Category Archives: NOTTINGHAMSHIRE

THE DUKERIES REVISITED

The Dukeries are four estates whose boundaries join and form a green and tranquil tract of Nottinghamshire which, until the Second World War, was a celebrated beauty spot.

In 1963, the writer J. Roger Baker re-visited the area for The Tatler and discovered that once more the estates were being cared for in a way which, while retaining the feeling of pre-war grandeur, was entirely consistent with the 1960s.

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Clumber Park: the house was demolished (the bay window, centre left, is all that remained) just before the Second World War, but under the auspices of the National Trust the park was being manicured and replanted to its original 18th-century appearance. Image: The British Newspaper Archive).

Fifty-five years later, with the benefit of hindsight, his work proves to be a rather rose-tinted look at four country houses. These were the ‘swinging-sixties’ after all, but life further north was a bit grim. For at least one of these properties times would get very hard indeed.

From ‘The Tatler’ – 28 August 1963:-

Today’s image of Nottinghamshire is probably one of coal-mining sons and lovers enjoying riotous Saturday nights and hung-over Sunday mornings, plus vague race-memories of Robin Hood engaging in endless television sorties with the local Sheriff. But the core of the county has always been – and remains – Sherwood Forest which once accounted for a fifth of its area. Until the 17th century this thirty-mile expanse of woodland and ling forest belonged to the Crown; the King retaining hunting rights and the great oaks were used to build ships and – it is generally believed – to supply beams for large buildings, among them St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In 1683 the Earl of Kingston formed Thoresby Park from 2,000 acres of forest land; later another 3,000 were taken for the fourth Earl of Clare’s park at Clumber and the Duke of Newcastle began building Welbeck Abbey. At nearby Worksop stood the magnificent Elizabethan manor house begun in about 1530 by the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury. This house – the most glorious in the midlands and possibly the whole north of England was burned down (at a total loss in art treasures of £100,000) in 1761. The conjunction of these four estates is dubbed the Dukeries. In the past 30 years they have probably gone through more upheaval – retrogression and subsequent redevelopment – than in the previous three hundred. I revisited the Dukeries earlier this year when the oak, lime and birch trees were just emerging into consciousness and daffodils carpeted the parklands. It is possible to travel for miles without seeing a coal mine or any other scar on the carefully manicured landscape, or any living thing apart from birds or the odd herd of deer. The perimeter of the Dukeries is dotted with unlovely mining villages and in many places spoil heaps (buckets travel along wires to tip subterranean refuse on to growing piles) and mining plant encroach within the forest itself, but the centre of the area remains unspoiled. Or, to be more precise, has regained an unspoiled appearance.

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Mr John Trayner, was the East Midland Area agent for the National Trust. “If all according to plan, our scheme for the replanting of the park will be completed in 2007,” he said. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

For the greatest depredations to the forests and parks happened during the Second World War when the Army took over. I remember as a small boy raiding the ammunition dumps for Very lights which enlivened the first post-war bonfire celebrations. Perhaps the worst to suffer was Clumber Park which was requisitioned as an ammunition sub depot; it had been, too, a transit camp and much of the timber felled for war purposes leaving the park in a dismal state. Clumber House itself, a basically 18th-century mansion with later enlargements, facing on to the 87-acre lake, was demolished by the Duke of Newcastle in 1937 who intended to build a smaller dwelling on a nearby site. For a variety of reasons, he never did and sold the park to the National Trust.

A miniscule remnant of the house still stands (teas are available) and the National Trust’s area agent, Mr John Trayner, has his office in the stable courtyard.

“Clumber was the hunting and farming type of park,” he told me, “and a perfect example of a landscaped 18th century park which we are slowly restoring to its original state. The forestry side is well in hand, replanting at the rate of 28 acres a year. The rest is a question of maintenance and keeping the roads and paths in trim. We are also concerned with the buildings, especially the church.”

£9,000 has been spent on restoring Clumber church which was rededicated earlier this year. “On a good summer Sunday as many as 70,000 members of the public visit Clumber,” said Mr Trayner.

Clumber House - Sheffield Daily Telegraph - 17 Aug 1923 - BNA
Clumber House: Visitors in the grounds of the house at a garden fete in August 1923. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

The joint estate of Thoresby is also open to the public. The hall is the home of Earl Manvers’ widow (he was the representative of the Dukes of Kingston whose title is defunct). It is not quite the Woburn of the Midlands, the Countess Manvers has made admirable use of the resources at her disposal to attract the public. In Sissons’ ‘Penny Illustrated Guide to the Dukeries’ published some 50 years ago, the rapturous author writes: ‘Everything is in the most perfect order on the Thoresby Estate and the mansion is the ideal abode of a high-minded English nobleman.

Of the estate this remains true; the park is about twelve miles in circumference, its variety of trees, lake and herds of deer (this particular estate has always retained large herds) are immaculate. Of the mansion… well, times have changed, and a few English noblemen would relish a bookstall selling Thoresby Hall place mats, waste paper bins, trays and tea towels in their great hall. The present house, another example of Victorian splendour, was designed by Salvin in 1874 and its massive, elaborate exterior confines a series of state apartments around which the public drift, open-mouthed at the fascinating collection of objets on view, ranging from the coronation robes of the Earl & Countess Manvers to some very beautiful paintings and back via a set of dolls in national costumes.

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Thoresby Hall: the home of the Countess Manvers was open to the public and its great hall included a souvenir stall among the armour and antique furniture. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Despite the inevitable tourist attractions (did I spot a Robin Hood tea room?) Countess Manvers – an active painter, many of her works hang in Thoresby Hall – has clearly compromised with the ‘60s in the most agreeable manner, ensuring that the estate and house retain a basic feeling of a past age.

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Image : The British Newspaper Archive.
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The park at Thoresby Hall had always been noted for its deer, and in the 1960s a herd was still maintained here. Image : The British Newspaper Archive.

The other two ducal estates exist on a slightly different basis; to neither is the public admitted except by very special arrangement. Welbeck Abbey was first founded about 1150 but under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries act, destroyed. The present pile – of varying periods – was begun in 1600 by the first Duke of Newcastle. The author of Sissons’ ‘Penny Guide’ goes completely berserk at the prospect of describing Welbeck, describing the wonders as ‘world-wide.’ Well. The wonders exist of a series of underground rooms and tunnels built (Sissons estimates the cost as ‘two or three millions of money’) by the fifth Duke of Portland. One is not required to indulge in a species of pot-holing to see these apartments – they are in fact just below ground level, lit by skylights.

Today Welbeck Abbey is a school – a college providing a two-year sixth-form boarding school education for boys intending to take cadetships at Sandhurst. The present Duke of Portland, who lives in a smaller house at Welbeck Woodhouse nearby, retains some state apartments for his own use.

The underground ballroom (a picture gallery originally) is now the gymnasium, and oil paintings hang on the walls, men and women of a bygone century watching lusty youths vault, practise judo and perform on parallel bars. Many of the rooms leading from the underground galleries are classrooms; football and cricket pitches are marked on the great lawns and boats sail the lake. Tactful conversion of a great home into a military college of this nature is a sure way of preserving the house from either destruction or misuse. Within the park, Welbeck village, once a completely self-contained unit, feudal in nature, serving the Abbey, retains its function; the rest of the estate is farmed by efficient and up-to-date methods.

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Welbeck Abbey: It was the home of the Duke of Portland (who lived at a house nearby), the Abbey being used as a college offering a two-year boarding school education for potential Sandhurst cadets. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
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The Lion Gates marked the entrance at Welbeck Park from the Worksop road. They used to be opened by a mechanical device operated from the lodge – but by the 1960s were opened by electricity. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
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The famous underground ballroom was used by the school as a gymnasium. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
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Among the relics and oddities dotted about the Dukeries and the environs of Sherwood Forest was a hunting lodge, a 19th-century copy of Worksop Priory Gatehouse with statues of Robin Hood and his legendary band poised in niches round the building. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
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A forgotten house. Worksop Manor pictured here in 1960. It was the home of Mrs M.A. Farr, who owned the 2,000-acre estate and stud in partnership with her son, Mr Bryan Farr. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Farming is also the function of the Worksop Manor estate which joins that of Welbeck. The manor house has been associated with various moments of history, visited by Mary Queen of Scots, by Charles I, and once tenanted by Bess of Hardwick who married the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. The present house was built by the 9th Duke after the Elizabethan house had been razed in 1761. He and the Duchess began rebuilding but the death of their heir finished their enthusiasm. The remains of their project are in a singular curtain wall attached to the main house which gives the place a strangely Mediterranean feeling; there is space, there are statues. In 1840 the manor was sold to the Duke of Newcastle of Clumber and in 1890 sold again to Sir John Robinson, passing in 1929 to his great-nephew Captain John Farr, whose widow still lives there, the 450-acre farm being managed by her son., Mr Bryan Farr, who has a house on the estate which includes 600 acres of forest land. Today Worksop Manor is probably the most striking of the four houses; with its wide courtyard and unfinished wing, completely unexpected.

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Worksop Manor: the estate joins that of Welbeck Abbey. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
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Worksop Manor: the oldest of the four great houses, and one with the most colourful history. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
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A feature of the house was the remains of the north wing, built by Edward, 9th Duke of Shrewsbury in 1761, later demolished by the Duke of Newcastle. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
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The huge carved pediment that surmounted the wing was crumbling in the farmyard in 1963. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

And so ended J. Roger Baker’s visit to the Dukeries. But what lay ahead for these country estates? This was the 1960s, and there was still a tendency to demolish great houses that proved too costly to maintain.

Clumber Park, minus demolished mansion, became one of the National Trust’s crown jewels. Listed Grade I on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, it has steadily been managed and maintained. It still contains the longest double avenue of lime trees in Europe, created by the 5th Duke of Newcastle in the 19th century and extending for more than two miles. The Duke of Newcastle’s study, designed by Charles Barry Jr, is all that survives of the house and is used as a café.

Worksop Manor might have been described as the finest of the four houses, but it was, and remains, the most secretive of estates. Guarded from public view, it strives to avoid publicity, the house remains in private ownership and continues to be the home to the Worksop Manor Stud.

The Dukedom of Portland became extinct following the death of Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, 9th Duke of Portland, in 1990. The military college continued at Welbeck Abbey until 2005, while Lady Anne, the unmarried elder daughter of the 7th Duke of Portland, remained at Welbeck Woodhouse until her own death in 2008. Her nephew, William Henry Marcello Parente (born 1951) inherited and moved into Welbeck Abbey making it a family home once again. The family-controlled Welbeck Estates Company and the charitable Harley foundation have converted some estate buildings to new uses. These include the Dukeries Garden Centre in the estate glasshouses, the School of Artisan Food in the former fire stables, the Harley Gallery and Foundation and the Welbeck Farm Shop in the former estate gasworks and a range of craft workshops in a former kitchen garden. The house remains private although public visits are available on a limited basis at certain times of the year.

Perhaps the most beleaguered story belonged to Thoresby Hall. To minimise the threat of coal mining subsidence the house was sold to the National Coal Board in 1979 who proposed mining underneath it. It stood empty and abandoned from 1980, and in 1983 was described ‘as gradually crumbling as a coal seam is mined under its foundations’.  It was sold on the open market ten years later and after several uninspiring owners was eventually acquired by Warner Leisure Hotels. Thoresby Hall opened as a 200-room country house hotel and spa in 2000.

The writer, J. Roger Baker , was born in 1934 and studied at Nottingham University. After working at the Nottingham Evening Post, he moved to London in 1960 to take a job with The Tatler. He died in 1993.

Clumber House - 2018 - The National Trust
Clumber House: During the hot summer of 2018, the outline of the demolished house appeared through the dry grass. Image: The National Trust.
Classic view of Welbeck Abbey
Welbeck Abbey: It remains a private family home. During Summer, The Harley Gallery runs tours of the Abbey’s State Rooms to see objects from the art collection built up over the centuries by the Dukes of Portland and their families, The Portland Collection, in their historic setting.
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Worksop Manor: An aerial view of the secretive estate. The town of Worksop can be seen at the top of the picture. Image: Patrick Baty.
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Almost lost. Thoresby Hall is now a popular country house hotel complete with modern additions. Image: Warner Leisure Hotels.

BUNNY HALL

“My wife has been unfaithful. I therefore leave the estate to my mistress.” The strange case of a house bequeathed to the ‘housekeeper’

Bunny Hall 1 (Savills)

Bunny Hall is located to the south of Nottingham, close to the historic village of Bunny, which has nothing to do with rabbits, but signifies a marshy place full of water reeds. Built between 1710 and 1725, it was designed by Sir Thomas Parkyns (1662-1741), 2nd Bt, a local architect and known as the ‘Wrestling Baronet’. It comes with historical twists and turns, not least a bitter court case in the nineteenth century and is now on the market with offers wanted more than £3.75 million.

The Parkyns were originally a Shropshire family, and became associated with Bunny about 1573 by the marriage of Richard Parkyns to Elizabeth Barlow, Lady of the Manor of Bunny. Thomas Parkyns was the second baronet; the title having been bestowed on his father by Charles II in recognition of the family’s services to the Royalist cause.

Thomas Parkyns (Notts History)
Sir Thomas Parkyns also purchased the manors of Ruddington, Great Leake, Costock, Wysall, Thorpe, Willoughby, and parts of Keyworth, Barrow-upon-Soar and Gotham. Image: Notts History.

Thomas Parkyns was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge (where he knew Sir Isaac Newton). He practised medicine and acted as his own architect for the hall, numerous buildings around the village as well his own impressive monument to the parish church.

He also rebuilt Bunny Hall, at a cost of £12,000, and surrounded it with a park wall, three miles long, which took three years and cost £5,000.

As a young man Sir Thomas took lessons in wrestling, vaulting and fencing from the best masters in London, and after settling on the estate at Bunny, established an annual wrestling tournament in his park in which he himself often took part. The first prize was a gold-laced hat which he often ended up wearing himself.

His servants were all good wrestlers, and his favourite coachman and footman both managed to beat their master in the ring. The matches, which took place on a piece of ground now in the confines of Rancliffe Arms, continued for more than 50 years after Sir Thomas’ death, the last being in 1809.

He was also fond of hunting and shooting, and when he was too old to follow the hunt, would dress in a red coat and watch its progress from the 6o foot tower which he built at his hall. The tower was ornamented with an elaborate coat of arms and a rare oak staircase giving access to the summit. On the ground floor were a continuous suite of rooms on the Hampton Court model.

Bunny Hall 2 (Savills)

Sir Thomas Parkyns was succeeded at Bunny Hall by his son, Thomas Boothby Parkyns (1755-1800) who was created Baron Rancliffe in 1795. His eldest son, George Augustus Henry Anne Parkyns (1785-1850), the 2nd Baron, succeeded in 1800 and extensively remodelled the hall in 1826-35.

The second Lord Rancliffe was educated at Harrow and was only fifteen when his father died. He was placed under the guardianship of Earl Moira, later Marquess of Hastings, who bought a commission for him in the British Army and negotiated for him to become MP for Minehead in Somerset (where he never set foot in the town).

In 1807 he had married Elizabeth Mary Theresa Forbes, eldest daughter of George Forbes, 6th Earl of Granard. It was an unfortunate marriage and they became separated on a charge that she had an improper acquaintance with a French nobleman during her residence in Paris. Lord Rancliffe left her in France, never divorced, and returned to Nottinghamshire where he made an acquaintance with Harriet Burtt, married to a GP in a small practice, considerably her senior, and who was at that time was confined to a lunatic asylum. She first lived at Wymeswold, under Lord Rancliffe’s protection, but in a short time went to live with him at Bunny.

Lord Rancliffe died in 1850 without issue and the title became extinct. When his will was read there was great consternation in the family. The English Baronetcy descended to Mr (now Sir Thomas) Parkyns of Ruddington, together with a small portion of his estate. The rest of the small amount of property went to Sir Richard Levinge of Knockdrim Castle, Co Westmeath, son of his eldest sister, married to Sir Richard Levinge, 6th Bt. Every pennyworth of non-heritable property, which was considerable, was willed to Harriet Burtt, who for about 20 years had been living upon intimate terms with Lord Rancliffe. She didn’t take the Leake and Costock property but did take the whole of the Bunny and Bradmore estates.

“I give Bunny Hall to Mrs Burtt for her life, and afterwards to whosoever she may appoint to inherit the said estates. I give Mrs Burtt, for her use entirely, all the goods, furniture, and pictures, with one exception; and I give her all my plate, together with the plated silver tureen and dishes with my crest. I also leave my silver tureen presented to me by the electors of Nottingham, to Mrs Burtt; and I also leave my horses and carriages at her entire disposal.”

Eleven years after the death of Lord Rancliffe, Sir Arthur Rumbold, his brother-in-law, had doubted the validity of the will. The Bunny Hall estates were worth about £7,000 a year, and it troubled them that the money had gone out of the family. Efforts to upset the will failed and Harriet Burtt was left in full enjoyment of the estate.

Harriet Burtt later married George Fortreath and lived at Bunny Hall. On her death in the 1870s, the estate was bequeathed to her niece, Arabella Hawksley, who married Mr Robert Wilkinson Smith, a GP, in 1898. Robert died in 1907 and left the greater part of his large fortune for the benefit of Nottingham’s poor widows and spinsters.

Bunny Hall 4 (Savills)

Arabella Wilkinson Smith died in 1909, and in a strange development, the Bunny Hall estate was left to the Levinge family in Ireland. It so happened that Sir James Levinge, seventh son of Lady Levinge, had long ago taken rides with Harriet Fortreath and was one of her greatest friends. Doubtless out of gratitude, Mrs Fortreath had entailed the property on Sir James, but had given her niece, Arabella Hawksley, a life interest.

On the death of Mrs Wilkinson Smith, the estate passed back to the Levinges. In the interim, however, both Sir James Levinge and his son had passed away, the next of kin being the grandson, Sir Richard William Levinge.

Sir Richard Levinge (1878-1914), who succeeded his father in 1900, was educated at Eton and served with the 8th Hussars in South Africa. He had married Miss Irene Desmond, a well-known actress in The Merry Widow, The Belle of Mayfair and Les Merveilleuses.  There was a rumour that Sir Richard would live at Bunny, but it was entirely without foundation. Almost as soon as the property came into his possession he gave instructions for it to be sold. Sadly, he was killed in 1914 while serving with the 1st Life Guards in France.

Richard William Levinge (Hannah Anstey)
Sir Richard William Levinge Bart., First Life Guards, who was killed in action, was the representative of a very old Irish family. Image: Hannah Anstey.

In December 1909, Bunny Hall, its 4,000 acres, extending into five parishes, was sold to Albert Ball (1863-1946), the Mayor of Nottingham, a man who has been on these pages more than once. It might seem unscrupulous now that a man in such a precious position should take advantage of property, but Albert Ball was a man that might be considered the scourge of the country house. The son of a plumber’s merchant, he rose to a position of dominance in Nottingham’s civic and business life. In 1908 he had bought Bulwell Hall, later selling 225 acres to Nottingham Corporation.

Bunny Hall - 1910 (Nottinghamshire History)
The South front of Bunny Hall about 1910. The photograph may have been taken at the time Albert Ball was selling off parts of the estate, but had no desires on the mansion. Image: Notts History.

Before reaching his middle-age he’d began speculations in real estate. At the outset his purchases were small, but he made money and as his experience and resources increased, so did the magnitude of his deals, which in the aggregate, must have amounted to millions. Amongst his lifetime purchases were Sedgley Park, West Hallam, Kirk Hallam, Morton and Pilsley, Tattershall Castle, the town of Shaftesbury, the Papplewick estate, Willesley Castle (the home of the Arkwrights), Upton Hall and the Stansted Hall estate of 6,000 acres in Essex, which embraced several villages. His most spectacular deals came in later life with the purchase of the Rufford Abbey estate and the development of a large estate in Edinburgh.

Sir Albert Ball - Nottingham Evening Post - Thu 28 Mar 1946).
Alderman Albert Ball was later knighted. Lady Ball was a daughter of Mr James Dannah of Cheveney Manor, Quorn. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Ball’s method of making money was simple. He would buy a country estate, often at a knock-down price, and immediately sell off the land to property developers. Bunny Hall had cost him £90,000, quite a lot for the time, but the land he sold raised far more. The mansion was of no interest to him and he promptly agreed a deal to sell it to Mr W. Holbrook of Plumtree two months later. The agreement stumbled but he was able to find another buyer very quickly.

In the meantime, there was the small matter of clearing the contents of Bunny Hall. The treasures had belonged to Mrs Wilkinson Smith, inherited by Richard Levinge, and provided a fascinating history. A five-day sale of furniture, antiques and artworks raised over £20,000.

A sensational price – said to be the highest ever paid at the time for a sale in the provinces – was given for a portrait by Hoppner of the Hon. Mrs Parkyns, afterwards first Lady Rancliffe. It had been exhibited at the Academy in 1794, and sold for 8,800gs to Mr Charles Wertheimer, a well-known art expert.  Another Hoppner – a portrait of Sir Thomas Parkyns – was sold for 900gs to Major Paget of London.

Bunny Hall 5 (Savills)

The new owner of Bunny Hall was Dr Robert Henry Cordeux (1864-1915), the son of a former rector of Brierley, Yorkshire, who had graduated from Cambridge University and settled down as a GP in West Bridgford in 1895. He died five years later and his widow, Ethel Monk Noble, remained until her own death, although she had considered selling the house in 1924.

Bunny Hall 6 (Savills)

Ethel Cordeux died in 1942 and Bunny Hall was bought by Bertram Douglas Edwards (1900-1970), a company director and former Nottingham city councillor for the Meadows Ward, who also owned Newfields Farm at Screveton.

It appears that Edwards never lived here and allowed the Broadgate School, Nottingham, to evacuate here during World War Two. In 1944 it had been considered for the evacuation of large families, but the idea was shelved after it was realised that the £200 cost of black-out blinds would be too expensive.

After the school vacated, Bunny Hall was briefly occupied by a Captain Thompson but was then left empty for more than 40 years, until it was bought by Mr Chek Whyte, a business entrepreneur, in 2000.

‘One more winter and the roof would have fallen in and pushed the walls out. I bought it without going inside. The deal was completed within 24 hours.”

It failed to find a buyer when it was offered for sale at £3 million in 2009.

Bunny Hall 7 (Savills)

According to Savills, who are marketing the property, Bunny Hall has been skilfully renovated and restored to the very highest standards. The principal range of reception rooms lie to the south of the house with views over the restored gardens to the open countryside beyond. The leisure suite set within the historic north range of the property includes a heated indoor pool, gym, sauna and steam rooms and a well fitted entertaining kitchen.

One of the most notable features of the property is the historic North Wing of long chequered brick design with a tall narrow facade at the end crowned by a huge Elephantine semi-circular pediment across the whole width and massively castellated tower above it. There are stunning views across the South Nottinghamshire countryside from the open topped roof of the tower building. On the ground floor the original porch area has now been transformed into a stunning Porche Cochere with plate glass inset panels and doors and the creation of a large adjoining Orangery with a finely detailed interior.

Bunny Hall 9 (Savills)

The five principal reception rooms include the Orangery, kitchen, principal drawing room, dining room and library. These rooms lie across the principal elevation of the hall with views across the formal gardens adjoining parkland and open countryside beyond.

The principal upper floor is reached by a large wide dog staircase from the ground floor staircase hall. There is a circular glazed frosted dome allowing light to flood through to the hallway and the galleried landing areas. There are two additional staircases to the East and West Wings, providing both internal and independent access to the upper floors if required. There are two self-contained but linked fully fitted apartments suitable for guest or relative accommodation but readily linked back to the main house if required.

Bunny Hall 10 (Savills)

In addition to the principal living accommodation is the stunning tower structure, set atop the historic North wing of the main house. A staircase leads up through several floors to the tower roof, which offers glorious views across the grounds and the open countryside of Nottinghamshire and is a landmark structure within the area.

The grounds and gardens of Bunny Hall have been carefully renovated and restored by the current owners and extend now to some 14.5 acres or thereabouts. The approach to the house is through two sets of remote controlled period gates and a tree lined driveway leading up to the main house.

Chek Whyte (The Telegraph)
Chek Whyte, a property developer, who bought Bunny Hall in 2009. Image: The Telegraph.

LENTON HALL

Lenton Hall c1925 (Lenton Times)
Lenton Hall, Nottingham. Pictured around 1925 (Lenton Times)


Built: 1804 with alterations in late C19 and C20

Architect: William Stretton
Owner: The University of Nottingham
Now known as Hugh Stewart Hall
Warden’s residence
Grade II listed

Ashlar, with lead and slate gambrel roof and 5 ridge stacks. Gothic style, with plinth and crenellated parapet. Slim octagonal corner turrets with crenellated tops. 2 storeys. (Historic England)

Lenton Hall was a country house that found itself consumed by the expansion of Nottingham during the 20th century. It also had a change of name but outlasted many properties which endured similar circumstances. It was built in the-then agricultural village of Lenton, located to the west of Nottingham.

The Wright years
The house was built for John Wright (1758-1840) in 1804.  He was descended from the eminent Wright family whose standing around Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire is still fabled today.

His grandfather, Ichabod Wright (1700-1777), had been a merchant and ironmonger who made his fortune founding a Nottingham bank. This, in turn, passed to his two sons and eventually arrived at the hands of John Wright and his cousin Ichabod. John also inherited land close to Nottingham as well as Derbyshire estates at Ripley, Hartshay and Riddings¹.

John Wright married Elizabeth Beresford in 1791. A year earlier her father, Francis Beresford, had started an iron producing business with Benjamin Outram. The influential John became a part owner in this enterprise that eventually became the famous Butterley Company.

John Wright (A Tale of Downward Social Mobility)
Portrait of John Wright (1758-1840)

John Wright married Elizabeth Beresford in 1791. A year earlier her father, Francis Beresford, had started an iron producing business with Benjamin Outram. The influential John became a part owner in the enterprise that would eventually became known as the famous Butterley Company.

John and Elizabeth lived at Willoughby House, at the top of Low Pavement, in Nottingham. In 1798 he purchased around 130-acres of land at Lenton with the purpose of building a new family home. John appointed architect William Stretton (1755-1828) who, with his father Samuel, were principal builders and architects in Nottingham. Lenton House was completed about 1804 but there are some suggestions it may have been finished as early as 1802¹.

John and Elizabeth Wright moved to Lenton House with their only son and four daughters. After the move two more boys were born, the eldest being Francis Wright (1806-1873).

Francis looked destined for a career in banking until an extraordinary chain of events.

In 1828 his older brother, also called John, died and Francis became heir to the family fortune. Two years later his father gifted all his shares in the Butterley Company to him. They were worth £110,000 and allowed him to marry Selina FitzHerbert (1806-1888), from Tissington Hall, and set up home in The Park at Nottingham¹.

Lenton Hall (Lenton Times)
Lenton Hall with its formal gardens (Lenton Times)

By 1840 Francis Wright was resident at Lenton House as well as being custodians of Langar Hall to the south-east of Nottingham.

John Wright had moved to nearby Lenton Firs and died in April. He left estate worth £18,000, a paltry amount for a man of his standing, but the probability was that his wealth had already been dispersed amongst his children¹.

Francis Wright 1 (A Tale of Downward Social Mobility)
Early portrait of Francis Wright (1806-1873)

Francis Wright’s stay at Lenton Hall (as it was now known), was somewhat brief. He desired a grander and more up-to-date house and so commissioned the architect Henry Isaac Stevens to build him a new property near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. Francis moved to Derbyshire in the early part of 1845 where he was able to supervise the construction of Osmaston Manor.

Lenton Hall was left unoccupied and stripped of its furniture but, as we will see, the Wright family hadn’t quite turned their back on it.

The Middleton years
The estate was bought by Digby Willoughby, 7th Baron Middleton (1769-1856) from Wollaton Hall. He had no wish to live at Lenton and doubtless saw the neighbouring estate as protection from Nottingham’s rapid expansion. Willoughby set about renovating Lenton Hall and lined up a tenant, Captain Anlaby Legard, to move in as soon as repairs were completed.

However, in July 1845, a fire nearly caused the destruction of Lenton Hall while the property was being decorated.

“At half past ten o’clock, Thomas Smith, a groom in the employ of Mr Wright, but living in Lenton, happening to look from his chamber window towards the Hall, saw great light and flames bursting from the windows. He instantly set out, and in breathless haste gave an alarm. The fire by this time had burnt the window shutters, and caught the ceiling, and was raging with great fury, threatening entire destruction. Fairfield actively set about putting out the fire, and Mather jumped upon a horse and rode off to Wollaton Hall, from whence two engines were instantly despatched, accompanied by the whole of the servants. Following help from the Nottingham town engine and a plentiful supply of water, the fire was completely extinguished by two o’clock in the morning.²”

In the aftermath it was discovered that windows and shutters, and about fourteen feet of ceiling had been completely destroyed. The fire had also spread along the whole of the bedroom floor and up the walls to the attic.

The following year James Anlaby Legard (1805-1869), a descendent of the long-established Legard family of North Yorkshire, finally moved in. He was a Captain in the Royal Navy but also an expert agriculturalist, a practice he put to good effect on the estate. He rented  Lenton Hall until 1853 before moving to his Yorkshire estate at Kirby Misperton.

The next tenant was John Morley, a cotton spinner and doubler, who resided at Lenton until 1860.

Between 1861 and 1867 the estate was leased to Lady Preisig Wildman (1801-1877). She was the daughter of F. Preizig of Appenzal in Switzerland and in 1816, aged 15, had married Thomas Wildman.

Colonel Thomas Wildman (1787-1859), a military man of the 7th Hussars, had inherited his father’s estates in Britain and sugar plantations in Jamaica. In 1817 he purchased Newstead Abbey from Lord Byron, an Eton school friend, and was reputed to have spent £100,000 restoring the house and gardens. On his death his widow was obliged to sell Newstead and rented Lenton Hall from Lord Middleton until 1867.

Lonsdale, James; Louisa Wildman (1800-1879); Newstead Abbey; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/louisa-wildman-18001879-47825
Louisa Wildman. By James Lonsdale (Art UK)

The Middleton estates were now run by Henry Willoughby, 8th Baron Middleton (1817-1877), who’d been considering the sale of a number of properties, including Lenton Hall, Lenton Firs and Lenton Abbey. The properties finally went to auction in June 1867.

Lenton Auction (BNA)
Mr. Pott, the auctioneer, told a packed audience at the George the Fourth Hotel in Nottingham that it was impossible for any gentleman to approach this fine estate without being struck by the entire beauty of the place. “It was beautiful not only as it stood, but from its surroundings, from the splendid timber, and the style of the houses which are not to be surpassed in the county.”

The spectators were under no illusion that the land would ultimately be used for building purposes. Mr Pott wanted to offer the greater portion of the estate for agricultural purposes but he realised that a locality so near a town would command high prices. He praised Mrs Wildman for the improvements she had made while at Lenton Hall and described it as a first-class mansion with every convenience for a gentleman’s family, together with entrance lodge, park, with wood, arable and meadow land to the extent of 155 acres. The lot was put up for £20,000 but there were no bidders and the estate remained unsold³.

The Wright family returns
In 1869 Henry Smith Wright (1839-1910) bought Lenton Hall from Lord Middleton.

He was the son of Ichabod Charles Wright of Mapperley Hall, his mother being the Hon. Theodosia, daughter of Thomas Denman, 1st Baron Denman of Dovedale. He had been educated at Cambridge and then called to the bar. Henry was also a banker with I and I.C. Wright and Co and would become an M.P. for South Nottingham. He married Mary Jane Cartledge in 1865 and later Josephine Henrietta Wright, his first cousin, in the same year he purchased Lenton Hall.

Henry was also a relative of Francis Wright, now living out his years at Osmaston Manor.

Herbert Smith Wright (Notts History)
Herbert Smith Wright (Notts History)

Lenton had been part of the County of Nottingham but in 1877 was absorbed into the town. It would seem that nothing could stop its enhusiastic growth.

Henry Smith Wright, approaching retirement from the bank, decided to leave Lenton Hall and move to Hampshire in 1878.

He sold the house and around 58 acres of estate to his brother, Frederick Wright (1840-1916), a partner with I. and I.C. Wright and Co, who was married to Ada Joyce Bateman.

Frederick was a godly man and well known throughout the Southwell Diocese. Throughout his life he was identified with commercial, philanthropic and religious life throughout Nottinghamshire. He worked on behalf of the Church of England improving the lives of fellow citizens with education, social and religious means. He was a vicar’s warden at Lenton for 25 years and conducted  a weekly bible class for young men.

In 1886 he had been appointed Justice of the Peace and became one of the oldest serving members of the magisterial bench.

Frederick disposed of certain portions of the estate before attempting to sell Lenton Hall in 1902. He failed in attempts to find a private buyer and offered it for public auction which failed to reach the reserve price.

One bidder was Albert Ball (1863-1946), a former plumber and then estate agent, who managed to convince Frederick to sell it  privately. His intention was to split the land up for building purposes and erect houses of ‘excellent superior character’ with half an acre of land to each house.

Davis, Noel Denholm; Albert Ball, JP, Mayor of Nottingham (1909-1910); Nottingham City Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/albert-ball-jp-mayor-of-nottingham-19091910-46996
Albert Ball as Lord Mayor (Art UK)

The purchase was made in 1903 and Ball managed to sell a number of building plots. Lenton Hall and its reduced seven-acres of land remained unsold and would remain this way until the following year⁴.

Ball became Mayor of Nottingham in 1909, was knighted in 1924 and became Lord Mayor in 1935. He had expertise in buying old country houses for redevelopment. Amongst his purchases were Sedgley Park, Bunny Hall, West Hallam, Kirk Hallam, Papplewick Hall, Tattershall castle, Willesley Castle, the Stanstead estate, Bulwell Hall, Upton Hall and Rufford Abbey. He was also the father of Captain Albert Ball, V.C., of the 1914-18 war.

The new century
The new owner of Lenton Hall was George Creswell Bond (1863-1939), who specialised in the development and management of iron-ore quarries in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. In his own practice he negotiated the development of coalfields on the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire border but his greatest success was agreeing the purchase of one of the largest iron-ore bearing areas in England, in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire.⁵

In 1905 he remodelled the south façade of Lenton Hall with Greek, Baroque and Jacobean features. However, Bond’s stay at the hall was tainted by ongoing disputes with neighbours over rights of access. He lasted until 1909 before selling it to Edward Powell, a man who similarly enjoyed confrontation, in particular with William Hemsley of nearby Lenton Mount.

The quarrels took their toll on Powell and he put Lenton Hall up for auction in July 1910. Bidding started at just £3,000 but was withdrawn when bidding stalled at £5,500.⁶

800px-University_Park_MMB_A7_Hugh_Stewart_Hall

Lenton Hall remained unoccupied and suffered a robbery in 1911 when burglars, with the aid of battle-axes, obtained from the entrance hall, wrenched off valuable brass and copper fittings, broke a valuable statuette, cut down huge chandeliers, and carried off brass knobs from the drawing room grate. The fittings were found abandoned in a field close to the hall.⁷

The hall was finally sold to Charles Alfred Hingston (1875-1959) in the same year. He had previously lived at The Cliffe House at Radciffe-on-Trent and was a Nottingham lace manufacturer linked with Gifford, Fox and Co, specialising in the production of brown lace. He became a director in 1910 (the Fox in the company title was his uncle William Francis Fox) and found Lenton Hall ideal for a man of his standing.

Hingston became councillor for Castle Ward in 1914, was on the Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club committee, became Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the county in 1944 and was a Major in the territorial army.

He remained at Lenton Hall until 1921 when he sold the house and moved to Barton Lodge in Ruddington.

The Boot years
By 1921 the remaining parts of the Lenton estate were bought by Sir Jesse Boot (1850-1931), who had built The Boots Company into a national chain of chemists. Boot had money available after selling the company to the American-based United Drug Company in 1920.

Jesse Boot The Alliance Boots Archive & Museum Collection
Sir Jesse Boot (The Alliance Boots Archive & Museum Collection)

Boot would soon gift a large park, known as the Highfield estate, as a site for a proposed East Midlands University. The nearby Lenton estate clearly formed part of these plans. For a while he rented Lenton Hall to John Wright, a director of the London Northern Railroad Company, and in 1926 it became the temporary home of Major J. D. Barnsdale.⁹

John Davison Barnsdale (1878-1960) had married Helen Bowden, daughter of Sir Frank Bowden, the founder and chairman of the Raleigh Cycle Company, where he served as a director. Barnsdale had fought in the Great War with the Lancashire Fusiliers and was a prolific sportsman playing amateur football for England and cricket for Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club. He remained at Lenton Hall until 1929.

In 1930 it was announced that Lenton Hall had been purchased by University College, Nottingham, and was to be converted into a hostel for 50 male students. The more expensive matter of converting the building for student use was covered by Sir Jesse Boot (he had been made 1st Baron Trent in 1929). He instructed Mr Morley Horder, the architect of the college, to prepare necessary plans and promised to pay for alterations, additions and furnishings for the new annexe. The new university had opened in 1928 and its existing student accommodation at Mapperley Hall was already proving inadequate. Lenton Hall, a few minutes away, was the perfect solution and more than doubled the number of rooms.¹°

Three years later the university announced ambitious plans to extend Lenton Hall even further. The extensions included 125 single-study bedrooms, dining hall, common room, kitchens and staff quarters. Building work started in 1935 and would not be finished until 1937.  The enlarged building was formally opened by the Duke of Portland, president of the college, in January 1938. He was assisted by John Boot, 2nd Baron Trent, whose father had done so much financially for the institution.

By this time the university had renamed Lenton Hall as the ‘Hugh Stewart Hall of Residence’, in recognition of the late principal, Hugh Stewart (1884-1934), who had been Principal of University College, Nottingham, between 1929 and 1934.

The Hugh Stewart Hall of Residence was extended again in 1969. Today the original Lenton Hall, known as the Warden’s House, forms part of the Nottingham University campus with little evidence of its former glory as a country house.

Hugh Stewart Hall c1930s (Lenton Times)
Hugh Stewart Hall in the 1930s (Lenton Times)
Hugh Stewart Hall c1940s (Lenton Times)
A further view, this time in the 1940s with ivy taking hold on the original hall (Lenton Times)
Hugh Stewart Hall c1960s (Lenton Times)
Hugh Stewart Hall, probably taken in the 1960s (Lenton Times)
Hugh Stewart Hall (Nottingham University)
Today. The ivy-clad frontage of old Lenton Hall (Nottingham University)

References:-
¹Lenton Times
²Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties (25 Jul 1845)
³Nottinghamshire Guardian (7 Jun 1867)
⁴Nottingham Evening Post (18 Jul 1905)
⁵Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
⁶Nottingham Evening Post 14 Jul 1910)
⁷Sheffield Daily Telegraph (18 Apr 1911)
⁸ www-civ.eng.cam.ac.uk
⁹Derby Daily Telegraph (16 Dec 1921)
¹°Nottingham Evening Post (12 Apr 1930)

Hugh Stewart Hall,
University of Nottingham,
Lenton Hall Drive, University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD

THORESBY HALL

thoresby-hall-2
Built:  1864 – 1871
Architect:  Anthony Salvin

Owner:  Warner Leisure Hotels
Country house hotel and spa
Grade I listed

Elizabeth revival style with irregular facades. Rockfaced ashlar. Ashlar dressings. Slate roofs, some with decorative iron cresting. Chamfered plinth, first floor band, string course, moulded cornice. Panelled parapets with pierced decoration and strapwork. (Historic England)

My immediate impression when I saw Thoresby Hall was that it was not what I expected to see. Nor was it where I expected it to be. The house appears as if from nowhere and my first reaction is that I have seen it before. I know this isn’t the case.

In the cold of an autumn afternoon the spectre of the house is chilling and mysterious.  The house seductively pulls you towards it as the November sun sets behind. Absorbing the east front you sense that something is not quite right. The image is spectacular but clumsy. There are masses of gables, dormers, turrets, towering chimneys and corner belvederes with iron finials. Three towers decorate the front – one at each end with the centre tower taking in the the main entrance and crowned by a three-tier clock turret. An elaborate bellcote takes centre stage with lofty views across the Nottinghamshire countryside. Look closer and you realise that Thoresby Hall is not well-ordered. Each tower is composed differently but architect Anthony Salvin managed to make it a work of art.

Thorseby Hall is one of those forgotten country houses. Deprived of the recognition associated with houses of a similar scale it has faded into obscurity. This was once one of the richest seams of country estates.

The Dukeries was named after the glut of Dukes who lived in and around Sherwood Forest. Clumber House, Rufford Abbey, Kiveton Hall and Worksop Manor have all been lost. Only Welbeck Abbey and Thoresby remain.

In the 1880s, the 3rd Earl Manvers decided to rebuild Thorseby Hall with income from his Derbyshire coal mines. He would spend a staggering £171,000 to build a grandiose Victorian house that accommodated 46 indoor servants and over 50 outdoor ones.

Despite military requisition in the Second World War Thoresby survived as a fully-staffed country house until the death of the 6th, and last, Earl Manvers in 1955.

While his widow lived on until 1984 the family’s long association was reaching its end.

The National Coal Board, wanting to mine under the house, purchased Thoresby with a view to prevent future compensation claims. The family retained ownership of all fixtures and fittings as a safeguard just in case the house should be demolished. In the end the mining never happened. The Coal Board opened the house to the public for several years but eventually decided that country house ownership wasn’t for them.

Thoresby Hall then descended into a decade of uncertainty.

thoresby-hall-1
In 1989 the house was purchased by an Australian property development company for conversion into a 5-star hotel. The Manvers reclaimed their contents and the house fell empty while it awaited its transition.

In the end the enterprise failed and the property was repossessed. A year later another property company attempted to convert it into a luxury hotel while keeping the state rooms open to the public but bankruptcy brought this to an abrupt end.

Thoresby Hall was now at its lowest point. Decay set in as the untended roofs started to leak and dry rot threatened the resplendent interiors.

The ultimate humiliation was when the National Trust declined to take over the property and English Heritage put the once noble house on its ‘at risk’ register.

Rescue would come in 1998 when Warner Holidays bought Thoresby Hall spending vast amounts of money to restore it to its former splendour. In a salute to the past the hotel would open a year later with Lady Rozelle Raynes, daughter of Countess Manvers, officially opening it.

The downside to all this is that Thoresby Hall is now overlooked as a country house.

Its future is secure and and appreciates the thousands of paying guests but it remains unappreciated by heritage devotees. Visitors to Thoresby are met with modern extensions and car parks with the full brilliance of Salvin’s house lost somewhere behind.

Thoresby Hall Hotel & Spa, 
Thoresby Park, Nr. Ollerton, Nottinghamshire, NG22 9WH

RUFFORD ABBEY

rufford-abbey-1

Built: Early 1200s with later additions and extensions between 1837 and 1842. Demolished 1956
Architect: Anthony Salvin for 1837 additions

Owner:  Nottinghamshire County Council
Country house ruin

Rufford Abbey had the misfortune to find its expiry date coincided with the 1950s. Had it been after the 1970s then it is likely that the house would still be standing today.

The story of Rufford turns out to be one of confusion and underhandedness.

In the end this fine house became the victim. Rufford stands among the remnants of Sherwood Forest, just two miles south of Ollerton in Nottinghamshire.

Its history is rich.  As early as the 12th century it formed part of a Cistercian Abbey and estate. However, after the dissolution of the monasteries the site followed a long transition into a country house.

It fell into the hands of George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, famous as Bess of Hardwick’s fourth husband. If she thought she would get her hands on Rufford she was mistaken.

The house passed to Shrewsbury’s daughter, Lady Mary Talbot, in 1626, who was married to a Yorkshire baronet, Sir George Savile.

According to the writer, Robert Innes-Smith, ‘had the great-grandson of this marriage been more self-seeking and line-toeing it is certain that Rufford could have been truly one of the Dukeries’.

George Savile’s actions during the 1688 sufferings meant he would become the Marquess of Halifax and not a Duke. The title would become defunct following the death of the second Lord Halifax in 1700.

A north wing was added in 1679 and a roofed southern wing was built in the 17th century. Rufford’s ownership passed to a cousin, John, and then to another George Savile, who became the 7th Baronet.

The years that followed provided growth for the house and estate. The Bath House and Garden Pavilion were built in 1743.

In 1750 a lake was created that provided power for the new corn mill (now known as Rufford Mill). The villages of Ollerton, Broughton, Kirton and Egmanton were also added to the estate.

Following the death of the 8th Baronet in 1784 his estates were split between his niece and nephew. John Lumley took the Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire estates.

The house moved swiftly through the family and, by the 1800s, Rufford was firmly in the ascendency.

The 8th Earl employed the prominent architect, Anthony Salvin, to redevelop the house. The work, completed between 1837 and 1842, cost over £18,000. The house now contained 111 rooms, 14 bathrooms and 20 staircases. During the works a magnificent entrance avenue was created with lime trees.

The Prince of Wales became a regular visitor and used Rufford as a base when visiting Doncaster races and for shooting parties. This would continue after he became King Edward VII.

In September 1908 the King and Queen stayed at Rufford and were entertained by the Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder. During the visit the royals went on a motoring tour of the neighbouring Dukeries estates visiting Welbeck Abbey, Clumber House and Thoresby Hall but it was back to Rufford they came.

rufford-abbey-2

After the First World War the Rufford estate was failing.

With the death of the 3rd Lord Savile in 1931, Rufford passed to his 12-year-old son, George Halifax Lumley-Savile. His age meant that a Board of Trustees was appointed to run the estate and here began its demise.

The following year the Yorkshire estates were sold to raise revenue but it took until 1938 for them to decide that Rufford was now too expensive to run. Outstanding death duties and reduced estate income meant that Rufford’s future was now perilous.

In April, Alderman Sir Albert Ball, a former Lord Mayor of Nottingham, signed a contract with Savile to buy the majority of the Rufford estate which consisted of 18,500 acres and several villages.

The sale meant that Rufford was now the fifth Nottinghamshire estate to be vacated or sold (the others were Clumber, Bestwood, Wollaton and Newstead) with the surrounding lands providing the real reasons for interest. Lord Savile would move to the family home at Gryce Hall, Shelley, in Yorkshire.

 ‘Sir Albert will try to sell the residence, but at the present he has no customer for it. Parts of the estate he regards as ripe for building development.’ The Times

Sir Albert Ball had originally made his fortune with the family’s plumbing business but had looked to real estate to enhance his wealth.

He had purchased Bulwell Hall in 1908 and later sold 225 acres to Nottingham Corporation.

In April 1919 he acquired the Papplewick estate in Nottinghamshire which had promptly been broken up and sold for a profit (although the house still survives today).

In 1936 he bought Upton Hall, near Newark, but his attentions appeared to wane with the purchase of Rufford which promised greater riches.

After owning Rufford for just a month Ball decided to put the estate back up for sale.

To gain the best rewards he split the estate into 400 lots. The contents of the house were the first to go and were sold at auction in the Long Gallery of the North Wing in October 1938. According to The Times this raised £25,000. There were then two further auctions – Furniture and object d’arte (raising £10,000) and a fine art sale at Christies in London which netted an additional £31,000.

country-life

The estate was auctioned in November.

The lots included farms, small holdings, 128 cottages, 6 shops, business premises and building sites within the communities of Ollerton, Eakring, Bilsthorpe, Boughton, Wellow, Ompton, Egmanton and Walesby.

Also included were 1,000 acres of prime oak woodland. The house itself was advertised as a single lot together with 843 acres of parkland. At the time the sale catalogue reported that 18,600 acres of land was for sale but Ball had already sold 7,380 acres privately.

It would take until the following summer for Ball to dispose of 14,000 acres raising £250,000. The house remained unsold and would eventually be withdrawn from sale along with surrounding land.

“Overtures are still being made for the Abbey. I don’t think for one moment that it will be pulled down. I don’t intend doing such a thing.” Sir Albert Ball

According to reports the house was being considered for conversion as an ‘educational centre’ and even as a potential holiday camp. Meanwhile, just a few miles away, quietly unnoticed, the magnificent Clumber House was demolished and lost forever.

In August 1939 The Times finally announced the sale of Rufford Abbey.

The new owner was to be Henry Talbot de Vere Clifton. This individual was the successor owner of Lytham Hall in Lancashire but resided in Jamaica. He also owned the neglected Kildalton Castle on Islay in Scotland.

According to legend he lived an extravagant lifestyle far beyond his means. He’d inherited the family fortune at 18 and subsequently plundered the Clifton estates on madcap schemes. Clifton owned a yacht, had permanent suites at The Ritz and The Dorchester and spent lavishly on racehorses.

He was at Oxford at the same time as the writer Evelyn Waugh and there is speculation that the character of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited was based on him. He eventually managed to squander £4m and died virtually penniless in a Brighton hotel.

It is likely that Clifton’s land agent brought Rufford to his attention. He certainly had no intention of living in the house and did not appear interested in letting the property. A caretaker was left in the house but, with no maintenance since the Savile days, its upkeep was minimal.

We can only assume that the surrounding land, and its potential for development, was the real reason for Clifton’s investment.

Whatever his intentions, fate was to deal a cruel hand for both Clifton and Rufford Abbey.

While Clifton spent his days in sunnier climes he might have forgotten that there was a war on.

Within weeks Rufford was requisitioned by the War Office and would become home to the 6th Cavalry Brigade of the Leicestershire Yeomanry and the 4th Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. Churchill tanks would soon rumble over the estate and churn up the fine grassland where once King Edward VII dined on the lawns.

Large areas of surrounding woodland would be cleared for war use. Huts would be built in the parkland to the west of the house and later become temporary shelter for Italian prisoners of war.

Rufford, like many country houses, suffered at the hands of the army and its charges. One report suggested that the Italians ripped down silk brocade hangings to make into silk handbags for their girlfriends back home.

rufford-abbey-3

After the war Rufford was handed back to Clifton.

He received a small amount of compensation but this didn’t mean he had to spend the money on the house. He started stripping the house of its panelling and doors, almost certainly preparation for demolition. This notice came in 1949 with his agent stating“that in the current post-war economic climate it was of greater national importance to demolish and salvage valuable building materials.”

Nottinghamshire County Council refused all requests to demolish Rufford but Clifton argued that the poor state of the building meant that the surrounding land was worthless. A Building Preservation Order was served on the house but, with no solution, Clifton exercised his rights that required the enacting county council to purchase the building from him. This was probably the first such case in the country.

“It is deserted and depressing. Inside deporable apart from the twelfth-century undercroft. Nothing old left otherwise. It is suffering cruelly from dry rot to the extent that all the floors and the ground storey of the Stuart wing have been ripped up and the earth is showing through.” James Lees-Milne (June 1949)

In 1952, with the building in a poor state of repair Nottinghamshire County Council (NCC) was faced with a dilemma.

The local writer and historian Robert Innes-Smith founded the Rufford Abbey Trust with the aim of securing a viable future. However, with dry rot, rising damp, a damaged roof, mining subsidence and bulging walls, the way ahead was anything but certain.

He recently stated that the NCC seemed uninterested at the time. They might have been forgiven as they were now owners of a property they probably didn’t want.

Opinions on the future of Rufford were divided.

The Ministry of Works suggested that the mix of architectural styles meant the house was not worthy of saving. However, there were those who favoured the house to be saved. The Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and the National Trust all expressed interest in its future. Indeed the National Trust had looked at Rufford as part of its Country House Scheme but decided it didn’t meet its criteria. The SPAB commissioned the architect David Nye to look at how much it would cost to make the building safe and eliminate dry rot. His suggestion was £11,745 while the Ministry of Works had suggested a figure in excess of £60,000. There were also calls from private individuals for the house to be saved.

Myles Thoroton Hilyard (from Flintham Hall), on the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, was vocal in his support, as was the Duke of Portland from nearby Welbeck Abbey. His counterpart at Thoresby, Earl Manvers, did not share his enthusiasm and suggested that Rufford ‘might not be worthy for saving’.

The records of the NCC show that 27 uses were proposed for the house.

There was interest from the National Coal Board, the British Sugar Corporation, Sheffield Regional Health Board, the County Museum and the Raleigh Bicycle Company.

Probably the most serious intention came from the Boots Pure Drug Company who proposed using Rufford as a Pharmacy College and Warehouse.

In the end there wasn’t a viable use for the building. It is likely that a report issued by the National Coal Board in 1953 had already sealed its fate. In this document they stated their intention to resume coal extraction on the western side of Rufford’s buildings that would last between 1958 and 1980 and that “extensive damage could be experienced due to possible ‘erratic subsidence’”.

In June 1956 the NCC started demolition. The work was completed in three phases. The upper floors of the 18th century east wing were removed leaving protection to the listed lower medieval undercroft while the northern Georgian extension was flattened and grassed over. (The work was steady but actually didn’t get fully completed until the late 1980s). In 1969 the remains of Rufford and its grounds were designated a country park.

rufford-abbey-4

Today the surviving fabric of the house is mainly Jacobean with ornate steps, porch and Anthony Salvin’s clock tower cupola. This wing was renovated for NCC office accommodation in 1998 and the Victorian kitchen developed as the Savile Restaurant. The surviving Grade II listed stables had already been converted into a craft centre with gift and craft shops.

There is at least still something for the country house researcher to see. It stands as a ‘managed ruin’ and numbers suggest it is enjoyed by many visitors.

However, you cannot fail to feel sadness and one wonders whether modern-day revenue streams might be greater had the house remained.

The timing of Rufford’s apocalypse was unfortunate. The 1950s was the decade that saw the highest number of country houses demolished – many as a result of wartime requisition and dereliction.

It was arguably the most prestigious of The Dukeries’ estates and the loss of Rufford was yet another blow to the area. Clumber House had gone, Thoresby Hall almost suffered a similar fate, and only Welbeck remained as a private residence.

Most depressing is that there are people today who have never heard of Rufford, and those that have, see it as a ruin inside a park. What greater insult can there be to such a distinguished past?

Special thanks for information provided by Matthew Kempson

Rufford Abbey,
Ollerton, Nottinghamshire, NG22 9DF