Billing 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.
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.
Built: C16 with later additions in 1732 and 1867-68
Richard Knightley, Francis Smith, Thomas Cundy and Anthony Salvin Owner: Hand Picked Hotels Country house hotel and spa
Grade II* listed
It is of coursed, square ironstone, with limestone dressings. Surviving from the house constructed by Richard Knightley , or representing additions of only a little later, is a five-bay hall, a south-facing parlour with two-storeyed oriel, the kitchen and bakehouse west of the parlour, and the long range known as the brewhouse (but perhaps originally lodgings) which runs parallel with the hall range, from the bakehouse to the north. The fourth, north side of the inner court is closed by a range dated 1732 and attributed to Francis Smith of Warwick (d 1738) but altered by Thomas Cundy (d 1825) in 1815 and then extended by Anthony Salvin in 1867-8 into a three-storey range. (Historic England)
The land around Fawsley Hall has belonged to the Knightley family since the early 16th century. The family entertained Elizabeth I and were supporters of Oliver Cromwell.
Fawsley Hall comprises builds from several periods. Parts of Sir Edmund Knightley’s 16th century house were added to in 1732 when the north wing, attributed to Francis Smith, was built. This was remodelled by Thomas Cundy in 1815 and again by Anthony Salvin at the same time as building the south-east wing of 1867-68. It stands within 2,000 acres of gardens and landscape partly designed by Capability Brown in the 1760s.
Fawsley Hall was last lived in by Lady Louisa Mary Knightley until her death in 1913. She is remember for befriending John Cary Merrick, ‘The Elephant Man’, and provided him with a cottage on the estate for the only three holidays he ever had.
With the house empty the last Knightley Baronet died in 1938 and the estate was inherited by a nephew, the sixth Viscount Gage of Firle Park, Lewes, in Sussex.
The house was requisitioned in World War Two and suffered terribly at the hands of the military – “the worst wreckers of country houses since Cromwell,” says Simon Jenkins.
By 1949 the house was in poor condition with lead stripped from its roof and with crumbling ceilings. Soon the Great Hall would lose its roof and The Northampton Mercury reported its woeful neglect:
“Its 70-odd rooms echo hollowly as one walks, for the Hall has been empty since troops billeted there left in 1944. Notices on doors still bear witness to the last occupants – ‘Common Room’, ‘Sergeant’s Only’, ‘Company Office’.
“Many thousands of pounds would be needed for repairs. The paintings and furniture were sold and what was once a home became a shell.”
Lord Gage never lived at Fawsley Hall but in 1948 he formed a joinery firm that two years later merged with the Over Timber Company of Byfield which moved its workshops into the crumbling house. A sawmill was later built in the grounds behind the house.
A reporter from the Northampton Mercury made a return visit to the house:
“I walked around the echoing halls and passages and found them piled high with shavings and stacked with timber.
“Where Cromwell, Pym, Hampden and Haselrigge once conversed as they dined, the falsetto scream of a circular saw awoke the echoes. The tall mirrors of the ballroom, the carved tracery above the great mullioned windows, looked down on wood, wood, and more wood being turned into crates, gates, fencing, feeding troughs, and pig huts.
“Near the foot of the great staircase, with dust gathering in the toothless gaps of the sweeping bannisters, someone was operating a ‘four-cutter’ – one of the most modern of machines that cuts and planes four sides of a plank simultaneously.
“In front of the great stone fireplace in the long banqueting hall, encrusted with coats of arms whose quarterings tell the story of the marriages of the Knightley’s through the centuries, workmen sat warming themselves in their lunch-hour. Around the walls stretches the oak panelling which Lord Gage decided to leave as it had stood so long.”
When Pevsner visited in 1972 the house was woefully derelict. The Saunders family bought the house and converted it into a hotel and reinstated the missing roof. Simon Jenkins called it ‘a happy restoration’.
After passing into the hands of entrepreneur Simon Lowe and Indian conglomerate, the Poonawalla Group, it was put up for sale for £15million in 2013. It was acquired for an undisclosed sum by Hand Picked Hotels a few months later. The hotel underwent a £4.5 million restoration in 2014-2015.
Fawsley Hall Hotel and Spa Fawsley, Daventry, Northamptonshire, NN11 3BA