Heritage: Charting history of Cranham Holme and its eclectic owners

Cranham Holme, later Cranham Court

A picture of Cranham Holme from Treasures of Havering by John Drury (1998). - Credit: With permission of John Drury

Historian Andy Grant takes a look at the succession of owners of Cranham Holme - later Cranham Court - such as an orchard lover, a disreputable doctor and a philanthropist.

In St Mary’s Lane, where London’s urban sprawl gives way to rolling countryside, there is a long driveway signposted “Cranham Court Nursing Home”, although few have noticed the magnificent house hidden behind its screen of trees.

Originally named Cranham Holme, the house was built 1902-03 for Charles Crofton-Black.

It was described as an “exceptionally well-built modern country residence… stood in its own pleasure grounds… and containing a lounge hall, three reception rooms, handsome billiards room, bathroom, nine bed and dressing rooms, stabling for five horses, two coach-houses and outbuildings".

It also had kitchen gardens and tennis courts, set in 11 acres. During Black’s occupancy, it became a renowned centre for growing orchards, cultivated by its head gardener, HA Fishenden.

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Charles Crofton-Black died in 1913, but his wife, Rachel Mary, continued to be listed there until shortly before her death in 1922.

By 1920, Cranham Holme was occupied by a disreputable doctor named Devi Dayal Sasun, who had a practice in Bethnal Green.

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He had undertaken an illegal operation upon 27-year-old Elsie Maud Wright, who was found dead under an archway in Brady Street near to his practice. Sasun was subsequently arrested and charged with murder.

Sir Bernard Spilsbury undertook the post-mortem, establishing the victim had been pregnant. He considered that she died from shock whilst the operation was being carried out and that her body had been moved to the archway.

At his trial at the Old Bailey, the charge was reduced to manslaughter and Sasun was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The next occupant was Robert Middlemas, a wealthy businessman from Kelso, Scotland.

Around 1894 Middlemas went into business with Percy James Wood, trading as Walters & Co and importing cigars, most notably those bearing their own ‘Bolivar’ trademark.

During the war, he was involved with the Border Regiment at Kelso, but was later appointed quartermaster of the 5th Battalion Essex Volunteer Regiment. For his war services, he was awarded the OBE and became president of the Ilford Scottish Association.

In 1921 Middlemas changed the name of the house to Cranham Court. He became involved with providing "sunshine entertainment" for thousands of deprived East End children during school holidays, often opening the grounds of Cranham Court for the purpose.

He was also an aficionado of horse racing, achieving acclaim in the racing world by winning the Royal Hunt Cup in 1937 with his horse Fairplay. In 1935, with the help of Lord Ashfield (founder of the London Passenger Transport Board), he started the Fairplay Bus scheme.

Using a single NS-type bus, he aimed to take poor East End children on daily outings to the country.

In his first year he achieved 7,000 trips and utilised a field of around 100 acres in Clay Tye Road donated by the farmer, Mr Martin. By 1937, he had built up a fleet of seven Fairplay buses, tirelessly fundraising to support the venture.

Fairplay Fleet 1936

Fairplay Fleet 1936 - Credit: Archant

All of the administration was by volunteers and 100 per cent of the funding was used to provide fuel, food, drink and entertainment for the children. The fleet was later increased to ten buses and provided trips for over 50,000 children, but the war halted these activities.

The buses were used to evacuate children to the countryside and were ultimately disbanded. Undaunted, Middlemas chartered boats on the Thames and provided river trips for poor children and old age pensioners.

By the time of his death in 1951, he had provided over 12,000 such outings for children and 2,000 for pensioners. Having no children of his own, he bequeathed money for the continuation of these outings after his death.

In more recent years, Cranham Court became a nursing home for up to 82 elderly residents.

Although there is now nothing that commemorates this undeniably great philanthropist, a sign on Clay Tye Hill marks the site of Fairplay Farm, a distant echo of thousands of deprived children that once visited the site.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

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