In November 1917 a newspaper advertisement in The Scotsman announced the pending auction of the Loaningdale Estate, near Biggar, Lanarkshire. It was offered at the ‘low upset price’ of £3,500 in an attempt to be rid of the property. The newspaper described Loaningdale House as a ‘very desirable residential estate with its mansion-house containing four public rooms, twelve bedrooms and dressing rooms, servants’ accommodation, stables, coach-house and good gardens’. Britain was at war and it wasn’t the best time to be selling; every day country mansions were being offered for sale and, for those still able to afford it, there were numerous properties to choose from. At December’s auction Loaningdale House failed to find a buyer (as it had done in 1908) and its owner, Gavin William Ralston (1862-1924), was resigned to keeping the house.
Loaningdale House went back onto the rental market, as it had been since the death of Ralston’s father, Gavin Ralston (1827-1894), but the succession of tenants came at a price. In 1901, the property was described by one tenant as being in “a dirty and unhealthy condition with bad smells.”
However, Loaningdale House had enjoyed much better days. It had been built in the early 18th century for Nicol Sommerville on the site of an old farmstead called Sunnyside. It was enlarged by Dr Black and, in 1855, was bought by Walter Scott Lorraine, a Glasgow merchant, who remodelled and enlarged the house three years later to the designs of architect Thomas McGuffie and changed the name to Loaningdale. It was described in 1867 as ‘a spacious and elegant building, somewhat in the Elizabethan style of architecture’.
After his death in 1871 the property was bought by Gavin Ralston, a writer and a Master of Arts at Glasgow University. He died in 1894 and Loaningdale passed to his wife, Christina Ballantine Walker, who lived in Edinburgh but had been inclined to rent the house out.
After she died in 1908 it became the property of their eldest son, Gavin William Ralston, a barrister who practised at Dr Johnson’s Buildings at Temple. After failing to sell Loaningdale in 1917 he finally sold the house in 1921, probably to a Mr and Mrs Baird, but gained national headlines when he married Countess Makharoff in 1924. He had met his wife when touring Russia and she was just a girl of 15. It seems the first seeds of their romance were sown and when she fled the country after the Russian Revolution of 1917 (shooting two Bolsheviks in the process) she eventually arrived in England. Just 11 days into their honeymoon Ralston died of a heart-attack while walking down a country lane at Worth Matravers, near Swanage in Dorset.
In 1963 Loaningdale House became an Approved School for Boys but nearly suffered closure in 1967 when the body of a 15-year-old local girl was discovered in a nearby churchyard. She had been hit over the head with a heavy object and strangled from behind. The police began taking dental casts, including boys from the school, and it was determined that the murderer was 17-year-old Gordon Hay, a resident at Loaningdale. He became the first person in Britain to be convicted based on evidence from forensic dentistry. The school finally closed in the 1980’s and in recent times the house has been used as an outdoor education centre. The core of the house remains but has been spoilt by a 1960’s accommodation block and outbuildings to the east.
Biggar, South Lanarkshire, ML12 6LX
When the will of Sir Thomas Bland Royden, of Frankby Hall, Cheshire was proved in 1917 it came out at a staggering £1,271,354. The baronet had been Chairman of Thomas Royden and Sons, shipbuilders and ship-owners, of Liverpool. He was a former member of Liverpool City Council, Lord Mayor in 1878-79 and High Sheriff in 1903-04. He had been made a Baronet in 1905.
Frankby Hall, and its 810 acres, had been the home of the Royden family for more than 200 years. The last house had been built in 1846 and following Royden’s death passed to his son, Sir Thomas Royden, 2nd Bt., later to become the first and last Baron Royden of Frankby. He had an even more prestigious career, becoming Chairman of the LMS Railway Company and a director at the Cunard Steam Ship Company, Midland Bank and the Suez Canal. He was largely absent from Frankby Hall and sold the mansion and 61-acres by auction to Wallasey Corporation in 1933. The house was altered to become two chapels for the Wallasey Municipal Cemetery which was created at a cost of £10,000 in its grounds. One chapel was for Church of England and Nonconformist services, and the other was for Roman Catholic services.
It is hard to imagine that somewhere behind this house is a country house dating from the 1600’s. The original house was owned by the Rope (or Roope) family and when John Rope died in 1686 his daughter inherited it and took it by marriage to Thomas Howse of Carleton Rode. It is said that she unimpressed with Carleton Rode and insisted that her husband spend money on Morningthorpe; he rebuilt the frontage leaving the original house to form the kitchen and offices. Thankfully, the 17th century oak staircase still remains, with rope balustrades, and a small section of the original clay and timber walls. They stayed at Morningthorpe from 1697 and the house was later inherited by the Howse family.
Works to extend and restore the property were done in 1813 and then again to fashion the house in a Neo-Elizabethan style about 1859-65. It was Edward Howse, who became Sheriff of Norfolk in 1859-65, who had the unfortunate experience of having his name misspelled in legal documentation, and decided to change his surname to Howes to suit. He set about improving the mansion and was responsible for creating the library as well as installing armorial stained glass. Howes’ initials can be seen on the outside of the building and on the base of the library mirrored mantelpiece, said to be based on a similar one at Hampton Court.
In 1884 the house was offered to let and described as being of ‘Elizabethan-style, containing a vestibule, three entertaining rooms, gentlemen’s room, 10-bedrooms, superior kitchens, domestic offices, gardens and grounds’.
The house passed by marriage to Commander Thomas Holmes about 1886. He had joined the Royal Navy aboard HMS Victory in 1866 but was invalided out in 1884. In 1892 he joined the Royal National Lifeboat Institution as Inspector of Lifeboats for the Irish district, which explains why Morningthorpe hall was rented out for the majority of his freehold. Several people stayed under its roof including Mr A.C. Lyon, Mr J.E. Bayne, Henry Leeke Horsfall and Cyril Grosvenor Sargent. Commander Holmes was awarded an RNLI silver medal for gallantry by the King of Norway in 1914 after rescuing 12 men from the Norwegian schooner, Mexico, wrecked off Wexford. The attending lifeboat was also smashed to pieces on the rocks and its crew marooned on an island before being also rescued by Commander Holmes. During the First World War he was credited for rescuing 5,322 people and 186 boats and vessels saved from destruction.
When the property was bought by one of the tenants, Cecil Grosvenor Sargent in 1918, he became Lord of the Manor and went on to improve the house by purchasing the fine carved oak panelling and a stone fireplace, carved by James Linnall, removed from Lady Stafford’s boudoir in Costessey Hall, and now installed in what is now called the ‘Costessey Room’.
Morningthorpe was later divided into three by the architect Edward Thomas Boardman of Norwich, (not, as widely reported, by his more famous father, Edward Boardman, who died in 1910), and remained so until the 1990’s when it became home to businessman Ron Fiske, a Norfolk antiquarian collector and bibliophile. He also carried out restoration and refurbishment to the property including the re-roofing of the main house and former kitchen wing as well as overhauling the roofs of the coach house and outbuildings.
Ron Fiske (pictured below) decided to downsize and put the property up for sale in 2015 causing him to offer half his collection of 30,000 books and pamphlets, manuscripts and armorial rolls, for auction. In one room he had an entire collection devoted to memorabilia about Admiral Nelson. Almost 90 lots were put in the sale of September 2016, about £30,000 of the archives were bought by the Norfolk Record Office and the Norfolk Archive and Heritage Development Foundation.
The house has many distinguishing architectural details and is built of mellow red brick under a pantile roof with stepped gables and octagonal corner turrets with moulded brick pinnacles and onion shaped finials.
All images courtesy of Jackson-Stops, except Ron Fiske, courtesy of Eastern Daily Press.
It is sad to think that for several generations the name ‘Drayton Manor’ invokes images of a popular theme park. However, this wasn’t always the case and until the 1920’s was famous for being a grand mansion, the family seat of the Peel lineage.
The rise of the Peel baronetcy
The Drayton Manor estate was sold to Robert Peel (1750-1830), a farming and textiles man from Lancashire, about 1790. He was made a Baronet in 1800, but it was his son, Robert (1788-1850), that brought the greatest honours to the family. He became Prime Minister to Queen Victoria and, as Home Secretary, had created the London Metropolitan Police Force. Shortly after becoming 2nd Baronet he set about building a new mansion, 30 yards away from the old hall, and adopting designs from Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867), the architect behind Covent Garden Theatre, Lansdowne House and the British Museum.
Building work started in 1831 and was completed at a cost of £50,000 in 1833. It was a quadrangular stone mansion, in the Elizabethan style, of considerable extent, but without any ostentatious display of architecture, either internally or externally. A large corridor, or gallery, in the centre of the building, had its walls covered with fine works of art, as well as almost every available space on the staircase and elsewhere; and it was to his credit that almost every picture was by a famous painter. Its crowning glory was a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1843. The art collection grew so quickly that Smirke’s younger brother, Sydney Smirke, returned in 1846 to build a new gallery wing to the north-west angle of the mansion, extending westward for about 100 feet. The exterior was embellished with statues of Rubens, Vandyke, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet, died in 1850 and the estate passed to his son, another Robert Peel (1822-1895), who managed the estate in a robust manner. It was said of him that his greatest misfortune was in being the son of his father. An eloquent speaker, a fine presence, a daring actor, very irritable and impatient, he was unable to forget that his father had been Prime Minister. He also had to contend with a darkening cloud of the horizon in the shape of his son, yet another Robert Peel (1867-1925), who rebelled against the values that his grandfather, the 2nd baronet, had established.
A bit of a fool; a man without a conscience!
Robert Peel, the younger, had served as a Lieutenant in the Staffordshire Yeomanry, wrote two books – ‘A Bit of a Fool’ and ‘An Engagement’ – but his standing in society could not protect him from a weakness for gambling. Here was a man who had ‘broken the bank’ in Monaco netting no less that £12,000. However, his losses were greater than his winnings, and in 1893 had been declared bankrupt. When his father, the 3rd Baronet, died in 1895 he might have been forgiven for thinking his problems were behind him. However, just three years later he was a confirmed bankrupt for a second time. It happened again in 1901, 1903 and 1910, each time managing to avoid paying back any of his creditors. His marriage to Mercedes, daughter of Baroness de Graffenried, of Switzerland, in 1897, might have provided respite but it was a false hope.
By the time of his final insolvency trustees had been appointed to manage his finances, paying him a yearly allowance up to £1,800. Robert had sold some of the Drayton Manor gallery in 1900 (and rented the house to Mr Eugene Kelly of New York) but still owed £1,700 with no assets of his own. He claimed the situation had arisen after losing £1,000 through opening the grounds at Drayton Manor on public holidays. He had provided three bands of the Household Brigade and firework displays but it had been a loss-making undertaking. However, his creditors claimed reckless extravagance; one said he demanded a taxi to wait for him outside his London home at Burlington Gardens but rarely emerged before midday. “Sir Robert is living at Drayton Manor as a tenant for life, and he had his usual servants and retinue. He also went about in a motor-car and usually travelled first class by rail.”¹
The house is erased from history; the rise of the pleasure garden
For the rest of his life Sir Robert, still unwilling to pay back creditors, couldn’t escape the financial burden. In 1911 he declared that he had severed all connections with Drayton Manor and wrote an open letter to his tenants thinly explaining his reasons. It was a deception because he never actually left the house. When war was declared in 1914 he offered Drayton Manor as a sanatorium or hospital to naval and military authorities, but was most likely a feeble attempt to delay the inevitable.
In July 1917 Mr Justice Sargeant directed that the remaining contents of Drayton Manor should be sold by public auction. For the next year the Peel treasures were sold off piece-meal – “The fine things which Sir Robert Peel (2nd Bt.) collected with such care and taste have been dispersed by those who came after him.”² In November 1917 the family estates in Lancashire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire were put up for sale.
The Drayton Manor estate was sold off in lots in 1919, but mysteriously the mansion was withdrawn at the last-minute. A troubled Sir Robert Peel died at Drayton Manor in 1925. The remaining portions of the original estate were offered at auction in April 1926, the mansion being sold to Mr G.H. King of Aberdeen for £6,780 who also bought the adjoining stables for £400. Later that year demolition work began with speculation that the site of the mansion-house and the park farm adjoining might be developed as a garden city.
Mr George Handley, of King’s Heath, visited Drayton Manor in 1927: “A few days ago I revisited Drayton Manor, but not the mansion. No it wasn’t there! All I could discern was the place it once occupied. Gazing on a scene of desolation of confused heaps of bricks and rubbish, it appeared to me to resemble the excavations of an ancient site than the mere debris of a modern mansion! I tried to trace the path of the building but without success. Everything I remembered (excepting the clock tower) had been ‘wiped off the map’. Heaving a sigh I was unable to suppress, I turned away from the scene of the devastation the ‘house-breaker’ had so effectively wrought, and recalled what I still remembered of that once noble building – a building which attested to the genius of its architect, Sir Robert Smirke and also the consummation of the hopes and ambitions of the first baronet.”³
In 1931 Mr D. R. Fox, a well-known Lichfield sportsman and garage proprietor, bought the grounds and gardens of Drayton Manor and converted them into pleasure grounds. For the next eighteen years they proved to be a popular tourist attraction with two lakes, spectacular gardens and a café. They passed into the ownership of Mr Charles Deakin who, in 1949 announced that he was negotiating a sale to Mr and Mrs George Bryan, whose family had experience running a similar facility, ‘California-in-England’, near Wokingham. They proposed to restore the grounds to their former beauty and to add many new innovations. The rest, as they say, is history!
The treasures from Drayton Manor were scattered far and wide. In 1928 it was reported that a bath from Queen Victoria’s visit in 1843 was on display at the Crane Co showrooms, next door to the New Convention Hall, in Atlantic City.
In 1961, the Birmingham Daily Post, reported on four sculptured figures found at Messrs. Bateman Ltd in Knowle. These had stood on the roof at Drayton Manor and were sold in 1926 to the then owner of the salvage yard. In the catalogue these had been described as Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Joshua Reynolds and the younger William Pitt. However, according to the newspaper, two of the statues appeared to be Elizabethan figures, speculating that the nearer one might have been Sir Francis Drake.
References:- ¹Birmingham Mail. 7 December 1914. ²Tamworth Herald. 27 October 1917. ³Tamworth Herald. 9 April 1927.
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.
Mells Park (or Park House), near Frome in Somerset, was lost almost 100 years ago. The house had been built in 1724 when Thomas Strangways Horner commissioned Nathaniel Ireson to build a new mansion in an ‘H’ shape, and the family moved there from Mells Manor House. In 1900 the Horner’s, finding it too expensive to run, left Park House and moved back into Mells Manor House. The house was rented to Mr G.T. Bates, of Edward Bates and Sons, ship owners of Liverpool, until his death in April 1917. His effects were removed and the mansion was redecorated and furnished with a view to the Horner family again going into residence.
The evening of 11th October, 1917, was cold and miserable with driving rain. At about 8.00pm the Misses Horner, daughters of Sir John Fortescue Horner, spotted flames coming from Mells Park. With only a caretaker and his wife on the premises it was left to Sir John Horner and William Bexter, agent of the estate, to summon help and try and put the fire out. The rising wind carried the flames into the older part of the building, and the blaze quickly spread along all three sides. The ferocity of the fire meant efforts were instead diverted into saving the most valuable pieces of furniture, family pictures and books.
The house might have been saved had it not been for a series of unfortunate mishaps involving the fledgling fire brigade. Initially the Frome Fire Brigade had been summoned but was unable to find horses. Instead they travelled to Mells Park by motor managing to arrive by 9.30pm. By this time the fire was out of control and the Radstock Fire Brigade was summoned to assist, but it appears that the motor drawing their engine got stuck in mud on route. The Bath Fire Brigade were telephoned but they declined to set out as Mells Park was considered too far to travel. In the end only the bare walls survived and the only portions saved were the stables and electric station. The cause of the fire remained a mystery but it was thought to have started in a heating apparatus chamber.
It was the end for the house. The Horner family stayed at Mells Manor House and the following year there was a sale of valuable furniture, china, prints, watercolours, carpets and rugs that were salvaged from the fire. The architect Edwin Lutyens tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Horner’s to rebuild Park House and it took until 1924, when they let it to Reginald McKenna (Chairman of the Midland Bank and married to a Horner niece), on the understanding that they would rebuild the house. Lutyens finally rebuilt Mells Park in a more modest scale neoclassical style in 1925.
Billing Hall (or Great Billing Hall as it was once known) was built on land owned by the Barry family. It was constructed about 1629 but substantially altered as a Georgian-style mansion by Lord John Cavendish about 1776.
The Elwes family arrived in 1800 and stayed for the next 131 years. Its most famous resident was Gervase Elwes, a tenor singer, who in 1921 while in Boston, USA, had a dreadful accident: he was retrieving an overcoat belonging to another passenger that had fallen from the train and fell between the platform and the train and died of his injuries.
Billing Hall was sold to the Musicians Benevolent Fund in 1931 by Geoffrey Elwes who moved to the run-down Elsham Hall, near Brigg, in Lincolnshire to make the family home habitable again. The proposal was to make Billing Hall a home for aged musicians (in memory of Gervase Elwes) but the £50,000 cost to upgrade the mansion proved a stumbling block. There was talk of placing the mansion in the hands of house-breakers and the idea was eventually abandoned several years later.
Billing Hall was put up for sale in 1937 and was acquired by Drury and Co, Northamptonshire builders, who intended to demolish the house and erect a number of period and character-type houses in the grounds. However, uncertainty in the housing market halted plans and the house was probably rented out during the war years.
In 1945 the house and its 17 acres of woodland was bought by the Northampton Brewery Company Ltd. Two years later it announced plans to convert the house into a four-star hotel at a cost of £25,000 with longer term ambitions to add a further 30 bedrooms. Mr R.C. Vaughan representing the company said: “It was going to seed and falling into dilapidation… becoming an eyesore… it has been abandoned for some years now.”
It would appear the hotel plans never materialised but the brewery company retained possession. Installing a handyman and caretaker (who spent many years rebuilding estate walls) the house remained empty. In 1952 the Northampton Brewery Company decided to take advantage of Northampton’s growing population and its close travelling distance to London. It started to sell off plots of land and build ‘large’ private houses in the estate grounds. This inevitably led to the demolition of Billing Hall in 1956.