Sir Edgar and Lady Helen Vincent (later Lord and Lady D’Abernon)
At the end of the 19th century the house and estate, including the Tower, were purchased by Sir Edgar Vincent, who later became Lord D’Abernon. Sir Edgar employed the architects G T Robinson and Achille Duchene to extend the house and create a pseudo 18th century French chateau. Spicer’s original house and stables formed the south-east wing, whilst the Tower remained a distant eye-catcher in the valley below. Follies may well have been the vogue of the day, but the Tower has always been recognised and appreciated for its medieval past and perhaps this explains its continued existence today. Esher was prominently returned to the social calendar within decadent high-society during these Edwardian times and became an established venue for rich and famous socialites. Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, met the cost of building a theatre and an indoor royal tennis court. Sir Edwin Lutyens(the renowned architect and designer of the Cenotaph, Whitehall) created an open air amphitheatre and sunken garden, that both still exist. Pelham’s landscape had matured to perfection by this time and the estate’s paddocks were animated with Lord D’Abernon’s finest bloodstock.
On 2 July 1897, records show that Sir Edgar and Lady Helen Vincent attended a fancy-dress ball at Devonshire House in London held by the 8th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Louise, the Duchess of Devonshire summoned everyone to appear “in an allegorical or historical costume dated earlier than 1820.” This caused an immediate rush to the National Gallery and the Print room of the British Museum as the guests were anxious to undertake research to ensure that their portrayals were accurate. Among the other guests, who were described in a Times article the following day as “the crème de la crème of Society, from Royalty downwards” were The Duke and Duchess of Newcastle and Captain and Lady Margaret Spicer, descendants of past owners, and one wonders if they were aware of their common Esher connection. A further coincidental link was that the venue was built, decorated and furnished between 1734-5, by William Kent for the 3rd Duke of Devonshire.
The aura and fame that had once surrounded the Pelhams’ occupancy returned to this elegant and spacious estate and it proved to be a suitable setting for the rich and famous of Edwardian Society and provided a fitting venue for the English upper classes at play. Edward, Prince of Wales, was a frequent visitor and locals circulated rumours of a romantic involvement with the childless Lady Helen Vincent. Lady Helen’s beauty received international acclaim and she was particularly admired in France where her photograph appeared in the 1900 edition of Les Modes, the Parisian equivalent of today’s Vogue. Lady Helen was one of “The Souls”, an exclusive intellectual circle comprised of the most influential and creative figures of the day, whose members also included Arthur Belfour, George Curzon, Henry James and Edith Wharton.
In the Autumn/Winter of 1906, it was reported that Lady Helen Vincent joined Sir Winston Churchill and Murial Wilson on a European tour. Sir Winston was living a relatively idle life at this time and they visited France, Moravia, Austria and Italy. They were noted to have travelled in Lionel Rothschild’s motor car at the apparently blinding speed of 40 mph.
After the First World War, the D’Abernons decided to sell up and the estate was broken up into various parcels of land and subsequently the private estate of Esher Place, that can still be recognised today, was developed. Coincidentally, and as if by fate, just a few years later, in 1933, Sir Edgar’s ancestral home in nearby Stoke D’Abernon was advertised for sale in Country Life. Needless to say, Lord and Lady D’Abernon jumped at this opportunity and the Stoke D’Abernon Manor duly became their new abode. The couple set about restoring the property and hung many portraits that had been accumulated over the years of Lord D’Abernon’s forebears. They also extended and enhanced the gardens and brought two Georgian stone urns from Esher. Parkside School now occupy the estate.
During the 1930’s the Tower was neglected and became a target for vandalism. Despite being protected by an Act of Parliament, demolition was mooted in 1939. Understandably, as Great Britain was at war once again, attention was focused elsewhere, but in 1941 destruction was averted by Frances Day, a stage and screen actress, and Sir Raymond Francis Evershed, England’s future Master of the Rolls, whose joint purchase saved the Tower.