The Watford house and church designer who suffered a tragic end

On December 27, 1879, The Architect published an illustration of an attractive pair of newly-built cottages on the southern edge of Watford Heath by Pinner Road, with E. Emlyn White’s name as the architect.

My hand-coloured print of the scene depicts two hatted gentlemen deep in conversation and a dog sitting in the road, while outside the Load of Hay in the distance a horse is harnessed to a small two-wheeled carriage. The view of the properties is immediately recognisable today, but the concept of traffic roaring around the nearby bend on Pinner Road could not have been imagined, neither could the direction of the successful young architect’s life in his later years.

Illustration of Watford Heath cottages, 1879

Eley Emlyn White was born in 1854 in Hampstead, then Middlesex, the third child of solicitor and landowner John Thomas White and his wife Emma. His unusual first name was derived from his mother’s maiden name of Eley. She was connected to the families at Oxhey Grange and Eley Brothers, a still extant firm of cartridge manufacturers established in the early 19th Century.

Eley’s early life was spent comfortably in Hampstead, in a household with three servants. By 1871, the family and two servants were living locally at Cassio Bridge House, its long drive once fronting the road by the junction of Watford Road and Baldwins Lane. At that time, Eley was 17 years of age and a scholar. In 1874, whilst still living in Cassio Bridge House, he gained admission to the Royal Academy Schools to study architecture. He was articled to the established London architect John Thomas Christopher and was also clerk for a year in the office of the Gothic Revivalist art-architect William Burges. Eley was influenced by Burges’ utopian designs, which included Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch in South Wales.

After practising independently for two years, Eley journeyed for 14 months on a Royal Academy travelling studentship. He was subsequently invited to become John Thomas Christopher’s partner in his architectural business, renamed Christopher & White.

In 1881, while living in Brasted, Kent, Eley married Mary Evelyn Higins [sic]. The couple lived in Hampstead, before moving to St John’s Wood and later to Gower Street, London WC1. During the same year as his marriage, Eley designed Innage House at 43-45 Park Road, Watford for a Mr G.E. Lake; an impressive red-brick wide-fronted three-storey residence with an arched entrance.

Watford Observer:

Plan of North East Elevation of Innage House, 43-45 Park Road, Watford, 1881

Several years later, Eley designed St John’s Church. It was to be built on donated land in Sutton Road, Watford, after the temporary tin-roofed church in Sotheron Road that had been relocated from St Mary’s Church after the completion of renovations there in the 1870s leaked profusely.

The costs of building a new church were huge, but the generosity of parishioners and their proactive fundraising efforts enabled the foundation stone to be laid in 1891. During construction, Eley’s planned lofty tower and spire were replaced by a smaller belfry. The Gothic St John’s Church with its stone-vaulted chancel was dedicated in 1893. It is now Grade II-listed and the spiritual home of a thriving community.

Watford Observer:

Watford Heath cottages with their large chimneys on the far left, c1910

In the 1890s, Eley left his marital home and took up lodgings in Kensington, where he encountered Marie Gibson, a young actress 20 years his junior. He met her regularly after her night-time theatrical performances at the Empire Theatre and brought her back to his lodgings, introducing her to the housekeeper as his niece. He wanted Miss Gibson to live with him but she declined on the basis of impropriety, although they continued to meet.

Then, on March 2, 1900, as Miss Gibson was reading a book in his lodgings, Eley brought out his revolver and shot her in the face before shooting himself in the head. He died instantly, aged 47. Fortunately, the bullet aimed at Miss Gibson entered the book she was reading before hitting her. She survived, but suffered the loss of an eye.

Eley left behind a note for his wife Mary, apologising for his behaviour. He also acknowledged that she had been a good wife but cited his unhappiness with life as the cause of his self-imposed and untimely end.

With thanks to Adam Waterton, librarian at the Royal Academy for details of Eley Emlyn White’s RA studies.

Lesley is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at www.pastdayspublishing.com and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.

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