A house built by a bicycle pioneer that quietly slipped into unfamiliar surroundings.
The glory days of Coundon Court, built in 1891 for George Singer by Charles Gray-Hill. (P. Riley).
The death of Mrs Singer at 25, Harley House, Regent’s Park, London, on 3rd March 1918, was insignificant. She was the widow of the late Alderman George Singer, of Coventry, for three years Mayor of the city. However, for the people of Coventry, she would be remembered for the prominent part in her civic life and her performance as Mayoress during the years, 1891, 1892 and 1893. Mr and Mrs Singer broke new ground in respect of the function of Mayor and Mayoress.
That period saw the beginning on the part of wealthy citizens to live outside the city, and Coundon Court, their mansion, a few miles out of Coventry, was frequently the scene of social gatherings of members of local governing bodies, whilst garden parties were frequently held during the summer months. After the death of her husband in 1909 she left the house behind.
The one hundredth anniversary of her death allows us to investigate Coundon Court, a house that has slowly melted into its surroundings ever since.
Coundon Court was built in 1891 for George Singer by Charles Gray-Hill. It was constructed on land that was once part of Coundon Farm and bought for a modest £5,433.
George Singer was at the top of his game. Born at Stinsford in Dorset in 1847, he served his apprenticeship at John Penn and Sons, marine engineers, Greenwich, and in 1869 moved to Coventry to take charge of sewing-machine production at the Coventry Machinist Company. The company made some of the first bicycles in Britain and it was here that Singer learnt his trade. A business of his own in Leicester Street was replaced in 1874 by a cycle factory in Canterbury Street, known as Singer and Co, that eventually became one of the world’s biggest cycle manufacturing businesses. Singer paid attention to the smallest detail and his cycles were built with quality in mind.
In 1896 the cycle industry reached its apex. Factories were so busy that even shareholders couldn’t get cycles in less than three months after giving the order. Shares reached great highs and businesses were bought for prodigious sums. Singer and Co was acquired by Mr F. T. Hooley for £540,000 but George Singer still headed the business.
Later he added motor-cycles to his empire and founded the famous Singer Motor Co in 1901, a marque reminiscent of the golden days of British motoring. He was elected to the city council in 1881 but resigned in 1898 to concentrate on philanthropy and charity work.
According to the Warwickshire Industrial Archaeology Society the three-storey house of red brick, with incorporated stonework, looked rather severe from the outside. When built it was set in over 50 acres of land complete with three cottages, stables and an impressive gated entrance called Holly Lodge.
In January 1909 George Singer took ill while dining at Coundon Court and died soon after.
Coundon Court was bought by Charles Daniel Miller, chairman and joint managing director of the Newdigate Colliery (1914) Ltd and Bedworth Coal Supply Ltd. Miller had served in the army during World War One and was a noted rifle shot, captaining the English team on occasions, and a regular competitor at Wimbledon and Bisley. He filled Coundon Court with his many trophies as well as his passion for old engravings, particularly reproductions of George Morland’s paintings. To locals the house became a favourite rendezvous for fetes and summer picnics.
Miller died in 1944 and his wife, Bessie, stayed at Coundon Court until her own death in 1946.
In August 1947 Coundon Court was bought for £15,000 by Mr Harold John Finn and his wife, proprietors of the ‘Sunnyside’ nursing home at Radford. The house was converted into another nursing home with 22 bedrooms available for maternity cases. It opened to great fanfare in early 1948 and was anticipated to eventually accommodate 44 patients.
The Coundon Maternity Home lasted only a couple of years, probably due to the incorporation of the National Health Service which offered free maternity care to patients. It was obvious that another use was needed for Coundon Court and Harold Finn started taking up to 50 paying guests as long-term boarders.
Finn had ambitions for the parkland and made three applications to Coventry Council to use it as a caravan site. Since 1925 the council had deemed the area as ‘Green Belt’ land and each application was rejected claiming the 13 acres of rich farming land should be used for agricultural purposes. This didn’t deter Finn and in January 1951 he allowed the first caravan onto the property. Within months the number of caravans had reached 65 and the council referred to it as being like a ‘shanty town’. There were no public facilities and after his third application was rejected Mr Finn unsuccessfully appealed to the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It came as no surprise because Coundon Court had gained a notorious reputation for its unruliness and even the odd murder. By 1952 local newspapers were referring to the country house as Coundon Court Hostel.
Mr Finn was frustrated as each attempt to make money came to nothing. However, in November 1952 the Coventry Education Committee suggested they were willing to buy Coundon Court to create a new county secondary school for about 600 children. If Mr Finn thought he was going to make a profit on the deal then he would be disappointed when the house exchanged hands for just £4,000.
The contents, nothing of any value, were sold at auction in April 1953 and the council made plans to build at short notice a new girls’ grammar school for 120 scholars using the house and the addition of temporary buildings. It opened that year and the council later bought the lodge and grounds for sports pitches and gardens. It became a comprehensive school in 1956 and one of its first pupils was Mo Mowlam, later to become the Secretary State for Northern Ireland.
The house still stands, known as ‘Old House’, and much of the original woodwork from Singer’s days remains. The site has been significantly developed and is now known as Coundon Court School.
A century ago nobody wanted to take on a big house.
A century ago country mansions were out of vogue. This was more so in Scotland where a large number of big houses and estates were sent to market. There was no guarantee that they would sell. This was highlighted on the 8 March, 1918, by the Aberdeen Weekly Journal who reported on the mansion house of Blackfriars Haugh.
‘In ordinary times the offer of the mansion house of Haugh would have been considered a bargain at £3,000. Such was the upset price it was offered at on Thursday last, but there was no response. Along with the house, which is one of the most beautiful and attractive residences in Elgin, there are 10 acres of policies. The sale has again been adjourned’.
The house was built for William Grigor in the mid 19th century and later remodelled in ‘fruity’ baronial style in 1882 for Mr A.G. Allan, a solicitor, by the architect William Kidner. It had become a millstone after the death of its then-owner Mr John Macdonald, a retired tobacco manufacturer, formerly of the firm of J & D Macdonald. The firm was amalgamated with the Imperial Tobacco Company of Great Britain and, following his demise in 1911, Macdonald left estate worth £105,684 and shares amounting to £93,311.
Blackfriars Haugh failed to sell on several occasions and was seemingly destined for the demolition men.
Diminishing in value, it did finally find a buyer in August 1918, but the timing was poor. Mr Hendry Russell Randall, of the Royal Worcester Warehouse Co, London, bought Blackfriers Haugh and its policies. He fitted the house up as a convalescent hospital and offered it to the American Red Cross for the benefit of wounded American officers and men.
The Aberdeen Press and Journal enthused about the proposal.
‘The house occupies a fine situation on the banks of the Lossie, and the grounds are about ten acres in extent, with croquet lawn, tennis court, and bowling green. The interior has been fitted up with every modern convenience, and there are well stocked fruit and vegetable gardens. The river offers facilities for boating and fishing, and Mr Randall intends to provide a motor car, so that the wounded soldiers can visit any of the beauty spots in the district’.
It is doubtful whether it was ever used as a hospital. The end of the war in November effectively scuppered plans with wounded American soldiers being shipped safely back home instead. In 1919 Blackfriars Haugh was back on the market once again.
The mansion finally became a family home again in the 1920s when it was bought by Mr H.C. Bibby. The family remained until the 1940s when it was gifted to the people of Elgin by Mrs Katherine Bibby. By her wish it was to be used to rehouse patients in the Munro Home for Incurable Invalids. Part of the house was also set aside as an eventide home for old men and women belonging to Elgin and Morayshire. In the end it was actually used as a pre-nursing training school and later as a music department for the Elgin Academy
But what of the house today? The property still exists but is no longer known as Blackfriars Haugh (or even its shortened title, The Haugh). Nowadays the Category B listed house provides a very different existence as the Mansion House Hotel & Country Club.
One hundred years ago, Rooksnest, a country house at Godstone, found itself the subject of a scandal involving an MP.
At one point, two years into the Great War, Britain had found itself with only six weeks’ worth of food and on the verge of starvation. However, it wasn’t until end the of 1917 that food rationing was introduced and by February 1918, general rationing was in force. Food hoarding was a real problem. Authorities, as well as the general public, took a dim view of anyone engaged in such practices. Naming and shaming in the press was common, penalties were harsh and imprisonment a real possibility.
In February 1918, newspapers reported that Mr William John MacGeagh MacCaw, the MP for West Down, had been fined £400 under the Food Hoarding Order. At Godstone Petty Sessions, Mr Roland Oliver, prosecuting, said: “It was impossible to imagine a worse case of the people’s representative hoarding the people’s food.” An inspection had been made at his home, Rooksnest, by a local officer who found a significant quantity of tapioca, rice, oatmeal, semolina, biscuits, tea, sugar, golden syrup and honey. Similar quantities were also found at his home at 103, Eaton Square, London. In his defence, Mr MacCaw said: “I think a reasonable supply ought to be kept. I don’t think I’ve neglected my duty in any way. I have a large body of people dependent upon me for food.” He was found guilty, fined and the food confiscated.
Rooksnest is located at Godstone, built between 1775-1781, probably by Richard Beecher. It came into the possession of Charles Hampden Turner, a businessman with rope-making and dock interests, in 1817. It remained with the family for the next 100 years but was tenanted for large periods. Its most notable resident was Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811 – 1876), the Gothic revival architect associated with the building and renovation of churches and cathedrals, who was here from 1870.
William John MacGeagh MacCaw (1850 – 1928), the Unionist MP for West Down between 1908 and 1918, was another who rented the property. In early life he had gone to India where he joined the firm of Kettlewell, Bullen and Co (Calcutta and London), jute manufacturers, eventually becoming its principal partner. He also joined the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and lived there for 20 years. After his conviction he bowed out of politics in the General Election of 1918, called immediately after the Armistice with Germany, and died in Monte Carlo.
Rooksnest was bought in the 1920s by James Voase Rank (1881 – 1952), a flour miller with Joseph Rank Ltd and brother of Joseph Arthur Rank, founder of the Rank Organisation. He renamed the house Ouborough after the Yorkshire town (Oubrough) where his father had started the flour business in 1875. After he died in 1952 the house eventually became Street Courte School, a preparatory school founded in Westgate-on-Sea in 1894 by J. Vine Milne, the father of author A.A. Milne. It closed in 1994 and eleven years later Ouborough and its parklands became the Godstone Golf Club.
It is hard to believe that this fine-looking property is actually four 17th century cottages remodelled to form one house. In 1916 all the properties were part of the Snowshill Manor estate owned by Henry Peech (1861-1925). He turned to the architect Charles Edward Bateman (1863-1947), known for his Arts and Crafts and Queen Anne-style houses, to blend the properties together.
“Great ingenuity was necessary to marry the four individual cottages into a whole to ensure both a pleasing exterior and the practical arrangement of the rooms. The house retains many of the original period features, including the great open fireplaces, flagstone floors and mullion windows, which sit comfortably alongside the Arts and Crafts features added by Mr Bateman.” ¹
Henry Peech -Lord of the Manor and absent landlord
Henry Peech, of Sheffield and Wimbledon, was one of those absent landlords that owned Snowshill in the early years of the 20th century. He was the son of William Peech, the co-founder and co-owner of the Sheffield steel manufacturers Steel, Peech and Tozer, and before that a Chief Turf Commission Agent for Lord Rosebery. Henry enjoyed his share of the family riches but quite what his intentions for the Snowshill estate were still remain unclear. While he poured money on Green Close he appears to have abandoned the 16th century Snowshill Manor completely.
When the Snowshill Manor estate was offered for sale by Peech in 1918 it included the derelict manor house and its 214-acres of well-cultivated land, Green Close, ‘a smaller Cotswold home, recently altered and improved at great expense, with nearly 5 acres’, and 13 stone-built and stone-tiled Cotswold cottages. The estate also came with the title of ‘The Lordship of the Manor of Snowshill’.
After failing to find a buyer as a whole it appears that the estate was sold in separate lots in 1919. The dilapidated Snowshill Manor was bought by Charles Paget Wade who spent three years restoring it before eventually gifting the house to the National Trust in 1951. Meanwhile, Green Close, the newer and smarter of the properties, fell into the hands of Major Robert Hogarth Milvain.
Robert Hogarth Milvain and Klondike gold
The life of Robert Hogarth Milvain (1868-1933) was one of adventure and tragedy. He was reputedly a descendant of the artist Hogarth, as a youngster he was a good boxer and county footballer, and spent his youth in Spain before travelling to Canada. Here he led an adventurous life, chiefly ranching, and when the Klondike gold fields were found he, with two other men, discovered the route there via the Great Slave Lake and River and down the Yukon. One man died on the way, and Milvain arrived suffering with frost-bitten feet, which were treated by Indians.
Milvain remained for years gold prospecting and mining in the Klondike, only returning to Britain to avoid the cold Arctic winters. He and his wife, Margaret Caroline (1878-1970), daughter of Edward Adlard of Postlip, were in Alaska when the Great War started in 1914. They came straight home and he joined the Loyal North Lancashire’s with whom he spent the duration of the war in France. He was severely shell-shocked in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme and was badly wounded in the head, spine and legs the same year.
Major Robert Hogarth Milvain and his wife arrived in Gloucestershire in 1918 and bought Green Close. It was the start of a long and enjoyable tenure from which he maintained an interest in horse-racing as well as a passion for fox-hunting. He became Secretary of the North Cotswold Hunt but in his later years ill-health prevented him from riding. ²
Country Life magazine visited Green Close in August 1916 and cast a charming view of the area. “High up above Broadway, yet snuggly ensconced in a dip of the hills, is the hamlet of Snowshill… these hills are so full of finely built and beautiful houses… the beautiful local stone with which they are built constitute a continual charm to the eye.” ³
In June 1933, after fulfilling his duty as the vicar’s warden of St. Barnabas Church, and taking part in the annual Barnabas Day celebrations, he suffered a fatal heart attack at Green Close.
His loss was felt by the villagers of Snowshill who subscribed a sum of money and an oak seat, with stone bottom and brass plate, that was erected in the street near to his beloved church.
Robert’s widow stayed at Green Close and remained a pillar of the community. She maintained its beautiful cottage-style gardens and often opened them as part of the ‘Gardens of Gloucestershire’ programme for the benefit of raising funds for the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing and the Gloucestershire County Nursing Association. On other occasions the grounds were used for the annual Red Cross fete. Regular visitors to Green Close were the scout groups who often camped in its parkland (now extended to 21 acres), including a regular group from Wimbledon, a throwback to the days of Henry Peech. ⁴
Margaret Caroline Milvain remained at Green Close until the late 1960s and died, aged 92, in September 1970.
Modern times at Green Close
Green Close remains in the family but, as of 2017, the house was put on the market with a guide price of £3. 8 million.
“The property is L-shaped and is finely built of beautiful local stone beneath stone slate roofs laid in diminishing courses. There are attractive mullion windows, fine stone dressings and dormers, both hipped and gabled. A half-timbered link with plasterwork was added in 1916 to marry up the elevations.” ⁵
References: – ¹Savills Sales Brochure (2017) ²Gloucestershire Echo (16 Jun 1933) and Cheltenham Chronicle (24 Jun 1933) ³Country Life (21 Aug 1926) ⁴Gloucestershire Echo, Cheltenham Chronicle and Western Daily Press ⁵Savills Sales Brochure (2017)
All images courtesy of Savills, except black and white images, courtesy of Country Life (1926).
Snowshill, Boadway, Gloucestershire, WR12 7JU
In November 1917 a newspaper advertisement in The Scotsman announced the pending auction of the Loaningdale Estate, near Biggar, Lanarkshire. It was offered at the ‘low upset price’ of £3,500 in an attempt to be rid of the property. The newspaper described Loaningdale House as a ‘very desirable residential estate with its mansion-house containing four public rooms, twelve bedrooms and dressing rooms, servants’ accommodation, stables, coach-house and good gardens’. Britain was at war and it wasn’t the best time to be selling; every day country mansions were being offered for sale and, for those still able to afford it, there were numerous properties to choose from. At December’s auction Loaningdale House failed to find a buyer (as it had done in 1908) and its owner, Gavin William Ralston (1862-1924), was resigned to keeping the house.
Loaningdale House went back onto the rental market, as it had been since the death of Ralston’s father, Gavin Ralston (1827-1894), but the succession of tenants came at a price. In 1901, the property was described by one tenant as being in “a dirty and unhealthy condition with bad smells.”
However, Loaningdale House had enjoyed much better days. It had been built in the early 18th century for Nicol Sommerville on the site of an old farmstead called Sunnyside. It was enlarged by Dr Black and, in 1855, was bought by Walter Scott Lorraine, a Glasgow merchant, who remodelled and enlarged the house three years later to the designs of architect Thomas McGuffie and changed the name to Loaningdale. It was described in 1867 as ‘a spacious and elegant building, somewhat in the Elizabethan style of architecture’.
After his death in 1871 the property was bought by Gavin Ralston, a writer and a Master of Arts at Glasgow University. He died in 1894 and Loaningdale passed to his wife, Christina Ballantine Walker, who lived in Edinburgh but had been inclined to rent the house out.
After she died in 1908 it became the property of their eldest son, Gavin William Ralston, a barrister who practised at Dr Johnson’s Buildings at Temple. After failing to sell Loaningdale in 1917 he finally sold the house in 1921, probably to a Mr and Mrs Baird, but gained national headlines when he married Countess Makharoff in 1924. He had met his wife when touring Russia and she was just a girl of 15. It seems the first seeds of their romance were sown and when she fled the country after the Russian Revolution of 1917 (shooting two Bolsheviks in the process) she eventually arrived in England. Just 11 days into their honeymoon Ralston died of a heart-attack while walking down a country lane at Worth Matravers, near Swanage in Dorset.
In 1963 Loaningdale House became an Approved School for Boys but nearly suffered closure in 1967 when the body of a 15-year-old local girl was discovered in a nearby churchyard. She had been hit over the head with a heavy object and strangled from behind. The police began taking dental casts, including boys from the school, and it was determined that the murderer was 17-year-old Gordon Hay, a resident at Loaningdale. He became the first person in Britain to be convicted based on evidence from forensic dentistry. The school finally closed in the 1980’s and in recent times the house has been used as an outdoor education centre. The core of the house remains but has been spoilt by a 1960’s accommodation block and outbuildings to the east.
Biggar, South Lanarkshire, ML12 6LX
Sutton Hall, at Sutton-in-Craven, was built in 1894 by John William Hartley, the reclusive bachelor- owner of Greenroyd Mill (founded by Peter Hartley in 1830) and a throwback to the flourishing days of the textile industry. It was built with views across the Aire Valley and on completion contained a Reception Hall, Morning Room, Dining Room, Library, Drawing Room, Billiard Room as well as 7 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a lavatory. It also contained a large attic as well as the centrally-placed ‘Tower Room’. It was lit with gas but had been wired for electricity with state-of-the-art central heating. The house was so big that it was said to have never been completely furnished
On J.W. Hartley’s death, in 1909, he was said to own ‘practically all the houses in Sutton, and also the larger part of the farms on the hillside hear the village’ as well as an estate near Pateley Bridge. The estate passed to a cousin, Miss Emma Hartley, who sold the mill in 1911 due to the poor economic climate and the decline in the textile trade. She died in 1930 and Sutton Hall was left to Ernest Hartley but he only had possession for two years. When he died in 1932 there was a conundrum as to who should inherit the hall. His eldest son, George Clifford Hartley, would have succeeded to the estate had he reached his majority before his father died. However, he failed this by three weeks and, under the deed, couldn’t succeed because he was a minor. This left the bizarre scenario that Ernest Hartley’s brother Allen, a Morecambe bus conductor, might inherit if the title could be proved.
In the end the estate did pass to George Clifford Hartley but he had no intention of keeping Sutton Hall and put it up for sale in 1933. He cleared the contents of the house in a series of auctions that included mahogany, oak and walnut bedroom suites, Axminster and Brussels carpets, oil paintings, watercolours and silverware.
Considering that it had cost nearly £40,000 to build just 39 years earlier the decline of the British country house was highlighted when it was sold to Ernest Turner, a Keighley builder and contractor, for just £3,000. The estate covered an area of approximately 25 acres, including Sutton Hall, lodges, garages and stables, and the timbered grounds and park. Turner immediately advertised it as being ‘suitable’ as a convalescent home or a public or private institution. There were no interested buyers and in 1934 he proposed dividing it into five flats. He gave 6½ acres of adjoining woodland to Sutton Parish Council, but the rest of the estate was developed into what he called ‘a kind of garden city – the first and the finest in this neighbourhood’, a project which involved the demolition of Sutton Hall itself in the early 1940s.
Mells Park (or Park House), near Frome in Somerset, was lost almost 100 years ago. The house had been built in 1724 when Thomas Strangways Horner commissioned Nathaniel Ireson to build a new mansion in an ‘H’ shape, and the family moved there from Mells Manor House. In 1900 the Horner’s, finding it too expensive to run, left Park House and moved back into Mells Manor House. The house was rented to Mr G.T. Bates, of Edward Bates and Sons, ship owners of Liverpool, until his death in April 1917. His effects were removed and the mansion was redecorated and furnished with a view to the Horner family again going into residence.
The evening of 11th October, 1917, was cold and miserable with driving rain. At about 8.00pm the Misses Horner, daughters of Sir John Fortescue Horner, spotted flames coming from Mells Park. With only a caretaker and his wife on the premises it was left to Sir John Horner and William Bexter, agent of the estate, to summon help and try and put the fire out. The rising wind carried the flames into the older part of the building, and the blaze quickly spread along all three sides. The ferocity of the fire meant efforts were instead diverted into saving the most valuable pieces of furniture, family pictures and books.
The house might have been saved had it not been for a series of unfortunate mishaps involving the fledgling fire brigade. Initially the Frome Fire Brigade had been summoned but was unable to find horses. Instead they travelled to Mells Park by motor managing to arrive by 9.30pm. By this time the fire was out of control and the Radstock Fire Brigade was summoned to assist, but it appears that the motor drawing their engine got stuck in mud on route. The Bath Fire Brigade were telephoned but they declined to set out as Mells Park was considered too far to travel. In the end only the bare walls survived and the only portions saved were the stables and electric station. The cause of the fire remained a mystery but it was thought to have started in a heating apparatus chamber.
It was the end for the house. The Horner family stayed at Mells Manor House and the following year there was a sale of valuable furniture, china, prints, watercolours, carpets and rugs that were salvaged from the fire. The architect Edwin Lutyens tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Horner’s to rebuild Park House and it took until 1924, when they let it to Reginald McKenna (Chairman of the Midland Bank and married to a Horner niece), on the understanding that they would rebuild the house. Lutyens finally rebuilt Mells Park in a more modest scale neoclassical style in 1925.
Billing Hall (or Great Billing Hall as it was once known) was built on land owned by the Barry family. It was constructed about 1629 but substantially altered as a Georgian-style mansion by Lord John Cavendish about 1776.
The Elwes family arrived in 1800 and stayed for the next 131 years. Its most famous resident was Gervase Elwes, a tenor singer, who in 1921 while in Boston, USA, had a dreadful accident: he was retrieving an overcoat belonging to another passenger that had fallen from the train and fell between the platform and the train and died of his injuries.
Billing Hall was sold to the Musicians Benevolent Fund in 1931 by Geoffrey Elwes who moved to the run-down Elsham Hall, near Brigg, in Lincolnshire to make the family home habitable again. The proposal was to make Billing Hall a home for aged musicians (in memory of Gervase Elwes) but the £50,000 cost to upgrade the mansion proved a stumbling block. There was talk of placing the mansion in the hands of house-breakers and the idea was eventually abandoned several years later.
Billing Hall was put up for sale in 1937 and was acquired by Drury and Co, Northamptonshire builders, who intended to demolish the house and erect a number of period and character-type houses in the grounds. However, uncertainty in the housing market halted plans and the house was probably rented out during the war years.
In 1945 the house and its 17 acres of woodland was bought by the Northampton Brewery Company Ltd. Two years later it announced plans to convert the house into a four-star hotel at a cost of £25,000 with longer term ambitions to add a further 30 bedrooms. Mr R.C. Vaughan representing the company said: “It was going to seed and falling into dilapidation… becoming an eyesore… it has been abandoned for some years now.”
It would appear the hotel plans never materialised but the brewery company retained possession. Installing a handyman and caretaker (who spent many years rebuilding estate walls) the house remained empty. In 1952 the Northampton Brewery Company decided to take advantage of Northampton’s growing population and its close travelling distance to London. It started to sell off plots of land and build ‘large’ private houses in the estate grounds. This inevitably led to the demolition of Billing Hall in 1956.
The death of Mrs Marion Evelyn Coore in February 1953 brought an end to the family’s long tenure at Scruton Hall and in July most of the pretty village of Scruton, in the Hambleton district of North Yorkshire, went under the hammer. In addition to the hall, the 1,100 acre estate included 5 farms, the village shop and post office, cottages and small houses and a large area of timber.
The estate at Scruton came into the possession of Dr Thomas Gale, later Dean of York, in 1678. Scruton Hall, a Queen Anne country house, had been built by Roger Gale in 1705. Before that the estate had been owned by the Danby family of Thorpe Perrow. It passed into the possession of the Coore family when Harriet Gale married Lieutenant-Colonel Foster Lechmere Coore in 1816.
The hall was subject of a building preservation order as of special architectural and historical interest and came with the title of ‘Lord of the Manor of Scruton’ but not the patronage of the living of Scruton, which had been left to the Bishop of Ripon in Marion Evelyn Coore’s will.
The sale of the contents attracted a crowd of more than 1,400 who snapped up furniture, artworks, china and silverware. More than £5,500 was raised, one of the highest bids being for a silver tankard believed to have been given by Charles II to Barbara Villiers. It had been made by John Plummer of York in 1664, and was bought for £460 by Mr A. Craven Smith Milnes of Hocherton Manor, Southwell, whose wife was actually a member of the Coore family.
The estate was sold in 38 lots reaching a value of £61,545 and Scruton Hall itself was sold to J.W. Tunnicliffe, timber merchants of Silsden, who paid £14,600. They bought the property primarily for the timber on the 60 acres of woodland but were unsure what to do with the mansion.
Within 12 months they had made an inquiry to Bedale Rural Council about demolition who were obliged to inform the North Riding Planning Committee that while they didn’t want to see the property demolished they couldn’t suggest a use for it. The view of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was that the structure of the hall was sound and wanted to see it preserved if possible. Despite its preservation order Scruton Hall was eventually stripped, allowed to decay, and sadly demolished between 1956 and 1958.
In May 1852 a newspaper advertisement announced the sale of valuable land adjoining Bradfield Moor in Yorkshire. It appeared in the Sheffield Independent, a daily newspaper for the town of Sheffield which lay a few miles to the south. This sale of valuable land by Mr Joseph Hammerton of Walker House, Bradfield Dale, included 102- acres of ancient woodland and 7 acres of grassland with commanding views of the surrounding romantic scenery. It also suggested that this freehold estate would be the ideal place to build a summer residence and perfect to use as a Shooting Box in winter.¹
Sidney Jessop and eventful times at Thornsett
The offer was taken up by Sidney Jessop (1809-1871), a nobleman of the eminent Sheffield steel-making firm William Jessop and Sons. The business had been started as a small crucible steelmaker by his father William Jessop in 1830, but there were records of Jessops making steel in Sheffield as far back as 1774. When William Jessop died in 1835 it was taken over by his sons – Montague (1802-1841), Henry (1808-1849), Thomas and Sidney. Montague died soon after and Henry, who established an American branch of the company, also died, in New York at the relatively young age of 41. Their father had taken care not to make any of his sons ‘masters’ and set them to learn the rudiments of the business, often making them toil as hard as other working men.
Sidney, along with his older brother Thomas (more of which we will read about later), continued the firm between them and quickly established it as one of the town’s most reputable manufacturers of steel for the making of tools, saws and steel pens. They also became investors in the Sheffield, Wortley, Silkstone and Wakefield Railway Company.
Sidney lived at 31 Broom Grove Road in the well-heeled district of Broom Hall. The house had been left to his widowed mother, Rebecca, but it was Sidney’s income that provided for the family indulgence. When William Jessop and Sons opened a branch on Dale Street in Manchester it was Sidney who supervised operations. He would move to Shakespeare Street in Ardwick, a house he maintained until his death.
The estate at Thornsett Moor was ideally situated on the way to Manchester. Thornsett Lodge was probably built about 1855 but the architect remains unknown. It was undoubtedly built as a summer retreat and, being a keen sportsman, ideal for Sidney to use during the grouse shooting season. As early as 1858 he was entertaining a party of about fifty gentlemen for the ‘Glorious Twelfth’.
‘The weather was beautifully fine, the sun being exceedingly powerful until towards two o’clock, when the clouds wore a threatening aspect, and the sound of distant thunder attracted the attention of those who were unprepared for a storm. Vivid flashes of lightning, followed by loud peals of thunder, shortly afterwards came in quick succession. About four o’clock the storm became so violent that the sportsmen were obliged to leave the moors. The rain and hail stones descended heavily for a couple of hours, and then somewhat abated, the storm apparently travelling in the direction of Sheffield’.²
When Sidney bought the land at Thornsett he might not have been aware of an important development in the valley below. In 1856 there was talk that the Sheffield Waterworks Company was considering building a new reservoir in order to supply the quantity of water required by an Act of Parliament for the mills of the River Loxley. It became reality in 1859 when construction started and the landscape below Thornsett Lodge was obliterated by hundreds of workmen. In time the ‘Bradfield scheme’ planned to have four reservoirs in the hills surrounding the nearby village.
The work on Dale Dyke encountered frequent problems but by the end of 1863 the embankment was so far complete as to be ready for the reception of water. Through the winter the 76-acre reservoir filled and by March it was almost full. However, disaster was to strike on the evening of Friday 11th March 1864 when, during high winds, the embankment collapsed sending 3 million cubic metres of water down the Loxley valley towards Sheffield. The wall of water destroyed everything in its course and reached Malin Bridge and Hillsborough where the River Loxley met the River Don . The water then thundered towards the town centre and then in the direction of Attercliffe and Rotherham. Altogether at least 240 people died and more than 600 houses were damaged or destroyed by the flood.
It proved to be Sheffield’s worst disaster (although not its last) and the remains of Dale Dyke scarred the landscape on Bradfield Moor. The Mayor of Sheffield, none other than Sidney’s older brother, Thomas, quickly set up a relief fund for the homeless and the needy that eventually reached £49,650. Notwithstanding the huge loss of life and the prolonged work needed to rebuild the dam there was now a stigma attached to the area around Thornsett.
The flood may have prompted Sidney to put the Thornsett Lodge estate up for auction in 1869. When the bidding failed to reach its reserved price the lot was withdrawn and it remained in Jessop hands.³
Sidney Jessop always lived under the shadow of his remaining older brother. He had a retiring disposition and never took much part in public affairs although, for a time, he did represent the Park Ward in the Town Council, during which time he declined an invitation to become Mayor. After a period of indifferent health he died at his Manchester residence in January 1871. Such was the respect given to him by his workmen that the pall bearers at his funeral were eight of the company’s oldest employees. Sidney Jessop was buried at Ecclesall Church in Sheffield.
Thomas Jessop – hero of the town
Upon the death of Sidney, his brother Thomas Jessop (1804-1887) was left the sole proprietor of William Jessop and Sons. Thomas was already an extensive owner of landed property and now inherited the estate at Thornsett. He lived at Endcliffe Grange in Sheffield which remained his principal residence.
While Sidney was considered to have been the restraining influence it was Thomas who showed the most enthusiasm for growing the business of William Jessop and Sons. At the age of 28 he crossed the Atlantic and laid the foundations of the business that afterwards sprung up. It was also Thomas who saw further ahead and from the original premises on Blast Lane, next to the canal, he extended to Brightside, and a year later added the Kilnhurst works as a temporary establishment. The Brightside works grew until they occupied nearly 30-acres of land intersected by nearly three miles of railway lines. At one stage there were six water-wheels and 28 steam boilers needed to drive the engines, hammers and machines.
Thomas Jessop will always be remembered in Sheffield as the generous donor of the Jessop Hospital for Women, an institution that still exists today. It had first been established in 1864 on Figtree Lane and a new hospital was opened in 1878. His donation amounted to £26,000 and he explained that while serving as Mayor of Sheffield he had thought it necessary that the town’s women should have their own hospital. ‘He had now built the hospital, he had furnished it, he had given it to the trustees for the benefit of the town, and he asked them to assist him in supporting it’.⁴
The public career of Thomas Jessop dated back to 1843 when he was elected a councillor for the Park Ward. He retired from the Town Council in 1848 and devoted his attention to the family business. In 1863 Thomas was chosen as Master Cutler and decided to re-join the council becoming Mayor a month later.
William Jessop and Sons became a limited company in 1875. Through aggressive business deals and key contracts the firm had grown into a world reputed empire. Thomas believed that the firm had become so big that the responsibility had to be shared with younger shoulders and wanted to develop young fellows who would eventually support his own son, William. He agreed to sell the company’s estate and property to Mr D Chadwick, M.P., and prepared to retire from the business. In the years that followed the firm went through several years’ poor trading and became saddled with a large quantity of iron bought when the price was at its height. Thomas Jessop returned as Chairman and effectively saved the company when he gifted it £46,000.
After he inherited Thornsett Lodge Thomas used his wealth to acquire the Huggate estate, on the Yorkshire Wolds, between Driffield and Pocklington, extending to 4,000-acres. This property, along with several good farms, cost him £160,000. He also became the owner of Foston, some 600-acres near Driffield, which included a trout stream running right through the middle of it.
Thomas married Frances Yates Hope, daughter of Peter Hope, wholesale merchant and grocer of Liverpool, in the spring of 1846. Before this he had lived in his father’s cottage adjoining the Blast Lane works – ‘A beautiful place, with a lovely lake in the front, and delightful surroundings’. After marriage he lived at Claremont and later moved to Farm Bank on Shrewsbury Road, afterwards to Shirle Hill in Sharrow. Thomas Jessop bought Endcliffe Grange following the death of its owner Edward Fisher Sanderson. He extended and improved the house making it one of the most desirable residences in one of the wealthiest suburbs. He also embellished the interior with valuable works of art, including those by Osler, Pettie and other famous painters.
However, it was Thornsett Lodge where Thomas spent his long summers enjoying the view down the valley of the Loxley and the Porter, the Parish Church of Sheffield being discernible in the distance. During the grouse season he made a point of gathering friends around him, including members of the ‘Birthday Club’, meeting on market days at the King’s Head, and he always made a point of visiting Thornsett on the 12th of August.⁵
Thomas Jessop died at Endcliffe Grange in November 1887.
William Jessop – man of the land
The only son of Thomas Jessop was William Jessop (1856-1905) and now head of the third generation of the steel manufacturers. As a youngster he was educated at Collegiate School in Sheffield and later at Repton, in Germany, before finishing his education at Cambridge. For the greater part of his life he didn’t take part in the affairs of the business but finally became a director in 1880 and, on the death of his father, became its chairman. Although he didn’t take a prominent part in the day-to-day running he was influential in establishing a branch in America in 1902.
For some years he had been a director of the Sheffield and Rotherham Bank, and also occupied a seat on the board of the Yorkshire Engine Company. He also supported the work started by his father at the Jessop Hospital for Women and became president of the institution. This inspired him to also become a trustee of the Sheffield Royal Infirmary. Possessed of ample means and inheriting considerable landed estates from his father, William was more at home in the countryside.
William was keenly interested in agriculture, an ardent sportsman, who loved to handle the gun and rod and to play host to his sporting friends. As such he regularly visited Thornsett Lodge and owned extensive shooting rights in the Strines district, and became a prominent member of the Bradfield Game Association, a group of gentlemen who enjoyed grouse-shooting rights over a large area of the nearby moorland.
William was twice married. His first wife was Mary Crompton Bateman of Middleton Hall, Youlgreave, in Derbyshire. Her father and grandfather had been ardent antiquarians and were well-known in connection with their researches into the history of Derbyshire. By this marriage he had five children, four daughters and one son. Following the death of his first wife he married again, this time to Mrs Frances Jane Fenwick Watson, widow of Mr W.J. Watson of Newcastle.
For many years William resided at Forest Hill, near Worksop, and later moved to Wallingwells, an estate belonging to Sir Thomas White. For a time he moved to Endcliffe Grange while spending a few months each year at his house, 5 Westbourne Grove, in Scarborough. However, his liking for country life caused him to resume his occupancy of Wallingwells, where he remained until late in life. Here he indulged in hunting and shooting and could be regularly found with Lord Galway’s hounds when they were out. The tenantry on his estates found him an excellent landlord and he actively worked several of the farms on the Huggate estate. His open-handed generosity to those poorer than himself was evident in those times of agricultural difficulty and there were many who thought him an ideal candidate to take part in public affairs. However, William chose not to participate and preferred a quieter existence, one that had been deprived of his father.
At the Coronation of King Edward VI and Queen Alexandra he made generous arrangements for each of his tenants and workers at Foston and Huggate to enjoy a day of festivities. Each person received an invitation card illuminated in Coronation colours, on it were portraits of the King and Queen alongside the Royal arms. In the centre were views of Foston Church, Wold House, Huggate, and Thornsett Lodge. Below these were photographs of Thomas Jessop on one side, and his grandson on the other; with the host and hostess Mr and Mrs William Jessop between them. On the day itself each person was presented with a Coronation medal with a pendant ribbon of red, white and blue.⁶
During the last two years of his life William was struck down with a painful affection of the throat. In an attempt to rescue his health he journeyed around the world visiting Australia and Japan. William made several visits to London for medical consultations but it was apparent that he was gradually sinking. He left Wallingwells and made Thornsett Lodge his permanent home. It was here that he spent the last 12 months of his life, the last three being unable to leave the safe confines of the house, and here he died on 4 July 1905.
William Jessop bequeathed his wife a carriage, a pair of horses, harness, saddlery, and stable furniture, as well as wines and spirits and other consumable stores from Thornsett Lodge and Westbourne Grove in Scarborough. He gave her a legacy of £500 and the right to use Thornsett Lodge until his only son, Thomas Jessop, reached the age of 23. It would appear that she had no appetite for alcohol as the extensive cellar of vintage wines was auctioned the following November.⁷
Thomas Jessop and the extravagance ends
When William Jessop’s only son was born in 1888 it was quite right that he should be named after his famous grandfather. He was sent away to be educated in Cheltenham and enjoyed the sporting traditions available to a privileged young man. He was an amateur cross-country jockey and won numerous trophies at point-to-point meetings He was a first-class shot and a cricketer of some repute. In 1905, aged 17, he joined William Jessop and Sons but the death of his father a month later probably arrested any ambitions to serve the company.
It might also be the case that Thomas had little interest in Thornsett Lodge either. His step-mother, entitled to stay until he reached the age of 23, decided to take the sea air and had moved to 127 King’s Road in Brighton, Sussex. In 1908 Thornsett Lodge was advertised to let on a yearly tenancy. It was described with three reception rooms, twelve bedrooms, excellent servants’ offices, extensive stabling and outbuildings. It also came with relatively rare electric light installation and all modern conveniences.⁸
Thomas, like his father, enjoyed countryside pursuits and while in Gloucestershire had met a similar-minded person in Miss Bertha Muriel James, daughter of Mr A.B. James of Somerset and Mrs James of Park House, Thirlestaine Road, Cheltenham. They were married in July 1909 and the fact that Thornsett Lodge was still without a tenant provided the perfect opportunity to spend their honeymoon there.
The couple lived on private means and set up home at 25 Promenade, Moat House, Uckington, in Cheltenham, but there was also time spent in Lincolnshire. In 1906 he had obtained a commission with the Lincolnshire Yeomanry, serving under Lord Yarborough, with whom he served throughout World War One. He was on HMS Mercian when she was shelled in the Mediterranean with the loss of nearly 80 lives. He also saw several years’ service in Egypt and Palestine, much of which was with the Desert Mounted Corps.
Returning to England he settled in the Spilsby district of Lincolnshire and purchased Harrington Hall. He devoted much of his life to hunting, a passion shared with his wife. They had hunted throughout Britain from 1911 until he went to war and he was Master and Huntsman of the Boddington Harriers in Gloucestershire. In 1920 he became Joint Master of the Southwold Hounds and later hunted the Burton Hounds and then South Wold East.
Thornsett Lodge remained under his ownership but by the 1920s was being used by the Bradfield Game Association for shooting purposes. However, in 1928 the association had instructed the Sheffield auctioneer’s of Eadon & Lockwood to sell all the contents of the house.
Maybe Thornsett Lodge had too many close associations with Sheffield and its industrial past to satisfy Thomas Jessop’s rural pursuits. Whatever the reasons the house steadily fell out of favour with him as did the city that had allowed him to live the life of a country gentleman. (Ironically, his step-mother, Frances Jane Fenwick Jessop, had by now moved out of Brighton and had taken a house, ‘Thornsett’, on Falmer Road in Rottingdean. She died in May 1933).
Soon after the contents of Thornsett Lodge had been disposed of the house and estate were sold to Grange and Dale Ltd, a Lincolnshire based property investment company headed by Major Charles Wilson of Riseholme Hall and a Captain Hunt. It is not without probability that they were friends of Thomas Jessop and were keen to exploit the shooting moors that came with the lodge.
The house was made available to let and in 1933 it was home to Gladys Hilda Wyles, spinster, whose only claim to fame appears to be the bankruptcy of her Mowbray Confectionery Works, a wholesale and manufacturing confectioner in Sheffield.
In 1934 Grange and Dale Ltd sold Thornsett Hall to Sheffield Corporation most likely to be used as offices for the waterworks department who were responsible for the nearby Dale Dyke, Strines, Agden and Damflask reservoirs. Grange and Dale Ltd retained the shooting rights and were still advertising that the grouse moors were available to let as late as 1940.
As for Thomas, during World War Two he served as a Welfare Officer in the Northern Command, based in Lincoln, and would later become Major Thomas Jessop. He went on to serve with Spilsby Rural District Council and its committees but it was with the company of ex-servicemen that he enjoyed his role as President of the Lincolnshire Yeomanry Old Comrades’ Association as well as being patron of the Spilsby branch of the British Legion.
While Thomas lived his peacetime in relative comfort, and on the proceeds of William Jessop and Sons, it was apparent that times were changing. Between the wars his move from Harrington House to the smaller Harrington House Farm in the adjoining village reflected the declining years of the steel business and a change in his personal circumstances. He died aged 65 at Horncastle Hospital in February 1952.⁹
Decline and fall
The prospect of war loomed over Europe and in May 1939 it was announced that Thornsett Lodge would house infants from Herries Road Nursery ‘in case of emergency’.¹⁰ This was exactly what happened and the youngsters enjoyed the fresh country air while the city below worked itself to exhaustion and suffered at the hands of German bombers.
It was the start of a long association with children and when peace returned Thornsett Lodge was used as an adjunct to Sheffield Corporation’s cottage homes at Fulwood. It was also around this time that the name appears to have been changed to Thornseat Lodge. A swimming pool was built at the rear of the house and in 1973 it was described as a mixed sex home for 16 emotionally disturbed or ‘difficult’ children of all ages. By 1978 it was listed as an Intermediate Treatment Centre accommodating 12 young people, but its days were numbered.
By the time of its closure in 1980 there was little to associate Thornseat Lodge with its glorious days of domestic pleasure. The 1980s were difficult times for the City of Sheffield. Unemployment was high; its infrastructure was struggling and the council was cash-strapped. There was little else to do but ‘mothball’ it until a better use came along.
The house was not entirely empty. In the early 1990s it was used by the Sheffield Gingerbread Group as a place for families on low incomes to go and stay. As one person said on the Sheffield History forum: – “We stayed there several years’ running. It was a beautiful old house with one room which the caretaker still used in its original state with oak panelled walls. We celebrated children’s birthdays, Halloween and lots more and it was great to see the kids out-of-town and into the countryside.”
But the good times weren’t to last. As the new millennium approached little was done to save Thornseat Lodge. The severe moorland winters were no match and the house quickly fell into a state of disrepair. The worse it became the less likely anybody was going to be interested in buying the property. In 1994 there were plans to turn Thornseat Lodge into a possible location for an eight-place secure unit but hesitancy by Sheffield City Council and opposition from the Peak National Park meant plans were quickly shelved.¹¹
In 2004 the council finally sold the property to Hague Plant Excavations Ltd whose ownership and intentions have been subject of much internet debate ever since. Most certain is that Thornseat Lodge has become a perilous ruin and, without listed status, its future is uncertain. A huge amount of money would be required to restore the property and for what purpose? The easiest option might be to demolish it once and for all but there might yet be salvation. In June 2016 a new company was formed called Thornseat Lodge Ltd. Its purpose is unclear but let us hope that there might be a happy ending for Sidney Jessop’s old shooting lodge after all.
Until then the ghosts will continue to wander through the open corridors, the crumbling stonework and the broken glass.
Note:- William Jessop and Sons, later William Jessop and Company, merged with J.J. Saville and Co to become Jessop Saville & Company. The Brightside Lane works in Sheffield closed in the late 1980s and was later cleared to become ‘Jessop’s Riverside’ business park. In 1998 the company was bought by Allegheny Teledyne.
References:- ¹Sheffield Independent (15 May 1852) ²Sheffield Daily Telegraph (14 Aug 1858) ³Sheffield Independent (30 Jun 1869) ⁴Sheffield Evening Telegraph (30 Jun 1887 ⁵Sheffield Evening Telegraph (30 Nov 1887) ⁶Sheffield Daily Telegraph (12 Jun 1902) ⁷Sheffield Daily Telegraph (8 Sep 1905) ⁸Sheffield Independent (30 May 1908) ⁹Skegness Standard (27 Feb 1952) ¹⁰Sheffield Daily Telegraph (4 May 1939) ¹¹Terry BK (Sheffield Forum)