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Mount Ephraim has belonged to the Dawes family for three hundred years. The family originally came from Westmoreland and came south and built Mount Ephraim in the 1690’s. Major Bethel Dawes chose his site well. From the eminence on which the house is placed the ground slopes downwards in all direction giving superb views over woods and farmland. On a fine day the Essex coast can be seen across the Thames estuary. The origin of the name Mount Ephraim is unknown, but biblical names such as Joppa, Jacob’s Field and Land of Beulah are used on other parts of the estate.

The original house recorded in a watercolour, was a modest building and this was let to the Vicar of Hernhill, the Rev. Handley from around 1820 to 1850. The Rev Handley featured as a stern figure in the Courtenay riots and probably was responsible for planting the beautiful old trees which still add so much to the present garden.

The existing house was built by Sir Edwyn Sandys Dawes, who, having run away to sea as a boy established himself as a wealthy and successful shipowner. Sir Edwyn decided to re-occupy the family house in about 1876, but discovered that it was riddled with dry rot and had to demolish it. He built the grand red brick and stone building that stands today. Allegedly no professional architect was employed and this may explain the asymmetrical aspects of the building accentuated by the addition of later service wings. The interior has well proportioned rooms with good plasterwork. The large hall has marble columns and a cantilevered staircase which was constructed by Italian craftsmen.

Sir Edwyn acquired a considerable acreage of farm and woodland and developed and opened up the Blean woods. He was an enlightened landowner, building good sound cottages for his employees and a tablet in Hernhill Church records the appreciation of his fellow parishioners. Sir Edwyn’s eldest son Willie inherited the estate on his father’s death in 1903 and succeeded his father as chairman of the New Zealand Shipping Company. Willie developed the garden in around 1912 and the gardens became an absorbing interest during his lifetime. His daughter Betty recalled that at one time he employed a permanent garden staff of twelve, plus an “improvements” gang of twenty. Again no professional landscape gardener was involved, though it is believed that the firm of Waterers laid out the dramatic sweep of the rock garden.

A topiary garden and box-edged parterre were established. The yews cut into miscellaneous shapes including a tank and regimental badges from the first World War. The terraces which slope down to the lake have deep retaining walls built of brick and surrounded and sub-divided by yew hedges. The rock garden curves down to the lake and two splendid pavilions are built against the retaining wall backing the tennis courts. Most of these operations were begun in 1910 and surprisingly continued until halfway through the first World War.

William Dawes died in 1920 and his son Sandys was left with inadequate means to maintain the estate. Sandys retreated into the garden wing to cut costs and the main part of the house was left empty. This part was commandeered by the army in 1939 and occupied by troops for the whole of the second World War. The army dug slit trenches in parts of the garden while other spots became rubbish dumps and cabbages were cultivated on the front lawn. Geese were introduced to graze the tennis courts, which made play hazardous! An elderly pensioner spent the summers trimming the topiary with hands shears whilst Sandys managed to maintain the yew hedges with electrical clippers.

Sandys Dawes died in 1949 and by this time the outer reaches of the garden were virtually derelict, and so overgrown that it was virtually impenetrable. The entailment on the estate was broken with Sandys death and his eldest son Bill now had the freedom to renounce the responsibility of the property if he wished.