Theobalds Park in Cheshunt Hertfordshire was once home to the characterful Lady Valerie Meux. Built in the 1760s by George Prescott, Esq, its slightly elevated position would have provided stunning views over the Lea Valley, and today is occupied by the De Vere Hotel.
The estate was acquired by Sir Henry Meux, a brewer from London, in the 1820s. It was under the ownership of Henry’s son, also named Henry, and his wife Lady Valerie Meux, that Theobalds perhaps witnessed its most colourful period of history.
Born in 1847, before she married into the wealthy Meux family, Valerie Susan Langdon worked as an actress and according to her obituary in the New York Times she had met her husband whilst performing in Brighton. Rumours have however suggested a more scandalous meeting whilst working in Holborn. Her flamboyant character wasn’t too popular within the aristocratic society she had married into, and the marriage had in itself caused quite a scandal.
Nevertheless, once comfortably embedded in the family seat at Theobalds, Lady Meux was not reluctant in making her mark. Fascinated by Egyptian history, she established a museum of Egyptian antiquities at Theobalds, a collection of over 1,700 items. She also improved and enlarged the estate with additions including a swimming pool and indoor rolling skating rink – all impressive features for her to entertain her many guests, including the Prince of Wales and Winston Churchill.
Perhaps her most lavish influence was persuading her husband to purchase Temple Bar from the City of London, which was residing in storage, so that she would have a grand entrance to her estate. The iconic gateway designed by Sir Christopher Wren remained at Theobalds until 2003, when it returned to Paternoster Square, London. This was not the only extravagant purchase she had persuaded her husband to spend his money on. Race horses were also a passion of Lady Meux’s and so she had her husband buy them for her, which she would race under the name of Mr Theobalds.
In 1881, Lady Meux commissioned James McNeil Whistler to paint her portrait. His portrait Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux can be seen today at the Frick Museum in New York, and Arrangement in Black: Lady Meux belongs to the Honolulu Academy of Arts. A third portrait was also commissioned although was never finished due to a dispute between Whistler and Lady Meux. It was subsequently destroyed by the artist.
Following her husband’s death in 1900, Lady Meux had become concerned for the British forces during the Siege of Ladysmith of the Second Boer War. Her offer quickly to finance artillery was rejected by the War Office, but fearsome as she was she went ahead and did it privately anyway, supplying 12 field guns.
After the war, she got to know Sir Hedworth Lambton, a senior naval officer at Ladysmith. So impressed was she with Sir Hedworth, she left everything, including the Meux brewery, to him in her will on the proviso that Sir Hedworth change his name to Meux, which he readily did on his benefactress’ death in 1910. Sir Hedworth Meux went on to become Admiral of the Fleet and a Conservative MP. His hunting trophies, a tiger and leopard, from an expedition with King George V (then the Prince of Wales) were for many years on display at Cedars Park, Cheshunt and today can be seen at Lowewood Museum.
The Meux family continued to live at Theobalds until 1929. Since then, the house has been used as a hotel, a school and college, before re-opening as a hotel as it is used today.