The Neo-Palladian country house, near Potters Bar and Barnet, was built in 1754 by Isaac Ware for Admiral John Byng. Unfortunately, he was court martialled and executed during the ‘Seven Year’s War’ and never got to live at Wrotham, named after the original family home, near Sevenoaks, in Kent. He’d never married, and the estate passed to the eldest son of his brother, Robert, who’d already died in Barbados. It was through him that the house descended to its present owner.
The house, which was in the Classical Italian Style was described in James Thorne’s Handbook to the Environs of London (1876) as “a spacious semi-classic structure, of the style which prevailed towards the middle of the last century; it consists of a centre and wings, with recessed tetrastyle portico, and a pediment, level with the second story, in the tympanum of which are the Byng arms.” The third storey was erected by the 2nd Earl of Strafford in the 19th century. It bore a strong resemblance to Southill in Bedfordshire, another seat of the Byngs during the 18th century. The principal front of the mansion looked to the west, commanding views across the park, towards Elstree and Watford.
It was during the tenure of George Stevens Byng, 2nd Earl of Strafford, that the house was nearly lost. In the early hours on 6th March 1883, a fire broke out in a box room over the central hall causing much alarm to the servants. The fire brigade from Barnet arrived at 2am, an hour after the fire started, and were soon joined by crews from New Barnet, Hendon and Finchley. However, strong winds and ‘massive woodwork’ caused the fire to take hold of the top floors. It did allow enough time for household staff to remove family deeds and plates to the stables, while valuable paintings were stored in adjoining buildings. A quantity of furniture and the contents of the library also managed to be saved. While the fire destroyed the bedrooms above, the Earl stayed in his library until 3am until he was reluctantly forced to leave. The greater part of the hall and the main ceiling collapsed soon afterwards. The interiors were rebuilt exactly as they were but using ‘new’ Victorian building practices. ¹
It may have been these building methods that saved Wrotham Park from a second blaze in 1938. A servant discovered that plush curtains in the first-floor bedroom of the 6th Earl and Countess had caught alight. She quickly raised the alarm and a ‘chain of buckets’ prevented the fire spreading before the fire brigade arrived. Nonetheless it was enough to destroy tapestries and wall panelling, as well as causing windows to break due to the intense heat. As one newspaper pointed out, “the mansion contained many priceless heirlooms saved from the fire 55 years ago.” ²
These days Wrotham Park is the property of William Robert Byng, 9th Earl of Strafford (b.1964) and is used as an events and wedding venue. Its distinguishing exterior has been used over 60 times as a filming location including Gosford Park, Vanity Fair, Great Expectations, Inspector Morse, The Line of Beauty, Jeeves and Wooster and Sense and Sensibility.
¹The Globe (7 March 1883)
²Gloucester Citizen (15 Dec 1938)