I went to a business meeting at Inky Stephens’ House in Finchley recently. When I was told the venue, I said, “Who?” I’d never heard of him. At least, I thought I’d never heard of him.
Originally built in 1859, the house was renovated and enlarged in 1874 by Inky Stephens. The original house boasted a library, rooms in which the children were taught and, of course, the normal features of any house. When I say “house” I really do mean mansion, it’s huge. I couldn’t go into all of it (parts of it weren’t open to the public, and anyway, I was there out of hours, and I had a meeting to attend) but it was one of those places I should have loved as a child. Places where you could sneak and hide this way and that. More than one staircase (although one is now a fire escape and I expect would have been for use only by the servants back in the day, but when did children ever bother about things like that?
When Inky died in 1918, he left the house and gardens for “the enjoyment of the public,” which was very generous of him. The house is interesting but the gardens are beautiful, as the photographs show.
They were designed in the “gardenesque” style by Robert Marnock. Marnock was a landscape gardener and he included lawns and ponds, as well as a walled kitchen garden and a Bothy (I think this is a Scottish term but it just means a park-keeper’s house) in the design. A water tower was also installed and Stephens had a lodge, a coach house and a stable block built. He also had a number of rare trees planted throughout the grounds. I didn’t have time to go around all of the gardens so I missed the famous bench with a statue of Spike Milligan, as well as the Bothy Garden. Spike was a local resident and the statue was installed in the gardens by the Finchley Society in 2014. Another visited is called for, it seems.
When Stephens died, the house was being used as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital (basically, a hospital staffed by volunteers). It continued to be used as a hospital between 1919 and 1925 by the RAF. The grounds were formally opened to the public in May 1928. Since then, the house has been used as a public library and then council offices.
There was a fire in 1989 which completely gutted the east wing of the house, but fortunately it’s been restored. The house is now a Grade II listed building and is used as events venue (hence my meeting there). Part of the house is now a museum that tells the history writing materials, again, I didn’t get to see that on this visit.
Who was Inky Stephens?
Have you ever heard of the Stephens’ Ink Company? I didn’t think I had until I picked up a leaflet in the house and something clicked in my head that I may have seen it before. The logo for the company calls it “Superior Black Japan Ink,” and that does vaguely ring a bell. As someone who went to school when we had to use fountain pens (no, they didn’t didn’t have a quill, and don’t be so cheeky. Although if you didn’t have your own you could borrow something not unlike that, but just much plainer) it should have been familiar to me, I suppose. (I’m pretty sure that we were allowed to use ballpoints at my grammar school, but not at primary school. We graduated from pencils to proper ink.) I digress.
So, Inky’s father, Dr Henry Stephens, founded the company, which was first registered in 1832. He invented indelible blue-black “writing fluid” (that’s ink to you and me). The ink was used by the civil service, the military, and was even taken to the Antarctic by Captain Scott, so was presumably good stuff. Inky (also named Henry) inherited the company from his father, but he wasn’t just some poor little rich kid. He was a chemist in his own right, and went on to become a politician. He learned his trade and knew a bit about the business when he took over the running of it.
Inky was born in February 1841 in Lambeth, and died at the age of 67 in July 1918. Dr Stephens moved the family up to Finchley, to Grove House in Ballards Lane, where he was able to use the out buildings as a laboratory, in which to invent his indelible blue-black writing fluid.
Inky went to school in France for a while, and then returned to the UK to finish his schooling. He left school at age 16 but continued to study science, particularly chemistry and also started to learn the family business. His father died suddenly when Inky was 23 years old, so he took over. Inky had married the year before and he and his wife lived in the family home until he purchased Avenue House – now Stephens’ House – and ten acres of land.
He became a Conservative Party politician and became the Member of Parliament for Hornsey (which covered Finchley) from 1887 to 1900. Inky became known as the uncrowned king of Finchley because he became so popular for what he did – as well as being a businessman, he was also a lecturer and philanthropist.
You can find more details about the house and gardens, and the opening times, at
© Susan Shirley 2015