The Open Garden Squares Weekend – 12-13 June 2010 – is an opportunity to visit London gardens not usually open to the public. Canons, in Edgware, now home to North London Collegiate School, will be opening its gates (details below).
Here Grace Fuller profiles the colourful character who was the last private owner of the house, and who commissioned the inspiringly beautiful gardens that remain today.
Sir Arthur Philip Du Cros (1871-1955), the third of seven sons brought up in modest circumstances in Ireland, became a quintessential Edwardian English gentleman with an eclectic selection of interests – he was both a racing cyclist and a car enthusiast, as well as an early supporter of the military use of aviation, a philanthropist and a highly successful businessman and industrialist.
As an 18 year old, working for just 12s 6d a week in a very junior position in the Civil Service, he had spotted the potential of inflatable ‘pneumatic’ tyres, and was, reportedly, the first person to use them in a race (at Queens College, Belfast, in 1889). He acquired the patent from the inventor, John Boyd Dunlop, and by the time he was 25 was Managing Director of a £3 million company: Dunlop Rubber. By 1917 he owned 60,000 acres of rubber plantations in Ceylon and Malaya, and had enough personal money at his disposal to finance three motor ambulance convoys as part of the war effort.
He had, too, a political career, as a Conservative MP, representing first Hastings (from 1908 to 1918) and then Clapham (1918-1922). He spoke out against the women’s suffrage movement, and, as a result, had his St Leonards home burned down in 1913, in a typical suffragette protest act.
Despite his humble background, Du Cros mixed in the highest social circles, as part of the country house party circuit made fashionable by Edward, Prince of Wales and his coterie. He even found himself involved in averting a royal scandal in 1914, when Frances, Countess of Warwick, threatened to publish personal letters she had received from the Prince of Wales when she was his mistress. As a friend of the Countess, Du Cros had already ‘lent’ her £60,000; now he was able to persuade her not to publish, and shouldered her debts himself. In due course the love letters were handed over to Edward’s son, by then King George V. Two years later, in 1916, Du Cros was awarded a baronetcy, for services to industry – and to the nation. In 1929, Du Cros put Craigweil, his house in Bognor, at the disposal of the king for his convalescence from lung surgery, and earned the town the exalted name of Bognor Regis.
Arthur Du Cros
Arthur Du Cros was himself no stranger to scandal, in fact, and was married three times. His first marriage, to Maude Gooding, daughter of a Coventry watchmaker, ended in divorce in 1923, four years after he had left her and their four children. His wife suspected a ‘mad infatuation’, but nevertheless begged him to return. In reply, in a letter later published in The Times during the reporting of the divorce proceedings, he referred to their ‘incompatible dispositions’, and wrote that it would be ‘quite impossible to ever resume this life of misery which is ruinous to health and to all feelings of dignity and self-respect’. He was then married and widowed twice before his own death at his then home, Nancy Downs House, in Oxhey, Watford, in 1955.
In the 1890s, when he was planning his political career, Du Cros had sought a country house close to London. Canons, in Edgware, built on the site of a former palace, fitted the bill perfectly as far as location. The six reception rooms and sixteen principal bed and dressing rooms were remodelled, and Du Cros (ever the engineer at heart) installed an electric passenger lift to all floors.
In 1914 he employed Charles Mallows, famous Arts and Crafts architect, to redesign the gardens and part of the exterior of the house. The garden he created, comprising the North and South terraces, and including sunken gardens, pools and pergolas, was seen as one of the greatest of the Edwardian era, and an influence on such well-known garden designers as Gertrude Jekyll. The completed house and gardens featured in a 1916 edition of Country Life.
Scandal continued to dog Du Cros even after the divorce. During the 1920s, he made some poor business decisions, and suffered a series of financial disasters, and as part of a rationalisation of his assets, put Canons up for sale. It was bought in 1929 by North London Collegiate School, who were looking for a new site to enable them to move from Camden Town. The school had – ironically, given Du Cros’s views – been founded specifically to give girls the same academic education as their brothers, and many old girls and Head Mistresses had supported the suffrage movement that Du Cros so opposed.
The South Garden today
The remainder of the Estate was divided into various parts; one of the two largest areas – the formal gardens near the house and the open land that it overlooked – was purchased by Harrow Council and became Canons Park. Much of the remainder was sold to various developers to create the Canons Park Estate.
On Saturday 12 June, from 1pm to 5pm, Canons will be hosting a day of family fun as part of the London-wide Open Garden Squares Weekend. The 18th century mansion and grounds, and Mallows’ early 20th century South Terrace and herbaceous border, will be open to the public, as will the George V Memorial Garden in adjoining Canons Park, and the Grade I church of St Lawrence, Little Stanmore.
Children’s activities at Canons will include a treasure hunt, plant pot decoration, cookery and old fashioned games. There’s a chance to enjoy some of the wonderful ten acres of its grounds, talks about the house and gardens, and there will also be historic food tasting and a gardener on hand to answer your queries.
For further details see www.opensquares.org/detail/Canons1.html
or call 020 8951 6430