Home of the Month – The Old Pest House, Hertford
PUBLISHED: 14:58 16 October 2013 | UPDATED: 14:58 16 October 2013
A Hertford property that played a central role in helping eradicate a deadly disease is now a beautiful family home with a fascinating past. Pat Bramley delves into its history
No-one will forget where you live if your address is The Old Pest House.
The name of Andrew and Verity Mann’s handsome Georgian residence in Hertford is a direct clue to its past. Right from the start it was set apart from all the other buildings in the town, as it was built in 1763 as an isolation hospital by a medic who became renowned for his efforts to stop the spread of smallpox.
Hertford doctor Thomas Dimsdale initially used the surgery at his home on the corner of Byde Street and Fanshawe Street to inoculate healthy patients against the disease which was killing almost a third of those who caught it.
He realised the need for an isolation unit when to his horror he saw people with smallpox scabs walking around town and mixing with fellow residents. Once the new hospital was built in a corner of his grounds, the sick were ensconced there until they posed no risk to the rest of the community.
News of his pioneering work to fight the disease blighting 18th century Europe eventually reached Empress Catherine of Russia when in 1768 she read a paper he’d published on the subject. Wasting no time, she sent a message to the doctor asking him to come and inoculate her and her son, the Grand Duke Paul.
After being given the jabs with no lasting ill effects she was so grateful to be free of the potentially fatal threat of smallpox she made Dimsdale a Baron of the Empire and showered him with riches. The newly-created baron declined her offer of a house in Russia and returned to his home in Hertford. He died at the ripe old age of 88.
By 1898, the former hospital was bought by one of the town’s foremost solicitors who gave it a makeover and turned it into a trophy home. . Country living lifestyle Fast-forward a century-and-a-bit and what had become a Grade II listed five-bedroom house in Byde Street was exactly what Verity and Andrew Mann hoped to find when they received the details from a relocation agent.
At that stage of their lives, nine years ago, the London-based couple were both working in marketing. Their decision to up sticks was triggered by a job move, and gave the couple the chance to find a place that combined country living with town life.
Verity explains, ‘We’d been living near Twickenham and had three small children. We were looking for a house with a bigger garden and ideally somewhere with character. Being townies, we didn’t want to be too far out in the country. We wanted to be able to walk into town, to the theatre and shops and restaurants. We wanted to walk to places rather than get the car out and we just fell in love with this place. It had everything we were after. It’s given us the full country living lifestyle, yet we’re close to all the amenities of a town.’
Despite its age, The Old Pest House hasn’t needed any major work. Over the years the Manns have made improvements, including refitting the kitchen and bathrooms and redecorating, but nothing radical.
‘I don’t like people who move into a house and tell everyone what a wreck it was and how they’ve had to strip everything out – how awful for the previous owners,’ Verity says.
‘All we’ve done is make one or two changes to suit the way we like to live but we’ve preserved all the original features. I absolutely love the original Georgian chequered tiles in the hall – they’re worn and have grooves from being there so long. The oak staircase is also original. It takes you round in circles. It’s just as well all five bedrooms on the two upper floors have fitted wardrobes. It would be hard to get free-standing wardrobes up to the landings.’
Verity says that before they moved from London they asked the children what sort of house they wanted to live in. ‘They said “somewhere where we can play hide and seek”. This is the perfect house for hide and seek – there are so many alcoves and places to hide.’
The Manns believe the small paned square windows that give the outside its character were installed as part of the Victorian makeover, but the glass witching ball by the front door to stop evil spirits entering is a relic from the isolation hospital era.
Inside, the two main reception rooms have wood-burning stoves and there’s an open fireplace in the master bedroom, although they’ve never lit a fire in the Victorian grate. Verity points out, ‘We have big old iron radiators for background heat but the wood-burning stoves make the ground floor rooms cosy on winter evenings.’
Verity adds that the family have breakfast in the kitchen but also use the dining room everyday. ‘It’s used all the time, if not for family meals, for homework and all sorts. I hate dining rooms that are used only once or twice a year.’
The third of an acre cottage garden is mainly at the front and to the sides. ‘When we arrived, there were three apple trees, a plum and a huge mulberry. We’ve added two pear trees, as well as raspberry and gooseberry bushes and a strawberry bed.’
There’s also a pond, a herb garden handily placed by the kitchen and a productive vegetable plot.
The borders are full of self-seeding perennials such as foxgloves and aquilegias and other flowers that come up every year without any trouble. Every spring, the magnolia in the centre of the lawn is the show-stopper. ‘When we first came I was forever buying plants but none of them thrived,’ Verity says. ‘I eventually gave up trying and just let what was there spread. Now the garden takes hardly any work to maintain.’
After nine years, the family are on the move again, this time to Yorkshire. Like last time, it’s for job reasons, with Andrew taking up a position in Manchester.
Verity will be joining him before long, along with Joshua 18, Charlotte, 16, Lucinda, 14, their spaniel Millie and two cats Murphy and Molly.
‘In a way it’s exciting to make a new start,’ she says, ‘But I’ll be heartbroken to leave here. To begin with, we’re going to think of the former weavers’ house we’ve bought up there as a holiday cottage.’
The Old Pest House is for sale through online agent Dreampad for £1,150,000.