From The King of Brentford by Mrs Robert Henrey

From The King of Brentford by Mrs Robert Henrey, first published 1946 by Peter Davies Ltd

The book was written by a Frenchwoman, Madeleine Gal, who married Robert Henrey, a journalist. He was the son of the Vicar of St George’s, Brentford and his wife, a member of the Rothschild family. The book is part fact, part fiction – she uses her husband’s memories of his childhood in Brentford. He is Philip in the book, and in these extracts Philip, who had known the park as a child when the Rothschilds still owned it, takes his son to visit Gunnersbury Park. One of their children was Bobby Henrey, a child film star in the 1940s.

“Philip and his son had been walking for about a quarter of an hour when they caught sight of the castellated lodge of Gunnersbury Park. Now one came suddenly upon the twin lodges. Above the battlements someone had built a wooden look-out, probably for the fire-watchers, but the wild beauty of the park had disappeared. It seemed smaller, every lawn railed off from its neighbour, dotted with notices and by-laws, full of instructions that broke the spell of romance. That delightful corner where Mr Thomas had fixed up a swing for the children was built on and so suddenly that it came to him as a shock, Philip arrived in view of the lake, where by some miracle, the old gnarled crab apple tree was in bloom once more and primroses and anemones covered the grassy mound.

A gardener was sweeping the path with a broom made of twigs. Behind him the big field in which the prize cattle used to graze stretched away to where the white mansion scintillated in the sunshine. The gardener complained that the military had taken over a large portion of the park and that there were only five football fields left out of fifty-two, and he pointed vaguely in the direction of Acton where the only game Philip ever remembered watching was a rare polo match.

As for the aviary where the flamingos, the cockatoos, the love-birds and the parrots used to preen their multi-coloured feathers, the gardener had heard about it, but all that land was now covered with military huts camouflaged by netting – the whole encircled with barbed wire. The marble statues had long since lost their heads and arms, and had been carried off.

Philip sat with the child on a fallen tree – six bombs had pitted holes on the big field and blasted a number of elms – and they ate sandwiches like trippers from the city. After warming themselves in the sun they walked slowly towards the house.

Across the lawn the mansion looked splendid. The view was stately and magnificent and it was not strange to see the windows shuttered. Only when one came near did the rusty chocolate-machine greet the eye and the notice that dogs and prams were not allowed inside. A great change was taking place at the mansion. For long a museum, it was being turned into a training school, and just now workmen were busy taking the chariots of Napoleonic times to pieces for storage.

Of course, there had been that little accident to Amelia’s Bath. During the “phoney war”, only three days before it was to be classified as an historical monument, some children had lit a fire in the undergrowth with the result that at midnight the whole place went up in flames. . . Now it was choked with charred beams that had fallen from the roof and the sea-shells were cracked and singed.