Built: 1846, late C19  additions and rebuild to west tower in C20
Architect: John Rogers
Owner: Private ownership
Large villa
Grade II listed

“An octagonal turret displaying the Stanley Coat of Arms with a higher turret corbelled out from its side provides a striking first impression and offers arguably one of the finest views in Cheshire for those who are brave enough to venture to the top.” (Savills)

Bollin Tower is typical of those Victorian country houses that wanted to imitate the castle.  It was constructed with rock-faced sandstone, a Welsh slate roof with four stone chimneys. The walls have now darkened with age and, with its consistent castellation and octagonal towers, can appear dark and menacing. However, the unsymmetrical appearance and 10-bay gabled front adds a charisma that warrants Grade II listing with Historic England.

The house was built in 1846 by John Rogers, a virtually unknown architect and builder, living in Alderley Edge. He was born at Ardley Hall, Essex, in 1799 and at some stage migrated to Cheshire where he built Bollin Tower for his family.

In Woodbrook Road, the rough road leading up to the edge is Bollin Tower, dated 1846, picturesque and castlellated, with a tower. (Pevsner – The Buildings of England – Cheshire)

As anticipated the house has been owned by several people, the most conspicuous being Thomas Coglan Horsfall (1841-1932), a ‘civic saint’ who moved here in the 1870s.

Horsfall was the son of William Horsfall, a wealthy cotton manufacturer with interests in Manchester and Halifax. He was educated at private schools in Manchester and Bowden and his move to Bollin Tower corresponded with a partnership to his father’s Bridgewater Street business. He was never the healthiest of men was often absent which allowed him to progress his philanthropic work.

He was especially interested in educational reform, particularly with aesthetic teaching in elementary schools. Horsfall had struck up a friendship with John Ruskin, the art and social critic, and the two regularly corresponded. When Ruskin opened a small museum at Sheffield in 1875 to display his collection of art and minerals it inspired Horsfall to follow suit. In 1877 he created the Horsfall Museum, intended to be primarily educational with paintings, drawings, casts and pottery. The museum, now known as the Manchester Art Museum, moved to Ancoats Hall in 1886 where a nature study room was opened as well as a room about the history of Manchester. It also provided a children’s’ theatre.¹

The Manchester Art Museum, also known as the Horsfall Museum or Ancoats Museum, was begun as an educational venture in 1877 by Thomas Coglan Horsfall.

His marriage to Francis Emma Reeves, the daughter of Henry Wilson Reeves, in 1878 resulted in the purchase of Bollin Tower and the birth of three daughters. Alongside his charitable work he also became a town planner, magistrate and a published author. He wrote The Study of Beauty and Art in Large Towns in 1883, both with an introduction by John Ruskin. This was followed up with The Relation of Town Planning to the National Life in 1908.²

Thomas Coglan Horsfall died in 1932 at Toutley Hall, Wokingham, aged 91. Not bad for a man with feeble health.  The Manchester Art Museum closed in 1953 and the contents were transferred to the Manchester Art Gallery.

Thomas Coglan Horsfall by Frederick Beaumont (Whitworth Gallery)

At the start of the 20th century Bollin Tower was owned by Asa Hardy and the house also contributed to his eventual ruin.

Hardy had set up a business as a fustian manufacturer and dealer in dyed goods with William Welsh at Little Lever Street in Manchester. This partnership was dissolved in 1890 and continued as Asa Hardy and Company, specialising in the making of fine velvet.

For a time the business flourished but a series of calamitous events led to its collapse. First was the defalcation of accounts by one of Hardy’s cashiers. The employee had presented balance sheets showing a large credit balance and absconded when it was discovered that £6,000 had been filched. The company was also entangled with another accounting fiasco after it supplied goods to the Eden Manufacturing Company. On delivery the stock was quickly sold on by an errant employee who pocketed the money. He also fled leaving Asa Hardy to chase up payment for goods never received by the unfortunate recipient. To make matters worse, the company suffered further losses when a firm of drapers, McLachlan Bros of Montreal, failed with liabilities of £140,000. Among the creditors was Asa Hardy and Company.³

Next was an ill-advised investment in the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. Hardy had gambled on the differences in the railway’s shares and when they bombed ended up considerably out of pocket.

If Asa Hardy thought he might seek solace at Bollin Tower, bought at great expense, he was mistaken. The value of the house had drastically depreciated when dry rot was uncovered resulting in costly rebuilding work.

In the end the financial losses proved too much for Asa Hardy and he was forced into bankruptcy in 1903. His company had liabilities of £20,216 and, with the textile industry in a depression; he had reached the end of the road.  Hardy, however, was quickly discharged from bankruptcy when the miserable circumstances were found not to be of his own doing. But, the judge was quick to point out, he could see “no difference between gambling on American railway shares and gambling on the horses”.

Despite the outcome Bollin Tower had to be sold and was bought for a modest price by Edwin Taylor Butterworth, a rag trader, operating at Pollard Street in Ancoats.

Bollin Tower is set along a sweeping driveway with generous front gardens which enjoy a good degree of privacy (Savills)

By the 1950s the house was now owned by the Sellars family. Graham Dilliway lived nearby in the former coach house of Croston Towers, another castellated house that was demolished at the end of World War Two :-

“Bollin Towers, the last remaining castellated house on the Edge, was occupied by the Sellars family. Mariel Sellars and I were able to communicate at night by flashing our bedroom lights on and off. Bollin Towers was later divided into two, with the Sellars family retaining the “tower” portion of the house. The division deprived Mariel and me of a long polished hall, where we could ride on a small wooden train. I remember going up some greasy wooden steps to the very top of the tower, and having one of the very best views in Cheshire.”⁴

With the house divided into two properties the house has been sympathetically renovated and improved upon during the 21st century. In 2017, the west portion of the house was placed on the market with a guide price of £950,000.

An exquisite Grade II listed castellated gentleman’s residence with a rock faced brown sandstone facade under a Welsh slate roof (Savills)


²The Times 3 Feb 1932
³Manchester Courier and Lancashire Advertiser 7 May 1903/19 Dec 1903
⁴Francis Firth. Life on the Edge – A Memory of Alderley Edge by Graham Dilliway

Bollin Tower,
Woodbrook Road, Alderley Edge, Cheshire, SK9 7BY


Built: 1870
Architect: Unknown
Owner: Private ownership
Country House

Stone steps lead to the main reception with tall doors opening to the formal entrance to the house. The centrally positioned, spectacular T shaped hallway presents an immediate impressive introduction to Rockwood House showcasing original features including deep skirting boards and an impressive high ceiling height (a theme which is continued throughout), ornate coving and the most spectacular bespoke, carved oak staircase and stained glass leaded window reminiscent of the period of build. (Fine & Country)

Rockwood House. This image taken was in 1910 ny Mr Smith Carter (Kirklees Image Archive)

Rockwood House is an unassuming and little known property tucked quietly outside Denby Dale  to the south-east of Huddersfield. In early times Denby Dale was sparsely-populated but like so many other Pennine hamlets it grew with the dawn of the industrial revolution. Not surprisingly, the area developed a small textiles industry and the population spread. These circumstances were the reasons why Rockwood House was built and can be called one of those ‘brass castles’, properties built from the proceeds of commerce and industry. 

The modern day approach provides a perfect view of Rockwood House (Fine & Country)

Walter Norton (1833-1909)

Rockwood House  was built in 1870 for Walter Norton, the second son of Joseph Norton who had built Nortonthorpe Hall at Scissett. Along with his brother Benjamin and his cousin, Thomas Norton of Bagden Hall, they ran a ‘plush’ manufacturing business, Norton Brothers & Company Ltd, manufacturing  fancy shawl, mantle cloth, dress goods and rugs at Nortonthorpe Mills.

Walter was chairman, a role he appreciated, and held a similar position at the Denby Dale Gas Light Company.  Money was something the Norton family weren’t short of,  but Walter quickly earned his own fortune.  He married his cousin, Elizabeth Norton, the eldest daughter of George Norton of Bagden Hall, in 1859.

He gained a reputation as a keen sportsman and founded the Rockwood Harriers Hunt in 1868 of which he was Master for many years and which still exists today. It was after the hunt that he named Rockwood House.

Eleven years after his marriage he bought 500 acres of land on the far side of Denby Dale, just far enough away from his employees who worked on the other side of the village towards Scissett.  The architect of Rockwood House is unknown but it was typical of a small Victorian country house complete with castellations, a central front door and bays either side. Then, as now, its appearance was deceptive as the interior was much larger than its appearance suggested .

Walter Norton (1833-1909) (L Robinson Collection)

Walter and Elizabeth lived happily at Rockwood House entertaining family and friends. He was a pillar of the community, buying the manorial rights to Penistone in 1877, a strong Conservative and churchman and was much attached to Camberworth Church. For over thirty years he was also a West Riding Magistrate frequently sitting at the Barnsley Petty Sessional Court. Despite all this, his marriage to Elizabeth failed to deliver any children, and he became a widower following her death in 1903. Walter died six years later in 1909 leaving estate worth £45,099.¹

The house in 1910. The image is from the collection of Mr Smith Carter (Kirklees Image Archive)

Dr Duncan Alistair MacGregor (1857-1924)

With no heir to Walter Norton the contents of the house were sold at auction but Rockwood remained within the family. It passed to Dr Duncan Alistair MacGregor who stayed for the next ten years. He had married the daughter of Dr Clayton, of Highfield House in Denby Dale, who also happened to be the niece of Walter Norton.

Auction notice (Barnsley Chronicle 23 October 1909)

MacGregor had spent nearly 40 years in practice at Clayton West and Denby Dale where he was held in high regard. He was also the Medical Officer of Health for the township of Gunthwaite and Ingbirchworth, near Penistone.  In 1919 he was offered the post of Medical Officer to the Exeter City Mental Hospital, and so at the age of 62, he moved his family away from Rockwood House which was put for let.  MacGregor died at Exmouth in 1924 leaving a widow and a son and daughter.²

Newspaper notice for Rockwood House (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 19 April 1919)

Wilfred Dawson (1871-1936)

Following MacGregor’s move to Devon the house was occupied by Wilfred Dawson J.P., a typical Yorkshire councillor, who had entered the Council of the County Borough of Huddersfield unopposed at a by-election of 1917. He became Lord Mayor between 1921 and 1923 and later became chairman of the Finance and Watch Committee. His greatest achievement had been the purchase of the Ramsden Estate by Huddersfield Corporation in 1919, at the time the largest purchase of valuable land ever made by a British municipality. Outside of council affairs he was a director of W. Bentley & Co, stock and share brokers, as well as being a director and vice-chairman of Huddersfield Town Football Club.

The ownership of Rockwood House at this time is uncertain. It is possible that it remained in the Norton estate after MacGregor left. It is also feasible that Wilfred Dawson eventually purchased Rockwood because newspaper reports of 1924 suggest he might have been the owner. In this year the house was once again offered for let but we do know that by 1925 it was the residence of Henry Gordon Cran.³

Fancy dress party at Rockwood House for wounded soldiers from Denby Dale Auxiliary Hospital (Denby Dale and Kirkburton Archive)

Henry Gordon Cran (1889-1971)

Very little is known about Henry Gordon Cran and his purchase of Rockwood House was likely to have taken place during 1924. However, the house was reported to have been sold by Cran by private treaty in 1925. By now the estate consisted of approximately 30 acres including three paddocks with timbered grounds and walks. It was a far cry from Walter Norton’s 500 acres which had been sold off in various lots over the years.

Henry Gordon Cran, a former member of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, had married Dorothy, the daughter of William and Mary Broadbent, of Huddersfield. Her father was the son of Thomas Broadbent, who had founded an engineering and millwright business in 1864. After repairing and refurbishing several centrifugal extractors, installed as dryers in the textile industry, he had seen potential for its application in other industries which had a need for separating liquids and solid. In 1870 he had produced his own extractor to remove water from washed wool and cloth and became a rich man. He died in 1880 and the business was eventually passed to William Broadbent and his brother Horace. The company, known as Thomas Broadbent and Sons,  would eventually manufacture a diverse range of products including steam engines, cars and overhead travelling cranes.

It was into this family that Henry Gordon Cran married and inevitably found himself working as an engineer at Thomas Broadbent and Sons. In reality his job role was far more important than suggest. He was a designer and inventor and many patents were registered under his name. Cran became a wealthy man and was able to afford the grandness that Rockwood House provided.

The entrance and lodge. The gates and wall have since disappeared. (L Robinson Collection)

It appears that the sale of 1925 did not proceed and the Cran family remained at Rockwood House until at least 1949 when Dorothy died. Henry died in 1971 at Threlkeld in Keswick.

Matters are confounded by reports that Colonel Alfred Whiston Bristow was living at Rockwood House in 1945. The house is listed as being owned by Henry Gordon Cran but it is conceivable that he may have rented it to Bristow.

Colonel  Alfred Whiston Bristow (1879-1949) was an engineer of remarkable versatility. He was a pioneer in aviation rising to the rank of commander in the Royal Naval Air Service and testing many early aero-engines. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.  In 1927 he became interested in low-temperature carbonisation and soon developed a successful and profitable industry. Besides being chairman of Low Temperatures Carbonisation Ltd (eventually known as Coalite and Chemical Products Ltd) he was the chair of various other similar companies.⁴

The main entrance to Rockwood House photographed in 2016 (Fine & Country)
The house retains its splendid Victorian charm despite several renovations (Fine & Country)

The 1950s and a period of uncertain ownership

Any doubts over ownership and tenancy of Rockwood House pale in comparison after 1950.

It is reported that the house passed through various owners and one significant name is mentioned. He was  Commander Henry George Kendall (1874-1965), a British sea-captain who survived several shipwrecks and was involved in the capture of Dr Crippen. He was also the captain of RMS Empress of Ireland which sank in the Saint Lawrence River after colliding with a Norwegian coal freighter in 1914. Alas, I am unable to confirm his connection with Rockwood House. He died in a nursing home in London in 1965.

Owner or not? Commander Henry George Kendall

Another account suggests that Rockwood House became a private school, known as St Aiden’s, and lasted until 1964. However, I can find no records to substantiate this and welcome any information from readers to clear up post-1950 use of the house,

In 1972 the house was converted into the Rockwood House Country Club, a restaurant and club, under the ownership of Richard Mattock Berry. The concept might have appeared reasonable but the undertaking was beset with problems. Financial difficulties pushed it into receivership and the country club closed in 1976.⁵

Rockwood House was bought by Michael Winch in 1980 who carried out extensive renovations to the house and grounds. During the miners’ strike of 1972 he had the enterprising idea of selling homemade decorated candles from the back of a van. This was the start of Candlelight Products Ltd which now employs 130 staff in the UK and a further 2,000 in the Far East.

The house has remained in the family since but it was put up for sale, along with 7 acres of land, for £1.85 million in 2016.

“It was my father who purchased Rockwood House around forty years ago, and for him, looking after the house itself and transforming the gardens has been a lifetime project. It’s an extremely impressive home, almost like a fairy-tale castle with its turrets and castellations. As you approach it via the very long, private driveway, you come around the corner and through the trees and the house slowly comes into view; it’s incredibly striking. It was a magical place to grow up in, very grand in both its appearance and scale. Every room, including the bathrooms has a beautiful open fireplace, and the house as a whole is awash with gorgeous period features. The rooms are all very large and the ceilings are high, but it’s a very comfortable family home and particularly conductive to entertaining. My father invested a lot of time and effort into completely transforming the gardens, and as well as adding lots of beautiful plants, he also had the tennis court refurbished and a swimming pool installed; it’s now an absolute paradise. The views are magnificent and a dense wood of exotic trees that were planted by Walter Norton, who was also a keen botanist, surrounds the house” (Ben Winch – Fine & Country Sale Brochure)

The interior is far bigger than the outside suggests. Hall and staircase (Fine & Country)
The house is built on two levels. The staircase and decorative windows (Fine & Country)

¹Barnsley Chronicle (28 Aug 1909)
²Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer (21 Apr 1924)
³Yorkshire Evening Post (2 Aug 1949)/Huddersfield Directory Who’s Who (1937)
⁴Colliery Year Book and Coal Trades Directory (1945)
⁵The Gazette (Mar 1976)

Rockwood House,
Barnsley Road, Denby Dale, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, HD8 8XF


Burwalls. Built after the completion of the Clifton Suspension Bridge (Knight Frank)

Built: 1872

Architect: John Foster and Joseph Wood
Owner: Kersfield (Property Development Group)
Private apartments
Grade II Listed

Commonly known as Burwalls House but referred to here under its original name of Burwalls

Orange/red brick with limestone ashlar dressings; stone-coped plain tile roof with carves finials; brick ridge and end stacks with moulded stone cornicing to diagonally-set flues. Jacobethan style. (Historic England)

The house was built by John Foster and Joseph Wood, successful Bristol Architects (Knight Frank)

The year is 1864 and the Clifton Suspension Bridge has just opened spanning the Avon Gorge and the River Avon, connecting Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in Somerset. The opening of the bridge has caused great excitement and, for those heading into Bristol, saves a lot of time.

However, the construction of the bridge had not been without its critics. The Bristol Times, in an article by the Churchgoer, blamed the disruption on three Bridge Commissioners, Liberal dissenters, “the loudest to talk, the last to feel for the humble” who had abused a clause in an Act of Parliament to “mar the scenery.”

The readers of the Bristol Times did not know that the legendary Churchgoer was none other than Joseph Leech, the owner of the newspaper. While they delighted in his prose they were not to know that Leech was also vice-chairman of the Suspension Bridge Company.

This mischievous characteristic would resurface later when Leech discovered plans by Sir Grevile Smyth, of Ashton Court, to create a low-cost housing on part of his estate at Leigh Woods. He carefully put together an alternative proposal to build high-class housing instead. He became a director of the company and succeeded in obstructing the Smyth scheme.¹

It was here that Joseph Leech built Burwalls  in 1872.

The architect Frank Wills carried out major changes and renovations in 1916 (Knight Frank)

Joseph Leech (1815-1893)

Joseph Leech was born in Ennis, County Clare, in 1815. He represented the ‘mad Irishman’, a famous spinner of yarns, who embellished his stories so much that now  it is difficult to establish fact from fiction.

He was the son of an Irish Protestant, John Leech, who ran a prosperous hardware business in Ennis. His brother-in-law ran a newspaper in Maryborough (Port Laoise) and it was here that Joseph acquired an inclination for newsprint.

In 1838 Joseph made a visit to London travelling back home via Bristol. It was here that he studied local newspapers and decided that the city needed a Conservative publication to respond to the Bristol Mercury , a hard-hitting Liberal title.

Legend has it that Joseph returned to Ireland and obtained £500 early-inheritance from his father . Back in Bristol he set up the Bristol Times, published at a small shop and lodgings on Redcliffe Street, writing many of the early editions himself.

By the early 1840s, he really hit his stride with a brilliantly inspired idea. He became “The Bristol Church-Goer”. Nowadays we are familiar with the idea of a mystery shopper, someone who goes into retail premises incognito to review them. Leech became a “mystery worshipper”, sampling a different church service each Sunday, first in Bristol and then further afield, and then reviewing it in his paper. He carried out his researches anonymously, leading his readers to believe that the Bristol Church-Goer was a short, portly, balding bachelor in his fifties, when in fact he was a tall young buck still in his twenties.”²

In 1853 Joseph purchased Felix Barley’s Avon Journal and two years later he amalgamated with the Bristol Mirror. As senior proprietor he devoted himself to business management and literary work. His dry humour made him an excellent narrator and a wonderful memory afforded him a storehouse of subjects. He also became part owner of the Bath Chronicle with Charles Thring Bleeck, whose sister Adelaide Elizabeth he married in 1852. He and Ada, as she was known, had six children and lived at Kingsdown Parade and Canynge Square in Clifton before moving to Burwalls.

Joseph leech (1815-1893) at Burwalls (Bristol Post)

The house at Burwalls was designed by Foster and Wood, who were responsible for many of Bristols’s finest buildings, including Bristol Grammar School and the former Grand Hotel on Broad Street.

Joseph never sought public life, turning down offers of mayoralty and a position of Justice of the Peace, but carried out several undertakings as vice-chairman of the Bristol Waterworks Company, a director of the Leigh Woods Land Company and the Aberdare Railway Company. He also associated himself with the Clifton Zoological Society.

His zealousness almost cost him dearly in the 1870s. He was sued for libel by Handel Cossham after Joseph had accused him of dishonesty over the winding up of a manufacturing company. The case was complicated and many believed that Cossham would be victorious but Leech was fortunate enough to win the case. Defeat would have ruined him.

Joseph retired from the Bristol Times and Mirror in 1882 and also sold his interest in the Bath Chronicle. His eldest son died just as he came of age and it was said that Joseph never recovered from the loss. In 1888, at the unveiling of the Queen Victoria Jubilee statue, at College Green, Joseph caught a cold resulting in severe illness. He slowly recovered and lived his remaining years at Burwalls.³ However, he suffered from a chronic intestinal complaint that required a live in nurse.⁴

He died at Burwalls in August 1893 after catching another cold. His old rivals at the Bristol Mercury were among the first to pay tribute. “He left a very distinct mark upon the history of Bristol journalism … His name and his work will long be remembered with respect and with admiration.”

Joseph left estate worth £107,000. Ada was given £1,000 with a further annuity of £1,000. She inherited the furniture and household effects and was allowed to remain at Burwalls. His only remaining son, Joseph Bleeck Leech, was given £4,000.

In time, Ada moved to nearby Wentworth House and between 1894 and 1897 Burwalls was rented to Surgeon-Major Robert James Fayle. He was in the Royal Army Medical Corps and later served in the South African Campaign (1899-1901) for which he was awarded the D.S.O..

Robert James Fayle (1857-1936) (The Sphere)

In 1897 Fayle married Mary Leech, daughter of Joseph and Ada, but it marked the end of his stay at Burwalls. This was also the  year that Ada died and the Burwalls estate was placed on the market for the first time.

George Alfred Wills (1854-1928)

George Wills lived with his wife Susan (Britton Proctor), and their four children, in a large house called Woodlands, on Bridge Road. They shared this with his brother Henry, an architect, his wife and their three children.

When Burwalls came on the market in 1897 it provided George with an opportunity to strike for independence and exploit some of the wealth he’d amassed. He paid £8,000.

Wills was born in 1854, the eldest son of Henry Overton Wills, of Kelston Knoll in Bath. In 1874 he entered the firm of Messrs W.D. and H.O. Wills, tobacco manufacturers,  and eventually became one of the managing directors.

When the Imperial Tobacco Company of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1901 he became its deputy chairman.  On the death of his cousin, Lord Winterstoke in 1911, he became chairman, a position he held until the end of 1924 when he retired. On his resignation he was invited to become president, a coveted role he kept until his death four years later. Outside of the tobacco industry he was a director of the Great Western railway and president of the Bristol General Hospital which also benefited from his generosity.

George was a man of retiring disposition and simple life and is long remembered for his generous gifts to the City of Bristol. These provided for the welfare of its citizens and notably towards the University of Bristol. His father had donated £100,000 from which the university was formed and George made gifts far exceeding this amount.

Riviere, Hugh Goldwin; Sir George Alfred Wills, Bt, Treasurer (1909-1913), Chairman of the Council (1914-1926), Pro-Chancellor (1921-1928); University of Bristol;
Sir George Wills, Bt., president of the Imperial Tobacco Company, died at Burwalls (Art UK)

At Burwalls he also invested considerable amounts of money to extend the house and expand its estate. He created Burwalls’ Gardens, acquired Burwalls’ Wood and the Nightingale Valley and,  donated both of these to the National Trust in 1908. Major changes and renovations, designed by his uncle Frank Wills, were also completed at Burwalls in 1916.

Despite the extensive work at Burwalls he spent most of his time at Coombe Lodge, Blagdon, which he had inherited from Lord Winterstoke. Here, he carried on the tradition of high farming, successfully bred shorthorn cattle, and spent his time angling and game shooting.

George was created a baronet in 1923 but suffered ill-health in his later years. In 1928 he became seriously ill and died in July. He was survived by his son George Vernon Proctor Wills and daughters, one of whom would inherit Burwalls.⁵

The most staggering details emerged after George’s death. He left estate worth £10 million to which the Exchequer benefited about £4 million because it came under the maximum death duty rate of 40%. After settling certain bequests he split the remaining estate between his children. On his death he became the tenth member of the Wills family to leave estate worth more than a million pounds.⁶

Burwalls now comprises 12,500 sq ft, together with its 4.5-acre landscaped garden (Knight Frank)

Hilda Proctor Wills (1879-1946)

Burwalls became the home for George’s eldest daughter Hilda Proctor Wills. She remained unmarried but was recognised for her work on behalf of Bristol institutions and all sections of the community.

In 1931 she became the first female president of the Bristol General Hospital, in succession to her brother, Sir George Vernon Proctor Wills. In 1935 she gave £6,000 that allowed the hospital to purchase massage, electrical and x-ray equipment.

Hilda also had the distinction of being the first lady president of the Society of Bristolians in London in 1938, and held other interests as governor of the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, vice-president of the Peter Herve Benevolent Institution and president of the Colston Research Society.⁷

She stayed at Burwalls until 1937 but had already bought Horton Court, at Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, the previous year. Building work at Horton Court delayed her departure but she eventually turned her back on the family home.

Hilda Wills put Burwalls up for sale after moving to Horton Court (British Newspaper Archive)

Burwalls was offered for sale but eventually let as an unfurnished property. It was requisitioned by the War Office at the outbreak of World War Two, the house adapted to become the headquarters of the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment who found it ideally situated to protect Bristol and its port. Towards the end of the war it became an army educational centre.

Hilda Wills later moved to Langford Court, near Bristol, where she died, aged 66, in 1946. This allowed Bristol University to buy Burwalls from her trustees.

Hilda Wills (1879-1946) (Western Daily Press)

The house and grounds were used as halls of residence until 1973 when it was converted into Bristol University Conference Centre.  By 2010 the building was deemed surplus to requirement and the university placed Burwalls on the market for £5 million. The house was considered run-down and future occupation would need considerable investment.

“Its impressive red brick frontage will be instantly recognisable to anyone who regularly goes across the Clifton Suspension Bridge.”

The sale process was long and complex but a deal was eventually reached in 2013. However, this fell through soon after and allowed Kersfield, a London and Bath based property developer, to begin negotiations for the purchase. The company, run by David Newton, specialised in high-end flat conversions and paid a sale price of £4 million.

Sensitively restored and re-modelled to include contemporary finishes and facilities (Knight Frank)
After 68-years as a university building, Burwalls is emerging from restoration (Knight Frank)

Over the next few years almost £6 million was invested at Burwalls. The conversion went over budget due to the presence of asbestos and the discovery of an old well underneath the house. The aim of Kersfield was to remove many of the university’s later changes and re-engage with the original purpose of the house. They appointed Nash Partnerships to design and reconstruct Burwalls into luxury apartments but this meant consultation with English Heritage and Bristol’s Conservation Department. They were required to restore the building to its former glory with minimal disturbance to the fabric of the building. At the same time they introduced contemporary features sympathetic to its original features such as fireplaces, timber panelling and the decorative ceilings. The old stables, along the southern boundary of the estate, were also redeveloped to provide two refurbished houses along with four new detached houses and a studio.

In 2016, a year later than planned, the new apartments were advertised for sale with prices ranging between £1.1 million and £1.5 million.

Restored back to its former glory. Burwalls interior shown in 2016 (Knight Frank)
Grade II listed Burwalls was constructed in 1872 on the edge of the Avon Gorge (Daily Mail)
It was reported to be Bristol’s most expensive house when put up for sale in 2013 (Daily Mail)

¹Peter Gould (2011)

²Bristol Post (17 Mar 2015)
³Western Daily Press (14 Aug 1893)
⁴Derek Smith
⁵Western Daily Press (12 Jul 1928)
⁶Western Daily Press (4 Aug 1928)
⁷Western Daily Press (14 May 1946)

Burwalls, Bridge Road, Bristol, BS8 3PD


Goldings was architect George Devey’s biggest country house (Herts Memories)

Built: 1871-1877
Architect: George Devey
Private apartments
Grade II* listed

“Red brick, English bond, with diaper patterns in blue headers, above a coursed rubble stone base, and with ashlar dressings and stone mullioned windows; Welsh slated roofs with multiple stone-coped parapeted gables, numerous multiple shafted moulded brick chimneystacks with moulded bands and oversailing caps.” (Historic England)

“I used to go on top of the roof for a smoke, climbing up the tiny staircase, passing thousands of dead bees and spider webs everywhere.”  – Jurgen Bergmann-Syren

Goldings is a large country house built Elizabethan-style by architect George Devey between 1871 and 1877.

Devey (1820-86) was one of the major Victorian country house architects, designing in a picturesque style, with Elizabethan and Jacobean details, which merged with the evolution of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 19th century. A skilled water colourist, Devey’s picturesque massing was based on pictorial composition, but his plans were often rambling and haphazard as at Goldings.

One critic is Mark Girouard who said of Goldings:-

“Devey’s weakness is especially apparent in larger buildings; and his big country houses are very big indeed. However fascinating the plan of a house like Goldings may be as an example of capable planning combined with apparent haphazardness on an enormous scale, the actual house is depressingly shapeless: it seems to dribble on for ever.”¹

Goldings, a family home until 1920, before becoming an orphanage. It has now been converted back to period housing

The earliest known Goldings mansion was built about 1700 for Thomas Hall, Squire of Bengeo. In 1813 the estate was sold to Samuel Smith and inherited by his grandson, the merchant banker Robert Smith, son of Abel Smith.

Robert Smith (1833-1894) took over the Goldings estate in 1861, and was Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1869. He was the head partner in the old-established banking firm of Smith, Payne and Smith, of Lombard Street, and a partner in Samuel Smith and Co, Nottingham, Smith Ellison and Co in Lincoln. He married a daughter of Henry John Adeane, of Babraham Hall, Cambridgeshire.

The old Goldings Hall of 1650-60 was demolished around 1875, by which time the new house by George Devey, his biggest country house, was nearing completion.

Goldings. The ground floor plan as designed for Robert Smith by architect George Devey
“I always thought that the house looked rather sad. It was owned by the County Council and had fallen into a state of disrepair.” – Carol Fluters

Following Robert Smith’s death the house passed to his son, Reginald Abel Smith, who died in 1902. His wife, Margaret Alice Smith, remained at Goldings and allowed it to be used as a Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital during World War One.

The estate came to market in 1920 and attracted the interest of the Council of Doctor Barnardo who were looking for premises in countryside surroundings with open fields for recreation.

“One day, sometime around 1920, Mr Ernie Walker was working in the engine room when three well-dressed men came along to see him. They wanted to know whether the house, which at that time was only occupied by an handful of people, was capable of supplying water and handling sewage etc. for up to 260 people. This was the beginning of the negotiations, which led to a very dramatic change for Goldings.”²

In 1921 the house was sold to Dr Barnado’s Homes for use as an orphanage and renamed the William Baker Technical School.

“A great change occurred in April 1922 when the first Barnardo’s boys arrived. Two hundred and sixty from Stepney, led by their own band, marched along the road from the railway station at Hertford and took up residence. Later that year the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) came for the official opening of the William Baker Technical School as it was called. The large stables of the mansion were ideal for workshops and in the fifty acres of grounds there was plenty of space for a swimming pool and other sports facilities.”³

The William Baker Technical School at Goldings (

In 1923 Goldings was modified and enlarged and a chapel added. A new wing was added north of the arched entry to the forecourt in 1960. In 1967 the orphanage closed and Goldings was purchased by Hertfordshire County Council for use by the County Surveyor’s Department.

In 1997 the council sold the property to London-based Harinbrook Properties to be converted into apartments.

Goldings was used in the filming of the popular TV series ‘Band of Brothers’ (Rightmove)

¹The Victorian Country House (Mark Girouard) 1979

Quotes courtesy of ‘Memories of Goldings in the 1990s’ (Herts Memories)

Goldings, Goldens Way, Hertford, Hertfordshire, SG14 2WH


The focal point of the estate, Axwell Hall, a nationally important jewel of Palladian architecture and for this reason is listed as Grade II* by Historic England (Axwell Park)

Built: 1758
Architect: James Paine
Private apartments
Grade II* listed

“Ashlar; roof of graduated Lakeland slate. 3 storeys; 3, 3, 3 bays x 1, 3, 1. South elevation: cornice to rusticated ground floor; central three bays project under open pediment containing later corbelled arms.” (Historic England)

Axwell Hall , a house once so splendid, it is hard to believe that it fell into spectacular decline. So dramatic was the decay that by rights it should not be with us today.

In its heyday it belonged to the wealthy Clavering family with prosperity gained through land and mines. They remained custodians for 162 years before economic conditions eventually forced them out.

The Clavering family were descended from 13th century Anglo-Norman aristocracy, the Lords of Clavering and Warkworth, from Alan de Clavering of Callaly Castle, who died in 1328.¹ The lands around Axwell were purchased by James Clavering, a merchant adventurer from Newcastle upon Tyne, for £1,700 in 1629. However, this Lord Mayor of Newcastle would die just a year later.

The estate passed to his John Clavering who died in 1648 but it was his son, Thomas Clavering (1620-1702) who became the first Baronet, ‘Clavering of Axwell’, in 1661. The title was graciously passed down the line until it was handed to Thomas Clavering (1719-1794) who succeeded the title in 1748. He found the existing manor house inadequate for a man of his means and made plans to replace it with something much grander.

Sir Thomas Clavering, 7th Baronet, was MP for St Mawes (1753-1754) and for Shaftsbury (1754-60). He resigned his seat at Shaftsbury to fight for a seat in County Durham but would only succeed in 1768. However, it was a seat he held until 1790. With substantial mining interests, with collieries at Beckley and Andrews House, he had lived at Greencroft Hall (demolished in 1960). In 1782 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.) by Oxford University².

Greencroft Hall, Lanchester. The former home of Sir Thomas Clavering which was demolished in 1960 for urban redevelopment (Durham County Council Archives)

The old house at Axwell was demolished in 1758 and the architect James Paine engaged to build a Palladian-style house in its place. By all accounts it was not a harmonious relationship between Clavering and Paine, who complained of regular interference in the design by his client.³

Differences apart, Axwell Hall was a resplendent property with parkland laid out in ‘English landscape’ style. It has been suggested the new house and estate was Clavering’s attempt to keep up with the Bowes’ family estate at nearby Gibside.

The architect James Paine (1716-1789) and his son (Ashmolean)
000384:Axwell Park engraving 1786
An engraving of Axwell Park from 1786 (Newcastle Libraries)

The next few years saw improvements to Axwell Hall, culminating with significant remodelling by north east architect John Dobson† in 1817-18. A garden temple was erected in the grounds but this has since been demolished.

The Baronetcy became extinct on the death of Sir Henry Augustus Clavering, 10th Baronet, in 1893, but only after he’d made further improvements to the pleasure grounds.  The title now extinct, Axwell Hall remained with the Claverings until the early part of the 20th century. The last occupant was Colonel Charles Warren Napier-Clavering who battled to keep the estate alive but eventually admitted defeat. In 1920 he turned his back on Axwell and moved to Staplegrove House, near Taunton, in Somerset.⁴

002476:Axwell Park Blaydon. Black-and-white photograph around 1920
Axwell Hall shortly before its sale in 1920 (Newcastle Libraries)

The Axwell estate was put up for sale and the inventory provided an insight into the enormous size of the property.  Details in the sale catalogue listed the hall, stables, pleasure grounds, walled kitchen garden, home farm, a gardener’s house, a villa, several lodges, cottages, a dairy and the spa well.

The estate was eventually bought by the Newcastle Industrial and Ragged School founded in 1847 at Sandyside.  ‘There being no agency to bring moral and religious training to bear upon the juvenile depravity and delinquency prevalent in the town’. Its aim was to provide education and industrial training to poor youngsters.

The change of use allowed youngsters from Newcastle, Gateshead, Durham, Sunderland and Middlesbrough to move to Axwell. When it opened there were 153 boys all receiving a dinner of a pennyworth of bread and cheese.

In 1933, Axwell Park as it was now known, became an Approved School, under new legislation introduced by the Children and Young Persons Act, which replaced Reformatories and Industrial Schools. The house was run by the Home Office and received regular mention in newspapers as young offenders were compelled to spend time at Axwell. Locally, the house was referred to as the ‘bad lads’ home.

Forty years later, around 1973, Axwell Park became a Community Home with Education (CHE) under the control of Newcastle City Council. However, the house was in such a poor state of repair that it eventually closed in 1981.⁵

By the end of the 20th century Axwell Hall was derelict and the park neglected
Axwell Hall was purchased in 2005 but was still abandoned in 2014 (Chronicle Live)

For almost a quarter of a century  the house and estate suffered vandalism, arson attacks and had to be boarded up to deter its attackers. Finally, in 2005, it was bought by Eight Property Ltd, which turned the derelict walled garden site into the 18-home Axwell Gardens. In 2016, the £3.3 million Courtyard development was completed with 27 apartments and houses on the site of the former stables adjacent to the hall.

Presently, work is underway to restore the main house, with its interior being converted into luxury apartments.

Work is now underway to convert Axwell Hall into luxury apartments (Chronicle Live)
Years of dereliction are swept away and former glories are revealed (Axwell Park)
Rear view of Axwell Hall while restoration takes place (Axwell Park)
The £3.3m Courtyard development stands in place of the former stables adjacent to the hall

¹Sunniside Local History Society
²Douglas Archives Genealogy Pages
³Chronicle Live. 26 Jan 2016

†John Dobson (1787-1865). The architect worked in the north east of England. With the builder Richard Grainger he was responsible for the area of Newcastle upon Tyne bounded by Grey, Market and Grainger Streets. He was also responsible for Newcastle’s gently-curving Central Railway Station regarded by many as one of the finest in the country. His best-known country houses are Nunnykirk (1825) and Meldon Park (1832) in Northumberland. 

A collection of old photographs of Axwell Hall by Dig Hastilow, a Clavering descendant, is available to see at Axwell Hall – The Bad Lads School

Axwell Park, Blaydon-on-Tyne, County Durham, NE21 6RB


Gledhow Hall, Leeds
Gledhow Hall is now private flats, retaining many original period features including a stained glass ceiling in one of the properties, as well as ornamental tiled floors, fireplaces and columns.

Built: c1766
Architect: John Carr
Private apartments
Grade II* listed

House and Heritage features a guest post from Michael E. Reed on the history of Gledhow Hall,  Leeds, and its Royal connections.

Michael E. Reed (b.1964)  studied Art History at  Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He has taught English, History, Music and Drama  at various Melbourne colleges for many years and has worked as a performer – particularly  in theatre, opera and as a band singer. Reed has written for the UK Guardian  regarding  the Duchess of Cambridge’s family  connections with art and architecture.  He has worked as a researcher for other leading  UK newspapers including the Telegraph, the Express and the Daily Mail.

Reed lives  in Melbourne in an Arts and Crafts house with his wife and daughter.

The Middleton family and GLEDHOW HALL, LEEDS
Gledhow Hall, in Leeds, is still standing sentinel and today houses several luxury flats. Yet few are aware that the Hall and the Gledhow area itself is intrinsically linked with the family of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.

Gledhow Hall is on Gledhow Lane at its junction with Gledhow Wood Road. The land was originally monastic and was purchased from Queen Elizabeth I by the Thwaites family. Several notable Yorkshire families have owned the Hall, including the Becketts, the Benyons, the Dixons and the Coopers. The Hall, as seen today, was completed shortly after 1766, by York architect John Carr who had been responsible for Harewood House – the home of Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood, whose niece is Queen Elizabeth II.

Gledhow Hall architect John Carr of York
Gledhow Hall – the work of architect John Carr of York.

Between 1812 and 1815, J.M.W. Turner sketched the view of Gledhow Hall from across the valley and made a painting. Turner’s painting was inherited by Guy Kitson Nevett, the great grandson of James Kitson who purchased Gledhow Hall in 1885.

JMW Turner Gledhow Hall c1816 enlarged
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s watercolour painting of Gledhow Hall c1816.

Kitson employed Leeds architects Chorley and Connon to extend the hall in the following years and create the impressive hipped slate and lead roofs, balustered parapet, cornices and chamfered quoins. Also evident today are the stone cantilevered stairs, a wrought-iron scrolled balustrade, the mahogany handrail and the partitioned top-lit stair well which still retains eight fine lunette windows. In late 1885, Kitson created a superb Burmantofts ‘Faience’ bathroom in honour of a proposed visit to Gledhow Hall from the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII)

James Kitson was created a baronet in 1886. He was the 1st Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1895 and would be raised to the peerage as Lord Airedale in 1907. When Kitson acquired the Gledhow Hall Estate, some of the land had previously been sold to William Hey who had built the neighbouring Gledhow Wood Estate circa 1860.

The Middleton family connection begins in 1875 when the Gledhow Wood Estate was purchased by German nobleman – Edward, Baron von Schunck – who had married Kate Lupton in 1867. Kate – the daughter of a former Mayor of Leeds – had grown up nearby at her family’s Potternewton Hall Estate, as had her first cousin, Francis Martineau Lupton and his daughter, Olive Middleton who was the great grandmother of Kate Middleton.

Olive Middleton Kate Middletons great grandmother1
Olive Middleton. Kate Middleton’s great grandmother.

In 1890 at Gledhow Wood, Baron von Schunck’s wife hosted the wedding breakfast for her daughter, Florence, and her new son-in-law, Albert Kitson. A prestigious event, Olive’s family were reported as being guests at the wedding; so too, was Herbert Gladstone (later Viscount Gladstone), the prime minister’s son. The great prime minister himself, Gladstone, had also been a visitor to Gledhow Hall.

On March 16, 1911 Albert Kitson inherited the title 2nd Lord Airedale and took ownership of Gledhow Hall. Given that his mother-in-law, Baroness von Schunck, was residing at the adjacent Gledhow Wood Estate, the two estates were re-united as a grand family seat.

Lord and Lady Airedale were invited to pay homage at Westminster Abbey to King George V at his coronation in June 1911. Lady Airedale’s mother, Baroness von Schunck (née Kate Lupton), was also invited. A wealthy woman with a keen interest in the educational provision for women, Baroness von Schunck is listed in Burke’s Peerage Second World War Edition as having died in 1913. The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer reported that amongst her chief mourners were members of Olive Middleton’s family.

Olive Middletons couisn Lady Airedale and her husband Lord Airedale at the 1911 coronation of George V.jpg Edit
Olive Middleton’s cousin Lady Airedale and her husband Lord Airedale at the 1911 coronation of George V.

In 1914, Olive married solicitor Richard Noel Middleton whose grandfather – solicitor William Middleton – had founded the Leeds firm of solicitors, William Middleton and Sons. A gentleman farmer, William Middleton Esq. had also lived in the area at Gledhow Grange Estate.

Gledhow Hall VAD nurses Olive Middleton far right
Gledhow Hall VAD nurses with Olive Middleton on far right.

World War I saw Gledhow Hall being offered by the 2nd Lord Airedale for use as a VAD hospital. Lord and Lady Airedale’s daughter, The Hon. Doris Kitson, was photographed working at her home as a volunteer nurse in 1916; she was mirroring the war efforts of her cousin Olive Middleton – also photographed as a volunteer nurse at Gledhow Hall. Familial ties were strong and we find that Olive’s sister-in-law, VAD nurse Miss Gertrude Middleton, was similarly photographed at Gledhow Hall.  A talented pianist, the Gledhow Hall Concert Programme records Gertrude Middleton  as being an  accompanist at concerts held at her relative’s grand home.

As second cousins, Baroness Airedale and Olive Middleton shared much: apart from their Unitarian faith, both women and their families were much involved with charity work which concerned nursing, social and educational matters. They have no doubt inspired their descendant, the Duchess of Cambridge.

Gledhow Hall as a VAD hospital patients convalescing on lawns
Gledhow Hall as a VAD hospital with patients convalescing on lawns.

Tragically, all three of Olive Middleton’s brothers were killed in World War I. Various memorials are found to honour the brothers at the Leeds Mill Hill Chapel, Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge and St. John’s Church, Roundhay.

Coatofarms of Baron Airedale as seen above stairwell at Gledhow Hall
Coat of arms of Baron Airedale as seen above the stairwell at Gledhow Hall.

By 1923, Gledhow Hall had come into the possession of the City of Leeds. Noel Middleton died in 1951, his wife Olive having passed away in 1936. Baroness Airedale died in 1942.

Gledhow Hall reminds us that a manor house can hold memories both celebratory and glamorous in nature yet also contain within its walls stories of enormous human heartbreak.

Gledhow Hall,
Gledhow Wood Close, Leeds LS8 1PG


Conkwell Grange 2016 (Kinght Frank)
Conkwell Grange, Limpley Stoke, near Bath. Built in 1907 by Edward Dawber for James Thornton

Built: 1907

Architect: Sir Edward Guy Dawber
Owner: Private ownership
Country house and estate
Grade II listed

“Squared rubble stone with ashlar dressings, tall hipped stone slate roofs and prominent rubble stone stacks with ashlar quoins. Two storeys and attic, late C17 style with symmetrical garden front, asymmetrical entrance front and L-plan service court.” (Historic England)

“The selection of an appropriate local stone – taken mostly from old walls about the estate; the exceptionally suitable roofing – old stone slate – also obtained in the vicinity; and the utilisation – fused into the one design – of motives easily separated under the heads of ‘Classic’ and ‘Gothic,’ are all representative of the modern type of residence design in England.” (The Architectural Review 1907)

Conkwell Grange: Garden terrace and entrance in 1907 (The Architectural Review)

By comparison to other featured houses, Conkwell Grange, at Limpley Stoke, near Bath, is relatively new. Nevertheless, this Edwardian property, built 109 years ago, has an incredible amount of history attached to it.

Built from the proceeds of Yorkshire wool it suffered at the hands of the Russian Revolution. It was almost destroyed by fire in the 1920s and then we have the puzzling story of the spinster who bought Conkwell Grange and drove around in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. This is not to mention the Royal Navy Commander who was a failed fruit-grower and the civil servant who shaped the future of one of the world’s busiest airports. Throw in a few Arab racehorses and Conkwell Grange has more to tell than many of its older and grander neighbours.

Conkley Grange, a neo-baroque house, has far-reaching views towards the Avon Valley and Salisbury Plain. The Grade II listed mansion was built in 1907 for James Thornton to a design by the renowned country house architect, Sir Edward Guy Dawber (1861-1938) at an estimated cost of £25-30,000.

Entrance and vestibule (The Architectural Review)

Dawber was the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) between 1925 and 1927. His work consisted mainly of stone-built country houses in the Cotswolds vernacular tradition. Houses designed by him include Nether Swell Manor (Gloucestershire), Eyford Park (Gloucestershire) and Bowling Green (Dorset).

by Sir Gerald Kelly, oil on canvas, 1927
Edward Guy Dawber by Sir Gerald Kelly, 1927 (NPG)

Conkwell Grange was described as a ‘modern William and Mary-style residence’ with reception rooms, 13 bed and dressing rooms, 3 bathrooms and a squash court.

Conkwell Grange: South entrance and terrace garden in 1907 (The Architectural Review)
Conkwell Grange: Kitchen courtyard and side entrance 1907 (The Architectural Review)
Conkwell Grange: Hall showing fireplace 1907 (The Architectural Review)
Conkwell Grange: The hall in 1907 (The Architectural Review)

James Thornton (1865-1939)

James Thornton was the son-in-law of Sir Charles Parry Hobhouse, of Monkton Farleigh, having married Miss Lilian Hobhouse in 1900. Prior to building Conkwell Grange the couple lived at the Priory, at Beech Hill, in Reading.

Thornton was an alderman for Wiltshire County Council and Chairman of the County Education Committee. He became a magistrate for Wiltshire and Berkshire, and contested North-West Wiltshire as a Liberal in 1895 and 1900. He strengthened his political ties by acting as President of the West Wiltshire Liberal Association. Together with Harry Plunkett Greene he also started the Wiltshire Music Festival and became President of the Bath Orpheus Glee Society.

Conkwell Grange: The dining room 1907 (The Architectural Review)

His move to Conkwell Grange courted controversy almost immediately. Thornton, wanting privacy for his new home, closed access to the historic Conkwell Woods which spread across the estate. These woodland walks had been used by locals for generations and the erection of barriers didn’t make Thornton a popular man. The obstructions were demolished by frustrated walkers and a crusade was mounted by the Bath Socialist group who alleged interference with public rights of way.¹ The dispute eventually ended up at Bristol Assizes and Thornton was ordered to take down the barriers.

Conkwell Grange Liberal Party Meeting (Bradford on Avon Museum)
A Liberal Party rally at Conkwell Grange in 1910. The big neo-baroque house was only three years old at the time and had been built for James Thornton (Bradford on Avon Museum)

Thornton might have thought his new family home, a prestigious one at that, the beginning of a new adventure. However, the clashes with locals over Conkwell Woods were nothing compared to what lay ahead.

His immediate family, with strong ties to the Yorkshire woollen mills, had made their fortune in Russia where his father and brother spent most of their lives.  As a result James travelled regularly throughout Europe living off his own personal wealth.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Thornton family owned cloth mills near St Petersburg proudly supplying the Russian Imperial Court . This allowed the Thornton’s to accumulate significant wealth, money which paid for the construction of Conkwell Grange, but the events of 1917 had devastating consequences.

The Russian Revolution  focused around Saint Petersburg, then capital of Russia. In March 1917 members of the Imperial parliament  assumed control of the country, forming the Russian Provisional Government, resulting in the collapse of the Russian Empire and the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II. The aftermath was chaotic with frequent mutinies, protests and many strikes across the country.

Havoc was wrought on the Thornton properties and the cloth mills were smashed by angry dissidents. Production stopped and the family business collapsed with James Thornton reported to have lost nearly half a million pounds.²

Thornton Woollen Mill
Thornton Woollen Mill, St Petersburg. The business collapsed after the 1917 Revolution

While events in Russia raged out of control, life continued quietly  in the peace of the Wiltshire countryside. The gardens at Conkwell Grange were being carefully attended by David Lewis Bolwell, a Countrycompetent gardener, who had worked for Thornton’s father-in-law, Sir Charles Hobhouse, at Monkton Farleigh. Prior to their move he had been the gardener for Thornton at the Priory before moving in 1906 to oversee the layout of the new Conkwell Grange gardens. If anyone could speak about the secrets of the house then Bolwell was the man to do it. His love affair lasted 37 years and, rather fittingly,  he collapsed and died in the gardens in  1943.

James Thornton’s stay at the house was almost at an end. In 1922, five years after the collapse of the family business, he sold up and moved to a smaller property, Turleigh Combe, at nearby Winsley.

He sold Turleigh Combe in the late 1930s looking to buy another property in the area. The search was unsuccessful and he ended up staying at Pratt’s Hotel in Bath. He died in his sleep, aged 74, in 1939. Following his death he left gross estate worth £23,578, with net personalty £22,742.³

Conkwell Grange c1907 (RIBA)
Conkwell Grange, Wiltshire, newly built for James Thornton and sketched about 1907 (RIBA)

George Pollard Armitage (1867-1952)
When James Thornton left Conkwell Grange in 1922 it is possible he negotiated the sale to a friend and business contact. It may have been relief to a man who had lost half a million pounds and the man who offered a helping hand was George Pollard Armitage.

George was the only son of Joseph Armitage and Julia Francis, the daughter of George Thomas Pollard of Stannary Hall, in Yorkshire and Ashfield in Cheltenham. He was educated at Harrow and Jesus College, Cambridge.

Like the Thornton’s, the Armitage family were wealthy woollen manufacturers from Yorkshire. George’s grandfather, also Joseph, had built his first woollen mill in 1822 at Milnsbridge, two miles west of Huddersfield. In the 1840s, he handed over control of the thriving business to his sons who renamed it Armitage Bros.  The company prospered during the industrial revolution and with it came riches to match.

George’s own prosperity came about in 1898 when he inherited Milnsbridge House, a country mansion, and the lease of Storthes Hall, at Kirkburton,  quickly selling the freehold of the latter to the county council.

He later became a J.P. for the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1902 and married Coralie Eugenie, youngest daughter of Rev. Chastel de Boinville, the vicar of Burton in Westmoreland, in 1912.

By this time the woollen industry was not such a viable business after all. The boom years had gone and the First World War caused inevitable disruption to the industry.  It would be some years before the market collapsed altogether but these were ominous times for George Armitage.

He also faced a dilemma over what to do with Milnsbridge House. When built, around 1748,  the magnificent house had been  in idyllic rural surroundings.  Over time the industries of Huddersfield had advanced and now threatened to surround Milnsbridge.   About 1919-20 George decided to sell and enjoy old age in a more suitable environment.  On hindsight, his prognosis was quite correct. Armitage Bros ceased trading in 1930 while Milnsbridge House survives in an industrialised suburb of Huddersfield. For more details about Milnsbridge House please refer to an earlier post at Rudding Park.

With proceeds from the sale of Milnsbridge House George Pollard Armitage  moved to Conkwell Grange in 1922.⁴

He spent his time at Conkwell Grange developing the estate for agricultural use and extended it to about 400 acres.

His stay was not without drama and the house was nearly lost on Christmas morning in 1925. A fire started in the day nursery and a call made to the fire brigade to attend. By the time they arrived at this remote location the fire had been brought under control by hard-working servants including, no doubt, the gardener David Bolwell. The blaze caused £400 worth of damage but Conkwell Grange survived owing to the nature of the walls and ceiling, which were lined, rather alarmingly,  with asbestos. Fortunately the main damage was confined to the one room but the house was smoke-logged.

In 1933, with the collapse of Armitage Bros still rankling, George decided to put the Conkwell Grange estate on the market. He had his eyes on a nearby property, Hunters Leaze, and so appointed Thake and Paginton, of Newbury, and Fortt, Hatt and Billings, of Bath, to negotiate a sale. The land was divided and Conkwell Grange, along with about 125 acres, was sold to Miss Ethel Hallewell.

George Pollard Armitage moved to Hunters Leaze and died in 1952 leaving estate worth £14,440.

Conkwell Grange 2016 2 (Knight Frank)
Conkwell Grange, Wiltshire. Compare this image with the Liberal Rally photograph from 1910 (above) and the house looks virtually unchanged except for the climbing plants (Knight Frank)

Ethel Winifred Catherine Hallewell (1864-1945)
Ethel Hallewell was described in the press as ‘a lady who frequently visited Bath and chose to make her home in one of the choicest country districts that surround the city’.

The 1911 census reports that she was living by private means but as to how she acquired such wealth remains a mystery. For several years Ethel Hallewell had been a regular guest at the Pulteney Hotel in Bath and was most likely keeping an eye out for a suitable country house to live.

She was born in 1864 in Cape Town, the daughter of Charles James Maynard Hallewell and Amelia Catherine Barber, who had moved to South Africa.

Charles Maynard was a Captain in the Cape Mounted Rifles but the birth of Ethel prompted their return to England. He became a Lieutenant with the 19th (1st Yorkshire North Riding – Princess of Wales’s Own) Regiment but the family lived at Axminster in Devon.

Charles retired from military service in 1866 and a year later a son, Frank Maynard Hallewell, was born. In later years Charles (and his second wife Catherine Sophia Wilde) lived at Bryn Hyfryd, Conway, before returning to Devon at Deepdene, in Bathampton.

Charles died in 1919 leaving just £917 in his will. A lot of money then, but in comparison, when Ethel died in 1945 she left estate worth £144,649. She remained a spinster and, with no husband earning an income and no obvious benefactor, her finances remain a matter of speculation.

Maybe the answer to this conundrum lay thousands of miles away in South Africa? There were strong family connections and her brother, Frank, had followed in their father’s footsteps and joined the Cape Mounted Rifles. He died in 1937, aged 70, in a car accident at Vereeniging in the Transvaal. Sadly, he was also unmarried and without issue.

When Ethel died in 1945 she made provision for several charities, all of whom received £500 each.

The Child Emigration Society, founded in 1911 and better known as the Fairbridge Society, was dedicated solely to child migration, sending children to its farm schools in Australia and British Columbia and to a college in Southern Rhodesia.⁵ In addition Ethel made further provision of £500 to support the Fairbridge Homes.

The reason for Ethel’s support is speculative but no doubt she believed she was bettering the lives of impoverished children from Britain’s slums. Far from improving lives, the scheme was eventually exposed with stories of cruelty, hardship and of families torn apart.

Two further charities benefited from her will. These were the National Library for the Blind and the Royal Blind Pension Society (pensions for the blind poor). Dare we speculate that Edith was herself blind, perhaps prompting her parent’s hasty departure from South Africa after she was born? Or was it simply a case of her being a caring and wealthy individual?

Another bequest of £250 was made to the Home of St Giles, an Essex charity that raised money to fund a hospital designed specifically for the care and treatment of leprosy.  Although, by the turn of the 20th century the disease had long been eradicated in Britain, this hospital provided for the few people who had caught it abroad.⁶

Ethel also made provision for her chauffeur, Sidney J. Waldron, who had paraded her around in a Rolls-Royce, and received the handsome sum of £600. However, her greatest bequest went to a relation, Commander Edmund G Hallewell, retired of the Royal Navy, who received £12,000.

It was he who decided to put Conkwell Grange up for sale and, in 1946, sold it to another Royal Navy officer, Commander Wardell-Yerburgh.

Western Daily Press - Saturday 01 September 1945
Estate auction. Western Daily Press – Saturday 01 September 1945
Western Daily Press - Saturday 06 October 1945
Contents auction. Western Daily Press – Saturday 06 October 1945

Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh (1891-1953)
In the course of researching these articles there often comes a time when something doesn’t quite ring true about a person. All too often history tends to be kind but something about Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh suggested ‘scoundrel’.

When I originally wrote this piece I invited comment from anyone who might have been able to put the record straight. I was subsequently delighted to hear from his son, Richard Wardell-Yerburgh, who said he was “profoundly amused by the description of him as a ‘scoundrel’ because it precisely reflects my own view.”

However, Arthur’s upbringing had been impeccable, being the son of Reverend Oswald Pryor Wardell-Yerburgh, Vicar and later Canon of Tewkesbury, and Edith Wardell Potts. Arthur lived with them until his early twenties at the Abbey House in Tewkesbury.  This wealthy family were descended from the Rev. Richard Yerburgh, the vicar of Sleaford in Lincolnshire.

A handsome young Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh (Image courtesy of the Richard Wardell-Yerburgh Collection)

Arthur joined the Royal Navy in 1904 training at Royal Naval College, Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, and at Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, in Devon. He joined active service in 1909 serving as a Midshipman on HMS Agamemnon and later HMS Indefatigable. In 1914 he was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant and given command of submarines. He was decorated with the award of the Distinguished Service Cross (D.S.C.) in 1918 for operations off the Belgian coast..

The following extract is taken from The Dover Patrol 1915-17, by Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, and refers to his preparations for a “Great Landing” on the Belgian Coast, a plan which was eventually postponed but which was at least reflected in the subsequent raids on Ostend and Zeebrugge. It also mentions Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh and the circumstances into achieving the D.S.C.:

‘It was necessary that our survey should be accurate to within six inches. A submarine (known as C30) was, therefore, sent to submerge off Nieuport, to lie on the bottom, and to register the height of the water above her hull continuously for twenty-four hours by reading the depth gauge. The rise and fall and the tide curve at this spot was thus obtained at springs, neaps and intermediate tides.

This information was obtained by Lieutenant Wardell-Yerburgh. It was a weird experience for a submarine to steal up and submerge right under the guns of the enemy’s coast defence, always with the off-chance that in her journey to the bottom she might settle down on a mine. Also as the submarine was a C Boat, and not large, and as she had to remain submerged for twenty-four hours, she was apt to get stuffy. The number of crew was therefore reduced to a minimum.’

Conkwell Grange 2016 1 (Knight Frank)
The gardens were attended by David Lewis Bolwell between 1906 and 1943 (Knight Frank)

Arthur retired from the Royal Navy in 1921 and married Enid Mary Florence Till, the daughter of John Till of Kemerton Court. In December 1921 John Till died while hunting after suffering a seizure and falling off his horse. He left gross estate worth £35,334. Kemerton Court was left for his wife, Florence, and the residue of his property was placed in trust for his three daughters, including Enid, and presumably Arthur.

He re-joined the Royal Navy in 1922, probably as a commissioned officer, and was awarded the rank of Lieutenant-Commander. However, the period between two World Wars saw a decline in the number of Royal Navy ships and Arthur probably never saw active service again. If this is the case, then considering he always referred to himself as Commander Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh, then never has such a title been so ill-used

A man of distinction. Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh was often photographed with a cigarette in his mouth. (Image courtesy of the Richard Wardell-Yerburgh Collection)

Without a ship to command, but a title nevertheless, Arthur and Enid moved to Wesmacott, near Tewkesbury. It was here that he hatched plans for a fruit farming business at Bredon. While at Wesmacott they had their only child, John Gerald Oswald Wardell-Yerburgh, born in 1925.

There was a difference between the sea and fruit farming and Arthur realised he had made a mistake. The business wasn’t a success and his relationship with Enid was strained  to say the least. Just how much money was lost in the enterprise is unknown but, in 1926, they sold up and went to live with Enid’s mother at Kemerton Court.

If this was an attempt to reconcile their differences within a stable family environment then it proved ill-advised. More likely the move was the result of financial hardship caused by Arthur’s failed business venture. Enid, frustrated by Arthur’s inability to gain meaningful employment and no doubt encouraged by her mother, became increasingly disenchanted. By 1929 the couple were living apart with Arthur staying at Westbourne Terrace in Paddington.

In January 1931 he and Enid were divorced on the grounds that Arthur had committed ‘misconduct’ at a London hotel.⁷ Arthur didn’t defend the suit and Enid was granted a divorce, with costs and custody of their child.

We know that many divorces were ‘staged’ affairs. The law at this time required one of the parties to be caught and witnessed in liaison with another person. In circumstances where a relationship had broken down it was not unknown for such affairs to be instigated by both parties. In this case the witnesses were John Russell, a private inquiry agent, and Thomas Hawkins, a waiter at the Hotel Central in Marylebone, where the wrongdoing was alleged to have taken place.

Richard Wardell-Yerburgh believes that Enid Till was disgracefully treated as was his half-brother, John.

“I believe the principle reason for the trouble was that Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh was in the habit of borrowing from Enid’s friends and relatives. Unfortunately, it appears he was not in the habit of re-paying these loans. Arthur never spoke or wrote to his son, John, from the day of the divorce until the day that he died. I only learned of John’s existence by accident.”

Enid might have had moral ground to obtain a divorce and we will never know whether this woman was a ‘put-up’ affair or someone directly involved with Arthur.  That someone might have been Marion Georgina Cooper, from Paddington, because, with the ink barely dry on the ‘decree nisi’, she was married to Arthur in September 1931 (although Richard Wardell-Yerburgh believes this was in 1933).

With changes in the air it was also time for Arthur to call time on the Royal Navy and he officially retired from the service.

Marion Wardell-Yerburgh (nee Cooper) in 1932. (Image courtesy of the Richard Wardell-Yerburgh Collection)

This time the marriage appeared more compatible and lasted the course. The couple settled at Worton Grange, near Devizes, where they had a son, Richard Geoffrey Robert Wardell-Yerburgh (b. 1935), subject of welcome correspondence in this post.

“The marriage between my mother, Marion Cooper, did nothing to stabilise Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh’s financial position. She was penniless, the daughter of a London milkman, and had determined that she would somehow get herself out of Paddington. She lived in the area of Paddington either in, or adjacent to, Westbourne Terrace (where Arthur had been living in 1929).

“Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh was apparently well-healed and Marion grasped the opportunity. That she had made the wrong decision only dawned to her as the paucity of Arthur’s finances became apparent.”

Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh, aged 44, at his mother’s home, Eastwood Manor. (Image courtesy of the Richard Wardell-Yerburgh Collection)

The move to Conkwell Grange followed a succession of deaths within Arthur’s close family.  In April 1941 his sister, Hilda, died when a fish bone caught in her throat while dining at Littlewood House, near Frampton. Three months later his mother died leaving an estate worth £14,498. Arthur received £2,200 and shared the residue of her property with his younger brother, Geoffrey Basset Wardell-Yerburgh. Geoffrey didn’t live long enough to enjoy his windfall and died in 1944.

“Arthur earned not one penny from the Royal Navy after he retired until the day he died,” says Richard Wardell-Yerburgh. “Everything came from his mother, Edith Wardell-Yerburgh, who has been described as being ‘As rich as a Croesus’ – including settling debts from two bankruptcies – the fruit farm and a business called the Light Car Company.

“In 1931 she paid a settlement figure into a Trust for the support of my half-brother, following the divorce from Enid. My mother told me this was in the sum of £25,000 (in 1931/32). According to the Historic Inflation Calculator (HIC), this equates to £1,472,650 at today’s rates. When she died, I understand my father actually inherited £167,000 after deduction of the monies paid out for his debts. According to the HIC this amounts to £8,419,963 at 2016 values.”

Arthur and Marion moved to Conkwell Grange in 1946. The house, with its stately grandeur and a Rolls-Royce to match, suited him in his retirement years.  However, they were to stay just 5 years before ‘down-sizing’ and re-locating to Hall Farm, at Thickwood, in 1951. This was where Arthur died in 1953, at the relatively young age of 61. He left effects to the value of £21,493. His wife, Marion, died in 1984.

Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh, aged 59, two years before he died. (Image courtesy of the Richard Wardell-Yerburgh Collection)

The last word goes to Astra Towning (nee Wardell-Yerburgh), the daughter of Richard Wardell-Yerburgh:

“My grandfather was a very handsome young naval officer and he and my grandmother (Marion) made a very glamorous couple. Marion ended up in a small house stuffed with glorious, if unloved, furniture, antiques, jewellery and furs. Most of this went in a series of burglaries, including Arthur’s ceremonial naval swords. We have a journal from his time in the navy. This book is huge and beautifully presented – lovely writing, glorious pictures of ladies he knew in various ports, and wonderfully detailed technical drawings.”

Conkwell Grange 2016 3 (Knight Frank)
The front door has seen colourful owners with interesting stories to tell (Knight Frank)

Philip Eric Millbourn (1902-1982)
Conkwell Grange was bought by Philip Eric Milbourn (1902-1982), a Yorkshireman, whose reputation has diminished with history. He was the Honorary Advisor on Shipping in Port to the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation.

Here was a man, from humble beginnings, who shunned publicity and chose to get on with his job while, at the same time, acquiring a personal fortune. For this reason his name is almost ‘air-brushed’ from the archives and virtually unknown today.

Eric, as he liked to be called, married Ethel Marjorie Sennett, the only daughter of Joseph Ernest Sennett, of Kingswood Grange, Reigate, in 1931. His job required a town house and for many years they lived at 41 Parkside in Knightsbridge, as well as living at a cottage on the Kingswood Grange estate.

Their move to Conkwell Grange corresponded with a glorious decade for Eric. In 1950 he had been awarded the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (C.M.G.) and was knighted five years later. However, his greatest accomplishment came in in circumstances not dissimilar from today. Faced with escalating passenger numbers at London (Heathrow) Airport he was asked to head a committee to determine how the problem might be resolved. With meticulous foresight his findings were presented in the Millbourn Report of August 1957.

His contribution shaped the Heathrow Airport we know today. In the report he recommended that all Heathrow’s terminals be located in one central area. With this he suggested the construction of a new long-haul terminal (now Terminal 3) and a short-haul terminal (which became Terminal 1). In addition, the report called for the expansion of Gatwick Airport. The total cost of these proposals was an estimated £17 million to handle the 12 million passengers anticipated by 1970.

The Millbourn Report was the zenith of a career that demanded Eric travel the world advising on transport problems. It also made him a very wealthy man and, on his death in 1982, he left estate worth £1,779,975. Lady Millbourn died the year after and Conkwell Grange was once again put on the market.

Conkwell Grange, photographed in 1979 (RIBA)
Conkwell Grange. Photographed in the ownership of Philip Eric Millbourn in 1979 (RIBA)

The Fosler family and the racehorse stud
The house was eventually purchased by the Fosler family in 1985 who made the estate the centre of a stud farm and racing stables. Today it is an estate of 300 acres mostly devoted to woodland and horses. A 100 box complex of equestrian buildings have been used as a thoroughbred stud and, at the turn of this century, was used for the breeding and training of Arab racehorses. More recently it has been the home to the Neil Mulholland stables.

Nowadays, Conkwell Grange is approached through impressive stone pillars and a pair of lodge cottages leading into a magnificent mature beech avenue. Surrounded by mature plants, accessed through its own gated drive, the property sits in a private position within maintained gardens and grounds amongst the pastureland.

In 2016 Conkwell Grange was brought to the market with a guide price of £5.9 million. Today’s accommodation is on three floors, including five reception rooms, 10 bedrooms and five bathrooms. In addition there are two lodge cottages, six further cottages and four staff flats providing secondary accommodation, with 128 acres of managed woodland to the west of the estate creating shelter and privacy for the main house.

Conkwell Grange Gates (Knight Frank)
Where Rolls-Royce’s have travelled. Modest gates leading into Conkwell Grange (Knight Frank)
Conkwell Grange Drive (Knight Frank)
The driveway leading through parkland towards Conkwell Grange (Knight Frank)
Conkwell Grange Garden (Knight Frank)
The house has far reaching views towards the Avon Valley and Salisbury Plain (Knight Frank)

¹Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser (22 Jun 1907)
²Gloucestershire Echo (1 Apr 1939)
³Western Daily Press (3 Jun 1939)
⁴Landed families of Britain and Ireland (Nicholas Kingsley)
⁵ Child migration: philanthropy, the state and the empire – Stephen Constantine, Lancaster University (History in Focus)
⁶“Caring for Hansen’s Disease – The Hospital & Homes of St. Giles 1914-2005” by Nicholas Best
⁷Cheltenham Chronicle (17 Jan 1931)

I am indebted to Richard Wardell-Yerburgh and Astra Towning for providing fascinating details about the colourful Arthur Wardell-Yerburgh.

In 1937 James Thornton was involved in an unusual incident at Bradford-on-Avon Police Court. While presiding as a magistrate he left the bench and entered the witness-box to answer a charge for failing to stop at a halt sign. Thornton, who pleaded guilty, said he had a lady passenger in the car at the time who attracted his attention talking about the beauty of some trees. In future, he said, he would fix a notice on his windscreen requesting passengers not to talk to the driver while they were approaching halt signs. He was fined £1, which he paid, and then returned to the bench to administer justice elsewhere. (Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – 18 Sep 1937)

Conkwell Grange,
Limpley Stoke, Bath, Wiltshire, BA2 7FD

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