Gladstone Park is one of Brent's finest open spaces, contains Dollis Hill House, the place of great cultural importance, visited by Britain's prime minister Gladstone and American writer Mark Twain.
A Very Liberal House
On Dollis Hill, just below the crest of Neasden stands a now dilapidated mansion overlooking the magnificent sweep of Gladstone Park. It has been there for almost two hundred years and for much of that time it has been in and out of the news - more recently for rather sad reasons. This is Dollis Hill House, built for the Finch family in 1825. If it is more interesting for its history than for its architectural style, it is still one of the few grand buildings left in Brent - or would be if it were restored to its past glory, following two disastrous arson attacks in the late 1990s.
In a magazine article of 1822, the writer described his walk through Willesden: "On Dollar's (sic) Hill, is Mr Finch's Farm, which as an object from the valley below has a pleasing effect, with a view from the top as far as Leith Hill in Surrey". Within a few years, this view was seen from the windows of Mr Finch's new house. Soon after, as these things went, it passed to Lord Tweedmouth, who as a senior member of the Liberal Party, began the political connection that lasted until the end of the nineteenth century.
Gladstone at Dollis Hill
A little later - Victoria was now on the throne - it was bought by Lord Aberdeen and it was his son who took over the house, in 1882, with his wife Lady Ishbel. They made it the place for Liberal politicians, especially William Ewart Gladstone (1809 - 1898, statesman and four-time prime minister of Great Britain (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-94), to stay and rest from the endeavours of Parliamentary life down at Westminster. The great Liberal leader was by this time in his seventies, but a marvel of physical and mental vigour, as a supporter described him. He was able to use Dollis Hill House as a quiet retreat, near to Downing Street, thanks to the Aberdeens. His bedroom was on the first floor at the east end of the house, looking towards Hampstead and he worked, for the most part, on his Government papers in the library which was immediately below. In the clement weather, much of his time was spent outdoors, with meals taken on the verandah (later obscured by an unsightly addition to the house). Often, there would be a gathering of politicians under the trees, some of which still frame the patio area.
Trees were one of Gladstone's obsessions. Legend has it that he cut them down, in the fashion of George Washington, but the truth is that he planted many - some at Dollis Hill, including a pine tree and a fir - though I cannot vouch for them still being there. In 1887, the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria was celebrated throughout the country and across the then British Empire, but the leaders of the Colonies came to London to join in the festivities. Gladstone invited them up the house at Neasden and there is a picture of him, resplendent in a Derby bowler hat, with four of his colleagues, on the lawn.
Others who received the invitation to call included Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Rosebery, Lord Randolph Churchill (father of Winston), the then Archbishop of Canterbury and many other men of eminence (the only woman who seems to be involved was none other than the Premier's wife - such was the political correctness of the time).
Lord Aberdeen was appointed Lord Lieutenant for Ireland for a short period in the 1880s - and this brought him into even closer contact with Gladstone whose most difficult task was trying to bring about Home Rule for Ireland. When he was made Governor General of Canada in 1897, he gave up Dollis Hill House and it was leased to Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid.
In 1900, Reid invited the famous humorist, Mark Twain, to stay with him. The writer, who was famous for his perceptive comments on the places he visited (read his Innocents Abroad, for instance), spoke of the delight he had in living there. "He had," he said, "never seen any place that was so satisfactorily situated, with its noble trees and stretch of country, and everything that went to make life delightful, and all within a biscuit's throw of the metropolis of the world".
Willesden Council Makes Gladstone Park
Maybe these comments inspired Willesden council to persist in their plan to buy the House and, especially, its grounds as a public park. In any event, in February 1900, the transaction was completed - at a cost of over £51,000 and, in honour of the recently deceased statesman, it was named Gladstone Park.
After that, in public ownership, the house became a tea-room and during the first World War was a hospital for wounded soldiers and after the war remained in use as a convalescent home. The Council then tried to realise its potential and it became "The Country House Restaurant".
Once Brent took over it was also used as a training centre for catering students from Kilburn Polytechnic; the local Rotary Club met there regularly. And it obtained Grade II listed status, in 1974. The stables became the Stables Art Gallery, a successful venture by devoted local painters and craftsmen and women.
In the 1990s it started to go downhill. Brent Council could not make up its mind what to do with it. Arsonists tried to help by burning it - twice! It now stands, a miserable wreck of its former self awaiting a decision: to restore it as a commercial restaurant - or pull it down and replace it with a park cafeteria. Local residents, up in arms, are trying a third option: to raise funds to restore it and then turn it into a community centre. It would be a shame if a building - albeit damaged - with such historical connections were to disappear. But is there a Fairy Godmother out there who could help with the money?
Len Snow's books, Brent - A Pictorial History and Willesden Past
are available from The Willesden Local History Society
For more information about Dollis Hill House and the Dollis Hill House restoration project see www.dollishillhouse.org.uk
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© Brent Heritage website 2002