When fire broke out a lack of water caused by summer drought resulted in this country house’s destruction
Between the autumns of 1933 and 1934, the southern counties of England suffered extreme drought. The summer wasn’t particularly hot, but lack of rainfall depleted surface water in rivers, streams, ponds and lakes, leaving many of them dry beds. The effect of this had devastating consequences for one Norfolk country house when it caught fire in the early hours of Saturday 23 June 1934.
Fring Hall, built in 1807, was one of the show mansions of West Norfolk, and home to the Hon. Somerset Arthur Maxwell (1905-1942), the eldest son of Arthur Kenlis Maxwell, 11th Baron Farnham. He’d married (Angela) Susan Roberts, daughter of Captain Marshall Owen Roberts, by his former wife Irene Helene Murray, in 1930.
The House, which stood in many acres of grounds, with a beautiful garden and park, had been leased from the Dusgate family, and redecoration had recently been completed in readiness for the incoming tenants. It was described as ‘a neat cemented mansion, upon a commanding eminence, with extensive gardens and pleasure grounds’
Mr Maxwell and his wife had arrived from London about an hour before the fire broke out. He at once communicated with the police when the outbreak was discovered by a servant, and the Sandringham Brigade from the King’s estate was the first to arrive.
So intense were the flames, that by 4 am only the walls were left standing, and some of these had become cracked and in danger of collapse. The roof and two wings had gone and the fine old mansion of about 60 rooms was little more than a blackened ruin.
Only a few hundred gallons of water were available to fight the flames. Owing to the drought there was no water in the ponds or in the ditches, and 60 men from five fire brigades and 20 Royal Air Force men could only stand by after the initial supply was exhausted. The main sources of water turned out to be a well in the grounds and some storage tanks, meaning only a few hoses could be used.
Flames rose to a great height and could be seen for miles, the roads full of motorists who had come to watch. One local resident was able to report on the blaze:
“Mr Maxwell, I believe, only took over the mansion about four months ago, but only returned to it yesterday to attend a Conservative meeting promoted by Viscountess Downe, at Hillington.
“In the glare of the fire he worked in his shirt sleeves, doing all he could to help the firemen. Valuable furniture and jewels were saved before the flames reached the front of the house, I understand.”
Despite the lack of water, men were able to get into the buildings and rescue most of the downstairs furniture and some from the bedrooms. All the jewellery and silver recovered were placed in a cell at Docking Police Station for safekeeping.
Fring Hall was rebuilt in 1936 and said to be a copy of the original, although there are differences in its external appearance. The cropmark of the original building is said to appear in dry weather protruding from the side of the present house.
Lt-Colonel, the Hon. Somerset Maxwell, one of the country’s tallest MPs, died in 1942, of wounds he received in Agedabia (now Ajdabiya) in Libya.
These days Fring Hall is home to the Brun family. Henrik Constantin Brun (1908-2009) came over from Denmark before World War Two and worked for a large farming company before branching out on his own as a tenant on the Sandringham estate. His youngest son, Edward Henrik Constantin Brun (b. 1948), is now the occupier at Fring Hall with its woodland used to supply coppice and woodland products.
John Lloyd Davies inherited one of Wales’ largest estates when he was ten-years-old. He died at 28, having squandered his fortune, and leaving behind a series of ‘dubious’ wills
On the market at Savills with a guide price of £800,000 is Alltyrodyn Mansion, a substantial three storey late Georgian Grade II* listed country house. It is thought to date from about 1827, built in the style of the architect John Nash and retaining many of the original features throughout including decorative plasterwork.
The house, at Capel Dewi, near Llandysul in Ceredigion, was rebuilt for the Lloyd family, owners since the early 17th century, either for David Lloyd (1748-1822) or John Lloyd (d. 1841). According to the 1873 return of owners of land, this estate was once the sixth largest in the county, part of an estimated 6,877 acres of land owned by John Lloyd Davies (1850-1878) in Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire.
And it is to this person that we focus on the house’s most infamous years, a young man whose eventual death caused scandal and turmoil in the courts.
John Lloyd Davies was born in October 1850 and married in July 1872, shortly after reaching his majority. He became a rich man, possessing real estate in Cardiganshire and other Welsh counties, yielding a rental income of about £4,000 a year. The property he inherited at Alltyrodyn was derived through the old Welsh Lloyd family, long settled in Cardiganshire. The last of the line, John Lloyd, died unmarried and devised the estates to a female cousin, Anne Stewart, who survived her husband. After his death she married a man called John Davies (later called Lloyd Davies), a servant at a hotel in the neighbourhood in which she resided. He was her junior and considered to be illiterate, but before marrying him she had him educated.
The issue of this marriage was one child, a son, Arthur Lloyd Davies. He married Adelaide Lacy, the daughter of a publican, and he died in 1852, leaving surviving him his widow (who subsequently remarried) and two children, John Lloyd Davies and Ann Justina Lloyd, later Mrs Massey. John Lloyd Davies Sr survived his wife. He re-married and died in 1860, leaving surviving him two young sons – Hardwick Lloyd Davies and Powell Lloyd Davies. Though having only a life interest in the Alltyodyn estates, he dealt with them as if he were the owner in fee and disposed of them by will.
The consequence was a suit in Chancery in which 10-year-old John Lloyd Davies Jr inherited his estate, but managed by trustees until the child reached his majority. He became acquainted with James Allen, then a Chancery managing clerk and later a member of a firm of solicitors called Eyre and Co, of Bedford Row, London, who acted in his interest.
Lloyd Davies Jr gained full control of his estate at the age of 21, but was of an obstinate and intractable disposition and though gifted, with considerable intellectual power, had little inclination to study. When aged 20 he formed a relationship with Miss Susannah Crowhurst, a ballet-dancer at the Alhambra Theatre, and in April 1872, shortly after reaching 21, made provision for her in the first of a series of wills he executed. He gave her a legacy of £1,000 and an annuity of the same as well as a legacy of £5,000 to Mr Allen. He devised his real estates to his uncles by half-blood, Powell Lloyd Davies and Hardwick Lloyd Davies, in succession.
He married Miss Crowhurst the following July, and the will having been revoked, was revived by codicil, in which the gifts to her were made as to his wife. In June 1873, he executed a second will, and by it he increased the annuity to his wife to £2,000 and the legacy to Mr Allen to £10,000, leaving the remaining parts of the will unaltered. Lloyd Davies subsequently added further codicils, including adding a further £10,000 to Mr Allen’s legacy.
Shortly after the marriage Lloyd Davies needed money and mortgaged his estates to pay succession duties and supply his extravagances. He made a trip to South Africa to hunt ‘big game’ and visit the diamond fields. He sailed, leaving behind James Allen as power of attorney. He returned in 1874, but during absence had written several interesting letters of his adventure to Mr Allen, signing himself ‘your sincere and affectionate friend’.
On his return he went to live with Mr and Mrs Dewdney in Regent’s Park (and would later include them in his wills). Lloyd Davies needed more money and sold a portion of his landed property raising about £75,000.
About this time, James Allen’s relationship with his wife had deteriorated, and he thought it necessary to leave London for a considerable time. He was still a clerk, though admitted an attorney at Eyre and Co, of which he didn’t become a member until 1877. He made known his difficulties to John Lloyd Davies, who placed at his disposal a gift of £10,000. The marriage subsequently collapsed, and Allen stayed away from London.
In the meantime, John Lloyd Davies had stretched himself financially after dealings with a man named Morgan, a horse dealer, with whom he had entered into partnership. In 1875, he left his wife for America, visiting New York, and the Niagara Falls. He then journeyed into the far West, hunting in the Rocky Mountains, visiting the gold digging sites in California, and finally San Francisco.
On his return to Alltyrodyn he communicated for the first time with his sister, Ann, who visited his wife and became very friendly with her. A codicil was made by which she and her children were benefited to the extent of £300 a year. However, John Lloyd Davies developed pulmonary consumption and sought medical advice in London. His sister, perhaps sensing what might lay ahead, suggested that the estates, upon his death, go to her children, also his wife’s diamonds and jewellery. This so enraged him that he made another codicil, leaving her nothing. In the final will all the estates were given to James Allen, his most intimate friend, a legacy of £1,000 to his wife, in addition to an annuity of £2,500 per year during widowhood. By now, he had strained relationships with his family – particularly from his uncles, because their guardian would not allow them to associate with him.
He died in May 1878 aged 28. In opposition to the claim for probate, his sister and brother-in-law, Mr and Mrs Massey, alleged that the execution of the final will had been obtained by the undue influence and fraud of Mr Allen, and that at the date of the execution of the wills and codicils, John Lloyd Davies was not of sound mind.
In the end, James Allen’s name was struck out of the will of 1858, by which all other wills were revoked, and was instead given the sum of £5,000, presumably in aid of legal expenses. John Lloyd Davies’ sister, Ann Massey, became the possessor of the Alltyrodyn estates, a situation that caused bemusing celebrations at Llandysul. ‘The brass band marched through the town, followed by the drum and fife band in uniform; The Church bells rang, and bonfires, illuminations and other signs of rejoicings were prominent objects at night’.
However, in 1881, the former estates of John Lloyd Davies – Alltyrodyn, Blaendyffryn and Heolddu -were put up for sale by Ann Massey to settle outstanding debts. The mansion was later bought by Captain James Stewart (1830-1908), JP, DL, the second son of Mr Alexander Stewart, of Woodford Hall, Essex. He was a captain in the Royal Madras Horse Artillery and served in the Indian Mutiny. He married Louisa Charlotte Butler, a daughter of James Butler of the Indian Army. His son, Douglas Dormer Stewart, inherited the estate and the house remained with the family until the mid-20th century.
These days, events at Alltryodyn are much quieter and has been home to the current owner for many years.
A stunning portico entrance leads through double doors into the grand reception hall with exposed floorboards and a fireplace providing a warm focal point. A door leads off to the left and dining room with fireplace, and views across the front of the house. On the right of the reception hall is the drawing room again with fireplace, full-length mirror in frame and views across the front gardens. A doorway with fan lights over leads through from the hall to the inner hall with moulded stair hall cornice and staircase. On the right of the inner hall is a small reception room/extra bedroom. Beyond is the impressive ball room with cornice, arched recesses each end, flanked by matching display alcoves and built in cupboards and views across the side gardens. On the opposite side of the floor, the inner hall leads past the pantry, a cosy snug/office with fireplace, access to the wine cellar and through to the kitchen breakfast room with white Aga set in stone surround. A scullery and larder are situated off the kitchen together with a side entrance leading to the rear courtyard.
There are fourteen bedrooms in total, offering purchasers an opportunity to acquire one of the famous houses of Wales either as a home and/or to explore other commercial avenues including boutique B&B, hotel, wedding venue etc (of course, subject to planning permission).
“It is the kind of house that takes a lot of living up to,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary, as if rehearsing his favourite role as country squire
The selling point for Piers Court, on the market at Knight Frank with a £3 million guide price, is its connection with Evelyn Waugh, the author of Brideshead Revisited, who lived here between 1937 and 1956.
Notwithstanding, Piers Court at Stinchcombe, near Dursley, has a history going back much farther. The Grade II* listed house stands on the site of a medieval manor of that name burned down by Parliamentary troops searching for Prince Rupert on his march from Cirencester to Berkeley Castle (about six miles away) in 1645. Piers Court, a safe house for Royalists, was owned by the wealthy land and mill owning Pynffold family who remained for 150 years.
According to Historic England, the remains of the earlier building were incorporated into an 18th century property which is the house we see today.
Evelyn Waugh was born in Hampstead in 1903, the second son of Arthur Waugh, who was a contributor to The Yellow Book, an essayist and a publisher. He was educated at Lancing and Hertford College, Oxford, and, like many other writers, he taught in a private school for a time. His first novel, Decline and Fall, was published in 1928 and he followed it with nine years of travel which included the Arctic, tropical America and Abyssinia. He became a Roman Catholic in 1939 and had a varied war service, including membership of the British Military Mission to Yugoslavia in 1944. He married Laura, a daughter of Colonel Aubrey Herbert, an MP for Yeovil, in 1937 and settled at Piers Court, where he collected books. His novels included Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), Scoop (1938), Put Out More Flags (1942), Brideshead Revisited (1945), The Loved One (1948), Helena (1950) and Men at Arms (1952).
Evelyn Waugh bought Piers Court for £3,600 in 1937, having been given the money by his future parents-in-law, in readiness for his marriage to Laura Herbert, his second wife. (His first marriage to Evelyn Gardner had been annulled in 1926).
The outbreak of war meant their stay at Piers Court was cut short. The Waugh’s let the house to a convent school for £600 a year in October 1939, Laura moved to Pixton Park in Somerset, and Evelyn served with the Army in Crete and Yugoslavia. It wasn’t until September 1945 that they returned.
There are contradictory stories about Evelyn Waugh’s feelings towards Piers Court. He was initially said to have ‘fallen in love’ with the house; his son, Auberon Waugh, later recalled in his book Will This Do? how he and his siblings knew “the front of the house belonged strictly to my father . . . one detected his presence as soon as we walked into the pretty hall, with its white and black stone floor and glass chandelier”. The enforced absence might have been responsible for his later abating attitude regarding Piers Court.
Frances Donaldson, in Evelyn Waugh – Portrait of a Country Neighbour, wrote in 1968:
“I always loved the drawing-room at Piers Court. The rest of the house was a question of taste – Evelyn’s taste. Personally, I became very fond of that too, but I could understand why other people disliked it. Evelyn liked dark surfaces and pattern, heavy furniture, silver and glass. There was much that was Victorian in the house, but his taste was masculine and, although the house was enlivened with personal eccentricities, it was genuinely of the period.
“In his library the carved shelves were built out in bays as they are in a public library and painted dark green, but it was a big room and the effect was rather beautiful while this arrangement provided room for his collection of books. The dining-room was sombre but the hall, staircase and landing above were light and elegant. The whole house right down to the Abyssinian paintings in the gentlemen’s lavatory was uniquely different from any other house I have ever been in.
“The drawing-room into which we were shown on that first night spoke as much of Laura as of Evelyn. They both loved and had considered knowledge of fine furniture and they bought eighteenth-century pieces when they could afford to. On the walls hung pictures from Evelyn’s collection of Victorian painters including the Augustus Egg of two girls in a boat, and I remember with vivid affection the faded green velvet curtains banded with chintz which hung in the circular bay window and the cushions which they had bought in a country house sale. On this night a fire burned in the grate and the chintz-covered chairs and sofa were reassuring.”
According to Knight Frank, much can be learnt about Evelyn Waugh and his time spent at Piers Court from his diary entries and the letters he wrote to his friends, many of whom were noted intellectuals in the twentieth century.
Ironically, it was also Knight, Frank and Rutley who handled the sale of Piers Court when the Waughs tired of the house. The official line was that Evelyn had, in June 1955, received an unsolicited visit from Nancy Spain, a reporter from the Daily Express, demanding an interview. He showed her the door, but the damage had been done. Spain wrote up the episode and, within weeks, Waugh put Piers Court on the market. “I felt as if the house had been polluted,” he wrote to the estate agent, furious at the invasion of his privacy. “If you happen to meet a lunatic who wants to live in this ghastly area, please tell him.”
The truth about their departure was probably best summed up by Frances Donaldson:
“Whether or not I am right in my view, the happy days came to an end in 1956. Evelyn began to be restless, ostensibly because he believed the town of Dursley was creeping up to his gates, but really I think because he wished for change, to break the rut of boredom in which he was sunk.”
Various buyers came to light, among them a Colonel and a Sir Anthony Lindsay-Hogg, but it wasn’t until June 1956 that a Mrs Gadsden made an offer of £9,500 for Piers Court, which was accepted. The Waughs moved to a manor house at Combe Florey in Somerset where Evelyn died in 1966.
Piers Court is approached up a long drive, lined with high beech hedges.
According to Knight Frank, the house is extremely well presented and benefits from both an imposing, formal layout ideal for entertaining, yet to the rear of the property lies a homelier arrangement of rooms ideal for family living. Off the main entrance hall are the formal drawing room and library, both of which provide the grandeur that would be expected of a Georgian manor house.
Described by Country Life as a genial, pleasantly rambling family house with some 8,400sq ft of accommodation, including five reception rooms. There is also a kitchen/breakfast room with a beautiful beamed ceiling, tiled floor and lovely rustic feel. Upstairs there are eight bedrooms and six bathrooms … plus extensive attics and a one-bedroom staff wing.
The front garden is lawned with a circular clipped yew hedge encompassing an ornamental fountain. The secret garden is of particular note, with high clipped yew hedges and bordered by a stone wall. Gravel walkways lead to the Gothic edifice which was built by Evelyn Waugh when he was creating the gardens. The croquet lawn and tennis court are well screened by a high beech hedge which creates a corridor of alternating green and copper beech.
Piers Court has an array of deep beds which fill with colour in the spring and summer months. There are many garden components. The Coach House looks over the oval walled garden with ornamental ponds framed by careful planting. The park is arranged as pasture with parkland trees including horse chestnut, lime, oak and copper beech. Lying to the south of the parkland is further grassland divided by a hedgerow. A footpath crosses part of the land to the west of the house.
Of course, there have been a few owners since, and probably most traces of Evelyn Waugh’s existence have long-since disappeared. Back in 2004, the then-custodian revealed that his beloved library was long gone. “Under a previous owner, the library where Waugh wrote was shipped, piece by piece, to Texas, where it was supposed to be reconstructed as a museum but is still in packing cases.”
A Georgian mansion with Victorian additions. Not much remains of the house that General Robert E. Lee’s family once knew
The selling-point or Coton Hall is inevitably its connection with the de la Lee family, probably of Norman descent, who owned a sizeable chunk of Shropshire for about 500 years. This was their ancestral home, and in 1636, Richard Lee emigrated to Virginia, where he prospered in tobacco. Another descendant, Richard Henry Lee, was one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence, and Robert E. Lee was commander of the Confederate States Army.
The present house was built about 1800 for Harry Lancelot Lee, the last of the family to live at Coton Hall, in the Parish of Alveley. In his book In Search of the Perfect Home, Marcus Binney says “the elegant simplicity of the house is pure Regency, but to Victorian tastes it was a little too plain, and a picturesque Italianate tower and wing was added about 1860.”
With attention drawn to the American link, Coton Hall was on the market for £2.2 million back in January 2017. Eighteen months later, still unsold, the guide price has been quietly dropped to £1.85 million.
According to Marcus Binney, the house is hidden until the last moment, and it is the ruined chapel on the grass circle in front that first comes into view. With its fine interiors, the cellars are of interest, being two-storeys deep, and on the lower level is an entrance to a tunnel which leads to the chapel.
There is another side to Coton Hall’s history, one that is often overlooked. The Lee relationship might have ended with Harry Lancelot Lee, but by the time he died in 1821, he had already let the estate to a local curate.
Coton Hall was bought by James Foster (1786 -1853), an iron-master and coal-master of Stourbridge. In 1831 he sat in Parliament for the Liberals, became High Sheriff of Worcestershire in 1840, and became the head of the firm of iron-masters, John Bradley and Company. Foster’s wealth was immense and later allowed him to buy Stourton Castle. When he died in 1853, he left his fortune to his nephew, William Orme Foster of nearby Apley Park.
Coton Hall came into the possession of Edward Lloyd Gatacre (1806 -1891), head of one of Shropshire’s most ancient families, having settled at Gatacre Hall in the reign of Henry III. Educated at Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford, he became one of the oldest magistrates in the county and filled the office of High Sheriff in 1856.
Gatacre put the estate up for sale in 1851, and it was bought by the Reverend Edward Ward Wakeman (1801-1855), a man much esteemed for his great kindness to the poor, and his works for charity. He was the son of Sir Henry Wakeman, 1st Baronet, and Sarah Offley, and married Louisa Thompson in 1835. Wakeman also acquired the Hanley Court estate in 1855, under the will of the Rev. T. H. Newport, but died only months afterwards.
His eldest son and heir, Offley Francis Drake Wakeman (1836-1865) only came of age in 1857, and the affairs at Coton Hall were briefly managed by his uncle, Offley Penbury Wakeman (1799-1858), 2nd Baronet of Periswell Hall, in Worcestershire.
After over-exerting himself in a cricket match in 1865, Offley Wakeman was found lying in a pool of blood, his death caused by the rupture of a blood vessel. His brother, Henry Allan Wakeman-Newport (1841-1923), had inherited the Hanley Court estate, and Coton Hall was awarded to the youngest brother, Edward Maltby Wakeman (1846-1926).
Edward graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, with a Master of Arts, became a Chartered Accountant, a J.P., and was awarded Honourable Lieutenant-Colonel in the 3rd Battalion Shropshire Light Infantry. He married Edith Mary Buchanan in 1874, and had two children, Gladys Louisa Wakeman and Edward Offley Wakeman, an only son, who died within his first year.
In 1878, the roof of the chapel collapsed, and all the Lee monuments were moved to Alveley Church.
Colonel Wakeman died in 1926, and left instructions that his funeral should be ‘the plainest possible description, and that all unnecessary expense should be avoided’. He was drawn in an open bier to the grave at Alveley Church by those whom he had employed. Edward left his property in trust for his daughter, with the request that the successors to the property assumed the name and arms of Wakeman. Gladys Louisa had married Captain Hugh Davenport Colville, Royal Navy, in 1906, and legally changed their name to Wakeman-Colville in 1927. They stayed at Coton Hall until the 1930s.
In the 1940s, Coton Hall was home to Mr and Mrs Howard Thompson. The house, which had always maintained a modest degree of secrecy, was opened to the public for one-day in 1956, and was described in the Birmingham Daily Post:
“On show in the Hall – the ancestral home of Gen. Robert E. Lee – will be four of the main rooms. These contain many art treasures, including superb paintings of the Lee family, who owned the hall for more than 500 years.
“In front of the Hall stands the remains of a chapel built in 1275, which was at one time the private domestic chapel of the reigning monarch. It was used by King Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor. The latter laid a rent charge on the manor which is still paid. A subterranean passage leads from the Hall to a crypt beneath the chapel
“The Hall, which stands on a hill, 550 feet above sea level, commands a wonderful view of the valley and the large trout lake.
“The main feature of the four-acre grounds are the trees, which have plaques attached to indicate their variety. Behind the Hall, overlooking a valley, stands a magnificent cedar tree, planted 226 years ago. In the same year, Thomas Lee sent some seeds to Coton from Virginia. These seeds have now flourished into the tall red chestnut trees in Coton Park.”
Marcus Binney says the ruined chapel is no antiquity. “Local historians have claimed that this is the chapel of ancient Saxon kings, but it is a simple Palladian box with a pretty Strawberry Hill Gothic window in the east end. It is attributed to Shrewsbury architect, Thomas Farnolls Pritchard.”
Coton Hall, built in mellowed sawn grey stone, with a slate roof, is being marketed by Savills and offers excellent family accommodation. Particularly notable are the well-proportioned reception rooms, with their high ceilings and decorative architectural detail. The additional Victorian wing, with Italianate turret, blends admirably with the Georgian part of the house.
A fire in a country house. The night a mansion burned to the ground
Soon after midnight, on the morning of Monday 18th January 1904, Sir Merrick Burrell, 7th Baronet, woke in the south wing at Knepp Castle and found that something was amiss. There was a strong smell of smoke and his greatest fears were about to be realised. Stirred into action he quickly surmised that the old mansion was on fire. Sir Merrick aroused Lady Burrell and called the household, but it seemed the fire had got such a strong hold that escape was the obvious option. As everyone made a hasty exit the instruction was given to summon the Horsham and Warnham Fire Brigades.
Sir Merrick returned to Lady Burrell’s room to find the bedclothes alight and the floor burning. He quickly retreated and within minutes the floor gave way, collapsing onto the room below. So rapidly had the fire progressed, it became apparent that all ordinary means of extinguishing it were useless. The only thing left to be done was to save as much portable property as possible.
It was dark outside, the only illumination coming from the flames, and the occupants could only watch as the house burned. In the confusion, Lady Burrell and the frightened children were whisked through the night to West Grinstead Park, the home of Mr and Mrs Rolls Hoare, where they would remain for weeks.
The air was thick with dense smoke, the fire running around each room between the plaster and the walls, until walls, floors and ceilings all blazed together, the roof falling in shortly before the arrival of the Horsham Fire Brigade at 2.30am, an hour-and-a-half after the discovery of the fire. Fortunately, they were quickly followed by the Warnham Court Brigade, but were endangered by the flow of molten lead falling from the building.
It was a scene of chaos as firemen struggled to get water from the lake in Knepp Park and onto the flames. Bravely they battled, but it was a long time before they could be satisfied it was under some sort of control. In fact, it wasn’t until the afternoon before an air of calm descended over the scene.
In the light of day nothing much was left of Knepp Castle except for blackened walls and a mass of ruins, and it was perhaps a miracle that nobody had been killed. Practically whole of the old portion of the house had been destroyed and all that remained was a water and smoke damaged servants’ wing.
Knepp Castle had been a splendid Gothic castellated building erected in 1806 by John Nash for Sir Charles Merrick Burrell (3rd Bt.), about two miles away from the fragments of an ancient castle. The interior of the mansion had been in the highest degree elegant and commodious. The principal rooms had been spacious and lofty, especially the Library, Dining-Room and Drawing-Room, of which the first two were 36ft x 20ft, the circular staircase was 20ft in diameter and 30ft high.
Sir Merrick Raymond Burrell (1877 – 1957) was educated at Eton, became a lieutenant in the 1st Royal Dragoons, and served in the South African War. He owned about 9,000 acres and married, in February 1902, Miss Wilhelmina Winans, daughter of Walter Winans, an American millionaire. He had succeeded his father in 1899.
In the days after the fire there was the realisation that a great deal more had been lost. Knepp Castle had a fine collection of valuable paintings. The most valuable of these were housed in the gallery, collected by Sir William Burrell, 2nd Baronet, who had been a Fellow of the Royal Society, and according to Murray’s Handbook, included eight Holbein portraits, notable examples of Van Somer and, more important still, a few Van Dyck’s. Thankfully, the Drawing Room pictures, which included two Romneys, had been saved. The safe, plate and many valuable items had also been secured but the Burrells had lost virtually all their personal clothing.
Lady Burrell’s grandfather, Mr Winans, was in the Russian fur trade, and the family had a splendid opportunity of acquiring the finest furs. A chinchilla mantle, which had only arrived the day before the fire, was valued at £200. It had come by rail and had been fully insured for the journey. In the ordinary course it would not have been sent up from the station until the following morning, but unluckily the staff thought, from the heavy insurance, that the parcel was important and delivered it immediately. Lady Burrell ruefully commented that “promptitude is not always a virtue.”
According to Central News Telegram, the damage was estimated at £60,000, with furs belonging to Lady Burrell valued at £6,000 alone.
As might have been expected, the fire at Knepp Castle was talked about for weeks afterwards. The fire appeared to have started at the back of a recently altered chimney in the entrance hall, taking hold of bookcases in the library behind, quickly running around the room, and at length setting fire to the ceiling and floor of the bedroom above, in which Lady Burrell had been sleeping.
Most interestingly was a war of words that appeared in local newspapers about the worthiness of the fire brigade. The West Sussex County Times reprinted a letter that had originally appeared in the February issue of the Parish Magazine:
‘Criticism of voluntary workers, though in this case necessary, are undesirable in the pages of our magazine. Still, in the public interest, we cannot help stating one fact plainly noticeable to all the onlookers, and that is the fact that the Horsham Fire Brigade, in spite of many willing helpers at the pumps, were comparatively useless in a fire of such magnitude, and could not have controlled the fire without the help of the Warnham engine (which threw up more water than the combined efforts of the other two), a serious state of things when one considers the money residences in the district whose owner would naturally look to Horsham for help, should occasion require.’
This prompted an angry response the following week from an angry reader called Ernest G. Apedaile:
‘I should like to point out that the Horsham Brigade is purely a volunteer one, and, personally, I feel strongly that all honour is due to its members for their splendid turn-out, especially when it is borne that the fire occurred in the middle of the night, when the men had to leave their beds, and that many of them must have lost the following day’s work and pay. Considering that their engines are manuals, and the many disadvantages they had to labour under, I think they acquitted themselves well on this occasion.’
Another reader made a rather subtle suggestion. ‘It would be a great advantage if the Fire Engine Station were on the telephone!’
And the dialogue continued until there was a more realistic comment from Onlooker, also in the West Sussex County Times:
“I would like to ask him (Sir Merrick) if, for a small town like Horsham, with a voluntary brigade, supported by voluntary contributions, he can expect to have sufficient apparatus to cope with an outbreak satisfactorily. Most of the large residences are ‘said to be dependant on Horsham for help’ have got at least some description of fire appliances of their own. C.J. Lucas (Warnham Court), Sir Henry Harben (Warnham Lodge), Sir Edmund Loder (Leonardslee) and others are very well equipped, but although there are always tons of water close at hand at Knepp, by some mysterious reason or misfortune any provision for dealing with an outbreak of fire seems to have been a secondary consideration.”
(Note – After a fire at Warnham Court in 1901, Charles Lucas created the Warnham Court Fire Brigade, with a horse-drawn steam appliance and fire crew made up from the estate).
Sir Merrick Burrell found it quite impossible to answer all the kind letters of condolence which had been written to him after the fire. He reflected the loss of the entire library, nearly all the pictures, practically all valuable furniture, all clothing, lace, furs and nearly all Lady Burrell’s jewels, thought to have been safe in the ‘warranted fireproof’ safe.
Two months after the fire, Sir Merrick announced his intention to rebuild Knepp Castle as soon as possible. Externally, the castle was to remain like its former appearance, as the outer walls, with their castellated towers, were to be preserved. It turned out to be a complete reconstruction of Nash’s original with the addition of a third floor Bachelor Wing.
The start of the new century turned out to be a bad one for Sir Merrick. He allowed his agricultural tenants an abatement of fifty per cent on their rents to show his sympathy with them in what turned out to be a bad season. In 1907 he was granted a decree nisi in the Divorce Courts because of Lady Burrell’s misconduct with Henry James Phillips King, an officer in the Royal Horse Artillery. She had stayed, it was stated, at Bournemouth and at Nice with the co-respondent. A year later the engagement was announced between Sir Merrick and Miss Coralie Porter Porter, the daughter of John Porter Porter, of Belle Isle, Co Fermanagh.
Knepp Castle was the headquarters of the 1st Canadian Division during WW2 and narrowly escaped being burned down a second time when a desert stove exploded in the pantry.
In the week that this was written, Eleanor Doughty in The Telegraph, wrote about Knepp Castle. Within this article, Isabella Tree, the writer and wife of Sir Charles Burrell, 10th Baronet, who both live in the house, revealed a piece of handed-down information from the fire:
“Charlie’s grandfather had just been born, so there was a nursemaid up tending to the baby, otherwise they’d have all gone up.”
A farce ensued. “They were trying to get the furniture out, and got the grand piano stuck in the front door, so nothing else could get in or out. Meanwhile, a new under-footman had been sent to get the fire brigade, but he got lost, so the fire brigade wasn’t coming, the piano was stuck in the front door, and eight Holbeins went up in smoke in the dining room, with everything under-insured.”
Like the British woollen industry, this Georgian mansion fell from grace but is a worthy restoration
It’s taking a long, long time to sell Healey Hall, near Rochdale. The estate agent brief suggests that ‘a property of such distinction rarely comes to the market making this an exciting opportunity for any perspective buyer’. Look further and you will see that Healey Hall has been a difficult property to sell.
The house gets its name from the de Heley family, who are believed to have had land in Heley (the old name for Healey) before the Norman Conquest, and a stone still preserved at Healey Hall bears the date of 1250, though the stone was not cut until later date. The original mansion was rebuilt in 1618 and this in turn was superseded by the existing mansion in 1774.
The Grade II listed house was built by John Chadwick, armour-bearer and treasurer of the district, who used the cellars of the Jacobean hall as the foundation of the present Georgian property. ‘Its massive walls, not usual in a private Mansion, are formed in general of ponderous stones cramped with iron and lead and bound together with grout-work.’
Colonel John Chadwick was the last of his family to live at Healey Hall and was responsible for an inscription on the large frontal stone that was reinstated in recent years.
Healey Hall was later occupied by the Tweedale family whose woollen manufacturing business was founded in nearby Healey Dell.
It isn’t surprising that the house had long associations with wool. During the Industrial Revolution the area was at the core of the textile industry and when A.T. Radcliffe bought Healey Hall, he was typical of those wealthy Victorian businessmen blessed with a family fortune.
For some years he was in partnership with his nephew, Gerald Radcliffe (1872-1942), the son of his brother, Joshua W. Radcliffe of Werneth Park, Oldham, and carried on a woollen business at Green Mill in Rochdale. When his uncle left Healey Hall, Gerard Radcliffe bought it and remained until he retired from business. He left the area and settled down on a country estate, Elton Hall, at Ludlow.
Healey Hall was sold to the Heape family and became home to Robert Taylor Heape (1848-1917) and his brother Richard Heape (1850-1927). Robert and Richard were partners in R. and J. Kelsall, later becoming Littlewood and Heape, and on retirement transferring to Kelsall and Kemp (more of which later).
Robert was famous for his lavish benefactions to Rochdale Art Gallery. Between 1901 and 1913 he presented about one hundred pictures and three pieces of statuary to the gallery, and for many years his gifts formed the nucleus of the permanent collection. He remained at Healey Hall until 1908 when his brother Richard took over the estate.
Richard Heape, J.P., had retired from business in 1892 and owned the Harley estate with which the family had been associated since 1726. Like his brother, he was keen on the arts and sat on the Libraries, Art Gallery and Museums Committee of Rochdale Corporation. He died in 1927.
The Roe family were the last of the big woollen families to live at Healey Hall. Reginald Claude Roe, J.P., (1881-1942) moved in after Harold Heape, the last of his line to live there, vacated to a nearby cottage in 1940. Born in Brisbane, Australia, but educated at Balliol College, Oxford, he came to Rochdale in 1905 to join Kelsall and Kemp Ltd, and some four years later was made a director. He was also a director of its associated companies – Kelsall and Kemp (Tasmania) Ltd, Thomas Heape and Sons and J. Radcliffe and Co – all established firms with historical links to Healey Hall. His widow, Morag, remained after his death in 1942.
The decline of the British woollen industry also reflects in the fortunes of the mansion. No longer viable as a family home it became a 12-bedroom nursing home in the 1980s. When that home closed in the 1990s the building was vandalised, and many internal features were lost, damaged or destroyed.
When Jason Stead bought it in 1999 the property had been granted planning permission to become a restaurant, but it was in poor condition and had been lived in by a tramp. “The hall had been boarded up and derelict. Before this it had been fitted out and was a nursing home for many years. In common with many listed buildings of this type. The hall had only received superficial works mainly decorative to bring it in line with the nursing home requirements.”
Over the next four years he renovated every one of its 36 rooms and embarked on a massive restoration project. Happy to use it as a temporary family home there was still the issue of its long-term future. Healey Hall was put up for sale at £2.7 million in 2007 but failed to find a buyer. In 2009 there were plans to turn Healey Hall into a ‘residential alcohol therapeutic facility’. Despite being granted planning permission the option was never taken up. Four years later, there were suggestions it might become a 11-bedroom country hotel.
Nine years later offers are wanted in excess of £1.35 million The house has multiple reception rooms, 11 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms and a lower ground floor with potential for leisure use. It stands in 12 acres split between open fields, parking and formal gardens. Maison Haus
One hundred years ago, Rooksnest, a country house at Godstone, found itself the subject of a scandal involving an MP.
At one point, two years into the Great War, Britain had found itself with only six weeks’ worth of food and on the verge of starvation. However, it wasn’t until end the of 1917 that food rationing was introduced and by February 1918, general rationing was in force. Food hoarding was a real problem. Authorities, as well as the general public, took a dim view of anyone engaged in such practices. Naming and shaming in the press was common, penalties were harsh and imprisonment a real possibility.
In February 1918, newspapers reported that Mr William John MacGeagh MacCaw, the MP for West Down, had been fined £400 under the Food Hoarding Order. At Godstone Petty Sessions, Mr Roland Oliver, prosecuting, said: “It was impossible to imagine a worse case of the people’s representative hoarding the people’s food.” An inspection had been made at his home, Rooksnest, by a local officer who found a significant quantity of tapioca, rice, oatmeal, semolina, biscuits, tea, sugar, golden syrup and honey. Similar quantities were also found at his home at 103, Eaton Square, London. In his defence, Mr MacCaw said: “I think a reasonable supply ought to be kept. I don’t think I’ve neglected my duty in any way. I have a large body of people dependent upon me for food.” He was found guilty, fined and the food confiscated.
Rooksnest is located at Godstone, built between 1775-1781, probably by Richard Beecher. It came into the possession of Charles Hampden Turner, a businessman with rope-making and dock interests, in 1817. It remained with the family for the next 100 years but was tenanted for large periods. Its most notable resident was Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811 – 1876), the Gothic revival architect associated with the building and renovation of churches and cathedrals, who was here from 1870.
William John MacGeagh MacCaw (1850 – 1928), the Unionist MP for West Down between 1908 and 1918, was another who rented the property. In early life he had gone to India where he joined the firm of Kettlewell, Bullen and Co (Calcutta and London), jute manufacturers, eventually becoming its principal partner. He also joined the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and lived there for 20 years. After his conviction he bowed out of politics in the General Election of 1918, called immediately after the Armistice with Germany, and died in Monte Carlo.
Rooksnest was bought in the 1920s by James Voase Rank (1881 – 1952), a flour miller with Joseph Rank Ltd and brother of Joseph Arthur Rank, founder of the Rank Organisation. He renamed the house Ouborough after the Yorkshire town (Oubrough) where his father had started the flour business in 1875. After he died in 1952 the house eventually became Street Courte School, a preparatory school founded in Westgate-on-Sea in 1894 by J. Vine Milne, the father of author A.A. Milne. It closed in 1994 and eleven years later Ouborough and its parklands became the Godstone Golf Club.