Category Archives: DEMOLISHED HOUSES


Drayton Manor 1 (LH)
Drayton Manor, Staffordshire. Built for Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet, in 1831-33. (Lost Heritage)

It is sad to think that for several generations the name ‘Drayton Manor’ invokes images of a popular theme park. However, this wasn’t always the case and until the 1920’s was famous for being a grand mansion, the family seat of the Peel lineage.

The rise of the Peel baronetcy

The Drayton Manor estate was sold to Robert Peel (1750-1830), a farming and textiles man from Lancashire, about 1790. He was made a Baronet in 1800, but it was his son, Robert (1788-1850), that brought the greatest honours to the family. He became Prime Minister to Queen Victoria and, as Home Secretary, had created the London Metropolitan Police Force. Shortly after becoming 2nd Baronet he set about building a new mansion, 30 yards away from the old hall, and adopting designs from Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867), the architect behind Covent Garden Theatre, Lansdowne House and the British Museum.

Drayton Manor 1843 (LH)
A print of  the newly-built Drayton Manor, shown here in 1843. (Lost Heritage)

Building work started in 1831 and was completed at a cost of £50,000 in 1833. It was a quadrangular stone mansion, in the Elizabethan style, of considerable extent, but without any ostentatious display of architecture, either internally or externally. A large corridor, or gallery, in the centre of the building, had its walls covered with fine works of art, as well as almost every available space on the staircase and elsewhere; and it was to his credit that almost every picture was by a famous painter. Its crowning glory was a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1843. The art collection grew so quickly that Smirke’s younger brother, Sydney Smirke, returned in 1846 to build a new gallery wing to the north-west angle of the mansion, extending westward for about 100 feet. The exterior was embellished with statues of Rubens, Vandyke, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Robert Peel 1788-1850 (National Gelleries Scotland)
Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850). Prime Minister to Queen Victoria. (National Galleries Scotland)

Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet, died in 1850 and the estate passed to his son, another Robert Peel (1822-1895), who managed the estate in a robust manner. It was said of him that his greatest misfortune was in being the son of his father. An eloquent speaker, a fine presence, a daring actor, very irritable and impatient, he was unable to forget that his father had been Prime Minister. He also had to contend with a darkening cloud of the horizon in the shape of his son, yet another Robert Peel (1867-1925), who rebelled against the values that his grandfather, the 2nd baronet, had established.

A bit of a fool; a man without a conscience!

Robert Peel, the younger, had served as a Lieutenant in the Staffordshire Yeomanry, wrote two books – ‘A Bit of a Fool’ and ‘An Engagement’ – but his standing in society could not protect him from a weakness for gambling. Here was a man who had ‘broken the bank’ in Monaco netting no less that £12,000. However, his losses were greater than his winnings, and in 1893 had been declared bankrupt. When his father, the 3rd Baronet, died in 1895 he might have been forgiven for thinking his problems were behind him. However, just three years later he was a confirmed bankrupt for a second time. It happened again in 1901, 1903 and 1910, each time managing to avoid paying back any of his creditors. His marriage to Mercedes, daughter of Baroness de Graffenried, of Switzerland, in 1897, might have provided respite but it was a false hope.

Sir Robert Peel (1867-1925) (BNA)
Sir Robert Peel, 4th Baronet (1867-1925). He lost the Peel fortune. (British Newspaper Archive)

By the time of his final insolvency trustees had been appointed to manage his finances, paying him a yearly allowance up to £1,800. Robert had sold some of the Drayton Manor gallery in 1900 (and rented the house to Mr Eugene Kelly of New York) but still owed £1,700 with no assets of his own. He claimed the situation had arisen after losing £1,000 through opening the grounds at Drayton Manor on public holidays. He had provided three bands of the Household Brigade and firework displays but it had been a loss-making undertaking. However, his creditors claimed reckless extravagance; one said he demanded a taxi to wait for him outside his London home at Burlington Gardens but rarely emerged before midday. “Sir Robert is living at Drayton Manor as a tenant for life, and he had his usual servants and retinue. He also went about in a motor-car and usually travelled first class by rail.”¹

Drayton Manor 2 (LH)
Drayton Manor showing the glory of its gardens. It was demolished in 1926. (Lost Heritage)

The house is erased from history; the rise of the pleasure garden

For the rest of his life Sir Robert, still unwilling to pay back creditors, couldn’t escape the financial burden. In 1911 he declared that he had severed all connections with Drayton Manor and wrote an open letter to his tenants thinly explaining his reasons. It was a deception because he never actually left the house. When war was declared in 1914 he offered Drayton Manor as a sanatorium or hospital to naval and military authorities, but was most likely a feeble attempt to delay the inevitable.

In July 1917 Mr Justice Sargeant directed that the remaining contents of Drayton Manor should be sold by public auction. For the next year the Peel treasures were sold off piece-meal – “The fine things which Sir Robert Peel (2nd Bt.) collected with such care and taste have been dispersed by those who came after him.”² In November 1917 the family estates in Lancashire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire were put up for sale.

Staffordshire Advertiser 26 June 1926
Sale of fixtures and fittings in June 1926. (BNA)

The Drayton Manor estate was sold off in lots in 1919, but mysteriously the mansion was withdrawn at the last-minute. A troubled Sir Robert Peel died at Drayton Manor in 1925. The remaining portions of the original estate were offered at auction in April 1926, the mansion being sold to Mr G.H. King of Aberdeen for £6,780 who also bought the adjoining stables for £400. Later that year demolition work began with speculation that the site of the mansion-house and the park farm adjoining might be developed as a garden city.

Entrance Hall to Drayton Manor (BNA)
Drayton Manor. Entrance Hall in 1898 (British Newspaper Archive)
The Library (BNA)
Drayton Manor. The Library in 1898. (British Newspaper Archive)
Dining Room (BNA)
Drayton Manor. The Dining Room in 1898. (British Newspaper Archive)
Old Picture Gallery (BNA)
Drayton Manor. Old Picture Gallery in 1898. (British Newspaper Archive)
New Picture Gallery (BNA)
Drayton Manor. New Picture Gallery in 1898. (British Newspaper Archive)
A rare photo of Drayton Manor, looking across from the lake. (Nicholas Kingsley)

Mr George Handley, of King’s Heath, visited Drayton Manor in 1927: “A few days ago I revisited Drayton Manor, but not the mansion. No it wasn’t there! All I could discern was the place it once occupied. Gazing on a scene of desolation of confused heaps of bricks and rubbish, it appeared to me to resemble the excavations of an ancient site than the mere debris of a modern mansion! I tried to trace the path of the building but without success. Everything I remembered (excepting the clock tower) had been ‘wiped off the map’. Heaving a sigh I was unable to suppress, I turned away from the scene of the devastation the ‘house-breaker’ had so effectively wrought, and recalled what I still remembered of that once noble building – a building which attested to the genius of its architect, Sir Robert Smirke and also the consummation of the hopes and ambitions of the first baronet.”³

A sad end to Drayton Manor. Demolition of the house in 1926. (Nicholas Kingsley)

In 1931 Mr D. R. Fox, a well-known Lichfield sportsman and garage proprietor, bought the grounds and gardens of Drayton Manor and converted them into pleasure grounds. For the next eighteen years they proved to be a popular tourist attraction with two lakes, spectacular gardens and a café. They passed into the ownership of Mr Charles Deakin who, in 1949 announced that he was negotiating a sale to Mr and Mrs George Bryan, whose family had experience running a similar facility, ‘California-in-England’, near Wokingham. They proposed to restore the grounds to their former beauty and to add many new innovations. The rest, as they say, is history!

Drayton Manor (Express)
The site of Drayton Manor. Now a popular theme park in Staffordshire (The Express)
Drayton Manor Clock Tower (Geograph)
All that remains of Drayton Manor. The Clock Tower was spared demolition. (Geograph)

The treasures from Drayton Manor were scattered far and wide. In 1928 it was reported that a bath from Queen Victoria’s visit in 1843 was on display at the Crane Co showrooms, next door to the New Convention Hall, in Atlantic City.

In 1961, the Birmingham Daily Post, reported on four sculptured figures found at Messrs. Bateman Ltd in Knowle. These had stood on the roof at Drayton Manor and were sold in 1926 to the then owner of the salvage yard. In the catalogue these had been described as Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Joshua Reynolds and the younger William Pitt. However, according to the newspaper, two of the statues appeared to be Elizabethan figures, speculating that the nearer one might have been Sir Francis Drake.

¹Birmingham Mail. 7 December 1914.
²Tamworth Herald. 27 October 1917.
³Tamworth Herald. 9 April 1927.

Drayton Manor,
Drayton Manor Drive, Mile Oak, Tamworth, B78 3TW



Sutton Hall 2 (LH)
Sutton Hall was offered as a convalescent home or for institutional use before being demolished in the early 1940s. (Lost Heritage)

Sutton Hall, at Sutton-in-Craven, was built in 1894 by John William Hartley, the reclusive bachelor- owner of Greenroyd Mill (founded by Peter Hartley in 1830) and a throwback to the flourishing days of the textile industry. It was built with views across the Aire Valley and on completion contained a Reception Hall, Morning Room, Dining Room, Library, Drawing Room, Billiard Room as well as 7 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a lavatory. It also contained a large attic as well as the centrally-placed ‘Tower Room’. It was lit with gas but had been wired for electricity with state-of-the-art central heating. The house was so big that it was said to have never been completely furnished

On J.W. Hartley’s death, in 1909, he was said to own ‘practically all the houses in Sutton, and also the larger part of the farms on the hillside hear the village’ as well as an estate near Pateley Bridge. The estate passed to a cousin, Miss Emma Hartley, who sold the mill in 1911 due to the poor economic climate and the decline in the textile trade. She died in 1930 and Sutton Hall was left to Ernest Hartley but he only had possession for two years. When he died in 1932 there was a conundrum as to who should inherit the hall. His eldest son, George Clifford Hartley, would have succeeded to the estate had he reached his majority before his father died. However, he failed this by three weeks and, under the deed, couldn’t succeed because he was a minor. This left the bizarre scenario that Ernest Hartley’s brother Allen, a Morecambe bus conductor, might inherit if the title could be proved.

In the end the estate did pass to George Clifford Hartley but he had no intention of keeping Sutton Hall and put it up for sale in 1933. He cleared the contents of the house in a series of auctions that included mahogany, oak and walnut bedroom suites, Axminster and Brussels carpets, oil paintings, watercolours and silverware.

Sutton Hall 1 (LH)
Bidding for Sutton Hall started at £1,000 and just managed to reach £3,000. It had cost £40,000 to build 39 years before. (Lost Heritage)

Considering that it had cost nearly £40,000 to build just 39 years earlier the decline of the British country house was highlighted when it was sold to Ernest Turner, a Keighley builder and contractor, for just £3,000. The estate covered an area of approximately 25 acres, including Sutton Hall, lodges, garages and stables, and the timbered grounds and park. Turner immediately advertised it as being ‘suitable’ as a convalescent home or a public or private institution. There were no interested buyers and in 1934 he proposed dividing it into five flats. He gave 6½ acres of adjoining woodland to Sutton Parish Council, but the rest of the estate was developed into what he called ‘a kind of garden city – the first and the finest in this neighbourhood’, a project which involved the demolition of Sutton Hall itself in the early 1940s.

Lost Heritage


Mells Park 1 (LH)
In 1724 Thomas Strangways Horner commissioned Nathaniel Ireson to build the first Park House, and the family moved there from Mells Manor House. His nephew Thomas Horner expanded the park and planted extensive woodlands, a work continued by his son Colonel Thomas Strangways Horner. (Lost Heritage)

Mells Park
 (or Park House), near Frome in Somerset, was lost almost 100 years ago. The house had been built in 1724 when Thomas Strangways Horner commissioned Nathaniel Ireson to build a new mansion in an ‘H’ shape, and the family moved there from Mells Manor House. In 1900 the Horner’s, finding it too expensive to run, left Park House and moved back into Mells Manor House. The house was rented to Mr G.T. Bates, of Edward Bates and Sons, ship owners of Liverpool, until his death in April 1917. His effects were removed and the mansion was redecorated and furnished with a view to the Horner family again going into residence.

The evening of 11th October, 1917, was cold and miserable with driving rain. At about 8.00pm the Misses Horner, daughters of Sir John Fortescue Horner, spotted flames coming from Mells Park. With only a caretaker and his wife on the premises it was left to Sir John Horner and William Bexter, agent of the estate, to summon help and try and put the fire out. The rising wind carried the flames into the older part of the building, and the blaze quickly spread along all three sides. The ferocity of the fire meant efforts were instead diverted into saving the most valuable pieces of furniture, family pictures and books.

Mells Park 2 (LH)
The burnt out shell of Mells Park with salvaged furniture stacked up outside. (Lost Heritage)

The house might have been saved had it not been for a series of unfortunate mishaps involving the fledgling fire brigade. Initially the Frome Fire Brigade had been summoned but was unable to find horses. Instead they travelled to Mells Park by motor managing to arrive by 9.30pm. By this time the fire was out of control and the Radstock Fire Brigade was summoned to assist, but it appears that the motor drawing their engine got stuck in mud on route. The Bath Fire Brigade were telephoned but they declined to set out as Mells Park was considered too far to travel. In the end only the bare walls survived and the only portions saved were the stables and electric station. The cause of the fire remained a mystery but it was thought to have started in a heating apparatus chamber.

Mells Park 4
It was the end for the house. The Horner family stayed at Mells Manor House and the following year there was a sale of valuable furniture, china, prints, watercolours, carpets and rugs that were salvaged from the fire. The architect Edwin Lutyens tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Horner’s to rebuild Park House and it took until 1924, when they let it to Reginald McKenna (Chairman of the Midland Bank and married to a Horner niece), on the understanding that they would rebuild the house. Lutyens finally rebuilt Mells Park in a more modest scale neoclassical style in 1925.

Mells Park 3 (Lutyens Trust)
Edwin Lutyens rebuilt Park House in neoclassical style in 1925. He built a two-storey, hip-roofed house in Bath stone, on the outline of the previous building, and joined it onto the surviving arcaded service court. (Lutyens Trust)

Lost Heritage


Billing Hall 1 (Lost Heritage)
In 1779, Robert Cary Elwes, of Roxby, Lincolnshire bought Billing Hall, which by then had been rebuilt in the Palladian style by John Carr for the property’s previous owner, Lord John Cavendish, in 1776. (Lost Heritage)

 Hall (or Great Billing Hall as it was once known) was built on land owned by the Barry family. It was constructed about 1629 but substantially altered as a Georgian-style mansion by Lord John Cavendish about 1776.

The Elwes family arrived in 1790 and stayed for the next 140 years. Its most famous resident was Gervase Elwes, a tenor singer, who in 1921 while in Boston, USA, had a dreadful accident: he was retrieving an overcoat belonging to another passenger that had fallen from the train and fell between the platform and the train and died of his injuries.

Billing Hall was sold to the Musicians Benevolent Fund in 1931 by Geoffrey Elwes who moved to the run-down Elsham Hall, near Brigg, in Lincolnshire to make the family home habitable again. The proposal was to make BillingHall a home for aged musicians (in memory of Gervase Elwes) but the £50,000 cost to upgrade the mansion proved a stumbling block. There was talk of placing the mansion in the hands of house-breakers and the idea was eventually abandoned several years later.

Billing Hall was put up for sale in 1937 and was acquired by Drury and Co, Northamptonshire builders, who intended to demolish the house and erect a number of period and character-type houses in the grounds. However, uncertainty in the housing market halted plans and the house was probably rented out during the war years.

Billing Hall 2 (Lost Heritage)
Great Billing Pocket Park in Northampton now occupies what was once part of the Billing Hall estate. (Lost Heritage)

In 1945 the house and its 17 acres of woodland was bought by the Northampton Brewery Company Ltd. Two years later it announced plans to convert the house into a four-star hotel at a cost of £25,000 with longer term ambitions to add a further 30 bedrooms. Mr R.C. Vaughan representing the company said: “It was going to seed and falling into dilapidation… becoming an eyesore… it has been abandoned for some years now.”

It would appear the hotel plans never materialised but the brewery company retained possession. Installing a handyman and caretaker (who spent many years rebuilding estate walls) the house remained empty. In 1952 the Northampton Brewery Company decided to take advantage of Northampton’s growing population and its close travelling distance to London. It started to sell off plots of land and build ‘large’ private houses in the estate grounds. This inevitably led to the demolition of Billing Hall in 1956.

Lost Heritage


Scruton Hall 2 (Scruton History)
Scruton Hall was built on moorland on which the Scots fought a battle with the English in the 14th century. In the 1950’s, Scruton woodlands and farms, its park and Hall, were sold as part of the winding up of the Coore estate. (Scruton History)

The death of Mrs Marion Evelyn Coore in February 1953 brought an end to the family’s long tenure at Scruton Hall and in July most of the pretty village of Scruton, in the Hambleton district of North Yorkshire, went under the hammer. In addition to the hall, the 1,100 acre estate included 5 farms, the village shop and post office, cottages and small houses and a large area of timber.

The estate at Scruton came into the possession of Dr Thomas Gale, later Dean of York, in 1678. Scruton Hall, a Queen Anne country house, had been built by Roger Gale in 1705. Before that the estate had been owned by the Danby family of Thorpe Perrow. It passed into the possession of the Coore family when Harriet Gale married Lieutenant-Colonel Foster Lechmere Coore in 1816.

The hall was subject of a building preservation order as of special architectural and historical interest and came with the title of ‘Lord of the Manor of Scruton’ but not the patronage of the living of Scruton, which had been left to the Bishop of Ripon in Marion Evelyn Coore’s will.

The sale of the contents attracted a crowd of more than 1,400 who snapped up furniture, artworks, china and silverware. More than £5,500 was raised, one of the highest bids being for a silver tankard believed to have been given by Charles II to Barbara Villiers. It had been made by John Plummer of York in 1664, and was bought for £460 by Mr A. Craven Smith Milnes of Hocherton Manor, Southwell, whose wife was actually a member of the Coore family.

Scruton Hall 1
Scruton Hall in 1900. The central portion was built by Roger Gale around 1705. He was the MP for Northallerton four times and the first Vice President of the Society of Antiquarians. The two wings were added in Victorian times. Originally Called Scruton House, the building was re-named Scruton Hall when the medieval manor house, Scruton High Hall, was demolished in the late eighteenth century. (Scruton History)

The estate was sold in 38 lots reaching a value of £61,545 and Scruton Hall itself was sold to J.W. Tunnicliffe, timber merchants of Silsden, who paid £14,600. They bought the property primarily for the timber on the 60 acres of woodland but were unsure what to do with the mansion.

Within 12 months they had made an inquiry to Bedale Rural Council about demolition who were obliged to inform the North Riding Planning Committee that while they didn’t want to see the property demolished they couldn’t suggest a use for it. The view of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was that the structure of the hall was sound and wanted to see it preserved if possible. Despite its preservation order Scruton Hall was eventually stripped, allowed to decay, and sadly demolished between 1956 and 1958.

Scruton Hall 3 (Darlington Stockton Times)

Scruton History
Lost Heritage


Ewanrigg Hall was once lived in by the Christian family, whose most famous member was Fletcher Christian leader of the mutiny on HMS Bounty. Pictured before demolition in 1903.

Built: Probably 1753

Architect; Unknown
Owner: Home Group
Remains of country house
Grade II listed

“Formerly a late C18 mansion, now reduced to provide a farmhouse and buildings. Only intact portion is present farmhouse to the right, of 2 storeys in red sandstone ashlar with slated roof. 3 windows above triple-arcaded ground floor with 2 windows with later hung sashes with glazing bars and centre door of 6 fielded panels with 3-light rectangular fanlight.” (Historic England)

When fire destroyed an empty farmhouse at Maryport in August 2015 there were few tears shed. Its previous owner John Dixon had died in 2012 and the farm had been allowed to deteriorate. The cause of the fire was never determined but suspicion pointed to the work of a grubby arsonist.

Whoever started the fire probably didn’t realise that the farmhouse, rather grandly called Ewanrigg Hall, held long forgotten secrets. The flames would eventually consume the first floor and deprive the building of its roof. Only an exposed lintel with the date 1753 offered any clue to its previous existence.

Firefighters dampen down the smouldering remains of Ewanrigg Hall, Maryport, which was gutted by fire in August 2015 (Paul Johnston)

Here was the last remnant of a grand house that once stood proudly on the site. For this was once the west wing of Ewanrigg Hall, a late 18th century country house and seat of the Christian family of Cumberland for many generations.

The fire might not have meant a tragic end to Ewanrigg but it certainly reflected its circumstances over the past centuries. The house appears not to have been a particularly happy one. Whilst the Christians were Lord of the Manor there were several occasions when the house was unsuccessfully offered for sale and numerous times it was occupied by live-in tenants. In the end it proved to be a millstone for the family who were eventually rid of it by the end of the 19th century.

The Christian family had originally settled in the Isle of Man and held chief public offices in the little principality for generations. Their connection with the Ewanrigg estate came about in the late 17th century through circumstances which afford a curious illustration of the manners of the period. The Bishop of Sodor and Man liked to ease the burden of his duties by gambling and, on one unfortunate night, lost a small fortune to Ewan Christian. From his winnings Christian was able to buy the estate and manor of Ewanrigg in Cumberland. Writing in 1688 Mr. Thomas Denton, the County Historian, said “Mr Ewan Christian hath built a good house out of the shell of an old tower,” which suggests it may originally have been an old pele tower.

A hand-tinted image of the impressive Ewanrigg Hall from the times of the Christian family.

Ewan was blessed with five sons and ten daughters. His successor, John, married a Senhouse of Netherhall, and their eldest daughter, Mary, married Dr. Law, afterwards Bishop of Carlisle, and became the mother of the first Lord Ellenborough, who chose that title in consequence of having been born at Ewanrigg Hall, close to the village of Ellenborough. John Christian’s second son, also John, became his successor and married a Curwen of Workington Hall, and their son, John, marrying his cousin – the heiress of the Curwens – took his wife’s name, and as John Christian Carwen, M.P. for Cumberland, acquired fame as a politician and as an agriculturalist.

John Christian’s sixth son, Charles, was an attorney at Cockermouth, and married the granddaughter of Jacob Fletcher, who was descended from William Fletcher who built Cockermouth Hall. Their sixth son was Fletcher Christian, the ill-fated and infamous ‘Mutineer of the Bounty’.

Ewanrigg Hall was rebuilt as a spectacular stone-built house in the late 18th century (probably 1753) with views of the Solway Firth and the Scottish mountains beyond. Within there was a large drawing room, a breakfast room, library and eight good-sized bedrooms. The walls of the tower were reputed to be over 5 feet thick. It was also the setting for  Limmeridge House in Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’, chosen by him when he was travelling through Cumberland with Charles Dickens.

The abandoned Ewanrigg Hall was the subject of numerous ghost stories by Maryport locals.

For many years it was occupied by Henry Taubmen Christian who died in 1859. Unfortunately, his widow soon descended into madness and ended her years at Dunston Lodge Lunatic Asylum in Gateshead. The house was left unoccupied, ‘a deserted and decaying mansion’, where ghosts were said to haunt its corridors and where ‘no tenant could be found with enough temerity to take it’. In 1895 the house and its 600 acre estate was offered for auction by order of the Court of Chancery. No purchaser was forthcoming but in 1897 it was sold to Mr. J.R. Twentyman, a wealthy tea trader who lived in Shanghai, and who had previously bid for Dalston Hall.

Twentyman spent most of his time in China with seemingly little intention of living at Ewanrigg Hall. It was offered to rent but remained empty falling into further disrepair.

It might be suggested that the condition of the house worried Twentyman. Without doubt he was looking for an impressive property in which to display his massive collection of oriental furniture and relics. He pondered on the large amount of money needed to restore Ewanrigg and considered turning his back on it.

In 1903 Twentyman made one of his frequent journeys to China but not before making an important decision. He had set his heart on another property and had decided to buy Kirby Misperton Hall near Malton in Yorkshire. He realised the disposal of Ewanrigg might not be so easy and looked for ways in which the estate might pay for itself. In the end he saw agriculture as the most likely way to achieve it. This meant demolishing the bulk of the house with two-storeys pulled down in the central block – the ground floor now used for cowsheds for the adjacent hall farm. A new farmhouse was created at the west end of the house which was the only part not disturbed and still known today as Ewanrigg Hall. Eight years later the farm was sold for £12,000.

The majority of the house was demolished with two-storeys removed from central block.

And this is how Ewanrigg Hall survived for the next 100 years; its unique identity slowly forgotten until someone tried to destroy it completely. There is almost a happy end to the story. In 2016 the then owner of the farm, Kevin Thompson, announced plans to demolish part of the historic hall as part of a major homes plan. Allerdale Council approved plans for the Grade II listed building and convert it into two houses and four flats. Outline planning permission was also granted to build 124 homes nearby.

Unfortunately the project never started and in 2017 Ewanrigg Hall was sold to the Home Group who plan to convert it into five homes and build a further 125 homes on surrounding land.

The fire destroyed the first floor and roof section of Ewanrigg Hall, Maryport. (Paul Johnson)

Ewanrigg Hall,
Ewanrigg, Maryport, Cumbria, CA15 8SD


Built: 1821-1826. Main part demolished in 1935
Architect James Trubshaw
Owner: National Trust under lease to the Youth Hostels Association  

Youth Hostel
Grade II* listed

Family mansion of considerable dignity and splendour, erected of freestone in a most substantial manner, the masonry being very strong and durable, principally in the Tudor style of architecture, with Norman towers. The mansion contains 40 principal, secondary, and servants’ bed-chambers, besides dressing rooms, men’s rooms, etc.; a noble suite of reception rooms and private apartments, lately re-decorated, and extensive domestic offices. . There is good stabling for 11 horses, a large carriage house and out buildings. (Morning Post, 5th July, 1885)

‘It is popularly thought that the road by the river side approaching Ilam Hall is the scene of the ‘Happy Valley’ in Johnson’s ‘Rasselas’ , and here, no doubt, Congreve when a youth wrote his celebrated comedy of the ‘Old Bachelor’ and a part of the ‘Mourning Bride’.’

The story of Ilam Hall is typical of many country houses. It was built on the riches of industry and became a showy country retreat for two prominent men. However, the advent of the 20th-century marked a rapid and quite remarkable decline in its fortunes.

The Ilam estate stands on land that used to be part of Burton-on-Trent Abbey. Around it sweeps the rich and lovely Vale of Ilam embellished with hanging woodland and views towards the swelling hills of limestone around Dovedale. At its extremity are the River Hamp and River Manifold, which after taking separate subterranean courses emerge and unite to form a wide river at the valley bottom.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries the land passed to William Paget, Principal Private Secretary to the King, who sold the manor to John Port in 1547. The Port family built a Tudor mansion on the ridge over the river and remained there for the next 250 years.

Old Hall at Ilam (
The old hall at Ilam built by the Port family and later demolished  (

With its beauty came its remoteness. A tale is told of the old Countess of Shrewsbury, who visited Ilam Hall, in the days when the roads were dreadful and carriages extremely uncomfortable. On her arrival from Alton Towers she inspected the beauty of the ‘Happy Valley’ with her companion, the Rev. Bernard Port. He proudly exclaimed, “Now my lady, you are in Paradise.” Her ladyship turned on the parson and retorted, “I thought that must be so, for sure, we’ve been in purgatory all the way we’ve come.”¹

In the end, its isolation probably contributed to its downfall.

David Pike Watts (NPG)
David Pike Watts (1754-1816) (NPG)

In 1809 the house and estate was sold to David Pike Watts, an extremely wealthy brewer and vintner, of Portland Place in London. His daughter and heiress, Mary (1792-1840), married Jesse Russell in 1811 and here the story of Ilam Hall really begins.

Jesse Watts-Russell (1786-1875)

Jesse Russell was the son of Mr Jesse Russell, a successful soap boiler of Goodman’s Yard, Minories, residing at Walthamstow, and Elizabeth Russell, the daughter and heiress of Mr Thomas Noble, of Boroughbridge, in Yorkshire.

He was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and took his Bachelor’s degree in 1808, presiding his Master of Arts in 1811 as a ‘Grand Compounder’. Russell appears to have taken little interest in his father’s business and by the time of his marriage was resident in Staffordshire.

The newly-weds made Ilam Hall their principal home and inherited the property on the death of David Pike Watts in 1816. From here on Jesse Russell adopted the Watts name by Royal Licence and by this marriage had four daughters and four sons. He became High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1819.

On the death of his father in 1820, Jesse Watts-Russell was a very wealthy man. He inherited half-share of estates in Essex and a third-share in the remaining fortune. In the same year he became the M.P. for Gatton. Combining the two family fortunes he made plans to build a new house at Ilam to compete with the Earl of Shrewsbury’s grand house at Alton Towers.

The first part of the process was to clear Ilam Hall of its historical contents. In November 1820 he auctioned household furniture and fittings including chimney-pieces, plate glass windows and doors.² Later he commissioned James Trubshaw (1777-1853) to build a new hall to the designs of John Shaw (1776-1832). Work commenced in 1821 and was completed by 1826.

Ilam Hall Auction 1820 (Derby Mercury)
The writer, Ebenezer Rhodes (1762-1839), visited the new Ilam Hall in 1823 and reported his findings in the publication of Peak Scenery, or the Derbyshire Tourist in 1824:-

‘Ilam Hall, though not entirely finished, had a grand effect even at a distance; approaching nearer, the detail began to display itself, and the general design and arrangement to be clearly understood. On a verdant knoll, a little above the margin of the river manifold, that ran rippling and sparkling through the meadows below, I stopped to gaze upon the new mansion at Ilam, which is truly a noble structure, and a proof of the professional skill and taste of the architect (John Shaw, Esq., of Bedford Square, London). The principal part of the building, with its large bay windows, octagonal projections, and richly ornamented parapets, is in that peculiar style of architecture which was fashionable in the reign of Elizabeth; but there are portions of this structure that nearly a-similate with the gothic, both in character and ornament, and these are decidedly the finest and most imposing parts. The whole appears to be admirably contrived, both for picturesque effect and convenience: but the most beautiful feature in this noble mansion is the circular gothic lantern by which it is surrounded. It is not a paltry thing, made merely for the purpose of admitting light; its dimensions are ample, and perfectly in proportion with the capacious base on which it rests. The circle of which it is composed presents to the eye a series of pointed arches, resting on appropriate shafts: these, in connexion with each other, describe a circle, and constitute the framework of the lantern. Where light is wanted in the central part of a building, the dome is sometimes so constructed as to be a noble ornament: but the lantern at Ilam is a more noble contrivance, and one of the most tasteful and elegant architectural ornaments that ever adorned a building. I have mentioned a part only of what is already accomplished at Ilam: a museum, a splendid conservatory, and a picture gallery, upwards of eighty feet long, are intended to be added.’

Illam Hall 1 (Lost Heritage)
Ilam Hall in happier times. The main part of the house later demolished (Lost heritage)

In 1832 Jesse Watts-Russell put himself forward in the Conservative interest for North Staffordshire but was defeated by Sir Oswald Mosley and Sir Edward Buller. It was a gallant and determined fight and his supporters later descended on Ilam Hall to present him with a silver candelabra which stood four feet high.

Mary Watts-Russell died in 1840 but Jesse Watts-Russell would marry twice more. In 1843 he married Maria Ellen, daughter of Peter Barker of Bedford and, in 1862, Martha, daughter of John Leach of Wexford.

by George Salisbury Shury, published by Henry Graves & Co, after Eden Upton Eddis, mezzotint, published 16 September 1857
Jesse Watts-Russell ( 1786-1875)

In his later years Jesse Watts-Russell was in a poor state of health. He died at Ilam Hall on Good Friday in 1875 aged 88. His remains were interred in the family mausoleum at Ilam Church, a building rebuilt by Watts-Russell some years previous, following a quiet and unostentatious funeral. The sombre occasion did not pass without farce. The Rev. C.F. Broughton, of Snelston, was walking up the aisle of the church when he inadvertently stepped into the opening leading to the mausoleum and fell headlong sustaining severe bruising.³

Ilam Hall, along with estates in Derbyshire and Northamptonshire, passed to his eldest son, Jesse David Watts-Russell (1812-1879). However, the former M.P. for North Staffordshire, preferred the family’s other country house, Biggin House in Northamptonshire, and promptly made plans to dispose of Ilam Hall.

First to go was Jesse Watts-Russell’s collection of paintings ‘chiefly of the English school’ which were auctioned at Christie’s. The works included those by Landseer (St Bernard Dogs), Callcott (Dutch Fishing Boats), Collins (The Fisherman’s Return), Constable (Harwich Lighthouse), Turner (Two Street Views in Oxford) and Opie – considered eminent modern painters at the time – as well as a few old masters including A Wood Scene by Gainsborough.  Amongst the prized items was a portrait by Sir Peter Lely, of Congreve, with a landscape background. Also auctioned were a number of decorative objects including clocks, carved oak chimney-pieces, and statuary by Chantrey and Gibson.⁴

In August Ilam Hall was auctioned but failed to sell. Bidding started at £50,000 and reached £73,000 before stalling and promptly withdrawn. The presence of a private buyer in the background might have influenced the decision because, on the same day, the Staffordshire Journal was reporting that Ilam Hall had been bought by Mr Robert Hanbury, the M.P. for Tamworth.

Estate auction (Derby Mercury 30061885)
Ilam Hall  auction notice (1875)

Robert William Hanbury (1845-1903)

With a new owner at Ilam Hall there was still outstanding business in relation to its previous owner. Trustees of the late Jesse Watts-Russell put the library contents up for sale in 1876. The auction by Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge contained numerous important works which excited considerable competition.⁵

Library Sale (Morning Post 26011876)Robert William Hanbury was the only son of Mr Robert Hanbury and Mary Anne, of Bolehall House in Warwickshire. He was educated at Rugby and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, with adeptness at rowing. He had captained the Corpus boat when it was head of the river.

Hanbury had also travelled throughout the world – from the Holy Land “from Dan even into Beersheba” and explored Egypt a quarter of a century before the days of Kitchener’s “Express to Khartoum”.⁶

A man of importance he was a magistrate and Deputy-Lieutenant for Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire. From 1873 until 1880 he was a Captain in the Queen’s Own Royal Regiment of the Staffordshire Yeomanry. He sat as the M.P. for Tamworth between 1872 and 1878, a seat he vacated to become the short-lived M.P. for North Staffordshire. He would later become the elected M.P. for Preston in 1885. In 1895 he was appointed Financial Secretary by Lord Salisbury but the pinnacle of his parliamentary career was being made President of the Board of Agriculture and a place in the cabinet in 1900.

In 1874 Mr Hanbury made the overland tour to India by the Euphrates and Tigris, a route not often taken.  The journey through Asia Minor was carried out with comparative ease. Dervish Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister, placing at his disposal a troop of Turkish cavalry, to protect his caravan from possible attacks by marauding Arabs.

Robert Hanbury married Ismena Tindal, daughter of Thomas Morgan Gepp of Chelmsford, in 1869. She died in 1871 and he later married Ellen Hamilton Knox.

Hanbury was a man of wealth. He was the son of a country gentleman of ample fortune, and was left fatherless at an early age. Much of his wealth derived from collieries around Cannock Chase and he could now claim to be Lord of the Manor at Norton Canes, Ilam and Calton in Staffordshire.

The fact that Hanbury spent most of his time in London meant he took no part in local affairs and only sat on the local bench on two occasions. However, he used Ilam Hall to entertain political and other friends and was held in high esteem by farmers of the district. This was partly due to his role as Chairman of the Board of Agriculture for which he laboured for the domain of farming.

His stay at Illam Hall was one of improvement. He carried out a comprehensive scheme of electric lighting, power being obtained from the River Manifold. Hanbury’s plan was to power the hall, farm buildings, the church and the nearby village. He also improved the gardens and would personally supervise planting schemes and garden layouts.

Robert Hanbury (NPG)
Robert William Hanbury (1845-1903) (NPG)

The house was full of treasures, antiques and curios, gathered from all parts of the world. His most prized possession was said to be a short bronze sword, which was said to the oldest weapon extant, with an inscription showing its age. Hanbury had obtained it while making an overland journey from Europe to India, when he came across a colony of Franciscan monks at Nineveh, who presented him with the sword as a souvenir of his visit. The British Museum later declared it was Egyptian and, from the cuneiform characters three times repeated on it, had belonged to an Assyrian king reigning about 1300 BC.⁷

Hanbury’s second marriage to Ellen Hamilton, the only child of Colonel Knott Hamilton, took place in 1884. This marriage, like his first, produced no children,  but the couple settled down to life in London and at Ilam.

In April 1903 Hanbury returned to his home at Belgrave Square, London, after a short visit to Preston. The following day he entertained friends but left the dining table feeling ill. Dr Jones, his medical adviser, arrived shortly after and pronounced that Hanbury was suffering from a severe attack of pneumonia and influenza. A week later he grew much weaker and died on 28th April. At Ashbourne, where he was entitled to sit as a Magistrate, flags were flown at half-mast in recognition of the man.

Hanbury’s coffin was conveyed from Herbert House, in Belgrave Square, to Ilam and remained in the spacious hall covered with floral tributes. The funeral was mainly a local affair attended by villagers, tenants and farmers. The coffin was carried from the hall by twelve employees from the Coppice Colliery, Cannock Chase, in which Hanbury held a large interest. His body was finally laid to rest at Ilam Church, a stone’s throw from the house.

Ilam Hall’s remote location meant that most of his political colleagues attended a memorial service at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, instead. However, Lord Newport made the long journey as representative of the Prime Minister.  At the memorial service the Prince of Wales was represented, as also was Prince Christian. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Westminster, and practically every member of the cabinet was also in attendance.⁸

His death sparked a number of tributes, the most glowing coming from the Sussex Agricultural Express:-

“It has been said with truth that no one since the Board of Agriculture was called into existence did more to study the difficulties of the British landowner, the needs of the British farmer, and the circumstances of the agricultural labourer. Mr Hanbury during the closing months of his life laboured unweariedly to master this complex – perhaps insoluble – problem, and in the endeavour to do so, by personal inspection and inquiry, he amassed a fund of knowledge that has been lost with him.”

Robert Hanbury left personal estate to the net value of £104,667 (£204,000 at gross value) but the executors, his wife Ellen Hanbury and Charles Fisher, of the Coppice Colliery, would face difficult times ahead.

Ilam Hall image - from Derby Library (National Trust)
A recently discovered image of Ilam Hall  before demolition – from Derby Library (National Trust)
Ilam Hall today looking towards the church (House and Heritage)
Then and now. All that remains from above is the the circular fountain  – now a flower bed and  the square turreted tower to the right (House and Heritage)

Ellen Bowring-Hanbury (1861-1931)

Robert Hanbury’s coffin had barely been in the ground before widow Ellen Hanbury found herself a suitor. The fellow in question was Victor Henry Bowring (1867-1943), a close family friend who had attended the funeral.

The attachment was no surprise as Ellen Hanbury was regarded as a ‘strikingly beautiful and vivacious woman’. (In 1931 the Birmingham Mail reported that she was had been very popular with the miners at the Coppice Colliery. She had cut the first sod in 1892 when the pit was sunk and the miners had chosen to name the colliery ‘The Fair Lady’ after her.)

Bowring was the youngest son of Edgar Alfred Bowring, past M.P. for Exeter and former librarian and registrar to the Board of Trade as well as a former Royal Commissioner of the Great Exhibition of 1851. His grandfather had been Sir John Bowring whose adventurous career had been full enough for half a dozen lives. He had been kept in prison by the Bourbons in 1822 and after the French Revolution of 1830 had been the first Englishman received by Louis Philippe. He became Envoy and Minister Plenipotentiary to China, and involved Britain in the war with the Celestial Empire. On his way home he had been shipwrecked, and spent three days on a coral island without food or shelter before being rescued. He spent the rest of his days writing poetry and prose.

Victor Bowring had been educated at Cambridge and was a 36-year-old eligible bachelor living at 30 Eaton Place, London, as well as owning a country house near Brighton.  His family background opened doors to the upper crust with endless invitations to royal and aristocratic occasions. He might also have been called somewhat ‘eccentric’ – the press enchanted at his aptitude for embroidery and his ability to make curtain hangings for his mother’s home. (In 1925 he displayed his work in an exhibition.)

When his marriage to Ellen Hanbury was announced in February 1904 it was regarded as one of the most fashionable weddings of the year.

It was welcome relief for Ellen Hanbury as she had just concluded litigation with in the courts with respect to her late husband’s will. The question at issue was whether under the will Robert Hanbury had gifted his estate to his wife or whether she simply had life rent. The wording of the will proved  rather ambiguous –  “the whole of my real and personal estate absolutely and in full confidence that my wife will make such use of it as I should have made myself, and that at her death she will devise it to such one or more of my nieces as she may think fit.”

It would appear that Ellen Hanbury needed clarification as to her obligations to Robert’s seven nieces. We can only speculate as to the circumstances leading to the court action. Had the seven nieces wanted to benefit from Hanbury’s death or were they simply protecting their own interests? After all, provision had been made for them in his clumsily worded will, and the presence of Victor Bowring might well have been seen as a threat to any entitlement that they had a legal right to.

The will was subject to scrutiny and after several court cases ended up in the Appeal Court. The ruling was that Robert Hanbury had left his property absolutely to the widow without giving a reversionary interest to his nieces, leaving their future participation to the widow’s discretion.

It wasn’t until 1905 that the matter was resolved once and for all. After the nieces had appealed the original decision the matter returned to the House of Lords where the Lord Chancellor, in giving judgement, said he thought that it was quite clear what Robert Hanbury intended was to give his wife life interest in the property (a trust), and that at her death she should make such selection of his nieces as she thought fit. ⁹

The wedding took place at St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square, on Tuesday 16th February 1904. Despite being billed as one of the most anticipated weddings of the year it was attended by only twelve people. Ellen Hanbury wore a deep diamond collar and brooch which was reputed to have once belonged to Marie Antoinette.¹º Afterwards the party attended an informal reception at the Hyde Park Hotel. From now on the couple would be known as Victor and Ellen Bowring-Hanbury.

The newly-weds retreated to Victor Bowring-Hanbury’s house at Brighton before making their first visit to Ilam Hall in June. For the occasion the village was gaily decorated, the church bells rang and schoolchildren and villagers gave them a warm welcome. It also provided an opportunity to present them with a belated wedding gift – a beautiful rose bowl.¹¹

In December 1905 the Bowring-Hanbury name hit the headline again. This time it was news that Ellen Bowring-Hanbury had been robbed of £8,000 worth of jewellery while waiting with her maid at Euston Station for the train to take them back to Staffordshire. Among the items was a diamond tiara given to her by Robert Hanbury. The train had left London when the loss was discovered and after all efforts to find the jewels failed, the train was stopped by means of the communication cord.

The robbery captivated the press for the next two years. Ellen Bowring-Hanbury had originally offered a reward of £100 for information that would lead to the arrest of the jewel thief. This was boosted by £500 from the London police authorities and after a lapse of nearly seventeen months the Goldsmiths’ and Silversmiths’ Company of Regent Street offered a further £1,000. In the end the jewellery was never recovered, believed to have been spirited away to America where the jewels were broken up and the gold melted.¹²

Ellen Bowring-Hanbury in 1906 (The Tatler)
Ellen Bowring-Hanbury in 1906 (The Tatler)

In July 1910 Victor and Ellen Bowring-Hanbury made their first attempt to dispose of the Ilam Hall estate. However, with the terms of the will in mind the reserve price was set by the Court of Chancery. At the Royal Hotel, Derby, the house and the estate were put up for auction. It was originally offered as one lot but, with no bids forthcoming, the sale was split into several lots. Lot 1 included the hall, grounds and farms, amounting to 852-acres. The bidding opened at £35,000 and reached £38,500 before the auctioneer, Mr Howard G. Frank of Knight, Frank and Rutley, referred to a sealed envelope that contained the reserve price. With the final offer failing to reach reserve the estate remained unsold.¹³

Ilam Hall Auction Notice 1910 (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer)
Ilam Hall auction notice from 1910

Events might suggest that the Victor and Ellen Bowring-Hanbury were living beyond their means. Future events would dictate that Victor Bowring-Hanbury was not the best guardian of financial matters and the family wealth was obviously tied up in Ellen’s inherited estate. In 1911 Knight, Frank and Rutley offered for sale 30 lots of Ellen Bowring-Hanbury’s fortune which realised over £50,000 and included Worcestershire and Derbyshire properties.¹⁴

Ilam Hall, however, remained a sticking point, and the couple would remain at the house until 1926. By now Ellen was an invalid and ill-health forced Victor to be virtually house-bound. Every year he would make the long journey to Brighton for a few months but seldom left the house.

In August 1926 the Ilam Hall was once again put up for auction, still governed by a high court order concerning the settled estates of Robert Hanbury. The sale took place at the Midland Hotel, Derby, under the direction of Knight, Frank and Rutley. Bidding for the whole estate started at £15,000 and reached £28,000 before being withdrawn. The sale was split into lots and Ilam Hall and its grounds were once again withdrawn at £7,000. The sale was further split and Ilam Hall once again withdrawn when bidding reached £3,500.¹⁵

Victor and Ellen-Bowring left Ilam Hall and took up residence at 5 Belgrave Square. It was another year before Ilam Hall was finally sold by private treaty.

Ellen Bowring-Hanbury died in March 1931 leaving unsettled property to the value of £26,395. The residue of her property went to Victor Bowring-Hanbury who went on to sell parts of her art collection, among them some ten pastels by Dunkarton, and works by Gainsborough Dupont, Hickel, Hurter, King and Morland.

Victor Bowring-Hanbury became a ‘society sensation’ of the 1930’s. The house at Belgrave Square contained old masters, rare china and old furniture, which he valued at over £150,000. However, some of the collection had been collected without the means to pay for it. In 1935, while Victor was spending the day at Ascot, part of the collection was seized for a debt of £5,000. Soon after he declared bankruptcy and was discharged in 1938. Fortunately for Victor, two women friends had bought up a large number of his confiscated lots, and duly returned them before his death in December 1943.

A place of amusement

In April 1927 Ilam Hall was bought by Edward C.S. Backhouse for an undisclosed fee. Backhouse had been one of the bidders in the August 1926 auction and frustrated when his bid was rejected. However, he eventually managed to get ownership of Ilam Hall as well as the nearby Izaak Walton Hotel.

He converted parts of the house into a restaurant with plans to develop the grounds into an amusement park. The restaurant was advertised with ‘excellent catering at popular prices’ and encouraged customers to send for ‘our menus of satisfaction’. A hotel opened in the hall soon after.

By 1930 Ilam Hall was advertised with an 18-hole miniature golf course, archery, dancing in the ballroom to popular bands such as the British Legion Band, and an invite to visitors to see the ‘priceless massive oak 15th-century fireplace and underground rivers’. Later advertisements showed that visitors were also able to play tennis.

Ilam Hall and its grounds were open daily from April and newspaper advertisements showed that popular coach companies like Bartons and the Trent Motor Traction Co were including the hall in their motor excursions.

Derby Daily Telegraph 1931
Ilam Hall advertisement from Derby Daily Telegraph (1931)

Ilam Hall’s location in its beautiful Dovedale surroundings must have been welcome relief for the working classes of Derby, Nottingham and Stoke-on-Trent. However, quite how successful Mr Backhouse’s business venture proved to be is open to question.

In 1932 the North Midlands Regional Council of the Youth Hostels Association rented the right wing of Ilam Hall. The plan was for four dormitory bedrooms accommodating ten men and ten women. In addition there was a large common room, kitchen, cooking apparatus and shower baths for the residents. The intention was to attract hikers, ramblers and cyclists who regularly visited the beautiful countryside around Ilam and Dovedale.

Illam Hall (Lost Heritage)
The demolished Victorian frontage of Illam Hall (Lost Heritage)

The interest shown in the youth hostel was not lost on Edward Backhouse. The YHA, doubtful that the number of beds was insufficient, were relieved when he agreed that any overflow could be lodged in the main hall, having decided upon a special low tariff for hikers and cyclists. He also offered meals for guests if required. Quick to see a business opportunity he was soon telling people to ‘Make Ilam Hall your holiday centre’.

With summer occupancy at capacity the YHA didn’t bargain for the isolation and severe weather conditions that affected the peaks in winter. Quite unsuitable for winter accommodation the hostel closed and was not brought into use again.

The closure of the hostel was a devastating blow to Edward Backhouse who would declare bankruptcy in 1933. By September solicitors acting on behalf of Mr Backhouse put Ilam Hall and its grounds up for auction in six lots including the mansion, fishing lodge, country cottage, entrance lodge, accommodation, parkland and woodland. Buried within the newspaper advertisement was the gloomy declaration of ‘building land’ – obviously aimed at aspiring property developers.¹⁶

Auction Notice Staffordshire Advertiser (2 Sep 1933)
With Edward Backhouse facing ruin the Ilam Hall estate was put up for sale

William Twigg (1881-1958)

The new owner of Ilam Hall was William Twigg, a constructional engineer from Matlock, who paid £1,600. If Edward Backhouse had failed to turn a profit on Ilam Hall then William Twigg was well qualified to do so.

Born in 1881, the son of a farmer, he had developed an interest in second hand plant and machinery. In 1905 he borrowed money to buy Slack Quarry in Ashover and later set up business buying and selling old quarry machinery. He would later buy the Manifold Valley Railway from the L.M.S. Railway Company, including nine miles of track, railway engines and stations, and immediately sell it at a profit to a rival bidder.

William Twigg (
William Twigg (1881-1958) (

With regard to Ilam Hall the reasons for his purchase were quite clear.

In the 1920’s Twigg had bought Wingerworth Hall from the Hunloke family and stripped the flat roof of 50 tons of lead, which sold for £1,500. In addition he spent two years stripping and selling the interiors making a handsome profit in the process. (This massacre of a fine old house has been described as ‘recycling’ by some modern-day observers.) Once stripped of anything salvageable the house had eventually been demolished.

Twigg was mindful that Ilam Hall also had a flat roof but well aware that the price for lead had fallen dramatically. To what extent he stripped Ilam Hall of its glories is uncertain but we know that the ballroom fireplace was sold to Arthur Rank studios for use in film productions.¹⁷

William Twigg, satisfied he had taken whatever riches Ilam Hall offered, declared he would look for a quick sale on the property. If unsold by the start of 1934 he said he would have no hesitation in demolishing the entire building.

Sir Robert McDougall (1871-1938)

History books state that demolition was well under way by the time Robert McDougall bought Ilam Hall in June 1934. This is untrue but the house was in such a sorry state that demolition might have been the cheapest option.

Robert McDougall, of Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, had been brought up in the family’s flour mills business and later became a director of its flour milling companies. McDougall’s Flour was created by the McDougall brothers. It followed their discovery of a new type of baking powder, a ‘yeast substitute’, in 1864 and, later, a product called ‘self-raising’ flour that revolutionised home baking.¹⁸

1930's advertisement for McDougall's Self-Raising Flour (Pinterest)
1930’s advertisement for McDougall’s Self-Raising Flour

McDougall was keenly interested in social and philanthropic work and, in 1933, gave £20,000 to the Society of Friends for a scheme providing allotments for the unemployed. He had bought up large swathes of Dovedale and gifted it to the National Trust. He contested the High Peak division for the Liberals without success on three occasions and would be appointed the unpaid Deputy Treasurer at the University of Manchester. In 1937 he would be knighted for social and philanthropic work in the Coronation Honours.

Sir Robert McDougall
Sir Robert McDougall (1871-1938)

McDougall bought Ilam Hall and 20 acres of grounds for a nominal fee with the intention of saving this once grand house. His first task was to gift it to the City of Stoke-on-Trent but, after careful consideration, the council rejected the offer.

McDougall had approached the council because of the interest which the Stoke-on-Trent Corporation had made, through its representatives on the National Trust Committee. The council’s General Purposes Committee visited Ilam Hall and determined that the only viable option would have been to use it as a hospital for tubercular patients. However, the majority of the committee thought that it would be a very costly matter and almost impossible to use in the winter due to its inaccessibility. Alderman Sir Fred Hayward said that Ilam Hall “had all the faults of architecture 100 years ago. It had 17 staircases and very lofty rooms.”²º

Photoograph of Ilam from Bunker Hill - Late C19 (
Photograph of Ilam from Bunker Hill – late C19 (

McDougall’s second option was to donate Ilam Hall with its woodlands and parkland to the National Trust.

He had already decided that portions of the hall would be let to the Youth Hostels Association (YHA), who would also keep up the kitchen garden, and eventually run a tea house for the benefit of the general public. A common room, refectory, kitchen and wardens’ quarters were planned for the old manor house and dormitories would be provided in separate blocks, with bathrooms for men and women. It was anticipated that the entrance hall would be converted into a conference room.²¹

The cost of this project, with central heating and hot and cold water for 150 people, was estimated at more than £3,000.

Part of the plan was the demolition of the greater part of Ilam Hall allowing the old house – built c1600 – to be exposed to view. This meant only the formal entrance, service wings and estate buildings would survive from Jesse Watts-Russell’s house.

Work began immediately and projected for completion in May 1935. However, complications meant the youth hostel did not open until September when it was officially opened by Mr William A. Cadbury of Birmingham.

As well as Robert McDougall, cash gifts were given by the W.A. Cadbury Trust and the Carnegie Trust. It became the largest youth hostel in England with the entrance hall and east wing adapted for the purpose.

Derby Evening Telegraph 23 May 1935Derby Daily Telegraph 24th May 1935
Wartime and beyond

With the youth hostel proving extremely popular, the arrival of the German Youth Orchestra in March 1938 did not detract from future events. The orchestra, consisting of 35 men and 15 girls, played a programme of folk dances and songs as well as classical works. The concert was recorded for broadcast on the BBC Midland Regional service.

Derby Evening Telegraph 28 March 1938
In December 1938 Sir Robert McDougall died. After a business meeting in London he hailed a taxi outside Mansion House Station but on arrival at Euston Station was found unconscious in his seat. The driver drove to the National Temperance Hospital where it was found that he was dead.

With the outbreak of World War Two the YHA activities at Ilam Hall slowed down.

The house was instead used to house a party of 29 Czech refugees, mainly clerical and engineering workers, from Sudetenland. As the Germans plundered the countryside and villages the British Committee for the Refugees from Czechoslovakia had offered them refuge in Britain.

“As the storm clouds massed over Dovedale’s heights and the rain dripped steadily from the tall firs, I heard 28 Czech refugees sing of their ‘fatherland across the sea’.” (Derby Daily Telegraph 27 Feb 1939)

The refugees had to be accommodated elsewhere over the Easter weekend as the hall had been booked up months in advance by people wanting to use the youth hostel.

In May, now numbering 38 people, they were moved to Farley Hall, a residence owned by Major C.F. Bill, near Oakamoor and close to Alton Towers.

The war had forced the YHA to seriously reconsider their position and by September Ilam Hall had closed indefinitely.

The house was used to accommodate a party of blind people evacuated from Derby for ‘national purposes’.²² They stayed at Ilam Hall until 1943 when the Derby Health Committee decided to return them to Derby.

The hall had been taken over at short notice and was considered far from ideal for its purpose. Two severe winters had proved a trial and had once been cut off by snow for four days. During this time a patient had died and it was nearly a fortnight before transport could be obtained to remove the body. ²³

Illam Hall Youth Hostel (
Youth Hostel Association postcards of Ilam Hall (dates unknown)

Ilam YHA multi (
At the end of the war Ilam Hall once again reopened as a youth hostel and still remains in use to this day. It stands in Ilam Park which, alongside Dovedale, both gifted by Sir Robert McDougall, are managed by the National Trust.

Illam Hall (West Leigh Junior School)
The original entrance at Ilam Hall looking towards the church (West Leigh Junior School)
Ilam Hall (House and Heritage)
Once grand – now ordinary. The site of the demolished Victorian house (House and Heritage)
Ilam Hall view (House and Heritage)
View from the River Manifold towards Ilam Hall – a shadow of its former self (House and Heritage)
Ilam Hall entrance (House and Heritage)
The lost Victorian house stood to the left of the image (House and Heritage)

¹Derby Daily Telegraph (25 Oct 1910)
²Derby Mercury (22 Nov 1820)
³Derby Mercury (7 April 1875)
⁴Staffordshire Sentinel (29 Jun 1875)
⁵Morning Post (26 Jan 1876)
⁶Lancashire Evening Post (12 Feb 1901)
⁷Derby Daily Telegraph (7 May 1903)
⁸Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser (13 May 1903)
⁹Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (8 Feb 1905)
¹ºCornubian and Redruth Times (13 Jan 1906)
¹¹Lancashire Evening Post (13 Jun 1904)
¹²Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (9 Feb 1906)
¹³Derby Daily Telegraph (26 Jul 1910)
¹⁴Belper News (31 Mar 1911)
¹⁵Derby Daily Telegraph (16 Aug 1926)
¹⁶Staffordshire Advertiser (2 Sep 1933)
¹⁷Derby Daily Telegraph (29 Jun 1950)
²ºStaffordshire Advertiser (30 Jun 1934)
²¹Derby Daily Telegraph (30 Oct 1934)
²²Derby Evening Telegraph (26 Sep 1939)
²³Derby Daily Telegraph (24 Dec 1943)

All above courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.

Notes on William Twigg were provided from ‘William Twigg – a successful and caring company’ by Brian Hall. The company, bearing William Twigg’s name, still survives. William Twigg (Matlock) Ltd provides steel fabrication, steel stock holding and hardware and plumbing supplies.

We have learned that Jesse Watts-Russell built Ilam Hall to emulate the glories surrounding Alton Towers, the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The attempt by Edward Backhouse to create an amusement park at Ilam Hall compared with similar plans taking shape at Alton Towers around the same time. Ilam Hall’s inaccessibility meant the project was always doomed to failure, thankfully so for lovers of the countryside. As for Alton Towers, the rest is history! In the end, both houses were lost in some way or another – Ilam Hall partly demolished and Alton Towers becoming a monumental ruin – but still exist in vastly different circumstances. Some might say that Ilam Hall has come out of it the best of all. 

Ilam Park, Dovedale and the White Peak
Ashbourne, Derbyshire DE6 2AZ

(Ashbourne, the ‘post town’, is in Derbyshire and thus so is Ilam’s postal address, but the Park, and Ilam, are in Staffordshire; the county boundary.)