Continue up Rocky Lane, past Hartley Farm, to the cross-roads and turn right. This takes you, past the church and into the village known as The Lee. It has appeared in all sorts of films and series including episodes of Midsomer Murders starring as ‘Badger’s Drift’, where a rake of people various were regularily murdered on, and around, the Village Green. To the hiker or passing driver it is the architypal village with its pub, idyllic cottages and manor house set around the green. All though, is not quite what it seems, go a couple of hundred yards down the lane past the Cock and Rabbit and lurking rather spookily, these days under a roof, on the left-handside, is a huge staring figurehead looking skywards guarding the driveway to a rather splendid house called Pipers. Now, you may ask, what is a huge figurehead doing in the Chilterns about as far from the sea as you can get?
This explanation starts with the birth of Arthur Lasenby Liberty in 1843 in Chesham to Arthur Liberty and his wife Rebecca, a draper and lace manufacturer with businesses in Nottingham and Chesham. His father was clearly doing well and in 1851 they were living at Moor Farm in Chesham with no less than five servants. By 1861 they had moved to Nottingham where young Arthur had been at Nottingham University School. Arthur left at sixteen and took up employment in a relative’s lace warehouse. Ever ambitious he soon got himself an apprenticeship as a draper in Baker Street, London. Within three years he’d risen to Joint Manager at Farmer and Roger’s warehouse in Regent Street, the number one source of all things Oriental. He worked there until 1874 becoming very friendly with some of the most influencial designers and artists of the times including William Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti who frequented the establishment. He was soon appointed manager but that was as far as it seemed to be going after they declined to make him partner in the business. Realising the huge potential and increasing demand for the style and design influences of the East, and encouraged by his new found circle of friends, he set up in business on his own in 1875 sponsored by Henry Blackmore whose daughter, Emma, he promply married. Little could he have known that the name ‘Liberty’ was about to go big time.
With the £2000 loan from Henry Blackmore he took on the lease of 218a Regents Street, renamed it East India House, and with a staff of three opened as Liberty & Co selling fabrics and arty-type stuff from the Far East. So successful was this venture that by 1877 the loan had been repaid and the adjoining property acquired. Still mixing with the likes of Morris and Co., who had also gone full tilt boogey into what became the Arts and Crafts movement, things went from good to betterer. It is true to say that his influence on the British silk and woollen industry during this period was considerable when, in conjunction with Thomas Wardle, he succeeded in introducing fine dyes, previously exclusive products of the East, and applied them to home produced cloth. The popularity in these bright fabrics marketed as Liberty products was huge and by 1882 he’d taken on a second shop at 142-144 Regent Street specialising in the sale of home furnishings and expanded the original East India House to occupy 216, 218 and 222 Regent Street (the site of the modern store) selling the fabrics and dresses. Liberty was fast becoming a design icon in its own right and along with Edward Godwin, a founder member of the Costume Society, developed a range of fashions to rival Paris, no mean feat at the time. As the Arts and Craft movement changed to Art Nouveau then even more Liberty designs came to the fore, many in conjunction with the main designers and craftsmen of the time. His attention to detail and quality was exceptional and as an example in 1888/9 he and his wife travelled to Japan to study the Japanese arts and crafts and learn about their manufacturing processes, quite an undertaking. So successful was the store and Liberty’s influence in the Art Nouveau movement that in Italy it became known as ‘Stile Liberty’.
On the home front his grandparents were living at Chartridge Farm near The Lee and he visited them often. Now doing very well he decided this was where he wanted to live and in 1880 rented the Manor House from the absent Plaistowe family and purchased the estate in 1898. As Lord of the Manor he expanded the estate to over 3000 acres, re-routed the road through the village to create the village green, built the cricket pitch, football pitch and sorted out the Parish Church. In addition a 365 foot deep well was dug at Lee Common (closed in 1950) and he had pumped water from Great Missenden laid on to The Lee. According to the Parish History the pub at The Lee ‘interrupted his view’ so in 1907 he had it dismantled and rebuilt as the Cock and Rabbit in its present position on the corner of The Green. In the same year a huge sarsen stone was dug out of a field in Lee Gate and erected on the side of the green on a brick plinth and joined in later years by a pile of other erratics outside the pub. When the local parishes, some already forming part of the estate, were re-arranged the Parish of The Lee nearly quadrupled in size so he re-introduced the beating the bounds. Now the story starts to unfold as just down the road is a grand house low beamed house called Pipers, which he had built for his nephew, Ivor Stewart-Liberty, who was destined to run the business on his retirement in 1914.
Arthur’s genuine love of hand-crafted goods in a era of mass-production and his eye for artistic trends was the key to Liberty’s success but the treatment of his staff and drive to improve working conditions certainly played a large part ensuring staff loyalty which wasn’t missed by the very highly respected clientele that shopped there. It is little known that he was one of the main supporters of the ‘early closing day movement’ which was introduced to his store. A school was established for the staff and their children within the store and also one at his home at The Lee and carried on by his nephew at Pipers. In 1913 Arthur Liberty was knighted in recognition of his services to ‘applied and decorative arts’ and was appointed as a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant for the County of Buckingham, becoming High Sheriff in 1899. He was a juror for several international exhibitions, sat on the London Chamber of Commerce and served as an officer on numerous commercial and artistic associations. Sir Arthur Liberty died at Lee Manor on 11 May 1917 where he is now buried in the village churchyard. He was survived by his wife but as he had no children his business empire was continued by his nephew Ivor Stewart-Liberty and eventually his great-nephews. The Lee-Liberty connection remained and by the 1930s The Lee estate is recorded as employing over 100 people meaning that almost the whole area was dependant on the Stewart-Liberty family one way or another.
Under Ivor Stewart-Liberty the now very prestigious store continued to thrive which meant more room was required so Ivor set about refurbishing the shops and commissioned Edwin Thomas Hall and his son Edwin Stanley Hall, leading exponents of the Tudor Revivalist movement, to design a new building along the front of Great Marlborough Street. This is the building that became synonymous with Liberty & Co. As the Regent Street property was owned by the Crown Estate and planning regulations required any building to be in a classical style the Marlborough Street side was chosen to build the wonderful Mock-Tudor part of the store. As was traditional with building timber-framed houses the bulk of the heavy timbers were sourced from wooden ships that were still being broken up in large numbers. To this end Liberty purchased two Royal Naval ships that were due to be scrapped, HMS Impregnable and, rather appropriately, HMS Hindustan.
HMS Impregnable was originally built and launched as the 121 gun HMS Howe (after Admiral Lord Howe of the battle of Quiberon Bay fame) in 1860 and was the last and largest wooden-hulled ship ever built for the Navy. Ordered in 1854 as a three-decker she represented the ultimate development of the wooden battleship. She and her sister ship HMS Victoria were designed for screw-propulsion but HMS Howe was never completed for Sea Service and never entered service under her original name as by the time she was launched the Ironclads had taken over. Kitted out with a meagre 12 guns she entered service in 1885 as the Training Ship HMS Bulwark and in 1886 was re-named HMS Impregnable, the name given to any training ship moored at Devonport, where she spent her life. With the completion of the new on-shore training facilities at Devonport in 1919 she was re-named HMS Bulwark, struck-off and sold for scrap in 1921.
HMS Hindustan was built as a 80 gun ship of the line and launched in 1841 and was a true product of the British Empire. Ordered in 1819 work started on her in 1829 at the Plymouth Dockyard when the teak frames, ordered from the Far East, finally arrived. Her history is somewhat confusing for it is reported that she became a training ship in 1868 and re-named HMS Fisgard III in 1905 (as with HMS Howe) after the Artificers Training Establishment and was moored up in the Dart foreward of HMS Britannia which in turn was replaced in 1869 by The Prince of Wales. However checking the history of Dartmouth Naval College it would appear that Hindustan arrived to supplement Britannia in 1864. Whatever the facts by 1905 the new shore-based Dartmouth Naval College had been almost been completed and the use of the training ships there was gradually phased out so it is likely that she was moved to Fisgard around this time. In 1920 she reverted back the HMS Hindustan and was struck off in 1921 and, like HMS Howe, was towed away for breaking. Film footage of her under tow in a rather sorry state en-route to the breakers still exists.
Right, back to the new store in London which was now complete and looking like it had been there for centuries. In recognition of its Far Eastern connections the façade of the mock-Tudor building is same length as HMS Hindustan and the Marlborough Street side was now became the main entrance. Both inside and out it soon becomes evident that the timbers originate from ships. The interior is a masterpiece and still reflects perfectly the warm homely feel that Sir Arthur always strove for and which made his store so successful. The building is engineered around three light wells which form the main focus of the building. These magnificent wells are surrounded by smaller rooms, many with fire-places, giving the place a Manor House type feel. The high light-wells also provided the perfect place to display the oriental rugs whilst the smaller rooms contained the smaller decorative pieces. Completed in 1924 the building is one of London’s masterpieces and well worth a visit but go without plastic and with hands in pockets.
By now you have probably worked out the answer to the original question. The figurehead of Lord Howe which once struck out from the bow of HMS Howe, the biggest battleship of its type, was commandeered by Ivor Stewart-Liberty and set up at the entrance to his house Pipers, where it still keeps an eye on the passing rook and crow. The ghosts of both the Hindustan and Lord Howe now reside in one of London’s favourite stores. That the figurehead survived is remarkable as it is only in recent years that a protective shelter was been built over it. When Ivor Stewart-Liberty died in 1952 Arthur Stewart-Liberty, his successor, sold one third of the estate including the manor house, many of the farms and cottages going to the tenants, and moved into Pipers. In 1980, Chiltern District Council created a conservation area around the Old Church, the village green and the manor house. Up and around the Lee the name of Liberty and Stewart-Liberty is still remembered with affection and descendants of the family still live there to this day.
Click on picture 14 below for an amazing full length picture of the store’s Marlborough Street facade which gives some idea of the size of HMS Hindustan which was overall about half the size of HMS Impregnable.
http://www.liberty.co.uk On-line shopping, history, the lot. Sir Arthur would have been chuffed to bits. Thanks for the pictures.
http://www.worldnavalships.com/hms_impregnable.htm HMS Howe as HMS Impregnable training ship Dartmouth. Prints available.
http://www.itnsource.com/shotlist//BHC_RTV/1921/10/31/BGT407060844/ Quite remarkable short clip of Hindustan being towed to the breakers.