A potted history


Prehistoric Times

The valleys and the plateau between the confluence of the two rivers Lea and Mimram have yielded evidence of occupation going back at least to Lower Palaeolithic times. A study in 1917 by H Kendall, F.S.A, identified tools and other implements near Hertingfordbury dating to at least that era.

From the display at the British Museum
From the display at the British Museum

Mesolithic , Neolithic and Bronze Age settler finds have also been made in the Mimram valley to the west of the area, including a ‘beaker’ burial at Tewin.

In 1993 archaeological excavations were undertaken in advance of the building of the A414 Cole Green by-pass cutting through Panshanger Park. The report found “multi-period archaeological remains”. It also stated that the area was long favourable for settlement, being well-placed topographically and geologically. There was a mixed farming economy in the area where the “fairly extensive settlement” was well-connected with settlements in other areas, including with those in the Thames Valley, as evidenced by pottery finds.

A Museum of London ‘Watching Brief’ report in 2004 also found evidence of Bronze Age activity in the western adjacent farm of Birchall. This area had

already been designated an Area of Archaeological Significance (AAS) following identification of a number of features including a “plough-razed barrow”, a number of circular enclosures and field systems and a ditched oval enclosure which RCHM identify as one of only five henges in Hertfordshire (HCC sites and monuments records).

During the first century BC a group of Gallo-Germanic tribes (named the Belgae by Julius Caesar) entered the area. They cleared the forests and made settlements in the area. In 1966, to the west of the present day Panshanger Park, was uncovered the burial chamber of a very important Iron Age chieftain. This can be seen today recreated in a display at the British Museum. There are five four-foot high jars of wine, a silver cup, 36 fine items of pottery, bronze and iron goods and even a gaming board with a set of beautiful glass gaming counters.

Finds from Panshanger on display at the British Museum.


 The Mid-Herts area is rich in Roman finds. At Welwyn there was an extensive villa complex, one of a string along the Lea and the Mimram. The excavated baths are well worth a visit.


The county Sites and Monuments record indicate the possibility of another unexcavated villa on Brocket Hill at the western edge of Panshanger Park. English Heritage have indicated the possible route of the Verulamium to Ware road passing through the southern edge of the park.

Domesday Book

Panshanger is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, but some of the surrounding settlements were.

Epcombs (Hertingfordbury ) had a mill,

Hertingfordbury itself  Ralph himself holds Herefordingberie. It is assessed at 5 hides. There is land for 10 ploughs. In demesne are 3 hides and 1 virgate, and there are 2 ploughs, and there can be a third. There 5 villans with 1 Frenchman and 6 bordars have 5 ploughs, and there can be 2 more. There are 11 cottars and 4 slaves, and 2 mills rendering 6s, meadow for 3 ploughs, pasture for the livestock of the vill and woodland for 200 pigs. From woodland pasture, 7s. In all it is worth £8; when received, £6; TRE £10. Alwine, a thegn of Earl Harold, held this manor and could sell

Sele was very small , having only 2 households with 2 slaves, a mill and 1 ploughland. Owned by Godwin, the tenant was Geoffrey of Bec who  was Lord or tenant of 33 places across Hertfordshire

Tewin was very small, only 2 cottagers, 1 ploughland and woodland for 50 pigs.


In Medieval times, the present area of Panshanger Park was divided mainly into the manors of Blakemere and Panshanger. These came together before 1326 in the ownership of William de Lodewyk. In 1369, a life interest in the estate was reserved to Matthew and Margaret Lety, and in 1492 Panshanger manor and lands in Blakemere were conveyed to a Simon Paxman and Nicholas Larwood.


In 1540, the land between Welwyn and Hertford belonged to the Marquess of Exeter. He was beheaded for treason in 1539  and his estates  and the Blakemore and Panshanger estates went to Henry Vlll. He gave it to Nicholas Throckmorton who was cousin to Queen Catherine Parr  (the one who survived) and ambassador to France.  For the next century or more it passed through many hands, (including Queen Elizabeth 1) finally arriving into the possession of the Cowper family.

The Georgian Era

William, the first Earl Cowper (first Lord Chancellor of Great Britain after the union with Scotland, 1707-10, again 1714-18; died at Cole Green 1723). took as his mistress, Elizabeth Culling of Hertingfordbury Park, by whom he had two children and through whom he was bequeathed the park. Jonathan Swift alluded to William as having committed bigamy with his second wife but this has been subsequently dismissed. His younger brother, Spencer, was tried for the murder of Sarah Stout in 1699 but was acquitted.

The house at that time, at the western edge of Cole Green park, was called Fitzjohns. This was pulled down in May 1704 by William and a seven-bayed mansion built and named Cole Green House.The land around was landscaped with avenues marching out across the top of the hill. He occupied the house in 1711 and settled there upon his retirement in 1718. Fruit and formal flower gardens lay close to the house, closely attended by the Countess. The formal drive to the house was from the east.

In 1719 the Earl bought the adjacent Panshanger estate.  This contained a farmhouse of at least Elizabethan origin which was then used by other members of his family, notably Spencer Cowper (1713-74), Dean of Durham (William’s son) and the house extended in the fashionable Gothick style. By 1738 the park surrounding Cole Green House had been extended to roughly 50 hectares as far as Birchall Wood to include 86 acres of what formerly was Birchall Farm and which included a semicircular shrubbery next to the wood and numerous fruit and flower gardens.

‘Capability’ Brown

The accounts ledger of the 2nd Earl Cowper details seven payments to ‘Mr Lancelot Brown’ over nine years for a total of £718 7s 6d. The accounts show work starting in the garden area and later moving to the parkland, with house renovations such as a new necessary (water closet) plumbing, drains, laundry and stables. The octagonal walled garden was built in 1752 and Brown may have been consulted. In 1755 pine [pineapple – a status fruit at that time] plants were received from Philip Miller of Chelsea Physic Garden. Letters and the first payment of £100 to Brown indicate Brown was working there in autumn/winter 1755 but additional garden labour had been hired over the summer by Cowper’s Head Gardener, John Christi.

‘Brown’s Head Gardener’, Benjamin Read was given a tip in June 1756, presumably after preparing the ground for planting and in 1757 shrubs were sent from Charles Bridgeman and John Williamson, the latter specifying that they had been sent ‘by Mr Brown’s order’.

The Dury and Andrews map of 1766 shows the ha-ha encircling the house and gardens. The bricks from this were removed when the house was demolished in 1801 but the ditch survives in part on the southern side. The park has been enlarged taking in agricultural land to form open parkland and the house approach is no longer directly from the east but more serpentine. The earlier entrance court and formal gardens have been removed. Within the pleasure grounds to the rear, (north-west) of the house, a menagerie was built for ‘Hens and Virginian Turkies’ in 1759, which included fan-shaped arrangement of trees providing a focal point. To the south of this a temple, bought from Lord Albermarle’s sale in 1762, was erected. This appears to be a rotunda with a painted stone floor. To the east of the house three avenues radiate towards the valley of the Mimram with open view across to the Elizabethan and later house at Panshanger. Much of the four acres of woodland have been thinned to give these views. Cowper had purchased firs, pine, larch, a tulip tree and a magnolia in 1752. Old oaks still survive on the eastern side, along with sweet chestnut and beech. Within the walled garden a Gingko biloba was planted in the mid-18th century and a Robinia pseudoacacia of similar date is nearby. An undated and an unsigned sketch of Cole Green shows a parkland landscape with a pool of water and clumps of trees scattered on mounds, which is similar to the parkland at Beechwood. Closer to the river an ice house and a Fishing Lodge were added.

Panshanger park fishing lodge
The fishing lodge today

Work was still progressing when Cowper died in 1764 but his heirs decided to demolish the house and move across the valley to a new house and landscape at Panshanger and Humphry Repton and his son John Adey (the architect). The Brown landscape was included in the Red Book produced by Humphry Repton in 1799.

 Humphry Repton

In 1797, the fifth Earl came of age and began improvements upon his Hertfordshire estates. Humphry Repton (1752-1818) produced a Red Book in 1799 for the united Panshanger and Cole Green estates, suggesting where on the Panshanger estate a new house could be sited most advantageously, and how the River Mimram could be diverted and widened into a lake (The Broadwater) to take full advantage of the valley scenery around it. This was part of a larger scheme to landscape the Earl’s estates along the River Mimram valley, including Tewin Water  for which a Red Book was also produced in the same year, and where his suggestions were largely carried out, and Digswell. Digswell had recently been acquired by the Cowpers, but under the previous owner Richard Willes (or Willis), ‘Capability ‘ Brown had made improvements there in the area of Digswell Place and Sherrardswood Park 1771-73. Entries in the Cowper diary suggest that Repton gave informal advice at Digswell but it was his friend Nathaniel Kent who was actually paid for work there, where the lake (Digswell Water) was finally completed in 1810. Repton intended that the Mimram valley should be a continuous run of designed landscapes but that each of the Cowper estates were to be given  ‘a degree of extent and consequence which it could not boast exclusive of the others, and while each possesses its independent privacy and seclusion, their united lawns will, by extending thro’ the whole valley enrich the general face of the country’ .

The plan was gradually put  in place by the 5th Earl until his death in 1837.  The house suggested by Repton was not built but instead a house by Thomas Atkinson was built on the site of the previous Panshanger House from 1806-09, becoming habitable in 1811.  Planting began in 1799, continuing over several years, and Cole Green House was pulled down in 1801-2. The enclosure of Hertingfordbury parish in 1801 meant that the park could be substantially enlarged, and six miles of public rights of way, including what is now the B1000, were diverted around it .

It still remains in places “…one of Repton’s most perfect schemes” as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner has commented.

Victorian Developments

After the fifth Earl’s death his wife continued to manage Panshanger until 1867, she having remarried to Lord Palmerston of Brocket Hall. Following her death, the estate was managed until 1913 by the seventh Earl’s wife, Katrine, who supervised the addition of formal garden features around the house, until her death in 1913.

Under the 5th and 7th countesses  the gardens around the house were developed in a Gardenesque style with a fernery and a rock garden. The house terrace gardens were extended to a new balustraded sunken garden. The orangery and conservatory were added to the Dairy and a formal garden laid out around them.  Further towards the famous Panshanger oak, a rose garden, a sundial garden with yews and a rustic summerhouse, and a canna garden were all added. A secluded spot, later used by Lady Desborough towards the end of her life, was flanked with 2 fountains and offered views from the woodlands across the valley to ‘Capability’ Brown’s Cole Green landscape. At the other end of the house, a Box Garden of box clipped to the arms of the de Greys and Cowpers with infilling of flowers of heraldic colours was added.

The estate continued to have a Wood Feast every 31st October when underwood was sold. The woods were felled and replanted as they became mature and extra plantations put on land too poor for profitable agriculture. Evergreen Wood was enhanced with exotic trees such as Sequoias and Weymouth Pines which were also set out along the Broad Walk and the trees underplanted with rhododendrons, new types being introduced to Britain from the Himalayas by Hooker .

The first reference we have for a gamekeeper is in 1729 when the 2nd Earl took out a licence for John Dixson and the sporting advantages of the estate exploited, especially in the last 20 years of the 19th century. Up until the eve of the First World War, shooting was important – in 1914  7000 pheasants, 1000 partridges, 250 hares were slaughtered. The shooting then started to decline and has now completely finished.

The lakes, the source of water for the house and for the electricity generating plant, were regularly cleaned, relined with puddle clay and drainage channels cleared. Most of the park was grazed by sheep which produced the fine sward required and also helped pay for the upkeep of the grounds. In the 19th century between 400 and 600 sheep were kept here and folded at Park Farm in the winter,.

The Twentieth Century

The 7th earl and his wife had no children so the ultimate heiress was his sister’s orphaned daughter Ethel (Ettie) Fane. Having been orphaned at the age of 3 she was brought up at Wrest Park by aunts and grandmother. In 1905 Panhanger came to Lord Desborough of Taplow Court who had married Etttie in 1887.  As a secondary estate it was not subject to much redevelopment although it was kept up until the end of the first World War. The Desboroughs had an active social like at Taplow Court, one of the centres for ‘The Souls’  but also found time to lay out a skittle alley at the back of the orangery. The Desboroughs’ two sons were killed in the First World War, with the third dying in a car crash in 1926. The estate deteriorated, and Lord Desborough sold 4000 acres of it in 1919, some to Ebenezer Howard for the establishment of his second Garden City, near Welwyn. More land at Sele Farm went for housing and Hertfordshire County Council bought up land for smallholdings – part of the postwar initiative of Homes for Heroes

Following the death of Lord Desborough in 1945 and of his wife in 1952, the estate was finally broken up and put up for sale in 1953. Although attempts were made to sell the house as an institution or school, there were no buyers after World War Two. The house and 89 acres of land was purchased for £17,750 and the house demolished. Although some of the park is now in private hands, much was purchased for gravel extraction which continues.

Statement of Significance of the Landscape

Cole Green, laid out by L Brown in 1750s and Panshanger, laid out to designs by H Repton from 1799, face each other across the wooded valley of the river Mimram. Both utilised the house on the opposite side of the valley in their views and respected the ancient oak woodland, augmenting where necessary. Although the site has been extensively changed by demolition of both houses and gravel extraction in the park, many of the views and much of the woodland remain, together with Repton’s Broad Water and the Victorian Orangery and Conservatory, albeit as ruins.

The Orangery ironwork today, Panshanger Park
The orangery remains today


Additional Sources of Information

Leiper, H. ‘Mr Lancelot Brown and his Hertfordshire Clients’ In: Hertfordshire Garden History Volume II: Gardens pleasant, groves delicious (Spring, D. ed) (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2012) pp 92-120

Leiper, H. Beautifying Colegreen: The Eighteenth Century Park and Gardens of Colegreen House in Hertfordshire, unpublished MA dissertation, Birkbeck College, University of London, 2008

Prince, H., ‘The Changing Landscape of Panshanger, Hertfordshire’. In : Transactions of the East Hertfordshire Archaeological Society, Vol 14, Part 1, 1955-1957  pp42-58

Prince, H., Parks in Hertfordshire since 1500 (2008, University of Hertfordshire Press)

Repton, H Humphry Repton’s Red Books of Panshanger and Tewin Water, Hertfordshire, 1799 -1800 (Hertfordshire Record Society 2011)

Victoria County History: Page, W (ed) A History of the County of Hertfordshire Vol. 3 (1912) Parish – St Andrews Rural; Manor – Panshanger pp. 468-472

Willis, P. ‘Capability Brown’s Account with Drummond’s Bank 1753-83′, Architectural History, vol. xxvii, issue on Design and Practice in British Architecture: Studies in Architectural History Presented to Howard Colvin (1984), pp 382-91

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies(HALS):

DE/P/A8 Earl Cowper’s accounts ledger 1755-64

DE/PA185 estimate of expenses 1747

DE/P/EA23/2, account of materials recovered from Cole Green House

DE/P/F243-4, diaries, 1752-53

DE/P/F253-6 letters from Spencer Cowper, Dean of Durham

DE/P/P5 contract and plan for Cole Green House 1704

National Maritime Museum:

Charnock, John View of Cole Green late 18th century (three views)

Hyett, William, Ordnance Survey Drawing of Hatfield area 1805http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/ordsurvdraw/h/002osd000000009u00101000.htm

The Parks and Gardens database is a useful information resource, that can be found below: