"Woodfield", Weathercock Lane
In the summer of 1947, a story hit the local press about “Woodfield" house, at the top of Weathercock Lane. Technically, this falls in Aspley Guise, but I include it here for its interest, and the fact that I have received several enquiries about it.
These first articles are from “The Woburn Reporter” of that year, so you can make up your own mind. There there is some previously unpublished work by local historian, the late Arthur Parker, who was also involved in the case…
July 29th, 1947
A Show Place?
A notice posted up near the gates warned trespassers that they would be prosecuted if they attempted to enter the house or grounds. The reason of it being closed was not fully known, but it had something to do with the owner's young wife having eloped with her lover. The two highwaymen made an entry into the house and determined to search the place and find out its secrets.
A Grim Discovery
To Solve the Problem
In the issue of this newspaper of 29th July last, there appeared a statement by Miss Dickinson, who lives at Woodfield, that she had never been disturbed by "anything savouring of a ghostly visitation."
The visit was consequent upon a claim made at Luton Area Assessment Committee by the owner of the house, Mr. B. Key, of The Pie Crust, Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, that the value of the house had depreciated because it was said to be haunted by the ghosts of two lovers who were locked in a cupboard and left to die by the girl's irate father 250 years ago. Their skeletons, it was stated, were discovered by Dick Turpin when seeking refuge there, and he promised to keep silence at the price of sanctuary at "Woodfield" whenever the need arose. Mr. H. W. M. Richards told the Committee that the only way to settle the matter was to visit the house and find out at first-hand.
This was arranged, and on Friday night Mr. Richards went to "Woodfield." Sharing his vigil were Mrs. Florence Thompson, a London medium; Mr. Peter Craven, assistant to Mrs. Thompson; Mr. L. B. Howard, representative of “Psychic News"; and other Press representatives.
"You're Killing Me"
For some minutes the others sat in silence while the medium moved her arms agitatedly, and could be heard sobbing. She also said she had been shot in the head, and after regaining control, she complained of violent pains in one side of her head. Pointing to one corner of the room, Mrs. Thompson said, "I feel sure that a terrible love tragedy took place here. There are indications of two spirits who are in need of help, one of them a girl of about 22." Mrs. Thompson thought that a séance by a "rescue circle" would release these spirits. Mr. Richards said later that he felt the séance showed that there was some influence present, but he was not fully satisfied, and would like to hold a further séance before reporting to the Assessment Committee.
And the sole occupier of the house. Miss Amy Dickinson, an elderly cripple, who sat awake in her room throughout the night, dismissed questions about ghosts with the remark: "I have heard tales, but I'm not the nervous type."
"It was an awful greyish colour. I was quite startled", said Mr. Peter Craven, assistant to Mrs. Florence Thompson, a London medium, who was again present. Mr. Craven said the old man appeared at the side of Mr. G. Kenneth, another medium at the séance, and appeared to be trying to whisper in Mr. Kenneth's ear. The other member of the circle who claimed to have seen the face was Mr. A. P. Underwood, of Westholm, Letchworth, who is gathering material for a book he intends writing on haunted houses.
"I saw the face at the side of Mr. Kenneth directly Mr. Graven drew my attention to it", he said. Mrs. Thompson went into a trance, as she did on the former occasion. She said she "contacted" a young girl who said her name was "Bessie", and gave the name of her lover as "John." Mrs. Thompson said the girl told her: "We were going away together, but my father knew, and hurt my head. We have been shut away a long time . . . help John for me . . . help us to rest."
This second ghost-hunt followed an appeal to Luton Area Assessment Committee by Mr. B. Key, of Twickenham, owner of the house, for a reduction of the assessment on the ground, among others, that the house was reputed to be haunted.
Mr. Key, who had also appealed on other grounds, submitted further evidence in the form of an eleven-page document on the house and the alleged discovery by Dick Turpin of the skeletons of two lovers said to have been imprisoned in a cupboard by the girl's father. Mr. G. W. Bean, Valuer for the Rating Authority, said he inspected the house on 2nd October, as arranged with Mr. Key. He referred to other points raised in the appeal, and added, "My inspection was made in daylight and I have no knowledge whether the house is haunted or not. I cannot help the Committee any further than that." Ald. A. E. Sharman: Nor does anybody else.
A New Point
"People have gone to Aspley Guise," he said, "only to find there is only one house there with any reputation, and that is one where Oliver Cromwell stayed. The result is that Oliver Cromwell has become mixed with Dick Turpin."
Before giving his report, Mr. Richards said that his investigations and séances had not cost the ratepayers any money. The Clerk (Mr. L. J. Aylett): Anything you have done has been a personal matter, and not as agent or on the instructions of the Committee. Mr. Richards: Definitely: I want to make that quite clear.
As to the investigations, Mr. Richards said, "I realized, when the case came forward, that there would be quite a number of people on the Committee who would be sceptical and think it was rubbish.
"I am quite satisfied, from the evidence given, that the place is haunted," he continued. In view of my statement, I wish now, to be considered as a hostile witness, and when the matter is discussed by the Committee I shall retire."
When Mr. Richards proposed to quote from a booklet, the Chairman (Councillor R. C. Oakley) intervened and asked whether the Committee wanted to hear more than Mr. Richards's opinion that the house... [Here, there may be something spooky, as the newspaper report ends in mid sentence…!]
Over the years, the story has been recounted many times, and appeared in several books on Ghosts. Peter Underwood, mentioned under October 14th, did indeed write his book on ghosts, as I have a copy of “The A-Z of British Ghosts - An Illustrated Guide to 236 Haunted Sites”, he first published in 1971. In it, he says there is evidence to suggest the house was once an inn. This is not recounted above, and I have never seen any reference to it as such. He says “…it is a persistent legend, long accepted by many of the local people”, but Mr Keys rates objection is the first reference to it I have found. He also gets the name of the road wrong, calling it “Woodcock Lane”. Apparently, the rates news story made it onto the BBC radio news broadcast. Peter Underwood went on to become a ghost-hunter of international fame; he has often appeared on television and has written numerous books.
There is also an entry in “The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits”, by John and Anne Spencer. Regretfully, their book repeatedly calls the location Apsley Guise, in Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire! After that, it is basically a rewrite of the book above.
It is interesting to note that in all the books and material published about Dick Turpin, the name Aspley Guise or Woburn Sands has never featured once.
However, someone very much involved with Mr Blaney Key and Woodfield wrote down their experiences. Arthur Parker was the local historian for Woburn Sands; his story appears elsewhere on this website. The firm of Foll and Parker were involved in the arrangements that the Key family made with the house, and also the ratings court case. I think they bring the story to life, and give you some idea of the person who would claim his house was haunted for a small reduction in tax! These are Parkers notes, compiled in the 1970’s:
The Key Family
His daughter, growing up to school age and for other personal reasons, he decided to move into Bedford, and left Woodfield in 1923, some time before the end of his lease, and though the house laid idle, he kept the garden tidy until the end of his tenancy.
The property was then under the care of Miss Key, who lived with her Mother in DuIwich. As will be seen from the abstract of the deeds, there had been much litigation, and the actual owners were Mrs R. W. Key and her two children but it was Miss Key with whom we corresponded. With the then rising prices, it was decided to sell the house - an excellent opportunity as the property was then in good order.
We valued it at round about £1,250 and suggested asking £1,500 - £1,600, more than usual, but the Keys had other opinions, and declared the house was worth £2,000, that they would not accept a penny less than £1,850. I suspect this was an actuarial calculation, rather than a valuation. This figure did not in any way compare with the prices being asked for other similar properties, and it brought no business. As time went by we had a few firm offers of round about £1,200, all of which Miss Key turned down; so the property remained idle and started on its downward career; the garden with its glorious show of lupins became a wilderness and a play-ground for the local boys, with the inevitable breakage of windows, etc. Those of the sitting rooms were large sashes of 1/8th-plate glass, but Miss Key had them all repaired in their style, rather than board them up temporarily.
The 'twenties passed by, and the 'thirties came, and still the house remained empty. People called at the office occasionally to report smoke coming from the chimneys, late and early, and I would make an inspection of the house, searching the old basement kitchen, by the light of a torch, for drunken tramps, or even their bodies, but I never found any sign of tramps, or ghosts.
One day, however, there was a little more excitement. It was during the school holidays, when "Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do". Games at ground level got too tame for the boys, so up they went, to the top of the roof, and threw down to the ground most of the large ornamental chimney-pots. Some of those boys still are still walking our roads, and so is the girl who saw them do it; we were chatting about it not long ago. It was duly reported to us, and we had to informed Miss Key, who came down from London, in high dungeon. She put the matter in the hands of the police but they were not particularly interested (they had got fed up looking for the nomads) It was not really a crime, merely a naughty prank. Miss Key made her enquiries and found the names of the boys concerned, called on their parents, and demanded reparation. Some agreed to make payments of 1/- a week, to be paid to us, but this did not last long; we only managed to collect about 30/-, not enough to cover our fees for the work involved!
Time passed, but Woodfield stood idle. War broke out, and in 1940 the Military descended on the district and commandeered all empty properties, but the quartering officer told me he would not insult his men by asking them to sleep in the house - it was too dilapidated. It was a pity, for eventually the Government spent quite a lot of money on repairing property they took over.
My next memory is of receiving from a local woman an offer to purchase. She been a cook in titled service, and wanted to run the place as a boarding house. I could vouch for her capabilities, as I slept under her roof for the first month I was here, before I could get other accommodation, where my wife could join me, but I was not happy (for her sake) when the would-be purchaser finally offered £1,800, with the backing of a mortgage right up to the hilt. Augusta Key, however, was adamant. £1,850 was her price - not a penny less. The woman then offered the extra £50, provided Miss Key would accept it as a second mortgage, to be paid off in a short time; but No! foolishly, No! £1,850 it must be in cash, so the whole deal fell through and Woodfield went to rack and ruin.
In the summer of the mid-thirties, making one of my casual inspections, I noticed the old apple trees, lost in a field of hay and weeds, were bearing an excellent crop; also tracks through the broken fences - boys will be boys. I wrote to Miss Key and offered to buy the crop for my own use, and very soon made the arrangement that I should pick the crop and send to her in London, one half, as payment for my share. One hot Saturday afternoon in late September, with my wife and two girls, and my wife's elderly aunt who happened to be staying with us, we went to the garden prepared to pick apples, and, to save time, to have a picnic tea there. Aunt was comfortably and quietly settled in a shady spot when the gate creaked open, and in walked two ladies, both of them elderly. It was Augusta and Mary Augusta Key, and they demanded an explanation of the intrusion of the other - Augusta Malpass. However I was soon on scene, and calmed the troubled waters of the Augustas. It was a memorable occasion; I do not think I have ever, before or since, been in the presence of three determined Augustas.
But why the visit of mother and daughter just then? It was not unusual for them to spend a day, or even a weekend here, but the apples gave them an excellent excuse. I had offered to send to Miss Key, half of the crop, and of the 100 per cent she would have expected 51. She wanted to see what sort of crop there was, and to make sure of my honesty. They had brought with them carrier bags, which went back to DuIwich crammed full. I did not complain, there were more apples than I could cope with. One sitting room in the house was swept clean and covered with paper, and the apples carefully laid out - half and half. On following days my wife went round and packed the apples, wrapping each one separately, and I followed to seal up the cases, and label them for dispatch.
I had a sweet letter of thanks and praise from Miss Key, delighted with the quantity and quality, and the packing. She told me they made an excellent Christmas gift to her friends and to the girls of her bible class. Apples from her country estate! The arrangement went on for a few years, but I had to warn her that Blenheims did not give abundance every year, only once in two or three. Then came 1939 and the spate of work both professional and war service (billetting, &c) and I could not find time make the usual arrangements. Passing one day, I looked in to see how many apples where were - none - to my astonishment the trees had been picked bare. As Miss Key had not heard from me in good time she had written to a local man who had done odd jobs for her, and he had picked and sent her the apples; Mary Augusta was not going to lose her Christmas bounty! I was lucky, however; I was given the crop from another garden nearer home.
The War proceeded and the condition of Woodfield receded. Over-grown, overrun with vermin and in a ruinous condition; it was surprising the house kept waterproof, but only just, or that it was not taken for some war-time purpose, if only for storage.
Contrary to Blayney's suggestion it did not suffer from bombing. November 1941 - bombs falling around in London and getting too near to Dulwich for comfort, so Miss Key decided to pull out, and take up residence at Woodfield. It must have been a hurried decision and a hurried move, of which I knew nothing until told there was someone living in the house. In fact I do not think I ever spoke to Kiss Key again. One murky afternoon two van-loads of furniture and chattels arrived, as I imagine the man were anxious to get back to London before the bombs fell at night, everything was just thrown into the house, and many items were not touched again until I took over in 1954. The large quantity of books - the library of her grandfather - were piled on the dirty floors and in the corner of one sitting room was a heap of correspondence and personal papers, chin high, most of the letters still carefully folded in their envelopes and going back to 1860. How anyone could have gone into occupation without even a broom previously run over the floors is beyond comprehension.
The household comprised Miss Key, Blayney's friend, Miss Amy Dickinson., and a tweeny-maid of about 14 years. I think the girl soon tired of country life and the separation from friends, so soon returned to London, like many of the evacuees in the autumn of 1939. Miss Dickinson, incapacitated with an artificial leg, was restricted to the house, but was seen out shopping on a few occasions.
In October 1943 Kiss Key was taken ill, and a Doctor was called to her. He diagnosed appendicitis, and said she could not possibly stay in the house, she must to hospital; but she positively refused. Next morning he was again called, this time to give a certificate of death, but under the circumstances he would not do so, in consequence of which proceedings had to follow their legal course. Amy Dickinson was left in the house, alone. One wonders how she managed, but she had a good friend in her opposite neighbour, who held a key of the house, in case of emergency.
Knowing Miss Dickinson was far from well, one morning she went across to enquire and told Miss Dickinson to stay in bed while she fetched some breakfast. On her return she found Miss Dickinson lying on the hearth, partly dressed, so she ran back to fetch her husband, and he in turn called his neighbour who was just leaving for work. It was only a body they found, so it was lifted on to the bed. You take her legs and I will take her shoulders said No.1, and to quote the unknowing No. 2, "I lifted, and her leg came off in my hands" - a shock to him as he did not know she wore an artificial limb. In her distress she had not properly fastened it.
Once more Woodfield, for practicable purposes, was unoccupied; the freehold is now vested solely in Blayney. He came to Woburn Sands occasionally from his retreat on Eel Pie Island and spent a few days amongst the filth which no-one made any attempt to clear up. I used to see him going to and from the station, always dressed as for the City - pin stripes and bowler hat - but generally carrying a paper carrier bag.
In order to explain a future action, I will switch over for a while to the other family property, "Eton Lodge", not far away. This had been let on a lease to Miss Sarah Burney (of the Wavendon family, related to the Hoares). She had an elderly companion, Miss Annie Battison, and when she died she left the short term remaining to Annie, who had no financial resources.
At the end of the lease, Blayney, the now owner, brought the full power of law to bear, and made a claim for dilapidations, to which he was, of course, entitled, but it was unfortunate for Miss Battison that she had as an opponent a man of Blayney's type. He engaged a London surveyor (C.N.) while Miss Battison instructed the late Wallace Foll, for whom at the time I was manager. We eventually received the claim in detail, together with its total cost. Many items we disputed, but the outstanding feature is that everything had been valued at London prices, and as labour outweighed material this considerably increased the claim, as against country prices; there was a considerable difference. The stables had not been used as such for many years, and at that time they were not likely to be for many more, but every defective saddle bracket and whip block was priced for renewal at top price. Originally there was a small part of the garden which had ornamental box-edged walks which had almost completely disappeared. In future it was not likely anyone would want them - old-time gardeners were too expensive. A reasonable solution would have been a token payment for the loss, but no! Blayney wanted his pound of flesh, and his box edges.
We countered the claim with what we thought was a reasonable offer, and substantiated it with an estimate from a local builder, who was prepared to do the necessary work. C.N. was a jolly, friendly, man, and in ordinary circumstances, l am sure, after a fight, we should have come to terms; our figures were, however, miles apart and neither would give way, C.N. no doubt being over-awed by his Client. There was nothing for it but arbitration. It is usual in such cases for each surveyor to put up three names, eventually agreeing one of the six as arbitrator. We named three men who were prepared to act, from within a fifteen mile radius, Beds and Bucks, and of course, C.W. put up three London men. Blayney, however, would not accept the inexperience of a country man (!) and insisted on a Londoner, and, in desperation, Wallace Foll agreed, hoping for the best.
A day was appointed for the arbitrator's inspection, and we all met at Eton it was a foul day in March, the weather not fit for man or beast. The arbitrator turned out to be an elderly gentleman, and like Blayney, in City black and bowler. He examined the property and the witnesses, and duly departed back to London. In a friendly chat with C.N. after, the opinion was expressed that we hoped he would survive the bad day long enough to make his Award. He did, and it supported the Landlord in every way; but he was buried a month or so later, (!) and Annie Battison went into retirement a very poor woman.
Having told that story let us return to Woodfield. Blayney Key was seriously in arrears with his rates, the house still holding its furniture. He refused to pay as he said it was over-assessed, and there were various appeals. Eventually in order to support his theory he hit on the excellent idea of giving the house a ghost. No-one wanted to live in a ghost-haunted house, so he could not obtain a reasonable rent. The Ampthill Rural District Council and the rating authority could not get anywhere with the man, and eventually took the matter back to their rating surveyors in Bedford. (This was before the days of the rating being in the hands of a Government department) They had valued the whole district under the 1925 Act, and I had helped then in their quite local work. The partner involved came to see me, to seek my help especially with regard to the age of the house, which Key asserted had been used by Dick Turpin.
I expressed the opinion that it was early Victorian, but I was prepared to put its date at around about 1820-25. Dick Turpin lived from 1706 to 1739, and the field in which the house stands was still a field in 1782, six acres without a house on it (but I did not know that at the time). Blayney Key had all his father's and grandfather's papers, to which he could refer, and as owner had access to the deeds. He probably knew from family hearsay much more about the use than I have discovered in my searches. He must have known it did not go back thus far. His story, repeated by Peter Underwood in Pan Books in 1973, of inns, hooves, lovers was the invention of a clever and cunning brain, and I am surprised it was accepted by specialists of the ghostly world. The house was never an Inn, and in all the 55 years I have lived here I have never heard mention of curious happenings there. I’m afraid Mr Underwood was lead astray with regard to persistent legends, long accepted. Only one man told colourful stories, and he was in the pay of the Keys.
I will not waste space here, telling of the lovers, discovered by an irate father, who locked them up in a cupboard to die, and of Dick Turpin's discovery of the act; it is set out in detail in Pan Books.
The appeal was reported in the Beds Times, and mentioned that evening on B.B.C. news, but the newspaper report gives little detail. I can only tell of events from a fading memory. Key, for once in a way was represented by a Mr Eric Cullen; he generally conducted his own cases. He had a battery of experts to tell of their experiences in the house, and the girl who came to the house with Miss Key. The appeal was heard at the Shire Hall, Bedford and the chairman was Mr Charles Henderson, K.C. I do not think Mr Key was aware that both Mr Wallace Foll and I were known to Henderson.
When I was called as a witness for the Council, Mr Key immediately jumped to his feet and objected to my giving evidence. Key told the Chairman a long story of the events at Eton Lodge, and of the wicked misrepresentations of Mr Foll, and his assistant, now in the box. Mr Henderson however, glasses perched on the end of his nose, told Mr Key quite plainly that he had known Mr Foll for many years (they were old dancing friends, and it was to Mr Henderson that ha referred for "opinions") and as Mr Foll was not concerned in the case (he had died a few years before) his remarks were irrelevant. Mr Henderson also knew Mr Parker and he was quite certain that anything which had happened some ten years before would not affect the evidence he was about to give; and Mr Key sat down.
His Counsel pointed out that the house had been damaged by bombs (I cannot remember it) and it was reputed to be haunted, and he told the story repeated by Mr Underwood. Time was taken up by the evidence of the night-watchers and then it came the turn of Miss Doreen Price of East Dulwich. She said she came to Woodfield when she was 14 and slept alone in a downstairs room; one night she woke up and saw two bare female arms coming down the wall to her bed; she put her head under the bedclothes and went to sleep. The Chairman - "And what did you have for supper?" “Cheese sandwiches!" and when the laughter had subsided she was told she could stand down.
At this stage it may be well to say something of Blayney Key, information mostly gathered during the clearing up of Woodfield after the Receiving Order in Bankruptcy. He generally described himself as an accountant, but this was a stretch of the imagination, and the term “bookkeeper” would have been nearer the truth. Amongst the pile of correspondence found in the house were letters and references relating to the many jobs he had held with commercial firms.
As a bankrupt, he claimed the tools of his trade - builder - but I found no substantiation of this. He was no doubt an amateur carpenter, for a few tools were on the premises, mostly in good condition, and not the well-worn tools of an artisan. I think it was merely a dodge to salve something from the wreckage, perhaps some old favourites he did not want to part with.
There were indications at Woodfield that he had served, as a private, in the army during the South African War, but not of his regiment. Amongst other military oddments was the box of chocolate which was sent to every serving soldier by Queen Alexandra as a Christmas present. Similar boxes have recently been shown on television.
At this time he was not a pauper, for he had an annuity of £100 a year from his father's estate. It will be seen he did not take part in the proving of his father's Will (February 1902); no doubt he was in South Africa. For most of his time Key was evidently engaged in clerical work in London. He was always - possibly from habit - dressed as for "the City".
His grandfather, Richard, had been steward for Lord Blayney at Blayney Castle, at Concra in Ireland; hence the use of those names. In 1864, after Richard purchased the land fronting Aspley Hill, he borrowed £5,000 from Lord Blayney, but the mortgage was repaid in July 1867. He was the bibliophile who compiled the library. It seems strange that after gathering together this small estate here, and in 1861 building the large house, for so long known as "Woodlands", that he should sell out in 1863 and move to London, where he moved around from one address to another.
Blayney's father was Richard William, and he became a barrister-at-law, practicing from Harcourt Buildings in the Temple. Blayney got from him, not only his law books, but his clever brain. Blayney studied those books, and brought himself up-to-date at the London libraries; he was rarely represented in any legal matter; he conducted his own case. He only employed a solicitor to do work a layman cannot do.
At what time he went there I do not know, but at the time I was dealing with work he lived in a bungalow, named "Pie Crust" on the well-known Eel-Pie Island at Twickenham. Even there, on his own doorstep, he could not refrain from quarrelling with his neighbours, his actions giving rise to litigation. He either blocked up a boundary ditch, or dug one (I forget which) so flooding his neighbour's property, and was taken to Court for the damage.
Time passed on; Woodfield lay idle. In the middle of 1953 Key was seriously in arrears with his mortgage payments and the mortgagee commenced proceedings for recovery. Blayney had another creditor (apparently a lady) concerned with the property, and she too started proceedings through the County and Bankruptcy Courts. The two claims established difficulties; the mortgagee wanted possession of Woodfield in order to sell, and the Creditor wanted a lien on its contents, but Key put every obstacle he could in the way of the two parties. It became a sort of eternal triangle - mortgagee, lender, and Official Receiver, all fighting one another as well as their common enemy. Whatever decision was made by the Courts, Key fought, and strangely, generally won his case, but in 1954 the Official Receiver put his foot down and obtained an order to sell the contents of the house. My firm already held instructions from the mortgagee to sell the property, and the Official Receiver informed Key he was giving us instructions to sell the furniture, & co. Key absolutely refused to let us handle the work, having regard to his experience with us at Eton Lodge and in the rating appeal. The Official Receiver telephoned us to explain and apologise, and he was instructing a Northampton firm.
They met Key on the premises, and I do not know what happened, but they in turn, refused to accept the work, so back came the Official Receiver with instructions to us to carry on, at once, and with no interference. In the meantime Key had instructed a firm of removal contractors to take the furniture to London, but (perhaps fortunately) they were too busy to do it at once, and, may be, doubtful of payment. Without waiting for further instructions, I managed to obtain a key and went to the house. The first room I entered was in much the same condition as when Miss Dickinson died, though worse so far as dirt was concerned. The remnant of her breakfast was still on the table, the stuffed furniture had been riddled by rats, and the room was indescribably filthy.
In a corner, beside the fireplace, was a single bed, and in consequence of the ghostly stories, I was shocked to see something on it, but taking my courage in both hands and a stick in the other, I picked up the coverlet, only to discover Miss Dickinson's wooden lag, toes upwards! It was a relief to find it was solid wood and not ghostly matter. Until then I was not aware of the nature of her infirmity, and did not hear the story of the other experience until after. The whole house was filthy and over-run with vermin. The bedroom used by Miss Key was reasonably tidy, but had lain idle since her death; everything was covered with a black dust. There was a small bedroom, the door of which was locked, into which we eventually broke. It had a single bed in the corner, just as the last occupant had left it, and around a few signs of male occupation. Bed and bedding were later burnt.
Other than the two bedrooms, Miss Dickinson's room downstairs, and the kitchen quarters, the house was in the same condition as when the goods were dumped there in 1941. Books were stacked six feet high, so black with dust that the colour of the covers and the titles could not be seen. Some pieces of furniture, in sections, were found scattered all round the house, up and down; it was quite a hunt to look for missing parts. I reported to the Official Receiver, explaining that, owing to the extraordinary conditions it would be some time before I could conduct a sale, and that the cost of cleaning up and sorting out, would be very heavy. For the moment it did not matter for Keys continual argument constantly postponed proceeding, and by September, the Receiving Order had been rescinded. I understood the woman who obtained it gave up despair, at the cost with little hope of salvage. The mortgage was still anxious to sell, but could not get possession.
Late in 1964, the Ampthill Council again took action for the recovery of rates, in November another Receiving Order was made against Key, and the whole process started again, but this time with more force, and this time costs did not worry the Council. Key, however, was still obdurate and playing for time and with further appeals, wasted the first half of 1955. It was Midsummer before final instructions to proceed were given by the Official Receiver. Our men went into the house and started their dirty task, and I took on the job of sorting the books - in a boiler suit!
Key, at various tines, agreed to meet the Official Receiver, but generally failed to turn up. One day in July, by appointment, the Official Receiver came to Woodfield and with the Solicitor of the Ampthill Council, waited all day, but Key did turn up. However, one day he did, when he was not expected. He walked into Woodfield when our porters were finally clearing up for the auction. By chance I was laid up a couple of days and not putting in any time at the house. The first thing he wanted was Miss Dickinson's wooden leg, which he declared, like everything else, was valuable. It had just been put on the bonfire, so he was kept talking until it was too late to retrieve it. He went back to London and complained to the O.R., to whom l had to explain that it was an old-fashioned leg of a type not likely to be used again. Though Key threatened proceedings for the loss, we did not hear any more about it.
Another story which has not been released before can, perhaps, now be told. There were hundreds of mid-Victorian letters thrown into the corner of a sitting room, and not touched for 14 years; damp had opened the envelopes in which they were still folded and the stamps had, in most cases come off. The porters were sweeping them up until I retrieved them and picked them up out of the dust. There were also other Ioose stamps in the house together with two albums of old stamps.
Thinking the albums held some stamps of value I had them examined by London specialists, but was told they did not want them; some I thought were good were only prints. For comfort - and cleanliness - all stamps had been taken to my office, where I sorted them out in spare moments, the various categories being put into separate envelopes ready for cataloguing, but when my instructions were cancelled, I had to take them back to the house, where they were left in the drawer of a bureau. On being re-instructed they were not removed as they had been sorted and were ready for cataloguing.
One day we finished work and locked up about six o'clock, but later, working on the catalogue, a query arose, and I returned to the house about 7.30. On entering I sensed something wrong and soon found a pane of glass broken from the scullery window, but search of the house revealed nothing disturbed - until I thought to look in the bureau drawer. Every stamp had gone, but nothing else in the house had been disturbed. I immediately telephoned the police, but they were busy and did not turn up until dusk, and a search in the dark told us nothing, nor did another next morning.
Having had so much trouble with the property over the past 30 years the police were not very anxious play Sherlock Holmes, but I had to report the matter to the Official Receiver who unfortunately made no fuss. No-one but my office staff and porters knew there were stamps in the house; none of them were stamp-interested, and they were, of course, above suspicion. No one else locally should have known of them, much less where to find them. Suspicion fell on Blaney Key. Train times fitted in with a fleeting visit between 6 and 7.30, and it is thought he might have been anxious to find some document, but anything of importance we had found had already been sent to the Official Receiver. The bureau was the obvious place to look for such things and the sight of the old family stamps might have been too much…! I have often wondered.
On inspection, I deemed some of the books to be of value, and obtained permission for Sotheby’s to come down and look at them; this they did and sorted out about 40 volumes for their sale rooms. One was a first volume only (out of two) and with no cover, of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, 1731, which had been found under rubbish in the stables and only brought to my notice because of the fine coloured plates. Sotheby's was not keen on it, but fancied a portfolio of water colour drawings of birds, and this we got permission for them to illustrate in their catalogue. I attended their sale and was interested to see the Catesby knocked down for 100 guineas, while the portfolio only made £65.
The contents of the house and the books were sold at Woodfield on 26-27th July 1955, and all told, only realised £635. The books should have made more but most of the men of the trade who were present were old friends! The books which went to Sotheby’s made £503. After expenses had been paid and the costs of three years of litigation, what was left I do not know; it could not have been a large amount.
With the clearance of the house possession of the property was deemed to be available and the property could be offered by auction. Consultation on this resulted in our arranging for another firm of auctioneers to do so, in order to avoid delaying tactics by Key. The sale was at the Swan Hotel at Woburn Sands on 9th September 1955, and the property was knocked down to Mr R. S. Sturdy of Plysu Products, Woburn Sands, for £1750. The sum was the amount of the mortgage. Costs would have run into a considerable sum, and the mortgagee must have lost a lot of money; I was sorry for him, as he was an elderly man.
Finally, as Key had claimed all papers on the premises, everything of the nature of letters (hundreds of them), magazines, newspapers, &c were deposited in a loose-box, It was the only near-waterproof outbuilding, and as we had erred on the careful side, by time all had been crammed in the door would not shut. Key was informed that he could fetch them at any time, but he did nothing. The Purchaser would not complete until the whole property had been cleared of Key's effects, so that vacant possession could be given of the whole of the premises. In order to do this the Mortgagee had all the papers packed (in 8 trunks and boxes, 7 sacks and 11 large cartons) and dispatched to Key by rail - at a cost of £12. All parties were advised of the dispatch, and in order that there should be no mistake, I personally saw the lot placed on rail at Woburn Sands Station. Some months later we heard from the Official Receiver that Key had complained that the papers had never been delivered. As he lived on Eel Pie Island, and by this time the public ferry had been discontinued, the railway company probably would not deliver without extra charge, and Key would not answer his door in case it another process-server.
The clerk in charge of the case, who came down from London to discuss details told me interesting stories of his dealings with Key, and the difficulty of contacting personally. His "Pie Crust” was curtained and boarded up, and although Key could be seen within, he refused to answer the door. Finding that Key was in the habit of catching an early ferry to do his shopping, the Clerk one day turned up on the landing stage at 8a.m. to serve his notices, but on seeing him, Key, for all his age, ran like hare, and disappeared down a side street.
With the very strict instructions we had with regard to papers I made as careful a search as time would permit, but could not read every letter. What an interesting story they would have told! One was from James Pain, about 1868, making his final offer to buy Woodlands, which his family occupied for the next eighty years. It was perhaps strange that his descendants should buy from Key (1951) his remaining property, Eton Lodge. I found Key's will making Amy Dickinson his principal legatee, but she had pre-deceased him; also his birth certificate, but at the time I did not think make a note of the date, and recently I have been searching for his death certificate!
I have often wondered how this interesting man fared in his later days. Enquiries of the old family solicitors reveal nothing. The firm has amalgamated with others and old files have gone. Indeed I doubt whether the old friends of his father and grandfather would have acted for Blayney. My only information comes from the Police at Twickenham, who must have known him 20-30 years ago, but to-day have forgotten. It is thought he died in a nursing home, about 1973. If this is so, he would have passed his three score and ten by a longer term than I would have imagined. He must have been born round about 1880, and so give his lifes spell something like 93 years. I think he hated me far more than I hated him, in fact, I did not hate him, rather was interested to pit my brains against his, and get the old rascal down. May his old bones rest in peace.
Today, the house is a home again, and is very much better looked-after than at some periods of its history!