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 1790 and stayed for the next 140 years. Its most famous resident was Gervase Elwes, a tenor singer, who in 1921 while in Boston, USA, had a dreadful accident: he was retrieving an overcoat belonging to another passenger that had fallen from the train and fell between the platform and the train and died of his injuries.
Billing Hall was sold to the Musicians Benevolent Fund in 1931 by Geoffrey Elwes who moved to the run-down Elsham Hall, near Brigg, in Lincolnshire to make the family home habitable again. The proposal was to make BillingHall a home for aged musicians (in memory of Gervase Elwes) but the £50,000 cost to upgrade the mansion proved a stumbling block. There was talk of placing the mansion in the hands of house-breakers and the idea was eventually abandoned several years later.
Billing Hall was put up for sale in 1937 and was acquired by Drury and Co, Northamptonshire builders, who intended to demolish the house and erect a number of period and character-type houses in the grounds. However, uncertainty in the housing market halted plans and the house was probably rented out during the war years.
In 1945 the house and its 17 acres of woodland was bought by the Northampton Brewery Company Ltd. Two years later it announced plans to convert the house into a four-star hotel at a cost of £25,000 with longer term ambitions to add a further 30 bedrooms. Mr R.C. Vaughan representing the company said: “It was going to seed and falling into dilapidation… becoming an eyesore… it has been abandoned for some years now.”
It would appear the hotel plans never materialised but the brewery company retained possession. Installing a handyman and caretaker (who spent many years rebuilding estate walls) the house remained empty. In 1952 the Northampton Brewery Company decided to take advantage of Northampton’s growing population and its close travelling distance to London. It started to sell off plots of land and build ‘large’ private houses in the estate grounds. This inevitably led to the demolition of Billing Hall in 1956.
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)
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)