By 1936 the Hancock family were back in the United Kingdom and living at 110 Sloane Street in London’s fashionable Kensington, as well as owning a country house at Lingfield, in Surrey. Ralph had purchased the derelict 16th century farmhouse (Gate House Farm) which was in a dilapidated state and set about restoring the property to its former glory. He travelled the country finding suitable oak timbers and stone to turn what had been a simple farm house into a mock-Tudor home fit for a successful landscape architect. As well as refurbishing the family home, Ralph also designed and built one of his trademark gardens using many of the features that have become familiar including; a herringbone brick paths, a sunken garden, a rockery and even a Tudor style summer house.
Ralph and his family took well to the country life. The image above left was taken sometime in the early 1940's. It shows Ralph, Muriel, Sheila, Bramley's wife Susie and their daughter Angela. Bramley himself was in the army and was either already in France or about to embark. Sheila remembered that Denys was installed in a ramshackle extension to the main house and, by her account, enjoyed living there immensley.
Ralph immersed himself totally in country living. One day he decided that he would keep pigs and, although he employed someone to look after them, he even purchased a pig keeper’s white coat, much to the amusement of the family. Sadly, the family house at Lingfield was sold by Ralph in 1941 and the family moved back to Sloane Street, London.
The two images below show the Hancock family home as it was when Ralph and his family knew it circa 1938 and again in 2007. The later image clearly shows Ralph's trademark herringbone brick path, sadly, at the time, in need of attention. The planting too looks much as it did 70 years before, albeit now very mature. The rear garden still has many of Ralph's trademark features, including the mock-Tudor summer house. Sadly the sunken garden has disappeared overtime.
They explained that the previous owner had undertaken extensive research into the history of Gate House Farm. It transpires that the first owner of the property was John Shaw and the place was originally called Shawlands Farm. Shaw died in 1529 and so the house is likely to predate his death.
The image right, taken from the Illustrated London News (May 1938) shows the lengths to which Ralph went in recreating a slice of olde England. He would use similar structures at other Flower shows, adapting each structure to suit the particular theme. Ralph would travel the country looking for suitable old oak timbers and stone that he could incorporate in his designs. His daughter, Sheila also recalls her father riding horseback across Yorkshire in search of rocks that he would later utilise in numerous projects.
As well as designing gardens, Hancock (1936) also wrote and published a book entitled When I Make a Garden, which was reprinted in 1950 and updated to include images of the Derry and Toms roof gardens as well as his later work.
He also exhibited gardens at the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1936, ’37 and ’38. Each of the Ideal Homes gardens was required to conform to a theme. In 1936 the theme was Gardens and Music. The garden was to feature 1,200 plants that were brought over from the USA.
The theme for the 1938 show was Novelist and their Gardens for which the designers had to take as inspiration their favourite living author. Ralph chose as his inspiration Rafael Sabatini. Sabatini was famous for his tales of high adventure such as Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, all of which became successful motion pictures. Captain Blood was produced in 1935 and gave a young Errol Flynn his first ever Hollywood starring role.
The show catalogue for that year hints at some form of collaboration between the author and the architect. Although of Italian birth Sabatini was living in Hereford, England.
A year later in 1939 Ralph won a silver cup at the Chelsea Flower Show for a Formal Mediterranean Garden. The garden was to feature many of the structures which Ralph had used successfully at both the Derry Gardens in London and within the Spanish garden on the 11th floor of the Rockefeller Center in New York.
Woman's Fair, London Olympia 2-26 November 1938
Reported in the Evening Telegraph on 15 October 1938, Hancock is quoted as saying that these were the "finest indoor gardens ever seen." The article entitled The Plant That Must Keep on Walking gives a fascinating insight as to what visitors to the show would have seen. Twenty foot tall palm trees and pineapples in fruit. Creeping Devil, Golden Barrel and Old Man cacti nestled against the walls of ten Spanish-style Californian homes. One built to resemble the home of child star, Shirley Temple.
Although untitled in the book, the image is that of the Hollywood Gardens shown at the Woman's Fair in 1938. The description given certainly seems to reflect the planting and Spanish-style homes as suggested within the Evening Telegraph article.
Bankruptcy and War
The 21 March 1941 edition of the Surrey Mirror and County Post carried a detailed article about Ralph's misfortune and apparent history of bankruptcy. Ralph had appeared at the Croydon Bankruptcy Court on Thursday 18 March, after recieving an order against him from a creditor the previous November to the value of £333. This being for rent and dilapidation liabilities. Presumably linked to Gate House Farm? Ralph explained that he had liabilites of £5451 with assets of £188.
Ralph also admitted that he had previously been made a bankrupt at the Cardiff Bankruptcy Court in 1921 having liabilites of £2253 and assets of just £8.
He went on to explain that he had paid the debt in full by 1930 before moving to New York in June of the same year. He added that once in New York, he was engaged to install gardens at the Rockefeller Center. He also rented space too! Ralph said that, at first, the venture went well. But very soon it went bad and takings went down to zero. He had also borrowed £2000 from a business partner and before he left the United States an order was obtained against Ralph for £2116.
He returned to England in 1936 and set up Ralph Hancock Ltd. He said that at times the business (landscape architecture) had been substantial but it also suffered from long periods, for the last two or three years, of nothing at all. He continued that in 1939 he had set up British Air Raid Shelters Ltd., Ralph admitted that the business venture failed as he knew nothing about building such shelters.
Ralph told the court that since the outbreak of war the business had ceased completely and the only work he had was to finish contracts already in hand. He said that he had been unemployed between February and June 1940 and then he was called up for military service. He attributed his current financial crisis solely as a result of the hostilities.
The Registrar, Captain Bruce Humfrey, adjourned the examination of costings to a court in the north of England to suit the debtors convenience.
A Family in khaki!
By 1941, Ralph, Denys and Bramley were all serving in the military. Muriel volunteered and drove ambulances during the London Blitz.
Ralph, who had previously served as a Second Lieutenant in the Great War with the Welsh Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, was re-activated on 3 July 1940. He was promoted to the rank of Honorary Captain with the Pioneer Corps. Second Lieutenant Denys Hancock, who was to tragically lose his life on 20 November 1941 at the battle of Sidi Rezegh in North Africa, joined the Royal Tank Regiment.wounds during action against the German Army in July 1944. Later, in November of that year he was to see acton again. This time during the battle for Suggerath, Germany. It was during this battle that he was award the Distinguished Service Cross by the President of The United States. The medal is second only to the Medal of Honor.
Sheila, who was only 11 when war was declared, was sent to neutral America to stay with family friends. She left Liverpool, aboard the "SS Scythia", on 25 June 1940.
Back home in England, Derry and Toms was damaged during an enemy air-raid. Postcards printed at the time show a 500 pound landmine in the Spanish garden which had failed to explode. After the war ended the damage caused to the gardens was repaired. Although the garden was restored to it’s pre-war splendour neither Ralph nor Muriel fully recovered from the death of their youngest son, Denys.
The image left has been kindly supplied by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.