HILL HOUSE

A house with a retail history. This house was bought twice from the fortunes of shopping empires

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One hundred years ago today, the picturesque and well-placed residence, known as Hill House, went to auction at the Mart, Tokenhouse Yard, in London.

Grade II listed Hill House at Great Stanmore, then in the county of Middlesex, was built in the early 1700s by John Boys, Vicar of Redbourn, Hertfordshire, who also owned nearby Aylwards and Broomhill. It was originally called the Great House, probably due to its imposing appearance on the top of rural Stanmore Hill.

It was sold in 1771 to Reverend Samuel Parr, a master at Harrow School, who after the disappointment of missing out on becoming headmaster, set up a rival establishment at the Great House, taking many of the pupils with him.

The school was short-lived but was used as a schoolhouse again when it was bought by John Sharpe.

Henley & Finchley Times - Fri 31 May 1918 (BNA)
The auction notice from the Henley & Finchley Times, 5 June 1918. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

One of its greatest occupants was Charles Drury Edward Fortnum (1820-1899), who had moved to South Australia in 1840 where he bought a cattle ranch. Five years later he left for Europe with the objective of putting together a collection of art, especially minor arts of the Italian renaissance. He married Fanny Matilda Keats, a cousin, that provided access to the wealth of the grocery store Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. With an advance of £4,000 from his wife’s fortunes, Fortnum chose Stanmore to settle – buying and repairing Great House in 1852 and later renaming it the Hill House. Fortnum also become an alderman of the Middlesex county council, and eventually also a deputy-lieutenant of the county too.

Together they travelled the world and gathered a large collection of ceramics, bronzes and other objects most of which were later donated to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The collection was so large they had to build a separate wing to the newly-named Hill House, now called the Fortnum Gallery. Fanny died in 1890 and Charles died nine years later, leaving the remainder of his collection to the British Museum.

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Charles Drury Edward Fortnum, art collector and art historian, was born in 1820 in Holloway, London, the son of Charles Fortnum, merchant.

After Charles Fortnum’s death in 1899 it became the residence of Mr and Mrs Charles Waterlow. In 1904, they were honoured to receive Princess Louise Augusta of Schleswig-Holstein, who opened a bazaar in aid of the ‘Church of England Waifs and Strays Society’.

Princess Louise at Hill House - The Sphere 23 Jul 1904 (BNA)
Princess Louise of Schleswig-Holstein, the King’s niece, opening the bazaar at Hill House. From The Sphere. 23 July 1904. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

The house was later the home of Sir Matthew Wilson but appears to have been let to several tenants. The most notable of these were the Count and Countess Benckendorff who stayed in 1914-1915. They were in good company. Close neighbours were the Earl and Countess of Essex, who had Cassiobury Park and the Earl and Countess of Clarendon at The Grove, Watford.

Hill House 1 (Google)

We don’t know who purchased the house at the 1918 auction. The most likely candidate is Frank Charles Bearman (1870-1956), who was resident at Hill House during the 1920s and 1930s. A draper by trade, Bearman had opened a shop in Leytonstone High Street in 1898 that became a thriving family business for the next 64 years.

Bearmans Department Store was a success, and in 1910 he built Bearmans Arcade, which led to the popular Rialto Cinema. Frank Bearman copied the style of successful London shopping arcades, with a glass roof and the highest quality goods on display. Between 1908-1921, Bearman was also the co-owner of Allders, the Croydon department store, building it into a 50-store business.

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Frank Bearman opened his shop in the north end of Leytonstone High Road in 1898 as ‘the store with the personal touch’. Image: East London & West Essex Guardian.

After Frank Bearman’s death in 1956, Bearmans suffered increasing competition and it was eventually sold to the London Co-Operative Society. It finally closed in 1982.

His son, John Garland Bearman, later married the Hon. Gloria Mary Curzon, daughter of Richard Nathaniel Curzon, 2nd Viscount Scarsdale, of Kedleston Hall.

The Second World War had an impact at Hill House. In common with many large houses it was requisitioned as a secret RAF establishment, a satellite of RAF Bentley Priory.

The RAF remained until the 1950s but Hill House itself became home to Air Chief Marshal Sir John Nelson Boothman (1901-1957), who was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Coastal Command from 1953 until his retirement in 1956. Sir John had piloted a Supermarine S-6B plane in 1931 which had won the Schneider Trophy outright for Britain at a speed of more than 342 mph.

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Air Chief Marshal Sir John Nelson Boothman. When he left the RAF in 1956 he joined the board of Kelbin and Hughes, makers of technical instruments, as technical director.

The house and stables have now been converted into flats.

Hill House 2 (Google)
Hill House. Once standing in a rural idyll, but now ‘swallowed by suburbia’. Repair works in the building revealed original elements of the house. In the roof void, intricate gold embossed carvings were found and the removal of dry rot in the entrance uncovered a series of elegant 18th century arches.

EASTERLANDS

Slavery, evacuees, refugees and a donkey called Petronella

Easterlands (SWNS)
‘Easterlands stands in a lawn, tastefully laid out with a fish pond at its base, and commands a beautiful view of its park-like grounds well studded with ornamental trees and the surrounding country.’ From a sales brief in 1862. Image: SWNS.

Back in 2014, this country house hit the market with a guide price of £3.1 million. Unsold, apparently unwanted, it remains for sale with a vastly reduced guide price of £2.25 million. Easterlands at Sampford Arundel, near Wellington, is an impressive residence surrounded by its own parkland with secondary accommodation, traditional outbuildings and mature grounds and gardens.

Knight Frank, who are marketing the property, believe the house dates to the late 19th century. However, it is probably earlier than that, possibly early 1830s because its architectural style is typically Georgian.

Easterlands 1 (KF)
The sale of Easterlands provides the opportunity to acquire a significant seven bedroom country house in need of some refurbishment, set in an outstanding ringfenced park in a truly convenient location for many schools and businesses in the West Country. Image: Knight Frank.

Easterlands House was most likely built for William Bellet who bought the land in 1816 from Richard Yendle of Uplowman, yeoman, and Jeremiah Woodbury of Exeter, innkeeper. His daughter Elizabeth married John Shattock (1792-1860), an English landed proprietor and merchant, who made his fortune at Kingston, in Jamaica, and returned to England between 1831 and 1833. Shattock was connected to Jamaica’s slave trade and duly awarded compensation by the British Government when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833. There were two small awards, for a group of about ten enslaved people in Good Air, St. Andrew, and for the enslaved people on St. Mary, Jamaica.

A man of immense wealth, the couple settled at Easterlands and when John Bellett Shattock died in 1860 it passed to his eldest son, the Rev. John Bellett Shattock of Stalbridge, Dorset, who put the estate up for sale in 1862.

Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser - 10 Sep 1862 (BNA)
Easterlands was put for sale by the Rev. John Bellett Shattock in 1862. This notice is from the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
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From the top of the land there are views over the surrounding Taunton Vale, Blackdown Hills and Wellington Monument and down to the village with the tower of the village Church forming an attractive focal point. Image: SWNS.

Easterlands was sold to Charles Moore in 1864. He was a Liverpool merchant and appears to have let the fully furnished property. Occupants included Charles Hutton Potts (1823-1886) and Major-General Cookson, who was a yearly tenant when the estate was put up for sale again in 1876. Failing to find a buyer, it went back on the market in 1878 under the instruction of Mary Louisa Moore of Clontarf, Dublin.

Dorset County Chronicle - 25 Aug 1864 (BNA)
Getting ready for a new owner. This sales notice from the Dorset County Chronicle indicated that Easterlands was being cleared for the arrival of Charles Moore. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

The estate was sold to Robert Arundel Were (1822-1892), a solicitor and gentleman of Wellington, who held many appointments with local authorities including Superintendent Registrar Clerk to the Wellington Bench, the Board of Guardians, the Rural Sanitary Unit and Milverton Highway Board. When he died in May 1892 the estate was put up for sale just weeks later.

It remained unsold and was let to Arthur Tristram E. Jervoise before the house and estate of 140 acres were bought for nearly £9,000 by Frederick George Slessor in 1897. Slessor, chartered civil engineer, was the son of Major-General Slessor of Sidmouth, Devon, and remained until his death in 1905.

Easterlands 3 (KF)
The house is approached through a wide gated entrance, guarded by a three bedroom lodge cottage, down a long tree lined avenue affording tantalising glimpses of the house amongst the mature trees in the garden and park. Image: Knight Frank.

After going to auction in 1906 it was bought by Colonel Joseph Henry Moore, a retired officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He’d spent 30 years in the Army, serving in the Ashanti War, the defence of the hospital at Foomana and in the Afghan War the occupation of Kandahar and the Battle of Khelal-i-Ghilzai. He later held several appointments in India and was principal medical officer both at Quetta and Bombay.

Easterlands c 1920-1930 (SampfordArundelorg)
A picturesque view of Easterlands. This photograph is thought to date from the 1920s or 1930s. Image: sampfordarundel.org.

Colonel Moore enjoyed Easterlands only briefly. He died there in 1908 but his family remained until 1924 when it was offered for sale by private treaty.

Up until this point, Easterlands had slipped between families and it wasn’t until Alderman Gerald Fox bought the property in 1925 that the house enjoyed any stability.  He moved here with his wife, Beatrice Cornish-Bowden, youngest daughter of Admiral Cornish-Bowden, of Newton Abbot, and was affectionately known as ‘Bee’.

Easterlands 4 (KF)
Image: Knight Frank.
Easterlands 5 (KF)
Image: Knight Frank.
Easterlands 6 (KF)
Image: Knight Frank.

Gerald Fox (1865-1947), was the second son of Joseph Hoyland Fox, for many years the chairman of Fox Bros, an old family woollen business at Wellington.  He was educated at Marlborough College and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his B.A.. He joined Lloyds Bank prior to becoming a partner in Fox, Fowler and Co, a Westcountry private banking firm, afterwards absorbed into Lloyds Bank itself.  He was also a director of Devon & Courtenay Clay Company, the Commercial Union Assurance Company and of Candy & Company, a pottery firm at Heathfield. Aside his business interests, he also managed to be secretary of Somerset County Rugby Club and Somerset County Cricket Club. (Fox Brothers still survives and is run by ‘Dragons’ Den’ star Deborah Meaden who purchased a majority stake in 2009).

As the current sale particulars point out, Gerald Fox will be best-remembered for taking in several evacuees and refugees during World War Two, when several rooms in the house were converted to accommodate them.  Easterlands also became the headquarters for the local Home Guard and had a near miss in 1940 when a German bomber dropped a 100lb incendiary bomb. It cleared the house and fell into the lake causing no damage except to a tree.

Easterlands 9 (KF)
Image: Knight Frank.

After his Gerald Fox’s death in 1947, his widow remained until the early 1950s before selling up and moving to the Quantocks.

Easterlands appears to have then been occupied by Mr Hans K.E. Richter and then Lieutenant-Colonel R.S. Rogers, both of whom little is known. However, in 1963, the estate was bought with great fanfare by Mr Edward Du Cann, the Conservative MP for Taunton and Economic Secretary to the Treasury. In later years he would become chairman of the 1922 Committee, the Conservative party’s parliamentary group.

Du Cann
Later Sir Edward Du Cann, a controversial Conservative MP and businessman who was once a contender for the party leadership.

Edward Du Cann (1924-2017) and his wife had been living in temporary accommodation while they waited for the sale to be finalised.  When it was concluded they lived a very public life at Easterlands along with a donkey called Petronella.

He became a well-known businessman with his Unicorn Group, was a director of Keyser Ullman, a banking firm that collapsed in 1974, and later served as a director and chairman of Lonhro (later collapsing owing £10 million to creditors).

After Easterlands he owned nearby Cothay Manor which he was forced to sell after several legal disputes over debts and was made bankrupt in 1993.

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This fine country house has now been in the same ownership for about 35 years and whilst well-cared for and maintained, gives an incoming purchaser the opportunity to refurbish the house and develop the barns and outbuildings to suit their needs, subject to obtaining the necessary planning consents.
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Image: Knight Frank.
Easterlands 21 (KF)
Image: Knight Frank.

The current owners arrived at unlisted Easterlands during the 1980s.

According to Knight Frank, the main reception rooms are well-proportioned with high ceilings and have elegant detailing including substantial fireplaces and panelling. As might be expected Easterlands provides the traditional room configuration – entrance hall, study/drawing room, dining room, garden room, billiard room, kitchen/breakfast room, pantry, larder, utility room, estate office, three cloakrooms, boot room and extensive cellars. Its master bedroom has two en-suite dressing rooms and bathrooms, in addition to a further six bedrooms and bathrooms.

The house also comes with extensive outbuildings including a two-bedroom cottage, a three-bedroom lodge, a coach house with stabling and stores, as well as barns.

Within its 44.4 -acres are a walled garden, hard tennis court, covered swimming pool, a former vineyard, mature gardens, woodland and a lake.

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Image: Knight Frank.
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Image: Knight Frank.
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Image: Knight Frank.
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Image: Knight Frank.
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At the centre of the rambling grounds and gardens is the elegant water feature with its Japanese bridge, which could be right out of a garden in the French village Giverny, Claude Monet’s famous home. Image: Knight Frank.

BELVOIR PARK

A five-day auction that brought the curtain down on a fine country house

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Belvoir Park. A watercolour painted by the artist Jonathan Fisher at the request of the house’s then-owner Arthur Hill-Trevor, 1st Viscount Dungannon. Image: The Irish Aesthete.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of an important and interesting five-day sale of the ‘magnificent surplus furnishings’ at Belvoir Park, Newtownbreda, near Belfast. It was an indication that times were changing for this country house… and not for the better.

Belfast News-Letter 1 Jun 1918 (BNA)
The start of the five-day sale. It is not recorded how much money was raised from the sale of the contents. From the Belfast News-Letter. 1st June, 1918. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

The estate, once called Ballyenaghan, had once been the home of the Hill family, named so it is said, by Michael Hill’s wife, Anne Trevor, subsequently married to Lord Midleton, owing to the view (belle voir’) and in part to her childhood recollections of Belvoir castle in Leicestershire. She was responsible for creating the grand mansion and it is suggested used the German architect Cassells for the design.  Her son, who became Viscount Dungannon in 1766, inherited the estate before it was sold in 1809.

It was originally bought by three Belfast merchants – John Gillies, Robert Davis and William Blacker – for £35,000 – until it was bought by Robert Bateson, a Belfast banker and landowner, in 1818.

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Belvoir Park. This photograph is one of several provided by the Northern Ireland Forestry Service to the website – ‘Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland’.

Robert Bateson was born in 1782 and died in 1863. He was created a Baronet in 1818. His eldest son, Robert, was an MP for Co Londonderry; his second son, Thomas was born in 1819, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Deramore in 1885 after 34 years of service in Parliament and died in 1890.

Decline set in after the death of Baron Deramore. For a time, it was occupied by Walter H. Wilson, a shipbuilder and partner in Harland and Wolff’s. It was his widow that instigated the sale of its contents in 1918. Its last resident was Sir James Johnston, Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1917-1918.

West Front - Belvoir Castle (Lord Belmont)
The west front of Belvoir Park. The house was sometimes referred to as Belvoir House. Image: Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland.
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An interior photograph of Belvoir Park during prosperous times. Some of these contents may well have been included in the auction of 1918.

Belfast was quickly growing, and the estate which had once stretched to more than 6,000 acres, was now only a few miles from the city centre. It falls into the category ‘swallowed by suburbia’; the land was more valuable than the house and was prime residential development.

In the 1920s parts of the estate became a golf course and at one time it was suggested that Belvoir Park might be used as a residence for the Governor of Northern Ireland (Hillsborough Castle was chosen instead).

Belvoir Park before it was blown up
Awaiting its death. Belvoir Park is seen here shortly before demolition. It is unclear if any parts of the house were salvaged and used elsewhere.
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Members of the Army can be seen standing in front of Belvoir Park as it awaits the inevitable. The house was demolished by the Forest Service in 1961. We must presume the army used explosives to blow it up as a training exercise. Image: The Irish Aesthete.
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The last days of Belvoir Park. The photograph shows the entrance to the yard. The house and former grounds are in a pitiful condition. Image: The Irish Aesthete.

Belvoir Park stood empty until 1934 when the building company, W.J. Stewart, leased the building and land. The obvious motive was to build houses on the estate, but this was scuppered by the outbreak of war. The Admiralty requisitioned the house during World War Two as a temporary armaments depot and built over a hundred nissen and elephant huts.

Afterwards, it was handed back to Stewart and Partners and used for the storage of building materials.

From the 1950s Belvoir Park was in serious decline. Empty, derelict and populated only by its by ghosts, the estate was sold to the Northern Ireland Housing Trust in 1955. 150-acres of former parkland was leased to the Forest Service and became Belvoir Park Forest, while the rest was used to build much-needed housing.

Belvoir Park was blown up by the Army, presumably as part of a training exercise, in 1961. The site of the Georgian mansion is now used as a car park.

HALL PLACE

A stately home – of agriculture

Hall Place - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News - Nov 2 1949 (BNA)
Hall Place in 1949. In the Early part the 19th. Century, a large doric portico was built onto the front entrance of the mansion, but due to its unsafe condition and its incompatibility with the architecture of Hall Place, it was demolished in 1953. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Up and down the country there were many places like Hall Place, almost abandoned by their owners, for few could afford the upkeep of a big house. Some had been converted into flats, others had been taken for schools and institutions, but many were falling into decay, their ruin hastened by the gangs of lead stealers who were roving the country and stripping the valuable lead from the roofs, and by young hooligans who hurled a brick at the windows as they passed.

It was the 1940s, and attitudes to country houses was indifferent. Many thought that some of these houses weren’t worth saving, but many had been built with a care and skill in workmanship which couldn’t be found in post war Britain. Future generations may well have regretted the indifference of this one to the homes of England’s past.

Hall Place, in the parish of Hurley, between Henley and Maidenhead, had been built in 1728 and stood in its grounds and gardens of 14 acres on a deer park of 128 acres. With its farms and woodland, the whole estate was 484 acres – a landmark 300 feet above the Thames flowing in the valley below.

Hall Place - British-History)
An early sketch of Hall Place. William East died in 1737 and was succeeded by an infant son, William, who owned the estate until his death in 1819. He maintained the geometric layout of the park, and is attributed with the building of a Gothic Entrance Arch, demolished in 1967. Image: British-History.

There had been a house here since 1234, replaced by a 14th century house by John Lovelace and finally the mansion constructed over a seven-year period by William East, a wealthy London lawyer. His son, another William, was born shortly after his death, and during his minority years the house was rented by the Duke of Buccleuch and then Lord Folkstone. On his death in 1819 it passed to Sir William East’s eldest son, Gilbert, but he died just nine years later. Hall Place was inherited by George Clayton, a nephew. Descending the family line until the extinction of the baronetcy in 1932, Hall Place was bought by Lady Frances Clayton East who lived in the south wing until the outbreak of World War Two. Hall Place was requisitioned by the Government and in 1943, 1,025 acres of the estate were purchased under a Compulsory Order by the Ministry of Agriculture.

The house had remained empty but in November 1949, through the Berkshire Education Committee, the house had come to life again. Berkshire County Council had bought Hall Place, Home (now Top) Farm and 148 acres for use as the Berkshire Institute of Agriculture (the remaining 541 acres were used for the relocation of the Grassland Research Institute). At Hall Place, farmers’ sons, sons of agricultural workers, and recruits into agriculture, all of whom had at least one year’s experience of farming, would spend a year in the practical application of scientific knowledge and modern methods of farming designed for those who intended to make the land their livelihood.

Hall Place (BCA)
The times were changing. After 1949, the approach to Hall Place was tidied up. Trees were cut down, fences repaired and paths cleared. Grade I listed Hall Place is a large country house built between 1728 and 1735 for William East, incorporating a small part of a former late 17th century house and with interior stucco work attributed to Artari and Vassali. Image: Berkshire College of Agriculture.

Thirty-seven students had just started the first term of their year at the new Institute, though its departments were no way complete. Governors, staff and students were combining in a planning effort in every direction, the fertility of the land had to be improved – livestock raised, trees to be lopped, scrubland reclaimed, field water supplies extended, and buildings renovated and modified to meet the modern standards of livestock husbandry.

The Berkshire undertaking was a big one, but undoubtedly constructive – an English heritage was being preserved, and a band of young men were being equipped to meet the problems of the land.

In 1968 the Institute was re-named as a College by which time a substantial programme of extension and development was in progress and which is continuing to the present day.

Hall Place - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 6 - Nov 2 1949 (BNA)
The newly appointed staff at the Berkshire Institute of Agriculture. (l. to r.) Mr J.W. Salter-Chalker, Mr E. David (Principal), Miss J. Mathews (Dairy Lecturer), Mr J. Oliver (Animal Husbandry and Farm Management), Miss K. Ward (Poultry and Dairy), and Mr R.G. Holt (Crop Husbandry and Machinery). Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Hall Place - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 5 - Nov 2 1949 (BNA)
‘House-warming’ in 1949: An informal dinner of governors, staff and students at which Alderman J.W. Salter-Chalker, chairman of the Board of Governors, was the host. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Hall Place - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 1 - Nov 2 1949 (BNA)
Dairy farming was a strong feature of the general farming policy and all cattle were attested. There was a herd of beef-bred bullocks and heifers from the Welsh hills, and small herd of Jerseys, Friesians and Shorthorns. Robert Coyle, of Bracknell, Miss Kathleen Ward (Institute Dairy Instructress) and Mike Evans, of Slough, in the new dairy of the Institute. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Hall Place - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 2 - Nov 2 1949 (BNA)
Living Quarters: A corner of a four-bed dormitory. Students made their own beds and were responsible for keeping their rooms neat and tidy. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Hall Place - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 3 - Nov 2 1949 (BNA)
Lecture Rooms: The first two terms were spent on general and mixed farming with lectures and laboratory work in the mornings, and practical work and demonstrations in the afternoons. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Hall Place - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 4 - Nov 2 1949 (BNA)
Log-Cutting: Robert Mattick, aged 23 of Reading, and Robert Slatter, aged 18, of Kingham, Oxford, using a tractor power-driven circular saw. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Hall Place - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 7 - Nov 2 1949 (BNA)
Poultry husbandry, horticulture, pigs and sheep, were also important branches either with their own lectureship or combined in the general farming work. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Hall Place (Studentlandua)
Modern-day Hall Place. The house has been used by the Berkshire College (formerly Institute) of Agriculture since 1949 and has been altered and extended since the mid 20th century. Note the removal of the central chimneys and the large doric portico. Image: Studentland.ua.

LONGHIRST HALL

When coal ruled the north-east. Once the home of ‘Old King Coal’ – one of England’s wealthiest men

Longhirst 1 (childrenshomesorg)

This imposing country house is enjoying a renaissance after a spell in the doldrums. Longhirst Hall, at Morpeth, has been reinvented as four luxury properties alongside several new-builds in its grounds. The centrepiece of the development is Longhirst Hall itself, boasting the original main entrance, a pedimented portico suspended on giant Corinthian columns which opens into an ashlar-faced central hall with Ionic columns, and a central glazed dome. The sweeping Imperial staircase to one end has a wrought-iron balustrade with an anthemion frieze, which wraps around the galleried first-floor landing. Above, the coffered dome is a direct replica of the Roman Pantheon. The property is on sale at Sanderson Young with a guide price of £1.25 million.

Longhirst 2 (Chronicle Live)
Longhirst Hall was built between 1824-1828 for William Lawson, a local landowner and member of a prosperous Northumberland farming family. The architect was John Dobson (1787-1865), born at Chirton, North Shields, who spent most of his life in Newcastle working on numerous private and public projects. One of his most influential creations was Newcastle Central Station and the iconic Grey Street. He was the ‘real author’ of Gothic Revival having built some of the earliest churches in this style. Dobson moved to Longhirst after completing Mitford Hall, also near Morpeth.

William Lawson (1775-1855) remained until his death and the property passed to his eldest son, William John Lawson (1822-1859), who died at Pau, in the south of France, after a lingering illness. He had been custodian of Longhirst Hall for a brief period of four years.

By the death of his eldest brother, the Reverend Edward Lawson (1824-1882), succeeded to the family estates. He was a man educated for the church and for two years was the rector of Bothal. Edward qualified as a magistrate in 1861 and was responsible for working the coal found underneath the estate. He created the nearby model colliery village, built schools and had genuine regard for its inhabitants.

Following his death in 1882, Longhirst Hall was inherited by his son, William Edward Lawson (1855-1944), who turned out to be the last of the family to live here.

He appears not to have had much interest in the house and it was briefly let to Charles E. Hunter (1852-1917), a man well-known through his association with the coal trade, as well as his political work and an active interest in sport.

Longhirst 1 (Sanderson Young)

Longhirst Hall and its 740 acres had fallen into disarray and in 1887 was put up for sale. After a spirited competition it was bought by James Joicey, the MP for Chester-Le-Street, for the sum of £53,000.

James Joicey had married firstly Elizabeth Amy Robinson (d.1881) and secondly, Margaret Smyles Drever (d.1911). He was created 1st Baronet Joicey of Chester-Le-Street in 1893 and was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law by Durham University.  He became a JP for County Durham, a Deputy Lieutenant of the same county, and in 1906 was created 1st Baron Joicey of Chester-Le-Street.

James Joicey (1846-1936) had risen from a clerk’s position at his uncle’s coal office on Quayside, Newcastle, to become one of the largest coal-owners in the country, and one of the biggest individual employers in the world. Nicknamed ‘Old King Coal’, he was the chairman and managing director of James Joicey and Company and the Lambton Collieries, the two largest colliery companies in County Durham.

Lord Joicey - Leeds Mercury - 23 Nov 1936 (BNA)
James Joicey, 1st Baron Joicey of Chester-Le-Street (1846-1936). Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Joicey was an active Parliamentarian and sat for an unbroken 21 years. It ended in 1906 when the Liberal Government came into office and he was given a peerage to strengthen the Liberal Party in the Upper House. In 1931 he switched to the Conservatives ‘in an independent’ capacity.

Always a fierce and outspoken critic, Joicey made no secret of his belief that politicians “had let us down badly”. Speaking in 1935 he said, “A dictator who could keep a firm hand on politicians, as Mussolini has done in Italy, would be the saviour of our land.”

Joicey might well have been one of those autocratic coal-owners often featured on the pages of Catherine Cookson novels. He didn’t endear himself to women and strongly opposed the idea of them becoming MPs, believing it too premature. Despite his political career, he feared for the future of the coal industry and blamed his colleagues. “Today, the most harm done to the coal trade is by the constant interference of politicians and the Government.”  

Longhirst 5 (Sanderson Young)
Image: Sanderson Young.
Longhirst 13 (Sanderson Young)
Image: Sanderson Young.

Lord Joicey made several additions to Longhirst Hall, but in 1907 looked elsewhere to expand his estates. He purchased Ford Castle in north Northumberland and added the adjacent Etal estate a year later. Resident at Ford Castle he put the Longhirst and Ulgham estates near Morpeth up for auction in 1921. They failed to find a buyer and Longhirst Hall was occupied by his two sons – James Arthur Joicey and Hugh Edward Joicey .

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer - 14 Sep 1921 (BNA)
From the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. 14 September 1921. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

When Lord Joicey died in 1936, his eldest son, James Arthur Joicey (1880-1940), moved to Ford Castle and his brother Hugh to Etal Manor. These were troubling times. In 1929 the 2nd Lord Joicey’s son, also James, an officer in the 17th/20th Hussars had been killed while taking part in a horse race at Folkstone. By the late 1930s the coal industry was struggling and incomes from the agricultural estates were in decline. James Arthur Joicey had been shell-shocked in 1915 and suffered from depression as a result. His elevation to the peerage proved too much and in July 1940, after leaving a letter to his wife, his ‘brain in a storm’, was found shot dead on Ford Castle’s lawns.

Longhirst 6 (Sanderson Young)
Image: Sanderson Young.
Longhirst 7 (Sanderson Young)
Image: Sanderson Young.

Longhirst Hall had long fallen out of favour with the Joicey family. In 1937 it had been sold to alderman William Strafford Sanderson (1880-1973), the deputy mayor of Morpeth. It was an interesting purchase for the councillor and one that might be questioned today. Sanderson remained a couple of years and was responsible for gifting a gymnasium from the grounds of Longhirst Hall for use as a pavilion in Proctor’s Field in Morpeth.

In 1939 the house was offered as a Joint Infectious Disease Hospital, a scheme involving Newbiggin, Ashington and Bedlington Urban Councils, and Morpeth Borough and Morpeth Rural Councils. It was the favoured property and it might have provided Sanderson with a tidy sum of money. However, the Ministry of Health was concerned about the large amount of land involved in the purchase, and the sale fell through.

W S Sanderson - Morpeth Herald - 14 Nov 1913
Alderman W.S. Sanderson. From the Morpeth Herald. Seen here as a young man in 1913. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Longhirst was quickly sold to Mr G. Moore of Kenton Hall who took up residence in September. Better known as Harry Moore, the son of William Moore, who founded Moore’s Stores of Sunderland in 1907, he had taken over the family business in 1930. The grocers and provisions merchants eventually had 114 branches across north-east England. (In modern times the stores were taken over and incorporated into the Lipton’s and Presto supermarket chains). Harry Moore lived here with his wife Maud and was later honoured when his racehorse won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1958.

From the Morpeth Herald - 26 Nov 1937. (BNA)
Sale notice from the Morpeth Herald. 26 November 1937. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

 

Longhirst 2 (Sanderson Young)
Image: Sanderson Young.
Longhirst 3 (Sanderson Young)
Image: Sanderson Young.
Longhirst 4 (Sanderson Young)
Image: Sanderson Young.

During World War Two the house was requisitioned by the Army as a billet for officers, while the troops camped in the grounds.

After the war, some of the Nissen huts in the parkland were taken over by several families who had moved here from Pegswood. They were effectively squatters, the 27 people living here had no water or light and carried water from the main house.

Undoubtedly damaged by wartime occupation the house was vacant, and the Moore family eventually sold it to the Home Office in 1948. It was used as an approved school accommodating up to 72 boys, aged below 13, at the date of their admission. In 1973 it became a Community Home with Education under the control of the Northumberland County Council.

The community home closed in 1982 and suffered at the hands of vandals. The house was being considered as a school for children with learning problems, but an inspection revealed the house had rotting roof timbers and the emergency repair bill would cost about £9,000. The county architect had warned that the lack of heating might cause considerable damage but Longhirst Hall remained empty.

In poor condition the mansion was left to decay for ten years. In 1992 it was bought by a private investment company who completed extensive renovations, combined with new-build facilities, to become a management training and conference centre. It was let to Northumbria University who used the house until 1992 before it was sold to become a 77-bedroom country house hotel, popular as a wedding venue.

The hotel closed in March 2014 after its parent company went into receivership. It was an unfortunate turn of events but one that heralded a new future for Longhirst Hall.

It went on sale with Strutt & Parker for £1.65 million and in 2015 was acquired by Durham-based De Vere Homes; within 12 months work had started to convert the estate into 28 luxury homes.

According to Sanderson Young, the main reception rooms are adorned with ornate plasterwork and have full-height windows. The drawing room is especially stately, with semi-circular bow windows and views across the Capability Brown-style garden with its ha-ha overlooking the paddock.

The breakfasting kitchen has three sets of full-height shuttered French windows and a baronial tiled fireplace. It has a new bespoke kitchen and the same approach will apply to all bathrooms and en-suites.

It also includes a library and study, as well as a back staircase and cavernous cellars.

There are seven bedrooms split over two floors with the four bedrooms on the first floor opening off the galleried first-floor landing which is illuminated during the day by three glazed roof lanterns, each set within its own ceiling dome – and at night by concealed lighting.

BUNNY HALL

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

Bunny Hall 1 (Savills)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bunny Hall 2 (Savills)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bunny Hall 4 (Savills)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bunny Hall 5 (Savills)

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

Bunny Hall 6 (Savills)

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

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

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

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

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

Bunny Hall 7 (Savills)

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

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

Bunny Hall 9 (Savills)

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

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

Bunny Hall 10 (Savills)

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

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

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

KIRBY HALL

“And to think that the sumptuous palace erected by Elizabeth’s wealthiest subject should have become the residence of a humble shepherd.”

Kirby Hall (Wikipedia)
Kirby Hall. A hall whose precise age is recorded, and in which we see plainly that the designer had not quite got rid of the idea that the exterior was to be plain, as being liable, in case of civil strife, to future ‘crenellation’.

Kirby Hall, near Gretton in Northamptonshire, was built from Barnack stone between 1570-1575, for Sir Humphrey Stafford, whose motto, ‘Je seray loyal,’ and the date 1572, were to be seen over the porch of the great hall, and on some of the panels of the parapet one noted the inscription, ‘Hum Fre Sta fard.’

It had one-time represented the high-water mark of Renaissance building, before it degenerated into heaviness and over ornamentation. The original plan is preserved in the Soane Museum, and the architect John Thorpe, very thoughtfully entitled it, ‘Kerby whereof I layd ye first stone Ad. 1570.’ It was so ambitious in concept that it took five years to build, somewhat too long for its owner, Sir Humphry Stafford, who died just before it was ready for occupation. His son, who probably considered the whole scheme unnecessary as they already had a fine house at Blatherwick, only five miles away, at once sold Kirby Hall to Sir Christopher Hatton, so that the only connection with the Staffords was found in the crest and badge carved in stone and wood.

It was never certain whether Sir Christopher Hatton found time to live in Kirby Hall, for he owned many fine properties, besides having to attend the Queen at Court. He didn’t go near it for five years after the purchase, because he wrote to a friend in 1580 that he was going ‘to view my house at Kirby which I have never yet surveyed.’ Sir Christopher, who was well-known to be the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, was said by his enemies to have entered Court ‘by the galliard,’ referring to the famous occasion when he caught the notice of the Queen at a masked ball by the beauty and agility of his dancing. Favours were heaped upon him, even to the apparent absurdity of making him Lord Chancellor, but in the end the Queen tired of her devoted admirer and was cruel enough to insist upon the return of a Crown debt, money which had been advanced to pay for some of the fine furnishings of the house. This was said to have broken his heart, because he died shortly afterwards.

Christopher Hatton - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-1591) was an English politician, Lord Chancellor of England and a favourite of Elizabeth I of England.

Sir Christopher never married, but Kirby remained with his heirs. His successor, following the fashion of the day, employed Inigo Jones, the English Palladio, to re-decorate the exterior in 1640, and on the north side of the spacious courtyard that occupied the centre of the building, his work and that of John Thorpe was blended together into a harmonious whole. The arcade, pilasters, and cornices dated from an earlier period, and the windows, chimneys and attic storey formed part of Jones’ later embellishments. There was less trace of Inigo Jones’ handiwork on the opposite side of the courtyard, only the window over the porch and the side door being his.

The Hatton family kept Kirby Hall until 1764, when it passed to the Finch-Hattons.

Kirby Hall was abandoned in the 1800s, its owner moving to a newer and more commodious house, and it was left to solitude and destruction. Its lead was stripped from the roof, the oak wainscoting was carried off to ornament other houses in the district, and its stones were used to mend roads. In 1878 the Northampton Mercury said that the house had become a kind of quarry, from which stone could be cheaply obtained for the erection or repair of farmhouses, stables and other buildings in the vicinity and, it was whispered, that many richly sculptured slabs, the work of the most celebrated art-workmen of the Renaissance period, were to be found embedded, face inwards, in the walls of stables and labourers cottages. ‘We have seen such specimens of sixteenth century art in the possession of cottagers, who made no secret of the source from whence they had been obtained.’ The house was left to the estate shepherd who allowed his flock of sheep to wander the once grand halls.

Kirby Hall - Garden Front - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
This sketch is from 1882 and shows Kirby Hall’s garden front. By this time the house was derelict. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - Inner Quadrangle - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
The interior court was symmetrically designed, with its carvings and classical forms. Image. The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Library Front - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
The library front. Another sketch from 1882 when tourists were freely allowed to wander through the abandoned house. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Its last absent-owner was Murray Edward Gordon Finch-Hatton, 13th Earl of Winchilsea. When he inherited the property, his first thought had been to preserve the home of his ancestors from complete ruin, and he did what was necessary to keep Kirby from falling to pieces. It was his intention, ‘if ever his ship came in,’ to restore the property to its old splendour, using the profits from his stone quarries in Northamptonshire. But ‘man proposes, God disposes’; he was never able to carry out his dream. He died in 1898, and Edith Broughton, writing in The Sketch the following year, described the decay that had beholden Kirby Hall to her Victorian readers:

“The oak panelling has been torn from its walls; at the approach of a stranger, rats scuttle away through holes on the worm-eaten boards; and the decorations hang in festoons from the ceiling.

“Through the porch a short passage leads into the banqueting hall, with its musicians’ gallery, where once the soothing strains helped calm the angry passions of bygone revellers, or the merry tunes to which the light feet of the dancers in the room below kept time. Good-living, good-fellowship, good times were these; but alas for the frailty of earthly things, a change has come to this once beautiful mansion.

“The unglazed windows, the skeleton walls, the nettle-decked passages, are in strange contrast to the magnificent architecture that in many places has been spoilt by time and neglect. A few rooms in the house are still habitable, and a caretaker lives and makes tea for the curious tourist who loves to visit ‘the homes of England.’ In the large Drawing-Room, with its huge bay-windows, it isn’t an uncommon sight to see a picnic-luncheon laid out upon the floor where once spindle-legged furniture stood on which were seated the powder-headed courtiers, as they paid their addresses to the be-jewelled and be-satined damsels of long ago.”

Kirby Hall 1 - The Sketch - Jan 11 1899 (BNA)
The north side of the courtyard in 1899. This photograph was taken by Edith Broughton, of Bedford, for The Sketch magazine. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sketch - Jan 11 1899 (BNA)
The porch to the banqueting Hall. Another photograph from Edith Broughton. Ivy can be seen taking hold of the building. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Edith Broughton hoped that the day would soon dawn that would see men hard at work restoring this lovely specimen of the Renaissance. ‘Which it were a sin to leave longer to ruin and decay!’

That day would take a long time coming. In 1935, the ruined mansion was under the kindly protection of the Office of Works and had suffered well over a century the utter misery of neglect. With no one interested in it, or to watch over it, it had become a roofless ruin, its windows broken, more stones removed, and its beautiful interior woodwork long gone.

Kirby Hall - The Sphere - Sat 3 May 1930 (BNA)
The Banqueting Hall. This photograph was taken in 1930, just after it had been taken over by the Office of Works who planned repair and renovation. At this time, the house had not been inhabited for one hundred years. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 1 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
Delicate Renaissance carving on the capitals of the fluted columns that alternate with the tall windows, and along the frieze running round the four sides of the inner quadrangle at Kirby Hall, which represents the best of Elizabethan architecture, having been built in 1570 by John Thorpe. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 3 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
“Beautiful, stocked with a great variety of exotic plants, and adorned with a wilderness composed of almost the whole variety of English trees, and ranged in elegant order,” was the comment of John Bridges, the 18th century Northamptonshire historian, on the garden at Kirby Hall, which was until the 1930s an overgrown waste. In this photograph from 1935 they were about to restocked with yews and roses by the Office of Works. Image. The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 2 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
Elegantly ornamented pilasters on either side of one of the great entrances at Kirby Hall, whose owner never lived to see it in its completed beauty. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 4 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
Devouring time had brought much of the splendour of Renaissance architecture to decay, but under the care of the Office of Works, the crumbling walls were about to be restored in 1935. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Kirby Hall is approached by an outer court, with fine gateways, and is enclosed by a stone balustrade, but the main structure consists of the quadrangular courtyard, surrounded by buildings like an Oxford college. The long east and west sides were occupied by a series of small apartments and connected with one another, in which the household and guests once resided, while the Great Hall was at the southern end. The exterior of Kirby Hall is described as ‘not particularly striking’; it is the richness of the detail and real beauty of the design of the inner courtyard which makes it of importance.

Today, Kirby Hall and its gardens are still owned by the Earl of Winchilsea but is managed and maintained by English Heritage. Although the vast mansion remains partly roofless, the walls show the rich decoration that proclaims its successive owners were always at the forefront of new ideas about architecture and design. The Great Hall and state rooms remain intact, refitted and redecorated to authentic 17th and 18th century specifications.

It now enjoys a new celebrity as a filming location and has appeared in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Mansfield Park, A Christmas Carol for Ealing Studios in 1999, and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story in 2005.

Kirby Hall (K Team)
The semi-restored Kirby Hall. The house was described in 1878 as being ‘cold grey ruins, the very image of mournful desolation, hidden amid deserted lime avenues and woods, untrodden save the solitary gamekeeper.’ Image: The K Team.
Kirby Hall (The Telegraph)
A managed ruin. Parts of Kirby Hall are still unrestored, but the decay has been halted under the management of English Heritage. Image: The Telegraph.

Country houses with a story to tell

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