The History of Hill House

With special thanks to Brian Russell and The Wargrave Local History Society

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Contents


About "The Hill" or "Hill House"

Above : Hill House

 

A fairly comprehensive account of Hill House has been written by Brian Russell in The Second Book of Wargrave.

It was with great excitement that David A’Bear and Richard Lloyd of The Wargrave Local History Society visited the house by arrangement with the then present owners, Ward Consultancy PLC, prior to the Family Gathering in May 2002. The author took some rather hasty snapshots of the interior, and was offered copies of two documents held by the company, supposedly transcribed and adapted by the estate agents from Brian Russell’s research of the property around that time. These documents should be read in the knowledge that some of their information regarding the early history seems incorrect, and does not agree with Brian’s text.

It is described as:

A Grade II listed building of early eighteenth century construction with eighteenth century additions, the rear being much older than this, dating from the seventeenth century. It was built as a farmhouse and was probably one of the first brick-built houses in East Berkshire.

But it is predated by the old Coachhouse, which stands across the courtyard from the main house. From its construction - a wooden frame, in-filled with brick - one can be fairly certain that this was built even earlier in the seventeenth century.

Brian Russell states the year of construction of the oldest part of the house to be 1612, whereas the Ward document states 1621. The same document continues:

The farm called "The Hill" - though not the house as we now know it - dates from the fourteenth century. It is first mentioned in official records of 1340, in a petition from the villagers of Wargrave to the Abbot of Wallingford, which requested him to present to the King the reasons why they could not pay their taxes. One of the 140 signatories was John Atte Bear, then owner of "The Hill". From this date, the A'Bear family kept the parcel of land, and the house they built on it, in their family continuously for the next five hundred years.

The 1340 record makes no mention of The Hill, the earliest known record being in 1632. See John Abeare (1576 – 1647/8) gen 4J.

It is true that Ernest Pope wrote about the donation of a bell to the church of Waltham St Lawrence in 1618 when John A’Bear was already living at The Hill, but this is thought to be an incorrect statement. See “The Bells”.

Again, in the Ward document, the following statement is not strictly true:

The original plot, described in a land tenure document of the time as “A toft and court at Hare Hatch and another toft and courtyard called Childes Garden, containing one acre and one rood by estimation” was enlarged up to and during the Stuart period, by which time there were some fifteen acres concentrated around what is now Hill House.

The record of the Sequence of Land Occupation held at the Berkshire Record Office names this land in just such a way, descending through the family from 1478 (when it was purchased from William Webbe) until 1563. A study of the numerous A’Bear wills indicates that many plots of land and properties were bought, sold and passed down through the years, both in and near Harehatch, but there does not seem to be any proof that it was Childes Garden which stood where Hill House now stands, nor in fact that Childes Garden was still owned by the family in the early seventeenth century. Indeed, the above record confirms that Childes Garden passed down through the descendants of William (c1470 - >1526) until at least the seventeenth century by which time “The Hill” appears in documents relating to the other branch of the family living in Wargrave, namely descendants of John (c1475 – 1550).

The only reason to suppose that the family occupied the same site down through the ages is the legend to be found in Burns' "History of Henley-upon-Thames" (1861), which states:

"The family of A'Bear still holds a farm at Harehatch (Wargrave). It is said that when Charles II was passing near it, one of his courtiers remarked that "that family" had held it for 500 years, and that the farm had never been more or less in quantity, which gave occasion for a witty remark of the Merry Monarch."

Charles II ruled from 1660 until 1685, a period when The Hill was already established. Five hundred years before this would take our association with Harehatch back to very early times and give a time span of occupancy exceeding seven hundred years.

It is conceivable that Charles II passed by and observed the farmhouse, as it stood close to the main road from London to Bath, now the A4. But that the farm had never been more or less in quantity by the late seventeenth century is questionable, as both the 1632 indenture concerning John Abeare the elder on the hill (discussed below) and his subsequent will of 1647 show they were acquiring land and property.

Literature regarding the Coachhouse reads as follows:

The Coachhouse is the oldest of the buildings at Hill House and dates from the early 17th century. The method of construction - a wooden framework in-filled with brick - is clear evidence that it pre-dates all the other buildings on the site, which are made entirely of brick.

Although its appearance is that of a small barn, it is highly likely that it was built as a farmhouse, with quarters for both animals and humans. The window frames in the timbers at the eastern end of the large part of the building indicate that people must have occupied it, as windows were a luxury, which would certainly not have been afforded to livestock alone. It was common practice at that time to keep animals in the same building as their owners, an arrangement that may seem a little unhygienic to our modern sensibilities, but which had the advantage that the warmth from their bodies helped to compensate for the lack of central heating during the winter months.

Above : Side view. The oldest part of the building is on the right.

Below : View from the rear of the early 17th century building

 

Once The Hill was built, the little barn was probably used to store animals, crops and feedstuffs such as hay; it is likely that it also housed the farm carts and other vehicles. The curvature of the timbers over the large door indicates that a high arched doorway was once a feature of the building, built so that carts could be driven in, fully laden. The horse-drawn coaches that were kept by successive owners of Hill House right up to 1926 would also have been kept in what could now more properly be called The Coachhouse. With the advent of the motorcar, the Coachhouse was used to garage the owners' cars, and it is possible that the family chauffeur had his quarters here too.

By the nineteen fifties, the coachhouse had fallen into a state of serious neglect, but when plans were put forward to convert it into the Hill House Conference and Training Centre, it was found that the original timber structure was strong enough to form the basis of the works. Great care was taken during the restoration work to preserve as many of its original features as possible, and today (2002), the barn forms an ideal training room for Ward Consultancy PLC, being light and spacious, and full of character.

The first known reference to “the hill” appears in an indenture dated 30th November 1632. This deed describes a transfer of land and was originally summarised as follows (Ref:  pg 37 TAFOW):

30 November 1632

Henry Thackham  (gent) of Henley upon Thames and John Fforde of Wargrave transfer land at the death of Henry Thackham (senior) to John Abeare the elder of the hill ?near? Hare Hatch (yeoman) – for the sum of 68.

- 3 acres of arable land called hare hatch close, in Old Field*, adjoining hare hatch lane. Thomas Millet’s and Thomas Ford’s land and Sheplands to the west. Richard ?Pirkett?’s land and Keene field to the east. John Ford to the south. Widow Martin to the north. Signed by William Ffloyde (senior), John Gunnell, Thomas A’Bear and Abraham Ffloyde.

 *TAFOW states New Field, which is an error.

This deed is also listed by Anthony Hickson, in which he describes the reference to John Abeare as John Abeare of Holden on the Hill Near Harehatch. This was a transcript which is clearly incorrect, “of Holden on” and “the elder of” being somewhat similar to the eye when handwritten. (See Photo 1).

In fact, the first part of this indenture reads as follows:

This indenture made the thirtieth day of November Anno Domini 1632 and in the eighth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord Charles by the grace of God of England Scotland France and Ireland King Defender of the Faith ?hereto? between Henry Thackham of Henley upon Thames in the county of Oxon gent and John Ford of Wargrave in the county of Berks yeoman of the one part, and John Abeare the elder on the hill, near harehatch in the parish of Wargrave aforesaid ? of the other part witnesseth that the said Henry Thackham and John Ford for and in consideration of the sum of three scores and eight pounds of good and lawful money of England unto the said Henry Thackham in hand paid by the said John Abeare at or before the ensealing and delivery of their ?.The receipt whereof the said Henry Thackham doth hereby acknowledge and thereof and of every part and press? Thereof doth exonerate acquit release and discharge the said John Abeare his heirs executors and administrators and assignees and entry of them forever by their ?. And also for and in consideration of the sum of five shillings paid to the said John Ford and for divers other good causes and considerations them thereunto moving have aliened granted bargained sold ensconced and confirmed and in and by their ? do alien grant bargain sell ensconce and confirm unto the said John Abeare and his heirs all that close of arable land containing by estimation three acres be it more or less called hare hatch close lying and adjoining unto a lane in Wargrave aforesaid called harehatch lane and bounding on a close there of Thomas Millet on the west. And all those three acres of arable land be they more or less lying and being in several parts of a certain field in Wargrave aforesaid called Oldfield, whereas one acre lyeth between the land of Richard Pirkett on the east and the land of Thomas Ford on the west and abutteth on harehatch lane on the north and the other two acres lie together between the land of Widow Martin on the north and the land of John Ford on the south and abuts on a field called Sheplands on the west and Keenefield on the east. All ? now in the service or occupation of Henry Thackham deceased father of the said Henry party to their consent …

 

Amongst the signatories of this 1632 deed are John Gunnell and Thomas Abeare. From these details and the family tree information it is fairly certain that John the Elder on the hill near Harehatch is John gen 4J (1576 -1647/8). John Gunnell was his future son-in-law (or maybe his future son-in-law’s father, who witnessed the inventory of this John Abear’s father in 1616), and Thomas was this John Abear’s brother. In this deed of 1632 he named himself “the Elder” because he had a son John aged 32 years living in the locality at this time.

Thus in 1632 this John Abeare is acquiring more land near Harehatch, and he calls himself “the Elder on the hill, near Harehatch”. Taken literally, this phrase makes it clear that the name “the hill” originally referred to a different location to that of Hill House as we know it, for Hill House is in Harehatch, and is not really located on a prominent hill. Since the oldest part of Hill House predates this deed, it would seem that until at least 1632 it had another name, and was built earlier either for our family or another family. This reference also seems to negate any notion that the name was chosen to commemorate some great historical family event, possibly to add status to the family’s name.

Why should this name extension suddenly arise? The answer would seem to be for the sake of clarity. Referring again to the family tree of this period, there were two John A’Bears alive at the time who were both of similar ages, quite closely related and living within Wargrave. If both men were also prominent within the village community, it would be easy for misunderstanding or confusion to arise; in any case legal documents would certainly need to be unambiguous. This notion is further supported by the fact that the other John adopted a name extension around the same time, namely John of the Porch. The origin of this name is uncertain, but could relate to the church, as church porches were commonly used as meeting places or ‘drop in centres’ for villagers around this time. Two such references are recorded, namely a legal case dated 1603 – 1625, and his burial record of 1639 (although in his will he is named simply as “John the Elder of Wargrave”). By elimination, John of the Porch was John gen 4W (1562 – 1639), and when he died his name extension also disappeared. This may be explained by the fact that his son predeceased him and his grandson was then only a boy, so there would have been no confusion for a while. Or perhaps the Porch title only matched that one individual.

If in 1632 “the hill” was a location near Harehatch, it raises the question as to exactly where it was located. This is a topic for further study, but Mumbery Hill would be a good guess. Here the road out of Wargrave village rises towards Harehatch and is close to land such as Oldfield, Kenefield, Milley Field and Woodrow on which parcels of land were bought, owned or sold during (and long before) the seventeenth century. It would also have been located close to the main road from London to Bath, now the A4, for King Charles to see as he rode by. Also, later in 1702, property at Mumbery Hill was sold.

The next known reference to “the hill” occurs four years later, when the above John’s brother Thomas died:

An Inventory of the goods and chattels of Thomas Abeare late of Wargrave in the county of Berks Yeoman deceased dated and appraised the 22nd of November Anno Domini 1636, by John Abear the Elder, Thomas Newberry ? ? and John Abear of the Hill.

Here, the previous John Abeare “the elder on the hill near Harehatch” is aged 60 years and still living (he died in 1647/8) but now calls himself simply “the Elder”. His only son John takes the new title “of the hill”. John of the Porch was still living at this time (he died in 1639), so there could be a case for making a distinction, but why did he transfer the title to his son? The reason could only be that by then his son had taken over the running of the farm. “On the hill” becoming “of the hill”, provides no real evidence to suggest any movement here from the original site on the hill near Harehatch to the site of Hill House.

The next “hill” reference is the inscription on the bell at Waltham St Lawrence dated 1681. Here it is written wholly in capital letters THE GIFT OF JOHN ABEERE OF THE HILL again giving no clear indication of any move to the site of Hill House in Harehatch. And future references to the hill in 1702, 1704, 1744 and 1785 are all worded and written “of the hill” i.e. in small letters. This title may well have continued to avoid further confusion, for throughout the eighteenth century there remained two branches of the family with contemporary John A’Bears living in Wargrave. Only in 1818 do we see “of ‘The Hill’” written with initial capital letters, suggesting a property title. Thus we may easily believe that Hill House in Harehatch was bought and named by our family long after it was built, and chosen to commemorate the association with the long-standing original site on the hill near Harehatch.

 

But it still remains a possibility that the house that came to be known as Hill House in Harehatch was built by our family around 1612. To appreciate this we need to go back to the lengthy and detailed will of John Abeare “The Elder of Harehatch” dated 26th July 1616. He was John on the hill near Harehatch’s father, and in his will he states:

I will, bequeath and devise unto Thomas and Mathewe Abeare, my two sons, All that my messuage or tenement wherein I now dwell with all houses, edifices, buildings, barns, stables, orchards, gardens and two yard lands be it more or less, called or known by the name of Kuckholts with all lands, grounds, commons, feedings, members and appurtenances to the said messuage or tenement and two yard lands belonging or appertaining in Wargrave aforesaid, Excepting such part of my said house and two yard lands with the third part of all members and appurtenance thereto appertaining which of right doth appertain and is due unto Mary, my wife, and her assigns for her thirds or dower during her life in the same, To have and to hold the said messuage or tenement and two yard lands and all other the premises aforesaid , Except before Excepted unto the said Thomas and Mathewe, my said two sons, and their assigner and assigns from the day of the death or departure out of this life of me the said John Abeare during the full term of ten years from thence forth then next ensuing and fully to be complete and ended, yielding and paying their pre-yearly during the said term to John A beare, now of Henley-upon-Thames in the County of Oxon, being my eldest son, and his heirs or assigns ten shillings of lawful money of England at the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel only if it be lawfully demanded…The remainder in fee of all and every the premises aforesaid after the expiration of the said ten years shall wholly remain, revert and come unto John Abeare. my said eldest son, his heirs and assigns forever.

He is clearly still living at his main property “in Harehatch”, then called Kuckholts. His younger sons Thomas and Matthew are then aged 34 and 29 years respectively and are both unmarried. He states that his oldest son John, then aged 40 years, is at that time living at Henley.

John Abeare the Elder of Harehatch died that same year, leaving a widow, Mary, who lived until 1637.

Thomas, Matthew and widow Mary would have lived on in Kuckholts for the time being, and John Abeare of Henley, together with his wife and three grown up children must have returned from Henley some time after 1616 but before 1632 when he named himself John Abeare on the hill near Harehatch.

It therefore seems that in 1616 Kuckholts may have been the original name of Hill House in Harehatch, and that it did not pass down to his eldest son John. Instead he returned from Henley and set up nearby on the hill near Harehatch, and was therefore the first to use this title.

If the brick built cottage that forms the rear of the present “Hill House” was erected in about 1612 whilst John the Elder’s son was living away in Henley, then John the Elder had it built a few years before his death. The inventory of his assets drawn up in 1616 gives a clear description of the size of his dwelling place named Kuckholts – a hall, a kitchen with larder and a chamber off the kitchen downstairs, and upstairs a loft and two chambers. Outside there was a barn, a lesser barn, stables and a yard. (See John A’Bear gen 3J). This description could well fit the Coachhouse, and so it does seem possible that Hill House was originally named Kuckholts and was renamed later on.

It was once thought that the name Kuckholts was a misspelling of “Kockhutte”. High Cocket or Cock Hutt appears in the 1818 enclosure award where it describes an area of land between Scarletts Lane and the Bath Road, which is crossed by two (now vanished) lanes, namely Little Bell Lane and High Cock Hutt Lane. This is opposite Hill House, across Milley lane/Ruscombe Road, and only a short distance away from it. However, having inspected the document, this no longer seems likely.

So if Hill House was originally Kuckholts, what might have been the sequence of events?

c1612   The Coachouse named Kuckholts was built by John the Elder, perhaps as a home for his adult sons Thomas and Matthew?

1616     John the Elder died. The Coachhouse became the property of sons Thomas and Matthew with their widowed mother Mary “for ten years” until 1626. Thomas also inherited another property called “Larges”. [Matthew did not inherit other property, but eleven acres of land]. Eldest son John of Henley was living in Henley at this time.

I give. bequeath and devise unto Thomas Abeare, my said son, All that my messuage or tenement situate in Harehatch aforesaid called Larges with all barns, stables, edifices, buildings, orchards, gardens and one yard land be it more or less with the members, profits and appurtenances thereto appertaining which I lately purchased to me and my heirs and assigns of one Henry Streatyn, late of Wargrave aforesaid deceased, To have and to hold the said messuage or tenement and one yard lands with their members, profits and appurtenances to the said Thomas Abeare, my said son, his heirs and assigns and to his and their own proper use and behouse forever.

1621    It seems likely John of Henley returned to Wargrave by this year. His wife Anne died in 1621, and she is recorded in the Wargrave burials list. Certainly the Lay Subsidy for Wargrave (1623/1624) includes a John Abeare, which may well be this John late of Henley, taxed on Land. (Ref :  pg 270 TSBOW). Also appearing in the list, but not adjacent, is his brother Thomas Abeare. This record is repeated in 1625. Indeed, the Lay Subsidy for Wargrave (1628/1629) includes a John Abeare, thought to be this John, and a John Abeare Jnr (his son aged about 28 years and unmarried) both taxed on Land. (Ref :  pg 271 TSBOW). The two names are listed well apart, which might suggest they lived apart at this time.

Whenever John of Henley returned, it seems likely that he also continued to maintain land in Henley, for his will of 1647 bequeaths such lands.

1625    Thomas married, so may have lived at Larges from then on. [This property was sold by Elizabeth Simeon in 1730, so Larges could not be Hill House].

1626     According to the terms of his father’s will, Kuckholts legally became his eldest son John of Henley’s estate, by which time he had a grown up son and two grown up daughters, all three still unmarried. Though he now owned Kuckholts, his mother and brother Matthew probably lived on in that house under the heading “heirs and assigns” until mother Mary died in 1637, perhaps even until Matthew died in 1648.

1632     John of Henley & family had certainly returned to Wargrave by now under the new title “John Abeare the Elder, living on the hill near Harehatch”. He buys 3 acres in Oldfield (near Mumbrey Hill).

Also, his son John married in this year, and may soon have wanted his own property?

1636     Thomas (at Larges) died leaving widow Joan(ne) and two children. John Abear the Elder and John Abear of the Hill are mentioned.

1637     Mother Mary died. Perhaps around this time the new brick built house was built for son John and his family, and the Coachhouse remained Matthew’s home or became simply a barn.

1647     John Abeare the Elder of Wargrave died in 1647.

1702     Property at Mumbery Hill along with adjacent land was sold to Edward Simeon, schoolmaster by John Abeare, yeoman of the hill.

1704     John Abeare, father and son, were both described as ‘of the hill’. This suggests by now ‘the hill’ refers to a property or location, and was not used simply to avoid confusion.

 

The succession of owners of The Hill in Harehatch seems to run as follows:

 

John Abeare   (c1535 – 1616)    gen 3J  who built the Coachhouse

John Abeare   (c1612 – 1647/8)   gen 4J

John Abeare (c1600 – >1665)   gen 5J who added the farmhouse

John Abeere (1634 – 1685)   gen 6J – probably donated the Waltham bell in 1681.

John A’Beere (c1654 – 1711)   gen 7J – probably named on the St Mary’s bell in 1688.

John A’Beare (1677 – 1743)   gen 8J – Head of Family

John A’Bear  (1698 – 1771)  gen 9A

It was the last named ancestor who married the wealthy widow, Alice Burton, in 1744. Alice had inherited her own fortune from her first husband, John Whitfield, a prosperous land agent and speculator. Together the couple prospered and the grander rooms that now make up the greater part of the house were added to the farmhouse. The first extensions were on the same level as the original house, which became the servants' quarters. Rocque’s map of 1761 shows the house, barn and stable together with the Horse and Groom public house, all four buildings then being adjacent to the Bath Road.

Then followed:

John A’Bear gen 10A (1745 – 1795)

He married Mary Newell, and the house was then further extended in the latter part of the century, this time on a higher level so that the Doric columns set on stone plinths and the cast iron and lead fanlight over the front door should dominate the road frontage, displaying the owner's status to all who passed by. [Nowadays there is an interesting half-octagonal bay window where the front door once stood].

Successive generations followed John's example of marrying well and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the A'Bear family continued to prosper.

These owners were:

John A’Bear gen 11A (1775 – 1845)

John Burton A’Bear gen 12A (1816 – 1881)

In the census of 1871, the records show a household of nine family members - five under the age of ten years - and five servants. However by 1891 the owner, widow Jane A’Bear (nee Jane May), is recorded as head of a household of just five members - including a sister-in-law, a daughter and one servant. 

The estate was sold in 1901, breaking the long association with the A 'Bear family. . Farming was not easy at this time and John Burton had been struggling to keep the place going since his father's death. He had been obliged to continue paying an annuity out of the estate to his father's elder brother, but in 1894 the latter died. At least John was then released from this financial obligation, but the agricultural depression had been at its deepest - even two parliamentary enquiries had done little to alleviate the plight of those trying to earn a living from arable land. By this time too his widowed mother Jane Ann who was still living there was elderly, his Aunt Alice who had helped run the farm all her life had passed away, his brothers Thomas Newell and John Edmund had emigrated to New Zealand (where John had since died), and his brother Alfred had married and moved away from the area. There were literally no men left to run the farm, and the only way forward was to sell up.

Soon parts of Hill House were sold to take on new roles. The barn and the tract of land between Milley Lane and the Twyford Road were taken over by the nurserymen, Waterer, Son and Crisps. The barn was later sold on to Vortice Limited, and was restored to its present state in 1987. Although Waterers sold their other interests in Hare Hatch in the 1970s, much of the land is still under cultivation.

Hill House meanwhile had a succession of private owners during the twentieth century and was also used to accommodate a number of evacuees during the Second World War. Few changes were made to the house itself, apart from moving the main entrance to its present position on the north side in about 1960 - Milley Lane was by now too busy to permit cars to be parked safely outside the old front door. In 1987 a new era in the history of the house opened when Hill House became the home of WARD CONSULTANCY PLC and has since become the Headquarters for Ward Financial Holdings Limited encompassingWard Consultancy PLC, Perceptron Limited, Perceptron Medta Limited, Hill House Centre Limited.

 

Above :Front view of Hill House

Below : View from the grounds

 

Above : Plan of Hill House

Below : Aerial view of the site

 

Above : Car park area in the grounds

Below : Rear view of the house from the car park

Below : The Coachhouse

 

Further pictures

 


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