One hundred years ago, ‘the most beautiful mansion in Cornwall’ was destroyed by fire. Eye-witness accounts tell us of the devastation that night, and the desperation felt in the aftermath.
The story of Tehidy goes back many hundreds of years. In his ‘History of Cornwall’, Samuel Drew says that Tehidy, which in the Cornish language signifies either the ‘narrow house’, the ‘fowler’s house’, or the ‘single dwelling’, was about four miles north-west from Redruth, and “when surveyed from the summit of Carn Brea Hill, from which it is conspicuous, it appears like a well cultivated garden blooming in the midst of a barren desert. The manor of Tehidy, which is of extensive jurisdiction, and enjoys great privileges, being excepted out of the grant made by the Arundells of the Hundred of Penwith, includes within its circuit many rich mines.”¹
Tehidy Park had been the property and residence of the Basset family for many centuries. The ancient family of Cornwall and Devon descended from Thurstan Basset, who was in all probability the son of Osmund Basset of Normandy, who came over with William the Conqueror. Soon after the Norman Conquest, this great baronial family rose into power and importance, especially in the midland counties. The family gave a Chief Justice to England in the reign of Henry I, in the person of Ralph Basset, from whom sprang the Lords Basset of Drayton and the Lords Basset of Haddington.
During the 12th century, the Bassets of Cornwall obtained the estate by marriage with the heiress of the great house of De Dunstanville. In fact, the earliest mention of Tehidy occurs about 1100, according to William Lake’s ‘Parochial History of the County of Cornwall’ when “Alan de Dunstanville, or Dunstanvile, who was then lord of the manor of Tehidy, granted a lease of Minwinnion, now the home farm, within the park to Paul Guyer.”² From this period they appear to have enjoyed considerable wealth and influence until the civil wars, when three brothers of the family all distinguished themselves in the royal cause. Sir Francis Basset, the Sheriff of Cornwall, was with King Charles at Lostwithiel, when Essex’s army surrendered. Owing to large sums of money expended by them in this unhappy struggle, the family estate became considerably reduced, but it was afterwards retrieved by marriages to heiresses.
Two ancestors of the family married Miss Hele and Miss Pendarves. From the last named union, the estates descended to John Pendarves Basset (1714-1739), who built a new mansion house at Tehidy in 1734, allowing the architect Thomas Edwards of Greenwich to undertake his first work in Cornwall. Sadly, its owner died of smallpox a few years later, aged 25, the house not fully completed, and leaving his widow £100,000. His son, John Prideaux Basset, had died in minority, in 1756, and the estates reverted to his uncle, Francis Basset of Turley (1715-1769), in Northamptonshire, who married Margaret, daughter of Sir John St. Aubyn, of Clowance.
Francis Basset died in 1769 and left as his heir Francis Basset (1757-1835), MP for Helston, who was created a Baronet in 1779, and advanced to the peerage as Baron De Dunstanville, of Tehidy, in 1796. He married Frances Susannah, daughter and co-heir of John Hippesley-Coxe, of Stone Easton, Somerset, and by her had an only daughter, Frances (1781-1855). Lord De Dunstanville married, as his second wife, a daughter of Sir William Lemon, of Carclew, presumably with the hope of securing a male heir. However, he died in 1835, when the barony of De Dunstanville became extinct, but the barony of Basset, of Stratton, devolved to his daughter, Frances, who became 2nd Baroness Basset of Stratton in accordance with a special remainder.
The entailed estates passed to his nephew, John Francis Basset (1831-1869), who was the eldest son of John Basset of Stratton, younger brother of Lord de Dunstanville, and sometime MP for Helston. His mother was Elizabeth Mary, daughter of Sir Rose Price, Baronet, of Trengwainton. Following the death of Lady Frances Basset in 1855, he succeeded to the remainder.
John Francis Basset commenced rebuilding Tehidy between 1861-1863, funded by revenue from tin mining and land rents. His interest in mines was immense, especially North Basset, South Frances, Dolceath, West Basset and Wheal Basset. He possessed one of the largest landed properties in the county, extending from St Agnes through Ilogan and Camborne, the greater part of the town belonging to him. He was the owner of the parish of Perranarworthal and owned a considerable portion of the parish of St. Gluvias and had a valuable property at Meneage. In 1860-61, it was said that his income from the Dolceath and Basset mines amounted to £20,000.
For the restoration of Tehidy, John Francis Basset employed the architect William Burn (1789-1870), of Piccadilly, and the works were reported to have cost £150,000.
John Francis Basset died without issue and the Tehidy estate passed to his two brothers, namely, Arthur Basset (1833-1870) in 1869, and Gustavus Lambert Basset (1834-1888) in 1870. By this time, income from the tin mines was diminishing, but the Bassets found it difficult to live their lives any other way than had been the norm. After the death of Gustavus Lambert Basset the estate passed to his son, Arthur Francis Basset (1873-1950), who turned out to be the last member of the family to live at Tehidy.
He found it extremely difficult to finance the estate, not helped by his costly pursuit of horse-racing and the gambling debts that often came with it. In 1915, there were rumours that the Prince of Wales was going to buy Tehidy, but little importance was attached to the gossip. However, in October newspapers confirmed that the estate had indeed been sold.
The buyers turned out to be Mr Hamilton Edwards, a financier, formerly connected with Lord Northcliffe as managing Director of the Amalgamated Press, and Mr Arthur H. Bond, a land expert. Between them they secured the Tehidy landed estates, royalties of the mines, tin streams, Portreath harbour, and Arthur Basset’s other interests. The sale, believed to be upwards of £300,000, was regarded as one of the most sensational transfers of landed property since the Duke of Bedford had parted with his Covent Garden estate.
“Broadly speaking,” said Hamilton Edwards, to an interviewer, “the scheme represents the liberation of land and the advent of the small owner. I have long believed that small holdings, as distinct from small ownerships, are quite inadequate as solution of Britain’s land problem. The small holder becomes a County Council tenant and has no fixity of tenure. The farmer who can buy his freehold at a moderate price is his own master, and leaves property to his family, and receives the full benefit of any improvement he makes to his farm.”
The bulk of the estate, including its tin mines, was duly sold-off, but there was still the problem of what to do with the mansion and its surrounding parkland. In July 1916, it was reported that Arthur Francis Basset was not leaving the county, having purchased back farms at Illogan and Godrevy, and had secured an option on Tehidy for twelve months.
Arthur Basset didn’t take up the option on Tehidy. In June 1917, The Cornishman sounded an ominous note: – “We can state authoritatively that there is a danger that this Cornish landmark may actually be ‘scrapped’ for building material, unless some Cornish philanthropist comes forward at once and acquires it at an almost nominal price as a convalescent home for Cornish miners injured in the war, or perhaps for sailors and marine engineers.”
History books tell us that the Basset family left Cornwall for good in 1915. However, with Arthur Francis Basset regaining ownership on some parts of the estate, it was likely that he had remained at Tehidy since the spectacular land sale of that year. In September 1917, The Cornishman was once again on hand to report on developments. The mansion was up for sale again, plants and flowers in pots had been sold at auction, and it was known that some of the Basset heirlooms had left the district, and that other personal furniture was stored in Camborne.
It was announced that Messrs. William Rowe and Co had been instructed to hold a five day auction of the furniture of Tehidy, including an automatic organ, fire engine, antique and modern goods of all kinds, from grandfather clocks to four-poster beds. Admission to the house was by catalogue costing two shillings, and on the morning of Monday 17th September the dining-room was full to overflowing, and bids followed each other in rapid succession.
“Many Cornish people found the sale gave them the first opportunity in their lives to see the park and the fine rooms with their elaborate alabaster and other mantel-pieces, the family portraits, the superb mahogany doors, the painted ceilings, old and modern portions of the building with Adams ceilings and decorations, and other features of the mansion, the wealth of colour – almost a riot of gilding and bright hues within contrasting with the sober and severe external architecture and restful greenery of the wooded park and lake seen through the windows.
“To some it will perhaps be a surprise to know that when the last enlargement was made and Italian artists were engaged to litter the walls and ceilings with pictures, the contract was for £70,000 and as this was broken, the amount spent was considerably exceeded, and probably reached the £100,000 figure! The house, park and woods were probably not laid out for less than a total of £200,000 besides the annual upkeep, and at times the Bassets have employed a staff of forty servants in the house and grounds.
“It seems almost incredible, but an old keeper who is still as bright as a new shilling, has lived at Tehidy under four male owners. This faithful retainer, who has been nearly sixty years on the estate, is now installed in the south lodge, and is 77-years-old. It may be imagined that in his wildest dreams he never expected to see the estate sold to strangers and the furniture knocked down by the auctioneer’s hammer.”
Weeks later, there was some indication as to what the new owners had in mind for Tehidy mansion. Arthur Bond made an offer to Sir Arthur Carkeek with the idea of any new purchaser using the premises as a hospital. The deal involved the mansion, with its grounds, land and adjoining woods (some 250 acres in all), to be bought for £10,000. The matter was brought before the Committee of the Patriotic Fund at Cornwall County Council, who immediately discussed it with the County Tuberculosis Authorities, who had already made several attempts to set up an institution of this kind without success. The offer was accepted, and Cornwall County Council set about raising money by voluntary subscriptions. By January 1918, the amount subscribed had reached over £11,000, and by the time the deed of gift was handed to Mr W.C. Pendarnes, Chairman of Cornwall County Council in May, the figure had exceeded £16,000. It eventually reached a sum approaching £20,000.
“At the moment, Tehidy Mansion is a big shell or framework set in a beautiful park, sheltered by belts of trees. Some of the exquisite Adams marble fireplaces have been re-bought and removed by Mr A.F. Basset; there are a few ragged corners from which bookshelves have been taken, and there are no beds or other hospital furniture and equipment.
“There was much speculation as to the reason that Mr Basset realised, vaguely at first (which accounted for some vacillation) more definitely as the war progressed, that after the war few landowners will be wealthy enough to pay super-tax and still be able to meet the costs of a large establishment, the difficulty being increased by the scarcity of labour and the higher cost of living as the result of war. All over the country we may expect to see a reduction in the number of sumptuous establishments, and the late Sir Edward Hain was not alone in regretting the passing of these historic homes which he described as the picture-galleries and museums of the country.
“It may interest my readers to know that Mr Basset, while keeping his ‘shooting box’ in Scotland, has not bought any other ‘home’ since parting with Tehidy, and that he has worn khaki as a recruiting officer in London during the past two years. What the future holds we do not know. A.F. Basset, who has been High Sheriff of Cornwall, may come back with us to live in some rose-draped bungalow and meet us all as comrades in peace and co-workers in the rebuilding of England.
“Thousands of Cornish people are still mystified as to exactly what happened when Tehidy became a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. Usually property passes from one hand to another without mystery, and it is seldom that you get deeds signed by the old owners as well as the new, or that (as in Mr Basset’s case) some farms are re-bought by the seller, or that after a mansion has been sold the seller acquires an option to re-buy it, and at the end of a year does not exercise the option.
“The facts, however, are very simple. The purchase of Tehidy, including the mines, farms, tin streams, and leaseholds was not an ordinary straight-out purchase for cash, but a ‘deal in margins.’ Three shrewd London speculators (only two of whom came to Cornwall) had been partners in similar successful deals, which dealt with land and houses, but did not include mines. They put a certain amount of money in security, which has earned interest during the past three years, but has not gone out of their hands. A fund was opened, and as fast as they re-sold farms or other property, the money went into this Basset Fund and earned interest. The speculators were credited with this interest and with the rents received from the tenants, but then they were charged interest on the unpaid part of the balance of the purchase money, and a time-limit was set for the completion of the payment, whether the speculators had re-sold all or only a part of the property.
“At the end of three years they have re-sold property to the value of over a quarter of a million (including mine royalties for £90,000) and have made a profit on the deal. It would not have been a large profit if they had had to part with £250,000 in cash three years ago; and they might easily have lost fifty or sixty thousand by the deal; so, if they made a similar amount it means they have been paid for their risk, expert knowledge, staff-work and personal exertions.”
Herbert Thomas. The Cornishman. May 29, 1918.
The Tehidy Sanatorium started accepting patients In February 1919, but the euphoria came to a shattering end a fortnight later, on the morning of Wednesday 26 February.
A few days before, representatives of the county had carefully removed the Basset Coat-of-Arms and motto “For King and People” from the front of the old mansion. It turned out to be a prophetic action; in the early hours of the morning an electric wire fused in a room occupied by the sanatorium’s only five patients. The ward was on the second floor, faced west, and was above the drawing room and library.
Whilst on duty in the ward between 1.30 and 2 o’clock in the morning , Sister Everett smelt smoke and at once informed Dr Roper, the Medical Superintendent, who immediately gave the fire alarm, and started the task of the removal of the patients. With the assistance of the matron and sisters, the patients were removed in their beds. Dr Roper carried some of the patients downstairs on his back; and the Matron and staff worked untiringly from the time the fire was discovered. The patients were deposited on the open lawn on the western side of the house. Here they were warmly wrapped up and were later taken to the motor garage where temporary provision had been made for their reception. Later in the day, one of these patients died from natural causes.
The Camborne Fire Brigade were summoned about 3.15 a.m. and were closely followed by the Redruth Brigade. In the meantime, staff and those living around the estate did their utmost, but their services were of no avail. Favoured by a strong easterly wind, the fire spread with great rapidity and soon most of the mansion was a mass of flames.
The firemen set to work on the north and south ends of the building in an endeavour to save these parts. The middle, or main portion, was too far gone to save, and it was a matter of a very short time before the huge roof fell in with a terrible crash. The steam engines were unable to work at a very high pressure due to an inadequate water supply, but the firemen battled for five or six hours and eventually got the fire under control.
The historic building, which had been intended to be both a War Memorial and a Home of rest for ex-soldiers, ex-sailors, miners and other civilians suffering from tuberculosis, had had thousands of pounds spent on it, though the bulk of furniture had not been delivered and the Lady Falmouth room was still awaiting equipment given by the Viscountess, who had taken a great interest in the scheme.
The scene of the fire later in the morning presented a sad spectacle. Except for the basement and one or two other rooms, all that remained were the great bare walls. A representative of The Cornishman was permitted to visit what remained of the house: –
“On the north side is the conservatory which is intact. The hall palms and trees showed no sign of injury by smoke or fire, and there was little water on the tiled floor. Passing through a long corridor on the first floor, the dining room was reached. Here could be gained some idea of the destruction wrought. The beautifully gilded ceiling and marble mantel-piece and grate, with two figures carved at each end, all that remain in the room, are discoloured and ruined. The drawing room with its famous ceiling shared a similar fate. The water in this room was about six inches deep, and on the floor lying about like waste paper, were pieces of what remained of the wonderful painting which took Italian artists many months to execute. At the south end there are a few small houses which escaped. Near the part destroyed is the laundry on the roof of which is a large clock. The effect of the flames did not even stop the motion of the time-piece. The front entrance to the house, which faces south, appears to have escaped more serious injury, and the verandas underneath do not appear to be damaged, and the statue in the centre of the front wall, also remains intact.”
One hundred years later, it is difficult to imagine the devastation caused by the fire. However, we are thankful to the faithful Herbert Thompson, the correspondent from The Cornishman, who visited Tehidy weeks afterwards. He once again provided a unique account of the damage and the extraordinarily rapid rate in which the hospital facilities were being revived: –
“A few days ago, I paid a surprise visit to Tehidy – my first since the disastrous fire destroyed many costly and valued relics of this historic mansion and undid a year’s work of a devoted band of enthusiastic pioneers. I was not surprised to find on the spot the usual batch of workers – Dr Roper, the medical officer who brought the patients downstairs on his back when the alarm of fire was given; the matron who worked strenuously and coolly to get her patients out of danger and to see that they were comfortably housed beyond reach of the fire and smoke; Mr Howard Lanyon and Mr F.D. Bain, who visit Tehidy almost daily and devote their Sundays to this humanitarian and honorary work; and Mr Crispin, the clerk of works, whose cheery temperament looks for a silvery lining to the cloud, and who has lost no time since the fire in adopting ‘Reconstruction’ as his watchword, like the lad who held ‘that banner with the strange device – Excelsior!’
“The fire assessors are at work on their estimates of destruction: the committee and staff, plans in hand, are busy at their task of preparing for the reception of the cases, some of them heartrending, which but for the fire would now be receiving the attention of trained nurses in beautiful surroundings.
“At a distance there was little sign that Tehidy had been swept by flame. The massive outer walls, the inner dividing walls, the terraces, the new masonry on the south side, even a statue forming a pinnacle above the main entrance remain intact. But as you approach the mansion you see that it is a huge shell. The County Committee recently added £5,000 to the Insurance: so that at the time of the fire the Company had accepted £25,000 worth of liability for damage done to the building. But for a division of opinion that amount would have been increased another £10,000. When the county meeting was held, I told that gathering that they would find Tehidy was ‘less a bargain than a gift.’ I hold to that statement now. I believe there will be no difficulty in proving that far more than £25,000 worth of damage has been done: though it should be possible with £25,000 to carry out much purely practical reconstruction work, with the walls and other materials as a basis. The Government expert was asked (before the mansion was bought) where he would build a sanatorium if the mansion were destroyed by fire and his answer was: ‘On the very same spot.’
“There is, therefore, every reason why the central building – modernised, yet retaining architectural symmetry and dignity – should remain where it is. There is building material on the spot to meet all demands; and within easy reach will be the pavilions, or huts, for certain classes of cases. Already the Tregenna Hut from Camborne is erected, and a veranda has been added by Mr Crispin, so that patients can sit looking southward, in the eye of the sun. On the green bank above the house and sheltered by trees six other huts will be erected – some have already been brought from St Ives, and the sites are being prepared. These are not makeshift buildings but solid wood structures which will last, and which can be easily fumigated and kept in thorough order.
“What I saw and heard at Tehidy helped me to realise the rapidity of the work of destruction. The inner dividing walls, and inner main walls faced with granite, are so massive and supported by iron girders and brick arches, that they held together even when the main building became a fiery furnace. It was ‘touch and go’ whether the patients would be saved or not. Men and beds had to be taken downstairs when the fire had begun to come through the floor – the first floor – and the interior burnt like matchwood. The great staircase has gone and some of the splendid mahogany doors. But others of these had been sold to a gentleman in London. Some of the rear rooms are undamaged, together with a few of the beautiful mantelpieces which have been boarded up to protect them from falling roof material. I was surprised to find the great gilded ceiling of the dining room (where the auction was held) still intact: but it has warped and there is an enormous weight of debris above, threatening its destruction. Mrs Basset’s sitting room with its gilded and painted panels, and the oil paintings stored there, is gutted, the Italian painted ceiling is now a wreck and the strips of burnt canvas litter the floor. The many bedrooms, so charmingly decorated and fitted, are gone and the costly ceilings of some of the main rooms cannot be replaced. Yet there is enough left to remind us of the Tehidy we knew; though it is easy to realise that when Mr Arthur Basset revisited his birthplace a few days ago he was saddened beyond words at the destruction of his old home.
“Whether the fire was caused by an electric wire fusing: or whether the low open fireplaces gradually rendered the woodwork as inflammable as timber, may be a matter of argument. It is singular that a second fire has occurred since my visit, due to coals from the fireplace! I was impressed by the outstanding facts that in a twinkling fire can transform a stately building into a shell of bricks and granite: yet I was equally impressed with the fact that if Tehidy as a mansion contained defects from a Sanatoria point of view, the county is amazingly fortunate if it is able to handle many thousands of pounds worth of building material, much of it unharmed by fire, plus £25,000 for reconstruction and furnishing purposes. There are two causes of regret – the loss of features of the old mansion which cannot be restored; the loss of time in caring for the hundreds of patients in the county who need, as Admiral May said, immediate treatment and not that which might be available some years’ hence. I hope the Insurance Company will recognise the full extent of the calamity and the fact that the building as it stood could not be erected for four times the amount of the insurance; and that the committee will be supported in every way in their endeavour to make early provision for urgent cases, while developing as soon as possible their plans for a new central building from the wreckage of the old.”
By January 1922, Tehidy mansion had been partly rebuilt, but it looked different to John Francis Basset’s building from the 1860s. A long building with portico and clock tower, between two angle pavilions was built in place of the original east entrance front, it infilled a courtyard and used pillars and masonry salvaged after the fire. The imprint of the original centre section was used to create a sunken garden, utilising walls from the former basement.
The mansion provided hospital services for many years and, as Tehidy Hospital, later dealt with people with strokes, head injuries and various respiratory disorders. The estate was bought by Cornwall County Council in 1983 for the benefit of the public and became Tehidy Country Park. The hospital shut in April 1988 and was converted into luxury apartments in the mid-1990s, while several houses were built around the former hospital buildings.
¹ Samuel Drew (1765-1833). A Cornish Methodist theologian. ‘The History of Cornwall’ was published in 1824.
² William Lake ‘A Parochial History of Cornwall’. It was published in four volumes between 1867-72.
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