A secretive house built on the riches of West Indian sugar plantations and slavery
Country Life magazine describes this house as ‘a fitting addition to the market in Humphry Repton’s bicentenary year’. Dullingham House, near Newmarket, Cambridgeshire, is being marketed by Savills with a guide price of £2.75 million.
The country house is understood to have been built for Sir Christopher Jeaffreson in the early part of the 18th Century – possibly on the site of an earlier house and is a fine example of red brick Georgian architecture, with patterned burnt headers beneath a slate roof.
A look into the history of Dullingham House shows it was likely constructed from the riches of sugar and the slave trade.
In 1878, two volumes entitled A Young Squire of the Seventeenth Century, edited by John Cordy Jeaffreson, made up from the papers of Christopher Jeaffreson (1676-1686) of Dullingham House, were published.
Within these volumes we learn that Christopher Jeaffreson was born in 1650, and that he was in his seventy-fifth year when he died at Dullingham House.
His father was a ‘fortunate adventurer’, one John Jeaffreson, became a landed proprietor in St. Christopher’s Island, and obtained the title of Colonel from his command of the militia on the island. The Colonel became a rich man and among other estates in England, where he spent the last years of his life, he acquired ‘the manorial property and farms pertaining to Dullingham House in 1656 (from the infant Sir Richard Wingfield), so that his son Christopher, the ‘young squire’, on reaching the age of 22, at which he succeeded to his inheritance, ‘had the revenue of an affluent country gentleman, apart from the rents of his West Indian property’.
Christopher married soon afterwards, but his wife soon died, leaving him a disconsolate widower. He set out on a voyage to St. Kitts ‘in order that he might settle and restore his estate on the island’. He ended up staying five years in the West Indies, where he worked energetically as a planter and merchant, and took an active political interest in the colony.
On his death in 1725, the estates in the West Indies and Suffolk passed to another Christopher Jeaffreson, M.P. (1699-1749), the man thought responsible for building the Dullingham House we see today.
At a by-election in 1744 he was returned unopposed for Cambridge on the interest of his friend, Samuel Shepheard. He was replaced by Shepheard at the general election of 1747, but on Shepheard’s death the next year was again returned. He died in 1749, according to William Cole, the Cambridge antiquary, ‘from too much drinking, which brought him into a consumption. He was one of the tallest men I ever saw’.
When Sir Christopher died in 1749, the estate, its new house and small pleasure ground passed to his son, also Christopher, who remained at Dullingham until his death in 1788. His only son, Colonel Christopher Jeaffreson inherited and in 1799 called in Humphry Repton (1752-1818) to give advice on the alteration of the grounds.
Christopher Jeaffreson died in 1824, and the estate passed to his daughter Harriet, who married William Pigot in 1827. Their son, Christopher William Pigot, born in 1836, took the name of Robinson in 1857 under an inheritance from his maternal grandmother. In 1870 he married Mary Marianne Mariana Dunn-Gardner, the eldest daughter of John Dunn-Gardner, MP, DL, JP of Chatteris, and sister of Algernon Dunn-Gardner, of Denton Hall, Suffolk.
When Christopher Robinson died in 1889, Mary Robinson, a lady of peculiarly fine character, had a high sense of duty and took her responsibilities as the owner of a large estate very seriously, frequently lending the grounds of Dullingham House for flower shows and fetes.
Mary Robinson lived at Dullingham until she died, aged ninety-one, in 1939. The estate then descended to her half-brother’s daughter, Miriam Leader, who sold it in 1947 to Frederick Boyton Taylor (1894-1959). His son, Peter Boyton Taylor (1921-1996), divided up the property, the house, gardens and park being purchased by Angela Tomkins who, together with her father, developed the park as a race-horse stud.
In 1994 the House and its immediate grounds were purchased by Sir Martin and Lady Nourse and the stable courtyard developed for private housing.
Dullingham House is Grade II listed as being of Historical and Architectural interest. The property has been the subject of various additions and alterations over the centuries – at one point (according to the listing) it is described as having had ‘two projecting cross wings to the east and west which were substantially reduced in the 1950’s to be replaced by flanking, shaped walls’. The façade looked very different in Victorian times with altered fenestration, and according to Savills, the top floor was added about 1900 by Mary Robinson. Indeed, there were dormer windows on the upper floor before subsequent alterations resulted in the existing elevations.
Apart from the normal reception rooms, Dullingham House has eight bedrooms and comes with the Repton ‘pleasure’ grounds and walled gardens, set within 8-acres.
Nothing remains of this former mansion; the only reminder of its existence is the balustrading which once encircled the garden at the front of the house.
The age of opulence. In October 1902, The Sketch visited Aston Clinton House, to the south-east of the village of Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire, thought to have been the most charming of the country houses belonging to various members of the Rothschild family and their immediate descendants. As one observer said: “This typically English homestead gains rather than loses by contrast with its stately neighbour, Waddesdon.”
The long, low white building was unpretentious in general design, and had been bought in 1851 by Sir Anthony de Rothschild from a well-known Aylesbury banker. Both the house and the estate had been improved and altered; but the general appearance of the fine old square manor had not been altered, and the additions were charmingly picturesque, while the views from the windows commanded the loveliest prospects.
Sir Anthony Nathan de Rothschild (1810-1876) was the third child and second son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Hanna Barent Cohen, and had worked for N.M. Rothschild & Sons in London as well de Rothschild Frères in Paris and M. A. Rothschild Söhne in Frankfurt. In 1840 he married Louise Montefiore (1821-1910), a cousin, and daughter of Abraham Montefiore and Henriette Rothschild.
Sir Anthony and his wife Louisa made alterations from 1853 using the architectural talents of George Henry Stokes, assistant of Joseph Paxton, and using the builder George Myers. Extensions to the existing house included a ‘billiard room building’, dining room, offices and a conservatory. Between 1864 and 1877, they turned to the steady work of George Devey who designed the park gates and various cottages on the estate.
Back in 1902, Constance Flower, Lady Battersea (1843-1931), the only surviving child of Sir Anthony, and his widow, the venerable chatelaine of Aston Clinton, were interested in gardening, long before horticulture had become a fashionable hobby; accordingly, the gardens of Aston Clinton were full of rare and interesting plants and shrubs. Fortunately, Cyril Flower, 1st Baron Battersea (1843-1907), was as keen a horticulturist as was his wife, and both at The Pleasaunce, their other property at Overstrand, Norfolk, and at Aston Clinton, he had given up much time and thought to the practical beautifying of the grounds.
The interior of Aston Clinton was arranged in an artistic and original manner. The rooms weren’t large, but a corridor connecting the principal apartments was full of objets d’art, collected by the Rothschilds. Particularly beautiful was the china, arranged in such a fashion that it added to the artistic effect, instead of, as was too often the case, detracting from it.
Lady de Rothschild’s boudoir was hung with fine tapestries, and the white panelling in the dining room had been carved by a sixteenth-century Dutch artist. The drawing-room contained more fine works of art, worthy of inclusion in any world-famous collection, and among hundreds of curios was an old clock showing a mighty Sovereign walking in a procession, while above his head waved a Royal umbrella.
According to the commentator in The Sketch, “Pictures were here, there and everywhere, sharing the space with books, etchings and prints.” Sir Anthony Rothschild had been a generous patron of painters and etchers, and had been ready to back his own taste, a love of creative art that was shared by his son-in-law Lord Battersea, whose study at Aston Clinton contained a remarkable series of amateur photographs, several watercolours and engravings, each chosen with reference to their intrinsic interest or artistic value.
A feature at Aston Clinton was a splendid winter-garden (conservatory) which had been arranged in such a manner that it became part of the long corridor already mentioned. ‘Lady de Rothschild, bringing, as it were, the varied delights of leaf, fruit, and blossom into the house itself’.
Both Lady Battersea and her mother showed a practical interest in the welfare of their poorer neighbours. Anthony Hall, a building erected by Sir Anthony’s widow in memory to him, formed a centre not only for those in the neighbourhood, but also for the many practical philanthropists who met there at the invitation of Lord Battersea. The Aston Clinton Coffee Tavern was another familiar benefaction conferred on the village by the Rothschild family, and successful had been the Training Home for Girls, an institution that had solved locally ‘that difficult modern problem – the servant question’.
Both were keenly concerned in what was going on in the political, artistic, and philanthropic worlds. The Sketch painted a lavish, if not saccharine, portrayal. “They are among those whom the nation should delight to honour, for they have done all in their power to make happier and better the many large circles of human beings with whom they are brought in contact. Lady Battersea has the energy of her wonderful race, and she is ardently interested in all that affects the welfare of her own sex.”
When Lady de Rothschild died in 1910, Aston Clinton reverted to the Rothschild estate, but Lady Battersea and her sister, Annie Henrietta (1844-1926), remained in occupation until the First World War. It was given over to the Commanding Officer of the 21st Infantry Division, then based on the Halton estate.
The Rothschild estate sold Aston Clinton for £15,000 in 1923 – a house with seven reception rooms, billiard room, ballroom, thirteen principal bedrooms and dressing rooms, seventeen secondary and servants’ bedrooms, four bathrooms and domestic offices. To commemorate the sale the Rothschilds placed a tablet in the wall of the portico recording that the family had owned Aston Clinton between 1853 until 1923, a period of 70 years.
The country house was bought by Dr Albert Edward Bredin Crawford who used the house as a school for boys. Evelyn Waugh was a schoolmaster for a short time from 1925, and in his diaries he referred to it as “an unconceivably ugly house but a lovely park” and “a house of echoing and ill-lit passages.”
After a brief period as the Aston Clinton Country Club in 1931, the house was on the market again the following year and described as being suitable for a club, school or institution.
Aston Clinton became the Howard Park Hotel in 1933, ‘a first-class country hotel’ complete with a landing strip for aeroplanes. It was run by Mr Stanley Cecil Howard, the son of a well-known hotelier, and had studied hotel improvement across the world. (The house itself was owned by Charles Richard Stirling of Sysonby Lodge, Melton Mowbray, and was rented on a five-year lease). Howard had trained as a hotel manager and a restaurateur in Paris and Dusseldorf and had been the general manager of the Royal Hotel in Scarborough.
The Howard Park Hotel was a business failure and became the Green Park Hotel in 1938, run by Douglas Haslett of Surrey. The curtain came down on Stanley Howard’s career when he was declared bankrupt in 1939. (The ownership of the house had since transferred from Richard Stirling to Stanley Howard; on his bankruptcy it was seized by H.M. Treasury before being sold to Thames Side Property Developments Ltd).
The Green Park Hotel was more successful and survived until the late 1940s. During the Second World War it became the temporary headquarters for Oxo Ltd, while the stables were used by Eric Kirkham Cole for his Ecko Radio Company, which used them as offices and for the development of radar.
Buckinghamshire County Council bought the country house and land in three lots between 1959 and 1967. Aston Clinton House was demolished in 1956, and Green Park Training Centre eventually built in its place. The extended garden of Aston Clinton House is now incorporated into Green Park, while the stables survive as part of the training centre.
The stately homes of England were being closed down or sold: the cruel toll of super-taxation
“This will catch ————-,” said Sir William Harcourt in 1894, when, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, his devastating measure revolutionising death duties passed its third reading. The name he mentioned was that of a big landed proprietor whom he detested.
Sir William Harcourt (1827-1904) was a solicitor, journalist, politician and cabinet member in five British Liberal Governments, who in 1894 had achieved a major reform in death duties.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he introduced estate duty, a tax on the capital value of land, in a bid to raise money to pay off a £4 million government deficit. The imposed graduated tax on the total estate of a deceased person was capable of producing much more revenue than taxes only on the amounts inherited by beneficiaries.
The new death duties were passed despite the opposition of many, including William Gladstone and the 5th Earl of Rosebery, who believed that easily increased taxes would encourage frivolous Government spending. Other opponents regarded the tax as an attack on the great hereditary landowners.
By a rare instance of poetic Justice Sir William himself was one of the earliest to suffer under an Act which increased death duties according to the degree of relationship. He succeeded unexpectedly to Nuneham, the Harcourt family place near Oxford, and was taxed heavily by his own clauses concerning inheritance from kinsmen.
It was a contentious act that impacted on the nation’s country houses throughout the opening years of the 20th century.
However, it took a few years before the long-term implications for landowners were realised. The Sphere, ‘an illustrated newspaper for the home’, had been founded in 1900 by Clement Shorter, who also founded The Tatler in the following year. In 1931, it highlighted the problems created by Sir William Harcourt’s act:
“The confiscation of capital – glossed under the name of ‘capital levy’ – has become the thickest plank in the Socialist and Communist platform. It has also become the practice in countries wherever the opportunity has offered. But in England – the monarchical and democratic – this confiscation has been going on steadily ever since the passing of Sir William’s Act. Later legislation has added burdens both to land and capital, with the result that the ultimate burden is becoming too heavy to be borne, and whole estates, or parts of estates, have to be sold merely to meet the death duties. However, the process may be disguised under ‘duties,’ the fact remains that men have to pay fortunes to the State simply because they have inherited money or its equivalent in land. Actually, the confiscation of capital. And that capital is used year after year as part of the national income.”
It wasn’t only The Sphere that voiced opinion. George Holt Thomas’ The Bystander was equally opposed to death duties:
“The landed classes are, in fact, being taxed out of existence under our very noses and before our very eyes. It is one of the most dramatic and cruel episodes in the whole of England’s chequered career, and most people who should know better talk like the Socialists and say that it is all for the public good. They forget that England became what she is as a result of the feudal system and that the feudal system is the best possible thing for the countryside. Time and time again in the past great landlords used to remit the rent to their tenants if it was a bad year. They were able to see that tenants got proper attention if they were ill. In fact, they looked after them. Today there is no one to do that. There is no doubt about it that the politicians have got the country into such a position that there is practically no chance for any great estate to survive financially the death of two consecutive heads of the family. It might be possible if there were a couple of very long minorities. But that is the only hope. In fifty years’ time who can say with any assurance if a single one of the great houses will still be in private hands?”
There could, said The Sphere, be only one result – the sale or closing of big country houses, with the consequent loss to local employment, tradespeople, charitable subscriptions, cutting down pensions to old servants, probably the raising of cottage and farm rents; in short, the withdrawal of one of the biggest influences in the English countryside, especially strong where the landowners have realised their responsibilities.
The newspaper’s response came after news from Lullingstone Castle at Eynsford, in Kent, where the Hart Dykes had lived in unbroken succession for five hundred years, a house famous for its hospitality and kindliness. The new baronet, Sir Oswald, had been obliged to close the house because, not only had he paid the duties upon his father’s death, but also on the reversion of his elder brother, on whom it was entailed, and had died in the late Sir William’s lifetime.
Lord Durham, too, had to close Lambton Castle, near Durham, having had to pay something like half a million in duties owing to the successive deaths of his father and uncle. If the late Lord Durham had lived a little while longer the duties would have been three-quarters of a million.
Sir Oswald Hart Dyke hoped to return to Lullingstone ten years later, but the Duke of Newcastle, closing Clumber House, after succeeding his brother, could entertain no hope so definite, and had lent some of the best pictures in the house to the Nottingham Museum. (Clumber House was demolished seven years later).
The Duke of Leeds wasn’t even fortunate enough to be able to close Hornby Castle and wait for better times. It had been demolished and the materials sold piecemeal. Stowe House, in Buckinghamshire, which Lady Kinloss had inherited from her father, the last Duke of Buckingham, had become a public school. Moor Park, at Rickmansworth, formerly belonging to Lord Ebury, was a country club. Ashridge Park, the old Brownlow property at Berkhamsted, had to be sold, and had been bought as a memorial to Mr Bonar Law, and was a training college for Conservative workers.
And the list went on. According to The Sphere, “these instances are repeated all over the country.”
The Duke of Portland had already expressed doubt, publicly, whether his heir would be able to live at Welbeck. There were rumours, too, that two big ducal castles, one in the north and the other in the south, may have to be closed, and the announcement had just been made that Lord Derby wished to dispose of his London home in Stratford Place.
Another sign of the pressure of taxation was the coming to market of The Old Palace at Richmond, the homes of Kings and Queens from the time of Henry I to Queen Charlotte, and where Queen Elizabeth died. For many years it had been the scene of delightful parties given by Mr Middleton, who had done much for its restoration. Yet other signs were Lord Harewood and Princess Mary leaving Chesterfield House, and Lady Louis Mountbatten leaving Brook House.
And Devonshire House, Grosvenor House, Dorchester House, Lansdowne House, Spencer House – where were they? Said The Sphere: “Taxation answers – flats or clubs.”
Modern inheritance tax still dates back to William Harcourt’s intervention in 1894. Today, inheritance tax is paid if a person’s estate (their property, money and possessions) is worth more than £325,000 when they die. The rate of inheritance tax is 40% on anything above the threshold, and that rate may be reduced to 36%, if 10% or more of the estate is left to charity.
A five-day auction that brought the curtain down on a fine country house
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Flashback to the 1940s: A bitter dispute between a Government minister and an aristocrat
Wentworth Woodhouse, photographed from the air in 1946. The house itself is the largest private residence in England, and was built for the first Marquis of Rockingham in the spacious days of the middle-eighteenth century. The gardens and park were open-cast mined, to the tune of 20 and 90 acres respectively. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
In years to come we might once again consider Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, to be one of our majestic stately homes. ‘The largest privately-owned house in Europe is finally awaking from its slumber’ heralds the mansion’s website. After years of decline and decay, its fortunes are finally changing; restoration work is underway, the roof is being replaced, while Phase II is planned for the autumn when repairs start on the Palladian east front, the chapel and grand staircase. With millions of pounds of work outstanding it is going to be a long journey.
Wentworth Woodhouse’s problems, like many other country houses, started at the beginning of the 20th century. Too big, too expensive and with dwindling family finances, it was severely affected by two World Wars. However, in February 1946, the house reached its lowest ebb.
Newspapers of the day reported that unless top level negotiations between the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (1883-1967), and Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1910-1948), 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, resulted in a settlement, Mr Emanuel Shinwell, Minister of Fuel and Power, would seize 110 acres of garden and parkland from Wentworth Woodhouse. The land would be used for open-cast mining with the total yield of coal, considered to be inferior quality, estimated to be about 345,000 tonnes.
Work had already started on the estate, but it was the rapid advance towards the mansion that caused the biggest consternation.
In 1946, the Coal Nationalisation Act was making its way through Parliament between January and May. After World War 2 the country had a coal shortage and the nationalisation of the nation’s private collieries was a way of increasing coal production. Earl Fitzwilliam had accepted that the family’s pits would soon be in Government hands, there was compensation for coal owners, but the fate of Wentworth Woodhouse bothered him.
Fitzwilliam had offered the mansion to the National Trust, but the organisation had been nervous at taking on a building that faced ‘imminent destruction’. It had accepted covenants over the park and gardens to ring-fence the house from the mining operation, but was warned off by the Government who were in no mood to listen.
During the negotiations, James Lees-Milne from the National Trust’s Country Houses Committee had visited Wentworth Woodhouse and recorded his visit in his diaries:
‘Left at ten from King’s Cross to Doncaster. Michael (Earl of) Rosse (of the Country Houses Committee) met me and motored me to Wentworth Woodhouse. Had time to walk around the outside and other parts of the inside. It is certainly the most enormous private house I have ever beheld, I could not find my way about the interior and never once knew in what direction I was looking from a window. Strange to think that until 1939 one man lived in the whole of it. All the contents are put away or stacked in heaps in a few rooms, the pictures taken out of their frames. The dirt is appalling. Everything is pitch black and the boles of the trees like thunder. To my surprise the park is not being worked for coal systematically, but in square patches here and there. One of these patches is a walled garden. Right up to the very wall of the Vanbrugh front every tree and shrub has been uprooted, awaiting the onslaught of the bulldozers. Where the surface has been worked is waste chaos and, as Michael said, far worse than anything he saw of French battlefields after D-day. I was surprised too by the very high quality of the pre-Adam rooms and ceilings of Wentworth; by the amount of seventeenth-century work surviving; by the beautiful old wallpapers; and by the vast scale of the lay-out of the park, with ornamental temples sometimes one-and-a-half miles or more away. Lady Fitzwilliam in a pair of slacks, rather dumpy and awkward, came downstairs for a word just before we left. I fancy she is not very sensitive to the tragedy of it all.’
There was little doubt that the National Trust proposal had been rejected by Manny Shinwell himself, as he had also rejected a plan by Mr Joseph Hall, president of the Yorkshire Mineworkers’ Association, to obtain the coal by other methods. The miners themselves, conscious of their local inheritance, had pledged themselves, to no avail, to make good the loss if the scheme could be abandoned. Their pleas fell on deaf-ear, but Shinwell was able to appease them by considering a speedy restoration of the land and possible financial assistance.
Earl Fitzwilliam had already turned to a group of experts from the Department of Fuel and Technology at Sheffield University. They quickly established that open-cast mining would produce poor quality coal and deemed Mr Shinwell’s plans as not being cost-effective.
Responding to Manny Shinwell’s thin promise of restoration after mining ceased, William Batley, a member of the group, wrote to the Secretary of the Georgian Group. ‘Effective restoration. What a cockeyed yarn. These Ministers of State must think we are a lot of simpletons – spinning us the tale. It is just bunkum, sheer bunk.’
Earl Fitzwilliam met Clement Attlee in April to appeal against further damage to the property. He urged that work could be done by less destructive methods. The meeting at Downing Street wasn’t a success. Meanwhile, excavators were at work getting out the first 300 tonnes of coal of the promised 345,000 tonnes.
There are those who believe that Manny Shinwell’s actions in 1946 were directed solely at Earl Fitzwilliam, whom he believed was part of the ‘old brigade’ – men who had run the ‘foolish, callous profit-hunting system’ which, he believed had operated before the war.
In ‘Black Diamonds – The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty’, Catherine Bailey describes what happened:
‘Peter was convinced that Shinwell’s plans for Wentworth Woodhouse were vindictive. It was the proposal to mine the formal gardens – a site directly behind the Baroque west front – that threatened the house. The magnificent 300-year-old beech avenue that ran down the Long Terrace, the raised walkway along the western edge of the gardens, the pink shale path, with its dramatic floral roundels, together with ninety-nine acres of immaculately tended lawns, shrubbery and luxuriant herbaceous borders, were scheduled to be uprooted. The over-burden from the open-cast mining – top soil, mangled plants and pieces of rubble – was to be piled fifty feet high outside the main entrance to the West front, the top of the mound directly level with Peter’s bedroom window and the guest rooms in the private apartments at the back of the house.’
As we know, Manny Shinwell had his way and Wentworth Woodhouse suffered. In 1948, Peter Fitzwilliam was killed in the same plane crash as Kathleen Kennedy, and shortly afterwards the Ministry of Health attempted to requisition the house as ‘housing for homeless industrial families’.
The move was thwarted by Lady Mabel Fitzwilliam, sister of the 7th Earl, who brokered a deal with West Riding County Council to turn it into the Lady Mabel College of Physical Education. The college later merged with Sheffield Polytechnic who gave up the lease in 1988 due to high maintenance costs.
Wentworth Woodhouse eventually returned to private ownership, first with Wensley Grosvenor Haydon-Baillie and then Clifford Newbold, both of whom made brave restoration attempts. The house was now subject to subsidence caused by old underground mine-workings, not the 1940’s open-cast mining, but something Manny Shinwell might have taken into consideration had he known. (The Newbold family lodged an unsuccessful £100 million compensation claim with the Coal Authority).
Wentworth Woodhouse was sold to the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust for £7 million in 2017. The cost of repairs to the house were estimated at £40 million, helped by a grant of £7.6 million from the Government, but this figure was reassessed earlier this year and projected restoration work is now likely to be around £100 million.