The descendants of Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon look on with anguish, as this Victorian country house, gifted to the people of Belfast in the 1950’s, falls into ruin.
Back in April 1956, the gift of Wilmont House, at Dunmurry, Co Antrim, might have seemed a blessing to Belfast Corporation. Lady Edith Dixon offered Wilmont and its 140 acres of land to the city, with the wish that it be used as a hospital, convalescent home or home for old people, and that the lands be used as a public park. The old lady was winding down her affairs, the only other stipulation was that she be able to occupy the house and lands for her lifetime, thereafter they should be managed by the Corporation for “the greatest good of the citizens of the city.”
Lady Edith died in 1964 and her wishes were granted. Wilmont House became a home for the elderly, a role it carefully fulfilled until closure in 1992. However, by now the old house was less of a good thing, and more of a burden for Belfast City Council.
By 2013, Wilmont House had been used for occasional events, as a parks office for the council and briefly as the headquarters for the Belfast Marathon. A proposal for a seven-year refurbishment was rejected, the house was too expensive to maintain, and the only viable option might have been to hand back Wilmont to the Dixon family.
Six years later, the situation hasn’t changed. Wilmont House has deteriorated, windows are broken and boarded-up, and the Grade B1 listed former country house is designated a ‘Building at Risk.’
Its sorry condition hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Dixon family. This week the Belfast Telegraph reports that Andrew Dixon (58), a great, great nephew of Lady Edith, has told Belfast City Council that it should make “alternative arrangements” if it cannot look after the stately home in its most famous park. ‘The family has watched on in horror as the derelict house in the grounds of Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park in south Belfast has gradually decayed since it was handed over to the council by his great, great aunt.’
It is suggested that discussions took place at Belfast City Council several years ago on the future of Wilmont House during which it was suggested the Dixon family should be contacted to discuss its future. According to Andrew Dixon that call never came.
The situation at Wilmont House is no different to many other country houses that ended up in the care of local authorities. A recent Country Life article on Oldway Mansion at Paignton, in Devon, reads remarkably similar, although on a grander scale.
Wilmont House was one of three houses that belonged to the Dixon family – the others being Drumadarragh House and Cairndhu, also in Co Antrim. Drumadarragh remains in the family, the seat of Lord and Lady Glentoran, but Mr Dixon fears that Wilmont might go the same way as Cairndhu in Larne, another property gifted by the family, presented to the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority in 1947, which now lies in ruins.
Andrew Dixon might be frustrated by events at Wilmont, but Belfast City Council remains restrained over the situation. “We’re currently preparing an invitation for expressions of interest to go to the market to seek a suitably qualified developer for the restoration and regeneration of Wilmont House, to bring it into a new use. As part of this, we’re pursuing efforts to get in touch and engage with the beneficiaries of the will of Lady Dixon.”
For now, Wilmont House is surplus to requirement and only time will see how it emerges from a distinctly despondent period.
The house was built in 1859, ‘a plain two-storey red-brick Victorian house, with a three-bay front and balustraded porch.’ It replaced a 1740 property built for William Stewart, the son of John Stewart of Ballydrain, an important farming family.
In 1855, the estate had been sold to Alexander Mackenzie Shaw, a Belfast brewer, but he was quickly forced to sign over the property to the Northern Banking Company in lieu of debts of £12,505. About 1858, it became the property of James Bristow (1796-1866), a director of the aforesaid bank, who demolished the run-down old house and substituted it with the present mansion designed by Thomas Jackson, one of Belfast’s outstanding architects.
According to historian Eileen Black, Wilmont House was really a house of two-halves. One part was occupied by James Bristow, the other by his son, James Thomson Bristow (1827-1877), another banker.
Following J. T. Bristow’s death in 1877 the estate passed to his trustees, William Laird of Birkenhead, and his brother, Samual Smith Bristow of Liverpool, and was sold in 1879 to Robert Henry Sturrock Reade (1873-1913), of the York Street Flax Spinning Company. After his death, Wilmont passed to his son George who sold it to Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon in 1919.
Sir Thomas Dixon (1868-1950), Privy Councillor for Northern Ireland, and a well-known figure in Irish and British racing circles, belonged to a family of shipowners and timber merchants who had been among the founders of modern Belfast.
His father, Sir Daniel Dixon, 1st Baronet, was the first Lord Mayor of Belfast and MP for North Belfast, half-brother to Lord Glentoran, president of the Ulster Unionist Council.
Thomas Dixon entered the business of his father, Thomas Dixon & Sons, timber merchants, and owners of the Lord Line Shipping Company of which he was a director. On the death of his father in 1907 he became managing director, a position in which he remained until the closing of the firm in 1938. (He was also a director of the York Street Flax Spinning Company).
When Larne was created a Borough in 1939, Sir Thomas was elected its first Mayor. He was a Senator until 1949, was a member of the Ulster Unionist Council from its inception and was appointed to the Privy Council in 1930.
He died in Harrogate in 1950 and was survived by Lady Edith Dixon (1871-1964), formerly Miss Edith Stewart Clark, daughter of Stewart Clark, of Cairndhu, and Dundas Castle, South Queensferry, whom he married in 1906.
Lady Dixon was appointed a Dame of the British Empire in June 1921, in recognition of her valuable work on behalf of all the services during World War One.
For the time being, Wilmont House must live with its memories. To the time when Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the famous Antarctic explorer, visited during his stay in Belfast in 1904. To 1934, when it became the temporary residence of the Governor of Northern Ireland when Government House at Hillsborough was damaged by fire, and to the Second World War when it was the headquarters of the American Army in Northern Ireland.
The last word goes to Andrew Dixon and the uncertainty over Belfast City Council’s ownership of the property: –
“They have said they would like to talk to the family. I have plenty of ideas on how it could be used and surely that’s more preferable than letting it go to ruin. I and my father Robin Dixon, Baron Glentoran, have already watched how another of the properties at Cairndhu in Larne has been handled and I would hate to see Wilmont House go the same way,” he said.
From the archives. January 1926. Haddon Hall had been unoccupied for nearly one hundred and fifty years. The new Duke of Rutland made it his duty to restore the old house and make it habitable again.
It was stated in the press that Haddon Hall, in Derbyshire, one of the most interesting and attractive manorial residences in England, was going to be closed to the public, who had long enjoyed the privilege of visiting it.
Its owner, the Duke of Rutland, whose ancestor, the third Duke, had been its last tenant about a hundred and fifty years before, was preparing it for occupation.
It was from Haddon Hall that the famous elopement of Dorothy Vernon and John Manners, the second son of the first Earl of Rutland, took place. To the betrothal of the pair Dorothy’s father, Sir George Vernon, the owner of the Hall and of many other manors and lordships, was opposed; but one night while dancing by a large party of guests was proceeding in the ballroom, Dorothy slipped out to meet her lover, with whom she rode off to Leicester, where they were married next day.
Dorothy was co-heiress of her father, and by the marriage Haddon Hall fell to the Manners family, of which her grandson, on succeeding as eighth Earl of Rutland, became the head. Dorothy’s name was preserved in Dorothy’s Garden, Dorothy’s Walk, Dorothy’s Door (through which she escaped on the night of the elopement), and Dorothy’s Steps (where she met her lover in readiness with horses for the flight).
The restoration of Haddon Hall got underway during the early years of the twentieth century. The 9th Duke of Rutland and his team began to find small everyday objects, lost or thrown away, evocative of the lives of the past occupants. The Duke recognised the importance of these finds and established a museum at Haddon Hall in which to display them.
Where once a mansion stood in open countryside. The railway and the growth of Whitley Bay as a seaside resort eventually sealed its fate.
Deep beneath the recreational space called Whitley Park, one can hope that the foundations of long-lost Whitley Park Hall might remain. It is hard to imagine that this part of Whitley Bay once looked remarkably different than it does today.
So quiet and peaceful was the scene in the 1860s, that a Newcastle minister, who used to rent the village blacksmith’s cottage in the parish of Cullercoats each summer, was able to practice his sermons on the beach with no-one to disturb him. Whitley-by-the-Sea, or the ‘Dream Village’ as it was frequently called was a long way off becoming Whitley Bay, the popular seaside resort.
Picturesque the village may have been, but apart from its houses of quality which included Whitley Hall, Whitley Park Hall, Whitley House, Marden House and Belvedere House, it boasted only a few farms and terraced cottages with a liberal supply of public houses.
Times changed. The introduction of a passenger train between Monkseaton station and Newcastle put the wheels of progress in motion. The picnicking parties, who had previously travelled from Newcastle by wagonette, began to arrive more frequently and in greater numbers to the little station, where colourful rambling roses grew.
The early history of Whitley had been associated with the Hudson family. Henry Hudson, of Newburn, was one of Cromwell’s Ironsides, the lessee of mills at Billy Mill and Tynemouth and of quarries at Whitley and Monkseaton. He was succeeded by his son, Henry Hudson, the second. Henry Hudson, the third, who married his cousin, Elizabeth Ellison, in 1776, sold 11 acres of land to Edward Hall of Backworth, for the purpose of erecting a brewery here.
Whitley Park Hall, built in white stucco, was constructed by Edward Hall about 1789. He was also a cattle breeder and subsequently added to his estate by the purchase of land from his neighbours. He was famous for being the breeder of ‘The Fat Ox,’ immortalised in one of Thomas Bewick’s copper-plate engravings. The ox chewed the cud in Whitley during the 1780’s, weighing 216 stones, 8 lbs before its slaughter by Newcastle butcher Thomas Horsley in 1789.
On Edward Hall’s death in 1792, it was bought by John Haigh, a ‘hostman’ who became bankrupt in 1797 and moved to America. His assignees sold it in 1800 to Thomas Wright of North Shields, who occupied it until his death in 1840. In 1844, it was bought by John Hodgson-Hinde, and sold in 1855 to Charles Mark Palmer, a shipbuilder then at the height of his fortune, and in 1869 to Thomas William Bulman, who later extended it, diverted the road around his property, and planted a tree belt that still exists today.
Thomas William Bulman died in 1879, and his widow sold Whitley Park Hall in 1893 to Theodore Hoyle, Joseph George Joel, Joseph Aynsley Davidson Shipley and Richard John Leeson, who wished to prevent it from disappearing under hundreds of small houses and hoped that a hydropathic establishment could be opened. Plans for the health facility fell through, but a provisional licence for a hotel and restaurant was granted to the Whitley Park Hotel Company in 1893. It opened in the spring of 1896 under the management of Miss Carrie Sokel. In 1910, the company sold parts of the grounds which were turned into the Spanish City Pleasure Grounds (subject of the Dire Straits song Tunnel of Love, along with Whitley Bay and the nearby town Cullercoats), while other parcels of land were sold off for building purposes.
The house was used for billeting during the Great War but was left with only twelve of its sixty apartments in good condition. The hotel was sold to Whitley Pleasure Gardens Company in 1920, with plans to use its grounds to erect elaborate amusements and shows, as well as a scenic railway, extending from Spanish City. The development faltered, but the hotel was sold to Whitley Bay and Monkseaton Urban District Council in 1924, which used the building as offices. In 1939, it spent £30,000 on new offices in Whitley Park, finding the old house “totally unsafe,” and to be “suffering from galloping consumption.”
Whitley Park Hall was demolished in 1939, and a library was built on the site in 1966, since also demolished.
One of Suffolk’s finest country houses is facing an uncertain future. It shows no signs of reopening as a hotel, and appears to be falling into disrepair.
In his book ‘In Search of the Perfect House,’ architectural historian Marcus Binney suggests that “in almost every other European country, Shrubland Hall would be called a palace. A grand Italianate composition with belvedere tower, breathtaking terraced gardens, Swiss cottage and five drives.”
Some of our finest architects were associated with Shrubland Hall (or Shrubland Park), making it hard to accept that the mansion has stood empty for nearly four years. In 2015, an ill-fated attempt to use the country house as a luxury hotel ended in failure. Since then, Shrubland has been left to ruminate its past glories.
Shrubland Hall was built in the 1770s by James Paine (1717-89) for the Reverend John Bacon. At the same time, Paine was commissioned to remodel Moor Park in Surrey for John Bacon’s younger brother, Basil, who had inherited the estate in 1770. The third brother, the Reverend Nicholas Bacon, almost certainly used the architect as well, rebuilding the vicarage at Coddenham (now Coddenham House) in 1771.
John Bacon died in 1788, Shrubland passing to his brother, Nicholas, who immediately sold the estate to Sir William Fowle Middleton (1748-1829), 1st Baronet, of Crowfield. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, where his family owned Middleton Place, he arrived in Suffolk after inheriting Crowfield Hall near Stowmarket. His brother, Henry, gave him £30,000 to spend on improvements at Shrubland, and he employed Humphry Repton to expand the park from 1789 onwards, and replaced Paine wings in about 1808.
Shrubland Hall was inherited by his only son, Sir William Fowle Middleton (1784-1860), 2nd Baronet, who brought in architect John Peter Gandy Deering in 1831-38, and later Alexander Roos between 1838-45, who enlarged and redecorated the house. About 1850, he turned to Sir Charles Barry who turned the property into an Italian palazzo.
After his death, Sir William’s cousin, Sir George Nathaniel Broke Middleton, took over. In 1882, it passed to his niece, Jane Anne Broke, and her husband, James St. Vincent (1843-1937), 4th Baron de Saumarez, in the Island of Guernsey, and leased to tenants, including Lord Magheramorne.
During World War One it was one of the first country mansions to be turned into a Red Cross Convalescent Hospital.
In 1965, James Victor Broke Saumarez (1924-1991), 6th Baron, opened the house as a health clinic, leaving the family furniture and valuable collections in place. It was the brainchild of Lady de Saumarez, a former Royal Ballet dancer who married into the family and supervised its running. With an emphasis on detox and weight loss, the hall remained unchanged for forty years, and attracted high-profile guests, including actress Joan Collins. When the clinic closed in 2006, the contents were sold, and the house eventually put on the market by Eric Douglas Saumarez (born 1956), 7th Baron de Saumarez, to cover an inheritance tax bill.
In 2009, the Shrubland estate was sold in 42 lots, the house being bought for £6 million by Dr Muhammad Farmer, Chief Executive and founder of the British Institute of Technology and E-Commerce, which used it as residential accommodation.
Shrubland Hall was far too grand. Farmer’s decision to convert the mansion into an extravagant hotel in 2014 should have been a rewarding undertaking, taking “prestigious guests … on a journey back to the future,” but the Shrubland Royale Hotel suffered scathing reviews, quickly closing in 2015.
Mr Farmer claimed that a “celebrity guest” had booked the entire hotel until the following year. However, by September 2016, signs outside the hall had been removed, the gates were closed and booking attempts were declined. It went on the market for £6.5 million, but remains unsold despite recent claims from Mr Hubbard that the Hilton hotel franchise were interested in taking over the property. A claim later denied by the hotel operator.
The East Anglian Daily Times visited the Shrubland Park Walk – a public right of way that passes through the grounds – in 2017. “The hall appeared an unlikely retreat for any film or music star. The only sign of activity was an older man chopping wood with a chainsaw. Many of the outbuildings appeared in disrepair and the vast grounds left overgrown.”
Meanwhile, Shrubland Hall deteriorates and following complaints from the parish council, Historic England has visited the house to assess the condition of the gardens and the Grade I listed mansion. The park has been on its Heritage at Risk Register for several years.
An oasis in the Derbyshire countryside. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a big impact on the landscape, but it remained home to a composer and pianist.
These photographs of Mrs Sacheverell Coke and her children date from 1921, and were taken by Miss Compton Collier at Brookhill Hall, Pinxton, in Derbyshire. Mrs Sacheverell Coke was the widow of Lieutenant Langton Sacheverell Coke (1878-1914) of the Irish Guards, struck in the head with a bullet at Klein Zillebeke, near Ypres, in the first few months of World War One . He was the eldest son of Colonel William Langton Coke and in 1908 married Miss Dorothy Maye Huntingford (1881-1957), daughter of Captain George Huntingford, Royal Navy, of Hampshire. At one time he had been sub-editor of the Black and White magazine, a British illustrated weekly that was incorporated into The Sphere in 1912.
His heir was the little boy, Roger, seen in these pictures, who was born in 1913, and was now lord of the manor of Pinxton and joint lord of the manor of South Normanton. The little girl’s name was Betty, four years older than her brother.
There had been Cokes at Brookhill since the middle of the sixteenth century and the house was essentially Jacobean incorporating parts of an earlier building. Descended from Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney General for Elizabeth I, the family became important landowners, and since 1744 the Earl of Leicester title had been in the family. Until 1567, the house was known as Hill Brook House, and like many family seats, Brookhill had grown up over the centuries with each generation adding its mark.
By the 1960s, Brookhill and its park was stranded in an industrial landscape bounded on one side by nineteenth century developments of Pinxton and the twentieth century M1 motorway, which cut through the park on the other.
In 1972, Robert Innes-Smith wrote that the most important treasures of Brookhill had been dispersed, but it remained home to Roger Sacheverell Coke, now a distinguished composer and pianist, who did most of his work in his studio in the converted eighteenth-century stable block. For Roger’s 21st birthday, his mother had ordered the Coach House to be turned into an area where all his musical indulgences could be fulfilled.
Roger died in 1972, the house in perilous state, and his heir, Gilbert William Lloyd Darwin, sold the house, but not the estate, to the Cookson family who restored it.
“Wolterton is classical and austere, standing aloof across a wide park.” Writer Simon Jenkins visited the house in 2003 when it was empty. Its future now looks much brighter with new owners.
It was a significant moment in April 2016, when Peter Sheppard and Keith Day, from London, bought Wolterton Hall at Wickmere in Norfolk. The sale might not have attracted much publicity, but it ended a link with the famous Walpole family going back 295 years.
The Walpoles had abandoned Wolterton, moving to Mannington Hall. No one lived in the mansion, it was closed-up and shuttered. By the turn of this century it was being used as estate offices. “Vacuum cleaners, word processors, fax machines and inevitable modern alarm systems, rather than elegant furnishings of earlier periods, are nonetheless a real continuation of the changing life of this house,” said Lord Walpole at the time.¹
Its sale probably had something to do with the death of Robert Henry Montgomerie Walpole (born 1913), 9th Baron Walpole of Walpole, 7th Baron Walpole of Wolterton, who died in 1989. Taxes due on his death weren’t settled until 2014, his son, Robert Horatio Walpole, 10th Baron Walpole, choosing to remain at Mannington and putting Wolterton Hall on the market.
Wolterton Hall was built in 1721 by Horatio Walpole, 1st Baron Walpole, politician, diplomat and younger brother of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister. The architect was Thomas Ripley, Superintendent at Robert Walpole’s Houghton Hall, and believed to be his only surviving major work. Its construction wasn’t completed until 1742.
The house suffered in the nineteenth century when Horatio William Walpole (1813-1894), 4th Earl of Orford moved out, and might well have fallen victim to demolition had it not been for his son, Robert Horace Walpole (1854 – 1931) and his American wife, who returned and restored it in 1905.
Like many country houses, Wolterton Hall suffered at the hands of the military during World War Two, not helped by a devastating fire in December 1952.
The blaze had broken out on the top floor while Lord and Lady Walpole and small daughter, Phillida, were at lunch. It quickly spread to the roof and was still burning four hours later. “My Butler, Mr Crookshank, found parts of the top floor in flames. I think we have saved all of value, but the hall itself appears to be ruined,” said Lord Walpole, who had succeeded to the title in 1931 .
Sixteen appliances from eight fire brigades had fought the blaze which had been confined to the attic and second floor but hadn’t prevented parts of the roof falling in. There was also damage to the State Rooms below caused by water from the firemen’s hoses.²
The property was restored, but the Walpoles had long since relocated to Mannington Hall.
Events were held at the hall including concerts, antique and textile fairs, and outdoor events in the park. Wolterton also became a popular wedding venue but attempts to place it in the hands of museums, English Heritage and the National Trust proved unsuccessful.³
The purchase of Wolterton Hall by Sheppard Day in 2016 (with a speculated cost of £10 million) placed the house under experts with a property pedigree. The duo had previously restored Hales Hall in South Norfolk, as well as the Friary in Westminster and Fitzroy Square. One of their first tasks was to get four holiday lets up and running to help with the daily costs.
“The biggest challenge with refurbishing Wolterton is money, you end up putting a ‘0’ on the end of everything,” said Peter Day in 2019, as refurbishment continues. “The hard thing is trying to generate an income stream; this is necessary in order for buildings like this to survive.”⁴
The pair intend to live at Wolterton Hall themselves, but they have long-term plans to let the house as a whole or for special occasions. The wishes of the 10th Baron Walpole to open the estate to the public might now become a reality.
References: – ¹ Simon Jenkins ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’ (2003). ² Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer (6 Dec 1952), Birmingham Daily Gazette (6 Dec 1952). ³ Eastern Daily Press (19 Apr 2016) ⁴ Eastern Daily Press (2 May 2019).
One hundred years ago, ‘the most beautiful mansion in Cornwall’ was destroyed by fire. Eye-witness accounts tell us of the devastation that night, and the desperation felt in the aftermath.
The story of Tehidy goes back many hundreds of years. In his ‘History of Cornwall’, Samuel Drew says that Tehidy, which in the Cornish language signifies either the ‘narrow house’, the ‘fowler’s house’, or the ‘single dwelling’, was about four miles north-west from Redruth, and “when surveyed from the summit of Carn Brea Hill, from which it is conspicuous, it appears like a well cultivated garden blooming in the midst of a barren desert. The manor of Tehidy, which is of extensive jurisdiction, and enjoys great privileges, being excepted out of the grant made by the Arundells of the Hundred of Penwith, includes within its circuit many rich mines.”¹
Tehidy Park had been the property and residence of the Basset family for many centuries. The ancient family of Cornwall and Devon descended from Thurstan Basset, who was in all probability the son of Osmund Basset of Normandy, who came over with William the Conqueror. Soon after the Norman Conquest, this great baronial family rose into power and importance, especially in the midland counties. The family gave a Chief Justice to England in the reign of Henry I, in the person of Ralph Basset, from whom sprang the Lords Basset of Drayton and the Lords Basset of Haddington.
During the 12th century, the Bassets of Cornwall obtained the estate by marriage with the heiress of the great house of De Dunstanville. In fact, the earliest mention of Tehidy occurs about 1100, according to William Lake’s ‘Parochial History of the County of Cornwall’ when “Alan de Dunstanville, or Dunstanvile, who was then lord of the manor of Tehidy, granted a lease of Minwinnion, now the home farm, within the park to Paul Guyer.”² From this period they appear to have enjoyed considerable wealth and influence until the civil wars, when three brothers of the family all distinguished themselves in the royal cause. Sir Francis Basset, the Sheriff of Cornwall, was with King Charles at Lostwithiel, when Essex’s army surrendered. Owing to large sums of money expended by them in this unhappy struggle, the family estate became considerably reduced, but it was afterwards retrieved by marriages to heiresses.
Two ancestors of the family married Miss Hele and Miss Pendarves. From the last named union, the estates descended to John Pendarves Basset (1714-1739), who built a new mansion house at Tehidy in 1734, allowing the architect Thomas Edwards of Greenwich to undertake his first work in Cornwall. Sadly, its owner died of smallpox a few years later, aged 25, the house not fully completed, and leaving his widow £100,000. His son, John Prideaux Basset, had died in minority, in 1756, and the estates reverted to his uncle, Francis Basset of Turley (1715-1769), in Northamptonshire, who married Margaret, daughter of Sir John St. Aubyn, of Clowance.
Francis Basset died in 1769 and left as his heir Francis Basset (1757-1835), MP for Helston, who was created a Baronet in 1779, and advanced to the peerage as Baron De Dunstanville, of Tehidy, in 1796. He married Frances Susannah, daughter and co-heir of John Hippesley-Coxe, of Stone Easton, Somerset, and by her had an only daughter, Frances (1781-1855). Lord De Dunstanville married, as his second wife, a daughter of Sir William Lemon, of Carclew, presumably with the hope of securing a male heir. However, he died in 1835, when the barony of De Dunstanville became extinct, but the barony of Basset, of Stratton, devolved to his daughter, Frances, who became 2nd Baroness Basset of Stratton in accordance with a special remainder.
The entailed estates passed to his nephew, John Francis Basset (1831-1869), who was the eldest son of John Basset of Stratton, younger brother of Lord de Dunstanville, and sometime MP for Helston. His mother was Elizabeth Mary, daughter of Sir Rose Price, Baronet, of Trengwainton. Following the death of Lady Frances Basset in 1855, he succeeded to the remainder.
John Francis Basset commenced rebuilding Tehidy between 1861-1863, funded by revenue from tin mining and land rents. His interest in mines was immense, especially North Basset, South Frances, Dolceath, West Basset and Wheal Basset. He possessed one of the largest landed properties in the county, extending from St Agnes through Ilogan and Camborne, the greater part of the town belonging to him. He was the owner of the parish of Perranarworthal and owned a considerable portion of the parish of St. Gluvias and had a valuable property at Meneage. In 1860-61, it was said that his income from the Dolceath and Basset mines amounted to £20,000.
For the restoration of Tehidy, John Francis Basset employed the architect William Burn (1789-1870), of Piccadilly, and the works were reported to have cost £150,000.
John Francis Basset died without issue and the Tehidy estate passed to his two brothers, namely, Arthur Basset (1833-1870) in 1869, and Gustavus Lambert Basset (1834-1888) in 1870. By this time, income from the tin mines was diminishing, but the Bassets found it difficult to live their lives any other way than had been the norm. After the death of Gustavus Lambert Basset the estate passed to his son, Arthur Francis Basset (1873-1950), who turned out to be the last member of the family to live at Tehidy.
He found it extremely difficult to finance the estate, not helped by his costly pursuit of horse-racing and the gambling debts that often came with it. In 1915, there were rumours that the Prince of Wales was going to buy Tehidy, but little importance was attached to the gossip. However, in October newspapers confirmed that the estate had indeed been sold.
The buyers turned out to be Mr Hamilton Edwards, a financier, formerly connected with Lord Northcliffe as managing Director of the Amalgamated Press, and Mr Arthur H. Bond, a land expert. Between them they secured the Tehidy landed estates, royalties of the mines, tin streams, Portreath harbour, and Arthur Basset’s other interests. The sale, believed to be upwards of £300,000, was regarded as one of the most sensational transfers of landed property since the Duke of Bedford had parted with his Covent Garden estate.
“Broadly speaking,” said Hamilton Edwards, to an interviewer, “the scheme represents the liberation of land and the advent of the small owner. I have long believed that small holdings, as distinct from small ownerships, are quite inadequate as solution of Britain’s land problem. The small holder becomes a County Council tenant and has no fixity of tenure. The farmer who can buy his freehold at a moderate price is his own master, and leaves property to his family, and receives the full benefit of any improvement he makes to his farm.”
The bulk of the estate, including its tin mines, was duly sold-off, but there was still the problem of what to do with the mansion and its surrounding parkland. In July 1916, it was reported that Arthur Francis Basset was not leaving the county, having purchased back farms at Illogan and Godrevy, and had secured an option on Tehidy for twelve months.
Arthur Basset didn’t take up the option on Tehidy. In June 1917, The Cornishman sounded an ominous note: – “We can state authoritatively that there is a danger that this Cornish landmark may actually be ‘scrapped’ for building material, unless some Cornish philanthropist comes forward at once and acquires it at an almost nominal price as a convalescent home for Cornish miners injured in the war, or perhaps for sailors and marine engineers.”
History books tell us that the Basset family left Cornwall for good in 1915. However, with Arthur Francis Basset regaining ownership on some parts of the estate, it was likely that he had remained at Tehidy since the spectacular land sale of that year. In September 1917, The Cornishman was once again on hand to report on developments. The mansion was up for sale again, plants and flowers in pots had been sold at auction, and it was known that some of the Basset heirlooms had left the district, and that other personal furniture was stored in Camborne.
It was announced that Messrs. William Rowe and Co had been instructed to hold a five day auction of the furniture of Tehidy, including an automatic organ, fire engine, antique and modern goods of all kinds, from grandfather clocks to four-poster beds. Admission to the house was by catalogue costing two shillings, and on the morning of Monday 17th September the dining-room was full to overflowing, and bids followed each other in rapid succession.
“Many Cornish people found the sale gave them the first opportunity in their lives to see the park and the fine rooms with their elaborate alabaster and other mantel-pieces, the family portraits, the superb mahogany doors, the painted ceilings, old and modern portions of the building with Adams ceilings and decorations, and other features of the mansion, the wealth of colour – almost a riot of gilding and bright hues within contrasting with the sober and severe external architecture and restful greenery of the wooded park and lake seen through the windows.
“To some it will perhaps be a surprise to know that when the last enlargement was made and Italian artists were engaged to litter the walls and ceilings with pictures, the contract was for £70,000 and as this was broken, the amount spent was considerably exceeded, and probably reached the £100,000 figure! The house, park and woods were probably not laid out for less than a total of £200,000 besides the annual upkeep, and at times the Bassets have employed a staff of forty servants in the house and grounds.
“It seems almost incredible, but an old keeper who is still as bright as a new shilling, has lived at Tehidy under four male owners. This faithful retainer, who has been nearly sixty years on the estate, is now installed in the south lodge, and is 77-years-old. It may be imagined that in his wildest dreams he never expected to see the estate sold to strangers and the furniture knocked down by the auctioneer’s hammer.”
Weeks later, there was some indication as to what the new owners had in mind for Tehidy mansion. Arthur Bond made an offer to Sir Arthur Carkeek with the idea of any new purchaser using the premises as a hospital. The deal involved the mansion, with its grounds, land and adjoining woods (some 250 acres in all), to be bought for £10,000. The matter was brought before the Committee of the Patriotic Fund at Cornwall County Council, who immediately discussed it with the County Tuberculosis Authorities, who had already made several attempts to set up an institution of this kind without success. The offer was accepted, and Cornwall County Council set about raising money by voluntary subscriptions. By January 1918, the amount subscribed had reached over £11,000, and by the time the deed of gift was handed to Mr W.C. Pendarnes, Chairman of Cornwall County Council in May, the figure had exceeded £16,000. It eventually reached a sum approaching £20,000.
“At the moment, Tehidy Mansion is a big shell or framework set in a beautiful park, sheltered by belts of trees. Some of the exquisite Adams marble fireplaces have been re-bought and removed by Mr A.F. Basset; there are a few ragged corners from which bookshelves have been taken, and there are no beds or other hospital furniture and equipment.
“There was much speculation as to the reason that Mr Basset realised, vaguely at first (which accounted for some vacillation) more definitely as the war progressed, that after the war few landowners will be wealthy enough to pay super-tax and still be able to meet the costs of a large establishment, the difficulty being increased by the scarcity of labour and the higher cost of living as the result of war. All over the country we may expect to see a reduction in the number of sumptuous establishments, and the late Sir Edward Hain was not alone in regretting the passing of these historic homes which he described as the picture-galleries and museums of the country.
“It may interest my readers to know that Mr Basset, while keeping his ‘shooting box’ in Scotland, has not bought any other ‘home’ since parting with Tehidy, and that he has worn khaki as a recruiting officer in London during the past two years. What the future holds we do not know. A.F. Basset, who has been High Sheriff of Cornwall, may come back with us to live in some rose-draped bungalow and meet us all as comrades in peace and co-workers in the rebuilding of England.
“Thousands of Cornish people are still mystified as to exactly what happened when Tehidy became a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. Usually property passes from one hand to another without mystery, and it is seldom that you get deeds signed by the old owners as well as the new, or that (as in Mr Basset’s case) some farms are re-bought by the seller, or that after a mansion has been sold the seller acquires an option to re-buy it, and at the end of a year does not exercise the option.
“The facts, however, are very simple. The purchase of Tehidy, including the mines, farms, tin streams, and leaseholds was not an ordinary straight-out purchase for cash, but a ‘deal in margins.’ Three shrewd London speculators (only two of whom came to Cornwall) had been partners in similar successful deals, which dealt with land and houses, but did not include mines. They put a certain amount of money in security, which has earned interest during the past three years, but has not gone out of their hands. A fund was opened, and as fast as they re-sold farms or other property, the money went into this Basset Fund and earned interest. The speculators were credited with this interest and with the rents received from the tenants, but then they were charged interest on the unpaid part of the balance of the purchase money, and a time-limit was set for the completion of the payment, whether the speculators had re-sold all or only a part of the property.
“At the end of three years they have re-sold property to the value of over a quarter of a million (including mine royalties for £90,000) and have made a profit on the deal. It would not have been a large profit if they had had to part with £250,000 in cash three years ago; and they might easily have lost fifty or sixty thousand by the deal; so, if they made a similar amount it means they have been paid for their risk, expert knowledge, staff-work and personal exertions.”
Herbert Thomas. The Cornishman. May 29, 1918.
The Tehidy Sanatorium started accepting patients In February 1919, but the euphoria came to a shattering end a fortnight later, on the morning of Wednesday 26 February.
A few days before, representatives of the county had carefully removed the Basset Coat-of-Arms and motto “For King and People” from the front of the old mansion. It turned out to be a prophetic action; in the early hours of the morning an electric wire fused in a room occupied by the sanatorium’s only five patients. The ward was on the second floor, faced west, and was above the drawing room and library.
Whilst on duty in the ward between 1.30 and 2 o’clock in the morning , Sister Everett smelt smoke and at once informed Dr Roper, the Medical Superintendent, who immediately gave the fire alarm, and started the task of the removal of the patients. With the assistance of the matron and sisters, the patients were removed in their beds. Dr Roper carried some of the patients downstairs on his back; and the Matron and staff worked untiringly from the time the fire was discovered. The patients were deposited on the open lawn on the western side of the house. Here they were warmly wrapped up and were later taken to the motor garage where temporary provision had been made for their reception. Later in the day, one of these patients died from natural causes.
The Camborne Fire Brigade were summoned about 3.15 a.m. and were closely followed by the Redruth Brigade. In the meantime, staff and those living around the estate did their utmost, but their services were of no avail. Favoured by a strong easterly wind, the fire spread with great rapidity and soon most of the mansion was a mass of flames.
The firemen set to work on the north and south ends of the building in an endeavour to save these parts. The middle, or main portion, was too far gone to save, and it was a matter of a very short time before the huge roof fell in with a terrible crash. The steam engines were unable to work at a very high pressure due to an inadequate water supply, but the firemen battled for five or six hours and eventually got the fire under control.
The historic building, which had been intended to be both a War Memorial and a Home of rest for ex-soldiers, ex-sailors, miners and other civilians suffering from tuberculosis, had had thousands of pounds spent on it, though the bulk of furniture had not been delivered and the Lady Falmouth room was still awaiting equipment given by the Viscountess, who had taken a great interest in the scheme.
The scene of the fire later in the morning presented a sad spectacle. Except for the basement and one or two other rooms, all that remained were the great bare walls. A representative of The Cornishman was permitted to visit what remained of the house: –
“On the north side is the conservatory which is intact. The hall palms and trees showed no sign of injury by smoke or fire, and there was little water on the tiled floor. Passing through a long corridor on the first floor, the dining room was reached. Here could be gained some idea of the destruction wrought. The beautifully gilded ceiling and marble mantel-piece and grate, with two figures carved at each end, all that remain in the room, are discoloured and ruined. The drawing room with its famous ceiling shared a similar fate. The water in this room was about six inches deep, and on the floor lying about like waste paper, were pieces of what remained of the wonderful painting which took Italian artists many months to execute. At the south end there are a few small houses which escaped. Near the part destroyed is the laundry on the roof of which is a large clock. The effect of the flames did not even stop the motion of the time-piece. The front entrance to the house, which faces south, appears to have escaped more serious injury, and the verandas underneath do not appear to be damaged, and the statue in the centre of the front wall, also remains intact.”
One hundred years later, it is difficult to imagine the devastation caused by the fire. However, we are thankful to the faithful Herbert Thompson, the correspondent from The Cornishman, who visited Tehidy weeks afterwards. He once again provided a unique account of the damage and the extraordinarily rapid rate in which the hospital facilities were being revived: –
“A few days ago, I paid a surprise visit to Tehidy – my first since the disastrous fire destroyed many costly and valued relics of this historic mansion and undid a year’s work of a devoted band of enthusiastic pioneers. I was not surprised to find on the spot the usual batch of workers – Dr Roper, the medical officer who brought the patients downstairs on his back when the alarm of fire was given; the matron who worked strenuously and coolly to get her patients out of danger and to see that they were comfortably housed beyond reach of the fire and smoke; Mr Howard Lanyon and Mr F.D. Bain, who visit Tehidy almost daily and devote their Sundays to this humanitarian and honorary work; and Mr Crispin, the clerk of works, whose cheery temperament looks for a silvery lining to the cloud, and who has lost no time since the fire in adopting ‘Reconstruction’ as his watchword, like the lad who held ‘that banner with the strange device – Excelsior!’
“The fire assessors are at work on their estimates of destruction: the committee and staff, plans in hand, are busy at their task of preparing for the reception of the cases, some of them heartrending, which but for the fire would now be receiving the attention of trained nurses in beautiful surroundings.
“At a distance there was little sign that Tehidy had been swept by flame. The massive outer walls, the inner dividing walls, the terraces, the new masonry on the south side, even a statue forming a pinnacle above the main entrance remain intact. But as you approach the mansion you see that it is a huge shell. The County Committee recently added £5,000 to the Insurance: so that at the time of the fire the Company had accepted £25,000 worth of liability for damage done to the building. But for a division of opinion that amount would have been increased another £10,000. When the county meeting was held, I told that gathering that they would find Tehidy was ‘less a bargain than a gift.’ I hold to that statement now. I believe there will be no difficulty in proving that far more than £25,000 worth of damage has been done: though it should be possible with £25,000 to carry out much purely practical reconstruction work, with the walls and other materials as a basis. The Government expert was asked (before the mansion was bought) where he would build a sanatorium if the mansion were destroyed by fire and his answer was: ‘On the very same spot.’
“There is, therefore, every reason why the central building – modernised, yet retaining architectural symmetry and dignity – should remain where it is. There is building material on the spot to meet all demands; and within easy reach will be the pavilions, or huts, for certain classes of cases. Already the Tregenna Hut from Camborne is erected, and a veranda has been added by Mr Crispin, so that patients can sit looking southward, in the eye of the sun. On the green bank above the house and sheltered by trees six other huts will be erected – some have already been brought from St Ives, and the sites are being prepared. These are not makeshift buildings but solid wood structures which will last, and which can be easily fumigated and kept in thorough order.
“What I saw and heard at Tehidy helped me to realise the rapidity of the work of destruction. The inner dividing walls, and inner main walls faced with granite, are so massive and supported by iron girders and brick arches, that they held together even when the main building became a fiery furnace. It was ‘touch and go’ whether the patients would be saved or not. Men and beds had to be taken downstairs when the fire had begun to come through the floor – the first floor – and the interior burnt like matchwood. The great staircase has gone and some of the splendid mahogany doors. But others of these had been sold to a gentleman in London. Some of the rear rooms are undamaged, together with a few of the beautiful mantelpieces which have been boarded up to protect them from falling roof material. I was surprised to find the great gilded ceiling of the dining room (where the auction was held) still intact: but it has warped and there is an enormous weight of debris above, threatening its destruction. Mrs Basset’s sitting room with its gilded and painted panels, and the oil paintings stored there, is gutted, the Italian painted ceiling is now a wreck and the strips of burnt canvas litter the floor. The many bedrooms, so charmingly decorated and fitted, are gone and the costly ceilings of some of the main rooms cannot be replaced. Yet there is enough left to remind us of the Tehidy we knew; though it is easy to realise that when Mr Arthur Basset revisited his birthplace a few days ago he was saddened beyond words at the destruction of his old home.
“Whether the fire was caused by an electric wire fusing: or whether the low open fireplaces gradually rendered the woodwork as inflammable as timber, may be a matter of argument. It is singular that a second fire has occurred since my visit, due to coals from the fireplace! I was impressed by the outstanding facts that in a twinkling fire can transform a stately building into a shell of bricks and granite: yet I was equally impressed with the fact that if Tehidy as a mansion contained defects from a Sanatoria point of view, the county is amazingly fortunate if it is able to handle many thousands of pounds worth of building material, much of it unharmed by fire, plus £25,000 for reconstruction and furnishing purposes. There are two causes of regret – the loss of features of the old mansion which cannot be restored; the loss of time in caring for the hundreds of patients in the county who need, as Admiral May said, immediate treatment and not that which might be available some years’ hence. I hope the Insurance Company will recognise the full extent of the calamity and the fact that the building as it stood could not be erected for four times the amount of the insurance; and that the committee will be supported in every way in their endeavour to make early provision for urgent cases, while developing as soon as possible their plans for a new central building from the wreckage of the old.”
By January 1922, Tehidy mansion had been partly rebuilt, but it looked different to John Francis Basset’s building from the 1860s. A long building with portico and clock tower, between two angle pavilions was built in place of the original east entrance front, it infilled a courtyard and used pillars and masonry salvaged after the fire. The imprint of the original centre section was used to create a sunken garden, utilising walls from the former basement.
The mansion provided hospital services for many years and, as Tehidy Hospital, later dealt with people with strokes, head injuries and various respiratory disorders. The estate was bought by Cornwall County Council in 1983 for the benefit of the public and became Tehidy Country Park. The hospital shut in April 1988 and was converted into luxury apartments in the mid-1990s, while several houses were built around the former hospital buildings.
¹ Samuel Drew (1765-1833). A Cornish Methodist theologian. ‘The History of Cornwall’ was published in 1824. ² William Lake ‘A Parochial History of Cornwall’. It was published in four volumes between 1867-72.
A house with a fine reputation and family links to Nostell Priory. The advent of the industrial revolution altered its history and eventual loss.
According to Eilert Ekwall, in ‘The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names’, the name of ‘Ackton’ refers to an ‘oak-tree farmstead’. This appears far-removed these days, and a far cry from those days of the Victorian industrial revolution when Ackton was at the forefront of coal production. The hamlet grew up between Wakefield and Pontefract, then in the West Riding, but it was Ackton Hall that became the focal point for the area.
The first mention of Ackton Hall appears to have been in the Featherstone Parish Register in 1570, belonging to the Frost family and later passing by marriage to the Beckwiths, who sold it in 1652 to Langdale Sutherland for a price said to be £5,000.¹
The Winn family The mansion passed to Edward Winn, the younger son of the second baronet of Nostell Priory, binding the two country houses together. Ackton Hall passed to his heir, Thomas Winn (1714-1780), who inherited a much larger house in 1765. Thomas married Mary Duncalf, daughter of Humphrey Duncalf, in 1753, and his only child was Edmund Mark Winn (1762-1833).²
The family of Winn was descended from a cadet of the house of Gwydir, who left Wales in the sixteenth century and settled in London. The immediate ancestor of this branch was George Winn, draper to Queen Elizabeth, who had issue Edmund Winn, of Thornton Curtis in Lincolnshire, who died in 1615, having married Mary, daughter of Rowland Berkeley of Worcester, sister to Sir Robert Berkeley, Knt, one of the Judges of the King’s Bench, by whom he had three sons.
George Winn, the eldest son and heir, whose residence was at Nostell Priory, was created a baronet by King Charles II in 1660. The title passed down the line until Sir Rowland Winn, High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1799, who died unmarried in 1803. The title was then devolved upon his cousin, Edmund Mark Winn of Ackton Hall.³
History portrays Sir Edmund Mark Winn as “a truly worthy country gentleman, with all the politeness of the ancient school, and all the consideration of the kind landlord.” ⁴ He died unmarried in 1833 and Ackton Hall passed to his niece, Mary, eldest daughter of Colonel Duroune of the Coldstream Guards.
She had married Arthur Heywood (1786-1851), the son of Benjamin Heywood of Stanley Hall, in 1825. The Heywood family were descended from Nathaniel Heywood who settled in Drogheda. He had three sons, Arthur, Benjamin and Nathaniel, who all returned to England.
Arthur Heywood Snr, settled at Liverpool and, with his brother Benjamin, founded a bank, Heywood and Co, and by his second wife Hannah, daughter of Richard Milnes of Wakefield, a principal member of a distinguished Non-Conforming family, had four sons, two of whom settled at Liverpool and two at Wakefield. Neither of the Liverpool sons had children, but Benjamin Heywood of Stanley Hall left a son, Arthur Heywood, who became Mary’s husband.⁵
The death of Arthur Heywood in 1851 was arguably the end for Ackton Hall as a rural mansion. His widow, Mary, remained until her death at Great Malvern in 1863. The estate was put up for sale and the sale catalogue describes the hall as an attractive stone built mansion on a moderate scale seated on a hillside and surrounded by a richly wooded and undulating country.
“Extending on the south and east is a tract of rich park-like land studded with noble oak and other trees of large growth and great beauty. The lawn and pleasure grounds slope gently to the south-west and are well-arranged with retired shrubbery and shaded walks embracing extensive views over luxuriant meadows and a magnificent country.
“In the ground floor are the entrance hall, inner hall, dining, drawing and morning rooms, and a library. On the first floor are a drawing-room and two large bedrooms, and on the second floor are another five bedrooms and three servants’ rooms. There are two water closets. Outside is a stable yard with accommodation for ten horses, a double coach house, a dovecote and farm buildings for the 42 acre farm. There are two kitchen gardens, a conservatory and a vinery, and the hall also has its own spring water supply.”¹
Despite the best efforts of the sales catalogue to find an occupant there was no chance that the hall was going to retain its charm.
George Bradley and the price of coal The surrounding area was now ripe for industrialisation, and coal was the valued prize for ambitious entrepreneurs. The Ackton Hall estate was bought by George Bradley, of the Castleford firm of Bradley and Sons, Solicitors, who had seen the potential for exploiting the mineral assets of the land. It is suggested that he bought the hall and estate in 1865 for £23,400, with another £20,300 used to buy additional land. The cash was borrowed from the University Life Assurance Society, a transaction he would later regret.
Before arriving at Ackton Hall he had been living with his father at Leeds. He was admitted as a solicitor in 1853, but his practice had gradually dwindled due to falling business. As well as the Ackton Hall estate, he later purchased freehold land in Essex, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Rutland and Yorkshire.
Initially, George Bradley leased Ackton Hall land to John Shaw†, who opened a colliery called Featherstone Main that soon became the largest pit in England. Encouraged by Shaw’s success, Bradley sank two of his own shafts to the Stanley Main Seam and opened his own colliery called Featherstone Manor. It was later extended to the Warren House Seam and at its peak was extracting about 200 tons each day.⁶
“The next and future returns cannot fail to give a much larger quantity, seeing that several very important estates with large areas of coal are now being opened out.” Sheffield Independent. 2 April 1870.
However, George Bradley’s coal-mining aspirations were hindered by lack of finance. In 1888, his dream ended when a writ was issued by the High Sheriff of Yorkshire on Ackton Hall. Bradley had been living in the mansion, but mounting debts were leading him into trouble. His miners hadn’t been paid, he had defaulted on payment of rates and more importantly, he was behind on mortgage payments.
Samuel Cunliffe Lister, Lord Masham In the summer of 1890, it was rumoured that Messrs Lister and Co, of Manningham Mills, near Bradford, had purchased the Ackton Hall estate, including the Manor Colliery, adjoining Featherstone Station on the Wakefield branch of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. The estate had been due to go to public auction, but the sale by private treaty was believed to have been £180,000.⁷
In the end, it turned out that the estate had been bought in a private capacity by Samuel Cunliffe Lister, and not on behalf of the shareholders of the company. He had bought the greater part of the estate, about 1,200 acres, and carried with it all the mineral rights. George Bradley could remain at Ackton Hall and kept some adjoining land, but the mineral rights right under the house had been acquired by Mr Lister. According to the Yorkshire Post, the output from the Ackton Colliery had been comparatively small owing to the want of development, but now that the property had come into the hands of a man of such well-known enterprise and energy as Mr Cunliffe Lister, a guarantee was at once forthcoming that a great change in this respect would shortly take place.”⁸
Samuel Cunliffe Lister was one of the largest landowners in the North Riding, and in the previous nine years had expanded upwards of three-quarters of a million in purchasing the Swinton Park estate, near Masham, from the heirs of Mrs Danby-Vernon-Harcourt, Jervaulx Abbey from Lord Ailesbury’s trustees, and the Middleham Castle property, which he had bought a few months previous.
In time, George Bradley moved to Rectory House in Castleford and was declared bankrupt in 1897. The following year, the conveyance for Ackton Hall passed to Mr Middleton of Leeds, a transaction that was later brought before West Riding magistrates. In January 1906, four Leeds men were charged with having stolen a quantity of lead from Ackton Hall. It was also stated that the defendants had also engaged in removing furniture from the mansion. Thomas Middleton, a Leeds jeweller, told the court that he and his brother were the owners of the hall as trustees under their father’s will. Middleton stated that the defendants did not have permission to remove the lead. However, the case was most unusual due to the fact he claimed George Bradley had never asserted that he had a right to live at the hall, neither did he set up a right to the property. He said his father had taken possession of Ackton Hall after advancing George Bradley money. The case of theft was dropped due to insufficient evidence, but the affairs of George Bradley appeared ever more curious.⁹
The acquisition of Ackton Hall by Samuel Cunliffe Lister (1815-1906) was purely for commercial reasons. He was a rich man, born at Calverley Hall, the son of Ellis Cunliffe Lister-Kaye, who had assumed the name of Lister on taking possession of the Manningham estate, near Bradford, under the will of Mr Samuel Lister of Manningham Mill.
He was one of the greatest Victorian industrialists, a man who went against his family’s wishes to enter the church and started out in the counting house of Messrs Sands, Turner and Co in Liverpool.
On attaining his majority, young Lister prevailed upon his eldest brother to enter the worsted spinning and manufacturing business at Manningham, where their father erected a mill for them. It was here that the attention of the future was directed to the problem of machine wool combing, which at that time was in the embryonic stage. Failures to construct an efficient machine wool-comb had been so numerous that any idea of an invention capable of supplanting the labours of hand-combers was regarded as a major obstacle.
Samuel Cunliffe Lister, however, was of a different opinion, and, finding that a machine upon which an inventor named Donisthorpe was working, although at the time in a very imperfect state, gave the greatest promise of success, he bought the machine for a good round sum, and then taking Mr Donisthorpe into partnership, set himself to work out the idea of the apparatus. In this task the partners succeeded after years of labour and the expenditure of many thousands of pounds. The success of the invention practically placed the wool-combing industry for a time in Mr Cunliffe Lister’s own hands, although to begin with he had to encounter litigation in connection with his patents.
This was typical of the man and during his lifetime patented over a hundred inventions which revolutionised the silk and wool trade; to carry out his ideas, he spent a fortune of £600,000 and was more than once on the brink of ruin. In due course, however, the patents brought in a great financial harvest, and for some years before the Manningham Mills were floated as a company, the average net profit was £2 million a year.
Few men lived a life of steadier application to business, and on one occasion he publicly stated that for twenty-five years, he was never in bed later than five o’clock in the morning.
It was characteristic of the man that he should not care for public honours, and probably none of his intimate acquaintances were surprised when he declined to accept a baronetcy on the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1877. The Peerage was not conferred until 1891, when the veteran inventor was in his seventy-sixth year.¹⁰
In addition to investing large sums in landed property, the new Lord Masham successfully turned his attention to the working of collieries. He ploughed significant amounts of money into Ackton Hall Colliery and it soon became one of the most successful pits in the country. He began to provide social facilities and housing for the miners, and the new town of Featherstone was developed in the field between Ackton and Purston as a mining town with good quality housing and social services.¹¹
However, in this industry he had an unfortunate experience with his workpeople, and it was remembered that in the dispute in the coal trade in 1893 the military fired on rioters who were destroying property at the Ackton Pit Colliery.*
Decline and fall
The rise of Ackton Hall Colliery also led to the demise of the mansion. Its proximity to the workings rendered it undesirable, the views obscured by the workings, and it was eventually split into flats. The new town of Featherstone quickly developed in the field between Ackton and Purston but, by 1969, the mansion had become so dilapidated that it had to be demolished.¹²
Ackton Colliery was the first pit to close following the end of the 1984-1985 national miners’ strike.
Notes: – † John Shaw (1843-1911), of Welburn Hall, Kirby Moorside, colliery proprietor, chairman of the South Kirkby, Featherstone, and Hemsworth collieries. Three times unsuccessful Conservative candidate for Pontefract, who died in 1911, only son of George Shaw of Brook Leys, Sheffield.
He went to Featherstone with his father in 1866, to open out the coal field. Subsequently the South Kirkby collieries were acquired, and in 1906 the Hemsworth collieries were added. The company became known as South Kirkby, Featherstone and Hemsworth Collieries Ltd. For some time, he lived at Newland Hall, near Normanton, but soon after he removed to Darrington Hall where he remained until about 1896, when he went to live at Welburn.
*In July 1893, a fall in the price of coal led to owners to stockpile output and ‘lock out’ their workers. In Featherstone, workers were increasingly restless and on September 7 rumours spread that coal at Ackton Hall was being loaded onto wagons and then transported to the owner’s mill in Bradford. An angry crowd gathered outside the pit and confronted Mr Holiday (the pit manager) and a work gang that was loading the wagons. Eventually troops were called in. Three officers and 26 men arrived from the First Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment. A local magistrate, Bernard Hartley JP, read the Riot Act. When the crowd didn’t disperse the troops were ordered to fire warning shots. The second volley of shots wounded eight people, two of whom died of their injuries. As a result of the debacle the Liberal Government lost much of its working class support.
¹ The Featherstone Chronicle – A history of Featherstone, Purston and Ackton from 1086 to 1885. ² The Peerage. ³ Leeds Mercury. 13 June 1891. ⁴ Leeds Intelligencer. 22 June 1833. ⁵ ‘The Rise of the Old Dissent, Exemplified in the Life of Oliver Heywood 1630-1702’ by The Rev Joseph Hunter, F.S.A. 1842. ⁶ Featherstone’s Three Collieries. ⁷ Yorkshire Evening Press. 21 June 1890. ⁸ Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. 20 August 1890. ⁹ Leeds Mercury. 13 January 1906. ¹⁰ Leeds Mercury. 3 February 1906. ¹¹ Wakefield Council. Featherstone Delivery Plan 2014-2016. ¹² ‘Lost Houses of the West Riding’ by Edward Waterson and Peter Meadows. 1998.
Nothing remains of Beaupré Hall, an unloved manor house, that was eventually abandoned. In the 1960s, developers replaced it with a housing estate.
In the late 1960s, the owner of a new bungalow in the long-straddling village of Outwell, that lie on both sides of the River Nene in Norfolk, gazed out at the remains of a stone building in his back garden. What to do with them? In the years to come, these would presumably have been removed and the gardens landscaped to match the modern house. The stones might well have come in handy.
Over fifty years later, there are no traces of those ancient stone relics.
Once upon a time, this was a house called Beaupré Hall, erected in the early sixteenth century by the Beaupre family, who also held the manors of Sautrey, Wells, Norton, Hakbech and Thurning. The estates became the property of Edmund Beaupré, and eventually absorbed into the Beaupré estate.
The house was built between 1500 and 1530, added to later with a castellated gate house, and subsequently extended and altered by members of the Beaupré and Bell families. Dorothy Beaupré had married Sir Robert Bell in 1559 and succeeded to the manor. He was a speaker in the House of Commons of England and the Beaupré estate stayed in his family for generations.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the house had fallen into disrepair, the family fortune squandered by Beaupré Bell in the late 17th century onwards. He was said to have been a keen antiquary, more interested in collecting relics than spending money on the upkeep of the old manor house.
His son, also Beaupré Bell, died unmarried in 1741 and the house passed to his sister, Elizabeth, and her husband William Greaves. They made repairs to the house and demolished those parts beyond restoration. It was inherited by their daughter, Jane Greaves, who had married Charles W. Townley of Fulbourn in Cambridgeshire.
In 1889, a correspondent, known simply as H.K., wrote in The Methodist Recorder:
“Far back into centuries I should have to go in imagination to find the man who built Beaupré Hall, with its gabled and mullioned windows and beautiful gateways and courts and porches, with its picturesque towers and chimneys outside, and its wilderness of oak-panelled rooms and passages inside.”
Charles Townley thought the house surplus to requirement and had unsuccessfully attempted to dispose of it at auction in 1888. The house was probably tenanted because, at this time, Beaupré Hall was occupied by three ladies – the Misses Wilsons – who kept an open house for visiting Methodist preachers.
In the 1890s, Beaupré Hall was finally sold to the Newling family who remained until the twentieth century. On hindsight, the problems for the old manor house started here. A gale in 1915 severely damaged the building, and a chapel in the north-west range had its roof torn off and allowed to become derelict.
Christopher Hussey, the architectural writer, visited Beaupré Hall in 1923, its condition was such that he anticipated its eventual destruction.
Beaupré’s biggest problem came in the form of the Royal Air Force, who requisitioned the hall during the Second World War. Afterwards, the mansion was in serious disrepair, with substantial roof damage.
There were those who almost loved the house and might have saved it. In 1947, the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, gave it listed status, but little else. A fire in 1953 worsened its condition, and it was left to Mrs Kingsman, (formerly the wife of Edward Newling, who had married Stuart Kingsman), to offer the hall to the National Trust. It declined the offer, becoming the second heritage body that turned its back on Beaupré Hall.
The house and 13-acres of land was put up for sale and had two subsequent owners. Nevertheless, Beaupré Hall was quickly becoming a ruin.
During the 1950s, barrack huts left over from RAF occupation were used to house students on the ‘Holidays with Pay Scheme’, the ruins of Beaupré Hall no doubt providing an adventure.
The ‘Victoria County History’ reported that much of the building was still standing, but the development of a modern housing estate in its former grounds was a shadow quickly advancing on the house. A photograph taken by Country Life magazine in 1963 showed new bungalows in front of the broken-down house.
Nine years later, the Ministry gave permission for the house to be demolished, the only reminder being the name of the road on which the housing estate stands… Beaupré Avenue .
One hundred years ago, fire claimed another country house, one that was barely twenty-five years old.
February 1919 was a bad month for country house fires. One hundred years ago, this week, Offley Holes House, near Hitchin, in North Hertfordshire, which had been used for some time as a German prisoner-of-war camp, was totally destroyed by fire. The fire started in the orderly room and spread quickly through the mansion. The Hitchin Fire Brigade quickly arrived but found no water available due to a heavy frost, and so could only watch the progress of the flames.
All the prisoners were safely evacuated and taken to other quarters in Hitchin, but one of the guards was overcome by smoke and was in a critical condition in Hitchin Hospital, to which he was taken by a fire engine.
Offley Holes House was built after the death of Robert Curling in 1894. His will stated that no more than £4,000 should be spent erecting a house for the use of his nephew, Robert Sumner Curling, for life. Unfortunately, Robert “had no interest in the country and preferred to live in London.”
The terms of the will were nevertheless followed and W.A. Lucas was engaged to build the house.
In 1898, the house was tenanted to Percy St Clair Matthey on a twenty-one-year lease. The lease was re-assigned to Joseph Childs Priestley in 1904 and then to Major Robert B. Mervyn Richardson four years later.
In January 1918, despite fierce opposition from Percy Matthey, the War Office took possession of Offley Holes House and converted it into a German POW camp. The house was never rebuilt, the result of inadequate fire insurance.