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Hatfield Forest is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and was owned by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings. It was declared a Royal Forest by Henry I in about 1100 and fallow deer were introduced from Sicily. The last Royal hunting rights were surrendered in 1446.

The Forest then passed through a succession of owners, before being acquired by the Houblon family in 1729, as part of the Hallingbury Park estate, for the heir to the family fortune, Jacob Houblon III. It was regarded as an extension of the home park, and the family would take carriage rides out to the Forest, to picnic.

Jacob followed the fashion for landscape improvement. By 1746, a lake of about 3.24 hectares had been created in the marshy central area of the Forest, by building a dam across the Shermore Brook. It was about twice the size of the present lake. This was in part a job creation programme, to help the local rural unemployed.

A cottage was also built beside the lake, to which was added a room for picnics, in the form of a Shell House. The exterior is flint clad, with inlaid phoenix and radiant sun motifs created using shells. A survey of the Forest in 1757 by Hollingworth and Landers for Jacob Houblon shows the recently created lake in its original form, and also contains a detailed drawing of the front elevation of the Shell House (but absent the later added shell motifs) (ref: Essex Records Office D/DB P37). The interior ceiling and walls were decorated with exotic shells by Jacob's young daughter, Laetitia. This was probably in 1759, when she was 17. (Lady Alice Archer Houblon, 1907). A letter survives from May 1759, written by Laetitia's brother Jacob, from Naples, Italy, where he was staying whilst completing the Grand Tour. He asks: "How does the cottage go on? What alterations are going on?" (Archer-Houblon family archive, held at the Berkshire Record Office,)

In 1757, Lancelot Capability Brown proposed a scheme entitled "A Plan for the Alteration of the Water Adjoining to Cottage Coppice for Jacob Houblon Esq 1757", by the addition of two arms each about 250m long, with a small island towards each end. This plan still exists (Archer-Houblon family archive, D/EAH/acc 6158.4). It appears to have been prepared by one of Brown's assistants, rather than Brown himself. The style is similar to that of the plans for Audley End which are attributed to Samuel Lapidge. Brown received payments of £100 in March 1758 (Capability Brown's Account at Drummonds Bank, Peter Willis) and £100 in April 1759, and a third and final payment of £50 in May 1762 (Archer-Houblon family archive D/EAH/acc6158.52). In addition, an earlier letter written by Jacob's son, in February 1759, asks: "How does Mr Brown's plan succeed?" (Archer-Houblon family archive, D/EAHacc/6073.39). (Jeremy Musson, 1998 and reference therein to research by Fiona Cowell).

In the end, only part of the plan was implemented, with one arm being added, by the western end of the dam. This is shown in the Chapman and Andre map of Essex, surveyed in 1773 and published in 1777. The arm still survives, albeit in modified form. It was cut off from the main lake when the height of the dam was raised in 1979, and now forms the Decoy Lake. It was further modified by excavation behind the inward facing bank, to create a long thin island, with the excavated area behind being flooded. The small island at the end can still be seen.

Interestingly, the Brown Plan shows an existing building by the side of the lake but its shape suggests it is only the cottage, without the building forming the Shell Room attached at the lake end. A simple explanation would be that the Brown survey was carried out earlier in 1757 and the Hollingworth Landers survey in later 1757. The Shell House was built in mid-1757, between the two surveys, and the shell decorations then added later, in 1759.

The Forest contains several non-native specimen trees, planted at various points. Notable are a London Plane by the side of the lake and an Oriental Plane by the outfall of the Decoy Lake. Whilst Planes are normally regarded as a Brown trademark planting, these two are thought to be mid Victorian, rather than Georgian. In addition, there are Yew trees around the Decoy Lake, and a significant Cedar of Lebanon on the edge of the central lake area.

In the Victorian age, the Forest was saved from conversion to agricultural use after the then owner, John Archer Houblon, consolidated ownership rights and, in 1857, promoted an Enclosure Act, to "enclose" the land and thereby protect it.

The Forest continued in the ownership of the Houblon family until 1923 when the Hallingbury estate was broken up and sold in lots at auction, the family retrenching to their other seat, at Welford House in Berkshire. The National Trust acquired the Forest in 1924, as a result of a bequest made by the noted conservationist, Edward North Buxton. At this time however, many of the great oaks of the Forest were felled for timber.

Detailed history added 8/6/2015

Site timeline

1729: Hatfield Forest purchased by Houblon family as part of Hallingbury Park estate.

Before 1746: Lake created in centre of Forest by damming Shermore Brook.

1757: Lancelot Capability Brown provides a plan for altering the lake, part of which is implemented.

1757: Shell House built and decorated.

Before 1857: Enclosure of Forest.

1923: Hallingbury Park estate, including Hatfield Forest, broken up and sold in lots at auction.

1924: Edward North Buxton bequeaths Hatfield Forest to National Trust.

1979: Height of dam raised and arm cut-off from main lake to form Decoy Lake.

People associated with this site

Designer: Lancelot Brown (born 1716 died 06/02/1783)


shell house

Feature created: 1757 to 1759

Single room building on grass lawn beside lake. The exterior is clad with split flints, with radiant sun motifs on the side walls and a peacock motif in the keystone of the door created using shells. The interior ceiling and walls also contain shell decorations. The interior decoration is attributed to Laetitia Houblon, 17 year old daughter of owner of estate, Jacob Houblon III.