Wight Life

Northwood Park

The former home of a distinguished family

By J W Roberts

Drawing of Northwood House

PERHAPS IT IS STRANGE to recall that until the 19th century Cowes was still part of the parish of Northwood, but the links between village and town have appropriately been maintained through the generosity of the Ward family. This lovely old Georgian house and its parkof 26 acres, known for one hundred years as Northwood Park, was given in 1929 by the late Captain Ward to the town of Cowes; the house was converted into municipal offices while the grounds were laid out with public tennis courts, golf links and other forms of entertainment.

One sometimes wonders whether the folk today who enjoy their walks through this extensive park and the many facilities available to them both inside the house itself and in the beautiful grounds, ever pause to admire these municipal buildings which were once the home of the lords of the Manor of Northwood. There is some doubt about the name of its architect or even the exact date when the first part of the house was built. The names of John Nash and his very able assistant, Sir James Pennethorne, have been mentioned. The famous Regency architect certainly did have close associations with George Ward who had bought the Northwood estates at the end of the 18th century. We know that Nash helped with the building of the tower of St Mary's Church, as we know it today, and the Ward mausoleum below. We read in the minutes of the vestry for 1816 that the expense of these and other alterations was defrayed by Mr Ward and the thanks of the vestry were conveyed to him and to Mr Nash for their kindness. The unusual Belleview Lodge adjoining the church was also definitely by John Nash. Northwood House itself certainly won well-deserved admiration with its classical features — for example its nine bay range of two storeys and three bay pediment, as seen in our illustration, together with 'the single storey projection in the middle with Tuscan columns'. This part of the house was probably completed by 1838, three years after Nash died at East Cowes Castle, and there were extensive additions about 1840. Among the interior attractions of Northwood House is a very remarkable room used for the meetings of the Urban District Council, and, on the opposite site of the corridor, a delightful banqueting hall with striking murals.

The house has many interesting associations. The Ward family had close connections with the Royal Yacht Squadron and during Cowes week their home became the rendezvous of all the important people who came to Cowes each summer, including royalty from all over Europe. On one occasion when the Prince of Wales was Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the club ball cost £800 and tickets cost £5 to the 160 members, though each could take three friends! The association with this annual ball has been maintained down to the present day and the lavish entertainment continues, but marquees are now erected in the grounds outside the house to accommodate the guests.

The Ward family's links with the Island began at the very end of the 18th century when, on the advice of William Arnold, Custom Officer at Cowes, George Ward, a merchant of Old Broad Street, London, purchased estates in the Island including a delightful old house 'Belleview' on the site of which Northwood House was afterwards built. We have discovered in the offices of our Island archivist that in little more than thirty years, this same George Ward had come to own about four-fifths of the whole parish of Northwood and was continually purchasing other farms in the Island. His estates came to include considerable portions of Parkhurst forest, some of which were sold by the Corporation of Newport to enable them to defray the cost of their new town hall built to the designs of John Nash.

This first member of the Ward dynasty established what was to become the family tradition of active interest in the life of Cowes. He defrayed the cost of a jetty, now the Fountain Quay, and as we have seen did a great deal for St Mary's Church. His daughters, also good Anglicans, were responsible for the rebuilding of the body of this old Commonwealth Chapel in memory of their father, each contributing £500, and they were also instru- mental in launching the movement for the erection of schools in Northwood and Cowes.

Sport too, particularly cricket, was not neglected. One of George Ward's large family, William Ward, was himself a famous cricketer and once made 278 runs at Lords for the MCC. His financial assistance saved this famous home of English cricket from building speculators in 1825. Appropriately enough, his nephew in 1859 gave Northwood its recreation ground on which today so much good cricket is enjoyed.

,p>The name of William George Ward who unexpectedly came into the family property in 1849 will ever be associated with the great Roman Catholic revival in England. He, like so many of the Ward family before and since, had had a distinguished academic career, but he lost his Fellowship at Oxford because his book 'Ideal Church' smacked of Popery. He was an amazing man. His bulky figure caused amusement and his gift for sustained argument was aptly summed up by Cardwell, a future Cabinet Minister: 'WG is the walking incarnation of the Oxford Union.' Ward had indeed been its president in 1832 and was the principal Tory speaker in Union debates.

W G Ward, having followed his wife into the Catholic Church and undertaking academic work at St Edmund's College in Hertfordshire, did not settle in the Island until the sixties, so Northwood Park was leased to wealthy 'overners.' He proved, however, a popular landlord.

Ultimately he became a near neighbour of Tennyson in Freshwater where he built a fine stone house, Weston Manor. He and his wife helped also to build the first Roman Catholic Church in the West Wight and so from this time onwards the Ward family were among the greatest benefactors to the Catholic cause in the Isle of Wight. Edmund Granville Ward maintained what his parents had begun. He was a great lover of liturgy and his Holy Week ceremonies, with priests of various orders invited to share the generous hospitality at Weston, acquired great renown. Meanwhile, Northwood House, in 1901, became the home of Benedictine nuns who had been expelled from Republican France, and they remained there for several years until they found permanent settlement at Ryde in what is now St Cecilia's Convent.

The Ward family had by now purchased Egypt House and Captain Ward, who died as recently as 1967, not only inherited from his father and grandfather a consuming interest in the work of the Catholic Church and held a position in the Vatican, but continued the family's close association with the political life of Cowes and the Island. He was a member of both the Cowes Urban Council and the County Council of which he was for some years the chairman — a much respected and much loved public servant.

,p>With local government re-organisation, the future of Northwood House is a little uncertain, but it seems possible that until new Council buildings are erected for the new Northern District Council, embracing Newport, Ryde and Cowes, this stately home of a famous Island family may provide the debating chamber and some of the municipal buildings of this important new authority.