The Halsey Family and the Gaddesden Estate

No one knows where the Halseys came from. There are villages called Halse in Somerset and Northamptonshire, and over the North Sea the surname Hals occurs in the Low Countries. Halseys have lived on the hilly ridge between Hemel Hempstead and the Chiltern Escarpment for time out of mind. In the 1300s the name emerges from the mists of the Middle Ages. The earliest legal document in the family archives dates from 1458, recording that Richard Halsey, with other parishioners, covenanted with the Prior of King’s Langley to pay 10 shillings (50p) to the poor of Great Gaddesden, a payment which is still made annually to the Vicar.


In 1520 John Halsey was the farm tenant of the Rectory lands of Great Gaddesden, centred on the Golden Parsonage. The land belonged to the Prioress of Dartford, the only Dominican Convent in England, who held it ‘to the use of’ the Prior of King’s Langley, for Dominican Friars were not permitted to possess land in their own right, while the nuns could do so. When King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, King’s Langley Priory closed in 1539. Effectively the king had ‘nationalized’ their assets. In 1544 John’s son, William Halsey, still the tenant, staged a ‘management buyout’, paying the Crown £174 13s 4d (£174.66) to enfranchise about 200 acres (80ha).

The Priors had been Rectors of Great Gaddesden since 1382, each in turn appointing a Vicar as his deputy to live in the village and perform the duties of parish priest. This ‘advowson’ passed to William, and to this day the duty of appointment of the Vicar remains with the family.


The family continued to farm and grow in confidence as Tudor ‘new men’. They played their part in local affairs, and helped Hemel Hempstead to be granted its first Royal Charter by Henry VIII. During the invasion scare of 1588, caused by the Spanish Armada, William Halsey contributed, voluntarily or otherwise, £25 towards the defence of the realm.

Up in the World!

In 1622, the farmer, the third William Halsey, having married into the family of Bishop William of Wykeham, founder of Winchester and New College, Oxford, felt the Halsey family had ‘arrived’. He was confident enough to apply for the grant of a Coat of Arms. This regularised the arms he had been recorded as using, in heraldic terms described as ‘argent on a pile sable three griffins heads erased of the field, the crest a dexter forearm proper, sleeved gules, cuffed argent holding a griffin’s claw erased or.’

Photograph of the Coat of ArmsThe third William Halsey applied for the grant of a Coat of Arms. This regularised the arms he had been recorded as using. It is described as an: ‘argent on a pile sable three griffins heads erased of the field, the crest a dexter forearm proper, sleeved gules, cuffed argent holding a griffin’s claw erased or.’

Thomas the Pilgrim

In the early 1600s a scion of the family, one of many called Thomas, moved via Redbourn to Kempston near Bedford, and subsequently, with his family sailed to Lynn in Massachusetts Bay Colony, reputedly in the ship upon which Oliver Cromwell had intended to emigrate, had he not been dissuaded. Tom eventually settled in Southampton, Long Island, New York, where his family still live. The house he built in 1648, now a museum, is the oldest ‘saltbox’ house in New York State. Apart from the cedar shingles, it is a typical English seventeenth century farmhouse and would not look out of place anywhere in East Anglia. Spreading from New England throughout the USA, his family have played a notable part in American life, not least his descendant Fleet Admiral William F. ‘Bull’ Halsey, KBE USN victor of Leyte Gulf in the Second World War.

Photograph of the Saltbox houseIn the early 1600s a Thomas Halsey sailed to Lynn in Massachusetts Bay Colony. He eventually settled in Southampton, Long Island, New York, where his family still live. The house he built in 1648, now a museum, is the oldest ‘saltbox’ house in New York State. Apart from the cedar shingles, it is a typical English seventeenth century farmhouse.

Civil Wars

Back in England, another John Halsey, being ‘founder’s kin’ of William of Wykeham, went to school at Winchester and on to New College. Going into the law, he became a member of Lincoln’s Inn. During the Civil War, when King Charles I based his headquarters at Oxford, the colleges of the university were encouraged to donate their silver to the royalist cause, to be minted into shillings and half-crowns to pay the cavalier forces . Though New College largely escaped this, Parliament imposed a new Warden in 1649, the year of the King’s Execution. To save it from being sequestered the College Fellows entrusted their silver to John Halsey. It was probably hidden at the Golden Parsonage and was returned in a ‘truncke’ in 1657 when a ‘true and legall’ warden was appointed. To this day New College retains uniquely a good collection of pre-Civil War plate. As a lawyer, John Halsey acted as land agent to Lord Bridgewater at Ashridge, a neighbouring estate. He became a Master in Chancery, a junior judge, and was knighted by Kings Charles II. The fine portrait bust on his memorial in Great Gaddesden Church, looks benignly down upon the congregation.

It is not without interest that Sir John’s collateral descendants, the Halsey brothers from Rockaway, New Jersey, and from Lessland, Virginia, served on opposing sides during the American Civil War, some two hundred years later.

It is to Sir John that we owe the first map of the estate, which he had surveyed in 1657, and shows that the original Rectory lands had tripled in size over the previous century.

Glorious Revolution

In 1688 another Tom Halsey became a Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire, a position his descendants often held until 1906. Although a Tory, he supported the deposition of King James II by William of Orange and was painted twice by the Dutch artist Sir Godfrey Kneller. It is to him that the building of the Golden Parsonage, as we know it now, is credited. Tom married Anne, daughter of Thomas Henshaw, Charles II’s envoy to Denmark and one of the founders of the Royal Society who brought with her the Pulham Estate in Dorset, with the only ‘Halsey Arms’ pub, together with the advowson, which is all that remains. In 1717 his eldest son, Henshaw planted the Great Lime Avenue and in his pocket diary of that year is our earliest record of felling trees for timber.

Hamburg Traders and the Seven Years War

Henshaw’s brother Charles, in partnership with the Hanbury family established a trading business in Hamburg. They were members of the English congregation, established in 1612, at the Church of St. Thomas a Becket in the Zeughausmarkt, where his family were baptised. The Church, rebuilt in 1838, still stands, surviving the bombing in 1943. Charles began recording family births, marriages and deaths in the gigantic Family Bible, which is still in use and is a most treasured heirloom. Charles inherited from Henshaw, and his two sons served as Commissaries General to the British forces in Germany, Frederick becoming ADC to the Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel and dying in Hesse Darmstadt. The two brothers’ problems with overcoming the corruption of contractors and suppliers to the army are well documented in correspondence in the Hertfordshire Record Office.

The ‘Bone House’

Since the Dissolution, the family had been buried in the chancel of Great Gaddesden Church, and by 1715 the floor was full. That year, in which he died, Thomas Halsey obtained a faculty to build a mortuary chapel adjoining the church. Henshaw did not begin construction of this modest red brick building until c1730. The Halsey Chapel conceals an interior of beautiful family monuments attributed to Rysbrack, Guelfi and by John Flaxman. The church is well worth a visit.

The Grand Tour

The Golden Parsonage was by now very out of date! With profits from the Hamburg trading, Thomas (again!) was in 1768 able to employ the young architect, just back from the Grand Tour, James Wyatt, to build a great Palladian villa, Gaddesden Place, on the hill overlooking parkland running down to the River Gade. Although gutted by fire in 1905, Gaddesden Place remained the principal mansion house until Sir Thomas Halsey returned to the Golden Parsonage in 1950. It is interesting to note that the last house on which James Wyatt was working when he was killed in a coaching accident was Ashridge House for the Duke of Bridgewater, an enormous Gothick facade built some 40 years later, across the Gade Valley in Little Gaddesden.

Lord of the Manor

Thomas Halsey leased the Lordship of the Manor of Hemel Hempstead from the Crown in 1702 and a century later Joseph and Sarah Halsey were able to buy it outright. The manor includes the villages of Bovingdon and Flaunden. In 1928 Sir Walter Halsey acquired from Earl Brownlow, the heir to the Dukes of Bridgewater, the Lordship of the Manor of Great Gaddesden. These titles are a pleasant hangover from mediaeval times, though they have little but historical significance now; however certain land rights remain, including the ownership of some roadside verges.

Disaster at Sea!

In 1854, Thomas Frederick Halsey was a 14 year old schoolboy at Eton (the family had abandoned Winchester and a brief flirtation with Harrow!), when he was caught smoking! Hauled up in front of the Headmaster, history does not relate whether he was beaten, but he was ‘gated’ and refused leave to join his parents and younger brother on a holiday in the Mediterranean. Disaster struck when a mystery ship collided in the dark, off Cape Antibes, with their Italian steamship, ‘Ercolano’. All the family was drowned and poor Frederick had to be brought up by his maternal grandfather General Frederick Johnston of Hilton, the last of the ancient Scottish family. Frederick’s letters and diaries still show the smudges of the tears he shed when he lost all his loved ones.

Father of the House

Frederick entered the House of Commons in 1875. He had inherited the estate from his grandmother Sarah Moore Halsey in 1869, and immediately invested heavily in new farm buildings, houses and cottages. He built the billiard room at the Golden Parsonage and the conservatory at Gaddesden Place. He had a long parliamentary career, becoming Father of the House of Commons by the time he lost his seat in 1906. He ended his days in 1927 as a baronet and member of the Privy Council, the Rt. Hon. Sir T. F. Halsey, Bt.


Of Sir Frederick’s seven sons, two joined the Royal Navy, Arthur and Lionel, two went into the law, Walter and Gavin, two became clergymen, Frederick and Gerald and one a land agent and Lloyd’s underwriter, Reginald. The sailors served with distinction in one of the most memorable episodes of the South African War, 1899-1902, the Relief of Ladysmith. Lionel commanded a battery of naval guns from the cruiser HMS Powerful, besieged for 118 days in the town, by encircling Boers, while Arthur, serving in HMS Philomel brought a naval gun detachment with General Sir Redvers Buller’s relief column. Lionel’s letters, to his parents, brothers and sisters, which naturally could not be despatched because of the siege, were typed and bound for the family. On his return, bearded, to London, he is reported to have doffed his hat to his father, who did not recognise him. That evening, clean shaven, he heard his father say at dinner ‘the young these days are not nearly so bad as people make out, a very polite young man took his hat off to me in the street this afternoon’!

Photograph of LadysmithArthur and Lionel Halsey served with distinction in one of the most memorable episodes of the South African War, 1899–1902, the Relief of Ladysmith.

Dogger Bank and the PiuPiu

In 1913 Captain Lionel Halsey took command of HMS New Zealand, a brand new battlecruiser paid for by the people of that Dominion. On her commissioning cruise he was presented, on behalf of the ship, with a ‘PiuPiu’, or Maori grass skirt, by the chief at Rotaroa, with the invocation that should the captain wear it whenever the ship was in battle, no harm would come to her. At the battle of Heligoland Bight, the captain appeared on the bridge wearing the piupiu over his uniform, and sure enough the ship came through unscathed. HMS New Zealand survived the battles of Jutland and Dogger Bank, coming though the Great War unharmed, with only three casualties. Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey became Second Sea Lord and was nominated to command the Royal Australian Navy in 1918-1919. He was Comptroller to HRH The Prince of Wales, retiring when the latter succeeded as King Edward VIII.

Another Pair of Horses

Sir Frederick’s third son, Canon Frederick Halsey, served as parish priest at Cartmel, then in Lancashire, and in several parishes in Hertfordshire, including King’s Langley and Great Gaddesden. His younger son, Guy, recalled that, on Christmas Day, his grandfather would send a carriage and pair to collect them from their vicarage for the family tea party. When they reached the ‘Red Lion’ at Water End, a second pair of horses would be waiting in the yard to help draw the carriage, with the family of six, up the steep White Hill to Gaddesden Place.

Sarawak and Dunkirk

Sir Lionel accompanied the Prince on his eastern tour in HMS Renown, with two flag lieutenants, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Lieutenant Tom Halsey, son of Lionel’s eldest brother Sir Walter, the second baronet. Tom met and fell in love with Dayang Jean Brooke of Sarawak, and after a whirlwind courtship they were married in 1925. Jean’s father was Captain Bertram Brooke, Tuan Muda of Sarawak and brother of Vyner Brooke, the last of the famous White Rajas. Their romantic story began in 1842 when James Brooke, having defeated a rebellion in Borneo was granted the state of Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunai. The Brookes ruled this jungle country inhabited by headhunters for over a century until the British government annexed it in 1946. The third baronet, Captain Sir Thomas Halsey, served in the Royal Yacht HMY Victoria and Albert.  He took a distinguished part in the Dunkirk evacuation in May-June 1940, also being involved with the evacuation of the Dutch Royal Family as Captain (D) in HMS Malcolm, and later commanded the battleship HMS King George V in the Far East.

Into the Future

The present head of the family is the Rev. Brother John Halsey, of the Community of the Transfiguration, while his cousins Nicholas, Viola and Guy Halsey live at the Golden Parsonage and care for the estate.