One of Suffolk’s finest country houses is facing an uncertain future. It shows no signs of reopening as a hotel, and appears to be falling into disrepair.
In his book ‘In Search of the Perfect House,’ architectural historian Marcus Binney suggests that “in almost every other European country, Shrubland Hall would be called a palace. A grand Italianate composition with belvedere tower, breathtaking terraced gardens, Swiss cottage and five drives.”
Some of our finest architects were associated with Shrubland Hall (or Shrubland Park), making it hard to accept that the mansion has stood empty for nearly four years. In 2015, an ill-fated attempt to use the country house as a luxury hotel ended in failure. Since then, Shrubland has been left to ruminate its past glories.
Shrubland Hall was built in the 1770s by James Paine (1717-89) for the Reverend John Bacon. At the same time, Paine was commissioned to remodel Moor Park in Surrey for John Bacon’s younger brother, Basil, who had inherited the estate in 1770. The third brother, the Reverend Nicholas Bacon, almost certainly used the architect as well, rebuilding the vicarage at Coddenham (now Coddenham House) in 1771.
John Bacon died in 1788, Shrubland passing to his brother, Nicholas, who immediately sold the estate to Sir William Fowle Middleton (1748-1829), 1st Baronet, of Crowfield. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, where his family owned Middleton Place, he arrived in Suffolk after inheriting Crowfield Hall near Stowmarket. His brother, Henry, gave him £30,000 to spend on improvements at Shrubland, and he employed Humphry Repton to expand the park from 1789 onwards, and replaced Paine wings in about 1808.
Shrubland Hall was inherited by his only son, Sir William Fowle Middleton (1784-1860), 2nd Baronet, who brought in architect John Peter Gandy Deering in 1831-38, and later Alexander Roos between 1838-45, who enlarged and redecorated the house. About 1850, he turned to Sir Charles Barry who turned the property into an Italian palazzo.
After his death, Sir William’s cousin, Sir George Nathaniel Broke Middleton, took over. In 1882, it passed to his niece, Jane Anne Broke, and her husband, James St. Vincent (1843-1937), 4th Baron de Saumarez, in the Island of Guernsey, and leased to tenants, including Lord Magheramorne.
During World War One it was one of the first country mansions to be turned into a Red Cross Convalescent Hospital.
In 1965, James Victor Broke Saumarez (1924-1991), 6th Baron, opened the house as a health clinic, leaving the family furniture and valuable collections in place. It was the brainchild of Lady de Saumarez, a former Royal Ballet dancer who married into the family and supervised its running. With an emphasis on detox and weight loss, the hall remained unchanged for forty years, and attracted high-profile guests, including actress Joan Collins. When the clinic closed in 2006, the contents were sold, and the house eventually put on the market by Eric Douglas Saumarez (born 1956), 7th Baron de Saumarez, to cover an inheritance tax bill.
In 2009, the Shrubland estate was sold in 42 lots, the house being bought for £6 million by Dr Muhammad Farmer, Chief Executive and founder of the British Institute of Technology and E-Commerce, which used it as residential accommodation.
Shrubland Hall was far too grand. Farmer’s decision to convert the mansion into an extravagant hotel in 2014 should have been a rewarding undertaking, taking “prestigious guests … on a journey back to the future,” but the Shrubland Royale Hotel suffered scathing reviews, quickly closing in 2015.
Mr Farmer claimed that a “celebrity guest” had booked the entire hotel until the following year. However, by September 2016, signs outside the hall had been removed, the gates were closed and booking attempts were declined. It went on the market for £6.5 million, but remains unsold despite recent claims from Mr Hubbard that the Hilton hotel franchise were interested in taking over the property. A claim later denied by the hotel operator.
The East Anglian Daily Times visited the Shrubland Park Walk – a public right of way that passes through the grounds – in 2017. “The hall appeared an unlikely retreat for any film or music star. The only sign of activity was an older man chopping wood with a chainsaw. Many of the outbuildings appeared in disrepair and the vast grounds left overgrown.”
Meanwhile, Shrubland Hall deteriorates and following complaints from the parish council, Historic England has visited the house to assess the condition of the gardens and the Grade I listed mansion. The park has been on its Heritage at Risk Register for several years.
An oasis in the Derbyshire countryside. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a big impact on the landscape, but it remained home to a composer and pianist.
These photographs of Mrs Sacheverell Coke and her children date from 1921, and were taken by Miss Compton Collier at Brookhill Hall, Pinxton, in Derbyshire. Mrs Sacheverell Coke was the widow of Lieutenant Langton Sacheverell Coke (1878-1914) of the Irish Guards, struck in the head with a bullet at Klein Zillebeke, near Ypres, in the first few months of World War One . He was the eldest son of Colonel William Langton Coke and in 1908 married Miss Dorothy Maye Huntingford (1881-1957), daughter of Captain George Huntingford, Royal Navy, of Hampshire. At one time he had been sub-editor of the Black and White magazine, a British illustrated weekly that was incorporated into The Sphere in 1912.
His heir was the little boy, Roger, seen in these pictures, who was born in 1913, and was now lord of the manor of Pinxton and joint lord of the manor of South Normanton. The little girl’s name was Betty, four years older than her brother.
There had been Cokes at Brookhill since the middle of the sixteenth century and the house was essentially Jacobean incorporating parts of an earlier building. Descended from Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney General for Elizabeth I, the family became important landowners, and since 1744 the Earl of Leicester title had been in the family. Until 1567, the house was known as Hill Brook House, and like many family seats, Brookhill had grown up over the centuries with each generation adding its mark.
By the 1960s, Brookhill and its park was stranded in an industrial landscape bounded on one side by nineteenth century developments of Pinxton and the twentieth century M1 motorway, which cut through the park on the other.
In 1972, Robert Innes-Smith wrote that the most important treasures of Brookhill had been dispersed, but it remained home to Roger Sacheverell Coke, now a distinguished composer and pianist, who did most of his work in his studio in the converted eighteenth-century stable block. For Roger’s 21st birthday, his mother had ordered the Coach House to be turned into an area where all his musical indulgences could be fulfilled.
Roger died in 1972, the house in perilous state, and his heir, Gilbert William Lloyd Darwin, sold the house, but not the estate, to the Cookson family who restored it.
If stones could speak, Highhead Castle, at Ivegill, Cumbria, would have a tale to tell, one in which romance and pathos, were blended in a chronicle of a man’s bitter disappointment.
Today, the remains of the real castle, built more than six centuries ago are almost non-existent. The Castle was here when the Richmond family became owners in Tudor times and added a West Wing to the old fortified mansion.
A century later a fortunate marriage brought Catterlen Hall to the Richmonds and here, too, they left a memorial of themselves in the fine 17th century wing of that fascinating house.
By 1716 both properties were ruled over by the widow of Christopher Richmond. Ruled was the right word for Isabella Miller – she took a second husband – was a matriarch who ruled with a rod of iron and gave no quarter.
Of her family of eleven, only the daughters married. The one son who grew to manhood died at the age of 26 in 1716, and his mother – who mourned him deeply – was faced with the problem of the disposal of the two estates after her death. She had many descendants from whom to choose, and eventually the lot fell upon her grandson, Henry Richmond Brougham, whom she hoped to make head of a new line at Highhead.
Her will was framed to this end, but its provisions spelt ruin to Highhead Castle in the end.
At the time, Henry Richmond Brougham was 17, and the old lady disposed of Highhead in this way. One half was to be enjoyed by her unmarried daughter, Susanna Richmond, for her life, and the other half Susanna was to have until Henry Richmond Brougham came of age. In the event of his dying unmarried his half was to revert to Susanna.
Isabella Miller died in 1739, the year before her grandson came of age. If she had had dreams for him, so had Susanna Richmond, his aunt, who found that the boy’s uncle, John Brougham, of Scales Hall, Skelton, was equally anxious that Henry Richmond Brougham should reign happy and glorious at Highhead. Nothing but a complete rebuilding of the old castle would do.
Down came the two 14th century towers, leaving only the Tudor wing standing. To this was added an 18th century house, at a cost of £10,000 – a very large sum in the days of its construction when masons were paid 10d a day. ¹
It is said that John Brougham had spent some time in Italy and acquired a passion for Italian designs and workmanship. It is certain that he brought over Italian craftsmen to carry out ceilings, cornices, and other plasterwork. In a tantalising reference, William Jackson, writing in 1874, spoke of the “traditional gossip” about the foreign craftsmen, which still lingered in the district. As the work neared completion, Henry Richmond Brougham, by now 30, was chosen as High Sheriff of Cumberland. To support him in this dignity, his uncle made over to him four estates – no doubt with a hint that they were to be handed back when the year of office was over.
Fate stepped in at this point and death claimed Henry Richmond Brougham before the year was ended. The work at Highhead was suspended, and the building operations never resumed.
The four estates passed to the young man’s legal heir, who, to quote Mr Jackson, “did not recognise the property of returning them” to John Brougham.
Highhead and Catterlen now became the property of Susanna Richmond for life. While she lived all was yet well. She lived in state at Highhead and enjoyed the good things in life. In the 1870’s there still remained at Greystoke Castle some of the ale brewed at Highhead and given by Susanna to the then Duke of Norfolk. It was said to have been a drink fit for kings.
Miss Susanna lived on until 1774, when she died at the age of 87. She had the power of disposing of Catterlen and left it to her niece. Mrs Curwen, of Workington Hall.
Highhead, on the contrary, now passed under complicated terms of her mother’s will and the trouble began. The old lady had never envisaged the untimely end of her grandson. He was to have shared one half of the house with his aunt, on whose death he would be entitled to the other half.
Now, however, the ownership of the Castle was divided into two halves and each half into fourths. In the end, none of the owners occupied the Castle, and from 1774 it was deserted except that estate tenants could use some of the rooms as store rooms and granaries.
Writing in 1794, William Hutchinson said “the swallows and jackdaws have now been its only tenants for many years, and it is doubtful the whole fabric will be suffered to go to wreck.”
The divided ownership was the curse of the Castle. Legal squabbles were kept up until the owners of one half at length decided to pull down that portion and sell the materials. The work of destruction had indeed begun but was stayed by the sale of that half about 1820 to Henry Brougham, later to be Lord Chancellor, who eventually bought the other half and so became owner of the whole.
Whellan, writing in 1860, said: “There was formerly a good deal of carved woodwork about the building, but this has been removed to Brougham Hall.” About this time the house was repaired and was let as a farmhouse. ²
The second Lord Brougham carried out more repairs between 1868 and 1874. His son and successor sold Highhead Castle – still used as a farmhouse – in November 1902, to Judge Herbert Augustus Hills for £18,000. From the judge it passed to the Right Hon John Waller Hills, became tenanted, and he sold it to Colonel Alan Dower, MP, on whose instructions it was offered for sale in June 1950.
In August 1950, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning announced that Highhead Castle had been scheduled as a building of special architectural and historic interest.
On Tuesday, December 12, 1956, Highhead Castle, now owned by Mr Gordon Robinson, a Penrith butcher, had been away with his wife on business. On their return they found the 30-roomed Georgian mansion on fire, their three small children having been rescued and taken to safety in a neighbouring farmhouse.
The alarm had been raised after farmers saw smoke billowing from a bedroom window. When firemen arrived only the small wing where the family lived was burning. A Cumberland News reporter said: “In no time at all the wind had driven the flames to another room, then there was no stopping the raging inferno as flames and smoke swirled in the rain. It was a terrible sight as scores of villagers and helpers were told to keep back out of danger, while firemen risked their necks to fight the blaze from inside the castle.”
A split-second saved one fireman as he ran down the main staircase to the main hall. A heavy red-hot beam dropped inches behind him, setting the staircase alight. Other firemen and helpers ran from the house.
The roof began to break in with dull, monotonous cracks, and turntables were brought out to fight the fire from above. Flames were swirling all around the firemen as they carried hoses to the top of the turntables. “They stood out like ghosts in the glare, against the charred black background of the castle walls.” Glass splintered in all directions, bursting with intense heat, as firemen continued to pump water 400 yards from the River Ive all through the night.
Jim Templeton was a firefighter on that December night in 1956 and said the conditions were terrible. It was so windy that one of his colleagues was blown off a ladder. The fire was well alight when they arrived and there was little they could do to save the house. Jim had a lucky escape himself, he said that a heavy iron bath fell through the house as the timbers became sodden with water and almost landed on him. ³
Now only the outer walls and cellars remain. The magnificent terraced gardens are also in need of a lot of work, but the facade of the house is pretty much intact.
An application was made in 1985 to demolish the remains which was defeated after a public inquiry. Christopher Terry (1938-2016), who also owned Brougham Hall near Penrith, bought Highhead Castle just as it was about to be demolished. In fact, he said, he was given an hour’s notice and shot up to the house just in time to save it.
In November 2018, Highhead Castle is on Historic England’s Buildings at Risk Register, classified ‘A’, being the highest priority. With support from Historic England and the Country Houses Foundation, emergency stabilisation works have been completed and an options appraisal has been produced to help secure a viable and sustainable long-term use. It is currently on the market at Savills with offers wanted over £250,000.
Notes:- ¹ The Classical House was built for the Brougham family between 1744-49, from the same red Lazonby sandstone as the gorge below it and is thought to have been designed by renowned architect James Gibbs.
² What happened to the woodwork which Lord Chancellor Brougham took from Highhead to Brougham Hall? Presumably it was among the 5000 square feet of linen fold and Jacobean oak panelling which was sold at Brougham Hall on July 18, 1934, before the house was abandoned. On that day, 730 square feet of oak linen fold panelling in the dining room were sold to a London buyer for £130, and a screen of Italian workmanship from the Armoury was sold for £30 to Mr Eugene Andrews. This screen was relocated to St John’s Church in Girvan. It may have come from Highhead Castle or have been bought from the Continent by Lord Chancellor Brougham, who bought many treasures during his frequent trips abroad.
³ BBC Radio Cumbria. May 20, 2006.
⁴ The Classical House, northern garden wall and Tudor West Wing are all separately listed Grade II* and the servants wing and piers to the end of the drive are both listed Grade II.
Lord Glanely is probably best remembered today as a noted racehorse owner, whose horses won all five Classic races of the British turf. However, he made his money in shipping.
Exning House was built by Francis Shepheard in 1734 to the design of the mason, Andrews Jelfe. From that time, it was occupied by the principal landowners in the village. It was at the centre of 1 700 acres estate and from the early 19th century was set in an extensive park.
The Shepheard family were wealthy landowners, possessing several manors and much property, sufficiently for the illegitimate daughter of Samuel, the surviving brother of Francis, to be described as an heiress, and win the hand of Charles Ingrham, one of the many sons of Lord Arthur Ingrham of Temple Newsam in Yorkshire.
The estate was sold in 1794 to John Dobede, chairman of the Newmarket Bench and a senior magistrate in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, whose son, Henry F. Dobede, restored and enlarged the hall. In 1881, the house was auctioned and sold to Mr Fenn of Newmarket, representing the Stewards of the Jockey Club, for £165,000. It was deemed an important purchase, being adjacent to the race-course, and suitable for accommodation purposes. When the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Newmarket for the July meeting in 1882, it was here that they stayed.
In 1883, Exning House, along with its gardens and grounds, was let to Lord and Lady Carcross. They remained until 1891, at which time the Jockey Club put a portion of the Exning estate up for sale, including the mansion itself. The sales catalogue described it as ‘a mansion of handsome and classic design in red brick, with stone facings and Corinthian portico, situate in a finely-wooded park’. At the auction, it sold for £32,500 to Mr Morton, a London solicitor, acting on behalf of Captain Edward W. D. Baird, a retired officer of the 10th Hussars. Baird had a keen interest in horse-racing and was the eventual owner of Woolwinder, which won the St Leger in 1907. He became Major Baird after accepting a temporary rank in the Imperial Yeomanry in 1900, later attaining the rank of Colonel.
Colonel Baird made several improvements at Exning House, but a serious fire in April 1909 damaged the property. The outbreak originated in the upper portion of the new north wing, where, in addition to about twenty servants, the nurseries, governess’s and housekeeper’s apartments were situated. Several rooms were gutted, and so serious was the outlook that a large body of men started removing the valuable contents, completely emptying the house and placing them in the park. The blaze destroyed the north wing, built in 1893 for £15,000, and Colonel Baird and some of his helpers had sustained several injuries. The house was rebuilt using the architect Philip Webb to alter and extend the property in 1896.
When the Bairds moved to their London home in 1913, the Exning estate was put up for sale and purchased by Lord St. Davids.
William James Tatum, 1st Baron Glanely, a Cardiff shipping magnate, philanthropist, and thoroughbred racehorse owner acquired Exning Hall and the Le Grange Stable in Newmarket sometime before 1920. Born in Devon, the son of Thomas Tatem, who died the year he was born, the young William, aged 12, signed on and sailed on a voyage around the Cape Horn. He later entered the office of a Cardiff shipowner, gradually building up his own business, and was described as ‘a cabin boy to millionaire’. Tatem was created a Baronet in 1916, and two years later rose to the peerage. Between 1919 and his death in 1941, his horses won 6 Newmarket Classic races. In June 1942, after taking a summer house in Weston-Super-Mare, he was killed in a German air raid on the town
After his death, Exning House passed to his nephew, George Cock Gibson of Lanwades Hall in 1948, who put it to use as a home for the elderly, along with a cash donation of £10,000. Known as Glanely Rest, the house was later abandoned until converted into three separate properties.
Exning House is Grade II* listed because of the rare, almost complete example of a country house by Philip Webb. In September, 2018, it is on sale at Strutt & Parker with a guide price of £1.55 million.
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
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
A secretive house built on the riches of West Indian sugar plantations and slavery
Country Life magazine describes this house as ‘a fitting addition to the market in Humphry Repton’s bicentenary year’. Dullingham House, near Newmarket, Cambridgeshire, is being marketed by Savills with a guide price of £2.75 million.
The country house is understood to have been built for Sir Christopher Jeaffreson in the early part of the 18th Century – possibly on the site of an earlier house and is a fine example of red brick Georgian architecture, with patterned burnt headers beneath a slate roof.
A look into the history of Dullingham House shows it was likely constructed from the riches of sugar and the slave trade.
In 1878, two volumes entitled A Young Squire of the Seventeenth Century, edited by John Cordy Jeaffreson, made up from the papers of Christopher Jeaffreson (1676-1686) of Dullingham House, were published.
Within these volumes we learn that Christopher Jeaffreson was born in 1650, and that he was in his seventy-fifth year when he died at Dullingham House.
His father was a ‘fortunate adventurer’, one John Jeaffreson, became a landed proprietor in St. Christopher’s Island, and obtained the title of Colonel from his command of the militia on the island. The Colonel became a rich man and among other estates in England, where he spent the last years of his life, he acquired ‘the manorial property and farms pertaining to Dullingham House in 1656 (from the infant Sir Richard Wingfield), so that his son Christopher, the ‘young squire’, on reaching the age of 22, at which he succeeded to his inheritance, ‘had the revenue of an affluent country gentleman, apart from the rents of his West Indian property’.
Christopher married soon afterwards, but his wife soon died, leaving him a disconsolate widower. He set out on a voyage to St. Kitts ‘in order that he might settle and restore his estate on the island’. He ended up staying five years in the West Indies, where he worked energetically as a planter and merchant, and took an active political interest in the colony.
On his death in 1725, the estates in the West Indies and Suffolk passed to another Christopher Jeaffreson, M.P. (1699-1749), the man thought responsible for building the Dullingham House we see today.
At a by-election in 1744 he was returned unopposed for Cambridge on the interest of his friend, Samuel Shepheard. He was replaced by Shepheard at the general election of 1747, but on Shepheard’s death the next year was again returned. He died in 1749, according to William Cole, the Cambridge antiquary, ‘from too much drinking, which brought him into a consumption. He was one of the tallest men I ever saw’.
When Sir Christopher died in 1749, the estate, its new house and small pleasure ground passed to his son, also Christopher, who remained at Dullingham until his death in 1788. His only son, Colonel Christopher Jeaffreson inherited and in 1799 called in Humphry Repton (1752-1818) to give advice on the alteration of the grounds.
Christopher Jeaffreson died in 1824, and the estate passed to his daughter Harriet, who married William Pigot in 1827. Their son, Christopher William Pigot, born in 1836, took the name of Robinson in 1857 under an inheritance from his maternal grandmother. In 1870 he married Mary Marianne Mariana Dunn-Gardner, the eldest daughter of John Dunn-Gardner, MP, DL, JP of Chatteris, and sister of Algernon Dunn-Gardner, of Denton Hall, Suffolk.
When Christopher Robinson died in 1889, Mary Robinson, a lady of peculiarly fine character, had a high sense of duty and took her responsibilities as the owner of a large estate very seriously, frequently lending the grounds of Dullingham House for flower shows and fetes.
Mary Robinson lived at Dullingham until she died, aged ninety-one, in 1939. The estate then descended to her half-brother’s daughter, Miriam Leader, who sold it in 1947 to Frederick Boyton Taylor (1894-1959). His son, Peter Boyton Taylor (1921-1996), divided up the property, the house, gardens and park being purchased by Angela Tomkins who, together with her father, developed the park as a race-horse stud.
In 1994 the House and its immediate grounds were purchased by Sir Martin and Lady Nourse and the stable courtyard developed for private housing.
Dullingham House is Grade II listed as being of Historical and Architectural interest. The property has been the subject of various additions and alterations over the centuries – at one point (according to the listing) it is described as having had ‘two projecting cross wings to the east and west which were substantially reduced in the 1950’s to be replaced by flanking, shaped walls’. The façade looked very different in Victorian times with altered fenestration, and according to Savills, the top floor was added about 1900 by Mary Robinson. Indeed, there were dormer windows on the upper floor before subsequent alterations resulted in the existing elevations.
Apart from the normal reception rooms, Dullingham House has eight bedrooms and comes with the Repton ‘pleasure’ grounds and walled gardens, set within 8-acres.