Mary Feilding Guild: Eccentric home of London intellectuals is lost
- Credit: Polly Hancock
If you go up North Hill towards Highgate Village, you might just spot an interesting-looking old building set back from the road on your right. Four months ago it was an eccentric care home looking after some of the most intellectual older people in London, aged between 85 and 104.
It was home to novelist Diana Athill, who left it £37,000 in her will, and the socialist campaigner Hetty Bower, who died at 108 just two months after giving a speech at the 2013 Labour Party conference.
Today, it’s empty, and likely to remain so for at least a year. In March the charity which ran it sold it for an undisclosed amount to accountant and businessman Mitesh Dhanak, who runs a group of interlocking companies including care homes and a property company.
Within three days he changed the home’s name from the iconic Mary Feilding Guild – it was founded by Lady Mary Feilding in 1877 – to Highgate Homes, the name of a £100 company he created to run it, and told staff and residents they would have to be out by May 31. If anyone was left in the building, his company would cut off the water and the gas.
The intention, says Mr Dhanak’s spokesperson, “is to maintain the care use on the site, and build a new care facility”.
The charity’s trustees, whose chair, architect Derek John of Highgate, had assured staff and residents that they would be safe, seem to have been so sure of this that they felt no need to get Mr Dhanak’s benevolent intentions put in writing.
Their spokesperson said: “Mary Feilding is a small charity which simply did not have the resources or the expertise to run a home in this day and age with all that entails in terms of investment, regulation and staffing requirements."
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They said selling to someone with a good reputation was the only responsible course: “Mr Dhanak entered into an explicit legal contract to take on the home as a going concern. There was no way we could have imposed further conditions beyond that which would have been enforceable by law.
“Mr Dhanak gave us no forewarning of his plans to move to close the home immediately.”
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If they had been present at a Care Conversation webinar on October 14 last year, they would have understood what Mr Dhanak thinks the care sector is about.
“In terms of the KPIs (key performance indicators) that funds would look at,” he told the webinar. “It’s property backed, it’s resilient cashflow, it’s government backed – it ticks all the right boxes.”
Mr Dhanak does not yet have local authority permission to pull the building down, or put up anything in its place.
His company, said his spokesperson, is “in the early stage of the planning process and look forward to talking with local residents and the council over the coming months”.
Having it empty will increase his leverage with the local authority – he will be able to point to an unused and decaying building.
For the residents, it was a tragedy.
One of them told me: “During the pandemic, we kept the virus out of the home with the help of our magnificent staff. We had no visitors except for such vital matters as visits to the doctor – and even that had to be followed by 10 days confined to our own room.
“But now we are expected in our old age to put ourselves at risk in order to go out and look for somewhere else to live. Not all of us are fit to do this, and anyway until the pandemic is over, it is not safe for us to do this.”
During the pandemic, the government suspended evictions from rented property, and it became illegal to evict a young person from a rented flat – but remained legal to throw an old lady of 104 out of the only home she has known for years, the home she expected to die in.
Mr Dhanak’s spokesperson told me this week: “Highgate Care Ltd worked closely with residents, their families and Haringey Council to ensure that all residents of the former Mary Feilding Guild Care Home found suitable, alternative accommodation for their care needs. Every care was taken to support residents during this transition, which we know was a difficult time for those involved.
“There were significant problems with the existing building including a number of major health and safety issues and it was no longer safe to live in. The home could not continue to function in providing modern care or nursing facilities.”
Francis Beckett is an author, journalist, biographer and historian. His play about Clement Attlee, A Modest Little Man, returns to Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate Village on August 31.