The A-maze-ing history of a Southsea mansion
Occasionally several things come together from disparate places to form the “perfect” enquiry.
Last week, a staff training session, a TV series, databases and a few books came together in exactly this way.
Our Map Librarian was delivering a refresher session for staff, reminding them of the treasures to be found in his corner of the first floor. Inevitably perhaps, one of our most popular treasures was brought out for another look – our set of 1:500 scale maps of 1860’s Portsmouth. The level of detail on these maps has to be seen to be believed – fountains, trees, urinals and streetlamps are marked, and names attached to many buildings and small alleys which never received the attention of the map makers at other scales. Things are revealed that may otherwise have remained hidden from the historical record. Such as the maze on the edge of Southsea Common…
Situated in a private garden, the maze was substantial, and set amongst the carefully tended grounds of a large house. The house, named “Beaulieu House” stood on an expansive triangular plot bordered by what are now Western Parade, Nightingale Road and Kent Road.
With their interested sparked by the recent “A House in Time” BBC series, one attendee was heard to ponder aloud about the house, its inhabitants, and how it came to disappear. A-ha, I said! I can help with that! For the very same questions had jumped into my head when I’d noticed the maze on a previous visit to the Map Library, and I’d done a bit of digging to see what I could find out. And as it turns out, the story was quite an interesting one.
Until the nineteenth century much of the area we now call Southsea comprised of small farms, open grassland and undrained marshland. There is mention of a dairy farm in the vicinity of the site, but little else other than an old inn reputed to have been used by smugglers, called the Cricketers Tavern.
The name Beaulieu House first appears in the census of 1851, containing a household comprised Mrs Elizabeth Green, a Royal Navy widow of 60, who had enough money to be self-sufficient. Her brother, Major Ferris Charles Robb (of the Hon. East India Company) lived with her, and they listed a visitor, Miss Louisa Atterson on their census schedule. There were also four servants living at the house; footman Abraham Davis (24), cook Mary Ann Leavins (31), housemaid Ellen Dent (24, and from Germany), and under-housemaid Sarah Flek (29). Mrs Green’s husband, Captain James Green had left her a wealthy woman, and it’s possible to glean some idea of her lifestyle from the sale of goods which took place after her death at Beaulieu House on 13 November 1858.
In 1859, another widow took over the house; Mrs Caroline Jones (nee Arnaud), whose late husband General George Jones had for nine years been the Commandant of the Portsmouth Division of the Royal Marines. He had died on 30 January 1857, aged 77 years. The couple had been living at Woodside, a large house in Queens Crescent, Southsea before she made her move to Beaulieu House in 1859. Caroline and George had married on 21 June 1838 at St Thomas’ in Old Portsmouth and were childless, but they had loyal servants, and her household over the decades reflected this.
In all three census’ that list Caroline at Beaulieu House, she is shown alongside her faithful coachman John Boyd, who was born in County Antrim, Ireland. He had previously worked for the couple at Woodside as early as 1851. Her footman Thomas Ninnim is present on the 1861 and 1871 schedules, but died at the age of 40 in 1877. A changing variety of cooks and housemaids come and go, but John Boyd remained a constant. He was married, and had three children. His wife and children spent many years at 15 Ashby Place (just off Osborne Road) before moving to Langford Lodge in Nightingale Road. This lodge was on the property of Beaulieu House, and it remained occupied by John and his wife Sarah after Caroline had died, remaining standing amongst the development that was to come. In fact, a stroll along Nightingale Road today reveals three modern townhouses standing in the place where this Lodge once was, an unnatural gap in the tall terraces which were erected in the late 1880’s.
Caroline’s death on 15 February 1883, at the age of 83, marked the end of an era for Beaulieu House. The plot on which it sat had become a prime location for potential development, and indeed one of the first things that happened was that land at the northern edge of the plot was given to the City Council for the purposes of widening the road, which had become a main thoroughfare. The Cricketers Tavern, which stood adjacent to the southern end of the plot closed at this time, and was redeveloped into the much larger, grander Grosvenor Hotel. The contents of the house and garden were sold off in May and June of 1883, and the house and garden themselves followed in July 1883. Perhaps inevitably, the large gardens which had been such a feature were afterwards divided up and sold off as building plots in their own right, giving way to what are now the houses on the western side of Nightingale Road and fronting the Common on Western Parade. That the development was successful can be evidenced by a report of the Master Builders of Portsmouth, who noted that the rateable value of “the site formerly occupied by the residence and garden of Mrs General Jones” had risen from £250 before development, to £4,390! (Portsmouth Evening News, 18 April 1889)
But what of the house itself? The gardens may have disappeared underneath terraces of tall Victorian townhouses, but the house had an entirely different fate in store.
Purchased by Joseph Lush, a local businessman, Beaulieu House was to become his residence. With the land it stood on being so valuable, however, Joseph decided that although he liked the house, it would make better business sense to sell off the land it sat on. So that’s exactly what he did. And to get around the problem of the house being *on* the land, he simply moved it!
Yes, you read that right. He moved the house.
It was taken apart brick by brick, and rebuilt on a new, more socially prestigious plot in the newly formed Craneswater Avenue. Accounts of this amazing feat of engineering were written up in the local press, giving us an insight into the process, and informing us that Joseph employed the most well-known builders and architects in the area at the time to do it.
Rebuilt, the house was also renamed. Norman Court, as it was henceforth known, stood proudly in prime position near Canoe Lake for the next 80 years, at first inhabited by the Lush family, then, by the time of the 1911 census, by Sir Alfred Collingwood Hughes, a baronet. At the time of the 1939 Register being taken, Charles and Maude Dye, a retired building contractor and his wife were living in the house, with neighbours who were solicitors, company executives and physicians.
Although Norman Court survived the wartime bombing that did so much damage across the city, it eventually succumbed to the wrecking ball as so many of the large houses in the Craneswater area did. As demand for large houses fell, those buildings which could not easily be converted into flats became once again valued in terms of the land on which they stood, and in the 1960’s, Norman Court was replaced with a block of flats which retains the name. Today there is no sign of the house that once stood on either site, and alas there seem to be very few photographic images of it.
Compiling this history utilized online newspaper collections, Digimap Ancient Roam, our collection of local history books (942.2792 POR), as well as the resources available at Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast.co.uk. With my interest re-sparked by the questions in that training session, my next step is to visit the Portsmouth History Centre to see whether they can help with any extra photographs, as a house worth moving brick by brick must surely have been something to behold…
Research and article by Paula Thompson. For further information or if you have any other information about Beaulieu House, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org