Henry Leigh Groves (1880-1968)

Written by Jean Warburton

Occupations: Civil Engineer and Philanthropist

Life and family

Henry Leigh Groves was born in Northenden, Cheshire on 6th August 1880. His father was William Grimble Groves (1847-1927; DCB), a brewer, the son of William Peer Grimble Groves (1817-1885) a vinegar maker and spirit merchant and his wife, Elizabeth Ryan (1827-1908). On 4th January 1875, William Grimble Groves married Eliza Ann Leigh (1852-1918), the daughter of John Mills Leigh (1817-1888), a master ironmonger, and his wife Elizabeth. Henry had an older sister, Edith (1878-1945). He was educated at Abbot Hall School, Grange-over-Sands with three senior years at Sedbergh School. He suffered recurring illness whilst at school and did not shine academically. Despite this, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1899 to read French and graduated with a BA in 1902.

On 5th December 1906 at Jesus Church, Troutbeck, Henry Leigh Groves married Ada Muriel Brittain (1879-1971), known as Muriel. Muriel was the daughter of Thomas Brittain (1838-1885) a paper manufacturer and his wife Edith (1837-1905). The wedding was a double one with his sister, Edith, marrying James McQueen (1876-1931) of Kirkcudbrightshire. The local schoolchildren were given the day off for what was obviously the social event of the year in Troutbeck. Henry and Muriel did not have any children but did have three nephews, James, Angus, and Donald McQueen.

Henry Leigh Groves suffered periodically from quite severe ill health. In 1939, he was confined to bed with illness for four months and then had to be carried up and down stairs for a further period after that. However, he lived to the age of 87 and died on 15th May 1968 in hospital in Kendal. He was buried at Jesus Church, Troutbeck. Muriel died in October 1971 in a nursing home in Grange-over-Sands and was buried with her husband at Troutbeck.


The Groves and Whitnall brewery was very successful and it might have been expected that Henry would follow his father into the business. In 1904, however, he was apprenticed to James Mansergh & Son of Westminster, engineers, who were working on the Geltside Scheme to supply water to Carlisle. He moved to Carlisle and worked under the tutelage of Mr Lewis, the resident engineer. In 1910, he became an Associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers and moved to Chingford, Essex to work for Charles Wall & Son of London on the construction of the King George Reservoir for the Metropolitan Water Board.

Henry Leigh Groves retired in 1912 and returned to Windermere. He then used his skills as a qualified Civil Engineer in supervising the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges in Westmorland in his capacity as the Chairman of the Roads and Bridges Committee of the Westmorland County Council. He also used his training as a Civil Engineer as Chairman of the Water Committee of Windermere Urban District Council from 1928 to 1936.


Henry’s family homes were in Cheshire until he was seventeen when his father bought Holehird, a large house in the Gothic style in Patterdale Road, Troutbeck. Holehird’s formal and walled gardens were developed by his father by the addition of a substantial rock garden, a tarn and individually temperature controlled glasshouses for fruit, vegetables and orchids. It was assumed that Henry and Muriel would live at Holehird after their marriage as Henry’s father built a two story extension to the house for them. However, they lived in Castle Carrock and then moved to Chingford. Even after he retired in 1912 and returned to Windermere, they lived at Gilpin Lodge, Crook. It was only after the death of his mother in 1918, that Henry and Muriel moved to Holehird to live with his father, inheriting the estate when his father died in 1927.

Henry Leigh Groves inherited his father’s interest in the gardens and was concerned that they should be well maintained. Muriel shared his concerns and developed an interest in the orchid houses. It was said that the exotic flowers on the rows of flesh eating orchids moved to follow the warm scent of human beings. Private parties and garden societies were welcomed to the gardens and ultimately, during the war, the gardens were open to anyone who wanted to visit. The kitchen gardens were intensively cultivated during the war for vegetables, with the over use of chemicals poisoning the soil. This led Muriel to develop an interest in organic methods of gardening.

The second world war saw great changes at Holehird. Rooms in the house were progressively closed and the number of servants greatly reduced. Holehird became impossibly expensive for Henry Leigh Groves to keep up. In 1945, he gave the 550 acre estate consisting of the house, grounds, farms and cottages to the Westmorland County Council on terms that it be held ‘for the better development of health, educational and welfare services throughout the county’. The idea for the gift had come to him from friends who were doctors. The details of the transfer took some time to work out and he and Muriel remained living in the south east half of the house until 1958 when they moved to Boot Gate, a small property on the estate. Holehird is now leased by the Leonard Cheshire Foundation.

Henry Leigh Groves was particularly concerned about the gardens. He gave £25,000 in February 1949 to establish a Garden Fund for the maintenance of the mansion gardens and a further £24,000 the following year to augment the fund. He also retained a life interest in the top kitchen garden and walled garden with its fourteen glasshouses. In 1960, he wrote that ‘we should appreciate it greatly if Holehird gardens can continue to be maintained in a state of beauty comparable with what has obtained in the past for which certain provision has been made’. The gardens are now in the care of the Lakeland Horticultural Society and are open to the public.

Public service

Henry Leigh Groves became a member of Windermere Urban District Council in 1912 and served for over 40 years, being Chairman from 1925 to 1937. In 1921, he was elected as the member of Westmorland County Council for Windermere becoming an Alderman in 1938. From 1937 to 1951 he was the Chairman of the Roads and Bridges Committee and for a time served as Vice-Chairman of the Council. He was awarded the OBE for his services to Westmorland County Council in 1967 but resigned the following year because of ill health. In 1938, Henry Leigh Groves was High Sheriff of Westmorland. He was also a Justice of the Peace.

Henry Leigh Groves was connected with a number of other organisations. He was a governor of Windermere Grammar School and a member of the Troutbeck Church Parochial Council. His sporting offices included Chairman of Windermere Cricket Club, committee member of the Windermere Swimming Club and President of the Windermere Billiards Club. Whilst he raced the 22 foot yacht, Eve, with some success in 1903 and 1904, he did not continue and gain office with the Royal Windermere Yacht Club. Further offices reflecting his interests included Vice-President of the Windermere Lecture Association, President of the Windermere YMCA, Chairman of the Lake District Association and Chairman of the Meathop Sanatorium. In addition, he was a director of the Windermere Electricity Supply Company.


When Henry Leigh Groves was in London in the 1910s, he spent part of his leisure time talking to vagrants on the Embankment. He gradually formed the conviction that his energies should be turned to voluntary public service and the fortune which he would one day inherit should be channelled for public good. He was also greatly influenced by the ideals of the Rev. Tubby Clayton [1885-1972; ODNB]and founded a branch of TocH in Windermere. He financed several young men to train for the Ministry. At Holehird, he welcomed members of the Salford Lads Club, which had been founded by his father, for holidays and made available his steam launch, Kittiwake, for nurses from the Crossways Home of Rest.

Henry Leigh Groves made numerous small donations and gave £1,000 towards the cost of a new vicarage at Kells, Whitehaven in recognition of the hard times endured by the residents. He made three major gifts. In addition to the gift of Holehird to Westmorland County Council, he gave his father’s collection of china, porcelain and Japanese lacquer together with furniture, pictures, books and military weapons to Windermere library in 1947 to form the nucleus of a museum. Unfortunately, there were insufficient funds to keep the collection under proper environmental conditions and, with the consent of Muriel, the collection was sold in 1971.

In 1938, Henry Leigh Groves celebrated his appointment as High Sheriff and 25 years on Windermere Urban District Council by giving the Council £6,000 to purchase the bed of Lake Windermere from the Earl of Lonsdale. The lake bed and certain parts of the foreshore were acquired by the Council on 5th April 1939. The gift also provided a means of revenue for the Council and a way of controlling development and preserving the natural amenities. A plaque on a bolder by the public piers in Bowness commemorates the gift.

Henry Leigh Groves’ philanthropy was possible because he inherited £15,000 in shares in the Grove and Whitnall brewery when his mother died in 1918. In 1927, he inherited his father’s estate, including the Holehird estate, which amounted to £544,746. It did appear however, that at times Henry’s generosity to others could outstrip his income. In 1939, he wrote that he wished to avoid needless expense when enquiring whether it was necessary for Kittiwake to be painted or varnished. Overall, he took a shrewd approach to his money. Before his death, he disposed of most of his remaining wealth to friends and made provision for Muriel. He left only £14,750 when he died. Muriel, however, left £92,127.

Muriel Groves

At her wedding in 1906, one of Muriel’s bridesmaids was Vera Brittain [1893-1970; ODNB], the daughter of her brother Thomas (1864-1935), who went on to become famous as a writer, feminist and pacifist, writing the bestselling book ‘Testament of Youth’ recording her experiences in the first world war. Relations in the Brittain family were not easy and Muriel was the only child for whom her father retained any real affection although even they quarrelled after her marriage. The only family member with whom Muriel had good relations was her niece Vera, extending her kindness to Vera’s children, John and Shirley who later became Baroness Shirley Williams CH. There was also a history of mental illness in the family which included Muriel’s sister, Edith (1868-1925). Also, Edith’s daughter, Philippa Hole (1897-1972), an editor, public speaker and political organiser, suffered from mental instability. Muriel saved her from long spells in a psychiatric institution by hiding her at Holehird, even denying her presence when she was seen in the distance by house guests.

In her autobiography, Shirley Williams recounted that Muriel was one of the few members of the Brittain family to possess a sense of humour. She was much given to practical jokes and made ghosts out of broomsticks and smeared melon with phosphorus to make it glow for the amusement (or fright) of her niece, Vera. She also had less appealing habits including wearing felt hats in bed and occasionally putting wet sponges on the tops of doors which fell onto unsuspecting maids carrying trays.  

Muriel supported her husband in his philanthropy and public service but also had her own interests. She was the founding secretary of the Troutbeck Women’s Institute and remained a member for over 40 years. Other interests were the St Monica’s Home in Kendal, the Fryer Home for the elderly in Bowness and Windermere Library where she endowed the children’s library.


Henry Leigh Groves was clearly held in high regard in the County. The Bishop of Carlisle gave the address at his funeral which was attended by the Lord Lieutenant and the High Sheriff. He was remembered for his public service to both town and county government for over 55 years and as one of Lakeland’s most generous benefactors. Henry Leigh Groves himself best summarised his approach to life when he wrote that: ‘Service is the rent we pay for our room on earth.’

Primary sources

  • England and Wales Census 1851-1911
  • Manchester Church of England Births and Baptisms 1813-1915
  • Liverpool Church of England Marriages and Banns 1754-1935
  • Manchester Church of England Marriage and Banns 1754-1930 
  • National Probate Calendar Index of Wills and Administrations
  • 1939 Register
  • Cambridge University Alumni 1261-1900
  • UK Civil Engineering List 1926
  • Windermere Jetty, Kellet Collection Box 28 Letters Henry Leigh Groves to William Kellet, 11th August 1935, 5th February 1939
  • Lakes Herald 7th December 1906
  • Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 27th February 1945
  • Westmorland Gazette 17th May 1968, 24th May 1968, 22nd October 1971

Secondary sources

  • UK and Ireland, Find a Grave Index
  • Ian Jones, The House of Hird (2002)
  • Mark Bostridge and Paul Berry, Vera Brittain: A Life (2008)
  • Shirley Williams, Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams (2009)
  • Ian Jones, The Royal Windermere Yacht Club Celebrates 150 Years 1869-2010, (2010)
  • M Hyde and E Whittaker, Arts and Crafts Houses in the Lake District, (2014)