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.
When coal ruled the north-east. Once the home of ‘Old King Coal’ – one of England’s wealthiest men
This imposing country house is enjoying a renaissance after a spell in the doldrums. Longhirst Hall, at Morpeth, has been reinvented as four luxury properties alongside several new-builds in its grounds. The centrepiece of the development is Longhirst Hall itself, boasting the original main entrance, a pedimented portico suspended on giant Corinthian columns which opens into an ashlar-faced central hall with Ionic columns, and a central glazed dome. The sweeping Imperial staircase to one end has a wrought-iron balustrade with an anthemion frieze, which wraps around the galleried first-floor landing. Above, the coffered dome is a direct replica of the Roman Pantheon. The property is on sale at Sanderson Young with a guide price of £1.25 million.
Longhirst Hall was built between 1824-1828 for William Lawson, a local landowner and member of a prosperous Northumberland farming family. The architect was John Dobson (1787-1865), born at Chirton, North Shields, who spent most of his life in Newcastle working on numerous private and public projects. One of his most influential creations was Newcastle Central Station and the iconic Grey Street. He was the ‘real author’ of Gothic Revival having built some of the earliest churches in this style. Dobson moved to Longhirst after completing Mitford Hall, also near Morpeth.
William Lawson (1775-1855) remained until his death and the property passed to his eldest son, William John Lawson (1822-1859), who died at Pau, in the south of France, after a lingering illness. He had been custodian of Longhirst Hall for a brief period of four years.
By the death of his eldest brother, the Reverend Edward Lawson (1824-1882), succeeded to the family estates. He was a man educated for the church and for two years was the rector of Bothal. Edward qualified as a magistrate in 1861 and was responsible for working the coal found underneath the estate. He created the nearby model colliery village, built schools and had genuine regard for its inhabitants.
Following his death in 1882, Longhirst Hall was inherited by his son, William Edward Lawson (1855-1944), who turned out to be the last of the family to live here.
He appears not to have had much interest in the house and it was briefly let to Charles E. Hunter (1852-1917), a man well-known through his association with the coal trade, as well as his political work and an active interest in sport.
Longhirst Hall and its 740 acres had fallen into disarray and in 1887 was put up for sale. After a spirited competition it was bought by James Joicey, the MP for Chester-Le-Street, for the sum of £53,000.
James Joicey had married firstly Elizabeth Amy Robinson (d.1881) and secondly, Margaret Smyles Drever (d.1911). He was created 1st Baronet Joicey of Chester-Le-Street in 1893 and was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law by Durham University. He became a JP for County Durham, a Deputy Lieutenant of the same county, and in 1906 was created 1st Baron Joicey of Chester-Le-Street.
James Joicey (1846-1936) had risen from a clerk’s position at his uncle’s coal office on Quayside, Newcastle, to become one of the largest coal-owners in the country, and one of the biggest individual employers in the world. Nicknamed ‘Old King Coal’, he was the chairman and managing director of James Joicey and Company and the Lambton Collieries, the two largest colliery companies in County Durham.
Joicey was an active Parliamentarian and sat for an unbroken 21 years. It ended in 1906 when the Liberal Government came into office and he was given a peerage to strengthen the Liberal Party in the Upper House. In 1931 he switched to the Conservatives ‘in an independent’ capacity.
Always a fierce and outspoken critic, Joicey made no secret of his belief that politicians “had let us down badly”. Speaking in 1935 he said, “A dictator who could keep a firm hand on politicians, as Mussolini has done in Italy, would be the saviour of our land.”
Joicey might well have been one of those autocratic coal-owners often featured on the pages of Catherine Cookson novels. He didn’t endear himself to women and strongly opposed the idea of them becoming MPs, believing it too premature. Despite his political career, he feared for the future of the coal industry and blamed his colleagues. “Today, the most harm done to the coal trade is by the constant interference of politicians and the Government.”
Lord Joicey made several additions to Longhirst Hall, but in 1907 looked elsewhere to expand his estates. He purchased Ford Castle in north Northumberland and added the adjacent Etal estate a year later. Resident at Ford Castle he put the Longhirst and Ulgham estates near Morpeth up for auction in 1921. They failed to find a buyer and Longhirst Hall was occupied by his two sons – James Arthur Joicey and Hugh Edward Joicey .
When Lord Joicey died in 1936, his eldest son, James Arthur Joicey (1880-1940), moved to Ford Castle and his brother Hugh to Etal Manor. These were troubling times. In 1929 the 2nd Lord Joicey’s son, also James, an officer in the 17th/20th Hussars had been killed while taking part in a horse race at Folkstone. By the late 1930s the coal industry was struggling and incomes from the agricultural estates were in decline. James Arthur Joicey had been shell-shocked in 1915 and suffered from depression as a result. His elevation to the peerage proved too much and in July 1940, after leaving a letter to his wife, his ‘brain in a storm’, was found shot dead on Ford Castle’s lawns.
Longhirst Hall had long fallen out of favour with the Joicey family. In 1937 it had been sold to alderman William Strafford Sanderson (1880-1973), the deputy mayor of Morpeth. It was an interesting purchase for the councillor and one that might be questioned today. Sanderson remained a couple of years and was responsible for gifting a gymnasium from the grounds of Longhirst Hall for use as a pavilion in Proctor’s Field in Morpeth.
In 1939 the house was offered as a Joint Infectious Disease Hospital, a scheme involving Newbiggin, Ashington and Bedlington Urban Councils, and Morpeth Borough and Morpeth Rural Councils. It was the favoured property and it might have provided Sanderson with a tidy sum of money. However, the Ministry of Health was concerned about the large amount of land involved in the purchase, and the sale fell through.
Longhirst was quickly sold to Mr G. Moore of Kenton Hall who took up residence in September. Better known as Harry Moore, the son of William Moore, who founded Moore’s Stores of Sunderland in 1907, he had taken over the family business in 1930. The grocers and provisions merchants eventually had 114 branches across north-east England. (In modern times the stores were taken over and incorporated into the Lipton’s and Presto supermarket chains). Harry Moore lived here with his wife Maud and was later honoured when his racehorse won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1958.
During World War Two the house was requisitioned by the Army as a billet for officers, while the troops camped in the grounds.
After the war, some of the Nissen huts in the parkland were taken over by several families who had moved here from Pegswood. They were effectively squatters, the 27 people living here had no water or light and carried water from the main house.
Undoubtedly damaged by wartime occupation the house was vacant, and the Moore family eventually sold it to the Home Office in 1948. It was used as an approved school accommodating up to 72 boys, aged below 13, at the date of their admission. In 1973 it became a Community Home with Education under the control of the Northumberland County Council.
The community home closed in 1982 and suffered at the hands of vandals. The house was being considered as a school for children with learning problems, but an inspection revealed the house had rotting roof timbers and the emergency repair bill would cost about £9,000. The county architect had warned that the lack of heating might cause considerable damage but Longhirst Hall remained empty.
In poor condition the mansion was left to decay for ten years. In 1992 it was bought by a private investment company who completed extensive renovations, combined with new-build facilities, to become a management training and conference centre. It was let to Northumbria University who used the house until 1992 before it was sold to become a 77-bedroom country house hotel, popular as a wedding venue.
The hotel closed in March 2014 after its parent company went into receivership. It was an unfortunate turn of events but one that heralded a new future for Longhirst Hall.
It went on sale with Strutt & Parker for £1.65 million and in 2015 was acquired by Durham-based De Vere Homes; within 12 months work had started to convert the estate into 28 luxury homes.
According to Sanderson Young, the main reception rooms are adorned with ornate plasterwork and have full-height windows. The drawing room is especially stately, with semi-circular bow windows and views across the Capability Brown-style garden with its ha-ha overlooking the paddock.
The breakfasting kitchen has three sets of full-height shuttered French windows and a baronial tiled fireplace. It has a new bespoke kitchen and the same approach will apply to all bathrooms and en-suites.
It also includes a library and study, as well as a back staircase and cavernous cellars.
There are seven bedrooms split over two floors with the four bedrooms on the first floor opening off the galleried first-floor landing which is illuminated during the day by three glazed roof lanterns, each set within its own ceiling dome – and at night by concealed lighting.
“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.
“And to think that the sumptuous palace erected by Elizabeth’s wealthiest subject should have become the residence of a humble shepherd.”
Kirby Hall, near Gretton in Northamptonshire, was built from Barnack stone between 1570-1575, for Sir Humphrey Stafford, whose motto, ‘Je seray loyal,’ and the date 1572, were to be seen over the porch of the great hall, and on some of the panels of the parapet one noted the inscription, ‘Hum Fre Sta fard.’
It had one-time represented the high-water mark of Renaissance building, before it degenerated into heaviness and over ornamentation. The original plan is preserved in the Soane Museum, and the architect John Thorpe, very thoughtfully entitled it, ‘Kerby whereof I layd ye first stone Ad. 1570.’ It was so ambitious in concept that it took five years to build, somewhat too long for its owner, Sir Humphry Stafford, who died just before it was ready for occupation. His son, who probably considered the whole scheme unnecessary as they already had a fine house at Blatherwick, only five miles away, at once sold Kirby Hall to Sir Christopher Hatton, so that the only connection with the Staffords was found in the crest and badge carved in stone and wood.
It was never certain whether Sir Christopher Hatton found time to live in Kirby Hall, for he owned many fine properties, besides having to attend the Queen at Court. He didn’t go near it for five years after the purchase, because he wrote to a friend in 1580 that he was going ‘to view my house at Kirby which I have never yet surveyed.’ Sir Christopher, who was well-known to be the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, was said by his enemies to have entered Court ‘by the galliard,’ referring to the famous occasion when he caught the notice of the Queen at a masked ball by the beauty and agility of his dancing. Favours were heaped upon him, even to the apparent absurdity of making him Lord Chancellor, but in the end the Queen tired of her devoted admirer and was cruel enough to insist upon the return of a Crown debt, money which had been advanced to pay for some of the fine furnishings of the house. This was said to have broken his heart, because he died shortly afterwards.
Sir Christopher never married, but Kirby remained with his heirs. His successor, following the fashion of the day, employed Inigo Jones, the English Palladio, to re-decorate the exterior in 1640, and on the north side of the spacious courtyard that occupied the centre of the building, his work and that of John Thorpe was blended together into a harmonious whole. The arcade, pilasters, and cornices dated from an earlier period, and the windows, chimneys and attic storey formed part of Jones’ later embellishments. There was less trace of Inigo Jones’ handiwork on the opposite side of the courtyard, only the window over the porch and the side door being his.
The Hatton family kept Kirby Hall until 1764, when it passed to the Finch-Hattons.
Kirby Hall was abandoned in the 1800s, its owner moving to a newer and more commodious house, and it was left to solitude and destruction. Its lead was stripped from the roof, the oak wainscoting was carried off to ornament other houses in the district, and its stones were used to mend roads. In 1878 the Northampton Mercury said that the house had become a kind of quarry, from which stone could be cheaply obtained for the erection or repair of farmhouses, stables and other buildings in the vicinity and, it was whispered, that many richly sculptured slabs, the work of the most celebrated art-workmen of the Renaissance period, were to be found embedded, face inwards, in the walls of stables and labourers cottages. ‘We have seen such specimens of sixteenth century art in the possession of cottagers, who made no secret of the source from whence they had been obtained.’ The house was left to the estate shepherd who allowed his flock of sheep to wander the once grand halls.
Its last absent-owner was Murray Edward Gordon Finch-Hatton, 13th Earl of Winchilsea. When he inherited the property, his first thought had been to preserve the home of his ancestors from complete ruin, and he did what was necessary to keep Kirby from falling to pieces. It was his intention, ‘if ever his ship came in,’ to restore the property to its old splendour, using the profits from his stone quarries in Northamptonshire. But ‘man proposes, God disposes’; he was never able to carry out his dream. He died in 1898, and Edith Broughton, writing in The Sketch the following year, described the decay that had beholden Kirby Hall to her Victorian readers:
“The oak panelling has been torn from its walls; at the approach of a stranger, rats scuttle away through holes on the worm-eaten boards; and the decorations hang in festoons from the ceiling.
“Through the porch a short passage leads into the banqueting hall, with its musicians’ gallery, where once the soothing strains helped calm the angry passions of bygone revellers, or the merry tunes to which the light feet of the dancers in the room below kept time. Good-living, good-fellowship, good times were these; but alas for the frailty of earthly things, a change has come to this once beautiful mansion.
“The unglazed windows, the skeleton walls, the nettle-decked passages, are in strange contrast to the magnificent architecture that in many places has been spoilt by time and neglect. A few rooms in the house are still habitable, and a caretaker lives and makes tea for the curious tourist who loves to visit ‘the homes of England.’ In the large Drawing-Room, with its huge bay-windows, it isn’t an uncommon sight to see a picnic-luncheon laid out upon the floor where once spindle-legged furniture stood on which were seated the powder-headed courtiers, as they paid their addresses to the be-jewelled and be-satined damsels of long ago.”
Edith Broughton hoped that the day would soon dawn that would see men hard at work restoring this lovely specimen of the Renaissance. ‘Which it were a sin to leave longer to ruin and decay!’
That day would take a long time coming. In 1935, the ruined mansion was under the kindly protection of the Office of Works and had suffered well over a century the utter misery of neglect. With no one interested in it, or to watch over it, it had become a roofless ruin, its windows broken, more stones removed, and its beautiful interior woodwork long gone.
Kirby Hall is approached by an outer court, with fine gateways, and is enclosed by a stone balustrade, but the main structure consists of the quadrangular courtyard, surrounded by buildings like an Oxford college. The long east and west sides were occupied by a series of small apartments and connected with one another, in which the household and guests once resided, while the Great Hall was at the southern end. The exterior of Kirby Hall is described as ‘not particularly striking’; it is the richness of the detail and real beauty of the design of the inner courtyard which makes it of importance.
Today, Kirby Hall and its gardens are still owned by the Earl of Winchilsea but is managed and maintained by English Heritage. Although the vast mansion remains partly roofless, the walls show the rich decoration that proclaims its successive owners were always at the forefront of new ideas about architecture and design. The Great Hall and state rooms remain intact, refitted and redecorated to authentic 17th and 18th century specifications.
It now enjoys a new celebrity as a filming location and has appeared in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Mansfield Park, A Christmas Carol for Ealing Studios in 1999, and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story in 2005.
This house’s ownership reflects the changing demographic of wealth over the past century
A social history of our country is often reflected in the country house. A good example is Oakley Hall where the Chetwode family held seat from the 13th century. The baronetcy of Oakley was created in April 1700 for John Chetwode of Oakley Hall, then surrounded by a 300-acre park, with a generous annual income coming in from the surrounding estate. By the turn of the 20th century, the riches from agriculture were diminishing, and somewhere like Oakley Park was an unaffordable luxury. The Chetwodes sold up, and subsequent occupants included a chemical manufacturer, a cotton merchant, a ship-owner and subsequently an investment banker. Now that the Queen Anne/Georgian stately home is back on the market, with a guide price of £3.5 million, it is intriguing to see what the occupation of its next owner might be.
Before reading any further, let’s clear up the confusion as to which county Oakley Hall sits in. The house straddles the border of Shropshire and Staffordshire, the River Tern runs next to the 3½-acre lake and forms the county boundary. Oakley Hall sits on the Shropshire side, near Mucklestone, but continues to confuse interested observers.
The Grade II* listed mansion was built in 1710 to replace an older manor house by Sir John Chetwode, a two-storey mansion constructed of brick on a sandstone plinth, with a severe east entrance front of 11 bays, the first three pedimented, with two sphinx-like figures with female heads flanking the front door. It has two differing facades overlooking the lake to the north and parkland to the south.
According to Historic England, subsequent Chetwode baronets improved the estate, with the addition of walled gardens, a large farm and stable block. The plain south front previously had a four-bay veranda that was removed in modern times and replaced with a conservatory.
The last of the family to live at Oakley Hall was Sir George Chetwode (1823-1905), 6th Baronet, the son of the Rev. George Chetwode of Chilton House, Buckinghamshire, who succeeded his uncle in 1873. He was a military man, serving in the Crimean War in the battles of Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman and the Siege of Sevastopol; he also fought in the Indian Mutiny and was wounded at the Battle of Sindwaho.
Sir George died in 1905 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Major (later Field-Marshall) Philip Walhouse Chetwode, D.S.O., another military man, of the 19th Hussars.
The Chetwodes, meanwhile, remained loyal to their ancestral seat, and spent most of their time at Chetwode Manor, Buckinghamshire.
The house was let to Mr Arthur Reginald Midwood (1863-1936), the Managing Director of Alfred H. Midwood and Co, cotton merchants, Manchester, and a director of the Dennis Motor Company. He later invested in the Lancashire Automatic Glass Manufacturing Company, pioneers in the production of glass-machine made bottles that became extremely popular during the new century. After he left Oakley Hall, Midwood went to live at Oakmere Hall in Cheshire, and died in Sydney, New South Wales, in 1937.
In 1920, the Chetwode family sold Oakley Hall to Charles Cyril Dennis (1881-1964), an Oxford M.A. and chairman of James H. Dennis and Co Ltd, copper and chemical manufacturers of Widnes and London. A member of the North Staffordshire Hunt, he was a keen fisherman and enjoyed shooting on the estate. He had married Mary Scott MacFie, daughter of Mr J.W. MacFie of Rowton Hall, Chester, in 1911, and came from a very old Scottish family. Her grandfather lived at Dreghorn Castle, Edinburgh, and was one of the founders of MacFie and Son, who made a fortune in sugar refining. The Dennis family moved from Broxton Old Hall, and after his wife’s death in 1939, remained at Oakley Hall until 1949. Cyril Dennis moved to nearby Park House in the same year he was appointed High Sheriff of Staffordshire.
During the 1950s, Oakley Hall was used for a time as a boarding school, before being bought by Major Paul Baker Lawson in the sixties. Born in Dresden, he was the son of Francis Richard Lawson, a noted North Staffordshire ecclesiastical architect who had practised in the Potteries for over 40 years. Major Lawson had been associated with Johnson Bros, potters of Hanley.
Oakley Hall was sold to the Crosthwaite shipping family in the 1970s, who ‘considerably altered’ the interior, as did its current owner, Mr Freddie G. Fisher III, who moved here in 1982.
Fisher is a graduate of Harvard University and gained his M.A. at Oxford University and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. With a long career in mergers and acquisitions, he is an international investment banker, particularly in the banking sector. His son, Freddie Fisher IV, gained celebrity status when he appeared as a housemate in television’s Big Brother.
While principally a private house, Oakley Hall has a civil licence for ceremonies, and has hosted up to twelve weddings a year. The stable block has been converted into offices, the main portion occupied by a specialist engineering business, as has the Brew House, which is presently vacant.
Thirty-six years after buying Oakley Hall, considered to be one of the finest stately homes in Shropshire, it is available to buy once again.
The house is approached past the entrance lodge down a long tree-lined private drive that sweeps in front of the house.
According to Savills, the principal reception rooms flow off the main hall with the formality and elegance of the ballroom and dining room, with the library and morning room being less formal. The kitchen overlooks the lake.
An elegant classic Georgian staircase sweeps up to the first floor, with a beautiful principal bedroom suite with curved windows overlooking the terrace and lake. The main house provides eight bedrooms with en-suite, together with a further three bedrooms and a bathroom.
There is a substantial cellar with wine cellar, steam room, walk-in safe and boiler-room. At the side of the house is a private courtyard which leads on to The Brew House.
Oakley Hall sits in about 95-acres of beautiful parkland and grassland, with about 22-acres of mature woodland. The lake is the centrepiece and was restored to celebrate the new millennium. The house also comes with a walled garden, separate tennis court, and gardens made up of mature trees and shrubs.
Flashback to the 1940s: A bitter dispute between a Government minister and an aristocrat
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.