Nether Hall has been owned by the same family for 179 years who decided, in the summer of 2017, to put the house on the market with a price tag of £2.5 million.
According to legend six halls around Hathersage were built by William the Conqueror and given to the family of six Eyre brothers for ‘valorous conduct’ in the conquest of England.These were Hathersage Hall, North Lees Hall, Nether Hall, Hogg Hall, Haselford Hall and Highlow Hall.
When James Waterhouse Smith, also of Clarence Terrace in Regent’s Park, chose to leave Nether Hall in the 1830s, he sold it to John Spencer Ashton Shuttleworth (1817-1894) of Hathersage Hall. Shuttleworth represented the old family of the Ashtons of Hathersage who had gained wealth through their extensive Derbyshire lead mines. Never a businessman but a country gentleman and keen forester, he held a firm belief that landed property was safe security, his foresight in purchasing land fully justifying his policy.
He demolished old Nether Hall and replaced it with a coarsed gritstone mansion between 1838 and 1840 to the designs of Sheffield architect William Flockton, responsible for many of the city’s grand buildings and having significant influence on the market town of Bakewell. Soon after it became the inspiration of ‘Mr Oliver’s grand hall down i’ Morton Vale’ in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ published in 1847.
The sales information tells you that it has remained in the Shuttleworth family ever since although for the first hundred years the ‘Victorian property developer’ approach meant Nether Hall was tenanted.
First there was Charles James Peel, then Joseph Bright, a Sheffield estate and insurance agent, Mark Thomas Dixon, a director of the Hallamshire File and Steel Company and Thomas Norton Longman, head of the publishers Longmans, Green and Co (established in 1724 and now known as Longman, owned by Pearson). On his father’s death he left Nether Hall for the family seat at Shendish House in Hertfordshire. Its next tenant was F.C. Fairholme, a director of steel manufacturers Thomas Firth and Sons. Of course, the Shuttleworths eventually took advantage of the old house’s charms and have lived there for most of its recent history.
This fine manor house was built about 1895 by the architect Edward Penfold, a partner in Baker and Penfold of Reigate.
Quite remarkable are the circumstances leading up to the construction of Kingswood Manor. For these we must travel to the USA where Claus Spreckels (1828-1908), a German-born immigrant, made his fortune by starting a brewery and later founding the California Sugar Refinery. When he went to Hawaii in 1876 he managed to secure sole supply of sugar cane and with it much of the West Coast refined sugar market. In 1899 he founded the Spreckels Sugar Company, Inc.
The businessman gave over $25 million to his five grown children but his favourite child was the only daughter, Emma Claudine Spreckels. He gifted an entire city block in Honolulu to her and an endowment worth almost $2 million. However, in 1893, when Emma married Thomas Palmer Watson, a Yorkshire-born grain-broker of San Jose and many years her senior, she failed to tell her father. Claus didn’t approve and taunted her with the gift he’d generously provided. Emma gave it back but, because of her father’s high-standing in San Francisco, the married couple were forced to flee to England.
Thomas and Emma built Kingswood Manor in the village of Lower Kingswood. Thomas died in 1904 and she married John Wakefield Ferris, a Gloucestershire-born civil engineer and contractor, who also gained wealth in California by reclaiming about 80,000 acres of land subject to overflow by dyking and draining. Their daughter, Jean Ferris, later became the Marquise d’Espinay-Durtal, Princesse de Brons. When he died in 1920 the couple were about to vacate Kingswood Manor for Nutfield Priory at Redhill. (Emma later married a third time and died at Nutfield).
In 1922 Kingswood Manor was sold to Mr Alfred Norman Rickett, a stockbroker, and the Hon Jessie Hair Nivison, daughter of Robert Nivison, 1st Baron Glendyne, who remained until the 1940s. According to the sales information the house was reputedly later owned by the Sultan of Brunei but this cannot be verified. The present owners have been at Kingswood Manor since 1996 which still retains period features such as open fireplaces, a grand oak staircase, oak floors, wood panelling, high ceilings and ornate architraves. The house was put up for sale for £3.5 million in 2017.
From where I write I can see that every ten minutes or so a bus passes. When I started writing this post I had no idea that on the front of each bus was an insignia that linked each one to this country house located hundreds of miles away. The badge proudly says ‘Alexander’ and is a name celebrated by bus enthusiasts throughout the world.
The house in question is Solsgirth House, a desirable Grade B listed mansion set below the Ochil Hills, bordering Clackmannanshire, Fife and Perthshire. It was built about 1870 for William Connal, a member of an old Stirling family going back generations. He was born in Stown, Stirlingshire, the son of Patrick Connal, merchant and banker, who had the misfortune of having shares in the Stirling Bank when it crashed in 1826. He was ruined but had better fortune when he was appointed the first local agent for the National Bank of Scotland.¹
William Connal (1819-1898) – the pig-iron man As a young man William Connal had entered his Uncle William’s firm which specialised in tea and sugar importing and the Virginia tobacco trade. In 1852 his pedigree allowed him to marry Emelia Jesse Campbell, the daughter of Colonel R.N. Campbell of Ormidale in Argyllshire. His uncle’s company prospered but William chose to practice his skills in an entirely different market. In the 1860s he set up a pig-iron business in Glasgow which became known as ‘Connal’s Store’. It was here that he collected pig-iron against warrants, the object being to keep the market from unduly fluctuating.² As a recognised storekeeper iron was brought into Connal’s yard and cashed in by iron merchants. Sometimes they were granted bank loans against the iron warrants. It proved a lucrative business and William quickly made his fortune expanding into Middlesbrough and opening the Cleveland Warrant Stores in 1864.
William’s main residence was at 19 Park Circus in Glasgow (but he would later own property at 87 St. Vincent Street). From his meaty earnings William commissioned the building of a country house in 1870. Solsgirth House was built as a weekend retreat but where he could also entertain local gentry and business associates. It was described as ‘broadly Scottish Domestic in style’. It began as a straightforward two-storey oblong with a south front of five bays.
A newspaper report from 1877 describes a happy occasion at Solsgirth. ‘A number of tenantry were entertained at dinner on the occasion of the marriage of Miss Helen Alexa, daughter of Mr William Connal to Mr Richard Niven, Dalnottar. About 50 guests adjourned to the dancing room, which was tastefully decorated for the occasion, where they were joined in a large party of young people. The ball was opened with a Scotch Reel, in which Mr and Mrs Connal and family took part. The proceedings terminated with ‘Auld Langsyne’.⁴
However, there were sad times ahead. In October, Emelia Jessie Connal died and William faced life alone at Solsgirth. He turned his attention towards the arts and became an avid collector of paintings by Edward Burne Jones, Edward Poynter, Frederick Sandys, Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Fernand Knopff and Adolphe Monticelli as well as a few Old Masters. He also owned James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in Silver and Grey. In 1877 he invited the artist Albert Joseph Moore to stay at Solsgirth House allowing him to recuperate after a serious illness. It was during this stopover that William commissioned Moore to paint his portrait, one of significance that shows him wearing a honeybee brooch, a personal emblem that he used on his personal stationary. The portrait now belongs to York Art Gallery.⁵
In later years William Connal handed over the running of his business to his son, also William, and spent more time at Solsgirth House. He had little time for public affairs but in 1887 was granted the Freedom of the Borough of Stirling. In return he gifted to Stirling a beautiful stained-glass window which was inserted into the west wall of the ancient High Kirk of Holy Rood Church.⁶
William died at Solsgirth House in July 1898 aged 80 leaving estate worth £202,200.⁷ A correspondent from the nearby village of Blairingone paid a handsome tribute to the man:-
“During his thirty years residence amongst us, Mr Connal had endeared himself to the hearts of the villagers by numberless acts of large hearted liberality. Blairingone had always a handy interest for him, and was the sphere wherein many of his benevolent deeds were done. The Sabbath scholars of past and present years long remember the fondness which annually found expression in the Sabbath School pennies and the Halloween treat. Yet too, he contributed to the comfort of the poor and aged by substantial gifts of coats in the winter season. He never seemed to grow weary planning for the benefit of the villagers and some years ago conferred a lasting good upon the village by bringing in a permanent supply of water which was led to the people’s very door. Far from the smoke and stir of city life he died on Thursday 14th July at the summer residence he loved so well, in the midst of the people whose lives he had done so much to brighten, and whose love he had so universally acquired. His remains were conveyed to Glasgow on Saturday last, where they were interred in the family burying ground at the Necropolis.”⁸
The Sutherlands and days of grandeur Following William Connal’s death there was no desire for his family to remain at Solsgirth House. The house was put up for auction in November 1898 with the highest bidder being Mr Robert MacKay Sutherland (1849-1916) of Wallside who intended making it his principal property. The remaining contents of the house were removed and sent to auction in December.
Robert MacKay Sutherland was a native of Falkirk and, as a boy, had entered the business of James Ross and Sons. This was a chemical manufacturing business established in 1845 on the Forth & Clyde Canal in Camelon. It had expanded by leasing land at Limewharf for tar distillation and the establishment of the Philipstoun Oil Works near Linlithgow. In 1879 the business was transferred to a partnership between Sutherland (manager of the Limewharf Works) and Robert Orr of Kinnaird who had also risen through the ranks. Their timing couldn’t have been better for this was the period when industry across Victorian Britain was reaching the height of prosperity.⁹
In early life Sutherland had married Alice D. Fleming, the daughter of James Fleming of Carmuirs in Falkirk. They had a family of two sons and three daughters and eventually resided at Wallside House, Falkirk, the former home of the firm’s founder James Ross.
Away from his principal business Robert Sutherland was also a trustee and manager of the Falkirk Savings Bank as well as being a supporter of the Falkirk Infirmary from its conception.
Wealth and prosperity allowed pioneering entrepreneurs to improve their social standing and the Sutherland’s move to Solsgirth was typical of the day. One of Robert’s first undertakings was to connect the courtyard buildings to the main body of the house. According to Pevsner – Perth and Kinross there was also ‘a sizeable extension added to the east, with crow stepped gables and oriel windows to the two-storeys south part and a single-storey billiard room wing, a mullioned and transomed four-light window in its gable, projecting boldly north’.
In what was probably Solsgirth’s greatest period it was followed with significant remodelling by the architect James Graham Fairley between 1910 and 1913. These modifications shaped the house that we see today.
The original house was remodelled and thickened to the north c.1910-13 by J Graham Fairley who gave this west part bracketed broad eaves and barge-boarded dormer windows. He heightened the south west corner as a French pavilion-roofed low tower containing the principal entrance in a segmental-pedimented surround of Jacobean inspiration. A much taller and ogee-roofed tower, also Neo-Jacobean, was built on the west side. At the same time he erected a Tuscan-columned screen in front of the low 1890s service range at the house’s east end. Interiors in a mixture of Jacobean and Frenchy manners but without panache, the principal room (the ballroom) apparently formed by Fairley throwing together two rooms of the 1890s.¹⁰
Robert Sutherland died following a long illness at Solsgirth House in August 1916. The estate passed to his son James Fleming Sutherland (1889-1932) who had also taken over the running of James Ross and Son. He married Edith Mary, daughter of Richard Fitzgerald Meredith of Barnabrow House, Cloyne, in County Cork, in 1918. They remained at Solsgirth House until the late 1920s when they moved to Knockbrex Castle, Kirkcudbright, as well as taking a London residence at 27 Egerton Gardens.
By 1929 the Solsgirth Estate consisted of the main house, a Home Farm, two farms at Newhall and Muirhead and about 100 acres of woodland providing shelter for pheasant, partridge and grouse shooting over Muirhead Moss. The house remained unoccupied and James Sutherland had put the estate up for auction in July but market conditions were against him. This wasn’t a good time to sell a large country estate and two years later, in July 1931, the estate was offered by Knight, Frank and Rutley for the ‘upset’ price of £6,000 at the Estate Room, Princess Street, Edinburgh.¹¹ This time James Sutherland could take consolation that there was a person willing to take Solsgirth House but he wouldn’t have known that he only had a short time left. Twelve months later he developed pneumonia and died suddenly at the age of 43.
Walter Alexander – the last of the Solsgirth entrepreneurs The new owner of Solsgirth House turned out to be a man whose name is decorated on our buses today. At the time of the purchase Walter Alexander (1879-1959) was living with his wife, Isobel Daly Alexander, at The Manor in Camelon, Falkirk. For a scanty sum he had procured a magnificent mansion that will always be associated with him.
When he bought Solsgirth House he was at the height of his career and the rise of his firm was a romance of enterprise and industry. In 1902 Walter Alexander was working as a grate-fitter at Bonnybridge Foundry and in the evenings spent time with his two brothers repairing and selling bicycles. This was the era when the bicycle was a most popular form of transport and he had managed to save enough money to set up a bicycle shop of his own in Camelon.
It was while he was working here that Walter visualised the possibilities of road transport. He had a motor lorry which he used for haulage work, but on the two weekend nights fitted wooden forms, put a hood over it, fitted bicycle lamps inside, and transported people between Falkirk, Bonnybridge and Denny for the price of a penny. In 1913 he launched Alexander’s Motor Service and acquired his first bus in 1919, which was regarded as a luxury vehicle at the time because it had glass windows on its sides. The bus had softer seats than the hard wooden forms, but had solid tyres. The bus ran between Falkirk and Kilsyth and was driven by his son, also called Walter, and who remained with the company for the rest of his life. On the occasion of a football match between Airdrie and Falkirk this bus was switched to take ‘fans’ from Falkirk to Airdrie and back. Packed to the door, with passengers on the roof, the vehicle made this trip on one memorable occasion, and the conductress brought back an unheard of sum of money which was never equalled for a journey of similar distance by a single-decker. By 1925 the firm was thoroughly established, had started building buses, and by this time the fleet of vehicles numbered 40. Then came the introduction of pneumatic or ‘balloon’ tyres, and the firm never looked back.¹²
Express services were started from Falkirk to Glasgow, while there were developments in other directions. On 1st January, 1927, Mr Alexander acquired running rights to Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen, and on that day a through service from Glasgow to Aberdeen and vice-versa was also inaugurated.
Possibly the greatest achievement for Walter Alexander was the introduction of the famous ‘Bluebird’ coaches, an idea conceived by his son shortly after they arrived at Solsgirth House. In 1934 he launched the smart blue and cream vehicles (produced at the Alexander works) with the ‘flying bird’ symbol that revolutionised motor coach travel comfort with the absolute luxury provided. A further important development took place in 1928 when there was a consolidation of bus services after the government allowed railway companies to provide bus services. The London, Midland & Scottish (LMS) and the London and North Eastern (LNER) Railways, bought a large stake in the Edinburgh based Scottish Motor Traction Company (SMT) and acquired a controlling interest in Walter Alexander & Sons. The group comprised of SMT Edinburgh; W. Alexander & Sons Ltd, Falkirk; Western SMT, Kilmarnock; and Central SMT., Motherwell. They, with smaller operators provided a network that many believed ‘couldn’t be bettered by any other country in the world’.
It was arguably with the money received from the SMT that Walter Alexander was able to buy Solsgirth House.
In 1945 bus operations were nationalised by the Attlee government and the coachbuilding assets were transferred to a separate company called Walter Alexander and Co (Coachbuilders) Limited in 1947.¹³
Isobel Daly Alexander died in June 1935 and Walter commissioned a chapel to be built at the east of the property. He refurbished much of the interior making use of the original wallpaper in the dining room, redressed the library with French walnut woodwork, built an ornate stone loggia with tiled floor and remodelled the drawing room and ballroom as well as providing en-suites to the bedrooms.
Walter Alexander remained at Solsgirth House until his death in 1959.
His coachbuilding company, now run by his son Walter Alexander Jnr, prospered while the bus operations were eventually absorbed into three companies, Fife Scottish, Midland Scottish and Northern Scottish.
The coachbuilding operations eventually moved back to Camelon in Falkirk and, by the 1960s, they were also building buses in Belfast. Their buses were exported worldwide and in 1983 the company was named as the largest supplier of double-deck bus bodies in the world. In 1990 the Alexander family finally relinquished the business and it survived through various owners. Today it is known as Alexander Dennis (comprising three famous names – Alexander, Dennis and Plaxton) employing about 2,000 people in the United Kingdom, continental Asia and North America.
The hotel years and uncertain future After the departure of the Alexander family Solsgirth House remained in private hands. In 1996 it was bought by Bernie and Denise Burgin who used it as a family home for 15 years. In 2010 the estate was bought by a modern-day entrepreneur who rose from the humble beginnings of Stirling’s Raploch housing estate.
According to The Scotsman Steven MacLeod’s first foray into business was at the age of 10, washing cars and selling tablet and macaroon bars door to door. By 14 he was washing dishes in a hotel and by the time he was 29 had bought Airth Castle Hotel in Stirlingshire. In time he added Melville Castle in Edinburgh, Glenbervie House Hotel, Larbert and the Hotel Colessio in Stirling, all operating as part of the Aurora Hotel Collection.
However, recent events don’t make happy reading for Solsgirth House. In January 2017 newspapers reported the hotel had closed down leaving many couples who had booked weddings looking for alternative venues. Steven Macleod accused Perth and Kinross Council of “bullying” the venue after it emerged that the council’s building control and licensing department had raised concerns over the hotel. Concerns had been raised by Scottish Fire and Rescue and building standards representatives and a number occasional (alcohol) licenses had been refused on the basis that the premises were ‘unsuitable for use for the sale of alcohol’. It had regularly hosted receptions of up to 400 guests.
Stephen MacLeod claimed his company had planned a significant investment in Solsgirth House and that he had been in advanced discussions with the local planning department. “However, the group’s plans were thwarted by the onerous requirements of the building control and licensing departments of Perth and Kinross Council, and the costs associated with these made it prohibitive to operate the business.”¹⁴
In 2017, 147 years after it was built, Solsgirth House was placed on the market with offers over £1.95 million. Ironically, the property agent was Knight Frank who had marketed the house back in 1931. (The ‘Rutley’ was dropped from the Knight Frank name in 1996)
References:- ¹Stirling Observer (28 April 1914) ²Dundee Evening Telegraph (15 July 1898) ³’The Rise of the Victorian Ironopolis: Middlesbrough and Regional Industrialisation’ by Minoru Yasumoto ⁴Dundee Courier (7 February 1877) ⁵The Herald (16 January 1999) ⁶Stirling Observer (28 April 1914) ⁷Glasgow Herald (13 September 1898) ⁸Alloa Advertiser (23 July 1898) ⁹Falkirk Archives ¹⁰Pevsner – Perth and Kinross by John Gifford ¹¹Dundee Courier (1 July 1931) ¹²Falkirk Herald (14 May 1949) ¹³The Falkirk Wheel ¹⁴Sunday Post (31 Jan 2017)
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.
Built: c.1765-1768 Architect: James Paine Owner: Earl of Scarbrough Country House Grade I listed
“Dickon Scarbrough was much appreciated in the Sandbeck neighbourhood, and miners from the nearby Maltby pit were happy to act as beaters at his pheasant shoots. During the miners’ strike of 1984 there was a sudden lull during a drive, explained when a beater emerged from behind a bush. ‘Sorry, my lord,’ he said, ‘but we’ll have to scarper. There’s some snoopers from the DHSS over there in a van.'” (Obituary for the 12th Earl of Scarbrough, The Telegraph, 17 April 2004)
The former mining town of Maltby might not be the obvious place for a grand old country house. Many locals consider it down-at-heel yet, not far from its centre, is Sandbeck Park, the family seat of the Earl of Scarbrough since the 18th century, and to whom many residents of this small South Yorkshire town still pay their ground rent to.
Today Sandbeck Park is relatively unknown but it has seen its fair share of noble visitors. It’s close location to Doncaster Racecourse firmly placed the house into the diaries of landed gentry as well as Kings and Queens, including our present one. If all this is forgotten then Maltby’s inhabitants delight in speculation that former model, actress and author Joanna Lumley might somehow be related to the present occupants of the house!
This Grade I listed house dates to the 17th century with extensive remodelling in the 18th and 19th centuries. It lies close to the ruins of the better-known Roche Abbey, founded in 1147 by Cistercian monks.
The 1st recorded house at Sandbeck was built-in 1626 for Sir Nicholas Saunderson, 1st Viscount Castleton. Sandbeck passed to Thomas Lumley later 3rd Earl of Scarbrough who died in 1752.
Sandbeck remained in the hands of the Castletons until 1723, when the sixth viscount, who was granted an earldom in 1720, died without an heir. He willed Sandbeck to his cousin, Thomas Lumley, the 3rd Earl of Scarbrough.
In 1760 the fourth earl hired Neoclassical architect James Paine to considerably rebuild and extend the 17th century house in the fashionable Palladian style. Paine had a favourable reputation in Yorkshire including his work at Nostell Priory, Hickleton Hall, Cusworth Hall and the Mansion House in Doncaster. He was also responsible for the huge stable block at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
Between 1763 and 1768 he enlarged the main building with a new Grecian front and added several outbuildings, including gatehouses and the limestone stables. Paine allegedly used stones from Roche Abbey during the construction of the house.
If the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the later handiwork of James Paine hadn’t robbed Roche Abbey of its contents then much worse was to come.
In 1774, the fourth earl commissioned Capability Brown to completely landscape the area, signing a contract to pay him £2,800 for work to last through 1777. It appears that Brown had little regard for the historical value of the abbey and systematically destroyed much of it to satisfy contemporary tastes. When finished the abbey was little more than a romantic folly.
‘Brown engineered a lake and islands over Roche’s southern buildings, substituted a river for the medieval water channels, contrived a waterfall to cascade from the Laughton Pond, and composed irregular tree groupings in surrounding fields. He also levelled the ruins’ irregular walls to provide a uniform grassed foreground for a banqueting lodge’.
In 1857, the 9th Earl of Scarbrough turned to the Scottish architect William Burn to further remodel and improve the house. This resulted in significant internal alterations and in 1869 Benjamin Ferrey, an ecclesiastical architect and pupil of Augustus Charles Pugin, built a private chapel for the earl. A 19th-century service wing that linked the house to Sandbeck Chapel was demolished in 1954.
There might have been a steady decline in its social status, not helped by its close proximity to Maltby Colliery, one of Britain’s largest deep coal mines that closed in 2013. Sandbeck Park is now the home of Richard Osbert Lumley, 13th Earl of Scarbrough (b.1973). They still own the former family seat at Lumley Castle which now functions as a hotel. The 13th Earl has continued the good work started by his father (who was a godson of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and of the 1st Earl of Halifax) by helping charities, with the Dinnington-based Safe@Last being one of his top priorities. He is a patron of the charity which provides refuge and help for runaway youngsters or those in danger at home.
Built: Probably 1753 Architect; Unknown Owner: Home Group Remains of country house Grade II listed
“Formerly a late C18 mansion, now reduced to provide a farmhouse and buildings. Only intact portion is present farmhouse to the right, of 2 storeys in red sandstone ashlar with slated roof. 3 windows above triple-arcaded ground floor with 2 windows with later hung sashes with glazing bars and centre door of 6 fielded panels with 3-light rectangular fanlight.” (Historic England)
When fire destroyed an empty farmhouse at Maryport in August 2015 there were few tears shed. Its previous owner John Dixon had died in 2012 and the farm had been allowed to deteriorate. The cause of the fire was never determined but suspicion pointed to the work of a grubby arsonist.
Whoever started the fire probably didn’t realise that the farmhouse, rather grandly called Ewanrigg Hall, held long forgotten secrets. The flames would eventually consume the first floor and deprive the building of its roof. Only an exposed lintel with the date 1753 offered any clue to its previous existence.
Here was the last remnant of a grand house that once stood proudly on the site. For this was once the west wing of Ewanrigg Hall, a late 18th century country house and seat of the Christian family of Cumberland for many generations.
The fire might not have meant a tragic end to Ewanrigg but it certainly reflected its circumstances over the past centuries. The house appears not to have been a particularly happy one. Whilst the Christians were Lord of the Manor there were several occasions when the house was unsuccessfully offered for sale and numerous times it was occupied by live-in tenants. In the end it proved to be a millstone for the family who were eventually rid of it by the end of the 19th century.
The Christian family had originally settled in the Isle of Man and held chief public offices in the little principality for generations. Their connection with the Ewanrigg estate came about in the late 17th century through circumstances which afford a curious illustration of the manners of the period. The Bishop of Sodor and Man liked to ease the burden of his duties by gambling and, on one unfortunate night, lost a small fortune to Ewan Christian. From his winnings Christian was able to buy the estate and manor of Ewanrigg in Cumberland. Writing in 1688 Mr. Thomas Denton, the County Historian, said “Mr Ewan Christian hath built a good house out of the shell of an old tower,” which suggests it may originally have been an old pele tower.
Ewan was blessed with five sons and ten daughters. His successor, John, married a Senhouse of Netherhall, and their eldest daughter, Mary, married Dr. Law, afterwards Bishop of Carlisle, and became the mother of the first Lord Ellenborough, who chose that title in consequence of having been born at Ewanrigg Hall, close to the village of Ellenborough. John Christian’s second son, also John, became his successor and married a Curwen of Workington Hall, and their son, John, marrying his cousin – the heiress of the Curwens – took his wife’s name, and as John Christian Carwen, M.P. for Cumberland, acquired fame as a politician and as an agriculturalist.
John Christian’s sixth son, Charles, was an attorney at Cockermouth, and married the granddaughter of Jacob Fletcher, who was descended from William Fletcher who built Cockermouth Hall. Their sixth son was Fletcher Christian, the ill-fated and infamous ‘Mutineer of the Bounty’.
Ewanrigg Hall was rebuilt as a spectacular stone-built house in the late 18th century (probably 1753) with views of the Solway Firth and the Scottish mountains beyond. Within there was a large drawing room, a breakfast room, library and eight good-sized bedrooms. The walls of the tower were reputed to be over 5 feet thick. It was also the setting for Limmeridge House in Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’, chosen by him when he was travelling through Cumberland with Charles Dickens.
For many years it was occupied by Henry Taubmen Christian who died in 1859. Unfortunately, his widow soon descended into madness and ended her years at Dunston Lodge Lunatic Asylum in Gateshead. The house was left unoccupied, ‘a deserted and decaying mansion’, where ghosts were said to haunt its corridors and where ‘no tenant could be found with enough temerity to take it’. In 1895 the house and its 600 acre estate was offered for auction by order of the Court of Chancery. No purchaser was forthcoming but in 1897 it was sold to Mr. J.R. Twentyman, a wealthy tea trader who lived in Shanghai, and who had previously bid for Dalston Hall.
Twentyman spent most of his time in China with seemingly little intention of living at Ewanrigg Hall. It was offered to rent but remained empty falling into further disrepair.
It might be suggested that the condition of the house worried Twentyman. Without doubt he was looking for an impressive property in which to display his massive collection of oriental furniture and relics. He pondered on the large amount of money needed to restore Ewanrigg and considered turning his back on it.
In 1903 Twentyman made one of his frequent journeys to China but not before making an important decision. He had set his heart on another property and had decided to buy Kirby Misperton Hall near Malton in Yorkshire. He realised the disposal of Ewanrigg might not be so easy and looked for ways in which the estate might pay for itself. In the end he saw agriculture as the most likely way to achieve it. This meant demolishing the bulk of the house with two-storeys pulled down in the central block – the ground floor now used for cowsheds for the adjacent hall farm. A new farmhouse was created at the west end of the house which was the only part not disturbed and still known today as Ewanrigg Hall. Eight years later the farm was sold for £12,000.
And this is how Ewanrigg Hall survived for the next 100 years; its unique identity slowly forgotten until someone tried to destroy it completely. There is almost a happy end to the story. In 2016 the then owner of the farm, Kevin Thompson, announced plans to demolish part of the historic hall as part of a major homes plan. Allerdale Council approved plans for the Grade II listed building and convert it into two houses and four flats. Outline planning permission was also granted to build 124 homes nearby.
Unfortunately the project never started and in 2017 Ewanrigg Hall was sold to the Home Group who plan to convert it into five homes and build a further 125 homes on surrounding land.
Built: 1846, late C19 additions and rebuild to west tower in C20 Architect: John Rogers Owner: Private ownership Large villa Grade II listed
“An octagonal turret displaying the Stanley Coat of Arms with a higher turret corbelled out from its side provides a striking first impression and offers arguably one of the finest views in Cheshire for those who are brave enough to venture to the top.” (Savills)
Bollin Tower is typical of those Victorian country houses that wanted to imitate the castle. It was constructed with rock-faced sandstone, a Welsh slate roof with four stone chimneys. The walls have now darkened with age and, with its consistent castellation and octagonal towers, can appear dark and menacing. However, the unsymmetrical appearance and 10-bay gabled front adds a charisma that warrants Grade II listing with Historic England.
The house was built in 1846 by John Rogers, a virtually unknown architect and builder, living in Alderley Edge. He was born at Ardley Hall, Essex, in 1799 and at some stage migrated to Cheshire where he built Bollin Tower for his family.
As anticipated the house has been owned by several people, the most conspicuous being Thomas Coglan Horsfall (1841-1932), a ‘civic saint’ who moved here in the 1870s.
Horsfall was the son of William Horsfall, a wealthy cotton manufacturer with interests in Manchester and Halifax. He was educated at private schools in Manchester and Bowden and his move to Bollin Tower corresponded with a partnership to his father’s Bridgewater Street business. He was never the healthiest of men was often absent which allowed him to progress his philanthropic work.
He was especially interested in educational reform, particularly with aesthetic teaching in elementary schools. Horsfall had struck up a friendship with John Ruskin, the art and social critic, and the two regularly corresponded. When Ruskin opened a small museum at Sheffield in 1875 to display his collection of art and minerals it inspired Horsfall to follow suit. In 1877 he created the Horsfall Museum, intended to be primarily educational with paintings, drawings, casts and pottery. The museum, now known as the Manchester Art Museum, moved to Ancoats Hall in 1886 where a nature study room was opened as well as a room about the history of Manchester. It also provided a children’s’ theatre.¹
His marriage to Francis Emma Reeves, the daughter of Henry Wilson Reeves, in 1878 resulted in the purchase of Bollin Tower and the birth of three daughters. Alongside his charitable work he also became a town planner, magistrate and a published author. He wrote The Study of Beauty and Art in Large Towns in 1883, both with an introduction by John Ruskin. This was followed up with The Relation of Town Planning to the National Life in 1908.²
Thomas Coglan Horsfall died in 1932 at Toutley Hall, Wokingham, aged 91. Not bad for a man with feeble health. The Manchester Art Museum closed in 1953 and the contents were transferred to the Manchester Art Gallery.
At the start of the 20th century Bollin Tower was owned by Asa Hardy and the house also contributed to his eventual ruin.
Hardy had set up a business as a fustian manufacturer and dealer in dyed goods with William Welsh at Little Lever Street in Manchester. This partnership was dissolved in 1890 and continued as Asa Hardy and Company, specialising in the making of fine velvet.
For a time the business flourished but a series of calamitous events led to its collapse. First was the defalcation of accounts by one of Hardy’s cashiers. The employee had presented balance sheets showing a large credit balance and absconded when it was discovered that £6,000 had been filched. The company was also entangled with another accounting fiasco after it supplied goods to the Eden Manufacturing Company. On delivery the stock was quickly sold on by an errant employee who pocketed the money. He also fled leaving Asa Hardy to chase up payment for goods never received by the unfortunate recipient. To make matters worse, the company suffered further losses when a firm of drapers, McLachlan Bros of Montreal, failed with liabilities of £140,000. Among the creditors was Asa Hardy and Company.³
Next was an ill-advised investment in the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. Hardy had gambled on the differences in the railway’s shares and when they bombed ended up considerably out of pocket.
If Asa Hardy thought he might seek solace at Bollin Tower, bought at great expense, he was mistaken. The value of the house had drastically depreciated when dry rot was uncovered resulting in costly rebuilding work.
In the end the financial losses proved too much for Asa Hardy and he was forced into bankruptcy in 1903. His company had liabilities of £20,216 and, with the textile industry in a depression; he had reached the end of the road. Hardy, however, was quickly discharged from bankruptcy when the miserable circumstances were found not to be of his own doing. But, the judge was quick to point out, he could see “no difference between gambling on American railway shares and gambling on the horses”.
Despite the outcome Bollin Tower had to be sold and was bought for a modest price by Edwin Taylor Butterworth, a rag trader, operating at Pollard Street in Ancoats.
By the 1950s the house was now owned by the Sellars family. Graham Dilliway lived nearby in the former coach house of Croston Towers, another castellated house that was demolished at the end of World War Two :-
“Bollin Towers, the last remaining castellated house on the Edge, was occupied by the Sellars family. Mariel Sellars and I were able to communicate at night by flashing our bedroom lights on and off. Bollin Towers was later divided into two, with the Sellars family retaining the “tower” portion of the house. The division deprived Mariel and me of a long polished hall, where we could ride on a small wooden train. I remember going up some greasy wooden steps to the very top of the tower, and having one of the very best views in Cheshire.”⁴
With the house divided into two properties the house has been sympathetically renovated and improved upon during the 21st century. In 2017, the west portion of the house was placed on the market with a guide price of £950,000.