Saturday, 30 June 2018

(336) Baker of Owletts

In 1942, James Lees-Milne, the Historic Buildings Secretary of the National Trust (which had recently been given Owletts by Sir Herbert Baker), recorded in his diary a visit to the ageing Sir Herbert and his wife at the house. Sir Herbert was 'kind, Christian-like, and cultivated' and Lady Baker 'no less delightful than her husband'. He noted that "They call themselves with justifiable pride, yeomen of Kent; but they are more than that', which was a fair assessment not just of his hosts, but of their lineage: over many generations, the family have had one foot in the world of the gentry and the other in the workaday world of business and the professions. 

The genealogy below begins with Samuel Baker (1761-1836), who was apparently the third of his name to be a prominent figure in Rochester (Kent). He was a timber merchant and carpenter, joined the city's common council in 1787 and was mayor in 1797 and 1802. During the Napoleonic Wars he began undertaking lucrative building contracts for the public sector, and under the influence of his son's brother-in-law, the architect Robert Smirke, he started to use new materials such as steel and concrete, to solve problems that had defeated other contractors. Although not all of his projects were correctly costed, and he occasionally lost money, on the whole his wealth and reputation grew, and the son who took over his business, George Baker (1790-1862) moved to London and continued the development of the firm.

Samuel's third son, Thomas Baker (1793-1871), went to sea and in the 1820s became the captain of East India Company ships trading with India and China. In 1822, he married Maria, the daughter of Henry Edmeades of Nurstead Court (Kent), a family which was more firmly established among the minor gentry of Kent, and in 1835 they inherited from her father the house called Owletts at Cobham. Owletts was not a manor house, but had been built for an upwardly mobile yeoman farmer called Bonham Hayes in the late 17th century. It has the dignity required of a gentry residence even though it was only associated with some 250 acres of land, and it made a clear statement about the social status of the owners. With the inheritance, Capt. Baker retired from the sea and entered upon a new life of farming. He became a JP for Kent as well as Rochester, and at his death handed the estate on to his only surviving son, Thomas Henry Baker (1825-1904), who was a JP and a gentleman farmer until the 1890s, when he sold most of the land associated with Owletts. It is not clear whether the sale was motivated by the impact of the Agricultural Depression, or whether he made the sale to support his younger sons in their chosen careers. 

Thomas Henry Baker had a large family, of whom nine sons and one daughter survived to maturity. The career paths of the sons are interesting, and again speak of the slightly borderline gentry status of the family: only two of the sons went to University and none became clergymen or attended the Inns of Court. The eldest and fifth sons became career soldiers; the second and sixth sons became solicitors in Rochester; the third went to farm in America but died on arrival; the fourth (Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946)) became an architect; the seventh became a fruit farmer in South Africa and later in Sussex; the eighth was a civil servant in India; and the youngest became a land surveyor and senior administrator in Kenya. It is not clear why T.H. Baker decided to leave Owletts to his architect son, but he was by some distance the most financially successful, and also possessed a profound love for the house. He seems to have come into his inheritance on the death of his mother in 1916, by which time Baker had returned from an early and remarkably successful professional career in South Africa, and was working with Lutyens on the designs for New Delhi, as well as projects in England. 

Even more than Lutyens, Baker can be identified with Britain's late 19th and early 20th century imperial project. His personal friends included other leading imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes, Jan Smuts, Lord Milner, Rudyard Kipling and T.E. Lawrence, and he had an immense influence on the national architecture of South Africa and Kenya as well as India. Now that the darker side of colonialism has been exposed and has so decisively cast into the shade its achievements, it is no surprise to find that Baker's significance as an architect has been quietly forgotten. Certainly his reputation has been eclipsed by that of Lutyens, whose appeal was always more aesthetic and intuitive than the the studied and intellectual - if sometimes equally slick - classicism of Baker. Already in the closing years of his career his reputation was fading, and in 1938 he gave Owletts to the National Trust so that the place could be a memorial to his work, and especially to his love of South Africa. The agreement with the Trust allowed Sir Herbert and his widow to live on in the house for their lifetimes, and since Lady Baker's death in 1965 much of the house has continued to be let to members of the family, although the main rooms have been open to the public. The tenant at first was Sir Herbert's son, Henry Edmeades Baker (1905-94), an engineer who was a respectful guardian of his father's legacy. In 1984 he was succeeded by his son, Michael Baker (b. 1937), an electrical engineer who has spent much of his working life abroad. Now it is the turn of his son, David Baker (b. 1969), who moved into the house at the end of 2012, and who with his wife and sister takes an active part in presenting the house to the public.

Owletts, Cobham, Kent

Owletts, Cobham: a five-bay house of 1683-84, given single-bay projecting wings in about 1700.

A handsome but plain two-storey brick house, of five bays by three with a big hipped roof, built in 1683-84 for Bonham Hayes, and given distinction by the symmetrical placing of the two large chimneystacks and by the deeply moulded brick stringcourse between the two floors. At the rear, the central three bays project slightly and have large windows lighting the staircase, with horizontally-set oval windows above. In about 1700, single-bay projecting wings were added at either end of the main front, and it is these which lift the house decisively into the gentry category. Further changes to the fabric followed: in 1754 the house was given a panelled parapet in place of the original eaves, and there are various low additions at the back of the house which are apparently 19th and early 20th century. 

Owletts, Cobham: the staircase landing, showing the ceiling of 1684 and the screen introduced by Sir Herbert Baker.

Inside, the glory of the house is the staircase hall, with a staircase with stout twisted balusters and a fine plaster ceiling dated 1684 consisting of two big circular wreaths of foliage and flowers occupying almost the entire surface of the ceiling. In the early 20th century, Sir Herbert Baker added the porch, reusing a late 18th century doorcase, and also made some internal alterations, including the screen of Ionic columns on the staircase landing. In 2011-13 the house was repaired and modernised, and the library (which had been converted to a kitchen) was recreated, allowing Sir Herbert Baker's books to be brought together once more. In the garden are a pair of finely carved Corinthian capitals and bases of c.1770 from Sir Robert Taylor's Bank of England, removed when Sir Herbert reconstructed the bank in the 1920s and 1930s.

Descent: Bonham Hayes (d. 1720); to younger son, Richard Hayes (d. 1754); to son, Richard Hayes (d. 1790); to Henry Edmeades (d. 1835) of Nurstead; to daughter, Maria, wife of Thomas Baker (1793-1871); to son, Thomas Henry Baker (1825-1904); to son, Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946), kt.; given in 1938 to National Trust, which later let it to Sir Herbert's son, Henry Edmeades Baker (1905-94), grandson, Michael Baker (b. 1937) and now great-grandson, David Baker (b. 1969).

Baker family of Owletts

Baker, Samuel (1761-1836). Eldest son of Samuel Baker of Rochester and his wife Ruth Alexander, born 25 December 1761. Timber merchant, carpenter and building contractor, who worked extensively with his son's brother-in-law, Robert Smirke, and was noted for his innovative use of steel and concrete; his larger projects included the Millbank Penitentiary in London (1816), the Custom House, London (1825-27) and the east wing of the British Museum (1823-27). JP for Rochester. He was elected a member of Rochester Common Council in 1787 and served as Mayor of the city in 1797 and 1802. When he died, he was regarded as 'the father of the city' having been 'the active promoter, through a long life, of every public undertaking which could either benefit or improve it'. He married, 8 January 1787 at St Nicholas, Rochester (Kent), Catherine (1764-1830), daughter of Samuel Nicholson of Rochester, and had issue:
(1) Samuel Baker (1787-1829), born 2 December 1787 and baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 28 February 1788; married, 30 March 1816 at St Pancras (Middx), Sarah (1786-1855), daughter of the artist Robert Smirke RA and sister of the architects Robert and Sydney Smirke, and had issue two sons and two daughters; died in his father's lifetime, 29 May 1829;
(2) Katherine Baker (1789-1861), baptised 20 March 1789 at St Nicholas, Rochester; married, 24 September 1814 at St Nicholas, Rochester, Peter Gunning (c.1787-1852) and had issue five sons and three daughters; died 30 May 1861;
(3) George Baker (1790-1862), born 18 April and baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 25 May 1790; timber merchant and building contractor in London, working especially on projects for the naval dockyards; an Associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers, 1836-40; married, 30 April 1816 at St Margaret, Rochester, Lucy Jane (1790-1873), daughter of Howland Roberts, and had issue five sons and one daughter; died 22 March 1862;
(4) Sarah Baker (b. 1791), baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 30 December 1791; probably died young;
(5) Thomas Baker (1793-1871) (q.v.);
(6) Ann Baker (1795-1882), baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 13 October 1795; died unmarried, 19 February 1882;
(7) Robert Baker (b. 1797), baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 13 June 1797; died young before 1802;
(8) William Baker (b. 1798), baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 9 August 1798; died young before 1803;
(9) John Baker (b. 1799), baptised at St. Nicholas, Rochester, 13 September 1799; perhaps died young;
(10) Elizabeth Baker (b. 1801), baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 16 June 1801; perhaps died young;
(11) Robert Baker (b. 1802), baptised at St. Nicholas, Rochester, 9 August 1802;
(12) William Baker (b. 1803), baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 18 November 1803.
He lived at Satis House, Boley Hill, Rochester.
He died 5 November 1836 and was buried in Rochester Cathedral, where he is commemorated by a monument erected by public subscription. His wife died 12 July 1830.

Baker, Capt. Thomas (1793-1871). Third son of Samuel Baker (1761-1836) and his wife, born 5 August 1793 and baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 8 January 1794. A ship's captain in the East India Company's service in the 1820s and early 1830s. JP for Kent and Rochester. He married, 12 December 1822 at Cobham, Maria (1795-1847), daughter of Henry Edmeades, and had issue:
(1) Thomas Henry Baker (1825-1904);
(2) Maria Catherine Baker (1827-39), born 21 February and baptised at Cobham, 14 March 1827; died 23 February 1839 and was buried at St Nicholas, Rochester (Kent);
(3) Louisa Baker (1828-30), born 20 December 1828 and baptised at Cobham, 11 January 1829; died in infancy, 27 December 1830, and was buried at St Nicholas, Rochester (Kent);
(4) Frederick Baker (b. & d. 1830), born 17 May and baptised at Cobham, 11 July 1830; died in infancy, 29 December 1830, and was buried at St. Nicholas, Rochester;
(5) Emma Baker (1832-1910), born 23 June and baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 11 August 1832; married, 11 August 1852, Edward James Hayward (1829-87), son of James Hayward of Wokingham (Berks), and had issue two sons and five daughters; died at Dover (Kent), 14 February 1910; will proved 10 March 1910 (estate £851);
(6) Louisa Baker (b. & d. 1835), born May and baptised at St Nicholas, Rochester, 11 June 1835; died in infancy, 18 June 1835 and was buried at St Nicholas, Rochester.
He lived at Boley Hill, Rochester until he inherited Owletts in right of his wife on the death of his father-in-law in 1835.
He died at Owletts, 8 January 1871, and was buried at Nurstead (Kent); his will was proved 8 April 1871 (effects under £5,000). His wife died 27 December 1847 and was buried at Nurstead.

Thomas Henry Baker (1824-1904)
Baker, Thomas Henry (1825-1904). Son of Thomas Baker (1793-1871) and his wife Maria, daughter of Henry Edmeades, born in Westminster (Middx), 27 March 1825 and baptised at Cobham, 18 August 1826. Gentleman farmer; director of the Kent Fire & Life Insurance Co.; JP for Kent. He married, 15 June 1852 at St Nicholas, Rochester, Frances Georgiana (1830-1916), daughter of William Davis of Rochester (Kent), and had issue:
(1) A son (b. & d. 1853), born 29 June 1853 but lived only a few hours;
(2) Maj. Henry Edmeades Baker (1854-1929), born 9 June and baptised at Cobham, 10 July 1854; an officer in the Royal Lancashire Militia (Lt.) and later the King's Own Royal Lancashire Regiment (Lt., 1874; Capt., 1884; retired as Maj., 1890); married, 16 February 1904 at Wakefield Cathedral, Edith, daughter of George Cradock, wire rope manufacturer, of Westfield House; died at Scarborough (Yorks), 21 February 1929 and was buried at Cobham; administration of his goods granted to his widow, 17 June 1929 (estate £729);
(3) Maria Frances Baker (1856-61), born 28 February and baptised at Cobham, 2 April 1856; died young, 21 December 1861 and was buried at Nurstead;
(4) Edward Lowther Baker (1857-1925), born 21 September and baptised at Cobham, 25 November 1857; solicitor with Arnold Baker & Day of Rochester; clerk to Rochester Petty Sessions; married, 12 June 1888 at St Margaret, Rochester, Sophia (1864-1943), daughter of John Hobbis of Grove (Berks), and had issue two sons and three daughters; died in Chichester (Sussex), 21 August 1925; will proved 21 October 1925 (estate £2,601);
(5) Lillian Baker (b. & d. 1859), born 8 March and baptised at Cobham, 9 March 1859; died in infancy, 18 March 1859 and was buried at Nurstead;
(6) Francis James Baker (1860-81), born 13 September 1860; emigrated to America with the intention of farming, but died unmarried of typhoid at Le Mars, Plymouth County, Iowa (USA), 10 June 1881;
(7) Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946), kt. (q.v.);
(8) Alfred William Baker (1864-99), born 6 March and baptised at Cobham, 24 April 1864; educated at Tonbridge School; an officer in the Durham Light Infantry (Lt., 1884; Capt., 1893); died of blackwater fever on active service with West African Expeditionary Force at Jebba (Nigeria), 26 December 1898; administration of his goods granted to his father, 19 May 1899 (estate £506);
(9) Beatrice Emma Baker (1866-1948), born 15 February and baptised at Cobham, 25 April 1866; lived with her brother Lionel in Sussex; died unmarried, 4 June 1948; will proved 4 September 1948 (estate £1,859);
(10) Percy Thomas Baker (1867-1946), born 13 November 1867 and baptised at Cobham, 29 March 1868; educated at Tonbridge School and Trinity College, Oxford (matriculated 1886; BA 1890; MA 1894?); schoolmaster and later solicitor in partnership with his brother Edward; married, July 1908, Ida Mary Cameron Waters (d. 1939), daughter of Col. Henry Taylor of Silverdale, Bexleyheath (Kent); died in Portslade (Hants), 22 September 1946; will proved 9 December 1946 (estate £925);
(11) Lionel Baker (1870-1964), born 9 January and baptised at Cobham, 10 May 1870; as a young man emigrated to South Africa where he became a fruit farmer; returned to England and became a fruit farmer at Kirdford (Sussex); JP for Sussex; married, 25 June 1913 at King's Worthy (Hants), Rosamond (1878-1964), daughter of Matthew Hodgson, and had issue; died aged 94, 21 April 1964; will proved 25 June 1964 (estate £3,545);
(12) Charles Maurice Baker (1872-1952), born 3 March and baptised at Cobham, 26 May 1872; educated at Trinity College, Oxford (matriculated 1890; BA 1894; MA 1898); civil servant in India from 1894; retired to Meopham (Kent); married, 30 October 1902, Mabel (1872-1947), second daughter of Maj-Gen. Henry Edmeades of Nurstead Court (Kent); died 16 March 1952; will proved 5 July 1952 (estate £10,947);
(13) Arthur George Baker (b. 1876), born 11 June and baptised at Cobham, 27 August 1876; educated at Tonbridge School; surveyor; Director of Land Surveys and later Commissioner of Lands in Kenya.
He inherited Owletts from his father in 1871, but sold most of the land in the 1890s. At his death it passed to his widow.
He died 25 July 1904; his will was proved 6 September 1904 (estate £8,148). His widow died 21 December 1916; her will was proved 3 February 1917 (estate £868).

Sir Herbert Baker. Image: NPG
Baker, Sir Herbert (1862-1946), kt. Fourth son of Thomas Henry Baker (1825-1904) and his wife Frances Georgina, daughter of William Davis of Rochester, born 9 June 1862. Educated at Tonbridge School. From about 1880 he trained as an architect with his cousin Arthur Baker (1841-96) in London, and was later in the office of Sir Ernest George and Harold Peto, 1882-87 (where he rose to become Principal Assistant and also studied at the Royal Academy School of Design). While studying, he made frequent sketching trips with Edwin Lutyens, who was also in the office of George & Peto at the time. He emerged from his training as a convinced classicist, and qualified as an architect in 1889 (winning the RIBA Ashpitel Prize); he opened an independent practice in Gravesend (Kent) in 1891. In 1892, he emigrated to South Africa, ostensibly to help his brother Lionel establish a fruit farm, but a chance meeting with Cecil Rhodes led to a commission to design the prime minister's Cape Town residence, Groote Schuur (completed in 1896). He practised as an architect in South Africa (in Capetown until 1902 and later in Johannesberg) until 1912, designing some 300 houses, chiefly in the 'Cape Dutch' style which he developed from a study of vernacular Dutch settler architecture, as well as the new Government offices in Pretoria (1910-13), cathedrals in Pretoria and Johannesburg, Pretoria railway station, a medical institute in Johannesburg, commercial offices, colleges, and also mineworkers' villages on the Witwatersrand. In 1912 he endowed a travelling scholarship for young South African architects at the British School in Rome, encouraging the next generation of architects to look to their classical heritage. The commission for Union Buildings in Pretoria probably led directly to his being invited to collaborate with his old friend Lutyens in designing the vast Government office complex of New Delhi (India). In 1912 he moved his practice and family back to the UK, and for the next decade and a half travelled frequently to India as need arose to work on the Delhi commissions. He also designed many First World War memorials in France, 1917-28; in England he was chiefly noted for his rebuilding of the Bank of England behind Soane's perimeter walls between 1921 and 1942, which destroyed most of the famous interiors by Soane and Sir Robert Taylor. He also built banks, office blocks and official buildings including India House (1928-30), South Africa House (1930-35), and Church House (1935-40; bombed) in London; Rhodes House at Oxford; and a new stand for Lords' Cricket Ground. He was knighted in 1926 (KCIE 1930) and was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA, 1900; royal gold medal, 1927). He became a member of the Royal Academy (ARA 1922; RA 1932; senior RA 1938), and was awarded honorary degrees by the Universities of Witwatersrand (LLD, 1934) and Oxford (DCL, 1937). His circle of friends included many of the leading figures of Britain's imperial heyday, including Rhodes, Smuts and Milner in South Africa; and Kipling, Lutyens, and T.E. Lawrence (who wrote the Seven Pillars of Wisdom while living in a flat above Baker's London office). He was seen as a patriot, a pious Anglican, and as reserved and idealistic. He had literary interests, translated French verse, and wrote several books, including Cecil Rhodes by his architect (1934), and an autobiography, Architecture and Personalities (1944). He was keen on sport at school, and continued to play cricket in South Africa and to ride in India; on his return to England he became a keen supporter of Kent County Cricket Club. In the late 1930s he suffered a disabling stroke and retired to his home at Owletts. He married, 21 June 1904 at Nurstead (Kent), Florence (1878-1965), third daughter of Maj-Gen. Henry Edmeades of Nurstead Court, and had issue:
(1) Henry Edmeades Baker (1905-94) (q.v.);
(2) (Herbert) Allaire Edmeades Baker (1908-90), born 12 September 1908; lived at Kirdford (Sussex); married, Apr-Jun 1940, Elizabeth Sanden (b. 1910), daughter of Newland Tompkins of Pulborough (Sussex); died 21 December 1990; will proved 12 March 1991 (estate £296,789);
(3) Alfred Patrick Edmeades Baker (1913-85), born in Johannesberg (South Africa), 14 August 1913; an officer in the Royal Regt of Artillery (2nd Lt., 1940; Capt., 1949); lived at Cobhambury House, Cobham; married, Jan-Mar 1942, Helen Daphne (1911-2004), daughter of Lt-Col. Sir Francis Humphrys, and had issue three children; died 29 May 1985 and was buried at Cobham; will proved 24 September 1985 (estate £278,304);
(4) Ann Mildred Baker (1916-97), born 26 June 1916; married, September 1948, John Francis Deryk Frazer MB BCh (1916-2008), surgeon, son of John Ernest Sullivan Frazer, and had issue four daughters; died 18 March 1997; will proved 29 September 1997.
He inherited Owletts on the death of his mother in 1916, and gave it to the National Trust in 1938.
He died 4 February 1946 and his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey, 12 February 1946; his will was proved 25 July 1946 (estate £60,221). His widow died 11 November 1965; her will was proved 24 February 1966 (estate £29,442).

Baker, Henry Edmeades (1905-94). Eldest son of Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946) and his wife Florence Edmeades, born 1905. Consulting engineer. He married, 2 May 1936 at Hexham Abbey (Northbld), Helen (1911-85), daughter of Norbert Merz of Fourstones (Northbld), and had issue:
(1) Michael H. Baker (b. 1937) (q.v.);
(2) Charles F. Baker; (b. 1943), born 25 April 1943;
(3) Frances H. Baker (b. 1945), born at Corbridge (Northbld), 9 June 1945; married, 4 November 1967 at Cobham, Robert Charles Phillips Dower (b. 1938), architect, of Cambo House (Northbld), son of John Gordon Dower, and had issue;
(4) Robert W.H. Baker (b. 1951); married, Jul-Sep 1980, Jacqueline A. Chapman (1956-2001).
He leased Owletts from the National Trust until 1984, when he was succeeded in the tenancy by his eldest son.
He died at Owletts, 13 October 1994; his will was proved 2 June 1995 (estate £150,845). His wife died 20 January 1985; her will was proved 22 March 1985 (estate £151,125).

Baker, Michael H. (b. 1937). Son of Henry Edmeades Baker (1905-94) and his wife Helen Merz, born 1937. Electrical engineer. He married 1st, 1 June 1968 at Flora Mission Church, Marquard, Orange Free State (South Africa), Elizabeth Anne (1939-84), daughter of Gordon Nicholson of Bergville, Natal (South Africa), and 2nd, 5 April 1986 at Cambo (Northbld.), Caroline (b. 1945), daughter of Sir Tobias (k/a Toby) Rushton Weaver, kt., and had issue:
(1.1) David William Baker (b. 1969), born November 1969; director of Bjork Baker Ltd., business consultants; tenant of Owletts since 2012; married, before 2005, Gabriella Bjork-Gabbitas (b. 1965), actress, and had issue two daughters;
(1.2) Gordon Baker; married and had issue one son and two daughters;
(1.3) Camilla Baker (b. 1975); educated at Sevenoaks School, Oxford University (BA 1997; MA 2001) and University of Pennsylvania (MSEd, 1999); schoolteacher and teacher of meditation; had issue one son.
He leased Owletts from 1984 until he moved out in 1994. His eldest son took on the lease in 2012.
Now living.


J. Lees-Milne, Ancestral Voices: diaries 1942-43, 1975, pp. 129-30; J. Newman, The buildings of England: Kent - West and the Weald, 3rd edn., 2012, p. 194; ODNB entry on Sir Herbert Baker;

Location of archives

Baker, Sir Herbert (1862-1946): diaries, personal correspondence, practice and literary papers, presscuttings and historical materials, 1877-1989 [Royal Institute of British Architects, BaH]

Coat of arms

None known.

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Revision and acknowledgements

This post was first published 30 June 2018.

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