Today, I am meeting my cousin, Mark at Tower House in Enfield, the former home of his grandparents, Leonard and Mabel Arnold. In his will, Uncle Leonard left the house to a charitable trust and in 1969 Tower House became Arnold House, a care home for physically disabled adults. In the summer of 2020, the facility closed and later this month, the house and land will be sold to a property developer.
Mark has driven up from his home in Devon to reclaim his great-grandfather’s millstone from the garden. I have driven down from Letchworth to hand over two large oil paintings of Uncle Leonard and Aunty Mabel that I was able to retrieve from the house before it was boarded up last September.
Tower House looks forlorn and neglected. The lead-paned windows on the ground floor have been covered over with metal sheets. Weeds have begun to lift the cracked tiles on the patio. The fig tree is heavy with fleshy pips, but soon, it too, will be uprooted and destroyed. George and his wife, Rejoice, who live in a cottage on the property, tell us that, every day, they have to chase away squatters and snoopers.
Mark and I sweep the leaves off a couple of plastic chairs in the summer house. We carry them to the millstone where we share a picnic and childhood memories. At midday, we strain our ears to hear the 41 gun-salute from the Tower of London, a tribute to Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who died on Friday at the age of 99.
Mark’s grandfather, Charles Leonard Arnold, was a gunner captain in WWI. When he returned from France he used his army annuity, together with a loan from his Uncle Percy, to start MK Electric Ltd. In 1919, Leonard invented the three-pin plug, which became the foundation of the British domestic electrical system. He was a man of great integrity with a strong sense of justice. MK was one of the first companies in England to introduce paid holidays for its staff. In an interview, conducted in 1966, Leonard said Money is a very serious responsibility and should not be squandered. When he died in 1969, he was one of the wealthiest men in England. Estate duty, however, was running at 85% and so more than £4 million of his £6 million legacy went to HMRC. His son, Jim said in a press statement My father always abided by the law of the land. He did not believe in inherited wealth. Uncle Leonard donated his home to the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, together with £250K for repairs and alterations. He also left a substantial legacy to the Engineering Department at the University of Bristol.
Last summer, after all the long-term residents had been moved to other facilities, the manager agreed that, as long as I remained masked and socially-distanced, I could visit Tower House one last time. Gina, who had worked as a carer at the home for more than 30 years, took me round. Everyone I met, as we wandered along the echoing corridors and in and out of empty bedrooms, seemed sad to be leaving, describing Arnold House as ‘a family’. Co-incidentally Gina spent 10 years on the assembly line at MK in Edmonton. She spoke about the kindness of everyone at the firm and remembered the annual MK trips to the seaside.
I wonder what Uncle Leonard would have to say about the fate of Tower House? Would he share my indignation that a bunch of fat cats are set to make a killing on the back of his generosity? Would he be angry that the developers plan to knock down his once lovely home, parcel the land into plots and build small residences, valued at half a million pounds each?
As I listen again to the recorded interview with my Great Uncle from 1966, I think I hear an answer to my question: Sometimes I despise money. It gives you comforts, but money for money’s sake doesn’t appeal to me. Money can be a curse. Wisely handled it can be a blessing. It needs to be treated with great discretion. Honours and wealth are really very superficial and can generate restless uncertainty, rivalry and jealousy. The things that bring you contentment in life are affection and purpose, because even the longest life is transitory.
Tower House had its day as a family home. Arnold House had its day as an adult care facility and now the land is set to grow opportunities for new families and new memories.