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A Brief History of Little Cassiobury House

The Cassiobury Estate was the historic seat the Earls of Essex, the Capel (or Capell) family.  It has changed names and changed hands many times over the years.


796 to 1629 – the first house at Cassiobury

St Albans Abbey had long claimed rights to the manor of Cashio following a grant issued by King Offa in A.D. 793.  When King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539, Watford was divided from Cashio and Henry made himself the Lord of the manor of Cassiobury and in 1545 the estate was transferred from Henry VIII to his courtier Sir Richard Morison. Morison became a court favourite and was entrusted with diplomatic missions abroad.   At his home in Hertfordshire he built what was described as “a fair and large house” at Cassiobury.  During the tenure of his grandson Charles Morrison, the estate at Cassiobury and the Morrison family fortunes were greatly enhanced by Charles’s marriage to the daughter of wealthy London merchant Baptist Hicks.


1610 to 1683 – the changing fortunes of the Capel family

Charles Morrison left one surviving child, a daughter named Elizabeth, who was born about 1610. She married Arthur (Later Baron) Capel of Hadham Hall in 1629.   Arthur Capel served King Charles I loyally during the Civil War (1642– 49) and was executed by the Parliamentarians in 1649.  The sequestered Cassiobury Estate passed briefly through various hands before eventually being recovered by the Capels.  The restored King Charles II made Baron Capel’s son Arthur Capel the 1st Earl of Essex, who commissioned architect Hugh May to rebuild the house at Cassiobury.


1683 – Treason makes a Dowager Countess

The 1st Earl went to Ireland to serve the King as Lord-Lieutenant but found himself imprisoned in the tower of London. His wife, Lady Elizabeth Capel, became the Dowager Countess of Essex when her husband died in 1693 (by suicide or murder) in the Tower of London whilst awaiting his trial.


It is plausible that Little Cassiobury was built as a dower house[1] for Elizabeth Capel to live in from 1698 when the 2nd Earl of Essex, Algernon Capel married and moved into the estate’s main house with his new wife.   The Countess lived for 34 years as a widow to the age of 82, dying in 1717 or 1718 and having outlived her son by seven years!


We know from its architecture that Little Cassiobury house is a modest early Queen Anne house in keeping with the style and scale of a dower house and that its construction is likely to date from between 1690 and 1710.


1718 to 1770 – Little Cassiobury used by the Capel Family

Whilst there was no longer a dowager countess following the death of Elizabeth Capel, historical records suggest that Little Cassiobury House has remained in use by the Earl of Essex’s family until it was leased out to a church organist in 1770.



1770 to 1899 – A home for a military man and merchants

Members of the Capel family were known to have occupied the house again during the 1840s to the 1890s, with the exception of medical commander George Woodhouse who was resident in the 1850s, and Irish landowner Joseph Gough who was at Little Cassiobury at the time of the 1861 census. In 1899 the house was leased to a merchant from Siam returning from a 20-year stint in Bangkok. After this date, although Little Cassiobury remained in the Earl of Essex’s family ownership until 1922, the Capel family never again occupied the house.


1929 to 1939 – The Cassiobury Estate is sold, Little Cassiobury is enlarged

The Right Honourable Adele, Countess Dowager of Essex put the entire Cassiobury Park Estate up for sale and Little Cassiobury was sold to George Blake in 1922.


George Blake was an import and export merchant who sat on one of Watford Borough Council’s planning sub-committees and acquired Lots two and three and engaged renowned architect Clough Williams-Ellis to propose a plan for the development of his new estate.  The two-story extension at the rear of the property is Williams-Ellis’s work.


Cassiobury House (the Estate’s primary residence) was demolished in 1927, leaving Little Cassiobury as the only remaining dwelling of the former Cassiobury Estate.  In the 1930s Little Cassiobury was home to the family of chartered accountant Henry L. H. Hill.  They were the last people to call Little Cassiobury their home.


1939 to the present – overshadowed Little Cassiobury falls upon hard times

In 1939 Hertfordshire County Council acquired Little Cassiobury by compulsory purchase and this fine residence was converted into offices as the surrounding area filled up with houses, schools and colleges. From the 1950s Little Cassiobury formed part of Watford Technical College, now West Herts College. Plans were drawn up in 1961 to add an L shaped extension to the north elevation of the former stable block.  These plans were revised in 1966 and the ordnance survey map published in 1975 shows that the extension had been carried out to convert the building for use as offices.


Having now lain unoccupied and in a poor state of repair for several years, its declining condition has left it uninhabitable and has also led to the building being put on Historic England’s ”heritage at risk” register.


Acknowledgement – text drawn from “Little Cassiobury House Conservation Management Plan” prepared for Watford Borough Council by Savills


[1] A Dower House

A dowager is a widow who holds the title of property – a “dower” -  derived from her deceased husband. A Dower House is usually a reasonably large house available for use by such widow.   The widow usually moved into the Dower House from the larger family house on the death of her husband if the heir was married, or upon his marriage, if he was single at his succession.

Entrance Hall
Drawing Room
Front Elevation

Photographs from an article in Country Life Magazine dated 1938

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