When coal ruled the north-east. Once the home of ‘Old King Coal’ – one of England’s wealthiest men
This imposing country house is enjoying a renaissance after a spell in the doldrums. Longhirst Hall, at Morpeth, has been reinvented as four luxury properties alongside several new-builds in its grounds. The centrepiece of the development is Longhirst Hall itself, boasting the original main entrance, a pedimented portico suspended on giant Corinthian columns which opens into an ashlar-faced central hall with Ionic columns, and a central glazed dome. The sweeping Imperial staircase to one end has a wrought-iron balustrade with an anthemion frieze, which wraps around the galleried first-floor landing. Above, the coffered dome is a direct replica of the Roman Pantheon. The property is on sale at Sanderson Young with a guide price of £1.25 million.
Longhirst Hall was built between 1824-1828 for William Lawson, a local landowner and member of a prosperous Northumberland farming family. The architect was John Dobson (1787-1865), born at Chirton, North Shields, who spent most of his life in Newcastle working on numerous private and public projects. One of his most influential creations was Newcastle Central Station and the iconic Grey Street. He was the ‘real author’ of Gothic Revival having built some of the earliest churches in this style. Dobson moved to Longhirst after completing Mitford Hall, also near Morpeth.
William Lawson (1775-1855) remained until his death and the property passed to his eldest son, William John Lawson (1822-1859), who died at Pau, in the south of France, after a lingering illness. He had been custodian of Longhirst Hall for a brief period of four years.
By the death of his eldest brother, the Reverend Edward Lawson (1824-1882), succeeded to the family estates. He was a man educated for the church and for two years was the rector of Bothal. Edward qualified as a magistrate in 1861 and was responsible for working the coal found underneath the estate. He created the nearby model colliery village, built schools and had genuine regard for its inhabitants.
Following his death in 1882, Longhirst Hall was inherited by his son, William Edward Lawson (1855-1944), who turned out to be the last of the family to live here.
He appears not to have had much interest in the house and it was briefly let to Charles E. Hunter (1852-1917), a man well-known through his association with the coal trade, as well as his political work and an active interest in sport.
Longhirst Hall and its 740 acres had fallen into disarray and in 1887 was put up for sale. After a spirited competition it was bought by James Joicey, the MP for Chester-Le-Street, for the sum of £53,000.
James Joicey had married firstly Elizabeth Amy Robinson (d.1881) and secondly, Margaret Smyles Drever (d.1911). He was created 1st Baronet Joicey of Chester-Le-Street in 1893 and was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law by Durham University. He became a JP for County Durham, a Deputy Lieutenant of the same county, and in 1906 was created 1st Baron Joicey of Chester-Le-Street.
James Joicey (1846-1936) had risen from a clerk’s position at his uncle’s coal office on Quayside, Newcastle, to become one of the largest coal-owners in the country, and one of the biggest individual employers in the world. Nicknamed ‘Old King Coal’, he was the chairman and managing director of James Joicey and Company and the Lambton Collieries, the two largest colliery companies in County Durham.
Joicey was an active Parliamentarian and sat for an unbroken 21 years. It ended in 1906 when the Liberal Government came into office and he was given a peerage to strengthen the Liberal Party in the Upper House. In 1931 he switched to the Conservatives ‘in an independent’ capacity.
Always a fierce and outspoken critic, Joicey made no secret of his belief that politicians “had let us down badly”. Speaking in 1935 he said, “A dictator who could keep a firm hand on politicians, as Mussolini has done in Italy, would be the saviour of our land.”
Joicey might well have been one of those autocratic coal-owners often featured on the pages of Catherine Cookson novels. He didn’t endear himself to women and strongly opposed the idea of them becoming MPs, believing it too premature. Despite his political career, he feared for the future of the coal industry and blamed his colleagues. “Today, the most harm done to the coal trade is by the constant interference of politicians and the Government.”
Lord Joicey made several additions to Longhirst Hall, but in 1907 looked elsewhere to expand his estates. He purchased Ford Castle in north Northumberland and added the adjacent Etal estate a year later. Resident at Ford Castle he put the Longhirst and Ulgham estates near Morpeth up for auction in 1921. They failed to find a buyer and Longhirst Hall was occupied by his two sons – James Arthur Joicey and Hugh Edward Joicey .
When Lord Joicey died in 1936, his eldest son, James Arthur Joicey (1880-1940), moved to Ford Castle and his brother Hugh to Etal Manor. These were troubling times. In 1929 the 2nd Lord Joicey’s son, also James, an officer in the 17th/20th Hussars had been killed while taking part in a horse race at Folkstone. By the late 1930s the coal industry was struggling and incomes from the agricultural estates were in decline. James Arthur Joicey had been shell-shocked in 1915 and suffered from depression as a result. His elevation to the peerage proved too much and in July 1940, after leaving a letter to his wife, his ‘brain in a storm’, was found shot dead on Ford Castle’s lawns.
Longhirst Hall had long fallen out of favour with the Joicey family. In 1937 it had been sold to alderman William Strafford Sanderson (1880-1973), the deputy mayor of Morpeth. It was an interesting purchase for the councillor and one that might be questioned today. Sanderson remained a couple of years and was responsible for gifting a gymnasium from the grounds of Longhirst Hall for use as a pavilion in Proctor’s Field in Morpeth.
In 1939 the house was offered as a Joint Infectious Disease Hospital, a scheme involving Newbiggin, Ashington and Bedlington Urban Councils, and Morpeth Borough and Morpeth Rural Councils. It was the favoured property and it might have provided Sanderson with a tidy sum of money. However, the Ministry of Health was concerned about the large amount of land involved in the purchase, and the sale fell through.
Longhirst was quickly sold to Mr G. Moore of Kenton Hall who took up residence in September. Better known as Harry Moore, the son of William Moore, who founded Moore’s Stores of Sunderland in 1907, he had taken over the family business in 1930. The grocers and provisions merchants eventually had 114 branches across north-east England. (In modern times the stores were taken over and incorporated into the Lipton’s and Presto supermarket chains). Harry Moore lived here with his wife Maud and was later honoured when his racehorse won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1958.
During World War Two the house was requisitioned by the Army as a billet for officers, while the troops camped in the grounds.
After the war, some of the Nissen huts in the parkland were taken over by several families who had moved here from Pegswood. They were effectively squatters, the 27 people living here had no water or light and carried water from the main house.
Undoubtedly damaged by wartime occupation the house was vacant, and the Moore family eventually sold it to the Home Office in 1948. It was used as an approved school accommodating up to 72 boys, aged below 13, at the date of their admission. In 1973 it became a Community Home with Education under the control of the Northumberland County Council.
The community home closed in 1982 and suffered at the hands of vandals. The house was being considered as a school for children with learning problems, but an inspection revealed the house had rotting roof timbers and the emergency repair bill would cost about £9,000. The county architect had warned that the lack of heating might cause considerable damage but Longhirst Hall remained empty.
In poor condition the mansion was left to decay for ten years. In 1992 it was bought by a private investment company who completed extensive renovations, combined with new-build facilities, to become a management training and conference centre. It was let to Northumbria University who used the house until 1992 before it was sold to become a 77-bedroom country house hotel, popular as a wedding venue.
The hotel closed in March 2014 after its parent company went into receivership. It was an unfortunate turn of events but one that heralded a new future for Longhirst Hall.
It went on sale with Strutt & Parker for £1.65 million and in 2015 was acquired by Durham-based De Vere Homes; within 12 months work had started to convert the estate into 28 luxury homes.
According to Sanderson Young, the main reception rooms are adorned with ornate plasterwork and have full-height windows. The drawing room is especially stately, with semi-circular bow windows and views across the Capability Brown-style garden with its ha-ha overlooking the paddock.
The breakfasting kitchen has three sets of full-height shuttered French windows and a baronial tiled fireplace. It has a new bespoke kitchen and the same approach will apply to all bathrooms and en-suites.
It also includes a library and study, as well as a back staircase and cavernous cellars.
There are seven bedrooms split over two floors with the four bedrooms on the first floor opening off the galleried first-floor landing which is illuminated during the day by three glazed roof lanterns, each set within its own ceiling dome – and at night by concealed lighting.