IN the early hours of Saturday, 4 April 1987 one of Thurrock’s finest houses was virtually destroyed by arsonsists.
The Grade II*-listed Ford Place with its core dating back to 1590 was reduced to a roofless ruin. The house, as we would recognise it today, was built on the site of ‘Hobbys at Ford’ in the mid 17th century.
Ford Place stood north of the River Mardyke on Stifford Hill where South Ockendon meets Stifford.
It is described by Historic England in its original listing as follows:-
Mid C17 house, with C18 parapet front. Timber-framed and brown brick with red dressings. Red plain tile hipped roof. Two storeys, attics and cellars. 3:3:3 window range double hung vertical sliding sashes with glazing bars. Rubber brick heads with cornices, recessed aprons, panelled parapet with capping. Central 3 windows project slightly. Central window with rusticated brick surround. Four column stucco porch.
Seven timber pedimented (A pediment is a gable, usually of a triangular shape, placed above a horizontal structure) dormers, central one with segmental pediment. Original end chimney stacks. South elevation has 3 window range, double hung vertical sliding sashes with glazing bars, and 20th century red brick bay window. Rear range has mid 17th century enriched brickwork. Two storeys and attics, with heavy moulded brick cornice over first floor with parapet and Dutch gables, bearing ornamental panels of brick with date “1655”, a coat of arms and initials “RS”. Red plain tile roof. Large round headed C18 staircase sash window. Internally are C18 panelled rooms, and a C18 staircase. Mid C17 plaster ceilings, one heavily trabeated (is a building system where strong horizontal elements are held up by strong vertical elements with large spaces between them) and with figures of the four seasons in oval panels and two coats of arms. Painted 17th century panelling.
The original house was built on a half H plan. This house was altered and extended about 1655. The Georgian west front was added in 1747 by John Archer Shish, who was a trustee of William Palmers School in 1757. Shish sold the house to Captain Dodsworth.
In Palin’s Stifford and Its Neighbourhood he states that the East side of the house was formerly the front and that it had a long and handsome avenue leading up to it. The house passed through the families of Grantham, Shish, Spence and Hogarth.
It was eventually bought in 1839 by William Wingfield of Orsett Hall the former judge and Member of Parliament for Bodmin in Cornwall. William later took the name of William Wingfield-Baker. The house was then occupied by Samuel Francis who died there in 1858. The 1851 census shows he was farming 700 acres and employing 30 men. He was followed by James Robinson Grieg who lived at Ford Place with his wife and eight children.
In 1863 the house was occupied by Captain Atkinson and he was followed in 1871 by Charles Moss a retired merchant. Mr Moss was followed by a number of tenants until after World War II.
The house was eventually acquired by Humphrey Vellacott who took a long lease on the house. He wanted to divide Ford Place into flats.
On 13 March 1958 three boys from the Ardale Approved School broke into the house and stole £6 1s.9d. plus a torch. One of them pleaded guilty to repeating the break-in on 18 March 1958 on his own when he stole a cigarette case worth £1 5s. 0d.
Two of the boys broke in to the house again on 19th April and took a cine camera. All three boys were sentenced at Essex Quarter Sessions in Chelmsford to one day in prison.
In 1979 Mr Vellacott tried to buy the freehold of the property.
At 4.30am on 4 April 1987 the Fire Brigade were called to Ford Place. It is believed that the building had been burning since as early as 0.30am. By the time firefighters arrived the roof had burned through and flames were leaping 30 feet in the air and lit up the sky and were visible for miles around. Appliances from Grays, Tilbury and Corringham were backed up by seven engines from Essex and London Brigades in an effort to control and extinguish the blaze. Damage was estimated at over £750.000.
Police arrested seven youths on the charge of arson. A beautiful, irreplaceable part of our heritage was gone forever.