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THE 1970’S: THE FUTURE OF ENGLAND’S COUNTRY HOUSES

On the eve of ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition, an aspiring writer traced the social and economic reasons for the decline of the English country house and described the dangers that threatened those remaining

Heveningham Hall - Suffolk - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Heveningham Hall in Suffolk, created by George III’s architect, Sir Robert Taylor, in 1778, though open to the public it had had most of its contents dispersed. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

In October 1974, a landmark exhibition opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Destruction of the Country House had been conceived following a conversation between the museum’s director, Roy Strong, and John Cornforth, the architectural historian, then compiling his important report on the ‘present’ state of our country houses, the first since the 1950 Gowers Report. The exhibition included a Hall of Destruction decorated with falling columns and illustrations of some of the hundreds of country houses demolished since 1875.

By the end of the exhibition, the total number of houses was found to be over 1,600. Forty years later, Matthew Beckett, ‘the statistician of loss’, found that between 1880 and 2014, the number of houses demolished was 1,921. A record of these can be found on his Lost Heritage website, and the number keeps increasing as we find more candidates – vanished, forgotten and then remembered again!

The exhibition was curated by Roy Strong, John Harris, then working at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Marcus Binney, soon to become Architectural Editor of Country Life Magazine, and Peter Thornton, from the V&A’s Department of Furniture and Woodwork. The exhibition did more than anything to bring the plight of our ‘suffering’ country houses to the attention of the public.

The Destruction of the Country House (Historic Interiors)
‘The Hall of Destruction’ in the 1974 exhibition designed by John Wade. It resonated with Lists of the Fallen, solemnly intoned by John Harris, county by county. Image: SAVE Britain’s Heritage.

Days before the opening of The Destruction of the Country House, an article appeared in the Illustrated London News, written by John Martin Robinson, a 26-year-old Lancastrian who had just been awarded a doctoral degree for work on the architect Samuel Wyatt. By the end of the year, he was working for Greater London Council’s Historic Buildings Division, contributing to the Survey of London, inspecting buildings in Westminster and revising the Statutory Lists of Historic Buildings across the city. In time, we would know Robinson as an Architectural Writer for Country Life, as well as being the author of almost thirty books.

In 1974, John Martin Robinson was an unknown entity, but mature enough to write The Future of England’s Country Houses for a magazine that had been published since 1842. Unfortunately, like many of the country houses featured, the magazine eventually disappeared. However, forty-four years later, Robinson’s narrative still provides a definitive account as to how England’s country houses had got into such a perilous situation.

“No country can rival England in the number and beauty of its country houses in their setting of gardens, avenues and parklands. They are an association of beauty, art and nature achieved through centuries of effort, which has seldom, if ever, been equalled in the history of civilisation. The English country house is the greatest contribution made by England to the visual arts: thus, the Gowers Report on ‘Houses of Outstanding Historic and Architectural Interest’ summed up the object of its investigations in 1950. Yet despite their unquestionable artistic importance the survival of these houses has been increasingly jeopardised in this century and many have been destroyed.

“With hindsight the rumblings of the avalanche can already be discerned behind the apparent calm and opulence of the Edwardian heyday of the country house, threatening the tranquil world of tea under the cedar trees and white-gloved footmen festooning smilax around the dining-room candelabra.”

Blickling Hall - Norfolk - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Blickling Hall in Norfolk, built between 1616 and 1642, was the first house to be bequeathed to the National Trust. It was left to them by the Marquess of Lothian in 1940. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“From 1870 onwards, English agriculture faced an increasingly serious crisis and its economic viability was destroyed by large imports of cheap grain from North America. As a result, land ceased to be profitable and the economic base of the country house was undermined. The effects were not immediately apparent because the overall financial power of the country’s trade and industry helped subsidise country house owners, but that was a situation that could not last forever.

“The huge staffs of Edwardian houses were partly a response to the rural unemployment caused by agricultural decline. In many areas domestic service was the only means of providing a livelihood for the inhabitants of whole villages. One result of the agricultural slump was disastrous, and that was the amendment of the settled land law in 1882, which enabled landowners to sell entailed heirlooms, particularly works of art, to meet their debts and day-to-day expenses. This opened the floodgates, and the systematic disposal of the fabulous collections assembled here between 1610 and 1850 has gone on ever since.”

Trentham Hall - Staffordshire - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Sir Charles Barry’s Trentham Hall in Staffordshire, was abandoned in 1910 when sewage in the nearby river rendered it uninhabitable. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“Estate duty was first introduced in 1897 and greatly increased in Lloyd George’s 1909 budget. This was followed quickly by the First World War in which it was common for two or three heirs to be killed one after the other, thus incurring multiple death duties. Then in the period between the wars came drastic increases in the rate of income tax which bore more heavily on landowners than on any other section of the community.

“The destructive effect of increased taxation upon the upkeep of country houses is well known. Another equally powerful but less widely recognised factor has been the steady encroachment of industry and urban development in certain areas, and it is those areas which have seen the worst losses of country houses – particularly South Lancashire, parts of Durham, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and outer London. South Lancashire has sustained the worse losses of all and today only two country houses are still lived in. Six are museums, over 50 have been demolished and the remainder lie derelict or have been converted into institutions.”

Cassiobury Park -Watford - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Cassiobury Park, near Watford, which had a Wyatt exterior and splendid seventeenth-century state rooms, was demolished in 1922. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“The first two important English houses to go, heralds of doom, were Giacomo Leoni’s Bold Hall in Lancashire in 1900 and (Sir Charles) Barry’s Trentham in Staffordshire in 1910. In both cases industrial development was immediately responsible for the abandonment of the house. At Trentham the river had become so polluted with sewage from Stoke-on-Trent as to render that palatial seat no longer pleasantly habitable. In the case of Bold Hall, the coal mines crept up to the park walls and the owner finally sold out to the colliery company which demolished the house, thus contributing to an ironic pattern of development whereby the lucrative mineral, which had paid for so many fine houses, now destroyed them.”

Bold Hall - Lancashire
Bold Hall, Lancashire, the home of the ancient family of Bolde, who settled there before the Norman Conquest and ran the estate for hundreds of years. When Peter Bold MP died in 1761, leaving three daughters but no son, the estate passed out of the hands of the family and was eventually broken up. The Hall and the remaining 1500 acres were sold in 1893 to a syndicate of colliery proprietors.

“The crash occurred in the 1920s. In 1922 Stowe was sold up, and though the house was saved from demolition for use as a school the interior was largely dismantled, and the surroundings littered with gymnasiums, laboratories and all sorts of necessary new buildings, to the permanent spoliation of the gardens, the finest in England. Then house after house was demolished. In 1922 the worst loss was Cassiobury Park near Watford, where a Wyatt exterior concealed splendid seventeenth-century state rooms. In 1925 Leoni’s finest English house, Lathom House in Lancashire, was razed to the ground. In 1929 occurred the most regrettable vandalism of all, the wanton smashing of domed Nuthall Temple in Nottinghamshire, which contained superb rococo plasterwork. And so, the melancholy story continued until the eve of the Second World War.”

Stowe - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Perfect embodiment of the Palladian ideal, Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, is the work of Giovanni Battista Borra, who in 1774 altered and executed a design prepared by Robert Adam. The gardens are largely the work of Lancelot brown. In 1922 the house was sold up and is now used as a school. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Nuthall temple (Nottinghamshire History)
Nuthall temple, Nottinghamshire, was one of five country houses built in the United Kingdom said to have been inspired by Palladio’s Villa Capra in Vicenza. When its last occupant, the Reverend Robert Holden, died in 1926, his son made several attempts to sell it. He succeeded in 1929 and its contents were stripped. The empty shell was sold for £800 to J.H. Brough of Beeston, who presided over a public demolition. ‘The west wing was loaded with firelighters, sprinkled with paraffin and set alight to the delight of the expectant crowd’. Image: Nottinghamshire History.
Nuthall Temple - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire. Built for Sir Charles Sedley by Thomas Wright in 1754. It was demolished in 1929 and was a variation on Palladio’s Rotunda. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Lathom House - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Lathom House in Lancashire was built for Sir Thomas Bootle between 1725 and 1730. Designed by Giacomo Leoni, it was considered to be one of his finest English houses. Thomas Henry Wyatt enlarged it in 1862; it was demolished in 1925. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“However, the horizon was not one of unrelieved gloom. New country houses continued to be built, often on a considerable scale, particularly such late works of Sir Edwin Lutyens as Gledstone Hall, Castle Drogo and Middleton Park. The latter was completed only in 1938, and had 12 principal bathrooms including Lady Jersey’s, which was lined in pink onyx and white marble with a vaulted ceiling. A casual glance through the pages of Burke’s ‘Landed Gentry’ shows that ‘new’ families continued to be recruited throughout the period. They bought estates and either built their own houses or brought new life to old ones. Those who restored old houses often assembled in them fine art collections and laid out gardens on an almost eighteenth-century scale. Three of the most notable achievements of this type now belonging to the National Trust: Buscot Park and Upton House near Oxford, and Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge.

“This period also saw the beginning of a constructive attempt to save the country house from ruin. In 1924 the National Trust first pressed for legislation to grant tax concessions to the owners of country houses. This was unsuccessful, but in 1934 Parliament passed a Bill enabling the Trust to accept historic houses. The first house received by the Trust, Blickling in Norfolk, was bequeathed in 1940 by the Marquess of Lothian. It was followed in the same year by Wallington in Northumberland, and today the Trust owns and maintains some 150 great houses.”

Castle Howard - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Two views of Castle Howard, North Yorkshire; the entrance front from Colen Campbell’s ‘Vitruvius Britannicus’, 1715, and above, the south front with the Atlas fountain. The cupola and lanterns of the dome, destroyed by fire in 1940, had been restored. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“During the Second World War houses were used as hospitals, schools and army barracks. The eventual result of this was, in many cases disastrous. As readers of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ will know the Army was not an appreciative tenant. A typical example is Egginton Hall in Derbyshire where, when the Army relinquished the house in 1945, all the taps were left running. The interior was irreparably damaged by water and the house was subsequently demolished. Schools were reckoned to be more civilised occupants, although while Castle Howard was in use as a school half of it was gutted by fire.”

Egginton Hall - The Tatler - Jan 3 1917 - BNA
A charming photograph of Egginton Hall, Burton-on-Trent, this one from the First World War when the country house was used as a Red Cross hospital. It was built in 1726 and was once the ancestral home of the Every family. The house wasn’t so lucky in the Second World War. It was demolished in 1955 after vandalism by occupying troops. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“At the beginning of the war the Government refused to give guidance and help to private owners over the storage and protection of art collections. As a result, a great deal of unnecessary damage was caused. The Duke of Bedford relates how, on inheriting Woburn, he found the famous Sèvres dinner service lying loose in the straw in the stables, while French eighteenth-century chairs were piled up in heaps with kitchen table legs stuck through the seats.”

The subject of wartime requisitioning was one that John Martin Robinson would return to. His book, The Country House at War was published in 1989. Twenty-five years later, it was followed with the weightier Requisitioned: The British Country House in the Second World War.

“In 1945 the country house presented a huge, seemingly insoluble problem. No general maintenance had been done for at least six years, and many garden buildings and subsidiary structures had not been repaired since before the First World War because owners had had no money to spend on such ‘inessentials’. In many cases there seemed no alternative to demolition and over the next ten years hundreds were pulled down or truncated, as at Woburn, where half the house was demolished because of dry rot. The losses in this period were quantitively much greater than in the 1920s and 30s, though it could be argued that individually the houses destroyed were not of such great importance. The one absolutely irreparable loss was Coleshill, a statement of the utmost value to English architecture. It was gutted by fire in 1952. The Government declined to serve a preservation order on the shell, which as a result was demolished.”

Coleshill - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Coleshill in Berkshire was one of five houses built by Roger Pratt, a Norfolk gentleman. He designed it for his cousin Sir George Pratt c 1649. It was gutted by fire in 1952, and the shell later demolished failing a preservation order. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“By the early 1950s it seemed as if the end had come for the country house, but there was in fact a remarkable recovery. This was largely due to the efforts of individual owners and also the post-war Labour Government. In 1945 the Minister for Housing and Local Government was empowered to make lists of buildings of special architectural and historic interest which were to be legally protected from demolition or unsympathetic alteration. Although slow in compilation (only 120 houses out of a target of 1,450 were listed in the first five years) and full of omissions and inconsistencies, they were better than nothing, and have developed in the succeeding years to become the foundation of all preservation work in this country. Then, at the invitation of Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer, a committee was set up to investigate the possibility of making grants and tax concessions to the owners of outstanding historic houses. In 1950 this committee produced the Gowers Report, as a result of which the Historic Buildings Council was established with the power to make annual grants for the restoration of great buildings.

“At the same time there was a dramatic revival in English agriculture. Landowners have reorganised their estates much more efficiently, and together with Government subsidies this has led to a doubling of the output of English farming and the restoration of its economic viability. Large-scale opening to the public, which started with Longleat in 1949, also provides funds for the upkeep of houses. This has given them a completely new raison d’etre, as well as presenting owners with additional incentive to maintain and improve their houses. As a result, many of the greatest country houses have been splendidly restored since 1960, and Chatsworth, Wilton, Holkham, Ragley and Althorp have never been so well cared for or looked so magnificent as they do today.”

John Martin Robinson’s use of the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House was a good example. The property had been ‘closed-up’ for many years but is now regarded as one of the country’s most popular visitor attractions.  The other houses remain open to the public, in the case of Althorp in Northamptonshire, its popularity reached unprecedented heights for being the home and final resting place of Lady Diana Spencer, later Princess of Wales.

Rounton Grange - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Rounton Grange in Yorkshire, built for Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell between 1872 and 1876, was designed by Philip Webb. It was demolished in 1950. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Montgomerie House - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Montgomerie House in Ayrshire was built for Lord Montgomerie by John Paterson in 1804. It was burnt and demolished in 1969. This photograph appeared in the original magazine article, a strange one considering it was about English country houses. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Eaton Hall - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
The staircase of Eaton Hall, Cheshire. This flamboyant house was built for the first Duke of Westminster in about 1870. Everything but the chapel, clock tower and stable court was demolished in 1961. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“A year ago, this article could have finished on that happy note, but now there are new dangers. The possibility of increased taxation, together with general economic recession, threatens the precarious finances of the owners of great houses. If a wealth tax were to be imposed upon such houses and their contents it would lead to certain ruin. Already there have been disquieting events. For example, Heveningham Hall in Suffolk had to be sold as a result of capital gains tax in 1969 and although bought by the Government most of its contents were dispersed and it stands today empty and without a use, a sad place to visit.”

The Wealth Tax didn’t materialise. Denis Healey, the Labour chancellor misquoted for saying “squeeze the rich until the pips squeak” came closest in his 1974 election pledge but was forced to backtrack. However, the possibility remains a distant threat as is the recurring menace of a Mansion Tax, a common name for an annual property tax on high value homes. There was a happy end for Heveningham Hall, after all. The halls and grounds were bought in 1994 by Jon Hunt and his wife to use as a family home. Extensive work has been carried out to restore the house and the Capability Brown grounds.

Upton House - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
Upton House in Warwickshire now belongs to the National Trust. It was conveyed to them by the second Viscount Bearsted in 1948, together with its grounds and gardens with herbaceous borders. The house dates from the late seventeenth century and contains a fine collection of pictures. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Ragley Hall - Illustrated London News - 1 Oct 1974 (BNA)
One of Britain’s finest houses, Ragley Hall, top, was owned and still occupied by the Marquess of Hertford. It was built between 1680 and 1690 by Robert Hooke and has a great hall designed by James Gibbs with plasterwork by Francesco Vassali. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“The great increase in the monetary value of works of art is also, ironically, a threat. Not only are owners tempted to sell, as in the case of the Longford Castle Velasquez, but the increased monetary value of country house collections makes them a great security problem, as was highlighted by the recent spectacular theft of pictures from Russborough in Ireland. These treasures, however, form the greatest portion of the works of art in this country and far surpass in both quantity and quality the contents of our provincial museums. As well as the furniture and portraits which obviously form a unity with the architecture, about 100 great English houses contain important collections of European works of art formed between the seventeenth and mid nineteenth centuries, which as collections are of the greatest and aesthetic importance. England is the only country in the world where such historic collections survive on such a scale, and it would be tragic if they were to be dispersed.”

When John Martin Robinson referred to the theft of pictures (by the IRA) from Russborough House in County Wicklow, he wasn’t to know that they would be recovered, but stolen a further three times.

He continued:

“Another threat is to the landscaped parks in which these houses are situated. Unlike historic buildings, they enjoy no statutory protection despite the fact that they form some of the greatest works of art ever produced in this country. Those at Petworth and Chillington, designed by Capability Brown, as well as Port Elliot by Repton, are threatened by motorways. At Audley End the local council wish to place a sewage works in the middle of Capability Brown’s landscape, and many other eighteenth-century parks are also menaced by incongruous developments.

“It is essential therefore that the machinery of Statutory protection be expanded to cover the parks, gardens and the essential contents of historic houses. At the same time the system of grants should be extended to pay for such works as the renewal of the planting in eighteenth-century parks and the proper maintenance of the pictures and furniture in all privately-owned houses regularly open to the public. In 1950 the Gowers Report recommended that all the repair and maintenance costs of historic houses and their contents should be subject to tax relief. It was also recommended that landowners should be able to set aside part of their estates to produce a tax-free income for the support of the house in perpetuity.

“These recommendations were not adopted at the time, but their implementation is even more urgent now, and it is to be hoped that the Government will at least introduce effective legislation to protect country houses, their contents and collections, their parks and gardens from ruin. It would be tragic if despite the hard work of the last 18 years, the cultural achievement of five centuries were still to be needlessly sacrificed.”

And so he ended. Nine years after Robinson wrote about parks and gardens, the ‘Register of Historic Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England’, was established in 1983. It now identifies over 1,600 sites, including many country house properties, assessed to be of particular significance and which are graded similar to that of historic buildings.

Of course, there were many things John Martin Robinson couldn’t have foreseen in 1974.

The resurgence in agriculture was to stall, the full impact of joining the Common Market in 1973 still around the corner. The days of quotas and subsidies from the European Union were still to come. In fact, agriculture was to see the biggest change ever.

Country house visits increased in popularity during the remaining years of the 20th century. Those houses managed by the National Trust and English Heritage (formed in 1983) are now some of the country’s biggest visitor attractions. They’ve been joined by those properties belonging to the Historic Houses Association (now known as Historic Houses), a not-for-profit organisation representing about 1,600 privately owned historic houses, and created in 1973, a year before Robinson’s magazine article.

More than anything, the country house has had to reinvent itself. This was highlighted in the television series, Country House Rescue, which showcased large properties heading for oblivion. The programmes made intelligent attempts to persuade owners that the house must pay for itself. Some succeeded; some failed due to the stubbornness of the property holder. A large number of country houses are now hotels, conference centres, training facilities, wedding venues and specialist event centres. The trend of the seventies and eighties, when mansions became offices for large companies has reversed – many of these given over to the hospitality industry and even reverting back to residential use.

Sadly, the days of aristocrats in their big houses are a thing of the past. A large number are still in private ownership, but you’ll far more likely see a country house owned by a self-made businessman, a Russian oligarch or a middle-eastern billionaire.

Thankfully, the number of country houses being demolished is now a trickle, confined to those unfortunate not to be included on Historic England‘s  ‘National Heritage List for England’ (NHLE). Probably more houses have been destroyed through fire, as in the cases of Clandon Park, Kelsale Hall and Parnham House, whose shells still survive due to the listing process, one that wasn’t afforded the magnificent Coleshill back in 1958.

The Destruction of the Country House: 40 Years On (2014) is still available to purchase from SAVE Britain’s Heritage 

John Martin Robinson
John Martin Robinson. Born in 1948 and an Architectural Writer for Country Life magazine for over 40 years, contributing over 400 articles and reviews. He covered the subject again in ‘Felling the Ancient Oaks: How England Lost its Great Country Estates’ in 2011.

KIRBY HALL

“And to think that the sumptuous palace erected by Elizabeth’s wealthiest subject should have become the residence of a humble shepherd.”

Kirby Hall (Wikipedia)
Kirby Hall. A hall whose precise age is recorded, and in which we see plainly that the designer had not quite got rid of the idea that the exterior was to be plain, as being liable, in case of civil strife, to future ‘crenellation’.

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.

Christopher Hatton - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-1591) was an English politician, Lord Chancellor of England and a favourite of Elizabeth I of England.

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.

Kirby Hall - Garden Front - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
This sketch is from 1882 and shows Kirby Hall’s garden front. By this time the house was derelict. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - Inner Quadrangle - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
The interior court was symmetrically designed, with its carvings and classical forms. Image. The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Library Front - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
The library front. Another sketch from 1882 when tourists were freely allowed to wander through the abandoned house. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

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.”

Kirby Hall 1 - The Sketch - Jan 11 1899 (BNA)
The north side of the courtyard in 1899. This photograph was taken by Edith Broughton, of Bedford, for The Sketch magazine. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sketch - Jan 11 1899 (BNA)
The porch to the banqueting Hall. Another photograph from Edith Broughton. Ivy can be seen taking hold of the building. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

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 - The Sphere - Sat 3 May 1930 (BNA)
The Banqueting Hall. This photograph was taken in 1930, just after it had been taken over by the Office of Works who planned repair and renovation. At this time, the house had not been inhabited for one hundred years. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 1 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
Delicate Renaissance carving on the capitals of the fluted columns that alternate with the tall windows, and along the frieze running round the four sides of the inner quadrangle at Kirby Hall, which represents the best of Elizabethan architecture, having been built in 1570 by John Thorpe. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 3 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
“Beautiful, stocked with a great variety of exotic plants, and adorned with a wilderness composed of almost the whole variety of English trees, and ranged in elegant order,” was the comment of John Bridges, the 18th century Northamptonshire historian, on the garden at Kirby Hall, which was until the 1930s an overgrown waste. In this photograph from 1935 they were about to restocked with yews and roses by the Office of Works. Image. The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 2 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
Elegantly ornamented pilasters on either side of one of the great entrances at Kirby Hall, whose owner never lived to see it in its completed beauty. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 4 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
Devouring time had brought much of the splendour of Renaissance architecture to decay, but under the care of the Office of Works, the crumbling walls were about to be restored in 1935. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

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.

Kirby Hall (K Team)
The semi-restored Kirby Hall. The house was described in 1878 as being ‘cold grey ruins, the very image of mournful desolation, hidden amid deserted lime avenues and woods, untrodden save the solitary gamekeeper.’ Image: The K Team.
Kirby Hall (The Telegraph)
A managed ruin. Parts of Kirby Hall are still unrestored, but the decay has been halted under the management of English Heritage. Image: The Telegraph.