Stepping back through history Moulsham Hall
- Credit: Archant
Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office looks through the history of a Chelmsford manor house which, for a short time, was one of the county’s most extravagant stately homes
There is no trace of Moulsham Hall today, but it was once a grand house in the parish of Moulsham just south of Chelmsford. For more than 300 years it was in the possession of the Mildmay family, who built two different houses on the site.
The manor of Moulsham was purchased by Thomas Mildmay, who made his money during the Reformation under Henry VIII. He was an auditor of the Court of Augmentations, which was set up to oversee the redistribution of the wealth of the monasteries.
Mildmay himself did well out of the process and used his new-found resources to purchase the manor in 1540. A manor house was already in existence, but it was in a state of some decay, so Mildmay demolished it and built a grand Tudor house, which is represented on John Walker’s map of Moulsham made in 1591.
The house we see on this map is a complex of buildings set around three courtyards. The main house was a two-storeyed, timber-framed building set around the innermost courtyard, with a one-storeyed wing to the north. It was a property grand enough to host Queen Elizabeth I on her annual progresses, which Thomas Mildmay did for four days in 1579.
A survey of 1591 described the house as being ‘seated in very good wholesome air’, with abundant supplies of spring water and wood, with ‘many fair gardens and orchards’ planted with ‘good and some rare kinds of fruits and herbs’.
The grounds also contained ‘a dove-house, of brick; a fair game of deer, imparked; a great warren; a goodly fishing course both in private ponds and common river; a very good water mill; and great store of other like necessary provisions’.
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The Tudor house survived into the 18th century, when it came into the possession of Benjamin Mildmay, who replaced it with a grand neoclassical property designed by Giacomo Leoni. The building work began in 1728 and took place in stages, with the Tudor house being demolished and replaced a bit at a time.
Benjamin Mildmay kept detailed accounts, which tell us where materials for the house came from and who was employed to work on it. Bricks came from kilns operated by Thomas Spite on Galleywood Common (101,300 bricks were supplied in 1731 alone); timber from merchants in East London, transported by water to Maldon and then to Chelmsford. Builders, stonemasons, carpenters, painters, plumbers, glaziers and gardeners are all meticulously recorded in Benjamin’s accounts.
Mildmay attended not only to the building of a fine house, but to its decoration and furnishing. The main doors of the new house were surmounted by a pediment, ornamented with lead statues of Apollo, Diana and Mercury.
Italian plasterers were employed to work on the ceilings and paintings were commissioned or purchased. Furniture makers, upholsters and locksmiths can all be found in the accounts, which also include the costs of gilding, mirrors, chimney pieces, trees and garden furniture. Later, new stables were built, and the garden was further augmented with new walks, a ha-ha and a dog kennel. A brewhouse, dairy, laundry and wash house followed, then a pigeon house and poultry yard. The building work was finally complete in 1749.
Nevertheless, Mildmay’s grand new house did not survive for many decades. During the Napoleonic Wars, an invasion from the Essex coast was feared and Chelmsford was in the northern line of defences around London.
The grounds of Moulsham Hall were commandeered by the military and fortifications were constructed on and around the estate. The then owner, Sir Henry Paulet St John Mildmay, was thoroughly unimpressed with the sudden influx of soldiers, and feeling his property and family were endangered, left, never to return.
The house never recovered from its military occupation, and was pulled down in 1809.