I joined Compton Verney Art Gallery in 2008 as a Gallery Assistant because, although I am an historian, I have always loved art. Compton Verney seemed a treasure house in which to explore and satisfy my never-ending curiosity.
From an historical perspective, I wanted to learn about the various owners of this beautiful mansion. It had been the home of Verneys for nearly five hundred years when financial circumstances forced them to sell. I decided to study their history and the subsequent owners to the present day. The fourth owner after the Verneys was Harry Ellard.
The history in Compton Verney’s files was factual but sparse. Harry Ellard was said to be a self-made millionaire, owning a factory in the West Midlands making car parts, and he was labelled as a “Night-club Owner”. His home, The Regency Club, at Monkspath, near Solihull, was described as a drinking club or nightclub where he lived in a small flat. At the club he entertained stars of the screen and radio, was surrounded by several pretty lady companions and was a member of the Masons – a group of whom used the Club as their Lodge.
Harry purchased Compton Verney in 1958 but he didn’t move in. He bought a little caravan and parked near the brewhouse there and came every Saturday morning in a Morris 1000, returned in the evening to the Regency Club, and repeated the same journey on Sundays. Visitors recall that he sat in his caravan, offering them cups of tea, and then he invited them to wander round the park.
It was suggested that he was a shy man, reclusive, said to be notoriously tight-fisted but, in the company of famous entertainers who were able to take advantage of the late-night drinking licence at his club, Harry could be very generous. Peter Hall was invited to film A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the park and mansion at Compton Verney at no cost, and two other films followed.
Local people were welcome to wander the park, and hunt balls and other activities were allowed to take place in the house, again free of charge. When Harry died in 1983, his ashes were buried under a black marble slab close to the obelisk – a memorial placed near the site of Old Chapel that had been removed by Capability Brown.
I was always irritated by the soubriquet ‘nightclub owner’ – I believed there was much more to this man than the information contained – some of it was hearsay, second-hand and not validated. I wanted to know more. Then I had a lucky break! One very dark afternoon in November 2019 a visitor told me that she loved coming to Compton Verney and had enjoyed her outings for many years when Harry Ellard was the owner. She and her husband recalled having cups of tea with Harry in his caravan and they had become quite good friends. Immediately alert I asked if she had any photographs or knew of any contacts. She promised she would look.
The lady did not let me down! In early January 2020 I received a phone call from a gentleman who sounded quite peremptory and wished to ascertain if I was a legitimate historian, because the man whom he really thought could help me would not suffer fools gladly! I was shaking in my shoes – said I was but dashed off to our Art Department to make sure I could lay claim to this title – to my relief it was confirmed!
Sadly, when I finally made contact with the gentleman said to have a low opinion of fools, he was very poorly and was in a care home in Halesowen. His name was Tony Macintosh and he had been a close friend of Harry, his solicitor and became his driver in later years. Thankfully, he did agree to be interviewed, so on very cold day in late January 2020 my husband and I went to see him. We received a very warm welcome from the staff, but at first, we were first disappointed because Tony had decided not to get up that day. However, he did invite us to come and talk to him in his bed if we didn’t mind seeing him in his pyjamas!
Why had I worried? I did not shake in my shoes -Tony was the most charming, delightful gentleman, full of stories and when he digressed, we gently nudged him back on track. We learned about his friendship with Harry and all the great times they had enjoyed. I had a much clearer picture of Harry as a trusted friend, successful businessman, “a snapper up of unconsidered trifles” (I am also a fan of Shakespeare) – cars, houses, estates – worth millions.
Tony was delighted by our company, and probably gratified to be asked for his memories but he was obviously very poorly, and not wishing to tire him, we made our farewells. In the last seconds before we left he called out, “You need to speak to my daughter – she can tell you more, she made a scrapbook.”
Reaching home, and before I removed my coat, I contacted Tony’s daughter, Samantha, who is as delightful and generous as her father. She sent me her scrapbook immediately. I was so impressed with her standard of writing, her composition, her research skills – and she composed it aged nine and a half! It was a joy to read and fired my enthusiasm to dig deep and find the truth about Harry.
I was sad to learn from Samantha that Tony died a few weeks after we had visited him. I felt privileged to have met him, grateful for his memories and that last minute advice to contact his daughter. I would like to dedicate my story of Harry Ellard to Tony.
Download the History of Harry Ellard (1897-1983) (PDF – 1.5MB) to read a fuller story of Harry’s life and how he owned Compton Verney for 25 years but never lived there, preferring to live in a room at the Regency Club, Stratford Road, Solihull.
© Christine Cluley, 2022. All rights reserved
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