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This Large and Very Elegant House

In 1787, exactly two hundred years ago, Hannah More, the writer and evangelist, visited Boyle Farm and immediately reached for her pen to tell her sister: "I was never so astonished as to see this large and very elegant house". (1) This visit, as we shall see, she was pleased to repeat on several subsequent occasions.

The house she so admired had then only just reached completion after an extensive rebuilding lasting several years.

There had been a mansion house on this pleasant Thameside spot from at least the reign of James the first, but little, if anything, of it remains, and the present writer knows of no prints or illustrations to tell us just how it looked.

The wall running eastward from the north-east corner of the river front of the existing house, which now forms the wall of the rather dilapidated greenhouse, is possibly part of former buildings, for it exhibits two very unusual features, which tend to show that it probably antedates the rebuilding in the eighteenth century. Firstly, it is constructed in what is called "header bond", that is that all the bricks in each course are laid across the thickness of the wall, so that only their heads are showing. This bond is seldom used nowadays, except for decorative work involving curved walls. Secondly, it contains traces of was was obviously originally a fairly wide gateway, with a depressed uncusped arch, now completely bricked up. This, with the absence of windows, suggests that it may have been part of the former stable block.

Otherwise the mansion on which Miss More lavished her praises was then entirely new, and is basically the same house which exists today. Although some reconstruction of the upper storey and a complete refacing of the exterior in red brick, ensures that she would have difficulty in recognising it as such could she visit it now.

To effect a complete breach with the past, the new mansion was even baptised with a new name - "Boyle Farm". A piece of self-indulgence on the part of the then owner, a wealthy widow named the Hon. Charlotte Boyle Walsingham.

Before that it was called "Ford's Farm", or more usually just "Fords", and this is the name by which it is referred to in all the old title deeds and estate papers.

How then did this name "Fords" arise? Several suggestions have been advanced. Including one that it derived from a ford existing across the Thames close by. (2) Nevertheless, there seems little doubt but that it is an eponymous adaptation from a family of the name of Ford by whom this and other property in the district was owned in Tudor times.

Among the court rolls of the manor of Imber or Ember, in which lordship the lands were then situated, it is recorded that on the 27 September 1611 William Leigh "alienated to Robert Hatton certain property in Thames Ditton, "formerly Fords and afterwards Moors".(3) As was common at that time these lands were held partly by a money rent and partly by service in kind. The rent was £1 7s. 2½d. a year. The service was to supply labour for one day's work at harvest time, and by providing hay for the lord of the manor's horse whenever he rode to church. (4)

From the same records the ownership of the land can be traced from William Leigh, or Lee as it was sometimes spelled, through Bernard More, or Moor, to an Edmund Ford. (3) This Edmund Ford was almost certainly the son of the Erasmus Forde whose elaborate monument, with a brass plate dated 1553, can be seen in St. Nicholas' church.

Herein then lies the reason for the name which the property was to carry for the next two hundred years.

The estate as it was conveyed by Edmund Ford to Bernard More in 1556 was of considerable size, made up of plots extending into the parishes and manors of "Thamys Dytton, Long Dytton, Claygate, Weston, Imworth (Imber), Chessyndon, and Talworth"; and included a house, garden, orchard, 300 acres of land, 20 acres of meadow, 200 acres of pasture, 20 acres of wood, 4 wharves, and 10 shillings rent". (5)

The Leigh family had intermarried with both the Fords and the Hattons, and throughout the Tudor period the names of all three families crop up as owners of pieces of land scattered around the parish of Thames Ditton.

The house in which the Leighs had lived was described as being "near unto the church". It was probably identical with that at one time called "the Priest's House", and almost certainly stood on a piece of land called "Charton Haw", which later deeds prove to have been on the western side of High Street, somewhat south of the church. (6)

The land transferred to Robert Hatton in 1611, however, was definitely on the east of the road, but what house, if any, then existed on it is uncertain. However, a subsequent mansion, which became "Fords", soon appeared, and which his descendants continued to hold for the next one hundred and fifty years. In 1664 the house was the second largest in Thames Ditton, exceeded in size only by Ember Court. (7).

Next - The Hatton Family

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