How Nelmes’ glory days ended with wrecking ball

Nelmes Manor House in the 1950s. Picture: Brian Evans

Nelmes Manor House in the 1950s. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Brian Evans

David Adams looks back half a century to the wrecking of one of Havering’s last stately mansions

In 1963 I was a 16-year-old student, undertaking some local history research. I made my nerdish way to the 16th century Nelmes Manor House, set in the midst of Hornchurch’s leafy Emerson Park. There I met its 85-year-old owner, Mr John Platford.

Mr Platford showed me his pride and joy, the magnificent carved wooden staircase dating from the 17th century, and spoke of his hopes that when the house passed to his nephew and heir, an era of Platfords at Nelmes might follow.

He died three years later, but within a year, 50 years ago this autumn, the house was a heap of rubble under the wrecker’s ball.

How come? Well, would you like to inherit a Tudor listed building and its three acres? Perhaps you dream of living there, braving draughts and huge maintenance costs in return for the character, charm, and historic atmosphere?

Or perhaps you would rather ignore the law protecting listed historic buildings, and demolish the house pronto before the bills start coming in.

You pay the fine – much less than those bills, which you couldn’t afford – and make a juicy profit by selling the land for upmarket executive homes.

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Fifty years ago, in the autumn of 1967, John Platford’s nephew chose the second option. The fine was £100.

He claimed emergency repairs would cost £10,000, and Nelmes needed another £70,000 for mod cons.

The first known occupier of the house was Sir William Roche, who was Lord Mayor of London in 1540. The next to achieve any fame was Thomas Witherings, the inventor of a national postal service.

Unfortunately in 1651, he died on his way to St Andrew’s Hornchurch for Sunday worship, not normally a dangerous activity.

There is a monument there today, calling him “chiefe Postmaster of Greate Britaine and forreigne parts … second to none for unfathomed policy, unparallel’d sagacious … and divining genius”.

Thomas’s heir was his nephew William Witherings. Unlike John Platford, Thomas tried to cut his nephew out of his will because, while Thomas was a King’s man in the Civil War which divided England from 1642 to 1651, William was on the side of Parliament.

Unfortunately for Thomas, the Nelmes estate was entailed, meaning that it had to pass to his nearest living male relative.

Oliver Cromwell gave William his uncle’s job of running the post so that he took the credit for the 1657 Act of Parliament which put Thomas’s work into law. What was that about nephews?

For the next 150 years the property kept changing hands, but from 1800 four generations of Harding-Newmans ruled the roost.

One, the Reverend Dr Harding-Newman, relieved two Oxford colleges of a complete historic gateway and altar rail, to enhance the ambience of Nelmes Manor House.

Maybe such extravagance helps explain how things began to go wrong. In 1895 half of Nelmes was sold off for development as Emerson Park housing estate. By 1903 the remainder had been sold off, via the Official Receiver.

The manor house and its immediate grounds were bought by Alfred Barber, a Romford sack merchant.

Nothing wrong with sacks, but probably not the sort of thing the Reverend Dr Harding-Newman had in mind when he dismantled an Oxford gatehouse and brought it back to Hornchurch. The house was then bought by John Platford in 1925.

Two things survived the demolition. The housing development which now stands in place of Nelmes Manor House was called The Witherings.

The magnificent staircase was given to the Passmore Edwards Museum in West Ham. But the museum closed in 1994, and its collection was dispersed.

Where did the staircase go? No one seems to know. So search that lock-up garage, and look with suspicion at that house where the staircase seems, well, a bit out of its time.