Heritage: Gidea Park cattle baron and the insurance small print

Benjamin Severn had a 'taste for the management of a very large stock of cattle' at Hare Hall. Photo

Benjamin Severn had a 'taste for the management of a very large stock of cattle' at Hare Hall. Photo: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin tells how a fire led to bankruptcy for the owner of Hare Hall

Benjamin Severn has long seemed a mystery owner of Hare Hall, the Gidea Park mansion that is now the Royal Liberty School.

He bought the property in 1813 as part of a syndicate, his chief partner being a man called Frederick King.

However, it was Severn who lived a squire’s life at Hare Hall until he lost his home when the syndicate went bankrupt in 1829.

The story has recently become clearer, but it’s still strange.

Benjamin Severn and Frederick King ran a grocery business off London’s Cheapside.

In 1794, they branched out and established a sugar refinery in Whitechapel. The business flourished, apparently enabling Severn and King to become sleeping partners, leaving others to run the enterprise.

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The sugar refinery purchased Hare Hall, allowing Severn to launch into a new activity, half business, half hobby.

“Mr Severn indulges in taste for the management of a very large stock of cattle,” commented an 1819 guidebook.

But he was no mere dude rancher. Severn’s herd was “so well and so conveniently conducted as to claim the admiration of every visitor”.

An auction notice in 1830 mentions “an extensive range of farm buildings” behind the Hall, close to today’s Royal Liberty School classrooms.

There was a “Slaughter house field” across the road, south of modern Cambridge Avenue.

Contemporary prints show Hare Hall parkland had short grass. That was the work of cattle, not lawn mowers.

By 1828, Benjamin Severn also occupied grazing land stretching across to Ardleigh Green.

He was a cattle baron, producing meat and sharing his profits with partners.

It seems Severn was popular locally. In 1822, he became a trustee of Roger Reede’s Almshouses, Havering’s oldest charity.

Sugar refining was a dangerous process. Raw cane, boiled to around 240 degrees Fahrenheit (115 degrees Celsius), easily caught fire.

Naturally, Severn and King had fire insurance. Indeed, they paid danger-level premiums.

But when the factory burned down in 1819, the insurance company refused to pay the £70,000 loss.

The insurers argued that their clients had failed to disclose the introduction of a new process. Hence their policy was invalid.

A three-day court hearing in 1820 became a landmark case in insurance law.

The partners lost.

With no compensation, they struggled to finance a new, seven-storey, fireproof factory.

By 1827, Hare Hall was heavily mortgaged. Bankruptcy followed in 1829.

In May 1830, the contents of Hare Hall went under the hammer.

I don’t want to sound snobbish, but Severn’s taste in “modern and costly furniture” seems vulgar.

There were “costly coach-top bedsteads, with white chintz cotton hangings” – beds with ceiling-high canopies above the pillows.

Today’s school Conference Room contained “an elegant drawing room suite of curtains and couches in crimson velvet, trimmed with gold coloured silk fringe and lace”.

The furniture was mahogany. There was a six-feet square chimneypiece mirror.

Hare Hall was obviously a family home.

A Broadwood grand piano and “a fine-toned chamber organ” suggest a wife and daughters; three “fowling pieces” may indicate sons.

Perhaps Mrs Severn sounded a warning note: “Benjamin, are you sure we can afford all this?”

Also for sale were Axminster carpets, “300 volumes of well selected books” (did anybody read them?), plus 220 dozen bottles of wine, sherry and port, “many years in bottle”.

I suspect Severn liked to entertain, to show off his “elegant glass dessert service”.

The four-day contents sale must have been a sad affair. But nobody wanted the mansion itself.

Indeed, the Severn-King bankruptcy case dragged on for an astonishing 43 years.

It was eventually wound up in 1872, creditors receiving a final dividend of twopence and thirty-one thirty-seconds of a penny in the pound – about one percent.

The moral? If you want to turn Gidea Park into a cattle ranch, check the small print in your insurance policies.

Severn Avenue, off Main Road, preserves Benjamin’s surname.