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The Tragedy of Copped Hall

The effects of the First World War were wide and long lasting, not just for those who were directly involved in it, one way or another , but for the architectural heritage of Britain. The deaths of so many sons of the upper class meant that estates that had been run so successfully up to 1914 were plunged into uncertainty. Great mansions were sold off or demolished. A different fate befell one great house and its astonishing gardens in Essex, as some clippings found among the papers of the late Peter Haining, who must have passed the site regularly on his route to and from his Essex home, tell.

Today, for those driving clockwise along the M25 the roofless ruins of Copped Hall, situated on the edge of woodland just south-east of Epping, are an intriguing sight. For most of the War the mansion, which had replaced a more interesting Elizabethan house and gardens in 1753, was a cherished family home. The elaborate gardens, a late Victorian theatrical tour de force by C.E Kempe, better known for his stained glass designs, were remarkable enough to feature in a lengthy article in Country Life in 1910. But seven years later, on one night in November 1917 all was to change. In a newspaper feature dated May 7th, 1965,from the Haining archive, an agent for the estate told how  the family had climbed onto the roof to watch a German Zeppelin cruise eastwards towards the coast:

‘…It is believed that someone dropped a cigarette, which slipped down through the leads. By the morning the house was gutted, although gallant efforts were made with an old hand-operated fire pump…’

The reporter then traced a family member in Wiltshire who mostly remembered ‘the great help given by the estate people which, in 1917, meant mainly old men and girls working on the farm, in saving things from the house.’

Old men and girls and an old hand-operated fire pump! Copped Hall didn’t stand a chance. The fire completely destroyed the roof and severely damaged the interior and so the family decided to abandon the Hall for a cottage elsewhere on the estate. Had the war not depleted the estate of able-bodied men who might have maintained and operated the sort of modest fire engine that most estates owned at that time, the house may have been saved. As it was, even if the family could  have afforded to restore their former home, the loss of skilled labour brought about by the War, meant that both house and gardens were left to the elements for many decades.

After the death of the owner in the forties there was talk of knocking the place down, but luckily this was resisted. In the decades that followed the 3,000 acre estate and its ruin was eagerly eyed by assorted house builders, hoteliers and golf course builders, but nothing was done. Eventually the Corporation of London bought the estate to protect it. The Friends of Copped Hall was also set up with a view to restoring both house and gardens. However, although the fabric of the Hall has been stabilised, the building still lacks a roof and it is unlikely that the interior will ever be restored to its original condition. As for the famed gardens, restoration by volunteers has proved much less costly, although what has been saved of Kempe’s original masterpiece is a shadow of what stood when the photographer from Country Life paid his visit in 1910. [RMH]

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