Kings Langley. Dickinson House and The Retreat
The Retreat is next to the M25 and the main railway line, just 25 minutes from the centre of London, yet the first impression is one of space and peace. The Illustrated London News, in the typical verbose style of 1846, said, ‘There are no pleasanter places in or around the metropolis than those charitable refuges …. established for the decayed members of the body’. A picture in the Gerish collection shows how close the railway seemed to be.
The scheme for ‘decaying booksellers and their spouses’ started in 1837, some 8 years earlier and the year of Victoria’s accession, initiated by senior members of The Booksellers Provident Institution. Three and a half acres of land were given by John Dickinson, the innovative paper maker who owned nearby Home Park Paper Mills among others. He was also active in raising the necessary funds. His company was famous for Basildon Bond – the acme of paper. Whether the area is in Abbotts Langley or Kings Langley is open to debate, but Kings Langley is the usual.
The first stone was laid by the Earl of Clarendon on September 3rd 1845. The opening ceremony took place in July 1846, just ten months later. The two hundred or so visitors inspected the grounds and premises for about an hour till the ‘simple but touching’ opening ceremony (complete with a military band) at one o’clock. This was followed by dinner. Under Edmund Lytton’s chairmanship the afternoon was taken up with highly intellectual festivity and plenty of toasts. Donations amounted to £800 (a list of donors is included in the article), leaving the Society out of debt. A special train took the visitors back to London at 7.30 pm. Remember this was in the early days of the railway; Kings Langley station only opened in 1839, and the journey to Euston would have taken about an hour. Let’s just say it was a pretty lavish affair.
There are some images held at Hertfordshire Archives dating from the opening days. Note they do include artistic licence. The house is shown facing the railway (it had its back to the railway) and the bridge is far too close. Even so, the images are a delight to see. Being fragile they are restricted as to how often they can be viewed.
The building was designed in the Tudor Revival style by C W Cooper, of Grays Inn. The plan comprised a centre and two wings, of seven houses of four rooms each, the whole finished with due regard to the comfort of the occupants. The Historic England listing provides a detailed description. There is a carved scrollwork inscription ‘BOOKSELLERS PROVIDENT RETREAT’ on the main gable. While Vyse refers to a coat of arms, the shield above the main door is plain. For some reason newspapers in 1868/9 referred to it as The Bookbinders Almshouse. Dillon Lodge is the original gatehouse.
Dickinson House and Dillon Lodge are still used for accommodation. Both are listed buildings.
The Retreat Develops
Come the ‘swinging sixties’, and big changes were afoot. It seems that the site had increased to about five acres.
Eight studio bungalows were built in 1965, with eight more in 1969. Vyse described these buildings as ‘architecturally mundane’, but surely the most important thing is that they suit their purpose. Nine years later, in 1978, a further eight were built, with another eight in 1998. 2002 saw the construction of four flats and The Foyle Centre, which is now the headquarters of the organisation. Then in 2009 four bungalows were rebuilt as town houses. The different dates are reflected in the designs. While most almshouses have an age limit of over 60 or more, the Retreat has a threshold of just 40.
Amalgamations are an important part of the history. In 1962 The Booksellers Provident Retreat, The Booksellers Provident Institution and the National Book Trade Provident Society merged. The 2015 merger with Matthew Hodder Charitable Trust brought in £1m of new money. This was followed by a merger with Bookbinders Charitable Society in 2016 which brought BTBS (Book Trades Benevolent Society) an additional 22 flats in Barnet, which have been developed for the benefit of those starting out in the book trades.
Funding comes from a variety of sources. Just a small amount comes from investments. There are donations from companies and individuals. Fundraising activities show the organisation is forward-looking. Books are collected and sold, including from international book fairs. Over £16000 was raised by eight runners in the London Marathon. Various ‘walkies’ events took place in London till 2008. The annual accounts submitted to the Charity Commission show the same attitude. Until 2020 they were like any other – words and figures on sheets of paper. The 2021 accounts look more like a publicity brochure and invites people to read them.
The Booksellers Provident Retreat was required to deregister from the Charity Commission in 1992 as it was deemed to be a registered friendly society. Changes in 2009 and a new name The Book Trade Charity (BTBS) allowed it to reregister. The Society is also affiliated to the Almshouse Association.
Dickinson House, The Retreat, Kings Langley
Georef: 508133 201669
Grid Ref: 51o 42′ 13″N 0o 26′ 12″W
OS 25” map Hertfordshire XXXIX.5 pub 1898
The Retreat Kings Langley WD4 8LT
The Victoria County History of the County of Hertford, ed William Page
Vol 2 pages 234, 323, 325 and 326 mention John Dickinson but not the almshouses
Issued Archibald Constable & Co. 1908. Reprint by Dawsons of Pall Mall 1971 (ISBN 0 7129 0476 X)
This publication is available online at https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol2/pp234-245 and https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol2/pp323-328
Victorian Almshouses in Hertfordshire, by James A Vyse
A Building Conservation thesis for A A Building Conservation course 1982 – 4
A copy is held at HALS
Documents held at HALS
DE/X1025/10 Date: [mid 19th century]
Lithograph of Book Trades, by Ashbee & Tuckett
“Opening of the Booksellers’ Provident Retreat, at Abbots Langley, on Tuesday last”
Lithograph, and a cutting from the Illustrated London News showing the Booksellers’ Provident Retreat on its opening day
DE/X1021/11 date: c1850
‘The Booksellers’ Provident Retreat at Abbots Langley, Herts’ by W H Prior
DE/X1024/12 date [19th century]
Lithographic view by Ashbee & Tuckett
DE/X1021/13 Date: [19th century]
Lithograph by W Prior
Page 5, plate 2
Websites accessed Aug 2022
Book Trades Benevolent Society http://www.btbs.org/
Historic England https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1100892
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dickinson_Stationery Includes biography of John Dickinson
www.kingslangley.org.uk/JohnDickinson.html Some biographical notes about Dickinson, but mostly about paper production
www.kingslangley.org.uk/railway.html includes the picture of the train passing Dickinson House, from Gerish collection
Newspapers and magazines
Illustrated London News 25 Jul 1846 page 54 is a notice. Pages 60-1 describe the opening day, including a drawing of the scene.
Watford Observer 30 May 1868 page 1 , 06 June 1868 page 1; 27 March 1869 page 1 and 10 April 1869 page 1 refer to Bookbinders in passing as part of a repeated property sale notice