Denham's White House
Supplying our story for summer 2023 are Philip and Irene Courtenay-Luck. But before they tell about their home at The White House in Denham Village, here's a little introduction of how it was before it became The White House.
At the centre of the village, set back from the road, is The White House. Parts of this house date from 1710. Though at first modestly named Denham Cottage, it was by 1851 clearly a substantial dwelling on five acres occupied by a barrister of no small means or influence, one Springall Thompson.
Barrister Thompson was not however necessarily the freehold owner. By 1858, the name of the property had been changed to The Cedars and clearly sometime between 1851 and 1858 the occupation had changed hands at least once suggesting that the property was occupied by leaseholders renting from a distant freeholder. Certainly by 1858, the freeholder was the Rector of a small parish in Puddlestone, Herefordshire, George Thomas Whitfield who then enjoyed the benefit of over £10,000 per year, in today’s money, from the rent of the property to one William Maudsley, a Victorian property developer. In the decades following, the leasehold interest changed hands several times whilst the Whitfield family continued to take the substantial annual rent.
For 12 years between 1901 and 1913 Sir William Henry Houghton-Gastrell, Member of Parliament for Lambeth North was the lessee of the property, but clearly it was occupied by other families. It was at The Cedars that on 25th September 1903 that the painter and furniture designer Andrew Maclaren was born. So enamoured of their home in the village were his parents Andrew and Eve that they gave their son "Denham" as his second name.
As for Sir William he distinguished himself in 1912 by presenting to the House of Commons - “a Petition containing 87,000 signatures, praying this House to reverse the recent judgment of the High Court in regard to the games known as ‘Progressive Whist Drives,’ which are deemed to be illegal.”
The Whitfield family finally gave up the freehold in 1919. The new owner changed the name again to “Brook” perhaps recalling the short road, Brook Street, which had once run near to the property. However by 1933, and by then much enlarged by purchases of neighbouring land, the property had acquired the name by which it is now known, The White House.
During the 1930s the house was owned and occupied by Colonel Francis Powell Braithwaite and his very distinguished wife Lady Victoria Alexandrina Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, sixth child of the Irish aristocrat, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, himself a favourite in the court of Queen Victoria. After further sales and purchases, including ownership by a knighted leading diplomat and businessman, the property was acquired by its current owners, Philip and Irene Courtenay-Luck in 1986.
Philip and Irene take over the story to tell the story of their home in their own words.
The White House
We know that the oldest parts of this house were built in 1710. Originally, the house name was Denham Cottage, then The Cedars, followed by The Brook and finally The White House, the name by which it is still known.
Fortunately, the history of the house and property from the middle of the 18th century is well documented. For example, the house itself consisted of two cottages, while the open land all the way down to Weller’s Mead was part of the property and included stables and other farm outbuildings.
Three cottages near St. Mary’s Church were also part of the property and housed staff. Of the three, two, Cedar Cottage and Cedar Tree Cottage, continue to be residences. The third no longer exists but can be seen on this old photo of the village. None of them now belong to The White House.
Property documents also show that a dwelling house on Cheapside Lane at one time (1858??) belonged to the estate. Over the years, parts of the estate were sold to others; the White House gardens and home are currently about six acres; the field is about 11 acres.
There’s also a bit of a mystery in that there’s apparently a tunnel under the house. We don’t know where it led. Probably to the church, but since the religious conflicts in the country’s history were over before the house was built, we don’t know why.
Coming to Denham and changes
We had lived in London, in Tyler’s Green and in Beaconsfield before we moved to Denham. We looked at a place in Chalfont St. Giles when we were considering a move in 1986, but somehow we felt all those other places lacked a sense of real “community”. The simple fact that there is a pavement running through the village on which people can walk made us think that here is a lively community. That helped make it seem right for us to be here.
We understand that the James Bond actor, Roger Moore had also looked at The White House but did not want it. We saw the property, brought the price down a bit and got it. We also bought quite a lot of the furniture that was in the house including our Georgian table and chair set.
But when we bought the property in 1986, it was in quite a state. Despite assurances by the previous owners that updates had been made from time to time, we found that the wiring crumbled at the touch. It was so fragile that the previous owner had not even dared to change the lightbulbs himself. The plumbing too was old and needed a full replacement. The kitchen was a disaster! We could not move in until mid-1987, after we had it refurbished to make it safe for us to live in.
Interestingly at some point during the renovation, the workmen found two windows near the front entrance that had been covered up with the glass still intact. We have often wondered whether this was the result of the tax on windows which was in force from 1696 through to 1851. This highly unpopular tax was calculated by reference to the number of windows in a house and many owners covered up some of their windows to reduce their tax liability.
During the 1986/87 refurbishment, workmen also uncovered panelling in the entrance hall from Georgian times. Sadly much of it was damp and could not be preserved but about 50% was saved and Italian craftsmen made and matched on site the remainder. There was also a toilet inconveniently placed in the entrance hall which was removed thus exposing a beautiful window. This dark hall now became a wonderfully bright place.
Unfortunately two old antique fireplaces were removed before we bought the property, but thankfully we do have several open working fireplaces left. We use and enjoy them often.
Where the indoor swimming pool is now, there was a brick lean-to that enclosed fire hose fittings. It was old stuff in a shambles, so we took it all down. There is still an air raid shelter out near the river and we know that the stables area was taken for munitions storage during the Second World War.
Several years ago, someone came to the door and asked to see the house. She had worked in the house and lived upstairs. She told us that she used a spiral staircase to come downstairs to work in an area that is now Philip’s study.
There is a space where the spiral staircase used to be but the staircase itself no longer remains and the door into the study has been covered by panelling. The woman also had a very special memory of sitting around the radio listening to the abdication speech of King Edward VIII. That dates her recollection to 1936 when Colonel Braithwaite and his aristocratic wife Lady Victoria lived here. It is said that they kept monkeys on the property.
Over the years since we have been here, we have converted the silver room into a snooker room and added the swimming pool. We have also rejuvenated the gardens which were in a very sad state when we arrived.
The White House and the film industry
Of course the film industry has been very much a part of Denham’s history. The White House had been listed as available for location shoots before we arrived and we have maintained the listing. Mostly it’s OK. If the location manager is responsible and treats the property and the village as he or she would their own, then it’s likely to be a good experience. A very good example was the filming of scenes for the film Quartet. We have had occasional bad experiences. Badly managed shoots cause conflict in the Village because of parking issues, etc. and a lack of care in the house.
We have been losing the actors, fondly known as village “luvvies”, from past days. John Mills was of course our most famous local. Both he and his wife are buried in St. Mary’s churchyard in the village. Quite a few other TV and entertainment personalities have lived here together with producers, directors and others in the film business. We do still have a few who are very much part of the community.
We were quite young when we arrived in Denham. Our predecessors held a welcome party for us before we moved in. During the party one of our daughters was locked in the hall toilet. Once released, she complained, “ This is going to be like moving into an old people’s home.” Well, we improved the house, but yes we did find the village quite cliquey when we first moved in. Our own feelings for the importance of community caused us to set about changing that straight-away. We got some of the people in the village from all backgrounds to come to the house and we would go to their homes. We did not avoid the clique which might be described as the “old village gentry” but treated them the same as everyone else.
We soon found several community activities to be involved with. Ken McKay from The Old Cottage approached us about getting a hospice built. He asked Irene and me to join the project. That meant mixing with a lot of new people. Thirty five years on, the Thames Valley Hospice Support Group is still bringing the neighbourhood together to raise funds for Thames Hospice. We always ensure that newcomers to the village receive an invitation to the support group’s events held at the house. Thereafter it’s down to them whether they want to be involved but at least they have met most of their neighbours.
That early relationship with Ken Mackay gave us cause for a good laugh many years later. Our daughters Tiffany and Natasha were both married in St Mary’s Church and our grandchildren have been christened there also. At Tiffany’s wedding reception, I handed out keys to several of the young men who had been at the wedding. During my speech, I mentioned how Tiffany had had so many boyfriends over the years, and that now they were to give back the keys to the house. So, 18 guys got up and turned in their keys to much laughter and a shocked Tiffany. Ken McKay had also been given a key by me. By the time of Tiffany’s wedding he was really old, but sure enough he belatedly was also waving his key and saying in his shaky old voice: “Excuse me, father of the bride, I also have a key.” The reception guests erupted in laughter.
The neighbourhood tennis tournament has been held at The White House for 30 years, and for 33 years, we ran the Sweet Shop stall at the Fayre, bringing in £1,600 the first year to contribute to St. Mary’s church funds. That was a lot of money back then. Peter Crick, the then rector, was very happy, probably thinking of it as a reward for helping us move into The White House. He had dropped by to welcome us and asked if he could do anything to help. He may not have intended me to ask him help move a grand piano.
Having our Open Garden day is a very important part of what we do to involve the neighbourhood here in Denham and also visitors from elsewhere. We’ve been doing that for 29 years now. We’ve also been heavily involved in the annual Denham / Hospice Ball in recent years, but no doubt that will be covered in more detail elsewhere on the community history site. We’ll just say now that we think it’s just lovely to see everyone dress up and have a special evening out whether or not money is made for the Hospice.
We like to think that our place is a kind of community centre in the village. We are proud of the fact that we have never closed the gates here at The White House because we do not want to cut ourselves off from the village. We are partners with many others in the community and we don’t make our contribution expecting a reward. It’s a pleasure to live in the community of Denham Village.
Photo Window tax repeal: See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons