The fight to save Trent Park:locals fear loss of historic house 'as significant to the war effort as Bletchley Park'

Used during the Second World War to eavesdrop on German detainees by "secret listeners", Trent Park's fascinating history has only recently emerged. Now campaigners say the building's future is threatened by plans for a gated housing scheme...

One of London’s most fascinating historic houses is in jeopardy, say campaigners who fear a building “as significant to the war effort as Bletchley Park” is set to become a gated housing scheme.

The secret history of Trent Park, in Cockfosters, north London, has only recently emerged. During the Second World War, the Grade II-listed house, once owned by Tory MP Sir Philip Sassoon (1888-1939), was requisitioned by the War Office and used to spy on high-ranking German officers — including, it is thought, Hitler’s Nazi party deputy Rudolf Hess, who was arrested in Scotland in 1941.

A group of about 100 “secret listeners”, mostly German refugees, spied on Nazi officers detained at Trent Park using early bugging technology. As well as picking up vital military intelligence, these interpreters, many of whom were Jewish, overheard some of the first, harrowing accounts of the Holocaust. 

Last year, the house and 50 acres of parkland were sold for an estimated £30 million to developer Berkeley. The housing group says it is in talks over the building’s future.

Campaigners want a museum opened in the house and parkland left open to the public.

Built in the late 18th century, Trent Park’s most glamorous owner was Philip Sassoon, who inherited it in 1912 at the age of 23 from his father, Sir Edward Sassoon. A renowned social host, Philip’s weekend parties were attended by everyone from Charlie Chaplin, to Lawrence of Arabia, George Bernard Shaw and the future King Edward VIII, as well as Winston Churchill. Murals by the artist Rex Whistler still adorn some rooms. 

Locals are now anxious that the building’s heritage could be lost to luxury housing. “The significance of the history of Trent Park has only very recently been revealed,” explained Jason Charalambous, founder of the Save Trent Park campaign. “Berkeley has indicated that it intends to convert the mansion into flats, and is talking about having a café and a small exhibition space. 

“We feel that this site is as important as Bletchley Park [the former HQ of wartime code breakers, near Milton Keynes] and deserves something a lot more substantial. We are asking them to give up the basement and ground floor for a museum. This is our last chance to make a point and try and appeal to Berkeley’s goodwill.”

Mr Charalambous cited the example of Bentley Priory, the former Battle of Britain Fighter Command HQ in Stanmore, north-west London, where developer City & Country gave the top floor of the building to the Battle of Britain Trust. Its museum is now open to the public four days a week. “So it can be done,” said Mr Charalambous.

As well as a museum, campaigners want to ensure that the parkland around the Trent Park mansion remains open to the public. At present the site, within the 500-acre Trent Country Park, is not enclosed. Walkers and runners use it freely.

“We do not want this to become a gated community,” said Mr Charalambous. “Apart from anything else, the work of the ‘secret listeners’ of Trent Park was so secret that many of them took their work to the grave. We think they deserve some recognition.”

A Berkeley spokesman said: “Berkeley appreciates the importance of this site to the London Borough of Enfield and the local community. We are committed to finding a long-term solution for the protection of the mansion house, including the important landscaped heritage. 

“At this early stage we are deep in public consultation and pre-application discussions with the council about issues that include maintaining public access to its grounds, and the possibility of including access to the mansion, to ensure the site’s history is not lost, but is preserved for future generations.”

Trent Park mansion was built for Sir Richard Jebb, a physician to the royal household. 

After the war the house was incorporated into what eventually became Middlesex University, which quit the site in 2012. 

Berkeley has hired Adam Architecture, one of Britain’s leading traditional practices, to work on plans for the house and a planning application is expected in the autumn.

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