Brocket Hall, a splendid Grade I neo-classical mansion set in beautiful parkland near Lemsford and not far from Welwyn Garden City, was built in 1760. It has a long and impressive history, but is perhaps best known as the home of two of Britain’s Prime Ministers, Lord Melbourne and Lord Palmerston, and for its connection with Queen Victoria and other members of the Royal Family.
A brief history of Brocket Hall
The building that we see today was designed by architect Sir James Paine, who had been commissioned by the owner, Sir Matthew Lamb, 1st Baronet (1705-68). The work took about 15 years to complete and in fact Sir Matthew Lamb never actually lived there, but the Hall was inherited by his son, Sir Peniston Lamb (1745-1828), when he was 21 years old. Sir Peniston’s wife, Elizabeth, became especially close to George, Prince of Wales, later King George IV, and was for several years his mistress. It is believed that it was as a result of her closeness to the King that her husband was eventually appointed the 1st Lord Melbourne.
It was their son, William Lamb (1779-1848), becoming the 2nd Lord Melbourne on the death of his father, who became Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister, a position he held from 1835 to 1841. When she was a princess Victoria visited him frequently at Brocket Hall and a close friendship developed between the two of them. It is said that Lord Melbourne thought of her almost as a daughter and to her he was a valued mentor as he was instrumental in preparing her for her role as Queen when she acceded to the throne in 1837. She continued to visit him often at Brocket Hall until his death there in 1848.
Lord Melbourne’s private life was less successful than his political career, however, thanks to a notorious affair that his wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, had with the poet Lord Byron, which caused him considerable embarrassment and was quite a scandal at the time.
When Lord Melbourne died the Brocket Hall estate passed to his sister Emily, who had married Lord Palmerston after the death of her first husband, the 5th Earl Cowper. Palmerston became Queen Victoria’s sixth Prime Minister in 1855, holding that position until 1858, and again from 1859 until his death in 1865.
Over a hundred years later, scandal was again associated with Brocket Hall. In 1967 Charles Nall-Cain (1952-) became the 3rd Baron Brocket, having inherited the title and the property from his grandfather, Arthur Ronald Nall-Cain (1904-67), the 2nd Baron Brocket. Charles had a bit of a reputation as a playboy, and also for his love of classic vintage cars – he owned about 50 of them, worth around £20 million. In 1996, however, he was convicted of a £4.5 million insurance fraud, having falsely claimed that four of his vintage cars – a Maserati and three Ferraris – had been stolen. In fact, he had dismantled them and buried various parts in the grounds of his estate at Brocket Hall. He was sentenced to five years in prison, although he served only two and a half.
The following year the Brocket Hall Trustees sold the lease of the property for a period of 60 years and it was developed as, and remains today, an exclusive golf club and venue for weddings, conferences and private events.
The Brocket Babes
A less well-known fact about Brocket Hall is that during the Second World War it served as a 50-bed maternity hospital run by the Red Cross. Babies born here during that time were known as the Brocket Babes. The property had been sequestrated following the internment of Charles Nall-Cain’s grandfather Arthur Ronald, who was a Nazi sympathizer, and in 1939 the Hall was handed over to the War Office.
At that time it was common for most mothers to give birth at home, assisted by a midwife, but as war broke out many midwives were required to work in emergency hospitals that had been set up outside the major cities. This shortage of midwives in urban areas meant that many pregnant women were evacuated to the countryside for their confinement. By the summer of 1940 night air raids in London were increasing and on three occasions – 10 September of that year, and 16 April and 10 May 1941 – the London City Road Maternity Hospital was badly damaged by bombing. As a result, expectant mothers who were prepared to leave London were evacuated to Brocket Hall. The hospital remained there until 1949, under the care of the Matron, Miss Edith Grove, MBE.
During the Second World War more than 8,338 babies were born at Brocket Hall. A free bus, an old charabanc coach with wooden seats that was paid for by the War Office, ran twice a week to bring the expectant mothers from London to Brocket Hall and pick up the mothers with their new-born babies. Those who could afford to do so came by taxi or train, or in private cars, and occasionally ambulances were used to bring emergency cases.
Whilst most mothers-to-be spent their confinement at Brocket Hall, some of those who were well-to-do but unmarried went to nearby Lemsford House, which was next to the church at the entrance to the Hall, before and after the birth. They did, however, go to Brocket Hall to give birth because of the facilities available there in case of any complications.
Lord Melbourne’s room was used for the births and the Prince Regent’s Chinese Room, with its valuable hand-painted Chinese silk wallpaper depicting beautiful birds, became the recovery room. Even the toilet for the mothers was apparently a rather splendid throne-like affair! The new-born babies were kept in the basement near the boiler room for warmth and they were bathed next to the wine cellar! It must have been quite an experience for the mothers to have given birth in such grand surroundings, and for those babies to have Brocket Hall given as their place of birth!
The present day
Several reunions, known as Brocket Baby Days, have been held at the Hall since 1997, providing an opportunity for anyone who was born or worked at Brocket Hall during the Second World War to meet and exchange their stories. More information about the Brocket Babes can be found at https://www.brocketbabies.org.uk