Home   Dartford   News   Article

Playboy model's mansion that was once Henry VIII's royal retreat - we take a look at the brief history of Ingress Abbey in Greenhithe


More news, no ads

LEARN MORE

There are no shortages of large manor houses in Kent with interesting back stories but one in particular stands out among the crowd.

Over the years the Ingress Abbey estate in Greenhithe has served as a nunnery, a royal retreat and even an army hospital and naval base during the First and Second World Wars.

Ingress Abbey. Picture: Steve Crispe
Ingress Abbey. Picture: Steve Crispe

But today it is home to a millionaire oil and gas tycoon and his Playboy cover star wife and supports an embassy offering Lithuanian's advice over passport renewals and visa concerns.

Appearances from the outside can indeed be deceiving. In fact, if you don't live locally you could be forgiven for not even knowing the grade two listed manor house is even there.

It was once a striking sight to ships passing along the Thames and prompted the Shah of Persia, sailing during the 19th century, to remark “the only thing worth mentioning at Greenhithe was a mansion standing amid trees on a green carpet extending down to the water’s edge".

Now a fleeting glance can only be obtained from the passenger seat of a Fasttrack bus weaving through the surrounding new homes development at Ingress Park.

However, it was much less glitz and glamour back in 1363 when King Edward II gifted the estate to the nuns of the Priory of Dartford, who used it until the 1530s, as a manor farm and for chalk quarrying.

King Henry VIII repossessed the Abbey and is said to have used it as a country retreat
King Henry VIII repossessed the Abbey and is said to have used it as a country retreat

Following the break up of the monasteries by King Henry VIII it was disbanded and the sisters were unceremoniously carted off the land.

The Crown reserved its use as a royal retreat and according to rumour, the Abbess of Dartford, Jane Fane, put a curse on the king and all of his male heirs as punishment.

Shortly after the estate exchanged hands through a series of nobleman, private owners and even wound up in the possession of John Calcraft, the MP for Rochester, who occupied the estate until the late 1700s.

The army agent commissioned a series of surviving changes to the parkland landscape, such as the sloping of the ground towards the house, before it was sold once again.

Ingress Abbey would eventually pass to William Havelock, a shipbuilder and father of Sir Henry Havelock, an army officer, who spent his early childhood at the estate and attended Dartford Grammar School.

But the Havelock family would run into financial problems and the house was once again transferred back to the Crown.

Ingress Abbey in the snow. Picture : Nick Johnson
Ingress Abbey in the snow. Picture : Nick Johnson

During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain pursued a series of naval conflicts with the French and plans were drawn up for a large dockyard to be built from Northfleet to Greenhithe, to encompass the Ingress Estate.

The mansion grounds were raised in the hope it could be utilised by the Royal Navy but they instead opted for a base 15 miles along the Thames Estuary at Greenwich, London.

It would be a decade or so later until the building we know today as Ingress Abbey came into fruition.

In 1820 the land was purchased by city lawyer and owner of the Sunday Dispatch newspaper, James Harmer who ordered that the mansion be built in Tudor Gothic style along the banks of the Thames.

Ingress Abbey was designed by the architect, Charles Moreing and is said to have been made using ragstone from the Old London Bridge and Houses of Parliament.

A further £120,000 was set aside for the construction of follies, grottoes, and hermit's caves, many of which remain today.

The grounds of Ingress Abbey Greenhithe
The grounds of Ingress Abbey Greenhithe

The Victorian poet and journalist Eliza Cook regularly stayed at the manor house and wrote much of her literary works there.

She penned various articles for Harmer's Dispatch and was a champion of women's and worker's rights and a leading figure in the Chartism movement.

But the reimagining of the Greenhithe estate as a family home and writer's retreat would not last long.

The estate was left to Harmer's daughter in 1853 and was then sold onto the Merchant Navy, who used it until the First World War.

During the conflict, Ingress Abbey was used as an army hospital and by 1922 both house and grounds were purchased by the Thames Nautical Training College.

Before the start of the Second World War the Cutty Sark tea clipper and HMS Worcester could regularly be seen berthed outside.

The refurbishment of Ingress Park following its purchase in 2001
The refurbishment of Ingress Park following its purchase in 2001

HMS Worcester continued to train officers at Ingress until it ran into financial difficulties during the 1960s and was forced to close.

Remarkably, this coincided a few years later with the Gothic revised mansion being awarded grade two listed status.

And had it not been for that things could have turned out quite differently.

As a result local planning authorities applied stringent conditions which included the abbey's restoration as a pre-requisite for any future development on the site.

Ingress Abbey sat vacant for nearly 30 years until a developer came forward to salvage the estate – but the saga didn't end there.

Northfleet-based manufacturer Pandora International had hoped to move into the abbey after purchasing it in 2001 for £2.5m as the new company headquarters.

Pandora International's protest at Ingress Abbey following their dispute with Crest Nicholson, developers of Ingress Park.
Pandora International's protest at Ingress Abbey following their dispute with Crest Nicholson, developers of Ingress Park.

But frustrated bosses claimed they were hit with delays and complained about the standard and cost of repairs carried out by developers Crest Nicholson who had used photos of the Abbey to promote their new homes development surrounding the estate.

It led to a protest by Pandora who draped a sign across the abbey warning "Falling masonry, leaking roof".

After more than a century the estate was finally brought back into its original use as a family home when it was purchased by Canadian-British entrepreneur Sam Malin, who runs Madagascar Oil and his wife Irene.

The pair welcomed cameras into the 47-roomed house as part of their appearance on Channel 5's Britain's Flashiest Families.

Irene Major – otherwise known as Lady Hailes and the "Queen of Ingress Abbey" – is renowned for showering her kids with lavish gifts.

The 41-year-old business woman is one of nine siblings who grew up in Cameroon and has made regular TV appearances on shows such as on ITV's This Morning.

Current owners, Irene and Sam Malin, who appeared on the Channel 5 series, Britain's Flashiest Families. Photo: Channel 5
Current owners, Irene and Sam Malin, who appeared on the Channel 5 series, Britain's Flashiest Families. Photo: Channel 5

Life at the abbey usually involves fashion shoots, filming and cultural events. A family fun day is also held on the parkland opposite the manor house every year.

Its picturesque surroundings and stately appearance has also made it a prime filming location for a number of TV programmes including a recent episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot.

Describing her home of nearly ten years, Irene said: "I love living in Ingress Abbey. It is a beautiful building, steeped in history and with various legends.

"Don’t be overwhelmed by this imposing neo-Gothic building ... inside it is full of life, warmth and love."

Last month the mum-of-eight made history by becoming the first black African woman to grace the cover of Playboy Czech Republic on its 30th anniversary.

And to top it off she managed to realise the dream just four months after giving birth to her eighth child.

A family fun day held at Ingress Abbey. Picture: Steve Crispe
A family fun day held at Ingress Abbey. Picture: Steve Crispe

But not all ventures have been as fruitful and her 2014 performance on X Factor prompted judge Simon Cowell to say it was his "idea of hell".

Besides more jovial appearances the lady of the manor is also a philanthropist and in 2008 founded IM Life, a charity which provides food shelter and support to sub-Saharan Africa and the western Indian Ocean in desperate need.

Meanwhile back at the abbey the neo-gothic building also has an important role to place in world affairs.

In 2016 it was designated an Honorary Consulate of Lithuania and Sam was appointed as the new honorary consul in South East England.

Speaking at the time, Lithuania's ambassador to the UK Asta Skaisgirytė said: “I am pleased that the Lithuanian tricolour flag will fly over this historic manor house.

"The opening of the new Honorary Consulate is a result of intensifying ties with Kent.

"I hope that the new Honorary Consul will further develop regional economic cooperation with Lithuania."

With Covid-19 restrictions now lifting it would seem it won't be long until the Abbey is entertaining a range of different guests once again.

Read more: All the latest news from Dartford

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More