the reign of Queen Victoria.

That year saw

  • The siege of Khartoum

  • The birth of Marks and Spencer

  • The Colchester earthquake

  • The NSPCC founded

  • 1st December the club founded and 5000 £1 shares were issued and within 6 months, 110 members had fully subscribed the shares.

 

The event was noted in the local press, extracts as follows:

“The Chelmsford Club was established for, the benefit of the professional and business men of the town. Directors of the club included prominent business men such as JS Brown,  J G Bond and THP Dennis, buildings in Museum Terrace were obtained and occupied by The Chelmsford Club in December1884. The accommodation will comprise of a spacious and well-furnished reading room, liberally supplied with leading newspapers and magazines and works of reference, a lofty and well ventilated billiard room with 2 tables, a commodious smoking room, a chess and card room, and refreshment provided under the charge of a responsible steward. Arrangement will be made with one of the telegraph agencies for transmission into the club of important events. The club will be open daily from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. and  in our opinion it will supply a want that has long been felt amongst the gentlemen of Chelmsford”. Less than 6 months later the club had 110 members with all 5000 £1 shares taken up.”

“Later in 1892 many of Chelmsford’s good and great were presented at a dinner, the dining room was especially lighted for the occasion with three large electric lamps provided by Crompton’s.”

The Chelmsford Club’s first premises were in Museum Terrace’s New London Road and a number of alterations were implemented to accommodate the members.

At some point prior to 1938 the club was housed in 14 London Road.

The acquisition of 14/16 New London Road for £5000 showed a completion statement of £1,384 14 shillings and 3 pence paid in, plus a mortgage of £2500 @ 4.24%.

Later in 1938 negotiations began for the acquisition of Staplegrove and on Tuesday 15th August 1939, with war looming, The Chelmsford Club formally moved in and remained there to this day.

Within the club there would have been much discussion about affairs of the time, many cigars smoked, much port and brandy consumed, much bridge and cribbage played and possibly aspects of gambling, but there is no evidence to support this, (I hasten to add).

Snooker played a significant part in the Club’s history with, at one point, 3 snooker tables. Similarly the club had installed two squash courts in the early 1970s, but as interest dwindled, (as did the membership), 2 of the snooker tables were removed as were both the squash courts.

It is interesting when looking through old financial ledgers, revenues were derived from, amongst other sources, snooker, squash, cigarette sales and even a fruit machine!!

On the 15th September 1939, officers of His Majesty’s armed forces stationed nearby were given honorary membership.

In August 1952, US air force officers offered honorary membership and invitations were sent to  the Wethersfield CO.

The current building survived the war unscathed, remembering that Chelmsford was a targeted town as it was considered industrial.

In 1954, the majority of the land was compulsory purchased by Essex County Council through the services of Saville’s who paid £1250 for the land and as a concession a wall was built.

The 2 previously mentioned squash courts were built in the early 1970’s with shower facilities on the first floor.

At some point the coach house/garages were rented by the fire service and became an auxiliary fire station.  The River Board rented these premises and it once  housed the bread roll company. It is now an MOT centre.

The 100 year celebrations took place in 1984.

As the years passed by and the pace of change quickened, it was inevitable that without a plan of action, time would catch up and overtake us and such was the case. The membership dwindled, the infrastructure of the building started decaying and the decor became tired.

Attempts were made to redress the decline. One major change that was the long overdue was to offer of membership to both men and women, (which only took 130 years).

To illustrate the newly found enlightened approach the committee invited a small group of local businesswomen to the club for their views on what would be important to them. Their reply was; “three things need to be in place for a woman to want to cross the threshold:”

  1. It has to be safe

  2. The washroom facilities don’t have to be good, they have to be excellent

  3. We have to be able to network with likeminded people.

All three were immediately addressed.

It is inevitable that unless old buildings are constantly inspected, deterioration creeps ever onwards as was the case with Staplegrove, suspect paintwork quickly developed into an interior disaster.

Major restoration and redevelopment work became essential.

Inspections and surveys were undertaken, outline quotes were requested, and the full extent of the problem revealed itself. This required detailed surveys, architectural designs, planning consent, approval from the council, the listed building authority and English Heritage and then the raising of significant funds. These borrowings were offset with the profits from sales and the revenue derived from leases. The stable was redeemed, the squash courts demolished, the gatehouse gutted and fully restored, and redevelopment of the remaining rooms into three flats, although this halved the available footprint of the club, it saved the property from potential ruin and provided long term income for the club.

As with all work on old buildings there are always unforeseen problems. All we had to deal with was the emergence of a 6-foot wide 15-foot-deep hole in the car park! Had this been an artisan well of special historic interest it could have been of benefit. As it was, it turned out to be a bit of the old Victorian sewer. Or in other words…a 424 cubic foot sink hole at the entrance of the members car park…

Hardly a Unique Selling Point for membership of the club!

Having dealt with the significant real estate issues, attention focused on the dwindling income and declining membership.

Membership had fallen to 53!!! An insufficient critical mass to sustain a private members club housed in a beautiful Victorian mansion. A huge problem for the committee to resolve so, what to do?

Fire up the committee, create a new sense of purpose, develop a business plan, rethink and restructure the finance, develop ideas for new revenue streams, create a far more interesting membership proposition, bring the interior back to life, develop the business hub and find more exciting ways to engage members. The committee was on fire and rearing to go………. then.....COVID!…Lockdown!…..Shut the Club!

Fortunately, the committee is made of sterner stuff and the internal transformation continued apace. The bar was completely ripped out and redesigned, revealing some of the ornate finishings that had been covered for years. One of the snooker tables was removed providing an excellent all-purpose multi-functional room, now the Adler Restaurant. The other snooker room was redecorated and the entire first floor transformed onto a business hub.

So, the real estate, the décor, the facilities, the finances and the social calendar were all addressed and the last remaining piece of the jigsaw was the management.

For the first time a General Manager was hired, the acquisition of a computerised central management system installed, a new fresh corporate identify was developed, the web site redesigned, and a social media presence created. All of this represented massive change (in the oldest private members club in Chelmsford) and required careful navigation to bring the membership along with this very modern vision.

In summary, we are a private members club housed in a beautiful Victorian mansion; our business, from which we derive the income to operate is primarily food and drink sales, but the real purpose of the Club is to provide a community. A community of very talented and successful people, the majority either in business or retried from business. So, for those who want to enjoy a full social calendar or who simply just want a quiet drink with friends, the Club is a home from home.

 

The future…

According to Professor Brian Cox, Professor of Particle Physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester, “…the solar system is already halfway through its life and therefore will come to an end in approximately 5 billion years…….”

So, if you haven’t applied for membership yet…..

……………….get your skates on!!!

John Constable, Club Historian

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