“To all outward appearances the mansion had the appearance of being unoccupied, and the spacious garden was in the same neglected condition as it had been for many years.” One hundred years later, nothing has changed.
This week, one hundred years ago, the discovery of an illicit whisky still in an old mansion gave considerable food for gossip in a Leeds suburb.
The scene of the discovery was the century-old mansion known as Fernville House at Roundhay, which stood in rural splendour until it became overshadowed by what was known as the Fernville ‘Garden City’, a small colony of ‘modern’ residences.
The mansion house (also known as Fearneville) had been built about 1820 by a Leeds merchant, and Thomas Louis Oxley, a surgeon dentist, later lived here, letting about 100 acres of land as a farm. In the 1870s, the mansion with about 49-acres of pleasure grounds, had been occupied by William Middleton JP, and then Samuel Sykes, after which the estate was sold for development on garden city lines. The last tenant had been Alderman Alfred John Knowles (1836-1918), a well-known Leeds provisions merchant, and for the last ten years or so had been unoccupied.
In November 1918, negotiations had taken place which resulted in Fernville House being sold for £2,000 to a Jewish businessman, who, it was understood would turn the former country house into a business place. Those who had negotiated the sale had asked what the place was going to be used for, presuming that it would become a clothing factory. The reply had been a definite ‘no’.
The new owner had not been long in taking possession, and it had been understood by some people in the neighbourhood that the house was being used as a laundry. On Saturday 1 February 1919, two officers from the Leeds special police force had seen a large cask being driven away from the house on a cart. They weren’t satisfied with the explanation given as to the contents of the cask, and at midnight a raiding party of special and regular police had taken possession of the house.
The officers came across ample evidence that spirit distilling operations had been conducted here. An attempt had been made to wreck some of the plant, which was unmistakeably a whisky still, and several barrels were removed from the premises.
Neighbours at Fernville House told the Yorkshire Evening Post that no serious attempt had been made to put the mansion into a state fit for habitation. Joiners had been seen doing odd repairs, and to fix a new wooden gate to the entrance which led to outbuildings of the house. To all outward appearances the mansion had the appearance of being unoccupied, and the spacious garden was in the same neglected condition as it had been for many years.
In June 1919, writs were issued by the Commissioners of the Customs and Excise upon Joseph Levi, a wines and spirits merchant, in connection with the illicit whisky still. The total penalties imposed on Levi, his wife, Sarah, and two others amounted to £1,960. (Sarah Levi was again convicted for similar offences in 1930).
The events preceded what would turn out to be a torturous century ahead. One hundred years later, the condition of Fearnville House (as it is now known) is even more precarious than it was then.
During the early part of the twentieth century the Ralphes lived here. The land was sold in the 1950s and the house was converted into flats while still retaining the pillared porch and a fine staircase inside.
By the 1970s, the house was again derelict and seemingly abandoned entirely in 1993. The council had evicted its residents, boarded up the building and it has been left ever since. In 2008, it was sold on the instruction of Leeds City Council for £228,000. The following year it was sold again, reputedly to become a nursing home. The last planning application in 2012 was abandoned the following year after various objections, including opposition that the premises would need a long period of observation for bats, along with doubts from the coal board who stated previous mine workings might undermine the property. There was also a further rejection from the council’s Highways Department who said a nearby road would have to be made one-way and restrictions, due to the entrance width, meant the number of dwellings was unsustainable.
Fearnville House is now in perilous condition, its interiors collapsing, and the grounds open to vandals and fly-tippers. Now marooned within housing estates, it has been the subject of frequent visits from urban explorers, who, if nothing else, have at least highlighted the sad state that the once-grand house is now in.