Built 1840s. Demolished 1951-1952
The levelled platform of Easton Hall, demolished in the early 1950s, lies towards the north of the site, south-west of Easton estate village. Easton Hall, a medieval manor house and village, was purchased by Sir Henry Cholmeley in 1606. In 1805, Sir Montague Cholmeley took down the west wing and rebuilt the house (Turnor 1806). The medieval village was removed in 1805 (Glenn 1995). The Hall was rebuilt again by his son, Sir Montague Cholmeley in the 1840s and was described in 1872 (White) as a ‘large handsome mansion’. In 1902 the house was described as embodying the best features of Tudor style (CL). Attached to the west front of the house stood a large conservatory (ibid).
“A dream of Nirvana”… “A dream almost too good to be true.” These were the words of future President Franklin D Roosevelt about Easton Hall and its gardens. He was no stranger to the Lincolnshire estate, visiting at least three times, the last being for his honeymoon in 1905. When Roosevelt made this enthusiastic declaration he would have been dismayed that just 46 years later the illusion had gone forever.
Back in the 1990s I made the journey up and down the A1, near Grantham, on a daily basis. Mature trees and hedgerow lined both sides of the busy carriageway but little did I realise that just yards away were the remains of a fine country house. There was a clue, just past the turning for Burton Coggles, but I was in too much of a hurry for a second glance. Here, screened by unchecked undergrowth, was a decorative gateway. A pair of iron gates were suspended between two stone pillars – padlocked with a rusty chain – apparently leading nowhere.
I now realise that these gates once provided access to Easton Hall, a distinguished country house, once the ancestral home for 14 generations of the Cholmeley family. The house had long gone, a familiar story of decline after two traumatic world wars, the land relinquished to nature.
The Cholmeley family had purchased the Manor of Easton in 1592 after arriving from Cheshire. The medieval manor passed through generations until the beginning of the 19thcentury. From 1805 the original house had disappeared. Sir Montague Cholmeley, (1st Bt) demolished the West Wing, the oldest part of the house, along with the central block, and extensively altered the fabric of the house. A number of later Victorian additions by the 2ndBaronet created the most desirable home. Old Photographs show Easton Hall as a predominantly two-storey structure made of stone. Only a series of attic windows show the true height of the house.
Its front was dominated by a series of bay windows – running from floor to ceiling – with an arched porch to take horse-drawn carriages. In the Victorian manner the roof was a complex affair of stacks and chimneys. The most attractive part of the house was the south wing with 5 magnificent arched windows letting in large amounts of light to the ground floor. It comes across as a very irregular house but, like many of its contemporaries, is very aesthetic.
The architect for Easton Hall is hard to determine. However, the walled gardens, garden buildings and terraced gardens are attributed to Anthony Salvin in 1836. He was also responsible for the gatehouse and stables in 1841.
The most dramatic room inside the house was the large entrance hall, adorned with a gallery and hung with suits of armour. The rest of the house was no less handsome with valuable paintings and artwork spread throughout. The West Wing had fine views over the River Witham which flows towards Lincoln. The pleasure grounds rose from the banks of the river in a series of terraces, embellished by fountains, vases and garden statues.
The weakening fortunes of Easton Hall probably started at the beginning of the 20th century. When Sir Arthur Henry Cholmeley (3rd Bt) died, in 1904, the title and the 11,500 acre estate passed to his son, Montague Aubrey Rowley Cholmeley. He’d been a captain in the Grenadier Guards serving in the Sudan and the Boer War. After inheriting the baronetcy he retired from the army to focus on estate matters. He’d married Mabel Janetta Waldo-Sibthorp, from Canwick Hall, near Lincoln, in 1903 and she gave birth to their son, Hugh John Francis Sibthorp, in 1906. Maybe the proximity of Mabel Janetta’s family at Canwick looked a better proposition because the Cholmeleys spent most of their married life living at Norton Place, Glentham, north of Lincoln. This elegant 18th century house, by John Carr of York, had been in the Cholmeley family since the early 19th century. Easton Hall would be let out, around 1907, to Captain Marshall Roberts
Cholmeley re-joined his old regiment at the outbreak of the First World War but was killed in action, near La Bassée, in France, on Christmas Eve, 1914.
“The enemy were throwing hand grenades and one of these killed the Captain, who had come along the trench and warned us to keep down. A grenade exploded near him, and I think one of the pieces struck his head. He was killed instantly.” Private C Fuller
At his death Cholmeley left property to the value of £11,290. The baronetcy passed to Hugh John Francis Sibthorp Cholmeley (5th Bt), who was just eight-years old.
The loss of the 4th baronet was felt at both Norton Place and Easton Hall. While the Cholmeleys spent time in North Lincolnshire life at Easton Hall had been exciting. It had become the perfect place for visiting aristocrats who attended house, hunting and shooting parties. In 1902, the house had featured in the pages of Country Life magazine and had captured the imagination of people wanting to visit. Not least Franklin D Roosevelt who included Easton on his honeymoon tour of 1905.
Marshall Owen Roberts (1879-1931) rented the house from around 1907. He was the millionaire son of the New York transport entrepreneur, Marshall Owen Roberts. His father made his fortune after taking over the US government contract subsiding mail steamships. During the civil war he’d made huge profits by selling boats to the federal government. He would be instrumental in a Caribbean steamer service and would become involved in the development of transatlantic telegraphic cables. In time he was elected the President of the New York Chamber of Commerce. Our Marshall Owen Roberts was one-year-old when his father died. Seven years later he would sail to England with his wealthy mother.
Roberts would grow up to be a British subject and serve with the Scots Guards during the South Africa campaign. In 1903 he married Irene Helen Murray and spent their honeymoon travelling through France. Whilst driving back to Paris late at night from Fountainebleu, at considerable speed, their car came into contact with an unlit cart. The couple was thrown from the car and into a ditch but were fortunate to escape serious injury.
With plenty of money at their disposal the Marshalls were seen as part of the intelligent crowd. They lived in London’s fashionable Grosvenor Square and used Easton Hall as their country retreat. A keen sportsman, Marshall Roberts would become Master of the Belvoir Hunt. He was a keen and enthusiastic golf player and his many golfing parties at Easton included many well-known professional players including Harry Vardon, the 6-times British Open winner. Roberts would eventually build a 9-hole golf course attracting top golfers to take part in tournaments.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem formed the Joint War Committee. Under the emblem of the Red Cross they set out to secure locations to be used as temporary hospitals as soon as wounded men began to arrive from abroad. Marshall Roberts decided that Easton Hall would be a perfect location and part of the house was used for the duration as a convalescent hospital.
Roberts would re-join his old regiment but was severely wounded at the first Battle of Ypres. When recovered he transferred to the Welsh Guards and would soon become Captain Marshall Roberts. He served with the Welsh Guards in 1915 and 1918 twice being invalided.
After the war it was evident that Roberts’ marriage was falling apart. In 1921 his wife filed for divorce after identifying Marshall Roberts’ handwriting in a letter sent to the manager of the Grand Hotel in Brighton. A registration form from the hotel was also in his handwriting. It was alleged that Roberts had stayed with an unidentified woman over four nights. This woman was likely to have been Glen Alexandrine Charlotte Oldham whom he married in December of that year.
The golf course is worth a further mention. According to John Whittington, whose grandfather Ben Robert Cooper was the green keeper professional, the history books has Gleneagles as the first game against the Americans in 1921 that lead to the Ryder Cup in 1927. However, he says that there was a game against the Americans at Easton Hall prior to Gleneagles, organised presumably by Marshall Roberts. A team of 12 Americans travelling from Southampton to play in the Open at St Andrews stayed at Easton Hall for a few days to acclimatise and played an English pro and amateur team, also on their way to Scotland. Ben Robert Cooper’s sons, Whittington’s uncles, caddied for Cyril Tolley, British amateur golf champion, and professional Abe Mitchell playing against Walter Hagen and an unknown American.
Whittington also believes the course was a 12-hole course, not 9 as history books suggest, and that some of the layout can still be recognised on Google Earth. His grandfather remained the green keeper at Easton Hall until Marshall Roberts, on leaving, was made to return the course to nature. He then helped design and build a new course at Stoke Rochford Hall on the other side of the A1.
His marriage over, it was also time for Roberts to end his long association with Easton Hall. In 1922 he moved to Holme Pierrepont, near Nottingham, leaving Easton untenanted with only a caretaker. The house would become a target for thieves and in December a gang of ‘international crooks who secured little booty for their pains’ broke in. Instead, they crossed the Great North Road and stole gold and silver curios from Christopher Turnor’s country house, Stoke Rochford Hall.
Captain Marshall Roberts died in 1931 after taking ill in Venice while returning from a Mediterranean cruise.
The next tenant of Easton Hall was Andrew Alexander Watt (1853-1928). He was a hard-nosed businessman from Derry whose family had made their fortune as one of the largest whisky distillers. Their Abbey Street distillery covered eight acres and produced three world famous brands. Tyrconnell was named after the Watt family’s racehorse that ran in the Irish Classic “National Produce Stakes” and won against all odds at 100 to 1. This was the best-selling brand in the United States while, Favourite and Innishowen, enjoyed major exports across the word – to England, America, Canada, Australia, Nigeria and the West Indies.
In 1902 Andrew Watt merged his company with two other Belfast distilleries to form a new company called the United Distilleries Company. He would become chairman, increasing his personal wealth, and managed to negotiate a deal with the Distillers’ Company, of Scotland, to divide trade and limit production of grain whisky. This would prevent saturation of the market and ensure that prices remained at a competitive level.
The deal between the two companies was not an easy one and the United Distilleries Company found itself in financial trouble. This was worsened when the United States introduced Prohibition from 1920 depriving Watt of his biggest market. To confound matters the company suffered unrest amongst its workers resulting in a calamitous strike in 1921. They complained about Watt’s careless attitude towards working conditions and their meagre wages. Watt, dogged and merciless, told his workers that no money was available.
“Watt asked to be helped up on to one of his own whiskey barrels and from there he addressed the crowd with the menacing words – ‘Well men, I shall put it to you like this …what is it to be? Will you open the gates?’
The workers retorted angrily- ‘The gates stay shut!’
‘Very well!’ exclaimed Watt bluntly. ‘Shut they are, and shut they shall remain!’”
Andrew Watt turned out to be a man of his word. History clouds what happened next. It is more melodramatic to believe that Watt closed the distillery for good. However, it is more likely that the Distillers’ Company were breathing heavily down his neck. In 1922 the Scottish company took full control of United Distilleries and, by 1925, all the Irish factories had been dismantled. Whatever the circumstances, Andrew Watt was blamed for the appalling job losses and poverty that followed. With whisky sales in freefall, and the ominous Irish Question loitering, it’s likely that Watt was clever enough to get out while he could. (Fortunes were better for the Distillers’ Company – it grew into a major company, eventually taken over by Guinness in 1987, and is now interred within the prodigious Diageo organisation) Watt left Ireland behind, headed for the peace and quiet of the English countryside, and enjoyed the magnificence of Easton Hall for the next six years.
While it had housed tenants for over twenty years Easton hadn’t been forgotten by the Cholmeley family.
In 1927, to celebrate ‘the attainment of his majority and succession to the Easton estate’, all tenants and their families were entertained, at Easton, by a now grown-up Sir Hugh John Francis Sibthorp Cholmeley. With the permission of Andrew Watt close upon 500 people, including a delegation of 35 from Canwick Hall, advanced on Easton for a day of celebration.
The stone cross approaching the hall flew Union Jacks, the archway leading to the courtyard being most effectively decorated in red and blue flowers, with a horseshoe design in centre, the colours of the Grenadier Guards and bearing the inscriptions, ‘Long Life’ and ‘Prosperity’ and ‘Health and Happiness’. Other flags, including one with the family crest, were flown from the tower. Grantham Journal 27/8/1927
Andrew Watt looked on in admiration but had only one more year to live. He would leave over £900,000 in his will, a huge amount, of which £270,000 ended up in treasury coffers as death duties. In November, a newspaper advertisement appeared for the sale of ‘household linen, glass and china, as well as kitchen requisites’ from Watt’s time at Easton Hall.
It would be ten years before Sir Hugh Cholmeley moved into Easton Hall. He’d been educated at Eton College and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. In 1931 he married Cecilia Ellice, and, after 12 years in the Grenadier Guards, retired to a house he barely knew. However, his stay at Easton would be short-lived.
When war was declared in 1939 the future of Easton Hall was condemned. Sir Hugh returned to fight with the Grenadier Guards and the house was requisitioned and used as barracks for the Royal Artillery and of the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. Like so many houses Easton Hall did not come out lightly.
According to the architectural historian, John Martin Robinson, ‘nearly every house which was used to accommodate the military has some horror story to retell of staircases chopped up for firewood, subsidiary wings gutted, the Van Dycks used as dartboards, jeeps driven through wrought iron gates or stone balustrades, carved or painted graffiti, smashed windows and much else besides.’
Easton Hall suffered all this and much more. The fabric of the house was damaged, contents ravaged and family records destroyed forever. Stories abound of live ammunition being fired inside the house and hand grenades thrown into the greenhouses.
The Cholmeleys never returned to Easton. After the war, the house, scarred and broken, waited empty for the next six years. Like all unoccupied properties it suffered to vandals and thieves who stole the lead from the roof. No longer watertight, no longer habitable, the house had become a burden for the family.
It would have been with heart-wrenching sorrow that Sir Hugh chose the only viable option. In 1951 he made the decision to demolish Easton Hall.
Stone by stone, tile by tile, the house was raised to the ground. Memories from generations of the Cholmeley family were obliterated in a just a few days. When the demolition people had gone only a few foundation walls and steps remained.
During the destruction fate played a remarkable hand. On the day that the gatehouse and stables were due to be flattened the bulldozer broke down. With time costing money the bulldozer was sent away and the buildings remained intact. A judgement that one day would prove advantageous. For a time the gardens were sustained to supply the markets of Grantham and Nottingham but these, too, were soon abandoned. Nettles, sycamores and brambles were left to take over the estate for the next 40 years.
Sir Hugh Cholmeley would live an exemplary life. He had been decorated with the award of Companion, Distinguished Service Order at Camino in Italy in 1945. Following the war he gained the rank of Honorary Colonel in the service of the 4th/6th Battalion, Royal Lincolnshire Regiment, and held the office of High Sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1961. He was invested as a Companion, Order of the Bath two years later. He would live with his wife in the Dower House at Easton Hall and died at St Thomas Home, London, in 1964, aged 57.
Had I chosen to stop the car and fight my way through the dense growth I would have been saddened to find crumbling steps, dilapidated walls, all covered with ivy and moss, trees growing from the ornamental bridge across the river and a woodland advancing where flower gardens once stood. The ghosts of the Cholmeleys would have been bemused. Their memories would have been whispers on the breeze teased by the hundreds of wild rabbits that had taken over.
Over the coming years Sir Montague John Cholmeley, (6th Bt), would turn away from Easton and strengthen the fortunes of the remaining estate. It now includes arable and livestock farming, acres of ancient woodland, a flourishing public house, a farm shop and nearly 80 rental properties.
In 2001, Lady Ursula Cholmeley, wife of Sir Hugh John Frederick Sebastian (7thBt) recognised the potential of the vanished house and its former gardens. By her own admission ‘there was a national outbreak of garden restorations, spearheaded by the famous Lost Gardens of Heligan’.
With scarcely a budget she led a group of people who miraculously retrieved the remnants of Easton Hall’s past pleasure grounds. In the years since walls and buildings have been repaired and today the public can visit Easton Walled Gardens, combining many of the original schemes with new areas of planting. The gatehouse and stables, fortuitously saved from the bulldozer, play a significant and inspiring role as entry to the site. The results are impressive and, with the remainders of Easton Hall still evident, this small part of Lincolnshire has been reborn.
Country Life Magazine visits Easton Hall in 1902
Easton Walled Gardens,
Easton, Grantham, Lincolnshire, NG33 5AP