“STAPLEFORD’S ECCENTRIC VICAR, THE REV DAW, AND HIS PIONEERING CONCRETE HOUSE”

Talk by Patricia Mirrlees and others, 11 January 2016

stapleford history society - the stone house

I’m sure many Stapleford residents have wondered, like me, about the impressive, rather austere white building set back amid large gardens, as you swing round from Church Street into Mingle Lane. The sign at the gate says ‘The Stone House’, but isn’t it too white to be made of stone? Over 50 rapt listeners at this talk learned that it is not made of stone at all – but of concrete! Who would have guessed that this is the last remaining grand house in the country to have been built entirely of concrete, by an extraordinary builder and entrepreneur, Charles Drake (1839–92)? Or that there was a national craze for building in concrete around the 1870s – from village estate cottages to the Grand Theatre in Islington and, in between, private houses, hotels, large parts of ‘new town’ Clacton-on-Sea, chapels, schools, a hospital, and even a domed Turkish Bath? Concrete was tough, durable and damp- and fire-proof, and structures could be put up fast, as the scaffolding rose with the building. Everything could be made of it – floors, skirtings, hearths, chimney-pieces, even the kitchen sink. But the traditionalists of the day, especially the Arts and Crafts Movement, despised it: concrete was not proper craftsmanship, and it was false in pretending to be stone. Also there were technical problems with this early form of concrete, while Drake, believing passionately in his material, could be intolerant and abrasive and was an outsider to the professional architects to boot – so his career ended in failure.

This story was told by Drake’s great-grandson, David Scott Cowan. We also learned about the man who commissioned our ‘Stone’ House, the Reverend Charles Henry Thomas Wyer Daw, from Patricia Mirrlees, who lives there now. The Daws had their share of family dramas, coincidences, connections – we heard of artists and writers, of insanity and incarceration in asylums, and of generations of clergymen educated at Cambridge (the last two are not necessarily linked – though poet and professor A. E. Housman did describe Cambridge as ‘an asylum, in more senses than one’).

The Reverend Daw and his family arrived in Stapleford in 1872-3, and Alan Bullwinkle took up the story from this point. The Reverend was, putting it mildly, an unusual character, and on more than one occasion he brought his parish to wider notice. In 1875 he ordered the plans for the Stone House from Drake, and promptly got into trouble – and the papers – for destroying equipment belonging to the builder, on the grounds that he was not keeping to the contract, which Daw then proceeded to manage himself. In 1882 the Cambridge Chronicle reported on an altercation at the village school (now Johnson Hall) with the schoolmistress, Mrs Loveday, over excessive punishment of a pupil: Daw was found guilty of injuring Mrs Loveday, though only a nominal fine was imposed. At his death in 1898 one clause in his will hit the national press: he stipulated that the right leg of his corpse was to be amputated above the knee, and this was to be verified by two surgeons. No reason was given: had he had a club foot or some accident to his leg of which he was ashamed? The mystery remains. However, at his death he was described as a friend and benefactor to the poor, and he kept bees, so he can’t have been all bad.

Altogether, the evening left us with a wonderful impression of Victorian Stapleford, of one of our more colourful characters, the Rev Daw, and his family and connections, and about that intriguing white building still looking proudly across at the church.