A Victorian country house you’ve most likely never heard of… except you did know it – and twenty-five years ago it fell into the sea
In 1879, when George Alderson-Smith decided to build a new house on a clifftop above Scarborough, he chose not to listen to those people who thought it ill-advised. It was common knowledge that there was a history of cliff collapses in the area, but the house called Wheatcroft Cliff was built anyway. He died here in 1931, reaching the grand old age of 96, still declaring the property ‘safe as houses’.
114 years later, his words were little comfort to Barry and Joan Turner who had bought the property in 1988. In June 1993, after a period of heavy rainfall, the world watched as the now-named Holbeck Hall Hotel fell into the sea, the victim of a rotational landslip. It seemed that the Victorian doom-mongers had been correct after all.
It was a tragic end for the former ‘country house by the sea’. It had to be demolished completely after the incident, and twenty-five years on, there are few traces of its existence.
George Alderson-Smith (1834-1931), a native of Leeds, was the son of Mr John Smith, J.P., of Burley House and Belvedere in Harrogate, a partner in the firm of Beckett and Co. He had lived in Scarborough for nearly half a century, the whole time connected with the fishing industry. He was one of the town’s biggest steam trawler owners, amassing a small fortune and a reputation to match. This wealth allowed him to build Wheatcroft Cliff looking over Scarborough’s picturesque South Bay.
In time, Alderson-Smith became chairman of the Grand Hotel Company, chairman of the South Cliff Tramway Company and a director of the Scarborough Spa Company. His standing in the community also allowed him to become a J.P. for the North Riding of Yorkshire and eventually Deputy Lieutenant of the same county. Two of his mischievous sons, Hubert and Alder, had caused significant embarrassment when they appeared before Scarborough Police Court in 1889 after throwing five public seats over a cliff.
Alderson-Smith’s fishing business didn’t end well, his last three trawlers – the Seal, the Otter and Dalhousie – were sunk by First World War enemy submarines somewhere off Aberdeen, but by this time he was well into retirement. When Alderson-Smith died in 1931 he left gross estate to the value of £107,736 (net £93,812).
Wheatcroft Cliff was described as ‘standing in six acres of secluded grounds at the extremity of the South Cliff, from where it overlooked Holbeck Gardens and the coast, north and south’. The contents of Wheatcroft Cliff were quickly sold at auction. The important collections included antique furniture, oriental porcelain of the Ming and Chinese dynasties, fine old English silver, oil paintings, watercolours, arms and armour and a fine library of books.
In June 1932, Wheatcroft Cliff was bought by Messrs Laughton, the proprietors of the Pavilion Hotel in Scarborough, who announced that the mansion was going to be converted into a first-class hotel. Mr Robert Thomas Laughton was the brother of Charles Laughton, the actor, and whose family had been operating hotels in Scarborough for 30 years. He told the Leeds Mercury that they had been searching for some years through various parts of the country for an estate suitable for an hotel to stand in its own grounds, which he considered to be a feature of the most successful first-class holiday hotels.
All the architectural features of Wheatcroft Cliff were preserved, but a new wing was built to accommodate its new services. Once the conversion was completed it had cost nearly £40,000.
“Charles Laughton is once again in the news. I can hardly pick up a paper without seeing some review of his new film ‘Vessel of Wrath’. Though I will admit to being one of his fans, there is something which appeals to me far more, and that is the Laughton Hotels at Scarborough – the Pavilion, the Royal and Holbeck Hall. Now, the Laughton Hotels at Scarborough are a family concern. Although Charles is a director, it is his mother and his two brothers, Tom and Fred, who are in active control. In nearly every town you will find a local name, and I believe I am correct in saying that the Laughtons have been associated with hotel keeping in Scarborough since the first one was opened. Perhaps my favourite of the Laughton hotels is Holbeck Hall – the hotel with a view. Here there are six acres of private ground stretching down to the beach, and you can walk straight from your bedroom down to the sea in your swimming suit. There are all the characteristics of a country mansion. In the hall is a magnificent baronial fireplace, beautiful parquet floor, a minstrels’ gallery – everything, in fact, to promote a sense of well-being.” – ‘Hotel Discoveries’ by Ashley Courtenay in The Illustrated and Sporting Dramatic News – March 18 1938.
And so Wheatcroft Cliff began life as the four-star Holbeck Hall Hotel. Although it was used briefly as part of a scheme to re-settle returned prisoners of war after World War Two. The property passed through other owners until it was bought by Barry and Joan Turner, who added it to their English Rose Hotels portfolio.
Until that fateful day in 1993. Cracks had been seen near the hotel some weeks before, but it took until the night of 3 June for the cliff near the hotel to finally give way. Guests had to make a quick exit after its owners realised the seriousness of the situation following the landslip which left the building perched perilously close to the edge. As the cliff continued to collapse, parts of the building soon began to follow.
The hotel was in ruins by the time the ground finally stabilised by the end of the weekend, and what was left was bulldozed into the ground two weeks later. The Turners later used the insurance money to buy a new hotel in Malton and continued to build up their hotel empire.
Flashback to the 1940s: A bitter dispute between a Government minister and an aristocrat
In years to come we might once again consider Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, to be one of our majestic stately homes. ‘The largest privately-owned house in Europe is finally awaking from its slumber’ heralds the mansion’s website. After years of decline and decay, its fortunes are finally changing; restoration work is underway, the roof is being replaced, while Phase II is planned for the autumn when repairs start on the Palladian east front, the chapel and grand staircase. With millions of pounds of work outstanding it is going to be a long journey.
Wentworth Woodhouse’s problems, like many other country houses, started at the beginning of the 20th century. Too big, too expensive and with dwindling family finances, it was severely affected by two World Wars. However, in February 1946, the house reached its lowest ebb.
Newspapers of the day reported that unless top level negotiations between the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (1883-1967), and Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1910-1948), 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, resulted in a settlement, Mr Emanuel Shinwell, Minister of Fuel and Power, would seize 110 acres of garden and parkland from Wentworth Woodhouse. The land would be used for open-cast mining with the total yield of coal, considered to be inferior quality, estimated to be about 345,000 tonnes.
Work had already started on the estate, but it was the rapid advance towards the mansion that caused the biggest consternation.
In 1946, the Coal Nationalisation Act was making its way through Parliament between January and May. After World War 2 the country had a coal shortage and the nationalisation of the nation’s private collieries was a way of increasing coal production. Earl Fitzwilliam had accepted that the family’s pits would soon be in Government hands, there was compensation for coal owners, but the fate of Wentworth Woodhouse bothered him.
Fitzwilliam had offered the mansion to the National Trust, but the organisation had been nervous at taking on a building that faced ‘imminent destruction’. It had accepted covenants over the park and gardens to ring-fence the house from the mining operation, but was warned off by the Government who were in no mood to listen.
During the negotiations, James Lees-Milne from the National Trust’s Country Houses Committee had visited Wentworth Woodhouse and recorded his visit in his diaries:
‘Left at ten from King’s Cross to Doncaster. Michael (Earl of) Rosse (of the Country Houses Committee) met me and motored me to Wentworth Woodhouse. Had time to walk around the outside and other parts of the inside. It is certainly the most enormous private house I have ever beheld, I could not find my way about the interior and never once knew in what direction I was looking from a window. Strange to think that until 1939 one man lived in the whole of it. All the contents are put away or stacked in heaps in a few rooms, the pictures taken out of their frames. The dirt is appalling. Everything is pitch black and the boles of the trees like thunder. To my surprise the park is not being worked for coal systematically, but in square patches here and there. One of these patches is a walled garden. Right up to the very wall of the Vanbrugh front every tree and shrub has been uprooted, awaiting the onslaught of the bulldozers. Where the surface has been worked is waste chaos and, as Michael said, far worse than anything he saw of French battlefields after D-day. I was surprised too by the very high quality of the pre-Adam rooms and ceilings of Wentworth; by the amount of seventeenth-century work surviving; by the beautiful old wallpapers; and by the vast scale of the lay-out of the park, with ornamental temples sometimes one-and-a-half miles or more away. Lady Fitzwilliam in a pair of slacks, rather dumpy and awkward, came downstairs for a word just before we left. I fancy she is not very sensitive to the tragedy of it all.’
There was little doubt that the National Trust proposal had been rejected by Manny Shinwell himself, as he had also rejected a plan by Mr Joseph Hall, president of the Yorkshire Mineworkers’ Association, to obtain the coal by other methods. The miners themselves, conscious of their local inheritance, had pledged themselves, to no avail, to make good the loss if the scheme could be abandoned. Their pleas fell on deaf-ear, but Shinwell was able to appease them by considering a speedy restoration of the land and possible financial assistance.
Earl Fitzwilliam had already turned to a group of experts from the Department of Fuel and Technology at Sheffield University. They quickly established that open-cast mining would produce poor quality coal and deemed Mr Shinwell’s plans as not being cost-effective.
Responding to Manny Shinwell’s thin promise of restoration after mining ceased, William Batley, a member of the group, wrote to the Secretary of the Georgian Group. ‘Effective restoration. What a cockeyed yarn. These Ministers of State must think we are a lot of simpletons – spinning us the tale. It is just bunkum, sheer bunk.’
Earl Fitzwilliam met Clement Attlee in April to appeal against further damage to the property. He urged that work could be done by less destructive methods. The meeting at Downing Street wasn’t a success. Meanwhile, excavators were at work getting out the first 300 tonnes of coal of the promised 345,000 tonnes.
There are those who believe that Manny Shinwell’s actions in 1946 were directed solely at Earl Fitzwilliam, whom he believed was part of the ‘old brigade’ – men who had run the ‘foolish, callous profit-hunting system’ which, he believed had operated before the war.
In ‘Black Diamonds – The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty’, Catherine Bailey describes what happened:
‘Peter was convinced that Shinwell’s plans for Wentworth Woodhouse were vindictive. It was the proposal to mine the formal gardens – a site directly behind the Baroque west front – that threatened the house. The magnificent 300-year-old beech avenue that ran down the Long Terrace, the raised walkway along the western edge of the gardens, the pink shale path, with its dramatic floral roundels, together with ninety-nine acres of immaculately tended lawns, shrubbery and luxuriant herbaceous borders, were scheduled to be uprooted. The over-burden from the open-cast mining – top soil, mangled plants and pieces of rubble – was to be piled fifty feet high outside the main entrance to the West front, the top of the mound directly level with Peter’s bedroom window and the guest rooms in the private apartments at the back of the house.’
As we know, Manny Shinwell had his way and Wentworth Woodhouse suffered. In 1948, Peter Fitzwilliam was killed in the same plane crash as Kathleen Kennedy, and shortly afterwards the Ministry of Health attempted to requisition the house as ‘housing for homeless industrial families’.
The move was thwarted by Lady Mabel Fitzwilliam, sister of the 7th Earl, who brokered a deal with West Riding County Council to turn it into the Lady Mabel College of Physical Education. The college later merged with Sheffield Polytechnic who gave up the lease in 1988 due to high maintenance costs.
Wentworth Woodhouse eventually returned to private ownership, first with Wensley Grosvenor Haydon-Baillie and then Clifford Newbold, both of whom made brave restoration attempts. The house was now subject to subsidence caused by old underground mine-workings, not the 1940’s open-cast mining, but something Manny Shinwell might have taken into consideration had he known. (The Newbold family lodged an unsuccessful £100 million compensation claim with the Coal Authority).
Wentworth Woodhouse was sold to the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust for £7 million in 2017. The cost of repairs to the house were estimated at £40 million, helped by a grant of £7.6 million from the Government, but this figure was reassessed earlier this year and projected restoration work is now likely to be around £100 million.
St. Nicholas sits on the fringe of the historic market town of Richmond. With elevated views across the pastures towards the ruins of Easby Abbey and the River Swale its origins date back to 1171 when St. Nicholas was owned by the Crown. It has been remodelled over the centuries and has been in private ownership since around 1585, making it the oldest structure in Richmond in continuous use as a habitation. The property is on the site of a Benedictine hospital, founded in 1171 by one of the Earls of Richmond. There are still graves from the era underneath large parts of the grounds.
St. Nicholas was the home of much-loved Richmond character Lady Serena James, who lived in the house with her husband, Bobby James, who in 1905 planted the gardens as they currently exist.
She was born Lady Serena Mary Barbara Lumley on March 30 1901, the only child of the 10th Earl of Scarbrough. As an only child, and as a girl, Lady Serena was in a position comparable to that of Vita Sackville-West at Knole; had she been born a boy, she would have been heir to a great inheritance – in her case the medieval Lumley Castle in County Durham and the Palladian Sandbeck Park, near Rotherham in Yorkshire.
Her marriage in 1923 to Robert James, third son of the 2nd Lord Northbourne, brought her to the entrancing St Nicholas. The marriage was unexpected: Bobbie James’s first wife Lady Evelyn – nee Wellesley, daughter of the 4th Duke of Wellington – had died young, and he was almost 30 years Lady Serena’s senior. Lady Scarbrough, moreover, was mortified that St Nicholas was not a great country seat. “She’s going to live in a little cottage by the road,” was how she described her daughter’s future.
Lady Serena continued to live there after the death of Bobby James. The eponymous “Bobby James” rose still grows throughout the gardens, and on the walls of the house. Richmond residents were welcomed to tour the gardens at any time, and were often invited in for tea. Lady Serena died in 2000, and is still fondly remembered by many in the town.
St Nicholas was then purchased in 2001 by Keith Schellenberg. He is a Yorkshire businessman who made his fortune in shipbuilding, livestock feed, glue, and agricultural chemicals. He was also a sportsman, playing rugby for Middlesbrough and Yorkshire, and was part of the British Olympic bobsleigh team.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In May 1852 a newspaper advertisement announced the sale of valuable land adjoining Bradfield Moor in Yorkshire. It appeared in the Sheffield Independent, a daily newspaper for the town of Sheffield which lay a few miles to the south. This sale of valuable land by Mr Joseph Hammerton of Walker House, Bradfield Dale, included 102- acres of ancient woodland and 7 acres of grassland with commanding views of the surrounding romantic scenery. It also suggested that this freehold estate would be the ideal place to build a summer residence and perfect to use as a Shooting Box in winter.¹
Sidney Jessop and eventful times at Thornsett
The offer was taken up by Sidney Jessop (1809-1871), a nobleman of the eminent Sheffield steel-making firm William Jessop and Sons. The business had been started as a small crucible steelmaker by his father William Jessop in 1830, but there were records of Jessops making steel in Sheffield as far back as 1774. When William Jessop died in 1835 it was taken over by his sons – Montague (1802-1841), Henry (1808-1849), Thomas and Sidney. Montague died soon after and Henry, who established an American branch of the company, also died, in New York at the relatively young age of 41. Their father had taken care not to make any of his sons ‘masters’ and set them to learn the rudiments of the business, often making them toil as hard as other working men.
Sidney, along with his older brother Thomas (more of which we will read about later), continued the firm between them and quickly established it as one of the town’s most reputable manufacturers of steel for the making of tools, saws and steel pens. They also became investors in the Sheffield, Wortley, Silkstone and Wakefield Railway Company.
Sidney lived at 31 Broom Grove Road in the well-heeled district of Broom Hall. The house had been left to his widowed mother, Rebecca, but it was Sidney’s income that provided for the family indulgence. When William Jessop and Sons opened a branch on Dale Street in Manchester it was Sidney who supervised operations. He would move to Shakespeare Street in Ardwick, a house he maintained until his death.
The estate at Thornsett Moor was ideally situated on the way to Manchester. Thornsett Lodge was probably built about 1855 but the architect remains unknown. It was undoubtedly built as a summer retreat and, being a keen sportsman, ideal for Sidney to use during the grouse shooting season. As early as 1858 he was entertaining a party of about fifty gentlemen for the ‘Glorious Twelfth’.
‘The weather was beautifully fine, the sun being exceedingly powerful until towards two o’clock, when the clouds wore a threatening aspect, and the sound of distant thunder attracted the attention of those who were unprepared for a storm. Vivid flashes of lightning, followed by loud peals of thunder, shortly afterwards came in quick succession. About four o’clock the storm became so violent that the sportsmen were obliged to leave the moors. The rain and hail stones descended heavily for a couple of hours, and then somewhat abated, the storm apparently travelling in the direction of Sheffield’.²
When Sidney bought the land at Thornsett he might not have been aware of an important development in the valley below. In 1856 there was talk that the Sheffield Waterworks Company was considering building a new reservoir in order to supply the quantity of water required by an Act of Parliament for the mills of the River Loxley. It became reality in 1859 when construction started and the landscape below Thornsett Lodge was obliterated by hundreds of workmen. In time the ‘Bradfield scheme’ planned to have four reservoirs in the hills surrounding the nearby village.
The work on Dale Dyke encountered frequent problems but by the end of 1863 the embankment was so far complete as to be ready for the reception of water. Through the winter the 76-acre reservoir filled and by March it was almost full. However, disaster was to strike on the evening of Friday 11th March 1864 when, during high winds, the embankment collapsed sending 3 million cubic metres of water down the Loxley valley towards Sheffield. The wall of water destroyed everything in its course and reached Malin Bridge and Hillsborough where the River Loxley met the River Don . The water then thundered towards the town centre and then in the direction of Attercliffe and Rotherham. Altogether at least 240 people died and more than 600 houses were damaged or destroyed by the flood.
It proved to be Sheffield’s worst disaster (although not its last) and the remains of Dale Dyke scarred the landscape on Bradfield Moor. The Mayor of Sheffield, none other than Sidney’s older brother, Thomas, quickly set up a relief fund for the homeless and the needy that eventually reached £49,650. Notwithstanding the huge loss of life and the prolonged work needed to rebuild the dam there was now a stigma attached to the area around Thornsett.
The flood may have prompted Sidney to put the Thornsett Lodge estate up for auction in 1869. When the bidding failed to reach its reserved price the lot was withdrawn and it remained in Jessop hands.³
Sidney Jessop always lived under the shadow of his remaining older brother. He had a retiring disposition and never took much part in public affairs although, for a time, he did represent the Park Ward in the Town Council, during which time he declined an invitation to become Mayor. After a period of indifferent health he died at his Manchester residence in January 1871. Such was the respect given to him by his workmen that the pall bearers at his funeral were eight of the company’s oldest employees. Sidney Jessop was buried at Ecclesall Church in Sheffield.
Thomas Jessop – hero of the town
Upon the death of Sidney, his brother Thomas Jessop (1804-1887) was left the sole proprietor of William Jessop and Sons. Thomas was already an extensive owner of landed property and now inherited the estate at Thornsett. He lived at Endcliffe Grange in Sheffield which remained his principal residence.
While Sidney was considered to have been the restraining influence it was Thomas who showed the most enthusiasm for growing the business of William Jessop and Sons. At the age of 28 he crossed the Atlantic and laid the foundations of the business that afterwards sprung up. It was also Thomas who saw further ahead and from the original premises on Blast Lane, next to the canal, he extended to Brightside, and a year later added the Kilnhurst works as a temporary establishment. The Brightside works grew until they occupied nearly 30-acres of land intersected by nearly three miles of railway lines. At one stage there were six water-wheels and 28 steam boilers needed to drive the engines, hammers and machines.
Thomas Jessop will always be remembered in Sheffield as the generous donor of the Jessop Hospital for Women, an institution that still exists today. It had first been established in 1864 on Figtree Lane and a new hospital was opened in 1878. His donation amounted to £26,000 and he explained that while serving as Mayor of Sheffield he had thought it necessary that the town’s women should have their own hospital. ‘He had now built the hospital, he had furnished it, he had given it to the trustees for the benefit of the town, and he asked them to assist him in supporting it’.⁴
The public career of Thomas Jessop dated back to 1843 when he was elected a councillor for the Park Ward. He retired from the Town Council in 1848 and devoted his attention to the family business. In 1863 Thomas was chosen as Master Cutler and decided to re-join the council becoming Mayor a month later.
William Jessop and Sons became a limited company in 1875. Through aggressive business deals and key contracts the firm had grown into a world reputed empire. Thomas believed that the firm had become so big that the responsibility had to be shared with younger shoulders and wanted to develop young fellows who would eventually support his own son, William. He agreed to sell the company’s estate and property to Mr D Chadwick, M.P., and prepared to retire from the business. In the years that followed the firm went through several years’ poor trading and became saddled with a large quantity of iron bought when the price was at its height. Thomas Jessop returned as Chairman and effectively saved the company when he gifted it £46,000.
After he inherited Thornsett Lodge Thomas used his wealth to acquire the Huggate estate, on the Yorkshire Wolds, between Driffield and Pocklington, extending to 4,000-acres. This property, along with several good farms, cost him £160,000. He also became the owner of Foston, some 600-acres near Driffield, which included a trout stream running right through the middle of it.
Thomas married Frances Yates Hope, daughter of Peter Hope, wholesale merchant and grocer of Liverpool, in the spring of 1846. Before this he had lived in his father’s cottage adjoining the Blast Lane works – ‘A beautiful place, with a lovely lake in the front, and delightful surroundings’. After marriage he lived at Claremont and later moved to Farm Bank on Shrewsbury Road, afterwards to Shirle Hill in Sharrow. Thomas Jessop bought Endcliffe Grange following the death of its owner Edward Fisher Sanderson. He extended and improved the house making it one of the most desirable residences in one of the wealthiest suburbs. He also embellished the interior with valuable works of art, including those by Osler, Pettie and other famous painters.
However, it was Thornsett Lodge where Thomas spent his long summers enjoying the view down the valley of the Loxley and the Porter, the Parish Church of Sheffield being discernible in the distance. During the grouse season he made a point of gathering friends around him, including members of the ‘Birthday Club’, meeting on market days at the King’s Head, and he always made a point of visiting Thornsett on the 12th of August.⁵
Thomas Jessop died at Endcliffe Grange in November 1887.
William Jessop – man of the land
The only son of Thomas Jessop was William Jessop (1856-1905) and now head of the third generation of the steel manufacturers. As a youngster he was educated at Collegiate School in Sheffield and later at Repton, in Germany, before finishing his education at Cambridge. For the greater part of his life he didn’t take part in the affairs of the business but finally became a director in 1880 and, on the death of his father, became its chairman. Although he didn’t take a prominent part in the day-to-day running he was influential in establishing a branch in America in 1902.
For some years he had been a director of the Sheffield and Rotherham Bank, and also occupied a seat on the board of the Yorkshire Engine Company. He also supported the work started by his father at the Jessop Hospital for Women and became president of the institution. This inspired him to also become a trustee of the Sheffield Royal Infirmary. Possessed of ample means and inheriting considerable landed estates from his father, William was more at home in the countryside.
William was keenly interested in agriculture, an ardent sportsman, who loved to handle the gun and rod and to play host to his sporting friends. As such he regularly visited Thornsett Lodge and owned extensive shooting rights in the Strines district, and became a prominent member of the Bradfield Game Association, a group of gentlemen who enjoyed grouse-shooting rights over a large area of the nearby moorland.
William was twice married. His first wife was Mary Crompton Bateman of Middleton Hall, Youlgreave, in Derbyshire. Her father and grandfather had been ardent antiquarians and were well-known in connection with their researches into the history of Derbyshire. By this marriage he had five children, four daughters and one son. Following the death of his first wife he married again, this time to Mrs Frances Jane Fenwick Watson, widow of Mr W.J. Watson of Newcastle.
For many years William resided at Forest Hill, near Worksop, and later moved to Wallingwells, an estate belonging to Sir Thomas White. For a time he moved to Endcliffe Grange while spending a few months each year at his house, 5 Westbourne Grove, in Scarborough. However, his liking for country life caused him to resume his occupancy of Wallingwells, where he remained until late in life. Here he indulged in hunting and shooting and could be regularly found with Lord Galway’s hounds when they were out. The tenantry on his estates found him an excellent landlord and he actively worked several of the farms on the Huggate estate. His open-handed generosity to those poorer than himself was evident in those times of agricultural difficulty and there were many who thought him an ideal candidate to take part in public affairs. However, William chose not to participate and preferred a quieter existence, one that had been deprived of his father.
At the Coronation of King Edward VI and Queen Alexandra he made generous arrangements for each of his tenants and workers at Foston and Huggate to enjoy a day of festivities. Each person received an invitation card illuminated in Coronation colours, on it were portraits of the King and Queen alongside the Royal arms. In the centre were views of Foston Church, Wold House, Huggate, and Thornsett Lodge. Below these were photographs of Thomas Jessop on one side, and his grandson on the other; with the host and hostess Mr and Mrs William Jessop between them. On the day itself each person was presented with a Coronation medal with a pendant ribbon of red, white and blue.⁶
During the last two years of his life William was struck down with a painful affection of the throat. In an attempt to rescue his health he journeyed around the world visiting Australia and Japan. William made several visits to London for medical consultations but it was apparent that he was gradually sinking. He left Wallingwells and made Thornsett Lodge his permanent home. It was here that he spent the last 12 months of his life, the last three being unable to leave the safe confines of the house, and here he died on 4 July 1905.
William Jessop bequeathed his wife a carriage, a pair of horses, harness, saddlery, and stable furniture, as well as wines and spirits and other consumable stores from Thornsett Lodge and Westbourne Grove in Scarborough. He gave her a legacy of £500 and the right to use Thornsett Lodge until his only son, Thomas Jessop, reached the age of 23. It would appear that she had no appetite for alcohol as the extensive cellar of vintage wines was auctioned the following November.⁷
Thomas Jessop and the extravagance ends
When William Jessop’s only son was born in 1888 it was quite right that he should be named after his famous grandfather. He was sent away to be educated in Cheltenham and enjoyed the sporting traditions available to a privileged young man. He was an amateur cross-country jockey and won numerous trophies at point-to-point meetings He was a first-class shot and a cricketer of some repute. In 1905, aged 17, he joined William Jessop and Sons but the death of his father a month later probably arrested any ambitions to serve the company.
It might also be the case that Thomas had little interest in Thornsett Lodge either. His step-mother, entitled to stay until he reached the age of 23, decided to take the sea air and had moved to 127 King’s Road in Brighton, Sussex. In 1908 Thornsett Lodge was advertised to let on a yearly tenancy. It was described with three reception rooms, twelve bedrooms, excellent servants’ offices, extensive stabling and outbuildings. It also came with relatively rare electric light installation and all modern conveniences.⁸
Thomas, like his father, enjoyed countryside pursuits and while in Gloucestershire had met a similar-minded person in Miss Bertha Muriel James, daughter of Mr A.B. James of Somerset and Mrs James of Park House, Thirlestaine Road, Cheltenham. They were married in July 1909 and the fact that Thornsett Lodge was still without a tenant provided the perfect opportunity to spend their honeymoon there.
The couple lived on private means and set up home at 25 Promenade, Moat House, Uckington, in Cheltenham, but there was also time spent in Lincolnshire. In 1906 he had obtained a commission with the Lincolnshire Yeomanry, serving under Lord Yarborough, with whom he served throughout World War One. He was on HMS Mercian when she was shelled in the Mediterranean with the loss of nearly 80 lives. He also saw several years’ service in Egypt and Palestine, much of which was with the Desert Mounted Corps.
Returning to England he settled in the Spilsby district of Lincolnshire and purchased Harrington Hall. He devoted much of his life to hunting, a passion shared with his wife. They had hunted throughout Britain from 1911 until he went to war and he was Master and Huntsman of the Boddington Harriers in Gloucestershire. In 1920 he became Joint Master of the Southwold Hounds and later hunted the Burton Hounds and then South Wold East.
Thornsett Lodge remained under his ownership but by the 1920s was being used by the Bradfield Game Association for shooting purposes. However, in 1928 the association had instructed the Sheffield auctioneer’s of Eadon & Lockwood to sell all the contents of the house.
Maybe Thornsett Lodge had too many close associations with Sheffield and its industrial past to satisfy Thomas Jessop’s rural pursuits. Whatever the reasons the house steadily fell out of favour with him as did the city that had allowed him to live the life of a country gentleman. (Ironically, his step-mother, Frances Jane Fenwick Jessop, had by now moved out of Brighton and had taken a house, ‘Thornsett’, on Falmer Road in Rottingdean. She died in May 1933).
Soon after the contents of Thornsett Lodge had been disposed of the house and estate were sold to Grange and Dale Ltd, a Lincolnshire based property investment company headed by Major Charles Wilson of Riseholme Hall and a Captain Hunt. It is not without probability that they were friends of Thomas Jessop and were keen to exploit the shooting moors that came with the lodge.
The house was made available to let and in 1933 it was home to Gladys Hilda Wyles, spinster, whose only claim to fame appears to be the bankruptcy of her Mowbray Confectionery Works, a wholesale and manufacturing confectioner in Sheffield.
In 1934 Grange and Dale Ltd sold Thornsett Hall to Sheffield Corporation most likely to be used as offices for the waterworks department who were responsible for the nearby Dale Dyke, Strines, Agden and Damflask reservoirs. Grange and Dale Ltd retained the shooting rights and were still advertising that the grouse moors were available to let as late as 1940.
As for Thomas, during World War Two he served as a Welfare Officer in the Northern Command, based in Lincoln, and would later become Major Thomas Jessop. He went on to serve with Spilsby Rural District Council and its committees but it was with the company of ex-servicemen that he enjoyed his role as President of the Lincolnshire Yeomanry Old Comrades’ Association as well as being patron of the Spilsby branch of the British Legion.
While Thomas lived his peacetime in relative comfort, and on the proceeds of William Jessop and Sons, it was apparent that times were changing. Between the wars his move from Harrington House to the smaller Harrington House Farm in the adjoining village reflected the declining years of the steel business and a change in his personal circumstances. He died aged 65 at Horncastle Hospital in February 1952.⁹
Decline and fall
The prospect of war loomed over Europe and in May 1939 it was announced that Thornsett Lodge would house infants from Herries Road Nursery ‘in case of emergency’.¹⁰ This was exactly what happened and the youngsters enjoyed the fresh country air while the city below worked itself to exhaustion and suffered at the hands of German bombers.
It was the start of a long association with children and when peace returned Thornsett Lodge was used as an adjunct to Sheffield Corporation’s cottage homes at Fulwood. It was also around this time that the name appears to have been changed to Thornseat Lodge. A swimming pool was built at the rear of the house and in 1973 it was described as a mixed sex home for 16 emotionally disturbed or ‘difficult’ children of all ages. By 1978 it was listed as an Intermediate Treatment Centre accommodating 12 young people, but its days were numbered.
By the time of its closure in 1980 there was little to associate Thornseat Lodge with its glorious days of domestic pleasure. The 1980s were difficult times for the City of Sheffield. Unemployment was high; its infrastructure was struggling and the council was cash-strapped. There was little else to do but ‘mothball’ it until a better use came along.
The house was not entirely empty. In the early 1990s it was used by the Sheffield Gingerbread Group as a place for families on low incomes to go and stay. As one person said on the Sheffield History forum: – “We stayed there several years’ running. It was a beautiful old house with one room which the caretaker still used in its original state with oak panelled walls. We celebrated children’s birthdays, Halloween and lots more and it was great to see the kids out-of-town and into the countryside.”
But the good times weren’t to last. As the new millennium approached little was done to save Thornseat Lodge. The severe moorland winters were no match and the house quickly fell into a state of disrepair. The worse it became the less likely anybody was going to be interested in buying the property. In 1994 there were plans to turn Thornseat Lodge into a possible location for an eight-place secure unit but hesitancy by Sheffield City Council and opposition from the Peak National Park meant plans were quickly shelved.¹¹
In 2004 the council finally sold the property to Hague Plant Excavations Ltd whose ownership and intentions have been subject of much internet debate ever since. Most certain is that Thornseat Lodge has become a perilous ruin and, without listed status, its future is uncertain. A huge amount of money would be required to restore the property and for what purpose? The easiest option might be to demolish it once and for all but there might yet be salvation. In June 2016 a new company was formed called Thornseat Lodge Ltd. Its purpose is unclear but let us hope that there might be a happy ending for Sidney Jessop’s old shooting lodge after all.
Until then the ghosts will continue to wander through the open corridors, the crumbling stonework and the broken glass.
Note:- William Jessop and Sons, later William Jessop and Company, merged with J.J. Saville and Co to become Jessop Saville & Company. The Brightside Lane works in Sheffield closed in the late 1980s and was later cleared to become ‘Jessop’s Riverside’ business park. In 1998 the company was bought by Allegheny Teledyne.
References:- ¹Sheffield Independent (15 May 1852) ²Sheffield Daily Telegraph (14 Aug 1858) ³Sheffield Independent (30 Jun 1869) ⁴Sheffield Evening Telegraph (30 Jun 1887 ⁵Sheffield Evening Telegraph (30 Nov 1887) ⁶Sheffield Daily Telegraph (12 Jun 1902) ⁷Sheffield Daily Telegraph (8 Sep 1905) ⁸Sheffield Independent (30 May 1908) ⁹Skegness Standard (27 Feb 1952) ¹⁰Sheffield Daily Telegraph (4 May 1939) ¹¹Terry BK (Sheffield Forum)
Day by day this Grade II listed house falls into disrepair despite long-running plans to turn it into a residential development. If its crumbling walls could talk they might reveal long forgotten conversations between partying aristocrats, famous actors and even Royalty.
The early years
Firbeck Hall was built in 1594 by William West, a lawyer of Moorgate Hall, Rotherham and Steward to the 5th Earl of Shrewsbury and to the Manor of Sheffield at the time of Mary Queen of Scots’ imprisonment. West wrote a legal book called Symbolaeographia and was succeeded by his son William.
William’s son John West died in 1638, leaving a sister and co-heir, Elizabeth, who married Lord Darcy, son of Michael Darcy and Margaret Wentworth. She went on to marry a second time, marrying Sir Francis Fane, who inherited Firbeck after her death.
It remained with the West’s until 1669 before being sold to William Woolhouse. He sold it to Jonathan Stanyforth in 1676 and passed through several generations before being sold to Henry Gally Knight, a Barrister-at-Law, in 1800. He was son of the Rev. Henry Gally, Chaplain in Ordinary to George II, distinguished among the literati of his day, who married Elizabeth, only sister and heir of Ralph Knight of Langold. The Gallys were a refugee family which sought asylum in England on the revocation of the Edict of nantes.
On Henry’s death in 1808 the estates at Firbeck and Langold Park were left to his only son, also called Henry Gally Knight (1786-1846). Henry Gally Knight Jr was elected as M.P. for Nottinghamshire in 1835. In the literary world he gained considerable reputation, and published, on his return from travelling in Greece and Syria, a volume of poems under the title Eastern Sketches. He married Henrietta, youngest daughter and co-heir of Anthony Hardolph Eyre, of Grove Park, but did not have any children. After his death Firbeck was willed to Ecclesiastical Commissioners who sold Firbeck Hall to Frances Harriett Miles – nee Jebb – in 1853. Upon her death the Firbeck estates formed the Miles Trust which was inherited by Sydney Gladwin Jebb in 1898 on the death of his uncle, the Rev. Henry Gladwin Jebb.
Sydney Gladwyn Jebb was a West Riding J.P. and wealthy landowner. He was the son of Captain Joshua Gladwyn Jebb of Barnby Moor House, Nottinghamshire. In his later years he lived with his wife, Rose, at Caring House near Maidstone. Attempts to sell the house in 1909 failed and the house subsequently rented out. During the Great War it became the base for Belgian refugees.
One cold November morning in 1924 the house suffered a serious fire. The occupant at the time was Mr Albert Orlando Peech, chairman of a large steel manufacturing company, Messrs. Steel, Peech & Tozer, of Sheffield. He was renting the house and awoke to find flames coming from the servants’ quarters. When it was realised that the fire had obtained too strong a hold the valuable oil paintings and furniture in the mansion were removed to the park outside. Despite the attendance of fire engines from Rotherham, Doncaster and Worksop the central portion of the hall was gutted. Most of the roof collapsed bringing with it a shower of molten lead.
The Jebb family severed links with Firbeck Hall in May 1934. There had been plans to sell the house at auction in Worksop. However, a few weeks earlier an approach had been made by Mr Cyril Nicholson, a stock broker from Sheffield, to purchase the whole of the 1,500 acre estate. In addition to the house there were six farms, 14 small holdings and a number of cottages. It was reported that he intended to retain the estate as it was but nobody could have anticipated the plans he had in store.
Firbeck Hall Club
“The club which will be opened sometime next month is the only one of its kind in the north of England. There is nothing to compare with it near London.” Mr Santos Casini, Sheffield Independent, 8 March 1935.
Firbeck Hall will forever be remembered for the celebrated period between 1935 and 1939. Although Cyril Nicholson had bought the estate he had secretly been making plans with two business associates. These were Lord Feilding, eldest son of the 9th Earl of Denbigh, and Mr Santos Casani, a famous dancer of the Casani Club in London. Between them they turned the old family house into the Firbeck Hall Club. The hall retained its outward appearance but its old interiors were, by modern standards, inexplicably destroyed. The old panelled walls gave way to brightly covered walls and the interior rooms were covered almost entirely with mirrors. The fashionable art deco style was created by Robert Cawkwell of the Sheffield architect firm of Hadfield Cawkwell Davidson. The total cost was £80,000 with actual alterations alone to the building costing £45,000. With the fire damage it took almost a year to complete.
The inside was a triumph, winning acclaim from specialist journals including Architecture Illustrated, which published pictures of the hall’s la mode zebra prints, sweeping plaster work and streamlined ocean liner-esque fittings.
“Where once there were darkly-panelled rooms there are now dance halls with maple floors, cocktail bars with stainless steel furniture, dining rooms upholstered with its latest Zebra pattern coverings, grill rooms and billiard rooms.”
Furniture for Firbeck Hall was provided by a well-known firm of local furnishers, James and William Hastings Ltd, of Bridegate in Rotherham. They supplied all the special tables for the grill room and restaurant, and also a quantity of special coffee and cocktail tables made to the design of the Finish architect, Alvar Aalto.
Ellis Pearson and Co were employed to provide the mirrors which ran the full length of the dining room walls. Cut into them were sporting scenes depicting the activities of the club. In the grill room they created windows with silhouette figures. These, with large mirrors in the ballroom, ballroom lounge and bars were regarded as ‘the finest glass work executed in the British Isles’.
Of significance was the state-of-the-art lighting system installed by Kenneth Friese-Greene. The ballroom was illuminated by concealed lighting in the cornice providing an even, soft light throughout the room. A control on the band platform changed the lighting from white to a rotary colour-changing dimmer driven by an electric motor. The glass panels in the ceiling of the dining room, reception hall were all lit by concealed floodlights.
In the grounds and park there was a new 100 ft outdoor heated swimming pool (constructed by B. Powell and Son of Sheffield) as well as tennis courts and an 18-hole golf course designed by celebrity golfer John S.F. Morrison. The championship-standard squash courts were described as being comparable to those at the Bath Club.
Most significant was the new aerodrome, designed by the famous airman Captain Tom Campbell Black, joint winner of the Mildenhall-Melbourne Air Race in 1935, where the rich and famous, including the Prince of Wales (on his royal Dragon aircraft) and Amy Johnson, flew in.
A first-hand account of Firbeck was given in 2000, by former club-goer Luke Seymour, a director of estate agent Henry Spencer and Sons of Sheffield, who recalled events in the Sheffield Star:
“Evening parties were very popular – and dangerous in the pool. “John Bowett – who had never dived in his life before – and Ted Tylden-Wright both dived off the high board in their morning suits after a Bowett wedding.”
Noel Wade wrote in 2000:-
“The ground floor featured a mirrored walled ballroom with a maple wood floor and a lighting system that changed the colour and tone of the room. Also on the ground floor was the clubs main restaurant with its London West End chef and maitre d’hotel, the kitchen had the capacity to provide over 400 table d’hote dinners. The lounges had furnishings covered in a zebra stripe material that was complimented by the distinct patterned mirrors gracing the lounge walls. The Cocktail bar became a popular place to socialise and sample one of the latest American cocktail recipes flamboyantly the Cocktail barman. On the second floor was located a smaller grillroom that had a reputation for serving the best of English breakfasts and steaks, a card room that became the scene of regular high stake games and a smaller ballroom with reception areas that could accommodate small private functions. In addition there were a number of bedrooms, furnished in an older more traditional style.Adjoiniug the Hall was the Dormey House, which over looked the 18 hole putting green and contained twelve bedrooms furnished to a very high standard of comfort in the latest of 1930’s designs.”
Colonel W. Elwy-Jones, whose work at the Piccadilly Hotel had made him one of the best known figures in London, was appointed the Managing Director. He told reporters: “In these days of flying, when you can fly from London to Sheffield in an hour, distance really means nothing. I intend to make the club the last word in social amenities. There has always been criticism of cooking in the provinces and I intend to alter this by supplying as good food as any to be found in the West End.” Shortly afterwards he appointed a new Catering Manager known by one name only, Emil, who had previously worked at the Savoy and the Adelphi and also joined Firbeck from the Picadilly Hotel.
The club was so sought after that even Vogue published an entire Firbeck supplement featuring beautiful 1930s-clad women posing throughout the club’s vast grounds. Within a few months the Firbeck Club had 700 members with Life Membership fees ranging between three to seven guineas. One disreputable member turned out to to be Mr Leslie Francis Collier who managed to pass himself off as the Earl of Macduff. Leaving a trail of deception he obtained money and left a trail of debt throughout Britain. His charade ended after flying into Firbeck from Scotland and someone recognised that he wasn’t actually the real Earl of MacDuff. The police were called and he was arrested.
Such was the increasing reputation of the club, that the BBC also transmitted its weekly Saturday show “Late Night Dance Music” with Henry Hall, Carroll Gibbons and Charlie Kunz from Firbeck. The club was fitted throughout with Dynatron receiving and amplifying apparatus for diffusing radio, gramophone records, speech and band music.
In 1938 the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer wrote: “Firbeck Hall is an erstwhile stately home of England, which has saved itself by becoming a country club. Just across the way Sandbeck Hall (Park) seems to frown sternly on these goings-on. Sandbeck is still a ‘Stately Home’ within the meaning of Mr Noel Coward’s act.” It was a golden period for Firbeck Hall but proved to be short-lived when gaieties were halted with the devastating outbreak of World War Two.
At first there were no immediate threats to the club and Cyril Nicholson generously offered hospital beds at Firbeck Hall. These were still early days but it was soon apparent that the house would be pressed into full-time service. The writing was on the wall but Nicholson, Feilding (by now deceased) and Elwy-Jones had already turned their attention elsewhere a few years earlier. Between them they had bought the Grand Hotel in Sheffield and, by the time the war started, this large Edwardian building had been refurbished to retain its title as the city’s finest hotel.
Gone with the glamour and war intervenes
Firbeck Hall was taken over by the Sheffield Joint Hospitals Board and the dwindling country club shunted into the nearby Lake House. It became an annexe of the Sheffield Royal Infirmary for the duration while the aerodrome was converted into RAF Firbeck, comprising four squadrons from 1940 to 1944. The dream had died and in 1943 Cyril Nicholson put Firbeck Hall up for sale. There were no takers for the estate and it would take until 1945 for the Miners’ Welfare Commission to acquire it as a rehabilitation centre.
Speaking about the acquisition Mr J.A. Hall, the Yorkshire Miners’ President and a member of the commission, said: “It would be a fitting counterpart to the Scottish miners’ rehabilitation centre at Gleneagles, and an establishment for Yorkshire miners to be proud of. Every care would be taken during adaptation to preserve the architectural outlines of the historic mansion.” The purchase price was £30,000 and extensions and alterations were soon underway including the enclosure of the open-air swimming pool. By the time it opened in 1946 there was room for 70 patients within the old house.
In 1984 it transferred to the Trent Regional Health Authority as a convalescence home for industrial injuries but this eventually closed in 1990. 27-years-later, Firbeck Hall remains derelict, eerily lost and in the most precarious condition. It was bought by successive owners in 1996 and 2010 before being bought by Ashley Wildsmith in 2014. He plans a residential development for the country house with plans drawn up by architects Building Link Design from Doncaster.