Surplus to requirement. A country house that was stripped of its interiors and subsequently demolished.
Chipstead Place was once part of the demesne and lands of the
manor of the de Chepsted family. It was first mentioned in the latter end of
the reign of Elizabeth I, when it was in the possession of Robert Cranmer, the
son of Thomas, who married Jane Grace, daughter of a Sussex landowner.
Anne, their only daughter, carried the seat in marriage to
Sir Arthur Herrys, eldest son of Sir William Herrys, in Essex. On the death of
Sir Arthur in 1632 the estate passed to his second son, John, who married the
daughter of Sir Thomas Dacre, of Chestnut, in Herefordshire. The lady survived
him and married William Priestly, of Wild Hill, in Hertfordshire, who in 1652
conveyed Chipstead Place to one Jeffry Thomas.
Subsequently it became the property of David Polhill, who
was High Sheriff in 1662, and dying without issue, left the estate to his only
surviving brother, Thomas Polhill, of Clapham, in Surrey. By his marriage with
Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Ireton, he left three sons but, by a will, he
conveyed the house in 1665 to Sir Nicholas Strode.
A new house was erected here by William Emerton around the
turn of the 18th century. A grand affair with 26 bed and dressing
rooms and six reception rooms.
David Polhill, son of Thomas Polhill, later re-purchased
Chipstead Place from Emerton trustees, and was a member for the county in
Parliament in 1708 and Keeper of the Records and Sheriff of Kent in 1715. Once again,
the house had come into the possession of the Polhill family. In 1754 Charles
Polhill resided here and it later became home to other members of the family.
Frederick Perkins built an estate village here in 1729, and on his death in 1860, the family tenanted the house, including to railway builder Sir Samuel Morton Peto and the banker Henry Oppenheim.
Subsequently it was the home to John Duveen, who during World War One, lent Chipstead Place as a hospital for wounded soldiers.
The first batch of Belgian soldiers who bore the brunt of the German attack on the forts of Liege and Namur were received here and nursed by ladies of the district who formed the local detachment of the V.A.D., under Miss Hall Hall, the Commandant.
During this period Chipstead Place was visited by thousands
of local people admiring the stately mantlepieces, the pictures and other
glories of the fine old mansion.
After the war, Mr Duveen sold the house to Sir Roland Hodge,
who later disposed of it to Dame Adele Meyer.
After a sale of contents in 1931, Chipstead Place went under
the hammer ‘for demolition’. “Thus, there passes a familiar landmark, another
sacrifice on the altar of ‘development’ a sacrifice even more complete than has
overtaken other mansions in the district,” reported the Sevenoaks Chronicle and
Chipstead Place was demolished in 1932 and its land used to build new houses. Only the ballroom, servants’ quarters and West Lodge survived. Part of the estate is now occupied by Chipstead Place Lawn Tennis Club.
Where once a mansion stood in open countryside. The railway and the growth of Whitley Bay as a seaside resort eventually sealed its fate.
Deep beneath the recreational space called Whitley Park, one can hope that the foundations of long-lost Whitley Park Hall might remain. It is hard to imagine that this part of Whitley Bay once looked remarkably different than it does today.
So quiet and peaceful was the scene in the 1860s, that a Newcastle minister, who used to rent the village blacksmith’s cottage in the parish of Cullercoats each summer, was able to practice his sermons on the beach with no-one to disturb him. Whitley-by-the-Sea, or the ‘Dream Village’ as it was frequently called was a long way off becoming Whitley Bay, the popular seaside resort.
Picturesque the village may have been, but apart from its houses of quality which included Whitley Hall, Whitley Park Hall, Whitley House, Marden House and Belvedere House, it boasted only a few farms and terraced cottages with a liberal supply of public houses.
Times changed. The introduction of a passenger train between Monkseaton station and Newcastle put the wheels of progress in motion. The picnicking parties, who had previously travelled from Newcastle by wagonette, began to arrive more frequently and in greater numbers to the little station, where colourful rambling roses grew.
The early history of Whitley had been associated with the Hudson family. Henry Hudson, of Newburn, was one of Cromwell’s Ironsides, the lessee of mills at Billy Mill and Tynemouth and of quarries at Whitley and Monkseaton. He was succeeded by his son, Henry Hudson, the second. Henry Hudson, the third, who married his cousin, Elizabeth Ellison, in 1776, sold 11 acres of land to Edward Hall of Backworth, for the purpose of erecting a brewery here.
Whitley Park Hall, built in white stucco, was constructed by Edward Hall about 1789. He was also a cattle breeder and subsequently added to his estate by the purchase of land from his neighbours. He was famous for being the breeder of ‘The Fat Ox,’ immortalised in one of Thomas Bewick’s copper-plate engravings. The ox chewed the cud in Whitley during the 1780’s, weighing 216 stones, 8 lbs before its slaughter by Newcastle butcher Thomas Horsley in 1789.
On Edward Hall’s death in 1792, it was bought by John Haigh, a ‘hostman’ who became bankrupt in 1797 and moved to America. His assignees sold it in 1800 to Thomas Wright of North Shields, who occupied it until his death in 1840. In 1844, it was bought by John Hodgson-Hinde, and sold in 1855 to Charles Mark Palmer, a shipbuilder then at the height of his fortune, and in 1869 to Thomas William Bulman, who later extended it, diverted the road around his property, and planted a tree belt that still exists today.
Thomas William Bulman died in 1879, and his widow sold Whitley Park Hall in 1893 to Theodore Hoyle, Joseph George Joel, Joseph Aynsley Davidson Shipley and Richard John Leeson, who wished to prevent it from disappearing under hundreds of small houses and hoped that a hydropathic establishment could be opened. Plans for the health facility fell through, but a provisional licence for a hotel and restaurant was granted to the Whitley Park Hotel Company in 1893. It opened in the spring of 1896 under the management of Miss Carrie Sokel. In 1910, the company sold parts of the grounds which were turned into the Spanish City Pleasure Grounds (subject of the Dire Straits song Tunnel of Love, along with Whitley Bay and the nearby town Cullercoats), while other parcels of land were sold off for building purposes.
The house was used for billeting during the Great War but was left with only twelve of its sixty apartments in good condition. The hotel was sold to Whitley Pleasure Gardens Company in 1920, with plans to use its grounds to erect elaborate amusements and shows, as well as a scenic railway, extending from Spanish City. The development faltered, but the hotel was sold to Whitley Bay and Monkseaton Urban District Council in 1924, which used the building as offices. In 1939, it spent £30,000 on new offices in Whitley Park, finding the old house “totally unsafe,” and to be “suffering from galloping consumption.”
Whitley Park Hall was demolished in 1939, and a library was built on the site in 1966, since also demolished.
One hundred years ago, ‘the most beautiful mansion in Cornwall’ was destroyed by fire. Eye-witness accounts tell us of the devastation that night, and the desperation felt in the aftermath.
The story of Tehidy goes back many hundreds of years. In his ‘History of Cornwall’, Samuel Drew says that Tehidy, which in the Cornish language signifies either the ‘narrow house’, the ‘fowler’s house’, or the ‘single dwelling’, was about four miles north-west from Redruth, and “when surveyed from the summit of Carn Brea Hill, from which it is conspicuous, it appears like a well cultivated garden blooming in the midst of a barren desert. The manor of Tehidy, which is of extensive jurisdiction, and enjoys great privileges, being excepted out of the grant made by the Arundells of the Hundred of Penwith, includes within its circuit many rich mines.”¹
Tehidy Park had been the property and residence of the Basset family for many centuries. The ancient family of Cornwall and Devon descended from Thurstan Basset, who was in all probability the son of Osmund Basset of Normandy, who came over with William the Conqueror. Soon after the Norman Conquest, this great baronial family rose into power and importance, especially in the midland counties. The family gave a Chief Justice to England in the reign of Henry I, in the person of Ralph Basset, from whom sprang the Lords Basset of Drayton and the Lords Basset of Haddington.
During the 12th century, the Bassets of Cornwall obtained the estate by marriage with the heiress of the great house of De Dunstanville. In fact, the earliest mention of Tehidy occurs about 1100, according to William Lake’s ‘Parochial History of the County of Cornwall’ when “Alan de Dunstanville, or Dunstanvile, who was then lord of the manor of Tehidy, granted a lease of Minwinnion, now the home farm, within the park to Paul Guyer.”² From this period they appear to have enjoyed considerable wealth and influence until the civil wars, when three brothers of the family all distinguished themselves in the royal cause. Sir Francis Basset, the Sheriff of Cornwall, was with King Charles at Lostwithiel, when Essex’s army surrendered. Owing to large sums of money expended by them in this unhappy struggle, the family estate became considerably reduced, but it was afterwards retrieved by marriages to heiresses.
Two ancestors of the family married Miss Hele and Miss Pendarves. From the last named union, the estates descended to John Pendarves Basset (1714-1739), who built a new mansion house at Tehidy in 1734, allowing the architect Thomas Edwards of Greenwich to undertake his first work in Cornwall. Sadly, its owner died of smallpox a few years later, aged 25, the house not fully completed, and leaving his widow £100,000. His son, John Prideaux Basset, had died in minority, in 1756, and the estates reverted to his uncle, Francis Basset of Turley (1715-1769), in Northamptonshire, who married Margaret, daughter of Sir John St. Aubyn, of Clowance.
Francis Basset died in 1769 and left as his heir Francis Basset (1757-1835), MP for Helston, who was created a Baronet in 1779, and advanced to the peerage as Baron De Dunstanville, of Tehidy, in 1796. He married Frances Susannah, daughter and co-heir of John Hippesley-Coxe, of Stone Easton, Somerset, and by her had an only daughter, Frances (1781-1855). Lord De Dunstanville married, as his second wife, a daughter of Sir William Lemon, of Carclew, presumably with the hope of securing a male heir. However, he died in 1835, when the barony of De Dunstanville became extinct, but the barony of Basset, of Stratton, devolved to his daughter, Frances, who became 2nd Baroness Basset of Stratton in accordance with a special remainder.
The entailed estates passed to his nephew, John Francis Basset (1831-1869), who was the eldest son of John Basset of Stratton, younger brother of Lord de Dunstanville, and sometime MP for Helston. His mother was Elizabeth Mary, daughter of Sir Rose Price, Baronet, of Trengwainton. Following the death of Lady Frances Basset in 1855, he succeeded to the remainder.
John Francis Basset commenced rebuilding Tehidy between 1861-1863, funded by revenue from tin mining and land rents. His interest in mines was immense, especially North Basset, South Frances, Dolceath, West Basset and Wheal Basset. He possessed one of the largest landed properties in the county, extending from St Agnes through Ilogan and Camborne, the greater part of the town belonging to him. He was the owner of the parish of Perranarworthal and owned a considerable portion of the parish of St. Gluvias and had a valuable property at Meneage. In 1860-61, it was said that his income from the Dolceath and Basset mines amounted to £20,000.
For the restoration of Tehidy, John Francis Basset employed the architect William Burn (1789-1870), of Piccadilly, and the works were reported to have cost £150,000.
John Francis Basset died without issue and the Tehidy estate passed to his two brothers, namely, Arthur Basset (1833-1870) in 1869, and Gustavus Lambert Basset (1834-1888) in 1870. By this time, income from the tin mines was diminishing, but the Bassets found it difficult to live their lives any other way than had been the norm. After the death of Gustavus Lambert Basset the estate passed to his son, Arthur Francis Basset (1873-1950), who turned out to be the last member of the family to live at Tehidy.
He found it extremely difficult to finance the estate, not helped by his costly pursuit of horse-racing and the gambling debts that often came with it. In 1915, there were rumours that the Prince of Wales was going to buy Tehidy, but little importance was attached to the gossip. However, in October newspapers confirmed that the estate had indeed been sold.
The buyers turned out to be Mr Hamilton Edwards, a financier, formerly connected with Lord Northcliffe as managing Director of the Amalgamated Press, and Mr Arthur H. Bond, a land expert. Between them they secured the Tehidy landed estates, royalties of the mines, tin streams, Portreath harbour, and Arthur Basset’s other interests. The sale, believed to be upwards of £300,000, was regarded as one of the most sensational transfers of landed property since the Duke of Bedford had parted with his Covent Garden estate.
“Broadly speaking,” said Hamilton Edwards, to an interviewer, “the scheme represents the liberation of land and the advent of the small owner. I have long believed that small holdings, as distinct from small ownerships, are quite inadequate as solution of Britain’s land problem. The small holder becomes a County Council tenant and has no fixity of tenure. The farmer who can buy his freehold at a moderate price is his own master, and leaves property to his family, and receives the full benefit of any improvement he makes to his farm.”
The bulk of the estate, including its tin mines, was duly sold-off, but there was still the problem of what to do with the mansion and its surrounding parkland. In July 1916, it was reported that Arthur Francis Basset was not leaving the county, having purchased back farms at Illogan and Godrevy, and had secured an option on Tehidy for twelve months.
Arthur Basset didn’t take up the option on Tehidy. In June 1917, The Cornishman sounded an ominous note: – “We can state authoritatively that there is a danger that this Cornish landmark may actually be ‘scrapped’ for building material, unless some Cornish philanthropist comes forward at once and acquires it at an almost nominal price as a convalescent home for Cornish miners injured in the war, or perhaps for sailors and marine engineers.”
History books tell us that the Basset family left Cornwall for good in 1915. However, with Arthur Francis Basset regaining ownership on some parts of the estate, it was likely that he had remained at Tehidy since the spectacular land sale of that year. In September 1917, The Cornishman was once again on hand to report on developments. The mansion was up for sale again, plants and flowers in pots had been sold at auction, and it was known that some of the Basset heirlooms had left the district, and that other personal furniture was stored in Camborne.
It was announced that Messrs. William Rowe and Co had been instructed to hold a five day auction of the furniture of Tehidy, including an automatic organ, fire engine, antique and modern goods of all kinds, from grandfather clocks to four-poster beds. Admission to the house was by catalogue costing two shillings, and on the morning of Monday 17th September the dining-room was full to overflowing, and bids followed each other in rapid succession.
“Many Cornish people found the sale gave them the first opportunity in their lives to see the park and the fine rooms with their elaborate alabaster and other mantel-pieces, the family portraits, the superb mahogany doors, the painted ceilings, old and modern portions of the building with Adams ceilings and decorations, and other features of the mansion, the wealth of colour – almost a riot of gilding and bright hues within contrasting with the sober and severe external architecture and restful greenery of the wooded park and lake seen through the windows.
“To some it will perhaps be a surprise to know that when the last enlargement was made and Italian artists were engaged to litter the walls and ceilings with pictures, the contract was for £70,000 and as this was broken, the amount spent was considerably exceeded, and probably reached the £100,000 figure! The house, park and woods were probably not laid out for less than a total of £200,000 besides the annual upkeep, and at times the Bassets have employed a staff of forty servants in the house and grounds.
“It seems almost incredible, but an old keeper who is still as bright as a new shilling, has lived at Tehidy under four male owners. This faithful retainer, who has been nearly sixty years on the estate, is now installed in the south lodge, and is 77-years-old. It may be imagined that in his wildest dreams he never expected to see the estate sold to strangers and the furniture knocked down by the auctioneer’s hammer.”
Weeks later, there was some indication as to what the new owners had in mind for Tehidy mansion. Arthur Bond made an offer to Sir Arthur Carkeek with the idea of any new purchaser using the premises as a hospital. The deal involved the mansion, with its grounds, land and adjoining woods (some 250 acres in all), to be bought for £10,000. The matter was brought before the Committee of the Patriotic Fund at Cornwall County Council, who immediately discussed it with the County Tuberculosis Authorities, who had already made several attempts to set up an institution of this kind without success. The offer was accepted, and Cornwall County Council set about raising money by voluntary subscriptions. By January 1918, the amount subscribed had reached over £11,000, and by the time the deed of gift was handed to Mr W.C. Pendarnes, Chairman of Cornwall County Council in May, the figure had exceeded £16,000. It eventually reached a sum approaching £20,000.
“At the moment, Tehidy Mansion is a big shell or framework set in a beautiful park, sheltered by belts of trees. Some of the exquisite Adams marble fireplaces have been re-bought and removed by Mr A.F. Basset; there are a few ragged corners from which bookshelves have been taken, and there are no beds or other hospital furniture and equipment.
“There was much speculation as to the reason that Mr Basset realised, vaguely at first (which accounted for some vacillation) more definitely as the war progressed, that after the war few landowners will be wealthy enough to pay super-tax and still be able to meet the costs of a large establishment, the difficulty being increased by the scarcity of labour and the higher cost of living as the result of war. All over the country we may expect to see a reduction in the number of sumptuous establishments, and the late Sir Edward Hain was not alone in regretting the passing of these historic homes which he described as the picture-galleries and museums of the country.
“It may interest my readers to know that Mr Basset, while keeping his ‘shooting box’ in Scotland, has not bought any other ‘home’ since parting with Tehidy, and that he has worn khaki as a recruiting officer in London during the past two years. What the future holds we do not know. A.F. Basset, who has been High Sheriff of Cornwall, may come back with us to live in some rose-draped bungalow and meet us all as comrades in peace and co-workers in the rebuilding of England.
“Thousands of Cornish people are still mystified as to exactly what happened when Tehidy became a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. Usually property passes from one hand to another without mystery, and it is seldom that you get deeds signed by the old owners as well as the new, or that (as in Mr Basset’s case) some farms are re-bought by the seller, or that after a mansion has been sold the seller acquires an option to re-buy it, and at the end of a year does not exercise the option.
“The facts, however, are very simple. The purchase of Tehidy, including the mines, farms, tin streams, and leaseholds was not an ordinary straight-out purchase for cash, but a ‘deal in margins.’ Three shrewd London speculators (only two of whom came to Cornwall) had been partners in similar successful deals, which dealt with land and houses, but did not include mines. They put a certain amount of money in security, which has earned interest during the past three years, but has not gone out of their hands. A fund was opened, and as fast as they re-sold farms or other property, the money went into this Basset Fund and earned interest. The speculators were credited with this interest and with the rents received from the tenants, but then they were charged interest on the unpaid part of the balance of the purchase money, and a time-limit was set for the completion of the payment, whether the speculators had re-sold all or only a part of the property.
“At the end of three years they have re-sold property to the value of over a quarter of a million (including mine royalties for £90,000) and have made a profit on the deal. It would not have been a large profit if they had had to part with £250,000 in cash three years ago; and they might easily have lost fifty or sixty thousand by the deal; so, if they made a similar amount it means they have been paid for their risk, expert knowledge, staff-work and personal exertions.”
Herbert Thomas. The Cornishman. May 29, 1918.
The Tehidy Sanatorium started accepting patients In February 1919, but the euphoria came to a shattering end a fortnight later, on the morning of Wednesday 26 February.
A few days before, representatives of the county had carefully removed the Basset Coat-of-Arms and motto “For King and People” from the front of the old mansion. It turned out to be a prophetic action; in the early hours of the morning an electric wire fused in a room occupied by the sanatorium’s only five patients. The ward was on the second floor, faced west, and was above the drawing room and library.
Whilst on duty in the ward between 1.30 and 2 o’clock in the morning , Sister Everett smelt smoke and at once informed Dr Roper, the Medical Superintendent, who immediately gave the fire alarm, and started the task of the removal of the patients. With the assistance of the matron and sisters, the patients were removed in their beds. Dr Roper carried some of the patients downstairs on his back; and the Matron and staff worked untiringly from the time the fire was discovered. The patients were deposited on the open lawn on the western side of the house. Here they were warmly wrapped up and were later taken to the motor garage where temporary provision had been made for their reception. Later in the day, one of these patients died from natural causes.
The Camborne Fire Brigade were summoned about 3.15 a.m. and were closely followed by the Redruth Brigade. In the meantime, staff and those living around the estate did their utmost, but their services were of no avail. Favoured by a strong easterly wind, the fire spread with great rapidity and soon most of the mansion was a mass of flames.
The firemen set to work on the north and south ends of the building in an endeavour to save these parts. The middle, or main portion, was too far gone to save, and it was a matter of a very short time before the huge roof fell in with a terrible crash. The steam engines were unable to work at a very high pressure due to an inadequate water supply, but the firemen battled for five or six hours and eventually got the fire under control.
The historic building, which had been intended to be both a War Memorial and a Home of rest for ex-soldiers, ex-sailors, miners and other civilians suffering from tuberculosis, had had thousands of pounds spent on it, though the bulk of furniture had not been delivered and the Lady Falmouth room was still awaiting equipment given by the Viscountess, who had taken a great interest in the scheme.
The scene of the fire later in the morning presented a sad spectacle. Except for the basement and one or two other rooms, all that remained were the great bare walls. A representative of The Cornishman was permitted to visit what remained of the house: –
“On the north side is the conservatory which is intact. The hall palms and trees showed no sign of injury by smoke or fire, and there was little water on the tiled floor. Passing through a long corridor on the first floor, the dining room was reached. Here could be gained some idea of the destruction wrought. The beautifully gilded ceiling and marble mantel-piece and grate, with two figures carved at each end, all that remain in the room, are discoloured and ruined. The drawing room with its famous ceiling shared a similar fate. The water in this room was about six inches deep, and on the floor lying about like waste paper, were pieces of what remained of the wonderful painting which took Italian artists many months to execute. At the south end there are a few small houses which escaped. Near the part destroyed is the laundry on the roof of which is a large clock. The effect of the flames did not even stop the motion of the time-piece. The front entrance to the house, which faces south, appears to have escaped more serious injury, and the verandas underneath do not appear to be damaged, and the statue in the centre of the front wall, also remains intact.”
One hundred years later, it is difficult to imagine the devastation caused by the fire. However, we are thankful to the faithful Herbert Thompson, the correspondent from The Cornishman, who visited Tehidy weeks afterwards. He once again provided a unique account of the damage and the extraordinarily rapid rate in which the hospital facilities were being revived: –
“A few days ago, I paid a surprise visit to Tehidy – my first since the disastrous fire destroyed many costly and valued relics of this historic mansion and undid a year’s work of a devoted band of enthusiastic pioneers. I was not surprised to find on the spot the usual batch of workers – Dr Roper, the medical officer who brought the patients downstairs on his back when the alarm of fire was given; the matron who worked strenuously and coolly to get her patients out of danger and to see that they were comfortably housed beyond reach of the fire and smoke; Mr Howard Lanyon and Mr F.D. Bain, who visit Tehidy almost daily and devote their Sundays to this humanitarian and honorary work; and Mr Crispin, the clerk of works, whose cheery temperament looks for a silvery lining to the cloud, and who has lost no time since the fire in adopting ‘Reconstruction’ as his watchword, like the lad who held ‘that banner with the strange device – Excelsior!’
“The fire assessors are at work on their estimates of destruction: the committee and staff, plans in hand, are busy at their task of preparing for the reception of the cases, some of them heartrending, which but for the fire would now be receiving the attention of trained nurses in beautiful surroundings.
“At a distance there was little sign that Tehidy had been swept by flame. The massive outer walls, the inner dividing walls, the terraces, the new masonry on the south side, even a statue forming a pinnacle above the main entrance remain intact. But as you approach the mansion you see that it is a huge shell. The County Committee recently added £5,000 to the Insurance: so that at the time of the fire the Company had accepted £25,000 worth of liability for damage done to the building. But for a division of opinion that amount would have been increased another £10,000. When the county meeting was held, I told that gathering that they would find Tehidy was ‘less a bargain than a gift.’ I hold to that statement now. I believe there will be no difficulty in proving that far more than £25,000 worth of damage has been done: though it should be possible with £25,000 to carry out much purely practical reconstruction work, with the walls and other materials as a basis. The Government expert was asked (before the mansion was bought) where he would build a sanatorium if the mansion were destroyed by fire and his answer was: ‘On the very same spot.’
“There is, therefore, every reason why the central building – modernised, yet retaining architectural symmetry and dignity – should remain where it is. There is building material on the spot to meet all demands; and within easy reach will be the pavilions, or huts, for certain classes of cases. Already the Tregenna Hut from Camborne is erected, and a veranda has been added by Mr Crispin, so that patients can sit looking southward, in the eye of the sun. On the green bank above the house and sheltered by trees six other huts will be erected – some have already been brought from St Ives, and the sites are being prepared. These are not makeshift buildings but solid wood structures which will last, and which can be easily fumigated and kept in thorough order.
“What I saw and heard at Tehidy helped me to realise the rapidity of the work of destruction. The inner dividing walls, and inner main walls faced with granite, are so massive and supported by iron girders and brick arches, that they held together even when the main building became a fiery furnace. It was ‘touch and go’ whether the patients would be saved or not. Men and beds had to be taken downstairs when the fire had begun to come through the floor – the first floor – and the interior burnt like matchwood. The great staircase has gone and some of the splendid mahogany doors. But others of these had been sold to a gentleman in London. Some of the rear rooms are undamaged, together with a few of the beautiful mantelpieces which have been boarded up to protect them from falling roof material. I was surprised to find the great gilded ceiling of the dining room (where the auction was held) still intact: but it has warped and there is an enormous weight of debris above, threatening its destruction. Mrs Basset’s sitting room with its gilded and painted panels, and the oil paintings stored there, is gutted, the Italian painted ceiling is now a wreck and the strips of burnt canvas litter the floor. The many bedrooms, so charmingly decorated and fitted, are gone and the costly ceilings of some of the main rooms cannot be replaced. Yet there is enough left to remind us of the Tehidy we knew; though it is easy to realise that when Mr Arthur Basset revisited his birthplace a few days ago he was saddened beyond words at the destruction of his old home.
“Whether the fire was caused by an electric wire fusing: or whether the low open fireplaces gradually rendered the woodwork as inflammable as timber, may be a matter of argument. It is singular that a second fire has occurred since my visit, due to coals from the fireplace! I was impressed by the outstanding facts that in a twinkling fire can transform a stately building into a shell of bricks and granite: yet I was equally impressed with the fact that if Tehidy as a mansion contained defects from a Sanatoria point of view, the county is amazingly fortunate if it is able to handle many thousands of pounds worth of building material, much of it unharmed by fire, plus £25,000 for reconstruction and furnishing purposes. There are two causes of regret – the loss of features of the old mansion which cannot be restored; the loss of time in caring for the hundreds of patients in the county who need, as Admiral May said, immediate treatment and not that which might be available some years’ hence. I hope the Insurance Company will recognise the full extent of the calamity and the fact that the building as it stood could not be erected for four times the amount of the insurance; and that the committee will be supported in every way in their endeavour to make early provision for urgent cases, while developing as soon as possible their plans for a new central building from the wreckage of the old.”
By January 1922, Tehidy mansion had been partly rebuilt, but it looked different to John Francis Basset’s building from the 1860s. A long building with portico and clock tower, between two angle pavilions was built in place of the original east entrance front, it infilled a courtyard and used pillars and masonry salvaged after the fire. The imprint of the original centre section was used to create a sunken garden, utilising walls from the former basement.
The mansion provided hospital services for many years and, as Tehidy Hospital, later dealt with people with strokes, head injuries and various respiratory disorders. The estate was bought by Cornwall County Council in 1983 for the benefit of the public and became Tehidy Country Park. The hospital shut in April 1988 and was converted into luxury apartments in the mid-1990s, while several houses were built around the former hospital buildings.
¹ Samuel Drew (1765-1833). A Cornish Methodist theologian. ‘The History of Cornwall’ was published in 1824. ² William Lake ‘A Parochial History of Cornwall’. It was published in four volumes between 1867-72.
From generation to generation Sheffield has made an annoying habit of destroying some of its most notable buildings and features.
‘Lost to suburbia’. Once upon a time, this country house was in idyllic countryside, but the growth of Sheffield as an industrial town quickly devoured it. Its name would turn out to be a contradiction, considering the surroundings it eventually found itself in. Nowadays, it is hard to believe that The Farm ever existed at all, its close proximity to the city centre obliterating every trace of it.
Sheffield once had a dual history, for it was at the same time a town and (eventually) city, and also a great landed estate belonging to the Duke of Norfolk.
Dating back to the 18th century, The Farm was rebuilt on an even grander scale in 1824 to provide accommodation for Michael Ellison, local agent for the 12th Duke. Henry Granville Fitzalan Howard (1850-1860), the 14th Duke of Norfolk himself moved to The Farm three decades later, but not before it had been rebuilt once again to the designs of Matthew Ellison Hadfield (nephew of Michael Ellison). It marked a new beginning in the ducal attitude towards Sheffield. As a major landowner he took a close interest in local affairs and was to be in residence for part of every year. A new wing was built, containing the offices.
The Farm contained a square, lead-covered tower ‘with oriel turret stair, surmounted by a lofty vane, and flanked by a grand stack of chimneys’. There was a domestic chapel over the gateway, and the kitchen offices ‘very capacious and complete’. The tower was adorned with figures carved in stone, representing the four rivers – Don, Sheaf, Loxley and Rivelin – which flowed through his estate.
By this time, the tunnel of the Sheffield-Chesterfield railway passed beneath the grounds.
When his son, Henry Fitzalan-Howard (1847-1917), 15th Duke of Norfolk, inherited in the 1870s his estates produced over £100,000 gross per annum and his income increased throughout his life. Over half came from Sheffield, not just from rents but also from mineral rights and the markets, which he owned as lord of the manor until 1899 when he sold them to Sheffield Corporation.
He was a British Unionist politician and philanthropist. He served as Postmaster General between 1895 and 1900, but is best remembered for his philanthropic work, which concentrated on Roman Catholic causes and the City of Sheffield. (He was the first Lord Mayor of Sheffield).
The Duke of Norfolk’s estates in Sheffield survived until the 1950s, before gradually reverting to the council. After the Duke of Norfolk, the mansion became offices for British Rail Eastern Division, before being demolished in 1967, when the area was used for the building of Granville College. Today the site is occupied by the futuristic City Campus of Sheffield College, but former parkland once adjacent to The Farm, is now known as Norfolk Heritage Park, enjoyed by the public for generations.
This country house was once the English home of the exiled King Manoel II of Portugal. It was swallowed by urban development and eventually lost.
On this day, one hundred years ago, events in a distant country brought an English mansion into the headlines. Newspapers reported that the ex-King Manoel, who had been forced to flee from Portugal in 1910, and lived in England, had been proclaimed King of Portugal in Porto and other places by monarchist elements in his country.
However, the press also reported that Dom Manoel had condemned any attempt to restore the monarchy, even suggesting that he had refused the throne.
These were troubling times for Portugal. A monarchist revolt was spreading through several towns in the north of the country, while a Royalist Government had been formed in Porto, with Senor Paiva Couceiro at its head. The Government, however, claimed to be master of the situation.
Away from the unrest, enquiries by journalists at Dom Manoel’s residence at Twickenham were told that “he was not at home.”
Fulwell Park, where ex-King Manoel had lived since he brought his bride to Britain, was an historic mansion, built mainly in the Georgian style. A part of it dated back to James II, but it had been considerably enlarged from time to time, and now contained a magnificent suite of six entertaining rooms.
Fulwell Park had been the home of many famous people, and Twickenham itself abounded with historic memories. In 1800, Orleans House had been the residence of Louis Philippe, then Duke of Orleans; and among other famous inhabitants of the area had been Alexander Pope, Horace Walpole, Francis Bacon, John Donne (the poet), Kitty Clive (the actress), Tennyson, Dickens, Archbishop Temple and Henry Labouchere.
The mansion was built in 1623 and was acquired by Sir Charles James Freake, a London property developer, in 1871 and renamed Fulwell Park from Fulwell Lodge. It passed to his wife Eliza in 1884, then after her death in 1900, to Count Reginald Henshaw Ward , an American millionaire, born of an English family.
Count Ward was born in Massachusetts in 1872 and had been a clerk in a Boston bank at seventeen. He eventually started banks of his own in Boston and New York, and by the time he purchased Fulwell Park, he was a representative of Clark, Ward and Co in England. Ward was also known as ‘The Copper King’, in reference to his large business interests in the copper market. The bachelor moved into Fulwell Park in 1903 and took himself up to the city every morning in one of his five splendid automobiles. His title of Count, by the way, was of Papal creation.
As the years progressed, Ward spent months away from Fulwell Park and by the time it was sold to Manoel in 1913, had been used as a residential country home for paying guests.
Dom Manoel (1889-1932) was the second son of Don Carlos, the King of Portugal, and his wife, Marie Amelie, daughter of the Comte de Paris. She had been born at York House, Twickenham, in 1865. Manoel was born in Lisbon in 1889, barely a month after his father had succeeded to the throne.
King Carlos I and his eldest son, Luiz, were both assassinated in 1908. 18-year-old Manoel, training as a naval cadet, succeeded to the throne as Manoel II, but his reign was brief, a revolution broke out in October 1910.
Manoel and his mother fled to Gibraltar, and from here to England. They settled at Abercorn House in Richmond in early 1911. Manoel married the German Princess Victoria Augusta of Hohenzolern in 1913, and on their return to England settled at Fulwell Park. King Manoel had a liking for the area, and was already a well-known figure in the Richmond, Teddington and Twickenham neighbourhoods.
One of the attractions of Fulwell Park was the nine-hole private golf course laid out in the grounds. But the chief attractions were charming grounds of some fifty acres, where there were shady lawns, extensive flower gardens, peach houses and vineries. There were also several tennis courts in the grounds, especially agreeable for a man who excelled at the game. There was also good fishing in the River Crane, on which boating was also possible.
Manoel found solace in his books, and in his library, he built up a unique assembly of ancient Portuguese works, and then, to show he was no mere bibliomaniac, proceeded to write an authoritative book on them. It was his hobby and life’s work, shared only with his love of grand opera and watching lawn tennis at Wimbledon and on the Riviera.
Manoel had an aversion to the colour blue, and he made sure that the decoration at Fulwell Park excluded any shade of it. The drawing-room was redecorated in rose shades, while a delicate pink was to be found in his wife’s boudoir.
In July 1932, Manoel attended Wimbledon. The following day he suffered a sore throat, a doctor was called, but he died of oedema of the throat.
Manoel left English property valued at £26,447, and to King George V he bequeathed two large vases of lacquer with the Royal Arms of Portugal, which had been in the dining room at Fulwell Park, “in testimony of profound gratitude for all his kindness and friendship.”
His widow left Fulwell Park in December 1933 and took up residence at Fribourg in Switzerland. King Manoel’s collection of books was sent to Portugal, and his widow sold the house in 1934, with an undertaking that it should never again be used as a private residence. The house was sold to Edward Wates, a building company, and soon demolished to make way for suburban housing. A four-ton safe that was used to hold the Royal jewellery at the house is now in St Mary’s Church, Hampton.
The names of Manoel Road, Augusta Road, Portugal Road and Lisbon Avenue in Twickenham commemorate the royal residents. The original housing has since been supplemented by a great deal of infilling, but the legacy of Fulwell Park is long forgotten.
These photographs of Holborough Court, at Snodland in Kent, were taken in 1909. It was designed by Hubert Bensted and built in 1884-86 for Major William Henry Roberts (1848-1926), a partner in the local lime and cement industry. William Lee Henry Roberts (1871-1928), the founder of the Holborough Cement Works, succeeded to the property and when he died it passed to his nephew John Cook of Royden Hall, on condition that he took the name Roberts. He sold it to Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers (now Blue Circle) in 1929, who demolished it in 1930 to make way for industrial development. Some of the ancient fittings were saved and now form part of the furnishings of Paddlesworth church.
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.
A country colony for Londoners: A house that became part of the ‘garden city movement’. Three years later it was lost
On Monday 6 January 1913, the members of Park Langley Golf Club were shocked to find that their club house was on fire. The blaze had started about eight o’clock at night in the dining-room, the cause unknown, and quickly consumed the interior, including the fine Adam ceiling.
On that cold January evening firemen from Beckenham and Bromley rushed to Langley Park. They laid their hoses to the pond 300 yards away and frantically pumped water into the house. By midnight the fire had consumed most of the building and by first light on Tuesday it was evident that only the outer walls remained.
The remains of Langley Park were demolished soon afterwards and a replacement club house constructed nearby.
Previous to this, Langley Park mansion, standing at the centre of Langley Park in Beckenham, Kent, had been an age-old family home. Parts of the house were said to date back from 1476, built for the De Langele (Langley) family, although the main part of the property was Georgian. The Langley family remained until the 1820s when it was bought by Emmanuel Goodhart. In total, there were twenty rooms, many containing valuable objets d’art, Adam fireplaces and about twenty sepia frescos.
After the death of its last occupant, Emmanuel’s son, Charles Emanuel Goodhart, D.L., J.P. in 1903, the property had been empty. However, with one eye on the advance of London, there were plenty waiting patiently to exploit Beckenham’s rural location.
The estate was sold by the excecutors of Charles E. Goodhart in 1908 and 700-acres of its parkland bought by H & G Taylor, a Lewisham building firm, to build a new ‘garden estate’ – Parklangley –‘the most luxurious and beautiful attempt at town-planning in the country’.
The initial phase (1909-1913) was based on the ‘garden city movement’. The layout of the estate and most of the houses were designed by Reginald C. Fry, but there were other designs from Edgar Underwood, H.T. Bromley, Sothern Dexter and Durrans & Groves.
The first roads to be laid out were Wickham Way, Elwill Way and Hayes Way in 1909. Malmains Way, Whitecroft Way and Styles Way followed in 1910. The golf club moved into Langley Park in 1910, occupying the house and remaining parkland.
Originally envisaged as a self contained garden city complete with circular shopping centre, church and dance hall building, around 80 houses had been built before the development was interrupted by World War I.
Work resumed on the ‘garden city’ in 1918, but the scheme never fully materialised. However, consisting mainly of sizeable detached and semi-detached housing it remains ones of Beckenham’s most exclusive and unspoilt areas.
The site of Langley Park mansion is now occupied by Langley Park School for Girls, behind what is now the 3rd green of Langley Park Golf Club.
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.