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Pre-Scouting Gilwell

Gilwell Park was donated to The Scout Association in 1919.  However the site has a fascinating 600 year history before the arrival of the first Scouts.


Earliest Records

Gilwell’s recorded history begins in 1407 when part of the Estate was called Gyldiefords and owned by John Crow.  By 1422, the land had been renamed Gillrolfes after a new owner, Richard Rolfe.  The property then became known as Great Gilwell and Little Gilwell which incorporated a wooden shack where the current Gilwell Farm now stands.  Gilwell was named after the combination of Gill, old English for glen and well as there are a number of wells on site.  Greater Gilwell encompassed what is now the Boy’s Field.


Adjacent to Gilwell was a 14 acre property acquired by Richard Osborne in the 1420s  and he constructed a dwelling known as Osborne Hall.


Highway Robbery

The next most significant event in Gilwell’s history occurred around 1736 with the arrival of the infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin.  His wife Ester Palmer and their young son lived in a cottage next to Gilwell Green, this area is now the stables situated off Gilwell Lane.  Turpin  used Epping Forest as a hideaway after robbing the rich as they travelled through the Forest on their way to or from London.  His reign of crime came to an end in 1739 when he was caught, tried and executed at York.


Society Hotspot

A new owner in William Skrimshaw arrived in 1754 when he bought Gilwell and Osborne’s Hall.  His holding was acquired by Leonard Tresilian in 1771 and increased the property size to 34 acres in 1778.  Tresilian’s main business was in warehousing and was based in Brompton, Middlesex.  He also made improvements to Osborne Hall by covering the timber framed exterior with slate tiles to make the structure look like stone and therefore make it grander than it actually was!  Tresilian had three daughters with his first wife, Margaret Holland.  She died and he married Elizabeth Davie Fawson in 1777, but made arrangements that his eldest child, Margaret should inherit his property assets.


Margaret had married William Bassett Chinnery in October 1790 and inherited Gilwell, Osborne’s Hall and warehouses in Vine Street, London in 1792, at the time married women could not hold property in their own right so they passed to her husband.  William Bassett was born in London in 1766 and raised at the family home in Gough Square.  He rose rapidly in the Treasury from Junior Secretary in 1783 to Chief Clerk sixteen years later.  William and Margaret had twins, George Robert and Caroline in 1791 and Walter in 1793.


The Chinnery family moved from London to the Estate in the 1790s and renamed the Hall, Gilwell Hall.  William over the next two decades took every opportunity to expand the Estate by buying up land around it.  Margaret was a keen horticulturalist, laying out fashionable gardens, walks and statuary, some of which can still be discerned today.  She was also a lover of the arts and encouraged musicians, poets and artists by holding soirees at Gilwell.  The hospitality even extended to King George III, such were the aspirations of the Chinnerys!  The following account by Lord Glenbervie illustrates their lifestyle at the time:


“One of my hostesses, Agnes Berry, took me to dine at Mr Chinnery’s where we had an excellent dinner, choice wines, choice spirits and a considerable portion of beauty for Lord Spencer and Viotti were there and the bluish stocking Lady Charlemont.  Besides little Miss Chinnery, who may claim a place among the geniuses as well as the beauties, Chinnery’s highest pretensions are that of having been Private Secretary to George Rose, he has attained the station of one of four first clerks to the Treasury.  Yet by command of money, which nobody knows how Chinnery has acquired, and ambitious of good company, good houses, excellent cooks, and excellent cellars, by frequent dinners and musical and dancing parties, in which accomplishments the Chinnerys excel, they strive to purchase a society or at least the pretence of all that is most distinguished for rank, beauty, youth, talent and wealth.  Chinnery, though a coxcomb and but ill-disguised under tolerable French and Italian, and a profusion of civility, has a better tone and more vivacity and lightness of conversation, making a better bow, and a better address than his counterparts, whose manners, looks and personality are in the highest degree clumsy and ungraceful.”


Society Scandal!

In 1809 the Chinnery family commissioned major work on the House and Estate, a year later they bought Branshot Manor, now known as the Branchet Field.  At the same time there were questions at the highest levels over the source of the family wealth with correspondence between the Prime Minister and the Lord of the Treasury.  William Chinnery managed to gloss over the scale of his corruption for the moment but the irregularities weren’t going to go away.  The end came when a Superintendent in New South Wales wrote to Spencer Percival, Prime Minister, complaining about missing salaries.  An investigation was launched with the Audit Office which uncovered his theft as being more than £80,000 and had been concealed by forging accounts of the ships carrying the money being attacked by pirates.  To avoid the consequences of his actions he fled to Gothenburg in Sweden on 2 April 1812.


If the prospect of public disgrace wasn’t enough to deal with they had to contend with the loss of two of their children.  Walter Grenfell Chinnery died in 1802 of influenza, aged nine, after visiting Paris, his mother erected Walter’s Urn in his memory, set in the children’s garden, she placed flowers on it every day.  Caroline Chinnery caught whooping cough in March 1811 and had recovered two months later.  In response her mother put up ‘Colonna Carolina’ as a thank you to God for sparing her life.  Unfortunately she died aged 21, a year later of the same disease, a day after her father fled into exile.  Their remaining child George Robert Chinnery was given a job at the Treasury in order that Margaret had an income as she had no other family to turn to.


Walter's Urn and Caroline's Column


The Government requisitioned the Estate in March 1812 so it could be sold to cover the money taken by William Chinnery.  The auction only raised £6,400 of which the House amounted to half of this figure.  Margaret was forced to move to Charles Street in Manchester Square and wrote the following account of losing the Estate.  “… It was an earthly paradise, in which the delightful harmony resulting from the perfect accord of duty and inclination were felt and enjoyed.  Those who have been witness of our manner of living at Gilwell can vouch for the truth of what I say.  God best knows why the happy, peaceful home where He was adored in fidelity and truth is now to be sold by public auction.  In the garden is a little monument to the memory of my youngest son.  We adorned it every day with fresh flowers – is it to be pulled down or destroyed?  There is also a column very dear to my heart because it was put up in remembrance of what we vainly thought was the recovery of my daughter from whooping cough.  The will of God be done.  Nothing now remains to me of all that I so lately possessed but one child.  I bow my head in resignation; to those who are the delegates of power on earth I resign my claim to my paternal home.”


Changing hands

The new owner of the Estate was Gilpin Gorst who was the Deputy Governor of the Honourable Irish Society.  His son Philip sold it to Thomas Usborne in 1824.  Usborne added the extension to the House which included the Crinoline Staircase and the drawing room, he also brought the London Bridge balustrades to Gilwell.


The next most significant owner was William Alfred Gibbs who acquired Gilwell from Samuel Burgess in 1858.  Gibbs was in manufacturing and commuted to his London factory on a large white stallion!  He was also a poet compared with Tennyson who also lived nearby at High Beech between 1837 and 1840.  He invented a number of machines and products which varied in success.  These included a hay cutting, sorting and baling machine, a drying hay machine and Gibbs’ Dentifrice or toothpaste which is still made to this day.  Gibbs died in 1900 and his wife five years later.  His eldest son Kenneth Yardley Gibbs remained on the Estate but had to sell off eight acres which encompassed the Gillwellbury land in 1907 and moved into the Farm.  He then sold this building in 1911 to Reverend Cranshaw and transferred to a Scandinavian cottage he constructed opposite the current Lodge.  By 1918 he had gone and the Estate had become seriously neglected as the Gibbs family lacked the income to look after Gilwell and this set the stage for Scouting and Gilwell Park to become intertwined.

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