A stately home – of agriculture
Up and down the country there were many places like Hall Place, almost abandoned by their owners, for few could afford the upkeep of a big house. Some had been converted into flats, others had been taken for schools and institutions, but many were falling into decay, their ruin hastened by the gangs of lead stealers who were roving the country and stripping the valuable lead from the roofs, and by young hooligans who hurled a brick at the windows as they passed.
It was the 1940s, and attitudes to country houses was indifferent. Many thought that some of these houses weren’t worth saving, but many had been built with a care and skill in workmanship which couldn’t be found in post war Britain. Future generations may well have regretted the indifference of this one to the homes of England’s past.
Hall Place, in the parish of Hurley, between Henley and Maidenhead, had been built in 1728 and stood in its grounds and gardens of 14 acres on a deer park of 128 acres. With its farms and woodland, the whole estate was 484 acres – a landmark 300 feet above the Thames flowing in the valley below.
There had been a house here since 1234, replaced by a 14th century house by John Lovelace and finally the mansion constructed over a seven-year period by William East, a wealthy London lawyer. His son, another William, was born shortly after his death, and during his minority years the house was rented by the Duke of Buccleuch and then Lord Folkstone. On his death in 1819 it passed to Sir William East’s eldest son, Gilbert, but he died just nine years later. Hall Place was inherited by George Clayton, a nephew. Descending the family line until the extinction of the baronetcy in 1932, Hall Place was bought by Lady Frances Clayton East who lived in the south wing until the outbreak of World War Two. Hall Place was requisitioned by the Government and in 1943, 1,025 acres of the estate were purchased under a Compulsory Order by the Ministry of Agriculture.
The house had remained empty but in November 1949, through the Berkshire Education Committee, the house had come to life again. Berkshire County Council had bought Hall Place, Home (now Top) Farm and 148 acres for use as the Berkshire Institute of Agriculture (the remaining 541 acres were used for the relocation of the Grassland Research Institute). At Hall Place, farmers’ sons, sons of agricultural workers, and recruits into agriculture, all of whom had at least one year’s experience of farming, would spend a year in the practical application of scientific knowledge and modern methods of farming designed for those who intended to make the land their livelihood.
Thirty-seven students had just started the first term of their year at the new Institute, though its departments were no way complete. Governors, staff and students were combining in a planning effort in every direction, the fertility of the land had to be improved – livestock raised, trees to be lopped, scrubland reclaimed, field water supplies extended, and buildings renovated and modified to meet the modern standards of livestock husbandry.
The Berkshire undertaking was a big one, but undoubtedly constructive – an English heritage was being preserved, and a band of young men were being equipped to meet the problems of the land.
In 1968 the Institute was re-named as a College by which time a substantial programme of extension and development was in progress and which is continuing to the present day.