Listen to the sounds of Hylands House

PUBLISHED: 10:04 05 September 2016 | UPDATED: 17:30 07 September 2016




Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, from the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex Record Office, has traced the history of Hylands House and Park in Chelmsford through its changing soundscapes as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project. Here she shares some of her discoveries

Footsteps echoing across an open hall or crunching gravel on the drive. Horses nibbling grass or dogs barking. Does hearing these sounds while visiting Hylands House and Park make it easier to imagine the lives of its former residents?

For most of the site’s history, only natural sounds would have been audible: such as wind blowing through the trees, birds singing or animals running across the estate. Periodic references to the ‘Highlands’ property on the outskirts of Chelmsford can be found in documents dating back to the mediaeval period, but the history of the site is better documented from 1726, when Sir John Comyns purchased the estate.


By 1730, Hylands House had been built as a grand country retreat for this upwardly mobile MP and lawyer. From then, human sounds would have increasingly encroached on the natural.

The core of Comyns’ house remains, but, over the next two centuries, successive owners made alterations to suit personal taste and changing fashions. Hammers, saws, and busy workmen must have been frequently audible, particularly during the extensive alterations designed with Humphrey Repton’s input at the turn of the 19th century.


Changing occupants brought different demographics within the property. A sedate atmosphere might have prevailed during Sir John Comyns’ residence, as he had no children. The property remained in the Comyns family until 1797, when it was purchased by the Dutch trader Cornelius Hendrickson Kortright for him and his Danish wife.

If English was spoken, was it heavily accented? In 1814, the French banker Pierre Caesar Labouchere purchased the estate. His international business connections brought many foreign dignitaries through the doors, no doubt creating a babble of accents and languages that is mirrored today when the house is open to tourists who visit from far and wide.


Even without visitors, a large household would have filled the air with different voices. Shortly after the brewer Arthur Pryor purchased the estate in 1858, the 1861 census shows his eight children in residence, aged four to 16.

Today, children playing is a common sound around the estate: were Pryor’s children free to run and play as well? The census also reveals 17 domestic staff in attendance, who came from nearby towns, but also from Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Cornwall, Norfolk, Scotland and Ireland, bringing with them a range of accents.

Over the years, technological progress would have altered the soundscape. The Chelmsford to London railway line crossed the park in 1843. Long-standing public highways running through the estate were closed off in 1841, but the rumble of motor cars would have intruded once the Gooch family bought the grounds in 1908.

This forward-looking family also brought electricity and a telephone line to the house, as well as hosting visits from aeroplanes through their connection with the aviator Claude Grahame-White. Today, additional technological noises can be heard from visitors’ mobile telephones, lifts and hand dryers in the public facilities.


World War I would have brought the most drastic changes to the soundscapes, when the house was converted into an emergency hospital. Beeping machines, clattering trolleys and hushed voices no doubt echoed through the rooms – a different hush from that commonly assumed by visitors to stately homes.

The Hanbury family were Hylands’ last private owners, in residence from 1922 to 1962. However, the park was already being used for public events at this point, hosting fêtes, Essex Country Shows and Red Cross rallies.


Although the music was no doubt tamer than that played at the now annual V Festival in August, these public events saw the blurring between domestic space and public entertainment site.

After Mrs Hanbury’s death in 1962, Hylands was eventually purchased by Chelmsford Borough Council. After some deliberation over possible uses, the council has successfully converted the estate to a public park, events venue and more.

On special open days, the house once more resounds with the chatter of voices and the clatter of heels, but there are 21st century differences. The beautiful Banqueting Room, once a hubbub of conversation and clinking cutlery, is today a hushed environment where painters are carefully restoring the décor.

The neighing of horses in the stable courtyard has been replaced with a cacophony of conversation from tables outside the café and the bouncing of ping pong balls. While marble floors remain downstairs, footsteps are muted by the preference for trainers and sandals over heels. Even where buildings remain, cultural changes can alter daily soundscapes. So what will Hylands sound like in another 300 years?

To experience more changing soundscapes of Essex, visit the Essex Sounds audio map developed as part of the You Are Hear project. Listen to past and present recordings made in Essex, or contribute your own!

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