BUILDERS have just completed five executive homes at the entrance to Hurworth Place, on the site of Croft House, which was the setting for an extraordinary court battle over a will which involved Britain’s richest man who was the king’s financier.

Croft House was built by Robert Thompson Maxwell in the 1860s – he was either a pawnbroker or a master mariner (sources vary) from Saltburn. In fact, at the same time as he was building Croft House, Mr Maxwell was building out of the same buff brick The Towers at Saltburn, a distinctive seaside retreat near the Zetland Hotel.

The Northern Echo:

The Towers, Saltburn, built by Robert Thompson Maxwell

He retired to Hurworth with his much younger second wife, Annie, and their three children. He died in Croft House in 1871 just a week after making a new will in which he wrote his three sons from his first marriage out of his £30,000 estate (worth about £3.4m in today’s values).

They turned to the law for help.

Six months later, Annie suddenly married a Frenchman, Eugene du Boison, “a traveller in Roman Catholic vestments”. He was quickly revealed as a gold-digger, and the marriage was dissolved after his seventh arrest in London for making false declarations.

But he, too, turned to the law to gain a share of the fortune.

Maxwell versus Maxwell versus du Boison rumbled through the London courts until Annie herself died having seen her legal costs eat into the inheritance so deeply that she had had to remortgage Croft House for £4,000. Her eldest son, Arthur, had fled to the Channel Islands to escape the debt.

But her daughter married Ernest Cassel, who had been renting Walworth Castle, near Darlington, for a hunting season.

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Ernest Cassel

His is a true rags to riches story: he arrived from Germany with only a bundle of clothes and a violin, but made a fortune bankrolling American railways. He became a global financier, with a finger in practically every pie from Sweden to Uruguay via Egypt. For example, he financed the building of the Central Line of the London Underground.

So he finessed away the small financial difficulties of his wife’s family, and her brother Arthur returned from the Channel Islands to take up residence in Croft House.

Annette bore Sir Ernest a daughter, Maud, in 1880 and then died of TB the following year. Sir Ernest was genuinely heartbroken.

He became the personal banker to Edward VII, and when Maud had a daughter, the king became godfather.

Sir Ernest Cassel died in 1921, leaving an estate worth £7.3m (roughly £3,510m today) including Croft House, which was auctioned in 1923.

It remained a private residence until, after a lengthy period of emptiness, it was pulled down a couple of years ago. Developers are currently putting the final touches to the five executive homes that now occupy its site which looks over the River Tees and has the 1829 trackbed of the Croft branchline of the Stockton & Darlington Railway at its rear.