Lancelot “Capability” Brown improved the lake and gardens at Hallingbury Park, Bishops Stortford, Essex for two generations of the Houblon family.

The Houblons were a banking family who bought Hallingbury Park and the ancient royal forest of Hatfield in 1729. In 1757 Brown made a design for Jacob Houblon III (1710-70) that included extending the lake in Hatfield Forest at both ends and replanting the Cottage Coppice. He then produced a plan for Jacob Houblon IV in 1772 – probably for improvements to the kitchen garden and pleasure grounds.

Lake and Cottage Coppice

Brown’s “Plan for the Alteration of the Water adjoining to Cottage Coppice, 1757” is still in existence. It shows the lake in Hatfield Forest with new arms added at each end, pointing in opposite directions. One arm also has a bridge or ford across it. He was paid £100 (around £177,000 in 2015) for this plan on 29 April 1759. There was a further payment of £50 (more than £86,000 in 2016) on 1 March 1762.

The Chapman and André county map of 1777 (see online) shows that part of Brown’s design was carried out. Only the south-west arm of the lake was extended. His plan also included changes to the nearby cottage (listed Grade II, Historic England), but the attached Shell House (Grade II*, Historic England) was probably built after Brown’s survey. This folly – “encrusted with shells and split flints” – was used for picnics and parties at the lake and is thought to date from 1759. At that time new, more exotic varieties of trees were also planted in this woodland area.

Lady Alice Archer Houblon’s memoirs, written in 1907, mention Brown’s work at Hallingbury in the 1750s. She says that it was around this time that the Elizabethan garden was destroyed and replaced by a ha-ha (sunken wall) and pleasure grounds. These changes were “in the style which the taste of the day substituted in so many instances for the more formal beauty of the past”. Other sources disagree with this timeline and suggest that Brown was only working for the Houblons in Hatfield Forest at this time.

Brown returns to Hallingbury

In the early 1770s Brown was back at Hallingbury, making a “General Plan for the alteration of the Place” and “Plans for the Lodges”. The client was Jacob Houblon IV (1736-83), who had inherited the estate from his father and was married to Susannah Archer of Coopersale.

The survey was carried out by Jonathan Spyers in 1772 and a payment of £105 (over £166,000 in 2015) was noted in the estate cash book on 1 February 1773. Brown’s invoice was sent much later. He wrote from Hampton Court on 31 January 1777 with his account for the survey, apologising for the timing. The entry in Brown’s own account book (see online), confirming receipt of payment, was dated 2 February 1778.

On 26 April 1773 Jacob Houblon wrote to Brown, enthusing about his “excellent plan for the laying out of my Grounds”. The plan for this second phase of work has not survived. It is thought Brown was remodelling the kitchen garden and pleasure grounds and that he may have planned a new lake from an existing stream to the north of the house. Lady Alice Archer Houblon’s memoirs refer to this “large sheet of water” being made around this time.

This new lake is not shown on the Chapman and André map of 1777, which would have been surveyed three or four years earlier. It is not on the 1799 Ordnance Surveyor’s drawing either, though it is clearly seen on an engraving illustration from 1832. It is possible that the lake was designed not by Brown but by landscaper Humphry Repton (1752-1818, Wikipedia), who was at Hallingbury in the early 1800s.

Brown’s plan for new lodges does not appear to have been carried out. The existing lodges were not built until the mid-1800s.

Hallingbury today

The Hallingbury estate was broken up in 1923. The house was demolished in 1924 and Hatfield Forest was taken over by the National Trust. Brown’s addition to the lake in Hatfield Forest has survived, though in a different form. It was cut off from the main lake when the height of the dam was raised in 1979, and now forms the Decoy Lake.


Lancelot Brown and his Essex Clients: A Gazetteer of Sites in Essex Associated with Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783, Essex Gardens Trust, 2015 www.essexgardenstrust.org.uk

John Chapman and Peter André, A Map of the County of Essex 1777: www.chapmanandremapofessex.co.uk

Capability Brown's account book, page 113: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book

Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1186279

National Trust: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hatfield-forest