Homespring House (formerly Vallombrosa and Deanwood House), Pittville Circus Road
Pittville Circus was laid out in 1839-40 by Edward Cope, a local builder, on land acquired from Joseph Pitt. Pittville Circus Road was then built, linking Pittville Circus to All Saints Road and the Hewletts. A number of large Victorian mansions with extensive grounds were built along Pittville Circus Road from the 1840s onwards.
Homespring House was originally called Vallombrosa. This means “shady vale” and comes from the forested region of the same name in Tuscany, twenty miles south-east of Florence. The area was popular with English travellers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and many celebrities visited it, including William Beckford, William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Vallombrosa is mentioned in the first book of Milton’s Paradise Lost (ll. 302-4): “Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks, In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades High overarch’t imbowr”.
The first occupants of the house, from 1846 until 1848, were a former Indian judge, William Henry Valpy, his wife Caroline, and their children. William Valpy’s father was a schoolmaster who had published classical grammars and anthologies of classical poetry while his elder brother Abraham ran a publishing house specialising in the classics. William would have been familiar with epic literature (his father owned a first edition of Paradise Lost), and so it is perhaps not surprising that he chose Vallombrosa for the name of his Cheltenham house. Perhaps he also knew that Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose work his brother had recently published, had visited Vallombrosa in 1847, the year in which the house was named. The Valpy family stayed in Cheltenham for only a few years, before emigrating (like several other Pittville residents) to New Zealand.
The 1851 census gives us some idea of the size of the households that occupied these very substantial dwellings. In 1851 the house was occupied by Lieutenant-Colonel George Hutchinson, his wife Elizabeth and their family. They had seven children ranging in age from 1 to 20, and in addition two nieces and two other visitors were staying in the house at the time. There were seven live-in servants, all unmarried women in their twenties, most of who were born locally. In total, the house had 20 occupants on census night.
The early occupants tended to stay for only a few years before moving on. From 1854 to 1858 the house was home to another military man, General Sir James Archibald Hope, GCB, a decorated army officer who had fought with the Duke of Wellington in Spain during the Peninsular War. Around 1858, he moved to a newly built house on the other side of the road (Balgowan House, now demolished and replaced with the block of flats called Fairhavens Court).
The next occupant of Vallombrosa (1859-62) was Charles March Phillips, an elderly widower who had been an MP in the first half of the nineteenth century. He lived alone in the house –except, that is, for his housekeeper, his butler, his cook, his housemaid, his kitchen maid and his footman – until his death in 1862.
In April 1864, a new chapter in the history of the house began when Mary Jane Briggs moved her preparatory boarding school for boys from Lansdown to Vallombrosa. For the next twenty-five years Vallombrosa was a successful boys’ preparatory school. Miss Briggs provided her pupils with a good grounding in spelling, grammar, mathematics and the classics and provided a high-quality preparatory education to the sons of wealthy parents. She was described as “the maker of men” and many of her pupils went on to become distinguished figures in the British establishment, both civil and military. By 1871 she was employing four governesses and nine domestic staff to run a school of twenty-four boys.
Vallombrosa acquired a reputation for preparing boys for entrance to public schools, especially Cheltenham College. The Secretary of the College, William L. Bain, was a near neighbour at Cotswold Villa (now Longville) on Pittville Circus Road for nearly twenty years and his eldest son, William Marsh Bain, was one of Miss Briggs’s pupils. The Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic reported that “she trained innumerable boys for Cheltenham College and it was once said by the Rev. W. Dobson, who was for fourteen years Principal of the College, that he always knew Miss Briggs’s boys, both in and out of school, by their classical grounding in school and their gentlemanly behaviour outside.”
There was by all accounts a distinctly military atmosphere at Vallombrosa. Miss Briggs was known to organise mock battles to capture a mound on Battledown Hill, with the boys mounted on ponies.
Miss Briggs also had the distinction of being Cheltenham’s first suffragist. In 1868 the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic reported “the first instance of the women’s suffrage movement in Cheltenham”. While she was living at Vallombrosa, Miss Briggs appeared before the annual Registration Court in Cheltenham to demand the vote for women. Although the claim was supported by two other women, Miss Briggs appeared on her own in court. The Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic described the proceedings as follows.
“As the Political agents were too gallant to offer any opposition to Miss Brigg’s claim, Mr. Macnamara, the Revising Barrister, in the most courteous possible terms intimated that, as the legislature had made no provision for the introduction of the fair sex within the electoral pale, he was constrained to refuse admission to Miss Briggs. The claimant, however, did not quite acquiesce in the conclusion arrived at, and essayed to argue the question with the learned adjudicator, maintaining that the word “man” in the Reform Act (1867) was to be accepted as the equivalent of the Latin “Homo”, not, as generally construed, in the sense of “Vir”. The fair philologist was, however, unable to satisfy the Barrister as to the correctness of her conclusions, and after some five minutes of further parley the interesting interlude terminated in the most polite reciprocations of satisfaction, and Miss Mary Jane Briggs left the scene.”
Miss Briggs retired in 1889 and her boarding school closed. The furniture and effects (plus her pony and carriage) were sold by auction at Vallombrosa in June 1889 and the house reverted to a private family dwelling. For the remainder of the nineteenth century it was once again occupied by military gentlemen and their families.
From 1891 to 1894 the occupants were Lieutenant-General Alexander Carnegy of the Bombay Staff Corps with his wife, their children, and six live-in servants (plus a coachman and his family in the cottage at the back). He re-named it Deanwood House, presumably to make it clear that it was no longer a school.
Pittville Circus Road in the 1920s
From 1895 onwards the occupants were Colonel John Griffith, his wife, their children and – again – six live-in servants. The Cheltenham Chronicle called Colonel Griffith “one of the most prominent figures in the life of the town”. He was a Justice of the Peace and served three terms of office as Mayor of Cheltenham. He was also Chairman of Cavendish House Ltd. After the death of his second wife he gave up Deanwood House, and from 1923 lived at the Montpellier Spa Hotel.
The following memories of Deanwood in the summers before the First World War are from As I Remember, a memoir by Frances Deacon, published online by Eastcombe Archive (http://www.eastcombearchive.org.uk/documents/AsIRemember.html).
Every summer Col and Mrs Griffith, like a number of their friends, took their family and servants to the sea and country for at least two months. In 1909 quite a lot of vandalism and burglary was going on when it was discovered these houses had been left unattended. The Griffith children, Mary and Edward, loved to be brought by Auntie Rose to tea with Mother, and the Griffiths knew my parents, so they asked my father if he would go and live there every summer while they were away. And so, for four wonderful summers, Deanwood was our second home.
Deanwood stood in about two acres of gardens, stables and outhouses. It had been a small boys’ school, and the basement seemed to have a number of rooms, as well as servants’ quarters. One side of the house was a large lawn where you could play croquet. There was a summerhouse, and a huge weeping willow with branches which swept down and stroked the lawn all around, making another summerhouse you could sit under and have tea. Two tortoises lived all the year round there, burying themselves in winter. The whole was surrounded with herbaceous borders. The little paths in the kitchen garden were edged with minute box hedges, not more than nine inches high. The smell of box hedge in the sun is always Deanwood to me…
From the drive you went up several wide, shallow steps into a large porch and then through the front door into a wide hall. At the far end was a door into the garden. To the right of the door a food lift came up from the kitchen, as the dining room was on the left. Just near was the telephone, the first I had ever seen in a private house. In 1909 Deanwood was a modern, six-storey house with ample accommodation for a family of children and servants. It had a phone, a food lift, two flush toilets but no bathroom. Any number of hip baths, and hot and cold water, had to be carted upstairs every day, and dirty water downstairs every day. I do not remember how far up the gas lighting went, but I doubt if it was beyond the first floor. The dear little study had French windows on to a creeper-covered verandah. As it was always summer when we lived at Deanwood, we nearly always had tea in the garden. I cannot remember it ever raining there.
The house was then occupied by a retired clergyman, Rev. Edmund Baddeley, who had been a distinguished sportsman in his younger days. He lived there from 1924 until his death in 1928.
At some point in the early 1930s, the house was divided into flats.
Adverts for flats in Deanwood from 1934One of the flats on the first floor was occupied by Arthur Kitchener Walter, who was a stockbroker with offices in the Promenade. His bankruptcy was extensively reported in the local press in 1934 and his furniture and effects were sold by auction from the flat.
The 1939 register, commissioned by the government in September of that year, shows us who was living at Deanwood at the outbreak of the Second World War. By this point, the house consisted of seven flats and the types of people living there were very different from those who had occupied it earlier.
- In 1939 the first household consisted of two single ladies and a married couple, all in their sixties or seventies. Two of the women are described as having private incomes while the third is described as a private secretary. The gentleman was a retired schoolmaster.The second household also contained four people: two widowed and two single ladies, one in her thirties but the rest in their seventies. Two had private incomes and one was a retired school teacher.The third household consisted of a young married couple in their twenties; the husband was a riveter at the Gloucester Aircraft Company.The fourth household consisted of an older married couple in their fifties and sixties, with the husband described as a retired electrical manager.The fifth household also consisted of a married couple in their sixties, with the husband described as a jobbing gardener, general labourer and handyman, and his wife as a domestic servant.The sixth household included a married couple in their forties where the husband is described as an insurance clerk, plus a shorthand typist in her twenties, possibly their daughter.The final household appears to contain a married couple in their forties and their four children. The husband is described as the secretary and accountant to a wholesale fruit merchants.
Planning permission was sought by McCarthy and Stone in 1985 to demolish part of the existing building, to refurbish the remainder and to build extensions to provide accommodation for elderly people. It was re-named Homespring House.